Saddam thinks he can win politically, if not militarily

Trudy Rubin

January 18, 1991|By Trudy Rubin

WHEN U.S. bombs began raining on Iraq on Wednesday night, the fighting was triggered less by great principles than by profound misunderstandings.

For President Bush, rolling back the invasion of Kuwait became the test of a principle: the idea that in the post-Cold War era, the world community would not allow the acquisition of territory by force.

For Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, the seizure of Kuwait was an inter-Arab matter. The massive U.S. military response to his invasion fed his belief that the United States had been conspiring to destroy him ever since his regime lost its usefulness to the West when it ended its eight-year battle against fundamentalist Iran.

Iraq believed that Kuwait's policy of overpumping oil and depressing world prices was part of a larger conspiracy with Israel and the United States to ensure that a war-battered Iraq couldn't earn enough money to revive.

While this conspiracy theory might sound paranoid to a Westerner, diplomats and Arab officials familiar with Saddam say he believed it was true.

"I know Saddam Hussein well," one senior Jordanian official explained. "He himself believes in conspiracies because he has been a conspirator." Saddam saw the United States, according to this official, as seeking to finish him off as a regional power.

Far from conspiring against Saddam, the Bush administration TTC bent over backward -- before the invasion of Kuwait -- to maintain decent relations with Iraq, despite his bellicose ways. But Saddam, watching congressional attempts to impose sanctions on Iraq for his use of chemical weapons, and his threats against Israel, believed the whole U.S. government was after his head.

After the Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait, the administration was ambivalent about its intentions toward Saddam. But by December, the White House had concluded it would accept the survival of his regime, hopefully much weakened, if he would leave Kuwait. The cost of destroying his regime seemed too high.

But Saddam's certainty that his destruction was the United States' goal was fed by the battle of words between him and President Bush.

Bush compared Saddam to Adolf Hitler and called him a liar, in an apparent effort to win domestic support for American policy. Diplomats with long experience in Baghdad say this hard-line language not only failed to intimidate Saddam, but made him much more stubborn. It was seen as an insult to his dignity, something particularly offensive in Arab culture.

The harsh U.S. language also built up Saddam's image in the Arab world, and may have fed his ego. "Bush's rhetoric tried to paint Saddam Hussein as a brutal man -- demonizing him -- but at the same time it made Saddam feel he was equal to Bush," one Jordanian official said. "By doing that, Bush personalized the whole conflict. Instead of a conflict based on political rules it became a psychological conflict."

Diplomats in Baghdad say the biggest mistake in U.S. efforts was not to arrange direct contact with Saddam earlier in the conflict, which might have diffused some of the misunderstandings. The second mistake, they say, was not sending Secretary of State James A. Baker III to Baghdad, after he met with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz in Geneva. Baker might have been able to communicate directly not only the United States' willingness to fight, but also its pledge that it would not try to destroy the Saddam regime.

Even that might not have been enough. What seems to have piqued Saddam most was that the United States was unwilling to accept him as a regional power. "Once you have achieved some regional power, you must be dealt with on the basis of mutual respect, mutual benefits," a senior Iraqi diplomat told me.

The administration, however, convinced that it must demonstrate that aggression does not pay, was not interested in being conciliatory. Nor was it interested in resolving the Kuwait affair via the method usually used in inter-Arab conflicts -- third-party mediation -- because it believed this might result in Iraq's reaping some rewards.

The United States discouraged such efforts initially, whether by Arabs or by Europeans, fearful that they would undermine the united front.

Iraqi and Jordanian officials insist Saddam never underestimated the military might arrayed against him. But until Saturday's vote in Congress, Saddam was said to have still believed that Congress might thwart Bush's ability to wage war.

On the U.S. side, the set of assumptions underlying U.S. policy toward Iraq have been based on the calculation that Saddam had no interest in committing political suicide. Under pressure, he was supposed to yield. A main piece of evidence was the flexibility he showed in September in giving back 1,800 square kilometers of territory captured from Iran, a move made in order ++ to free troops on the Iranian border for combat in Kuwait.

But that move was made by choice, not under duress from outside powers, and not in circumstances deemed humiliating.

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