Washington This is a war based on one man's misunderstanding of his relative power position. In spite of the sustained efforts of Presidents George Bush and Francois Mitterrand and U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar to ensure that Saddam Hussein understood the strength and determination of the forces assembled against him, once again the Iraqi leader underestimated the power of his adversaries.
His speeches and the commentaries of the Iraqi press in the days before the expiration of the United Nations deadline help explain why Mr. Hussein refused to withdraw from Kuwait. While it seemed clear to the rest of us that he faced a choice between withdrawal and destruction, the Iraqi leader himself had a very RTC different perception of the situation.
For him, Kuwait was not the stake; the stake was the liberation of Palestine. As Mr. Hussein saw it, he was engaged in a crusade to eliminate the terrible injustice of Israeli occupation that had been inflicted on the Arab world.
''In this way,'' he told his people on January 8, ''we will settle all [our] objectives in a single battle'' -- eliminating injustice, poverty and foreign hegemony.
As Mr. Hussein saw it, Kuwait was also not the issue for America. It was a pretext. The real U.S. goal was to establish hegemony over the Gulf and its oil, and to dominate the world.
According to Al Qadisiyah, a Baghdad newspaper, ''America wants to control oil resources in such a way that will make the oil resources needed by the rest of the world come under its hegemony. Thus, America will regain its lost influence by governing all other countries; it will give oil to anyone it wants, and deprive anyone it wants'' (Jan. 5).
If the issue is American dominance of Gulf oil versus the elimination of injustice, poverty and occupation, then obviously it would not be a local or regional war, Baghdad radio insisted. ''In one way or another it will spread all over the world, where more than a billion Muslims from Indonesia to West Africa will view this battle as a war against colonialism,'' it broadcast.
Meanwhile, his state-controlled press told him, ''A lot of Arabs consider President Saddam Hussein the only Arab leader who dares to challenge Israeli occupation of Arab territories and believe he might rescue them.''
It seemed clear from Baghdad that, because America's objectives were so ignoble, God would be on the side of Iraq, as promised in the Koran: ''To those against whom war is made, permission is given to fight, because they are wronged, and verily, God is most powerful for their aid.''
What has this ''holy war'' to do with Kuwait and U.N. resolutions? Nothing at all. On one side of the crusade there would be a billion Muslims united in a holy war, marching under a flag into which the prayer and battle cry ''Allah Akbar'' (God is great) was sewn on the very eve of the U.N. deadline.
On the other side would be the Saudi King Fahd, regularly described in Baghdad as the ''betrayer of two holy mosques and king of the female conscripts,'' certain other Arab traitors -- soon to be overthrown -- and Americans despised by Mr. Hussein as expansionist and terrorist, Zionist and imperialist. The Americans were seen as soft, unable to endure casualties or bear up during a long war.
And they were being led by a president who suffers from a split personality.
According to Al-Twawrah, an organ of the state-controlled press, George Bush is a ''complex and baffled personality suffering from duality and confusion . . . reflected in his thoughts that he was born to rule and at the same time lacking confidence'' (Jan. 9). These inner conflicts, Mr. Hussein believed, would weaken Mr. Bush's will and judgment.
Like Clausewitz, Saddam Hussein understands that power requires both weapons and will. Since Americans lacked will, their weapons would be without importance. On the other hand, as he saw it, his weapons were adequate and his will superior.
Mr. Hussein, his lieutenants and his controlled press did not tire of threatening blood and destruction. They promised to burn their enemies with ''a great fire that does not go out.'' They promised to ''drown them in blood.'' And they promised to destroy Israel.
Mr. Hussein came to see himself as the fearless champion of the Arab nation who would rally the faithful to the ultimate jihad. He saw George Bush as facing defeat ''terrible and total.''
Every day, his controlled press confirmed his fantasies. And every day, sycophantic aides fed his ego. So that, from Baghdad, it seemed to be the Americans who lacked realism. From Baghdad, it did not appear that the choice was withdrawal or destruction.
The absolute dictatorship which Saddam Hussein had constructed protected him against unwelcome facts that might have saved him. The refusal of his foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, to convey the letter from George Bush symbolizes an Iraqi government that did not dare speak frankly to power.
Jeane Kirkpatrick is a syndicated columnist.