For Saddam, war is the key to survival

Efraim Karsh

January 22, 1991|By Efraim Karsh

WHY DID Saddam Hussein reject the face-saving formulas offered to him in order to escape war? The grim answer must be that Saddam reconciled himself to the inevitability of war, believing that it offered him the best chance for political survival. Indeed, a limited defeat would not only be acceptable but would enable him to emerge victorious.

The precedent Saddam apparently seeks to emulate is the 1956 Suez campaign, in which the Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel managed to turn a humiliating military defeat into a resounding political victory. Saddam perhaps hopes that Iraq's loss of Kuwait in a war with the allies would lead the Arab masses to treat him as a new Nasser, a leader who defied world imperialism and survived.

To be sure, this scenario would not have been Saddam's first choice. He did not occupy Kuwait for reasons of power-seeking or political aggrandizement, though certainly his prestige across the Arab world would have grown enormously with a takeover of Kuwait. If anything, his move was designed to finance the economic reconstruction of Iraq.

Contrary to the general view, Iraq did not win the first gulf war. It emerged from the eight-year Iranian conflict with a devastated economy and $80 billion in foreign debt. By late 1989, just one year after his guns had fallen silent, it had become clear that for Saddam to stay in power, he would have to solve his country's economic predicament.

Consequently, he began pressuring the Kuwaitis to forgive the $35 billion in loans they had extended to Iraq during the war. He also asked Kuwait to reduce its oil production in the hope that prices would rise.

When neither of these demands was met, Saddam tilted toward the use of his military. To justify the move, he argued that Kuwait's indifference amounted to "stabbing Iraq in the back with a poisoned dagger."

Thus, for Saddam, an unconditional withdrawal, or even withdrawal with a cosmetic face-saving formula, would have irreparably damaged his position at home. When a substantial quid pro quo -- such as being given a chunk of Kuwait -- did not materialize, Saddam, who had never believed that the U.S. had the "stomach" for war, apparently concluded that a limited campaign would be the least of all evils.

At this early stage, it is difficult to say whether such an assessment was correct. It is clear, though, that he has failed to take several factors into account.

First, Saddam would be making a mistake in trying to substitute himself for Nasser. He lacks the personal magnetism and wide Arab appeal of the Egyptian leader. Moreover, Saddam's leap to inter-Arab prominence during the crisis has stemmed largely from Arab insecurity over the end of the Cold War and the inability of the intifada to resolve the Palestinian question.

Second, Saddam may not realize that in 1956 the United States forced the invading British, French and Israeli forces to relinquish their gains and enabled Nasser to emerge victorious. Today, there is no international power likely to come to Saddam's aid. Indeed, the most powerful Arab states, Syria and Egypt, are part of the anti-Iraq coalition.

Above all, it is highly questionable whether Saddam himself has the ability to stomach a prolonged conflict. If anything, war with Iran exposed the operational vulnerabilities of the Iraqi army and the limitations of Iraq's national morale. Despite its formidable line of defense, overwhelming superiority and firepower, complete mastery of the air and massive military support by virtually the entire international community, Iraq barely managed to sustain the war.

Therefore, Saddam can be expected to try to drag the coalition into an early ground encounter in Kuwait. The missile attacks against Israel reflect this intention. By hitting Israeli population centers, Saddam not only put the Arab members of the coalition in an awkward position; he may have laid the ground for Israeli retaliation. An Israeli response could force the allies, who fear an Israeli-Arab conflagration, into a premature ground offensive.

Despite the risks of an Israeli retaliation, the coalition would be well advised to prosecute the air offensive to its logical end. If the allies stay that course, Saddam will not be likely to leave the second gulf war with Nasser's mantle intact.

Efraim Karsh is author of the forthcoming "Saddam Hussein: A Political Biography."

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