Slapping at Hussein may feel good, but won't make problems go away

January 14, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Staff Writer

NICOSIA, Cyprus -- Yesterday's attack on Iraq's missile sites was like scratching a maddening itch: It is grand relief for the moment, but it doesn't make the nuisance go away.

Saddam Hussein made that point quickly last night, when he took to the airwaves soon after the attack to boast of "a great victory" and "humiliation of the infidels" of the West.

The Iraqi leader was serving notice that he will not go away. What seemed like shameless bluster from a man who should feel humbled was a message intended as much for his Arab neighbors as the West.

When Mr. Hussein warned yesterday's attack was meant "t impose the will of colonialism," it was more than a florid phrase. To Middle Eastern countries that have long seen occupation by Western powers, the words ring a bell of unhappy recognition.

The Middle East views yesterday's raid through a far different prism than the West. The raid unlocked a closet of skeletons that have not been quieted since the gulf war. They raise such questions as:

* Who wins? President Bush achieves satisfaction in having disciplined the unruly ruler. But in many Arab eyes, Saddam Hussein wins in any conflict in which he can provoke the mighty United States and live to boast about it.

* Who was right? The U.S. explanations for the show of forcewill be met with widespread skepticism among Arab countries, long suspicious of the motives of the West. That Iraq seemed to have withdrawn its anti-aircraft missiles from the no-fly zone, and that its "raids" into disputed territory between Iraq and Kuwait were made by civilian workers, will nurture conspiracy theories that always thrive in the Middle East.

* What was accomplished? The United States can claim to have enforced the rules of the game. But Iraq gains more in Arab sympathies as the favorite victim of the bully West than it loses in weapons that were virtual pea-shooters against a superior force.

* What now? President Bush leaves office in a week, but Saddam Hussein remains firmly in power. The latest muscle-flexing by Mr. Bush failed to solve the problem, and Mr. Hussein may see his needling of the West as a propaganda victory worth the cost of repeating.

These are hoary questions, leftovers from the gulf war. The 1991 Operation Desert Storm, like this action, achieved a limited mission in spectacular fashion but left the main problem unresolved. Yesterday's attack was hamstrung by the same dilemma that allied forces faced in the gulf war: what to do about Saddam Hussein.

If left in power, Mr. Hussein has proven he will continue to be a thorn in the side of the West, and an occasional menace to his neighbors, blustering and bluffing time and again.

To remove him from power would be messy and difficult. He cannot be bombed out of office; that violates the United Nations' authority, and anyway he is squirreled deep in his underground bunker. He cannot be starved out of power; a two-year embargo on Iraq has caused misery to his people but little pain to Mr. Hussein. Hopes that his own people would overthrow him remain unfulfilled.

If he were removed from power, the West could find his demise more a curse than a blessing. If the Shiite Muslims of the south took power, Iraq could go the way of Iran. If the Kurds of the north make their own state, that threatens friendly Turkey, which has its own concerns about a Kurdish rebellion. If the factions of Iraq all go to war against one another, another Bosnia looms.

Mr. Hussein is not popular among his fellow Arab leaders. But the attacks may do more to bolster his pretensions as a leader of the Arabs than they do to put him in his place.

The dilemma of Saddam Hussein soured the victory that Mr. Bush sought to savor in the midst of his presidency. Now it looks as if Mr. Hussein will survive President Bush and what Washington described yesterday as "the best way to make a point" may in the Middle East seem like another failed lesson.

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