Trying to Read Hussein's Intentions

TRANSITION TRAPS

January 24, 1993|By WILLIAM O. BEEMAN

Iraq offered a "cease fire" on the day of President Bill Clinton's inauguration as a "peace offering" for the new president. How are we to understand this move, and what could possibly be an effective strategy for dealing with this aggravating enemy?

Iraq has resisted all regulation and control since the end of the Persian Gulf war. Defiant and mocking, President Saddam Hussein has taken every opportunity to show that he has no respect for the authority of the United Nations sanctions levied against him. Nor does he respect the coalition, led by the United States, charged with enforcing those sanctions except when they pulverize his country with bombs. In the light of this behavior, his "cease fire" seems both cynical and ironic.

Before we can understand how to deal with Saddam Hussein, it is essential to understand what he wants.

Mr. Hussein wishes to be master of all he surveys. In order to comprehend what this means, we must see the world through his eyes. The Arab cultural world is one of ever widening circles of social life. For Mr. Hussein, the inner circle consists of his family followed by townsmen from his boyhood home, Tikrit, followed by other Iraqi Sunni Arabs. Shiite Arabs are in the next circle out, with the Kurds on the outermost fringes. Arabs from other nations are just outside the circle. Iran stands some distance away, and Western nations are not even in view.

Mr. Hussein should be able to dominate at least the Shiites and Kurds, and perhaps make incursions into some of the outer spheres to maintain his sense of self. There is a simple rule governing this individualized geography: What Mr. Hussein cannot dominate, he disdains.

In personal terms he wishes to be seen as a strong, tough, paternalistic leader. Although formal tribal organization has long disappeared from government in Iraq, its cultural traces still remain in shaping personal ambition and desire. In traditional tribal life, the tribal head held the power of life and death over his followers. Dissension within the tribe was dangerous for the group. Strong tribes always had weaker tribes attached to them out of desire or necessity. If these subordinate groups became insubordinate, it was necessary to beat them into submission, again for the good of the whole group.

Mr. Hussein was an excellent leader in these terms. His Tikriti kinsmen ruled absolutely throughout the country. Oil wealth was extracted from Kurdish territory. Agricultural products and more oil were derived from the Shiite lands in the south. Neither the Kurds nor the Shiites were given power or compensation proportionate to their contribution to the national economy.

The attempt to annex Kuwait was an extension of this basic pattern. Iraq had long claimed Kuwait, and when the time seemed opportune, Mr. Hussein simply moved to beat it into submission.

Being a tribal leader has its good side as well. As leader, one derives pride and gains status from seeing the wealth of the tribe increase. In some circles this is seen as a mark of God's favor on the leader. A chief gains honor especially if the wealth comes in the form of tribute from people outside of the immediate tribe. Their willingness to pay is a mark of their respect.

During the war with Iran, other Arab nations poured billions of dollars into Iraq. Saudi Arabia was the chief contributor. Although the Saudis realized that they were losing status through these payments, they endured them because they saw no other force in the region capable of checking revolutionary Iran. This money translated into a far higher standard of living for Iraqis during the war than before or after. Even the United States was involved in this tribute giving. Mr. Hussein could figuratively show the Iraqis that he was such a powerful leader that the world was lined up to give him money.

If one puts these two patterns together, it is easy to see why Mr. Hussein is reacting to the United States and other Western nations as he is. The United States -- a nation Mr. Hussein disdains -- is interfering with his power and influence. It is preventing him from exercising power over his subordinates, the Shiites and the Kurds. It is also preventing him from acting as a tribal chief. Economic sanctions have hurt Iraq, making it economically weak. This has resulted in economic privation for the population.

In essence, the West has caused him a great loss of honor. It has caused him to become subordinate to a power lying completely outside of his cultural sphere. It has turned his former tribute-bearing subordinates against him, and made him a prisoner in his own capital.

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