Drowning in oil

October 12, 1994|By A. M. Rosenthal

THE HEART of the matter is not what Saddam Hussein will do or can do to harass his enemies in the West and Mideast. It is what they can do and will do to destroy him at last.

Will they allow him one more victory so he can return again to threaten the Mideast and the United States next year? Or will they push him finally into the grave he has been digging for himself, his regime and his nation?

Basically that has been the question ever since President George Bush made one of the more unusual decisions in history. Mr. Bush allowed an enemy smashed swiftly on the battlefield to remain in power indefinitely, his dictatorship intact and his army strong enough to carry on unceasing warfare against millions of his countrymen.

But by his latest adventure -- sending troops to the Kuwaiti border -- Saddam Hussein has shown the West his own desperation and its opportunity. Sooner or later many dictators do that.

Baghdad's announcement of the withdrawal of the troops changes neither Saddam Hussein's desperation nor the West's choice. It accentuates them.

Until now Saddam Hussein's used his time since his resurrection by Mr. Bush extremely well. He has rebuilt a substantial part of his army, to terrorize his country, kill Iraqi Kurdish and Shiite rebels, and remind the Muslim world he is still a power.

But one thing prevented him from reconstructing his country as a major economic power, which is the essential step toward again becoming a major military power: the U.N. embargo. It blocked him from selling the oil that had been his indispensable fountain of revenue.

Then, just as the United Nations was about to consider if and when to lift the embargo, Saddam Hussein tried to put on heavy pressure -- massing troops against Kuwait and tying their removal to the embargo.

This forced the Clinton administration to move tens of thousands of troops in preparation for the war that another Iraq invasion would bring.

Why did Saddam Hussein take this dangerous gamble? He has made dreadful mistakes before but not quite this obvious. This time he had notice that if it came to war, President Clinton was not likely to allow him to remain in power. That of course meant he would not remain alive.

Saddam Hussein also knew that France, Turkey and Russia were working to lift the embargo so they could again do oil business with Iraq.

Madeleine Albright, the U.S. representative to the United Nations, deserves national bouquets for fighting against ending the embargo. But Saddam Hussein also knew that ever since the end of the gulf war European industrialists had been meeting with Iraqi officials to rebuild the arms network that empowered him before the war.

They were using their influence to lift the embargo that kept them from the Iraqi treasury.

Saddam Hussein was being told by his European friends to lie low and maybe the United States would go along in six months or so. But he could not afford just to wait. The oil embargo was not merely crippling the country but inciting rebellion among civilian Iraqis and the armed forces.

It has been reported that Saddam Hussein has ordered amputation of ears, feet and arms as punishment for rebellion or desertion among both civilians and those in the military.

The issue now is not what to do about Iraq if it does invade Kuwait but what to do if it does not. The answer is to tighten the embargo, not loosen it, by insisting that before it can be lifted the Iraqi regime has to end rule by terror against all Iraqis and foreign targets.

Saddam Hussein would of course not agree. Without terrorism he could rule for a month perhaps, not much longer. But when the Iraqi army and civilians understand that the embargo would not be lifted with Saddam Hussein in power they might take their own lives -- and his -- into their hands.

The West could destroy Saddam Hussein by war. But by his own desperation and stupidity or both, he has shown us that he is drowning in his own unsold oil.

Clintonian policy has been exactly right. One: Send in troops in case Saddam Hussein is not only desperate but also insane. Two: Try to prevent either France, Russia or the death lobby from throwing the man a lifeline as he sinks and sinks.

A. M. Rosenthal is a syndicated columnist

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