Punching holes in `madman' myth

October 08, 2002|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO -- He's a megalomaniac who has weapons of mass destruction and dreams of conquest.

If left alone, he is bound to shatter the stability of the Middle East and the world.

Anyone who expects him to behave rationally is deluded.

He's so reckless and warlike that there's no telling what he might do.

No, I'm not talking about George W. Bush. I'm talking about Saddam Hussein, as portrayed these days by those advocating war with Iraq. They claim we must act now to keep him from getting nuclear warheads and other weapons of mass destruction.

Skeptics, including myself, reply that he would never use those weapons against us because he knows we would obliterate his regime and his country. The administration's supporters insist that though our nuclear arsenal was enough to contain Josef Stalin and Mao Tse-tung, it can't deter the Iraqi dictator.

Why not? Because Mr. Hussein, writes former CIA analyst Kenneth Pollack in The New York Times, "is often unintentionally suicidal -- that is, he miscalculates his odds of success and frequently ignores the likelihood of catastrophic failure. ... Mr. Hussein is a risk-taker who plays dangerous games without realizing how dangerous they truly are."

So we hear wild scenarios for what a nuclear-armed Mr. Hussein would do. He might set off a nuclear device in New York City. He might slip one to al-Qaida. Or he might invade a neighboring country and then threaten to incinerate any nation that tries to force him out.

The indictment of Mr. Hussein is based on such crazy episodes as his decision to start a war with Iran in 1980 and his 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Both look like mistakes today. But in each case, Mr. Hussein had rational motives for what he did -- and had good reason to think he would succeed.

Iraq had a longstanding border dispute with Iran, and when the radical Ayatollah Khomeini gained power in Iran, he tried to incite his fellow Shiite Muslims in Iraq to overthrow Mr. Hussein. An Iranian-backed group tried to assassinate Mr. Hussein's foreign minister.

Mr. Hussein went to war because he saw his survival threatened by a powerful enemy, not because he had any messianic drive to conquer Iran.

In military terms, Mr. Hussein eventually won the war at great cost and gained some concessions from Iran.

One key to his success was using chemical weapons -- more supposed proof of his lunacy.

But Mr. Hussein was a U.S. ally at the time, and Washington continued to provide help even after the gas attack.

For that matter, as Newsweek reports, the Reagan administration approved the sale of bacteria cultures that "could be used to make biological weapons, including anthrax."

If he was out of his mind, why didn't we notice it then?

Nor does his behavior in Kuwait suggest dementia. Why did he invade? Because he was angry at Kuwait for pumping too much oil, which kept prices low and crippled his efforts to rebuild Iraq's ruined economy after the war with Iran -- and because the United States had indicated it didn't care about Kuwait.

When the first President Bush vowed to force him out, Mr. Hussein was surprised -- as were most Americans, who had never anticipated going to war for an obscure Arab monarchy.

The Iraqi dictator refused to budge because it wasn't clear until very late in the game that the United States was truly willing to fight a full-scale war. He made a losing wager, but it's not hard to imagine things turning out differently.

Mr. Hussein would stop at nothing to keep himself in power. That explains his attacks on Iran and Kuwait.

But it also explains why he would never dare to use weapons of mass destruction against us, unless he were going to be destroyed regardless.

If he were suicidal, he would have unleashed his chemical and biological weapons during the Persian Gulf war -- which he very rationally chose not to do.

Yet today, the Bush administration and its supporters insist we must go to war because Mr. Hussein can't be deterred from doing the very thing he has already been deterred from doing. If you're looking for a leader who's disconnected from reality, you don't need to go to Baghdad.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays in The Sun.

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