How Hussein Wins By Losing


The eleventh-hour diplomatic flutter has succeeded in one respect: The Iraqi position is now absolutely clear. Saddam Hussein announced Kuwait is "now a symbol," more than just a part of Iraq. He added: "We won't surrender. We want Palestine and we won't give it up."

So there it is, Mr. Hussein has anchored his position to the bedrock of the pan-Arab movement and asserted his claim to its leadership. And, incredibly, the United States may be the unwitting instrument of his success.

The conventional analysis advanced by the State Department goes like this. Saddam Hussein is an aggressive, unprincipled dictator who subjected his people to eight years of war with neighboring Iran and invaded his southern neighbor, Kuwait, for its $4 billion in hard currency, its oil reserves and its window on the Gulf. His reasons -- to punish Kuwait for tapping disputed reserves and driving down the price of oil, and to force a resolution of the Palestinian issue -- are dismissed as rubbish.

The analysis goes, if we don't stop him now we will surely have to stop a nuclear-capable Mr. Hussein later with greater loss of life and resources. Further, Mr. Hussein has miscalculated the seriousness of American resolve, world opinion and the awesome military force of the 28-nation coalition arrayed against him. Finally, after Mr. Hussein is brought to heel, a U.N.-administered cease-fire and peace will return the region to status quo ante.

This analysis is, unfortunately, not only superficial but almost entirely wrong. Washington has failed to grasp the essence of Saddam Hussein's position. Absent from its scenario is Mr. Hussein's principal objective -- to dominate the pan-Arab movement.

His Arab Socialist Baath Party, eschewing religious orthodoxy, provides a secular counterpoint to Khomeini's Islamic revolution, the one hand, and dignity to the laboring masses in the feudal Gulf Emirates on the other. Mr. Hussein is more in the tradition of Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser than of Adolf Hitler. Nasser, let us not forget, lost two wars to secure political triumph. He, like Mr. Hussein, played to a hallowed Arab tradition of taking on larger and more powerful foes. Recent history is replete with examples of Arab leaders standing their ground and absorbing bloody punishment rather than acceding to vastly more powerful enemies.

This effect, which rallies domestic and pan-Arab support, is even more vivid when the enemy is non-Arab. Thus, the badly overmatched PLO resisted for over 100 days in 1982 as Israel, the region's undisputed superpower, besieged Beirut. And Syria's Hafez el Assad, battling Israel over Lebanon, lost nearly a third of his air force in 1982. Like Yasser Arafat and Mr. Assad, Mr. Hussein is a calculating master of emotional imagery. How else could he sustain eight years of all-out war with his larger and wealthier (non-Arab) Iranian opponent?

Mr. Hussein's focus is the Palestinian problem, which, far from being delinked from the Gulf, is a deep theme throughout the region.

Baghdad has not miscalculated. Mr. Hussein is in a win-win position. At the Baker-Aziz meeting in Geneva after nearly five months of saber-rattling, the Iraqi foreign minister and the American secretary of State met as equals before the world. Mr. Aziz faced Mr. Baker, placed the Palestinian question squarely on the table, talked of fairness, asked for a regional settlement, rejected second-class status, asserted that Israel posed the principal threat to regional stability and said finally that his government knew exactly what it was doing and had from the beginning.

Mr. Aziz, however, was not talking to Mr. Baker. He was, on behalf of Mr. Hussein, addressing the whole Muslim world -- from Tangier to Islamabad. Having seized the authority to articulate the aspirations and concerns of these silent millions, Mr. Aziz set the trap. The Geneva meeting placed Mr. Hussein at the center of a future resolution of the Palestinian issue and, further, went some distance in decoupling his political future from his military one. Like Nasser, Saddam Hussein may lose this battle but yet profoundly affect the future of the region.

Sadly, acting on principle and in reaction to the horrors inflicted on Kuwait, not to mention the fundamental threat to Western economic stability, President Bush has had little choice but to follow his present course -- a path structured by Mr. Hussein.

Extended conflict at this point, however, is folly. An intense assault, causing loss of life, suffering and the destruction of Iraqi cities translates directly to enhanced status for Mr. Hussein and widespread demand, both Arab and European, that his agenda for regional peace be adopted. A U.N. supervised cease-fire, after Iraq has sustained heavy damage but not capitulated, is a real possibility. Moreover, unless he perishes in the conflict, Mr. Hussein's position as the man who faced Armageddon to restore Arab dignity and secure a "fair" deal for the Palestinians will be confirmed and stability of the Arab coalition partners will be in question.

And so, tragically, Mr. Hussein wins by losing. The "miscalculation" is in Foggy Bottom, as it has been since Ambassador Glaspie's hapless meeting with Mr. Hussein in late July.

The tragedy of these "guns of January" is that if pursued, they may not only upend the region in a manner not to our liking but stunt the growing institutional strength of the United Nations, destabilize Israel and, finally, cripple Mr. Bush's presidency.

Stefan Halper served three Republican administrations in the White House and State Department. Roger Fontaine served on President Reagan's National Security Council staff.

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