1,001 Arabian Nights vs. 1,000 Points of Light

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Just this past week, two years after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein stated "the mother of all battles is not yet over."

American president George Bush is baffled. When the Persian Gulf war ended 14 months ago, Mr. Bush declared a decisive battlefield victory and said he had secured cease-fire terms which would thwart future Iraqi ambitions. Postwar ethnic uprisings were seen as the final humiliation that would sever Mr. Hussein as head of state from the body politic.

Before long, however, the corpse began twitching and thumping in a "willful pattern of noncompliance." But the self-confident Bush administration consistently misread these signs of life. They claimed it proved Iraq's "merchant of death" was really a straw man.

Yet, one can hear the merchant in question chanting "the show ain't over 'til it's over." The war had barely ended before Mr. Hussein had dusted himself off and surveyed the options. Like any rational man, he understood the value of life, particularly his own. The crisis also taught him to ignore American epithets. Being called "a bully" was really a compliment to those bred in rough and tumble Iraqi politics.

Everyone knows Rule #1: The guy still standing, wins. After surviving three decades of political life, Mr. Hussein knows the rule book by heart. He's even written parts. Hadn't Mr. Bush echoed these sentiments when he'd said, "Half of life is just showing up?" Being a realist, Mr. Hussein also knew he'd depart this earth sooner rather than later. But along the way, the bully of Baghdad might just win a few rounds.

And time -- that most invaluable of allies -- was on his side. Each day he lived was a minor victory, while Mr. Bush's days were draining.

After the war, Mr. Bush still had to carrot-and-stick coalition allies into fulfilling his political agenda. Worse, he had to explain the nebulous New World Order to cynical peoples plagued by increasing want and moral ambiguity. And sooner or later the Mideast's problems, many exacerbated by the war itself, would rise like phoenixes from the ashes.

If nothing else, Iran's hegemonic ambitions were Mr. Hussein's ace in the hole. And, of course, there were the Kurds, showing every prospect of becoming a festering sore in Turkish-American relations. Egyptians and Saudis were already grumbling from seeds of discontent planted years ago. And fortune would shine if Secretary of State James Baker did go back to the White House, leaving the Arab-Israeli peace process stalemated on the unforgiving altar.

Meanwhile, Mr. Hussein would keep his own strategy simple. Buy time at every opportunity, regardless of cost. If the American wimps think he's a coward by backing down, he'd play dumb. They never seemed to understand he'd bought untold days. And days made months. Even with his back up against election day, Mr. Bush still didn't understand the value of time.

Mr. Hussein's actions since the end of the war are straight out of his own textbook for crisis management. He shuffled his cabinet and advisers as necessary to keep them loyal. Inflation was out of sight, but useful when he reminded Iraqis their dire plight was American in origin.

Fortunately, he'd stashed a little rainy day money. It was very handy as he started rebuilding Iraq's bridges, electrical grids, phone system and other public utilities. Unlike Kuwaiti reconstruction, Mr. Hussein could say Iraqis had done it all on their own, which was to say they needed no foreigners.

He could also rely on porous Middle East borders. Americans had never realized there was honor even among enemies in the " Middle East.

And, of course, there were always the long-suffering, wealthy Saudis. They were so concerned about their American allies they continued to estrange nearly everyone in the region. Recently, even the Omanis and the Bahrainis had sent him greetings on Iraqi National Day. It was no wonder he'd loved politics since his childhood. It was so essentially human. So fresh and full of surprise and promise.

And if pluralism -- the presence of multiple and competing ethnic, religious and linguistic groups -- was his bane, it was also his strength. While elements in the Shiite south and Kurdish north might hate him, they also feared each other. In a post-Hussein government, everyone was well aware that the possibilities for bloody retribution were endless. The killing by Kurdish guards of some 60 unarmed policemen who had surrendered in October 1991 was ample proof.

He felt warm and fuzzy when he thought of the two key Kurdish leaders -- Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani -- all smiles in a united front for the TV cameras. He'd seen smiles like that before when Saudis and Iranians got together. He'd worn a few himself. He knew what it felt like and what it meant. Let them unite all they wanted. The foundation of that relationship was ridden with stress fractures.

Time, the healer of all wounds! He'd have to think of other ways to buy some time. Let him just take one more little look-see at his world before turning in tonight. There were wild cards galore.

Egypt and Kuwait were being pilloried for human rights violations. Political succession in virtually all states was uncertain. Central Asia was turning out a mess. The Islamic fundamentalists were making inroads everywhere. Democratic trends were turning out to be anti-American. The Palestinians were more radical by the hour. Populations were restive over scarce resources and spiraling inflation. Some oil exporters were becoming oil importers, which would change the energy equation again. Strange how Americans kept thinking Iraq's oil reserves were smaller than Kuwait's and ignored Iran's own ravenous desires. But Americans were insular and naive. Give him $200 billion to fight a war and just see what he could do.

Still, quite a few of his neighbors were seeking nuclear technology and slews of military equipment. At least everybody hadn't gone soft. The Iranians had even bought a couple submarines. Imagine that!

When he was gone, they'd miss him. Change wouldn't be orderly. In fact, it had every prospect of being a bloody mess. Even the Egyptians and the Saudis would sweat buckets if Iraq was lost as the eastern flank of the Arab world.

In a way, he wished Mr. Bush would get re-elected. Mr. Bush may have thought he'd seen troubles, but the games had just begun. For a while he almost felt sad. Too bad Americans didn't know what they had. I could have lifted that oil, controlled all those waywards and aspirants, kept the lid on for another few years.

He wondered how it would all turn out. He took solace that maybe Mr. Bush wondered, too. But the fun was nearly over and it was all getting repetitive now.

C7 "Honey, can you reach over and shut off the light?"

Christine Helms is a Mideast analyst and author.

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