The Blunderer From Baghdad

Saddam Hussein had it all: the most powerful Army in the Arab world and 100 billion barrels of oil. His own population was under tight control. His ability to intimidate his neighbors was growing. Enemies abounded, but they found him impossible to eliminate. Israel chafed at the spectacle of his growing strength, especially his arsenal of chemical weapons and his nuclear program. But for the first time since 1948 it faced an Arab enemy it had to think twice about attacking. He was billions in debt, to be sure. But Saddam and his country had a bright future. It was Aug. 1.

The next day Iraq invaded Kuwait and Saddam's world began to crumble. Now for more than a month the United States and its allied air forces have slashed his nation with laser-guided weapons and bludgeoned it with B-52s. Israel, powerful as it is, could never have waged such a war. The gulf states, sweating in Saddam's shadow, would never have dared. The Americans and Europeans, however suspiciously they eyed him, could hardly have found a better reason than Kuwait to unite against him.

So disastrous a mistake was Saddam's invasion, in fact, that even his admirers in Jordan and among the Palestinians find it impossible to justify. "We have pinned our hopes on the man and the regime," says a 64-year-old resident of Nablus in the Israeli occupied territories, "and we are sorry he has made mistakes. Someone should have said to him, 'You are a leader. You should wait and prepare rather than indulge prematurely in such an adventure'." Even some of his detractors believe he must have been tricked. Exiled opposition leader Saad Jabr, president of the London-based Free Iraq Council, says he thinks Saddam was "trapped into this" by his array of enemies.

In the Middle East, calamitous missteps often are explained by the word conspiracy, and Saddam may have been the victim of more than one. In the long preamble to Iraq's peace initiative this week, Saddam's spokesman blamed Americans, Zionists and "agents and lackeys from the corrupt and conspiring rulers of the region" for the origins of the present conflict. But Saddam's grim history of misjudgments also fits a simpler pattern. His is a record of strategic disasters, both political and military, which he has attempted to recoup with adroit tactical maneuvers. It is also the record of a man who knows his country well and the world outside not at all. As the war enters a new, possibly a final phase, understanding Saddam's fears and his record of false steps will be important for anyone seeking to find a settlement.

Jordan's King Hussein, who has been working for peace in the precarious middle ground between Saddam and his enemies, looks back on the past year with a mixture of exasperation and despair. "The mistakes were horrendous on both sides," he says. Diplomatic openings were blocked by stubbornness, misunderstanding and perhaps bad faith. The movement toward war took on its own momentum. The king talks of "the rhetoric, the language used," as if words were Saddam's greatest worry. In a sense they are.

The Iraqi president's pride is easily injured. From his youth as a fatherless peasant, it was all he had. In this war with a superpower, it is the last thing he is likely to sacrifice. Several accounts of the final Iraqi meetings with Kuwaiti officials before the invasion suggest that Kuwaiti insults, as much as intransigence, provoked Saddam to order his troops into Kuwait City. Similarly, the last best hope for dialogue between the United States and Iraq before the Jan. 15 deadline foundered on a question of protocol: President Bush could set the date to meet with Iraq's foreign minister; President Saddam insisted he would set the date to meet with the U.S. secretary of state. Neither Bush nor Saddam would budge. No meetings occurred.

Former Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega, who last met with Saddam days before the first American attack on Baghdad, recalls him talking about shoes while war approached. "Not too long ago, 80 percent of our population went barefoot, " Saddam told Ortega. "I was one of those boys who went barefoot." Shoes were for special occasions, and when the occasions was over, Saddam would tie the laces together and walk barefoot to save the leather. "Do you see all of this development?" Saddam said, pointing to factories and schools, bridges and hospitals built in Iraq over the last 20 years. "The Americans can destroy it. But they're not going to occupy our country."

For all his wiles, Saddam's pride makes him easily, perhaps fatally, predictable. His reactions often are transparent. Do the Israelis threaten to knock out his chemical-weapons plants? He threatens to burn half of Israel. Do the Kuwaitis dare him to invade? He invades. Do allied commanders dismiss his frontline troops as weak-willed cannon fodder? He sends them into Saudi Arabia on a suicide mission to capture the town of Khafji. Now President Bush has called for Saddam's overthrow. Nothing could more surely guarantee his intransigence.

The Iraqi president's relative ignorance of the outside world only enhances his sense of building conspiracy. The often random pronouncements of American politics - congressional calls for boycotts and suspension of credits - take on the outlines of premeditated campaigns.

Saddam has little idea how his actions are seen outside his borders, or, in some cases, outside his bunker. Even his Arab supporters, and some of his senior aides, were appalled when he took foreigners as hostages. That mistake was later compounded by the exhibition on Iraqi television of battered allied airmen. Saddam apparently saw his actions as sane and just. The rest of the world saw them as ghoulish.

It's the confluence of Saddam's insularity and his pride that seems to have confounded the Bush administration. During the months leading up to the war Washington insisted that if only Saddam understood the enormous force arrayed against him, and the international determination to use it, he would give in. Ironically, brute force may be the only aspect of the wider world Saddam truly does comprehend, and his pride won't let him bend to it.

As the war approached and Iraq's president sat chatting with Ortega, "we were talking about massive air bombardment - strategic, [against] economic [targets] and against civilian populations," the Nicaraguan recalls. "He said he was sure that if the United States wanted to, they could carry out such an air campaign as to destroy all the major cities in Iraq. There might even be a million deaths." Iraqi pride, Saddam's pride, would be worth it. If there is going to be peace, and Saddam endures, his honor will have to be respected, and a way found to save face. If the aim is to eliminate Saddam, his pride can be exploited. But it cannot be ignored. His people will continue to pay its price.

Even before Desert Storm, Baghdad returned land overrun during the Iran-Iraq War, freed POWs and restored visiting rights to Iranian Shiite Muslim pilgrims. Teheran won I.O.U.s from Arab neighbors by steering clear of combat. By harboring about 150 Iraqi warplanes, it may have gained a new air force at no cost. If Iraq suffers political collapse, Iran will be poised to fill the vacuum in the gulf region.

Assad wins international respect and the satisfaction of seeing his worst enemy humbled, without suffering casualties. By repositioning himself with the pro-Western Arab mainstream, Assad can lay stronger claim to the return of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. He was repaid in oil for being Iran's lone Arab ally in the Iran-Iraq War; Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are now in his debt.

If Saddam Hussein is humbled, the perennial contest between Baghdad and Cairo for Pan-Arab leadership will resolve in favor of Cairo. Mubarak can expect hefty increases in aid from Western allies. Egyptian workers will be hired by the thousands to help rebuild a decimated Kuwait, and its soldiers likely will make up the bulk of a new Arab peacekeeping force positioned in the gulf. The downside: possible unrest by thousands of enraged Saddam supporters.

The king leads a country with virtually no resources but the good will of its neighbors. Saudi Arabia has cut off oil and aid and some Israelis would like to see his regime fall, in favor of a Palestinian state. The king soured relations with Syria and then with Western allies in a virulently anti-American speech. His best remaining friend may be mortally wounded. Can Hussein be far behind?

By siding with Baghdad, Yasir Arafat lost Western sympathizers, huge subsidies from the gulf emirates and his tax base. (Many Palestinians have been ejected from the gulf, and those who remain no longer pay taxes to the PLO.) Arafat will share the blame if the world turns its back on the Palestinians. West Bank support for Saddam has stiffened Israeli opposition to territorial compromise.

The al-Sabahs may get Kuwait back - but their power will never be the same. Their wealth will help the rebuilding, but it is not infinite. The national oil company is losing $660 million a month. And Kuwait has learned a bitter lesson: buying off aggressors doesn't work. Saddam's invasion also demonstrated its military vulnerability. The emir will come under intense pressure to fulfill a 29-year-old promise of democratic reform.