Not Just A Case Of Trying To Save Face

War. The word may not sound so bad to Saddam Hussein these days. He may in fact see it as his last chance to come out ahead in the current crisis. By taking on a superpower and holding out for weeks or even months, he would have gone into the ring with the champ. No one expects him to win. Fighting well is enough. Survival would be a triumph.

These are not simply the calculations of pride and emotion. They are made from an Arab perspective-much of it quite pragmatic-that the White House is either reluctant to concede or may not comprehend. "If there is no war and [Saddam] withdraws, then he looks like a coward, an idiot, who's lost everything," says an Arab envoy who has dealt with the Iraqi dictator personally on dozens of occasions. "He is thinking, 'If I go to war, there is a chance that I will survive it, and at least I will be looked on by the Arabs as a hero who went against the whole world because of right, of justice'."

American policy begins with the idea that Saddam will want above all to save his own skin. Hence the efforts to convince him that force is really in the offing. "We have always believed and still believe that [the threat of war] i the best chance we have peaceful withdrawal," a senior U.S. official said after the Geneva talks.

But the status quo ante holds little allure for Saddam. He pillaged Kuwait to get cash. The low price of oil was wrecking his plan to build an army rivaling Israel's while continuing with his country's economic development. He was drowning in debt. Merely to return to the situation before Aug. 2, as Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz put it, "means that we will be threatened, we will be boycotted and serious political and psychological and media campaigns against us will continue. So what's the difference?"

In fact, things would be worse. Iraq's economy has been frozen since August, earning nothing. Oil prices will plunge if there is peace. Finally, Saddam would face hundreds of thousands of soldiers with no jobs and nothing to do but look at where he went wrong. By any standards there are few incentives to accept this kind of peace.

There are, however, ample precedents for a victorious defeat in the Arab world. Egypt lost militarily in the Suez War of 1956 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973, but Presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat made enormous political gains simply by taking on superior forces. A senior adviser to Secretary of State James Baker says Baker warned Aziz against such thinking: "Don't think this is going to be a war you can dictate or fight on your terms."

But from Saddam's vantage, the framework to fight and survive may already be taking shape. Neither the U.N. resolutions nor most of Washington's European and Arab allies support a war to crush Iraq. By threatening to attack Israel, meanwhile, Saddam has elicited constant assurances that Israel will not enter the war unless provoked. Thus the war could be limited to Kuwait and strategic targets inside Iraq. Conversely, he could execute his threats, hit Tel Aviv and spread the conflict throughout the region. In that case, warns Algerian Foreign Minister Sid Ahmed Ghozali, "the whole region will be invaded with humiliation and despair, and that will impact on the political situation of each country."

If Saddam is half as confident as sources close to him suggest, he may well believe his troops can hold out for a matter of weeks, perhaps longer, inflicting ever higher casualties on American and allied troops. Eventually Iraq would be forced out of Kuwait, but at that point the allies might be happy to declare victory and go home, allowing Saddam to stay in power' "That certainly may be [Saddam's] next calculation," says one well-placed Iraqi source, "or his next miscalculation."