Saddam's Endgame

Who is Saddam Hussein? Five months after he invaded Kuwait, changing the course of a turbulent year and perhaps the politics of the Middle East forever, no one really knows for sure. Is he a madman, a latter-day Hitler? Or is he a calculating student of power--an Arab Bismarck? In August Saddam ruthlessly seized his lightly defended neighbor, but before he moved he took care to hedge his bets. First he sent out a steady stream of false assurances about his intentions. Then he did his best to find out whether any other country, especially the United States, would call his bluff. In a fateful meeting with U.S. Ambassador to Baghdad April Glaspie just days before the invasion, Saddam sounded out U.S. intentions and received signals that Washington would turn a blind eye. Only then did he proceed with his Middle Eastern anschluss. As one State Department official put it last week, "For a guy with a terrible hand, [Saddam] holds a lot of cards, and he knows how to play them."

Now it's Saddam's turn to bid again, and how he plays his cards during the next few weeks will determine whether the gulf conflict ends in some sort of negotiated compromise--or all-out war. Once again last week, George Bush vowed "no compromise" with Iraq and asserted that U.S. forces in the gulf would be ready to fight after the United Nations' Jan. 15 deadline for Saddam to pull out of Kuwait. Yet the Iraqi dictator kept raising the ante. He refused to meet with U.S. Secretary of State James Baker until Jan. 12--a date the Bush administration has already rejected. He said he wouldn't even discuss leaving Kuwait until the United States and its allies agreed to address the Israeli-Palestinian issue. He staged mock air raids to prepare the people of Baghdad for American strikes. And in Kuwait itself, a half million Iraqi troops continued to fortify the "Saddam Line," their gargantuan World War I-like entrenchment along the border with Saudi Arabia. If U.S. forces do attack after Jan. 15, Saddam vowed, Iraq will widen the war by attacking Israel.

As the countdown continued, Bush administration officials tried to read Saddam's poker face. Was he buying time before springing some last-minute peace gesture? Or was he playing out his hand to the end, betting that, war or no war, he could force George Bush to back down? "There's a chance he's playing chicken," says a senior Bush aide. "But each day that goes by leads toward the conclusion that he thinks we don't have the balls to do it."

Confronted with an economic embargo, diplomatic isolation and as many as 25 allied armies arrayed against him in the desert, Saddam would appear to hold far fewer cards than George Bush. Last week Iraq's sense of encirclement intensified; Baghdad protested the incursion of planes from Turkey into its airspace, raising the possibility that Saddam might find himself in a two-front war. Still, Saddam has skillfully played the two strong suits that are left to him: posturing as a savior of the Arab world, and diplomatic delay. "He has played a cunning and crafty game and outwitted his opponent on most occasions," says a Western ambassador in Cairo. One trump was the release of Western hostages last month, which Saddam played for maximum political benefit in the United States and Europe. Another appears to be Saddam's handling of Bush's proposal to send Baker to Baghdad, The president proposed the trip for two reasons: to persuade a dovish Congress that he was going the extra diplomatic mile and to give Saddam one last chance to mend his ways. But Bush himself has admitted he failed to foresee the Iraqis would try to haggle over a date right up to the Jan. 15 deadline. And Bush's advisers now concede they should have consulted with the Saudis and Egyptians before making Bush's offer to Saddam. The Arab allies could have told them Saddam would interpret the move as a sign of weakness.

To administration officials, this perception of weakness is only the latest in a long series of "miscalculations" by the Iraqi ruler. But from Saddam's point of view it looks no less reasonable than his interpretation of American signals last August, The very fact that Bush needed to make a gesture to win congressional support for possible war may have suggested that, for all his success in building international consensus, he hasn't won the same blank cheek at home. After all, Saddam knows that under the American Constitution, Congress alone can declare war--after a debate. Last week's news was also full of contradictory administration leaks about U.S. combat readiness, mixed signals that could have given Iraq more incentive to stall on talks. First there were reports that Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin Powell, had told Bush that U.S. ground forces would not be ready to attack by Jan. 15--just as deputy Desert Shield commander Gen. Calvin Waller had said two weeks ago. Then the administration put out word the president would not hesitate to attack, despite the generals' concerns (page 19). An Israeli paper reported that the United States and Iraq had agreed on a Jan. 9 Baker-Saddam meeting; but U.S. officials quickly denied that, some telling NEWSWEEK they now doubt the talks will ever take place.

For the next two weeks, U.S. officials have little choice but to sit back and wait to see what diplomatic aces Saddam might yet have up his sleeve. Last week he recalled more than 20 of his senior ambassadors, including envoys to the United States and the U.S.S.R., in a move that some diplomats interpreted as a possible prelude to a new peace offensive. NEWSWEEK has learned that Saddam suggested a face-to-face meeting with Saudi King Fahd, but the monarch rejected the feeler. And once again, Saddam repeated his call for linkage between the gulf crisis and the Arab-Israel dispute. "If [the United States and its allies] are ready to see Palestine liberated first," he said, "if they say yes, we will say 'You are welcome,' and we will be ready to have a serious dialogue with them."

If he can get enough in return, Saddam may still come to view negotiations as a way to get the better of George Bush by nonmilitary means--and emerge as an Arab hero in the process. "He can do a lot of things to put us in a bind," concedes a senior White House adviser. One potential ploy was outlined in an op-ed piece by Egyptian-born scholar Nadav Safran last week in The New York Times. Saddam might announce his readiness to withdraw from Kuwait completely within a specified time, Safran wrote, but condition the move on the U.N. Security Council's prompt convening of an international conference on the Middle East, including the Palestinian issue. The Iraqi leader could then make the case that he had saved the region from war and put the plight of the Palestinians back on the international agenda.

While U.S. officials stick to the official line that Saddam's withdrawal must be unconditional, privately they admit that the plan Safran outlined, or something like it, could well be an offer Washington couldn't refuse. "That would make the resort to force difficult, if not impossible," a senior White House aide says. Many in Congress would jump at the hope of peace. According to Arab analysts, most Mideast nations, including Syria, currently a half-hearted member of the U.S.-led coalition, would also endorse the proposal. Egypt and Saudi Arabia would object, but even a modest overture by Iraq on or about Jan. 15 could trigger an endless new round of international debate, postponing American military action indefinitely.

All such speculation, of course, assumes that Saddam is afraid of war. "This may be the West's worst miscalculation," says a senior Saudi official. "The prospect of war does not hold the same terror for Saddam as it does for the West." In fact, Saddam has consistently voiced contempt for American military staying power. He has frequently voiced the opinion that Vietnam permanently sapped American will to fight a long war abroad. "Yours is a society which cannot accept 10,000 dead in one battle," he told Ambassador Glaspie before invading Kuwait. In his mind, he may have been comparing the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam after 58,000 dead with Iran's repeated sacrifice of thousands in single battles during the long Iran-Iraq War. Though military analysts believe Saddam will not be able to fight such a war of attrition against technologically superior U.S. forces, his low estimation of American willingness to absorb huge losses is hardly a wild misperception. Congress and the American public are already anguishing over casualty estimates that run into the thousands for a several-week war--roughly what the United States lost in Vietnam over a period of years.

Playing on those fears, Saddam has responded to growing but slow U.S. deployments with preparations that seem designed to make a U.S. ground attack on Kuwait as protracted--and as costly in American lives--as possible. His more than 500,000 troops are backed by mortars, antiaircraft guns, 2,700 artillery pieces, 2,500 armored personnel carriers and 4,000 tanks. The troops and equipment are being "adequately resupplied," says U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Tom Coury, an intelligence officer in Saudi Arabia who briefed reporters on the Iraqi deployment last week. "Saddam Hussein intends to remain in Kuwait for the long haul." His gamble may be that each day he survives will add to his luster as a hero among fellow Arabs. If he can beat the odds and fight Uncle Sam to a draw, he will be the most successful Arab military leader against the West since the Crusades.

In all the war scenarios, one element of Saddam's strategy may have been overblown: his longstanding threat to drag Israel into the fighting. "If we must suffer the first blow, whether at the front or here in Baghdad, and whether or not Israel participates directly in the aggression, they will suffer the second [blow] in Tel Aviv," he said last week. Still, it is unlikely Saddam would play "the Israeli card" immediately, for fear of getting bogged down in a two-front war. He might attack Israel with missiles only as a last resort--if a war with the United States over Kuwait gets out of his control and he believes he is in danger of being overthrown or totally defeated. Then he might try to divide the coalition by turning the conflict into a battle between Arabs and Israelis.

But Arab diplomats aligned with the United States say they doubt such a move would succeed. "The fact is, most of us are simply too committed on the ground to turn around against the United States, even if we were inclined to," said a senior Arab ambassador in Washington. "I think we'd see an Iraqi strike, and even an Israeli response, for what it was--a sideshow to the main event." Arab officials concede, however, that they could pay a high political price for appearing to stand alongside Israel, even if temporarily. For their part, Israeli officials, keeping a low profile at Washington's request, argue that Iraq's missiles are incapable of inflicting much damage on their territory. "Iraq's ability to harm us is limited, while our ability to seriously harm Iraq is proven," said Israeli Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Dan Shomron.

Since Saddam's invasion of Kuwait last August, coverage of the crisis in the gulf has been full of diplomatic and journalistic scenarios for a peaceful settlement. But the fact remains that not a single one of these peace proposals has gotten off the ground with either side. Increasingly, it seems, George Bush and Saddam Hussein are talking past each other, so wary of their respective bluffs and counterbluffs that all they can do is stick to nonnegotiable demands. "In the Middle East everyone lies," says a senior Western diplomat in the region. "The Iraqis lie, but so do the Saudis, the Egyptians and the Israelis. It is a way of life. If you tell the truth openly you are considered hopelessly naive and even dangerous because people find the truth the most difficult of all options to understand." Five months ago George Bush refused to believe that Saddam would carry out his threats against Kuwait. But the threats turned out to be true, and the Iraqi dictator marched in his troops almost unopposed. Today Saddam hesitates to believe that Bush will carry out his promise to use force against him. The stage is now set for what could prove to be the Iraqi strongman's most brilliant gamble yet--or his most disastrous miscalculation.

In the next two weeks, President Bush will have to decide whether to attack if Saddam doesn't pull out of Kuwait by Jan. 15--or heed his generals' advice and wait. Here are the arguments on both sides:

Surprise: Saddam doesn't appear to believe that America has the will to attack at all, much less immediately.

Weather: A quick assault would leave time before the hot weather and dust storms return in early March.

Religion: An early attack would avoid the awkwardness of having foreign troops on Saudi soil during the Islamic holy days of Ramadan.

Time: A month of prolonged U.S. indecision will give Saddam more room to come up with brash new delaying tactics.

Preparedness: Two of the five U.S. tank divisions may not be ready by mid-January, and the military wants more time for training.

Support: An early attack may invite international and congressional condemnation for failing to allow diplomacy to work.

Vaccination: It will be at least a month before the United States has enough vaccine to inoculate troops against biological weapons.

Backup: Turkey will not allow its air bases to be used until German and Benelux air-defense forces arrive at the end of January.

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