One week Saddam Husayn releases Western hostages from Iraq and agrees to an exchange of high-level visits with President Bush, creating the impression that war in the Persian Gulf is unlikely. The next he blocks Secretary of State James Baker's visit to Baghdad and the Iraqi media resume publishing blood-curling threats against Americans. Suddenly, war looks probable again.
What is Saddam up to? Is he preparing his country for a retreat from Kuwait or for war against the United States and its allies? There is evidence in his statements and actions supporting both course of action.
Preparing for retreat. Saddam Husayn has been careful not to take steps that might prompt war; brinkmanship, not foolhardiness, has characterized his behavior since the invasion. Allowing the beleaguered U.S. embassy in Kuwait to be reprovisioned eliminated one of Washington's casus belli, and releasing the Western hostages eliminated the other.
In keeping with this caution, Saddam Husayn sometimes expresses deep fear of the United States. He portrays Moscow's decline as a green light for Washington to do what it wishes - most especially seizing control of the Persian Gulf. Should Washington exploit its new strength, he believes, it could control the oil trade, and thereby "with impunity" start wars whenever and wherever it chose. Sometimes Saddam goes further, quoting what he alleges to be an ancient proverb: "Even if he controls the four quarters of the earth, no military leader can become master of the world unless he controls Babylon." Believing that President Bush seeks to become master of the world, Saddam is convinced he intends to seize Iraq and its huge oil reserves.
Further, his megalomaniacal nature notwithstanding, Saddam knows when to retreat. The abrupt capitulation to Iranian demands in mid-August 1990, giving up the gains won through eight years of brutal war, showed two things: he cuts losses when necessary and he so dominates Iraq that he can countenance even a humiliating reversal. As Jerald Post, a political psychologist, points out, "He is not a martyr; he will not go down in the last flaming bunker if he sees a way out while saving face and remaining in power."
Then there is the Iraqi dictator's other side.
Preparing for war. Since the August 2 invasion of Kuwait, Saddam Husayn has shown he is ready to fight. When George Bush announced that 150,000 American soldiers would be sent to the Persian Gulf, he upped the ante by mobilizing another 250,000 Iraqi soldiers. When the Security Council endorsed "all necessary means" to liberate Kuwait, Saddam replied that "if war breaks out, we will fight in a way that will make all Arabs and Muslims proud." Earlier, Saddam had brushed aside economic sanctions, scorned the armada assembled in the Indian Ocean, and threatened to obliterate the soldiers facing him in Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Far from showing fear, he has taken a series of provocative steps - annexing Kuwait, encouraging atrocities against Kuwaitis, and holding Westerners hostage. One would-be negotiator after another returned from Baghdad without winning a single concession about withdrawing from Kuwait. By saying he is "too busy" to meet Secretary Baker before January 12, Saddam is publicly mocking President Bush.
The Iraqi leadership portrays America as a military colossus lacking the will to fight his small but tough country. Remembering the American fiascoes in Vietnam and Lebanon, it believes the leadership in Washington feckless and the population soft. As one Iraqi diplomat put it, "The Americans are not prepared to pay the price of a war with Iraq." Saddam himself told the U.S. ambassador that "Yours is a society which cannot accept ten thousand dead in one battle." Baghdad is listening closely to dissenting American voices; at the United Nations debate on the use of force, the Iraqi ambassador quoted Senator Bob Kerrey, the Nebraska Democrat. Iraqi newspapers routinely quote Democratic senators. In releasing the Western hostages, Saddam specifically mentioned the Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate.
The butcher of Baghdad has shown himself a man of unbridled ambition and grandiose self-estimation. He announces in speeches (using the third person) that Saddam Husayn "is to be found in every quantity of milk provided to children" and that "Iraqis admire Saddam Husayn more than the American people admire Bush." He routinely casts himself as the modern Nebuchadnezzar - a leader of great aspirations and historic destiny. The Iraqi media daily trumpet Saddam's "heroic leadership" as the only check against American plans for world domination. He also displays a pronounced streak of martyrdom; "I am smelling the breath of paradise" he told Yasir Arafat early on in the crisis. This is not a man to avoid confrontation.
Finally, as Fouad Ajami of Johns Hopkins University has pointed out, information reaching Saddam is probably heavily slanted. Fearful for their lives, his aides accent the good news and suppress the bad. While they are likely to provide full details about recent survey data showing Americans reluctant to take on Iraq, they probably do not inform him that 54 percent of the American population believes that preventing Saddam Husayn from acquiring nuclear weapons is a "good enough" reason to go to war.
As January 15 draws near, which of Saddam's two sides will predominate?
Saddam's fear of the U.S. government appears to be a theoretical construct; he worries about it when he reflects on world trends. In contrast, his operational decisions seems to be guided by disdain for American as a strong and effective power. Like many tyrants before him, he scorns the liberties, the squabbling, and the self-indulgence of American life. He may remind himself that we defeated Hitler and outlasted the Kremlin, but in his heart he probably thinks this was accomplished through trickery or luck. In theory, then, Saddam fears the United States; but strong animosity toward this country and all it stands for distorts his perceptions. Visceral hatred, not cerebral respect appears to drive Saddam's decision-making.
Those with long experience of the man tend to agree with this assessment. The Iranian leadership believes he is preparing for war; Jalal Talabani, the Kurdish leader and one Saddam's oldest and bitterest enemies, believes he "will never withdraw his forces from Kuwait."
If they are right, then neither an American show of force nor a revving of engines on January 14 will intimidate Saddam Husayn. If Americans are serious about getting Iraqi troops out of Kuwait, they must expect to use force.