In a moment of rare modesty two years ago, Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Tariq 'Aziz admitted that "Every government does stupid things sometimes." He did not acknowledge, however, that his own government makes more than its share of errors-as the world

In a moment of rare modesty two years ago, Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Tariq 'Aziz admitted that "Every government does stupid things sometimes." He did not acknowledge, however, that his own government makes more than its share of errors-as the world had an opportunity to see during amazing seven months of the Kuwait crisis in 1990-91.

And now, Saddam Husayn is at it again. His four-day movement of Iraqi forces to the border with Kuwait, followed by his stated decision yesterday to call them back, looks like another mistake of monumental proportions. Consider three points:

  • Insufficient capabilities: An Iraqi attack on Kuwait is military folly. Sixty thousand poorly-armed Iraqi troops are no match for the coalition forces arrayed against them in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and on the seas. Saddam would lose as badly as he did last time.
  • Bad timing: Last Friday, the very day that troops began moving, Tariq 'Aziz had been expected to announce at the United Nations that his government finally accepted Kuwait's borders and sovereignty. That was to set the stage for Rolf Ekeus, head of the UN team taking apart the Iraqi arsenal, to report yesterday that Iraqi compliance has been satisfactory and that an extensive system of monitoring would begin later this month. These two steps were to start the clock toward lifting the economic sanctions on Iraq so that, before long, Saddam could have freely exported any amount of oil. But Saddam became bellicose just exactly at the moment when two years of minimally acceptable behavior were about to pay off. For certain, his aggressiveness will delay the lifting of sanctions.

    Further, his move comes as the Turkish government was changing policies toward Iraq. This could have ended the U.S. military operation protecting the Kurds north of the 36th parallel and permitted Saddam to retake control of northern Iraq.

  • Incorrigible: By threatening Kuwait again, Saddam reminds the world that he will never improve his behavior and that he personally is a large part of the problem. He can't have gained esteem in the eyes of Iraqis, including the military leadership, for ordering the army suddenly to advance to the Kuwaiti border and then, just as abruptly, to retreat.
And yet . . . the apparent foolishness of this latest move provokes doubts. Is Saddam really such a dolt? Perhaps a bold or clever plan lies behind his apparent blunder. Could someone who rules as an absolute dictator really be so incompetent?

Yes, he can, and here's how:

Saddam's career divides into phases, the domestic and the foreign. Born in 1937 in a mud house to landless peasants, he became a Ba'th Party activist at the tender age of twenty. He then burst onto Iraq's national political scene by taking part in an attempted assassination of the country's president in October 1959. When the Ba'th Party took power in 1963, Saddam was a minor but ambitious functionary in the central bureau for peasants. By July 1968, he held the second-most important position in the country and soon after made himself the regime's strongman. In July 1979, he became president in name as well as fact.

His domestic base sure, Saddam immediately set out to dominate the Middle East. "We aim at rendering our country its actual importance," he declared at the end of 1979, "estimating that Iraq is as great as China, the Soviet Union and the United States." Toward this end, he built up a gigantic military force, talked a virulent brand of Pan-Arab nationalism, and schemed to bring the oil of the Persian Gulf under his control. To attain this latter goal, Saddam naturally relied on the same practices that served him so well as he rose through Iraqi politics. Efraim Karsh and Inari Rautsi, his biographers, explain these: a combination of "obsessive caution, endless patience, tenacious perseverance, impressive manipulative skills and utter ruthlessness." He repeatedly pretended to work with others but in reality bought himself time before he could destroy them.

Trouble was, the habits and gambits that he refined in the Hobbesian, no-holds-barred world of Iraqi politics didn't work so well abroad. In 1980, Saddam attacked revolutionary Iran, hoping he could take advantage of its turmoil to grab its oil fields; an eight-year war ensued which cost Iraq hundreds of thousands of casualties. In 1990, he invaded helpless Kuwait to take its oil and its foreign brokerage accounts; this time he didn't even last eight weeks. Both adventures grievously damaged the Iraqi economy: the first left it indebted, the second left it crippled.

Saddam's brilliance at seizing power and his incompetence in foreign policy have proven a deadly combination. They go far to explain why the rich, burgeoning Iraq he took over in 1979 is today such a miserable wreck of a country.

The key point is that blind consistency accounts for Saddam's foreign disasters as well as his domestic triumphs. Because practices in the outside world differ from those in Iraq, when he plays brinkmanship abroad, he can't find the brink. Or, as Syria's Defense Minister Mustafa Tallas observes, "Saddam's real tragedy is that he miscalculates." When it comes to international politics, don't overestimate Saddam.

But why did he go to the brink right now? Contrary to Defense Department speculations, it probably has little to do with American troops landing in Haiti. Rather, Saddam faces a dire problem: standards of living in Iraq are in a Cuba-like free fall, with staples getting scarce, one import after another prohibited, and the modern infrastructure grinding to a halt. Just nine days before Iraqi soldiers advanced to Kuwait, Saddam announced a reduction in individual rations of flour from nine kilograms a month (20 pounds) to just six (13 pound). Revealingly, perhaps, he ended the speech admonishing Iraqis to be patient "because prosperity is coming, prosperity is coming." Futile it surely was, but threatening Kuwait probably appeared to a desperate Saddam his best bet to break out of the UN sanctions.

Also, these recent actions conform to his well-established pattern of "cheat and retreat." Time and again, Saddam has tested the UN coalition by breaking his word; when rebuffed, he simply pulls back and waits for another opportunity. If he retreats this week, he'll return to try another ploy next week.

Saddam presents Washington with a unique blend of challenges and opportunities. By engaging in foolish, unpredictable ways, he gains the advantage of surprise. By subjecting the Iraqi population to unlimited military casualties and economic deprivation, he robs American strategists of important instruments of pressure.

At the same time, Saddam is a nearly perfect enemy. His barbarism inspires unity among otherwise fractious Western allies. His deep distrust of aides causes him to make decisions without proper information or thought. His dreadful errors almost guarantee victory to his opponents. In short, he is a foe that even Bill Clinton can find resolve to deal with-and gain solid bipartisan support in the process.

U.S. policy of the last few days was just right. With great clarity, speaking in unison, the leadership warned the Iraqis not to use force. It built international support. It put together a real deterrent force and rushed it to the theater. For once, the administration did not waffle, and it deserves full credit for making Saddam back down-if that is what he in fact does.

There was only one troubling note in all this beautiful music-the hints dropped by American spokesmen that the coalition troops might not stop at the Iraqi border but would continue on to Baghdad and get rid of Saddam once and for all.

That sounds good, but eliminating Saddam would not be so easy: he is well hidden and well guarded. (Remember that American troops never caught General Aidid in Somalia.) And were he taken care of, the truly hard part would begin. The U.S. government would then have effective responsibility for the welfare of Iraq: our soldiers would have to feed the people, defend the borders, set up a new government, and occupy the country for months or maybe years. Is this a real option for the United States in the 1990s, an era of introspection, not of nation-building abroad?

If the Iraqis want to get rid of Saddam, let us discreetly encourage them while making it absolutely clear they are on their own.