How Saddam Plans to Thwart Bush

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Iraqis watch Saddam Hussein on television at a repair shop in Baghdad

It's been a bad week for the Bush administration's anti-Saddam campaign. And that's not because of the Iraqi dictator's florid warning that any U.S. invasion would end in "disgraceful failure." The problem is that Saddam has also made plain his plan to take advantage of Washington's comparative isolation over going war in Iraq by playing hard for the middle ground. The Iraqi leader's speech reiterated offers to negotiate over arms inspections — albeit on his own terms, which so far remain unacceptable to the U.N. But the Iraqi leader knows he can always adjust his position later to comply with the international community's demands, simultaneously taking the wind out of Washington's sails. That may be why Vice President Dick Cheney hastened to warn Thursday that even a resumption of U.N. weapons inspections may not be enough to solve the big problem: Iraq's purported weapons of mass destruction.

Cheney's remarks may be directed primarily at Capitol Hill, where lawmakers insist the White House has yet to make a convincing case that the risks of going to war are outweighed by the risks of not going to war. Saddam's PR offensive won't carry the day in Congress, but it may make a difference with his real target audience: his Arab neighbors. Baghdad knows the U.S. will find it difficult to go to war without regional support, both politically and strategically. Washington needs the Gulf states, Jordan and Turkey as staging areas, but it may need their political support even more. After all, when the Bush administration launched its campaign in Afghanistan, it took great pains to emphasize that it was not making war on Islam, and the need for Arab consent may be even greater in this case: the invasion of an Arab nation in the absence of any sense of regional crisis, and with the express purpose of replacing a hostile regime with one more palatable to Washington. And unless the U.S. is ready to commit tens of thousands of troops to long-term occupation in an intensely unfriendly environment, stabilizing a post-Saddam Iraq will require not only the consent, but the active cooperation and participation of all of its neighbors.

Saddam's game plan, for now, is simple: Keep the neighbors out of Washington's camp by declaring a willingness to cooperate with the arms inspectors, and paint U.S. war plans as part of a wider American attack on the Arab and Muslim world. Better still, link it directly to the Bush administration's close relationship with the government of Ariel Sharon, whose policies offend even Washington's most moderate Arab allies. That's precisely what Saddam tried to do in 1991 when he fired SCUD missiles at Israel just as the U.S.-led coalition assault began, in hopes of persuading the Arab world that the issue was the Palestinians rather than Kuwait. The gambit failed because Israel refused to be provoked into retaliation and because the U.S. had secured unprecedented Arab support — by pressing Israel to cease settlement activity in the occupied territories, and begin negotiating with the Palestinians.

It's not hard to see why Saddam believes he may have a better shot this time around at keeping the Arabs on the sidelines. He only has to convince them that his survival in Baghdad is a lesser evil than the consequences of an American invasion. And so far, he's ahead in that game — the Saudis, Jordan, Turkey and Iran have all warned against a U.S. invasion. Ironically, however, Saddam's propaganda effort got some unintended help this week from his most intractable enemies in Washington.

First, there was that briefing to the Defense Policy Board that characterized Saudi Arabia as a terror-supporting enemy of the U.S. whose oil fields may have to be seized. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld tried to play cleanup, saying simply that "Saudi Arabia is like any other country — it has a broad spectrum of activities and things, some of which ... we agree with and some that we may not." He also pointed out that the Defense Policy Board is not an official body — true, but it is a policy advisory group appointed by the Defense Secretary himself, and is visibly influential among hawkish civilians in the defense establishment. Despite being disowned by the Pentagon, the briefing raised hackles in Arab capitals, and the Saudis reiterated their firm rejection of a war on Iraq.

But the problem runs deeper than a few ill-chosen comments. Some of the most gung-ho hawks in Washington have made the argument that toppling Saddam would facilitate an entire remaking of the Middle Eastern political equation on terms more favorable to the U.S. and Israel. And that's precisely the fear on the streets and in the corridors of power of the Arab capitals. Not that Rumsfeld is particularly concerned. On Tuesday, he went on the record disputing the characterization of the West Bank and Gaza as "occupied" by Israel, declining to criticize Israeli settlement activity there and trashing the notion of talking to the Palestinian Authority even as Bush administration officials prepared to do just that. Those positions may put him way out of step with the Bush administration's official Middle East policy, but they don't pass unnoticed in the Arab world. And to the extent that the Arab world perceives the U.S. agenda as being at odds with Arab interests and concerns, these kinds of remarks ensure that Saddam is in no danger of losing his claim to the "lesser evil" mantle.