SADDAM HUSSEIN of Iraq is cynically and, so far, successfully defying the United Nations and the coalition that won the Gulf war.
He is a desperado, going for broke, offering no compromise except as a tactic. He is operating from day to day on sheer bluff, exploiting his assets and the coalition's liabilities, taunting the United States but pulling back from fatal provocation. He has the initiative, and Washington's reaction most recently has been feeble.
Saddam, meanwhile, has celebrated the second anniversary of his catastrophic blunder, the invasion of Kuwait, with vows that he will go there again. He has an advantage: He wins if he does not lose, while the coalition loses if it does not win.
In 1990, the coalition had a choice: to clobber Saddam or get rid of him through external blockade and internal opposition. Another Western intelligence failure (added to a complete misreading of Iraq's intentions before the war) led to the belief that Shiite Arabs in the south and Kurds in the north could combine with disaffected military and Sunni Arabs to overthrow Saddam.
In any case, neither Turkey nor Saudi Arabia wanted to risk disintegration of Iraq; and they were ready to have Saddam hold it together. As for demanding democratic elections, no Arab member of the coalition, except arguably Egypt, favored any such revolutionary recourse. Desert Storm then wrecked Iraq's war machine, and the coalition designed a straitjacket to render Saddam harmless until the Iraqi people should dispose of him. Again, miscalculation and carelessness renewed his lease on life.
In a battlefield truce, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf casually allowed Iraq to fly helicopters but not fixed-wing aircraft. Now Saddam is using both against Shiite rebels in the southern marshes and for his internal security.
Saddam has assets. Baath Party members, the patronage pool of hangers-on, and the intensely loyal Sunni Arab-dominated security structure help to keep him afloat. He still has money, apart from the billions frozen in banks around the world. The impressive repair of war damage, the profusion of foreign luxury items on sale in Baghdad, and the import of large quantities of industrial goods suggest that he has ample funds, credit, and proceeds from illegal oil exports to alleviate the effects of the officia l blockade.
The embargo leaks from all directions. Jordan has afforded the most important crack, but Turkey, Iran, and Syria are active too.
ONE priceless asset Saddam has is the UN's reaffirmation of Iraq's sovereignty and its implicit acceptance of Saddam as legitimate ruler. On the strength of this, Saddam has denounced UN restrictions as imperialist (and specifically American) persecution of a heroic Arab nationalist. He appeals in the name of Islam to the Arab "street" - the common people who are opposed to reactionary regimes and to the rich who serve the US-Israel "alliance."
Demagogy pays. Arab governments have felt the pressure. The coalition shows signs of wobble. Egypt and Syria are more hesitant, and even Turkey says it will not lend its bases for air strikes against Iraq and is reopening its embassy in Baghdad.
What now? Huffing and puffing about punishment for Saddam's violation of UN resolutions and brutal attacks on UN officials has achieved nothing. Tough measures are needed, of a kind politically sustainable in the US, in the UN, and in the Arab world. This would rule out bombardment in populated areas and, certainly, ground attack. The object should be to bring Saddam, the swollen bully, down to life size. To maximize his humiliation with no civilian damage and the least risk.
This could be done by a full aerial embargo on Iraq: you fly, you die. The US can do it together with Britain and France. No new UN Security Council resolution is needed. Resolution 678 of Nov. 29, 1990, opening the way for Desert Storm, authorized member states to use all necessary means to enforce previous decisions "and to restore international peace and security to the area."
Saddam Hussein again menaces the Gulf in a feat of psychological warfare, an illusion that must be dispelled by emphatic action if it is not again to become reality.