Among the aphorisms that distill Arab wisdom are several Saddam Hussein might have pondered before invading Kuwait, starting with Everything forbidden is sweet. Until Aug. 2, Saddam, 54, seemed just another bloodthirsty despot. But he fancied himself another Nasser—the Egyptian leader who lost a war to Israel in 1967 but emerged an Arab hero nonetheless. That was high ambition for peasant-born Saddam, a failed assassin and jailbird before he took control of oil-rich Iraq in 1979. He cemented his rule by recruiting relatives and cronies from his native Tikrit, pampering the military and secret police, and purging enemies real or imagined (including a brother-in-law; small wonder Saddam’s favorite movie is The Godfather). Yet after he declared war on Iran in 1980, the Reagan and Bush administrations okayed $5 billion-plus in loans, some of it used to buy sensitive U.S. technology.
Do not ride in your neighbor’s saddle. Eight years of fighting left Iraq $70 billion in debt—and Saddam eyeing next-door Kuwait, which has but 600,000 citizens. Just how firmly Washington warned him against sending in troops is still being debated, but he needed under a day to complete his conquest. Saddam spent the fall digging in and issuing baroque threats—though on the eve of war Sajida Hussein, his first cousin, wife of 33 years and mother of his five children, reportedly fled (most likely for Mauritania); the fate of his mistress, Samira Shahbandar, is unclear.
He who lights a fire should not ask to be protected from the flame. Saddam is Iraq’s Commander in Chief, but, observes Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, “he is neither a strategist, nor is he schooled in the operational art, nor is he a tactician, nor is he a general, nor is he a soldier—other than that, he’s a great military man.” The 43-day war wrought grievous injury upon Iraq’s civilians, cities and armed forces (reportedly 100.000 dead). But it has not, as President Bush had hoped, led to Saddam’s overthrow. In fact, one opinion poll in April showed that a majority of Americans felt that the Allies had not triumphed because Saddam was still in power. And his subsequent take-no-prisoners suppression of Iraq’s Shiites and Kurds sadly calls to mind one last proverb: The lion’s den is never empty of bones.