This story originally appeared in the June 4, 1990, issue of U.S.News & World Report.
In this strange season of political upheaval, with the lights of dictators winking out around the globe, the world suddenly seems a saner and safer place. But as Mikhail Gorbachev and George Bush confer this week, providing a little new hope for safety and sanity, in ancient Baghdad, half a world away, a dangerous man with great ambitions is hosting a summit of his own.
While Bush and Gorbachev are signing agreements to reduce their arsenals of chemical and nuclear arms, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, the host of the Arab summit, continues to spend billions of dollars in the pursuit and development of those very same weapons. What is even more troubling is that while the superpowers are trying to ensure that their bulging arsenals are never used, Hussein has already lobbed his nerve gas not only at his archenemies in Iran but at some of his own people, killing several hundred Kurdish tribesmen. It is no small irony that this new threat to peace and stability is coming from Mesopotamia, from the cradle of civilization, but if Saddam Hussein has taken note of the fact, he has not deigned to comment on it. He is not, after all, a man much inclined to humor. What he is, demonstrably, is the most dangerous man in the world.
In his ruthless and obsessive quest to become the "Sword of the Arabs," as Hussein lately has styled himself, he has relied upon the complicity of Western and other governments, the greed of middlemen, and a clandestine arms-procurement network with front companies in the U.S. and Europe. The Atlanta branch of Italy's biggest state-owned bank extended more than $ 1 billion in credit for Iraqi arms deals, U.S. officials say. A Canadian ballistics and rocket expert was helping Hussein build the world's biggest gun when he was mysteriously murdered in Brussels, and Iraq obtained hundreds of tons of a chemical used to make mustard gas from a Baltimore manufacturer before the transaction was caught by U.S. Customs.
The fateful combination that fuels Iraq's drive for military power is at once simple and familiar: Money, militarism and ego. With virtually unlimited funds from an oil industry that has an estimated 10 percent of the world's petroleum reserves, he has infinitely more cash to spend on instruments of destruction than Iran, Libya or North Korea. The U.S. intelligence community has consistently underestimated Iraq's military capabilities, but now a growing number of intelligence officials believe Hussein may have a nuclear-weapons capability in between two and five years. And unlike Kim Il Sung in North Korea, Hussein's ambitions are not contained by a powerful military on his border. His phenomenal military spending, estimated by some intelligence officials at as much as $50 billion over the past decade, has made him the world's single biggest buyer on the international market of chemical, biological and nuclear weaponry.
Even more frightening than his capabilities are the ample indications that Hussein has few qualms about using them. "I swear to God," he said in a statement printed around the world a few weeks ago, "we will let our fire scorch half of Israel if it tries to wage anything against us." Defenders of the Iraqi leader point out that he threatened to use force only in retaliation for an Israeli attack. But he is so isolated, both from his own people and from the international community, that no one knows for sure what he might do.
Worse, there is virtually no one, at home or abroad, who can restrain his worst impulses. He has few friends, even in the Arab world, and fewer and fewer within Iraq's own political structure. He has stubbed out rivals, real and imagined, like cigarette butts, and Western intelligence agencies have reported several instances in which he has pulled the trigger himself. Hussein committed his first murder at 14, attempted his first political assassination at 22, and there is no evidence to suggest he has broken the habit. The State Department calls Iraq's human-rights record "abysmal" and says the country continues to harbor several of the world's most notorious terrorists.
In recent years, moreover, what few constraints there were on Hussein have withered. The Ba'ath Socialist Party, which he rode to power, and the Revolutionary Command Council, which he dominated once he got there, have both fallen into decline, and more and more of the business of government is being handled by trusted members of Hussein's own family. Thus isolated, Hussein charts his own increasingly dangerous course. "He understands Iraq," says Amatzia Bar'am, a professor at Haifa University and one of the world's foremost scholars on Iraq. "But he doesn't understand how the American administration, Israel or Iran think. His advisers are afraid to give him bad news [and] ... he is prone to make mistakes because he doesn't understand many things outside Iraq." With no back channel to Israel, the potential for a crisis arising from miscommunication seems especially high.