America is going to war uncomprehending. It seems inexplicable to us that Saddam should have brought upon himself a war against the largest concentration of armor and air power assembled since World War II. How can he possibly win? Why did he enter into a suicidal war?

The answer is that he is not suicidal, nor does he have a great thirst for martyrdom. As the widows of his many political rivals will attest, his talent is making martyrs of others. On the contrary, Saddam thinks he can win.

How? Winning in the Arab context has a special meaning. It means not losing against superior force. Tie goes to the weaker. Consider the past 40 years of Arab history. The Arabs have fought five wars against Israel (1948, 1956, 1967, 1973 and 1982) and lost every one. Yet at least twice they have turned battlefield disaster into political victory.

In 1956 Egypt, in a rout, lost the Sinai and the Suez canal to Israel, Britain and France. But the Soviets threatened to intervene, and Eisenhower backed Egypt. He forced Britain and France to withdraw from the Canal in humiliation. (That finished them as the dominant players in the Middle East and contributed to our current predicament: 15 years later, a weary Britain abandoned the Gulf, leaving it to the tender mercies of Iran, Iraq -- and the United States.) Eisenhower then forced Israel out of Sinai. The effect was to turn Egypt's Nasser into the hero of the Arab world for having stood up to both the Jews and the two great imperial powers that had dominated the Middle East for half a century.

Nasser and his pan-Arab nationalism became the leading force in the Arab world until his next military adventure, the debacle of 1967. That was utter defeat unchecked by a superpower bailout and unredeemed by a political victory in the United Nations. That is the war that Saddam does not want to reprise.

The model for Saddam is 1973. In the Yom Kippur war, Egypt fought Israel well enough for almost three weeks. Even though Egypt was by then on the verge of defeat, the superpowers stepped in, and a cease-fire in place was declared. Egypt had acquitted itself well enough on the battlefield that it could turn the stalemate into a postwar negotiation. Ultimately, it turned postwar negotiation into the fulfillment of Sadat's most cherished war aim: recovery of the entire Sinai.

Saddam's strategy is precisely the same: to hold off the United States long enough and to bloody it badly enough to force a cease-fire and negotiation. If Saddam can reach the point that Sadat reached three weeks into the 1973 war, if he can go a few weeks and induce a bloodied America to sit down and talk, he has won.

He becomes the first Arab ever to stand up to a superpower in war. He comes to negotiations as an equal, with cards to deal (POWs especially). He is in a position to demand parts of Kuwait, a lifting of the embargo and retention of his military power. That leaves him dominant not just in Kuwait and in the Gulf but in the entire Arab world. He emerges not just undefeated but victorious.

Critics ask: When will the United States know it has won? When Saddam falls, surrenders or unconditionally evacuates Kuwait. When will we know that Saddam has won? When the fighting is suspended and talks begin.

It is unlikely that Saddam will get to that pass, but not impossible. He has miscalculated enough times the strength of the enemy -- most notably, in 1980, thinking post-revolutionary Iran to be a pushover -- to believe that a victory of this sort is not a remote possibility (as it most surely is) but a likely possibility.

His most profound miscalculation is that in this war there is no superpower to put an artificial halt to hostilities and save the losing side, as had happened in all the Arab-Israeli wars (except '67). With the Soviets on the sidelines, Saddam's only hope for a deus ex machina to call a halt to proceedings if the American war effort stalls is American public opinion.

Saddam's contempt for American staying power is well known. The America he knows is the America of Lebanon and of Vietnam. He is convinced that if he can put up a fight, America will tire and sue for peace.

Saddam vastly overestimates both his capacity to match America on the battlefield and the American people's irresolution in the face of war. (He has forgotten his Tocqueville: "The selfsame democratic nations that are so reluctant to engage in hostilities sometimes perform prodigious achievements when once they have taken the field.") Nonetheless, while his estimates may be inflated, his line of reasoning is not crazy. He may be wrong, but he is not mad.

Nor is he suicidal. Saddam has a strategy. That is why he risked war rather than capitulate to American demands for unconditional withdrawal. Capitulation meant humiliation and -- quite possibly, as often follows in the Arab world -- death. War means a chance for victory. And with victory, glory. That is why he fights.