PARIS -- If President Saddam Hussein refuses to withdraw Iraq's troops from Kuwait by Jan. 15 and war ensues, his choice will be consonant with hallowed Arab tradition of taking on superior force.
No matter how inexplicable such a decision might appear to the outside world, re- cent Middle East history is replete with examples of Arab leaders who preferred to absorb bloody punishment rather than be seen knuckling under to even a vastly more powerful enemy.
In part, such decisions reflect a certain cultural machismo in which standing one's ground, fighting and being bloodied gains respect both from allies and enemies. But Arab leaders also have found that taking punishment from a non-Arab foe, often including high civilian and military casualties, is useful for rallying domestic and pan-Arab opinion around their regimes or extracting financial help from reluctant allies.
Thus, the badly overmatched Palestine Liberation Organization resisted for more than 100 days in 1982 as the region's undisputed military superpower, Israel, besieged Beirut. In the end the PLO evacuated the Lebanese capital, but still boasts that its men fought Israel longer than the army of any Arab state in the previous four decades.
The cost in casualties was awesome. But the PLO likes to think the Beirut siege inspired Lebanon's Shiite Moslems to sacrifice their lives in inflicting heavy casualties on Israeli troops and driving them back to the border zone in 1985. In turn, the Shiites claim credit for setting the example of sacrifice for the Palestinian uprising, which erupted two years later in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Syria's President Hafez Assad is the Middle East's most careful practitioner of the art of absorbing pain for political purposes. In more than two decades in power he repeatedly has preferred armed showdowns with Israel to giving way, although his forces consistently emerged second best.
In 1982, for example, he sent his air force to battle Israel over Lebanon, knowing that Israel had controlled that airspace for years without serious challenge. Assad lost a good quarter of his first-line fighters and many pilots, but Arab leaders who bore him little love felt obliged to rush to his support. The gulf states contributed heavily to his chronically depleted coffers.
Also, Syria's Soviet backers felt so humiliated by the poor performance of their materiel that they rapidly replaced the lost aircraft and supplied Syria with a modern air defense system previously reserved for Warsaw Pact countries.
But Assad then could count on Soviet assistance in a world dominated by two superpowers that held their allies within certain limits in the Middle East conflict. In the present crisis, Iraq's Saddam is playing a more difficult hand, for the Soviets have sided with Washington, depriving him of a countervailing force.
Still, exiled Iraqi dissidents who say they understand Saddam's thinking say they are convinced he is ready to absorb punishment from the air just long enough to show he is no coward.
Saddam plans to hit Israel quickly with missiles and kamikaze fighters to inflict sufficient casualties to prompt an Israeli retaliation, the exiles said. If Israel did strike Iraq, Saddam would be a hero throughout the Arab world, they said. The fragile alliance between Arab governments and their American and other Western partners would be threatened.
If that tactic fails, the exiles theorize, he will seek French and Soviet support for a cease-fire and agree to comply with the U.N. demand that he withdraw from Kuwait. In exchange for sparing the U.N. coalition ground casualties, he would thus preserve his own armed forces.
Even the Saudis and other gulf Arabs whom Saddam has terrified with his invasion of Kuwait might prefer a chastened-but-intact Iraq under his rule to the instability that his overthrow might entail. Iraq's neighbors remember Iraq's constant coups, plots and assassinations in the decade between the overthrow of its monarchy in 1958 and the Baath Party's decisive seizure of power. Also, they still want an Iraq strong enough to serve as a curb to Iranian domination of their region.
Iraqi exiles said it was Saddam's awareness of those calculations by the gulf Arabs that have encouraged his dream of squeezing from them the money to pay off Iraq's crushing $50 billion debt. The exiles, and other observers, have said Saddam invaded Kuwait largely to seize its assets and erase the debt after Kuwait refused to give him billions in aid.
The Iraqi exiles said Saddam may even yet hope that the Saudis would give him aid after a truce to protect themselves against future threats from Iran.