Now that diplomacy has failed, it's fashionable to portray Saddam Hussein as having an irrational martyr complex and taking Iraq on a suicidal path.

But that would be to misunderstand the Iraqi president, whose conduct over the past five months indicates that he's acting more like Egypt's Gamal Abdal Nasser, who is still very much an Arab hero for the way he rallied Arabs to confront Britain and France in the Suez crisis of 1956.Nasser, it must be remembered, won that showdown by forcing Britain and France into a humiliating retreat.

There are many similarities between Saddam and Nasser, and even Saddam's threats these days have a familiar ring.

For example, Nasser warned the French and British that they would "choke on their own blood" if they sent troops to try to hold the Suez Canal, a statement reminiscent of Saddam's threats that U.S. troops will "swim in their own blood" if there's a war.

Nasser commanded only ramshackle Egyptian forces that were no military match for the massive, technologically advanced forces that Britain and France massed against him.

Saddam spent many years in exile in Cairo, plotting his comeback in Baghdad after his assassination attempt against Iraqi leader Kamil Kassem in 1959. There he picked up firsthand lessons of how Nasser operated.

To compare the gulf crisis with the events of 1956 or Saddam with Nasser requires much mangling of history, of course, but there are historians in Baghdad these days who are well-paid by the Iraqi regime to do just that.

To keep the record straight, it wasn't as much Nasser's bald threats that forced the British and French to cave in in 1956, but the role of Dwight Eisenhower, who refused to back up European efforts to hold on to their imperial possessions.

Saddam shares much with Nasser in his personal background and thoughts. Born in a mud hut in the impoverished town of Takrit, Saddam was brought up by an uncle, a former soldier in the British army who hated the English with a peculiar passion and seeded that emotion in his nephew.

Much of Saddam's present-day biography is the product of Baghdad's hagiographers, but Saddam appears to be poorly educated, lacking the grades to qualify for admission to a military academy. Rather, his education seems based largely on his experiences. In Cairo he saw the power of Nasser's anti-colonialism firsthand, and his own anti-colonial stand owes much to the success of Nasser's Egypt.

Anti-colonialism is a powerful emotion in the Middle East, long resentful of the way Western culture ridicules the Middle East and Islam and minimizes a culture that gave Europe the intellectual means to dig itself out of the economic doldrums of the Middle Ages.

Even now Saddam blames the West that Iraq wasn't able to use its own oil wealth to bring new respect for Iraqi culture, contending that this - and not the wasteful expenditure of resources on his war with Iran - is part of the conspiracy of the West against Iraq.

Now, with the breakdown in diplomacy, it's quite clear that Saddam believes that he, like Nasser, can win this confrontation with the West and emerge as the new hero of the Arab world.

In the past decade, he has nurtured one of the most astonishing personality cults of any Arab leader, lavishing funds for operas, songs and art praising him and a backwash of studies lionizing Iraq's role as "the cradle of civilization," to use the words of Western school history texts.

The picture that emerges of Saddam isn't someone plotting his own or his troops' suicide, but someone who sincerely believes he can win.

At his weekend meeting with Saddam, U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar found him serene and content.

In interviews with some of Saddam's closest advisers last October in Baghdad, the consistent party line was that the United States lacks the moral resolve to fight Saddam, and his ministers cite the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam as proof of America's lack of commitment - and troops - when the blood flows.

The argument repeated by several Iraqi Baathists is that Iraq, a country of 17 million people, sustained almost 1 million casualties in the Iran-Iraq war. "And how many body bags will American mothers accept coming home?" one of Saddam's ministers asked rhetorically.

How much Saddam misunderstands the situation will become clear over the coming days. But to believe that he is suicidal is misreading his character.

Like Nasser, Saddam is thinking of a spectacular victory against the West, not defeat.