Six years on from the launch of the Coalition invasion of Iraq – a brutal war of attrition that has left at least half a million dead and rendered much of the nation a smoking ruin – it’s all too easy to forget about the last time the US locked horns in the Persian Gulf. But the Second Gulf war – ostensibly fought to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation – prepared the ground for the next two decades worth of US led military intervention in world affairs. It taught us valuable lessons about manufacturing a case for war – largely ignored by the US public; and the blueprint for a successful military strategy in Iraq – largely forgotten by US war planners. It left behind an unresolved crisis situation that, one way or another, led directly to Iraq’s present state of disastrous civil war. Let’s rewind back to the year 1990, a time when George Bush I was the most powerful man in the world, and Saddam Hussein was considered a trusted lieutenant of the White House administration.
If the popular media portrayal of the day was to be believed, the Second Gulf War was little more than a cartoon confrontation between good and evil, devoid of any historical context. The Madman Hussein – a Hitlerian fanatic consumed by a lust for world domination – attacked a weak and defenceless neighbour utterly without provocation. It was the appointed role of the US – as the tough but fair sheriff of world affairs – to ride bravely into town, rescue the villagers, and bring the rabid desperado to heel. A closer investigation of the build up to the conflict, however, reveals a rather more ambiguous portrait of events. Hussein’s issues with Kuwait had been a long standing and complicated affair, and the US response to his repeated threats of military action had been muted and ambivalent at best.
To understand why it is Hussein decided to attack Kuwait, we must first place the events within their proper historical context. In the aftermath of World War I, the defeat of the Central Powers had served to liberate the Arab World from the control of the Ottoman Empire. However, rather than grant the Arab population their independence, England and France decided to divide the Middle East into spheres of European influence. Borders were arbitrarily redrawn and the artificial states of Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia were brought into being. The new borders granted the royal al-Sabah family of Kuwait a measure of independence, while ensuring that Iraq would only have restricted access to the Persian Gulf, thus undermining Baghdad’s traditional base of power in the region. The division of territory in the Arab World has been a source of contention ever since, and Iraq has never fully recognised Kuwait’s right to an independent state.
By 1988, Kuwait had used its rich reserves of oil to become one of the world’s wealthiest states, while Iraq, bruised and battered in the First Gulf War with Iran, had been rendered nearly bankrupt. Fearing a threat to its security from the Shi’a revolution in Iran, Kuwait had provided approximately $17 billion in interest free loans to Iraq in support of its efforts in the Gulf War. However, with its economy totally exhausted in the wake of the conflict, Iraq found itself unable to pay the debt. Overtures to write off the loans went ignored. To make matters worse, Kuwait had been aggravating its long existing territorial dispute with Iraq by using advanced oil drilling technology to “slant drill” under the border and draw on Iraqi oil reserves in the abundant Rumailah region.
Kuwait began to produce oil at quantities above the OPEC regulated quota, driving down the price per barrel to record lows and sabotaging Hussein’s attempts to restore the devastated Iraqi economy. Diplomatic overtures aimed at scaling down the debt, resolving the border disputes and controlling the price of oil were treated largely with contempt by Kuwait’s ruling al-Sabah family. Hussein found himself in a very difficult position. Iraq was in a state of economic disaster after the prolonged failure of the First Gulf War, and his efforts at recovery were being perpetually undermined by Kuwait. Hussein appeared to feel genuinely aggrieved that Iraq had effectively shouldered the burdens of the Arab World in taking on the feared and hated Iran, yet was now being penalised for the favour by his neighbours. But even when Hussein declared that he considered Kuwait’s activity to be act of economic warfare, the al-Sabah family refused to take the threat of military action seriously.
Although Hussein was a ruthless and calculating dictator, he was not the reckless madman the Western media was later to portray him as. He understood that military action against Kuwait could only be undertaken after careful consideration… and with the tacit permission of his new masters. As a reward for his debilitating war with Iran – a nation considered eminently dangerous by the West – Hussein now enjoyed close ties with the US, including covert provision of intelligence and strategic resources, along with military and financial aid. After years in the international wilderness, Iraq had been removed from the US black list of renegade states.
Acting as Ronald Reagan’s Special Envoy to the Middle East, Donald Rumsfeld had visited Hussein in Iraq in 1983, with the aim of establishing mutually beneficial relations. And in 1988, when the US senate unanimously passed the Prevention of Genocide Act – effectively preventing the US from supplying assistance to a flagrant human rights abusive state like Iraq – the bill was quashed by Reagan himself. The US provided support to Hussein’s regime and turned a blind eye to his atrocities – including the use of poison gas in the mass slaughter of Iraq’s Kurdish population – in the interests of undermining Iranian power in the Middle East.
What Hussein failed to adequately calculate, is that by the time of Iraq’s conflict with Kuwait, his usefulness to the US was already coming to an end. The war with Iran had been over for several years, and Hussein’s vocal criticism of Israel and Saudi Arabia were at odds with official US policy in the region. Nonetheless, it’s unlikely that Hussein would have acted without first sounding out the likely US response. He wasn’t so stupid as to believe that his weakened country could cope with a US military reprisal. However, despite repeated hints, threats and complaints in the months leading up to the Kuwait invasion, the White House remained silent on the matter.
On July 25, 1990, just a week prior to the invasion of Kuwait, Hussein summoned the US Ambassador to Baghdad, April Glaspie, for a meeting. It was to be the last diplomatic contact between the US and Iraq before the outbreak of war. Over the course of the conference, Hussein mapped out Iraq’s current position and the list of his grievances with Kuwait, along with a fairly ominous hint of what was to come if the situation was not resolved:
“I say to you clearly that Iraq’s rights, which are mentioned in the memorandum, we will take one by one. That might not happen now or after a month or after one year, but we will take it all. We are not the kind of people who will relinquish their rights. There is no historic right, or legitimacy, or need, for Kuwait to deprive us of our rights. If they are needy, we too are needy.”
Glaspie’s response was ambivalent:
“We have no opinion on Arab-Arab disputes, like your border disagreement with Kuwait.”
Glaspie assured Hussein that:
“I have a direct instruction from the President to seek better relations with Iraq.”
Hussein felt that his interpretation of the situation was fairly clear. If the White House had refrained from giving him a green light to invade Kuwait, then they had at least assured him that they would not interfere.
Hussein’s hints and warnings during his meeting with the ambassador, along with his earlier and repeated public threats to take military action against Kuwait, not to mention the mobilisation of military forces along the Kuwait border, ought to have set alarm bells ringing in the White House. Yet the US response was muted and non committal. Perhaps they simply did not take Hussein’s warnings seriously enough. More likely, the Middle East was not a major consideration of the US foreign policy agenda at that time. The attention of the White House was elsewhere. An “Arab – Arab” border conflict was not considered interesting enough to interfere with. If Hussein’s threats had been taken more seriously, a stern rebuke issued from the White House, warning of strong repercussions in the event of military action against Kuwait, could, perhaps, have averted war. But the promise of a strong response was not forthcoming. Hussein felt reasonably assured that he could take action without fear of reprisal.
On August 2, 1990, Hussein ordered Iraqi forces to cross the border and occupy Kuwait. Surprisingly, Kuwait had not mobilised its defences, despite Hussein’s repeated warnings, and despite the amassing of Iraqi troops along the border throughout the month of July. The al-Sabah family had simply refused to countenance the possibility that Hussein would actually carry out his threats. Ill prepared, out numbered and out-gunned, Kuwait’s security forces were overrun in a swift and fierce onslaught. Within 2 days of launching the invasion, Hussein’s army had swept aside all resistance and firmly established control over Kuwait.
This is Part 1 of a 3 part overview of the 2nd Gulf War. The following parts can be read here: