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A Retroactive Analysis of National Security Casus Belli for the Iraq War: Part 4
by Jonathan R

Kuwait

Of course, just two years after the ceasefire, Iraq embarked on another adventure, brutally occupying and plundering Kuwait. Expressing the view of many in 2002-03, Mark Bowden, a veteran military affairs journalist, argues that Saddam’s decision ranks as “one of the great military miscalculations of modern history.”[1]

Again, context is critical. In 1980, Iraq had $35 billion in foreign exchange reserves. By 1990, an $80 billion foreign debt—about one and a half times the country’s G.N.P.—was saddling Saddam. Reconstruction costs were huge, unemployment was rampant, inflation was raging. With their existing loans unpaid, creditors in Europe, Japan and the U.S. were reluctant to extend new ones. As one journalist elucidated, “Saddam was not the regional colossus of popular legend, but a bankrupt dictator fighting for survival.”[2] Indeed, in January he had narrowly escaped an assassination by army officers, who, like their war-weary compatriots, were awaiting the promised peace dividend and anticipating democratic reforms, a la trends in Kuwait, Yemen and Jordan. Equally ominous was the popular revolution in Romania, which in just one week in December brought the former cult-of-personality tyrant, Nicolae Ceausescu, before a firing squad.[3] The influx of Soviet Jews to Israel only exacerbated this tinderbox.

With such alarms ringing in his ever-vigilant mind,[4] Saddam rationalized that he had thwarted Iran’s expansionism on behalf of all Arabs, which entitled him to relief from the $30 billion debt he had racked up with his ethnic brethren. We paid with our blood, he believed; they should pay with their dollars. The Kuwaitis—whose overseas investments, estimated at $100 billion, provided them with more than $6 billion a year, a sum roughly equivalent to their oil revenues—disagreed, and unlike the Saudis, refused to forgive $10 to $20 billion they had loaned Iraq.[5] The Kuwaitis also enjoyed the first Arab stock exchange, the first Arab department store comparable to any in the West, five-star hotels, superhighways, luxurious shopping malls, office towers and a $400 million conference center—all of which made Saddam, given his far greater population and land, look down on his pocket-sizes neighbor “with envy and frustration.”[6]

Adding insult to injury, when Saddam tried to raise the price of oil via OPEC production cuts, Kuwait instead continued to increase production, doubling its quota violation. Combined with similar cheating, for the past two years, by the United Arab Emirates, the glut depressed the average price of an OPEC barrel nearly $7 and thus dwindled Iraq’s source for ninety-five percent of its export revenue. “As Saddam saw it,” Time commented, “the Kuwaitis might as well have been stealing from his treasury.”[7]

Then there was the quarrel over the rich Rumaila oil field, a finger-shaped deposit whose tip reaches just into frontier territory both Iraq and Kuwait claim. Insisting that when battling Iran in 1980, Kuwait had surreptitiously moved the border two and a half miles north to tap into Rumaila, Saddam demanded $2.4 billion in compensation. Of course, long before Saddam, Iraq had never recognized Kuwait as independent. Rather, since under the Ottoman Empire Kuwait was part of Basra, which British imperialists carved off in 1922, Kuwait was merely Iraq’s nineteenth province, as Saddam proclaimed.

And so, as Time concluded, “There sat Kuwait . . . bulging with enormous reserves of oil and cash, boasting an excellent port on the Persian Gulf—and utterly incapable of defending itself against Iraq’s proficient war machine. Saddam Hussein, hungry for money . . . knew before the first of his soldiers crossed the border that it would be a walkover—and it was. In twelve hours, Kuwait was his.”[8]
 

Mixed Signals

And yet, rather than invade impulsively, Saddam first put out feelers. On February 11, 1990, in Baghdad, he met with John Kelly, Assistant Secretary of State for Near East and South Asian Affairs. The next five years, Saddam said, would determine whether the U.S. used its hegemony for “constructive purposes,” or whether it would blindly follow Israel.[9] Kelly responded that the tyrant was a “force for moderation in the region, and the United States wishes to broaden her relations with Iraq.”[10]

The relations, however, as Saddam suggested twelve days later at a summit of the Arab Cooperation Council (A.C.C.) in Amman, would now be more one-sided. For the first time in a decade, the Iraqi president called Americans imperialists, bent on dominating the Middle East. The solution was for Arabs to withdraw the petrodollars they had invested in the West to impose changes in U.S. policy, like the evacuation of American ships from the gulf. There was no place among “good” Arabs, Saddam argued, for “the fainthearted who would argue that . . . the United States will be the decisive factor, and others have no choice but to submit.”[11]

The rhetorical ratcheting up derived from two intervening events. On February 21, the State Department had released its annual human rights report, which called Iraq’s record “abysmal.”[12] And on February 15, Voice of America had broadcast in Arabic an editorial titled, “No More Secret Police,” which in its own words was “reflecting the views of the U.S. government.”[13] Inspired by the recent overthrow of Ceausescu, the editorial subduedly expressed the hope that comparable regimes, including Iraq among seven others, would meet the same fate.

Since leaders dependent on terror for their power get extremely nervous at attempts to reach the people in their control,[14] Saddam received these criticisms with great indignation. As April Glaspie, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, cabled stateside, Baghdad “read the editorial as U.S.G.- [U.S. government] sanctioned mudslinging with the intent to incite revolution.”[15] Glaspie then wrote Foreign Affairs Minister Tariq Aziz a statement of “regret” that the editorial “left . . . open . . . [an] incorrect interpretation. It is absolutely not United States policy to question the legitimacy of the government of Iraq nor to interfere in any way with the domestic concerns of the Iraqi people and government.”[16] Back in Washington, William Safire, who via a Freedom of Information request obtained Glaspie’s cable, reported that “John Kelly excoriated those democracy-pushers at the V.O.A. who were undermining his seduction of Saddam Hussein and demanded they be slapped down. Secretary Baker agreed; he told the U.S. Information Agency to get written clearance” from State on future commentaries regarding the sensitive subject of Saddam.[17]

Nor did the seduction wane when on March 16, on trumped-up charges of espionage, Baghdad summarily hanged Farzad Bazoft, a thirty-one-year-old journalist working for the London Observer. It was the first time a government had executed a foreign journalist in at least a decade, and whereas British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher recalled her ambassador to Iraq, denunciated the act as “barbarism deeply repugnant to all civilized people,”[18] and like her European neighbors and the U.N. secretary general urged clemency, the White House went mute. “[W]e don’t have a lot of details on the case,” said spokesman Marlin Fitzwater.[19] All the State Department could muster was to “deplore Iraq’s decision.”[20]

Saddam’s next public speech came on April 1; one line stood out amid his usual rambling. “By God,” he thundered, “we will make fire eat up half of Israel if it trie[s] [anything] against Iraq.”[21] The unprecedented reference to chemical weapons made headlines worldwide. While the A.C.C. so hailed Saddam that the Economist later observed, “Poison gas plus anti-Zionist bluster . . . turned him into the new Saladin,”[22] the State Department, in line with White House, called the remarks “inflammatory, irresponsible and outrageous.”[23]
Significantly, Saddam panicked. Turning to King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, by April 5 he was engaged in a four-hour discussion with Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the kingdom’s ambassador to the U.S. Saddam asked Bandar to assure Bush and Thatcher that he wanted good relations with them and had no intention to attack Israel. Rather, he sought their guarantee that Israel would not attack him, as it had done in June 1981 by destroying a nuclear reactor at Osirak. The White House took the tyrant at his word.

The delegation of five senior senators who met Saddam in Mosul on April 12 were equally unquestioning. As the soon-to-be Butcher of Baghdad, but at the time Mr. President, carped that he was the victim of a Western propaganda campaign, like the V.O.A. editorial, minority leader Robert Dole (R-KS) asserted, falsely, that the V.O.A. commentator had paid for his mistake with his job. Indeed, Dole declared, “[O]nly twelve hours earlier President Bush . . . assured me that he wants better relations . . . with Iraq.”[24] Ambassador Glaspie, who was also present, interjected: “As the ambassador of the U.S., I am certain that this is the policy of the U.S.”[25] When Saddam persisted in reprobating Israel, Senator Simpson (R-WT) bootlicked: “I believe that your problems lie with the Western media and not with the U.S. government. . . . [Ours] is a haughty and pampered press; they all consider themselves political geniuses.”[26] Finally, after revealing that he was “a Jew and a staunch supporter of Israel,” Senator Metzenbaum (D-OH) commended this preeminent enemy of anything Jewish: after “listening to you for about an hour . . . I am now aware that you are a strong and intelligent man and that you want peace.”[27]

An interagency Deputies Committee, reviewing U.S. policy toward Iraq on April 16, concluded the same. To be sure, the discussions at this and another Deputies Committee meeting at the end of May resulted in removing several of the inducements to Iraq for closer U.S. ties. Yet N.S.D. 26 [explained in the U.S. Tilt section, which is in progress] remained unqualified and operative. As John Kelly testified on Capitol Hill on April 26: “We believe it is important to give the government of Iraq an opportunity to demonstrate that it does, indeed, wish to reverse this deterioration in relations, and we are, therefore, opposed to legislation to impose economic sanctions.”[28]

Kuwait was the next deer in the headlights. At a summit of Arab heads of state in Baghdad on May 28, Saddam iterated his grievances. Then he accused the Kuwaiti emir, Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah, of waging economic war against him.[29] Washington’s attention, however, was elsewhere, since the same day, Mikhail Gorbachev had arrived in the U.S. capital for a four-day summit meeting with Bush. Further, since Saddam made the threat in private, neither the Washington Post nor New York Times immediately reported it. Yet when the news “filtered back to official circles,” as veteran journalist Don Oberdorfer recorded, “it sparked only passing interest.”[30]

July brought the crossing of a new and final threshold. In a letter, dated 7/16/90, to the Arab League secretary general, foreign minister Tariq Aziz charged Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) with “direct aggression.”[31] Although the letter was not made public for several days, the gist of Saddam’s Revolution Day radio address the next day had been overt since February. Proclaiming that the neglect by unnamed gulf states—widely known to be Kuwait and the U.A.E.—to Baghdad’s predicament was like “stabbing Iraq in the back”[32] with “a poison dagger,”[33] Saddam warned, “If words fail to protect Iraqis, something effective must be done to return things to their natural course and return usurped rights to their owners.”[34] “Iraqis will not forget the saying that cutting necks is better than cutting the means of living.”[35]




[1] Mark Bowden, “Tales of the Tyrant,” Atlantic Monthly, May 2002. <http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/prem/200205/bowden>
[2] Helga Graham, “U.S. Oil Plot Fuelled Saddam,” Observer (London), October 21, 1990.
[3] An old joke went that whenever Saddam showed up for a haircut, his barber would ask about Ceaucescu. Irritated, Saddam would demand to know why he mentioned the deposed dictator. “Because every time I do, sir, the hair on the back of your neck stands up, which makes it easier to trim.”
[4] Efraim Karsh and Inari Rautsi, Saddam Hussein: A Political Biography (New York: Free Press, 1991), p. 207.
[5]
[6] Theodore H. Draper, “The Gulf War Reconsidered,” New York Review of Books, January 16, 1992. <http://www.nybooks.com/articles/3032>
[7] Lisa Beyer, “Iraq’s Power Grab,” Time, August 13, 1990.
[8] Lisa Beyer, “Iraq’s Power Grab,” Time, August 13, 1990.
[9] As quoted in Don Oberdorfer, “Missed Signals in the Middle East,” Washington Post Magazine, March 17, 1991.
[10] Lawrence Freedman and Efraim Karsh, The Gulf Conflict, 1990-1991: Diplomacy and War in the New World Order (Princeton: Princeton University, 1993), p. 36.
[11] As quoted in Ofra Bengio (ed.), Saddam Speaks on the Gulf Crisis: A Collection of Documents (Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University, 1992), p. 43.
[12] Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1989 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1990), p. 1411.
[13] As quoted in William Safire, “Broadcast To Baghdad,” New York Times, September 10, 1990.
[14] William Safire, “Needed Now: Radio Free Iraq,” New York Times, November 15, 1990.
[15] As quoted in William Safire, “Broadcast To Baghdad,” New York Times, September 10, 1990.
[16] As quoted in Don Oberdorfer, “Missed Signals in the Middle East,” Washington Post Magazine, March 17, 1991.
[17] William Safire, “Broadcast To Baghdad,” New York Times, September 10, 1990.
[18] As quoted in Craig R. Whitney, “Denying Pleas, Iraq Hangs British-Based Reporter,” New York Times, March 16, 1990.
[19] As quoted in “White House ‘Regrets’ Appeals Unheeded in Journalist’s Execution,” Associated Press, March 15, 1990
[20] As quoted in Craig R. Whitney, “Denying Pleas, Iraq Hangs British-Based Reporter,” New York Times, March 16, 1990.
[21] As quoted in Ofra Bengio (ed.), Saddam Speaks on the Gulf Crisis: A Collection of Documents (Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University, 1992), p. 60.
[22] “The Signals That Were Sent—and the One That Wasn’t,” Economist (U.K.), September 29, 1990.
[23] As quoted in Alan Cowell, “Iraq Chief, Boasting of Poison Gas, Warns of Disaster if Israelis Strike,” New York Times, April 3, 1990.
[24] As quoted in “U.S. Senators Chat with Saddam,” in Micah L. Sifry and Christopher Cerf (eds.), The Gulf War Reader: History, Documents, Opinions (New York: Random House, 1991), p. 119.
[25] As quoted in “U.S. Senators Chat with Saddam,” in Micah L. Sifry and Christopher Cerf (eds.), The Gulf War Reader: History, Documents, Opinions (New York: Random House, 1991), p. 120.
[26] As quoted in “U.S. Senators Chat with Saddam,” in Micah L. Safry and Christopher Cerf (eds.), The Gulf War Reader: History, Documents, Opinions (New York: Random House, 1991), p. 120.
[27] As quoted in “U.S. Senators Chat with Saddam,” in Micah L. Sifry and Christopher Cerf (eds.), The Gulf War Reader: History, Documents, Opinions (New York: Random House, 1991), p. 121.
[28] John Kelly, Hearing of the Europe and the Middle East Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Federal News Service, April 26, 1990.
[29] Simon Henderson, Instant Empire: Saddam Hussein’s Ambition for Iraq (Mercury House, 1991), p. 218.
[30] Don Oberdorfer, “Missed Signals in the Middle East,” Washington Post Magazine, March 17, 1991.
[31] As quoted in “Saddam’s Gulf of Threats,” Economist (U.K.), July 21, 1990; as quoted in Don Oberdorfer, “Missed Signals in the Middle East,” Washington Post Magazine, March 17, 1991.
[32] As quoted in “Saddam’s Gulf of Threats,” Economist (U.K.), July 21, 1990.
[33] As quoted in Caryle Murphy, “Iraqi Leader Gets New Title As Kuwaiti Anxiety Grows,” Washington Post, July 20, 1990; as quoted in Don Oberdorfer, “Missed Signals in the Middle East,” Washington Post Magazine, March 17, 1991.
[34] As quoted in Caryle Murphy, “Iraq Accuses Kuwait of Plot to Steal Oil, Depresses Prices,” Washington Post, July 19, 1990.
[35] As quoted in Caryle Murphy, “Iraqi Leader Gets New Title As Kuwaiti Anxiety Grows,” Washington Post, July 20, 1990.


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