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A Retroactive Analysis of National Security Casus Belli for the Iraq War: Part 6
by Jonathan R

Did Deterrence Fail?


Could the world have known that Saddam would invade Kuwait? Referring to Pearl Harbor, security specialist Roberta Wohlstetter found it “much easier after the event to sort the relevant from the irrelevant signals. After the event, of course, a signal is always crystal clear; we can now see what disaster it was signaling, since the disaster has occurred. But before the event it is obscure and pregnant with conflicting meanings. It comes to the observer embedded in an atmosphere of ‘noise,’ i.e., in the company of all sorts of information that is useless and irrelevant for predicting the particular disaster.”[1] This was not the case in the spring and summer of 1990, since Saddam’s signals were increasingly clear. As the Economist later summated, between February and April, Saddam “had demanded the withdrawal of the American navy from the gulf, called on fellow Arabs to reactivate the oil weapon, and threatened not just to attack Israel . . . but to burn it with chemical weapons. Add Iraq’s challenge to Syria in Lebanon, plus a relentless arms build-up, and the evidence was plain: the bad old . . . Iraq was back again.”[2]

It seems that Washington didn’t want to hear this. After all, the axiom of cognitive dissonance tells us that accommodating novel ideas is more difficult than assimilating preexisting ones. As Christopher Hitchens puts it, “A revised border with Kuwait was self-evidently part of the price that Washington . . . agreed to pay in its long-standing effort to make a pet of Saddam Hussein.”[3] Furthermore, by the time the C.I.A. realized, pace the initial consensus, that Baghdad was not bluffing but would seize some contested territory along Kuwait’s northern border, the corollary consensus was that military force concerned the U.S., but the U.S. would not take sides in what it reasonably perceived as a no-win, thankless, inter-Arab conflict. Said a senior U.S. administration official: “I can’t see the American public supporting the deployment of troops over a dispute over twelve miles of desert territory. . . . The basic principle is not to make threats you can’t deliver on.”[4]

Thus, Saddam would do or say something increasingly outrageous. In response, with several notable exceptions early on, the U.S. would strive to avoid inflammatory words and deeds, conveying what Jeffrey Record, in Hollow Victory: A Contrary View of the Gulf War (1993), terms “a combination of indifference and appeasement.”[5] But “[i]Saddam’s world,” notes Amatzia Baram, professor of Middle East history at Haifa University in Israel, when you issue such bluster, “you expect to get a counter-threat. If you don’t, it means weakness . . . and eventually retreat.”[6] Softness is fatal, and bellicosity unchallenged is bellicosity emboldened.

Therefore, as Jeane Kirkpatrick, the Reagan administration’s representative to the U.N., told a House committee in December 1990, “I have no doubt” that the U.S. led Saddam to believe “that whatever he did would encounter very little opposition. . . . [H]e probably felt free to move on Kuwait.”[7] We gave Saddam “little reason,” the New York Times concludes, not to.[8] Indeed, asked by interviewer Connie Chung in February 1991 if stronger warnings from the U.S. might have prevented the invasion, James Baker conceded, “[Y]es, absolutely.”[9] The implication is inescapable: as Mearsheimer and Walt discern, while the U.S. may not have intended to green light Saddam’s invasion, “that is effectively what it did. . . . Deterrence did not fail in this case; it was never tried.”[10]

The U.S. also bears partial responsibility for the recalcitrance of the Kuwaitis. Surely our regular proclamations about “deep and longstanding ties” with “our friends in the gulf” bolstered their resolve. Not that the Sabahs needed any bolstering, since as historian Theodore Draper notes, “emboldened by their riches and international financial ties, [they] behaved as if they were invulnerable.”[11] According to the authors of Saddam Hussein: A Political Biography (1991), the Sabahs interpreted Saddam’s demands “as a bargaining [position] rather than an ultimatum. . . . They suspected that some concessions might be necessary, but were determined to reduce them to the barest minimum.”[12] Kuwaiti’s financial minister, Sheikh Ali al-Khalifa al-Sabah, was blunter. Ten of OPEC’s thirteen members were violating their quotas, he told the National Press Club in November 1990. “Those who could, did. Those who couldn’t, complained.”[13] Of course, refusing to accede to extortion does not mean that one invites invasion. But, as the political scientist Christopher Layne reminds us, “When diplomacy fails to adjust an unacceptable status quo, an aggrieved state often uses or threatens to use force.”[14] Even in 2004, power is still the international lingua franca.

Finally, as with Iran, Saddam again grievously miscalculated in employing military force. But, again, he weighed his options warily, had good reasons to believe his actions would not provoke external retaliation, and attacked because Iraq was vulnerable, but his victim was even more so. Recalled a senior U.S. diplomat in the Mideast: “If I had been sitting where he was sitting and getting the signals he was getting from Washington and elsewhere at the time, I would probably also have gambled on the invasion of Kuwait.”[15]

It was a gamble to be sure, but as Amatzia Baram argues, it was “enormous risk-taking, rather than straightforward irrationality.”[16] Similarly, it was wantonly immoral to invade a peaceful neighbor who poses no security threat whatsoever; but morality matters little to tyrants, in whose calculus the end justifies the means. In this way, by raping Kuwait, Saddam cut his Gordian knot; he would simply default on his debt. Call it the Willy Sutton theory of international relations: Why invade Kuwait? “Because that’s where the money is.”

Indeed, as Time wrote, “Resource-rich but sparse in people, Kuwait was a timely acquisition.”[17] With one swift blitz, Saddam doubled the oil under his control to twenty percent of the world’s known reserves, second only to Saudi Arabia’s twenty-five percent. And not only did Kuwait’s petrodollars now flow into Iraq’s coffers, Saddam could have also manipulated Kuwait’s output to ensure a high price for Iraqi oil.

With 310 miles of coastline, Kuwait was additionally a way to compensate for the disadvantages—enormous for an oil exporter—of being virtually landlocked. For with just eighteen miles of coastline, most of which Kuwait’s Bubiyan Island blocked, Baghdad had long but unsuccessfully pressed the Sabahs to cede or lease the island, which is wedged between Iraq’s southeastern tip and Kuwait’s northeastern corner. Iraq’s new real estate, which included Kuwait’s other barrier island, Warba, gave it direct access to the gulf.

Finally, it was reasonable to assume that both the Soviets and Arabs, with their history of anti-Americanism, would oppose U.S. military intervention in the Mideast, especially in an inter-Arab affair. That the Russians had lost their clout and that the Saudis, of all people, despite agonizing infighting, would invite U.S. troops to the home of Mecca and Medina, signified nothing less than a new world order.




[1] Roberta Wohlstetter, Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision (Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 1962), p. 387.


[2] “The Signals That Were Sent—and the One That Wasn’t,” Economist (U.K.), September 29, 1990.


[3] Christopher Hitchens, “Realpolitik in the Gulf: A Game Gone Tilt,” in Micah L. Sifry and Christopher Cerf, The Iraq War Reader: History, Documents, Opinions (New York: Touchstone, 2003), p. 56.


[4] As quoted in Elaine Sciolino with Michael R. Gordon, “U.S. Gave Iraq Little Reason Not to Mount Kuwait Assault,” New York Times, September 23, 1990.


[5] Jeffrey Record, Hollow Victory: A Contrary View of the Gulf War (Washington et al: Brassey’s: 1993), p. 24.


[6] “The Signals That Were Sent—and the One That Wasn’t,” Economist (U.K.), September 29, 1990.


[7] Jeane Kirkpatrick, Hearing of the House Committee on Armed Services, Federal News Service, December 19, 1990.


[8] Elaine Sciolino with Michael R. Gordon, “U.S. Gave Iraq Little Reason Not to Mount Kuwait Assault,” New York Times, September 23, 1990.


[9] James Baker, Interview, Face To Face with Connie Chung, CBS News Transcripts, February 11, 1991.


[10] John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, “Can Saddam Be Contained? History Says Yes,” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, November 12, 2002.


[11] Theodore H. Draper, “The Gulf War Reconsidered,” New York Review of Books, January 16, 1992.


[12] Efraim Karsh and Inari Rautsi, Saddam Hussein: A Political Biography (New York: Free Press, 1991), p. 212.


[13] As quoted in Elaine Sciolino, The Outlaw State: Saddam Hussein’s Quest for Power and the Gulf Crisis (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1991), p. 199.


[14] Christopher Layne, “Why the Gulf War Was Not in the National Interest,” Atlantic Monthly, July 1991.


[15] As quoted in Russell Watson, “Was Ambassador Glaspie Too Gentle with Saddam?,” Newsweek, April 1, 1991.


[16] Amatzia Baram, “Calculation and Miscalculation in Baghdad,” in Alex Danchev and Dan Keohane, International Perspectives on the Gulf Conflict, 1990-91 (New York: St. Martin’s, 1994), p. 50.


[17] Lisa Beyer, “Iraq’s Power Grab,” Time, August 13, 1990.
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