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At Stake in the Gulf

Saddam Hussein and the Crisis in the Gulf

by Judith Miller, by Laurie Mylroie
Times Books, 268 pp., $5.95 (paper)

When Saddam Hussein invaded, conquered, occupied, and annexed the neighboring state of Kuwait, he broke several rules and posed several new threats to the region and perhaps—though influential voices dispute this—to the world.

According to a basic principle of inter-Arab politics most recently proclaimed by Saddam himself in 1980, no Arab state shall resort to arms against any other Arab state in order to solve a dispute. His violation of this taboo was compounded by the imminent threat which he appeared to offer to his other Arab neighbors, notably the remaining Gulf states and the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

For many in the outside world, little concerned with the violent play of inter-Arab politics, the threat is to oil. For others, the issue is the world order. During the cold war, there was a kind of bipolar stability, in which each superpower was able for the most part to maintain discipline among its allies, its satellites, and its protégés. With the eclipse of Russia, this discipline has disappeared, and states on the periphery are no longer primarily influenced, in their policies and actions, by the fear of punishment or the hope of reward. The invasion of Kuwait presented the world with its first major crisis of the post–cold war era.

A sudden act of war against a peaceful neighbor, and the obliteration of a sovereign state, a member of the United Nations, placed that body, and with it the world community, before a terrible dilemma. Was this merely a local squabble in a notoriously troublesome part of the world, to be resolved if at all by an “Arab solution,” in which outsiders would be wise not to get involved, or was it a major challenge to world order and international law, confronting the United Nations with an awesome choice: either to discipline Saddam Hussein and restore the status quo, or to abandon the world to the violent and the ruthless, and follow the path of the defunct League of Nations to ignominy and extinction. The choice gains added urgency from Saddam Hussein’s well-known determination to acquire weapons of mass destruction, and his demonstrated willingness to use them.

All these problems, and the circumstances which led to their emergence, are explored in a remarkable new book, written in three weeks by Judith Miller, a distinguished foreign correspondent from The New York Times, and Laurie Mylroie, a political scientist from Harvard University, and produced by the publishers in a fourth week. A note at the end explains which author wrote which sections. Even without this, a reader trained in the disciplines of textual philology would have no difficulty in disentangling the two strands of authorship. Some readers may feel that the addition of a historian to the team would have produced a somewhat better presentation of the medieval and Ottoman background of modern Iraq, but they would have to admit that the presence of a historian would have greatly delayed the completion of the book, while the absence of such collaboration has not significantly diminished its effectiveness.

Unlike most “instant” publications rushed out to cover a crisis and meet a deadline, this is not just teamwork newspaper reportage served in the shape of a book. It is a real book, with a theme and a logical development, and it helps to explain as well as to inform. Some of the authors’ statements have inevitably been outdated by events. Few if any have been disproved.

The book is full of little known or unknown pieces of information, some of them personal details of varying plausibility about Saddam Hussein and his entourage, others of major political importance. President Ozal of Turkey, they tell us, “had personally assured President Bush in a telephone conversation the night of the invasion that he would block oil in the pipeline that ran from Iraq through Turkey,” and that furthermore he “had also taken to the phone the next morning, urging others, including King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, not to yield to Iraqi intimidation.”

As far back as Saturday, July 28, according to the authors, a senior Iraqi official told an American oil expert and former government official that “by next week we will be protecting the people of Kuwait.” But what about the Americans? The Iraqi paused. “The Americans are a paper tiger,” he said. “They won’t do anything.” The authors go on to say that the expert called the State Department to report on his conversation and was assured that Saddam was only blustering and would not invade. They have something, but tantalizingly little, to say about the much-discussed Iraqi approaches to Israel in the spring of 1986 and after. On that occasion, and on at least one subsequent occasion, according to “independent sources,” Iraqi and Israeli military intelligence officers had met under Egyptian auspices. These military talks were accompanied by diplomatic approaches both to Israel and to prominent friends of Israel in the United States, but without result.

The primary purpose of the book is to describe and interpret the course of events leading to the invasion of Kuwait. The authors have, however, deepened and widened their account by situating it against both the historical and the regional background. They examine Saddam Hussein’s claim to be the heir of Nebuchadnezzar in both its aspects—the evocation of ancient triumphs and the sanctification of modern terror—and judge his choice of a legendary tyrant as role model to be appropriate. More important, they explain two of his main instruments of power and rule. One is the Baath party, which is traced from its origins in wartime pro-Axis circles to its subsequent role in the establishment and maintenance of the regime; the other is the dictator’s family in both senses of that word—as a kinship group and as a criminal conspiracy.

The Iraqi dictator has offered various justifications of his invasion of Kuwait, none of which bears close examination. His immediate claim that Kuwait is a part of Iraq, separated by an artificial boundary drawn by British officials, is a dangerous absurdity. The frontier was indeed drawn by British officials, but so were all the other frontiers of Iraq, except for the frontier with Iran, which was agreed upon by Turkish and Iranian officials, with some outside help. If Saddam’s case against Kuwait is accepted, no frontier in the continent of Africa and few in Asia would be safe, since almost every state could have equally legitimate claims on its neighbors. As to Saddam’s argument that not just the frontier but Kuwait itself is an imperial artifact, it might be noted that while Iraq was created and delimited by Britain after the First World War out of three Ottoman provinces, Kuwait, as an autonomous polity ruled by its present dynasty, dates back to the mid-eighteenth century, and is thus somewhat older than the United States.

Saddam’s poses as the sword of Islam and as an Arab Robin Hood are equally lacking in substance. After eight years of defending secularism and modernism against the Islamic revolutionaries of Iran, his sudden proclamation of a holy war, accompanied by the discovery of a pedigree leading straight back to the Prophet Muhammad, has not so far convinced many. Thanks no doubt to the unpopularity of the purse-proud and sometimes arrogant sheikhs and princes of Arabia, he has had somewhat greater success in his pose as the champion of the poor against the rich, as a leader of the have-nots calling for a more equitable distribution of Arab wealth among the Arab peoples. But Iraq, as the authors remind us, is not a poor country. Unlike Arabia, which has oil but no water, or Egypt, which has water but little oil, or Jordan and Israel, which have little of either, Iraq has both in abundance—the second largest oil deposits in the region, and the magnificent valley of the two great rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, which gave Mesopotamia its name. Iraq is a rich country made poor by a wasteful leader. It would take great faith to believe that a successful Saddam Hussein would share any part of his loot with the hungry and the needy in other Arab lands. Nor does the road from Baghdad to Jerusalem lie through Kuwait. So far the only missiles that Saddam has sent toward Israel have been emissaries seeking accommodation.

If Saddam Hussein’s case consists largely of myths, one of the weaknesses of the coalition against him is its lack of an agreed common cause. The soldiers of the United States and of its Western allies are not disciplined by a ruthless military dictatorship, nor can they be whipped into a frenzy by nationalist or religious passion. As free citizens of democratic states, they are willing to fight, but will only do so effectively for a cause in which they can believe. The most obvious and immediate reason for any army to fight is national defense—but that can be quickly and easily modified into national interest, which in turn may be identified with precise and specific interests, in this case oil. There are some who find a cause thus defined unconvincing, even immoral.

A more persuasive reason for democracies to fight is in defense of freedom and human rights. Here even the pretense is lacking, and the authors are understandably caustic about the defense of the “government of Saudi Arabia, a truly feudal monarchy without even the semblance of Kuwait’s fragile democracy”:

Did Washington really care about defending the House of Saud’s right to ban all forms of religion but Islam, its systematic repression of women, or its stoning of adulterers or amputations of the hands of thieves? Did Washington care about the lack of a dissenting voice in the desert kingdom? No American official has dared argue that the president sent forces to preserve freedom and human dignity in Riyadh.

Nor, they might have added, to maintain the Saudi program of promoting and subsidizing their own brand of obscurantism in many Muslim countries. The hollowness of any talk about democracy is emphasized by our previous cosseting of the government of Iraq, fully described in this book, and our subsequent welcoming of other governments, such as Syria, which are hardly less repressive. Between them, our previous and some of our present allies have a record of human rights abuses that by comparison lends to even our most disreputable Central American accomplices an appearance of almost Scandinavian rectitude.

Saddam cannot but be impressed, and perhaps alarmed, by the worldwide coalition assembled by President Bush, including, albeit with unequal levels of commitment. China and the Soviet Union, eastern and western Europe, and a large part of the Arab world. The unprecedented accord and speed with which the UN Security Council has acted testifies to the effectiveness, so far, of American diplomacy.

What now must be determined by the US and its allies is whether this diplomacy, and the embargo which it has put into place, will suffice to secure Saddam’s withdrawal or removal, or whether further military action will be required. In the ensuing debate, most of it subsequent to the publication of this book, two major questions have been raised: Why then should the United States form a coalition against Saddam Hussein, and—a related but distinct question—why should it shoulder by far the greatest part of the burden?

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