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The Gulf War Reconsidered’

In response to:

The Gulf War Reconsidered from the January 16, 1992 issue

To the Editors:

It is regrettable that a sympathetic tone, if not flawed extrapolation, suffuses Theodore Draper’s first-part article, “The Gulf War Reconsidered” [NYR, January 16].

Historical background is useful but not dispositive. If it were otherwise, the power to make determinations would be thwarted, if not stifled. Clearly, if that were the predicament, judgments could not be rendered.

Ostensibly, Saddam Hussein made historical claims to oil fields, ports, territory, claimed duplicity (by OPEC), repudiated ill-defined borders and demanded compensation for purported services rendered to other Arab nations (in waging war against Iran?). Yet, Mr. Draper has failed to note that in Saddam Hussein, one sees personified a charlatan par excellence.

No unbiased observer can accept the sham view, that once independence and sovereignty of Kuwait were acknowledged by a predecessor Iraqi leader, then Saddam Hussein could, ex post facto, repudiate those acts, by invoking a subterfuge: that those deeds had not been adopted by Iraq’s National Revolutionary Council. Still, Draper is silent.

Mr. Draper contends that a “thread runs through the story,” that is, the two islands owned by Kuwait, Warba and Bubiyan, albeit coveted by Iraq. Moreover, he claims that this grievance of Saddam Hussein was ignored in the West and “especially in the United States.” However, Draper ignores cornerstones of US foreign policy: the inviolability of a state’s territorial boundaries, and peaceful, nonviolent settlement of disputes centering about such issues. One might recall US interventions in Korea and Vietnam respectively.

While the Sabah family of Kuwait does not personify Jeffersonian democracy, this appears to irk Draper, who is, nevertheless, impelled to concede that for all its parvenuism, these leaders (autocrats?) furnished more higher education and health care to more people than did other Middle East rulers. Mr. Draper notes also that Iraq owed a war debt to Kuwait. Yet, he fails to declare that Saddam Hussein exercised political extortion in advising Kuwait, that unless that obligation were forgiven, Kuwait faced possible attack.

If, as Saddam Hussein maintained, Kuwait was exceeding oil quotas set by OPEC, driving down the market price thereby, that practice was honored in the breach by most other members of OPEC too. Accordingly, was Kuwait inviting invasion because of its ungentlemanly behavior? Still, it is not clear from Draper’s description of events, whether he sympathizes, in any wise, with that viewpoint.

Nonetheless, when Saddam Hussein told Egyptian President Mubarak that his nation “will not accept death,” that unveiled threat denoted, that unless his blackmailing of Kuwait was met (owing to the fact that Iraq’s aggression against Iran had caused national insolvency), he was predisposed, indeed, to undertake military action against Kuwait.

Finally, Mr. Draper’s inferences about Ambassador April C. Glaspie’s conversation with Saddam Hussein—a) it “should have caused alarm” and b) that Washington “showed a touching faith in words,” are mistakenly founded.

It is neither protocol for a US ambassador nor her highest superiors in Washington to either threaten or issue an ultimatum, howsoever reckless or intimidating the words of even the likes of Saddam Hussein. What Draper misses is that Glaspie and Washington were indicating to Baghdad, that if the latter had a legitimate dispute with Kuwait, whether real or imagined, the attempt to resolve that matter was for the real political parties in interest to undertake between themselves—at least in the first instance, but not through the use of force.

Elliott A. Cohen
New York City

To the Editors:

Theodore Draper glosses over an important episode that deeply compromised any historical justification for Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait and his declaration of its “eternal union” with Iraq in August 1990.

In October 1963 the prime ministers of Iraq and Kuwait signed an agreement whereby Iraq recognized the sovereignty, independence, and boundaries of Kuwait. According to Draper, the 1963 agreement (“the 1963 Agreed Minutes”) “did not settle the border question.” But on the contrary, it provided that Iraq recognized Kuwait’s boundaries “as specified in the letter of the Prime Minister of Iraq dated 21.7.1932 and which was accepted by the ruler of Kuwati in his letter dated 10.8.1932.” That 1932 correspondence had defined the border as generally recognized today, allocating the strategic islands of Bubiyan and Warba to Kuwait.

Draper correctly observes that the 1963 Agreed Minutes were signed not by President Arif as head of state, but by Iraq’s prime minister; then he states without comment: “Later, Saddam Hussein’s government claimed that this agreement was invalid because it had not been ratified by Iraq’s National Revolutionary Council.” But there are a number of serious problems with that Iraqi claim:

First, the text of the 1963 Agreed Minutes was deposited by Kuwait with the Treaty Section of the United Nations, as required by the UN Charter for all international agreements. With the filing, the Kuwaiti foreign minister submitted a certificate that the agreement “has come into force on signature and by signature only, no other subsequent measures being needed.” A statement to that effect appeared at least twice in official UN publications—first in the regular monthly listing of treaties registered, and again when the agreement was published in the permanent United Nations Treaty Series (at vol. 485, p. 321). Iraq has apparently never challenged that statement, and it is surely far too late to do so now.

Second, Iraq confirmed the validity of the 1963 Agreed Minutes by its conduct after the document was signed. The two countries entered into a number of other agreements on the basis of sovereign equality; they established diplomatic relations and exchanged ambassadors. They formed a joint boundary commission to demarcate the frontier, something Iraq had never previously agreed to do. The boundary commission never completed its mission, but by participating in its work Iraq is presumptively estopped from reneging on the declaration it made in the 1963 Agreed Minutes.

Finally, as for Iraq’s assertion that the 1963 agreement is not binding on Iraq because it was not ratified, the Iraqi constitution in effect at the time contained no provision about treaties or their ratification. If Iraq is to sustain this argument, it must find some rationale outside its own constitutional law.

Since long before the appearance of Saddam Hussein, Iraq has sought better access to the waters of the Gulf. As early as 1939, the British Foreign Office took this prescient view: “It is understandable that the state which controls the Mesopotamian plain should desire to have undivided control of at least one means of access to the sea…. If Iraq were given this access, it would make for steadier conditions in that part of the world in years to come.” But in 1963, for reasons best known to itself, Iraq voluntary surrendered any claim it ever had to the islands which impede that access.

This history of the Iraq-Kuwait boundary is the subject of my book, Shifting Lines in the Sand: Kuwait’s Elusive Frontier with Iraq, to be published later this year by the Harvard University Press.

David H. Finnie
New Canaan, Connecticut

Theodore Draper replies:

Both Elliott A. Cohen and David H. Finnie raise the issue of Saddam Hussein’s repudiation of the 1963 Iraqi recognition of Kuwait. The question is worth pursuing both for its own sake and for what it tells us about “historical justification.”

All the factual statements in Cohen’s letter come out of my article. His complaint is something else—that I did not remind the reader at every point that Saddam Hussein is a very bad man. My particular sin was that I “failed to note that in Saddam Hussein, one sees personified a charlatan par excellence.” Would anyone have learned anything if I had called Saddam Hussein a “charlatan par excellence“? He is obviously no “charlatan” to millions of Arabs. Which is more important—to call him names or to understand what made him act?

We have had a great deal of experience with history written in the heat of war. It is almost always one-sided and hopelessly tendentious. It seeks to demonize the enemy, not to understand him. Even demons, like Hitler, must be understood. What opened the way for him? Why did he gain such mass support? What did he represent in the course of German history? Why was he appeased for so long? The same questions apply to Saddam Hussein. If we do not ask and try to answer them, we learn nothing from this experience, except that the United States has more and better killing machines.

Mr. Cohen suggests that I was “impelled to concede” a number of things about Kuwait. Nothing “impelled” me. They were not “concessions.” I noted them, because I wanted to do some justice to the complexity of the situation. At least I did not contribute one more understatement of the decade, such as Mr. Cohen’s “concession” that the Sabah family “does not personify Jeffersonian democracy.”

I was not writing a monograph on the 1963 Iraqi recognition of Kuwait. Finnie complains that I said it “did not settle the border question.” I do not claim to be a specialist in this field. I merely tried to find out as much as I could, in part to satisfy own curiosity. I made this statement from a reading of Richard Schofield’s Kuwait and Iraq: Historical Claims and Territorial Disputes. Schofield, an eminent British scholar, states:

The Agreed Minutes of October 1963 apparently contained no provisions for the future demarcation of the Kuwait-Iraq boundary. All Iraq had agreed to respect was the definition introduced by the 1932 correspondence.

But the British were never able, after 1932, “to get Kuwait and Iraq to agree to the demarcation of the boundary based upon its 1932 definition.” A definition was not a demarcation on the ground. All the British efforts “foundered on Iraq’s basic determination to assert control over the Kuwaiti islands of Warba and Bubiyan and thereby expand its narrow Persian Gulf coastline. Just as consistently, Kuwait proved unwilling to make the concessions on this issue which Iraq demanded as a pre-requisite for the demarcation of the land boundary.”*

For this reason, I noted that the 1963 agreement “did not settle the border question.” Schofield emphasizes the difference between a definition and a demarcation. It could not be settled until there was an actual demarcation of the boundary, for which reason differences and difficulties continued. It seemed to me that the term “settle” was a fair statement, suggesting something short of complete agreement.

The fact that Finnie is publishing a book on the subject is no license for him to suggest that my purpose had anything to do with a “historical justification for Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait.” Nothing I wrote “justifies” his invasion of Kuwait. I was not writing “justificatory” history on either side. I tried in a relatively short space to give some sense of the historical roots of the antagonism—a sense which I thought had been notably missing.

  1. *

    Richard Schofield, Kuwait and Iraq: Historical Claims and Territorial Disputes (Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1991), pp. 68, 112.

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