• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Gulf War Reconsidered

On August 2, 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait.

In these six months, Saddam Hussein tested Kuwait’s willingness to make far-reaching concessions to him and the United States’ willingness to take repeated denunciations from him without paying him back. The Sabahs, emboldened by their riches and international financial ties, behaved as if they were invulnerable.

Much of the Arab world regarded Kuwait’s recalcitrance with amazement; little Kuwait was not supposed to stand up to big Iraq. According to an article by Milton Viorst in The New Yorker, Crown Prince Hassan of Jordan, King Hussein’s younger brother, asserted that most Arabs found Kuwait’s defiance of Iraq in the months leading to the invasion “incomprehensible.”27 As for Kuwait’s production of oil over the levels set by OPEC, which had forced down the price of oil, Kuwaiti officials were unrepentant. The Kuwaiti oil minister, Sheikh Ali al-Khalifa al-Sabah, explained the reason to the National Press Club in Washington three months after the invasion. Ten of OPEC’s thirteen members were cheating, he said, and so, “those who could, did, those who couldn’t, complained.”28

Except for the money that he wanted immediately, Saddam Hussein’s demands had long been embedded in Kuwait-Iraq history. The issue of the islands had apparently become acute for him because he had invested heavily in port development on the mainland opposite them. Debt was an even more urgent consideration. According to Secretary Cheney, Iraq owed $60 billion by the summer of 1990.29 For this reason, Saddam needed far more than the forgiveness of his $10 billion debt to Kuwait; he wanted billions more to rebuild Iraq and to pay for his more grandiose schemes.

Kuwait had the islands and the money; these seem to have been his minimum demands. Beyond them, Saddam Hussein saw himself as the savior and conqueror of the Arab world. In his own mind, or at least in his propaganda, he had protected it from the Persian enemy. He could evoke the ancient Mesopotamian splendor of Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar. His main Arab rivals were Saudi Arabia, Bedouin tribesmen until oil had also enriched them; Egypt, which had failed to make itself the undisputed master of Arabia under Nasser; and Syria, under Hafiz al Assad, another monster of brutality, who did not have the resources to impose himself on the region. Kuwait was only the first obstacle in Saddam’s way, which helps to explain why other Arab states were afraid of him. Yet Kuwait, with its oil, riches, and islands, was an indispensable first step.

To most Arab onlookers, Kuwait’s intransigence was an aberration. Kuwait had done nothing with the two islands, and its plans to exploit them were taken to mean that it intended to thwart Iraq indefinitely. To many Arabs, accustomed to hard bargaining and ultimate concessions, Kuwaiti persistent defiance went against all precedent and plausibility. At the same time, the forcible attempt by one Arab nation to wipe out another was not only against the ethos of pan-Arabism, which was part of the Baath ideology of Iraq, but threatened other Arab nations with origins as dubious as those of Kuwait. After all, the Franco-British imperium in the Middle East had been responsible for other states and borders. If one was illegitimate, many more were.

By breaking all the rules, Saddam Hussein was able to benefit from surprise. Judging from his speeches, he had early surmised that Kuwait would have to get the help of the United States to hold out against him. Yet he never figured out what to do if he pulled the United States into war.


In the United States, Saddam Hussein had one thing going for him. Once the United States adopted a policy vis-à-vis Iraq, it never let reality interfere.

The United States had made plenty of commitments to Saudi Arabia and to pre-Khomeini Iran but never one to Iraq or Kuwait. Iraq had been an old problem. In 1967, following the Arab-Israeli war, it had broken off relations with the United States and had seized the US Embassy compound in Baghdad. No official contact between the two countries existed until interest sections were opened in Baghdad and Washington in 1972. In that period, the Nixon administration had based US policy on Iran and Saudi Arabia. When the Shah of Iran had wanted to buy American military aircraft and the Defense Department had objected, Nixon had ordered that the Shah should not only get the specific aircraft he wanted but anything else he asked for.30 The favor shown to Iran was not appreciated in Iraq.

With the fall of the Shah in 1979, US policy went topsy-turvy. Khomeini’s Iran was now the main enemy and Iraq the lesser evil. When the Iran-Iraq war broke out in 1980, the United States went into one of its periodic “tilts.” In March 1982, Iraq was removed from the State Department’s terrorist list to enable it to get US agricultural credits and government-backed Export-Import Bank loans. The former amounted to about $1 billion in 1989.31

According to Elaine Sciolino, a secret National Security Council study in October 1983 stated that the United States could not afford to let Iraq fall to Iran; it held that the Reagan administration should not permit direct arms sales to Iraq but that it should encourage other countries to make the sales. She found that, from 1985 to 1990, US companies, with Department of Commerce approval, sold $500 million worth of sensitive technology to Iraq. Later the Pentagon and CIA made satellite military intelligence available to Iraq. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador in Washington, is her authority for the statement: “It was like an alliance. They gave the Iraqis everything they wanted.”32

The tenacity with which the Reagan administration was determined to pursue its “like-an-alliance” policy vis-à-vis Iraq was shown by its response to a still unexplained incident in the Persian Gulf. On May 17, 1987, an Iraqi missile hit the US frigate Stark, killing thirty-seven members of the crew. Somehow, this shot was heard in Washington as if it had come from an Iranian missile. A State Department statement charged that Iran was ultimately responsible for the attack. President Reagan denounced Iran as “the villain in the piece.” Iraq paid compensation to relatives of the victims, and all was forgiven.

In 1988, Iraq’s use of poison gas against the Kurds created so much indignation in the United States that sanctions against Iraq were voted in Congress. They were blocked by the Reagan administration and never enforced. In 1989, at an international conference on chemical weapons in Paris, US delegates strongly opposed efforts to name Iraq as a human-rights violator.

Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, the Reagan administration’s representative to the UN, knew whom to blame for the policy:

It was the State Department that took the initiative in removing Iraq’s name from the list of terrorists, and it was the State Department that took the initiative in expediting our delivery of food and food credits to Iraq last summer. I think all of that was very bad policy. We have done it before and we should not do it.

I have no doubt personally that Saddam Hussein was misled by all of these actions, which were indulgent of him, into believing that whatever he did would encounter very little opposition from the United States or Britain or France, so he probably felt free to move on Kuwait as he moved on Iran.33

This policy was inherited by the Bush administration and grimly adhered to. On January 17, 1990, Bush issued a directive reaffirming the policy of “normal relations” with Iraq, including expanded trade, guaranteed by the Export-Import Bank. Little more attention was paid to Iraq; the National Security Council never discussed Iraq until after the invasion of Kuwait.34

Nevertheless, one branch of the State Department, its Bureau of Human Rights, continued to list Iraq in 1989 and 1990 as one of the worst offenders against human rights. This temerity rankled in Baghdad, and Saddam Hussein brought it up months later, though American policy makers considered the report on human rights a sop to Congress rather than a slap at Iraq.

But Saddam Hussein must have been looking for an occasion to take on the United States, because he seized on a similar and even less obvious indignity as an excuse to strike out. On February 15, 1990, the Voice of America had broadcast a commentary entitled “No More Secret Police.” It was inspired by the recent downfall of the oppressive Ceausescu regime in Romania and rather innocently expressed the hope that similar regimes elsewhere would meet the same fate. It listed no fewer than eight such regimes: China, North Korea, Iran, Syria, Libya, Cuba, Albania—and Iraq.

This VOA commentary, which was not particularly aimed at Iraq, was soon followed by Saddam Hussein’s speech to the Arab Cooperation Council on February 24, 1990, in which he had warned the Arab world against being governed by “the US will.” Embarrassed by the commentary, the US ambassador in Baghdad, April C. Glaspie, assured the Iraqi foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, that it “is absolutely not United States policy to question the legitimacy of the government of Iraq nor interfere in any way with the domestic concerns of the Iraqi people and government.”35 Saddam Hussein did not forget the VOA affront in a later talk with Glaspie.

The test for the United States came in the next six months. The question was whether US policy makers would realize what Saddam Hussein was up to and what might be the result.

On April 12, 1990, a delegation of five Senators visited Baghdad. It was made up of Bob Dole of Kansas, the Republican Minority Leader; James McClure, Republican of Idaho; Alan K. Simpson, Republican of Wyoming; Frank Murkowski, Republican of Alaska; and one Democrat, Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio.

The senators were models of obsequiousness. Saddam Hussein talked at them for about an hour, complaining that Iraq was the victim of a propaganda campaign, such as the VOA commentary, to prepare an Israeli attack on Iraq. Dole assured him that the VOA commentator had been fired, which happened to be untrue. Dole’s main message was that President Bush had “declared to me he wants better relations and that the US Government wants better relations with Iraq.” Ambassador April C. Glaspie, who was present, thought it necessary to interject: “As an American Ambassador, I can confirm this is the US government policy.” When Saddam persisted in his denunciation of Israel, Simpson gave him his sympathy:

I believe your problem is with the Western media, not with the US Government, because you are isolated from the media and the press. The press is spoiled and conceited. All the journalists consider themselves brilliant political scientists. They do not want to see anything succeeding or achieving its objectives. My advice to you is that you allow those bastards to come here and see things for themselves.

After announcing that he was a Jew and a vigorous supporter of Israel, Metzenbaum told Saddam: “After listening to you for about an hour, I realized you are an intelligent man, and that you want peace.”36

In the nine days before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, US officials had several opportunities to harden US policy and give Saddam Hussein some hint of what he might be up against if he attacked Kuwait. On the contrary, he was given reason to believe that US policy was so hazy that he might well get away with it.

On July 24, 1990, Margaret D. Tutwiler, the State Department spokes-woman, was asked whether the United States had a formal commitment to defend Kuwait. Her answer was: “We do not have any defense treaties with Kuwait and there are no special defense or security commitments to Kuwait.” She also stated that the United States was strongly committed to the support of “the individual and collective self-defense of our friends in the Gulf with whom we have deep and long-standing ties.” In the circumstances, this comment committed the United States to nothing definite, especially since the United States did not have deep and longstanding ties with Kuwait. By this time, however, Saddam Hussein had Kuwait in mind and took it as a threat.

The most celebrated opportunity took place on July 25, 1990, exactly a week before the invasion. Ambassador April C. Glaspie, a veteran of twenty-five years service in the area, came to the Iraqi Foreign Ministry to transmit Tutwiler’s remarks and to pass on news of Joint US–United Arab Emirate refueling exercises, announced in Washington the day before.37 A half hour later, she was unexpectedly told to come back and immediately taken to meet with Saddam Hussein, whom she had never met alone during her two years in the post. She was totally unprepared to take notes and did not have time to ask the State Department for instructions.

The Iraqi transcript of the discussion, which is all we have, leaves the impression of a monologue by Saddam Hussein, interrupted by short interjections by Glaspie. Saddam spoke of Iraq’s debts—$40 billion and more. The price of oil had been deliberately forced down and meant “another war against Iraq.” The main culprits were Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. During the war with Iran, Kuwait had expanded its territory at the expense of Iraq. The United States could not have held Iran back if it had overrun Iraq in the recent war—“Yours is a society which cannot accept 10,000 dead.” In his disputes with Kuwait and the UAE, “the solution must be found within an Arab frame-work and through direct bilateral relations.” He knew of Tutwiler’s statement that the United States would support its friends in the Gulf, and it gave him an opportunity to complain:

So what can it mean when America says it will now protect its friends? It can only mean prejudice against Iraq. This stance plus maneuvers and statements which have been made has encouraged the UAE and Kuwait to disregard Iraqi rights.

Glaspie tried to mollify Saddam by reminding him that the Bush administration was opposed to sanctions and sought better relations with Iraq. Like Senator Simpson, she also blamed the US media and specifically condemned a Diane Sawyer program on ABC as “cheap and unjust.” Glaspie urged Saddam Hussein to appear “in the media, even for five minutes, [because it] would help us to make the American people understand Iraq.” As for Iraq’s current dispute with Kuwait, Glaspie assured him that “we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait.”

Saddam again launched into a lengthy monologue. He reverted to the debt owed to Kuwait which he said “should not be regarded as a debt,” because “our war had included their defense.” As they were speaking, Egypt’s Mubarak had telephoned him to say that “they were scared,” because Iraqi troops had been moving in force toward Kuwait. In the end, Saddam said that he had told Mubarak to

assure the Kuwaitis and give them our word that we are not going to do anything until we meet with them. When we meet and when we see that there is hope, then nothing will happen. But if we are unable to find a solution, then it will be natural that Iraq will not accept death, even though wisdom is above everything else.38

It was an unmistakable threat, even if it seemed to depend on whether the Kuwaitis gave him what he wanted. Later, Mubarak said that Saddam Hussein had told him he would not attack Kuwait, an unconditional assurance that Saddam subsequently denied. In any case, the overtones of Saddam’s words to Glaspie were ominous enough and should have caused alarm in Washington. Nothing of the sort happened. She later claimed that the Iraqi transcript had omitted her warnings to Saddam not to use violence or threats, and he had asked her to tell President Bush that he would not solve his problems with Kuwait by violence. If this is what she sent to Washington, she and her superiors in Washington showed a touching faith in words.

A month later, Glaspie told Elaine Sciolino: “I wish I had been the only one in the world who was right. Obviously, I didn’t think—and nobody else did—that the Iraqis were going to take all of Kuwait. Every Kuwaiti and every Saudi, every analyst in the Western world, was wrong too.”39 If everyone else was wrong, it seems, no one could expect an American ambassador to be right.

On July 31, 1990, only three days before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the following dialogue took place between Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs John H. Kelly, and Representative Lee Hamilton:

Hamilton: Do we have a commitment to our friends in the Gulf in the event that they are engaged in oil or territorial disputes with their neighbors?

Kelly: As I said, Mr. Chairman, we have no defense treaty relationships with any of the countries. We have historically avoided taking a position on border disputes or on internal OPEC deliberations, but we have certainly, as have all administrations, resoundingly called for the peaceful settlement of disputes and differences in the area.

At this point, Hamilton asked a more pointed question:

Hamilton: If Iraq, for example, charged across the border into Kuwait, for whatever reason, what would be our position with regard to the use of US forces?

Kelly: That, Mr. Chairman, is a hypothetical or a contingency, the kind of which I can’t get into. Suffice it to say we would be extremely concerned, but I cannot get into the realm of “what if” answers.

Hamilton: In that circumstance, it is correct to say, however, that we do not have a treaty commitment which would obligate us to engage US forces?

Kelly: That is correct.40

Kelly’s answers were again not of the kind to warn Saddam Hussein that the United States was not going to tolerate an invasion of Kuwait. If Saddam had been trying to gauge what the United States was likely to do in the event of a full-fledged invasion, he had reason to feel reasonably safe. He had been escalating his demands publicly for months without getting any indication that the United States was seriously upset or even realized how serious the situation was.

This is the first of two articles.


The Gulf War Reconsidered’ April 9, 1992

  1. 27

    The New Yorker, January 7, 1991. According to Viorst, “the Kuwaitis took an extremely hard line with Iraq. The Iraqi position is that Kuwait offered no concessions, either on oil production limits or on control of the islands or on the possession of Rumaila oil fields.” Instead, Viorst heard, Kuwait continued to ask for repayment, with interest, of the loans to Iraq. “The Kuwaitis were very cocky,” Viorst quoted one of Jordan King Hussein’s aides: “They told us officially that the United States would intervene if there was trouble with Iraq.”

  2. 28

    Sciolino, The Outlaw State, p. 199.

  3. 29

    Crisis in the Persian Gulf, Hearings of the House Armed Services Committee, p. 529. Marshall Wiley, head of the US-Iraq Business Forum, said that Iraq owed more than $70 billion, about half to the Gulf states (Miller and Mylroie, Saddam Hussein and the Crisis in the Gulf, p. 9).

  4. 30

    Henry Kissinger put it diplomatically: “Nixon overrode the objections and added a proviso that in the future Iranian requests should not be second-guessed,” White House Years (Little, Brown, 1979), p. 264.

  5. 31

    John H. Kelly, United States-Iraqi Relations, Hearing before the Subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, April 26, 1990, p. 19.

  6. 32

    Sciolino, The Outlaw State, pp. 166–168.

  7. 33

    Crisis in the Persian Gulf, Hearings of the House Armed Services Committee, p. 734.

  8. 34

    Don Oberdorfer, “Missed Signals in the Middle East,” The Washington Post Magazine, March 17, 1991.

  9. 35

    Cited by Don Oberdorfer in The Washingon Post Magazine, March 17, 1991.

  10. 36

    Foreign Broadcast Information Service, April 17, 1990, pp. 11–12.

  11. 37

    Some warning of trouble from Iraq seems to have come from the United Arab Emirates. According to Bob Woodward, the UAE asked the United States to supply—but in secret—two large KC-135 aerial refueling tankers to enable the UAE to keep patrol planes in the air around the clock, presumably to monitor Iraqi troop movements. Only the State Department was opposed to the request, which was approved by the White House on July 21. The “naval exercise,” which amounted to no more than moving two US ships into the Gulf, was really a cover for the KC-135s. When Pete Williams, the Defense Department spokesman, publicly announced the movement of both aerial tankers and ships on July 24, the UAE complained that it had wanted the actions kept secret. Woodward comments: “Evidently the Arab states were still jumpy about getting close to the US.” (The Commanders, Simon and Schuster, 1991, p. 210.) The warning, such as it was, could not have been taken very seriously, if Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and General Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, both of whom supported the UAE request, soon made preparations to go off on vacation.

  12. 38

    The transcript is reproduced in The Gulf War Reader, edited by Micah L. Sifry and Christopher Cerf (Times Books, 1991), pp. 122–133.

  13. 39

    Sciolino, The Outlaw State, p. 177.

  14. 40

    Developments in the Middle East, July 1990, Subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, July 31, 1990, p. 14.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print