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?

The second question is easy to answer—because no one else would. Though other countries may see the need, few if any have the ability, and none the resolve to undertake this task. Saddam clearly doubts even American resolve.

The first question—why and indeed whether the task is necessary—has evoked sharply different answers. A common accusation is that the real reason for US action is oil, and some spokesmen for the administration have admitted or even embraced this explanation. It is by no means without merit, but needs clarification. If by our interest in oil we mean uninterrupted access to cheap and plentiful supplies, then this is a bad motive, and one the accomplishment of which would ultimately have destructive effects on the consumer countries themselves. Such a supply would delay the true solution to the problem of oil—its replacement. This alone can free us from a fuel that has polluted the land, the sea, the air, the polity, the economy, and much else besides.

But this has not happened yet, and until it does, the developed world is dependent for its prosperity, the developing world for its very subsistence, on oil, and it is therefore of paramount concern that a large proportion of the world’s reserves should not fall under the control of a power-hungry dictator. With the resources of Iraq and Kuwait at his disposal, and the power to subjugate or intimidate—from the point of view of the oil consumer it makes little difference—the other oil-producing states of the region, a single ruthless tyrant would be in a position to control the price, the supply, and the distribution of oil, and thus precipitate a situation incomparably more dangerous than the worst moments of the 1973 crisis. In this, the interests of other states are at least as great and in most cases greater than those of the United States. It is Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Egypt, and other countries in the region that would be the immediate victims of an Iraqi triumph; it is Germany and Japan, largely dependent on Middle Eastern oil, that would be most at risk from an Iraqi monopoly. It is, to say the least, no triumph of American diplomacy to have allowed, and in some measure even accepted, a view of the struggle in which these countries are helping the United States, instead of the United States helping them.

The second danger, even greater than the monopolization of oil, is the legitimization of aggression. In our opposition to Saddam Hussein’s invasion and annexation of Kuwait and threat to Saudi Arabia, our previous support for Saddam Hussein and our present acceptance of undemocratic allies are equally irrelevant. In a world of multiple sovereign states, governments have a free hand within their own frontiers and do not have to pass some test of virtue in order to retain their independence. This may be wrong, but it is so. Under present rules, we have no right to designate democracies a protected species, and declare open season on the rest.

The need to accept undemocratic allies should however not lead us to condone, still less to forget, their real nature. During the Second World War, Hitler created an alliance between the Soviet Union and the Western democracies, bound to each other by the need to overcome a greater danger that threatened both. The alliance lasted only as long as it was needed and ended in the bitter conflicts of the cold war. It was foolish then, as it would be foolish now, to delude ourselves about the quality and strength of such associations. An alliance between a democracy and a dictatorship, can, in the nature of things, be no more than a temporary accommodation, to meet a specific situation. When it ends, it will most probably give way to a state of conflict between the erstwhile “allies.” A true alliance is only possible between countries which share the same way of forming, conducting, and changing their government, and the same perception of the nature, rights, and obligations of citizenship. The Russians understood this when, in the days of their expansion, they tried to create socialist dictatorships wherever they went.

Democracies are more difficult to create, but they can also be more difficult to destroy, as Finland and Czechoslovakia can attest. If the current threat in the Middle East is overcome, the best way to prevent its recurrence is by encouraging the growth of democratic ideas and institutions in Arab countries. Turkey, not an Arab country but one sharing immemorial Middle Eastern traditions of autocracy, has demonstrated by more than a century of struggle that with dedication it is possible to develop such institutions. Egypt and Kuwait have shown at least a beginning, and there are many signs of a new concern with human rights, a new awareness that independence and freedom are not synonyms, and that the first without the second is bitter fruit. For the growing numbers of Arabs who share this concern, we in the West have something to offer—something which they admire and appreciate, and which can earn their genuine friendship.

Some observers present a different view: Arabs are not like us, and we must not impose our standards upon them—in other words, regimes like those of Saddam Hussein and Hafiz al-Asad are the Arab norm. We should expect no more of Arab rulers; we should require no more for Arab subjects, and when our Arab allies mistreat their own people, we should look the other way. These same allies will tell us which way. Incredibly, this perception, which is at best patronizing and, more accurately, racist, is commonly considered pro-Arab. It is certainly no compliment to the Arabs when Western public opinion—in government, the press, churches, universities—is deeply concerned about occasional breaches of human rights by democratic governments, but accepts as natural their extensive and systematic violation in Arab lands.

If Saddam Hussein had known in advance that his invasion of Kuwait would be followed by such swift action, first from the United States and then from other countries, it is unlikely that he would have proceeded with it. Judith Miller and Laurie Mylroie imply as much in their account of his calculations before the invasion. But he did not know, and he may perhaps be excused, though not forgiven, for having misread the past Western record and some recent Western actions and utterances as an assurance that he could proceed with impunity. “The diplomacy of the preemptive cringe,” as it was called by a British observer in a different context some years ago, is likely to produce this result. And so he did proceed, and both he and we are left with the consequences of our lack of clarity and his failure of understanding. And now we are wondering what he will do next, as he is no doubt wondering what we shall do next.

The portrait of Saddam Hussein that emerges from the book is of a man who will be moved neither by passion nor by conviction, but by calculation. But what are his calculations likely to be, and what are his options? The first, and if feasible the best for him, would be to sit it out—to remain where he is, in possession of Kuwait, threatening but not invading Saudi Arabia, and to wait for American impatience and allied nervousness to do their work. Given time, he may hope for a weakening of American resolve, and the erosion of international and especially continental European and Arab support. The silence of some, the vacillation of other allies, and the flare-up of anti-American feeling in some quarters, may lend credence to such an expectation.

From a military and logistical point of view, the task of defending his conquest is less difficult than the task of the coalition which is being formed against him; in political terms it is much easier for him to control his opposition than for Washington to maintain its present uneasy alliances. But can he sit it out, or will the tightening economic noose strangle him first?

If Saddam Hussein really feels that he is about to be strangled, we may be sure that he will not go quietly. In the political culture of Iraq, no visiting professorship or fat book contract awaits a deposed leader or unsuccessful politician. Political survival is closely linked with physical survival, and Saddam Hussein is not likely to live for many days after his fall from power, whenever and however that may take place.

It may be that he will be overthrown by his own people, the first and greatest victims of his policies. This would certainly be the most desirable outcome, from the Western, the Arab, and above all the Iraqi points of view. If the blockade does not succeed, it would free us from a painful choice between war and appeasement, perhaps between war now and war later; it would greatly reduce the danger of an Arab backlash against Western interference; it could even open the way to a new and better form of Arab political life. But it would not be easy against the immense and pervasive power of his police-and-party state—with the possible exception of North Korea, probably the most efficient tyranny in the world today. And if he remains, and lashes out against the tightening noose, what can he do?

One of his obvious needs is to break out of his present encirclement. His relations with Jordan, his only friendly neighbor, are already changing under Arab and American pressures. But his approach to Iran, offering, it would appear, a total surrender on the points at issue between the two countries, could just possibly yield some result. Different groups in Iran have given signals both ways. It is now for them to decide whether they wish to help, to strengthen their old and near enemy in order to spite the “Great Satan,” or to seize the opportunity and resume the honored place that belongs to Iran in the comity of civilized nations, as well as considerable material advantages. Much will depend—not least for Iran—on the choice they make.

Another tactic available to Saddam Hussein, already under way, is to appeal to the Arab peoples over the heads of their rulers. All the Arab regimes are more or less insecure, and Saddam Hussein may reckon that his is less insecure than the others, not because of greater love, but because of greater fear. In his appeals to Arab populations, he has played on various themes—national, religious, social. His strongest appeal is, however, the old and deep strain of anti-Western, in its present phase anti-American, feeling, which led so many Arabs, especially intellectuals, to choose the Axis in the World War and the Soviets in the cold war, and which has led some of them, for the same reasons, to choose Saddam Hussein today. So far the response to this appeal, though by no means insignificant, has been far less than one might have expected. This is surely due at least in part to his record of brutality, extending beyond his own people. “In a three week period in late October and early November,” the authors tell us, “More than 1,000 Egyptian bodies were flown back to Cairo” from among the Egyptian workers employed in Iraq, while others returned alive, with horrifying tales of brutal treatment. The sufferings of the Kuwaiti and other Arab and Asian refugees from Saddam’s new province can only have increased the horror.

Might he seek to create a diversion? This is surely an attractive option, and Israel would be the obvious target for a missile attack. The political advantages are self-evident. As long as the issue is an Arab-Arab conflict, Iraq is isolated and likely to remain so. If by some sleight-of-hand Saddam could transform it into an Arab-Israel conflict, he might expect to arouse and capture Arab sentiment to a degree that would never be obtainable in his own cause. He would gain enormously in Arab sympathy and support, and place his Arab opponents in a terrible dilemma. But the military calculation would be a far more difficult one than in his previous invasions, and one wonders whether even a desperate Saddam Hussein would wish to put it to the test. In responding to an attack. Israel has fewer constraints than any Western country in dealing with Iraq—no investments or citizens to be held hostage, no debts owed, no exports of grain or guns, no imports of oil. Israel also shares the Iraqi military advantage of operating from home bases with short lines of communication.

Saddam Hussein will no doubt calculate the political advantages and military risks of involving Israel, and plan his course of action according to how he balances this account. He has miscalculated badly in previous adventures—militarily in Iran, politically in Kuwait, but he will probably get his arithmetic right this time. In matters of vital national security, Israel, despite its multiplicity of squabbling voices, usually speaks with a single, clear, and unmistakable message, which Saddam Hussein should have no difficulty in understanding.

He appears to have greater difficulty in understanding the West, and suffers from the usual inability of dictators, and even of their subjects, to read the complex political language of a free society. Western countries have many interests and concerns, and the debate has already begun over the coalition’s strategy—is this right, is it necessary, who will suffer, how much will it cost, where shall we find the money? The wide-ranging public debate on these and similar questions may give Saddam Hussein the impression that the display of force is a bluff, that the will of the democracies is once again faltering, and that he may safely stay where he is and prepare in due course for his next step. If he is wrong in his calculation, he will have sealed his own doom; if he is right, he will have sealed the doom of many others, not only in the Middle East.

Even in the best case, if the current crisis is resolved and Saddam Hussein removed or rendered innocuous, the basic problems which brought him to power and which made him a scourge of the Arabs and a threat to the rest would remain. It would not be easy to reconstitute the grand coalition to meet every recurring crisis. The remedy sometimes proposed, a continuing US presence in the region, would almost certainly increase tensions and inflame hatred; a UN presence, necessarily including a substantial US component, is likely to produce the same result.

In the long run, the only solution for the United States and indeed for the outside world in general is to free itself from oil—to devise a clean, safe, and self-renewing source of energy, and thus escape from bondage to a volatile and dangerous part of the world. For the Arabs, the only true solution to their problems is to free themselves from the variegated tyrannies that oppress and degrade them, and to create new regimes, more respectful of human and political rights, their own and other people’s. Both tasks are difficult; neither is impossible. The one should not be beyond the scientific and technological resources of the nation which completed the Manhattan Project and put a man on the moon; the other not beyond the creative powers of a great and gifted people whose forebears wrote one of the most brilliant chapters in the history of civilization.

—November 21, 1990

This Issue

December 20, 1990