The Outlaw State: Saddam Hussein's Quest for Power and the Gulf Crisis
Kuwait and Iraq: Historical Claims and Territorial Disputes
From the House of War
Saddam's War: The Origins of the Kuwait Conflict and the International Response
Under Siege in Kuwait
We are now getting the first flurry of books on the Gulf War. They already number at least thirty, with more certain to come. Some are paperback quickies of little interest or importance; some merit more serious attention. Taken together, they invite a larger and fuller view of the war than was possible before.
For the US government, Iraq was guilty of an aggression. Saddam Hussein was a savage, ruthless ruler, an Arab Hitler. The innocent victim, Kuwait, had to be rescued and restored to its former rulers. Iraq had to be made to pay for its evildoing. The war itself was a glorious victory. For President Bush, the war was morally “black and white, good versus evil.”1 It was enough that Iraq had committed an aggression.
In the Arab world, however, the historical roots of the war give it a different and less one-sided dimension. The United States today represents the West as Great Britain and France represented it yesterday. The West did not come into the Middle East with clean hands. The Gulf War was an episode in a long history of Western intervention in the region. There is good reason why someone in the Middle East might view the war differently from someone in the West.
When Arab armies were defeated by Israel in 1948 and again in 1967, a spasm of self-questioning shook the Arab world. It did not have much lasting effect and little was changed. But the Gulf War was an even more serious challenge. It pitted Arabs against Arabs, and one Arab side had to resort to Western intervention to defeat the other Arab side. For the Western powers, the Gulf War was no more than a passing incident; for the Arabs, it was the continuation of a historic crisis; the war represented another Arab failure in a long history of failures.
For this reason, it is necessary to go back to how the aggressor, Iraq, and its victim, Kuwait, came to be nations in their present form. Why has the West such responsibility for their very existence? What were the Western roots of this war?
The story is bizarre. It was told in a book of memoirs published in England some years ago.2
In November 1922, Sir Percy Cox, British High Commissioner for Iraq, decided to fix the boundaries of Iraq and Nejd, the territorial core of what later became Saudi Arabia. Kuwait was squeezed between them and had its boundaries fixed at the same time. Cox was in a position to make the decisions, because Iraq was then a British mandate; Kuwait was a British protectorate; Ibn Sa’ud, the ruler of Nejd, was a British client.
It was a strange affair. Cox called their representatives together in a British Army tent at Uqair in the Arabian desert. Kuwait was represented by Major J.C. More, its British political agent, who was in charge of its external affairs. Iraq sent its minister of communications, Sabíh Beg. Ibn Sa’ud came…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.