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 for the Saudis. Cox let the Arabs quarrel among themselves for five days. Sabíh Beg wanted Iraq to extend southward almost to Riyadh, Ibn Sa’ud’s capital. Ibn Sa’ud wanted his realm to reach northward as far as the Euphrates, deep into Iraq.

The rest of the story is told in the memoirs of Cox’s aide, Major Harold Dickson.

On the sixth day Sir Percy entered the lists. He told both sides that, at the rate they were going, nothing would be settled for a year. At a private meeting at which only he, Ibn Sa’ud and I were present, he lost all patience over what he called the childish attitude of Ibn Sa’ud in his tribal boundary idea. Sir Percy’s Arabic was not too good, so I did the translating.

It was astonishing to see the Sultan of Nejd being reprimanded like a naughty schoolboy by H.M. High Commissioner, and being told sharply that he, Sir Percy Cox, would himself decide on the type and general line of the frontier. This ended the impasse.

Ibn Sa’ud almost broke down, and pathetically remarked that Sir Percy was his father and brother, who had made him and raised him from nothing to the position he held, and that he would surrender half his kingdom, nay the whole, if Sir Percy ordered.

Having put Ibn Sa’ud in his place, Cox was ready to hand down the law.

As far as I can remember, Ibn Sa’ud took little further part in the frontier discussions, leaving it to Sir Percy to decide for him this vexed question. At a general meeting of the conference, Sir Percy took a red pencil and very carefully drew in on the map of Arabia a boundary line from the Persian Gulf to Jabal ‘Anaizan, close to the Transjordan frontier. This gave Iraq a large area of her territory claimed by Nejd. Obviously, to placate Ibn Sa’ud, he ruthlessly deprived Kuwait of nearly two-thirds of her territory and gave it to Nejd, his argument being that the power of Ibn Sabah [the desert title of the sheikh of Kuwait] was much less in the desert that [than] it had been when the Anglo-Turkish Agreement [1913] had been drawn up.3 South and west of Kuwait proper, he drew out two zones, which he declared should be neutral and known as the Kuwait Neutral Zone and the Iraq Neutral Zone.

Cox was not yet finished with Ibn Sa’ud:


At about nine o’clock that evening there was an amazing sequel. Ibn Sa’ud asked to see Sir Percy alone. Sir Percy took me with him. Ibn Sa’ud was by himself, standing in the center of his great reception tent. He seemed terribly upset.

“My friend,” he moaned, “you have deprived me of half my kingdom. Better take it all and let me go into retirement.”

Still standing, this great strong man, magnificent in his grief, suddenly burst into sobs. Deeply disturbed, Sir Percy seized his hand and began to weep also. Tears were rolling down his cheeks. No one but the three of us were present, and I relate exactly what I saw.

The emotional storm did not last long. Still holding Ibn Sa’ud’s hand Sir Percy said:

“My friend, I know exactly how you feel, and for this reason gave you two-thirds of Kuwait’s territory. I don’t know how Ibn Sabah will take the blow.”

Cox soon found how Ibn Sabah took the blow.

Both Major More and myself, I only in a secretarial capacity, were present when Sir Percy broke the news to the ruler of Kuwait that he had been obliged to give away to Ibn Sa’ud nearly two-thirds of the kingdom claimed by Sheikh Ahmad. Sheikh Ahmad pathetically asked why he had done this without even consulting him. Sir Percy replied that, on this unfortunate occasion, the sword had been mightier than the pen, and that had he not conceded the territory, Ibn Sa’ud would certainly have soon picked a quarrel and taken it, if not more, by force of arms. As it was, he (Sir Percy) had placated Sheikh Ahmad’s powerful neighbor and brought about a friendly feeling for Kuwait.

The final scene was worthy of this drama:

Sheikh Ahmad then asked if Great Britain had not entered the war in defence of the rights of small nations. Sir Percy admitted that this was correct.

“If some day,” said Sheikh Ahmad, “Ibn Sa’ud dies and I grow strong like my grandfather, Mubarak, will the British Government object if I denounce the unjust frontier line and recover my lost territories?”

“No!” laughed Sir Percy. “And may God bless your efforts.”

Thus faced with a fait accompli Sheikh Ahmad agreed to add his signature to the agreement.4

This is how Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia were fashioned and how such matters were handled in the old days—which are not all that old.


The border was marked ludicrously. In 1923, Major More placed a large notice board at the southerly edge of some date palms with the words: “Iraq-Kuwait Boundary.” Richard Schofield relates:

A full quarter of a century later, British officials were frantically trying to calculate where, precisely, and on what basis the Kuwaiti Political Agent had placed the board during 1923. Such information was deemed vital as the board had been removed by the Iraqis on several occasions during the 1930s and evidently replaced by Britain in an incorrect position. It was eventually established that More had decided on the site of the notice-board by marching out paces from the most southerly date palms at Safwan. When it was realized that extra date palms had been planted by the Iraqis south of Safwan by the mid-1940s, it was obvious that More’s original spot was never likely to be rediscovered with any precision.5

The border still threatens the peace between Iraq and Kuwait. In December 1991, a UN Iraq/Kuwait Boundary Demarcation Commission was still trying to rediscover More’s original spot. To prevent incidents from recurring in the area, it needs to establish where the border is or should be. In August, Iraqi police fired on Kuwaiti police. Kuwaitis have arrested Iraqi farmers who had apparently been tilling Kuwaiti soil for years: Iraq still occupies five police posts on the Kuwaiti side but refuses to give them up until the border is finally determined. So far, the UN observers have not been able to make up their minds.6

In effect, Iraq and Kuwait were put together in such a way that they seemed doomed sooner or later to collide. Iraq, a large country with an estimated population at present of over 16 million, was given a narrow coastline of about thirty miles. Its outlet to the gulf was almost blocked by two adjoining Kuwaiti islands, Warba and Bubiyan.7 Kuwait, little more than a city-state, with a population under two million, was provided with a coast-line of 310 miles. Iraq wanted a secure outlet to the Gulf and a change in the ownership of the two islands long before Saddam Hussein tried to do anything about them.


Another result of Cox’s red line was the later dispute over the Rumaila oil field, a “mega-field.” When Cox drew his line, oil had not yet been discovered in the Gulf region. Since the border was never properly demarcated, there was no telling later whether the Rumaila field was all in Iraq or, as Kuwait claimed, a small, southern tip of it was in Kuwait. Since oil is fungible, the Kuwaitis could extract oil from the entire field. When Saddam Hussein charged that the Kuwaitis had taken more than their share of Rumaila oil or that they had no share at all, he might have blamed Sir Percy’s red pencil.

It is necessary to take these historical roots into account because they left such an explosive legacy in the Gulf region—the Iraqi quest for a coastal outlet, the obstruction of the Kuwaiti barrier islands of Warba and Bubiyan, the dispute over Kuwait’s exploitation of the Rumaila oil field, the precarious borders, the pocket-sized Gulf emirates. All these unsettled issues could mean little to Americans, satisfied that it was enough to convict the brutal Saddam Hussein of an unprovoked aggression against a vastly weaker neighbor. But as Richard Schofield points out:

The suddenness of the [Iraqi] action [invading Kuwait] and the coverage it has received should not disguise the fact that Iraqi claims to Kuwaiti territory have been pursued with remarkable consistency over the last half-century, through Hashimite and revolutionary rule alike. There is some justification for the argument that, having predated by a considerable length of time the accession of Saddam Husain to the Iraqi Presidency, these claims will not disappear with a settlement of the present Kuwait Crisis, whether or not this involves a change of regime in Baghdad.8

Thus there was more to Saddam Hussein’s attempt to annex Kuwait than one man’s evil character. Whatever may happen to him, the Iraqi grievances will not go away.


Even a brief historical sketch has numerous lessons for today.9

For more than two centuries, Kuwait managed to survive by playing off one major power against another. As a nation, it did not have the ancient roots that Iraq has in Mesopotamia. Kuwait was settled early in the eighteenth century by Bedouin tribes, from what is now Saudi Arabia, seeking a more sheltered existence near the coast. The present Sabah clan of rulers dates from 1756, when one of them was chosen to be sheikh or chieftain. The Sabahs have tenaciously held on to power ever since. First threatened by Persians and Saudis, they managed to beat them off with the help of the British and Ottoman Turks. By the mid-nineteenth century, with an estimated population of only 20,000, Kuwait considered itself to be within the Ottoman fold, though it still largely managed its own affairs. In 1875, Kuwait was made part of the autonomous Ottoman province of Basra in southern Iraq—later a basis for Saddam Hussein’s historical claim to Kuwait.

At the turn of the century, the rule of Mubarak al-Sabah—who rose to power by murdering his brothers, Muhammad and Jarrah—changed Kuwait’s traditional foreign relations. He chose to be more dependent on the British than on the Turks, with the result that by 1899 Kuwait began to move into the British sphere of influence. Britain bought his allegiance in a secret treaty with 15,000 rupees, though the Ottoman connection nominally persisted. In 1913, Britain and Turkey signed an agreement recognizing Kuwait as an autonomous region within the Ottoman realm and assigned the islands of Warba and Bubiyan, at the Iraqi outlet to the Persian Gulf, to Kuwait, only because it served British interests for Kuwait rather than Iraq to have them. By 1914, however, the Ottoman connection with Kuwait was broken and Britain promised Mubarak independent statehood under British protection. The British obtained preemptive rights over the whole Kuwaiti shoreline; future oil concessions—the first oil seepages had recently been detected—were exclusively allotted to British companies.

Unfortunately for Turkey, it chose to side with Germany in World War I, whereupon the Ottoman Empire came to an end. The Colonial Office in London effectively managed both Iraq and Kuwait. In 1932, the British mandate over Iraq ended, and Iraqi independence was recognized, though a predominant British influence remained.

Throughout the 1930s, Iraq refused to agree to a demarcation of the boundary with Kuwait unless the latter was willing to give up control of the islands, Warba and Bubiyan, and thus secure the narrow Iraqi Persian Gulf coastline. Despite its vulnerability, Kuwait refused to make concessions. By 1935, Iraqi propaganda openly called for the incorporation of Kuwait. Three years later, Iraq made this claim official, with the same justification used by Saddam Hussein five decades later—that Kuwait had once been attached to the Ottoman province of Basra. Without the approval of the British, who still controlled Kuwait’s foreign affairs, Iraq could get nowhere with its demand.

British influence in Iraq finally came to an end in 1958. It was eliminated by a coup which put General Abd alKarim Qasim in power at the head of a Free Officers Movement. In 1961, Qasim was the first Iraqi ruler who attempted to annex Kuwait. Soon after Britain had granted Kuwait full independence in June of that year, Qasim declared that Kuwait was an integral part of Iraq, again on the ground that it had been a link in the Ottoman chain. Qasim’s language was not unlike that of Saddam Hussein three decades later: “The Republic of Iraq has decided to protect the Iraqi people in Kuwait and to demand the land, arbitrarily held by imperialism, which belongs [to Iraq as part] of the province of Basra.”

A Gulf war on a smaller scale almost took place in 1961. Kuwait asked for British military assistance, and 7,000 British troops, supported by air and naval forces, rushed to Kuwait’s northern and western borders with Iraq. Saudi Arabia sent about 150 troops to the Iraqi-Kuwaiti-Saudi boundary. A way out of the deadlock was found by turning the conflict over to the United Nations, where the Arab states worked out a deal. As Schofield observes, “The Arab League was now faced with the awkward situation whereby troops of an imperial power had been called onto Arab soil by an Arab Government, ostensibly to prevent an inter-Arab conflict.” The first time was not 1990–1991.

In the end, a formula was found. Kuwait agreed to ask for the early withdrawal of British forces from its territory; Iraq pledged not to use force to annex Kuwait; Kuwait was admitted into the Arab League and the United Nations. An Arab peace-keeping force of 3,000, commanded by a Saudi and made up of contingents from five other Arab states, replaced the British force. Qasim never gave up the claim to Kuwait, all the while protesting that he did not intend to use force.

In February 1963, Qasim was overthrown by another military coup, headed by Lt. General Abd al-Salam Arif. In October of that year, in an effort to consolidate his regime, Arif, now president, reversed the traditional policy and recognized the independence and sovereignty of Kuwait. The agreement, however, was signed by the prime minister, not by Arif. Moreover, it did not settle the border question, which continued to poison the relations between the two countries. This gesture was not without cost; Kuwait paid for it with an interest-free “loan” of something between $15 billion and $85 billion—the exact figure was never disclosed—to be repaid over a quarter of a century. Later, Saddam Hussein’s government claimed that this agreement was invalid because it had not been ratified by Iraq’s National Revolutionary Council.

The next five years in Iraq were more turbulent than ever. In 1966, Arif was killed in a helicopter crash; his brother took his place and lasted only two years before he was overthrown in a coup that brought the Baath Party to power. Saddam Hussein’s ascendancy dates from 1968; by 1979, he was Iraqi president, secretary general of the party, and commander in chief.

Hostility between Iraq and Kuwait flared up again. In 1969, Iraqi forces temporarily moved into Kuwaiti territory, ostensibly to guard against an expected attack by Iran. In 1972, Iraq demanded Iraqi control—later cession—of the islands and an Iraqi guarantee of Kuwait’s security, both rejected. Iraq took the position that the 1963 agreement had merely recognized Kuwaiti independence without any territorial accord. So long as the borders remained disputed, peaceful relations between the two countries were far off.

How far off they were was shown in 1973 by an Iraqi attack on an unprotected Kuwaiti border post, during which two Kuwaiti frontier guards were killed. When Iran and Saudi Arabia pledged military support if Iraq went farther, the latter withdrew. In the aftermath, Saddam Hussein came forward with a proposal for Kuwait to cede Warba and to give up the eastern half of Bubiyan on a long-term lease. Kuwait, which by then was rolling in oil money, had no such intention and was more determined then ever to make no concessions on the islands.

In 1980, the outbreak of the Iraq-Iran war abruptly changed the relations between Iraq and Kuwait. Mortally afraid of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran if Iraq were overrun, Kuwait for the first time in its history became the ally of Iraq. Its port facilities and land routes were put at the disposal of Iraq, which could not get supplies through the Persian Gulf in any other way. Kuwait acted as the receiving and transshipment point for war materiel, much of it from the Soviet Union. Even more directly, Kuwait backed Iraq financially. During the next eight years, Kuwait provided Iraq with $10 billion of interest-free loans and grants. Kuwait gave Iraq the revenue from increased oil production, said to amount to 125,000 barrels daily. Iraq also earned $250 million annually from the sale to Kuwait of natural gas from the Rumaila oil field. The flaw in the unprecedented honeymoon was that it depended wholly on the war with Iran, not on any real rapprochement between the two countries.

Even during the war, efforts to reach an understanding on the boundaries came to nothing. In 1981, Saddam Hussein vainly requested naval facilities at Bubiyan, and again in 1984 he urged Kuwait to lease Warba and Bubiyan to Iraq. For the rest of the war, the question of demarcating the boundary and leasing the islands was left in abeyance. Instead of preparing to retreat, Kuwait built an economically useless bridge connecting Bubiyan with the Kuwaiti mainland, so purely symbolic that Kuwaitis jokingly referred to it as “linking nowhere to nowhere.” Kuwait announced plans to develop recreational and research centers, as well as fish-canning plants, on Bubiyan—never carried out.

Thus, with the exception of the 1963 agreement and collaboration during Iraq’s war with Iran, the past relations of Iraq and Kuwait were almost uniformly hostile. In 1961, Qasim had tried to do what Saddam attempted to do in 1990. The key to friendly relations between Iraq and Kuwait was the agreed demarcation of their boundaries, and so long as Iraq held out against it, unless Kuwait turned over Warba and Bubiyan, hostilities in some form were never far away.

For the rest of the world, those two islands have meant little or nothing. Yet they are a red thread that runs through the story. Again and again, Iraq claimed that it needed the islands, and Kuwait refused to give them up on any terms, doubtlessly fearing that giving up the islands was only a first installment of Iraqi demands.

It is not hard to see why any Iraqi regime would have considered control of the islands to be of high economic and military importance. The fault was in how Iraq and Kuwait had been laid out by their former British overseers. Iraq never resigned itself to Kuwaiti ownership of the two islands. With its far greater expanse of land and population, Iraq looked down on puny little Kuwait and its ten-fold coastline with envy and frustration. So long as the Ottomans and later the British stood between them, their natural antagonisms were leashed. Independence for both countries let loose the forces that finally resulted in Saddam Hussein’s brutal effort to undo what had been done when the century was young.

Any future regime in Iraq will still have to contend with the unfinished business of the Gulf War. The historical roots are too deep to be ignored for long, whatever happens to Saddam Hussein. In the West, and especially in the United States, this past was largely ignored or held little interest. Yet the future was mortgaged to the past in the Arab world and cannot be so easily forgotten there.


Until oil was discovered in 1938 and began to bring in big money in the 1950s, Kuwait was another poor, marginal Arab territory. Its traditional occupations were pearl fishing, date growing, and transit trade. The Kuwait that Saddam Hussein invaded was a phenomenon no more than a quarter of a century old.

According to the rules of the game, the Sabah clan, not the nation of Kuwait, owned the oil beneath the soil—or at least treated the oil as if it were their own. Kuwait “was run more like a family business than a country.”10 The Sabah dynasty leased the oil fields to a British-American consortium and sat back to collect the royalties. In 1950, Saudi Arabia obtained a fifty-fifty arrangement with Aramco; Kuwait soon followed suit with the Kuwait Oil Co. By 1974, Kuwait increased its share to 60 per cent, and in 1975 nationalized the entire operation.11

Before the exploitation of oil, the Sabahs had shared power with influential merchant families. Oil enabled the Sabahs to free themselves from their traditional rivalry with the merchants. As a recent study of oil and politics in the Gulf puts it, a tacit arrangement was made between the rulers and the trading families, by which the Sabahs guaranteed the merchants a large share of oil revenues in exchange for the merchants’ renunciation of their “historical claim to participate in decision making.”12 Oil was the Sabahs’ fortune and misfortune: it made them rich beyond dreams of avarice and the object of desire on the part of a larger, troubled, and more powerful neighbor.

In 1988, the per capita income of Egypt was $490 a year; of Iraq, $1,950; of Kuwait, $10,410.13 Whatever their other qualities, the Sabahs were accomplished business tycoons. They made so much money in oil that they began to invest their excess wealth all over the world in varied enterprises, which became even more profitable than oil. According to Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, Kuwait invested some $50 billion in the world economy in the 1980s; the portfolio was worth $100 billion by 1990.14 A British source reports that eighteen families control 90 percent of all Kuwaiti investments.15

The Kuwaiti social structure is unlike any in the Arab—or any other—world. The Sabah family consists of some 2,000 people. Before the recent war, only 17 percent of a population of less than two million were native-born Kuwaitis; they were the only ones entitled to Kuwaiti citizenship.16 Kuwaiti playboys were legendary in Europe, especially at the gaming tables in London, where they gained a reputation for “heavy-drinking, gambling, driving the most expensive cars and hiring the most expensive prostitutes.”17 The behavior of Kuwaitis in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere during their brief exile scandalized their hosts. The rest of the Kuwaiti population consisted of about 350,000 Palestinians, 300,000 Egyptians, 200,000 Indians, Pakistanis, and Filipinos.18 Many of them were second and third generation in Kuwait, but had no civil rights or standing.

Yet the Sabahs also provided more health care and higher education to more people than anywhere else in the Middle East. Many Palestinians had relatively high incomes and greater personal freedom than elsewhere, which made their sudden fall from grace after the war the harder to bear. So long as the good life lasted, the Sabahs’ “personal fiefdom” spread the winnings widely enough to stifle discontents.

John Simpson found:

Those Kuwaiti residents who were of traditional Kuwaiti stock—and who alone had the right of citizenship as the descendants of specified families living in the country in the 1920s—were rarely involved in directly productive activities, except as the locally-appointed directors without whom no business could legally operate. Most work in prewar Kuwait was done by expatriates. Europeans and Americans, Palestinians, Indians and Pakistanis carried out management and consultative tasks; Filipinos, Egyptians, Sri Lankans, Sudanese and Iraqis did the manual labor. The expatriates had no permanent right of abode, could never hope to achieve citizenship and had only limited rights in law.19

The wonder is how little time it took Kuwait to transform itself from a humble trading post to a cosmopolitan center. By the time Saddam Hussein decided to devour it, Kuwait had the first Arab stock exchange, the first Arab department store equal to any in the West, five-star hotels, super-highways, luxurious shopping malls, office towers, a $400 million conference center, everything that “reeked of wealth.”20 The Sabahs had toyed with introducing a tightly controlled consultative assembly, only to draw back whenever it showed signs of independence. Though Kuwait enjoyed something of a reputation as a more liberal and open society than any other in the Middle East, this was more of a commentary on the others than on Kuwait. The press, for example, was said to be less constricted than elsewhere in the Arab world. But a journalist, Yugoslav-born but a British citizen, who spent five years working for the Arab Times, an English language newspaper in Kuwait, had no illusions:

The Kuwaiti government was congenitally secretive. Even before 1986, when censors were officially introduced in newspaper offices, unspecified constraints were in force. Editors were expected to know the guidelines and avoid issues and areas regarded as sensitive. The possibilities of what might offend were so wide-ranging and changing, many played safe in the extreme. It resulted in the blandest of news coverage. The more shrewd and conscientious learned how to write around sensitive subjects by using a kind of code language and burying a point deep down the story.21

Wealth seems to have gone to the Kuwaiti rulers’ heads. Nouveaux riches, they overestimated what their riches could do for them. Money could buy them many things, but not the kind of power they needed to protect themselves from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.


When the Iran-Iraq war came to an end in August 1988, Saddam Hussein confronted a number of urgent problems, only one of which was new. What they were can be seen from the way the prewar phase of the Iran-Kuwait crisis developed.

The beginning appears to be a visit on August 7, 1988, barely a fortnight after the end of the war with Iran, by the Iraqi minister of the interior, Samir Abdul Wahhab, to Kuwait at the latter’s request. The purpose was to hold talks on the old and still unresolved border question. Another visit to Kuwait in December 1988 by Saddam’s second in command, Izzat Ibrahim, continued the discussions. In February 1989, more talks went on during a visit to Baghdad by the Kuwaiti crown prince and prime minister.22

According to Elaine Sciolino, whose book is one of the best of the current lot, matters were only made worse because each side now knew what the other wanted:

Both sides said they were eager to resolve the matter of the border. Kuwait had never taken Iraq’s war debt off its books; it wanted drilling rights for the Rumaila oil field since Iraq’s war with Iran was over. It had plans to build a new city for 100,000 people on the Subiya Peninsula across from Bubiyan island and to build a resort on the island itself. Iraq’s idea of a border agreement meant gaining control over both Bubiyan and Warba. Saddam was spending $1 billion to develop the ports of Umm Qasr and Khor Zubair [facing the two islands], and he did not like the idea that Kuwait controlled his access to the sea.23

By this time, it was clear that Kuwait was trying to take advantage of its financial and other aid to Iraq during the Iran war to get agreement on the Kuwait-Iraq border. Instead, these negotiations in February 1989 were soon followed by a campaign in the Iraqi-controlled press against Kuwait’s support of Syrian policy in Lebanon and its assumption that a border agreement should deny Warba and Bubiyan to Iraq.24 Nothing came of these preliminary meetings.

By 1990, Saddam Hussein knew that he could not get what he wanted from Kuwait by negotiation. In February, he set in motion the campaign of accusations and threats that took him to war six months later. Just what Iraq was after was clear and should have left no doubt in Washington that Saddam Hussein was aiming at the United States as well as at Kuwait.

Saddam made four major speeches, on February 24, April 1, May 28, and July 17, which prepared the way for war. In them, he attempted to whip up Arab hostility against the United States and Israel. He first concentrated on Israel as a strategy for uniting the Arab world behind his leadership but soon turned on the United States to warn it against interfering with his plans.

On February 24, he warned that “if the Gulf people, along with all Arabs, are not careful, the Arab Gulf region will be governed by the US will.” If the United States ever imagines that it can give Israel the cover to strike at Iraqi metallurgical factories, he threatened on April 1, “by God, we will make the fire eat up half of Israel.” By May 28, at an Arab summit meeting in Baghdad, he publicly turned his attention to Kuwait. He charged that it had, by exceeding its OPEC oil production quota, cost Iraq $14 billion in depressed oil prices and he demanded $27 billion from Kuwait alone.

On this occasion, Saddam Hussein is said to have privately delivered a warning to the emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah. According to Saddam, he had given the Kuwaiti ruler the first of three warnings that Kuwait’s oil policy was playing into the hands of a US conspiracy to undermine Iraq. He called Kuwait’s policy of exceeding its OPEC oil-production quota “an act of war.”

And on July 17, Saddam Hussein accused “certain rulers of the Gulf states” of intentionally reducing oil prices and of serving the interests of the United States. “If words fail to afford us protection,” he said, “then we will have no choice but to resort to effective action to put things right and ensure the restitution of our rights.”25

More concrete demands and threats were made by Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz. On July 16, in a letter to Arab League Secretary General Chedli Klibi, Aziz charged that Kuwait had encroached on Iraqi territory and that Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates had schemed to glut the oil market by exceeding their quotas. Part of the oil dumped by Kuwait on the world oil market was “stolen” from the “Iraqi al-Rumaila oil field.” The Kuwaiti government “wants to destroy the Iraqi economy.” It was incumbent on the Arab states to which Iraq owed money “not only to cancel these debts but also organize an Arab plan similar to the Marshall Plan to compensate Iraq for some of the losses during the war [with Iran].”26

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.

This Issue

January 16, 1992