The True History of the Gulf War

In the Eye of the Storm: The Life of General H. Norman Schwarzkopf

by Roger Cohen and Claudio Gatti
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 342 pp., $19.95

Desert Victory: The War for Kuwait

by Norman Friedman
Naval Institute Press, 435 pp., $18.95 (paper)

The Outlaw State: Saddam Hussein's Quest for Power and the Gulf Crisis

by Elaine Sciolino
Wiley, 320 pp., $22.95

Needless Deaths in the Gulf War: Civilian Casualties During the Air Campaign and Violations of the Laws of War

Middle East Watch/Human Rights Watch, 402 pp., $15.00 (paper)

On the Basra Road

by Stephen Sackur
London Review of Books, 78 pp., £4.95 (paper)

George Bush's War

by Jean Edward Smith

The Hotel Warriors: Covering the Gulf

by John J. Fialka
The Media Studies Project/Woodrow Wilson Center (370 L'Enfant Promenade, SW, Washington, DC 20024), available upon request
Norman Schwarzkopf
Norman Schwarzkopf; drawing by David Levine


The United States had about six months in which to warn Iraq what it faced if it invaded Kuwait. Though Saddam Hussein made repeated threats, no such warning went out from Washington. The reasons for the failure are of more than historical interest, because the people who failed then are still in the same positions.

One factor was the unusually narrow decision-making process in the Bush administration. The President, the secretary of state, and a handful of others—if that many—seem to be able to cope with no more than one problem at a time. In the spring and summer of 1990, they had other things on their minds and paid little attention to Iraq and Kuwait.

A second factor was hinted at by April C. Glaspie, the American ambassador in Baghdad, who pointed out that the Kuwaitis and Saudis were also wrong. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and Asian Affairs John H. Kelly likewise stressed that the Kuwaitis had guessed wrong. “The Kuwaitis didn’t think that they were going to be attacked the night that they were attacked,” he said. “Nobody in the Arab world thought he [Saddam Hussein] was going to do it.”1 Assistant Secretary of International Security Affairs Henry S. Rowen also stated: “The Kuwaitis, of course, who had the most to lose, did not understand his [Saddam Hussein’s] intentions. Others did not. These were Arabs looking at this. So they were all working on a different theory, and we indeed were, to a large extent, ourselves, and that was that he would coerce the Kuwaitis into paying a great deal of money. That was the theory they were operating under, and that turned out to be wrong.”2

In effect, US policy before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was not really made in the United States. It was little more than a mirror-image of what friendly Arab rulers were telling the United States to think.

Third, Glaspie said that she and everyone else did not believe that “the Iraqis were going to take all of Kuwait.” The emphasis should be on “all.” The prewar Iraqi demands had emphasized debts, islands, and the Rumaila oil field, all of which appeared to be amenable to compromise and blackmail. It may well be that some deal could have been worked out if the Kuwaitis had been more receptive. In this respect, the Kuwaitis as well as the Iraqis surprised the other Arabs.

When Saddam Hussein told Glaspie that “the solution must be found within an Arab framework,” he can be taken to have meant that he intended to haggle and drive a hard bargain in the Arab tradition. But Saddam was no ordinary Arab leader and, in any case, he had been advertising his demands publicly for six months without apparent effect. There is even some reason to believe that his final decision to invade may have been made…

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