20 years ago: Kuwait

By Professor Bichara Khader
Scientific Advisor for the MEDEA Institute
CERMAC, Catholic University of Louvain


Twenty years ago, on August 2, 1990, Iraqi tanks crossed the Kuwaiti border. By the evening, Kuwait City was occupied and the Iraqi flag floated above public buildings. A few days later, a puppet government of Iraq was installed and Kuwait became the 19th province of Iraq: Thousands of Kuwaitis were arrested, deported or executed. This took place in summer while many Kuwaiti leaders were abroad for the summer.

The invasion of Kuwait took the world by surprise. Only a few months before the Berlin Wall had fallen and the Soviet Union had been dismantled. A breeze of optimism was blowing across the West: the Soviet adversary had disappeared through natural death. The world seemed to be sleeping peacefully on an American pillow. It was the end of history, Francis Fukuyama wrote later.

In a context full of optimism, the invasion of Kuwait produced a bombshell. The reasonss for Iraqi irritation were numerous: Kuwaiti ingratitude requiring the repayment of its debt of $ 15 billion, the exceeding of the quota of oil production authorised by OPEC, causing a drop of the price of the barrel, the excessive extraction of oil in the border region, Kuwait’s refusal to rent two islands (Warbah and Bubyan) to Iraq. These events reignited old resentments and, in particular, old Iraqi claims on the emirate, which is considered Iraqi territory but which had been taken from the motherland by perfidious British.

Beyond these complaints and claims, one thing is clear: Iraq was emerging from a devastating war of eight years with its Iranian neighbor, which left the country devastated. Saddam Hussein was simply seeking to get his hands on the oil and financial safe of the small emirate to restore Iraq’s economy afloat and the damaged prestige of the regime.

Must one understand the historical argument – the so-called « attachment of Kuwait to the motherland » to be misleading and instrumental, and simply a way of masking more immediate and prosaic targets? It is precisely the thesis that I defend.

It is clear that Iraq had never made any secret of its ambitions of annexation. Already in 1961, barely a month after the signing by Kuwait to a Treaty of Friendship (Treaty of Friendship) with its British protectors granting independence, the Iraqi prime minister, Colonel Abdel Karim Qassem announced that Kuwait was « historically part of Iraq » and that « it was his intention to annex it. » These threats had led the ruling family of Kuwait, Al Sabah, to seek British protection. On July 1, 1961, 7000 British soldiers were dispatched in the emirate, but quickly replaced in October by a « force for peace of the League of Arab States« .

Finally, Qassem did not carry out his threats and the crisis was quickly defused. The League of Arab States, including Kuwait that had joined in July 1961, managed to protect its members from the threat of aggression from its neighbor. Why was it not able to prevent and solve the Iraqi-Kuwaiti crisis, the second under Saddam Hussein? Three reasons can be found: first, the Arab League was no longer what it had been in the past, increasingly reflecting the many internal rifts; secondly, Saddam Hussein is not the Colonel Kassem, through delusions of grandeur falsing his judgement and making him blind to changes in the world; finally, the global system in 1990 was no longer that of 30 years ago, a world where the Cold War was in full swing.

But why did Saddam’s Iraq engulfed in such an adventure in the summer of 1990? To answer this question, I develop two hypotheses.
The first postulates that Saddam Hussein, through thoughtlessness or stupidity, believed that the West would close its eyes to the annexation of Kuwait in recognition of services rendered in the previous decade, during the war against Khomeini’s Iran. And even if the West condemned the aggression, it would not go as far as declaring war with Iraq to save the small emirate of Kuwait.
The second hypothesis is that Iraq has been fooled by America and was pushed to the fault to prepare the ground for its collapse.

Let’s analyze these two hypotheses more closely. It is clear that Saddam Hussein lacked foresight and geopolitical acumen failed him. How could he have imagined that he could occupy and annex a sovereign state, even a tiny one, with impunity, knowing that this state is not an « ordinary » state, but one that holds almost 10% of the world’s oil reserves, and knowing that no state in the region would tolerate such an annexation as it would upset the regional order and unsettle the entire Middle East region? Such a de facto annexation, if it was endorsed, would cause an increased vulnerability of all other Gulf states, it would weaken Saudi Arabia which would, in turn, feel threatened, it would expose Egypt to hard competition for regional leadership, and give Iran a extra pretext to launch similar expansionist adventures, which we had a first taste of with the occupation of islands of Abu Musa and Tunb, which belong to the UAE. Even Baathist Syria would feel threatened in turn by an Iraqi military activism on its own borders.

As for the West, for whom the Gulf countries are the jugular vein in energy supply, it could not subscribe to such annexation. Not only because the annexation of Kuwait would turn Iraq into an oil giant rivaling with Saudi Arabia, located in the Western fold, but also because the annexation of Kuwait would give Iraq such a dividend fund, that the country of Saddam Hussein would recover quickly and be ready for new conquering aspirations threatening the regional status quo and that the Saddam Hussein regime would find itself reinvigorated and a new threat to its Arab and non-Arab neighbors.

Does this mean, and that is the second assumption, that Saddam Hussein was pushed to make a mistake? This hypothesis has been advanced by many authors on the basis of a conversation held one week before the invasion, between the Iraqi leader and U.S. Ambassador, A. Glaspie. We do not know the exact content of the conversation, but it was deducted, a little too quickly perhaps, that the US Ambassador, at best, turned a blind eye to the threat of Saddam to attack Kuwait, or, at worst, given tacit consent to push Saddam to commit the irreparable and fall into the trap.

Those who want to develop this hypothesis prove the « evil and cynical character » of America that led Saddam Hussein to commit the irreparable to give America an excuse to destroy his regime and, thereby, protect its allies in the Gulf and especially Israel.

I would personally go for the first hypothesis. Saddam Hussein made a miscalculation, the wrong appreciation and timing: he thought to impose a fait accompli by military occupation, at a time when the bipolar system was on its last legs. There is no doubt that America, now without a rival, had seen in this miscalculation a opportunity to assert its leadership and give the regime of Saddam Hussein an exemplary correction. Hence, to think of a diabolical conspiracy is going too far.

This means that the Iraq of Saddam Hussein was the architect of his own misfortune. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have died in the war also known as the « liberation of Kuwait », which started on January 17, 1991. The Iraqi army was decimated. George Bush allowed Saddam to live but tightened the grip on Iraq. The Iraq which one once described as the « New Prussia of the Arabs » had been reduced to smithereens.

The Emir of Kuwait regained his throne and the country recovered its sovereignty. U.S. bases multiplied in the Gulf and the status quo was restored. And while the Israelis were rubbing their hands in delight to see America crush the « only Arab country that was able to challenge their military supremacy, » a witch hunt drove 300,000 Palestinians settled in Kuwait for generation, on the roads of a second exile. Thus, we have made Palestinian pay for the stupidity of Saddam Hussein, recalling the Berber proverb “Aziza sold her body and they burned the hair of his servant« .