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The Myth of the Middle East Madman

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Stephen Humphreys

From Between Memory and Desire: The Middle East in a Troubled Age
© 2001 University of California Press
Used with permission. Print edition available here.

Saddam Hussein's Decision to Occupy Kuwait (July-August 1990)

 On January 15, 1991, Saddam Hussein found himself confronting a large and superbly equipped expeditionary force, made up of contingents from three Western powers (the United States, France, and Britain), and a combined force of several Arab states under Saudi command. 6 He was diplomatically hopelessly isolated, condemned by the United Nations, with his old ally the Soviet Union (now in the late stages of decay) standing helplessly on the sidelines. It is true that he had recently rediscovered the power of prayer, and perhaps he yet hoped for a miracle. But in this case God was on the side of the big battalions; Iraq's cities and military installations were exposed to a relentless and almost unopposed bombardment, and her ground forces dissolved within hours before a crushing ground offensive at the end of February. Only a decision by the allies to stop the carnage prevented their forces from occupying Basra and advancing to the gates of Baghdad. It must be admitted that Saddam Hussein has proved extraordinarily resourceful in the face of devastating military defeat, and over the past seven years he has wrested--at enormous cost to the Iraqi people--at least a diplomatic stalemate with his opponents. But that is another and very different story; here we are only concerned with the seven months leading up to and encompassing the Gulf War.

 Why did Saddam Hussein want to seize Kuwait in the first place? And how did he suppose that he could prevail over the massed forces of the United States and its European and Arab allies? Could it be that he was just colossally stupid (and, it follows, that the allies were just lucky)? I would argue the contrary: Saddam Hussein had strong reasons to want Kuwait; he likewise had every reason to think that he held a pretty good hand in the Kuwait affair and that he was playing it cleverly.

 His positive reasons for annexing Kuwait are straightforward and need not detain us long. First, he owed an enormous war debt to Kuwait, some $30 billion, incurred during the previous decade's struggle with Iran, and the Kuwaitis were insisting that it be repaid. For Iraq, almost bankrupt and suffering severe war damage, that was a near-impossibility. Apart from the fact that ridding oneself of debt by murdering an importunate creditor is an ancient and widely attested practice, Saddam Hussein could accuse the Kuwaitis of rank ingratitude. Only Iraq's heroic sacrifice had saved them from the imminent threat of Iranian domination.

 Saddam Hussein's grievances against Kuwaiti greed were no doubt intensified by Kuwait's immense oil reserves, which were equal to those of Iraq. Taken together, Iraq and Kuwait sat on top of some 20 percent of the world's known oil--nearly equal to the staggering 25 percent held by Saudi Arabia. To occupy Kuwait would not only solve Saddam's war debt problem; it would give him the resources to rebuild his country's exhausted army and devastated economy. Indeed, Kuwaiti oil could underwrite his very bold ambitions for the Gulf region and the Middle East. Iraq would inevitably become the paramount power in the Persian Gulf, and indeed a superpower within the Middle East as a whole.

 On a deeper and morally more compelling level, Saddam Hussein believed that Kuwait had no right to exist in the first place. He believed that Kuwait was historically an integral part of Iraq, and had only come into being through the machinations of British imperialism at the end of the nineteenth century. Saddam was not alone in this belief; it was an article of faith for every politically articulate Iraqi, and had been for at least half a century. Like many devoutly held national myths throughout the world, this belief was ill supported by the evidence. Nevertheless, it was a part of every Iraqi's ideological baggage. To occupy Kuwait was simply to rectify a longstanding historical wrong. Such a step would thus recoup the political as well as the economic and human losses of the war with Iran.

 If we grant Saddam Hussein's case for seizing Kuwait, what about the obstacles this bold initiative would face? He had very good reasons to be confident about the outcome. First, there was his own experience of U.S. policy in the Middle East over the past fifteen years. Second, almost every serious Middle East expert, political commentator, and military critic in the United States supported his judgment. When Saddam's armies seized Kuwait on August 2, 1990, he could have had a reasonable expectation that there would be no effective opposition. It must be admitted that we possess almost no reliable firsthand information on Saddam Hussein's evaluation of the situation that he had created. However, I suspect that any well-informed politician would have thought along the following lines as he contemplated the risks and rewards of seizing Kuwait.

 (1) The United States would surely not go beyond pro forma verbal protests and dispatching a couple of frigates to the Persian Gulf. To begin with, whatever Ambassador April Glaspie did or did not say in her interview with Saddam Hussein on July 25, it was perfectly clear that the United States had invested too much in building good relations with Iraq over the preceding decade to sacrifice them for Kuwait. Iraq, after all, was now a valuable trading partner, a bloodied but victorious opponent of Iran's revolutionary Shi'ism, and a potentially crucial element in the search for an Arab-Israeli settlement. Kuwait was just another oil patch. Such general considerations would have been fully supported by the record of U.S. action in the Middle East for the previous fifteen years--essentially, since the fall of Richard Nixon and the communist victory in Vietnam. The United States had done nothing to save its closest regional ally, the Shah of Iran, in 1978-1979, even though he was the linchpin of the whole Gulf and Northern Tier security system, which had been painfully constructed and meticulously maintained since the early 1950s. Likewise, the United States had placed a small Marine peacekeeping force in Beirut in 1983 to support the fragile Lebanese government created in the aftermath of the Israeli invasion of 1982; this force represented a minor commitment of material resources but a considerable investment of prestige, yet the Americans scuttled and ran after a single terrorist attack. Finally, there was the whole Irangate imbroglio, which demonstrated among other things that American policy could almost be paralyzed by the fate of a few hostages. Jimmy Carter had spoken softly, Reagan had talked tough, but from 1976 to 1990 American policy had stayed the same--tentative, hesitant, and irresolute. It could only have inspired total contempt in a man like Saddam Hussein.

 (2) If, contrary to Saddam's expectations, the United States did try to put real pressure on him, it could not possibly hope to succeed. Economic sanctions were the likeliest course of action, but these would require the assembling of a vast international coalition, possessing unprecedented cohesion and unity of purpose. In view of the sharply disparate interests of the United States, Europe, Japan, and the Soviet Union, even an oil boycott (to take only the most obvious step) could not possibly hold.

 If a military response was contemplated, a major network of bases and logistical support within the region would be required. But since the mid-1950s, the powerful surge of Arab Nationalism had made it abundantly clear that such bases and communications would not be available to the Western powers--and the Soviet Union had learned a similar lesson in the early 1970s when its access to Egypt was abruptly terminated. The Iranian debacle of 1978-1980 represented the final confirmation of this process. If the United States could not work through local surrogates (the sort of policeman's role that the Nixon Doctrine had contemplated for Iran), it could surely not act at all. Among U.S. allies in the region, only Israel, Turkey, and Egypt were militarily comparable to Iraq in any way, and none of these powers could possibly threaten Iraq's position in Kuwait or the Persian Gulf. In short, bitter Arab memories of Western imperialism, and a deeply ingrained suspicion of foreign intervention, would keep the United States out of the picture.

 (3) Suppose that Saddam Hussein's calculations, as we have imagined them above, were all wrong--and that possibility is of course one that every strategist must always entertain. Suppose George Bush did nail together a strong, durable coalition, able to support tough economic sanctions and willing to take military action; suppose he did obtain effective diplomatic, military, and logistical support within the region. Could the United States really project adequate force into the Persian Gulf to eject Iraqi forces from Kuwait? Saddam must have known, from watching "Sixty Minutes" if nothing else, that the United States had a hollow army-untried volunteer forces, a demoralized officer corps still humiliated by Vietnam, and a mountain of high-tech gadgets that cost tens of billions of dollars to manufacture and did not work. Under such circumstances Saddam Hussein would have been a fool not to invade Kuwait.

 To explore this point in greater detail, let us move forward, from August 1990 to early December of the same year. By now the situation had altered greatly, and not to Saddam Hussein's advantage. President Bush had in fact shaped a coalition of NATO states plus a few major Arab members. Working through the United Nations to gain maximum international legitimacy for his position, he had imposed stringent economic sanctions, which were proving surprisingly effective, at least for the short term. Moreover, substantial and rapidly growing military forces had been placed in Saudi Arabia, though no one knew how much they could actually achieve. Now Saddam Hussein had to confront the real likelihood that war would break out. What would happen if the coalition armies proved capable and the high-tech gadgets actually worked?

 Fortunately, Saddam still had an ace in the hole, perhaps several aces. He had a very large, battle-experienced army, which had amply demonstrated during the preceding decade that it could fight long and hard, at least on the defensive. Saddam thus had good hopes of being able to force the U.S.-led coalition into a long, bloody, indecisive war. And with the time that such a struggle would purchase for him, he could expect a dramatic turnaround in the political situation.

 First, he knew that a massive peace movement would bloom overnight in the United States and Western Europe--indeed, it had already put forth vigorous shoots. (Surely everyone remembers the deathless slogan, "No Blood for Oil!") As soon as the Persian Gulf looked like another Vietnam, domestic opposition would snowball. Weak democratic governments, Saddam knew, simply could not absorb high casualties for any length of time.

 Second, a war would instantly ignite Arab Nationalist rage, Islamic solidarity, and the bitter resentment of poor peoples against the rich--not only the Americans but Kuwaitis and Saudis as well. It should be remembered that the coalition against Iraq combined old imperialist powers like France and Britain (still the bête noire of Arab intellectuals), a United States tainted by its close ties to Zionism, and corrupt, selfish oil-rich states like Saudi Arabia. The whole thing was custom designed to scratch every raw nerve in the Middle East and North Africa.

Naturally enough, Saddam Hussein did everything in his power to bring these issues to the fore. He made himself the chief spokesman for the sacred if now somewhat shopworn Palestinian cause. His propaganda machine purveyed lurid tales of moral corruption on the holy soil of Arabia and its holy places--for example, that five thousand Egyptian prostitutes had been sent to look after U.S. troops in forward bases. Indeed, he issued a formal call for jihad against the infidels. He pointed to the greed, extravagance, and arrogance of the oil-rich countries--an appeal nicely calculated to send Moroccan and Egyptian youth, who had no jobs and no prospects, into the streets. He wrapped himself in the glorious mantle of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the great Arab hero who would stand up to Imperialism, Zionism, and Reaction, even in the face of overwhelming force. And finally, when the war started, he could use (and did) his notorious SCUD missiles to drag Israel into the fighting, thereby demonstrating the real nature of the coalition against Iraq-namely, that the whole affair was nothing more than a war on behalf of Zionism.

 Let me repeat once again that in all these calculations Saddam was no fool. Almost to a man and woman, every Middle East expert in the United States (and I must include myself in this unfortunate company) foresaw the same possibilities. All the best people agreed with Saddam, in short. So, we now have to ask a rather different question: Why didn't all these things happen after all? How could so many smart, well-informed people be so wrong? (One is reminded of Harry Truman's famous dictum, "An expert is someone who doesn't want to learn anything new, because then he wouldn't be an expert.")

 One paradoxical answer is that Bush and his people took the experts' advice. Fully aware of what might happen, they decided to confront these problems by making the war as short and decisive as possible. If they could bring the fighting to a quick conclusion, they would cut the legs out from under domestic opposition to the war, and likewise keep Arab Nationalist and Islamist opposition from having time to crystallize. Happily for them, and to the astonishment of many observers, General Schwarzkopf and his troops proved equal to the task.

 At least as important were two crucial failures by Saddam Hussein himself. One was his complete ineptitude as a military leader. To win by losing, as Nasser had done at Suez in 1956, he had to put up a real fight. Heroism in a lost cause is only effective when there is some real heroism. Second, he did not perceive his own political liabilities as an Arab Nationalist or Muslim spokesman. For the Arab intelligentsia or the Arab masses to accept him in these roles, they had to forget a lot of things--his brutal suppression of the Shi'ite clergy in Iraq, for example, or the unhappy fact that he had created the crisis by annexing a sovereign Arab state. He had no credentials as a spokesman for the Islamic cause--quite the contrary. As to Arab Nationalism, he had played no substantial role in old struggles for the cause to which he could appeal, as Nasser in 1967 was able to recall his struggles over the previous twenty years.

 In spite of these slips, Saddam's estimates (as we have reconstructed them here) proved very close to the mark. The Palestinians did respond to his call, and with enthusiasm; indeed, he won over not only the isolated and desperate PLO leadership but also the mass of Palestinians in Jordan and the Occupied Territories in Israel. By so doing, he compelled King Hussein of Jordan--normally a key U.S. ally in the region--to lend diplomatic and economic support to Iraq. In spite of King Hussein's immense political skill, including his willingness to subject his country to enormous economic deprivations as a sign of his commitment to Iraq, the situation in Jordan throughout the crisis and fighting was explosive. Likewise, the terrible socioeconomic stresses in North Africa sent huge crowds into the streets in Tunis and Casablanca, bearing the banners of Saddam Hussein. No doubt there was a bit of opportunism in all this; the protest leaders were likely using Saddam as a bogeyman to frighten their own governments. But the demonstrations might well have mushroomed into mass popular movements capable of toppling the Tunisian and Moroccan regimes had things continued much longer. In Egypt, finally, the signs of stress were growing daily. Had the fighting gone on two more weeks, had there been any significant loss of Egyptian lives, would the universities have exploded into massive riots? It is a very real possibility.

 In the final analysis, what can we say about Saddam Hussein and his hypothetical exercise in risk analysis? This much at least: he may have been brutal, thuggish, arrogant, and unprincipled, but he was not crazy. Seizing Kuwait made very good geopolitical and economic sense. Apart from solving Saddam's immediate financial problems, Kuwait would have given Iraq unchallenged access to the Persian Gulf and provided it with the resources to dominate the whole region, and perhaps far beyond. Many leaders have gone to war for much less. Moreover, he must have known that he was incurring significant risks in seizing his neighbor, but Saddam Hussein was used to big risks. And as our analysis has tried to show, the risks here hardly seemed excessive. If Saddam's analysis had been borne out on a single point, he might well have carried the day in 1990-1991. Nor should we forget that he is still in power, still unchallenged within Iraq itself, still sitting on an enormous pool of oil, still waiting for a favorable change in the wind that will restore all his fortunes.


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