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Iraq: Ten Years Later -- Saddam Hussein's Kuwait Invasion

  • Don Hill

This week marks the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Kuwait by the forces of Iraq's Saddam Hussein. Later, a U.S.-led international contingent forced the Iraqis to withdraw. RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill asks a former senior U.S. diplomat who played an important role at the time how Saddam could have miscalculated so badly.

Prague, 31 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Ten years ago this week (2 Aug., 1990), tanks and soldiers of the army of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein rolled in overwhelming force across Kuwait's border. Iraq had been massing of tanks and troops -- and the suspense had been building -- for days before.

The United States had issued warnings to Baghdad. The State Department had called in Iraqi Ambassador Muhammad Mashat to hear a stern caution from Deputy Assistant Secretary of State David Mack. Mack was a veteran Middle Eastern hand and a former ambassador in the area.

The United States, as Mack puts it today, "made it absolutely clear that we opposed the use of force or threats of force against Kuwait." But Saddam gave the marching order anyway. Over the next few months, his invaders devastated Kuwait. The following January, an international force -- including military units from Arab countries -- counter-attacked and eventually prevailed.

The predominantly U.S. task force required six weeks for its technologically, numerically and tactically superior team to overwhelm Iraq's best, to liberate Kuwait and to rout Saddam's troops. In a telephone interview, David Mack -- now vice president of the Washington-based Middle East Institute -- describes how the events of 1990 look to an insider 10 years later.

Having been forewarned, how could Saddam have miscalculated so completely the consequences of his invasion? Mack was asked. He said:

"Certainly, the Iraqis were looking at other indicators of what they thought the United States might do. They looked at a situation in which the Congress of the Untied States was controlled by the Democratic Party, whereas the president was a Republican. They didn't believe that George Bush would have domestic support in the United States from the U.S. public and from the Congress for taking military action."

Another indicator that may have led Saddam astray, Mack says, was what has come to be called the "Vietnam syndrome." Americans still were struggling then with the self-confidence lost in their disastrous engagement in Vietnam, which ended in a chaotic withdrawal in 1975.

Mack says also that Saddam did not believe that Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations would countenance U.S. military action in their backyard. Saddam also misread the role of the Soviets in 1990. He did not grasp the meaning of the end of the Cold War, Mack says.

But a number of other authorities at the time concluded that a major reason for Saddam's error had been ambiguity in the policy of the administration of U.S. President George Bush. Four years ago, the respected Presidential Studies Quarterly published an article by John Wilz documenting what Wilz called President Bush's "policy of appeasing Iraq" through much of his administration (1989-93). Al Gore, then Democratic candidate for vice president -- now Vice President Gore, running for president -- said at the time that Bush had "coddled a tyrant."

Early in 1990, despite evidence of an Iraqi arms buildup, the White House supported continuing U.S. Export-Import Bank loan guarantees for Iraq and opposed a congressional initiative to impose sanctions. A U.S. acting assistant secretary of state met with Saddam and told him he was, in the diplomat's words, "a force for moderation in the region." As late as mid-July, State Department spokesmen seemed to be vague about whether the United States would fight to protect Kuwait.

Then there was April Glaspie's meeting with Saddam on 25 July. She was the U.S. ambassador to Iraq. A transcript of that talk made public by the Iraqis alleges that Glaspie said Washington "has no opinion" on Arab-Arab border disagreements. Glaspie subsequently told Congress that the quote was taken out of the context, which was peaceful resolution of such disputes.

In Mack's view, Saddam had large incentives for wishful thinking about annexing Kuwait, which he called Iraq's 19th province. Iraq had emerged from a crippling eight-year war with Iran. Saddam had borrowed heavily from both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. He believed, Mack says, that he deserved an economic reward for containing Iran.

Saddam also accused both Kuwait and the Saudis of waging an economic war against Iraq by exceeding their oil production quotas and depressing world oil prices. Mack says:

"It is clear that for some time, Saddam Hussein had entertained a notion that Kuwait was not an official state, that it should be part of Iraq. He had other priorities such as the war with Iran. But it seems like he never gave up on the idea that something would have to be done to settle issues with Kuwait."

Saddam Hussein maintains such iron control in Iraq that many -- perhaps most Iraqis -- have little understanding of the circumstances of the Kuwait invasion. They do not know that it resulted in worldwide condemnation or even that it ended in a disastrous defeat for Saddam.

Inevitably, many must accept Saddam's propaganda boast that the United States met defeat in the 1991 Desert War because it failed in its goal to unseat him. Mack calls suggestions that the United States had formulated any such goal a "total fiction." The only goal was to liberate Kuwait, he says.

Our correspondent asked Mack to predict what is likely to happen next in Saddam's world. Mack's response was cautious:

"I think it remains true that Saddam is not going to be the leader of Iraq for the rest of time. When he will depart, it's hard to say. But my guess is it will be sooner than he thinks. But not as soon as we would like."

Recent reports in The Times of Britain and The Jerusalem Post say that Saddam is now ill with cancer, that Iraq has recently tested a new and dangerous Shihab-3 missile and that Saddam's tanks have been massing this month -- Kuwait-style -- on the edge of Kurd-controlled areas of Iraq.

Mack offers no opinion on Saddam's physical health. On possible attacks against the Kurds, he sounds chillingly reminiscent. The United States has, in his words, "made it absolutely clear" that it will not countenance an Iraqi government attack on the Kurds.