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Iraq: U.S. Ambassador Analyzes Invasion Of Kuwait

By Charles Recknagle

Nine years ago today, Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait. The invasion resulted in U.S.-led coalition forces pushing Baghdad out of Kuwait six months later and high tensions between Iraq and the international community ever since. RFE/RL recalls the events by asking US ambassador David Mack, a key U.S. policy advisor at the time, why Baghdad believed it could seize Kuwait.

Prague, 2 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Ambassador David Mack is the State Department senior official who had the major role in U.S. diplomatic policy toward Iraq during the period of the 1990-91 crisis. He told RFE/RL this week that Baghdad's decision to invade Kuwait was based on a series of Iraqi miscalculations about how the international community would respond to an attack on the oil-rich emirate.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Iraqi Service director, David Newton, Mack said that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein believed that neither the West nor his Arab neighbors would militarily oppose an invasion. David Mack:

"I think there was an assumption in Baghdad that they would be supported by the Soviet Union against the United States and, of course, that completely misunderstood the nature of US-Soviet relations after the cold war. Secondly, I believe there was an assumption in Baghdad that the world economy could not manage without the combined oil reserves of Iraq and Kuwait. I think there was a belief that only for a very temporary period of time would the world refuse to give in and allow ... Kuwaiti oil exports from an occupied Kuwait. Third, I believe that Saddam Hussein calculated that the United States was still hampered by a post-Vietnam unwillingness to use major military force in far-away parts of the world. Finally, I believe Saddam Hussein miscalculated badly the nature of his own neighbors. I think he believed that Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, would stand on the sidelines and allow him to occupy and keep Kuwait and, of course, he was very, very wrong in that regard."

Mack recalled that the international community repeatedly warned Baghdad not to cross Kuwait's border in the months ahead of the invasion. Both Western and Arab powers rejected Baghdad's claim that Kuwait was overpumping an oil field which stretches between the two countries as well as Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's argument that Kuwait was historically part of Iraq.

But he says that while Washington and other Western powers signaled to Iraq that they were ready to defend Kuwait, most Arab countries -- including Kuwait itself -- did not feel there should be a military response to the crisis. That, he says, may have given Saddam a false sense of assurance that a lightning invasion of Kuwait would not be reversed. Mack:

"In general [the Arab states] did not feel there was a need for any kind of military response. They may have taken the crisis seriously but their attitude and what they told us when we consulted with them on this matter was that it could be settled by Arab diplomacy, that the US was over-reacting in the sense of feeling that there might be the need for some sort of military cooperation. The only exception was the government of the United Arab Emirates, which did ask for a joint exercise with the United States. This [attitude] was, of course, also true of Kuwait. In fact, Kuwait at that time had pretty well stopped any kind of military cooperation with the United States and the Kuwait government even went out of its way to avoid the public appearance of engaging in political consultations with the United States. So I would have to say that the impression which must have been gained in Baghdad was that the United States did not have support from regional states for taking serious measures of deterrence."

Still, Mack says that no matter how the international community responded diplomatically to Iraq's threats against Kuwait, the invasion probably was inevitable due to Saddam Hussein's own commitment to the idea and his conviction he could succeed. Mack:

"There was nothing we could have said that would have made a difference, in my opinion. In retrospect, of course, we have found out that the preparations that the Iraqis had made for an invasion and subsequent occupation of Kuwait were quite thorough and extensive and the preparations had been made over a considerable period of time. So, in effect, the decision had already been taken, although there may have been some question as to the timing of an Iraqi move. I think the only thing that might have deterred [the invasion] is if the United States had done something in terms of moving major military assets into the area."

Mack predicts that one day history will regard Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait not as a failure of international politics but as a personal blunder by a willful leader. He says that Saddam Hussein has shown himself to be a genius in Iraq's domestic political arena at maintaining his own power. But his efforts to extend that power beyond his own borders have been marked only by costly failures.