House Foreign Affairs Committee chair Lee Hamilton (D-IN) offered the first criticism by a Washington insider of the Bush administration’s handling of the Gulf crisis when, on September 18, 1990, he blamed Assistant Secretary of State for Near East and South Asian Affairs John Kelly for not sending a firm signal to Iraq that the United States would come to the defense of Kuwait if it were attacked. Kelly had told the committee two days before the Iraqi invasion that the US had no formal commitment to protect Kuwait from outside threats. This was no more than a reiteration of comments made to the press by State Department spokesperson Margaret Tutwiler on July 24; asked whether or not Washington had any agreement to defend Kuwait, she replied, “We do not have any defense treaties with Kuwait, and there are no special defense or security commitments to Kuwait.” Such statements, said Hamilton, openly invited Saddam Hussein to send his army to occupy his country’s southern neighbor.

Equally subjected to what Secretary of State James Baker called “some 20-20 hindsighting” was the US ambassador to Baghdad, April Glaspie. In a meeting with President Saddam Hussein on July 25, Glaspie remarked that “President Bush is an intelligent man. He is not going to declare an economic war against Iraq.” She went on to say that “we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait…. We hope you can solve this problem using any suitable methods via [Arab League Secretary-General] Klibi or via [Egyptian] President Mubarak. All that we hope is that these issues are solved quickly.” Congressional critics now charged that these statements represented a culpable degree of indifference to Iraqi threats against Kuwait on the part of high-ranking Bush administration officials.

The predictable debate over “Who lost Kuwait?” has drawn attention away from another side of US-Iraqi relations in the months leading up to the present crisis. As seen from Baghdad, Washington’s military and diplomatic moves in the Gulf during the spring and summer of 1990 presented a growing threat to Iraqi interests, if not to Iraqi security, which State Department reassurances did little to ameliorate.
Iraqi leaders may even have seen Washington’s protestations of friendship as camouflage for a two-track program of increasing the level of US military involvement in the region and encouraging Iraq’s rivals to challenge Saddam Hussein’s claim to leadership in inter-Arab affairs.

Following the August 1988 ceasefire that ended both the Iran-Iraq war and the threat of armed attacks on oil tankers in the area, US naval commanders continued to maintain an eight-ship flotilla in the Gulf. This represented a substantial increase over the five-ship task force stationed in Gulf waters prior to 1987. With the end of the Iran-Iraq war, the advantages of the US naval presence for Iraq disappeared and Baghdad’s stance toward the remaining US flotilla shifted. Saddam Hussein warned the leaders of the new Arab Cooperation Council (ACC) in late February 1990 that the collapse of the Eastern Bloc left no deterrent to US forces in the Middle East. He called for the immediate removal of the Gulf task force, and urged his ACC partners to withdraw their assets from US financial institutions if Washington ignored this demand.

Washington’s reaction to the escalating confrontation between Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates on the one hand and Iraq on the other, and Iraq’s military buildup along the Kuwaiti border over the issue of OPEC oil production quotas, confirmed Baghdad’s perception that the US intended to exercise its military muscle to the detriment of Iraqi interests. On July 24, the day before the OPEC oil ministers were to meet in emergency session in Geneva to discuss the situation, the Pentagon announced that six US warships were beginning “short notice” maneuvers alongside naval forces of the UAE in the southern Gulf. This operation, called “Exercise Ivory Justice,” was the first joint operation ever undertaken by US and Gulf armed forces; it was also the largest US operation in the area since the end of the Iran-Iraq war, and included the deployment of two tanker aircraft capable of refueling the Emirates’ Mirage fighter-bombers, greatly increasing their striking range.

To Iraq, “Ivory Justice” seemed to run at odds with Kelly’s subsequent testimony before Congress. It also appeared to reinforce the position of Baghdad’s rivals in the Arab world. Saddam Hussein’s deteriorating influence in inter-Arab affairs had been evident when the February ACC summit watered down Iraq’s proposals concerning both the US military presence in the Gulf and the influx of Soviet Jews into the occupied territories. Baghdad’s inability to shape the regional agenda had become more evident when, despite
Hussein’s strident denunciations of the US and Israel, the emergency Arab summit convened in Baghdad at the end of May issued a final communique containing only the most general expressions of support for “Arab national security” and the Palestinian uprising.

As tensions mounted in the Gulf in July, Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati visited Kuwait to cultivate “further cooperation in various fields,” and President Hafiz al-Asad of Syria traveled to Alexandria to cement a reconciliation between Damascus and Cairo. Syrian-Egyptian relations received a further boost from a notable thaw in Egyptian-Iranian relations, illustrated by Tehran’s attendance at the conference of foreign ministers of the Islamic Conference Organization in Cairo after a three years’ absence. These moves, which Washington was not unhappy to see, further undermined the Iraqi leader’s claim to a preeminent position in inter-Arab affairs.

This combination of US military initiatives and shifts in inter-Arab alliances no doubt encouraged the Kuwaiti regime to stand firm in its talks with Iraqi representatives in Jidda on August 1. The reportedly contemptuous and dismissive attitude of the Kuwaiti delegation during the first
round of meetings prompted the Iraqi team to walk out before a second session could be convened. Iraqi forces crossed the border into Kuwait early the next morning.

It is of course impossible to know whether or not such a move was planned by Saddam Hussein and his advisers from the beginning. But there
is little question that the regime in Baghdad would have had a harder time selling its decision to invade had the Kuwaiti leadership adopted a less confrontational posture. And it may have been even more difficult to justify the invasion had Kuwait not appeared to have been collaborating so closely with Washington and its Arab allies in imposing a pax Americana over the Gulf for the the post-Cold War era, a development which Washington had hoped Baghdad would endorse as well.

How to cite this article:

Fred Halliday "Washington Watch," Middle East Report 168 (January/February 1991).

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