It was touted as the war that ended America’s “Vietnam Syndrome.” For much of the American foreign policy community, the President George H. W. Bush administration’s so-called Coalition of the Willing marked a pinnacle of twentieth-century American diplomacy.
Few observers saw the war for what it would become, not just for Kuwaitis and Iraqis but for the entire region. MERIP’s coverage sought to understand the Gulf War beyond the battlefield kinetics: from Iraq’s August 1990 invasion of Kuwait to the US-led Desert Storm military operation liberating Kuwait and looking beyond to the regional aftermath. Our authors and editors offered historically-grounded analysis of the invasion, they measured the nascent waves of misery and violence that would radiate from it and offered clear-eyed commentary on the costs and risks.
We invite our readers to return to this insightful coverage to grasp both the immediacies of the crisis and the effort to understand its wide-ranging ramifications.
– The Editors
“From the Editors,” Middle East Report 166 (September/October 1990)
“We condemn Iraq’s invasion, not from any attachment to the political order Saddam is challenging, but from our opposition to the order that his regime represents. Kuwaitis—all who live and work there—should determine their political future and the flag under which they want to live, but not with Saddam’s boot on their necks…This intervention is first of all about oil. Iraq’s invasion challenged the political hierarchies that have controlled the wealth and resources of the region for most of this century. These hierarchies include the ruling families of Arabia. One reason the princes of Arabia still exercise their micro-sovereignty today is in large part because this arrangement has suited the industrial powers. US troops are in Saudi Arabia in order to prevent the emergence of a regional power that, unlike the Saudis, might choose to exploit and mobilize those resources in ways that conflict with the agenda of the United States.”
“From the Editors,” Middle East Report 167 (November/December 1990)
“One component of self-determination that is also on many Arab agendas concerns issues of equity and class, ‘haves’ versus ‘have-nots.’ Saddam is no legitimate voice of the dispossessed, any more than he has the interests of the Palestinians at heart. But the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait has tapped into a vast and deep Arab resentment of the existing political and economic order, one that appears to monopolize the region’s resources for the benefit of Western consumers and companies and Arab elites. The scale and timing of the US military deployment displays Washington’s determination that there should be no radical change in these political and economic structures.”
A View from Kuwait
An interview with Ahmad al-Khatib by Fred Halliday, “A Military Solution Will Destroy Kuwait,” Middle East Report 168 (January/February 1991)
“Halliday: The question now is how to resolve the crisis. The ruling family favors US military action. What is your attitude to this?
Al-Khatib: It is irrelevant what Kuwaitis want or say now. We do not have any say in all this. But I can tell you that we do not want a military solution. If we can get a peaceful solution, it will be better for all of us. A military solution will destroy Kuwait and will not help those of our people who are still inside. It will also destroy Iraq—not just the Iraqi army, but also the whole infrastructure of the country. That will be a loss. Iraq is an Arab country—it is not just a matter of Saddam. Today he is president; tomorrow he may not be there.”
A View from Iraq
Faleh A. Jabar, “Why the Uprisings Failed,” Middle East Report 176 (May/June 1992)
“Assuming Saddam’s true ‘strategy’ was the one he outlined at the meeting in Kuwait—there is no evidence of any other—it was a colossal blunder. The air campaign, which he thought would last two or three days, lasted more than a month. The Israelis did not react. The Europeans stood fast alongside the Bush administration. No oil famine occurred. The ground battle Saddam so confidently awaited never materialized. Instead there was a rout. The Iraqi army would not have fought even if the order had been given. The devastation wreaked upon the country surpassed imagination. From the ruins Baghdad radio spoke of the war as ‘a great achievement,’ and called the withdrawal ‘heroic.’ Baghdad’s official version of the events reminded Iraqis of the story of an Italian general defeated at al-‘Alamayn by Gen. Montgomery. When reproached for having allowed whole sections of his forces to flee the battle, he solemnly remarked: ‘Yes, we ran away — but like lions.’ To the peasant conscripts who made up the vast bulk of the Iraqi armed forces, no such implausible irony was possible. For them the experience of flight ended in carnage such as that on the ‘highway of death’ at al-Mutla. Amidst this chaos the Iraqi people rose up to defy the dictator. In the throes of a devastating battlefield defeat they reached out for victory inside their own wrecked and wretched nation. It was the ‘popular uprising’ for which every opposition leader, from modern leftist to traditional cleric, had been calling throughout the 1980–1988 war [with Iran]. Yet most had given up hope of it ever happening and none were remotely prepared for putting it into practice.”
Karen Pfeifer, “Letter from Jordan,” Middle East Report 167 (November/December 1990)
“Jordanians are well aware of Saddam Hussein’s nasty human rights record, but they support him in the current crisis anyway. Opposition to foreign domination, an Arab nationalist sentiment still powerful among Jordanians, is part of the reason. But it is underpinned by economic, political and historical factors that go much deeper.”
Marion Farouk-Sluglett, “Iraq Since 1986: The Strengthening of Saddam,” Middle East Report 167 (November/December 1990)
“Iraq’s greatest debts were to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, which sold ‘war relief crude’ worth some $18–$20 billion on Iraq’s behalf; if these counterpart sales are included, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia alone provided Iraq with about $50–$60 billion. At the end of 1987, Iraq owed $24 billion to the OECD states, of which $14–15 billion were export credit guarantees, while debts to commercial banks amounted to about $9 billion.”
Yahya Sadowski, “Scuds versus Butter: The Political Economy of Arms Control in the Arab World,” Middle East Report 177 (July/August 1992)
“Some sort of restraint on the flood of advanced weapons to Gulf states is also necessary. At issue is not just the political economy of the Arab world, but also the US domestic political economy and foreign policy, for which arms transfers continue to be a central element. What Middle Eastern states lack today is not visions of arms control arrangements, but adequate incentives for implementing them.”
Susan Slyomovics, “Cartoon Commentary: Algerian and Moroccan Caricatures from the Gulf War,” Middle East Report 180 (January/February 1993)
“Cartoons explicitly reduce the political expression of a country, say Iraq or the US, to a single individual—Saddam Hussein or Bush. At the same time, the graphic image allows for a speculative and interrogative dimension. In contrast, television discourages reflection upon complex issues of context, history, culture and international relations. Images are discrete and self-contained and exclude any discussion. Television, then, represents more of a caricature than any cartoon.”
Joy Gordon, “The Enduring Lessons of the Iraq Sanctions” Middle East Report 294 (Spring 2020)
“The economic sanctions imposed on Iraq by the United Nations Security Council, from 1990 to 2003, may well lay claim to be the worst humanitarian catastrophe ever imposed in the name of global governance. The unconscionable human damage done by those sanctions is routinely dismissed as the unintended consequence of a well-intentioned policy from the past, which has since given way to more nuanced and humane measures. But in fact, the Iraq sanctions program is the template for the systemic, devastating sanctions we see in place today, albeit in a subtler and more circuitous form.”