Huffpost WorldPost
Dr. Josef Olmert Headshot

The 23rd Anniversary of Saddam's Invasion of Kuwait: Some Possible Lessons

Posted: Updated:

It was on August 2, 1990 when the world woke up to the news of Saddam's invasion of neighboring Kuwait, a state tiny in size but rich in oil. Thus, a border dispute festering ever since Kuwait's declaration of independence in 1961 came to a climatic head. The Iraqi dictator immediately announced that Kuwait would be Iraq's 19th province, and for awhile he seemed to be the modern-day Abu Ali, the reincarnation of the mythological Arab folk hero. Not for long, as we all know, and the full story of what happened afterwards is beyond the scope of this post, but what is to be discussed are some of the implications of this fateful day, as well as what happened prior to it.

When news came to Washington in the early hours of August 2nd, there must have been a state of shock there. It was on July 25, 1990 when the American ambassador in Baghdad, April Glaspie, an experienced and able diplomat, met the Iraqi dictator to discuss the massive Iraqi troop build-up along the Kuwaiti border. What happened in this meeting, or rather did not happen, has become part of the folkloric history of diplomacy, and ought to be required learning material in every course of foreign service cadets.

While there are so many accounts of the meeting, it seems rather certain that the ill-fated ambassador failed to convey to the dictator the implications of an invasion of Kuwait, insofar as what the potential American reaction would be. It seems also that the ambassador made it clear that the U.S. wished not to interfere in inter-Arab border disputes. The question of whether all that was said or not was the green or yellow light to the Iraqi ruler, prompting him that the option to invade remained open; then it happened, few days after the ambassador conveyed the message to Washington that there was a specific promise not to do it. Washington could and should have been skeptical about that, as just a few days before a high-level Israeli delegation was in DC, with the stated goal of sharing with the Americans the distinct Israeli impression that Saddam was in for troubles, though invasion to Kuwait was not categorically mentioned as the inevitable target.

Two obvious lessons to be learned: First, electronic intelligence had its limitations then and still has them now. Satellites, as sophisticated as they may be, cannot read the thoughts of dictators, and this is crucial when we deal with countries where decisions are made by one person. Saddam then, the North Korean guy now, and who knows who else tomorrow. Second, and perhaps more importantly, believing dictators -- taking them for their ''word of honor'' -- is a tricky, in most cases dangerous gamble; Hitler in the 1930's, Saddam in 1990, maybe the Iranians now and in the very near future?

Hard to say, difficult decisions for those in a position to make them, but it surely is safer when dealing with dictators to be doubtful and cynical than to prove to be naïve in retrospect... there is always so much at stake.

Then there are two important regional implications, surely many more, but these two stand out very clearly. The first has to do with the system of inter-Arab relations. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, as well as the earlier Saddam invasion of Iran, proved to be more significant and with more lasting implications than a lot of the Arab-Palestinian-Israeli wars. Rhetoric is one thing, but in reality, the Arab world invested much more economic resources in the eight-year long Iraq-Iran war than in all the Arab-Israeli wars combined, and obviously there were many more casualties in this war than in all of the other wars. The Kuwaiti conflict showed again that the main preoccupation of Arab states was with their own internal disputes, more than with the Palestinian problem, so much so that this war really broke new ground as it put Israel on one side with most of the Arab world against another Arab state, Iraq and its few supporters in the Middle East. Israel was passive, not reacting to the Iraqi aggression in the form of 42 Scud missiles fired at her, and so derailed Saddam's intention to turn a possible Israeli reaction into yet another Arab-Israeli war.

Can we learn from this state of affairs about what may happen were Iran to be attacked with Israel in the forefront, or as part of an effort led by the U.S.? That remains to be seen. It may be premature to raise this question, as the possibility of an attack on Iran seems somewhat more distant now than before, but then this is the Middle East, where things happen, even contrary to the prevailing opinion of many beltway pundits...

Lastly, there is a lesson for Israel. During the war in the gulf, from January to late February 1991, there was enormous domestic pressure on then PM Shamir to retaliate for the unprovoked missile attacks from Iraq. Shamir stood his ground and was right. Israel's power of deterrence against potential Arab enemies was not compromised, and sometimes the wisdom of reserve and moderation reaps more political/strategic rewards than what meets the eye when things happen. Will that prove be the overriding lesson also with regard to Iran? Time will tell...