On August 2, 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded the tiny emirate of Kuwait. The resulting conflict triggered a chain reaction that changed the world. In this first installment in a three-part series, we trace the origins of the Kuwait crisis, chronicle Saddam’s rise to power in Iraq, and explore America’s symbiotic relationship with the Persian Gulf.
On August 2, 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded the tiny emirate of Kuwait. The resulting conflict triggered a chain reaction that changed the world. In this first installment in a three-part series, we trace the origins of the Kuwait crisis, chronicle Saddam’s rise to power in Iraq, and explore America’s symbiotic relationship with the Persian Gulf.
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Atkinson, Rick. Crusade: The Untold Story of the Gulf War. 1993.
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Charles Rivers Editors. The Gulf War. 2018.
Coll, Steve. Ghost Wars. 2004.
Coll, Steve. Branigin, William. “US scrambled to shape view of ‘Highway of Death’”. 3.11.1991.
Corrigan, Jim. Desert Storm Air War. 2017.
Coughlin, Con. Saddam: His Rise and Fall. 2005.
Dunnigan, James F. Macedonia, Raymond M. Getting It Right. 1995.
Finlan, Alastair. The Gulf War 1991. 2003.
Gordon, Michael R. Trainer, Bernard E. The General’s War. 1995.
Hallion, Richard P. Desert Storm 1991. 2022.
Hiro, Dilip. Desert Shield to Desert Storm: The Second Gulf War. 1991.
Hiro, Dilip. Cold War in the Islamic World. 2018.
Karsh, Efraim. The Iran-Iraq War, 1980-1988. 1989.
Karsh, Efraim. Rautsi, Inari. Saddam Hussein. A Political Biography. 1991.
Khadduri, Majid. Ghareeb, Edmund. War in the Gulf, 1990-1991. 1999.
Mufson, Steven. 1990 Aug 6. “Kuwait Assets Form Vast, Frozen Empire”. The Washington Post.
Murray, Williamson. Woods, Kevin M. The Iran-Iraq War. 2014.
Meacham, Jon. Destiny and Power. 2015.
Morris, David J. Storm on the Horizon. 2004.
Riedel, Bruce. Kings and Presidents: Saudi Arabia and the United States. 2019.
Swofford, Anthony. Jarhead. 2003.
Wyndham, Buck. Hogs in the Sand. 2020.
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Hello and welcome to Conflicted, the history podcast where we talk about the struggles that shaped us, the tough questions that they pose, and why we should care about any of it.
Conflicted is a member of the Evergreen Podcasts Network; and as always, I’m your host, Zach Cornwell.
You are listening to the first episode in a three-part series on a topic that I’ve had on my list for a very long time. The one, the only, Gulf War.
Except…it’s not really the “one and only” Gulf War.
In fact, as long there have been people living near Persian Gulf, there have been armies fighting over it. Since men figured out how to sharpen a few sticks and stand side-by-side in neat little rows, there have been battles fought over that very old, very fertile, very strategically-located region that we call Mesopotamia. And that was before they found oil.
But our Gulf War, the one we’re going to be talking about for the next few episodes, took place way back in the distant, misty days of 1991. Back when cars had tape decks, phones had cords, and Dwayne Johnson had hair.
On the surface, it’s a pretty simple story. In August of 1990, Saddam Hussein, the infamous dictator of Iraq, invaded the tiny country of Kuwait. The United States quickly assembled a coalition to kick him out. And in less than a year, Saddam’s powerful army had been transformed into white flags and pink mist. Cue the victory music; roll credits. But underneath that deceptively simple morality play, is a churning, tessellating landscape of murky motives, competing agendas, and unintended consequences.
The conflict known as the 1991 Gulf War goes by several different names. Sometimes it’s called the Kuwait War, the First Iraq War, or just Operation Desert Storm. But no matter what you call it, one fact remains. It is one of the most consequential things to happen anywhere in the world in the last half-century.
And yet, in the annals of modern history, the Gulf War is often downplayed, deemphasized, or dismissed. Because, at least in the US, the Gulf War is a sort of historical middle child, living in the shadow of two longer, larger, and arguably more destructive conflicts. Behind it, is the Vietnam War. And in front of it, is the 2003 Iraq War.
As a result, the Gulf War is treated as a kind of pit stop on the timeline; a prelude to more important things. But it still lives in our cultural subconscious as a series of highly iconic images: Burning oil wells. Fuzzy CNN footage. Soaring jets and screaming children. Not to mention, some very quotable Presidential soundbites.
But for the most part, the Gulf War is always a part of something else’s story; rarely reexamined on its own merits. But that is exactly what we’re going to do today.
The reason I find this conflict so fascinating, and the reason I think you will too, is because it is an intersection point of several seemingly-unrelated historical threads. Little strands of influence and money and nationalism and sheer coincidence that all get tangled up together for a few months in the Kuwaiti desert. And for better or worse, we’ve been living in that tangle / Gordian Knot for the last 30 years.
It’s also a story chock-full of amazing, larger-than-life historical figures.
We’ll meet the big ones, of course. Saddam Hussein, George H.W. Bush, Norman Schwarzkopf. But we’ll also meet an absolutely incredible cast of supporting characters. People who shaped events, reacted to them, or just sat back and watched. We’ll meet dictators and diplomats, teenage soldiers and aging cold warriors, boots on the ground, guns in the sky, and civilians hiding in the basement.
We’ll assemble a centrifuge of dozens of different vantage points, and at the center, hopefully…is something approximating the truth of what happened out there.
But the Gulf War does have one other name.
Sometimes it’s called “the video game war”, for reasons we will see later. But that description works on a couple levels; because, even now, our popular understanding of it has been flattened into this 2D caricature. Good versus evil. Heroes and villains. Cops and robbers in the desert. Simple, clear-cut. Easy to understand and easy to forget. But hopefully, over the next few episodes, we can bring that story into three dimensions.
So with that quick introduction out of the way, I think it’s time to get started.
Welcome to The Gulf War 1991: Part 1: Lines in the Sand
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It’s April 29th, 1975.
We’re in Saigon, the capitol of South Vietnam.
For the last 20 years, this city has been the seat of American power and influence in Southeast Asia; a red-white-and-blue bulwark guarding against the steady creep of Communism. But today, it is ground zero for one of the greatest embarrassments in the history of the United States.
The Vietnam War, a conflict that has been raging for decades, is lost.
It is over.
Outside the US embassy in Saigon, 10,000 South Vietnamese men, women and children are pressing against the gates, begging for help. They are scared, they are desperate, and they all want one thing: To get out.
They don’t know if the Americans will help them. They don’t know if they’ll be able to find a spot on one of the helicopters swooping down into the Embassy parking lot every 10 minutes. But they have to try. They will bribe and beg and call in every favor they can…because they really, really do not want to be here when the North Vietnamese army arrives.
Many of these people in the crowd have collaborated with the Americans for years – as clerks, cooks, and tailors; advisors and attaches. In rosier times, getting a gig with Uncle Sam was a guaranteed meal ticket; but now, it’s little more than a death warrant. South Vietnamese army officers are burning their identification cards, their documents, paycheck stubs – anything that connects them to the American government and its puppet regime. Anything that could be used to brand them as enemies of a new communist Vietnam.
As one Lieutenant in the South Vietnamese army remembered: “It was chaos in Saigon at that time. Everybody was looking for a way out”
Inside the Embassy, American marines are frantically cleaning house. As artillery rounds boom in the distance like arrhythmic war drum, the soldiers cram classified documents into shredders, transforming decades of intelligence into pulp. They’ve even been ordered to burn the one million dollars in cash that the Embassy keeps on-site for contractor payments. In a process that takes 8 hours, Lincolns and Grants and Benjamins shrivel into wisps of worthless black ash.
On the American Armed Service Radio, an eerily unseasonal song provides the soundtrack to the rising panic. Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” croons over the airwaves; serving as the pre-arranged signal to all American personnel that the evacuation of Saigon has begun. Get out while you can. For many of the 5,000 Americans still in Saigon, it was a surreal ending to a surreal war. As a journalist named Peter Arnett wrote that very same evening from his hotel room:
“Ten years ago, I watched the first U.S. Marines arrive to help Vietnam. They were greeted on the beaches by pretty Vietnamese girls in white silken robes who draped flower garlands about their necks. A decade has passed, and on Tuesday I watched the U.S. Marines shepherding Americans out of South Vietnam. They were the same clean-cut–looking young men of a decade ago. But the Vietnamese were different. Those who didn’t have a place for them on the last helicopters—and there were thousands left behind—hooted, booed and scuffled with the Marines trying to secure the landing zones. Some Vietnamese threw themselves over walls and wire fences, only to be thrown back by Marines. Bloodshed was avoided seemingly only by good luck and bad aim on the part of some angry Vietnamese who shot at a few departing buses and helicopters.”
By 7:58 AM the next morning, the evacuation is over. When the last Americans were airlifted out, Washington pulled the plug. No more helicopters, no more rescues, no more free rides. The South Vietnamese left behind were on their own. As one American military man lamented: “I felt absolutely awful. It was just so serious and deep a betrayal.”
When the last helicopter ramp slammed shut, a sad, shameful chapter in American history closed with it. That afternoon, North Vietnamese tanks rumbled through the streets of Saigon, cementing control over the city following an unconditional surrender by the South Vietnamese government. “That’s it,” Peter Arnett told a colleague, “It’s over.”
Halfway across the world, a relatively unknown American diplomat named George Herbert Walker Bush absorbed the news with a nauseous mix of shock and anger. For the first time in its 200-year existence, America had lost a *major* war. Bush remembered a Canadian diplomat turning to him and saying:
“The American people must understand that as soon as America doesn’t stand for something in the world, there is going to be a tremendous erosion of freedom.”
Those words would be ringing in George Bush’s ears for the next 20 years. Next time America faced a challenge on the world stage, whoever was at the helm would need to take a stand.
The Fall of Saigon was the last death rattle of a quagmire that had cost 2 million Vietnamese lives, 120 billion dollars, and the dignity of three administrations. The American public had been lied to, the Vietnamese population had been brutalized, and any sense of trust people had in the US government had evaporated like yesterday’s tear gas. All that blood, and all that treasure, and all we’d gotten for it was 58,000 dead names scratched into a wall of black granite in Washington DC.
With the loss of Saigon, and the fruitless war that had preceded it, the United States had been brutally spanked on the world stage. You could practically hear the laughter ringing from the Kremlin. But alas, in a global Cold War, superpowers do not have the luxury of licking their wounds. The show must go on. Southeast Asia was a dead scene, but in other corners of the world, the United States scanned the horizon for exciting new partnerships. Promising talent. Fresh meat.
And it wasn’t long before the US found just such an opportunity. An opportunity that presented itself in the form of an up-and-coming young politician from the troubled nation of Iraq. He was a tall, strapping guy with a pearly smile, dark eyes, and a very impressive mustache.
His name was Saddam Hussein.
Now, if you’re the kind of person who enjoys history podcasts (or just a person with a functioning nervous system) you’ve probably heard the name “Saddam Hussein” before. He’s one of the most famous people on the planet. Well, was, one of the most famous people on the planet. And odds are, you have a crystal-clear mental image of him already forming in your head.
Somewhere on a raised platform in your subconscious, there he is. The fearsome, megalomaniac of Iraq. He’s wearing his trademark dictator costume: olive-green fatigues, a black beret perched on a head of oil-slick hair. Maybe he’s waving some kind of gun around – a pistol or an AK-47 - while crowds cheer below and jets scream overhead. The “Butcher of Baghdad”. The man, the myth, the mustache.
But underneath that two-dimensional cartoon character is an absolutely fascinating individual, one that we will get to know very well over the course of this series. Because the truth is, discussing the Gulf War without a deep understanding of Saddam Hussein is a little bit like baking a cake without sugar. You can do it; it just won’t turn out very well. In a story chock-full of weird and wonderful characters, Saddam is the Shakespearean centerpiece of it all, the doomed protagonist of this entire fiasco.
So…who is he? Who is Saddam Hussein?
Over the past four decades or so, there have been enough biographies, books, articles and op-eds written about Saddam to fill a large aircraft hangar. But if you had to boil it down to a single idea, if you had to condense all the anecdotes and analysis, the memes and the mythology, into one key takeaway, the most important thing to understand about the man is this:
Saddam Hussein is a survivor.
Over the course of his life, Saddam was able to sense danger and dodge threats with a kind of Looney Tunes elasticity. He was shrewd, manipulative and very hard to kill. Through a combination of ruthless pragmatism and streetwise paranoia, Saddam bobbed and weaved through the dog-eat-dog world of Iraqi politics to arrive at the top of the heap. And to millions of Americans watching CNN in the fall of 1990, the totalitarian strongman of Iraq was the embodiment of everything wrong in the world; a war criminal, a Hitler reborn, a Bagdad baba yaga.
But the truth is a little more complicated - and interesting - than that reductive snapshot.
Saddam Hussein was not always “Saddam Hussein”. Everybody comes from somewhere, even global pariahs.
Unlike his future adversary George H.W. Bush, Saddam Hussein was not born into privilege. In fact, it’s a minor miracle he was born at all. In 1939 - or 1937 depending on who you ask - Saddam’s mother brought him screaming into the world and onto the floor of a mud hut in backwater Iraq. At that time, in that place, infant mortality was north of 30%. Many children died young from disease, neglect, or just bad luck.
But Saddam did not.
That said, life wasn’t easy for the little boy whose name meant “clasher, confronter, or collider” in Arabic. Saddam’s dad died of cancer shortly before he born, which made him a target for the other kids in the village. In Arab culture, not having a Dad was like not having a left foot. They teased him mercilessly, picked on him, beat him up. As the biographers Efraim Karsh and Inari Rautsi wrote:
He had no friends among the village boys, who often mocked him for being fatherless, and he used to carry an iron bar to protect himself against attacks.
And so, for the first 10 years of his life, Saddam was a lonely, angry little boy. He worked in the fields, endured regular beatings from his asshole stepdad, and avoided local bullies as best he could. The sad, sour cherry on top of the shit sundae was that because of a lack of educational opportunities, Saddam could not even spell his own name. His memories of childhood poverty were vivid. As Saddam himself reflected:
Life was difficult everywhere in Iraq. Very few people wore shoes. And in many cases they only wore them on special occasions. Some peasants would not put their shoes on until they had reached their destination, so they would look smart.”
As for the bullies and the beatings, Saddam preferred not to elaborate, simply summing it up:
“I was never young.”
But this Dickensian existence would not last forever. Around 1947, Saddam went to live with a benevolent Uncle who made sure he got an education. He learned to read, write, and spell his name; he even became a bit of a class clown, delighting his fellow students with practical jokes. On one occasion, for example, he snuck a live snake into his Quran teacher’s robes. You know, classic pranks.
But Saddam was destined for more than small-town hijinks, and when he turned 18 in 1955, he and his Uncle moved to the capital of Baghdad. The country boy was heading to the big city, and like an Iraqi Oliver Twist, he quickly adapted to his environment. To quote the late, great author Terry Pratchett, “sometimes glass glitters more than diamonds. It has more to prove”.
In those days, Baghdad was a roiling hotbed of political activism; of feuding gangs, cutthroat conspiracies, and a prevailing attitude of “f*** the government”. The city of Baghdad is over a thousand years old, but the nation state it resided in - “Iraq” - had only existed for about 30 years. As one historian put it:
“Iraq was the fabrication of outsiders who had little understanding of the region, its culture, or its politics.”
After the Ottoman Empire collapsed like a tired old grandpa in the aftermath of World War 1, the Middle East was overrun with a clown car of cartographers and bureaucrats from the British Empire, who proceeded to chop up the region like a prize pig. The resulting borders were little more than arbitrary lines, drawn in the sand.
This part over here…we’ll call that Jordan. This part over here…that’s Lebanon. This chunk over here…that’s Syria. And so on and so forth. In the year 1921, people in Mesopotamia woke up one morning to discover that they were now citizens of a brand-new country called “Iraq”. As the first British-installed monarch of Iraq cynically observed in 1933:
There is still – and I say this with a heart full of sorrow – no Iraqi people, but unimaginable masses of human beings, devoid of any patriotic idea, imbued with religious traditions and absurdities, connected by no common tie, giving ear to evil, prone to anarchy, and perpetually ready to rise against any government whatever.”
And rise they did.
By 1941, Iraq’s government had already experienced 7 coup d’états and about different 12 cabinets. Iraqi politics was a murderous game of musical chairs, with factions rising and falling and rising again. The perpetual cycle of coup and counter-coup became a cherished pastime, a sort of national sport. But it was Saddam Hussein who would elevate political betrayal to an art form.
On the mean streets of Baghdad, Saddam found himself. Like Mozart putting his fingers to a piano for the first time, Hussein discovered his calling, his natural habitat. At the age of 20, he joined an up-and-coming political faction called the Ba’ath party, an organization dedicated to the eradication of all Western influence over the Arab world. And in those heated sessions, the country boy realized that not only did he like politics, he liked hurting people in the name of politics. It made him feel powerful, it made him feel alive, it made him feel in control. Saddam liked being in control. If his childhood had taught him anything, the only way to be safe, was to be in control.
So when he wasn’t in school, at party functions, or selling cigarettes on streetcorners, Saddam built his rep as a brawler, a bruiser, and a hitman. A pitiless enforcer of the party line with a gangster’s intuition and a lupine sense of creativity. As the writer Said K. Aburish describes:
Saddam now became a student leader of anti-government demonstrations. A sign of worse things to come, he relied on alley boys and criminal elements and talked them into joining the student protesters. He set up roving gangs of thugs who specialized in beating up their opponents, including shopkeepers who refused to shut their businesses in protest at government policy.”
The only way to survive in a cruel world, Saddam believed, was to be crueler than everyone else. Now, the next several years could probably be expanded into several full-length episodes, but we can’t hang around the back alleys of Baghdad forever. We’ve gotta keep this thing moving.
Suffice to say, over the next couple decades, Saddam Hussein went through several season’s worth of character development. He participated in a botched assassination attempt on the Prime Minister of Iraq, barely escaping the country with a bullet in his leg; He spent years in exile, enrolled in law school, dropped out, got married and had some kids. Then he came back to Iraq, got busted, and did a two-year stretch in prison, most of it in solitary confinement. He pulled a Shawshank and escaped from prison, participated in another coup, and eventually found himself riding the coattails of a mentor into the halls of power.
The bottom line was: He survived.
When so many others found themselves on the wrong end of a gun, Saddam kept his head above the waves, kept air in his lungs, and eventually came out on top. Like a seabird riding thermals, he climbed higher and higher and higher in Iraqi politics. By 1969, he was the second most powerful person in the country. The friendless, fatherless kid from a backwater hamlet had traded peasant rags for pinstripe suits. As Karsh and Rautsi describe:
“He had effectively purged all potential contenders for the leadership, tightened his grip over the military and maintained the security apparatus as his personal preserve. His imprint was on every major domestic and foreign policy decision.”
As the #2 man in Iraq, Saddam bided his time and slowly drew all the levers of power into his hands. To great acclaim, he nationalized Iraq’s oil industry, injecting the country with an unprecedented wave of wealth. Before Saddam took the reins, Iraq was making a measly $476 million a year from oil sales; But in less than a decade, he had raised those profits to $24 billion annually. And he used that cash to buy weapons and beef up infrastructure, but also to make life better for ordinary Iraqis, according to Karsh and Rautsi:
Major efforts were invested in education, including massive campaigns to eradicate illiteracy. Free education, from kindergarten to university, was hammered down by an official law, and a special coordinating body for the eradication of illiteracy among the adult population was established. […] Heavy emphasis was also placed on the emancipation of women, including legislation ensuring equal pay and outlawing job discrimination on the basis of sex.”
By 1979, Saddam had eclipsed everyone else in the party. After years of patient plotting, he was ready to take big job; and that summer, he made it official. The President of Iraq, Saddam’s former mentor, was quietly shuffled out of power for “health reasons”. Shortly after, it was announced on the radio that there was a new President of Iraq. His name was Saddam Hussein.
But even with the keys to the kingdom clenched firmly in his hands, even with the grudging respect and performative adoration of his countrymen, Saddam never felt completely safe. Even in those early days, Hussein’s decision-making was driven by an almost pathological paranoia. He laid awake at night, always worrying about being ousted, clipped, or replaced. And so, in July of 1979, he took one final, extraordinary step to purge all dissent and rid himself of enemies, real or imagined.
Saddam Hussein had done a lot of ruthless shit in his life, but what he did in the summer of ’79 was his claim to fame, his masterpiece, his Stairway to Heaven. And it took place in a crowded conference room in Baghdad, in front of a live audience.
On July 22nd, Saddam calls a meeting of all the top leadership in the party; all the most important people in the government, the brass, the senior cadres, hundreds of people in all. But none of them are told what this meeting is about. They’re not sure what to expect or why they’re there. They just file in, take their seats, and look to the front like kids in a school assembly, waiting for the Principal to speak.
While they wait, some of them start scanning the room, and they notice something weird. There are cameras - television cameras - positioned strategically around the conference hall. This meeting is being recorded. Something is about to happen.
Eventually, Saddam Hussein takes the stage, wearing a crisp suit and puffing on a fat Havana cigar. After a few preliminary announcements, a little bit of housekeeping, Saddam becomes deadly serious. Then he drops a bombshell. He reveals that he has uncovered a conspiracy to overthrow him. A fifth column of traitors at the highest levels of the Iraqi government.
And what he says next, sucks the oxygen out of the assembly. The conspirators, he says, are all in this room.
Before anyone can absorb what’s happening, a prisoner is hauled on-stage to give a forced confession. The man, a former secretary general of the Command Council, has been tortured, threatened and coached. He was speaking, but Saddam was doing the talking. The shaking confessor goes on to list, name by name, each and every one of the so-called conspirators, more than 60 people in all.
Ice-cold panic starts to take hold of the assembly. They raise their voices in applause, trying to outperform each other with professions of loyalty. They wipe crocodile tears from their eyes, lamenting this horrible plot, screaming out their undying devotion to Saddam Hussein. Long Live Saddam! They say. Here’s a snippet of the actual audio:
Saddam, meanwhile, is drinking all of this in, chomping on his cigar like Tony Soprano. And after the performances quiet down to a whimper, Hussein walks up to the podium and takes the mic.
His heart is broken by these betrayals, he tells them. He can’t believe that after all he’s done for Iraq, after all his benevolence, after all they’d been through together, his closest colleagues would betray him in this way. It hurts him deeply, he says, but there is only one way to deal with traitors. He asks the assembly a rhetorical question.
“And how shall we treat these betrayers?
“You know the answer.”
“Nothing less than the sword.”
Saddam lets that sink in, takes a long drag on his cigar, and says: “Anyone whose name I read must stand up and leave the room.”
Then he starts reading.
[list fades out]
Like a deadly game of duck-duck-goose, Saddam calls out the names of the alleged conspirators in the assembly. And one by one, they are led away by armed guards. Within a matter of minutes, the room is filled with empty chairs and terrified survivors.
Many of the accused men were surprised to hear their names called. Which made sense, because the truth was: there was no plot, there was no fifth column; It was all a fabrication, an excuse cooked up by Saddam to conveniently eradicate anyone who he deemed a threat. Anyone who’d stood up to him or challenged him, even so much as questioned the color of his tie.
After a series of show trials, 21 of the condemned men were taken to the basement and shot. It was a page straight out of Stalin’s playbook, a personal hero of Saddam’s but Hussein put his own cruel twist on the proceedings. As Said Aburish describes:
The way the execution of his opponents among the party leadership was carried out is an original Saddam invention. The victims were taken to the basement of the building where the plot was announced and executed by their comrades, Saddam and his supporters in the RCC and cabinet. Saddam gave every member of the ad hoc execution squad a handgun and asked them to participate in carrying out the hideous act. Of course, he led the way. So all of his inner circle were implicated in an act of murder, which guaranteed their loyalty to Saddam.
These political killings were euphemistically called “democratic executions”. Democratic, as in, “we elect to shoot you in the face”
In the weeks to come, hundreds of other party members would follow those 21 men into the grave. It was, Karsh and Rautsi describe, “the most brutal, fear-reaching purge in his entire career.”
Yet still, there were visible cracks in Saddam’s tough-guy veneer as a cold, calculating dictator. Saddam had been close with several of the executed men. These were guys he’d worked with for years. He knew their wives, their kids, their families. And in his most private moments, the decision clearly weighed on his conscience. According to a Lebanese journalist, detailed in a biography of Saddam by Said K Aburish:
The new President locked himself up in his bedroom and would not come out for two days. When he finally emerged, his eyes were so bloodshot and swollen that he could hardly open them, and he had difficulty speaking.
The part of himself that felt remorse and regret, that little boy he’d left behind in the countryside, could still occasionally slip through the totalitarian veil. But as Saddam went about ruling his new domain, there was no time for tears or weakness. According to Karsh and Rautsi:
He headed a country with enormous oil riches, he commanded a rapidly expanding and modernizing army, and he wielded fearsome control over his subjects. He could boast a developing Iraq where health services and education were free, and where basic foodstuffs were in good supply and low in price. And he was only 42 years old. Here was a man in his prime, full of ambitious plans and, above all, grim determination to keep his hold on the levers of power at all costs.
But just as Saddam Hussein had finished cementing a new dynasty, something happened that would turn it all upside down, setting him on a collision course with a superpower.
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It’s February 14th, 1945.
We’re in Egypt, on the deck of an American battle cruiser anchored in the Suez Canal.
This ship is called the USS Quincy, and it has been polished to a supernova shine. The deck is spick and span and gleaming under the hot Egyptian sun. The US Navy, historically, has always been an authority on the subject of spick and span, but today, the boys in white put in a little extra elbow grease. Because they are about to receive two very important guests. Under a bright blue sky, two empty chairs have been placed on the deck. No one knows it yet, but the USS Quincy will be the site of one of the most important meetings of the 20th century.
Eventually, a wheelchair is pushed out onto the deck. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt is here. In the closing months of a World War, the second in his lifetime, the President of the United States has traveled 13,482 miles to be here today.
Across the world, war was raging. From the coral reefs of the Pacific to the snow-dappled forests of Germany, American war machines crawled and soared and chugged into battle in service of the Allied cause. Tanks and planes and aircraft carriers; trucks and trains and submarines. And all of these machines, all of these tools that win wars, required two key ingredients: Men to use them and oil to fuel them.
Of the first commodity, Roosevelt had no shortage. There were over 12 million American men and women in uniform in 1945. It was the second ingredient – oil – that had brought FDR all the way to a secret meeting in Egypt. The Allied war machine had already used 7 billion barrels of petroleum in 1945, and the democracies of the West would need much more of it; not only for this war, but for all the wars to come.
Eventually, the second guest arrives at the USS Quincy. His name is Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud. In the West, he is known simply as Ibn Saud. He is the king of Saudi Arabia, and consequently, he owns about 20% of the world’s oil supply.
Over the next five hours, FDR and Ibn Saud hammered out a relationship that would define the foreign policy of both nations for the next 75 years. On the surface, it seemed like an odd match. Saudi Arabia and the United States had virtually no overlap in cultural or political values; One was a pluralistic democracy, the other was a theocratic monarchy. But they each had something the other wanted. America wanted cheap access to Saudi oil. And Saudi Arabia wanted Uncle Sam’s protection in an increasingly volatile region. / rough neighborhood.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a talent that few politicians seem to possess: the rare ability to think beyond his own lifespan. And in 1945, that lifespan was getting progressively shorter. FDR was already paralyzed from the waist down, and in a few weeks, he would be dead - killed by a cerebral hemorrhage. But he knew that oil was going to be the lifeblood of any future superpower, and the Saudis were holding the spigot.
The diplomatic love affair that FDR and Ibn Saud kindled on Valentine’s Day in 1945 would be reaffirmed by every Saudi king and every American president in the years since. Saudi Arabia, one historian noted, remains “America’s oldest ally in the Middle East.”
And so, for the next three decades, America kept a watchful eye on the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Persian Gulf, that “imperial petrol station” as one historian described it. The region could never be described as calm, but it was contained. Like an attentive gardener tending to a fragile plant, the United States government trimmed and snipped and pulled weeds when necessary. A coup here, an arms deal there – all the cloak & dagger theatrics that the CIA and other sinister acronyms excel at.
There was, of course, the occasional crisis, the odd war from time to time. The Soviets meddled and the Israelis blustered, but for the most part, the Persian Gulf remained aligned with American interests. As long as the oil continued to flow, as long as the Saudis stayed fat and happy and rich; well, that was all that mattered. But then, in 1979, the very same year Saddam Hussein seized power in Iraq, something happened that flipped the chess board upside down.
The nation of Iran, one of America’s closest allies in the Gulf, experienced a full-on, storm-the-gates, burn-the-flags revolution. Two years earlier, President Jimmy Carter had lauded Iran as a “island of tranquility in one of the more troubled areas of the world”; Now, it was the wellspring ground zero for a fundamentalist Islamic regime that wanted to burn down America’s carefully tended garden.
Less than five years after Marine helicopters had evacuated half of Saigon, yet another US Embassy had fallen. But this time, all the Americans did not get out. Islamic revolutionaries stormed the Embassy and took fifty-two hostages. Back in the states, TV dinners went cold as Americans watched hooded captives paraded like trophies in Tehran. The disaster in Vietnam had been a black eye, but at least they’d seen it coming. What happened in Iran was a humiliating sucker punch for Washington.
Initially, there were hopes that the revolutionaries could be bargained with, but it soon became clear that the new Iranian regime wanted to do more than just redecorate the US Embassy. The clerics in Iran looked out on the modern Middle East and saw a sea of corruption, awash with Western money, foreign entanglements, and post-colonial decadence. Only the purifying flame of religion could burn the corruption out. The territorial aspirations of the Iranian government, articulated by its new leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, were clear:
‘We will export our revolution throughout the world … until the calls “there is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God” are echoed all over the world.’
And that revolution was going to start with Iran’s next-door neighbors. Oil-rich monarchies like Kuwait, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. These kingdoms, the Iranian clerics declared, were fundamentally un-Islamic. Rich kids and Gucci sheiks paying lip service to God between trips to Vegas. A perversion of their faith that they called “golden Islam”. As the Ayatollah himself thundered:
“Islam proclaims monarchy and hereditary succession wrong and invalid. Islam is fundamentally opposed to the whole notion of monarchy.”
All of a sudden, phones were lighting up in Washington with some very nervous calls from the Gulf. A nightmare scenario started to cohere in the imagination, that the revolution in Iran would spread like a contagion to neighboring countries, toppling the Western-friendly monarchies. In other words, threatening the oil spigot. There was, however, one person in that rough neighborhood that was not going to take this Islamic Revolution lying down.
Saddam Hussein, the newly minted dictator of Iraq.
Iraq and Iran are next-door neighbors, as close in geography as they are in spelling. Separated by a single letter and a 900-mile border, the two nations have a very long history of bad blood, dating all the way back to times when armies fought with chariots instead of tanks. American country singers may not know (or care) about the difference between Iraq and Iran, but the discrepancies between the two nations were very clear in 1979. Saddam wanted to lead the Arab world; the mullahs in Tehran wanted to burn it down and rebuild from scratch. Unstoppable force, meet immovable object.
In the Ayatollah’s view, Saddam Hussein had no place in this new Islamic world order. He was just as bad, if not worse, than the Gucci sheiks in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. As Efraim Karsh writes:
Given Iraq’s position as the largest and most powerful Arab state in the Gulf, it was viewed by the revolutionary regime as the main obstacle to Iran’s quest for regional hegemony. In the words of the influential member of the Iranian leadership, ‘We have taken the path of true Islam and our aim in defeating Saddam Hussein lies in the fact that we consider him the main obstacle to the advance of Islam in the region.’
Having recently seized the Presidency in a blood-soaked purge, Saddam Hussein was not about to bow his head and supplicate to a handful of up-jumped clerics in Tehran. He had spent years maneuvering, murdering, planning, surviving. He’d killed friends to be where he was. And now, when he’d finally settled into the big chair, the Iranian regime wanted to kick him out of it.
So, long story short, the two nations went to war. Saddam, unsurprisingly, struck the first blow. On September 23rd, 1980, Iraq launched a massive offensive into Iran.
At a time when American teenagers were dancing to “Thriller” and hoarding quarters for Pac-Man, Iraqi and Iranian teenagers were shooting, hacking, and bombing each other in one of the nastiest conflicts to ever stain a textbook. Saddam had envisioned a fast-moving lightning war that would be over before the Ayatollah could put on his slippers; what he got instead was, according to historian Said K. Aburish: “the longest organized war of the twentieth century.”
Saddam never did have a mind for military strategy. As a younger, mustache-less man, he’d failed the entrance exams to the Baghdad Military Academy. Over time, that chip on his shoulder became a lead weight. When he finally did have an opportunity to move troops around on a map, he became an absolute control freak, turning the war effort into a micro-managerial hellscape. In short, Saddam had an iron-fisted monopoly on terrible decision-making.
But the Iraqi army did have something that Iran did not: rich and powerful benefactors.
The Gulf oil states, places like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates, loaned Iraq billions and billions and billions of dollars in an effort to kneecap the revolutionary ambitions of the Ayatollah. For the oil shieks, Saddam was the attack dog that would keep the mullahs safely outside the fence. A long-term investment to preserve their power and private jets.
Meanwhile, 6,000 miles away in Washington D.C., the newly ascendant Reagan administration was also eager to thwart revolutionary Iran by any means necessary. As bearers of the torch that had been lit by FDR so many years ago, Reagan & Co were not about to let a fundamentalist regime in Tehran endanger the global gas pump. And if that meant holding their noses and backing Saddam, the guy who’d ventilated his rivals in a basement a year earlier, well, that’s just realpolitik, baby.
It was a classic case of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Saddam Hussein had no love for the United States either, of course; His conspiratorial mind found CIA plots in his morning coffee, but if the Western devils were willing to help him fight the zealots in Iran, then so be it. As Karsh and Rautsi wrote: “If Saddam's political survival was at stake, anything necessary to guarantee his well-being was permissible.”
When the Soviet Union, a longtime sponsor of Iraqi, naturally protested this new partnership with the Americans, but Saddam basically laughed in their face. He didn’t care about Cold War tribalism, or team jerseys, or who paid the bills. If the combat boot fits, wear it. As he told an incredulous Soviet foreign minister: “I do not care where my weapons come from. What counts is that these weapons will serve my purposes.” And they most definitely did. The United States was willing to give generously; and Saddam received hungrily. As one historian put it:
How the Americans aided Iraq during this period ranged from the provision of credit guarantees, the sharing of sensitive intelligence information detrimental to Iran, the secret handover of U.S. “dual-use” equipment adaptable to military functions, and the forward movement to Iraq of weapons systems provided to allies in the region, including Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. There were further symbolic actions taken by the Americans that might also have lent comfort to Saddam in difficult times. In February 1982, for example, the Reagan administration removed Iraq from the list of countries accused of supporting terrorism, a list upon which Iran sat very high.
Now, the US didn’t want Saddam to lose the war against the Ayatollah…but they didn’t exactly want him to win either. The ideal outcome was that both nations just crippled each other in an inconclusive war, preserving relative stability in the Gulf. This viewpoint was perhaps best articulated by Henry Kissinger, who once mumbled something to the effect of “it’s a pity both sides can’t lose.”
Well, Kissinger’s words turned out to be oddly prophetic. Because, both sides did lose. After eight years of gas attacks, trench warfare, and futile offensives that would make a World War 1 general blush, the Iran-Iraq War ended in a stalemate. According to one historian:
On July 18, 1988, Khomeini (the Ayatollah) accepted the UN Security Council’s Resolution 598 to end the war. The borders of Iran and Iraq were largely unchanged, but their economies were shattered. An estimated 360,000 Iraqi and Iranian citizens had been killed and 700,000 more injured in a war that cost over $600 billion. But according to Hussein, he was victorious.
Saddam Hussein was never one to let a national disaster get in the way of a good victory parade. 3% of the Iraqi population was dead and the Ayatollah’s regime was still intact in Tehran, but the streets of Baghdad were thrumming with some serious “Times Square 1945” energy. As Karsh and Rautsi write:
“The most extravagant demonstration of the alleged Iraqi victory was the imposing arc de triomphe which appeared in central Baghdad in the immediate wake of the war. It consists of two pairs of giant crossed swords, held by huge bronze fists embedded in concrete. Not surprisingly, the sense of power and grandiosity embodied by the monument has been inextricably linked to Hussein: the fists holding the sabers were actually modeled on those of the Iraqi President.”
But underneath the pomp and propaganda, Saddam Hussein was facing an unprecedented level of political danger. The most pressing issue was the financial hangover from the war. The country was essentially bankrupt. As Karsh and Rautsi put it:
Iraq had emerged from the war a crippled nation. The Iraqi economy was wrecked. Economic estimates put the cost of reconstruction at $230 billion. Even if one adopted the most optimistic (and highly unrealistic) assumption that every dollar of oil revenues would be directed to the reconstruction effort, it would require nearly two decades to repair the total damage. As things stood a year after the termination of hostilities, Iraq's oil revenues of $13 billion did not even suffice to cover ongoing expenditures.”
And not only were the bank accounts dry, but Iraq had racked up debts all over the globe. According Said K. Aburish:
The financial losses were staggering. Iraqi reserves had disappeared: $35 billion was owed to the West, $11 billion to the USSR and, in addition to outright cash grants and gifts of oil produced in the Neutral Zone, more than $40 billion to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
Throughout the 1980s, Saddam had been swiping his credit card at every embassy in town. Paying that money back? That’d be a problem for Future Saddam. Well, by 1989, the future had finally arrived, and all those creditors were coming to collect. The oil states of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait especially wanted their money back, but with Iraq’s economy in tatters, Saddam had no way to pay them. Like a drunken online shopper waking up to an inbox full of Amazon receipts, the dictator was starting to sweat.
The financial consequences of the Iran-Iraq war were dire; but the social impact was even more concerning. In the war against Tehran, Iraq had mobilized over a million men. Now, there was no war to fight, no enemy to kill, no reason to have a million guys in uniform just standing around.
“An entire generation was being wasted,” Karsh and Rautsi write, “hundreds of thousands of young conscripts who had been 18 when the war started were 26 by its end and still under arms. They had no private life; they could not study, they could not work and could not get married. Now that war had been “won” they began questioning the necessity of their continued mobilization.”
But demobilizing a massive army into a bankrupt country with a destitute economy and limited job prospects is lot easier said than done. As Said K. Aburish describes:
“A demobilization program which released two hundred thousand soldiers was halted when discharged men desperate for jobs started street brawls with Egyptian workers in which dozens died.”
And these were not just abstract concerns. Saddam was beginning to feel all of this pressure in a very personal way. After all, the only thing more dangerous than an army at war, is an army *not* at war. Especially one you can’t afford to pay. In the two years following the ceasefire with Iran, Saddam foiled no less than four assassination attempts, many of them originating in the ranks of his own army.
Saddam was in trouble and he knew it. If he didn’t figure something out – and fast – it was going to be him looking up the barrel of a gun in some Baghdad basement. To borrow yet another line from a favorite writer of mine, Terry Pratchett: “Always remember, the crowd that applauds your coronation is the same crowd that will applaud your beheading. People like a show.”
With the creditors calling and assassination plots sprouting like mushrooms, the old survival instincts reawakened in Saddam Hussein. Saddam had always viewed life through the cracked prism of gangster morality, and from that vantage point, the geopolitical arena wasn’t all that dissimilar from the streets he’d cut his teeth on back in the day. Strength and violence were the only things people seemed to respect, the only language they seemed to understand.
And so, in the spring of 1990, Saddam realized he was going to have to lean on some people. If he was going to get out of this jam alive, he was going to have to threaten, cajole, and intimidate the nations who were standing in the way of Iraq’s return to prosperity. And at the very top of that list was Iraq’s obstinate little neighbor to the south.
The very tiny, very wealthy, very well-connected emirate of Kuwait.
---- MUSIC BREAK ----
It’s January 20th, 1989.
On the cusp of a brand-new decade, the United States has a brand-new President.
As millions of people gather around their television sets, there is a sense of cautious optimism in the air. For the last 4 decades and seven Presidents, America’s political reality has been defined by an ongoing rivalry with the Soviet Union. The ultimate enemy, just a press of a button away from bringing the world to a fiery finale.
But as George Herbert Walker Bush put his hand on a Bible and stammered out his oath, the Cold War appeared to be ending. Not cooling off. Not easing into a short-lived détente. But actually ending. Every President since Eisenhower had been haunted by nightmares of launch codes and casualty figures and ringing red phones. But in 1989, the Soviet Union was unraveling. Teetering like a punch-drunk prizefighter in the 12thround.
Over the course of the next 18 months, the world watched a superpower implode. The Red Army was chased out of Afghanistan. The Berlin Wall was cracked apart by sledgehammers. Pundits like Francis Fukuyama were writing articles with titles like “The End of History”, portending the ultimate – and final – triumph of liberal democracy. By late 1991, the Communist party would be literally outlawed in Russia.
The United States was the last superpower standing.
It was a surreal moment. Political theorists were so accustomed to what they called a “bipolar” status quo, that even their terminology had to contort itself to accommodate the new situation. In this new “unipolar” world, they said, America was unchallenged, unfettered and unmatched. A caretaker of the hard-won peace. But this “New World Order”, as President George H.W. Bush would later call it, was about to be tested in the most serious way.
And the epicenter of that challenge wasn’t in Moscow or Beijing or Havana or Hanoi. It was in a tiny patch of desert, slightly smaller than the state of New Jersey. An oil-rich emirate nestled on the Persian Gulf. A place called Kuwait.
I think it might be helpful at this point to step back and draw ourselves a mental map. Mental maps are, of course, no substitute for an actual map, but it’ll have to do. So, close your eyes, unless you’re driving, and picture the Arabian Peninsula in your head. If you need help getting there, it’s that massive chunk of desert to the east of Egypt that punches down into the Indian Ocean. Arabia is.. huge. 1.2 million square miles of rock, sand, and dunes. The lion’s share of this aesthetically-challenged landmass belongs to the House of Saud, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. But if you were to hop in your car and drive along the northern coast of Saudi Arabia, eventually the signs would start saying “Kuwait”.
Kuwait sits right at the tip of the Persian Gulf, like a gold-plated barnacle on the landmass of Mesopotamia. To the immediate north is Iraq. To the east, across the Gulf, is Iran. In a neighborhood of large, powerful countries...Kuwait was the little guy who somehow got a seat at the table. Like Iraq, Kuwait’s borders were a result of the orgiastic map-making that followed the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after WW1. It owed its continued independence to the protection and favor of Western democracies - first the UK, then America.
But what Kuwait lacked in geographic mass, it more than made up for in financial clout. It only takes about two-and-a-half hours to drive across Kuwait, but underneath your wheels, deep beneath the ground, is a massive proportion of the world’s supply of fossil fuels. In 1990, Kuwait had the sixth largest oil reserves in the world.
Those oil reserves, along with a dizzying portfolio of private investments around the globe, had made Kuwait fabulously wealthy. Or to be more precise, had made the Kuwaiti ruling family fabulously wealthy. According to historian Dilip Hiro: “the Kuwaiti ruling family controlled directly or indirectly $160 billion.” Sometimes referred to as Kuwait Inc., the tiny emirate often “seemed more like a multinational corporation than a sovereign country”, according to a 1990 article in the Washington Post. From real estate in Singapore and dockyards in London, to paper companies in Spain and engineering firms in California, the Kuwaitis had $100 billion in investments around the globe.
Most of those investments had been good bets. The Kuwaitis had a notoriously conservative financial philosophy. But even the Warren Buffets of the world occasionally make poor investments that come back to haunt them. And for Kuwait, that bad investment was Saddam Hussein.
When the Iranian Revolution broke out in 1979, the Kuwaitis were alarmed as anyone. The Ayatollah had a grand vision for the future, and the sheiks of Kuwait weren’t in it. So when Saddam Hussein, the strongman to the North, rose to challenge Tehran, they were eager to bankroll him to the tune of $14 billion. But when the war finally wrapped and the Kuwaitis held out their gold-plated palms, Saddam said “no”. As it happened, trying to collect money from a man like Saddam Hussein is easier said than done.
Back in Baghdad, Saddam was facing national bankruptcy, bi-annual assassination attempts, and a population that was catching on to his bluster. He was simply not in a position to pay the money back. But he also wasn’t entirely convinced that he should have to pay the money back. As the British academic Lawrence Freedmen articulated Saddam’s argument:
The war had not been Iraq's private business, he told them, but, rather, a defense of the eastern flank of the Arab World against fundamentalist Islam. While the Gulf states were not asked to pay with rivers of blood for the protection of their own security, since Iraq did that on their behalf, they could not expect to take a “free ride” on Iraq's heroic struggle.
We saved your asses, Saddam was saying to Kuwait. For 8 years, we fought and killed and bombed and destroyed….And now, before the bodies of our young men are cold, you’re calling in the debts? Saddam’s perspective, unsurprisingly, was shared by the Iraqi people. As one university student in Baghdad seethed:
“The Kuwaitis boast of their aid to Iraq. But it was Iraq that defended their thrones and wealth with blood. We sacrificed our brothers, fathers and sons to let them enjoy life.”
The Kuwaitis did not have a way to punish Saddam for his refusal to pay his debts. They didn’t have an army, and they didn’t have an arsenal. At least not one that could hold a candle to Iraq’s million-man war machine. But Kuwait and its fellow emirates did have one weapon to put the squeeze on Iraq’s dictator. Something more powerful than any tank or shell or SCUD or mine.
“The oil industry,” write Karsh and Rautsi, “accounted for 95% of Iraq’s income.”
Oil revenues were the slender black thread tethering Iraq to financial liquidity. So, the Gucci sheiks decided to cut the thread. As historian Dilip Hiro describes: “In response to Iraq’s refusal to repay loans, Kuwait and UAE flooded the market in the spring of 1990, reducing the price of oil from $18 a barrel to $11 a barrel.”
Saddam did not take this well.
Even a one-dollar reduction in the price of oil was a body blow to Iraq’s economy. As Hussein himself explained: “For every single dollar drop in the price of a barrel of oil, our loss amounts to $1 billion a year.”
Saddam was justifiably angry. By flooding the market, Kuwait was flagrantly exceeding the production quotas that the region’s oil-rich nations had all agreed to. As members of OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, they had certain limits on how much oil they could produce and export, as a means of price control. Iraq, of course, regularly cheated on its quotes too…but that was beside the point. To flood the market *now* when Iraq so desperately needed to recover from the war, that was nothing short of betrayal.
Iraq was dangling over a financial cliff, and in Saddam’s view, Kuwait was stomping on its fingers.
There were, of course, other reasons behind Kuwait’s overproduction that didn’t involve Saddam Hussein or Iraq. Cheaper oil helped lubricate connections with the West and grease the wheels of diplomacy…. but in Saddam’s estimation of events, Kuwait and the UAW and the Saudis and all the rest were deliberately trying to destroy him. At a summit in May of 1990, the Iraqi dictator equated it with an act of war, and all but begged the Kuwaitis stop the overproduction.
“War is fought with soldiers and much harm is done by explosions, killing, and coup attempts—but it is also done by economic means. Therefore, we would ask our brothers who do not mean to wage war on Iraq: this is in fact a kind of war against Iraq. Were it possible, we would have endured. But I believe that all our brothers are fully aware of our situation … we have reached a point where we can no longer withstand pressure.”
The Kuwaitis were unmoved.
In Saddam’s spacious Baghdad palace, the walls were beginning to close in. Saddam, one historian wrote, “felt like he was being choked.”
And it’s at this point in the story when a switch appears to have flip in the dictator’s mind. His rhetoric sheds its conciliatory tone and becomes increasingly hostile. From this point on, his speeches about Kuwait could strip paint from a tank. The Kuwaitis, Saddam sneered, had “stabbed Iraq in the back with a poisoned dagger.” (July 1990)
And the temperature only continues to rise. Saddam starts dusting off old territorial disputes with Kuwait, dating back to the sepia-toned days of the Ottoman Empire. He accuses Kuwait of literally stealing petroleum from Iraq’s oil fields through the use of a technique called ‘slant drilling’. Carrying this grievance further, he demands that Kuwait pay Iraq $2.4 billion dollars to compensate for the theft.
But most alarming of all, Saddam begins moving the Iraqi army towards the border. 30,00 troops, with more coming every day. Nervous minds recalled something Saddam had said earlier that year: “Let the Gulf regimes know, that if they do not give this money to me, I will know how to get it.”
But as Iraqi tanks and troops and artillery inched closer to the border like a steel glacier, everyone from Langley to Riyadh thought the embattled Iraqi dictator was just posturing; rattling his saber like a homeless man rattles his tin cup. As one American diplomat stationed in the region at the time remembered:
“All the Arabs were telling us this was a bluff.”
The Kuwaitis themselves were especially unconcerned, arrogant even. As Karsh and Rautsi write:
The Kuwaitis failed to grasp the seriousness of their situation. However startled they may have been by the harsh Iraqi rhetoric, they remained amazingly complacent, interpreting Saddam's demands as a bargaining chip rather than an ultimatum. The prevailing view within the Kuwaiti leadership was that surrender to such extortionist methods would only lead to unlimited demands in the future. They suspected that some concessions might be necessary, but were determined to reduce them to the barest minimum.
In retrospect, it’s fairly obvious that by the summer of 1990 Saddam Hussein had pretty much already decided he was going to invade Kuwait. And to be fair, it was an incredibly attractive option at a time when Saddam didn’t have many other options. As Efraim Karsh and Inari Rautsi describe:
The temptations of the military option must have seemed irresistible to the hard-pressed President. By adding Kuwait's fabulous wealth to the depleted Iraqi treasury, Hussein hoped to slash Iraq's foreign debt and launch the ambitious reconstruction programs he had promised his people in the wake of the war with Iran. Given Iraq's historic claim to Kuwait, its occupation could enhance Hussein's national prestige by portraying him as the liberator of usurped Iraqi lands. Furthermore, the capture of Kuwait could improve Iraq's access to the Gulf and give it a decisive say in the world oil market. In short, in one stroke Hussein's position would be permanently secured.
It was a clean, quick solution to all his problems.
But in Saddam’s cold calculus, there was one conspicuously unknown variable. A question that he needed answered. If he invaded Kuwait...what would the United States do? And even in mid-1990, as Iraqi tanks crawled closer to Kuwait’s border, the answer to that question was a bit murky, even to people in Washington D.C.
The American government had always been a little confused about its feelings toward Saddam Hussein. He was not a close ally, or even a reliable partner, but he was someone who, if controlled, could help maintain US interests in the Persian Gulf. Sure, he was a murderous autocrat, but maybe he could change? Maybe, with the right mix of carrot and stick, America could fashion him into something useful. That room-temperature position was tepidly articulated in the pages of National Security Directive 26, a presidential order released by George H.W. Bush in October of 1989:
“Normal relations between US and Iraq would serve our longer-term interests and promote stability in the Gulf.”
That was a fancy way of saying, “Let’s be friends”. The diplomatic euphemism would be a “tilt” towards Iraq. But whatever you choose to call it, America’s friendship usually comes with benefits. As Said K. Aburish writes:
“In 1989 the United States supplied Iraq with helicopter engines, vacuum pumps for a nuclear plant, sophisticated communications equipment, computers, bacteria strains and hundreds of tons of unrefined Sarin.”
But not everyone in Washington was so keen on getting cozy with Iraq’s notorious dictator.
The White House may have been insisting on a position of cooperation with Saddam, but representatives in the US Congress were calling for sanctions on Iraq, citing an entire litany of offenses, including, Hussein’s hostile marks toward Israel, his execution of a British-Iranian journalist, and his use of chemical weapons against the Kurds in 1988. Essentially, there was a huge disconnect between American public opinion on Iraq, and the Executive branch’s position on Iraq.
To make matters even more confusing, the American intelligence community seemed to have its own, separate position on Saddam and Iraq, allegedly conducting back-door talks with the Kuwaitis and the Saudis on how best to destabilize Saddam’s position. As Said K. Aburish claims:
The CIA was conspiring against Saddam at the same time that Bush was doing everything possible to use him as guarantor of the American position in the Gulf.
Regardless of what was actually happening behind closed doors, from Iraq’s viewpoint, the United States was talking out of both sides of its mouth, giving with one hand, taking with the other. It was a foreign policy bordering on incoherence. As historians Majid Khadduri and Edmund Ghareeb write:
“Small wonder the Iraqi leaders were often puzzled and bewildered as to what precisely the American objectives toward Iraq were.”
So before he did anything drastic to Kuwait, before he pulled the trigger, Saddam wanted to clear all this confusion up. He wanted to know – exactly - what America’s position was. He had a strong hunch that the American government, schizophrenic and compartmentalized as it was, would not come rushing to the defense of the Kuwaitis Any potential rebuke would come in the form of a stern press conference, not a tomahawk missile. Saddam was no expert on the West or the messy dynamics of democracy, but he was a student of history. He knew that images of helicopters over Saigon were still branded onto the corneas of many Americans. The US didn’t have the stomach for a real war anymore. No one wanted another Vietnam.
And so, on July 25th, 1990, Saddam Hussein summoned the American ambassador to his office to get some answers. What followed, Rick Atkinson writes, was a “tale of mutual misunderstanding and blurred vision”. It was to become, according to Said K. Aburish: “one of the most controversial diplomatic encounters of all time.”
It was a Wednesday. And when Ambassador April Glaspie received a phone call inviting her to the Iraqi Foreign Office for a quick conversation, nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
After 15 years as an American Foreign Service officer in the Middle East, there wasn’t much that couldsurprise Glaspie at this point. Fluent in Arabic, she knew the region like the back of her hand, with a resume that included postings in Kuwait, Syria, Tunisia and Egypt. Those had not been easy gigs, and she had the grey streaks in her brown hair to prove it. Since 1988, she’d been in one of the toughest postings of all: American ambassador to Iraq. It was no small feat; April Glaspie was the first woman to be given an American ambassador position in the Middle East.
When she got the call on July 25th, Glaspie thought she was going to meet with a mid-level Iraqi diplomat. But when she arrived at the Foreign Office, a car was waiting for her. She stepped inside, the door closed, and she was whisked away. Building passed and minutes elapsed, and eventually the car pulled to a stop. Glaspie looked through the window and saw the Presidential Palace. She was not going to meeting with a mid-level diplomat. She was going to be speaking with Saddam Hussein.
She had never met the Iraqi President before, and as she sat across from him in a meeting room, it must have been a surreal sight. Saddam was wearing his classic costume, the olive fatigues, golden epaulets, all the ostentatious razzle dazzle. The 48-year-old April Glaspie, by contrast, had her greying brown hair pulled back in a long ponytail. Visually, they were an odd pair. She looked like an art teacher. He looked like a South Park villain.
Then they got down to business.
After a few minutes of empty pleasantries, the conversation quickly turned serious. Saddam detailed the economic peril Iraq was facing. A “disaster”, he called it. It was all Kuwait’s fault, he said. They were putting him in a very difficult position.
Glaspie responded: “I know you need funds. We understand that, and our opinion is that you should have the option to rebuild your country. But we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflict, like your border disagreement with Kuwait.”
History has been relatively gentle with Glaspie, but in the months to come, that last sentence would come back to haunt her.
The conversation eventually migrated to the 30,000-man elephant in the room, the Iraqi troops massing along the border with Kuwait. Glaspie continued:
“We can see that you have deployed massive numbers of troops in the south. Normally that would be none of our business, but when this happens in the context of your threats against Kuwait, then it would be reasonable for us to be concerned. For this reason, I have received an instruction to ask you, in the spirit of friendship — not confrontation — what are your intentions?”
Saddam responded evasively:
“It is natural for you, as a superpower, to be concerned. We want to find a just solution, but at the same time, we want the others to know that our patience is running out.”
No one can ever really know what kinds of thoughts were going through Saddam’s head in that moment, but the bottom line is: He did not walk away from that 2-hour meeting with the feeling that he should not invade Kuwait.
She insisted that the US would defend its vital interest in the region. He assured Glaspie he would pursue peaceful and diplomatic solutions to his differences with Kuwait. But in reality, he had already made his decision. The die was cast. As Karsh and Rautsi describe:
“If there remained any doubts in his mind after the meeting concerning U.S. neutrality, they were probably dispelled three days later by a personal message from President Bush which, apart from describing the “use of force or the threat of using force” as “unacceptable,” expressed his keen interest in improving relations with Baghdad. Apparently confident of American neutrality, Hussein proceeded to the last stage of his plan.”
A week later, on the morning of August 1st, 1990, President George H.W. Bush was in bed, reading a newspaper. Nothing but “doom and gloom”, he confided to his diary later that morning. It was a relatively uneventful day, filled with meetings, a brief escape to the driving range, and a doctor’s appointment.
At about 8:20 PM, eastern time, Bush’s national security advisor burst into the room. “Mr President,” he said, “it looks very bad. Iraq may be about to invade Kuwait.”
Over the next few hours, the situation began to come into focus. At dawn, Kuwait City woke up to the sounds of war. As military historian Jim Corrigan writes:
Helicopters descended on the city like locusts, their beating blades announcing the invasion. They landed near government buildings and other key facilities, and from each chopper sprang Iraqi Special Forces. On the beaches, where pastel hotel lights bathed the sand, boatloads of commandos came ashore.
The Iraqi army, the 4th largest military force in the world, had invaded Kuwait.
In the coming months, many angry eyes would turn on the ill-fated Ambassador, April Glaspie. Her statement to Saddam that the US had “no opinion” on Iraq’s disagreements with Kuwait would be characterized as a green light to a warmongering dictator. Pundits and partisans called her feckless, accommodationist and an appeaser. Some even questioned the wisdom of placing a woman at such a prominent post in the Middle East, a region not renowned for its gender equality.
But at the end of the day, Glaspie had merely parroted the established position of the Bush Administration. After all the double-talk and double-dealing, it fell on her slender shoulders to articulate America’s disjointed stance on Saddam’s ambitions. And that message carried all the weight and power that a bundle of bureaucratic euphemisms typically does. Even Saddam’s foreign minister admitted, years later, that: “She didn't say anything extraordinary beyond what any professional diplomat would say without previous instructions from his government.”
As Said K. Aburish puts it: “Glaspie’s statement did not give Saddam a green light to invade Kuwait – it confirmed that the light was already green.”
I want to close out this episode with some of Glaspie’s testimony to Congress in 1991.
Next episode, the real war will begin. And we’ll see what happens when a superpower gets its groove back.
This has been Conflicted. Thanks for listening.
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