US Policy of Containing the Victor of Qadisyyah

  December 14, 2023   Read time 5 min
US Policy of Containing the Victor of Qadisyyah
In summer 1990 a victorious Saddam Hussein, believing himself to be the protector of the Arab world, switched his attention to another oil-rich neighbor, the tiny state of Kuwait.

The Iraqi leader complained to the Arab League about the fall in oil prices caused by a glut of crude produced by Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, which he claimed had cost Iraq $1 billion in lost revenues at a time when the country desperately needed reconstruction. As he massed 100,000 troops along the border with Kuwait, Saddam also demanded that the small kingdom write off large debts accumulated during the Iran–Iraq War and lease part of its territory to Baghdad. In August 1990 he invaded. The attack had been predicted two years earlier by the CIA, which warned that Saddam might target the Kuwaiti islands of Bubiyan and Warba to expand Iraq’s ‘narrow access to the Gulf’, but the fullscale invasion of Kuwait caught Washington unprepared. Kenneth Pollack, a CIA analyst who would become one of Clinton’s key advisers, later wrote that the US Administration of the time feared that, if Iraq captured Kuwait’s oilfi elds, it could rival Saudi Arabia in oil production and so control the price of crude, bypassing OPEC. Saddam turned from being considered a friend of the West into its number one enemy.

There is strong evidence that Saddam’s invasion could have been rapidly reversed without resort to war. That was the view of Arab League offi cials, who believed a compromise could quickly be reached between Iraq and Kuwait that would have led to Saddam withdrawing his troops. However, the US Administration had other ideas. It warned Saudi Arabia that it was facing imminent attack from Iraqi soldiers in Kuwait, though no evidence was produced to support this claim. Saudi Arabia accepted an offer from the US to defend the kingdom against Iraq’s supposed territorial ambitions by stationing large numbers of American troops on Saudi soil. In the meantime, the US did little to pursue a peaceful resolution, rejecting peace plans from France, Russia and Yemen, and instead cornered Baghdad with demands for a series of humiliating climbdowns. One Middle East analyst, Stephen Zunes, assessed Washington’s policy as follows: ‘The U.S. position was that, without a war, Saddam Hussein’s regime would remain with its military assets intact, free to sell its oil, popular among some segments of the Arab world’s population and still able to threaten its neighbours. This was considered unacceptable.’

In other words, in the 1980s Washington had indulged Saddam Hussein because it needed him strong to confront, punish and weaken Iran. Now he was seen in a different light, as a challenge to the two main US allies in the region. His army might threaten the Saudis’ control of the Middle East’s oil cartel, and his widespread popularity in the Arab world combined with his vocal support for the Palestinian cause made him a nuisance to Israel, which was planning, with tacit American approval, to annex as much of the occupied territories as possible. In addition, across much of the Arab world Saddam was seen as a hero, a new Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian leader who had infused Arab nationalism with a romantic appeal through much of the 1950s and 1960s. President George H.W. Bush called Saddam ‘another Hitler’, before launching Operation Desert Storm in January 1991. Within six weeks, a ferocious US air campaign and a coalition force of half a million troops had brought Iraq to its knees, killing some 100,000 Iraqi soldiers, many of them Kurdish and Shia conscripts whose fate Saddam was doubtless none too concerned by. The bombing raids targeted much of Iraq, destroying its infrastructure and economy in what Secretary of State James Baker boasted would return Iraq ‘to the pre-industrial age’.

In contrast to the invasion of Iraq to effect regime overthrow that his son, President George W. Bush, would launch twelve years later, Bush Snr pulled back from invading Baghdad and toppling Saddam. The White House even abandoned the Kurds and Shia when they followed Bush’s advice and mounted insurrections against Saddam to remove him from power. Tens of thousands were killed as the Iraqi president crushed the rebellion. The reason for Washington’s reticence, it seems, was a fear that success by Iraq’s Kurds and demands for partition post-Saddam might fuel a rebellion among the restive Kurdish population in neighbouring Turkey, a close US ally in the region. Instead, the White House, fi rst under Bush Snr and then Bill Clinton, pursued a policy of containment, keeping Saddam weak, with the hope that in the long run an Iraqi rival would come to power by engineering a coup against him. The goal was explained by the then chief diplomatic correspondent of the New York Times, Thomas Friedman. He observed that Washington was hoping to induce Iraqi generals to topple Saddam Hussein, ‘and then Washington would have the best of all worlds: an iron-fi sted Iraqi junta without Saddam Hussein’.

Containment was achieved through a dual policy of ‘no-fl y zones’ in the country’s north and south, which allowed the US and British air forces to box Saddam’s army into the centre of the country, and a system of swingeing UN sanctions that deprived the Iraqi population of most essentials, including supplies of food and medicines. The decade of sanctions, in particular, led to terrible suffering among ordinary Iraqis that has been estimated to have cost the lives of as many as one million, many of them children. Unicef, the United Nations Children’s Fund, concluded in 1999 that 4,000 children under the age of fi ve were dying each month from the sanctions – or half a million children dead in the eight years covered by the report. Before the Gulf War of 1991, contrary to the impression in the West, Iraq had the most advanced welfare system in the Arab world. An average annual income of $4,000 in 1980 had fallen to $500 by 2003.66 On the eve of invasion, Time magazine reported: ‘Industry has ceased to exist and unemployment may be as high as 50 percent. The agricultural sector is in complete disarray, leaving more than 60 percent of the population to rely on the UN Oil for Food program [covering basic needs].

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