It was the widespread belief among President George H. W. Bush and many of his officials that Iraqi president Saddam Hussein had no intention of invading Kuwait in the summer of 1990. It was the widespread belief of Hussein and many of his officials that when they invaded Kuwait, George Bush wouldn’t care. Both were wrong. Despite numerous aggressive actions by Hussein’s regime during that summer, Western intelligence agencies regarded his behavior toward Kuwait as mere saber rattling. Such an error inflated Hussein’s confidence and ushered in a violent invasion, known as the First Gulf War, which eventually led to Western military intervention and numerous avoidable casualties.
The roots of the conflict lay in economic disputes. Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime considered itself the natural leader of the Arab world in the wake of the Iranian revolution. In 1980, Hussein initiated an eight-year conflict with Iran, which depleted the resources of both countries and ended with no clear winner in terms of territorial gain. Hussein had relied heavily on loans from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and others during the Iran-Iraq War. In the wake of the conflict, Hussein characterized Iraq’s actions as a valiant defense of the Arab world against a Persian onslaught; such an assertion was coupled with pressure on its neighbors to waive debts incurred by Iraq during the war. Kuwait was resolute in its opposition to such a concession—this apparent ingratitude irked Hussein greatly. At an OPEC meeting in the wake of the war, Iraq sought to greatly increase the price of oil to pay off war debts. Kuwait was opposed to such an endeavor, and its efforts to keep oil prices lower was regarded by Hussein as an act of economic warfare.
In addition, Hussein accused Kuwait of “stealing” billions of dollars’ worth of oil via its drilling in the Rumaila oil field, even though the southern tip of the field lay in Kuwaiti territory. Numerous attempts at wringing concessions from Kuwait were fruitless, and Iraq began resorting to more strong-arm tactics. Hussein delivered speeches describing Kuwait’s efforts as a type of warfare that would earn an equivalent response. He deployed 100,000 troops along the border between Iraq and Kuwait. Despite this, British and American intelligence agencies believed it was a bluff by Hussein and did not condemn the military buildup.
Such a conclusion seems strange in the context of Hussein’s brutal history. Hussein had no qualms about attacking other nations in pursuit of economic and military hegemony in the region, as demonstrated by Iraq’s participation in the longest war of the twentieth century against Iran. His violent treatment of the Kurds in northern Iraq should have also concerned the West. Hussein had a history of pursuing weapons of mass destruction; his use of chemical weapons against the Kurds and his attempt at shipping in triggers necessary for nuclear weapons clearly demonstrated this. Yet it was concluded that Iraq, with its fourth-largest military in the world, was principally concerned with deterring its neighbors—Israel, in particular.
This is not to say that the West was completely complacent. Various media outlets and an array of American politicians condemned Hussein as a barbarous villain whom the West would inevitably have to confront. However, attempts at economic sanctions or formal condemnations of the regime were hijacked by the State Department and the Bush administration. While the United States did not hesitate to declare its disapproval of the invasion after it occurred, its actions in the weeks leading up to the invasion emboldened Hussein. Despite unease about Hussein’s endeavors, Washington continued to assure Hussein that it viewed the dispute as an Arab conflict that America had no place in. A Voice of America broadcast, decrying the regime, upset Hussein; Washington’s response was to distance its position from the editorial and to remove members of the government who had expressed their concerns to the media. U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie told Tareq Aziz, Iraq’s foreign minister, that “It is absolutely not U.S. policy to question the legitimacy of the government of Iraq.” Shortly thereafter, she met with Hussein. A recorded transcript of the meeting revealed that Hussein candidly admitted a conflict could result with Kuwait, and he demanded that the United States remain uninvolved. Glaspie told Hussein that the United States had no opinion on “Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait,” a tidbit of 1930s-style appeasement that apparently allayed Hussein’s fears of American reprisal.
Compounding the problem was America’s evident prioritization of securing stable oil supplies over preserving the sovereignty of smaller nations. Such a policy had its foundations in the Carter Doctrine, a policy that officially stated foreign intervention in the Middle East would be regarded as a threat to American economic interests. While such a threat had dissipated with the fall of the Soviet Union, American concern over oil had not. Such a concern was made extremely apparent in the wake of the invasion when the State Department reiterated its standing policy of remaining “determined to defend the principle of freedom of navigation and to ensure the free flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz.” Oil was America’s predominant concern, and Iraq did not fail to notice that. Although the department issued an addendum stating that territorial integrity also mattered, it was obvious where its priorities lay.
On August 2, 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait and took over the country in hours. Most of the important government officials escaped, but Iraq had achieved its goal. British intelligence agencies admitted outright their failure to account for this scenario; American intelligence agencies frantically pointed fingers and revealed their incompetence in assessing Hussein’s motives. Hussein himself declared that there was no shortage of signs in the weeks leading to the invasion. Nonetheless, Hussein had made a mistake in underestimating the international response to his actions. Within days, the United States formed a coalition to officially condemn Iraq’s aggression. Long-standing allies, like France, no longer supported the regime.
The West marginally compensated for its grievous errors in calculating the likelihood of invasion by a swift response in the aftermath. Nevertheless, the United States was a firm response away from deterring a brutal Iraqi invasion into Kuwait. This serious miscalculation set the stage for the subsequent U.S.-led military intervention and America’s continued involvement in Iraq into the twenty-first century.