By Killgore, Andrew I.
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs , Vol. 10, No. 3
Recently an interviewer from the BBC asked a distinguished retired State Department official what might have happened if Gamal Abdel Nasser, the symbol of Arab unity, had been president of Egypt on Aug. 2, 1990, when Iraqi President Saddam Hussain invaded Kuwait.
Would Nasser have rushed troops to defend the states of the Gulf, as did his successor once removed, President Hosni Mubarak?
Perhaps unbeknownst to the BBC interviewer, the question was not really a hypothetical one. A likely answer is provided by turning back the calendar just 30 years.
Turning Back the Calendar
At the beginning of 1961 the Middle East seemed relatively free of tension. But wars have broken out there on an average of every seven years since 1948-49. Since there had not been a major war in the region since 1956, on form it was time to start worrying.
Egyptian President Nasser was at the height of his powers as the hero of Arab nationalism, after surviving the 1956 British-French-Israeli attack on Egypt's Suez Canal. In Baghdad, President Abdul Karim Qassem had earned Arab nationalist laurels of his own after a successful coup in 1958 against the British-imposed monarchy, in which the boy-king, Faisal II, and his strongman prime minister, Nuri Al-Said, were killed.
Now tension was mounting over Kuwait, which had long enjoyed British protection but from which British troops were being withdrawn. On June 19, 1961, Britain announced that it recognized the Emirate's independence. Six days later, on June 25, Qassem publicly proclaimed that Kuwait was an integral part of Iraq.
Six days after that, on July 1, Britain announced that it had sent troops to Kuwait to protect it against a possible Iraqi invasion. This amounted to a disappointing setback to British withdrawal from the entire Middle East, an outcome fervently desired by Arab nationalists of many political persuasions.
With uncommon haste, the Arab League met and voted to send Arab troops to replace the British, whose return to protect the newly independent Emirate was an acute embarrassment.
Egypt had approved the League's decision to send Arab forces. The question on everyone's mind, however, was whether President Nasser would actually send Egyptian soldiers to protect Kuwait from possible attack. Kuwait's very creation, in 1899, by a divide-and-rule Britain, was regarded as an affront to Arab unity. …