Who Caused the War in the Gulf? Five Versions of History

By Curtiss, Richard H. | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 1991 | Go to article overview

Who Caused the War in the Gulf? Five Versions of History


Curtiss, Richard H., Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


Just as history is written by the victors, reality is often in the eye of the beholder. Different parties to the war in the Persian Gulf have widely different perceptions of its causes, and the objectives of the leaders involved.

That very different histories of the war eventually may be recorded in the Middle East, Europe and the United States is of more than academic interest. These widely differing versions of what led up to the dispute also explain why it is so difficult to deal with it.

What follows are three American and two Arab versions of reality. Of the American versions, one is, basically, the president's case, another sees the US as fighting a war against Iraq on behalf of Israel, and a third blames US "middle level bureaucrats," or "Arabists," for indulging Iraqi President Saddam Hussain until he thought he could grab Kuwait with impunity.

Of the Arab versions, one sees the invasion of Kuwait growing out of a conspiracy between Saddam Hussain and other Arab leaders including King Hussein of Jordan and Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat. The other version sees Saddam Hussain as the victim of a US-Kuwaiti conspiracy to trap Iraq into a suicidal war.

Ultimately, the history, or mythology, of this key turning point in centuries of Western-Middle Eastern interaction will be written not only by the victors in war, the coalition forces, but also the victors in peace, a role still unassigned.

The Gulf War, According to George Bush

Polls show that US public opinion support for the course chosen by President George Bush, or an even tougher one, has ranged between 75 and 85 percent ever since Aug. 2, 1990, the day Saddam Hussain's Iraqi forces occupied Kuwait. Bush's actions reflect a general American consensus that, for at least the past 15 years, has supported maintenance of rough equilibrium between the three power centers in the Gulf. These are Iran, with a population of 55 million, Iraq, with a population of 17 million, and Saudi Arabia and the other Arab states of the Gulf, including Oman, with a population of 15 million, but backed up by an alliance with the US.

The theory was that if any of these three indigenous power centers sought to dominate the Gulf, with 65 percent of the world's proven oil reserves, the other two would combine to resist that domination.

In the Iraq-Iran war, this happened to some extent. For Iraq's war effort to receive the economic support it needed from all of the Arab states of the Gulf, however, the US had to enter the equation by "flagging" Kuwaiti tankers and keeping Iran from interdicting the Persian Gulf shipping lanes through which Arab oil moved to world markets.

When the Iraq-Iran war ended, the borders were essentially unchanged, as was the dispute over navigation rights on Iraq's only outlet to the sea, the Shatt Al-Arab.

The US chose to continue the closer relations it had developed with Saddam Hussain during the Iran-Iraq war, although it was under no illusions about the nature of his tyrannical rule. The theory was that Iraq, as a "have" nation with the second largest proven petroleum reserves (after Saudi Arabia) in the world, was ripe for a political and economic turnaround, from the East bloc and socialism to the West and a free economy. Treating Saddam Hussain, a strongman with no fixed ideological orientation, like a gentleman might turn him into one, or so the "Arabists" in the US foreign policy establishment hoped.

Instead, after a period of making threats and demands on Kuwait, Saddam negotiated with Kuwait for one day last July 30, then broke off negotiations and occupied it on Aug. 2. Clearly, he had not turned into a gentleman, but it had been a reasonable, pragmatic American-style try.

The UN embargo on Iraq, Saudi Arabia's request for US protection, and the buildup of coalition forces followed. When Iraqi forces refused to withdraw by the Jan. 15, 1991 date specified in the UN Security Council resolution authorizing collective action, US and allied forces attacked to end the illegal Iraqi military occupation of Kuwait. …

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