George Bush and the Gulf War of 1991

By Brands, H. W. W. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, March 2004 | Go to article overview

George Bush and the Gulf War of 1991


Brands, H. W. W., Presidential Studies Quarterly


"This Will Not Stand"

The Gulf War of 1991 grew out of a pair of miscalculations. American officials underestimated the depth of Iraqi grievance against Kuwait at the end of the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988, including the willingness of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein to use force to address that grievance and extend Iraq's power. And Hussein underestimated the affront he would give the United States and the international community by annexing Iraq's neighbor. From these twin miscalculations arose the crisis that led to the Gulf War. (1)

For years, Hussein had expressed displeasure against Kuwait and the status quo in the Gulf. He--and many other Iraqis--had long contested legitimacy of Kuwait, claiming that it had been stolen from Iraq to suit the needs of Britain and the other imperial powers. Kuwait constrained Iraq's access to the Gulf, and it controlled a great deal of oil that Saddam and the other irredentists thought should be theirs. The Iran-Iraq war gave Iraq another complaint against Kuwait, for that war burdened Iraq with debt, which it hoped to lighten by raising oil prices. When prices did not rise sufficiently, Saddam accused Kuwait of conspiring with other producers to keep them down. In addition, he charged Kuwait with stealing oil from the Rumaila field, which underlay the border between Iraq and Kuwait.

Saddam's displeasure was no secret. "He (and his people) are extremely bitter toward Kuwait, primarily because economically he is on the ropes," explained Sandra Charles of the Bush administration's National Security Council, summarizing opinions expressed at an interagency meeting held July 27. (2) Saddam had mobilized his army and sent 100,000 troops to the Kuwait border. But because the dictator had blustered in the past, to no real effect, American officials found it easy to assume that he was blustering again. Besides, the United States had taken Iraq's side in the war with Iran, apparently leading some in Washington to believe that Saddam would not want to alienate a friendly superpower. The previous autumn Bush had greeted a new ambassador from Iraq and declared his hope of getting along with Saddam. "We have never met," Bush said of Saddam, "but I have heard many interesting things about him. Out relationship has made steady progress." (3) In the weeks and days before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, American officials continued to hope for progress. The American ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, met with Hussein in Baghdad on July 25. Precisely what transpired at this meeting became a source of controversy. Although the State Department denied that Glaspie gave Saddam anything like a green light, an Iraqi transcript of the meeting had Glaspie telling Saddam, "We have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait." The State Department refused to confirm the transcript, but neither did it challenge its essential accuracy. (4) In any event, whatever Glaspie did or did not tell Saddam in Baghdad, it was beyond dispute that the Bush administration as a whole took no strong position on the subject. Asked whether the United States was prepared to defend Kuwait against a possible Iraqi assault, State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler answered, "We do not have any defense treaties with Kuwait, and there are no special defense or security commitments to Kuwait." (5)

Even if there had been a commitment to Kuwait, the Bush administration would have had difficulty focusing on the troubles of the Gulf. "I must confess that my mind that evening was on things other than Iraq," the president recalled of the night before the invasion. "We were in the midst of a recession and an ugly, partisan budget battle. Strained meetings with the congressional leadership were underway to find a compromise." Nor was the rest of the world quiet. "There were other pressing foreign troubles catching my attention as well, such as a hostage-taking in Trinidad and a tragic civil war in Liberia, in which Americans were in danger. …

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