Kuwait's Democratic Experiment in Its Broader International Context

By Yetiv, Steve | The Middle East Journal, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Kuwait's Democratic Experiment in Its Broader International Context


Yetiv, Steve, The Middle East Journal


While scholars have done much useful work on the causes of democratization, not much attention has been devoted to the causal importance of international variables. This article argues that Iraq's invasion and occupation of Kuwait, and its ongoing external military threat, have fueled rather than stymied Kuwait's democratic experiment.

Empirical explanations of democratic reform in the Middle East often link the process of political change to domestic economic crises,' and most theoretical work on democratic change and reform also focuses far more on domestic than on international variables.2 In sharp contrast, this article explores the impact of Iraq's August 2, 1990 invasion and occupation of Kuwait, and its ongoing military threat, on Kuwait's democratic experiment. As Mary Ann Tetreault has shown, that experiment has some roots extending back to the 18th and 19th centuries, through key events in the 20th century.'

Drawing on research in Kuwait, interviews with Kuwaiti and US officials, and on the democratic literature, I make two arguments on the impact of the invasion, occupation, and continuing Iraqi threat, largely through an implicit pre- and postinvasion analysis. First, I argue that while the 1990-91 Persian Gulf crisis affected key actors in Kuwait differently, it increased the importance of assuring US military support, engaging in nation-building, and enhancing domestic stability. As I discuss in the body of this article, democratic practices were viewed as useful in meeting those three objectives. In this sense, the crisis produced an attitudinal change and an increased commitment toward democratic practices. Second, and relatedly, the crisis generated or contributed to forms of liberalization and democratization! I refer to these "forms" hereafter as democratic practices, partly to avoid the definitional debates on the subject, which are important in general but not for establishing my arguments. A pre- and post-invasion analysis of the National Assembly in particular is telling in the Kuwaiti case in that, like other legislatures in the Arab world, the Assembly best reflects the nature of democratic transition.'

ASSURING US MILITARY SUPPORT

It is interesting to explore Kuwaiti politics within a broader international context, because global forces and events have played a major role in creating and shaping the Gulf states,6 and because it is recognized, albeit less often studied, that external actors can facilitate or undermine democratization.' On that score, prior to the invasion, Kuwait supported Iraq against Iran in the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988). Moreover, of the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, Kuwait was most critical of the US regional role and sympathetic toward Moscow for most of the 1980s. The 1991 Gulf war and ongoing Iraqi threat, however, have made Washington indispensable to Kuwait. That in turn has enhanced the regime's interest in and commitment to democratic practices, albeit within an Islamic context, as Kuwaiti leaders are quick to remind Westerners.'

After Iraq invaded Kuwait, many American leaders argued that US troops should not be jeopardized to protect a monarchy, an oil outpost run by a rich family. That sentiment permeated elite decisionmaking circles in the first days of the crisis, and influenced the first National Security Council meeting on August 2, involving President Bush and his closest advisers.9 The US public and Congress also proved skeptical. Indeed, as White House Spokesman Marlin Fitzwater recalls, by mid-October, the administration's message was "losing focus" in part because "officials were tired of trying to sell it over and over again."" That the US Senate finally did support the war vote (by 52-47), and that the United States finally went to war against Iraq on January 16, 1991 obfuscates the profound difficulty of selling the war to the public, a difficulty exacerbated by Kuwait's lack of democratic status." Some members of Congress who supported the move toward war, even called for a new democratically elected regime in Kuwait. …

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Kuwait's Democratic Experiment in Its Broader International Context
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