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

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 then 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. Senior 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. That’s the Bush administration version of events.

Two US Reservations

Many among the three-quarters of the American public who support then President Bush, and most of those who don’t, have two basic qualms about this version of history. They question why the then US president, on Nov. 8, more than doubled the US troop commitment to the Gulf and thus transformed the military force there. Initially, it was a force capable of defending Saudi Arabia from an Iraqi military invasion while the world waited a year or so for the embargo and sanctions to force Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait. Doubling the US military commitment changed it to an offensive force too large to stay idle without politically destabilizing the area it had come to defend. It made American use of military force, if Saddam Hussain refused to withdraw from Kuwait by Jan. 15, virtually inevitable.

Similarly, a good many Americans look askance at President Bush’s decision to strike Iraq militarily on Jan. 16, only one day after the deadline. Many had expected the US to give Saddam Hussain a face-saving interval of at least a few days to accept any of the peace plans in motion to link a peaceful Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait to a commitment to call an international conference to consider unsolved Middle Eastern problems, specifically including the Israel-Palestine problem as well as Iraq’s claims on Kuwait.

A “Blame Israel” US Version of Events

The Nov. 8 and Jan. 16 anomalies in the Senior Bush administration’s version of events, both of which support the idea that the US president wanted a war, have given rise to an alternative interpretation. Proposing that the deterioration in US-Iraqi relations was a direct result of manipulation by high-level supporters of Israel within the US government, it has gained currency in the US among Arab diplomats, Arab Americans and Middle East specialists.

This version of history has coalesced around a 93-page booklet published early in 1990, well before war broke out, by three participants in the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College. As such, it reflects their individual views and not those of the US government. Writing in late 1989, the three, Douglas Johnson 11, Stephen Pelletiere, and Leif Rosenberger, warned the US was on a “collision course” with Iraq because US “policy certainly renders comfort to the Israelis but it could provoke bitter consequences from Baghdad. “

They wrote that when a cease-fire ended the Iran-Iraq war in August 1988, Israel was so alarmed by Iraq’s emergence as the most heavily armed state in the Middle East, that Israel considered a surprise attack on Iraqi missile sites, along the lines of Israel’s 1981 attack on Iraq’s nuclear facility.

The authors do not make a connection, although most proponents of the theory do, between the fact that Israel did not make such an attack, which no one in the US government wanted to happen, and what they call a simultaneous “180-degree shift” in the policy the US had pursued toward Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war. This shift was expressed, they say, by the sudden US acceptance of charges that Iraq had used lethal chemical weapons against its Kurdish citizens.

While there was clear photographic evidence that Iraq, Iran, or both had used lethal gas during fighting in the Kurdish town of Halabja three months before the cease-fire, there was no uncontested evidence to substantiate the charge that Iraq had used lethal gas after the cease-fire to drive thousands of Kurds from tribes that had sided with Iran into Turkey. Nevertheless, the authors write, “the State Department abruptly, and in what many viewed as a sensational manner, condemned Iraq for allegedly using chemicals against the Kurdish population. “

Proponents of this theory conclude that the policy switch, possibly to deter Israel from acting on its own or possibly to begin cutting a victorious Iraq down to size, was initiated by Reagan-administration Secretary of State George Shultz. He personally made the poison gas charges on Sept. 8, 1988, just prior to a scheduled meeting in Washington with visiting Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz.

What is remarkable about Shultz’s charge is not only its timing but also the fact that it was based upon “evidence” compiled by staff members of a Senate committee, in the absence of corroborating information from the State Department itself. The next day, Sept. 9, Senate supporters of Israel introduced economic sanctions legislation against Iraq which was adopted by the Senate but never signed into law by President Reagan.

The events in Washington prompted the Iraqi government to organize a protest march to the American Embassy in Baghdad by 150,000 Iraqis. Subsequently, Iraq expelled an American Embassy official, the US retaliated by expelling an Iraqi diplomat, and relations began a rapid downward spiral.

That spiral became a free-fall as charges were aired in Congress and the media that Iraq had undertaken extensive programs to develop nuclear, biological and chemical warheads which could be adapted to Iraq’s existing missiles, whose effectiveness (with conventional warheads) had played a major role in Iran’s decision to agree to a cease-fire.

A new human rights group, Middle East Watch, which seems to have close ties with Israel’s US supporters, charged that Iraq was governed by “one of the most brutal and repressive regimes in power today. ” Such harsh criticism was reflected in the next annual State Department report on human rights worldwide.

Saddam Hussain contributed to the downturn by calling, in February 1990, for the complete withdrawal of US naval forces from the Gulf, ignoring the fact that they had been there ever since World War II, and that they had been augmented largely as a result of the US “tilt” to prevent Iran from winning its war with Iraq.

Gerald Bull, an artillery expert holding both Canadian and US citizenship, who had been a consultant to Iraq as well as to China, South Africa and many other countries, was murdered on March 22, 1990 in Brussels, probably by Israel’s Mossad. Material implicating other arms experts apparently was planted on his body, presumably by the killers.

There were highly publicized arrests of four Iranian citizens and one French citizen charged with smuggling arms to Iraq. A – sting” in the US resulted in the dramatic airport seizure in London of Iraq-bound krytrons, precision timing devices which have many applications, including the manufacture of nuclear weapons.

Most spectacular, however, were the seizures in several countries of Europe of trucks and ships headed for Iraq with sections of what the Iraqis claimed were tubes for an oil pipeline and what US and British authorities claimed were components of a planned “big gun, ” capable either of putting a satellite into orbit, or of firing huge shells for hundreds of miles, allegedly being developed for Iraq by Gerald Bull.

On April 11, 1990, Tariq Aziz charged that “Israel wants to attack Iraqi industrial and scientific sites to maintain the balance of power, which has changed. ” After the US announced it had halted an Iraqi request to purchase on credit $500 million in US agricultural commodities, King Hussein charged the West with carrying out “an outrageous plot” against Iraq. As Congress escalated charges against Saddam Hussain, charges of a Western plot against him also were raised by the Arab League at its summit meeting in Baghdad in late May, and by an Iraqi-backed “International Islamic Popular Conference.”

The American policy switch, initiated by George Shultz, the most pro-Israel secretary of state in US history, and kept alive by pro Israel members of Congress, has been adopted unquestioningly, this version of history goes, by the Bush administration. The end result was the US war in the Gulf, which, backers of this version of history maintain, is aimed not so much at the liberation of Kuwait as at destroying the infrastructure that had made Iraq the most credible threat to Israel in the Arab world.

“Blame Anyone But Israel” Version

A third version of the lead-up to the Gulf war is offered by American apologists for the government of Israel. It is well summarized in the Winter 1990/91 issue of The National Interest, a quarterly published by neoconservative Irving Kristol. The magazine’s advisory board reads like a Who’s Who of Likud’s American supporters.

In an article entitled “A Great American Screw-Up, the US and Iraq, 1980-1990,” Paul A. Gigot, Washington columnist for The Wall Street Journal, probably the most openly pro-Likud major daily in the United States, provides different versions or draws different conclusions from some of the same events cited in the US War College study.

His thesis is that the US is not fighting Israel’s war in the Gulf, but that the war came about through a series of misjudgments or mistakes at the middle level in the State Department by such career officers as Ambassador Richard Murphy, Assistant Secretary for the Near East and South Asia during the Reagan administration; his successor during the Bush administration, Ambassador John Kelly; and US Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie. Their mistakes, Gigot charges, were compounded by inattention at the Bush White House and the Baker State Department. In both places, Gigot charges, high level policy making is confined to such tight inner circles that a matter like the US-Iraq relationship “falls outside their radar screen” and is “run on auto pilot by the permanent bureaucracy. “

This “blame anyone but Israel” version of history starts in the aftermath of the Israel initiated Irangate scandals. At that time many US officials identified with the pro-Israel camp and deeply implicated in the “opening to Iran, ” which quickly degenerated into arms-for-hostages dealing, resigned or were banished from the bureaucracy. These included former NSC Adviser Robert “Bud” McFarlane, NSC Middle East Adviser Howard Teicher, White House I ‘consultant” Michael Ledeen, and, in the Pentagon, Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle and Deputy Assistant Secretary Stephen Bryen.

Benching the “Israelists” left the field open to “Arabists, ” seeking to find US allies among Arab states by cooling ties to Israel, according to Gigot. They compounded some initial “mistakes” made early in the Reagan administration in 1982. These had included removing Iraq from the US list of nations promoting terrorism and Secretary Shultz’s “Operation Staunch,” an attempt to keep other nations from selling arms to Iran for its war against Iraq. The US also had begun to share intelligence information with Iraq, and in 1984 the two countries resumed full diplomatic relations.

Gigot criticizes the US decision to reflag Kuwaiti tankers and protect the flow of Arab oil through the Gulf from Iranian interdiction. Reiterating the charges that Iraq used chemical weapons against Kurds after the 1988 cease-fire, Gigot carefully refrains from claiming this involved lethal poison gas. He charges, however, that “The Reagan administration-and the rest of the West-reacted with what can politely be called restraint.”

He criticizes the Reagan administration for preventing the resulting congressional sanctions against trade with Iraq from being enacted into law. Gigot implies that by elevating some of the Reagan administration bureaucrats identified with these policies into its tight inner circle of policy making, the Bush administration ensured that policies perpetuating the tilt toward Iraq would be adopted without searching examination.

Gigot neglects to mention, however, that the two most influential of the Bush administration middle level “inner circle” policy makers dealing with the Middle East, National Security Council Middle East adviser Richard Haass and State Department Assistant Secretary for Policy Planning Dennis Ross, are not Arabists, are Jewish, and were both regarded by Reagan administration colleagues as protective of Israel.

Gigot admits that the Bush administration reviewed its policy toward Iraq after Saddam Hussain’s April 2, 1990 speech in which he said, “By God, we will make the fire consume half of Israel if it tries to do anything against Iraq. ” The policy review, however, “died aborning, ” Gigot says, because of opposition from the Department of Commerce and NSC Adviser Brent Scowcroft.

Gigot’s “don’t blame Israel” version raises other 1990 events already well documented. These include State Department support for a complaint by Saddam Hussain that a Feb. 15 Voice of America commentary entitled “no more secret police” had listed Iraq (along with China, North Korea, Iran, Syria, Libya, Cuba and Albania) as countries where “the secret police are still widely present”; a cordial April 12 meeting between Saddam Hussain and US senators from both parties; and suppression by the State Department on July 25, one week before the Kuwait invasion, of a VOA radio commentary which said “the US remains strongly committed to supporting the individual and collective self-defense of its friends in the Persian Gulf. “

Gigot cites the famous exchange in which, according to an Iraqi release of a surreptitiously recorded (and, conceivably, doctored) transcript of a July 25 conversation in Baghdad, US Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie allegedly responded to Saddam’s account of his dispute with Kuwait:

“We have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait. I was in the American Embassy in Kuwait during the late 1960s. The instruction we had during this period was that we should express no opinion on this issue and that the issue is not associated with America.”

Gigot hangs his case on this statement, saying: “This conversation has been taken as the decisive, final signal to Saddam of US weakness, and it may well have been. But it also wasn’t far removed from the pattern of US policy set during three previous years, and especially the previous five months. Glaspie may have been more fawning (US officials say she had no specific instructions for the meeting since it was called on very short notice), but she was only one part of ‘the mindset.”‘

Gigot notes that, six days later, on July 3 1, only two days before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Assistant Secretary of State John Kelly told Congress: “We have no defense treaty relationships with any of the [Gulf] countries. We have historically avoided taking a position on border disputes or on internal OPEC deliberations, but we have certainly, as have all administrations, resoundingly called for the peaceful settlement of disputes and differences in the area.”

“April Glaspie, ” Gigot declares, “clearly was not alone.”

Reality According to Saddam Hussain’s Supporters

The Glaspie conversation also figures prominently in the history of the dispute by those who charge Saddam. Hussain was “trapped” into a fatal miscalculation of US intentions so that the US could destroy Iraq’s armed forces and war industries.

Saddam Hussain’s initial claims on Kuwait are well known. International maps show most of the huge Rumaila oil field lying in Iraq but extending across the border into Kuwait. Saddam Hussain claimed, however, that while Iraq was preoccupied by its war with Iran, Kuwait moved border posts, police stations and oil rigs north and, by using so-called “slant drilling” (like that used to tap oil deposits under the sea from installations on shore), pumped and shipped to world markets huge amounts of Iraqi oil.

Saddam Hussain claimed the entire Rumaila oil field. He also claimed uninhabited Warba and Bubiyan islands which, though of little use to Kuwait, could protect Iraqi access to the sea. Saddam added to his demands reimbursement for the Rumaila oil allegedly pumped by Kuwait, and forgiveness of some $17 billion in loans Kuwait had made to help Iraq’s war effort against Iran.

The Iraqi president further charged that both Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates were deliberately pumping far more oil than the OPEC quota to which they had agreed. The reasons, the Iraqi government charged, were to hold down the price of oil to delay Iraq’s recovery from its war with Iran, and also to enable the US to fill its strategic reserve at the lowest possible prices.

These actions, Iraqi officials charged, were responsible for a drop in oil prices on the world market from $28 a barrel to $11 a barrel, costing Iraq $14 billion.

In the words of Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz in a July 15, 1990 note to the secretary-general of the Arab League: “The aggression of the government of Kuwait against Iraq has been two-fold; by encroaching upon our territories and oil fields, and by stealing our national wealth, such action is tantamount to military aggression. The Kuwaiti government’s deliberate attempts to bring down the Iraqi economy is an aggression no smaller in its consequences than a military aggression.”

In a subsequent Sept. 4 note to “all countries of the world” explaining Iraq’s Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait, Tariq Aziz added: “The former regime in Kuwait was bent on perpetrating its design to destroy the Iraqi economy and destabilize its political system. It is inconceivable that such a small regime could entertain the perpetration of a conspiracy of this dimension against a big and strong country like Iraq without being supported by a great power. That power was the United States of America.”

Journalists sympathetic to Saddam Hussain have supplied the rest of this version of history. Ambassador Glaspie’s assurances were intended to lure Saddam Hussain into thinking he could seize the oil field and islands with impunity, they claim. Then, the US would either rush to the defense of Kuwait or actually mount a military strike against the Iraqi forces occupying part of Kuwait. The American purpose would be to put a permanent US military presence into the Gulf, and thus secure control of so much of the Gulf s oil-producing area that it could control the world market price of oil indefinitely.

Instead, these journalists claim, Saddam outsmarted the US by seizing all of Kuwait, complicating any attempt by the US to drive him out and destroy his military forces. So ends the Saddam Hussain version of history.

Saddam Hussain’s Conspiracy Against the Gulf States

The final version of what led to the Gulf crisis was reported in the November 1990 issue of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. It was recounted, not for attribution, to the writer by the ruler of one of the Gulf states, and corroborated by residents of the others. Whether or not it is true, in whole or in part, it is credited by officials throughout the Arabian peninsula as the only rational explanation for the subsequent conduct during the Gulf crisis of Yasser Arafat, King Hussein of Jordan, and the presidents of Yemen, Sudan and some states of North Africa.

Saddam Hussain, this version of history goes, planned his strike into Kuwait well in advance. He discussed it with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, assuring Arafat that the conquest of Kuwait was the first step for Arab armies on the road to Jerusalem. The Palestinians in Kuwait would be given citizenship, and perhaps control of Kuwait, and the other Gulf oil-producing states would fall into line, or be conquered. Their oil revenues, like those of Kuwait, would be put at the service of an Arab army capable of defeating Israel and any state that backed it.

Saudi Arabia, the conspiracy story goes, would be dismembered. Since Jordan’s population now is at least 60 percent Palestinian, Saddam Hussain promised King Hussein of Jordan that he would have the Hejaz, the Western part of Saudi Arabia that includes the two holy cities, Mecca and Medina, and the bustling Red Sea port of Jiddah.

 Proponents of this conspiracy theory cite as evidence the fact that, shortly before Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the king indicated to his followers that he would prefer to be called Sharif Hussein. It is the title borne by the great-grandfather for whom he was named, the Sharif Hussein. He, as descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, was appointed by the Ottoman Sultan as caretaker of the Holy Places. Instead, he joined forces with the British to launch the Arab Revolt that helped free the Arabs from 400 years of Ottoman rule. Although the British set up two of the Sharif Hussein’s sons as rulers in Iraq and Jordan, they did not come to his aid when King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, founder of the modem Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, incorporated the Hejaz into the Kingdom in the 1920s.

Similarly, the story goes, Saddam Hussain promised President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, in return for his support, the beautiful highlands of Asir province, which were among the last areas to be incorporated into the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia after fighting with Yemen in the 1930s. The support of Yemen, although seemingly far from the oil fields, would be important to Saddam Hussain because its population o Ilmillio is roughly comparable to that of Saudi Arabia, and at the time of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait more than a million Yemenis were working in Saudi Arabia.

Saddam Hussain supposedly promised, and perhaps delivered to Sudan, arms to pursue its civil war with Ethiopian and Israeli supported animist and Christian tribes in the south, and made other promises o political leaders in North Africa, and to journalists and politicians throughout the Middle East.

This conspiracy theory is not one developed solely to explain the seemingly shortsighted and self-destructive support offered Saddam Hussain by these leaders even after the military tide turned against Iraq. In fact, the conspiracy story appeared full-blown in the Arab world almost immediately after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.

Its proponents say it explains why Palestinians insist on hailing Saddam Hussain as their friend, although his armies split the Arab world by marching south on Kuwait rather than west toward Jerusalem. The story explains why the Saudis, main supporters of both the PLO and the Kingdom of Jordan, have cut essential funding to both, refusing even to supply Jordan with needed oil.

It would also help explain Yasser Arafat’s cheerful account that when he told Saddam Hussain in February it might take Iraq three years to win its war, the Iraqi ruler vowed he was prepared to fight for six. Why would the leader of the ever-beleaguered Palestinians conduct such a surrealistic dialogue in Baghdad on a day when the Iraqi army was being destroyed in Kuwait, and the network of bridges built up over 20 years in Iraq was being destroyed from the air with no serious resistance? Perhaps because Yasser Arafat, like King Hussein and Ali Abdullah Saleh, know that Saddam. Hussain tapes all conversations that take place in Baghdad, and then releases them to embarrass former friends when it suits his purposes.

Building Blocks of History

These five explanations, with many possible variations and combinations, are the building blocks of the histories to be written of the Gulf war of 1990 and 1991. They explain why American supporters of the present government of Israel are in full cry to blame the war on US “Arabists” and why they will be calling Glaspie, Kelly, and possibly James Baker to congressional hearings in hopes of making that blame stick.

These “histories” also explain, however, why after half a million US service members return from a war that many already suspect was brought to a head as much to reduce Iraq’s threat to Israel as to protect the oil fields or punish aggression, there will be pressure as never before to settle the unresolved problems in the Middle East. For Americans, this pressure will center on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, which underlies all other American problems there.

As for which version of history is true, readers might as well combine elements of all the versions to suit their own visions of reality. In Washington, just as in every capital of the Middle East, that’s what everyone else does.

Mr. Richard H. Curtiss is the executive editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. Quotations in this report from Iraqi government statements and interviews by Iraqi government officials are taken from Iraq Speaks: Documents on the Gulf Crisis, compiled and published by Fred Moore of Palo Alto, CA. This 100-page reference work, published in February 1991, is available from the American Educational Trust.