Three decades ago Iraq’s Saddam Hussein invaded neighboring Kuwait. It was no contest. Hussein was vastly more ruthless than Kuwait’s emir. Iraq’s military was significantly larger than Kuwait’s armed forces. Hussein declared his conquest to be Iraq’s 19th province.
However, President George H.W. Bush decided that Iraq’s aggression would not stand. The following February the U.S. forced Iraq out of Kuwait. Rather than return home, the Pentagon left bases and troops strewn about the Middle East. Through the Bush and Clinton administrations American forces maintained two no-fly zones in Iraq, launched regular bombing raids to punish Baghdad for failing to cooperate with UN nuclear inspectors and committing other alleged offenses, embargoed Iraq’s oil, and funded opposition groups in a push for regime change. At a time of nominal peace the US averaged a bombing raid a week on Iraq.
President George W Bush continued Washington’s unofficial war against Iraq, before deciding to use the 9/11 attacks as an excuse to invade the country and oust Hussein. Starting in March 2003, he speedily ousted Hussein. Unfortunately, Bush also triggered a bitter, bloody sectarian war and created al-Qaeda in Iraq, which morphed into the Islamic State. Iraqis and Americans are still fighting Islamist extremists, with no end in sight. Only now US forces also are primed to battle Iran, whose influence in Iraq was dramatically multiplied when Washington removed the secular Sunni Saddam Hussein from command of the majority Shia country.
Some analysts look the past 17 years of chaos and conflict created by Dubya & Co. and yearn for Hussein’s return. He was a moral monster, but Iraq’s agony illustrates the challenge created by blowing up countries and assuming that all will be well. Ironically, brutal stability under Hussein likely would have saved many lives, prevented widespread destruction, protected religious minorities, avoided a bitter insurgency, precluded mass religious cleansing, and limited Iranian influence. Sixty-six when the US invaded, he might have been gone after a few years, and certainly by now. He might even have been replaced by a more liberal if not reform government. Such is pure conjecture, of course. All we know for sure is that Bush’s war resulted in years of destabilizing murder and mayhem, which is a good argument against initiating an unnecessary war under false pretenses.
The Gulf War’s 30th anniversary also should remind us of America’s and the West’s culpability in Hussein’s rise and misrule. Arbitrary allied line-drawing after World War I created the modern nations of Iraq and Kuwait, but virtually no one in the former viewed the latter as a legitimate state. The British set Iraq under the Hashemite monarchy, which possessed little popular support and was overthrown by the military, which in turn was ousted by the Baath Party, leading to Hussein’s ascension in 1979. Over the years the US was deeply involved in Iraqi politics, supporting the Kurdish minority against the Baghdad regime. At one point the CIA was ordered to look for a candidate to rule and plan a coup, without success. Along the way Iraq broke diplomatic relations with America.
In 1980 Hussein invaded Iran, believing it to be much weakened after the Islamic Revolution. It was, but Iran’s new government inspired fervent support from many of its people, in contrast to Hussein’s rule. A secular Sunni sitting atop the other large, majority-Shia state, he had little to offer other than brutality and terror. Tehran gradually retook lost Iranian territory and the two countries returned to World War I-style tactics, with trench warfare and mass infantry attacks.
The Carter administration was neutral between the two powers, and Henry Kissinger mused that it was unfortunate both could not lose. The newly inaugurated Reagan administration took the same position, but as Iranian resistance stiffened Washington worried that Baghdad’s defeat might spread Islamic revolution to Iraq, threatening Israel and destabilizing the oil-rich Sunni monarchies upon which the West relied for oil.
Alas, revolutionary Iran was blowback from Washington’s support for the 1953 coup that brought the Shah to power. Ousting the left-leaning prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, seemed like a good idea at the time in Washington. However, the corrupt and oppressive Shah ultimately fell to a broad-based coalition including liberals and Islamists. Unsurprisingly, the latter, more fervent, better armed, and more determined, pushed the former aside and took control. They had, shall we say, a negative view of the United States. America’s decision to admit the Shah for medical treatment triggered the takeover of the US embassy, which lasted more than a year. The release of the American captives did little to reduce the two nations’ hostility.
By 1982 the Reagan administration began tilting toward Iraq, restoring diplomatic relations, providing economic aid, and backing Hussein militarily in his aggressive war, which killed as many as 1.5 million people. The US provided intelligence as well as materials used to produce chemical weapons. In 1987 the American navy began guarding Kuwaiti tankers conveniently reflagged as American vessels, which carried oil that funded Iraq’s military operations through loans from Kuwait. As in Yemen today, the US became an unindicted co-aggressor.
America’s abundant backing in the war, which settled in 1988, likely convinced Hussein that Washington was on his side. This impression was enhanced by his July 1990 meeting with US ambassador April Glaspie. In discussing his complaints about Kuwait, including its refusal to write off war debt, and the US, which he claimed was encouraging Kuwaiti recalcitrance, she responded that "we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait." Her comment followed a State Department assurance that Washington had "no special defense or security commitments to Kuwait."
The much-criticized Glaspie appeared to be merely following her instructions in explaining Bush administration policy. She later tried to repair her reputation by insisting that she had warned Hussein not to attack Kuwait, but leaked State Department documents do not report any such caution. Observed Harvard’s Stephen Walt: "In short, I think it is clear from the cable that the United States did unwittingly give a green light to Saddam, and certainly no more than a barely flickering yellow light. Glaspie certainly didn’t make it clear to him what would happen if he used force against Kuwait. This is a case of policy failure but not deterrence failure, in short, because deterrence wasn’t tried in this case."
This is not surprising. The attitude of Hussein – a man who brutally murdered without hesitation – was described as "cordial, reasonable, and even warm." The Bush administration wanted to maintain the improved bilateral relationship. And preserve Iraq as a bulwark against Iranian expansion. Having done so much to make an enemy of Iran, the Gulf’s most important and significant power, Washington desired counterweights, even a vile, brutal dictatorship prepared to invade neighbors perceived as weak. What came next also should not have surprised Washington: grabbing Kuwait. Which in Hussein’s view should not have bothered an administration which purported to have "no opinion" about the "border disagreement."
Which set in motion Washington’s 1991 attack on Iraq, years of coercive containment, and ultimately the 2003 US invasion, which proved to be the tragic gift that keeps on giving, creating conflict and roiling the region to this day. Happy 30th anniversary of the endless war against Iraq!
The sad lesson of the perpetual Iraq conflict is that intervention begets intervention. Overturn a leftish regime. Celebrate a thuggish ally. Watch as he is overthrown by radicals who hate you. Back an even more thuggish regime against your new enemies. Alas, your new friend thinks you will put up with anything. Go to war with him. Keep bombing while he ignores your dictates. Tired of his resistance, invade his country and remove him. Spark a sectarian conflagration which creates chaos and death. Generate new radical enemies. And strengthen your largely forgotten original radical enemies. Intervene again to defeat the even more dangerous new radicals now taking control of the land you supposedly liberated. Intervene in a nearby civil war to defeat the new radicals who expanded their operations; also act against your original radical enemies who moved into the same civil war to counter the new radicals. Repeat. The job of an imperial power is never done.
The endless Iraq wars have wasted Americans’ lives and money and made them less safe. Three decades is enough. It’s time to bring US forces home. Now.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.