Tuesday 19 January 2021

'Desert Storm' - Kuwait, January 1991: the backdrop

The politics of the Middle East is something we don't tend to stray into around C@W, there are too many obvious beartraps (not to mention lurid conspiracy theorists).  However, salient headlines on the high-level situation at the time when Saddam made his ill-fated 1990 move on Kuwait can readily be assembled - see also my previous series of posts.  (BTW, I'm not aiming for my doctorate on late 20th C geopolitics here ...)

  • Iran and Iraq had been hard at it for the best part of the preceding decade.  Early successes for Saddam had not been capitalised upon, leading to bloody stalemate - but also resulting in a very large, battle-hardened Iraqi army that at the tactical level was well led, and could even make some claims to strategic competence - below the political level, that is.  (The earlier posts covered aspects of this in some detail, if you're interested.)
  • Western feelings about this were generally "it's a pity they both can't lose"^^.  For the most part, however (and certainly from the US perspective) the attitude towards post-Shah Iran was so negative, there was a tendency sometimes to view Saddam as something close to "an SoB, but our SoB" - and there had clearly been some maladroit (to put it mildly) high level contacts with his regime along those lines.  Many commentators suggested Saddam even believed he'd been given the green light on Kuwait.
  • Middle Eastern oil loomed larger in 1990-net-importer America's thinking than - thanks to its recent shale-based exporter status - it does today.  Kuwait mattered; and Saudi mattered a lot.  And Israel ... well, let's just say that if Saddam felt his illusory "free pass" extended one inch further than Kuwait's borders he was truly, barking mad.  Oh, and the UK had (and still has) a very significant strategic presence in the area, too.
  • China counted for rather little on the world stage in those days (Tiananmen Square was 1989); and the Soviet Union, which (formally speaking) still had more than a year to run at the time of the invasion, was already an utterly busted flush, the Berlin Wall having fallen also in 1989.  But Russia was a very interested spectator, with a ringside seat. 
  • Saddam had gone a little way towards emollient PR following his invasion, but it was to absolutely no avail**: Bush reacted strongly and quickly, and the battle-lines were drawn very early in the piece.
  • Mrs Thatcher was first on board, naturally; and the coalition assembled by Bush Senior (making military and/or financial contributions) was large and impressive.   
Incidentally MrsT was, in domestic political terms, in a real mess at the time (Poll Tax & generally declining authority), which became steadily worse as the weeks from the invasion went on; and concluded badly for her long before the end of 1990.  She desperately wanted to reprise the 1982 Falklands triumph++ and begged Tory MPs to let her stay on until the job in Kuwait was finished ...  

No such luck, she was well gone before the fighting started - on 17th January 1991.   

To be continued Perversely, it may take me longer to recount the tale than the actual fighting lasted ...



^^ attributed to Kissinger, but surely some American isolationist must have said it about Germany & Russia before the USA came into WW2?

** to be fair, it's entirely possible Jeremy Corbyn bought it

 ++ she'd been hankering after a re-run ever since: subject of another History Corner story I may feel able to recount one day...


Elby the Beserk said...

"** to be fair, it's entirely possible Jeremy Corbyn bought it"

Very likely, given his 100% record in getting things wrong :-)

John in Cheshire said...

"Many commentators suggested Saddam even believed he'd been given the green light on Kuwait."

I'm sure I have read reports that Madelaine Albright had at least one meeting with Mr Hussain, prior to the invasion of Kuwait, where she indicated the US had no interest in what he was proposing for Kuwait. My recollection is that Mr Hussain interpreted that to mean the US would not interfere with his invasion plans.

Is this correct? Was Mr Hussain lulled into a trap? Was Mrs Albright speaking without authority? Or is this just a story?

Anonymous said...

In your opinion, back then who was the lesser of two evils from a Western perspective - Iran or Iraq?

Could things have been better if we didn't invade Iraq and let them fight amongst themselves?

I don't understand very much Middle Eastern history or politics, it just seems a never ending quagmire (but a profitable one for certain Western interests)

Anonymous said...

One of the great strategic blunders of the 20th century: Iraq’s failure to blitzkrieg Ghawar and Riyadh. Would have mollified both Iran and thrilled Russia with higher oil. At that point, any Western intervention would have been bled to death. Electric vehicles would’ve arrived a lot sooner, ha!

dearieme said...

"surely some American isolationist must have said it about Germany & Russia before the USA came into WW2?"

I imagine some Greek, Sumerian, or Pharaoh must have said it a wee bit earlier.

"Was Mrs Albright speaking without authority?" It may be that the protagonist was not the execrable Madame Albright but the US Ambassador April Glaspie. After all, James Baker was Secretary of State at the time.

It seems it did happen.

Wildgoose said...

I seem to recall that Kuwait and Iraq had some disputed border territory that was also rich in oil. Plus Kuwait was antagonising Saddam by over-producing oil and keeping the price lower than he wanted.

Would things have turned out differently if he had just simply occupied the disputed terrotory?

James Higham said...

I should think it was very much their desire to do anything but let her finish the job. Those wets were a bad lot.