On 2 August 1990, Saddam Hussein ordered his elite Republican Guard to storm into neighbouring Kuwait, claiming Iraq was answering a call from a group of revolutionary army officers in the tiny emirate that had overthrown the government.
Although the Iraqi forces were driven out of Kuwait by a US-led international coalition seven months later, the invasion had devastating consequences for Iraq and established the Middle East as we know it today.
Despite being banished almost entirely from public spaces and official narratives, the 30th anniversary of the adventure has made itself present in other ways throughout political life in Iraq, which is still paying the invasion’s heavy cost.
Nonetheless, Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait still raises many puzzling questions. What would have happened if Saddam had not invaded Kuwait? What if Saddam had seized part of the disputed border instead of occupying the entire emirate? What if Saddam had won the war that was waged to expel him from Kuwait?
But while these remain “what if” questions, a less hypothetical question is why did the former dictator, the leader of an already oil-rich country that had just emerged from a long and debilitating war with Iran, invade Kuwait in the first place, and why did he resist a peaceful resolution to the conflict and persist in a war-fighting strategy?
The conventional wisdom holds that Saddam invaded Iraq’s southern neighbour after he accused it and the United Arab Emirates of increasing their oil production to lower prices, which he blamed for drastically cutting Iraq’s badly needed revenues.
Yet, the reasons for Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait have also been explained by several other factors, including the inconclusive outcome of the Iraq-Iran War that ended in 1988 and fears of the immense military power that Saddam had built up during the eight-year war despite its misery and destruction.
But while those were the immediate factors that may have triggered Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, historical forces, whether real or imaginary, also played a major role in developing the crisis and consequently the threats that led to the war.
Historically, Iraq had always had issues with Kuwait, which successive Iraqi governments since the modern state of Iraq came into being in 1923 had declined to accept in its British-drawn borders that established it as a separate sheikhdom after the signature of the Anglo-Ottoman Convention of 1913.
While resistance to the border demarcation and squabbles over islands covering access to Iraq’s Gulf ports came from successive regimes in Iraq, some Iraqis also claimed that Kuwait itself belonged to Iraq.
Saddam’s initial response to the conflict in 1990 was to emphasise Kuwait’s alleged encroachments along the 80-mile border and its allegedly unlawful drilling of oil wells in Iraq’s southern oil fields, thus causing Iraqis to face starvation.
In geostrategic and historical terms, these allegations prompted the crisis with Kuwait to overshadow immediate factors and made the explosion of a territorial dispute into conflict inevitable.
While decision-making depends largely on the skills and judgement of those in power, in a totalitarian state that lacks democratic institutions it is usually the personal qualities and mental capacity of the leader that determine failure or success.
As supreme commander with ultimate military and political authority in Iraq, Saddam had the final say on any subject in which he took an interest, making his choices and decision-making strategy crucial.
There is no shortage of evidence to suggest that Saddam’s decisions during the crisis were dictated by his instincts and driven by a personality characterised by grandiosity and paranoid retaliatory behaviour.
Like many other despots, Saddam suffered from a personality disorder characterised by a long-term pattern of an exaggerated ego, an excessive need for admiration, and a lack of empathy towards subordinates and people in general.
Saddam was always known to be harbouring dreams of glory propelled by a personality cult manifested in the image of an idealised leader, lavish celebrations, a massive propaganda machine and countless giant images and statues across the country.
His war with Iran was called “Saddam’s Qadissiya” after the Arabs’ early victory over the Persian Sasanian Empire in the 7th century CE in Qadissiya in southern Iraq.
Throughout the crisis over Kuwait that came to a head in early 1990, Saddam’s malignant narcissism was evident. At each stage, questions were raised about his decision-making capacities and whether he had the relevant expertise to engage in a war with a superpower like the United States.
Saddam’s narcissistic tendencies made him an extraordinarily easy person to be manipulated by his foes, and these became his greatest point of weakness along with his tendency to confuse reality with what he wanted to be true.
Having covered the conflict and the subsequent invasion, this writer has long argued that Saddam led himself into a quagmire by shunning any sensible and prudent policy that could have avoided fighting an unwinnable war.
Saddam’s being out of touch with political reality meant that he was easily guided by intuition in his decision-making and susceptible to manipulation and deception.
For much of the crisis that preceded the invasion, Saddam was pushed into a corner where his moves could be directed through remote control or some kind of telepathy (whatever that meant in parapsychology) by his adversaries.
Intelligence analysts from Washington to London and Paris were more or less aware of all this after working to analyse Saddam’s personality and understand how much this affected his leadership style, perceptions and decision-making.
They studied his mind through his hundreds of public speeches, briefings they received from diplomats and officials who had met him, and his body language, and through their resulting mind control they steered him in a certain direction or controlled his perceptive processes.
This was the kind of analysis that was apparently made available to policy-planners in the lead up to the conflict, with recommendations being made to push Saddam forward and then let him dig his own grave, allowing Saddam’s enemies to exonerate themselves from the ensuing tragedy.
While covering the Kuwait crisis in 1990-1991 for an international news agency in Baghdad, the idea of a trap having been set for Saddam alarmed me, but at the same time I was daunted by the international diplomacy, or the lack of it, that was apparently trying to stop Saddam from invading Kuwait.
There were public protests, but there were no attempts to talk Saddam into a negotiated solution to the crisis or to offer him some carrot that could prevent the invasion, a policy possibly influenced by the failure of the British to stop Nazi leader Adolf Hitler from beginning World War II.
There was plenty of evidence that some statements by Western leaders like then British prime minister Margaret Thatcher were deliberately made to humiliate Saddam and to make him refuse mediation and any compromise.
The narrative that Kuwait, Washington and their allies had failed to anticipate Iraq’s incursion into Kuwait despite Saddam’s repeated threats and the massive troop buildup on the border was seen as awkward by observers, including myself, who had been watching the situation on the border closely.
In my attempts to write a journalistic first draft of the history of the conflict, including reporting on Saddam’s threats and the military buildup, I was approached by Kuwait’s ambassador in Baghdad at the time, Ibrahim Jassim Al-Bahu, who wanted to pick my brain on the escalation.
My assessment that the Iraqi invasion was inevitable was included in Al-Bahu’s 1995 testimony to a Kuwaiti parliamentary committee probing the invasion, though he attributed it to “observers” in Baghdad.
In memoirs written by Arab officials such as then Saudi oil minister Hisham Nazir and then Syrian foreign minister Farouk Al-Sharaa we are also told that Saddam’s invasion was widely expected and that Kuwait was confident that “it would be helped by its friends” to kick Saddam out when it happened.
Indeed, Saddam’s enemies spearheaded by the United States perceived the Iraqi dictator’s threats to be not only a challenge but also an opportunity to undermine his regime and get rid of a leader whose defiance had risen another notch in its intensity.
By making himself a power beyond Iraq and making his dream of Arab leadership be taken seriously, Saddam was starting to be portrayed as another Gamal Abdel-Nasser, the former Egyptian leader who championed anti-Western and anti-Israeli policies.
The Gulf crisis represented an opportunity for the Western nations and their Arab allies to reject the Iraq-dominated Middle East they feared Saddam was trying to impose and work instead for one based on the traditional balance of power.
Rather than let Saddam off the hook, this alliance of necessity wanted to shift the regional balance of power in accordance with changes expected to occur as a result of the crisis.
This required a carefully crafted approach to annihilate Iraq’s power, erode its strategic and moral position and produce the conditions for a new regional order in the name of raison d’etre.
To me it became crystal clear when I heard former Japanese prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, in Baghdad at the time in an effort to defuse the crisis, urging then PLO chairman Yasser Arafat on 20 November 1990 to tell Saddam that Iraq would “be sent back to the pre-industrial age” if he did not withdraw from Kuwait.
Iraq’s 13 years of isolation and UN sanctions, bombings, two wars, occupation and a prolonged conflict that have cost the country dearly in terms of human lives lost and material destruction since cannot be considered as the unintended consequences of the anti-Saddam campaign.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly