Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait on 2 August 1990 brought about the end of the Cold War in the Middle East and shattered the belief that no Arab state would invade another.
The Soviet Union, which collapsed the following year, collaborated with the US to ensure the UN passed the most comprehensive programme of sanctions against a rogue state in the organisation’s history.
Most Arab nations rallied behind the US against Iraq. Saudi Arabia defied expectations and invited foreign troops to use the kingdom as a base for air and land attacks against Iraq, which started in January 1991.
For a while, anything seemed possible. Some believed a new world order based on co-operation among the superpowers was being born.
Two decades later, the events of August 1990 look less significant than they did at that time. The new order simply didn’t show up. In the years since then, there’s been famine in the Horn of Africa and genocide in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda. Violent death remains a daily occurrence in Iraq. The Middle East is still divided.
So what’s gone wrong?
The first was America’s Iraq strategy. Until the moment Saddam Hussein ordered his army into Kuwait, Washington viewed the Iraqi regime benignly as a bulwark against Iran and a status quo power. The invasion precipitated a sudden reversal in US policy, which involved defining Iraq as global enemy number one and, bizarrely, Syria as an American ally.
Policy was devised on the hoof, sometimes changing by the day, as former enemies became friends. And when Saddam Hussein was not deposed after his army left Kuwait, these improvisations became the foundations of America’s new Middle East policy framework. UN sanctions punished the Iraqi people, but failed to end Saddam Hussein’s rule. It was the worst of all worlds, which was finally brought to an end by the 2003 Iraq invasion, an even more ill-conceived improvisation.
Saddam Hussein by then was enfeebled and no threat. The real issues obscured by the war were character of Iraq after he’d gone and the future shape of the Gulf. America and the West had no answer and still don’t. Their approach is to leave Iraq alone so long as it doesn’t disturb the region. It is as if the war for Kuwait hadn’t happened.
The second problem is America’s attitude to Iran. By crippling Iraq in 1990-91, the US had done Tehran a huge favour and might have been able to parlay that into a bilateral understanding. Iran’s president at the time, Akbar Rafsanjani, was a moderate pragmatist, who had persuaded Ayatollah Khomeini to sue for peace with Iraq two years earlier.
America’s immediate priority in 1991, however, was honouring promises made to Arab states to secure their co-operation in the war for Kuwait. The US hosted the historic Madrid conference in October 1991, which for the first time brought Israel into the same room as all its Arab neighbours, though the Palestinians were relegated into a subsidiary role. The conference set up multilateral working groups to deliver the critical elements of a comprehensive regional peace that would come in due course.
So 1992 began with hopes that the Middle East was entering a new era. But a disruptive factor was about to emerge that would shatter everyone’s dreams: Bill Clinton. Twenty years ago, he was an ambitious provincial politician with a talented wife and a wandering eye. His road to the White House in November 1992 was secured in part by winning over America’s pro-Israel voters. Clinton denounced the Madrid process as unfair to the Jewish state. The US economy and Ross Perot’s independent presidential candidacy were the main factors behind Clinton’s unlikely win against President George H Bush. But he had made himself Israel’s hostage.
Clinton’s strategy for the region called for “dual containment”. This was ostensibly a policy that called for Iran and Iraq to be treated as equal threats. It was, in reality, an “Israel first” improvisation. Clinton initially showed no interest in the Madrid process. And when the Oslo breakthrough came, it took the form of bilateral negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and Jordan. This enabled Israel to pick off Arab states individually, which was totally against the multilateral spirit of Madrid.
Israel’s recognition of the PLO and peace with Jordan was delivered with much acclaim. But the truth is that Clinton frittered away the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to deliver a comprehensive settlement that Madrid represented.
Meanwhile, Iraq festered under a total blockade that caused tens of thousands of civilian deaths. And the opportunity to open a dialogue with Iran was forsaken for sanctions that garnered domestic votes, but alienated the Islamic republic.
By the end of the Clinton presidency, the damage was effectively irreversible. The Oslo process collapsed amid Palestinian frustration, Arab disillusion and Israeli obstructionism. Iraq’s economy was ruined, but Saddam Hussain remained. Sanctions against Iran were ineffective and fuelled emotions that the present regime in Tehran feeds on.
Clinton’s Middle East policies not only failed but also destroyed most of what good that had resulted from the war for Kuwait. The 2003 invasion of Iraq echoed some of the themes of 1990, but it inspired none of the grand visions of regional and international co-operation that the war for Kuwait conjured up.
America, no longer the liberator and even-handed peacemaker, looked like a frustrated bully trying to recover face by assaulting a weakling and doing it badly.
There will be, consequently, much to remember yet little to celebrate this August. Even the victory parades scheduled in Kuwait next February to mark the 20th anniversary of liberation will fail to strike a chord. Too many hopes have been shattered since 1990 for unrestrained joy. Some will cheer nevertheless. But many will wonder why the opportunities created by the events of that summer have been squandered. And some will ask themselves whether the price paid by so many then and since has been far too high.