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George Bush's War
By Jean Edward Smith
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 1992 Jean Edward Smith
All rights reserved.
The Assyrian came down Like the wolf on the fold ...
— Lord Byron
At 2 A.M., August 2 (7 P.M., August 1, Washington time), the lead tanks of two Iraqi armored divisions rolled past startled Kuwaiti customs guards and began a lightning dash toward Kuwait City, some sixty miles to the south. A third armored division crossed the frontier to the west. The thirty thousand troops in the initial assault wave were from Iraq's republican guards: decorated veterans of the war with Iran, and fiercely loyal to Saddam Hussein. Equipped with modern Soviet T-72 tanks, the Iraqi forces encountered only sporadic resistance as they rumbled down Kuwait's six-lane superhighway toward the capital. Within three hours, the guards divisions, supported by helicopter assault troops, were fanning out through the city. Within five hours, all effective opposition had ceased. Within twelve hours, all of Kuwait — an area approximately the size of New Jersey — was under Iraqi control. Seldom has an invasion been so swift, or a victory so complete.
The Iraqi invasion reflected crisp military efficiency. The guards divisions enjoyed only a 3:2 numerical advantage over Kuwaiti armed forces, but achieved total tactical surprise. Their momentum was overwhelming. In addition to the main crossings, flank units sliced across the desert to the east and to the west. The guards' assault was supported by self-propelled artillery and three motorized infantry divisions from the 3rd and 7th army corps stationed near Basra, forty miles north of the Kuwait border. While the main force advanced against Kuwait City, other units moved eastward toward the Persian Gulf. Simultaneously, troop-carrying helicopters headed for the two uninhabited Kuwaiti islands of Bubiyan and Warba. The islands (more like sandbars) dominate the approaches to Umm Qasr, Iraq's only port with direct access to the Gulf, and had long been a source of tension between the two countries. Air power was employed sparingly, its main purpose to intimidate the few Kuwaiti defenders.
The invasion was no contest. Casualties were extremely light. Fewer than one hundred persons were killed on both sides. Speaking of the Iraqi tactics shortly afterward, General Powell said that Iraq's generals "conducted the Kuwaiti operations in a very professional manner. It's an army that's very capable. They've had eight years' experience in war."
What little fighting there was centered on two army barracks west of Kuwait City, the international airport, and Dasman Palace, the emir's seaside residence. Special Kuwaiti battalions, trained by British commandos to protect the emir and his family, put up a dogged defense until overwhelmed by superior Iraqi firepower. These were exceptions. For the most part, the Kuwaiti armed forces offered little resistance, surrendered quickly, or joined the panic flight of the royal family and others to neighboring Saudi Arabia. The emir, Sheik Jabir alAhmed al-Sabah, fled abruptly in a caravan of Mercedes 600s shortly after the Iraqi troops crossed the border. The family's honor was saved by the emir's half-brother, Sheik Fahd al-Ahmed al-Sabah, who perished with a rifle in his hand defending the all-but-deserted palace. A brave man, Sheik Fahd was president of the Olympic Council of Asia, a well-known figure in international athletic circles, and was regarded by many as the driving force behind the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Often critical of the al-Sabah family's high style of living, he had served as a commando officer fighting with the Palestinians in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, had been wounded, and taken prisoner. Alone among Kuwait's ruling dynasty, Sheik Fahd held his ground when the invader approached.
For their part, the guards divisions were well disciplined. The London Times reported Iraqi troops mixing freely with the local population to assure them that "Baghdad bore no animosity toward the Kuwaiti people." Some went to barber shops for a morning shave; others knocked at residents' doors to ask for tea and coffee. Americans in Kuwait City told The New York Times of watching Iraqi soldiers enter a cafeteria in a downtown hotel and have breakfast. "They talked to the Americans who were in the hotel. It was all very friendly." At the nearby Sheraton hotel, scores of guardsmen wandered in and out like tourists.
Kuwaiti officials who offered no resistance were well treated. The Kuwaiti cabinet was trapped at the headquarters of the supreme defense council with telephone and telex links cut. Iraqi troops blockaded the building but soon allowed the ministers to go home. Seventy-one British military personnel stationed in Kuwait to provide technical advice and support for the aircraft and tanks supplied by Great Britain took no part in the fighting and were not harmed.
In Baghdad, motorists honked their horns and flashed their lights to celebrate the invasion. Radio and television stations broadcast patriotic songs and mobilization orders for the military. According to Reuters, most Iraqis thought the attack was justified. There was widespread support for Saddam, and relief that victory had come so quickly. The New York Times, in its own sampling of Baghdad opinion, quoted college student Ahmed Khalis that "the Kuwaitis boast of their aid to Iraq [during the war with Iran], but it was Iraq that defended their thrones and wealth with blood. We sacrificed our brothers, fathers, and sons to let them enjoy life."
Somewhat belatedly, Iraqi radio announced that the invasion was launched in response to an appeal from "young revolutionaries [inside Kuwait] who sought support in a coup to install a new free government." But the "young revolutionaries" were not identified, and few took the claim seriously. As U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering told the U.N. Security Council immediately afterward, the Iraqis "got it the wrong way around. They invaded Kuwait and then staged the coup d'etat in a blatant and deceitful effort to try to justify their action." Quite clearly, Iraq's slipshod political preparation for the invasion in no way matched the effectiveness of its battle-tested war machine. Either that, or Saddam's decision to invade was taken so quickly that insufficient time was left to organize a coup.
The latter explanation may be the most plausible. Like virtually all other observers, the White House, the State Department, and most of the intelligence community believed that Saddam's massing of troops on the Kuwaiti border — clearly visible to motorists driving between Basra and Kuwait City for a week preceding the invasion — was simply saber rattling to improve Iraq's bargaining position in negotiations with the emir. Even if Saddam's forces did cross the frontier, only a minor incursion was anticipated — again, to exert leverage on Kuwait. No one foresaw that Iraq would occupy the entire country.
As if to underscore the lack of concern, April Glaspie, the American ambassador to Iraq, left Baghdad two days before the invasion for a brief vacation in London before returning to Washington for consultations. Her Soviet counterpart left the same day for the Black Sea. Harold "Hooky" Walker, the British ambassador, was on holiday in Woking. Even the chief of Israeli intelligence was caught flatfooted, enjoying his own wedding party in Tel Aviv, when Saddam's forces invaded.
News of the invasion did not reach Washington until nine o'clock in the evening, two hours after the first Iraqi tanks crossed the border. Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser, was summoned from his home in nearby Maryland and informed President Bush shortly thereafter. Just before midnight, the White House issued a brief statement condemning the invasion and calling for the Iraqi forces to withdraw.
At the same time, Assistant Secretary of State John H. Kelly summoned the Iraqi ambassador, Mohammed Sadig al-Mashat, to the State Department, where he was given a strenuous protest. But to judge from the initial soundings, there was no great alarm in Washington, and no suggestion of an attempt to roll back the Iraqi assault.
At the Pentagon, officials said they were monitoring the situation, but had "no plans for a U.S. military response." Defense Secretary Dick Cheney remained at home and did not return to work. "There is no decision for him to make," said a Pentagon spokesman. "This ain't our show." General Powell also remained in his quarters.
Several times that night, President Bush was awakened by Scowcroft with additional details of the invasion. At 5 A.M., the president signed an executive order freezing Iraqi assets in the United States and shutting off all trade between the two countries. At 8 A.M., Bush met with Scowcroft, Cheney, Powell, Judge William Webster of the CIA, White House Chief of Staff John Sununu, and other members of the National Security Council. The prevailing attitude among the group, according to one participant, was "Hey, too bad about Kuwait, but it's just a gas station, and who cares whether the sign says Sinclair or Exxon?" At a brief press conference, the president said that American military intervention was not under consideration. "I am not contemplating such action," Bush said. Certainly, the situation was not deemed sufficiently critical to keep the president in Washington. He left immediately for Aspen, Colorado, where he and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had speaking engagements at the Aspen Institute.
Later that day, Bush's advisers once again played down the possibility of a military response. The Washington Post reported that the administration's military experts believed "it would be difficult, if not impossible, to do more than put on a limited display of military muscle ... without a major mobilization." Instead, spokesmen said the United States "would attempt to put the economic screws to Iraq."
Admiral William Crowe, the recently retired chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, appeared on "Nightline" with Ted Koppel that evening and cautioned that Iraq was "a long ways away and it's a harsh climate. ... We can dominate the Gulf from a naval standpoint. We can keep Iraq off the water. We can dominate them in the air. But the question of ground troops in that vast desert, that's another matter altogether."
On Capitol Hill the response was similar. While those legislators who were interviewed deplored the invasion, the tone was set by Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia, the powerful chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "I don't think we have a military obligation at this moment," said Nunn. "I believe our primary recourse should be to very intensive diplomatic activity."
Secretary of State James Baker, meeting in the Siberian city of Irkutsk with Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze, spoke with President Bush by telephone, and then made plans to return to Washington. The following day, at the airport in Moscow, Baker and Shevardnadze issued a joint statement criticizing "the brutal and illegal invasion of Kuwait. Today, we take the unusual step of jointly calling upon the rest of the international community to join us in an international cutoff of all arms supplies to Iraq."
Shevardnadze added that "as for military intervention, the Soviet Union does not have any plans for such operations and I understand the United States has no such plans at this time."
At the United Nations, the Security Council convened in special session to condemn the invasion, and called on Iraq to withdraw. There was no suggestion that force be employed. The NATO allies, meeting in Brussels, joined the call for an unconditional Iraqi withdrawal and agreed to consider an American request to ban all trade with Iraq and to freeze Iraqi assets. Again, there was no discussion of military action, and diplomats said that NATO was planning no initiatives.
In Cairo, the Arab League's council held an emergency meeting and agreed to call an Arab summit. But the League issued no statement, and the London Times reported that "not one Arab government even went so far as a formal condemnation of the attack." A majority of the Arab countries wanted a resolution mildly disapproving of Iraq's action, said the Times, but a significant minority was expected to remain silent. A senior Arab cabinet minister from a country that had been friendly to Kuwait was quoted as saying "I am afraid that we may have to sacrifice Kuwait as we knew it to get out of this," meaning that the al-Sabahs' days of rule were likely over.
Even Saudi Arabia, Kuwait's closest ally in the region and founder of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the alliance to which both Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates belonged, appeared content with giving refuge to the emir and his family. In effect, the world greeted Saddam's lightning takeover of Kuwait with surprise, consternation, and disapproval — the degree of that disapproval increasing in direct proportion to the critic's distance from Kuwait. The fact that casualties had been light, and that the Iraqi army had behaved itself initially, caused the neighboring Arab states to hope that a formula could be found to effect a quick Iraqi withdrawal. Saddam might be rewarded, but the damage would be minimal. There was no discussion of military intervention to reverse the takeover. In the United States, where support for Kuwait seemed greatest, the Bush administration restricted its moves to the economic sphere.
Decision to Invade
Why Saddam had suddenly decided to invade Kuwait is not clear. Iraqi resentment against Kuwait and the other Gulf states had been building since the end of the war with Iran in 1988. In particular, and despite the fact that it was Saddam who began the war, the Iraqis resented that they had borne the full weight of resisting Iran. They complained that their sacrifices were not sufficiently recognized by their neighbors, and certainly were not adequately compensated. As William B. Quandt of the Brookings Institution observed, "Whatever one thinks of Saddam Hussein, it is indisputably true that in the 1980s no one other than Iraq was willing to stand up to an Iranian bid for hegemony in the Gulf." Mr. Quandt had been in charge of Middle East affairs for the National Security Council under President Carter. His assessment was shared by Richard W. Murphy, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs under President Reagan. It was "a constant theme we heard from the Iraqis in 1988," said Murphy.
Iraqi resentment centered on the dire financial plight into which their country had fallen, and the failure of other Gulf states to render assistance. According to American estimates, the war with Iran had cost Iraq $500 billion. For most of the conflict, the Iraqis had devoted about 40 percent of their gross domestic product to military expenditures, choking off consumer spending and economic development. When the war ended, pent-up demand stoked a raging inflation. By early summer 1990, the dinar had fallen to one-twelfth its official value. Add to the inflation a significant unemployment problem created by demobilization, thousands of homeless and wounded to be housed and cared for, enormous war damage to be repaired, a crushing foreign debt estimated to be in the vicinity of $80 billion (before the war, Iraq enjoyed a $30 billion surplus in net foreign investment), and severely depressed oil prices flowing in large measure from the systematic overproduction by Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.
For Iraq, seeking to recover from the war, oil prices meant everything. With an output of 3.14 million barrels a day,* every $1 drop in the price of oil cost Iraq about $1 billion a year in lost revenue. With such a huge piece of the action, it is not surprising that Saddam focused his efforts on raising oil prices, and starting in February 1990, began to lean heavily on his Gulf neighbors to reduce production. In fact, Time magazine, in its pre-invasion issue in August, concluded that "within OPEC, Saddam had an excuse for adopting a tough-cop role. In an organization filled with quota cheaters, Kuwait and the U[nited] A[rab] E[mirates] have been among the most incorrigible in exceeding their agreed-upon production limits ... driving the average price ... from $20.50 in early January to a mere $13 in June." Iraq's foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, put the problem more succinctly when he said that Iraq's budget "is based on a price of $18 a barrel for oil, but since the Kuwaitis began flooding the world with oil, the price has gone down by a third."
As the summer wore on, and as its economic condition worsened, Iraq escalated its demands against Kuwait. In addition to curtailing its massive overproduction, Saddam insisted that Kuwait pay $2.4 billion in compensation for oil allegedly pumped from Iraqi territory along the countries' disputed one-hundred-mile frontier. He also demanded that Kuwait renounce whatever claims it might have to the disputed (Rumaila) oil field; pay Iraq a direct subsidy of $12 billion in compensation for the reduced oil prices triggered by Kuwait's overproduction; forgive Iraq's war debt of some $10 billion (the Saudis had already done so); and lease or cede to Baghdad the island of Bubiyan, which controls the approach to Iraq's port at Umm Qasr. Contemporary reports in the Washington Post and the London Times indicated that Kuwait was prepared to concede the Rumaila field and to pay Iraq "a large sum of money" in compensation. But the Kuwaiti royal family appeared determined not to yield to demands that it surrender or lease Bubiyan island to Iraq, because of anticipated tidewater drilling in the area.
Excerpted from George Bush's War by Jean Edward Smith. Copyright © 1992 Jean Edward Smith. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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