Majid Khadduri, one of our era's great scholars of Islamic law and history, has combined with Edmund Ghareeb, an esteemed specialist in Middle East affairs, to give us a study on the recent Gulf War. Its purpose, they write, is to balance the conventional Western rendition of the events of 1990-91 with "views from the other side." If readers are looking for a revisionist interpretation, however, they will be disappointed. The authors provide a great deal of information, but none of it departs dramatically from what is already on the record.
It would be nice, with the war nearly seven years behind us, if scholarship were able to catch up with some of the implausible behavior that led to the war. What in the world did Saddam Hussein have in mind in engorging Kuwait? Did he really think he could face down the mighty coalition that mobilized against him? Why did he fail to take the diplomatic exits that were available to him? As for George Bush, why did he reject negotiation - Arab if not Western - to end the crisis? Were his moves meant to serve a strategic vision for the Gulf? Did he really think he was creating a New World Order?
Those of us who gave close attention to the build-up toward the war have long had our surmises, but it's time we had some evidence to confirm or dismiss them. Maybe there is no evidence. The passage of time, and the publication of memoirs of the participants, suggest that there may be nothing hidden in the archives that would provide logical justification for the behavior of either side. For myself, I have seen nothing in seven years to change my judgment that the world was led into this disaster by two foolish men, guided not by national concern but by needy egos. I remain convinced that these men, Saddam Hussein and George Bush, stumbled into the war with scarcely any forethought. Not only was the war unnecessary; in the end, it damaged the interests of all of those who were involved.
Khadduri and Ghareeb confirm that the crucial moment which led to the clash of titans in February, 1991, took place in the first week of August, 1990. Saddam, frustrated at the arrogance of the Kuwaiti royal family in refusing to negotiate in good faith over a packet of legitimate grievances left over from the Iraq-Iran War, decided that Kuwait had to be taught a lesson. To achieve this end, his government had apparently deliberated over occupying some long-disputed territory on the Iraq-Kuwait border. But, at the last minute, Saddam ordered his army to take over the whole country. It was a tragic blunder.
Bush, after some 48 hours of fumbling, ran into Margaret Thatcher, attending a conference in Colorado, who apparently embarrassed him into playing the tough guy. Bush promptly issued an ultimatum to Saddam to evacuate Kuwait, without either negotiations or recognition of any Iraqi grievances. Most world leaders at this stage of history understand the dangers (e.g. Sarajevo, 1914) of issuing ultimatums. Bush did not. His demand, along with his contemptuous manner, left Saddam no choice but to refuse. Many experts have wondered whether Bush deliberately set a trap for Saddam. The question is important. My own judgment is that it overestimates Bush's wiles, but others disagree. Would that Khadduri and Ghareeb had the evidence to provide us an answer, but they have only left us with our surmises intact.
The single hero of this catastrophic week in the Middle East was Jordan's King Hussein. While Mubarak and Assad, to say nothing of the British and the French, were succumbing to Bush's enticements to join an anti-Iraqi military coalition, the king was seeking to persuade the Arab League to get Saddam to withdraw by promising to mediate his dispute with Kuwait. Yet, though not easily intimidated, the king was powerless to overcome the tide, and Bush's superpower attributes. Though Saddam had a few moves at his disposal, he was not prudent enough to avail himself of them. In effect, once King Hussein's proposed "Arab solution" collapsed, there was no turning back.
Let's look at the consequences. Bush, having no vision of a goal, left the war half done; it ended with Saddam's tyranny worse than ever and Iraq in a total mess. The buoyant hopes that Iraqis had for national recognition and prosperity after their victory over Iran in 1988 had been totally shattered. Meanwhile, Kuwait's royal family, having shown its lack of fitness for governing, had provoked debate at home over its legitimacy. Since the war, the Saudi royal family has been under unprecedented attack for inviting Western forces onto sacred Islamic soil. It is hard to see how the Egyptians, the Turks, the Syrians or the Europeans benefited. The United Nations, as Bush's lap dog, failed the challenge and has been in retreat ever since. The Arab league has not recovered from the debacle. As for Bush-himself, he was defeated for reelection, while endowing his successor with two enemies in the Gulf instead of one, and far more instability than the region has had since the days of the raj.
Khadduri and Ghareeb might be commended for their diffidence in drawing conclusions about the Gulf War. They have conveyed their reservations between the lines, while leaving strong judgments to the reader. I suppose I am more attracted to the school of historians who provide us up front with their take on events. The Gulf War deserves to be revisited by responsible scholars, but I wish these two had risen to the level of indignation which I believe the circumstances justify.