The world was astonished thirty years ago when Iraq´s dictator Saddam Hussein attacked and invaded his tiny oil-rich neighbor of Kuwait. On August 2, 1990, the post-Cold War order confronted its first international crisis. Iraq violated the territorial integrity of a sovereign state and two days later announced that Kuwait became its 19th province. The world was living a time of acceleration of history. Just some months before, the Berlin Wall fell down and that event was followed by the collapse of all communist regimes in Eastern Europe.
Due to time difference, US President George H. W. Bush took knowledge about the invasion at 8 PM on Wednesday, August 1, when National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft arrived to the White House with his main counselor on Middle East affairs, Richard Haass (today Council of Foreign Relations Chairman).
Bush admitted later in his Memoirs (“A World Transformed”, 1999) that his mind was not in Iraq that night. “We were in the midst of a recession and an ugly, partisan budget battle”, he confessed.
In order to understand the motivations of Baghdad´s strong man one has to search in the developments of the endless war between Iraq and Iran in the 1980s. The conflict was initiated by Saddam, a man who had a mixed record of audacity and irresponsible behaviour in the field of foreign policy. The war resulted useless to the point that Henry Kissinger said that the best outcome would be both Baghdad and Teheran losing it. But the fact is that in the aftermath the Iraq regime emerged exhausted from that war.
Meanwhile, the price of oil plummeted since the mid-1980s, a blow for Baghdad finances. As a consequence of a pact between the Reagan Administration and Saudi Arabia King Fahd destined to deteriorate the economic stance of the Soviet Union, the price of crude oil fell from twenty-six to eleven dollars a barrel since 1986. Two weeks before the invasion, Iraq´s Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz wrote to the Arab League General Secretary accusing Kuwait and the UAE of having implemented a deliberated policy to enhance oil market offers exceding quotas fixed by the OPEC resulting in a devastating effect in the whole Middle East.
Besides, the Iraq leader might have misunderstood US Ambassador April Glaspie during a conversation with the American envoy on July 25. Ambassador Glaspie explained that Washington had no opinion regarding Baghdad´s relations with her neighbors when the dictator explained their financial grievances. Saddam understood her words as a “green light” for invading Kuwait.
But that night, while Saddam´s troops crossed the Iraq-Kuwait border, violating Kuwait sovereignty and redrawing the map of the Middle East, Bush started drafting his next steps. He called Ambassador Thomas Pickering, his representative to the United Nations, to explain him that the US would deal with this crisis unilateraly if necessary but he wanted the UN involved if possible seeking a international mandate from the Security Council. Bush recalled that, “Although I was optimistic, I was not sure what to expect from the UN” and that “I was keenly aware that this would be the first post-Cold War test of the Security Council in crisis”. The next day the President met British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who was paying a official visit to the US and she supported Washington response to Saddam.
Bush was plenty aware of Saddam´s aggresion importance, which meant, in the facts, the first challenge of what he would describe few weeks later before the two Houses of the US Congress as a “New World Order”. Bush´s own experience made of him the most prepared president -with the only possible exception of Richard Nixon- in the field of foreign policy. He had been chief of the Liaison Office in China, Ambassador to the UN, head of the CIA during the Nixon-Kissinger-Ford era and Reagan´s Vicepresident between 1981 and 1989.
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State James Baker III shortened an official visit to Mongolia and flyed to Moscow where he met his counterpart Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze. A joint communique was issued there condemning Iraq´s “brutal and ilegal” aggression. New York Times correspondant in Moscow Bill Keller wrote that “the coordinated effort by the superpowers to mobilize world pressure against Iraq, a longtime Soviet ally and arms customer”.
A summit in Helsinki gathered Bush and Gorbachev on September 9 and sealed their agreement leading the UN Security Council to aprove a resolution ordering an ultimatum to Saddam to withdaw its forces from Kuwait. Ultimately it authorized the use of force to achieve that mandate and restore Kuwait state sovereignty. In January 1991, a great coalition, lead by the United States with representation of the international community liberated Kuwait through the Desert Storm Operation. Israel, for its part, abstained from participating on the request of the Bush Administration in order of allowing Arab nations to join military effort.
Today, while we are witnessing the arising of a sort of New Cold War between the US and China, the cooperation spirit of 1990 seems so far away. After almost half a century of rivalry, the US and the Soviet Union united to restore Kuwait sovereignty. It was the result of that joint communique, sealed thirty years ago between the leaders of the US and the Soviet Union. Baker wrote in his Memoirs (“The Politics of Diplomacy”, 1995) that “during that August night, after fifty years of suspicion and ideological passions, the Cold War gave her last breath in an airport terminal in the outskirts of Moscow”.
Mariano Caucino is an expert in international relations. He served as Argentine Ambassador to the State of Israel and Costa Rica.