Where Did Saddam Come From? Part II
Jude Wanniski
August 21, 1998


Memo To: Richard Holbrooke, U.N. Ambassador
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Where did Saddam Hussein come from?

In yesterday’s first part of this thumbnail history, we got as far as the Iran-Iraq war, which ended  in 1987. At that time, Saddam was in serious financial distress. The cost of the war was enormous, and nobody doubts that Iraq was doing its best to neutralize the forces of Islamic fundamentalism threatening the Middle East, and Israel. The figures vary, but he seemed to owe at least $50 billion in hard currency and had run up debts in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, which were happy to have poor Iraqis die on the battlefield to save the monarchs of the Middle East. Alas, the price of oil was slumping and of no help to him. The living standards that had climbed in the good years had fallen back with the war-time austerity programs. Saddam was in a survival mode, not an expansionist mode. Every $1 to the price of oil was worth $1 billion to him, and he observed his fellow OPEC members selling more oil than they had agreed upon, driving down the price to his oil, in order to keep the sheiks and playboys of the "moderate" states in the style to which they had become accustomed. He was demanding OPEC agree to a higher oil price so he could pay his post-war bills, which would mean Kuwait would have to produce less.

Remember that the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was on August 2, 1990. "On 12 April 1990 Saddam met with five US senators: Robert Dole, Alan Simpson, Howard Metzenbaum, James McClure and Frank Murkowski; the US ambassador [April Glaspie], soon to be famous for her 'green light' to Saddam, was also present. No-one reading the various transcripts of this meeting can doubt the general placatory tone. The US senators even criticized the American press in their attempts to propitiate Saddam, emphasizing that there was a difference between the attitudes of the US government and those of the journalists."

This account appears in the 1996 edition of Iraq: From Sumer to Saddam, published in London by the St Martin's press. You and your staff should read it, not for further evidence of Saddam's readiness to use force himself, but for the evidence of gross stupidity by our government at various moments in this unfolding history. In the account cited, author Geoff Simons, a respected British journalist, noted that during the meeting Howard Metzenbaum, the only Democrat, spoke up ('I am a Jew and a staunch supporter of Israel') who "then decided to pay Saddam a compliment: "'...I have been sitting here and listening to you for about an hour, and I am now aware that you are a strong intelligent man and that you want peace... If... you were to focus on the value of peace that we greatly need to achieve peace in the Middle East then there would not be a leader to compare with you in the Middle East.'"

In the period between this meeting and the Kuwait invasion, the record indicates that the Bush administration bent over backwards to indicate that it was thrilled to pieces with Saddam, especially as he was using his oil money to buy what we permitted him to buy to reduce our trade deficit. On May 1, Secretary of State James Baker III was asked by a Senate committee if Iraq should be put back on the list of terrorist states, having been removed the year before. Baker said "It is a bit premature of me to sit here and make that determination. [If we cut Iraq from our credits] in all probability our allies will be very quick to move in there and pick up our market share." The record is clear that the Bush administration argued against the imposition of sanctions, as the Simons book notes, and "it emerged that the US Attorney General Richard Thornburgh had blocked the Atlanta investigation into Saddam's laundering of $3 billion through the Atlanta branch of Italy's Lavoro Bank for the acquisition of American weapons, including components for nuclear devices."

At this point, Saddam Hussein had his back to the financial wall, he thought of how much treasure he had expended on a war with Iran that left both sides exactly where they were eight years earlier, and observed that Kuwait, run by a spoiled little emir with several hundred wives, was pumping more oil than he was supposed to be pumping from the fields along the Iraq border. It was even shown that the western companies were slanting their drilling into Iraq, under the border, to steal Iraqi oil. The fact that Kuwait was part of Iraq until the British after WWI decided to simply give it to the playboy princelings of that Iraqi province was also weighing on his mind. His people had lost several hundred thousand of their children in a war fought for the west and the monarchs. Now they were cheating him on his oil receipts. He began to argue that the monarchs had declared economic war on Iraq.

On 24 July 1990 two Iraqi armoured divisions moved from their bases to take up positions on the Kuwaiti border. Later the same day the US State Department spokeswoman, Margaret Tutwiler, asked whether the US had any military plans to defend Kuwait, replied: 'We do not have any defense treaties with Kuwait, and there are no special defense or security commitments to Kuwait.' The next day Saddam Hussein summoned US Ambassador April Glaspie to his office in what was to be the last official contact between Baghdad and the United States before the invasion of Kuwait. Even at this late stage, with an obviously deteriorating situation in the Gulf, Glaspie still made efforts to placate Saddam Hussein. She emphasized that President Bush had rejected the idea of trade sanctions against Iraq, to which Saddam replied: 'There is nothing left for us to buy from America except wheat. Every time we want to buy something, they say it is forbidden. I am afraid that one day you will say, "you are going to make gunpowder out of wheat".' Glaspie was quick to reassure the Iraqi leader : 'I have a direct instruction from the President to seek better relations with Iraq.' And she emphasized that a formal apology had been offered to Iraq for a critical article that had been published by the American Information Agency: 'I saw the Diane Sawyer programme on ABC...what happened in that programme was cheap and unjust...this is a real picture of what happens in the American media -- even to American politicians themselves. These are the methods that the Western media employ. I am pleased that you add your voice to the diplomats that stand up to the media....' Later Glaspie added that "President Bush is an intelligent man. He is not going to declare an economic war against Iraq...'; and then the ambassador produced the much-quoted comment that was perhaps the biggest 'green light' of all: "I admire your extraordinary efforts to rebuild your country. I know you need funds. We understand that, and our opinion is that you should have the opportunity to rebuild your country. But we have no opinion on Arab-Arab conflicts like your border disagreement with Kuwait. [Author's italics]."

On July 31, two days before the invasion, Assistant Secretary of State John Kelly testified before Chairman Lee Hamilton of House Foreign Affairs. Asked repeatedly if we would come to the defense of Kuwait if it were attacked, he insisted there was no obligation on our part to do so. Meanwhile, Iraq prepared for a meeting the following day with Kuwait to negotiate a deal on the oil issues. The talks ended badly, with the Kuwaiti emir refusing to attend and Saddam refusing to attend because the emir would be absent. The Iraqi demand for $10 billion was clearly made under the threat of force and constituted blackmail, but Iraq's arguments were that the payment was justified for services rendered in the Iran/Iraq war. It was at this point that Saddam decided to go into Kuwait.

At the time, I was not happy with the idea of the United States intervening to counter the invasion. This is because I observed that Kuwait's neighbors did not seem concerned, even when Iraq did not stop at the Rumailah oil fields, which Iraq had claimed as its own since 1922, but went on to Kuwait City. It was in 1922 that a British diplomat, Percy Cox, drew a line on a map dividing up the Ottoman Empire as part of the fallout of WWI. There had as yet been no oil produced in the swatch of desert he gave to the new emirate of Kuwait, but Kuwait got the swatch apparently because it offered better oil concessions to the British oil companies. In 1980, a decade before the invasion, Iraq staged a major propaganda campaign reasserting its rights over the Rumailah fields. In that last-ditch meeting prior to the August 2 invasion, the Kuwait representative was not permitted to offer Iraq more than $1 billion to settle the dispute.

I did alter my position, Mr. Holbrooke, when our former UN Ambassador, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and I, attended a briefing at the Saudi Embassy in Washington by its ambassador, Prince Bandar. He told us that his government was not worried about the invasion at first, and that it in fact had good relations with Baghdad. King Fahd changed his mind when shown photos by U.S. Naval Intelligence that the Iraqi army had bypassed Kuwait City and had taken up positions on the Saudi border. President Bush had persuaded the King in several phone calls that Iraq might very well be bent on swallowing up Saudi Arabia. If Saudi Arabia was persuaded, I was more open to the idea that it was U.S. responsibility to counter Saddam with force. When Egypt's Hosni Mubarak dropped his opposition to intervention and said his country would join the coalition, I became a solid supporter of the U.S. intervention. I have to say I was still suspicious, wondering how Saddam could possibly have thought he could get away with an invasion of Saudi Arabia or even a determination to swallow all of Kuwait instead of the Rumailah oil fields. If he could not defeat Iran in an eight-year war, how could he expect to engage the allied powers in a grab for Middle East oil?

In the years since, I've concluded that Saddam had no intention of invading Saudi Arabia. I later learned, as did you, of the "green light" that April Glaspie gave Saddam in their July 24 meeting. I also learned that Ms. Glaspie was subsequently "surprised" when the Iraqi army did not stop at the oil fields, but went on to Kuwait City. Of course, if you consider that Kuwait is only 13% the size of your home state of North Carolina, and Iraq is 10,000 square miles larger than California, you will see that it did not take much for tanks to overshoot Kuwait City and appear to be menacing Saudi Arabia. In his invasion of Iran, remember that Saddam did stop when he got what he wanted, and was later criticized for not pushing as far as he could so that he would have a better bargaining position.

Indeed, there is in the historical record evidence that on August 3, the day after his forces waltzed into Kuwait City virtually unopposed by the emir's handful of soldiers, Saddam announced that he would be prepared to leave Kuwait as soon as it was determined the security of Iraq or Kuwait was not threatened. This was two days before President Bush announced Iraqi aggression "will not stand." In the Simons book, the case is made that Baghdad repeatedly offered to negotiate its departure from Kuwait prior to the hostilities of Desert Storm. Perhaps these accounts are in error, but Simons is a respected journalist and the book is endorsed by British MP Tony Benn, who was the most active British politician in that period in trying to negotiate a peace before the U.S. bombing campaign began. It is Simons' argument that George Bush put together the coalition against Iraq by fabricating a crisis that did not exist, by pressuring King Fahd into a request for military assistance ("all but demanding a Saudi request for American protection") and then asking Morocco and Egypt to back up the Saudi request. At first Egypt resisted, but then:

“In 1990 Egypt had massive debts, the largest in the whole of Africa and the Middle East. Almost $50 billion was owed to the World Bank, and Secretary of State James Baker... proposed a bribe (or 'forgiveness') of some $14 billion. At the same time Washington pressured other governments, including Canada and Saudi Arabia, to 'forgive' or delay much of the rest of the Egyptian debt. And where the tactic of bribery worked well with President Mubarak, it could be exploited to equal advantage with other national leaders.”

Indeed, the consensus was built with money and arms. Turkey, Syria, even Iran joined the coalition with sudden fountains of credit produced by the World Bank. It does appear in my readings that there came a point where there had to be a war to justify all that had been done. In the last weeks before the bombing of Iraq began on January 16, it is clear with hindsight that there was no interest in talking to Baghdad because Iraq had to be taught a lesson. Several hundred thousand Iraqis died as a result of the bombing. The reason we lost only 148 men was that Iraq was attempting a retreat throughout the 100 hours of battle. If it had put up any resistance, they would have been completely slaughtered. As it was, Colin Powell called off the "turkey shoot" after it had accomplished partial slaughter.

Now I am not trying to argue here that what Saddam Hussein did was right and what we did was wrong. I'm saying this thumbnail history of Saddam Hussein's intersection with our national interest demonstrates a different picture than we now are presenting to the American people. If we want to go ahead with another massive bombing campaign "to teach the Iraqi people another lesson on who is boss," as The Wall Street Journal editorialized, perhaps that too will be justified by history. I'm only trying to make sure you have all the information you need before you immerse yourself in this most dangerous confrontation. When you examine our behavior from the standpoint of many in the Islamic world, you may see how it invites retribution through terrorism. I have little doubt that the terrorist acts against our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania had their inspiration in our behavior to Iraq, before and after the Gulf War.

The President obviously did not nominate you to the UN post because he wanted a faithful messenger to represent policy devised at State, the Pentagon or the National Security Council. He expects you to be creative. My advice is to give as much support as you can to UN General Secretary Kofi Annan and to accept at face value the support Iraq is getting from other members of the United Nations. The news media routinely asserts that France, Russia and China -- Iraq’s advocates on the Security Council -- have unworthy motives, as if we have a moral superiority that permits us to do as we pleaase. I of course can’t speak for Jack Kemp, but I think you will find that he has a high degree of confidence in Kofi Annan and that he rejects the argument of UNSCOM’s Richard Butler that the sanctions cannot be lifted unless Baghdad provides him with conclusive evidence that Iraq has no hidden weapons. Jack would never ask anyone to prove a negative. If UNSCOM has had the free run of Iraq for six months and can’t find anything, the sanctions should be lifted under monitoring conditions that will satisfy us Iraq will not threaten its neighbors.