When he launched his brutal invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990, Saddam Hussein shocked the world. As his forces callously swept over the small neighboring state, he also deliberately smashed a budding rapprochement with the United States. Although Saddam’s government had been peddling regional stability as an objective, it viciously repudiated that policy when it went to war. American intelligence officers were stunned and mortified. Their analyses of Hussein’s intentions regarding Kuwait had been wrong. No one had seen the invasion coming - not even the Kuwaiti leaders fleeing in terror toward the Saudi border.
During the early 1980s, Iraq’s emissaries to Washington began pushing to improve relations with the United States. They said Iraq wanted to end the war with Iran. In their newly found desire to promote regional stability, the Iraqis expressed a willingness to support whatever agreement the Israelis and Palestinians worked out. Had the bitter war with Iran forced Saddam Hussein to alter his policies? An emphasis on economic development, the calls for regional peace and closer cooperation with the United States were taken as signs that the government of a war-weary Iraq was bending to reality.
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To emphasize its policy shift, Iraq restored full diplomatic relations with the United States. In November 1984, ambassadors were exchanged, ending a break of 17 years. In his conversations with diplomats and civilian visitors, Hussein Ali, then Iraq’s Minister of Trade, expressed a strong appreciation of American technology. He wanted to encourage greater commercial, technical and economic cooperation between the two countries. Ali also expressed a desire to see a cooperation agreement implemented between the United States and Iraq. It would be the hallmark of the new age of improved relations.
In Washington, Saddam Hussein’s secular dictatorship was cautiously viewed as a counterweight to revolutionary Iran in the oil rich Persian Gulf region. Although Saddam Hussein had invaded Iran, Iraq appeared to be the less dangerous of the two. Iraq was making an attempt to improve relations. The United States was providing a degree of assistance to prevent Iraq from being defeated.
After haggling over the terms, the bilateral commercial, economic and technical cooperation agreement was ready to be signed. Due to the scheduling arrangements of top U.S. officials, this duty fell upon Clarence Brown, who was Acting Secretary of Commerce when the Iraqi delegation visited Washington. Iraq was represented by its new Minister of Trade, Dr. Mohammed Mehdi Al-Salih.
Al-Salih was considered an advocate of economic liberalization and was thought to be pushing for changes to Iraq’s socialist economic structure. The agreement signing took place on August 25, 1987 in a ceremony held at the U.S. Department of Commerce. Although it was a purely symbolic gesture at the time, the agreement was seen as a possible catalyst for the future expansion of relations. If Iraq promoted regional stability and internal economic liberalization, the agreement could have an impact on the fields of energy, agriculture, finance, transportation, health and construction engineering.
A cease fire in 1988 brought the Iraq-Iran war to a close. It had been the longest and bloodiest war in modern Middle East history, lasting eight years with approximately one million casualties. The monetary cost was in excess of $200 billion. With an end to the fighting, Iraq was expected to shift its resources to rebuilding neglected infrastructure and expanding its oil industry.
Things appeared to be starting well. The Iraqi government began to relax controls on the private sector, price controls were removed on some goods imported or produced by private companies. State-owned agricultural lands, poultry and dairy farms began to be leased to private interests. The government announced plans to sell its light industries, construction companies and hotels to private investors. A ten year tax holiday went into effect for privately held industrial enterprises. Analysts began to see a slow drift away from the Soviet type structure which had long been the basis of Iraq’s economy.
The American business community was also taking note of the changes. In 1985, the United States-Iraq Business Forum was established to promote the development of commercial relations. Iraq’s potential was so great that the organization soon had over 50 members including: Bankers Trust, Caterpillar, General Motors, Mobil Oil, Pepsi-Cola and Westinghouse. In the forward to the forum’s 1988 directory, Dr. Al-Anbari, Iraq’s ambassador to Washington, wrote: “Now that the Iran-Iraq war is behind us, Iraq is determined to mobilize and allocate all its resources and wealth to reconstruct and expand its economy and lay the foundations for the prosperity and happiness of all our people.”
It was all believable at the time because Iraq’s oil production was heading toward three million barrels per day and petroleum revenues were expected to earn the country $12-15 billion per year. Despite Saddam Hussein’s malevolent dictatorship, Iraq was a nation with acknowledged potential. The country possessed the land, water and educated population necessary to support economic expansion. With crude oil reserves of 115 billion barrels (third in size after Saudi Arabia and Iran) and ample supplies of natural gas, Iraq also appeared to have the financial resources to fund its agricultural and industrial development. These factors, along with the dangled promise of economic liberalization, made the future of the country look promising.
Unfortunately, the potential was never realized. As a consequence of the war with Iran, Iraq owed approximately $28 billion to non-Arab creditor nations and faced a severe short-term debt service problem. $18 billion in principal and interest payments were coming due over the next five years. Much to the dismay of the banking community, Iraq became uncooperative in its financial dealings. It played one creditor nation against another, withheld much of its economic data and refused offers to reschedule its debt over a more manageable time period. Iraq’s obstinate behavior in the financial arena soon cast a pall over the attempts to improve relations.
It became apparent that Saddam Hussein had decided to shelve the short-lived cooperative approach. Diplomatic discussions on regional issues dissolved into stalemates that did nothing to resolve problems in the volatile Middle East. Intelligence reports on Iraq’s armament, missile development, chemical and biological weapons programs cast doubt on Iraq’s intentions. Saddam Hussein’s government was not emphasizing the development of peaceful industries. It was focusing on rebuilding and improving its military might.
In an outraged Washington that August, the cooperation agreement went into the trash can as a government caught unawares furiously reacted. If Saddam Hussein’s troops moved into the Saudi Arabian oil fields, a large part of the oil supplies needed by the industrial world would be in jeopardy. The Middle East contains over 57 percent of the world’s oil reserves. The risk of having Saddam Hussein in a position to tamper with a large part of the oil flow could not be tolerated. A bitter President Bush (the senior) stated that Saddam Hussein had double-crossed the United States.
As a result of the invasion, a massive U.S. led international military buildup was soon underway, troops and equipment pouring into the Saudi desert. The coalition forces being organized to kick the Iraqi army out of Kuwait included over 400,000 from the United States. Another 200,000 came from such diverse countries as Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, France, Kuwait, Egypt and Syria.
Operating under a United Nations mandate authorizing the use all necessary means to remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait, a massive air campaign was launched on January 17, 1991. On February 24, the ground forces moved forward. By February 28, it was all over. The Iraqis were out of Kuwait, and a cease-fire was declared. With the victorious coalition forces rolling forward with little opposition, it would have been easy to press on to Baghdad and remove Saddam Hussein from power. The political decision not to do so, in light of later events, can be said to have been a costly mistake.
With much of his military still functioning, Saddam Hussein was able to crush the Kurdish revolt that broke out in the north and Shia uprising in the south. U.S. and U.N. sanctions were imposed on Iraq and no-fly zones were delineated in the north and south of the country. The U.S. took on the role of enforcer. In that capacity, it would be spend about $1 billion a year to police the no-fly zones and enforce sanctions.
Saddam Hussein refused to agree to terms that would lift the sanctions. Instead, he and his henchmen devised ways to circumvent the sanctions’ bite on the ruling class. In a crafty counter move, they cynically invited observers from foreign charities into the country to report on the terrible impact the sanctions were having on the common people. As his refusal to comply with U.S. and U.N. demands continued, the country’s infrastructure began to implode, industries shut down and hospitals ran short of supplies. As the country slowly decayed, Saddam Hussein maintained his grip on power, deftly defying attempts to change the situation.
The U.N. oil-for-food program aimed at easing the suffering of the Iraqi population was skillfully subverted. The supposedly closely monitored program allowed the Iraqi government to sell oil and use the bulk of the proceeds to buy food, medicine and the other humanitarian products needed to offset the sanctions’ impact on the general population. Saddam’s regime worked the system, colluding with numerous companies and countries. It was able to swindle the program out of nearly $2 billion.
The stalemate with Saddam Hussein might have continued for a longer period if had not been for the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Afterward, the White House began to portray Saddam Hussein as a sponsor of Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaida terrorist organization. Iraq was also said to be continuing its program of building weapons of mass destruction. Although weapons inspectors were unable to find them, the administration insisted they were there. Because of the immediate danger posed by his growing arsenal of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, the administration said Saddam Hussein had to go.
The muddled thinking regarding Iraq’s weapons potential also led to the creation of an invasion plan with too few troops to do the job. The White House and the office of the Secretary of Defense believed the Kurds, Sunnis and Shias would joyfully welcome the U.S. forces as liberators. Once Saddam Hussein was gone, the various tribal and religious factions would join together to make Iraq a model of Middle East democracy. The fact that Iraq’s economy had fallen apart was not important. There was no need to plan for the country’s reconstruction. Once Saddam Hussein was ousted, American forces would turn matters over to the grateful Iraqis and quickly depart the country. The administration seemed to believe that the newly freed Iraqi citizenry would be content to sit without jobs, electricity or water, relishing the benefits of being free from the control of the secret police.
The planners should have known better, especially Vice President Cheney. He had been secretary of defense at the time when 600,000 troops were dispatched to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. Kuwait was an occupied country slightly smaller than New Jersey with a welcoming population of two million. As vice president, Cheney blithely encouraged the plans to send 300,000 troops on a mission to seize and occupy Iraq. Iraq was twice the size of Idaho with a population of 27 million, much of it hostile.
After the March 2003 invasion’s initial success, most of the administration’s assumptions went up in smoke. The Iraqi factions detested each other; they were virtually incapable of establishing a working government. With no reconstruction plan, the economy remained in the doldrums. Popular resentment rapidly grew as the powerful United States failed to deliver the expected improvement in living conditions. The administration’s main reason for the invasion, the weapons of mass destruction, were not there. They had been destroyed after the liberation of Kuwait, quietly canceled.
Trade minister Al-Salih proved to be a consummate insider, an intimate of Saddam Hussein. He was equally at home preaching Iraq’s peaceful intentions to American audiences or devising ways to protect the income sources of the leaders of the regime. Always willing to encourage countries to circumvent the detested sanctions, he held his job until the end. He was included on the list of Iraq’s most wanted officials as the invasion neared. Al-Salih is shown as the six of hearts on the deck of identification cards provided to U.S. troops during the invasion. He was captured in April 2003, ending his devious career.
Several officials in the current administration had previously vociferously criticized President Clinton for overextending U.S. forces around the world. Despite their worries about an overstretched military during the Clinton years, they have duplicated the feat on a bigger and more expensive scale. Back in 2002, a White House economic adviser was denounced for suggesting the Iraq war could cost as much as $200 billion. To date, the actual cost is closer to $1 trillion and climbing.
Five years after what was planned as a short operation, the 172,000 U.S. troops in Iraq gamely struggle to control insurgents while imposing a degree of order. On a positive note, the Iraqi undertaking has provided jobs for the 120,000 military contractors brought in to fill the void caused by the failure to commit enough troops.
Although almost never willing to admit it, a nation tends to get the type of government its people deserve. It would be a shame if the result of our exercise in Iraq turned out to be the emergence of another dictator a few years hence. In the meantime, the global war on terrorism grinds on, not having been helped much by the way we have done things in Iraq. If a Democrat wins the presidency in 2008, the second cycle of passing the Iraq problem from a Republican president to a Democratic one will be completed.
In 1898, the battleship Maine exploded and sank while at anchor in the harbor at Havana, Cuba. An angry United States accused the Spanish of planting a mine and declared war on Spain. Even though it is now believed that the Maine was sunk as a result of a fire in a coal bunker that ignited an ammunition magazine, the consequences of the war cannot be undone.
As with the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, we will be dealing with the fallout of the Iraq invasion for a long time. The problem plagued country that was once part of the Babylonian Empire is not going to go away. Since the oil pumped in the Middle East lubricates the economies of Asia, the United States and Europe, the next administration is not going to be able to disengage from the region. Hopefully, it will be able to avoid duplicating the many mistakes as it deals with the multiple problems it will inherit.
Karl Reiner is a friend of this site and an active voice for a fact-based approach to the issue of immigration from Mexico and international trade. This blog has published a number of previous articles by Karl. Karl managed international trade and economic policy analysis at the U.S. Department of Commerce in Washington, DC. He served as an acting deputy assistant secretary of Commerce during the first Bush and Clinton administrations. A Vietnam veteran, he is a graduate of the Ohio State University and holds a MS degree from the Garvin School of International Management. After retiring from government service in 1994, he did consulting and authored a novel, "Sgt. Bellnapp’s Secret", published in 2001, and a collection of historical essays, "Remembering Fairfax County, Virginia," last year.