The name ‘Gulf War’, used to define the conflict which began with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and the subsequent American destruction of Iraq, is deeply unsatisfactory. The word ‘war’ suggests something two-sided, a contest. The US bombing was not a contest in any sense. It was a deliberate, cold-blooded slaughter in which the Iraqis were little more than clay-pigeons to be killed for sport ï US pilots described it gleefully as a ‘turkey shoot’.
This book’s emphasis, however, is on earlier events: the events leading up to the Saddam Hussain’s fateful decision to invade Kuwait. It is often suggested that the US deliberately lured Saddam into Iraq in order to be able to attack him. His meeting with the US ambassador, April Glaspie, is usually cited. The records available of that meeting indicate that Glaspie did not discourage Saddam. However, Glaspie did no more than tacitly give Saddam the green light; the question remains why Saddam might have been considering invasion in the first place.
This is not a question that has been considered in any depth in subsequent literature. The automatic assumption is that Saddam’s carefully constructed image as an irrational, megalomaniac dictator explains all. This image is an essential part of the west’s official version of the episode, which has become the only version.
There is ample evidence to suggest that once Saddam had invaded Kuwait, the US jumped at the opportunity to use the invasion to move into the region. The pressure put on Arab countries to persuade them to accept US troops was on the basis that Saddam planned to take over the entire Gulf region. This was totally untrue. Satellite pictures published after the war show that Iraqi troops and armour did not approach the Saudi-Kuwaiti border in the early weeks of the war, which would have been essential for any further advance. They only moved there to take up defensive positions once the US had adopted an aggressive presence.
It is also established beyond any doubt that the US troops were in the air and flying to the Gulf region long before any Arab decision was taken to ‘invite’ them. Clearly the US was determined to occupy the region, with or without the co-operation of the Arab governments, even though it must have been confident that ‘invitations’ could be extracted. Certainly there was no question of the US not getting involved if the Arab governments had decided not to invite them.
These established facts barely feature in western accounts of the war. The first is never raised; the fact of the Iraqi threat on Saudi Arabia is taken for granted. The second is sometimes mentioned, and then passed over without the obvious conclusions being drawn. The only places that more objective accounts are found are in materials regarded are politically- influenced and unreliable. The definition of politically influenced and unreliable? ï anything that mentions such undesirable facts!
The need for a more objective history of the war is desperate, therefore. This book, unfortunately, does not meet it. That is not to say that it is partial, because it is not. The problem lies in other limitations, some self-imposed, others inadvertent. The first major one is that it restricts itself to Saddam’s reasons for invading Kuwait, with only the most perfunctory discussion of subsequent events. And the second is that it is written with a somewhat theoretical, and not entirely convincing theoretical approach, based on Michel Foucault’s idea of socio-political discourse. The problem is not so much in the idea as Hassan’s use of it, which is unconvincing and obscures the empirical information which he gathers.
In his introduction, Hassan gives the aim of the book as being to:
"discuss and understand the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The point of departure is that: in order to account fully for the invasion of Kuwait, it is of fundamental importance not only to discuss the motivations of Iraq, but also to understand the conditions that accelerated and facilitated this decision, namely the Arab political discourse. The focus will be on events that brought about this decision, as well as the discourse through which the actors involved understood their world and acted accordingly."
The book is divided into three sections, addressing ‘the realist perspective’, ‘the institutional perspective’ and the reflective perspective’. The first considers Saddam Husain’s decision from the traditional realpolitik approach, concluding that "it is indisputable that the Iraqi president acted and reacted in regard to Kuwait within realism’s approach to the practises of statecraft by political leaders". From this perspective, Hassan sees the invasion as "a classical action emanating from asymmetrical power relations between... an enormously rich state... and an overwhelmingly poor but powerful neighbour which bore a grudge."
Institutionally, Hassan considers the invasion also to have been "a natural and spontaneous (or rather gratuitous) action that the Ba’ath polity was compelled to take in order to ease the pressure from within and divert attention away from Iraq’s internal economic, social and political problems... Or, to put is simply, the Ba’ath projected its fears away from itself onto little Kuwait."
Hassan argues these cases ï developed with greater sophistication than can be summarised here - with supporting empirical evidence and detail. However, he sees both these factors as being secondary to a political discourse that he characterises as ‘Arabism’, combining facets of Arab nationalism and Islamic identity. It is here that his argument loses conviction. Arab nationalism has always been a facet of Ba’athism, but so too has secularism, and to see Saddam’s adoption of Islamic symbols as anything other than opportunism once it became clear that he was in for a greater conflict than he had expected (and an anti-American one at that) is a leap Hassan is totally unable to support. The fact that misguided Muslims supported Saddam - Hassan cites Shaikh Assad Al-Tamimi among others - does not indicate that Islamic considerations influenced his decision making in any way.
The book Hassan set out to write is much needed. Unfortunately, the book he produced is not it. In such works, theoretical factors can get in the way of marshalling the simple facts, and that is the trap Hassan falls into. Readers may find useful information in the realist and institutional sections, and good references, but as a whole the study does not convince.
Muslimedia: October 1-15, 1999