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Baghdad and the Emergence of the New World Order, 1990 – 2003

“All these developments intend not only to destroy Iraq, but to eliminate the role of the Soviet Union so the United States can control the fate of all humanity.” 

(Hamid Hammadi, Culture Minister, Iraq, February 1991, in a conversation with Saddam Hussein)

On January 1, 2011, Wikileaks published the full cable from the U. S. Embassy in Baghdad, written on July25, 1990. Called “Saddam’s Message of Friendship to President Bush” the cable was from Ambassador April Glaspie, and it recounted her version of a fabled meeting that she had held with Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein that very day. Extracts from the cable had appeared in The New York Times in July 1991, but the only impact that made was among those who paid close attention to the curious mechanisms of U. S. diplomacy and foreign policy. Congress heard testimony on the cable that July. Senator Alan Cranston (Democrat-California) was livid. In March of 1991, Glaspie had come before the Senate and said that she had strong-armed Saddam Hussein, telling him in no uncertain terms not to attempt military action against Kuwait. The cable did not reflect this view of the events. In it, Ambassador Glaspie seemed much more conciliatory, asking that since Saddam “does not want to further antagonize us”, “we would be well-advised to ease off on public criticism of Iraq until we see how the negotiations develop.” Cranston was furious. “April Glaspie deliberately misled the Congress about her role in the Persian Gulf tragedy,” he said. Such harsh words eventually dissipated. Glaspie’s career, however, suffered.

A veteran Foreign Service official, Glaspie had served in the embassies of Kuwait, Syria and Egypt, before coming to Iraq in 1989. After the war, she was moved to the United Nations, and then to South Africa as Consul General in Cape Town. It was a demotion. Glaspie was shown the door, once cruelly in 1993 when she summarily removed from her U. N. office.

No U. S. administration put Glaspie up for a post that required Senate confirmation. No one wanted to replay the events of 1990. Glaspie became the demon, or fool, of the play, and it was left at that. Most writing on the event tends to assume that she was naïve in her dealings with Saddam Hussein. What is not considered is that Glaspie was simply the fulcrum on which U. S. policy did a pivot. The United States government gave Saddam Hussein considerable support after 1979, mainly because he was seen as the bulwark against Iranian attempts to revise the order of the Middle East. Uprisings in eastern Saudi Arabia and the rise in the 1980s of Hezbollah  all reflected an emboldened underclass willing to assert itself first in the name of religion (or as Shia), but also in the name of justice (against monarchies and corruption). On February 12, 1990,months before Glaspie’s meeting and then the invasion of Kuwait, John H. Kelly from the State Department’s Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs desk met Saddam in Baghdad. He told the Iraqi leader that he is a “force for moderation in the region, and the United States wishes to broaden her relations with Iraq.” U. S. policy switched as 1990 unfolded. Glaspie represented the earlier view. A new spirit was abroad in Washington, and the State Department’s permanent bureaucracy had neither the time nor the temperament to come to terms with this switch. In many ways, the State Department remains locked in ambiguity: given over to the idea of belle époch diplomacy, but now reduced to the stenographers and postal service for American military and corporate power.

The Iraq war of 1990-91 provided the opportunity for the dramatic transformation of international institutions to reflect the new U. S. primacy. The United Nations, OPEC, and the U. S. State Department had to be properly disciplined to acknowledge the new power equation, and to become conduits of its authority. Iraq is incidental to this dynamic, and the subsequent prolonged sanctions regime (1991-2003) and the invasion and Occupation of Iraq proper (2003 – present) are simply the accidental by-products of this prior project: to secure the international institutions under the command of U. S. primacy.

During the last days of 1990, tragedy seemed inevitable. Saddam Hussein directed his armies into Kuwait on August 2, 1990. Hussein’s main contentions were that Kuwait had been drilling into Iraqi oil fields and that it had undercut OPEC. A long and contentious diplomatic exchange that included the United States and the Arab League had gone nowhere. The United States threatened to go to war against Iraq to liberate Kuwait. U. S. bombers went into action on January 17, 1991. 

Before the bombing began, President George Bush had brandished an Amnesty International Report on atrocities conducted by the Iraqi Army in Kuwait. At a Congressional hearing, Nayirah, a Kuwaiti woman said, “I volunteered at the al-Addan hospital. While I was there, I saw the Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns, and go into the room where…babies were in incubators. They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators and left the babies on the cold floor to die.” It was moving testimony. Of course it was a lie. Nothing that dramatic happened. It is certainly the case that the Iraqis ransacked Kuwait City. Shafeeq Ghabra, a Palestinian professor at Kuwait University, chronicled how “the Iraqis unleash-ed a brutal offensive against Kuwaiti society.” Almost by plan they destroyed the State structure, looted the ministries and tried their best to foment revolt against the House of al-Sabah. Strikingly, no such uprising occurred, and the Iraqi Occupation could not take on a credible Kuwaiti face. The Iraqi scorched earth policy provided the material for the Amnesty Report.

When Nayirah went before Congress in October 1990, the context for her remarks was very different. Before August 2, Iraq could do no wrong. From 1979, Iraq was the bulwark against revolutionary Iran. After the Iraqi chemical attack at the Kurds in Halabja, Al Gore, Jesse Helms and Clairborne Pell pushed sanctions legislation against Iraq (the Prevention of Genocide Act of 1988) through the Senate. President Ronald Reagan vetoed the act. Months after this, the new president, George Bush, signed National Security Decision (NSD) 26 that handed over $1 billion to Saddam’s regime. It was money that the Iraqi government desperately needed. By October 1990, dramatically, Iraq had ceased to be Washington’s ally. The invasion of Kuwait set the Arab world’s monarchs on edge. Messages from Saudi Arabia, in particular, changed the equation. Saddam needed to be taught a lesson.

But this is only the surface story. Beneath it lies a deeper tale. Between NSD 26 (October 2, 1989) and Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait (August 2, 1990) events elsewhere conspired against Saddam Hussein’s illusions. The Berlin Wall fell in September 1989, at which point the leaders of Western Europe had mixed feelings about its precipitous collapse. They wanted a slower tran-sition. By the end of the year, it was clear that the USSR was in serious decline. When German unification came on the agenda, the Soviets tried to slow things down, at the very least prevent the united Germany from being part of NATO. Bush reacted in February 1990, “To hell with that! We prevailed, they didn’t. We can’t let the Soviets clutch victory from the jaws of defeat.” In September 1989, Bush signed National Security Directive 23 on the USSR. It called for “the integration of the Soviet Union into the existing international system.” Concretely, this meant “fundamental alternations in Soviet military force structure, institutions, and practices that can only be reversed at great costs, economically and politically, to the Soviet Union.” By March 1990, the USSR had effectively abdicated its author-ity (the Communist Party ended its control over the state institutions). The U. S. no longer needed to be politic. The cowboy was unleashed.

Nayirah was hastily concocted, even though the truth would have been sufficient. “Nayirah” was actually Nijirah al-Sabah, the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to Washington, Saud bin Nasir al-Sabah, who was sitting in the congressional chamber at the time of her testimony. They were part of Citizens for a Free Kuwait, a group set up by the Kuwaiti royal house and coached by Hill & Knowlton, a D. C. public relations lobbying firm. Hill & Knowlton talked up human rights on behalf of the Kuwaiti royal family at the same time as they lobbied to protect other clients with as poor human rights records as the Kuwaitis themselves (such as Indonesia and Turkey). They sold the war.

On August 23, 1990, Saddam Hussein sent a message to the Bush administration. One U. S. administration official told the press, “The terms of the proposal are serious.” There were some “impossible demands” such as that Israel with draw from the Occupied Territories, but everyone knew that these were the rhetorical flourishes that give credence to what was essentially a request for the status quo ante. What the Iraqis really wanted, in exchange for the return of the Kuwaiti regime, was for the Kuwaits to give the Iraqis “guaranteed access” to the Persian Gulf through the Bubiyan and Warbah islands (a long-standing dispute) and that Iraq is given full control of the Rumaila oil fields (which extend only slightly into Kuwaiti territory). As we will soon see, these demands were not outrageous. They could have been met. But the Bush administration took a hard position. It acknowledged these “trial balloons” but said that President Bush would only begin to negotiate after Iraq exited Kuwait, restored the royal family and released all hostages. By late December the Iraqis seemed to come to the Bush position, but asked that its troops not be fired upon during their retreat, that all weapons of mass destruction be banned from the region, that foreign troops also withdraw, and that some agreement be reached on the Palestinian imbroglio. The worry about retreating troops being fired upon was serious. In February 1991, as Iraqi troops retreated along Highway 80 between Kuwait City and Basra, they were attacked by U. S. aircraft (the death toll was high, from the hundreds to the tens of thousands). A U. S. State Department official called Saddam’s note “a serious pre-negotiation position.” The White House rejected it. A last ditch meeting between Secretary of State James Baker and Tariq Ali in Geneva failed. The Americans said that Aziz “did a very good job with an extraordinarily bad brief.” The Iraqis had their own grouse about bad briefs. War became inevitable.

Between the air war (January 17) and the ground war (February 24), the Iraqis looked to Moscow to stave off destruction. Tariq Aziz went off to Moscow, but returned with empty hands. “We trusted you,” Saddam Hussein wrote to Gorbachev, but the Soviet leader had nothing to offer. He tried to talk to Bush, who knew that Moscow had no good cards. In a conciliatory phone call on February 22, Bush told Gorbachev, “It is your neighbourhood, and some of them are your friends.” Gorbachev informed the U. S. that the Iraqis now pledged to withdraw from Kuwait and set aside all their other conditions (justice for the Palestinians). Fear engulfed Saddam’s palaces. Bush now wanted more, including a plan ferret out and destroy Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons programs. In an act of both desperation and stupidity, Saddam ordered the Kuwaiti oil fields set on fire on February 22. Bush told Gorbachev that this “scorched earth policy” was the last straw; it was the trigger Bush sought. The U. S. troops on the Saudi border began their war cries. On the eve of their rush into Kuwait, Saddam wrote to Gorbachev, “Our nation and army are confused. We are asking ourselves which one is more significant: the Soviet Union’s proposal or the Americans’ threat?”

The Democratic Congress bent its knees during the run-up to the war, and sanctioned the administration to send 500,000 U. S. troops into Saudi Arabia, as well as various carrier groups and aircraft. The troops in Saudi Arabia sent Osama Bin Laden into a tizzy. He had returned from Afghanistan with the delusion that his minions had brought the USSR to its knees. He went to the Saudi royals and begged them to let him rally his jihadis to expel the secular dictator Saddam from Kuwait. Of such fantasies do the palaces of Riyadh find entertainment. They did not find this one funny. Bin Laden was not the only Saudi to object to the presence of U. S. forces in the kingdom. The senior ulema balked. Only when U. S. defense secretary Dick Cheney said that the U. S. troops would not stay in the kingdom “a minute longer than they were needed” was King Fahd able to convince the Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul-Aziz bin Baz and 350 ulema to agree to the entry of the troops. Bin Laden threw himself into anti-Americanism from his point onward, particularly when Cheney’s pledge was broken the minute the war ended. The troops remained in the kingdom till 2003 (when they were redeployed to Qatar, but for 500 who remain at Eskan Village near Riyadh).

The entire “war” was, on the surface, absurd. The bombardment was excessive. Saddam Hussein’s armies had been weakened to the point of exhaustion by the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). Utterly dependent on its oil revenues and its bursary from the United States, Iraq would have given in with a smaller gunboat action from the United States. Instead, the U. S. used the war as a demonstration effect: it showed the rest of the planet that after the fall of the USSR by June 1990 no other country had the kind of authority and power of the United States. The test run in Panama (1989) showed that aerial bombardment sent the right kind of message. The scale of the January barrage, and its real-time enjoyment by the U. S. public, made a mockery of the idea  of war. It was a slaughter that began to resemble a video game. The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard quite rightly nailed the issue: “The gulf war did not take place.”

Why did Saddam Hussein’s armies invade Kuwait? That dispute has its origins in two related events. In 1980, Iraq and Iran went to war. Saddam’s regime worried about the export of the Iranian revolution, particularly into the southern half of Iraq where the Shia population might be entranced by what had taken place in Iran. While the bulk of the Shia clerical establishment in Iraq remained cautious, Grand Ayatollah Baqir al-Sadr sent a jubilant telegram to Tehran, declared a three-day holiday athis Najaf Seminary, and penned a series of tracts justifying the new Islamic state. With these acts of defiance against the Hussein regime, al-Sadr wrote his own death sentence. Detentions of his Dawa Party members had already begun to multiply when a grenade attack in Baghdad by an Islamist militant provided the pretext for Baqir’s arrest. His body was returned to Najaf a few days later, making him the first Grand Ayatollah to be executed. The war against Iran came shortly afterwards.

It was a gruesome war, with a million dead on both sides. About 80% of the Iraqi army was comprised of young, working-class Shia, forced to fight their own co-religionists at close quarters. Despite Saudi funds and U. S. weapons, the war ground down the gears of the Ba’ath state. By the time a ceasefire was agreed to in 1988, the regime appeared exhausted, and Iraqi nationalism had been discredited to the point that the proud country would ask the United States for a Marshall Plan (to help it rebuild). The only exit from the total destruction was for a rise in the oil price, and for control over Iraq’s southern oil fields. The Group of Seven countries had put their foot down on an oil price rise. Saudi Arabia, the minor Gulf Sheikhs and Venezuela consented. They did not want to antagonize the United States at a time when the debt crisis and the collapse of the USSR signalled the emergence of American primacy.

From February 1990, Kuwait began to test its newfound strength as a result of Iraqi weakness. Its oil minister told an OPEC meeting that Kuwait was going to sell above its oil production quota. The price of oil slipped by a third. It directly impacted upon Iraq’s recovery efforts. On May 30,at the Arab Emergency Summit Conference in Baghdad, a desperate Saddam Hussein said that for every$1 decrease in the price of oil lost his country $1 billion per year. It was catastrophic. In a July memorandum to the League of Arab States, the Iraqi government added the United Arab Emirates to its list of enemies, saying that the UAE had joined with Kuwait for a “planned operation to flood the oil market with excess production.” Kuwait also demanded that its funds given to Iraq to prosecute the war against Iran had to be treated as loans and not as gifts. To top off the problems, Iraq accused Kuwait of “diagonal drilling” into the Iraqi oil fields in Rumaila. The tensions along the border bristled. Iraqi troops amassed, ready for action. Kuwait was confident that Iraq was bluffing. It sent two thirds of its army on their annual summer holiday.

On July 25, Saddam told Glaspie, “But how can we make them (Kuwait and UAE) understand how deeply we are suffering.” He recounted how “the financial situation is such thatthe pensions for widows and orphans have to be cut.” “At this point,” Glaspie records, “the interpreter and one of the note takers broke down and wept.”

“After a pause for recuperation, Saddam said, in effect, believe me I have tried everything: we sent envoys, wrote messages, asked [Saudi King] Fahd to arrange Quadripartite summit (Iraq, SAG, UE, Kuwait). Fahd suggested oil ministers instead and we agreed to the Jeddah Agreement although it was well below our hopes. Then, Saddam continued, two days later the Kuwaiti oil minister announced he would want to annul that agreement within two months. As for the UAE, Saddam said, I begged Shaykh Zayid to understand our problems (when Saddam entertained him in Mosul after the Baghdad summit), and Zayid said just wait until I get back to Abu Dhabi. But then his minister of oil made ‘bad statements.” 

Glaspie seemed to find this plausible. She asked for Iraq’s intentions at this point. “His response in effect that he tried various diplomatic/channels before resorting to unadulterated intimidation has at least the virtue of frankness. His emphasis that he wants peaceful settlement is surely sincere (Iraqis are sick of war).” The problem for the U. S. is that “the terms sound difficult to achieve.” The Kuwaitis and the UAE would not budge and nor would Saddam Hussein. “Saddam asks that the [U. S. government] not force Iraq to the point of humiliation…Saddam said that the Iraqis know what war is, want no more of it – ‘Do not push us to it; do not make it the only option left with which we can protect our dignity.” 

Not long afterwards, Bush responded in a secret cable, “We believe that differences are best resolved by peaceful means and not by threats involving military force or conflict.” In her 25 July meeting, Glaspie conveyed this spirit to the Iraqis. 

The most interesting cable comes two days later (and is available in the Bush Library). Dated July 27, the cable is titled “President Bush’s Response to Saddam’s Message – Next Steps.” Saddam told Glaspie via Tariq Aziz that he was pleased with Bush’s response to his démarche. A few gaffes had bungled the careful deliberations (notably the U. S. government’s decision to restrict ex-“ports to Iraq). Glaspie suggested, The State Department will have to be sure that there are no more bolts from the blue.” If the U.S government orivuded some concessions to Iraq (such as on export limitations), then “Iraqis will believe that they are politically inspired and will take them as part of President Bush’s response to Saddam.” Her second suggestion is the most revealing one. “We have defined our national interest in these circumstances as the maintenance of stability,” Glaspie wrote. 

“We want to oil to flow without hindrance, but we have never taken substantive positions on intra-OPEC or Arab border disputes. If we maintain our tactic of relying on Arab diplomacy to bring a peaceful settlement of this newest dispute, we will have resolutely to swallow our distaste at the Iraqi protection racket. Saddam and the Iraqis, all of them, believe they have provided protection to the neighborhood. If the Kuwaitis will not give Iraq the cash Saddam insists he needs (and he will accept indirect donations, e.g. through some fund device), Kuwait will be faced with consequences.”

The position was fairly straightforward. Iraq had borne the brunt of the suffering to defend the oil monarchies from Iranian revisionism. It now wanted to be paid for that work. Glaspie also reflected on the border dispute itself. It was not about the land, but about the subsoil oil. “Even if we were to change radically our policy, for example, by adopting the Kuwaiti legal position on the border, Iraq could occupy the narrow strip which the Iraqi’s insist is theirs, and on which there are new Kuwaiti wells and farms (as described by Embassy Kuwait), within the space of an hour or so.” The indication here is that such a border war might take place, but it would end soon. These are the “intra-OPEC or Arab border disputes” to which the U. S. takes no position. They happen, and then they are worked out. There was no indication that the wrath of the War God would fall on Baghdad if Hussein’s armies moved across the border. As Glaspie left Saddam, he wished her well on her vacation. She left Baghdad before the invasion of Kuwait (the ambassadors of most of the Western European states were also on their vacations).

Washington had other irons in the fire. A new sense of its mission e-merged as the deck was cleared of all apparent rivals. A new architecture had to be erected to properly reflect the new primacy of the U. S. In the early 1980s, the World Bank & the IMF had been already brought to heel – Chief Economist Anne Krueger (1982-86) cleaned up the liberals from the World Bank, while IMF Managing Director Jacques de Larosière (1978-87) properly turned the Fund into an instrument of G7 policy. GATT and its Uruguay Round marginalized the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the UN’s World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO). On trade and economic policy, the U. S. had already taken charge. Now, the Gulf War allowed the U. S. to properly suborn the UN and OPEC, as well as the U. S. State Department. These were the real problems that had to be dealt with, not Saddam’s cupidity. Economics was in hand; politics was to follow. 

The UN’s General Assembly had been a problem for the U. S. from the early 1970s. At a confidential meeting in April 1975, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told President Richard Nixon and incoming U. S. Ambassador to the UN, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “In principle, I think we should move things from the General Assembly to the Security Council.” By late 1990, thanks in part to UN General Secretary Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, the Security Council eclipsed the General Assembly. The United Nations was now properly pliant, as the General Assembly lost control of the organization to the Security Council. The Chinese and the Russians had been substantially defanged. Proper arm-twisting at the Security Council allowed it to operate as multilateral cover for the U. S. and its NATO allies. All of the action was at the UN Security Council; the General Assembly is now a sideshow.

OPEC had been a problem to the United States and the G7 since the oil crisis of 1973. On August 17, 1974, Kissinger told President Gerald Ford, “On the energy situation, we have to find a way to break the cartel.” The job had failed from outside. Now Kuwait and the UAE were doing it from within. They had their own interests at stake, but these intersected with long-standing U. S. interests, to weaken OPEC. The cartel has never been the same since.

The U. S. State Department was not autonomous from U. S. policy, but its bureaucrats tended to have a more nuanced sense of diplomacy than that of the military and of the newly aggressive U. S. political class. The transformation of the State Department is clearly visible in the cable dump made available by Wikileaks. In cable after cable we read of the visits of U. S. military officials and their conversations with the heads of state in various countries. The Ambassadors act as fixers or go-betweens for these military luminaries. For instance, Ambassador Stephen Seche, a career diplomat, filed a cable from Sanaa, Yemen in January 2010 on the visit of General David Petraeus to Yemen’s president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Seche sat by as stenographer as Petraeus and Saleh colluded against Yemeni sovereignty and the U. S. public – the U. S. has an active military presence in Yemen, and is at war there, something that is not known in the United States and has not been admitted to the Yemeni parliament. “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours,” Saleh told Petraeus. His Deputy, Rashad al-Alimi said that he had just lied to parliament, telling it that the bombs are American, but fired by Yemenis. Petraeus pointed out that Saleh must tell the Yemeni customs to stop “holding up Embassy cargo at the airport, including shipments destined for the [Yemeni government] itself, such as equipment of [Yemen’s Counter Terrorism Unit].” In other words, the diplomatic pouch no longer carries only letters; it now carries military hardware. The U. S. State Department, a lonely outpost for sanity, in the making of U. S. foreign policy is now suborned to the doctrine of primacy.

In 1991, ideology remained on the side of the U. S., whose president could then go on the television not long after the bombs began to burst over Baghdad and propose, “We have a real chance at this new world order, an order in which a credible United Nations can use its peacekeeping role to fulfill the promise and vision of the U. N.’s founders.” This “new world order” is a “world where the rule of law, not the law of the jungle, governs the conduct of nations.” Saddam Hussein and Iraq had to be the sacrificial lambs of this new order, which had to be blessed with blood before it could be born. Glaspie’s “green light” to Saddam was hardly at issue here. She was doing what U. S. diplomats did, which including placating regimes of one kind or another. In 2002,Glaspie disingenuously said that Saddam was a megalomaniac who had delusions of grandeur. This is of course true, but it was equally true in 1980, when the U. S. sat by as Iraq invaded Iran. 

Now the U. S. had a different grand strategy, eager to exercise authority over the oil lands and demonstrate its total spectrum dominance. To do so, the U. S. did not have to remove Saddam Hussein from power. The Bush administration well knew that its dominance was best demonstrated through aerial bombardment. It showed that in Panama, and would show that again over he skies of the former Yugoslavia. Complications came when ground troops went in for what was to be a relatively straight-forward interdiction of Manuel Noriega. Navy Seals found themselves outclassed at Patilla Air-field, and had to request backup from the Army, and the battle of La Comandancia was almost a disaster. Too many Panamanian civilians died, but that was only a public relations problem. Far more important was the danger that the U. S. would get stuck in a quagmire. Memories of the bombing of the Marine base in Beirut in 1983 presaged the disaster for the U. S. in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993. No sense in getting ground down on territory control. Far better to control the parameters within which local rulers can govern. That was the reason that the U. S. did not pursue Saddam into Baghdad in 1991. From the standpoint of the fig leaf of multilateralism, U. S. primacy could only be attained with these illusions intact.

The Wikileaks cables provide some of the details that allow us to fill out the canvas of the recent history of U. S. power. In 1990-91, the U. S. revised the equation of geo-politics, pushing for its primacy over all other pretenders. The military thrust was followed by an expansion of the U. S. military capability during the 1990s, which came alongside the push for “globalization,” which was a way to manage the over-accumulation crisis of global capital through the empire of finance. President George W. Bush’s exertion into Iraq that began in 2003 and the credit crunch that began in 2007 provide us with bookends of the high point of U. S. primacy. Another phase has opened up. The hieroglyphics of the new geo-politics are yet to be deciphered. 

(This article features in the new issue of Naked Punch.  You can buy the print version of Naked Punch Issue 15 by  clicking here )

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