Thu, 03 Aug 2000

The 10th anniversary of Iraq's brazen invasion into Kuwait

By Gwynne Dyer

LONDON (JP): It caused a great uproar, followed by a middle- sized war, when Saddam Hussein's tanks rolled into Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990, but 10 years later the whole episode has left only three visible legacies.

The first is the Middle East "peace process", which only began because Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat believed that the Iraqi dictator would keep Kuwait, and would subsequently place all his wealth and weapons at the service of the PLO. So Arafat, like hundreds of thousands of ordinary Palestinians made foolish by frustration and humiliation, welcomed the conquest of a friendly Arab country by a dictator.

They reaped the consequences after Saddam was driven out by a coalition of Western and Arab countries seven months later. The oil-rich Arab states of the Gulf had already ended their lavish subsidies to the PLO, and the newly liberated Kuwait expelled most of the large Palestinian community that had previously held most of the country's white-collar jobs.

Arafat's cash-flow problems suddenly became life-threatening, for his hold on power has always depended on being able to pay his numerous security forces and buy off his rivals.

To survive, in 1993, Arafat signed the Oslo accords, in which he agreed to make peace with Israel on whatever terms he could subsequently negotiate. He has since depended mainly on U.S. subsidies and the support of U.S. intelligence services, so it is not surprising that those terms have turned out to be whatever Israel and its American ally thought could be sold to Israeli voters.

The recent breakdown of talks at Camp David came because Arafat realized that he could not sell Israel's terms (even as modified and somewhat softened by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak) to Palestinians. No amount of American money would help if he ended up dead at the hands of a mob or his own security forces -- yet his dependence on the U.S. means that he will have to return to negotiations with Israel sooner or later.

The invasion of Kuwait led Arafat into a mistake from which he could never recover. It would be fair to say that it was also an irredeemable mistake for Saddam Hussein himself, even though he has survived it for 10 years, and has not even lost any weight as a result of the United Nations sanctions against his country.

The sanctions have been a calamity for ordinary Iraqis. A study published in the British medical journal The Lancet in May concluded that under-five mortality in southern and central Iraq had risen from 56 per thousand in the half-decade before the Gulf War (1984-1989) to 131 per thousand in the past five years.

"We've got to classify sanctions as a form of warfare, given that they're producing 5,000-6,000 Iraqi deaths a month," said Irish-born United Nations official Dennis Halliday last year, after resigning from his job as head of the humanitarian relief programme in Iraq.

Halliday's successor, Hans von Sponeck, quit last March echoing his remarks and accusing the West of being responsible for the destruction of "an entire Iraqi generation." Yet neither of these worldly-wise men pretends that Saddam Hussein is anything other than a dictator who is hated by most of his subjects, and who cynically uses their suffering as leverage to get sanctions lifted.

Neither of them denies, either, that he loves weapons of mass destruction, be they nuclear, chemical or biological. Indeed, he has probably managed to hang onto at least some short-range chemical weapons, if nothing worse, despite a rigorous regime of UN inspection in 1991-1998. Their point is that the sanctions never made Saddam give the inspectors greater access, or incited the population to open rebellion, or even made him slightly uncomfortable.

Saddam has gone on building ever bigger palaces and prisons; it is only ordinary Iraqis who die. So stop the sanctions and deal with the problem of Saddam's weapons and ambitions some other way, if you can think of one that might work. (Hint: sporadic bombing raids don't.)

Sensible advice for dealing with a brutal dictator who holds 22 million Iraqis to ransom. But it is fair to say that Saddam's gruesome error of invading Kuwait, even more than his previous blunder of attacking Iran, forever killed his ambition of becoming a great pan-Arab leader, the "new Saladin". He's just a local problem now.

And what about Kuwait, the little-mentioned main victim of the drama? The war's huge material damage has been erased, apart from the carefully preserved ruins of the national museum, but the experience of invasion, occupation, and liberation by mostly non- Arab troops has ended the country's complacent conservatism and plunged it into the modern world, for good and for bad.

Kuwait has seen both an upsurge in demands for women's suffrage and a surge to 29,000 in the number of registered drug addicts. It now has a government-owned FM rock station that would not fail in Philadelphia. And Kuwaitis will have to wait at least another five to 10 years to find how many of them will end up with cancer as a result of exposure to carcinogens released by the hundreds of oil wells that burned for over a year after the retreating Iraqis ignited them.

Middle-sized war, lots of changes, quite a few hurt. Is that all? No.

It has been argued that the Gulf War was all about oil: nobody would ever have gone to Kuwait's defence if it only produced carrots. Maybe so. But it was also one of only two wars that have been fought explicitly to enforce the key UN rule that no border changes achieved by force are valid, and that the UN can authorise willing member states to put the borders back where they belong (The other one was the Korean War of 1950-1953.)

The borders may be historically questionable (most borders are), but the aim was to take the profit out of victory in war. Often the UN cannot reverse the border changes, at least in the short run -- as in the case of Israel's 1967 victories, or Indonesia's annexation of East Timor in 1975 -- but it never recognizes them. And once in a while, it does manage to round up enough support to enforce the rule.

In terms of the international rule of law, the situation is comparable to where the domestic rule of law stood in Europe's early modern era. We have international laws that would make life safer for everybody, but no police force to impose them. Most people in the community agree on what the law is, but only once in a while can they be persuaded to act on their convictions -- generally when their convictions and their interests coincide.

That was the Gulf War: inglorious, pragmatic, and yet important. The rule of law is built one brick at a time.