The Reasons For the War (Part II)

History of American Dealings in Iraq

During the Cold War, the United States was a supporter of Iraq to counter-balance Iran, and to limit Soviet influence over the oil rich Middle East. I am loathe to engage in too much second guessing about the methods of our vital fight Communism, but I will certainly admit that we traded a good deal of credibility in the Middle East while trying to control the Soviet menace lurking nearby. I do not believe that supporting Iraq in the past bars us from dealing with it in the present. I am still not sure how some people can protest US support of dictators for decades, only to resist when the US actually goes about getting rid of them. But that is definitely a tangent for another day.

In any case, post Cold War it became apparent that Saddam's Iraq wasn't something we could afford to support any more. This became especially clear when Saddam invaded Kuwait and threatened Saudi Arabia. Make no mistake, I fully admit that the Middle East is more important to us than much of Africa because of oil. Oil is needed for the current level of civilization. There is absolutely nothing wrong with making sure that nobody gains control of the whole area so that they can threaten us. 'No blood for oil' is a catchy slogan, but reveals a lack of understanding about what oil does in a modern society. 'No blood for air' or 'No blood for electricity' or 'No blood for access to water' would all be silly slogans in much the same way. Strategic interests really are worth fighting for.

Gulf War 1991
The invasion of Kuwait triggered the 'defensive' operation Desert Shield in which US troops were deployed to defend Saudi Arabia. After Saddam refused to withdraw from Kuwait, the US led a highly successful military operation to force Iraq out of Kuwait. The military operations received support from other countries, though the US did most of the crucial fighting. 2/3 of the $61 billion (1991 dollars) cost of the $61 billion (1991 dollars) war was paid by Saudi Arabia, Japan and Kuwait. This support came with a price. We were not to go into Iraq and destroy Saddam's regime. There are indications that we believed his own people would dispose of him. Many factions which hated Saddam tried to overthrow him, believing that we would support their efforts. We underestimated Saddam's ruthlessness. He slaughtered his opponents while we looked on. At the end of the war, the UN Nuclear Non-Proliferation Agency realized that Saddam was within six months of obtaining a nuclear bomb, while their pre-war estimates put him at about five years off. This failure of intelligence would figure prominently in the later debate about a war against Iraq.

Saddam's survival became highly symbolic in the certain fairly large sections of Arab culture. He was a hero to many people. He was a hero because he was an Arab who stood up the United States, and survived. The story about why the US did not invade Iraq changed in the minds of many. The US didn't invade Iraq because the US was unwilling to risk the deaths of its soldiers. The US didn't invade because it could be cowed by bold and daring men who were willing to take audacious action.


The UN imposed economic sanctions in the hope of toppling Saddam's regime. Sanctions seem like they ought to work, but in reality they often underestimate the ruthless nature of the regimes which they target. Saddam was perfectly willing to starve his people while lavishly rewarding his thugs. He ruled through terror, and was not particularly willing to change his plans just because his people were suffering. As the years went on, the sanctions became a symbol of American cruelty against Arabs. The fact that they were UN sanctions was quickly forgotten while the fact that Saddam was not being kept from access to food for his people was ignored. The hardship 'caused' by the sanctions added to the Arab myth that America was cruelly picking on them. Saddam's continued survival, year after year, confirmed that the US wasn't really willing to fight no matter how capable our weapons might be.


The advanced state of Iraq's nuclear plans immediately after the war scared quite a few people, both in the US and the UN. They decided to impose an inspection regime to try to insure against further nasty surprises. The initial idea of the inspections was that Iraq would submit to the inspections or the war against him would resume. Saddam quickly discovered that since no one really wanted the war to resume he could thwart the inspectors by putting certain sites off limits or by delaying their arrival at certain sites by a few days. His success at this game reaffirmed the idea that the US and UN were not serious about imposing restrictions on a crafty Arab leader. The impression which was given to the 'Arab Street' was Saddam could not be truly thwarted without war, and that we were unwilling to engage in war. This played into the story of strength and pride which the Arab Street wants to tell about itself. Arabs had defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan (US help conveniently forgotten) so there was no reason why they could not defeat the US.

Saddam's success (which in reality was little more than our choice not to act) emboldened radical and disaffected Arabs and Islamists all over the world. The twisted parts of Arab culture which can lead both to Ba'athist governments or Islamist fundamentalists Saddam's continued rule as proof that the US could easily be defeated. Bin Laden may have secretly struck against Americans in their homes but Saddam openly defied America and their armies ran away from his challenge. He became the living embodiment of the fact that Americans were too cowardly to finish tough jobs in the Middle East.

Posted by Sebastian Holsclaw at November 14, 2003 2:20 AM