Swans » Dossiers


The 1991 Gulf War Rationale

by Gilles d'Aymery



[Note: this is a document in progress, a first draft was published on August 26, 2002 (Last revision: February 1, 2003). We would like to invite your comments as well as any potential addition you think could be included in this dossier. Particularly, we could use help on the fourth issue, Nuclear weapons.]


"Governments lie"
-- Isador Feinstein Stone (1907-1989)

When on August 2, 1990, the Iraqi army invaded Kuwait, the response of the Bush Sr. Administration was decisive. It would not stand, said the president. A line in the sand had to be drawn. For months the administration worked in the U.N. and with its allies to assemble a formidable force that would eventually defeat the Iraqi army and liberate Kuwait between January 17 and February 28, 1991.

In order to justify the war, the administration constructed a rationale that was based on the following:

1) Iraq had violated international laws by invading a sovereign country.
2) Iraq had amassed troops and tanks and was bent to invade Saudi Arabia.
3) As Congress was deliberating on a vote to grant the president authorization to use force (January 12, 1991), a story surfaced that Iraqi soldiers had removed babies from incubators that they were stealing and had left these babies to die on the floor of the hospital. This story made the headlines around the world and was a big factor in the positive result of the congressional vote.
4) Saddam Hussein was a dangerous, blood-thirsty dictator. He had accumulated Weapons of Mass Destruction, both chemical and nuclear (or was close to developing a nuclear device). He was a vicious, Hitler-like killer who had gassed his own people, and was ready to commit untold atrocities (the precursor of the Human Rights' discourse against any designated villain).

Let's review these four points and offer references and resources.

I - A Line in the Sand: Invasion of a sovereign country.

This is a historical fact. Iraq did invade Kuwait militarily without having been attacked by the Emirate, at least not militarily. However, to this date, one can argue that the oil policy pursued by Kuwait which by deliberately producing oil far beyond its OPEC quota, thus bringing down the price of oil per barrel into the low $ teens, was highly detrimental to the economic recovery of Iraq, a country that after eight years of war with Iran, its Persian neighbor, was deeply indebted and in dire needs of reconstruction. The Iraqi government attempted to reverse the Kuwaiti oil policy with the help of Egypt and Saudi Arabia to no avail. From an Iraqi perspective, each one dollar drop in the price of oil cost the Iraqi nation $one billion a year. In other words, the case could be made that Kuwait was waging an economic war on Iraq.

More importantly, in the months leading to the Iraqi invasion, the U.S. diplomacy was quite ambiguous. While the Iraqi regime sent a series of feelers the U.S. administration went at great length to reassure Iraq that it did not take a position on inter-Arab disputes. With the lonely exception of Dick Cheney, then Secretary of Defense, who asserted that the U.S. would defend Kuwait if it were attacked but who was immediately reigned in by the White House, the administration pursued a hands-off approach on this issue. An article by Murray Waas appeared in the Village Voice of January 22, 1991; a shorter version of it, "Who lost Kuwait," was also published on January 30, 1991 in The San Francisco Bay Guardian. This piece answers with details "Why did the U.S. sends signals that it would not interfere when Saddam Hussein was obviously preparing to invade Kuwait?" This piece is available on line at http://www.sfbg.com/gulfwar/013091.html. In fact, Administration officials told The Washington Post six days before the invasion that "an Iraqi attack on Kuwait would not draw a U.S. military response." (7/26/90)

Furthermore, the strange behavior of U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, has long been dissected by many commentators. She's reported having told Saddam Hussein, "We have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait." There is ample documentation on the Web regarding Mrs. Glaspie's possibly ill-chosen comments. Murray Waas, in the article cited above, reviewed the meeting between Saddam Hussein and Mrs. Glaspie on July 25, 1990. The transcript of that meeting can be read at http://www.chss.montclair.edu/english/furr/glaspie.html, the Web site of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Montclair State University, New Jersey. However it should be noted that the source of this transcript has not been verified and can be questioned. See the explanation provided on January 16, 2002 by Abi Cox, a participant on the forum of the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq (CASI) Web site, at http://www.casi.org.uk/discuss/2002/msg00099.html. Later on, after the war, April Glaspie was quoted as saying in response to a journalist's question that the U.S. had invited Iraq to take Kuwait, "Obviously, I didn't think, and nobody else did, that the Iraqis were going to take all of Kuwait," which would suggest that the U.S. may have been prepared to let Iraq take over the Rumailah oil fields. John R. MacArthur, the publisher of Harper's Magazine, characterized April Glaspie's action a "famous gaffe," in a speech at the Independent Institute on October 7, 1992. The speech can be read at http://www.independent.org/tii/content/events/f_macarth.html. Brian Becker, who was a member of the Muhammad Ali Peace Delegation that traveled to Iraq in late November 1990 in an effort to prevent the war presented his report at the New York Commission of Inquiry for the International War Crimes Tribunal hearing on May 11, 1991. It explains the actual reasons of what seems to have been a huge deception on the part of the U.S. government. The report can be read at http://deoxy.org/wc/wc-consp.htm#one. (Note: Whatever the actual actions of April Glaspie were -- she has remained tight-lipped about them ever since -- she was not rewarded much for them. She is presently the U.S. Consul General for Cape Town, South Africa, a demotion compared to her previous ambassadorship.)

II - Possible Iraqi invasion of Saudi Arabia

The U.S. administration made the claim that the Iraqis had amassed troops and tanks along the Saudi border and were poised to invade the kingdom. This claim was widely relayed by the main media. The only problem with these allegations was that they were utterly false. The former Soviet Union had provided satellite pictures, taken on September 11 and 13, 1990, of the border (actually, they were selling the pictures for $1,500 each) that clearly indicated that no concentration of Iraqi troops and equipment was in sight. Major news organizations like ABC News (Sam Donaldson) or The Washington Post (Bob Woodward) sat on the pictures and never used them. The only U.S. news organization that indeed published them was a regional paper, The St. Petersburg Times (Florida). Those pictures clearly showed, however, the concentration of U.S. troops on the Saudi side of the border! John R. MacArthur (and Ben Haig Bagdikian) documented this falsity in their book, "Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War," University of California Press; reprint edition 1993; ISBN: 0520083989. MacArthur also cited these facts in his above-mentioned speech, http://www.independent.org/tii/content/events/f_macarth.html. Brian Becker debunked this claim in detail in his report. Jean Heller, the Editor of The St. Petersburg Times hired a U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency in the Reagan Administration, and a former image specialist for the Defense Intelligence Agency, Peter Zimmerman, to analyze the satellite photographs, to no avail. There simply were no Iraqi troops poised to invade Saudi Arabia.

III - The infamous "incubators" story

One of the most sophisticated fabrications in recent memory and widely reviewed on the Web. We wrote about it on February 19, 2001 in "Kosovo - The 'Banality of Evil'" as follows: "The readers may recall the testimony before Congress on October 10, 1990 of a 15-year old Kuwaiti woman, Nayirah (her last name was kept confidential). She had witnessed a terrifying deed by the Iraqi invaders of Kuwait. In her own words: '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.' The story about the 312 babies made the news with a vengeance. President Bush (that would be George I) repeated it. The line in the sand was drawn. Like Racak, it turned public opinion and Congress on the path of war. Months later we learned that Nayirah was the daughter of a Kuwaiti prince, Saud Nasir al-Sabah, Kuwait's Ambassador to the U.S. She had left Kuwait before the Iraqi invasion. The story had been entirely fabricated by the PR firm Hill & Knowlton. Tom Lantos, the California Democrat who chaired the hearing was co-chair (with Republican Rep. John Porter) of the Congressional Human Rights Foundation that occupied free office space in Hill & Knowlton's Washington, DC office." One of the best documentation of this hoax can be found in a fascinating book, "Toxic Sludge Is Good for You, Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry" by John C. Stauber, Sheldon Rampton, 1995; (Common Courage Press; ISBN: 1-56751-060-4). Stauber and Rampton are Executive Director and Editor, respectively, of PR Watch, a newsletter published by the Center for Media and Democracy. An excerpt of the book on this PR issue was published in June 1996 by Claire W. Gilbert in her fine publication Blazing Tattles and can be read on line at http://www.blazingtattles.com/info/mother1.htm and http://www.blazingtattles.com/info/mother2.htm. It's an extraordinary read. PR Watch also recently posted these excerpts on their Web site, at http://www.prwatch.org/books/tsigfy10.html. Last May 2002, the former Hill & Knowlton staffer who was handling Nayirah made the claim that the story was true in O'Dwyer's PR Daily, an online access to the inside news of Public Relations but was forcefully rebuked by PR Watch Editor, Sheldon Rampton. (See http://www.odwyerpr.com/archived_stories_2002/may/0528pegado.htm -- note that the link was valid as of August 2002 but the page is no longer available.)

IV - Weapons Of Mass Destruction and demonization

Chemical Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) were relatively well documented at the time. Not the same could be said about the possibility that Saddam Hussein had or was on the verge of obtaining nuclear weapons. Demonization and character assassination are tools of the warring trade that has been immaculately perfected.

a) Chemical ordnances

Iraq had turned to chemical warfare in the last part of the Iraq-Iran war when the Iraqis were on the brink of being submerged by human waves of Iranian fighters, often teen-agers. The Reagan Administration turned a blind eye on, and winked at the Iraqi actions as the U.S. covertly supported the Iraqi regime in its endeavor to defeat the Iranians, fearing that the Ayatollahs (Khomeini & co.) would export their fundamentalist revolution to the entire Arabian Gulf Peninsula (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the Emirates, etc.). Iranians reciprocated, though to a lesser extent, until, exhausted, the two sides reached a cease-fire.

After the invasion of Kuwait, in August 1990, the Bush Administration began asserting that the Iraqi regime had gassed its own people in Northern Iraq (the Kurds). The administration was specifically pointing its finger to the Halabjah deadly gas attack in March 1988 (Halabjah is a Kurdish town in Northern Iraq), after the cease-fire had taken place. The event took place. Halabjah was gassed. What is not clear is which side did it. At the time, the Reagan administration suggested that the Iranians were the culprits. Upon careful consideration, analysts have come to the conclusion that the Iraqis were responsible for the attack. The town had been taken over by Iranian elite forces and it would have made little sense for their government to gas its own troops while, in all likelihood, the Iraqis had reasons to proceed with such a dire attack. The town, as said, had been taken over by the Iranians and some Kurd factions had allied themselves with Iran. The fact remains that to this day, there is no definite evidence of who did what. While logic might point into the Iraqi direction (see the analysis of Glen Rangwala on the CASI forum, at http://www.casi.org.uk/discuss/2002/msg00034.html) doubts linger. For example, Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies notes that "Iranians also used poison gas at Halabjah and may have caused some of the casualties" (The Military Threat from Iraq, page 36). See also the March 2002 opinion of Anthony Arnove on Zmag, "Convenient And Not So Convenient Massacres," at http://www.zmag.org/sustainers/content/2002-03/28arnove.cfm to get an idea of the selective use of these events by the US government.

[ed. The following two paragraphs were added on February 1, 2003.]  The New York Times published a January 31, 2003 Op-Ed by Stephen C. Pelletiere who was the CIA's senior political analyst on Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war and a professor at the Army War College from 1988 to 2000. According to Pelletiere who, in his words, "was privy to much of the classified material that flowed through Washington," "[Saddam Hussein] has much to answer for in the area of human rights abuses. But accusing him of gassing his own people at Halabja as an act of genocide is not correct, because as far as the information we have goes, all of the cases where gas was used involved battles. These were tragedies of war." (we append a relevant excerpt of this Op-Ed at the end of this dossier.)

Murky business, isn't it? Both Iran and Iraq violated the international chemical weapons treaty (as did the USA in Vietnam... Remember Agent Orange? Has the USA ever paid war reparations for using WMD in Vietnam?). But, Phyllis Bennis, a Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, writes in a primer, Understanding the U.S.-Iraq Crisis, that "One former Iraqi officer, General al-Shamari, told Newsweek that he was in charge of firing chemical weapons from howitzers against Iranian troops, and that U.S. satellite information provided the targeting information. A former CIA official confirmed to Newsweek that the U.S. provided military intelligence to Iraq, including on chemical warfare. General al-Shamari now lives safely in the U.S., running a restaurant outside of Washington DC." (See http://www.ips-dc.org/iraq/primer4.htm#33.) Murky business indeed!

b) Nuclear weapons

The Bush administration and the main media made a relentless case about the dangers of seeing Iraq acquire nuclear weapons. Whether the Iraqi regime had procured them already, or was on the edge of acquiring them, was the object of intense debates and speculations. The bottom line was that the "civilized" world could not let such abominable weapons fall into the hands of a bloodthirsty dictator. Forget that the Iraqis had no way of delivering such a deadly weapon upon the continental United States. They could reach our friends and allies in the region, we were told. Forget that the Israelis, having concluded that the Iraqis were not truly a threat to the existence of their state, had taken no action (they did level the French-built Osirak nuclear plant in 1981), the Iraqi regime, personalized by Saddam Hussein, was deemed so "evil" that they would nuke the entire world. (Forget also that the Iraqis, during the Gulf War, did not use chemical weapons. They might have been "evildoers" but they certainly were not suicidal. See Tarik Aziz oral history on Frontline at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/gulf/oral/aziz/1.html.) So, we will never know the true assessment of the Iraqi nuclear reality of that time. The U.S. Congress however -- and with the help of the incubators story -- needed no further explanation. Why? That's where, among other things, the demonization of Saddam Hussein played a big role.

c) Dehumanization and Demonization of the enemy

Another technique that has been refined over time; Public eye.org defines thus: "To understand scapegoating we must consider how we identify and perceive our enemies. A first step is marginalization, the processes whereby targeted individuals or groups are pictured (in the sense of being framed) as outside the circle of wholesome mainstream society. The next step is objectification or dehumanization, the process of negatively labeling a person or group of people so they become perceived more as objects rather than real people. Dehumanization often is associated with the belief that a particular group of people are inferior or threatening. The final step is demonization, the person or group is seen as totally malevolent, sinful, and evil. It is easier to rationalize stereotyping, prejudice, discrimination, and even violence against those who are dehumanized or demonized.

Demonization fuels dualism -- a form of binary thinking that divides the world into good versus evil with no middle ground tolerated. Dualism allows no acknowledgment of complexity, nuance, or ambiguity in debates; and promotes hostility toward those who suggest coexistence, toleration, pragmatism, compromise, or mediation.

Aho observes that our notions of the enemy 'in our everyday life world,' is that the 'enemy's presence in our midst is a pathology of the social organism serious enough to require the most far-reaching remedies: quarantine, political excision, or, to use a particularly revealing, expression, liquidation and expulsion.'" (See, http://www.publiceye.org/tooclose/scapegoating-01.htm.)

The Bush administration played the phenomenon to the hilt. The American people fell for it.

The rest is history, which in the present, short and medium terms is and will be recorded by the same people who made up the deception in the first place. Long term history will once again be less delicate. But we will all be dead.

In the meantime Gulf War II will have taken place, following the same patterns...and to what results?

· · · · · ·


Stephen C. Pelletiere, A War Crime Or an Act of Was?, Op-Ed, The New York Times, January 31, 2003, page A27. Excerpt:
   "In addition, I headed a 1991 Army investigation into how the Iraqis would fight a war against the United States; the classified version of the report went into great detail on the Halabja affair.
   "This much about the gassing at Halabja we undoubtedly know: it came about in the course of a battle between Iraqis and Iranians. Iraq used chemical weapons to try to kill Iranians who had seized the town, which is in northern Iraq not far from the Iranian border. The Kurdish civilians who died had the misfortune to be caught up in that exchange. But they were not Iraq's main target.
   "And the story gets murkier: immediately after the battle the United States Defense Intelligence Agency investigated and produced a classified report, which it circulated within the intelligence community on a need-to-know basis. That study asserted that it was Iranian gas that killed the Kurds, not Iraqi gas.
   "The agency did find that each side used gas against the other in the battle around Halabja. The condition of the dead Kurds' bodies, however, indicated they had been killed with a blood agent -- that is, a cyanide-based gas -- which Iran was known to use. The Iraqis, who are thought to have used mustard gas in the battle, are not known to have possessed blood agents at the time.
   "These facts have long been in the public domain but, extraordinarily, as often as the Halabja affair is cited, they are rarely mentioned. A much-discussed article in The New Yorker last March did not make reference to the Defense Intelligence Agency report or consider that Iranian gas might have killed the Kurds. On the rare occasions the report is brought up, there is usually speculation, with no proof, that it was skewed out of American political favoritism toward Iraq in its war against Iran." [ed. You can read the entire piece at http://foi.missouri.edu/polinfoprop/warcrime.html]  -  (back)

Iraq on Swans


Gilles d'Aymery is Swans' publisher and co-editor.

Do you wish to share your opinion? We invite your comments. E-mail the Editor. Please include your full name, address and phone number. If we publish your opinion we will only include your name, city, state, and country.

Please, feel free to insert a link to this article on your Web site or to disseminate its URL on your favorite lists, quoting the first paragraph or providing a summary. However, please DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans, which will seek permission from the author. This material is copyrighted. All rights reserved.
· · · · · ·


Published August 26, 2002
Revised February 1, 2003
[Copyright]-[Archives]-[Resources]-[Main Page]