Back to Origins of the 'Gulf War'

 

How America Destroyed the Peace

by Hugh Roberts

 

This article was originally published in the March-April 1991 of the Labour and Trade Union Review. It argues that the unanimous consensus of Arab opinion against the occupation of Kuwait could have brought about a peaceful resolution, but that this possibility was sabotaged by a speedy and effective US intervention. The article also makes an important distinction between 'sanctions' and 'blockade'. It is the confusion between these two concepts that enables some commentators to think there is a parallel to be drawn between the sanctions that were imposed on South Africa and those imposed on Iraq. South Africa was subjected to trade sanctions; Iraq has been subjected to a blockade, or, if you prefer, a siege, which is an act of war. For a parallel we may look to something like the Serb siege/blockade of Sarajevo, which, even though it occurred in a situation of outright war, is generally regarded as having been morally reprehensible.

Hugh Roberts, author of the article, is a specialist in Algerian politics, working with the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and currently living in Egypt. He was the founder-secretary of the SOAS-based Society for Algerian Studies. He is the author of The Battlefield - Algeria, 1988-2002, Verso, London and New York, 2003.

 

In his broadcast to the nation on January 18 explaining why British forces had gone into action in the Gulf, John Major declared that "In the patient diplomacy of the last five months leaders from around the world have sought peace, and then sought it again. But unfortunately, Saddam Hussein has chosen war. He has rejected every attempt to reach a peaceful solution" (The Times, January 18, 1991).

The first sentence of this statement is formally true. Numerous 'leaders from around the world' had indeed sought peace and had done so repeatedly. They included King Hussein of Jordan, Yasser Arafat of the PLO, King Hassan of Morocco and President Chadli Bendjedid of Algeria, not to mention former European leaders of the stature of ex-prime minister Edward Heath and ex-chancellor Willy Brandt. But this sentence is only formally true, in the Jesuitical sense of truth. For it was unquestionably intended to suggest that the British and American leaders who were now waging war had previously sought peace. This is the opposite of the truth. It was they who consistently acted to thwart the peace-seeking initiatives of everyone else.

The second sentence is quite untrue. In uttering it, the British Prime Minister simply lied to the British people. And he lied in the full knowledge that this lie would be echoed and endorsed by the leaders of the Labour Party. Three days later, Gerald Kaufman declared in the House of Commons that "What is quite clear is that this is a war that no one wanted, except for Saddam Hussein...it has to be said that, in the end, Iraq rejected diplomacy."

There had been an enormous amount of diplomacy between August 2, 1990 and January 15, 1991. There was the diplomacy, in which Iraq was vigorously involved, which sought a peaceful solution. And there was the Anglo-American diplomacy which sought to consolidate the anti-Iraq military alliance and frustrate the efforts of the peacemakers. What Britain and America have called diplomacy in respect of Iraq has been an affair of ultimatums issued in the full knowledge that Saddam Hussein could not possibly comply with them without subverting the Iraqi state, backed up by an economic blockade. This, as Edward Heath has rightly pointed out, has been the negation of diplomacy.

The economic blockade has been described throughout by official British and American spokesmen as "sanctions". In his broadcast on January 18, John Major declared that "We applied sanctions to make our point clear. We refused to trade with Iraq." That was another lie told to the British people. What Britain and America did went far beyond refusing to trade.

Sanctions would indeed have involved a refusal to sell goods to Iraq and to buy goods from Iraq. Sanctions were imposed on Rhodesia and on South Africa. They damaged the economies of these two countries, and exercised some long-term influence on the evolution of the political situation there, without bringing either country to its knees. But what the British and Americans organised from early August was a full-scale land, sea and air blockade of Iraq to prevent any goods leaving or reaching the country. The Shorter Oxford Dictionary (Third revised edition, 1977) defines 'blockade' as "the shutting up of a place, blocking of a harbour, line of coast, frontier, etc. by hostile forces or ships, so as to stop ingress or egress." The critical word in this definition is 'hostile'. Hostility implies a state of war. And in the conventional terminology of what is fondly referred to as 'International Law', an economic blockade is indeed considered to be an act of war, a belligerent act.

The only western government to state the truth of this last August was France. France initially took the position of agreeing that UN sanctions should be imposed on Iraq, as they had been on South Africa, but that it did not support a blockade. But having, in a passing moment of integrity, reaffirmed this vital distinction, it allowed itself to be induced by Anglo-American pressure to forget all about it.

By mounting a blockade on Iraq last August, Britain and America, under the UN cover, made war on Iraq. This was an extraordinary thing to do. Iraq had not gone to war with either Britain or America, and had no intention of doing so. It suddenly found itself on the receiving end of a major act of war by the strongest military powers in the world. It reacted by making strenuous proposals for a peaceful settlement, and when these were rejected, by interning enemy aliens, as is normal in time of war, and was roundly denounced for taking 'hostages' in consequence.

The interning of enemy aliens was the only hostile action undertaken by Iraq towards Britain and America and the other members of the military alliance ranged against it before January 16. And it was 'hostile' only in the technical sense of the word. In substance it was unquestionably an entirely defensive act, only taken on August 16, that is a full fortnight after all-out economic warfare had been launched against Iraq, eight days after American and British troops had begun arriving on its doorstep in preparation for a possible military campaign against it, and four days after Iraq's proposals for a comprehensive Middle East peace settlement had been rejected out of hand by President Bush.

In such circumstances there was every reason for the Iraqi government to fear that British and American and other western nationals in Iraq might become the target of spontaneous acts of violence from ordinary Iraqis, as Egyptian migrant workers in Iraq had already become, and that western nationals in Kuwait might be involved in embarrassing and possibly disastrous incidents with Iraqi troops there unless taken into protective custody without further delay. It should be noted that western nationals had had a fortnight to get out of both Iraq and Kuwait by this stage, and had been deliberately discouraged by their own governments from doing so.

On the day of Major's broadcast, Douglas Hurd stated that "we have now joined in the war which Saddam Hussein started on August 2, 1990" (The Times, January 18, 1990). There can be no doubt that British public opinion has sincerely believed in the truth of this statement, and that its support for the war has been in large part premised on this belief. Had Douglas Hurd said that "Saddam Hussein has now been forced to join in the war which we declared on him on August 2, 1990" the British people might have viewed the business of killing a hundred thousand Iraqis in a different light.

In order to force Iraq to join in this war, Britain and America relentlessly sabotaged every effort by Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait on terms which would have permitted the government of Iraq to survive. The crucial acts of sabotage occurred between August 2 and August 10, 1990. These acts were entirely successful, and established a state of affairs which made war inevitable.

The entire Arab world was united in condemnation of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. While many Arab governments agreed that Iraq had substantial grievances against Kuwait, they could not accept that these justified the use of force by one Arab state against another. Their own self-interest as states required them to ensure that the invasion was reversed, and there can be little doubt that they would have united to ensure this, had they been given time to do so.

The first Arab state to condemn the invasion was Algeria, which did so on August 2. At a meeting of the council of ministers of the Arab League on August 3, a resolution was carried with a two-thirds majority. This was in three parts:

(i) condemning the invasion;

(ii) convoking an extraordinary Arab summit to find an Arab solution to the crisis;

(iii) rejecting any foreign intervention, whether direct or indirect, in Arab affairs.

The second and third parts of this resolution were proposed by Algeria, which clearly had a shrewd idea of what was in the offing. The fourteen countries which supported this resolution were Algeria, Bahrein, Djibouti, Egypt, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Syria, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates. It is important to note that the four major Arab states which subsequently joined the US-led military alliance against Iraq ­ Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Syria ­ all supported this resolution.

At this stage in the crisis the situation was wide open. The Arab world was united in condemning Iraq and there was every prospect of the Arab League organising effective pressure to persuade it to withdraw. For its part, Iraq had not yet dug itself into an impossible position. It had not annexed Kuwait, and was making clear to Arab and western governments that it was willing to withdraw without further ado if given satisfaction on its border dispute and financial claims. What then happened was a massive escalation of the crisis engineered wholly and entirely by the United States, which split the Arab world down the middle, destroyed the credibility and influence of the Arab League and scotched all chance of a peaceful settlement. On August 4 Saddam Hussein was supposed to go to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia to negotiate a settlement with King Fahd, as had been arranged by King Hussein of Jordan in talks in Baghdad on August 2 and 3. Saddam was so confident that a deal was possible with Fahd that Baghdad radio announced that Iraq was ready to pull out of Kuwait by August 5. But a crucial participant in the planned Jeddah mini-summit was Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak. Saddam and King Hussein both believed they had secured Mubarak's agreement to the summit. But in the event Mubarak decided not to go to Jeddah after all. According to Pierre Salinger, once President Kennedy's Press Secretary and now ABC News' chief foreign correspondent, Mubarak changed his mind under American pressure.

On August 5, Yasser Arafat, who had been strenuously trying to promote Arab peace negotiations, saw Saddam in Baghdad."As Arafat walked into Saddam's office, the Iraqi leader opened the conversation by saying: Who sabotaged the summit?' Arafat didn't really know then but he pushed Saddam, saying that an early political solution was absolutely necessary. Saddam replied immediately: 'Go and see the Saudis. We are ready to discuss,' Heading for Saudi Arabia, Arafat stopped in Cairo for another talk with Mubarak. He told him that Saddam is ready to discuss withdrawal from Kuwait but found the Egyptian President very antagonistic, possibly due to increasing pressure from the US. When Arafat arrived in Saudi Arabia on August 7, he was told he could not see King Fahd, who was heavily involved in discussions with US Defence Secretary Dick Cheney" (Pierre Salinger, 'Faltering steps in the sand', The Guardian, February 4, 1991).

Also on August 7, President Bush ordered the immediate despatch of 4,000 American combat troops and aircraft to Saudi Arabia.

It was only after these developments, which made clear that the American government was actively intervening to prevent an Arab solution and had already effectively suborned the Egyptian and Saudi governments to that end, that the Iraqi government declared the annexation of Kuwait, on August 8. This did not mean that Iraq was no longer willing to consider a withdrawal. On the contrary, it was clearly only a holding operation on Saddam's part, for his next move was to ask Arafat to attend the Arab League summit scheduled for August 9-10 in Cairo and put forward fresh proposals for a settlement there.

According to some sources, a joint PLO-Libyan proposal, which significantly made no reference to any wider Middle East issues, but concentrated on the matters at issue between Iraq and Kuwait and urged serious negotiations between the two parties (in line with one of the clauses in UN Security Council Resolution 660 which everyone except Edward Heath subsequently forgot about) was put forward, but its inclusion on the summit agenda was vetoed by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, so that it was not even discussed. According to Salinger, Arafat's proposal was simply that five key leaders (whom Salinger does not specify, but who were presumably Mubarak, King Fahd, the Emir of Kuwait, King Hussein of Jordan and Arafat himself) should go to Baghdad to thrash out a deal which would then be submitted to the rest of the Arab League in Cairo for its approval. "But when Arafat ... proposed the five-nation delegation, it was immediately vetoed by Egypt and Syria" (Salinger, loc.cit.).

Instead, a very different resolution was proposed and voted. This not only differed from Arafat's conciliatory motion. It also differed profoundly from the three-part resolution passed by the Arab League Council of Ministers on August 3. The new resolution

(i) verbally reaffirmed the decisions of the Arab League Council of Ministers meeting of August 3 (while actually ignoring the second and third of those decisions);

(ii) affirmed the Arab League's obligation to respect the decisions of the UN Security Council contained in resolutions 660 and 662;

(iii) condemned Iraqi aggression and resolved not to recognise the Iraqi decision to annex Kuwait;

(iv) called for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Iraqi troops from Kuwait;

(v) affirmed Kuwaiti sovereignty and independence and called for the restoration of the lawful government of Kuwait;

(vi) agreed to respond positively to the requests of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to send Arab forces to their defence.

According to Salinger, 'Arafat was stunned ... when he sat down at the Arab League conference table and found before him a communiqué already written. He immediately came to the conclusion that it was written in English and translated into Arabic. Four other delegates to that conference whom I have talked to came to the same conclusion."(Salinger, loc.cit.) According to other sources whom I have spoken to, the communiqué actually was in English.

This 'communiqué' ­ in fact, a draft resolution ­ was presented to the conference by Egypt and Saudi Arabia. It was supported in addition by 10 other states: Bahrein, Djibouti, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, Syria, United Arab Emirates. This gave the resolution a majority, with 12 votes out of a total of 21.

Of these 12, only four are substantial states: Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Syria, The remainder are of no military significance and their sovereignty in foreign affairs has long been a polite fiction. Djibouti and Somalia have long been notorious for voting with Egypt on virtually all matters; the Lebanese government is controlled by Syria; Oman is a British client, and Bahrein, Qatar and the UAE were in the Saudis' pocket in foreign affairs.

None of the other substantial Arab states voted for this resolution. Libya and the PLO voted against; Mauritania and the Sudan expressed reservations; Algeria, Jordan and the Yemen abstained; Iraq and Tunisia were absent.

American and British propaganda after August 10 repeatedly claimed that the entire Arab world was united in condemning Iraq and supporting the UN-sponsored Operation Desert Shield. In reality, the unity which had existed within the Arab world on August 3 had been shattered by August 10. It had been shattered by the way Egypt and the Gulf states railroaded the Arab League summit to force through an American-inspired resolution which destroyed the possibility of a negotiated Arab solution in order to provide the most transparent of fig leaves for the establishment of a massive western military presence in the Gulf.

On August 10 the possibility of a peaceful, negotiated, Arab solution to the Gulf crisis was dead, killed by US pressure. It was made clear to Iraq that it would not be allowed to secure a negotiated withdrawal from Kuwait on terms which would enable the Iraqi government to survive. It was made clear to Saddam Hussein that his main enemies in the Arab world, Syria's Hafez el Assad, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, and the Gulf monarchies, were all aboard the American-led military coalition ranged against him, and that, having chosen their camp, they could not possibly be expected to modify their positions. It was made clear that the American and British attitude was that something called 'International Law' was going to be enforced on Iraq, despite the fact that numerous previous acts of aggression by other states had gone unpunished.

His reaction was to put forward proposals on August 12 for a comprehensive settlement of all outstanding territorial conflicts in the Middle East. This proposal took the Anglo-American position at face value. If negotiations were ruled out because it was a matter of enforcing the law, let the law be enforced properly, that is, equitably; let all transgressions be dealt with. Saddam made it clear that Iraq would agree to abide by International Law if it was demonstrated that International Law actually existed and was being taken in earnest by those who claimed to be upholding it. The way to demonstrate this was to make clear that International Law applied to other states as well as Iraq, notably Israel and Syria, to name but two.

This proposal was immediately rejected by the United States. From that moment on, the Anglo-American and UN position lacked all legal and moral authority in the eyes of the vast majority of the Arab and Muslim world.

From that moment on, Iraqi diplomacy was essentially concerned to highlight the double standards of the American-led alliance and weaken this alliance by playing the Palestinian and Islamic cards. It had not tried to play either of these cards before it was made to understand that neither a negotiated compromise nor an equitable legal outcome were to be allowed it.

From that moment on, the diplomacy of other states was essentially concerned either to reassure their own public opinions that their governments were trying to avoid the war that was already virtually inevitable (France, Algeria, Morocco, Jordan, etc.) or to justify and sustain their own participation within the anti-Iraq alliance and extract the greatest advantages in cash and other benefits from staying 'on board'.

According to Saudi military sources, between 85,000 and 100,000 Iraqis have been killed since January 16 because the United States refused to countenance either a diplomatic or a legal solution to the Gulf crisis and acted between August 2 and August 10 last year to make both impossible. The true number of Iraqis who have been slaughtered in the greatest act of western folly and murderous arrogance in living memory may well be very much higher than this, of course.

This is what the British Labour Party has been implicated in by Gerald Kaufman and Neil Kinnock.