Heroes and Knaves of the Kuwait Crisis
by Daniel Pipes
The Kuwait Crisis was a massive event, lasting seven months and involving dozens of countries in a complex issue. It also brought out diverse aspects of human nature—the valiant, the ugly, and the absurd. I shall concentrate on the heroism of Kuwaitis, the perfidy of Palestinians, and Iraqi propaganda against the American troops in Saudi Arabia. The final sections analyze two of Saddam Husayn's psychological peculiarities: his infatuation with television and his pretensions to strategic insight.
The Kuwaiti Moment
Of course, Americans provided the will and muscle to force the Iraqis out of Kuwait—with help from some thirty or so allies. But the Kuwaitis also played a critical role in the salvation of their country. Had Kuwaitis not shown uncommon strength of character, their country would have quickly settled into the dismal obscurity of Iraq's nineteenth province. Four virtues stand out:
No quislings. When Saddam Husayn set up a "Free Provisional Kuwaiti Government" immediately after invading Kuwait, he needed Kuwaitis to make the structure legitimate. None turned up; neither threats nor bribery induced even a single prominent Kuwaiti to commit treason. As a result, Saddam had to rely on Iraqis to staff the provisional government. Just a few Kuwaiti quislings in Saddam's pay would have made an enormous difference, enabling him credibly to present his invasion as an episode in an intra-Kuwaiti squabble. The moral argument against Saddam would have been undercut and with it the outside world's outrage.
Resistance. Before the Iraqi invasion, Kuwaitis numbered among the most pampered and self-indulgent people in the world. But when catastrophe struck, most of them responded with a seriousness of purpose that verged on the heroic. Although outgunned by heavily-armed Iraqi troops, Kuwaiti youths organized a resistance force that remained active throughout the occupation. The importance of this effort becomes clear when one considers the alternative: passivity by Kuwaitis would have signaled an indifference that would have made it hard for President [George H. W.] Bush and other leaders to argue for the shedding of foreign blood on their behalf.
Help for trapped Westerners. American hostages caught inside Kuwait for four months (until December 1990) unanimously testified to the bravery of Kuwaitis who concealed Westerners, provided them with food and water, and smuggled them to freedom. One former American captive, Pat Arly, noted with surprise that sybaritic young men accustomed to "driving around in their Corvettes and fancy cars, hustling and picking up girls, were today picking up the garbage, getting food for people trapped in their homes, hiding people, encouraging us." Another American hostage summed up the general mood: "the Kuwaitis were wonderful." Had Kuwaitis turned Westerners in, 600,000 troops could not have been sent to liberate Kuwait.
Political solidarity. No matter how serious their differences with the government of Emir Jabir al-Sabah, loyalist and dissident Kuwaitis alike submerged their arguments and rallied behind the emir during the occupation. Of course, that the government kept so many citizens on its payroll had some role in prompting this solidarity, but no matter what its resources, a repressive "feudal monarchy" could not have drawn on nearly unanimous support. Had Kuwaitis exploited the crisis to try to shunt aside the Sabah family, non-Kuwaitis would more likely have come to terms with the Iraqi occupation.
In brief, Kuwaitis acted in a model fashion; they deserve a generous share of credit for the happy ending to their nightmare.
Palestinians Never Miss a Chance
Political. "A thousand George Bushes wouldn't be worth a pair of Saddam's shoes." So spoke "a gentle and sensitive middle-aged" Palestinian poet, fired up about Iraq. Nor was he alone. A few hours after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, a flight from London to Amman, Jordan, was full of Palestinians drunkenly toasting Saddam Husayn's accomplishment. Tawfiq 'Abid, a reporter for an Amman daily, Ad-Dustur, dubbed Baghdad, "the capital of peace, victory, and civilization." Graffito on the walls of Shufat, a refugee camp near Jerusalem read "Thank you Saddam for having bombed Israel!" The Civil Affairs Department in Jordan reported that 412 babies born between 2 August 1990 and 22 January 1991, or 6 percent of the males, received the name Saddam; and even larger percentages followed during the next month. As Saddam is a rare name in Arabic, this phenomenon can only be explained by a grassroots pride in the Iraqi leader. (An Algerian couple went a step further and named its child "Scud"!)
But anecdotal evidence about massive Palestinian support for Saddam Husayn's war against the allies actually understates the case. A survey conducted during the spring of 1991 revealed that fully 97 percent of the population in the Palestinian camp of 'Ayn al-Hilwa backed Saddam Husayn; only 1 percent opposed him. Of those who supported him, 75 percent did so because he embarrassed other Arab leaders, 22 percent because he defied the West, and a paltry 3 percent because they believed his slogans.
With this kind of emotion running high, it's little wonder that Palestinian leaders said some pretty foolish things during the Gulf War.
Yasir 'Arafat, self-styled President of Palestine and his people's chief bombast, held that "the days through which Baghdad is passing are our nation's days of glory, pride, and steadfastness." Faruq Qaddumi, the Palestine Liberation Organization's "foreign minister," put it even more strongly: "We are not neutral, we stand with Iraq 100 percent against the United States."
Carried away with enthusiasm for Saddam, some Palestinians offered their country to him. Nadr Tamimi told a German reporter: "I view Palestine as the twentieth Iraqi province. . . . I am for the liberation of Palestine, but not for the creation of a Palestinian state." Najib Abu Rakiya, a high school teacher, reported on the state of euphoria among Arabs within Israel:
The Iraqi defeat rendered Palestinians despondent. "I think it is the end of the world," commented a Palestinian driver from Kuwait. A journalist observed that "everybody is crying at home. We just cannot believe it." Others—somehow, despite all odds—remained defiant, announcing that "We can send you a hundred more Saddams." An advertisement appeared a full week after the war ended and hyperbolically announced "Support and Congratulations on Victory" to Saddam Husayn.
Military. Yasir 'Arafat made a series of analyses and predictions in late February 1991, every one of which turned out to be wildly inaccurate. He forecast that the ground war "will be very long and the number of casualties will be very high." He specified the exact length of time: "If we [Palestinians] were able to hold out for three months [a reference to the summer of 1982], you can imagine how long the Iraqi Army can hold out—at least three years" (On hearing this prediction, the man 'Arafat called "brother President Saddam" scoffed: "Three years? Six years and more.")
Immediately before the ground war began, 'Arafat proffered his expert military analysis:
Finally, 'Arafat predicted that if as many as four hundred Kuwaiti oil wells were blown up, Kuwait would "no longer exist." (More than four hundred did get blown up, then were extinguished in less than a year.)
This bragging continued to the war's very end. Just one day before the fall of Kuwait, 'Arafat announced: "The six- or seven-day [ground] battle they are talking about is laughable to those with even the simplest military expertise." Yet again, he drew on his own experience in Beirut: "If I were in Kuwait with two brigades, I would hold out for sixty days."
Though less noisy, other Palestinian leaders echoed 'Arafat's predictions of glory. George Habash of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine opined that "The Gulf war will continue for many months and hundreds of thousands of Americans will be killed." As'ad Bayyud at-Tamimi of the Islamic Jihad for the Liberation of Palestine chose to ignore the realities of modern conflict and return to the conventions of knightly battle: "The enemy is afraid of facing them [the Iraqis] on the battlefield. Therefore the enemy is sending its planes. Let the enemy come out of his bunkers to find his grim fate." And it was Tamimi who memorably predicted that "Saddam will enter Jerusalem on the back of his white horse."
Simultaneous with these brave declarations of victory, Palestinian protected themselves by lowering their expectations. Sami, an UNRWA employee, made this explicit just days after the war began: "Saddam is winning, of course he is winning. Why? Because he is still fighting. He is fighting 28 countries, and yet after two days he fired 11 missiles at Tel Aviv, with precision. This is a victory." Even more peculiar—and perhaps indicative of the inner workings of Palestinian political culture—was the statement by Abu 'Ali Shahin, one of Yasir 'Arafat earliest allies: "The Iraqi missiles proved that the Arab mind can excel and be creative."
Saddam Husayn's defiance of the world stimulated the Palestinians' longing and excitement, causing them to side unthinkingly with him. They fell into the same trap a few months later when they rousingly cheered Mikhail Gorbachev's apparent fall. Three generations of political failure seem to have left Palestinians so desperate for succor, they will accept anything. But this leads to further failure, and the cycle of never missing a chance to miss a chance just keeps repeating.
Sex, Lies and Holy Mecca Radio
Saddam Husayn tried to arouse popular Muslim sentiments against the allied governments through propaganda, and especially via radio broadcasts. He hoped to convince Muslims around the world of three main points: that the Kuwaitis deserved what they got, that the Saudis betrayed Islam by hosting infidel soldiers, and that American troops had come for imperialist reasons.
Anti-Kuwaiti. Saddam justified the conquest of Kuwait partially on the grounds that he had stopped Kuwaitis from spending billions "on their lust and on gambling in the West." Iraqi newspapers had front-page stories on syphilis pervading the whole Kuwaiti ruling family. Saddam loved telling stories pointing up the bizarre excesses of Kuwaiti male lust. His favorite was about the leaders acquiring so many women, "some of them were unable to recognize their own children. The situation was so bad, a sheikh once expressed his desire to marry a young girl whom he had by chance encountered, only to discover that the girl in question was his own daughter." More pointedly, he spread rumors about the ruler of Kuwait, Emir Jabir, keeping seventy wives and marrying a virgin every Thursday.
Anti-Saudi. King Fahd got personally savaged by Iraqi propaganda. His call for Saudi women to join the armed forces (something women had done for years in Iraq) prompted Baghdad to accuse him of a terrible innovation. Does Fahd believe, asked Holy Mecca Radio (a clandestine Iraqi station beamed to Saudi Arabia), "that our honor is so trivial to us that we will allow our daughters to stand next to Zionist and U.S. soldiers—pork eaters, sinners, and AIDS victims?" The radio station went on to accuse him "of turning our women into instruments of pleasure for Bush's pigs and Shamir's tigers." At other times, Saddam turned around and made the opposite accusation—that the Saudi king didn't rely enough on his own women: "Fahd should have called the women of Najd and Hijaz [i.e., of Saudi Arabia] to liberate Jerusalem instead of calling American women wearing shorts to defend his regime against the Saudi people."
The Iraqis raised sexual issues to taunt Fahd and denigrate him. The Iraqi information minister asked rhetorically why Fahd was "hiding behind U.S. female soldiers." A newspaper in Iraqi-occupied Kuwait claimed that the Saudi king lacked the power to ask a single "American coquette who came to entertain the Yankee soldiers to return to her country"—pungent stuff in the Middle East.
Anti-American. Holy Mecca Radio told good Muslims about such "customs and traditions" of American soldiers as pork eating, boozing, drug taking, gambling, and prostitution, and warned against American efforts to bring these to the Middle East." Iraqi television reported that 40 percent of American troops were infected with AIDS, a disease they planned to pass on to unsuspecting Muslim women.
Iraqi rumor-mongering specifically targeted Egyptian soldiers in Saudi Arabia. These men heard from Baghdad that the Pentagon or King Fahd (accounts differed) purchased the services of 5,000 Egyptian women to entertain American troops. And while not a single American soldier went to Egypt for rest and recreation, Iraqi radio broadcasts reported on a hypothetical soldier's behavior there:
The indictment against Americans went on and on. Female American soldiers in Saudi Arabia were playthings for their male counterparts. 29 Shameless Americans coupled right on the streets of Saudi Arabia, outraging good Saudi soldiers to the point that the Saudis pulled out their guns and on the spot shot the Americans. Holy Mecca Radio claims that American indecencies transformed the city of Dhahran into "a brothel of atheism, immorality, and debauchery." Worst of all, Americans "drink and party with semi-nude dancers" in Mecca and Medina, desecrating those Islamic holy cities.
Mention of Mecca and Medina raises the most ambitious theme of Iraqi propaganda: that these cities had become "captive of the spears of the Americans and the Zionists." Traitors to their title as "Protectors of the Two Holy Cities," the Saudis permitted infidel influence to infect these sanctuaries. In response, Saddam called on Muslims "stand up to defend Mecca." The Iraqis first raised this theme one week after invading Kuwait, then reiterated it through the crisis. By painting a picture of Mecca desecrated, they hoped that outraged Muslims everywhere would take Iraq's side.
To discredit Kuwaitis, Saudis, or Americans, the Iraqis resorted to the same theme: sex. The king of Saudi Arabia permits too much of it, while the emir of Kuwait and the Americans get too much. This was an unusual approach to adopt, for Arab anti-Americanism usually focuses on economic deprivation: it portrays Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United States as colluding to enjoy the benefits of cheap oil, not easy women. Indeed, the suspicion of thievery found much support during Operation Desert Storm. Here's a typical example, spoken by a grocery store owner in Jerusalem:
Why did the media doctors in Baghdad decide that images of unrestrained sexual indulgence would upset their Muslim listeners more than anything else? One can only speculate. Perhaps they thought that stressing oil wealth might boomerang because Iraq enjoys so much itself. Or they projected their own private frustrations and fantasies onto the political realm.
Had Saddam succeeded in turning his audience against Kuwait, the United States, and the Saudi leadership, the coalition would have had much to fear, including rebellion among the Saudi population and attacks on them by their ostensible Arab allies. But Baghdad's propaganda campaign had little impact. To be sure, the usual anti-Americans picked up its themes. A top Iranian leader charged that American soldiers gulped down alcohol near the holy cities and cavorted with "half-naked dancers imported into Saudia for them." A radical Tehran paper accused the Saudis of footing the bill for American debauchery. A pro-Iraqi daily in Jordan detailed the heroic amounts of alcohol guzzled by American soldiers—two billion cans of beer in their first few weeks. Assuming 200,000 soldiers, that makes about 10,000 cans per soldier each month, or 330 cans a day, or one every four minutes through the day and night!
The broadcasts did have some impact, according to Ghazi A. Algosaibi, the Saudi ambassador to Bahrain:
But these few echoes actually point to the failure of Holy Mecca Radio and the other broadcasts. Within the host countries of the Persian Gulf, popular anger at the U.S.-Arab alliance remained limited. As Fouad Ajami noted at the time, "the presence of American forces in Saudi Arabia has not been the 'defilement' it was thought to be." In the end, most Muslims saw the allied assault on Iraq not as an aggression by infidels, but as a just response to the Iraqi invasion.
Saddam Husayn, Television Star
Did Saddam Husayn really expect Westerners to be charmed when he went on television in August 1990 and tussled the hair of a British boy he was keeping captive? Did he expect the outside world to be fooled when told the hostages how he had hoped he could stay for lunch with them but, so sorry, he had prior engagements?
Well, yes, he did. And the reason lies not in some overwhelming stupidity on Saddam's part but in the fact that these sorts of gestures are a routine part of his daily performance on Iraqi television. Bantering with hostages for the television cameras was intended to show The Leader's humanity; the expressed wish to share a meal with them signals that he wishes them no harm. What outsider viewers find bizarre and shocking, in other words, has a fairly benign meaning in the world of Iraq's totalitarian politics.
Here, to provide some context for understanding Saddam's television persona, are a two vignettes from Iraqi television from before the Kuwait crisis.
About one-third of the daily seven hours of transmission is devoted to covering Saddam's activities and statements. These get repeated virtually unchanged on each of the three news broadcasts. The first fifteen or so minutes of the news program celebrates something Saddam did that day. Nothing is too trivial. On one broadcast he receives a class of Iraqi school girls. The camera records every step of the visit: the thirty or so children and their four teachers arrive at the presidential office; they await Saddam; he arrives and he greets the group with a few words. The head teacher responds with a rapturous set piece thanking the president for the honor of his presence.
Each child then goes up on her own to say hello to the president. She shakes hands with him or wraps her small arms around his waist. (As many of the girls are short, their hugs bring them awfully close to their president's crotch.) The Leader pats the children lightly, suggesting a form of benediction. After the entire class has met and touched Saddam, the teachers approach him one by one, solemnly shake his hand, and tell him how honored they are to meet him. This half of the news broadcast finally closes with a detailed report on the president leaving the room, followed by the class exiting as well.
Just in case some citizens fail to catch the television news, banner headlines commemorate the same meeting in every one of the Iraqi newspapers the next morning.
Another evening the main story is a meeting of Iraq's highest political body, the Revolutionary Command Council, chaired by Saddam Husayn. Again, the report takes fifteen minutes. The camera shows an expensively outfitted but unattractive room: boxy, wood-paneled, with a too-high ceiling and no decoration other than a large photograph of Saddam. Tables run down the sides of the room at which sit the members of the RCC, mostly military officers. Every chair is filled. At the front stands a single desk, where The Leader sits in splendid isolation.
The camera occasionally shows the RCC members but it dwells on Saddam. He talks at length and everyone listens with rapt attentiveness. Television viewers are likely to conclude that Saddam Husayn is saying something very interesting. But they have no way of telling, for they cannot hear a single one of his words. Instead—harking back to the days of silent movies—the television station adds a musical background. And what music! Not marches, nor rock, nor haunting Middle East tunes; no, the producers score the meeting to the strains of European classical music. In fact, many of the RCC meetings are set to Swan Lake. The effect is surreal. Tchaikovsky's lyrical ballet suggests ballerinas and pirouettes; instead, one sees a group of dour, paunchy men plotting war. The music continues without interruption minute after endless minute.
Iraqi television serves Saddam as an instrument of control and self-aggrandizement. It is not the only method, of course: he also makes use of school books, billboards, pictures, radio, and newspapers. Streets, airports, cities, and regions commemorate his name. Songs celebrate his accomplishments and laser pictures etch his image on the night sky.
But television has a special place in Iraq, as everywhere else, for it gives the masses an intimate sense of their leader. Saddam Husayn's ritualistic appearance on television each night makes him known to every Iraqi; he comes to personify both the government and the country. To encourage this identification, Saddam is pictured at a wide range of activities: standing in the trenches, receiving foreign dignitaries, talking with workers, even relaxing.
Having surrounded himself by craven apparatchiks and a seemingly adulatory population, Saddam had every reason to believe that his daily television role was a delight to the Iraqi viewing public. And so, at a moment of acute crisis, it was only natural for him to call in the cameras and treat the hostages as he would a class of Iraqi school children. His big mistake was to assume that what works in Iraq also works in the outside world. It does not; in fact, the person most deluded by the nightly political theater on Iraqi television is Saddam Husayn himself.
Saddam Husayn, Strategist
Before the war began, Baghdad predicted to one and all that it would prevail against U.S. and allied forces. Nor was this limited to public pronouncements: when Tariq 'Aziz and James Baker met on 9 January 1991, just days before the outbreak of war, the Iraqi foreign minister (according to an Iraqi transcript of the meeting) told his American counterpart that "if war with you erupts, we will win." He also predicted that war would last months or years. A senior Iraqi diplomat in the West explained in December 1992 that Saddam Husayn thought the West would not actually use force; and if it did, casualties would quickly turn public opinion against continuing the conflict.
Strangely, Saddam Husayn, his aides, and the Iraqi media predicted outright Iraqi victory right up to in the Gulf War's final days. With bizarre confidence, they detailed how they would not just break American will by inflicting heavy casualties, the leading American anxiety, but how they would actually prevail on the battlefield. Their plan was simplicity itself: endure the air strikes, then kill substantial numbers of Americans in the ground war. With this in mind, Saddam's chief of staff breezily predicted on 15 February—when the American air campaign had already closed off most Iraqi options—that the Iraqi armed forces were about to deliver a "coup de grace" against the American and allied forces. In the days that followed, Iraq's media offered blood-curdling threats. Al-Qadisiya, the military newspaper, warned that "the desert plants will be irrigated with the blood of the Americans," while Radio Baghdad threatened either to make "their rotten bodies food for ravens" or to push the allies out in "endless convoys of coffins."
But how could an isolated Saddam Husayn expect to win against a great power and its two dozen allies? A close reading of Iraqi statements reveals several assumptions behind this delusion:
A superior knowledge of war. From Saddam Husayn down, Iraqis assumed that the experience from eight years war against Iran bestowed great strengths. It battle-hardened the whole population ("our men have been tested, as have our women, children, and elderly") and it imbued the leadership with superior strategic insights. The Iraqi chief of staff contrasted Baghdad's calculations, based on "rich combat experience," with the bookish exercises carried out by Americans in "comfortable offices." Saddam himself put it most pithily: "The person who has smelled gunpowder is different from the one who has watched Rambo films."
Will and faith are supreme. True to dictatorial tradition, Saddam emphasized his own Nietzschean discipline, and contrasted it to President Bush's weakness. "In all conditions the decisive role will be that of the will of men." At other times, he pointed to the faith of his soldiers, assuring the Iraqis that their just cause meant "no despotic power, however strong or technologically advanced" could defeat them. Saddam went into battle subscribing to two dubious propositions: that intent matters more than capabilities; and that right makes might.
The inutility of technology. The leadership exuded contempt for technology. According to a Baghdad newspaper, the heat of battle "will neutralize, if not completely annihilate, much of the advantage of technological superiority." Saddam himself provided an example of this way of thinking: gunpowder and smoke, he said, would force American planes to approach their targets too closely, thereby exposing them to lethal Iraqi gunfire. For this reason, he concluded, American planes could destroy cities and factories, but not win the war. Instead of technology, Saddam portrayed soldiers on the ground as key to victory. "The decisive role in field action will remain that of infantry, armor, guns, and tanks."
Superior weapons and training. This scorn for fancy weapons notwithstanding, Saddam's men could not resist crowing about the surprise arms in their arsenal that would "stun enemies and dazzle friends." Saddam loved to boast of the training given his forces. What if the allies cut off Iraqi communications? "We will not need communications." Why not? Because "the Iraqi pilot can fly and perform his duties and bring down enemy planes without needing to contact his headquarters. He has received training of this kind for years."
Racial superiority. Fascist that he is, Saddam Husayn stressed the impure, indeed mongrel, nature of the United States, portraying it as a country made up of "highway robbers, criminals, and unwanted people." A radio commentator described Americans as "homeless wanderers and criminals fleeing the Old World." Saddam drew direct military implications from the brief history of the United States: a nation of migrants whose history is no more than two hundred years would certainly lose to an Iraqi nation whose history began with the dawn of civilization
What is one to make of this rhetoric? Some of it, obviously, is bombast intended to bolster morale and disinformation to mislead the enemy. But even the most transparent lies, when ubiquitous and repeated enough times, affect the way people think. As Thomas Jefferson once observed, "Falsehood of the tongue leads to that of the heart." Politicians, ironically, are more susceptible to their own oratory than the rest of the population (because they have more reason to hope it is true).
There is reason to think (and knowledgeable Arab analysts agree that this daft over-confidence reflected the leadership's actual thinking. Saddam Husayn got caught up in the exuberance of his own predictions, and so misjudged profoundly his enemy's will and capabilities. A general mood of optimism in the pro-Iraq camp probably further encouraged him. For example, Muhammad al-'Abbas, secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Front, spoke of the "massive losses" Iraqi missiles had inflicted to Israel, including damage to more than 22,000 buildings. On the other hand, Chief of Staff Nizar 'Abd al-Karim al-Khazraji was removed in November, reportedly because he informed Saddam Husayn that the Iraqi forces could not win against the allied coalition.
Saddam was hardly the only Middle East despot to stumble over his own illusions: Gamal Abdel Nasser did so in 1967, when he had convinced himself of Israeli military weakness. Ayatollah Khomeini could not bring himself to believe that the Iraqis would challenge the Islamic Revolution.
When romantic notions of one's own invincibility and the enemy's destruction seduce leaders, lopsided odds do not deter. So long as this is the case in the Middle East, war remains a distinct likelihood in the region, insuring its status as the world's most dangerous place.
 The Washington Post, 8 September 1990. CFK handout
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