Iraq's invasion of Kuwait ushered in a new phase in
inter- Arab relations. For the first time, an Arab state had violated the territorial
integrity of another Arab state, occupied its capital, and displaced its population.
Following the liberation of Kuwait by the U.S.-led international coalition, the search
began for ways to prevent a repetition of Iraq's attempt to gain hegemony through naked
aggression. The Gulf states and the U.S. adopted a containment strategy after the war but
the region has still weathered several crises of the magnitude most recently experienced
The nature of the current crisis in Iraq can be summed up as follows: If Saddam Hussein and his regime are attacked without amply preparing opposition groups and the states surrounding Iraq, all-out civil war might erupt. But if Saddam Hussein's regime does not fall soon, the tension in the region caused by his past actions and threats will persist. The states in the region fear the regime will revert to its old ways if sanctions on Iraq are lifted. On the other hand, if sanctions remain in force, the region will pay a heavy price in terms of a growing psychological and material gap between the Iraqi people and their neighbors.
Most regional and international powers tend to think that for the moment it will be difficult to find an alternative to Saddam Hussein. He has systematically eliminated all potential rivals within Iraq, and has demonstrated his canny ability to play off various competing factions in Iraqi society. Saddam's continued rule is based on a balance of terror between Shi'ites and Sunnis, Arabs and Kurds, military officers and ministry officials, one family and another, and between his power base of Tikrit and the rest of the country. This policy of terror keeps him above all others and makes him final arbiter of disputes.
With Iraqis weary of sanctions and the Gulf states fatigued by the continual crises precipitated by Saddam, there has arisen a feeling of frustration and impotence among many regional and international players. In the Gulf, the prevailing attitude is that the West is content to have Saddam Hussein remain in power (though it cannot deal with him politically) and that many countries prefer the status quo because they fear the unknown.
While it would be difficult (though not impossible) for Saddam Hussein's regime to invade Kuwait again in the near future, the same hatreds and misperceptions used to fuel the previous invasion periodically bubble to the surface, particularly during crises. According to leading Iraqi opposition figures in London, the Iraqi intelligence service headquarters in Basra maintains a special section for dealing with Kuwait, charged with training saboteurs, inciting hatred against Kuwait, and orchestrating the Iraqi media's propaganda.
Although since the Gulf War Saddam has recognized the demarcation of borders with Kuwait, he is capable at any moment of renouncing established boundaries, as he did regarding the Shatt al-Arab and Iran. Nothing can be ruled out, for Saddam does not play by the rules. There are many issues that he could easily have chosen to resolve to Iraq's benefit, but has refused to do so. He is a man addicted to conspiracies, a trait we should never forget. His unpredictable behavior makes him a constant danger to his neighbors and his own people.
Crisis Making and Survival
Saddam's method of survival is also unique. Occasionally, he seeks to secure political gains by resorting to brinkmanship. Although this tactic is frequently successful, at least in the short run, it underscores his most fundamental weakness: he feels unable to make compromises lest he undermine his position. To maintain his hold on power, Saddam relies on the insecurities of others: the army's fear of the outside once he is gone, the minority Sunnis' fear of the Shi'ites and the Kurds, the Kurds' fear and suspicion of each other, the opposition's fear of itself, the U.S. fear of the alternative to Saddam and of the consequences of a military option, the Arab countries' fear of a hesitant superpower. For the time being these insecurities, enhanced by the significant contradictions among the constituent parts of Iraqi society, ensure that Saddam's position remains secure.
His regime prefers the constant state of limited conflict with the world, which translates into repression and iron- fisted rule at home. Its power would collapse if it began to deal with the region and the world according to the norms of international behavior, because an authority of this nature cannot survive in circumstances free of crises and in harmony with its neighbors. In fact, normalcy and conventional relations with the countries of the Gulf and the rest of the world would be the worst enemies of the Iraqi regime. Saddam is completely unable to work within the system, to abide by conventional rules. Like a child playing chess, when he reaches an impasse he overturns the table rather than continuing the game. That is what he did in 1990: frustrated with the slow pace of negotiations with Kuwait and unwilling to compromise, he simply invaded Kuwait and damaged his ties with the other Gulf states.
Saddam has learned a few lessons from his past mistakes, however. For example, his reaction to Jordan's position on Iraq after October 1994 and the defection of his son-in-law Hussein Kamel was more subdued than might have been expected. He also sought to win Turkish favor and to establish closer ties with his northern neighbor, despite the fact that Ankara remains a bulwark in the coalition against him, which indicates some willingness to adapt to achieve his goals. Baghdad has reestablished relations with Egypt, which is concerned about Iraq's territorial integrity, and greatly improved commercial and political relations with Syria within the last several years. Thus, it can be said that Saddam's confrontational stance vis-a-vis his neighbors has evolved since the Gulf War. Nevertheless, the apparent change in tone came under suspicion again following the vitriolic war of words in his speeches, several good examples of which were delivered between December 1998 and January 1999.
The Iraqi People: A Challenge to the International Community
In this context of prolonged confrontation, it is necessary to be sensitive toward the needs of Iraqis. It is also important that Kuwait and the other Gulf states search for a way to normalize relations with the Iraqi people. In the meantime, every policy pursued must be analyzed in terms of its short- and long-term effects on the Iraqi people. Reconciliation efforts should be redoubled. This can be achieved, for example, by granting scholarships to Iraqis to study abroad and providing professional and charitable assistance to the victims of the regime. Dealing with the people, developing relationships with them, and dispelling the hatred propagated by the Iraqi regime do not contradict the political premise of confronting the regime's aggression.
Therefore the sanctions, as they are presently constructed, will be difficult to maintain indefinitely. Those portions that most hurt the Iraqi people must be lifted and those portions that most hurt the regime must be maintained.
This should be done while remembering that the person in control in Iraq is the same person behind the events of 1990-91. Saddam will never willingly give up his weapons of mass destruction. He will never comply with human rights conventions, not when 15,000 Iraqis have disappeared and approximately 600 Kuwaitis abducted since the invasion remain unaccounted for. Only through crises and brinkmanship can Saddam improve his position. Therefore, the questions before us are these: How can we prevent Saddam Hussein from again trying to impose his control in the region? How do we craft a clear and practical policy that distinguishes between sanctions on the regime and sanctions on the Iraqi people while moving towards a change in government in Iraq?
Iraq continues to pose a challenge to the Gulf states as well as to the international community and U.S. interests. Any strategy must seek active containment in the short term -- with the potential of military confrontation -- and genuine change within Iraq in the medium term. We have already passed the time for an outright military solution, but simple long-term containment is not sustainable indefinitely. Today, we enter the "containment for change" mode.
Any miscalculation or misjudgment regarding the nature of the Iraqi regime and its goals will likely contribute to the perception that the U.S. is retreating from the Gulf and Gulf states are distancing themselves from the U.S. This would put the region in turmoil and have serious negative consequences for the region and the West for many years to come. u
Dr. Shafeeq Ghabra is the new director of the Kuwait Information Office. He is also Professor of Political Science and Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Social Sciences at Kuwait University. This essay is based on his lecture sponsored by the Foreign Policy Research Institute on January 29, 1999.