The 1990-1991 Kuwait Crisis Remembered: Profiles in Statesmanship

For the last twenty-seven years, today has marked the anniversary of an infamous event: Iraq’s brutal invasion and subsequent occupation of Kuwait, which began on August 2, 1990, and which was brought to an end on February 28, 1991. The regional and international effects of numerous aspects of the trauma then inflicted upon Kuwait remain ongoing. Like Kuwait itself, the world, even now, has yet to fully recover.

National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations Founding President and CEO Dr. John Duke Anthony was one of the first American civilians into Kuwait following its liberation. He would return there twelve times over following year with delegations of American leaders tasked with assisting in one or more facets of the war-torn country’s reconstruction. He is here with his escort observing one among over 650 of Kuwait’s oil wells set ablaze by the retreating Iraqi armed forces. Photo: National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations.

Over a quarter century later, important postwar facets of what Iraq did to Kuwait fall short of definitive closure. And they defy effective description. The international legal requirement that an aggressor provide prompt, adequate, and effective compensation for a war’s victims was not honored at the end of hostilities. Despite continuing United Nations-supervised efforts to collect on this inhumane debt, what is due has still not been paid.

The Missing in Action and Context

A full accounting of Kuwait’s and other countries’ missing citizens swept up and carted off to Iraq in the war’s waning hours – in the immediate aftermath of the conflict its main cause celebre – continues to remain incomplete.  The reason is not for lack of effort.  After Kuwait’s liberation, an informal and unofficial effort was mounted by George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs to provide an estimate of the MIAs’ status.

The focus group included diplomats, scholars, media representatives, American armed forces’ civil affairs personnel, and other individuals who fought to liberate Kuwait. Their unscientific consensus reported that more than 400 of the missing Kuwaitis died after they were captured. The fate of more than 200 of the missing, however, was unknown.

In the immediate hours and early days following Kuwait’s liberation, when none of the country’s electric power, desalination water purification plants, and far more of the country’s infrastructure were left operative, and domestic security prospects had been rendered uncertain, armed personnel carriers and mounted automatic weaponry units were omnipresent in the country. Photo: Dr. John Duke Anthony.

That possibly countless others remain missing is no small matter. The numbers in question, to some, may seem few. Not so, however, for those among the loved ones who tear up at the thought of them. Not so either for those who, despite the absence of grounds to warrant optimism for a fortuitous ending to their pining, and continue to wait and pray for their return.

We Americans would do well to stop and think about this for a moment. We are often criticized, and rightly so, for having an empathy deficit when it comes to understanding the suffering of people in other countries and situations. An irony in this needs to be understood and underscored. The irony is that many in the United States demand that people in other countries understand us. For those in front of an American Consular Officer with ticket in hand to visit a friend or relative in Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, or wherever, but who lack such empathy along with the understanding and civility that comes with it, they need to be wished good luck in obtaining a visa to the United States.

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Arabia to Asia: The Myths of an American “Pivot” and Whether or Not There’s a U.S. Strategy Toward the GCC Region

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That the foreign policies of various governments often appear to be confusing or contradictory is because they frequently are. During Barack Obama’s presidency, such inconsistency has seemed to characterize aspects of America’s relations with the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The ambiguity and uncertainty that accompanies it is among the things that Obama has sought to dispel and clarify in the course successively of his March 2014 visit to Saudi Arabia, his May 2015 summit at Camp David with senior leaders of all six GCC countries, and his mid-April 2016 attendance at a similar meeting with leaders of the same countries. As this essay seeks to demonstrate, what he has had to contend with – and what others of late have had to contend with regarding aspects of his administration — in terms of background, context, and perspective has not been easy of resolution, amelioration, or even abatement.

Assumptions, Ambitions, and Abilities

Dating from before and since these high-level GCC-U.S. meetings, Washington has taken steps to strengthen and extend America’s overall position and influence in the GCC region. A principal means for doing so has been through the GCC-U.S. Strategic Dialogue.[1] But one example among several was when former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, along with Secretary of State John Kerry, came with approvals for billions of dollars in sales of U.S.-manufactured defense and security structures, systems, technology, and arms to GCC countries, together with long-term munitions and maintenance contracts.

President Barack Obama attends a U.S.-GCC summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in April 2016. Photo: Saudi Press Agency.

President Barack Obama attends a U.S.-GCC summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in April 2016. Photo: Saudi Press Agency.

Yet, simultaneously, signals from Washington and the mainstream U.S. media before and since Obama’s meetings with his GCC counterparts have not always been as clear as the signalers thought would or should be the case. That said, what specialists have had no doubt about for some time is that the Obama administration is recalibrating the strategic focus of its international priorities in hopes of being able to accomplish two objectives at the same time. One objective has been, and continues to be, a steadfast resolve to remain committed to the security, stability, and prospects for prosperity in the GCC region. The other has been and remains a parallel determination to emphasize the Asia-Pacific regions.

Affecting the need for such a recalibration have been major U.S. budget reductions and their impact on strategic concepts, forces, and operational dynamics. At issue and under examination in this regard, according to the Secretary of Defense in advance of the most recent Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), are, and for the foreseeable future will continue to be, America’s assumptions, ambitions, and abilities.

Understandably, the GCC region’s reaction to these trends and indications was and continues to be mixed.

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Dr. John Duke Anthony on U.S.-GCC Cooperation

Q: What aspects of U.S.-GCC cooperation are looked upon favorably by citizens of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries (the GCC is comprised of Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates)?

President George W. Bush and Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah meeting at Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, April 25, 2005.

President George W. Bush and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Abdullah meeting at Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, April 25, 2005.

John Duke Anthony: GCC citizens, almost without exception, are aware of and deeply grateful for the effective United States external defense umbrella over the GCC’s member-countries. The 1979 Access to Facilities Agreement between the United States and Oman, the four separate Defense Cooperation Agreements (DCAs) between the United States and Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, and the much older and more multifaceted defense undertakings and understandings between the United States and Saudi Arabia have arguably proven effective.

Rather than accept such a statement at face value, one would be right to ask, “By what standard?” If asked, an accurate response would be “if measured against the fact that there has not been an attack on any of the GCC countries since the agreements, understandings, and undertakings were entered into following the restoration to Kuwait of its national sovereignty, political independence, and territorial integrity upon the reversal of Iraq’s aggression in February 1991.”

In concept and enactment, the DCAs were not entirely original. They built upon earlier British protected-state treaties dating from the first half of the 19th century that lasted until their abrogation in 1971.  Viewed together – tellingly, despite the absence of such arrangements in the period spanning two decades from December 1, 1971 to Iraq’s August 2, 1990 invasion of Kuwait, which was the one exception – the two successive international arrangements have succeeded in deterring adversaries while simultaneously strengthening and expanding the defense capacities of the GCC countries against external intimidation and attack.

In addition, the older and lower profile educational, commercial, and other private sector dimensions of the GCC countries-U.S. relationship are not only intact. In spite of general impressions implying the opposite, they are at their most robust level ever. Youth and adults alike, and especially the hundreds of thousands of GCC country graduates from American colleges and universities, remain partial to U.S. science and technology, and eager to be ongoing beneficiaries of the fruits of North American education, research, and development.

Examples include the continued provision of advanced medicines, the administration of quality health care systems and facilities, the transfer of state-of-the-art technology in the realms of information and telecommunications structures, systems, and equipment, and the utilization of American-manufactured aircraft and automobiles as well as trade in a broad range of goods and services.

Also, many GCC citizens believe the American education system, together with its related training and human resources development components and programs, are likely destined to retain their preeminent status for some time yet to come. This is in spite of the American reaction to the trauma of September 11, 2001, of course, which dealt a severe but not fatal blow to this key component of the relationship. That the worst did not occur is thanks largely to the 2005 meeting between Saudi Arabia’s then-Crown Prince Abdallah and then-U.S. President Bush in Crawford, Texas, which led to the easing of U.S. visa issuance process for students from GCC countries seeking admission to American institutions of higher education.

Dr. John Duke AnthonyNational Council on U.S.-Arab Relations Founding President & CEO Dr. John Duke Anthony periodically responds to questions posed by friends of the National Council for the Arabia, the Gulf, and the GCC Blog. Find Dr. Anthony’s full biography here and read more from Dr. Anthony here.

20 Years Ago Today

TODAY marks the anniversary of a momentous event: the reversal of Iraq’s aggression against Kuwait from August 2, 1990 to February 28, 1991. For Kuwaitis, the citizenry of their fellow GCC members, and people from many other countries, including the United States and other Allied Coalition members, the multifaceted damage inflicted by Iraq in the course of its invasion and occupation of Kuwait unleashed changes from which the world has yet to fully recover.

KuwaitThe most comprehensive and rigorously applied international and political sanctions against any country in the last century, and the impact of the sanctions’ applicability and enforcement, remain a source of ongoing controversy in terms of their differing impact on Iraqis and Kuwaitis. Even now, two decades later, important postwar facets of what Iraq did to Kuwait remain elusive of closure. Certainly, the international legal dictum of an aggressor providing prompt, adequate, and effective compensation for the war’s victims has yet to be honored.

MIAs and Context

A full accounting of the fate of all of the Kuwaiti and other countries’ missing citizens — swept up and carted off to Iraq in the war’s waning hours — remains incomplete. At a recent gathering of diplomats, scholars, media representatives, and individuals who fought to liberate Kuwait and American armed forces’ civil affairs personnel who participated in the country’s reconstruction at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, it was noted that more than 500 of the missing Kuwaitis have died since their capture, but the fate of more than 200 of those missing remains unknown.

The more than 700 Kuwaitis who were and remain missing may seem small to some. However, they are more than 700 too many if viewed from the perspective of the victims and their loved ones who continue to await and pray for their return.

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