In 1991, following the First Gulf War, Saddam Hussein remained in power in Iraq. However, just 12 years later, a US-led coalition of forces invaded Iraq with the intention of removing Hussein from power. This blog post examines the changes in US and British interests between 1991 and 2003 that facilitated his removal during the Second Gulf War.
The US government and its geopolitical allies have a long and tumultuous history in the Middle East. From the colonisation and occupation of states, such as Egypt and Algeria, by Britain and France to the US government’s continued support for Israel, the West has a long tradition of interfering in Middle Eastern states. Thus, the US and its allies’ efforts to withdraw Iraq from Kuwait during the First Gulf War was unsurprising to the international community especially considering the value of oil. However, some nations were confused as to why, having claimed to have ‘beaten’ Iraq, the US and the UK did not go on to seek a regime change and remove the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, from power. This decision has been debated among scholars and journalists alike, especially in the wake of the 2003 Invasion of Iraq whereby Hussein was swiftly removed from power. This post examines how the interests of the US and its allies shifted between the first and second Gulf Wars, leading to a strategic pivot from sanctions and provoking the invasion that would result in the removal of Hussein from power in 2003.
Although some commentators and scholars recount the First Gulf War as a ‘victory’ for the US and its allies, we must be cautious in labelling it as such. Whilst Iraqi forces were removed from Kuwait, the political landscape of the Middle East had been drastically altered in favour of the US. Evidence of this can be seen in the growth of US relations with Syria and the Madrid Peace Conference. However, what the US government would promote as a ‘victory’ would certainly not be considered that for many in the Middle East. Activists in Saudi Arabia, for example, although initially in support of the security provided by the US and its allies during Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, viewed the continued US presence in their state post-conflict as dishonourable. This is partially due Saudi Arabian culture: as is the case in many of the Gulf states, the responsibility of being able to protect one’s own ‘clan’ is vital. However, far from a solely cultural miscommunication, political independence and the protection of sovereignty are also valued by all nation-states around the world, especially those with imperial pasts. Therefore, we must remain sceptical of this notion of a simple ‘US victory’ and ‘Iraqi defeat’. Instead, we should challenge such suggestions in order to nuance our understandings of contemporary destabilisation in the region.
Conditions in 1991 that prevented the US and its allies from removing Hussein from power
Following the defeat of Iraqi forces in Kuwait, the US and its allies withdrew from Iraqi territory. The United Nations (UN) resolution permitting states co-operating with the Kuwaiti Government to use ‘all necessary means’ to remove Hussein’s forces from Kuwait provided an instructive mandate. Acting beyond the resolution would have not only infringed upon the sovereignty of Iraq but would have also violated international law. Moreover, invading Iraq and removing Hussein from power under the guise of continuing to liberate Kuwait would have opened the US coalition’s actions up to criticism and parallels with Hussein’s regime, potentially disrupting public morale and support for the invasion.
Even if the US had wanted to remove Hussein from power, its allies were unwilling to help in this endeavour. Allies from the Gulf States (UK, France, Canada, and Australia) largely agreed that in some cases unnecessary damage had been done to Iraq’s infrastructure and that the humanitarian implications of this were serious enough without forcing a change in regime. A full invasion of Iraq would risk turning what the US viewed as a victory into a tragedy as Iraqi forces would vehemently resist any form of invasion by the US. The threat of Western invasion would incentivise some Iraqis, transforming what had been an already brutal military operation for Iraqi forces into a protracted, guerrilla-based fight in Baghdad. Instead, the UN enforced sanctions upon Hussein and the people of Iraq. However, these had a limited impacted upon Hussein personally as he continued to extract funds from the state to fund his lavish lifestyle. His expensive tastes during the dictatorship were at the expense of his people who could no longer afford food or basic medicines and, in many cases, were forced to quit their jobs in order to find alternative employment. The brutality of the sanctions upon the Iraqi population was exemplified by the Oil for Food program established by the UN in 1995 that was designed to ease the pressure of sanctions upon Iraqi citizens. However, the influence of these campaigns was limited.
Beyond international law, other geopolitical considerations also prevented the US coalition from attempting to remove Hussein from power in 1991. These were based far more around the interests of the US and its allies than around the necessity to ensure that their actions were legal. First, due to the destruction of oil infrastructure caused by bombing carried out by the coalition, and the subsequent sanctions placed on Iraq by the UN, Iraq was unable to produce or export oil. This meant that it was also no longer a prominent member of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and was thus unable to influence the price of oil. The remaining Gulf States – the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia – that were part of OPEC were drawn closer to the US. The leadership of these states were inclined to seek alliances and establish trade with the UK and US, as they became more pro-western due to their reliance on the US for protection from future threats. With a greater influence over such a critical group of states, invading Iraq to remove Hussein was considered too great of a risk for an unreliable result. The threat of creating further instability within the region or losing the favour of the OPEC states considered too great.
The increased influence of the US over oil in the Gulf region was not the only factor that prevented the coalition from removing Hussein from power. The First Gulf War had allowed the US government to negotiate itself a number of permanent bases within the Middle East, further increasing its military and political influence in the area. The establishment of US military bases around the world has long been an US neo-imperial strategy to ensure the international dominance of the superpower. In Saudi Arabia, the US maintained airbases in the state to ensure it had a military presence that was visible to reduce the likelihood of another attack. In Bahrain, the US demanded an expanded access to facilities to both foster good relations with the Bahraini regime and ensure that it had arm stockpiles in a number of states. This expansion also extended to Kuwait which signed a 10-year agreement with the US in 1991, thus committing the superpower to train the Kuwaiti army in exchange for facilities for the US Air Force and Navy. By consolidating its strength and military capabilities in the region, the US government negated the need to remove Hussein from power. They strategized that it would have been unlikely that the Iraqi army – already depleted by the recent conflict and the ongoing sanctions – would be able to mount a viable attack against such fortified states. Moreover, the permanence of the US presence in the region demonstrated the superpower’s desire for a long-term intervention in the region, justifying itself as the only ‘legitimate’ means to ensure the region’s security.
US interests in oil and global influence were more immediately essential for the state and the protection of domestic economic stability, than their strategic desire to remove of Hussein from power. The US, with its allies also unwilling to take further action, sought merely to contain and control Hussein and his regime with extensive sanctions whilst also solidifying its military influence and indirect power within the Gulf Region. However, containment would no longer be a viable option in twelve years.
Conditions in 2003 that made the removal of Hussein from power acceptable
Rhetoric promoting the invasion in the UK and US centred around the War on Terror and the supposed growth of Iraq’s collection of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). These were superficial motivations that both governments knew would illicit public support following the 9/11 attacks that instigated the War on Terror in 2001. It had been reported that Hussein, although not officially supporting Al Qaeda members, had been allowing other terror groups to establish training camps within Iraq. These groups were directly threatening the governments of Iran and Turkey, and – perhaps more importantly for the US – included extremist Palestinian groups. A threat to Israel was essentially considered to be a direct threat to the US.
Furthermore, the alleged growth of Iraq’s WMD programme also began to concern the US government. The reduction of this threat and the removal of these weapons from Hussein’s control was considered vital to ensuring security for the US and its allies globally. However, whilst rhetoric surrounding WMDs and their threat to the US was rife, intelligence was unreliable. In fact, scholars have found no evidence of Hussein possessing WMDs prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Indeed, the UN destroyed as many WMDs as they could as part of its sanctions upon Iraq following the 1991 war. However, the level of widespread propaganda and deception post-9/11 provided excellent front to cover the US and its allies’ motivations for invading Iraq.
It is now a more widely accepted reality that the invasion of Iraq and the removal of Hussein from power was part of a greater, performative act carried out by the US and its allies in order to assert the status of the US on the global stage. Afghanistan was a weak state when it was invaded by the US and its allies in 2001. Its invasion had been considered both ‘fair’ and justified following the 9/11 attacks due to the presence of Al Qaeda in the state. However, occupying Afghanistan had not proven the US to be the global hegemon it wanted to be. For Anglo-American leaders, invading Iraq – a stronger, more established state – would solidify the US as a world hegemon and would provide the US with a platform to demonstrate its military and political strength. Moreover, invading Iraq and removing Hussein from power by 2003 would not only act as a deterrent, dissuading other states from protecting terrorists or acting against US interests, but it would also present the US as a ‘saviour’ in the eyes of the global community. Theoretically, the US hoped that they could project their invasion and occupation as a ‘liberation’ of the ‘oppressed’ Iraqi people – particularly women and girls – from the dictatorial Hussein thus attracting the respect and loyalty of the international community and providing international legal cover. The reality on the ground was starkly different as the US then spent almost a decade engaged in active combat and violent aggression, directly impacting upon the Iraqi people the state purported to ‘save’. Following Iraqi activism and the release of documents during the Chilcot Inquiry, the invasion has negatively affected both domestic and international opinion of the US and its military and decision-making capabilities.
Furthermore, in addition to trying to re-assert itself as hegemon, the US and the UK had significant vested interest in ensuring that it benefitted from the output of Iraqi oil. Following the easing of sanctions on Iraq oil, Iraq became a “swing producer” of oil, thus producing as and when it wanted to, impacting both global markets and the people of Iraq. Removing Hussein from power presented the US and UK with an opportunity to stabilise Iraq’s production, an extremely lucrative opportunity as the region hosts some of the world’s largest oil reserves. Commercialisation of this opportunity was vital to the UK and US governments. The UK held vested interests in both the oil market and in the functioning of OPEC because of the opportunity this presented for UK energy firms. The UK government knew that if it participated in the invasion of Iraq and the removal of Hussein from power then it would benefit from the trade, contracts, and access to natural resources that Iraq would be able to provide. This was a hugely attractive prospect for British Oil Companies and was driven solely by the UK’s support for the US’s ambition for regime change in Iraq. For the US, drawing the UK in through the promise of oil was yet another method of maintaining favourable balances in the global economic and political mechanisms of power.
In conclusion, the interests of the US did not yet fully align with the removal of Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq in 1991. Not only would this have flagrantly broken international law, but it would have also created significant regional insecurity that would have been detrimental to the US in terms of the influence it had gained both politically and militarily in the region. Moreover, the cessation of Iraqi oil trading on world markets in 1991 allowed the US greater influence over the remaining OPEC states and thus have many of its interests met in terms of asserting itself as both a regional and global hegemon. By 2003 its interests differed marginally, but its world standing had slipped. The invasion of Iraq and the removal of Hussein from power presented the US with an opportunity to act performatively and re-assert itself a globally hegemon both militarily and politically once again. The War on Terror and the alleged WMDs possessed by Iraq provided the ideal guise to justify the invasion. Moreover, the UK had a far greater vested interest in aiding the US in its removal of Hussein in 2003 than it did in 1991 as it stood to gain more from the commercialisation opportunities presented by controlling Iraqi oil following the removal of Hussein. Overall, whilst the interests of the US and its allies were not as varied as it first seems between 1991 and 2003, the contexts of both opportunities to remove Hussein from power are hugely varied. Therefore, Hussein remained in power until the US and its allies had enough to gain by invading Iraq in 2003, instrumentalising the Iraqi people in their own state’s invasion.