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April Glaspie met with Saddam Hussein on July 25, 1990

April Glaspie shakes hands with Saddam Hussein

As my understanding of Middle East politics and history sharpened, I began to understand, the almost laughable conclusion that in 1990 Saddam Hussein “believed that he had U.S. approval to invade Kuwait.”  But carefully examining the situation, it seems almost plausible. One can sum up Saddam Hussein’s misconception of the consequences of the invasion of Kuwait with his Iraqi troops as, culture filters perception. Two groups of people, communicating with each other, using a common terms, but filtered and interpreted completely different. Certain events in the history of Middle East relations with the United States and specifically the person whom Saddam Hussein communicated with apparently led the Iraqi leader to feel that he had a free pass to invade Kuwait.

Firstly, the message that was delivered, the tone, and by whom, gave the Middle Eastern potentate reason to believe that the United States would not interfere with Arab on Arab conflicts. However, Saddam found out differently. The ambassador to Iraq during the senior Bush administration was a woman by the name of April Glaspie. By all accounts, she was a capable career diplomat, however, in the case of Middle Eastern culture; in this case was not the best choice. Women in politics at the time of Sunni Muslim leader Saddam Hussein, was rare. The patriarchal mindset of fundamentalist Muslims (as well as Christians and Jews) tends to place lesser value on a woman’s role in society than on a man’s role. Ambassador Glaspie, when asked about how the United States would react to Saddam’s intention of his invasion of Kuwait, the ambassador spoke in a mild manner not wanting to offend the Iraqi president. While explaining to Saddam Hussein, that if he did invade Kuwait, the United States, as stated in  “Readings: The Modern Middle East” puts it, “would not stand by” was not as explicit as; if you invade Kuwait, we will defend Kuwait with military forces.

George Bush 1991 - Liberation of KuwaitSecondly, prior to the 1991 invasion of Kuwait by Iraqi forces, the United States under President George H.W. Bush had instructed Ambassador Glaspie to broaden and deepen our relations with Iraq through “constructive engagement.” This meant that we would offer suggestions for change and no forceful demands for change. This path of diplomacy also gave Saddam Hussein the impression that the United State, if anything, would be unhappy, not mad. . In the past, the United States typically worked with the United Nations to pass resolutions rather than send troops into Middle East conflicts. With this in mind, sanctions or another U.N. resolution was probably the mentality that prevailed as he gave the order for his troops to invade.

Finally, further back in history to the time of the Ottoman Empire, Shaykh Abdullah II Al-Sabah acquiesced to the pressure of the Ottoman Empire to accept the title of governor of the subprovince of Kuwait, a subprovince of Basra part of the Ottoman Empire. After World War I, and the British and French split the spoils of war, Basra went to Iraq, and the British created the country of Kuwait. The borders were not exact and in 1961, then Iraqi president Abd al-Karim Qasim sought to reestablish the claim that the Ottoman Turks had over the land of Kuwait. Then later, the Iraqi’s tried again, but to no avail. After the Cold War, Iraq was the one of the most powerful Middle Eastern countries and felt that it was time to reassert the claim; however, Saddam was not so clear about his true intentions. The Arab world and the West felt that Saddam’s were working to force a better oil drilling deal with Kuwait, as opposed to taking the whole country for it oil and financial reserves.