The failure of the world intelligence services, led by the CIA and Israel's Mossad, to foresee Iraq's surprise invasion of Kuwait offers the first clue to the shrewdness of strong man Saddam Hussein's dangerous vision.
"They all thought the threat to Kuwait was just a light touch," said a Bush administration insider. "Why would Saddam Hussein invite Western military attaches to come watch his tanks drive down the road to the Kuwaiti border if he was going to actually use them?"
That mistake by Western intelligence ensured Iraq's lightning takeover of the oil kingdom. The conquest might have been derailed before it happened, but cannot now be undone from outside. Whatever form Saddam Hussein gives the new Kuwait, in effect it may revert to something not all that far from what it was in the 19th century: part of the Ottoman Empire's "vileyat" (province) of Basra, Iraq's Persian Gulf port on the Shatt-al-Arab.
The Iraqi president has never hidden his thirst for Kuwait and his aspirations to be the gulf's paramount power. Nor has his regime concealed its contempt for Kuwait and the other oil-rich kingdoms and emirates along the Persian Gulf.
"These are weak regimes," Tariq Aziz, then Iraq's deputy prime minister and now foreign minister, told us in Baghdad in December of 1979, just before the Iran-Iraq war began. "They live on the surface of life. They are so rich that, really, they are abnormally rich. They cannot survive this way."
With the Iran war consuming Iraqi muscle and money for a full decade, the gulf states were spared by Iraq. Continuing appeasement of its muscular neighbor, tiny Kuwait helped Iraq with billions of dollars in aid all through the war. But Kuwait balked at Iraq's latest demand: for about $2 billion to start up the Majuoon oil fields south of Basra.
Saddam Hussein's reaction was swift. He insisted that Kuwait stop pumping more than its quota of OPEC oil. That would boost the price of Persian crude toward $21 a barrel. Kuwait, a perennial overproducer of its OPEC oil quota, quickly agreed. The capitulation convinced Western intelligence agencies that Iraq had gotten what it wanted, that the tanks were for show.
But to the Iraqi strong man, the sudden end of the Cold War, the breakup of the Soviet empire and the abrupt reduction of U.S. military strength offered safe openings for his long-awaited claim of hegemony in the gulf. Humbling Kuwait also would humiliate Egypt, whose president, Hosni Mubarak, had mediated for peace and who also vies with Saddam Hussein for Arab power. Neither Iran nor its ally Syria would be likely to lift a finger for Kuwait, Iraq's truest friend in the Iran-Iraq war.
There could be much to fear from Israel, but key Israeli officials believe their country profits from inter-Arab wars and should keep out of them. They are not inclined to seize on the Kuwait invasion as the occasion to bomb Iraqi chemical-war and nuclear centers, as Israel did in 1981.
The quick conquest confirmed sweet revenge for Iraq. Kuwait's independence came as a result of British machination in the 1920s after the Ottoman Empire collapsed when the British were battling Iraqi revolutionaries.
Judging from the past, Saddam Hussein is not likely to press his luck by invading other Persian Gulf states any time soon. That is particularly true if President Bush accepts strong advice that the United States guarantee the safety of Saudi Arabia. The U.S. aircraft carrier Independence, sent steaming toward the Straits of Hormuz yesterday, could not reach Kuwait with its warplanes from Hormuz without refueling. But an invasion of Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates would expose Iraqi forces to direct, easy carrier attack.
More likely, Saddam Hussein will digest the Kuwaiti conquest, which has always been his special target. We were given a signal of that in 1975, when the U.S. Navy suspected that Iraq was building a "Soviet naval base" for possible action against Kuwait at Umm Qasr, a small inlet near the Kuwaiti border on the gulf.
When we went to look, we saw only three jetties for shore-patrol gunboats. But the Iraqi officers who showed us around made their intentions clear. They kept pointing across the sand to Kuwait City. Now, 15 years later, that rich little gem is theirs, acquired as Saddam Hussein pursues his dangerous vision.