By David Price | May 6, 2016
During the 1991 Gulf War crisis, Saddam Hussein was presented with the opportunity to withdraw from Kuwait prior to the United Nations-sanctioned coalition invasion. A series of options were presented to Saddam, and economic sanctions were passed soon after his invasion of Kuwait in order to coerce his withdrawal from the small gulf state (Bush, 1990). Saddam’s decision to not retreat upon the United States’ threat of invasion can be best attributed to historical events that influenced Saddam’s decision making as well as Saddam’s “miscalculation” of American resolve to enter Kuwait. Furthermore, even after Saddam realized intervention was imminent, he still decided to remain in Kuwait because of both the lack of crossover between what Bush and Saddam were willing to concede in negotiations and because of Saddam’s miscalculation of the cost that his military would inflict on the coalition forces (Fearon, 1995). Ultimately, Saddam decided it was best to stay in Kuwait and negotiate with the United States because he did not fully anticipate the difficulties he would encounter while fighting the United States, and because he miscalculated the probability that his military would be able to inflict significant costs on the U.N forces.
Saddam’s decision to invade and remain in Kuwait until being forced out by the United States and U.N. forces can be partially explained by his response to both recent and historical events relating to Iraq and the United States. First, at the end of the Iran-Iraq war, Iraq was left with a standing army, nearly one million strong. Saddam had concerns about the potential for a military coup d’etat against his government and, as a result, he was motivated to keep his armed forces occupied. Furthermore, Iraq was financed by Kuwait in the Iran-Iraq war and by invading Iraq’s wealthy neighbor, Saddam could find a solution for this debt (Yetiv, 1997). More important than the historical motivation for Saddam to stay and wage war in Kuwait was the historical context in which Saddam viewed the United States involvement in the Gulf region. Saddam recognized that the United States’ military was still suffering both structurally and in terms of public opinion as a result of the Vietnam War. Public opinion in the United States at the time was against going to war, and as a result, Saddam anticipated that he would have an easier time negotiating the terms of withdrawal than was actually the case (Yetiv, 1997).
In addition to Saddam’s perception of the domestic and historical context under which he invaded Kuwait, he also misinterpreted President Bush’s resolve to enter Kuwait with U.S. military forces. As a result of private information, or information that was unavailable to Saddam, Saddam did not fully understand Bush’s intentions nor did he understand the full meaning of the signals President Bush was sending (Fearon, 1995). President Bush, likely, had other factors driving his decision to offer tough terms on the deal for Saddam to withdraw from Kuwait than were immediately clear. For example, Bush had reason to display to the U.S. electorate and Congress that the U.S. was capable of asserting its hegemonic power globally. Furthermore, Bush recognized that stability of the status-quo in Iraq and Kuwait would help maintain stability in oil prices and limit the painful effects of the potential rise in oil prices after Saddam seized control of Kuwait (Jr., 1991). Additionally, Bush wanted to show other countries in the region that destabilizing the status-quo equilibrium was not acceptable under U.S. hegemony (Yetiv, 1997). Due to the proximity of this conflict to the end of the Cold War, Bush had additional concerns about Soviet influence and was therefore driven to assert U.S. control (Dowd, 1991). These key pieces of private information led to Saddam miscalculating the probability that Bush would enter Kuwait, and led to him misjudging the amount of force that Bush would be willing to use in his offensive movement against Saddam.
The last major factor that influenced Saddam’s decision to stay in Kuwait was Bush’s unwillingness to negotiate on the terms he presented to Saddam. To understand the impetus for Bush’s stubbornness when negotiating the terms of Saddam’s retreat from Kuwait, the domestic impact of Bush’s decision must be examined. Bush decided to play “hardball” with Saddam in order to maximize the impression of Saddam as a brutal dictator and to ultimately gain public support for the U.S. to enter Kuwait (Dowd, 1991). As a result of Bush’s strategy, the two “risk-averse” leaders decided to gamble with the impending conflict rather than negotiate on the terms of withdrawal (Fearon, 1995). Bush and Saddam can be described as being “risk-averse” because they did not want to take chances on pre-negotiating terms that would potentially result in outcomes not in their favor. Instead, both leaders decided to gamble on what would occur post-conflict. Due to the inability of the two leaders to negotiate, Saddam decided that he would be better off attempting to foster a more fruitful settlement by inflicting massive costs on the U.S. military. In hindsight, Saddam’s decision led to withdrawal from Kuwait under less than ideal circumstances.
Historical context, misinterpretations of private information, as well as the inability for Bush and Saddam to negotiate led to both Saddam choosing to stay in Kuwait and the subsequent invasion by U.N. and U.S. forces. Had Saddam or Bush been willing to send clearer signals to one-another and negotiate on the terms of withdrawal, it is likely that the Persian Gulf War would not have occurred.
David Price is a 1st year MIA student in the International Economics and International Development & Non Profit Management tracks, as well as President of the Latin American Student Organization at GPS. He is active in the San Diego community and plans to continue working working for the family business at Pricesmart Inc., a multinational retail corporation that operates in Colombia, Central America, and the Caribbean.
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