In the lead-up to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 Saddam Hussein gave a series of speeches threatening to attack Israel. The conventional wisdom was that Saddam made these statements to rally the street and assert his leadership in the Arab world. Alex Roberto Hybel and Justin Matthew Kaufman in their book The Bush Administration and Saddam Hussein, Deciding on Conflict took another view that Saddam was actually trying to decipher Israel’s intentions to make sure his western flank was secure before he went to war with Kuwait.
Saddam Hussein made four major speeches from February to July 1990 with a major focus upon Israel. These occurred on February 24, April 1, May 28, and July 17. On April 1 for instance, Saddam threatened to burn Israel with weapons of mass destruction if it attacked Iraq. (1) On May 28 at an Arab League summit he said that Iraq had the right to protect itself from Israeli aggression. He made several other similar statements during this period. According to Hamadi Hassan, from February 24 to August 8 he mentioned Israel and Zionism around 200 times.
There are two views on why Saddam took this track. The conventional wisdom was that this was another attempt by Saddam to claim regional leadership. By challenging Israel and proclaiming himself the protector of Arabs he was trying to get the public on his side, a tried and true tactic of Middle Eastern politicians. Hybel and Kaufman took a completely different tract. They argued that Saddam wanted to find out Israel’s intentions before invading Kuwait. In 1990, Iraq was increasingly concerned of the threat from the west, even getting a warning from military intelligence that Israel was planning an attack. As a result, Iraq put out a number of feelers to various countries to decipher Israel’s stance. In April, Saddam met with the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. Amir Bandar bin Sultan telling him that Iraq would not take on Israel, but that he needed a guarantee from the U.S. that Israel would not be aggressive. That message was passed along to President Bush who said he would talk to Israeli officials. Israel told the Americans it would not attack Iraq as long as Saddam controlled himself. That was relayed to Baghdad. Not satisfied, Saddam made two more addresses threatening Israel to make sure it would not do anything. Finally satisfied that his flank was secure, he went on to invade Kuwait in August. These two opinions are not mutually exclusive. Saddam could have both been looking for popular support in the Arab world with his statements against Israel, while also trying to decipher what Tel Aviv was up to. In the west, Saddam is often discounted as a reckless leader who made nothing but wrong foreign policy decisions. While he did make massive mistakes, this showed he could be calculating and strategic in some situations.
1. Marr, Phebe, “Iraq’s Uncertain Future,” Current History, January 1990
Brands, Hal and Palkki, David, “Saddam, Israel, and the Bomb, Nuclear Alarmism Justified?” International Security, Summer 2011
Draper, Theodore, “The Gulf War Reconsidered,” The New York Review of Books, 1/16/92
Hassan, Hamadi, the Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait, Religion, Identity and Otherness in the Analysis of War and Conflict, London, Sterling: Pluto Press, 1999
Hybel, Alex Roberto and Kaufman, Justin Matthew, The Bush Administration and Saddam Hussein, Deciding on Conflict, New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006
Marr, Phebe, “Iraq’s Uncertain Future,” Current History, January 1990