Diary

Anthony Parsons

In the months following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, accusations of appeasement were directed at those who doubted the wisdom of adopting an uncompromisingly hard line towards Saddam Hussein. In practice, the history of appeasement of the Baathist regime in Iraq goes back many years and only came to an end on 2 August 1991, before these charges were made. It has been well-known in the Middle East for over twenty years that Saddam Hussein is a brutal and ambitious dictator with aspirations to dominate the oil-rich Arabian peninsula, indeed to succeed President Nasser as a regional Arab leader. In 1979, I visited almost all the states in the peninsula in the wake of the Iranian revolution. I discovered that the principal source of anxiety was not the spread of the Iranian revolutionary message but Iraqi attempts to dominate the smaller Gulf states. This was clear to Western governments and also, presumably, to Moscow, which had concluded a Treaty of Friendship with Iraq seven years earlier. However, such was the fear in the industrialised world of the destabilising influence of Khomeinism, as well as the odium attaching to Iran for the seizure of the staff of the American Embassy in Tehran, that no government sought to take pre-emptive action against the obvious Iraqi preparations to ‘teach Khomeini a lesson’.

When Iraqi forces invaded Iran in September 1980, the UN Security Council, at Iraqi urging, delayed meeting for a few days. When it met, it adopted a resolution which, while calling for a cease-fire, did not condemn the Iraqi action or call for Iraqi withdrawal from Iranian territory. Indeed, throughout the eight-year conflict, the Council only called for withdrawal when it was a question of Iranian forces withdrawing from Iraqi territory.

This was not the only example of pro-Iraqi bias shown by the Security Council between 1980 and 1988. When there was Council criticism of the actions of the belligerents, it was almost always scrupulously even-handed in spite of the fact that Iraq was more often than not the prime mover: for example, over initiation of the ‘tanker war’ in the Gulf, the bombardment of open cities and the use of poison gas. When the foreign naval armada, led by the United States, assembled in the Gulf in 1987, its task was to escort shipping off the Arab shore, thus freeing the Iraqi Air Force (equipped with the latest Soviet and French aircraft) to attack shipping plying to and from Iranian ports and oil terminals. Furthermore, while a stringent international arms embargo, Operation Staunch, was applied to Iran throughout the conflict at America’s insistence, the saturation of Iraq with modern weaponry and the transfer of military technology from East and West continued unabated.

After the cease-fire in 1988, no serious attempt was made by the Great Powers to coerce Iraq into reinstating the 1975 Agreement with Iran on the land frontier and the division of the Shatt-el-Arab waterway, which Saddam had publicly torn up before invading Iran. Nor was there any move to establish the impartial body to enquire into responsibility for the conflict which was the nearest the Security Council came in Resolution 598 (1987) to meeting the Iranian demand for the ‘identification and punishment of the aggressor’. Virtually no progress had been made towards the implementation of this resolution by the time Saddam invaded Kuwait and presented the Iranians with all their important war aims, asking nothing in return.

In the past two years, since the Iran/Iraq ceasefire, there has been a general tendency in the West, including the United States and the principal states of Western Europe, to regard Saddam’s Iraq with a benevolent eye, as an orderly and businesslike, albeit dictatorial regime with an unlimited commercial potential. Cabinet ministers, industrialists and businessmen beat a path to Baghdad in a steady stream. Against this overall background, it is scarcely surprising that Saddam judged that his friends in Moscow, Washington, London, Paris, Bonn and elsewhere would not be too upset if he ‘taught the Kuwaitis a lesson’ for refusing to cede him control over two uninhabited islands and part of an oilfield, for overproducing oil and thus lowering the market price, and for their reluctance to cancel the huge debt which Kuwait had accumulated against Iraq thanks to its financial support during the war.

His political confidence in his immunity from serious reaction was matched by his military might, the product of the unprecedented Middle Eastern arms sales spree over the previous twenty years. In the Fifties and Sixties all Middle Eastern states were relatively lightly armed, especially those far distant from the Arab/Israeli conflict. From the Seventies the combination of East-West competition, commercial advantage and oil wealth, all working in a conflict-ridden environment, led to massive transfers of heavy weapons to all states in the region. The Middle East became the most lucrative arms market in the world. Countries, like Iraq, which had measured their tank and aircraft inventories in tens now possessed thousands and hundreds respectively. Their armed forces swelled in numbers to absorb the new weaponry. By the Eighties, any one of four or five Middle Eastern states, most of them with small populations, possessed far larger and more lavishly equipped armed forces than any Nato or Warsaw Pact country except for the two superpowers. Virtually all the hardware was imported, all the technology transferred. In a nutshell, Saddam was a military monster created by the industrialised world, with his political ambitions encouraged by what he took to be the support of major powers.

He miscalculated grossly. He failed to see that, with the Cold War over, the United States and the Soviet Union would co-operate, not compete, in the United Nations. He failed to see that he had endangered the two cardinal American interests in the Middle East – namely, the security of Israel and the status quo in Saudi Arabia. He failed to anticipate that the whole international community would reject his forcible annexation of a UN member state – especially as this was something that had never happened before. He failed to appreciate that his regime was so hated and feared in the Arabian peninsula and elsewhere in the Arab world that many governments, including Egypt and Syria as well as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, would have the political courage to invoke the direct military aid of ‘Western imperialism’.

Even so, was it necessary to fight a major war to expel Saddam’s forces from Kuwait? The UN Security Council moved with unprecedented speed and decisiveness to condemn his action, demand its reversal and impose mandatory economic sanctions backed by a naval blockade. This was the first time in the history of both the League of Nations and the United Nations that sanctions had been imposed on a sovereign state with no important defectors (as South Africa was in the case of Southern Rhodesia, as the United States, Germany and Japan were in the case of Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia). On paper, Iraq was vulnerable to sanctions, dependent for foreign-exchange earnings on oil exports and dependent on imports for virtually all manufactured goods including military supplies.

I personally was in favour of giving sanctions longer to work before deciding on the resort to armed force. But, with hindsight, the acceleration of the programme was probably justified and the use of force inevitable. The total militarisation of the Iraqi state had created a situation in which Saddam could have held out against the pressure of sanctions for a year or more. Would public opinion among the Arab members of the coalition, or indeed in the Western world, have held firm for that long? I doubt it. Would it have been possible to have maintained hundreds of thousands of troops in a state of high readiness in north-east Saudi Arabia until 1992? I doubt it. Most important, we have now learnt that the ransacking and rape of Kuwait was proceeding at such a pace and on such a scale that, in a year’s time, there would have been only a phantom state to liberate.

With the astonishing speed and comprehensiveness of the military victory, the argument about sanctions has become largely academic. However, with future such crises in mind, it is important that the United States and other leading governments in the coalition should dispel the mounting atmosphere of cynicism, the view that sanctions are not serious measures, only a formal preliminary to the use of armed force. This is not, in my judgment, necessarily the case. All crises are different, and I can envisage many situations in the climate of international co-operation in which sanctions alone would be effective. For example, had the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands taken place in the aftermath of the Cold War, when it would have been possible to adopt mandatory sanctions plus a naval/air blockade to force Argentina to withdraw, it is difficult to see how their garrison could have avoided compliance.

There is another important conclusion to be drawn about the capabilities of the UN Security Council. When the United States, the Soviet Union and Britain met at Dumbarton Oaks in 1944 to begin the drafting of what became the UN Charter, the heart of the matter was what eventually emerged as Chapter Seven – action with respect to threats to the peace, breaches of the peace and acts of aggression. This chapter provides for mandatory sanctions (Article 41) and, if they fail, armed force (Articles 42-47). These so-called ‘military articles’ were to provide the ‘teeth’ which the League of Nations had lacked. The three principal wartime allies envisaged a post-war world in which they would be the only heavily armed states: they would dominate the Security Council, and the like-mindedness which characterised the wartime alliance would persist. The Cold War broke out within months of the cessation of hostilities, however, and with decolonisation, the UN has expanded from a reasonably like-minded (or responsive to great powers) membership of 51 states to a decidedly un-like-minded and diverse membership of 160 states, many of them heavily armed. The military articles have consequently remained as dead letters and the Security Council has, with one or two exceptions, had to operate by means of persuasion under Chapter Six of the Charter (the pacific settlement of disputes) rather than Chapter Seven – coercion. The Gulf crisis has provided the first test of this unused machinery and in the event it has proved irrelevant to the world of the Nineties.

The military articles envisage the Security Council (15 members including the five permanent veto-holding members – US, UK, USSR. France, China) and its Military Staff Committee (the permanent members) taking charge of planning the application of armed force (Article 46), and the Military Staff Committee assuming responsibility for strategic direction (Article 47). We have seen the vast scale and meticulousness of the planning which has gone into the Gulf War on the coalition side. It is inconceivable that the formidable logistic task which it presented at the outset, or the strategic and tactical formulation and execution of the plan, could have been achieved by so heterogenous a body as the Security Council. To start with, there would have been no military security in a body, at present containing the Yemen and Cuba, in which opinions were always to some extent divided. Secondly, five new non-permanent members came onto the Council on 1 January in place of the five whose membership term of two years had expired. This would not have helped the continuity of military planning and co-ordination. Thirdly I cannot imagine the five-member Military Staff Committee, including the Chinese and the Soviet Union, being able to replicate the unity, mutual confidence and speed of decision which must have been intrinsic to the operations of General Colin Powell and his Allied colleagues. In a nutshell, the Security Council can proceed only by adopting resolutions, painstakingly worked out and involving compromise. War cannot he fought like that.

It seems to me that what will come to be known as the Kuwait precedent will now be the only option if the Council feels the need to go beyond economic sanctions. This precedent is enshrined in Resolution 678, which, in effect, delegated authority to ‘member states’ to use force if necessary. It is very likely that the future pattern will be on these lines and that the action will be taken, as in the Gulf crisis, by a major power (not necessarily always the United States) in alliance with regional powers. Having said that, one caveat must be entered. It cannot have been easy for the Soviet Union and China to acquiesce in giving the United States and its Western allies carte blanche to use force against a Third World country, particularly one that was a long-standing ally of the Soviet Union. Indeed I was surprised that neither government vetoed the resolution. Having now seen the consequences – the massive aerial campaign lasting for many weeks, the widespread destruction of Iraq’s national infrastructure and the culminating rout of the Iraqi Armed Forces which the Soviet Union had helped to build up over more than twenty years – will the permanent members agree to similar action in a future case of aggression, or will the Kuwait precedent prove too large a pill to swallow twice? If it proves impracticable to rewrite the military articles in a form compatible with the world of the Nineties, the probability is that the United Nations will have little or no part to play in future military action.

I share neither the euphoria of the advocates of a United States- or UN-managed ‘new world order’ nor the scepticism of those who see the Americans as nothing more than hypocritical imperialists. I do not foresee major difficulties in re-establishing security in the Persian Gulf once the dust has settled, provided always that there is no recrudescence of an Iraqi threat. No other state, including Iran, has territorial designs on the small, weak sheikhdoms. ‘Over the horizon’ naval and air support will he provided for a time by the United States with help from Britain and others. But already Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Iran are drawing together. It will be up to them in the long run to keep the peace. If the West is concerned about the rise of another Iraqi dictator with ambitions to control 50 per cent of the world’s oil reserves, one answer would be to move the military centre of gravity of Nato from Western Europe, where there now appears to be no threat, to Turkey, where it could deter future Saddam Husseins from flexing their muscles. One thing is sure. If the Great Powers go back to the bad old ways – supporting dictators for reasons of short-term expediency, saturating the region with arms and leaving the Palestine problem to fester in a heightened atmosphere of frustration and despair – there will he more Saddams, more wars and more terrorism.