Why Did the U.S. Get Involved When Iraq Invaded Kuwait in 1990?

by Douglas Matus

The United States’ intervention into Iraq's invasion of Kuwait occurred due to an array of factors. The United States initiated an extensive public relations campaign to justify its military efforts for the quick expulsion of Iraq from Kuwaiti territory. In addition to the public, mostly humanitarian justifications, the United States’ relationship with a key regional ally provided an important reason for American involvement.

Background to Conflict

Prior to its invasion of Kuwait, Iraq had a historically complicated relationship with the United States. A Cold War ally of the Soviet Union, Iraq also warranted inclusion on the United States’ official Sponsors of Terrorism list. The United States' relationship with Iraq improved during the Iran-Iraq War, when the United States supplied Iraqi arms. Iraq ended this war heavily indebted to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, who refused to forgive their loans. Iraq considered Kuwait part of its traditional territory, and resented its lack of access to the Persian Gulf. Iraq also disagreed with Kuwait’s practice of exceeding its OPEC quota, which drove down oil prices and compromised Iraq’s ability to repay its loans.

Unpalatable Demands

After its invasion of Kuwait drew condemnation, Iraq made several demands as part of a conditional retreat. Iraq wanted all foreign troops out of the Middle East, a resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict and the dismantlement of Israel’s weapons of mass destruction. Iraq also demanded an end to sanctions, permanent access to the Persian Gulf and sole ownership of the Rumaila oil field. In addition to this, Saddam Hussein refused to grant exit visas to Westerners in Iraq, and thus held them as hostages. The United States refused to negotiate on these demands and set a firm deadline for Iraq’s withdrawal.

Public Justifications for War

The United States was vocal in its public justifications for involvement in the Iraq-Kuwait conflict and sought to drum up support for an international coalition. The most prominent justification was the necessity to protect the territorial sovereignty of Kuwait. The United States also alleged an Iraqi military buildup along the Saudi Arabian border. Furthermore, the United States cited Hussein’s record of human rights abuses, and Iraq's possession of biological and chemical weapons. A Kuwaiti public relations firm garnered broad public support through the circulation of tales of Iraqi abuses, including a notorious -- and later debunked -- story about Iraqi soldiers murdering infants in a Kuwaiti hospital.

Iraq as Regional Threat

The chief reason for U.S. involvement in the Iraq-Kuwait conflict was concern over Iraq’s antagonism to Saudi Arabia, a key Western ally. Iraq’s presence in Kuwait gave them strategic positioning in relation to Saudi Arabia. In particular, Iraq could launch short-range missile attacks at Saudi Arabian oilfields or seek direct control over oil assets. Iraq also began to stoke sectarian divisions in its grievances over Saudi Arabia’s enforcement of its debt. Iraq lambasted Saudi Arabia’s ties to the United States, and cast them as anti-Islamic. Former President Bush’s first official intervention in the Iraq-Kuwait conflict, Operation Desert Shield, came at the direct request of the Saudi Arabian leader, King Fahd.

About the Author

Douglas Matus is the travel writer for "West Fort Worth Lifestyle" magazine, and spent four years as the Director of Humanities for a college-prep school in Austin. Since 2005, he has published articles on education, travel and culture in such publications as "Nexus," "People's World" and "USA Today." Matus received an Education Pioneers fellowship in 2010 and an MFA from CalArts in 2011.

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