COULD a tougher United States policy toward Iraq have forestalled Baghdad's invasion of Kuwait? Did "soft-headed Reagan and Bush policies" contribute to Saddam's decision to invade by helping build up Iraq after its war with Iran?
Such questions are circulating. They reflect a common notion that because we are so powerful and foreign countries assume our intelligence organizations are omniscient, their leaders constantly factor likely American reactions into their own planning. This does not accord with what we know of Saddam's decisionmaking process. One fact is beyond dispute: he was and remains a leader guided by a very personal and limited understanding the world beyond Iraq.
Obviously, it is unfair to accuse President Bush of failing to predict the invasion when there is no evidence Saddam himself had decided on it until a few weeks or days before Aug. 2, 1990. The first clear sign that Saddam was turning to a more aggressive policy came the previous February, when he decried US presence in the Gulf, criticized Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates for over-production of oil and then in April threatened Israel. However, even as late as April had Mr. Bush been prescient about t he invasion, he would have found limited international support for an effort to apply economic sanctions or to embargo arms transfers to Iraq.
NSD-26, the Bush administration's policy statement on Iraq of late October 1989, reportedly urged we try to keep Iraq from being the bully of its Arab neighbors and spoke of Iraq's unbending hostility toward Israel before the 1980 Iran-Iraq war. That policy, which seemed worth pursuing in the 1980s, made sense through 1989, nearly a year after Bush assumed office.
In retrospect, what drove Saddam to decide to invade Kuwait was probably his reaction to growing economic pressure on Iraq. This pressure started to develop in 1989 for these reasons:
* Major Arab assistance to Baghdad ended with the Iraq-Iran cease-fire in the summer of 1988.
* Kuwait did not relieve Iraq of the formal obligation to repay the billions of dollars of wartime Kuwaiti "loans." (The Kuwaitis correctly noted that neither had Kuwait called for their repayment.)
* Baghdad refused all suggestions to lighten its debt service burden through a Paris Club multilateral rescheduling. Saddam held this to be beneath the dignity of Iraq and would consider only unilateral rescheduling.
* International doubts increased about Baghdad's credit, particularly since Iraq treated the extent of its foreign indebtedness as a state secret.
* Most importantly, Baghdad's paranoia soared in early 1990 as Gulf Cooperation Council members, Kuwait and the Emirates, steadily produced oil over their OPEC allotments. Saddam charged that the over-production not only violated their commitments to OPEC but further depressed prices in an already glutted global market.
BY the spring of 1990, the country's economic problems increasingly frustrated Saddam. He saw himself constrained from playing the role for which history, including Iraq's victory over the non-Arab Iran, and Iraq's human and natural resources, had destined him. During the previous months, he had also been speaking out about the "Israeli threat." Whether Saddam was cynically manipulating Iraqi public opinion on this issue or may have genuinely believed that Israel posed such a threat remains unclear.
Could we have done anything to forestall the invasion? Specifically, would denial of American dual-use technology and a cutoff of US agricultural credits have persuaded Saddam to take us more seriously?
It is an unprovable and, for me, dubious proposition that such actions would have stopped Saddam from invading Kuwait or pursuing either his chemical weapons program or his nuclear option. During the 1980s, the only serious interest Saddam ever displayed in the US role was when we moved to lead a worldwide embargo on arms sales to Iran. There would have been no international readiness to join in a comparable ban on sales to Iraq before it invaded Kuwait. As for his purchase of dual use technology and gra in from the US, Saddam could have bought these products from many other countries, albeit paying a higher rate of interest than we charged in the case of grain.
One American action might conceivably have relieved Baghdad's sense of economic pressure: US intervention with OPEC members to limit their production with the aim of raising oil prices globally. If successful, this might have stabilized world oil prices at a higher level, perhaps in the $21-$25 range. Such an intervention, however, would have been totally contrary to longstanding government policy and would have been a domestic political disaster. The inescapable conclusion is that before the August inva sion, we had few if any other effective policy alternatives to pick from in dealing with Iraq. We are witnessing comparable limitations as we deal with that war's aftermath.