Kuwaiti National Security and the U.S.-Kuwaiti Strategic Relationship after Saddam
Authored by Dr. W. Andrew Terrill.
The U.S.-Kuwaiti military and political relationship has been of considerable value to both countries since at least 1990. This alliance was formed in the aftermath of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s brutal invasion of Kuwait and the U.S. decision to free Kuwait with military force in 1991. Saddam’s later defeat and removal from power in 2003 has ended an important rationale for the alliance, but a close look at current strategic realities in the Gulf suggests that Kuwait remains an important U.S. ally. It is also an ally that faces a number of serious national security concerns in the turbulent post-Saddam era. Problems with an assertive Iran, an unstable Iraq, and the continuing threat of terrorism will require both Kuwaitis and Americans to rethink and revise previous security approaches to meet the shared goals of reducing terrorism and regional instability.
The U.S.-Kuwait military relationship has been of considerable value to both countries since at least 1990. This alliance was formed in the aftermath of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s brutal invasion of Kuwait and the U.S. decision to free Kuwait with military force in 1991. Saddam’s later defeat and removal from power in 2003 eliminated an important rationale for the alliance, but a close look at current strategic realities in the Gulf suggests that Kuwait remains an important U.S. ally. It is also an ally that faces a number of serious national security concerns in the turbulent post- Saddam era, some of which will require both Kuwaitis and Americans to rethink and revise previous security approaches, particularly to meet the shared goals of reducing terrorism and regional instability.
Since its independence in 1961, Kuwait has struggled to manage a number of difficult challenges related to protecting its citizens and its territory from the predatory designs of large and dangerous neighbors. The most menacing neighbors have been Iraq and Iran. While Iran has proven a threatening and subversive enemy on key occasions, Iraq is even more problematic. Kuwait has maintained a long and often extremely difficult relationship with Iraq, and a series of Iraqi governments have either pressured Kuwait for territorial concessions or suggested that Kuwait is a lost province of Iraq. Additionally, within Kuwait a widely held belief is that large, if not overwhelming, portions of the Iraqi public share this viewpoint. Iraq-Kuwait tensions are therefore unlikely to disappear in the aftermath of Saddam’s trial and execution. Iraq, even without Saddam, is often viewed as a danger to Kuwait given this history, and ongoing Kuwaiti concerns about Iraq underscore the need for continuing U.S.-Kuwait security ties. Furthermore, both Kuwait and the United States fear a rise in region-wide terrorism and sectarian violence resulting from the current civil strife in Iraq, as well as other factors. Should Iraqi’s sectarian strife reach new levels of intensity, it is important that it does not spread to other nations such as Kuwait. Kuwaiti diplomacy and security planning must seek ways to minimize the impact of the Iraq civil war in ways that do not cause the vast majority of loyal Kuwaiti Shi’ites to become alienated from their government.
Kuwait must also cope with a newly-empowered Iran which has at least partially filled the Gulf power vacuum created by Iraq’s political crisis. Kuwait, as a small country, has little desire to offend a major regional power such as Iran, and has occasionally sought Iranian support in its dealings with Iraq. Good Kuwaiti relations with Iran are often viewed with favor by significant elements of Kuwait’s Shi’ite community and therefore can be viewed as supporting Kuwaiti national unity. Nevertheless, the Kuwaiti leadership fears Iranian interest in domination of the Gulf and is especially opposed to Iranian efforts to compel the United States to withdraw its military forces from the region. For that reason, Kuwait and Iran will never fully trust each other. Moreover, the Kuwaitis, like other Gulf Arabs, are deeply concerned about the Iranian nuclear program, although they also oppose U.S. military strikes against Iran, fearing that they will be placed in the middle of an intense cycle of regional violence. Kuwait would probably view such strikes as an appalling breech of faith unless all diplomatic and economic options for dealing with the crisis were thoroughly explored and exhausted first.
The United States also has a vested interest in regional political reform and ongoing democratization in Kuwait. Beyond being a valuable strategic ally, Kuwait has also shown a commitment to expanding democracy in an evolutionary way that supports U.S. aspirations for both stability and more inclusive government within the region. Kuwaitis have a long-standing democratic tradition that they have attempted to blend with the continued authority of a ruling monarchy that has been in power since the 1750s. The existence of this monarchy and the history of democratic expression are key components of the Kuwaiti national identity. Additionally, Kuwaitis may be especially concerned about maintaining their democratic image abroad because of their continuing need for international support against potential enemies. Kuwait is clearly the most democratic country among the Gulf Arab states, and the Kuwait democratization effort serves as an important if still incomplete example to the region. Kuwaiti democratization has shown particular vitality over the last year, and the United States needs to continue supporting such efforts to ensure that they are not ephemeral. The United States must also remain aware that democracy and moderation are not the same thing, and that elections in Kuwait have empowered a number of Islamists who appear deeply unsympathetic to U.S. goals for the region.
This monograph notes that the United States can, if insufficiently careful, neglect the Kuwaiti relationship and fail to adequately consult the leadership and take Kuwaiti interests into account. Kuwaitis have the potential to become more jaded and less cooperative in their relations with the United States if they view themselves as taken for granted or dealt with as subordinates. The United States has a long history of resentful allies carefully measuring the degree of cooperation they will give in return for security guarantees. There is no need for this to occur with Kuwait. Moves to strengthen U.S.-Kuwait relations thus become important and may become especially vital if setbacks in Iraq eventually prompt a U.S. withdrawal under less than optimal conditions. Strong efforts should be made to prevent sectarian warfare in Iraq from spreading to Kuwait under such scenarios. Such efforts may require a great deal of new and creative thinking by both Kuwaitis and Americans as the threat of a conventional Iraq attack has now been overshadowed by the dangers of spillover from an Iraqi civil war, new and deadlier terrorism, and largescale subversion.
Access Full Report [PDF]: Kuwaiti National Security and the U.S.-Kuwaiti Strategic Relationship after Saddam
|Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list|