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Kuwaiti National Security and the U.S.-Kuwaiti Strategic Relationship after Saddam

Authored by Dr. W. Andrew Terrill. | September 2007

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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 postSaddam 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, Ku- wait has also shown a commitment to expanding de- mocracy 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 large-scale subversion.


Kuwait has been a close military partner of the United States since a U.S.-led military coalition liberated it from the iron grip of Iraqi occupation in 1991. The U.S.-Kuwait relationship since that time has been consolidated as an important alliance for both countries. Although Kuwait is a small country, it is also strategically located and supports ongoing security relations with the United States. The importance of Kuwait's strategic position can be expected to increase as the United States reduces its presence in postSaddam Iraq but still seeks to influence events there and throughout the Gulf region. Kuwait's strategic importance also increased following the U.S. decision to remove its combat forces from Saudi Arabia in 2003.3 Additionally, Kuwait rests upon approximately 10 percent of the world's known oil reserves and is expanding its efforts to explore for natural gas, making it a vital economic ally. More recently, and also of interest to the United States, the Kuwaiti experience is emerging as an especially important ongoing experiment in democratic institution-building and the expansion of democratic practices. This approach to governance is being implemented in ways that support U.S. goals for increased democratization of the region, although elections have also helped to empower some extremely conservative Islamists, such as members of the Kuwaiti Islamic Constitutional Movement, which is the political arm of the Kuwaiti Muslim Brotherhood.4

In April 2003 the United States and Kuwait reached an important milestone in their national security relationship due to the ouster of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in a U.S.-led military invasion of Iraq. From Kuwait's 1991 liberation until Saddam's ouster from power in 2003, Kuwaiti fear of Ba'athist Iraq decisively influenced virtually all of that country's major foreign and defense policy decisions. The removal of Saddam is consequently a significant development for the strategic situation in the Gulf in general and most especially for Kuwait. More than just a hostile and dangerous tyrant, Saddam was viewed by most Kuwaitis as an archenemy. In large part, these views were a direct result of the 1990-91 Iraqi occupation of Kuwait in which Saddam ruled by torture, fear, and execution. Nevertheless, his standing as Kuwait's primary enemy had other aspects to it. He came to power and remained Iraq's undisputed leader despite that country's previous vulnerability to recurring coups. As dictator, Sad dam was able to maintain power through a wide array of rewards and sanctions directed at the Iraqi population. Part of his system of control was to avenge every slight to both punish his enemies and more importantly to deter potential foreign and domestic plotters from moving against him. Revenge for Saddam was a fundamental aspect of practical governance that helped him maintain his unyielding domination of the Iraqi military and population. Consequently, in the 1991-2003 time frame, Saddam was widely viewed as harboring hopes that he would eventually be able to punish and perhaps destroy Kuwait for its unwillingness to accept Iraqi rule and its ability to rouse the world against the Iraqi dictator in 1990-91. Saddam's removal from power in March 2003 eliminated this personality-specific aspect of Kuwait's Iraq policy and provided at least a temporary respite from the terror generated by a known enemy. His execution by hanging in 2006 was greeted with undisguised joy in Kuwait.5

Yet, despite an enormous sense of relief, Kuwait's national security problems have not disappeared with Saddam's removal and death on the gallows. Rather, the end of his dictatorship has created new and extremely serious national security challenges for Kuwait. Iran has viewed Saddam's replacement with a weak and divided Iraqi government as an opportunity to expand its political influence throughout the Gulf in ways that are potentially threatening to Kuwait. Moreover, a variety of alternative Iraqi political futures concern Kuwait, and whatever future Iraq eventually finds will occur only after a prolonged period of instability and violence that could well involve Kuwait. Additionally, Kuwaitis are concerned about an expansion of terrorism in the Gulf due to increased regional sectarianism and radicalism that may emerge as a by-product of Iraqi factional and intercommunal warfare. All of these problems are of special concern to the United States as well, and addressing them effectively is vital to both nations.


3 ";US pulls out of Saudi Arabia," BBC News, April 29, 2003, internet.

4 For a useful analysis of this movement, see Nathan J. Brown, Pushing Toward Party Politics? Kuwait's Islamic Constitutional Movement, Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2007.

5 Agence France Press, ";Kuwait Hails Execution: We Suffered a lot," Arab Times, January 3, 2007, internet; Ahmad al-Khalad, ";Kuwaitis rejoice as Saddam's end nears," Kuwait Times, December 31, 2006, internet.