The Politics of Occupation: Mary Ann Tétreault’s Take on the Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait

By Farah Al-Nakib
Submitted to Session P4452 (A Tribute to the Work of Mary Ann Tétreault (1942-2015), 2016 Annual Meeting
State Formation;
LCD Projector without Audio;
In Stories of Democracy, Mary Ann Tétreault argues that “Kuwait’s ‘main event’ throughout the twentieth century has been the repeated clashes between would-be citizens demanding civil and political rights and … a deeply entrenched albeit variably autocratic ‘traditional’ regime.” The 1990-91 Iraqi invasion and occupation, she says, was a “sideshow” to this main event. It is certainly provocative to characterize the invasion as anything other than a “central defining moment” in Kuwait’s history (2). However, her treatment of the invasion as one incident in a century-long struggle towards democracy pushes us to think about the seven-month occupation in the context of what came before and after it, rather than simply as an isolated trauma as is most common in Kuwaiti historical memory. Tétreault’s work is also unique in its analysis of the occupation in relation to Kuwaiti society and domestic politics rather than its foreign relations or regional security.

Tétreault’s work has significantly shaped how I think and write about the invasion as a Kuwaiti historian. Rather than simply a finite act of aggression by an external force, for me the occupation was also a domestic political episode significantly shaped by Kuwait’s own government’s ongoing struggle for political stability in the face of diverse homegrown challenges and forms of opposition. One of the most interesting issues Tétreault examines is the tension that arose between insiders (who stayed throughout the occupation) and exiles (who were either abroad or left after August 2). The latter included the ruling family, who faced immediate criticism among Kuwaitis abroad for losing the country’s sovereignty, fleeing, and appearing paralyzed in exile. Kuwaiti citizens, meanwhile, demonstrated a tremendous capacity for self-government both in exile and under occupation, and demanded a restoration of the parliamentary process (suspended in 1986) after liberation.

My own research expands on Tétreault’s work to examine how these political dynamics shaped certain state policies immediately after liberation, through extensive oral history interviews with Kuwaiti and American government officials, Kuwaiti resistance members, and people who lived through the occupation both inside and outside the country. My paper argues that policies such as the dissolution of the Kuwaiti resistance, the scapegoating of Palestinians as a so-called “fifth column,” and the controversial 1991 martial law trials against perceived “collaborators” contributed to constructing a national narrative—or “myth” to borrow Tétreault’s term—of victimhood that deflected the rulers’ own culpability in the crisis and restored their political legitimacy.