Kuwait Needs a Friendly Push

April 23, 1991

Since coalition troops cleared Kuwait of Iraqi occupation in February, the government of Kuwait has been a disappointment to its people and its friends. Whatever services operate were restored by U.S. personnel. Kuwaiti authorities have lagged in reconstruction, even in the preliminaries. And there is no excuse: For seven months in exile, Kuwait's rulers had little to do but plan for the return.

If Kuwait has heroes, they are the people who stayed put when Iraq's tanks rumbled in, who endured the atrocities and provided the resistance that helped achieve the restoration. These ordinary and professional Kuwaitis, generally not members of the elite, can harness their energies for a speedy revival. But the regime under the emir, Sheik Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah, has been inept and paralyzed, preoccupied with maintaining the ruling family and holding down the others. It is squandering the goodwill of its countrymen, which naturally accrued from a shared menace.

Democracy was never an issue of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait or a condition for throwing Iraq out. Respect for national sovereignty and borders was enough. Not to have defended Kuwait would have been to legitimize any conquest by any bully. But common sense dictates that the al-Sabahs should have returned with an inclusive attitude toward their compatriots and an intention to broaden participation in the national interest.

Instead, the squashing of a news conference, planned by the seven-party opposition for Western journalists as Secretary of State James A. Baker III arrived, typified the regime's paranoia. The Arab world cannot offer successful democracies as models for Kuwait. But Kuwait itself, from the constitution of 1962 until the suppression of parliament in 1986 during the Iran-Iraq war, was more democratic and participatory than most. Even now, the opposition does not seek to end the reign of the royal family, but to participate in it.

The emir has promised elections for next year and to think about votes for women. Better than the recent, meaningless shake-up of the government, however, would be a cabinet of national unity. Elections should be held later this year, with a progressively wider electorate thereafter.

The will must be there, and so far it is sadly lacking. The al-Sabah family needs a push in the right direction. The partners who gave so much of their blood and treasure to restore Kuwait's sovereignty and Sabah rule have earned the right and incurred the responsibility to provide that push.

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