Liberating Kuwait

February 21, 2011

Edward W. “Skip” Gnehm Jr. recalls experiences as U.S. ambassador during liberation of Kuwait in annual lecture followed by announcement of $4.5 million Kuwaiti gift to GW.

By Menachem Wecker

When he first entered the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait City on March 1, 1991, Amb. Edward W. “Skip” Gnehm Jr. found the curtains burning, the windows blown out and the ceilings collapsed.

But though his helicopter had passed many burning oil fields that testified to sabotage by retreating Iraqi soldiers, the politics surrounding the embassy had little do with the liberation of Kuwait.

According to Amb. Gnehm, B.A. ’66, M.A. ’68, Kuwait professor of Gulf and Arabian Peninsula affairs, the U.S. Army Special Forces were supposed to secure the embassy compound, but the Marines had overstepped their bounds and already radioed back that the embassy looked secure.

“Livid” that the Marines had “stolen his moment of thunder,” the Special Forces colonel decided to stage a show for reporters, Amb. Gnehm said. The next morning, with journalists watching from their balconies, the unit blew a hole in the back of the building.

But the colonel hadn’t calculated that the explosion would go the entire length of the building and back, taking the windows and the ceiling trusses with it.

“When I arrived, the embassy was not usable, and it had nothing to do with the Iraqis,” said Amb. Gnehm in the 2011 Annual Kuwait Chair Lecture held Feb. 17.

In a private reception following the event, the government of Kuwait announced a $4.5 million gift to GW, which will fund the Institute for Middle East Studies and the Middle East and North Africa Research Center at Gelman Library.

Throughout the talk, which commemorated the 20th anniversary of the liberation of Kuwait, Amb. Gnehm shared stories, videos and photographs from his experience as U.S. ambassador to Kuwait.

Amongst the nearly 300 attendees of the event, which was held in the Harry Harding Auditorium at 1957 E Street, were former colleagues of Amb. Gnehm’s in Kuwait, as well as Sheikh Salim Al-Abdullah Al-Jaber Al Sabah, Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States; Robert Perry, a trustee; and former GW President Lloyd Elliott.

Another story Amb. Gnehm shared came from the night before he visited the bombed-out embassy. The ambassador was en route to Kuwait but his plane was unable to land at the airport in Kuwait, because the smoke from the burning oil fields had completely obscured visibility, so the group landed in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.

Before dinner, Amb. Gnehm and the consul general were watching CNN when they saw video footage of a U.S. Army helicopter hovering over the embassy compound in Kuwait. As figures shimmied down the rope, the anchor announced that the American ambassador had returned.

“Everyone looked at me and back to the TV and burst into laughter,” Amb. Gnehm said. “I pinched myself to be sure that it was really me on the couch!”

He then called the State Department and his family to clarify. “I was good at many things, going down ropes from a helicopter was not one of them,” he said.

Even as it focused on the past, Amb. Gnehm’s talk was also forward thinking. “We have all been moved by the amazing developments in Egypt as we see Egyptians demanding an open and representative system,” he said. “I could only think back 20 years to the Kuwaiti people asking their own government for the restoration of their National Assembly.”

Amb. Gnehm noted there are differences between 1991 Kuwait and present day Egypt, but he saw in the liberation of Kuwait a powerful example of the United States’ ability to effect change.

“We built an international coalition. We gained international support through UN resolutions. We fielded a professional military with all the capabilities it needed to win. And we used the talent and skill of American professionals to plan and then implement the reconstruction of a country,” he said. “We can do it.”

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