For nearly two years after the UN-brokered cease-fire in the Persian Gulf, the governments of Iraq and Iran failed to initiate conversations toward a permanent peace treaty. Suddenly, in July 1990, the foreign ministers of the two states met in Geneva full of optimism about the prospects for peace. Why Saddam Hussein now seemed willing to liquidate his decade-long conflict with Iran and even give back the remaining land occupied at such cost by his armies began to become clear two weeks later, when he stunned the Arab world with a vitriolic speech in which he accused his small neighbour Kuwait of siphoning off crude oil from the Ar-Rumaylah oil fields straddling their border. He also accused the Persian Gulf states of conspiring to hold down oil prices, thereby damaging the interests of war-torn Iraq and catering to the wishes of the Western powers. The Iraqi foreign minister insisted that Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the gulf emirates make partial compensation for these alleged "crimes" by cancelling $30,000,000,000 of Iraq's foreign debt; meanwhile, 100,000 of Iraq's best troops concentrated on the Kuwaiti border. In sum, a frustrated Hussein had turned his sights from giant Iran to the wealthy but vulnerable Arab kingdoms to the south.
Iraq's brash and provocative demands alarmed the Arab states. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt initiated negotiations between Iraq and Kuwait in Saudi Arabia, hoping to pacify the situation without the intervention of the United States and other outside powers. Hussein, too, expected no interference from outside the region, but he made only the poorest show of accepting mediation. He broke off negotiations after just two hours and the next day, August 2, ordered his army to occupy Kuwait.
Hussein had risen to the position of leader of the Ba'th socialist party and military dictator of Iraq in a postcolonial environment of intrigue, paranoia, and genuine political threats. Iraq, situated in the Fertile Crescent of the ancient Babylonian emperors, was a populous and wealthy country torn by ethnic and religious divisions. Iraq's boundaries, like those of all other states in the region, had been drawn up by British and French colonialists and either were arbitrary or conformed to their own interests rather than to the ethnic and economic needs of the region. In fact, the trackless deserts of the Middle East had never known stable national states, and Kuwait in particular struck Iraqis as an artificial state carved out of Iraq's "natural" coastline--perhaps for the very purpose of preventing the Persian Gulf's oil fields from falling under a single strong Arab state. In addition to coveting Kuwait's wealth, Hussein hated its monarchical regime even as he accepted its billions in aid to support his own military establishment and war with Iran. Hussein rationalized his hatred for the gulf monarchies, the Iranian Shi'ites, and the Israelis in Arab nationalist terms. A disciple of Egypt's Nasser, he saw himself as the revolutionary and military genius who would someday unify the Arabs and enable them to defy the West.
Hussein made the first in a series of fatal miscalculations, however, when he judged that his fellow Arabs would tolerate his seizure and despoliation of Kuwait rather than call upon outsiders for help. Instead, the government of Kuwait, now in exile, and the fearful King Fahd of Saudi Arabia looked at once to Washington and the United Nations for support. President Bush condemned Hussein's act, as did the British and Soviet governments, and the UN Security Council immediately demanded that Iraq withdraw. Bush echoed the Carter Doctrine by declaring that the integrity of Saudi Arabia, now exposed to Iraqi invasion, was a vital American interest, and two-thirds of the 21 member states of the Arab League likewise condemned Iraq's aggression. Within days the United States, the European Community, the Soviet Union, and Japan all imposed an embargo on Iraq, and the Security Council voted strict economic sanctions on Iraq (with Cuba and Yemen abstaining).
The same day King Fahd requested American military protection for his country. President Bush at once declared Operation Desert Shield and deployed the first of 200,000 American troops to the northern deserts of Saudi Arabia, augmented by British, French, and Saudi units and backed by naval and air forces. It was the largest American overseas operation since the Vietnam War, but its stated purpose was not to liberate Kuwait but to deter Iraq from attacking Saudi Arabia and seizing control of one-third of the world's oil reserves. In President Bush's words, the Allies had drawn a line in the sand.
Hussein was not impressed. On August 8 he formally annexed Kuwait, referring to it as Iraq's "19th province," an act the UN Security Council immediately condemned. Egypt offered to contribute troops to the Allied coalition, followed by 12 of the Arab League's member states. Hussein responded by condemning those states as traitorous and proclaiming a jihad, or holy war, against the coalition--despite the fact that he and his government had never upheld the Muslim cause in the past. He tried to break the Arab alliance with the Western powers by offering to evacuate Kuwait in return for Israeli withdrawal from its occupied territories--despite the fact that he had never upheld the Palestinian cause either. When his efforts failed to weaken the coalition's resolve, Hussein detained as hostages all foreigners caught in Kuwait and Iraq and moved to conclude permanent peace with Iran, thereby freeing his half-million-man army for battle.
Thus began the first post-Cold War world crisis. It can be described as such not only because it occurred after the collapse of the Iron Curtain in Europe and the dramatic moves toward East-West détente but also because of the characteristics of the crisis itself. The stakes in the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait did not place Soviet and Western interests in direct conflict. Rather than falling into competition over how to handle the crisis, the United States and Soviet Union appeared in full agreement as the votes at the UN indicated. To be sure, a cutoff of oil exports from the Middle East would harm the Western states and perhaps even help the U.S.S.R. as the world's largest oil producer, but Gorbachev was counting on large-scale economic aid from the West. If he opposed President Bush's efforts to deal with the crisis, both the economic damage done to the West and the political hostility his opposition would arouse might end Gorbachev's hopes for economic assistance. Bush, in turn, openly described the Persian Gulf crisis as a test case for the "new world order" he hoped to inaugurate in the wake of the Cold War: a test of the United Nations as a genuine force for peace and justice, and thus of Soviet-Western cooperation.
UN coalition and ultimatum... Bush demonstrated extraordinary energy and deftness in building and maintaining the UN coalition against Iraq. His preferred medium of diplomacy was the telephone, and he kept in constant touch with the leaders of Britain, France, Germany, the Soviet Union, Japan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and all other states represented either in the UN Security Council or in Operation Desert Shield. In some cases he doubtless had to make concessions on other diplomatic issues to win full support or, in the case of the Chinese, abstention, but he succeeded in presenting Hussein with a united front. Only the vulnerable neighbouring kingdom of Jordan, along with Algeria, The Sudan, Tunisia, Yemen, and the PLO, openly sided with Iraq. Finally, this was clearly a post-Cold War crisis inasmuch as a large portion of the American contingent in Saudi Arabia was transferred there from bases in Germany, a clear indication that the United States no longer considered the Red Army a clear and present danger in Europe.
As the crisis deepened, American observers applauded Bush for his skill in building the coalition, but critics also began to question his strategy. Would economic sanctions suffice to pry the Iraqis out of Kuwait? If so, would the coalition hold together long enough for that to occur, or would military threats be necessary to convince Hussein that he must retreat? Would Bush's insistence on working through the UN backfire? It seemed unlikely that all the world could be brought to endorse so bold and controversial an action. Not since the Korean War had the UN authorized offensive military action, and then only because the Soviets were boycotting the Security Council. However, by working gradually and calmly and in constant consultation with the Allies, Bush succeeded in convincing the Security Council to give him the authorizations he requested. On August 25 it voted to permit Allied ships in the Persian Gulf to use force to enforce the embargo against Iraq. On September 9, Bush and Gorbachev met in Helsinki and issued a joint declaration calling for Iraq to withdraw unconditionally from Kuwait.
Despite these demonstrations of unanimity, Hussein was not convinced that Bush could back up his promise that "the annexation of Kuwait will not stand." In early September he began releasing foreign nationals being detained in Kuwait, thereby eliminating the fears in many countries of a prolonged hostage crisis. Whatever his motive, this first act of leniency on Hussein's part raised hopes that a diplomatic solution might still be found. The months from October 1990 to January 1991, therefore, brought numerous and hectic efforts by the French and Soviet governments to initiate negotiations and to head off an outbreak of hostilities.
In October, after an emissary had flown to Baghdad to urge Hussein to withdraw, the Soviets announced that Iraq would be willing to negotiate if it could be assured that it could keep the Ar-Rumaylah oil fields and two strategic islands offshore. The United States, however, stood by the UN resolution calling for immediate and unconditional withdrawal lest Hussein seem to be rewarded in any way for his aggression. Instead, Bush succeeded in getting the Security Council to stiffen its requirements with a resolution holding Iraq liable for reparations for all damage caused in Kuwait by its invasion and occupation. Then, on November 8, Bush announced that he was doubling the size of the Desert Shield forces from 200,000 to more than 400,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines, so that Allied forces would, if necessary, have "an adequate offensive military option." Hussein countered by reinforcing his own army of occupation to the level of 680,000 men.
What was U.S. policy at this time? Most observers believed that Bush would not or could not go to war on behalf of Kuwait and would sooner or later employ the multiple UN resolutions as bargaining chips--sacrificing some in return for an Iraqi withdrawal. Even the new military buildup did not imply an imminent war, since it could be justified by the argument that Hussein would not negotiate seriously unless faced with a threat of force. No sign of compromise emanated from the White House, however. Instead, Bush and his advisers repeated their insistence that Iraq comply with the UN resolutions unconditionally. Moreover, Middle East analysts and intelligence agencies began to question whether a mere Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait would suffice to pacify the region. After all, Hussein had proved twice that he considered aggressive war an acceptable tool of policy. He had built up a huge army and spent 10 years' worth of oil revenues on the most sophisticated weapons he could obtain, including chemical and biological agents and nuclear weapons facilities that were within a year or two of producing warheads. In other words, to oblige the Iraqis simply to withdraw from Kuwait would not prevent them from attacking there, or elsewhere, at some future time of their choosing. Genuine security in the gulf region would seem to require the destruction of the offensive capability of the Iraqi army and preferably the removal of Hussein himself. Such goals, however, could be achieved only through war, not by any sort of diplomatic compromise. On November 29, contrary to all expectations, Bush and the United States received authorization from the Security Council to use all means necessary in the gulf if Iraq failed to comply with all UN resolutions by Jan. 15, 1991.
To bow to this ultimatum would be humiliating for Hussein, an admission of the bankruptcy of his policy and of his impotence to resist the coalition. To some observers it seemed that Bush was unwilling to leave Iraq the sort of opening that might avert a war. Bush argued that it was not his responsibility to provide Hussein with a way out and that he would not permit Hussein to appear, in the eyes of the Arab masses, as a hero who had stood up to the American imperialists. Saddam Hussein refused to respond constructively to French and Soviet overtures, remained defiant, and escalated his rhetoric. Meanwhile, his occupation force looted Kuwait city and dug an elaborate defensive line along the Kuwaiti-Saudi border.
President Bush's refusal to compromise seemed to contradict his stated readiness to talk. While he had shown great determination and skill in building the coalition, Bush had failed to communicate clearly the purpose of this vast military exercise. At one point, while the President was emphasizing that the conflict was about resisting aggression and defending the sovereign rights of nations and while protesters were chanting "no blood for oil," Secretary Baker said that the conflict was in fact about jobs. He meant that a cutoff in oil exports might so damage the world economy as to spark a great depression, but it came out sounding as if the administration did not know what it was proposing to fight for.
In the final months of 1990 a strange alliance sprang up in opposition to Bush's policy, consisting of liberals and peace activists on the one hand and neo-isolationist conservatives on the other. After a sober January debate, the Senate finally voted 52-47, and the House 250-183, to authorize the President to use force. Given this mood in the Congress, Iraq probably could have tied Bush's hands just by making a conciliatory gesture of some kind. Instead, Hussein played into Bush's hands.
Hussein had called what he thought was an American bluff by allowing the January 15 UN deadline to come and go. Instead, just a day later, Bush announced that Operation Desert Shield had become Operation Desert Storm and that the liberation of Kuwait had begun. He was not starting a war--the war, he reminded the world, had been started by Iraq the previous August--but he was launching the counterattack to drive back the aggressor. Hundreds of U.S. bombers, augmented by French, British, Saudi, and Kuwaiti planes and U.S. Navy cruise missiles, dropped precision-guided bombs on military targets in Iraq and Kuwait. It was the start of the most intense campaign of strategic bombing in history, aimed in the first weeks at Iraqi command and control centres, nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons plants, conventional weapons facilities, electrical utilities, bridges and dams, and all manner of military and government installations. From the first it was evident that Iraq was unable to mount meaningful resistance. Its radar and air defense network was destroyed, and most of its warplanes fled to airfields in neutral Iran to escape destruction.
Hussein's reaction to the outbreak of war was to strike back with words, threats, terror weapons, and ploys to break the unity and resolve of the UN coalition. He decreed a holy war against the United States, called on all Muslims to unite against the Satanic enemy, and warned that in this "mother of all battles" the Americans would drown in "pools of their own blood." He made good on his prewar pledge to attack neutral Israel, firing 39 Soviet-made Scud surface-to-surface missiles at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Most fell harmlessly, none contained the poison gas warheads Hussein had threatened to use, and after the first days many were destroyed in flight by American Patriot antimissile missiles. Furthermore, Hussein's purpose in launching the Scuds at neutral Israel was not achieved. He had hoped to provoke an Israeli counterstrike and thereby detach the Syrians and Egyptians from the enemy coalition. The Israelis were understandably furious at the unprovoked attacks against defenseless civilian targets but understood Bush's appeals to them not to respond. The Arab-Western coalition hung together.
Hussein tried every technique at his disposal to discredit the Allied operation. He opened Kuwaiti oil pipelines into the sea and created a huge oil slick in hopes of clogging Saudi freshwater plants and shocking American opinion with the extent of the environmental consequences of the war. He mistreated Allied airmen taken prisoner and televised trumped-up propaganda reports alleging that the Allies were purposely bombing civilian targets. All this only proved to Western populations, however, that he was indeed a madman, and it steeled their will to see him defeated. The only way left for Hussein to win the war was to entrap the Americans in a close-fought ground war and to inflict so many casualties that American public opinion would turn against the President.
The ground war... When the final deadline was passed on February 23, the carefully planned UN ground offensive began at once. Saudi and Kuwaiti forces moved up the coast of the Persian Gulf toward Kuwait city, and U.S. Marines punched through the main Iraqi defenses on the southern Kuwaiti border, while more Marines on board ship feinted at making an amphibious landing to tie down Iraqi reserves. The main thrust came far inland on the desert flank, where American and Anglo-French armoured columns swept around the flank of the Iraqi army and turned eastward through southern Iraq on a line toward Basra. The Iraqi units in Kuwait were trapped in a pocket. The Republican Guards near the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border were engaged and destroyed by Allied tanks and aircraft. Within three days Hussein's massive army ceased to exist; 100,000 Iraqis had surrendered and tens of thousands more were trying to flee homeward. On February 27 the Allied forces had achieved all their major objectives, and Bush announced a cease-fire to take effect just 100 hours after the ground war had begun. Though Hussein still refused to make the personal confession of failure that Bush desired, the Iraqi government conceded defeat by announcing its willingness to abide by all 12 UN resolutions.
In retrospect, the war was a product of grave miscalculations on both sides. Throughout the 1980s U.S. policy had favoured Iraq in its war against Iran and permitted the continued export of strategic materials to Hussein despite repeated indications of his fanaticism and ambition. Hussein's errors were even more egregious and deadly. In light of the Vietnam War and the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-80, he judged the United States to be unwilling and unable to take up a serious challenge in Asia, even one mounted by a Third World country. Having decided to invade, he threw away his advantage of surprise by stopping in Kuwait instead of sweeping down the gulf coast and conquering Saudi Arabia and the emirates as well. He then waited five months, affording the United States time to mobilize international support and send military forces halfway around the world. Finally, he failed to extend his heavily fortified defense lines westward along the Saudi-Iraqi border.
The war in the Persian Gulf thus proved to be an American and UN victory beyond the most sanguine hopes even of its military designers. The Iraqi military suffered more than 100,000 casualties at a cost to the Allies of some 340 killed; it was the most one-sided major engagement in the history of modern warfare. Kuwait was freed, albeit at the cost of terrible damage, since the Iraqis practiced a scorched-earth policy that included setting ablaze hundreds of oil wells. Above all, the UN had shown itself to be truly united and possessed of the will to back up its resolutions with force. What the Bush administration did not accomplish, however, was the overthrow of Hussein himself. On the advice of General Colin Powell, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Bush decided not to press on to Baghdad or to destroy all Iraq's Republican Guard units. Hussein proceeded to crush challenges to his authority from the Kurds in northern Iraq and Shi'ite dissidents in the south. In the first instance, Bush was restrained by the interests of Turkey, which also contained a large Kurdish minority. In the latter case, he was restrained by fear that Iran's Shi'ite regime might try to expand its own reach at Iraq's expense. U.S. forces did provide humanitarian relief to 1,000,000 Kurdish refugees and enforce no-fly zones to stop Iraqi attacks on civilians, but American policy clearly meant to uphold Iraqi unity so as to preserve the regional balance of power. Bush probably expected Hussein to be overthrown by the Iraqis themselves, but the dictator suppressed a military coup on July 2, 1992, and was still in power long after Bush himself was out of office.