The Nineties in America
The Event: After Iraq invades and occupies Kuwait, a thirty-four-nation coalition of military forces responds by attacking the Iraqi army, driving it out of Kuwait
Date: January 17-February 28, 1991
Place: The Persian Gulf, the waterway linking Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, and several other countries with the Arabian Sea
Iraqi aggression against Kuwait and Saudi Arabia was stopped, thereby preventing Iraqi president Saddam Hussein from controlling most of the world's known oil reserves.
When the modern Iraqi state was established after World War I, Kuwait was created as a separate state, although historically the two countries had been governed together from the capital in Baghdad. During the spring of 1990, Iraq presented demands on Kuwait and opened negotiations with the country, while massing troops began along the southern border with Kuwait, presumably poised for an offensive to settle such disputes as the location of the border between the two countries.
As Iraqi troops were moving south toward Kuwait, American ambassador April Glaspie was summoned by Iraqi president Saddam Hussein on July 25, 1990, to inform her of Iraq's grievances with Kuwait and of his promise to resolve the issues peacefully. After expressing concern over the threat posed by the troop movements, she indicated that the United States was neutral toward disputes between Arab-speaking countries.
Subsequently, during a congressional hearing, an assistant secretary of state reported that there were no contingency plans to repel an attack by Iraq on Kuwait, as the United States had no military alliance with either country. Baghdad interpreted American disinterest as a green light for Iraq to annex Kuwait.
Iraq's Attack and the Immediate Response
On August 2, a full-scale Iraqi attack was launched on Kuwait, whereupon Washington summoned the U.N. Security Council for an emergency meeting that resulted in a resolution calling on Iraq to withdraw. Four days later, as Iraq took control of Kuwait, the Security Council authorized economic sanctions. On August 7, the United States dispatched two aircraft carriers and two battleship groups to the Persian Gulf and, on the pretext that Iraq might also invade Saudi Arabia, airlifted troops to the latter country.
With American backing, the Security Council on November 29 demanded that Iraq withdraw from Kuwait by January 15, 1991. To enforce the resolution, the Security Council authorized the use of force. U.S. president George H. W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker then persuaded thirty-four other countries to form a coalition to drive Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Although all were aware that Iraq had violated the U.N. Charter by waging aggressive war, some countries were attracted to join the coalition by American promises of aid or debt forgiveness.
Differing peace proposals were offered. Whereas the United States demanded that Iraq unconditionally withdraw from Kuwait, Baghdad offered to pull out of Kuwait only if Syrian troops pulled out of Lebanon and Israeli troops abandoned the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and the Palestinian West Bank. Iraq's terms were rejected. On January 12, 1991, Congress authorized Bush to wage war on Iraq despite sizeable votes against the operation.
Code-named Operation Desert Storm, some 660,000 troops were ultimately mobilized to attack Iraq on January 17, 1991; the American portion was about 74 percent. The initial offensive consisted of aerial attacks on Iraq's border with Saudi Arabia and in western Iraq, followed by a bombardment of Baghdad. The initial aim was to destroy the Iraqi air force; next, bombing sought to disrupt command communications. Later, the remaining military targets and relevant infrastructure were bombed.
Iraq responded with ineffective antiaircraft fire, attempted to send airplanes and naval forces to Iran, dumped oil into the Persian Gulf, attacked a town inside Saudi Arabia and was easily repelled, and launched missiles at Israel, which shot them down but otherwise refrained from involvement in the war. Thanks to American air supremacy, coalition ground forces decisively entered Kuwait in late January. The war was extensively covered around the clock on the Cable News Network (CNN), including live reporting of flashes of light from bombardments and the launching of artillery.
On February 2, Iraq accepted a cease-fire agreement proposed by Russia. The terms involved a withdrawal of Iraq troops to preinvasion positions within three weeks, followed by a total cease-fire and U.N. Security Council monitoring of the cease-fire and withdrawal. The United States rejected the proposal, demanding that Iraq exit from Kuwait within twenty-four hours, during which time the coalition would not attack Iraqi troops.
Since negotiations were deadlocked, American, British, and French forces attacked inside Iraq, exposing the vulnerability of Hussein's military defenses. On February 26, Iraqi troops began to leave Kuwait, setting fire to oil fields as they exited, but coalition forces bombed the retreating columns up to 150 miles south of Baghdad. On February 27, President Bush declared that the war was over, that Kuwait had been liberated.
After Iraq surrendered, Baghdad was allowed to use armed helicopters to assist in rebuilding damaged transportation infrastructure that was being used by retreating forces. From March 10, coalition troops began to withdraw from Iraq, some staying in Kuwait and in Saudi Arabia to ensure security against future Iraq aggression.
On February 2, a radio station in Saudi Arabia operated by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) called on Shiites to rebel inside Iraq. Similar statements encouraged Kurds in the north to try to topple Hussein. However, when the rebellions occurred after Hussein surrendered, Iraq's helicopters gunned down the rebels, and American forces did nothing in support.
The Security Council responded to massacres of Kurds and Shiites by establishing no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq, respectively, to be enforced by American, British, and French military aircraft. Nevertheless, Hussein's antiaircraft and surface-to-air missiles challenged the enforcement, resulting in frequent sorties thereafter to bomb both types of installations. In a sense, the Gulf War did not end in 1991 but continued right up to 2003.
Iraq's remaining air force was also used to suppress rebellions between the two no-fly zones. Although some Saudi officials urged that the no-fly zone be extended over the entire country in order to facilitate those seeking to overthrow Hussein, their suggestion was ignored during the rest of the 1990's.
A U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM) was assigned to inspect Iraq's compliance with a Security Council order to dismantle all weapons of mass destruction. In 1999, UNSCOM left Iraq, which claimed that all such programs had been dismantled. The Security Council then authorized the replacement of UNSCOM with the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), which did not begin work in Iraq until 2002, when the United States claimed that weapons of mass destruction remaining in the country constituted a serious threat.
When casualty numbers for the war were assessed, some 146 Americans had died in battle, and 467 had been wounded. Other members of the coalition had lost 65 soldiers, and 319 had been wounded. However, more than 25 percent of the ground troops were declared permanently disabled by the Department of Veterans Affairs, suffering from unknown causes that have been characterized as the Gulf War syndrome. Estimates of Iraq casualties differ; there were at least 24,000 deaths, including 4,000 civilians.
The conduct of the war, including the use of cluster bombs and daisy cutters as well as the number of civilian deaths, prompted some observers to accuse the United States of committing war crimes. In 2003, a war crimes case based on the Gulf War was filed in a Belgian court against former president Bush, former secretary of defense Dick Cheney, former Joint Chiefs of Staff chair Colin Powell, and former commander in chief Norman Schwarzkopf. Later in the year, after the United States threatened to move headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) from Belgium to protest the case and similar pending lawsuits, the case was dismissed.
Constrained by economic sanctions and two no-fly zones, living conditions in Iraq nosedived while Kuwait enjoyed increasing prosperity. Economic sanctions remained on Iraq despite the devastation of its infrastructure. Insufficient food and medicine were available for ordinary people, so the United Nations agreed to establish an oil-for-food program, which ultimately involved kickbacks to Hussein. United Nations corruption, as later reviewed, led to calls for reform of the organization, especially by officials in the administration of President George W. Bush.
Meanwhile, the presence of American troops remaining in Saudi Arabia after the war rankled some in the region. One in particular, Osama Bin Laden, began to build support for his organization, al-Qaeda, which was dedicated to the removal of the American military presence in the Middle East and to the toppling of Western-backed governments in Arab-speaking countries that he characterized as "apostate" regimes. Al-Qaeda's policies and program were subsequently revealed by bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the assault on the USS Cole in the Yemen harbor in 2000, and the terrorist attacks on American soil on September 11, 2001.
Some American observers, who regretted the failure to topple Hussein in 1991, urged a second war with Iraq, especially after the terrorist attacks on September 11. The second war against Iraq began on March 20, 2003.
Blum, William. Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II. Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 2005. Written by a former employee of the U.S. Department of State, the book condemns American foreign adventures, often kept secret, on a country-by-country basis, including those involving Iraq.
Brune, Lester H. America and the Iraqi Crisis, 1990-1992. Claremont, Calif.: Regina Books, 1993. A historical account that examines the policy choices, including criticisms of Bush's concept of a "new world order" in which the United States might play a dominant world role as the world's only superpower.
Bush, George H. W., and Brent Scowcroft. A World Transformed. New York: Random House, 1998. The former president and his national security adviser present an account of the foreign policy of the United States under their leadership, including a detailed justification for their decision not to topple Hussein in 1991, when American troops were only hours away from Baghdad. The authors argue that most countries in the Gulf War coalition would have refused to go along and that the economic and human cost of extending the war would have been excessive.
Hilsman, Roger. George Bush vs. Saddam Hussein: Military Success! Political Failure? Novato, Calif.: Presidio, 1992. A former Department of State official analyzes whether the Gulf War achieved the political objective of stabilizing the Middle East.
Munro, Alan. Arab Storm: Politics and Diplomacy Behind the Gulf War. New York: I. B. Tauris, 2006. The British ambassador to Saudi Arabia before and during the Gulf War, Munro provides an account of the various diplomatic efforts to organize the military coalition that evicted Iraq from Kuwait.
Nye, Joseph S., Jr., and Roger K. Smith, eds. After the Storm: Lessons from the Gulf War. Lanham, Md.: Madison Books, 1992. A collection of ten essays commenting on the successes and failures of the war in the context of diplomatic, economic, political, regional, and strategic international affairs.
Renshon, Stanley A., ed. The Political Psychology of the Gulf War: Leaders, Publics, and the Process of Conflict. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1993. Covers psychological aspects of the decision to go to war, focusing on Bush's punitive attitudes while Hussein was seeking to appear as a stronger leader in the Middle East than his rivals, groupthink driving decision makers to go to war, and the public's willingness to trust their president's judgment despite serious misgivings in Congress.
Sifry, Micah L., and Christopher Cerf, eds. The Gulf War Reader: History, Documents, Opinion. New York: Times Books, 1991. A balanced compilation of relevant essays, official publications, and editorials about the Gulf War.
Smith, Jean Edward. George Bush's War. New York: Henry Holt, 1992. Argues why Hussein was a hero in the Middle East and how Bush rallied support for the war.
Michael HaasSee Also
Baker, James; Bush, George H. W.; Cheney, Dick; CNN coverage of the Gulf War; Foreign policy of Canada; Foreign policy of the United States; Gulf War syndrome; Middle East and North America; Patriot missile; Powell, Colin; Schwarzkopf, Norman; Speicher, Michael Scott; United Nations; Wolfowitz, Paul.
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