It's been twenty years since we went to war in Iraq for the first time. The years have been kind to Desert Storm, which is now remembered as an unalloyed triumph. But was it? The way Desert Storm was shaped, fought and finished revealed tremendous indecision in Washington, half measures on the battlefield, and an inconclusive war termination that sowed the poison seeds of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990 in large part to extricate himself from the debts of the Iran-Iraq War, which had raged from 1980 to 1988. The Americans, Japanese and Europeans had loaned Saddam about $35 billion, the Saudis $31 billion, Kuwait $14 billion and the U.A.E. $8 billion. The war had cost Iraq at least half a trillion dollars, and Iraq had little hope of repaying its external debt with oil prices sliding down to $13 a barrel as the war petered out and supply picked up.
The Iraqis had been claiming Kuwait ever since the British amputated its territory from the Ottoman province of Basra in 1899. Iraqis defiantly referred to Kuwait as their "19th province" and coveted its hoard of petrodollars and deep reserves of oil. In July 1990, Saddam shaped a pretext for war, when he defined Kuwait's refusal to cede territory to Iraq, cut its oil production, and forgive its Iraqi war debts as "military aggression."
In Baghdad, U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie pressed for a clarification of Iraqi intentions. Her work became more urgent in the third week of July when Iraqi Republican Guard units began deploying to Basra in preparation for what satellite imagery suggested could only be an invasion of Kuwait. She counseled patience.
Bush's Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell, was as hesitant as Glaspie. His military options to retake Kuwait, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft groused, "had not seemed designed by anyone eager to undertake the task." The Powell Doctrine, conceived after Reagan's disastrous intervention in Lebanon, still prevailed in 1990: U.S. forces would only be introduced into conflicts with clear, achievable aims, a visible exit, and strong popular and congressional support. Powell considered that none of those criteria were fulfilled in the case of Iraq's takeover of Kuwait. He proposed a different strategy: "grind down" Saddam through "a policy of containment or strangulation."
April Glaspie met with Saddam on July 25, 1990. She believed wholeheartedly in the Bush plan to "moderate" Saddam Hussein and make him a U.S. ally. She took as her brief a memo that had arrived from Secretary of State James Baker the previous day. Baker had condemned Iraqi efforts to bully the weaker Gulf states and had noted the peril "of having oil production and pricing policy in the Gulf determined and enforced by Iraqi guns." But Baker also affected "to take no position on the border delineation issue raised by Iraq with respect to Kuwait."
Imprecision like that had caused the Korean War forty years earlier, when Secretary of State Dean Acheson had neglected to include South Korea in America's East Asian security perimeter. The North Koreans had interpreted that omission as license to invade the south. In 1990, Saddam saw an opening in Baker's apparent indifference on the border issue. What if he left Kuwait largely intact, but seized the Rumaila oil field and one or two of Kuwait's islands? Perhaps the Bush administration would permit that. The Bush administration itself had no idea what it would do if Saddam invaded Kuwait. Instead of facing the question squarely, President Bush and his key deputies kicked the can down the road, and merely hoped that "moderation" would work.
"Do not push us to [invade Kuwait]," Saddam growled to Ambassador Glaspie. "Do not make it the only option left with which we can protect our dignity." After the meeting, Glaspie cabled Baker and urged him to "ease off on public criticism of Iraq" until Saddam had been given the chance to negotiate with the Kuwaitis at a Saudi-arranged conference in Jedda. At the Pentagon, hawkish deputies like Paul Wolfowitz were disturbed by the defeatist tone of Glaspie's cable, but the actual presidential letter to Saddam drafted for Bush's signature by his N.S.C. ran in a Glaspian vein. Saddam's saber-rattling, his accumulation of weapons of mass destruction, his brutal police state, and anti-American and anti-Israeli rhetoric were resolutely downplayed -- "certain Iraqi policies and activities" -- and Bush pronounced himself "pleased" with Saddam's willingness to attend the Jedda conference that Saddam himself had convened at the point of a gun. Although Bush was about to announce a 25 percent reduction in U.S. armed forces -- the post-Cold War "peace dividend" -- no cuts had yet been made. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney's top deputies at the Pentagon recommended a stern rewrite explicitly warning Saddam not to attack Kuwait, but the shilly-shallying N.S.C. letter went out over Bush's signature. Nothing was done to reinforce the Kuwaitis, or to open Saudi bases to U.S. forces. A 2,000-man Marine Expeditionary Unit remained in the Philippines; no B-52s were sent to Diego Garcia, and there was not even a Navy carrier in the Gulf or the North Arabian Sea. The nearest U.S. carrier, the Independence, was four days away.