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Desert Storm Turns Twenty: What Really Happened in 1991, and Why it Matters, Part I of II

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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.

By August 1, it was plain that Saddam intended to invade Kuwait. He had satisfied himself that Washington would not intervene to stop him. Satellite photos depicted corps-strength Iraqi armor and infantry units on the Kuwaiti border, Iraqi marines with bridging equipment opposite Bubiyan Island, dense concentrations of Iraqi strike aircraft and helicopters at air bases in southern Iraq, and all the logistics required for a push down to Kuwait City. Nevertheless, President Bush was preparing to depart for Aspen, Colorado to announce the "peace dividend," and Centcom commander General Norman Schwarzkopf let his staff go home early on August 1. By 7 p.m. Schwarzkopf's staff had all come rushing back from the suburban subdivisions, gyms, Little League diamonds and malls of Tampa; Iraqi mechanized divisions had carved into Kuwait, driven the emir into exile, seized the capital, and swiftly defeated weak resistance by the Kuwaiti army. Iraqi troops picked Kuwait clean in a methodical campaign of looting. Containers were loaded with valuables and shipped up to Basra. Iraqi pilots seized Kuwait Airways' jets and flew them up to Baghdad, along with Kuwait airport's runway lights and baggage handling equipment. Cars, trucks, buses, tractors and just about anything with an engine was stolen or stripped for parts. Seats were ripped out of Kuwait's stadiums and movie theaters for use in Iraq. Kuwait's hospitals, universities and libraries were stripped to the bare walls. Beef carcasses were heaved out of Kuwaiti meat freezers and shipped to Iraq. Kuwait's gem market was picked clean, and 1 million ounces of gold were seized from the Central Bank of Kuwait and deposited in Baghdad. Iraqi emissaries circulated around the Middle East boasting that they had taken $500 billion in cash out of Kuwait; they offered to share the loot with friendly states who would accept the Iraqi invasion and annexation. Iraqi looters, bused in by Saddam to take their places as "Kuwaitis" in case there were a U.N. referendum on Kuwait's future, swept through Kuwait's shops, houses and apartments stealing everything in sight: televisions, stereos, sinks, toilets, lamps, rugs, curtains, even cutlery and light bulbs.

No one had predicted that Saddam would actually do something this reckless, but he had always been a reckless operator. Not having made up their minds how to handle an Iraqi invasion, the Bush administration fell to arguing. "Not all wars are avoidable," Scowcroft reflected, "and this was perhaps one of them." Saddam's attack engaged America's superpower interest in oil as well as its determination to shape the new world order that had emerged with the collapse of the U.S.S.R. Scowcroft noted a basic divide between those who saw the Iraqi invasion as "the major crisis of our time" (Scowcroft and Cheney) and those who viewed it as a manageable "crisis du jour" (Baker and Powell) that could be handled by sanctions, diplomacy and an embargo on Iraqi oil.

The U.N. Security Council, the U.N. General Assembly and the Arab League had all condemned the invasion and there was discussion in the White House of an air and naval blockade of Iraq, but Secretary of Defense Cheney wanted more than just protests, sanctions or a quarantine. Saddam was angling to "dominate OPEC, the Gulf and the Arab world." His tanks were now forty kilometers from Saudi Arabia, and even if he didn't take their oil wells, he would "have an impact... The problem would get worse, not better." Saddam's hasty offer in August of a final peace settlement to the Iranians and his evacuation of 1,000 square miles of Iranian territory -- the only spoils from Iraq's eight-year war with Iran -- confirmed that Saddam was clearing the decks and focusing all of his energies on a fight with the U.S. Cheney enjoined Bush to lay out American aims clearly: "we need an objective." Cheney wanted to fling Saddam out of Kuwait -- at a minimum -- and perhaps march on to Baghdad to depose him. The U.S. had to maintain a favorable balance in the Gulf. But Cheney also worried that the American people would not support a war to restore the reactionary al-Sabah dynasty, particularly when such a war appeared to benefit Japan -- still the export-driven bugbear of Americans in 1990 -- which imported far more Kuwaiti oil than the U.S. Congress also wavered throughout, even a staunch "national security Democrat" like Georgia Senator Sam Nunn insisting that only air and naval forces be used against Saddam, no ground troops.

With Gorbachev's reformers foundering in the face of counter-attacks from Soviet hardliners, could America really afford to embark on war in Iraq? The always cautious Powell fed on doubts like that. A war with Iraq would not be easy -- "harder than Panama or Libya, this would be the N.F.L., not a scrimmage" -- and such a war as this seemed as ill-advised to Powell as Vietnam. He chided Cheney for sounding "Carteresque" in his resolve to defend the Gulf. Carter, of course, had made all the right noises about defending the Shah and Iranian moderates, but then collapsed under Khomeini's pressure. Powell reckoned that another defeat like that would destroy American credibility, and he didn't like the sound of a war with Iraq. "The American people," he argued, "don't want their young dying for buck-fifty-a gallon oil." Defend Saudi Arabia, Powell reasoned, but concede Kuwait to Saddam. "The next few days Iraq will withdraw, but Saddam will put his puppet in. Everyone in the Arab world will be happy." Powell doubted, as New York Senator Pat Moynihan witheringly put it, that Americans would agree to put 500,000 U.S. troops in harm's way to rescue Kuwaiti princes holed up in Saudi Sheratons, "sitting there in their white robes, drinking coffee and urging us on to war." Moynihan reminded President Bush that Kuwait was an "accident of history," with artificial boundaries drawn by "the bureaucrats of the colonial powers." The implication was clear: Kuwait was not worth the bones of a single American soldier.

But General Powell seemed wobbly even on Saudi Arabia, whose 66,000-man army would not stand a chance against the Iraqis. "We must communicate to Saddam Hussein that Saudi Arabia is the line," Powell advised Cheney, but then added that even there -- the world's biggest oil patch -- American intervention would depend on "popular support" from the American people and a "national sense" that the game was worth the candle. President Bush expressed his frustration with the uniformed military to his diary: "we had a long way to go before the military was 'gung ho,'" -- "our military is waffling and vacillating in terms of what we can do on the ground." Cheney too bristled at Powell's pessimism. The Iraqis had annexed Kuwait and were within striking distance of Saudi Arabia's Hama oil fields. The Pentagon's job was not to poll public or congressional opinion, it was to advise the president on national security. "I want some options, general," Cheney growled.

On August 2, Bush chaired an N.S.C. meeting that featured sharp exchanges between Powell and the hawks, who now coalesced around Cheney. Thomas Pickering, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., scolded Powell for suggesting that the U.S. could maintain its policeman's role in the Gulf if it consented to the Iraqi takeover of Kuwait. Bush too worried that Powell was overestimating Iraqi force. "I just didn't see the Iraqis as being so tough," he told Scowcroft. After the meeting, Bush flew to Aspen, where he met with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher; she urged him to take a hard line with Saddam. "If Iraq wins, no small state is safe. They won't stop here. They see a chance to take a major share of oil. It's got to be stopped. We must do everything possible." Thatcher compared the move into Kuwait to Hitler's unopposed moves against Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1938. Hitler had overrun France and Poland with the resources culled from those nations, and Thatcher worried that Saddam would annex the resources of Kuwait and then move on bigger prey like Saudi Arabia.

A hard line, of course, required a war plan. On August 4, Centcom commander General H. Norman Schwarzkopf and his air commander General Chuck Horner flew to Camp David to give President Bush options. By now, there were eleven Iraqi army divisions in Kuwait and Iraqi patrols were scouring the border with Saudi Arabia. Cheney met King Fahd, and warned him that without American troops and aircraft, Saudi Arabia would go the way of Kuwait. Saddam's military was the fourth largest in the world. The million-man Iraqi army with its 5,700 tanks was twenty-times bigger than Saudi Arabia's.

As American units flowed in to backstop the Saudis (Operation Desert Shield), they found themselves undergunned and undersupplied; Schwarzkopf sacrificed logistics and prioritized men over materiel to create the impression -- boots on the ground -- of American strength. Even when attention shifted to logistics, the U.S. military was found wanting. Reagan's massive military buildup had sacrificed unglamorous functions like transport ships ("sealift") and minesweepers to pay for high-tech programs like "Star Wars," stealth technology, fighter aircraft, attack subs and cruise missiles. The sea and airlift problems would later explain Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's determination to slim down the armed services, cut their logistical trains, and re-focus on "agility" and "mobility" when he was defense secretary from 2001 to 2006.

By September 1990, 80 percent of Americans supported Operation Desert Shield, which belied Powell's hand-wringing about scant "popular support." Most Americans recognized the need to defend the Western world's energy security. Americans were also moved by a largely spurious $11 million P.R. campaign paid for by the Kuwaiti government and crafted by Hill & Knowlton. Its most effective piece of propaganda was a lie: that Iraqi soldiers had entered Kuwaiti hospitals, yanked newborn babies out of their incubators and dashed them on the floor before packing up the equipment for shipment to Iraq. That lie was retailed by the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the U.S., who pretended to be a Kuwaiti nurse who had witnessed the Iraqi atrocities. In fact, she was not a nurse and had not even been in Kuwait when the Iraqis invaded. Nevertheless, senators and congressmen swallowed the story hook, line and sinker. Many of them referenced it when explaining their votes in support of the war, which was narrowly authorized by the Senate 52-47 and by the House 250-183 on January 12, 1991.

As the numbers suggested, the entire Democratic leadership in both houses voted against the war, and President Bush actually worried about impeachment if the weak congressional support thinned and the war miscarried. That narrow vote to authorize the Gulf War -- the narrowest since the War of 1812 -- was the first congressional approval of military action since the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution of 1964. Iraqi depredations -- real and imagined -- coupled with the Bush administration's argument that it was also fighting to defend American jobs (that depended on cheap energy), and to punish Saddam's human rights abuses and weapons of mass destruction programs (all of which America had winked at and even supported during the 1980s), awakened American idealism. Here was a war that needed to be fought in defense of American values. Still, the vote was close, and hardly amounted to a national crusade. Massachusetts Senator John Kerry blasted Bush for making "a series of unilateral decisions that put us in a box" and "made the war inevitable." His colleague Ted Kennedy beseeched someone, anyone, to "save the President from himself, and save thousands of American soldiers in the Persian Gulf from dying in the desert in a war whose cruelty will be exceeded only by the lack of any rational necessity for waging it." Senator Al Gore, preparing his own run for the presidency, agreed to vote for the war only if given a twenty minute prime-time television slot (by Republican leader Bob Dole) to advertise his vote. New York Senator Pat Moynihan denied that Saddam's invasion of Kuwait amounted to an international crisis that engaged America's values or interests: "All that's happened is that one nasty little country has invaded a littler but just as nasty country."

On November 29, 1990, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 678, which gave Saddam till January 15, 1991 to evacuate Kuwait or face eviction by am American-led coalition that had swelled to thirty-four nations. The coalition itself was interesting; it ran the gamut from lightweights like Argentina and Bangladesh to serious combat powers like France and the United Kingdom. Japan and West Germany, big consumers of Gulf oil that were politically reluctant to engage in military operations, chipped in $10 billion and $6.6 billion respectively for the costs of the conflict. Egypt joined to get its external debts -- $16 billion in 1990 -- written off. Debt forgiveness on that scale and the peerless opportunity to charge every coalition ship that transited the Suez Canal a $200,000 toll certainly tempered Mubarak's disappointment at having to reject Saddam's bribe of $20 billion, dangled after the seizure of Kuwait. The Saudis deployed their military, but, far more importantly, paid heavily to the tune of $30 billion for war costs.

Saddam still believed that the U.S. would not risk "another Vietnam." Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was predicting casualties in Iraq of 30,000. Cheney's Pentagon was predicting as many as 30,000 deaths in the first twenty days of combat. South Dakota Senator George McGovern prophesied 50,000 casualties. The U.S. Air Force predicted the loss of 150 aircraft, with one-quarter of the pilots killed, and another quarter captured "and possibly paraded through the streets of Baghdad." House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt threatened to block all funding for the conflict if Bush proceeded with his essentially Republican authorization to use armed force instead of a formal congressional declaration of war. With terrifying threats, numbers and images like those floating around -- and newspaper columnists alternately flaying Bush for his timidity and bellicosity -- Saddam assumed that the Americans would shrink from battle, as indeed did nearly every witness called by Georgia Senator Sam Nunn's Armed Services Committee to discuss the military option.

One after another, the parade of retired flag officers and secretaries (Admiral William Crowe, General David Jones, former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, former Secretary of the Navy James Webb, and former National Security Agency Director William Odom) asserted that a war with Iraq would be wrong-headed and bloody: it would shred the U.S. armed forces and convulse the Middle East. Senator Robert Byrd insisted that even if the U.S. delivered a "quick knockout," such a blow "would unleash a cascade of outcomes and reactions that would reduce our long-term ability [to] influence events in that region." Let sanctions bite, they all recommended, as did House Speaker Tom Foley, who gave Bush a letter signed by eighty-one Democratic members that warned of "catastrophic consequences, resulting in the massive loss of lives, including 10,000 -50,000 Americans" if America went to war with Saddam.

Read Part II here.

Dr. Geoffrey Wawro is the General Olinto Mark Barsanti Professor of Military History and Director of the Military History Center at the University of North Texas. He is the author of Quicksand: America's Pursuit of Power in the Middle East (Penguin Press, 2010.)