Modern history


Bush and the Gulf War

“This Will Not Stand.”


ON AUGUST 1, 1990, IRAQI TROOPS INVADED KUWAIT, THEREBY SETTING off the first post-Cold War international crisis. It came in a part of the world that was neither communist nor capitalist, but feudal; a part of the world that did not belong to any of the three superblocs, but was critical to the industrial nations of Europe, the Pacific, and North America; a part of the world that had seen more fighting and killing than any other region since 1945. The crisis came as a surprise and caused many new surprises.

The proximate cause of the crisis was the seizure of Kuwait by the army of Iraq’s dictator, Saddam Hussein, followed by Hussein’s announcement that Iraq had annexed Kuwait and by the movement of much of the Iraqi army to the border between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Hussein’s quarrel with Kuwait was that the tiny nation had exceeded its OPEC quota and thereby driven down the world price of oil. Insofar as the Saudis could manipulate the oil prices more or less at will by increasing or decreasing their production, Saudi Arabia appeared to be a logical next target for Hussein.

He seemed to be threatening to take over Saudi Arabia by force. The Iraqi army in Kuwait numbered in the hundreds of thousands. It had more than 5,000 tanks. The Saudi army was minuscule, more a police force than an army. Hussein had taken over Kuwait because his army was the overwhelming power in the region. The balance of power between the Arab states of the Middle East had been badly upset.

This was the fault of the superpowers, who had sold arms to and otherwise supported Iraq throughout the 1980s in its war with Iran, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia had paid most of the bill. Iraq bought Soviet-built tanks and American technology. The Bush administration provided Hussein $5.5 billion in loans; some was money hidden in the Agriculture Department budget. Hussein used the money to accelerate his program to build a nuclear bomb. In the early summer of 1990, United States policy toward Iraq was to assist in improving the Iraqi armed forces, with the purpose of deterring Iran. So close were Iraq and the United States in July 1991, that joint military maneuvers were being planned for later in the year. With regard to Iraq’s border dispute with Kuwait, the American ambassador told Hussein the United States took no position.

This policy had not been thought out nor was any part of it based on principle. But Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and its suddenly threatening posture on Saudi Arabia’s northern border inspired a lot of immediate thought and principled action. There were many firsts; most important it was the first time the United States and the U.S.S.R. acted together in a Middle East crisis. The result, in the UN Security Council, was spectacular.

The day after the invasion, Bush condemned it and asked world leaders to join him in action against Iraq. The following day Secretary Baker and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze issued a joint statement from Moscow that called for a worldwide embargo on arms for Iraq because of its “brutal and illegal invasion of Kuwait.” Meanwhile the action at the United Nations was stunning. On August 2, the Security Council condemned Iraq and demanded a retreat on pain of mandatory sanctions. Four days later, sanctions were imposed, including an embargo against Iraqi and Kuwaiti oil.

Meanwhile, in another first, Secretaries Baker and Cheney flew to Saudi Arabia, where they convinced King Fahd that his country was threatened and persuaded him to agree to the deployment of large numbers of American troops into his kingdom. The next day, August 7, American paratroopers, an armored brigade, and fighter airplanes were on their way to Saudi Arabia to begin Operation Desert Shield. They were quickly joined by token forces from Egypt, Morocco, and Syria. The UN Security Council supported the operation.

These actions marked a potential turning point in world history, the point at which the UN finally began to realize its potential and to fulfill the hopes of its founders. The overwhelming reason for the relative failure of the UN during the Cold War had been superpower hostility. With that factor gone, the UN was bound to be different.

Other developments associated with the end of the Cold War were also pointing to a new world structure, but as always the portents for the future were contradictory. In one case, Germany, people were coming together again in a peaceful manner; in the other, Yugoslavia, the Serbian/Communist-dominated federation Tito had erected, people were splitting up in a violent manner.

Ever since 1945, Germany had been divided, but in the fall of 1990 she was reunited and the occupying powers gave up their rights in that country. This meant, among other things, that the bipolar world of the previous forty-five years had given way to a multipolar world. So long as the Cold War between the superpowers had dominated world politics, the UN could do little more than debate. But with the disappearance of the Iron Curtain, the destruction of the Berlin Wall, the unification of Germany, the demise of the Warsaw Pact; with the emergence of new problems in the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. that had no relation to the Cold War or to the communist-capitalist confrontation; with the spread of advanced weapons from the developed to the undeveloped world (including such elements of the poor man’s arsenal as gas warfare, bacteria, hostages, and terrorism); with the rise of an industrial Asia that was dependent for its energy on an undeveloped Middle East; with all this, the superpowers, for all their ability to destroy the planet hundreds of times over, were irrelevant to many of the world’s problems.

So was the UN, it turned out, at least to the peoples of Yugoslavia. There a civil war broke out in 1991 that involved the worst fighting and highest casualties Europe had seen since 1945. The war pitted Serbia against Croatia and Bosnia. The UN ordered sanctions against Serbia, but without an American commitment to support the use of force, the UN was unable to do to the Serbs what it had done to the Iraqis. In a world with only one superpower, the UN could not play a prominent role without American leadership. So although the UN sent a peace-keeping force to Yugoslavia in 1992, it was too small to enforce a cease-fire without the cooperation of the warring parties.

Almost everything in the situation made American intervention dangerous. The racial, ethnic, and religious differences that were tearing Yugoslavia apart were centuries old. An irony here: These problems were the ones Woodrow Wilson had attempted to deal with when drawing a post-Hapsburg Empire map of Europe at the 1919 Versailles Conference. The century had come full circle; with imperialism, fascism, and Communism turned back, the world returned to the problem of nationalism. As it will almost certainly turn out to be the great cause of instability, poverty, and disorder in the world, and far more likely to be a glimpse into the future than the Iraqi crisis was, the response to the Yugoslavian civil war was more precedent-setting than the Gulf War.

Beyond the apparent impossibility of persuading Muslims and Christians, Croats and Serbians to get along with each other (short of using the methods of Marshal Tito), Yugoslavia was unappealing to the Bush administration as a place to get involved for many reasons. It had little economic significance. It was not a major crossroads of world trade. Its front-line position in the Cold War era was of no importance by 1991. It was a European problem requiring a European, not a United States or UN, solution.

In Yugoslavia, therefore, aggression went unpunished. The United States was content to denounce Serbia but not to act against her. The Russians joined President Bush in condemning Serbia and imposing economic sanctions, but that did not affect Serbian policy.

This was unexpected. For nearly half a century, when a superpower spoke, its client states obeyed. It had been unthinkable that either one of them could be ignored, much less the two acting together. Yet in 1990, Iraq defied both the Soviet Union and the United States. So did Serbia. Hussein and the Serbs were confident that the power to destroy (after all, with less than one percent of their nuclear arsenals, either the United States or the U.S.S.R. could have wiped out Baghdad and/or Belgrade in a split second) was not the power to control. Iraq and Serbia doubted that the United States or the UN would act. One was right, the other wrong.

President Bush sent a little food to Yugoslavia and much of the armed might of the United States to Saudi Arabia.

On August 8, less than a week after the invasion of Kuwait and a day after putting Operation Desert Shield in motion, Bush announced the principles on which he was acting. Appeasement does not work; aggression must be punished. He had a four-point program: First, “The immediate, unconditional and complete withdrawal of all Iraqi forces from Kuwait”; second, the restoration of “Kuwait’s legitimate government”; third, an American-enforced guarantee of “the security and stability of the Persian Gulf,” which meant disarming Hussein; fourth, to protect the lives of American citizens abroad, which meant the hostages held in Kuwait. Bush made no mention of the defense of Saudi Arabia.

Bush stuck to this position through many ups and downs over the following six months; when he added new points to it, they were even tougher on Iraq (chiefly that Iraq pay reparations). It was a response that carried considerable risk. Sanctions were hurting Iraq and would become more effective as time passed, but Hussein could make up for his losses by requiring further sacrifice from his people and blaming their misery on the United States. He could pose as the champion of the PLO, which would make it difficult to hold the Arab members of the coalition (Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, above all) together. Meanwhile, he was working on building a nuclear weapon and was expanding his poison gas arsenal (and he had used gas against the Kurds during the Iran-Iraq war). And how long would the U.S. be willing to maintain a quarter of a million troops in the desert? Especially to defend the feudal, filthy-rich, easy-to-despise, and impossible-to-like Arab royal families?

Bush’s stated cause was above criticism. Hussein’s aggression had to be stopped, as there could be no reward for naked aggression. That had been the clear lesson of the crisis that is described at the beginning of this book, Munich in 1938. Bush, a World War II veteran, harked back to his youth to find principles to guide his actions. But he had also been through the great oil shock of 1973. Although he did not stress the point, he intervened to hold down the price of oil. This was a necessary but not a noble cause.

The immediate response to Bush’s August 8 speech was overwhelmingly positive, but within a month the constant tension in American foreign policy between interventionists and isolationists began to reassert itself. Critics wondered if Iraq really had been threatening Saudi Arabia. General Norman Schwarzkopf, commanding the UN forces in Operation Desert Shield, said that in the first three weeks of the crisis Iraq could have overrun Saudi Arabia without opposition. That Hussein had not done so perhaps indicated that he never intended to do so. In that case, what difference did it make which of the Arab sheiks got the oil profits? The critics were not proposing to cut a deal with Hussein. They supported sanctions. But they were not willing to see American boys dying for the emir of Kuwait. By fall, oil prices had settled down at their precrisis level; the world was getting along quite well without Iraqi or Kuwaiti oil.

In this confused situation, all sorts of unimaginable developments took place. Iran, two years after the end of an eight-year war with Iraq in which each side had lost a million men, became Iraq’s ally. Secretary Baker went to Syria, branded a terrorist nation by the U.S., to seek cooperation in the Persian Gulf. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait agreed to pay most of the cost of the American presence in the Middle East; Germany and Japan pitched in.

Hussein remained defiant. He held thousands of hostages from the U.S. and Western Europe and he proclaimed he was prepared to use them as a human shield against an American attack. He annexed Kuwait and closed the embassies in Kuwait City. He prepared defensive positions along the border with Saudi Arabia and increased his army there. He spoke of “the mother of all battles.”

Bush was just as defiant. From the first day of the crisis, he insisted that “this will not stand.” To a remarkable degree, he personalized the dispute—Bush versus Hussein. “I’ve had it.” “I am getting increasingly frustrated.” “Consider me provoked.” “I am not ruling out further options.” “I don’t want to say what I will or will not do.” “I will never—ever—agree to a halfway effort.” Jean Edward Smith comments, “It was as if foreign policy had become presidential autobiography.”

Bush began comparing Hussein with Hitler. It was a brilliant way to fend off pressure to negotiate; one could not negotiate with a Hitler. But it was a two-edged sword. By comparing Hussein with Hitler, and by calling for war crimes trials, Bush was committing the United States to a policy of unconditional surrender by Iraq. He was further implying that after the war the United States would take responsibility for Iraq and try to build there a secure state governed by men chosen by the people. But he did not want to do that. He wanted Iraq out of Kuwait and her military capabilities destroyed, but he had no intention of marching to Baghdad and occupying all of Iraq. At no time did he call for authority, from either the UN or Congress, to invade and overrun Iraq. But by insisting on the Hitler analogy, he invited people to believe that such was his policy.

Bush pushed ahead with plans for punishing Iraq on a World War II scale. On September 16, the Washington Post published an interview with Air Force Chief General Michael Dugan. He disclosed that the Joint Chiefs had decided to use “massive bombing” to defeat Iraq. He said that the Iraqi Air Force had “very limited capability,” that the pilots were inferior, that the Iraqi army was “incompetent.” He wanted to target Saddam Hussein and his family and personal guard as a way of ending the war quickly.

Although Dugan was dismissed for his indiscretions, what he said was true. Joint Chiefs Chairman General Colin Powell had told the President that if war came, the United States should fight all-out using overwhelming resources. From the field, Schwarzkopf was demanding a greater deployment and warning against a premature order to attack. So the military leaders wanted time, as they meanwhile planned how to use the overwhelming force to bring about the quickest possible victory at the lowest possible cost in American casualties. That was exactly what Bush wanted them to do.

In shaping his response, President Bush drew on his recollections of Munich 1938 and the 1972 Middle East war, and many other memories, but the one that haunted him, and the American people, was Vietnam. The legacy of Vietnam was a nation deeply resistant to sending American boys off to fight long, drawn-out wars in faraway places for murky causes. Bush was the chief inheritor of that legacy. He swore that if he went to war, it would not be at all like Vietnam. In place of hesitation, the gradual application of force, and target restraint, there would be all-out war, quick, massive, and decisive.

To carry out such an operation, General Schwarzkopf needed more troops, especially the U.S. VII Corps stationed in Stuttgart, combat ready, built to fight the Red Army. On October 30, 1990, Bush ordered a major reinforcement of the Desert Shield force, more than doubling it, from 250,000 to 550,000. The reinforcements would come from the reserves, the National Guard, and most of the combat ready active duty forces in the United States and Germany. A large proportion of the Air Force and Navy, also built to fight the Soviet Union, became part of Desert Shield. It was a bigger commitment than the United States made to South Vietnam. It was not made for defensive purposes, but to drive Iraq out of Kuwait and to destroy Iraq’s military capability.

Bush’s reinforcement of Desert Shield, and its clear implication that there would be war, brought forth criticism from both the left and the right. Pat Buchanan, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Edward Luttwak, all important conservative commentators on foreign policy, joined such liberals as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Ramsey Clark, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and George McGovern in asking whether America’s vital interests were at stake. The Bush administration answered yes, and produced new evidence in support. On the television talk shows the Sunday after Thanksgiving, Secretary Cheney suggested that Iraq was on the verge of developing a nuclear bomb.

If true, that made action imperative. But the time table was not clear; previous estimates had run from three to ten years before Iraq acquired a bomb. But Cheney was talking about weeks, at most months. Hussein with a bomb was unthinkable. This was one place where the Gulf crisis may be a precursor of the future: the mad dictator of a medium-sized country with nuclear bombs. It could be the most destabilizing element imaginable, and it appeared to be a possibility in any number of countries.

If the Bush administration exaggerated the imminent nuclear threat from Iraq to force action, the President was successful. In November, the United States got the Security Council to set a deadline for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait and to accept other UN demands or face attack under a resolution that permitted “all appropriate measures.” The deadline was January 15, 1991.

The military was leery of the rush to war. The generals and admirals had been in Vietnam as junior officers. Admiral William Crowe, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, counseled sanctions, not war. He told the Senate Armed Services Committee, “It is curious that just as our patience in Western Europe has paid off and furnished us the most graphic example in our history of how sanctions is sometimes the better course in dealing with problems, a few armchair strategists are counseling a near-term attack on Iraq. It is worth remembering that in the 1950s and 1960s, individuals were similarly advising an attack on the U.S.S.R. Wouldn’t that have been great?” Former Secretary of Defense and CIA Chief James Schlesinger told the Committee that sanctions were working.

The Bush administration’s answer was that sanctions would take a year to work, perhaps longer. Time was Bush’s enemy. Leaving aside the nuclear threat, there were the unpublicized but also critical factors of holding the alliance together and maintaining 550,000-plus American troops in the desert indefinitely. Highly publicized and sometimes suspect stories about Iraqi outrages inside Kuwait added to the sense of urgency. So it was necessary to give an ultimatum to Hussein: Get out in 47 days or there will be war. Many observers, at the UN and elsewhere, thought the ultimatum would work, that Hussein would withdraw.

Bush and Hussein were under intense pressure to open negotiations, Bush from the opponents of war, Hussein from his fellow Arab leaders. Both presidents made gestures. After the Security Council ultimatum was issued, Bush offered to enter into direct negotiations. On December 1, Hussein accepted, but he insisted that the Israeli-PLO situation be on the agenda, a part of his attempt to link the Iraqi takeover of Kuwait with the Israeli-occupation of Arab territory. He also insisted that he was too busy to meet with Secretary Baker before January 12, 1991. Bush replied that the conditions were unacceptable and no meeting took place.

In another effort to sway international opinion, Hussein announced on December 6 that all hostages held in Baghdad and Kuwait City would be freed within a week. This gained him nothing—his use of innocent civilians, many of them oil engineers working for the Iraqi government, as human shields evoked outrage around the world and cost him much. It exposed Baghdad to an air attack that Bush might not have ordered had the city held thousands of Westerners.

As the deadline approached, a fierce debate raged in the United States. It concerned timing. Opponents of war argued that the sanctions were working. CIA Director William Webster testified to the House Armed Services Committee that if sanctions continued, within three months the Iraqi air force would lose its ability to fly and within nine months Iraq’s ground forces would lose their combat readiness. Secretary Cheney countered; he told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “there is no guarantee that sanctions will force Hussein out of Kuwait” and warned that if military action were delayed, the multinational coalition might falter.

While the debate within the United States went on, the French came up with a peace proposal: Iraq out of Kuwait, Israel out of the West Bank and Gaza. On January 6, 1991, Baker rejected the proposal because of the link with Israel, which the Bush administration insisted was a separate subject to be addressed only after an unconditional Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait. Two days later, Bush asked Congress to adopt a resolution supporting the use of force against Iraq if Iraq did not comply with the January 15 deadline.

Bush did not ask for a declaration of war, but his request for a resolution supporting the use of force was the functional equivalent. Congress conducted an intense debate with strong arguments being made for continuing sanctions and for striking immediately. The final vote, on January 12, was close. Fifty-two Senators, mainly Republicans, voted for war, forty-seven opposed. In the House, where the division was also mainly along partisan lines, 250 voted for, 183 against. This was a triumph for Bush.

The President had been careful and impressive in pushing his policy. He had lined up an international coalition for taking the offensive; he had held the Arab states together; he had consulted with Congress in advance; he had built up a tremendous striking force in the desert; he left the conduct of the war to the military. He had, in short, avoided the mistake Truman had made in Korea (failure to consult with Congress before acting) and the mistakes Johnson had made in Vietnam (failure to line up international support, failure to launch the war with overwhelming force, failure to let the generals fight the war).

In the process, however, Bush made mistakes of his own. The chief was the failure to set a clear policy. The UN resolution authorized force to drive Iraq out of Kuwait and required Iraq to submit to UN inspection teams to insure that Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction were destroyed and to pay reparations for the rape of Kuwait. Those policies were clear enough, but Bush had continued to equate Hussein with Hitler and to insist that there would be war crimes trials, which implied a policy of unconditional surrender and the creation of a new government in Iraq. That was an open-ended goal.

On January 17, 1991, an air attack on Iraq and Kuwait by multinational forces, code-named Operation Desert Storm, began. It was massive. Fighter bombers, using so-called “smart” bombs, struck at the presidential palace, the airport, oil refineries, nuclear research reactors, and electrical plants in Baghdad, while B-52s dropped huge numbers of conventional bombs on Hussein’s Republican Guard troops in their trenches along the Kuwait-Saudi border, and the U.S. Navy fired more than 100 sea-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles at targets in Iraq.37

The next day, Hussein answered. Using surface-to-surface Scud missiles armed with conventional warheads, he bombarded targets in Israel and sent one Scud against the U.S. air base in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. The missile was destroyed in the air by a U.S. Patriot missile, the first destruction in combat of a ballistic missile. Bush rushed Patriot missiles to Israel to defend against Scuds; Israel did not retaliate against Iraq; Israeli restraint helped the coalition hold. One reason was that the Scud was a purely terrorist weapon, and not a very good one at that. It was inaccurate, slow-flying, and carried only a small amount of explosives. It could do no military damage.

In the following six weeks, the coalition air forces destroyed or incapacitated the Iraqi air force. Iraq defense was woefully ineffective. Flying almost without opposition, the coalition forces destroyed much of Baghdad and rendered the Iraqi army helpless. It was exactly what Bush had said it was going to be, quick, massive, and decisive.

Still Hussein would not give up. He continued to fire off Scud missiles, he continued to predict heavy American casualties in the mother of battles, and he spilled oil from five tankers in Kuwait into the Persian Gulf, creating an oil slick that was thirty-five miles long and ten miles wide, containing an estimated 450 million gallons of oil, the largest oil slick in history. But the same day, January 26, 1991, some eighty Iraqi Soviet-built warplanes, most of what was left of the Iraqi air force, flew to Iran, where the pilots were interned and the planes impounded. Hussein’s troops in Kuwait had taken heavy casualties; the troops who survived were shell-shocked; the Iraqi army had no way to get reinforcements or supplies to the front lines, no way to communicate, no way to carry out even the smallest reconnaissance mission.

As Hussein’s position became more desperate, Bush’s improved. In early February his administration announced that this tremendous display of America’s military might was not going to cost the taxpayers anything. Saudi Arabia ($16.8 billion), Kuwait ($16 billion), Japan ($10.7 billion), and Germany ($6.6 billion) had pledged to pay the bill. Nor was the air war over Iraq expensive in American lives. The anticipated ground battle, however, caused great apprehension, although not to General Schwarzkopf, who knew that he had blinded and blunted the Iraqi army and could easily outflank the remaining Iraqi troops in the trenches.

With no air force, a battered and helpless army, and the failure of the Scud attacks on Israel to rally other Arab states to his side or to do any serious damage to the American military machine in the desert, Hussein offered a compromise solution. On February 15 he announced his willingness to withdraw from Kuwait, but only on condition that the UN withdraw the twelve resolutions on Iraq passed in 1990; these included reparations and UN inspection teams in Iraq to insure the destruction of weapons of mass destruction.

Bush had won his initial objective—Iraq agreed to get out of Kuwait. But since the crisis began Bush had added other goals. He denounced the Iraqi peace proposal as “a cruel hoax, full of unacceptable old conditions and several new conditions.” Hussein then sent his Foreign Minister, Tariq Aziz, to Moscow to attempt to involve Gorbachev in the negotiations. Gorbachev, who was in a desperate situation himself, had been supportive of the Americans from the start; in return for that support he had gotten from Bush loans and credits, food, and a hands-off reaction by the United States toward the pressing problem of the succession of the Baltic States from the Soviet Union. Now he turned peacemaker. On February 22, 1991, after his meeting with Aziz, Gorbachev announced that Iraq had accepted Moscow’s peace plan. It called for a phased withdrawal from Kuwait, to be completed in three weeks, and the recision of the twelve UN resolutions on Iraq.

Bush replied that the plan was unacceptable and warned Hussein to get out of Kuwait by February 23. When he did not, Schwarzkopf launched the ground attack the next day. It was immensely and quickly successful. The mother of all battles never took place; the coalition forces, led by American armed units, Marines and paratroopers, outflanked and destroyed the Iraqi army in 100 hours. Iraqi casualties were in the tens of thousands; coalition casualties were in the dozens.

On February 25, Hussein announced that he had given the order to withdraw from Kuwait. Bush responded by saying that the coalition would “continue to prosecute the war with undiminished intensity” because Iraq still had not accepted the additional UN resolutions. The next day, the retreating Iraqi troops set fire to Kuwait’s oil wells. On February 27, Bush declared that “Iraq’s army is defeated and Kuwait is liberated.” He announced that the coalition would cease hostilities immediately.

That decision came as a shock. With the road to Baghdad open, the expectation was that United States and other coalition troops would occupy the city, take Hussein prisoner, put him on trial and establish a new government. But Bush never intended to assume such responsibilities and risks. American casualties in the 100-hour war had been 79 killed, 213 wounded. American casualties in street fighting in Baghdad could be expected to be much higher and might take weeks, even months, to complete. Bush’s astonishing popularity rating (90 percent, the highest ever for any president) would not have survived a protracted war. No UN resolution authorized the occupation of Iraq. The Arab partners in the coalition would not have supported a move on Baghdad. In any case, Bush and virtually everyone else anticipated that either the humiliated Iraqi army leaders would overthrow Hussein or that the people would revolt against him. Indeed, Bush encouraged the Iraqi people to do just that.

But the army did not act. Although Iraq accepted all the UN resolutions, Hussein found various ways of avoiding their genuine implementation, especially with regard to his nuclear weapon research. Meanwhile, the Kurds in the north and the Shi’a Muslims in the south revolted. The Kurds wanted a homeland of their own (which would have included parts of Iran, Turkey, and the Soviet Union), while the Shi’a wanted to join with Iran. These prospects were unwelcome to those involved, who feared an independent Kurdistan, a strengthened Iran, and a vacuum in Iraq.

Hussein put down the Kurd and Shi’a revolt with brutal and bloody efficiency. The American-led coalition, which had sprung to the defense of Kuwait, watched as Iraqi helicopter gunships and artillery devastated the rebels. The UN embargo against the sale of Iraqi oil continued, as did other economic sanctions, and the United States helped European nations establish refugee camps for the Kurds (nearly 2 million of them were made homeless), but there was no military response.

Within a year of Desert Storm, Baghdad had managed to repair much of the destruction, the rebels were crushed, Iraq was intact, Hussein was apparently more firmly in control than before the war. He was able to frustrate the UN inspection teams and even, in his own words in July 1992, “thumb his nose” at President Bush. Middle East peace talks, meanwhile, were as always stalled by Arab and Israeli intransigence.

These developments put the ongoing Gulf crisis in a different perspective. In February 1991, the American people had exulted in the triumph of American arms in the desert. There was a feeling of pride and unity in the country not experienced since 1945. Bush had proclaimed, “The specter of Vietnam has been buried forever in the desert sands of the Arabian peninsula,” and had declared in private, “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.” He had spoken of “a reestablished credibility for the U.S.” and had proclaimed a new world order based on the principle of unalterable opposition to aggression.

But over the next year the United States stood supinely aside as Iraq committed acts of aggression against the Kurds and Shi’a and as Serbia committed acts of aggression against Croatia and Bosnia, which made it appear that the United States would act quickly, massively, and decisively to counter aggression when it was directed against an oil-rich state, but not otherwise.

Bush’s critics, who had been silenced by the success of Desert Storm, began to speak out. Among the more eloquent were Robert Tucker and David Hendrickson, who wrote that the nation was in the grip of a pathology.

The essence of that pathology consists of the attitude now taken toward the use of force. We have fastened upon a formula for going to war—in which American casualties are minimized and protracted engagements are avoided—that requires the massive use of American firepower and a speedy withdrawal from the scenes of destruction.... Its peculiar vice is that it enables us to go to war with far greater precipitancy than we otherwise might while simultaneously allowing us to walk away from the ruin we create without feeling a commensurate sense of responsibility. It creates an anarchy and calls it peace. In the name of order, it wreaks havoc. It allows us to assume an imperial role without discharging the classic duties of imperial rule.... The Panamanian intervention in 1989, though on a much smaller scale, revealed many of the same characteristics.

So the debate over the role of America in a post-Cold War world was not ended by the success of Desert Storm. Would the nation be the world’s policeman? If so, how selective would the United States be in implementing a doctrine of no reward for aggression? In putting Vietnam behind it, did the United States embrace the imperial temptation to intervene whenever it saw fit, never otherwise? These questions were begging to be answered in the 1992 Presidential election, but Democratic nominee Bill Clinton hardly brought them up in a campaign that stressed the domestic economy. At the end of 1992, following Clinton’s victory in the election, the nation was still groping for a policy to guide its foreign relations in the post-Soviet Union, post-Cold War era.

You can support the site and the Armed Forces of Ukraine by following the link to Buy Me a Coffee.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!