The Gulf War took place from August 1990 to February 1991. It was precipitated by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. It was commonly known as the ‘Iraq War’ before the United States invaded and occupied Iraq in 2003, coopting the term. Iraq’s invasion, led by President Saddam Hussein, was roundly condemned by the international community, and economic sanctions were immediately imposed. There followed a large international coalitional effort to remove Iraqi troops from Kuwait. The US played a prominent role in this coalition, though it had not historically (and has not since) automatically responded with alacrity to international problems that it did not stand to benefit considerably from. This paper will briefly summarize the official history of the Gulf War, and then comment at the end upon some possibly misunderstood aspects of the conflict.
Iraq’s motive for the invasion of Kuwait was allegedly that Kuwait had overproduced oil in such a way that it led to a serious cost to Iraq. It is also relevant that Iraq effectively considered Kuwait one of its territories, though this matter was over course disputed. Hussein believed that overproduction of petroleum in Kuwait was costing Iraq as much as $14 billion (US) per year. Saudi Arabia and Egypt, among Middle Eastern countries, were most opposed to the invasion. The United States was the country from outside the region that took the keenest interest. George Bush I assembled a foreign policy team that included NATO allies such as Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Egypt. Russia actually supported the US led coalition, though it did not itself commit troops to the effort. It is doubtful whether the US would have welcomed Russian troops, had they been offered. For one of the United States’ goals in taking action, then and since, in the Middle East has been to control the flow of oil away from its enemies or potential enemies.
All told a coalition of 39 countries was assembled, and a total of nearly 700,000 troops were committed to expelling Iraq from Kuwait; over half of the troops were from the United States. In 1990 Bush announced Operation Desert Shield. It began with an all-out air assault lasting for a few days. In less time than that even it was clear to Hussein that he had no choice but to withdraw. He offered a number of proposals concerning terms of surrender and withdrawal, but they were ignored or rejected. The West had not yet gotten everything that it wanted out of the incident. By early 1991 Kuwait had been ‘liberated’, and Iraq had agreed to terms of cease fire.
To say that the fighting was unbalanced would be an extreme understatement. While over 100,000 Iraqi soldiers died in the fighting, only 383 US troops were killed (and even fewer from other countries’ forces). But the real cost in human life of the Gulf War was an effect not of the war, but of the draconian sanctions that followed on Iraq. No one knows how many Iraqi civilians died as a result of the sanctions, imposed almost unilaterally by the US, but the number is far greater than 100,000—and we are here talking about non-combatants, including children.
Some opinions have obviously been interspersed with facts in the above. The remainder of the paper will discuss some elements of the Gulf War that are not often commented upon; and since they remain controversial, it is perhaps best to label what follows as opinion or conjecture.
Shortly after the Gulf War, Bush I announced semi-publicly that the US was now free to do whatever it wanted in the Middle East. This points to several interesting facts. One is that the US involvement in the Gulf War served as something of a test case. It wanted to see what the world would let it get away with doing. Ancillary benefits of the Gulf War include the establishment of US military bases in Saudi Arabia. Also relevant is the fact that the US presence in the Middle East buttresses the efforts of its client state, Israel, to claim as much of historical Palestine as it can possibly get away with claiming. It has already been mentioned that that the US-led sanctions against Iraq led to an effective genocide.
It must also not be forgotten that the Gulf War was the first large and public display of military might by the US since the Vietnam and Korean Wars. Those wars, especially the former, made the US look weak and foolish. It relished the opportunity to revise its public military image. The Gulf War also began to establish the fallacious precedent for the later Iraq War. It was reported that evidence came to light then of substantial military build-up in Iraq, possibly including weapons of mass destruction.
In summary, it has not been the purpose of this paper to defend Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. However, on the list of inappropriate military actions—even if we restrict our attention to the 20th century—this invasion barely ranks in the top one hundred in terms of severity and international consequence. The vast overresponse on the part of Iraq’s opponents, especially including the US, in itself suggests that the events of the Gulf War had relatively little to do with its inciting incident. And the US-led response resulted in far more tragedy, suffering, and pointless death, than the invasion itself.