Century of U.S. Meddling in the Middle East

Post 14. Desert Shield and the Selling of the First Gulf War

July 22, 2020

Republican Guard tank column [AP]

August 2, 1990. Iraq invaded Kuwait. Four mechanized divisions of Iraq’s elite Republican Guard, supported by helicopter gunships, rolled down Highway 80, all six lanes of it, and Iraqi commando units assaulted Kuwait City from the Gulf. 

Despite months of saber-rattling by Saddam Hussein, Kuwaiti military units were not on alert and many soldiers had taken leave to get away from the searing August heat. Although the Emiri Guard fiercely defended Dasman Palace, the royal residence, and a Kuwaiti tank and artillery battalion inflicted heavy losses on an Iraqi tank column at al-Jahra, the Battle of the Bridges, it was just a matter of time. Kuwaiti forces were soon overwhelmed. Within 48 hours Iraqi forces had taken Kuwait City, and the Emir, the royal family and anyone else who could had fled across the Saudi border. 

Within hours of the invasion, President George H.W. Bush, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze issued statements condemning the invasion, and on the evening of August 2, the U.N. Security Council, including the five permanent members, the United States, United Kingdom, France, Soviet Union and China, passed Resolution 660, demanding immediate withdrawal of Iraqi forces.

On August 6, the Security Council passed Resolution 661 which placed economic sanctions on Iraq, a full trade embargo excluding only medical supplies, food and other humanitarian aid, followed by resolutions for naval and air blockades “to halt all inward and outward shipping.” 

Saddam Hussein hunkered down. On August 8, he formally annexed Kuwait as the 19th province of Iraq and appointed as governor his cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid, who earned the nickname “Chemical Ali” for using poison gas on the Kurds. On August 9, the Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 662, declaring the annexation null and void.


Undeterred, Saddam set out, methodically and ruthlessly, to remake Kuwait into an Iraqi province and strip it of its Kuwaiti identity.

Iraqi officials took over government buildings, hospitals, schools and radio and television stations, destroyed computerized citizenship records, invalidated Kuwaiti driver’s licenses and plates, painted over “Kuwait” on road signs, gave Kuwait City a new name, Kadhima, an old Iraqi word for the region, declared the Iraqi dinar the official currency, and, of course, plastered Saddam’s face everywhere.

Kuwait City desalination plant [Steve McCurry / Magnum]

And the Iraqis plundered, starting with 2.5 million ounces of gold bullion, roughly one billion dollars, from Kuwait’s central bank, plus military hardware, hospital equipment, computers, household appliances, Kuwaiti Airlines 737’s, even the carousels from Entertainment City, their version of Disneyland, literally everything not nailed down and a lot that was, scooped up and trucked back up Highway 80. Christmas in Bagdad. And what the Iraqis didn’t steal, they trashed, vandalized, burned. When Iraqi forces finally left Kuwait six months later, the stolen and wrecked tab would run to $24 billion.

Saddam was banking on post-Vietnam anti-war sentiment keeping the U.S. from butting in, and on strong Arab pushback against the West putting troops on the ground in the Middle East. Not unreasonable assumptions. But what he did not fully grasp: oil, plus America’s Cold War fixation, would trump everything else. 

During the Iraq-Iran war, with both belligerents sinking oil tankers in the Gulf, there was growing concern in Washington about how the outcome could affect world oil supplies. A 1981 top-secret, now declassified, CIA report, Implications of Various Outcomes of the Iran-Iraq War, assessed what would happen if Iraq won, Iran won or they stalemated, which, as it turned out, is pretty much what happened.

In any scenario, the greatest danger was a widening of the war and prolonged interruptions in the flow of oil from the Gulf, causing a big spike in the spot price of oil, the going rate in world commodity markets for the U.S. and everybody else. 

In the worst case, per the report, the spot price could triple, causing high inflation and economic stagnation, even a world-wide recession, and would be especially devastating for LDC (less developed countries) debtor nations, e.g., Brazil, India, Chile, South Korea, the Philippines, etc., because with much higher oil prices they would have no way of servicing their debt, undermining the stability of international finance and banking systems, in short, a cascade of very bad economic fallout. At least that was the worry.  

In May 1984, a National Security Council Planning Group, chaired by then Vice President George H.W. Bush, concluded that there was a high likelihood that the Iraq-Iran war would spread to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. But if that was so, why was the U.S. doing “whatever was necessary” to prolong the war and make sure Iraq did not lose?

In any case, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, President Bush had oil on his mind. Even with Kuwait’s oil, Iraq controlled barely 20% of global reserves, but what if Saudi Arabia, with its 26% share, was next? On August 8, citing top-secret satellite images, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney claimed that Iraqi tanks were massed on the border, with nothing but flat hard sand, a superhighway for tanks, all the way to the Saudi oil fields. 

But Jean Heller, reporting for the St. Petersburg Times, obtained commercial satellite images showing nothing but empty desert where all the Iraqi tanks were supposed to be. And the CIA, which had warned that Iraq would invade Kuwait, was now telling the White House that Saddam would not, could not – just for starters, too many broken down tanks – invade Saudi Arabia. 

And for what it’s worth, on August 12 Saddam had told Joseph Wilson, Deputy Chief of Mission in Bagdad, that invading Saudi Arabia never crossed his mind, he only wanted to use Kuwait as a bargaining chip for concessions from his OPEC partners and get Iraq back on its feet after its ruinous 8-year war with Iran. 

C-141 Starlifter disembarking U.S. troops – Dhahran [AP]  

Whatever the truth or half-truth of Cheney’s assertions, Bush called King Fahd and told him, “Saddam Hussein won’t stop,” and 48 hours later, 2,300 82nd Airborne paratroops and an F-15C Tactical Fighter Wing were in Saudi Arabia. Within a week, U.S. Military Airlift Command (MAC) C-141 Starlifters and C-5 Galaxies, flying 38-hour missions, were landing every seven minutes, 24/7, at Dhahran Air Base, and by the end of October had put 230,000 troops and their equipment on the ground. The White House dubbed it “Operation Desert Shield.”

So far, so good. But if the Bush administration wanted to enforce Resolution 660, it had some selling to do. First off, persuade Arab countries to buy in, putting an “Arab face” on the U.S. military deployment in Saudi Arabia, caretaker of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s holiest places. 

This effort had been kick-started back on August 10 when the Arab League voted to send troops to defend Saudi Arabia. Before the vote, Saddam, by far the most secular of Middle East leaders, wrapped himself in the flag of Islam, calling on all Arabs to rise up against foreign intervention, ”Tell the infidels there is no place for them in the lands of the Arabs.” 

But Saddam had violated one of the basic tenets of the Arab League Charter: thou shall not use force of arms to settle disputes with another Arab state – Iranians are Persians, not Arabs – and no one knew who or what might be next on Saddam’s agenda.

Still, the League was deeply divided. Only 12 of the 21 League members had voted yes, oil states Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain, plus Egypt, Morocco, Somalia, Lebanon, Djibouti and Iraq’s longtime nemesis, Syria. Voting no: Libya, Sudan, Yemen and the PLO – which irritated the Israelis no end – and the rest of the opposition, Jordan, Tunisia and Algeria, along with Iraq, did not even bother to show up.

On August 8, Bush declared that the U.S. deployment to Saudi Arabia was “wholly defensive,” but in the next breath demanded the unconditional withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait, and two weeks later, on August 21, said, “I don’t rule in or rule out the use of force.”

To protect the Saudis? Hardly. Massed tanks on the border or not, if Saddam had not invaded Saudi Arabia immediately after taking Kuwait, he certainly wouldn’t do so in the face of the massive U.S. buildup. It was clear, no matter what gloss he put on it, Bush had already made up his mind: the U.S. was going to war against Saddam Hussein. 

[Doug Mills/ AP]

Why? In early 1990, Bush was in the middle of a very contentious defense budget fight with Congress, which was calling for manpower cuts almost three times his recommendations, massive defense contracts were at risk. At the same time, his approval ratings were tanking, from 80% in January following the U.S. invasion of Panama, to 60% in July and trending down from there.

Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait was a golden opportunity for Bush to get the defense budget he wanted, greatly increase U.S. presence in the Persian Gulf and, in the bargain, hike his ratings. A bases loaded triple.

In fact, when the otherwise hawkish Dick Cheney recommended a policy of containment, of defending Saudi Arabia but not using the military to force Iraq out of Kuwait, Bush replied, “I don’t think there’s time politically for that.”

Perhaps Bush was referring to Middle East politics, to how long or short the U.S. could keep its troops in Saudi Arabia. But according to Bob Woodward, author of The Commanders, The Pentagon and the First Gulf War, William J. Crowe, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs from 1985 to 1989, told him that “much of the discussion at National Security Council meetings was political, decisions were made based on their likely impact on the Congress, the media and public opinion, and the focus was on managing the reaction.” In short, on Bush’s reelection chances.

Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr.
[David Longstreath / AP]

In any case, the U.S. military was ready for war with Iraq. In 1989, with the Soviet Union breaking up – as it did officially in December 1991 – U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) moved Iraq up to the top of its potential Gulf adversaries list, and conducted war simulations that included an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait or Saudi Arabia.

General Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr., West Point ’56, who headed CENTCOM, had cut his combat teeth as a battalion commander in Vietnam and wore three Silver Stars and two Purple Hearts. As many career officers embittered by the Vietnam War left the Service, Schwarzkopf stayed in and helped build a modern all-volunteer force. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, he would carry out the war plan constructed on his watch. 

In early September, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker embarked on an 11-day tour of nine Arab and other countries to cobble together a broad-based coalition supporting military action to force Iraq out of Kuwait. It was quickly labeled “tin cup diplomacy,” because Baker was also “shaking down,” one could say, other countries to kick in on the cost. 

James Baker [U.S. Dept. of State]

Saudi Arabia was first, because Desert Shield was protecting it from invasion, and because it is really, really rich. Baker asked Fahd for $15 billion. He agreed, but insisted, “You have to ask Kuwait for the same amount.”

Baker did the very next day, and the Emir, comfortably ensconced in the Riyadh Sheraton, didn’t blink, after all, $15 billion was really not much at all to get his big pool of oil back. 

Next on the list, Syria’s Hafez Assad. He hated Saddam, who for years had been trying to kill him, and he was eager to get back in the somewhat good graces of the Americans, who cut off diplomatic relations after the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut. With the Saudis, Egyptians and Syrians on board, Baker’s coalition had its Arab face. 

Now for a much tougher sell, convincing the American people and Congress. Americans had supported, 78% yes to 17% no, Bush’s decision in early August to send U.S. forces to protect Saudi Arabia. But in four polls between mid-August and November 1990, they were evenly divided, 47% pro and 43% con, the gap within the margin of error, about going to war over Kuwait. 

The American public, most of whom couldn’t find Kuwait on a map, had good reason to be confused, ambivalent, divided. Back on August 15, Bush had said, “Our jobs, our way of  life, our own freedom, and the freedom of friendly countries around the world, will suffer if control of the world’s great oil reserves fell into the hands of that one man, Saddam Hussein.” Hyperbole on several levels. 

Our “way of life, our freedom,” was on the line only if Bush meant that American soldiers would have to die so we would be free to run our cars on really cheap gas, $1.14 a gallon in 1990, $1.79 in today’s dollars. And Cheney was right about this much: the U.S. could defend Saudi Arabia and with sanctions squeeze Saddam out of Kuwait without sending in American soldiers.  

Not much traction there, so Bush took a different tack, calling it “naked aggression” that posed “an extraordinary threat to the national security . . . of the United States.” Because two petrostates were fighting about who owned a bigger share of the Rumaila oil field? Because Saddam had ousted the al-Sabahs and their cousins, a passel of oil-rich sheiks who, in the words of Senator Patrick Moynihan (Dem. NY), former Ambassador to the U.N., were a “particularly poisonous enemy” of the U.S. and Israel? A threat to national security?

But even as he was casting here and there for a compelling, or at least plausible, rationale, Bush plowed ahead with war plans. In early October, Congress formed a bipartisan group with which Bush could consult, as required by the 1973 War Powers Resolution (WPR), before going to war, before, more precisely, “the introduction of U.S. Armed Forces into hostilities or situations where [hostilities are] imminent.” The WPR defines “hostilities” very broadly, i.e., “a state of confrontation in which no shots have been fired but there is a clear and present danger of armed conflict,” which fit this situation to a T.

Under the WPR, the President must end deployment of U.S. forces if, within 60 days, Congress has not declared war or otherwise authorized the deployment. And this wasn’t going to happen unless and until Bush lined up more ducks in a row.

But on October 30 when Bush met with the congressional consultation group, he didn’t even mention the WPR, telling them only that he had decided to double U.S. forces in the region. Then, on November 9 – very intentionally after the mid-term elections – he ordered the deployment of an additional 200,000 troops to insure “an adequate offensive military option.” Shield was about to turn to Storm. 

[Joseph Sohm / Getty]

Opponents in Congress, who saw deployment of more troops for exactly what it was, a path to war, started holding hearings, and the American people weren’t buying it either, public support plummeted. 

When asked in a Gallup poll right before Thanksgiving, “If the current situation . . . does not change by January, would you favor or oppose the  U.S. going to war . . . to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait,” now 51% said no, only 37% yes, the rest undecided. 

In his 2015 oral history, Baker said candidly, “We handled [it] very poorly, . . we dumped it out publicly without doing any Congressional . . . consultation, . . and then we had to dig out of a hole.”

So on November 14, Baker came back with the when-all-else-fails talking point of U.S. politics, telling reporters, “. . . [W] cannot permit {Saddam] to sit astride our economic lifeline, . . . if you want to sum it up in one word, it’s jobs.” 

Nonsense. American jobs were not at stake in the Gulf. OPEC had responded to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait by increasing production to more than make up for the embargoed Iraqi and Kuwaiti oil. Even Algeria and Libya, two of Iraq’s strongest supporters, increased output. Business trumped politics. In fact, at OPEC’s annual year-end meeting in December 1990, four months after the invasion, the oil ministers from Iraq and Kuwait sat side by side in the give and take about future production quotas and prices. 

But on November 29, Bush went back to the U.N. Security Council with Resolution 678, which would give Iraq until January 15, a “pause of good will” Bush called it, to withdraw from Kuwait, and authorized “all necessary means” to force it to do so. The rationale for January 15, according to Baker, if Saddam had invaded Kuwait in two days, he could certainly withdraw his forces in two months. 

Passing 678 was not a given. China and the Soviet Union, as two of the five permanent members along with the U.S., France and Great Britain, had veto power over Security Council actions. China, looking for relief from sanctions imposed after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, abstained – even then the Chinese were taking the long view – but the Soviet vote was more complicated.  

For starters, the Kremlin viewed Iraq as a “client state,” and had 200 military advisors in Iraq. Yevgeny Primakov, who in 1999 would become President of Russia, knew Saddam personally and was now Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s personal envoy to Bagdad. Parroting Saddam, Primakov argued that the U.S. deployment in the Gulf would create “big doubts in the world about whether the Soviet Union was a true superpower.” 

James Baker: “The Arabists in the Soviet Foreign Ministry (Primakov among them) were coming up all the time with proposals to . . . give Saddam Hussein some face saving [way] to not get out unconditionally as the U.N. resolutions required . . . but we kept turning Gorbachev down.”

To his credit, Gorbachev persisted. At their Malta Summit, December 2 – 3, 1989, he and Bush declared “an end to the Cold War.” When they met again in Helsinki nine months later, September 8 – 9, 1990, only a month after Iraq invaded Kuwait, Gorbachev made clear to Bush that he did not exclude military force as a last resort, but wanted the primary focus to be on a political settlement. 

Mikhail Gorbachev [Getty Images]

Gorbachev: “We already had the experience of Afghanistan, Vietnam, Namibia, Nicaragua. It only led to bigger conflicts, bigger casualties, bigger destruction, bigger military spending. . . . We saw that when we [treated] those problems politically, it was possible to untangle the knots.”

If only there had been two Gorbachevs at Helsinki, one on each side of the table. To be clear, with the breakup of the Soviet Union accelerating, Gorbachev’s diplomatic efforts were not just altruistic statesmanship. He was under severe pressure from anti-secessionist hard-liners in the Kremlin, and the last thing he needed during an existential domestic crisis was the U.S. throwing its military weight around in the Gulf.

Brent Scowcroft, National Security Advisor to George Bush: “I believe that Gorbachev was trying with his mediation proposals to salvage some influence and bolster his ever-weakening political strength at home. He was fighting for his political survival.”

In fact, Gorbachev wanted Bush to agree, after resolving the Kuwait crisis, to an international conference focused on Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and southern Lebanon. During the Helsinki Summit, one Arab diplomat in Moscow told Bill Keller of the New York Times, ”I don’t think the Soviets mean to postpone the resolution of this most urgent problem [Kuwait] until we can solve the problems of the Palestinians and Lebanon. Clearly you do not want linkage in the sense of a concession to Saddam Hussein. But the issues are linked in that these problems are all symptoms of the larger cancer in the Middle East.” No doubt, but Mikhail had no chance on that front; for Bush, Israel was the hot third rail of American politics.  

In the end, Gorbachev concluded that “the two superpowers . . . had to show [they] could cooperate . . . if we [could not] . . . everything else would be null and void.” So still hoping he could pull a diplomatic rabbit out of a hat in the seven short weeks before the January 15 deadline, and mollified by the use of the ambiguous “all necessary means” in lieu of “military force,” Gorbachev bravely agreed, the Soviet Union would vote yes on 678.

U.N. Security Council voting on 678 [Shannon Stapleton / Reuters]

Baker said later, “We were [not] going [ahead with the resolution] until we knew we had the votes.” The final tally November 29, 1990: 12 – 2 with one abstention, Yemen and Cuba voting no. The U.S. punished Yemen by cutting off $70 million in foreign aid – Baker called it “the most expensive vote the ambassador from Yemen would ever cast.” As for Cuba, well, it had already been under a full U.S. trade embargo for more than 30 years. 

Meanwhile, back on the home front, in an early December poll, public opinion had turned upside down, with 53% now yes to war and only 37% no, although many still hedged, 46% saying the U.S. should continue sanctions and push for a diplomatic solution.

So what caused this dramatic 22-point shift in public opinion? Was it just because 678 had passed? Or was there something else going on?   

There was. Within days of the invasion, the Kuwaiti government in exile had, with the help and encouragement of D.C.-based “perception management” guru John Rendon, created a public relations committee called “Citizens for a Free Kuwait” (CFK), a classic PR front, which retained Hill & Knowlton (H&K), then the world’s largest PR firm, to run what would be by far the most extensive foreign-funded campaign to manipulate American public opinion, at least until Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election.

The Kuwaitis funneled $11.9 million to the CFK, $10.8 million as fees to H&K and $100,000 a month to Rendon. His firm, the Rendon Group, would go on to earn millions more from CIA contracts between 1991 and 2003 to “create the conditions for the removal of Saddam Hussein from power.”

Neither CFK nor H&K complied with the Foreign Agents Registration Act, but the Justice Department turned a blind eye because H&K’s Washington office was headed by Craig Fuller, chief of staff for Bush when he was Vice-President during the Reagan administration, and Robert K. Gray, Chairman of H&K/USA, was Communications Director for Reagan’s 1980 campaign and co-chair of his inaugural committee. It was an inside job, or might as well have been. 

H&K pulled out all the stops. From its 12 U.S. offices, H&K distributed press releases, organized public rallies, minted new observances like National Free Kuwait Day and National Prayer Day for Kuwait, gave away tens of thousands of Free Kuwait T-shirts, distributed tens of thousands of copies of The Rape of Kuwait, a quickie (Jan. 1, 1991) paperback by Jean P. Sasson, and ginned up video interviews with Kuwaitis telling horror stories from relatives and friends trapped in Kuwait, passing them off as news to radio and television stations, all to convince the American public and politicians that Kuwait was a small defenseless democracy being ravaged by Saddam Hussein, the devil incarnate. 

H&K had already determined through focus groups that atrocities, especially against women and children, moved the public opinion needle much more than oil, jobs or national security. 

To be sure, Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait was brutal, as military occupations invariably are. Iraqi forces killed an estimated 1,000 Kuwaitis, and tortured hundreds, if not thousands, more. And there were rapes, hundreds of rapes. The stories were horrific. Kalid Shalawi, acting chief of Mubarak Hospital, called the Iraqis “psychopaths.” 

On October 10, 1990, the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, chaired by California Democrat Tom Lantos and Illinois Republican John Porter – not a congressional committee, just a coalition of like-minded politicians – held a hearing on Capitol Hill focused on Iraqi human rights violations in Kuwait. Lantos and Porter were also co-chairs of the Congressional Human Rights Foundation that occupied rent-free space in H & K’s Washington office. In short, the hearings were part of the campaign to gin up support for war against Saddam Hussein.

Nayirah [ABC]

One of the witnesses was a 15-year old Kuwaiti girl, Nayirah, her last name withheld, according to the Caucus, to protect her family members still in Kuwait. Sobbing, she gave a shocking account about volunteering at the al-Addan Hospital in Kuwait City and seeing “Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns and go into the room where . . . babies were in incubators, . . . take the babies out of the incubators, . . . and leave the babies on the floor to die on the cold floor.” No surprise, H&K staff had coached her and then repeated her testimony in media kits distributed to 700 television stations. 

Nayirah’s tale sparked a firestorm of outrage, her testimony aired on ABC’s Nightline and NBC’s Nightly News, and repeated as fact on countless talk shows, newspapers and magazines, and ultimately in testimony before actual congressional committees. President Bush himself told and retold the story, ten times by actual count. 

Not that it was a new news. Way back on September 5, Abdul Wahab Al-Fowzan, Kuwaiti health minister in exile, charged at a press conference that Iraqi soldiers “evicted patients and systematically looted the hospitals of high-tech equipment, ambulances, drugs and plasma,” resulting in the deaths of 22 premature babies. Ten days later, April Glaspie’s successor, Edward Gnehm, Jr., U.S. ambassador-designate to Kuwait, repeated to reporters precisely what Al-Fowzan had alleged. So did Newsweek, the Washington Post, NPR and dozens of other media outlets.

But it barely registered with the American public until a 15-year old girl said it in prime time. Saddam the baby-killer. Overnight it became a catalyst for war. 

Except it wasn’t true. It turned out that Nayirah was the daughter of Saud Nasir al-Sabah, Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States, she hadn’t volunteered at the hospital, only visited it once, and didn’t see any babies snatched from incubators. In March 1992, Dr. Fayeza Youseff, Chief of Obstetrics, and Dr. Fatima Khafaji, a pediatrician at al-Addan, told John Martin of ABC News that Nayirah’s tale never happened. But H&K had done its job. U.S. public opinion did a 180 and the Security Council passed Resolution 678.

Now Bush needed to get Congress on board. To show he had gone the last mile, Bush sent Baker to Geneva to meet with Iraq’s Foreign Minister, Tariq Aziz. Baker wanted a meeting date in December, but Saddam wanted January 13, calculating that if negotiations failed at the 11th hour, he would be able to buy more time. They compromised on January 9, just six days before the January 15 deadline.

Tariq Aziz with James Baker [Corbis]

The meeting lasted six and a half hours. Aziz tried bargaining. Although he turned himself inside out to avoid uttering the word “Kuwait,” Aziz proposed “an Arab solution,” with Arab leaders working out a deal and presenting it to the U.N. for approval, and he tried inserting conditions into the conversation, e.g., if Iraq withdraws, Israel must withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza. 

No dice, no linkage, replied Baker, unconditional and immeditate withdrawal is your only option. Take it or leave it.

He added, in words at once blunt and circumspect, “I owe it to you, out of respect, to tell you what the consequences will be. . . . Don’t think if war comes, this will be parallel to your previous experience,” referring to Iraq’s bloody eight-year war with Iran. Translation: We are not Iran, you have no idea what you are up against. 

According to Baker, “[Aziz] didn’t buy it. He said . . . you haven’t fought in the desert before, your Arab allies will turn and run, they will not fight their brothers, you will be surprised at the strength and . . . courage of the Iraqi military.” Whistling past the graveyard.

Baker then gave Aziz a letter from Bush to Saddam that nailed the point home. “. . . [U]nless you withdraw from Kuwait completely and without condition, you will lose more than Kuwait, . . . what is at stake here is . . . the future of Iraq. . . .” It went on, “We will not tolerate the use of chemical or biological weapons [Saddam had threatened to “make fire eat up half of Israel” if the U.S. attacked Iraq], . . . terrorist actions, or the destruction Kuwait’s oilfields . . . you will pay a terrible price.” In short, nuclear weapons, if necessary, and regime change in Baghdad. 

Aziz read the letter but refused to accept and deliver it to Saddam Hussein, saying, “[W]hen a head of state writes to another . . . and he really intends to make peace, he should use polite language.” Still, the talks were courteous, no raised voices, no table pounding, but Baker was firm, Aziz intransigent. Not that Aziz had any room to maneuver, Barzan Ibrahim, Saddam’s half-brother and head of the Mukhabarat, the Iraqi security service, was sitting on his right and Saddam’s personal interpreter on his left. 

As he exited the meeting, Aziz told reporters that the U.S. had “infinite patience” in waiting for U.N. resolutions about Israel to be enforced, “but when it comes to Arabs, you raise a stick.” Fair point. But Iraq was, Aziz added, “preparing for the worst,” and Baker ordered the last five American diplomats still in Baghdad to catch the next flight out. 

[Charles Tasnadi / AP]

Six time zones later in Washington, President Bush said in a press conference, “[W]e oppose linkage [to other issues, e.g., Israel and the Palestinians] . . . this is about the invasion of Kuwait, the liquidation of a member of the United Nations, . . . of the Arab League. . . . And it has to do with a new world order . . . that is only going to be enhanced if this . . . peacekeeping function of the United Nations proves to be effective.” 

New world order. Really? Just 16 years earlier, 1974, Turkey assaulted and occupied the northern third of Cyprus, forcibly expelling the entire ethnic Greek majority. The following year, 1975, Indonesia invaded and annexed the tiny island nation of East Timor – 200,000 people perished in the repression that followed – and Morocco took Western Sahara, its small, resource rich neighbor, forcing almost its entire population into exile. And in 1967 Israel attacked Jordan, Egypt and Syria and ever since has relentlessly expanded its occupation and confiscation of Palestinian land in the West Bank and Golan Heights. 

What did the U.S. do about these “liquidations”? Nothing. Indeed, worse than nothing. Because all of four countries are, at least from our perspective, U.S. allies. We vetoed dozens of Security Council resolutions condemning them, and even now continue to give all four many millions in unrestricted military and economic aid. So much for principles and a new world order. 

Meanwhile, back in Kuwait, Saddam had painted himself into a corner, he really didn’t have a Plan B. But what if he had, before the January 15 deadline, withdrawn his forces away from the Saudi border and started pulling out of Kuwait City?

When asked this hypothetical during his 2015 oral history, Baker said, “Well, that would have made our job [holding the coalition together] more difficult, but [we had] no intention or willingness to back down from the UN resolutions.” In short, no give, no deals, and January 15 is a hard deadline.  

What was the big rush? The CIA estimated that U.N. sanctions under Resolution 661 had blocked 95% of imports and 97% of exports in and out of Iraq, ratcheting up political pressures inside Iraq to the point that it would be very difficult for Saddam to sustain Iraq’s presence in Kuwait more than a year at the outside.

Schwarzkopf himself said on September 13: “If we figure, . . . that Iraq is losing one billion in revenues every day sanctions are in effect, then it’s going to be interesting to see how much loyalty he has in his armed forces when he’s unable to pay their salaries, feed and resupply them with fuel, spare parts and ammunition. So I think that’s the next move right now.”

And General Colin Powell, then Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recommended a strategy of sanctions and containment, saying that the 200,000 U.S. troops already on the ground in Saudi Arabia were more than enough to deter Saddam from further aggression. So why not give sanctions and diplomacy more than four months to work? 

            “The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.” Tolstoy

Gorbachev had a handle on why Bush was in a hurry, saying, “It was very easy for us to understand, . . . in America you only win your ratings by decisive action, if you start all sorts of discussions, then you are not President [any more].” He knew us better than we know or admit to ourselves.

On January 8, Bush asked Congress for a joint resolution authorizing the use of U.S. forces pursuant to U.N. Resolution 678, in one word, war against Iraq if it did not withdraw by January 15. Baker said later, “The risk in going to Congress . . . for a vote frankly was greater than the risk of trying to pull together an international coalition. . . . We never would have brought it to a vote in the Security Council unless we knew we had it won.” 

Bush was asked if he would take military action without a resolution from Congress, Bush replied, “I don’t think I need it. . . there have been 200 . . . uses of force in our history and very few declarations of war.” So much for the War Powers Act. For Bush Senior, one man, the President, could decide to take the nation to war, with profound downstream consequences that hinge entirely on who happens to be in the White House. 

Sam Nunn [AP]

On January 10, Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (Dem. ME) and Sam Nunn (Dem. GA), Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, offered a resolution to continue sanctions and hold off on war. It went down 46 – 53. On January 13, just two days before the January 15 deadline, the Senate voted by virtually the same margin, 52 – 47, in favor of the use of force resolution. 

Ten Democrats including, notably, Al Gore (TN), Harry Reid (NV) and Joe Lieberman (CN), joined 42 Republicans in voting yes, only two Republicans, Charles Grassley (Iowa) and Mark Hatfield (OR), voted no. Later that day, the House followed, 250 – 183, to approve the resolution, with Bernie Sanders (Ind. ME) among those voting no. In the U.S., it takes a brave politician to vote against going to war.

In his 2015 oral history, Baker said, “We would not have won the vote [in Congress] without Geneva, we simply wouldn’t,” but, he admitted, “I think we would have gone anyway . . . even if we had lost the vote.” 

By January 15, the get-out-or-else deadline, 34 countries had signed on: Argentina, Australia, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belgium, Canada, CzechoslovakiaDenmark, Egypt, France, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Kuwait, Morocco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Niger, Norway, Oman, Pakistan, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Spain, Syria, the UAE, the U.K. and the U.S., the largest military coalition since World War II. 

Just two days before the deadline, Gorbachev called Bush to say, per Baker, “I’ve worked this out [so] we can get Saddam out of Kuwait without a war.” Bush’s response: “[But this] is  . . . not an unconditional withdrawal . . . and therefore it is unacceptable.” Dick Cheney was less gracious, he told Baker, “Stiff Gorbachev.” 

On January 17, two days after the deadline, U.S., British, French and Saudi warplanes launched a 39-day strategic bombing campaign, causing massive destruction of Iraq’s civilian infrastructure, followed by a 100-hour ground war that sent what was left of Iraqi forces in Kuwait fleeing north on the “Highway of Death.” In the tradition of awesomely named military campaigns, e.g., Overlord (Normandy landing, 1944), Rolling Thunder (Vietnam strategic bombing, 1965 – 1968), etc., this one was called Desert Storm.


Postscript: Remember Joseph Wilson, Deputy Chief of Mission in Bagdad? When a reporter suggested that April Glaspie should have spoken more directly in her July 25 meeting with Saddam, Wilson asked rhetorically: “What would you have had her say? If you invade Kuwait, we will bring the B-52’s over and bomb you back into the stone age. No diplomat would ever say anything like that.” 

But, Joe, that’s exactly what did happen, we brought the B-52’s over and bombed Iraq almost, if not quite, back into the stone age.



John R. MacArthur, Second Front: Censorship in the First Gulf War (2004)

Stauber and Rampton, Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry (2002)

Susan B. Trento, The Power House: Robert Gray and the Selling of Access and Influence in Washington (1992)

To Sell a War, CBC Documentary – Neil Docherty, Producer (1992)


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We live in perilous times, democracy is under attack, rationality and compassion are in short supply, and our planet, our home for 200,000 years, is burning up. We must resist, we must work for a better world. MacLeod Post is my voice in that struggle.

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