COMMENTARY: Gulf War’s legacy not so clear after quarter-century


On Aug. 2, 1990, Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait, starting a chain of events which the United States is still dealing with internationally. The Gulf War of 1990-91 may have been an overwhelming success at the time for America and its allies, but its long-term legacy is less clear.

Iraq’s reasons for invading Kuwait are well-known. First, Iraq held a generations-long grudge about how the post-World War I division of borders ostensibly robbed it of territory.

Second, Iraq was upset that Kuwait’s oil production as part of OPEC exceeded quotas and lowered the worldwide cost of oil. Third, Saddam certainly wanted to take the attention away from domestic hardships that accrued as a result of the decade-long conflict with Iran.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

A fourth justification had to do with the expected reaction of the United States: Saddam thought that America would refuse to intervene, both because of its cloistered alliance with Iraq in its war with Iran and due to lingering effects of the “Vietnam syndrome.”

President George Bush’s immediate reaction to the Iraqi incursion was strong and unambiguous: “This aggression will not stand.” Over the next five months, Bush and the United States led a 70-nation coalition in preparing to counter Iraq’s invasion. The message to Iraq was tough and transparent: withdraw from Kuwait or be forced to do so. Despite several diplomatic efforts which sought to mitigate the situation, Iraq dug in and proceeded to squander Kuwait’s resources and terrorize its population. Meanwhile, coalition forces massed in Saudi Arabia, totaling more than a half-million by January 1991.

Following United Nations’ backing of action against Iraq, the Bush administration succeeded in getting a resolution of support from Congress, although that did not constitute an official declaration of war. Though most legislators approved of the operation to extract Iraq from Kuwait, support was not unanimous, and several members spoke of the potential for overwhelming casualties in facing Iraq’s formidable military, especially its vaunted Revolutionary Guard.

When Iraq ignored the coalition’s final warning to leave Kuwait, a coordinated air assault began on Jan. 17, 1991. Five weeks later, ground forces moved from Saudi Arabia into Kuwait, taking only 100 hours to defeat Iraqi forces there.

From the perspective of casualties, Operation Desert Storm was extremely one-sided. Coalition forces lost just 350 troops in combat, although nearly half were from the United States. Conversely, as many as 100,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed in action.

Some conditions which facilitated success in the Gulf War proved tentative. For instance, President Bush was able to construct a cadre of countries whose alliance with one another was aided by the end of the Cold War. A decade later, many of those same nations, like France, refused to take part in the U.S. war against Iraq. Further, coalition leaders convinced Saddam Hussein to forgo WMD use during the conflict, but were not able to prevent postwar chemical-weapons attacks against the Kurds.

One of the Gulf War coalition members, Syria, has recently been accused of deploying chemical weapons against its own populace during the civil war there. Additionally, the United States relied on the United Nations for backing to punish Iraq for its aggression, similar to how President Truman handled matters at the outset of the Korean War.

However, in the two and one-half decades since, relations between the UN and America have swung back and forth like a pendulum. Finally, the Gulf War permitted the Bush White House to thrive in the international arena, but domestic problems derailed President Bush’s re-election in 1992.

Of course, the controversy over whether the U.S. and its allies should have revised the mission of kicking Iraq out of Kuwait to defeating Iraq by taking Baghdad remains. Given the decade of impotent UN sanctions which followed the Gulf War and the ostensible necessity of ridding Iraq of nuclear weapons later, it would be easy to claim that the Bush team wimped out on wiping Iraq out in 1991.

Bush’s son, George W. Bush, did not hesitate to invade Iraq in 2003, and the immediate outcome certainly compared favorably to the Gulf War.

However, the George W. Bush administration did not anticipate the difficulty in postwar nation-building or the specter of several insurgent groups which turned the 2003 Iraq War victory into a quagmire. Along these lines, one thing is certain: the military commander of Gulf War coalition forces, American General Norman Schwarzkopf — a Vietnam War veteran — would not have allowed circumstances to degenerate the way they did 12 years later.

That dictators and global pariahs like Saddam Hussein no longer walk the Earth is a good thing. Not so definitive is U.S. policy in the Mideast since the Gulf War, where thousands of troops are serving and where blood from the sacrifice of American servicemen continues to stain the landscape.

Editor’s note: Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Law Studies director at Delaware State University. He is a past recipient of a military history fellowship from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Dr. Hoff served as DSU’s ROTC director from 1993 through 1999.

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