While the US stumbled in confronting the crisis in July 1990, George Bush quickly assembled a massive Coalition to destroy Saddam Hussein’s army.
Thirty years ago, on August 2, 1990, Saddam Hussein unleashed his massive army to invade the small Gulf state of Kuwait. It was one of the first major post-Cold War crises and the US decision to eject Saddam shaped the 1990s and continues to shape the Middle East. It set in motion, or fueled, a series of important changes in the region, including the weakening of Iraq, the rise of Islamist extremism, strengthening of Iran, growing US-Gulf ties, rise of Kurdish rights, increased American role in the region and Israel’s recognition that it could face existential threats requiring better air defense.
What follows is a look at some of the key parts of the conflict that resound today.
George H.W Bush’s administration used the conflict to re-shape world order and assume America’s role as the global hegemon that would direct world affairs for a generation. While the US stumbled in confronting the crisis in July 1990, consulting with Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and enabling Saddam’s arrogance, Bush quickly assembled a massive Coalition to destroy Saddam’s army. This was a watershed moment for the so-called new world order which US Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump have set about dismantling by rolling back US power and influence.
While Obama said in 2016 that conflicts in the Middle East “date back millennia,” Donald Trump has argued that US forces should not fight in “far away lands” that Americans have never heard of. While Bush’s team consulted with “Arabists” in the State Department according to US generals at the time, the current US administration doesn’t consult with almost any experts on the Middle East, preferring instead an American first approach. This is a radical difference from the era of 1990 when Bush sought to project American power.
Israel-US relations have changed dramatically
US policymakers in 1990 appeared to view Israel as a bothersome ally, one that got in the way of the Bush administration’s regional plans. While some officials, such as Dick Cheney were known as being more pro-Israel over time, many were harsh critics. They seemed to feel that the US should be closer to the Arab states and if the Arab states claimed the main hurdle to US relations was Israel then Israel should get the cold shoulder.
It is now known that Israel came very close to striking back against Saddam Hussein for his rocket attacks on Israel during the Gulf War. Defense Minister Moshe Arens pushed for the strike, according to 2018 reports. Yitzhak Shamir was being pressured by Bush not to retaliate and Dick Cheney played for time to try to get the US to stop the Scud missile attacks. The New York Times reported the Israeli retaliation plan in March 1991, after the Israeli threat had passed. The US during the war was worried that Saddam would provoke Israel and split the Arab coalition that Bush had assembled.
Things have changed today. Israel is no longer viewed as the major problem in the Middle East and the Palestinian issue is not seen as central to Middle East peace. The current US administration is deeply supportive off Israel and is not trying to balance its support for Israel with support for Israel’s enemies. Today the Arab states have also shifted. Israel has peace with Jordan and Egypt and also has warmer relations with the Gulf. This is a major change from 1990.
While Israel faced an uphill battle in 1990 to get its views across in Washington, today Israel faces other challenges. While it doesn’t face major Arab states, it faces Iran and also increased left wing anger in the US over Israel’s role in the West Bank. Back in 1990 the question was not about a two state solution but more about inter-state relations. US-Jordan peace was a product o the Oslo process and this was in some ways a result of the defeat of Saddam and sidelining of Moscow. A weak Moscow and defeated Saddam meant Palestinians were isolated from major supporters and could come to the peace table without pretensions of destroying Israel immediately. US pressure on Israel, including at the UN, has no shifted radically, as has US-Israel defense cooperation on programs like Iron Dome. Israeli technology is now recognized by the US as a major benefit as opposed to a time when Israel was viewed as a potential net liability for US defense cooperation.
Saddam had a modern army, the US vanquished it in conventional battle
Saddam Hussein has a massive and modern army. He had air defense, masses of tanks and armored personnel carriers, artillery, poison gas, Scud missiles and a nuclear program. This was a serious military machine, the likes of which was unique to the Middle East. Saddam had used his army against Iran for eight years and also genocided Kurds with poison gas as Western states, many of which collaborated with him, looked on.
Saddam Hussein was one of those Arab dictator tyrants that western experts thought was necessary to control the region. Experts told the Bush administration that an Arab state would never fight another Arab, oddly believing their own political science mumbo-jumbo about how the whole of the Arab world had only one enemy, and that enemy was Israel. This was the era when the US experts believed Israel was the “problem” in the Middle East, to be “solved” by appeasing men like Saddam.
When the chips were down in 1990 and the US had to act it was Saddam massive new model army that would pay the price of US generals wanting to “kick the Vietnam syndrome” and crush the Iraqis using a new doctrine of war fighting. This Revolution in Military Affairs would see the US bring every piece of weapon in its arsenal to bear on Saddam’s conscripts: Massive battleships, cruise missiles, drones, A-10s, Patriot missiles and stealth warplanes. Basically it was the first real war in which a 20th century army was put up against the new way of war that was going to lead to the US dominating the world’s affairs for decades. This was a hi-tech war that would get us used to watching pinpoint strikes on television. Saddam’s army was dismantled piece by piece using air power and then a short war on the ground destroyed it in detail. Its poor fighters surrendered to news crews and anyone they could find.
US, Russia and Syria on the same side, sort of
To get a sense of how much things have changed, consider the fact that Syria joined the US-led Coalition against Saddam Hussein in 1991 and Russia tried to avert conflict but didn’t back Saddam. That’s hard to imagine now. The legacy of Russia watching the Soviet-supplied army of Saddam be totally destroyed by the West is Russia’s role in places like Syria today to prop up the regime. A weakened and humiliated Russia watched the US dominate the Middle East. Now things have changed.
During the 1990 crisis with Saddam Hussein the Russians preferred diplomacy to action. They sent Yevgeny Primakov to negotiate. They wanted Saddam the US was serious about using force. This is the opposite of what happened in Syria where the US sent John Kerry to negotiate and he failed while the Russians went in with forces. Moscow understood 1990 as a watershed movement of the US becoming the world’s “global policeman.” At the time a little known Russian named Vladimir Putin, in the process of resigning from the KGB, began to play a role in the municipal administration off St. Petersburg.
What might have been in the 1990s after the Gulf War is not clear. It is possible the US could have capitalized on the victory to bring Syria away from Russia as well. Instead the US Saddam in charge in Baghdad and isolated him. Eventually Syria was destabilized partially and the US invaded Iraq in 2003, toppling and eventually killing Saddam. This likely fueled instability that led to the Arab spring and the challenge against the Assad regime’s role. Russia stepped in during 2015 to back Assad. Turkey also intervened in Syria. The rest is history. The US has been systematically on decline in its role in the region now since 2015. Russia has been jumping in wherever there is a power vacuum, from Libya to Syria. The US doesn’t even back its own partners in eastern Syria. This is a far cry from 1991 when the US at least provided a no fly zone for Kurds in northern Iraq. In 2019 the US allowed Turkey to bomb and ethnically-cleanse its own Kurdish partners in Syria. How different than 1991 when the world held its breath at American power to today when Turkey, Iran, Russia and China all work together against the US in the Middle East.
Palestinians supported Saddam Hussein’s invasion
Saddam Hussein received applause from Palestinians for his invasion of Kuwait and challenging of the US. He was believed to be a major supporter of the Palestinian cause because he threatened to, and then carried through with, firing missiles at Israel. On January 21, 1991 The Washington Post reported that “Palestinians dodging Iraq’s missiles cheer on Saddam.” The Christian Science Monitor reported Palestinians cheering from rooftops and missiles, which Israelis worried contained chemical weapons, fell on Israel. Marches routinely praised the Iraqi dictator over the years, through to the early 2000s when his death was mourned in the West Bank. His image appeared at Palestinian universities on giant powers.
The cheering of Saddam’s missiles that were fired at Israel raised eyebrows in the Israeli left-leaning peace camp and in the US. There was some concern that perhaps cheering Saddam Hussein meant Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and those close to him were not serious about peace.
The Palestinian support for Saddam’s attacks on Israel were just the tip of the iceberg. In Kuwait the Palestinian population, mostly residents and some refugees, also cheered the Iraqi dictator. After the war, in March 1991, some 200,000 Palestinians in Kuwait were expelled. The international community looked the other way because only Israel tends to be critiqued for its maltreatment of Palestinians. Kuwait was the victim country, and Palestinians were seen as collaborators with Saddam. Later Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas apologized to Kuwait in 2004 for the support Palestinians once showed in 1990 for the sacking of Kuwait.
The Palestinian support for Saddam may reveal the seeds of the 2000 Intifada because it shows that while many believed the Palestinian Authority would embrace peace and moderation, that the leadership and rank and file often supported genocidal threats against Israel. The peace discussions that led to Oslo, such as the Madrid talks that began in November 1991, were products of the Gulf War. They were part of this US post-Cold War hegemony made possible by a weakened Soviet Union and inability of groups like the Palestinians to get sponsorship from Moscow. Now they needed sponsorship from the West. A variety of peace deals emerged, from South Africa to Northern Ireland. Democracy flowered. But quietly the willingness to outreach to those like Iran who wanted to destroy Israel, would continue to plaque Palestinian movements like Hamas and end up harming and isolating them.
The US moves into the Gulf
The Gulf War brought hundreds of thousands of American to the Gulf, many of them temporarily to Saudi Arabia. There were so many F-15Es parked in the desert that they carpeted it like metal flowers blooming in a field. After the war the US announced it would move Combined Air Operations to Al-Udeid base in Qatar from Prince Sultan base in Saudi Arabia. But it was the presence of thousands of Americans in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s that was used an excuse by Osama Bin Laden to begin his Al Qaeda terror campaign that led to 9/11. Terrorism targeted the US in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s, eventually moving to east Africa and Yemen. In 2003 US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that the US had moved most forces out of Saudi Arabia. Around 5,000 of the last troops were moved to other Gulf states. Conveniently the Bush administration had invaded Iraq in 2003 so US troops could be moved across the border. The US also expanded operations for the 5th Fleet in Bahrain and Al Dhafra in the UAE, a base that was expanded in 2002. The US also built bases in Kuwait, such as Camp Buehring, Ali al-Salem and Camp Arifjan.
The growing role of the US in the Gulf, accelerated by the 1990 Gulf War, meant that US Central Command and its Gulf Operations expanded rapidly. These bases became key to using US drones and conducting airstrikes, as well as expanding the US role in Iraq and Afghanistan during the global war on terror. However this caused some concern in Washington and the US had transitioned to a way of war that was more about counter-insurgency and less about great power rivalry. Some worried the war on terror that grew out of a successful conventional war in 1990 weakened the US position globally. This meant the US transitioned from the so-called Powell doctrine to a doctrine of pre-emption and then some other kind of hybrid role.
Today the US still projects power from the Gulf, but it is reticent to use force. Trump called off June airstrikes on Iran in response to the downing of a drone. The US had drawn down troops to only some 5,000 in Iraq today and a few hundred or a thousand in Syria. This is war on a shoe string with a small footprint.
Iran wins and wins and wins
Iran benefited from the Gulf War. Not only did Saddam’s air force flee to Iran, but Iran also watched its major adversary in Baghdad irreversibly weakened. The Arab states had used Saddam as a shield against Revolutionary Iran in the 1980s and they bankrolled his war. But his debts and also Kuwait’s oil exports had angered Saddam after the war and he invaded Kuwait to stop them from underselling Iraq which was harming Baghdad’s economy.
In short, the war on Iran, which the Gulf States wanted, led Iraq to fight Iran for eight years, and then led Iraq to feel it controlled the region and could do as it wanted. Saddam Hussein believed his Revolutionary Guards were invincible after supposedly defeating Iran’s child soldiers in the war. Saddam had used poison gas with impunity as well.
Iran was pleased to watch Saddam crushed by the US. Many thousands of Iraqis served with Iran during the war. These were Shi’ite Iraqis who flocked to the Badr brigade and other units to fight against Saddam. They rose up in 1991 hoping for US support but the US withdrew and let Saddam’s helicopter massacre the Shi’ites. While the Bush administration wanted to show Iraq what its new rules-based world order consisted of, it would not allow Shi’ites to gain control in Baghdad. It’s Sunni-supporting Arabists would have advised that, the same ones who liked Gulf monarchies and generals and the status quo such as the Mubarak regime in Egypt. It was the US-backed Saudis who had brokered the Taif Accords in Lebanon in 1989 ending the Civil War.
Iran had to wait until 2003 before inserting its IRGC-trained Iraqi cadres, such as the Iraqi operative Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, back into Iraq. Now those Iranian-trained Iraqis, like Hadi al-Amiri, help run Iraq. The US even killed Muhandis alongside IRGC Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani in January 2020. Muhandis, it should be recalled, first came to the US attention, for terror attacks in Kuwait. This shows the Iraq war also one that Iran paid close attention to. It also had a long-term goal for Iraq.
The 1990 invasion thus led to the decline of the Sunni Arab regional order, the one of monarchies and aging dictators and generals, ossifying Arab nationalism and Arab socialism, to be replaced by Islamist extremists and a rising Iran and Turkey.