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The Past Three Decades: Years of Crisis - Years of Triumph

The Persian Gulf War Previous Next
Digital History ID 3374



At 2 a.m., August 2, 1990, some 80,000 Iraqi troops invaded and occupied Kuwait, a small, oil-rich emirate on the Persian Gulf. This event touched off the first major international crisis of the post-Cold War era. Iraq's leader, Saddam Hussein, justified the invasion on the grounds that Kuwait, which he accused of intentionally depressing world oil prices, was a historic part of Iraq.

Iraq's invasion caught the United States off guard. The Hussein regime was a brutal military dictatorship that ruled by secret police and used poison gas against Iranians, Kurds, and Shiite Muslims. During the 1970s and 1980s, the United States--and Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and West Germany--sold Iraq an awesome arsenal that included missiles, tanks, and the equipment needed to produce biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. During Baghdad's eight-year-long war with Iran, the United States, which opposed the growth of Muslim fundamentalist extremism, tilted toward Iraq.

On August 6, 1990, President Bush dramatically declared, "This aggression will not stand." With Iraqi forces poised near the Saudi Arabian border, the Bush administration dispatched 180,000 troops to protect the Saudi kingdom. In a sharp departure from American foreign policy during the Reagan presidency, Bush also organized an international coalition against Iraq. He convinced Turkey and Syria to close Iraqi oil pipelines, won Soviet support for an arms embargo, and established a multi-national army to protect Saudi Arabia. In the United Nations, the administration succeeded in persuading the Security Council to adopt a series of resolutions condemning the Iraqi invasion, demanding restoration of the Kuwaiti government, and imposing an economic blockade.

Bush's decision to resist Iraqi aggression reflected the president's assessment of vital national interests. Iraq's invasion gave Saddam Hussein direct control over a significant portion of the world's oil supply. It disrupted the Middle East balance of power and placed Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf emirates in jeopardy. Iraq's 545,000-man army threatened the security of such valuable U.S. allies as Egypt and Israel.

In November 1990, the crisis took a dramatic turn. President Bush doubled the size of American forces deployed in the Persian Gulf, a sign that the administration was prepared to eject Iraq from Kuwait by force. The president went to the United Nations for a resolution permitting the use of force against Iraq if it did not withdraw by January 15, 1991. After a heated debate, Congress also gave the president authority to wage war.

President Bush's decision to liberate Kuwait was an enormous political and military gamble. The Iraqi army, the world's fourth largest, was equipped with Exocet missiles, top-of-the-line Soviet T-72 tanks, and long-range artillery capable of firing nerve gas. But after a month of allied bombing, the coalition forces had achieved air supremacy; had destroyed thousands of Iraqi tanks and artillery pieces, supply routes and communications lines, and command-and-control bunkers; plus, had limited Iraq's ability to produce nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. Iraqi troop morale suffered so badly under the bombing that an estimated 30 percent of Baghdad's forces deserted before the ground campaign started.

The allied ground campaign relied on deception, mobility, and overwhelming air superiority to defeat the larger Iraqi army. The allied strategy was to mislead the Iraqis into believing that the allied attack would occur along the Kuwaiti coastline and Kuwait's border with Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, American commander of the coalition forces, shifted more than 300,000 American, British, and French troops into western Saudi Arabia, allowing them to strike deep into Iraq. Only 100 hours after the ground campaign started, the war ended. Saddam Hussein remained in power, but his ability to control events in the region was dramatically curtailed. The Persian Gulf conflict was the most popular U.S. war since World War II. It restored American confidence in its position as the world's sole superpower and helped to exorcise the ghost of Vietnam that had haunted American foreign policy debates for nearly two decades. The doubt, drift, and demoralization that began with the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal appeared to have ended.

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