Operation Desert Storm

Reading Time: 9 minutes

There is a growing sense that victory has defeated American foreign policy. Having assembled the most sophisticated alliance system in human history to contain the menace of Soviet communism, the US has increasingly found itself rudderless in the aftermath of the Fall of the Berlin Wall. Most major operations since 1989 have either been stalemates or failures. Amidst a sea of qualified successes and unmitigated calamities, however, Operation Desert Storm distinguishes itself as one of a handful of unambiguous triumphs. Once hailed as the start of a new age militarily, strategically and geopolitically, the First Gulf War has since slipped from the public psyche, overshadowed by its controversial sequel. Meanwhile, the lessons learned from the struggle have largely been ignored, forgotten and misinterpreted – even by those who participated in the conflict to save Kuwait.

Saddam was driven to war with that emirate for a number of reasons. An odd mixture of Hitler, Stalin and a self-proclaimed Saladin, Saddam was an Arab nationalist with enormous ambitions. Through a combination of paranoia, thuggish politicking and extreme violence, he had risen to the office of President of Iraq in 1979. Soon after, Iran was convulsed by revolution. Saddam opportunistically declared war, assuming he would win a quick victory that would make him the most powerful man in the Arab world. Instead, he found himself embroiled in a futile struggle; the trenches and chemical weapons that had devastated the fields of Europe at the start of the 20th Century returned to plague the Middle East near its close. Hundreds of thousands died in a pointless war, but the West, fearing Iranian Islamic fundamentalism, tacitly backed Iraq’s secular dictatorship.

The Iran-Iraq War ended with a status quo antebellum. All Saddam had gained was an enormous debt, principally held by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Saddam strongly felt that the neighbouring emirate, an Arab state that had supported his war, was morally bound to absolve his debts, while the Kuwaitis understood the matter very differently. Relations between Iraq and Kuwait had already been tense for decades; the emirate was viewed by many Iraqis as an artificial state that the British Empire had created to limit an independent Iraq’s access to the sea. Nor was that the only way in which the emirate was the economic eyesore of Saddam’s Middle East; Kuwait sat on some 10% of the world’s oil supplies but, not satisfied with these, petroleum corporations had recently begun slant drilling, meaning that companies could access Iraq‘s precious fields of black gold from behind the safety of the Kuwaiti border. Finally, the price of oil was rapidly falling, partially because Kuwait was flooding the market. Iraq, a petrostate addicted to oil revenues, lost around $1 billion in revenue a year for every $1 decrease in the price of oil, and analysts predicted that Iraq would begin to suffer from serious financial troubles in as little as three months.

Saddam began mobilising forces on the Kuwaiti border, having misinterpreted comments from April Glaspie, the American ambassador, regarding “Arab-Arab conflicts” as meaning that the superpower would not react to his aggression. US intelligence identified the build up as an invasion force, but Arab leaders were convinced it was a bluff to make Kuwait absolve Iraqi debts, and asked Washington not to provoke Saddam by demanding that he stand down. The world was accordingly stunned when, on 2 August 1990, Iraqi forces swarmed across the border, encountering minimal resistance. Kuwait City soon fell. 

The international community was horrified. Immediately, the UN denounced Saddam, passing a series of resolutions demanding an immediate withdrawal. Exhorting Bush to remember the errors of the appeasers of the 1930s, Margaret Thatcher famously told the President “not to go wobbly.” Bush’s main concern was how the Soviet Union, a long-time sponsor of the Iraqi despot, would react; any intervention would become exponentially more complex if Moscow stood by its dictator. Yet with the end of the Cold War, the Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev placed a premium on his relationship with Bush, and was willing to allow America to try forcing Saddam, whose actions were universally seen as beyond the pale, to heel. On 29 November, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 678, insisting Iraq leave Kuwait and permitting any country to use any means to ensure that occurred. 

As well as feeling morally outraged by Saddam’s naked aggression, Bush was motivated to act by economic concerns. With Kuwait as the 19th province of Iraq, Saddam now controlled about a quarter of the world’s oil supply. Still more concerning was the fact that the Iraqi army (the fourth largest in the world) was only matched in the region by the IDF; there was nothing stopping Saddam, if he so wished, from plunging deep into Saudi Arabia, securing for himself a total of 65% percent of the global oil supply and holding the world to ransom.

Washington was desperate to send forces to defend the Saudis, and an initially reluctant King Fahd was eventually persuaded to allow American troops to enter his country – much to the fury of a young Osama bin Laden, who felt that Arabia would have been better defended from Saddam’s regime by holy Islamic warriors. An enormous troop build up began. American and Coalition forces swarmed into Saudi Arabia to defend the kingdom, but at this stage the US had not committed itself to forcibly driving Saddam into a headlong retreat. Iraqi forces could have stormed into Saudi Arabia and potentially devastated the assembling army, but for unknown reasons did not – Saddam later claimed he did not order an assault as he felt it was a sin to fight in the Arabian Peninsula. In command of Coalition forces was General Norman Schwarzkopf, a veteran of the Vietnam War who would serve as the highest ranking American on the ground.

In Washington, the other key players were discussing how best to react to Saddam’s invasion. From a foreign policy angle, the Bush administration was one of the most experienced teams in recent American history. Bush himself had been Vice President for eight years, CIA Director and UN Ambassador. His Secretary of State, Jim Baker, had little previous foreign policy experience, but was renowned as one of the most effective power brokers in Washington and crucially, as a lifelong friend of Bush, had the President’s complete confidence. The Commander of the Joint Chiefs, Colin Powell, had previously served as Reagan’s National Security Advisor, while Bush’s own National Security Advisor, Brent Scowcroft, had held the same position under Gerald Ford and, before that, had been Henry Kissinger’s deputy. This group began considering all possible responses to Saddam’s invasion. Having heard their counsel, Bush resolved that sanctions would take too long to be effective, and that the only way to ensure an immediate Iraqi withdrawal was through armed force.

Schwarzkopf believed if America had to fight Iraq for Kuwait, it needed to do so with overwhelming force, and feared casualties in the tens of thousands if he was ordered to engage the Iraqi army with only the soldiers he possessed at that time. On 30 October, Powell requested that Bush send VII Corp (one of two Corps stationed in Europe prepared to hold off a Soviet onslaught) to Saudi Arabia. The spectre of Vietnam still haunted Washington, and Bush was determined to wage war with the nation behind him. He felt this could only be achieved with a vote in the US Senate, but memories of Vietnam had also birthed a fierce anti-war movement, and there was no guarantee that the Senate would approve of the White House’s actions.

In an attempt to demonstrate the inflexibility of Iraq, Secretary of State Jim Baker was sent to Geneva to negotiate with the Iraqi foreign minister, Tariq Aziz. This was an enormous gamble; had Saddam allowed Aziz to make minor concessions, the American plan could have backfired and the anti-war movement been emboldened. Yet after six hours of talks, Iraq refused to budge and negotiations broke down. Recognising all diplomatic solutions had been exhausted and that only a military solution could resolve the issue, the Senate voted 52-47 to authorise intervention. Bush had his casus belli and assembled a Coalition of thirty-five nations, including Britain and members of the Arab League, to defeat Saddam.

A lengthy bombing campaign began. On the evening of 17 January, eight Apache helicopters flew into Iraq to knock out two radar stations. The radar sites were caught completely off guard, and Baghdad was rendered blind to incoming assaults. Soon, stealth bombers flew over the capital, and Cruise missiles followed in their wake. The destruction was massive; in one night, more targets were hit than the total number of attacks made by American bombers during the first two years of US involvement in the European theatre of World War II. One coalition pilot died. After the initial wave of aerial successes, the Coalition enjoyed total supremacy in the skies, as Saddam bizarrely decided to store his entire air force in Iran, his great nemesis. His hope was that the Coalition would not strike a neutral country, but he was later genuinely stunned when Iran refused to return most of his planes to him. Saddam himself was targeted and, to evade Coalition bombers, he began hiding in a mobile home and appearing on the doors of random Iraqis, asking if he could stay with them for a night.

Desperate to try and tip the scales in his favour, Saddam began launching Scud missile attacks against Israel. Israel was not a member of the coalition, but Saddam hoped to provoke a reaction, realising many Arab states (especially Saudi Arabia) would not participate in any alliance which included Tel Aviv. Without permission to assemble forces in Saudi territory, the Coalition would be ignominiously sent home. A desperate Bush warned Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir not to play into Saddam’s hands by reacting, and a reluctant Shamir eventually backed down. To assuage Israeli fears, Bush deployed Patriot missiles (anti-aircraft weapons) to the Levant, in order to intercept incoming Scud missiles. They were not especially effective, despite what the Coalition press said at the time, but the Scud missiles did not hit any major Israeli population centres. Still, ensuring Israel did not feel obliged to counterattack was a key priority, and so SAS units were sent into enemy territory to seek and destroy mobile Scud bases. They were enormously successful.

Despite the bombing campaign’s successes, Saddam showed no interest in peace. 92% of all Iraq’s power stations were destroyed, 135 of its telephone networks were bombed, over a hundred of it bridges were in ruins and 80% of its oil refineries were reduced to rubble, yet there was a real danger that systematically destroying Iraq would not bring its delusional dictator to heel. Coalition boots would have to step on Iraqi ground before Saddam would come to the negotiating table with any reasonable offer.

Saddam planned to bleed his enemies dry. He viewed democracy as the Achilles heel of the United States, and believed that American voters would not tolerate a costly campaign. He had his men dig into defensive positions around Kuwait, and dared the Americans to launch a head on assault. Wisely, Schwarzkopf decided to make use of his aerial supremacy. Initially, American bombing of Iraqi positions was relatively ineffective, but soon the US Air Force realised modern planes, equipped with thermal detection and laser guided missiles, could both pinpoint Iraqi tanks (which grew extremely hot in the desert) and destroy vast numbers of them in rapid succession.

Iraqi troops on the ground began realising they were lambs being led to slaughter. Many deserted; one Iraqi division, theoretically 15,000 strong, was abandoned by all but 34 men. Saddam started to sense defeat and, using Moscow as an intermediary, offered to withdraw from Kuwait. However, by this point Bush was determined that Iraq not only had to abandon its conquests, but had to be stripped of the means to ever contemplate conquest again. The Iraqi offer was refused. A furious Saddam began burning oil fields in Kuwait in retaliation, and American forces advanced. Schwarzkopf planned to deploy marines and Arab forces into Kuwait, baiting Iraqi soldiers into attacking them. Then, VII Corp and British troops would march through the desert to outflank their foes from the west. If the plan was successful, the Iraqi army would be annihilated. On 24 February, the ground campaign began. The fighting was short; Iraqi resistance quickly crumbled, and the marines stormed towards Kuwait City as the first line of defences surrendered en masse.

Indeed, the American advance was so rapid that Schwarzkopf became concerned the war would be won too swiftly. The elite Republican Guard, which Washington wished to wipe from existence, was not engaging the marines due to the fact that the Iraqi defences were folding so swiftly. There was a real concern the Republican Guard may slip out of Kuwait, and accidentally escape the pincer movement. Anglo-American forces were ordered into action earlier than expected and began their advance. Defences in the western desert largely consisted of trenches and sand barriers, but American tanks simply bulldozed through the Iraqi fortifications, burying many of the defenders alive. No Coalition lives were lost. 

As the marines continued on the road to Kuwait City, Saddam ordered an armoured counterattack. The Americans fell back, regrouped and sent in Cobra helicopters. The combined air and tank assault annihilated Iraqi resistance. In a fit of fury, Saddam summarily executed five of his generals; the Iraqi despot was growing increasingly concerned by events on the ground. By 25 February, even he could see his position was futile and ordered a withdrawal. America had no interest in allowing Saddam to save his army, and sent F-15 fighter jets to attack the retreating convoy. In an incident later known as the Highway of Death, the withdrawing force was simply bombed to oblivion.

Ever eager to knock out the Republican Guard, American tanks drove north and engaged Iraqi armour on 26 February. GPS, a novel technology for the day, enabled American forces to storm through the desert without having to rely on roads or towns for navigation, completely confounding Iraqi forces, which were anticipating attacks from the highway networks. At 70-Easting, Eagle Troop – a force consisting of nine Bradley Fighting Vehicles and twelve Abrams tanks – encountered ambushing Iraqis. The enemy tanks lay in wait behind a small rise, hoping to catch their opponents off guard. Despite having been ordered not to become decisively engaged, Eagle Troop attacked, hammering the Iraqis; American armour was better, their weapons had longer range, poor visibility didn’t affect them (US tanks used night vision – Iraqi tanks did not) and they had the element of surprise. Eagle Troop continued passed 70-Easting to prevent Iraqi forces regrouping, finally halting at 73-Easting, the site for which the battle was named. Within 23 minutes, the Iraqi army had lost around fifty T-72 tanks, twenty-five armoured personnel carriers and forty trucks. Eagle Troop suffered no losses.

The Coalition continued its pursuit. On 27 February, the Medina Republican Guard Division established a defensive position upon a ridge seven miles long. Iraqi tanks had only half the range of their American counterparts and, despite a spirited resistance, were overwhelmed. Three hundred Iraqi tanks and armoured vehicles were destroyed, at the cost of two American lives and four tanks. The war had become a massacre. With half of the Republican Guard’s tanks already destroyed, Schwarzkopf felt the Iraqi army was just a day away from annihilation, but Powell determined that all American goals had already been achieved. Bush agreed and requested Schwarzkopf organise a ceasefire, which he did. There were those who felt America should have continued the pincer manoeuvre and others who felt the army ought to march on Baghdad, but the key players were willing to take what was already a decisive, and nearly bloodless, triumph. Saddam was forced to retreat. A ceasefire was agreed, and one hundred hours after the ground campaign began, hostilities ceased. 

In many ways, the aftermath of the conflict was as significant for global politics as the struggle itself. The war had cost more than $60 billion, but the international community, particularly Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, paid the US around $52 billion of this sum. While peace in the Middle East had not been established, there now existed equilibrium. Iraq, with its huge military machine, ambitious leader and vast oil reserves, had been attempting to establish hegemony in the region. Now that its army and reputation were in tatters, Iraq was now in no position to make itself a premier power, and American sanctions and no-fly zones would forever doom Iraq’s efforts to restore its hard power. At the same time, a power vacuum did not develop, meaning no other state could begin establishing a hegemony of its own. With its prestige in the region soaring, the US was able to renew its efforts at finding a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict – efforts which culminated in the 1993 Oslo Accords. 

Bush both hoped and believed Saddam himself would be toppled, and resistance movements (urged on by the President following the end of hostilities) soon sprang up. At first, America assumed that the Iraqi military had been so damaged that Saddam would not survive the uprising. Fatally, however, the US had permitted Iraq to continue to use helicopters, as Iraq’s road networks had been devastated by the bombing campaign. These helicopters were immediately equipped with machine guns and used to massacre the rebels, especially those in Kurdish and Shia Marsh Arab resistance movements. Saddam would live to fight another day.

Weapons inspectors sent into Iraq following the war sought and destroyed stocks of chemical weapons. In doing so, they discovered a terrifying nuclear program that had been mere months away from developing a bomb. The CIA had been completely unaware that this program existed, raising the first questions as to how reliable intelligence surrounding Iraq really was. In America, Bush’s popularity soared, and his approval rating was at one point the highest of any US leader since polling began. He would lose the Presidential election a year later.

Perhaps the greatest legacy of the Iraq War was the aura of invincibility it created around the US military. Other world leaders seeking to challenge America realised that going head-to-head was a futile exercise, and began developing asymmetric measures to challenge the US; since 1991, no country has tried to meet America in a conventional war. Instead, nations that wish to frustrate Washington have sought to build nuclear weapons, fund non-state actors or, more recently, develop cyber capabilities. When states have been forced to fight America directly, they have relied on terrorism, guerrilla warfare and simply waiting for an eventual US withdrawal – as seen most recently in Afghanistan. In America itself, the Gulf War may have cast off the shackles of Vietnam, but it may also have blinded Washington to the limits of its hard power; the US has since largely tried to resolve whatever diplomatic issues it is faced with by deploying its armed capabilities. America possessed an almighty military hammer, but global crises increasingly began to look like a row of nails.

Cohen, E., 2017. The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force. Basic Books

Lacey, R., 2009. Inside the Kingdom: Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia. Arrow

Nixon, J., 2016. Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein. Bantam Press