Hussein’s sudden decisiveness in taking military action against Kuwait clearly took the US Administration by surprise. In fact, most of the top White House officials, including George Bush himself, were absent on other business on the day the invasion was launched. The decision to respond perhaps came with the realisation that control over Kuwait placed Hussein’s armies within direct striking distance of Saudi Arabia’s rich north-eastern oil fields. If Hussein decided to expand his invasion into Saudi territory, it would place him in direct control of a majority of the world’s oil reserves. Such an upset in the balance of power in the Middle East was not to be countenanced. Within a matter of days, US President George Bush announced US intent to launch a “wholly defensive” mission in the Middle East. On August 7, 1990, US troops began deploying in Saudi Arabia. The first phase of US involvement in the Second Gulf War – “Operation Desert Shield” – with a mandate to deter Iraqi incursions into Saudi Arabia, had begun.
It’s interesting to note that in these early stages, Kuwait’s territorial sovereignty did not appear to be of particular concern to the US. Keeping Saudi oil out of Hussein’s hands was first among priorities. In fact, the policy of defence was maintained for several months. The decision to dramatically scale up the military presence in Saudi Arabia, in preparation for offensive action against Iraq, came much later.
As early as August 12 – ten days after the occupation of Kuwait – Saddam Hussein had actually placed a peace arrangement on the table. He offered to withdraw all Iraqi forces from Kuwait, in return for Israel pulling out of occupied territory in Lebanon, Syria and Palestine. It’s unlikely that Hussein ever expected the offer to be taken seriously. Israel’s aggressive and unremittent policy of territorial expansion had already been underway for decades, andthe US had shown no sign of wavering in its support. The bare truth of the matter, however, is that Israel’s withdrawal from its occupied territories would have involved no more than compliance with existing UN resolutions; precisely the same kind of resolutions that were imposed against Iraq after the Kuwait occupation. The actions of both states were in violation of UN mandates regarding territorial sovereignty. But at this time, as is very much the case now, US support had effectively handed Israel carte blanche to violate international law. Naturally, the same favour would not be extended to Iraq.
The decision to take direct offensive action appears to have emanated principally from US President George Bush, with strong impetus from his Secretary of Defence, Dick Cheney. Cheney has been a major influence in formulating US foreign policy for at least 20 years now – either in official capacity by holding various prominent positions in the White House administration – or on the outside through the formulation of powerful lobby groups. In 1989, Cheney directed the US Invasion of Panama. In 1991, he became the director of Desert Storm Operations in the Gulf. Years later, in 1998, Cheney, along with other cohorts in what was to from the nucleus of George Bush II’s White House administration, formulated the “Project for the New American Century” – a proto neo-con think tank – and lobbied then US President Bill Clinton to renew aggressions against Iraq. Later still, in the position of US Vice President, Cheney became the driving force behind the Coalition decision to invade Iraq in 2003.
Other elements in the US government, as well as in the military hierarchy, were initially more reluctant on the issue of direct military action. It was widely felt that sustained economic sanctions ought to have been sufficient to force Hussein’s withdrawal from Kuwait. In fact, sanctions had already been implemented so successfully that Hussein was prevented from exporting oil or importing goods into Iraq in all but the narrowest of channels. CIA reports estimated that Hussein was losing as much as $1 billion in revenue every day as a result of the sanctions, and at that rate would not be able to afford the upkeep of his army into the new year. However, at some point, and for reasons that have never become entirely clear, the US abruptly decided that the economic sanctions would not be enough. The idea of a fast, decisive military strike, conducted with overwhelming technological superiority and with a minimum of US casualties, suddenly became attractive.
It was at this time, perhaps, that the burgeoning policy of US imperialism – later to have such catastrophic consequences when driven to its outermost limits by Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and other prominent and long standing policy makers in the White House Administration of George Bush II – first took root. The US had undergone an unprecedented buildup of military hardware and technology during the acceleration of Cold War tensions under the administration of Ronald Reagan. It had become, perhaps, the most overwhelmingly dominant military power in the history of the world, in terms of its capacity to unleash destruction on a mass scale on any position across the planet. Yet the US had not engaged in any open, large scale military operations since the end of the disastrous Vietnam War. It was like the belle of a cancelled ball. All dressed up, but with nowhere to go. Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait represented an opportunity, at last, to demonstrate the full might of the technocratic US war machine. It was the chance to erase the embarrassment and failure of Vietnam once and for all. The US would devastate Iraq in an overwhelming demonstration of military force, with the world bearing witness to the awesomely terrifying power of its new masters.
Once the decision to go to war had been taken, the process of manipulating public opinion began in earnest, and in a fashion that has become all too familiar in light of the more recent US adventures in the Middle East. The official reasoning behind the military intervention underwent several revisions. At first, the Bush administration attempted to appeal to the US public on practical terms. Hussein’s increased control over the world’s oil reserves would force petrol prices up. Ordinary Americans would be hit in the pocket.
The second phase in attaining public support was to appeal directly to mass paranoia. Hussein was an evil dictator hell bent on world domination. Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait was the modern day equivalent of Nazi Germany invading Poland. Hussein was a deranged fanatic who could not be reasoned with. He was an Arabian Hitler whose very existence was a dangerous threat to American security. Quite how the impoverished strongman of a second rate Middle Eastern backwater posed any threat to the world’s most powerful nation, located approximately 9,000 kilometres away, was left unexplained. The comparisons between Hussein and Hitler were repeatedly driven home by George Bush himself. But in actual fact, the two dictators shared little in common in terms of personality, biography or general outlook. Hussein’s dire human rights record was offered up as evidence of his irredeemably evil nature, but the US government’s previous stance of support for the dictator during the committal of some of his worst atrocities passed largely without comment in the Western media.
During a public address on September 11, 1990, George Bush claimed that within three days of Kuwait’s occupation, “120,000 Iraqi troops with 850 tanks” had “moved south to threaten Saudi Arabia”. The Pentagon claimed to have satellite photos of Iraqi forces amassing along the Saudi border. Later, commercially produced satellite images revealed that nothing of the sort had taken place. In fact, the photos revealed nothing but empty desert. In all probability, the threat of Iraq moving to attack Saudi Arabia had always been exaggerated. Hussein might well have been mistaken in believing that he could get away with annexing Kuwait, but he surely understood that Saudi Arabia would have been a step too far. If he harboured genuine ambitions to occupy Saudi oil fields, he would surely have pushed on and taken them immediately, while they were still undefended. Once Operation Desert Shield was in place, the window of opportunity had already passed. Months later, when the US decided to take direct action against Iraq, Hussein had still not taken any steps to threaten Saudi territory.
In the early stages of the Iraqi occupation, Kuwait’s ruling family had already begun the process of manipulating US public opinion in their favour. A political lobby group – Citizens for a Free Kuwait – was set up in the US and paid for by the Kuwaiti government. Public relations firms were hired to publicise Iraqi atrocities in Kuwait, most of them later revealed to be fabrications. Most prominently, a woman claiming to be a Kuwaiti nurse testified before US Congress, describing scenes of Iraqi soldiers storming into the Kuwait City hospital where she worked and pulling babies out of incubators, leaving them to die on the floor. The account was widely publicised in the world media and repeatedly referenced in political debate. The impression the “baby killing” story had on the prevailing public opinion was dramatic. The message was clear: Iraq was a state of sub-human barbarity and had to be dealt with. However, a year after the Gulf War’s conclusion, it was revealed that the witness was not actually a nurse at all. In fact, she was a member of Kuwait’s royal family and the daughter of a Kuwaiti ambassador to the US. She had not even been living in Kuwait at the time of the Iraqi occupation. After the war, Bush continued to reference the baby murdering incident as justification, as if it had never been disproved.
The fabrication of just cause to go to war had been blatantly manipulative and utterly without grounding in reality. Nonetheless, the public relations campaign could not be considered anything other than a resounding success. The US Senate voted in support of direct military action against Iraq at 52 votes to 47. When the US offensive against Iraq was finally undertaken on January 16, 1991, it had the support of 80% of the US public. Operation Desert Storm was underway.
This is Part 2 of a 3 part overview of the 2nd Gulf War. The other parts can be read here: