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International Socialist Review Issue 7, Spring 1999

The 1991 Gulf War: Establishing a New World Order

By Lance Selfa

IRAQ’S PREDAWN invasion and occupation of Kuwait on August 2, 1990, precipitated the crisis that led to the Gulf War. Within days, Western politicians lined up to denounce Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, comparing Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait to Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939. On August 8, President Bush announced the deployment of 250,000 U.S. troops to "deter Iraqi aggression" against Saudi Arabia. When Bush announced the deployment, he emphasized:

A puppet regime [Iraq’s occupation government in Kuwait] imposed from the outside is unacceptable. The acquisition of territory by force is unacceptable. No one, friend or foe, should doubt our desire for peace and no one should underestimate our determination to confront aggression. . . .

America does not seek conflict. Nor do we seek to chart the destiny of other nations. But America will stand by her friends. The mission of our troops is wholly defensive. Hopefully, they’ll not be needed long.1

Bush announced high-minded goals (to oppose a "puppet regime imposed from the outside," and "to confront aggression"). He assured the world that the U.S. desired only peace. He assured a wary public that U.S. troops wouldn’t "be needed long" and that their mission was "wholly defensive." He rejected any imperial designs on the region. Of course, these were all lies.

Behind closed doors, Bush and his advisers were planning one of the most destructive and horrifying wars in modern times. Only a month later, Air Force General Michael Dugan revealed some U.S. plans: a sustained aerial bombardment of Baghdad and other civilian population centers and the assassination of Saddam Hussein. "The cutting edge would be in downtown Baghdad," Dugan told the Washington Post. He ordered his planners to target, he said, "what is it that psychologically would make an impact on the population and regime in Iraq . . . to find centers of gravity where air power can make a difference early on."2 For his candor, Dugan was fired.

By the time the U.S. put Dugan’s plans into effect on January 16, 1991, 500,000 U.S. troops had been mobilized in the Gulf. Through the five-month buildup to the war, Bush tried nearly every public justification for the war he could: to confront aggression, to defend small nations, to face down a dictator, to support American jobs and to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons. But the real reason, which Bush was loathe to admit, was oil.

Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East military analyst with impeccable Pentagon credentials, puts the case clearly:

The United States plays a vital strategic role in the Gulf. U.S. military forces and power projection capabilities deter Iran and Iraq–two aggressive and radical regimes with military forces that might otherwise dominate the Gulf. The U.S. prevents these states from achieving regional hegemony and intimidating their Southern Gulf neighbors. At the same time, the U.S. plays a critical stabilizing role in the Southern Gulf, compensating in part for the lack of cooperation between the Gulf states and their internal rivalries. This strategic role affects a critical part of the world’s energy supplies. The Gulf has at least 649 billion barrels of proven oil reserves out of the world’s total proven reserves of 999.8 billion barrels, and 1,549 trillion cubic feet of gas out of a world total of 4,980 trillion cubic feet.3

For years, the U.S. preferred to back regional strongmen as a way to bolster the status quo in the region. It leaned on alliances including those with Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Shah’s Iran. The Shah’s overthrow in 1979 sent U.S. policy in the Gulf into crisis. The U.S. responded in two ways: first, looking for another regional strongman to back, and second, increasing its ability to intervene directly. Both aims became tied up in the unfolding relationship between the U.S. and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

When Saddam Was Washington’s Friend

Following the upheaval of the 1979 Iranian revolution, Iraq launched a war against Iran in 1980. From 1980 to 1988, the U.S., the West and the USSR fueled the Iran-Iraq War which cost an estimated one million lives on both sides. The superpowers, seeking to force a stalemate for much of the war, sold arms to both sides. When it looked as if Iran was beginning to gain the upper hand in the war in 1987, the U.S. shifted decisively towards Iraq. Under the guise of protecting reflagged Kuwaiti oil tankers sailing through the Gulf, the U.S. intervened in the war to defeat Iran. "While we want no victor, we can’t stand to see Iraq defeated," Assistant U.S. Defense Secretary Richard Armitage told Congress at the time. "[T]hat specter would lead to instability from Marrakech to Bangladesh."

U.S. support for Iraq reached extreme lengths. In addition to millions of dollars in planes and helicopters, the U.S. provided Iraq agriculture credits. The U.S. fed intelligence data from its AWACS surveillance planes to the Iraqi high command. But most importantly, the U.S. led the biggest armada assembled since the Vietnam War into the Gulf. The stated Western aim–"protecting freedom of navigation in the Gulf"–became a cover for attacking Iran’s navy. In an uncharacteristic moment of honesty, former Reagan National Security Adviser (and Iran-Contra conspirator) Robert McFarlane admitted the U.S. intervention

had little to do with defending ‘freedom of the seas’ or neutrality. When in early 1987 Iran made a strategic gain on the Faw Peninsula, we tilted blatantly in favor of Iraq as we had at similar moments before. [The Iranian leaders saw] enough bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress to sustain our naval presence, which, at the end of the day, would ensure that Iraq received the supplies it needed to dominate the war.4

Iran conceded defeat in 1988. For the next two years, the U.S. tried to build up Saddam Hussein as the new Western strongman in the Gulf. It showered arms, technical assistance and economic aid on Iraq. Between 1985 and 1990, U.S. firms sold almost $800 million in "dual use" aircraft–ostensibly to be used for civilian purposes, but easily convertible to military uses. In 1988 and 1989 alone, the U.S. government approved licenses to U.S. firms to sell biological products to the Iraqi Atomic Energy Agency and electronics equipment to Iraqi missile-producing plants. In July 1988–two months after Saddam used chemical weapons to wipe out the Kurdish village of Halabja–the California-based Bechtel Corp. won a contract to build a petrochemicals plant. Iraq planned to produce mustard gas and fuel-air explosives in the plant. The Bush administration doubled agricultural credits to Iraq to $1 billion a year.5 Other Western allies, like Britain and France, also helped to arm Saddam.

U.S. business created a virtual "Saddam lobby" to press for greater ties with Iraq. The U.S.-Iraq Business Forum, formed in 1982 and composed of executives from Amoco, Mobil, Westinghouse, Caterpillar and other major corporations, ran interference for Iraq in Washington. To insulate it from criticisms of ignoring human rights, it even added 1960s civil rights activist Mary King to its board. After Iraq attacked Halabja, the Iraq-Business Forum deflected condemnations of Iraq. Writing to President Reagan later that year, Forum leader Marshall W. Wiley urged the administration not to sanction Iraq for using chemical weapons. "We fully understand and agree with your desire to limit the use of chemical weapons," Wiley wrote, but sanctioning Iraq "would have the opposite effect." Kissinger Associates, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s multinational consulting firm, also emerged as an apologist for Iraq. Kissinger partners Brent Scowcroft and Lawrence Eagleburger–later George Bush’s national security adviser and secretary of state–shilled for Iraq before 1990.6

While being courted as a Western enforcer in the Middle East, Saddam could also rely on friends in high places. In April 1990–four months before Iraq invaded Kuwait–Saddam received a delegation of U.S. senators who assured him the U.S. stood by him. Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) assured Saddam that Bush would veto any threatened sanctions on Iraq. Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) joined Saddam in blasting the "haughty and pampered" media that had criticized Saddam’s regime. Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) told Saddam: "I am a Jew and a staunch supporter of Israel . . . I am now aware that you are a strong and intelligent man and that you want peace."7

All of the charges U.S. officials hurl against Saddam today–that he attacks his "own people," that he is a brutal dictator, that he used chemical weapons against Kurds and Iranians, that he builds "weapons of mass destruction"–were known in the 1980s. In fact, as history shows, the West helped Saddam build his arsenal. The West also defended Saddam from critics. If Saddam was "the new Hitler," he was a Hitler of the West’s making.

Countdown to War

The war against Iran left Iraq near bankruptcy. Trying to earn as much cash as it could, Iraq furiously pumped oil. But Kuwait, Iraq’s biggest backer during the war against Iran, continued to dump its oil on the world market. This lowered the world price for oil, increasing Iraq’s difficulties. Later, Iraq charged that Kuwait was poaching Iraqi oil from the Rumallah oil field, which straddled the countries’ border. When Saddam threatened military action against Kuwait, the U.S. didn’t discourage him. U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie told Saddam "we have no opinion on Arab-Arab conflicts like your border disagreement with Kuwait." But the entire Western ruling class performed an about-face when Iraq invaded and annexed Kuwait in 1990.

Defending the sovereignty of "poor little Kuwait" became a Western rallying cry. The sanctity of the Iraq-Kuwait border didn’t really inspire the U.S. and its allies. But the West would not allow an "unreliable" power to gain control over as much as a quarter of the Gulf’s oil. "If Kuwait grew carrots, we wouldn’t give a damn," said Lawrence Korb, former Reagan assistant defense secretary. As long as Saddam acted as a Western client and kept his atrocities within the borders of Iraq, the West didn’t care. But when he threatened to upset the balance of power in the Gulf, the U.S. and its allies dubbed him "the new Hitler."

As the leading war hawk, former Texas oilman Bush immediately set to fashioning a "coalition" of all of the world’s powers against Iraq. The U.S. used threats, bribery and intimidation to corral as many governments into an anti-Iraq front as it could. To diffuse Arab protest, the U.S. made a special effort to pull Arab governments on board. The U.S. pressured the World Bank to forgive $14 billion in Egyptian loan indebtedness. The U.S. gave Syria a green light to overthrow the right-wing Lebanese government and to impose a pro-Syrian government in its place.

To neutralize the USSR’s veto on the United Nations (UN) Security Council, the U.S. pushed the Gulf States to funnel $4 billion to Moscow. The U.S. also kept mum when the USSR rolled tanks into Lithuania to quell pro-independence unrest. To court China, the U.S. offered loans and helped bring the Chinese government back from the international pariah status it had earned with its 1989 repression of the Tiananmen Square democracy movement. Those countries which balked at joining Bush’s "international community" faced harsh reprisals. When the UN’s ambassador to Yemen voted against a resolution authorizing the use of force to expel Iraq from Kuwait, a U.S. official told the Yemeni: "That was the most expensive ‘no’ vote you ever cast." A few days later, the U.S. cut off millions in aid to Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the world. Saudi Arabia expelled 800,000 Yemeni "guest" workers.

The UN’s role proved decisive throughout the Gulf buildup: Bush used the UN to give U.S. war aims the "international community’s" seal of approval. Each of the 12 anti-Iraq UN Security Council resolutions passed between August 1990 and April 1991 followed unilateral U.S. actions. The U.S. sent troops and ships into the Gulf before securing the UN resolution imposing an economic blockade on Iraq. It doubled U.S. troop strength (to 250,000) and put the U.S. on offensive war footing before it won passage of the November 29 resolution setting a January 15, 1991, deadline for military action to drive Iraq out of Kuwait. The U.S. pulled all of the UN’s strings, while claiming simply to uphold the will of the "international community." Those who thought the UN was an impartial international body committed to keeping the peace received a rude awakening.

During the months of buildup to the war, the U.S. feared more than anything a negotiated solution that might allow Iraq to pull out of Kuwait and Saddam to save face. When U.S. public opinion seemed to be slipping away from him in early December, Bush announced a "last-ditch" effort for a face-to-face meeting between Secretary of State James Baker and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz. While this seemed like a bold stroke aimed at showing the U.S. would "go the extra mile" for peace, in reality, it had been plotted months earlier as part of the administration’s plan to win support for war.8 After Bush announced the Baker-Aziz meeting, the U.S. stonewalled it until the last possible moment. The U.S. went out of its way to sabotage French, Russian and Arab attempts to mediate a settlement. Hours before the January 15 deadline expired, French representatives proposed a four-point peace plan which garnered the support of the majority of the Security Council. The U.S. and Britain vetoed it.

Bush’s "coalition partners" served a political, rather than a military, purpose during Desert Storm. As he used the UN, Bush used the multinational alliance against Iraq to cover for the fact that the 1991 Gulf War was essentially a U.S. operation. U.S. forces flew 86 percent of the more than 92,000 sorties during the war, and about 90 percent of those which dropped bombs on Iraq. The U.S. contributed the vast bulk of tanks, artillery and naval support, with only Britain providing more than token military hardware.9

Desert Slaughter

Calling Desert Storm a "war" makes it sound more evenly contested than it was. The military campaign which began with the aerial bombardment of Baghdad on January 16, 1991, was a one-sided slaughter. In the 43-day air war, more tonnage of ordnance was dropped on Iraq faster than in any other aerial bombardment in the history of warfare. Following the script Dugan laid out in September, the "coalition partners" deliberately targeted Iraq’s civilian infrastructure, knocking out the country’s power grid in the first sorties. Pentagon-approved media coverage conveyed images of "smart bombs" antiseptically "taking out" targets. But, on the ground, civilians and thousands of Iraqi conscripts took the brunt of the assault. In the only major attack which drew any criticism, the U.S. dropped a "bunker buster" explosive into an underground Baghdad bomb shelter. More than 400 civilians were murdered.

General Colin Powell announced what the U.S. had in store for the Iraqi army: "First we’re going to cut it off, then we’re going to kill it." Poorly paid and equipped Iraqi conscripts, two-thirds of them oppressed Shiites and Kurds, faced bombing 24 hours a day. Thousands of Iraqi troops deserted the battlefield. U.S. and coalition forces mowed down some of them when they tried to surrender. A military video showed in a combat briefing depicted Iraqi soldiers as "ghostly sheep . . . flushed from a pen . . . bewildered and terrified. Some were literally blown to bits by bursts of 30mm exploding cannon. One by one they were cut down by attackers they couldn’t see or understand," according to one report. One U.S. officer anticipated another night of action: ". . . there is nothing that can take them out like an Apache [attack helicopter]. It will be a duck hunt."10 In scenes reminiscent of mass burials at liberated Nazi concentration camps in the 1940s, U.S. forces bulldozed the bodies of thousands of Iraqi soldiers into mass graves.

On February 15–a month into the air war–Saddam’s government announced it would accept UN resolutions calling for its withdrawal from Kuwait. The U.S. and its lackey, Britain, dismissed Saddam’s surrender. Instead, Bush called for Iraqis to rise up and overthrow Saddam: "[T]here’s another way for the bloodshed to stop, and that is for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands, to force Saddam to step aside."11 Bush’s statement communicated two points: first, that the U.S. wouldn’t settle only for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, and second, that the U.S. might back anyone who rose up against Saddam. The first point proved that expelling Iraq from Kuwait was a mere pretext for wider U.S. designs in the war. The second point proved a lie only weeks later, when masses of Kurds and Shiites took "matters into their own hands" and rose up against Saddam.

Saddam had essentially cried "uncle," but the U.S. wanted to mount a ground offensive anyway. In six days, U.S. and coalition ground troops swept across Kuwait and southern Iraq, forcing Iraqi troops into a full-scale retreat. In the last 40 hours of the war, before Bush called a cease-fire on February 28, U.S. and British forces mounted a relentless assault against retreating and defenseless Iraqi soldiers. The road leading from Kuwait to Basra became known as the "Highway of Death." Iraqi soldiers fled Kuwait in every possible vehicle they could get their hands on. Allied tank units cut the Iraqis off. U.S. warplanes bombed, strafed and firebombed the stranded columns for hours without resistance. In a slaughter which a U.S. pilot described as "like shooting fish in a barrel," thousands of Iraqi conscripts were killed on a 50-mile stretch of highway. So many planes filled the skies over southern Iraq that military air traffic controllers maneuvered to prevent mid-air collisions.

The "Highway of Death," and, in fact, the ground war itself, served no military purpose. Saddam had admitted defeat before the ground war began. Attacks on retreating Iraqis merely delayed the war’s end. But the U.S. mounted this barbarism for one reason only: to render an example of what would happen to any government which bucked the U.S. For nearly two days, the Pentagon invented the excuse that the Iraqis were staging a "fighting retreat," a fiction which they knew was a lie.12 "When enemy armies are defeated, they withdraw," said Air Force Chief of Staff Merrill A. McPeak. "It’s during this time that the true fruits of victory are achieved from combat, when the enemy is disorganized . . . If we do not exploit victory, the president should get himself some new generals."13

The savagery of the U.S. war took some of the luster off Bush’s victory. But nothing so revealed the callous disregard for ordinary Iraqis as U.S. complicity in Saddam’s suppression of the Kurdish and Shiite uprisings in the weeks following Iraq’s defeat. Demobilized soldiers in the southern, predominantly Shiite sections of the country returned to their hometowns and vented their fury on all symbols of Saddam’s regime. Kurdish guerrillas launched a coordinated uprising in Iraqi Kurdistan. In the week following the Gulf War cease-fire, ordinary Iraqis stormed the regime’s police headquarters, barracks and prisons. Crowds broke into underground dungeons and torture chambers, freeing political prisoners who hadn’t seen daylight in decades. Masses of people lynched officials of Saddam’s government. For almost two weeks, ordinary Iraqis controlled whole regions of the country and Saddam’s government seemed on the verge of collapse.

Then, Saddam got a helping hand from an unlikely source–the U.S. government. Bush had meant his call for Saddam "to step aside" as a signal of U.S. support for a military coup against him–not a popular uprising. An uprising from below might set the wrong example for the populaces of the U.S.-allied feudal dictatorships in Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States. U.S. officials also expressed fears that successful uprisings could lead to a breakup of Iraq and the strengthening of the other Gulf bogeyman, Iran. U.S. military officials refused to meet with emissaries of the rebels. And U.S. forces stood by as Saddam’s government, officially violating the terms of the cease-fire agreement, mounted a counterattack. When Saddam’s forces dropped firebombs on fleeing rebels near the southern Iraqi city of Kerbala, American planes patrolled high above, surveilling the attack.14

After the Storm

In the wake of all the slaughter and destruction, George Bush promised that Desert Storm would usher in a "new world order." But the new order looked quite a bit like the old order.

In Kuwait, U.S. bayonets restored to power the ruling al-Sabah family, a feudal dynasty. Bush had made much about the rights of the Kuwaiti people to determine their own destiny free from Iraqi rule. But in restoring the al-Sabahs to the throne, Bush restored a political system which allowed only 3 percent of Kuwaiti residents any political rights at all. Women still can’t vote in Kuwait. As soon as the al-Sabahs returned, they launched a reign of terror against Palestinian "guest workers," whom the al-Sabahs accused of pro-Iraq sentiments. Kuwaiti police rounded up thousands. They summarily executed hundreds of them. Kuwait expelled more than 400,000 Palestinian workers–many of whom suffered under the Iraqi occupation–from the country. Human rights organizations denounce Kuwait’s disregard for elementary human rights.

By the end of March 1991, Saddam had put down the Shiite/Kurdish rebellion. The immediate result was a humanitarian catastrophe that dwarfs even the horrible situation in Kosovo today. As many as 3 million Kurds fled into Iran and Turkey. When destroying Iraq, the coalition air forces flew one raid a minute. In the first week of the Kurds’ torment in makeshift camps in the mountains, those same forces could manage only 10 flights. The total relief for Kurds that Congress approved in April 1991 amounted to about eight hours of spending on the war. When the U.S. announced Operation Provide Comfort, it used the safeguarding of Kurds to establish a military occupation of northern Iraq.

But the biggest victims of Desert Storm remain the Iraqi people. Desert Storm left behind the greatest human-made catastrophe in modern times. By UN estimates, the war and the continuing economic sanctions have reduced a country which was once on par with the economic development of Greece to the economic level of Mali. The only word which captures the impact of the sanctions is "genocide." The mind-numbing statistics–7,000 children dying a month, 1.5 million Iraqis killed since 1990, ordinary Iraqis receiving only 34 percent of the daily caloric minimum–don’t adequately convey the destruction of an entire people. Perversely, the UN–the same organization which is perpetrating the crime of sanctions–has produced some of the most authoritative accounts of this destruction. "After 24 years in the field, mostly in Africa starting with Biafra, I didn’t think anything could shock me, but it was comparable to the worse scenarios I had ever seen," said Dieter Hannusch, chief emergency support officer for the UN World Food Program (WFP). Another WFP manager commented, following a 1996 visit to Iraq:

There actually are more than 4 million people, a fifth of Iraq’s population, at severe nutritional risk. That number includes 2.4 million children under five, about 600,000 pregnant/nursing women and destitute women heads of households as well as hundreds of elderly without anyone to help them . . . 70 percent of the population has little or no access to food . . . Nearly everyone seems to be emaciated . . . We are at the point of no return . . . The social fabric of the nation is disintegrating. People have exhausted their ability to cope.15

According to UN resolutions, Iraq will be eligible for sanctions relief after it has disarmed its "weapons of mass destruction" and settled other issues with the Kuwaiti government. In reality, the sanctions will continue for as long as the U.S. can strong-arm other nations into abiding by them. From the earliest days after the Gulf War cease-fire, the U.S. has insisted that economic sanctions will remain in effect as long as Saddam Hussein remains in power in Iraq. "We do not agree with those nations who argue that if Iraq complies with its obligations concerning weapons of mass destruction, sanctions should be lifted," Secretary of State Madeleine Albright proclaimed in 1996.16

"For months after the invasion of Kuwait, the president had struggled to articulate his motives for going to war. With the shooting now stopped, the reasons at last seemed clear: the conflict had been waged on behalf of cheap oil, friendly monarchies, and Washington’s strategic goal of preventing the emergence of a hegemonic power inimical to American interests in the Middle East," wrote Rick Atkinson, a military journalist, in summing up Desert Storm.17 Atkinson was right. So that the U.S. can dominate the Middle East, the people of Iraq have paid–and will continue to pay–with their lives.

1 George Bush, "In Defense of Saudi Arabia," The Gulf War Reader, Micah Sifry and Christopher Cerf, eds., (New York: Random House, 1991), pp. 197-199.

2 Dugan quoted in Dilip Hiro, Desert Shield to Desert Storm (New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 188.

3 Anthony H. Cordesman, U.S. Forces in the Middle East: Resources and Capabilities (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1997), p. 1.

4 Robert McFarlane, "How America Won the Peace," The Guardian (London), July 29, 1988.

5 For details on U.S. military and economic aid to Iraq, see Geoff Simons, Iraq: From Sumer to Saddam, 2nd ed. (New York: St. Martins Press, 1996), pp. 317-329 and Murray Waas, "What Washington Gave Saddam for Christmas," in Sifry and Cerf, eds., pp. 85-95.

6 For details on the Iraq lobby, see Joe Conason, "The Iraq Lobby: Kissinger, the Business Forum and Co.," in Sifry and Cerf. eds., pp. 79-84.

7 The senators’ visit to Iraq is recounted in Simons, Iraq: From Sumer to Saddam, pp. 346-347.

8 Hiro, p. 264.

9 Cordesman, p. 62-63.

10 Reports from the Los Angeles Times, quoted in Simons, Iraq: From Sumer to Saddam, pp. 378-379.

11 Bush quoted in Simons, Iraq: From Sumer to Saddam, p. 375.

12 The best account of the "Highway of Death" was a Stephen Coll and William Branigan story in the Washington Post, March 11, 1991, p A1.

13 Quoted in Hiro, p. 391.

14 For an account of the uprising and its betrayal, see Andrew Cockburn and Patrick Cockburn, Out of the Ashes (New York: Harper Collins, 1999), pp. 20-30.

15 Geoff Simons, The Scourging of Iraq, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 1998), p. 215. This book is an excellent resource for anyone who wants to fight to end the sanctions against Iraq.

16 Albright quoted in Simons, The Scourging of Iraq, p. 243.

17 Rick Atkinson, Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1993), p. 492.

Lance Selfa is a member of the ISR editorial board
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