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The True History of the Gulf War

In the Eye of the Storm: The Life of General H. Norman Schwarzkopf

by Roger Cohen, by Claudio Gatti
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 342 pp., $19.95

Desert Victory: The War for Kuwait

by Norman Friedman
Naval Institute Press, 435 pp., $18.95 (paper)

The Outlaw State: Saddam Hussein’s Quest for Power and the Gulf Crisis

by Elaine Sciolino
Wiley, 320 pp., $22.95

Needless Deaths in the Gulf War: Civilian Casualties During the Air Campaign and Violations of the Laws of War

Middle East Watch/Human Rights Watch, 402 pp., $15.00 (paper)

On the Basra Road

by Stephen Sackur
London Review of Books, 78 pp., £4.95 (paper)

George Bush’s War

by Jean Edward Smith

The Hotel Warriors: Covering the Gulf

by John J. Fialka
The Media Studies Project/Woodrow Wilson Center (370 L’Enfant Promenade, SW, Washington, DC 20024), available upon request


The United States had about six months in which to warn Iraq what it faced if it invaded Kuwait. Though Saddam Hussein made repeated threats, no such warning went out from Washington. The reasons for the failure are of more than historical interest, because the people who failed then are still in the same positions.

One factor was the unusually narrow decision-making process in the Bush administration. The President, the secretary of state, and a handful of others—if that many—seem to be able to cope with no more than one problem at a time. In the spring and summer of 1990, they had other things on their minds and paid little attention to Iraq and Kuwait.

A second factor was hinted at by April C. Glaspie, the American ambassador in Baghdad, who pointed out that the Kuwaitis and Saudis were also wrong. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and Asian Affairs John H. Kelly likewise stressed that the Kuwaitis had guessed wrong. “The Kuwaitis didn’t think that they were going to be attacked the night that they were attacked,” he said. “Nobody in the Arab world thought he [Saddam Hussein] was going to do it.”1 Assistant Secretary of International Security Affairs Henry S. Rowen also stated: “The Kuwaitis, of course, who had the most to lose, did not understand his [Saddam Hussein’s] intentions. Others did not. These were Arabs looking at this. So they were all working on a different theory, and we indeed were, to a large extent, ourselves, and that was that he would coerce the Kuwaitis into paying a great deal of money. That was the theory they were operating under, and that turned out to be wrong.”2

In effect, US policy before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was not really made in the United States. It was little more than a mirror-image of what friendly Arab rulers were telling the United States to think.

Third, Glaspie said that she and everyone else did not believe that “the Iraqis were going to take all of Kuwait.” The emphasis should be on “all.” The prewar Iraqi demands had emphasized debts, islands, and the Rumaila oil field, all of which appeared to be amenable to compromise and blackmail. It may well be that some deal could have been worked out if the Kuwaitis had been more receptive. In this respect, the Kuwaitis as well as the Iraqis surprised the other Arabs.

When Saddam Hussein told Glaspie that “the solution must be found within an Arab framework,” he can be taken to have meant that he intended to haggle and drive a hard bargain in the Arab tradition. But Saddam was no ordinary Arab leader and, in any case, he had been advertising his demands publicly for six months without apparent effect. There is even some reason to believe that his final decision to invade may have been made impulsively, based on a miscalculation of US reaction, even as the United States had miscalculated his action. One military account of the war says that Iraqi units were surprised by the order to invade Kuwait, which they received less than half a day before the attack.3

The Americans could take some comfort from the fact that the British were no smarter. British ministers received an assessment from the Cabinet Office the day before the invasion to the effect that Iraq would not invade.4

As for Kuwait, it was, paradoxically, one of the Arab states that had done the least to merit American gratitude. For years, its foreign policy had been one of the most virulently anti-American in the region. In 1983, Kuwait had refused to accept as ambassador Brandon H. Grove, Jr., a veteran US diplomat, because he had served as US consul in East Jerusalem. The Kuwaiti press was rabidly anti-American. In The Washington Post of June 24, 1984, its correspondent in Kuwait, David B. Ottaway, had observed that Kuwait was “accustomed to blaming the United States for all the ills afflicting the Arab world, and the gulf in particular.” During the debate on the Gulf War in Congress in January 1991, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan recalled:

I was also, if I may just say, once our Ambassador to the United Nations. I remember Kuwait at the United Nations as a particularly poisonous enemy of the United States. One can be an antagonist of the United States in a way that leaves room for further discussions afterwards. But the Kuwaitis were singularly nasty. Their anti-Semitism was at the level of the personally loathsome when Resolution 3379 equating Zionism with racism passed the General Assembly. The Kuwaitis were conspicuously poisonous.5

Too late, the mea culpas confessed to what had gone wrong. Former President Reagan admitted: “We committed a boner with regard to Iraq and our close friendship with Iraq.”6 President Bush said: “Well, we tried the peaceful route. We tried working with him [Saddam Hussein] and changing [him] through contact…. The lesson is clear in this case—that that didn’t work.”7 Bush also explained: “We tried just before the end of the Iran-Iraq war to have better relations and to see a different side. And what happens? He takes over Kuwait, and that was it right there.”8

Saddam was like Hitler but not in the way Bush intended when he likened Saddam to Hitler. It took Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939 to bring on World War II after a long period of appeasement. It now took Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait to bring on the Gulf War after a similar period of appeasement. In both cases, war might have been avoided if it had not taken so long to find out that trying to get better relations and seeing a different side were roads to war. Oddly enough, Bush seemed to think it was to his credit that it had taken him so long to see Saddam Hussein as another Hitler—as someone who could not be changed through contact. Yet, once made, Bush took his Hitler analogy so seriously that he foresaw a Nuremberg-type trial for Saddam once the Gulf War ended.9


On August 2, 1990, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, Washington was virtually empty of the highest officials, and the most concerned US ambassadors were not at their posts. President Bush was on his way to Aspen; Colorado, to deliver a speech. Secretary of Defense Cheney was set to accompany him and then to go on vacation. Secretary of State Baker was in Irkutsk, Siberia. General Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was setting out on a vacation. Ambassador Glaspie was on the way back to the United States from London. Charles W. Freeman, Jr., ambassador to Saudi Arabia, had gone to the United States on vacation five days before the invasion.

Yet the decision to resist Iraq’s takeover seems to have been made within seventy-two hours. Bush later said that he had “decided to act to check that aggression” within three days, after 120,000 Iraqi troops and 850 tanks “had poured into Kuwait and moved south to threaten Saudi Arabia.”10 At that time, the United States was primarily concerned about Saudi Arabia—hence the term “Desert Shield,” which applied to Saudi Arabia, not Kuwait. For another three months, US policy was ostensibly defensive, and the decision to go on the offensive was apparently not made until October 30, 1990, when it was decided to double the force in Saudi Arabia to more than 400,000 troops.

This decision was apparently made narrowly in the White House. According to General Schwarzkopf’s biographers, Colin L. Powell, “had been skeptical about moving to an offensive operation.” Schwarzkopf had allegedly said to his family, “Powell is not a cowboy.”11 Elaine Sciolino, whose book, The Outlaw State, is both knowledgeable and astute, records the following reactions: President Turgut Ozal of Turkey assured President Bush that “sanctions would bring Saddam to his knees within a month.” The Egyptian Foreign Minister Esmat Abdel Meguid thought that it would take two months at most. Secretary of State James A. Baker III, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, and his deputy, Robert Gates, also favored sanctions. On October 25, 1990, just before President Bush made his critical decision to double the American force in Saudi Arabia, CIA Director William H. Webster told the National Council on World Affairs Organization in Washington that sanctions were working so well that they had cut off 98 percent of Iraq’s oil exports and perhaps as much as 95 percent of its imports.12 Outside the administration, much military and civilian opinion disliked the “military option.”

The principal impetus for war seems to have come from President Bush, mainly abetted by Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, Vice-President Dan Quayle, and National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft. It was a peculiarly presidential war, whose political effect depended largely on whether it could be fought speedily and with minimal casualties on the American side.

The alternative to war during this period of waiting or indecision was economic sanctions. It was rejected, ostensibly because it would take too long, could not be maintained over a lengthy period, and might not succeed in the end. Yet a surprising number of influential observers preferred sanctions to war, basically because they were appalled by the havoc that war was sure to inflict on both Iraq and Kuwait, as well as its possible cost to the United States. In fact, they were right about the havoc to Iraq and Kuwait and were misled by administration spokesmen about the probable American casualties.

General Schwarzkopf himself did not rule out the effectiveness of sanctions before the war option was adopted. In an interview on September 13, 1990, he said:

If we figure, as has already been announced, that Iraq is losing one billion in revenues every day the sanctions are in effect, then it’s going to be interesting to see how much loyalty he has in his armed forces when he’s unable to pay their salaries, feed them, and resupply them with fuel and spare parts and ammunition. So I think that’s the next move right now.13

The irony of the present postwar position is that we are still waiting to see how long Saddam Hussein can hold out against the very sanctions that we rejected before the war. If sanctions are so futile, it is difficult to understand why we should persist with them indefinitely, as we are doing now. For President Bush, sanctions are good enough to force Saddam Hussein out of Iraq but they were not good enough to force him out of Kuwait.

If the cost of the war is limited to the United States, it was minimal. If it is seen as a whole—by what it did to all the combatants and victims—the war was something else. Once the Iraqis knew that they could not hold on to Kuwait, they committed crimes and depredations from which Kuwait may never recover. Once Kuwait was liberated, hundreds of thousands of non-Kuwaitis, on whom the country once depended for its working force, were heartlessly expelled without trial or discrimination. These refugees have scattered over the entire Middle East and represent a vast human calamity.

  1. 1

    The Persian Gulf Crisis, Joint Hearings of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Joint Economic Committee, House of Representatives, August 8–December 11, 1990, p. 126.

  2. 2

    The Persian Gulf Crisis, pp. 126–127.

  3. 3

    James F. Dunnigan and Austin Bay, From Shield to Storm, p. 375.

  4. 4

    John Bulloch and Harvey Morris, Saddam’s War (Faber, 1991), p. 105.

  5. 5

    Congressional Record, January 12, 1991, p. S109.

  6. 6

    At Brigham Young University, February 15, 1991.

  7. 7

    Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, February 5, 1991, p. 131.

  8. 8

    Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, March 8, 1991, p. 288.

  9. 9

    Hitler revisited. But remember when Hitler’s war ended, there were the Nuremberg Trials” (October 15, 1990, Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, p. 1,594).

  10. 10

    Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, September 11, 1990, p. 1,358.

  11. 11

    Roger Cohen and Claudio Gatti, In the Eye of the Storm: The Life of General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, p. 232. The authors express deep gratitude to General Schwarzkopf’s sister, Sally, for being “uniquely helpful” to them (p. 331).

  12. 12

    Elaine Sciolino, The Outlaw State, p. 230.

  13. 13

    Richard Pyle, Schwarzkopf: The Man, The Mission, The Triumph (Signet, 1991), p. 155. Almost half of this book contains the text of General Schwarzkopf’s briefings in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

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