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The True History of the Gulf War

For Americans, however, the greatest burden of responsibility rests with the repeated boast that US bombing of Iraq had intended to minimize civilian casualties and had brilliantly succeeded.14 What it may have intended, what it targeted, and what it accomplished are not remotely related.

A report, Needless Deaths in the Gulf War, by Middle East Watch, is sickening to read. The destruction of Iraq’s electrical system, communications facilities, factories, railroads, waterways, bridges, and highways—in fact, the entire infrastructure—showed that bombing could not be limited to military targets only.

In one of the briefings with General Schwarzkopf, Brigadier General Glosson, commander of the 14th Air Division, assured correspondents: “We’re striking only military targets.”15 It is hard to believe that these generals did not know that the Iraqi infrastructure was as much a necessity to civilians as to the military. Their culpability is not that they fought the war in the only way they knew how; it is that they presented the bombing as a clean and chaste technical exercise, as if to soothe the consciences of the people back home or perhaps their own.

Caught between the aftermath of US bombing and Saddam Hussein’s self-interest, the Iraqi people are paying the highest and most protracted price for the war. In March 1991, a UN survey described the bombing of Iraq as “near apocalyptic” and warned that it threatened to reduce “a rather highly urbanized and mechanized society to a pre-industrial age.”16 In April, a twelve-member Harvard study team went to Iraq and found, as one member reported, that “there is a public health catastrophe due to the cumulative effects of the Allied bombing and resulting sanctions.”17 In August 1991, an international study team, consisting of eighty-seven researchers from over twelve countries and embracing a wide variety of disciplines, including medicine, public health, and environmental sciences, went to Iraq. It found that the public health crisis was worse than before.

Those suffering the most are children, elderly, women, and the poor. Food is still not available and the water is highly contaminated. Children play in the raw sewage which is backed up in the streets…. Two world renowned child psychologists stated that the children in Iraq were “the most traumatized children of war ever described.”… The Iraqi economy is in a state of collapse. Real earnings are less than 7 percent of what they were before the start of the Gulf crisis.18

Of all those who testified before the House Select Committee on Hunger on November 13, 1991, the most searching analysis of the deeper issues was made by Representative Jim McDermott of Washington state, a physician, who also visited Iraq in August with a human rights group. His remarks went to the political and ethical heart of US policy:

Today, I want to address the political and moral dilemma that America faces in Iraq. Since the end of the Gulf war, our singular focus has been the downfall of Saddam Hussein. But given the public health disaster in Iraq today, we must ask ourselves, at what point does the starvation of 18 million people take precedence over our attempts to remove one person from power? The Iraqi people did not vote for Saddam Hussein, yet hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, most of them children, are hungry, sick, and dying because of Saddam’s intransigence and our commitment to oust Hussein at all cost.

Starving the people of Iraq will not topple Saddam Hussein. He is eating, and his advisors and the Republican Guard are eating. Hussein will continue to hold out, and I do not doubt that he is willing to let the Iraqi people starve in the process. We are confronted with an ethical and moral dilemma: What is more important—feeding the Iraqi children or opposing Saddam? I believe a majority of the American people would overwhelmingly support providing humanitarian aid to the children of Iraq. The Administration needs to find a way to provide that aid.

McDermott was referring to the impasse created by UN Resolution 706 of August 15, 1991, approving the sale of $1.6 billion of oil by Iraq but with conditions which Saddam Hussein has refused to accept. These well-meaning conditions required the Iraqi government to permit the UN to establish a system of monitoring and control to ensure that the revenues from this one-time sale of oil would be used for the benefit of Iraqis most in need and not for the benefit of the Iraqi government. The only result has been an exchange of accusations—that Saddam Hussein is preventing aid from coming to the most needy Iraqis and that the UN is undermining Iraqi sovereignty.

It is a dilemma, but one that the Bush administration refuses to face. By bombing Iraq so heavily and indiscriminately, and then leaving Saddam Hussein in power, the administration produced the worst possible outcome for the Iraqi people. The administration has been satisfied to put all the blame on Saddam Hussein on the ground that “there is a limit to what we, as part of the international community, can do in the absence of Iraqi cooperation.”19 This rationalization ignores the fact that the United States deliberately decided to stop short of ousting Saddam Hussein from power and thereby assumed some responsibility for the bitter fruit of this decision. That Saddam Hussein will do anything to hold on to power, including sacrificing his own people, comes as no surprise. The children, the sick, the elderly, the women, and the poor are paying for a US policy that shows no sign of getting rid of Saddam Hussein and punishes those least responsible for him. It would seem to be time to reconsider a policy that is politically futile and morally indefensible.


Whether Saddam Hussein had intended to invade Saudi Arabia through Kuwait is questionable, though President Bush as late as November 8, 1991, charged that if it had been left up to the Democrats, America would be sitting “fat, dumb and happy with Saddam Hussein maybe in Saudi Arabia.”20

One view, from a military source, is that Saddam Hussein planned to go from Kuwait into Saudi Arabia but was logistically unable to do so. A major reason, it is said, was that too many Iraqi tanks had broken down.21 Another view, that of James E. Akins, the former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, is that Saddam did not intend to invade Saudi Arabia, and that Secretary of Defense Cheney had to convince the Saudis that an invasion was imminent.22

In fact, on August 6, 1990, Secretary Cheney, General Schwarzkopf, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Paul Wolfowitz, and Ambassador Freeman met with King Fahd in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He was shown satellite photos of Iraqi forces on the border and, as Cheney related, told that they were “deployed for further aggression.”23 Yet, as two well-informed authors report, Bush administration officials later admitted that neither the CIA nor the Defense Intelligence Agency thought it probable that Iraq would invade Saudi Arabia.24 On August 6, too, Saddam told the US chargé d’affaires in Baghdad, Joseph Wilson, that the question of attacking Saudi Arabia “has not even crossed my mind.”25

It seems that the Saudis were not of one mind. King Fahd’s younger half brother, Prince Abdullah, is said to have been distinctly unenthusiastic about a large US presence in the Gulf.26 On October 21, 1990, the defense minister, Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, suggested that it would be a brotherly act for Kuwait to cede or lease the islands of Warba and Bubiyan to the Iraqis, because it would give them an outlet to the Gulf.27 But Fahd apparently made up his mind to go with the Americans, and he had the last word. In any event, the apparent threat to Saudi Arabia did not last more than a few days after Kuwait was invaded. The switch from “shield” to “storm” was made after any danger to. Saudi Arabia had passed.

The Bush administration had some difficulty working out a party line on why the war was necessary. The problem seemed to be whether to take the low or materialistic road, the high or moralistic road, or both.

On August 15, 1990, in one of his first efforts to provide a rationale for resisting Saddam Hussein, Bush said that “our jobs, our way of life, our own freedom, and the freedom of friendly countries around the world will suffer if control of the world’s great oil reserves fell in the hands of that one man, Saddam Hussein.” These reasons were both mundane and implausible. That “jobs” should have been mentioned first suggested that Bush, as in a domestic political campaign, sought primarily to appeal to the voters’ pocketbook. It was, however, a peculiarly crass reason to go to war, if it came to that, halfway around the world. But just how “our own freedom,” except possibly the freedom to run cars on cheap gas, would suffer enough for a war was left unexplained.28 The reference to oil implied we were fighting for everyone else’s cheaper oil. Finally, the “one man” theme was introduced, leaving the rest of Saddam’s regime in the clear and making his personal elimination a central war aim. On another occasion, Bush made the invasion “pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”29 It would have been interesting if Bush had tried to explain how American national security as well as freedom were jeopardized in Kuwait.

On October 16, 1990, Bush apparently had second thoughts about the stress on oil and decided to take the moralistic high road—“the fight isn’t about oil; the fight is about naked aggression that will not stand.” On November 13, 1990, by which time the decision had been made to send so many troops to Saudi Arabia that war was unavoidable, Secretary Baker reverted to the homespun and decided to bring the war “down to the level of the average American citizen.” He said that one word summed up the situation: “jobs.” Republican Senate Minority Leader Dole also took the same line and helpfully spelled out the one reason why the United States was in the Gulf crisis—“O-I-L.”

Once the decision had been made to resist Saddam’s annexation of Kuwait, Bush cast about for some form of validation of his policy, though he asserted that he did not need one. Like President Truman in the Korean War, Bush at first chose to seek votes at the United Nations instead of the US Congress, as mandated by the US Constitution. By August 2, 1990, the United States had UN Resolution 660, condemning the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and demanding immediate withdrawal. Eleven other UN resolutions soon followed.30

The UN votes were not without their cost. From the cases that we know about, others may be inferred. About $7 billion by the United States and $6.7 billion by the Gulf states are said to have been written off Egypt’s debts.31 Syria was the beneficiary of $200 million from the European Community, a Japanese loan of $500 million, and more than $2 billion from Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, though none of the 18,000 Syrian troops in Saudi Arabia actually fought.32 Turkey protected its $500 million a year in military aid. The Soviet Union received $1 billion in aid from Saudi Arabia and credit guarantees from the United States. Yemen was cut off from $70 million in foreign aid for voting the wrong way. After the delegate from Yemen received some applause for his negative vote, Secretary Baker said: “I hope he enjoyed that applause, because this will turn out to be the most expensive vote he ever cast.” For not exercising its veto, China’s foreign minister was given a reception at the White House after suffering diplomatic isolation for a year and a half following the Tiananmen Square massacre.33

  1. 14

    A typical boast in a Pentagon “Interim Report”: “Careful targeting and expert use of technological superiority—including precision guided munitions—throughout the strategic air campaign minimized collateral damage and casualties to the civilian population, reflecting US policy that Saddam Hussein and his military machine, not the Iraqi people, were the enemy” (cited in Middle East Watch/Human Rights Watch, Needless Deaths in the Gulf War, pp. 76-77).

  2. 15

    Pyle, Schwartzkopf: The Man, The Mission, The Triumph, p. 232.

  3. 16

    The New York Times, March 23, 1991.

  4. 17

    Julia Devin, executive director of the International Commission on Medical Neutrality, testimony before the House Select Committee on Hunger, November 13, 1991.

  5. 18

    Julia Devin, who accompanied the larger group, in testimony of November 13, 1991, House Select Committee on Hunger.

  6. 19

    Testimony of Jackie Wolcott, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizational Affairs, November 13, 1991, House Select Committee on Hunger.

  7. 20

    The New York Times, November 9, 1991.

  8. 21

    Norman Friedman, Desert Victory, pp. 40–41, 224.

  9. 22

    Crisis in the Persian Gulf: Sanctions, Diplomacy and War, Hearings of the House Armed Services Committee, p. 8.

  10. 23

    Crisis in the Persian Gulf, p. 527.

  11. 24

    Judith Miller and Laurie Mylroie, Saddam Hussein and the Crisis in the Gulf (Times Books, 1990), p. 192.

  12. 25

    An extended account of the Saddam–Wilson meeting is reproduced in Pierre Salinger and Eric Laurent, Secret Dossier (Penguin, 1991), pp. 137–147, especially p. 144.

  13. 26

    Cohen and Gatti, In the Eye of the Storm, p. 188.

  14. 27

    Crisis in the Persian Gulf, p. 91.

  15. 28

    Bush seems to have made a habit of using the most extreme hyperbole as a political weapon, as in the equally absurd assertion that Clarence Thomas was the best qualified candidate for the Supreme Court.

  16. 29

    Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, February 11, 1991, p. 161.

  17. 30

    The texts of all the UN resolutions are reproduced in The Gulf War Reader, edited by Micah L. Sifry and Christopher Cerf (Times Books, 1991), pp. 137-156.

  18. 31

    Bulloch and Morris, Saddam’s War, p. 159.

  19. 32

    Daniel Pipes in Foreign Affairs (Fall 1991), p. 41. Martin Yant says that Syria received pledges totaling $5 billion, the European Community lifted economic sanctions, and Great Britain restored diplomatic relations in November 1990 (Desert Mirage, Prometheus Books, 1991, p. 215).

  20. 33

    Sciolino, pp. 237–238 (for the Soviet Union, Yemen, and China).

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