Today in Middle Eastern history: Operation Desert Storm begins (1991)

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Today is the anniversary of the initial airstrikes of Operation Desert Storm, the “oh, it’s just one pull on the slots—what could go wrong?” of America’s full-blown addiction to blowing things up in the Middle East. Thanks to YouTube, you kids out there can relive it as it happened...or, at least, “as it happened” to Americans watching from their nice, quiet living rooms:

Although he was America’s good close pal when he was heroically gassing tens of thousands of Iranians throughout much of the 1980s, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait put him on Washington’s naughty list for several reasons. Chief among them was, of course, the threat he posed to Saudi Arabia and therefore a large portion of the world’s oil supply. There was also the fact of the invasion itself, which did violate the Norms of the liberal international order or whatever. And we shouldn’t forget the human rights abuses, even though many of those, like the infamous “Iraqi soldiers pulled Kuwaiti babies out of incubators and left them to die” horror story, were invented by PR firms hired by Kuwaiti royals. Really, though, it was the oil and the chance to take the US military out of the garage and show it off to the neighbors by beating up a smaller, weaker country that prompted the Bush I administration’s mission to Do Something about Saddam’s Aggression. And for the rest of the world, well, the oil thing was reason enough to Care.

Consequently, there was broad global consensus that Saddam’s early August 1990 invasion needed to be rolled back. The United Nations Security Council, in the midst of its brief post-Cold War era of good feelings, voted in rapid succession in the following days to demand Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait, then to impose economic sanctions on Iraq along with a naval blockade to enforce them. Hussein played around a little, offering to discuss a withdrawal from Kuwait in the context of a region-wide withdrawal by all countries from all occupied territories. Yes, he was talking about Israel, but also Syria’s presence in Lebanon and some lingering territorial issues from the Iran-Iraq War. Later he would propose leaving Kuwait only after all foreign forces had left the Middle East. The US and UK (especially the latter—Margaret Thatcher really pressured George Bush the Elder to take a hard line against the invasion) weren’t having it, and Saddam wasn’t really playing with a very strong hand.

The immediate concern after Iraqi forces rolled into Kuwait was, of course, that they would keep rolling into Saudi Arabia. Saddam publicly lashed out at the Saud family, accusing it of relying on US support to remain in power and employing—for a dictator with a mostly secular international image—a good deal of hardline religious rhetoric to declare the Saudis illegitimate. In doing this he was turning on a country that had backed him to the hilt during the Iran-Iraq War, mostly because he didn’t want to repay the billions of dollars worth of loans they’d floated him. He’d figured, not entirely unreasonably, that he was helping the Saudis by warring with Iran, and that money should have taken the form of payment for services rendered rather than loans. The Saudis, suffice to say, didn’t quite see it that way. Regardless, a lot of folks in Riyadh started to get very nervous at what might happen next. So at the Saudis’ invitation, the US deployed a “defensive” force in the kingdom to deter further Iraqi expansion—this was Operation Desert Shield.

Of course we know now that this “defensive” force was the nucleus of the army that would eventually push the Iraqis out of Kuwait, but even at the time it was pretty clear the US wasn’t sending thousands of soldiers, dozens of aircraft, and two Naval carrier groups to the Persian Gulf just to park them there in case Saddam got any funny ideas. But there they parked for several weeks, while the Bush administration pursued a flurry of pre-war diplomacy. One outcome of that effort was a November 29 Security Council resolution that authorized force to roll back the Iraqi invasion and gave Saddam until January 15, 1991, to withdraw from Kuwait. Another was the construction of a nearly 1 million man force from some 34 countries, with several other countries (Japan, Germany, and Kuwait, among others) contributing billions of dollars toward the war effort. The Saudis, by the way, contributed both militarily and financially.

The UN’s January 15 deadline passed with the Iraqis still squatting in Kuwait, and so the war began the following evening, Washington time, which means the early morning of January 17 in Iraq. The war began with coalition airstrikes, and that’s what it mostly remained, apart from the brief Iraqi occupation of the Saudi town of Khafji in late January. It was only with the final, rapid US assault that drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait in late February that the war’s focus shifted from an air campaign to a ground one.

It’s easy, in retrospect, to understand why the Gulf War is looked at as a great victory. Obviously it was a thorough military success. It was fought with a huge, unprecedented really, level of international unanimity that it was The Right Thing To Do. It focused on a well-defined, measurable military objective and it held to that objective even when the ease with which it was achieved might have encouraged the coalition to push further. George Bush got to show everybody that he wasn’t a wimp. All I’m saying is that if you’re making a list of the most damaging, most self-defeating military interventions the United States has ever undertaken, there are a bunch of them that would rank higher than the Gulf War. Or they would, that is, provided you ignore the fact that this was the war that sparked decades of unrelenting American fun and games in the Middle East.

Of course, that’s not really the kind of thing you can ignore. Admittedly, America’s current struggles with respect to the greater Middle East have roots that go back earlier than the Gulf War—arming the Afghan Mujahideen turned out to be a pretty bad idea, for example, and the less said about our repeated interference in Iran the better—but consider that the United States hasn’t really left the nation of Iraq alone for so much as a solid month since 1991. We started off low-key—just an embargo and some sanctions that killed a few hundred thousand people, maybe the occasional airstrike or ten—but after 9/11 we came back with a real vengeance (literally). The Gulf War put Saddam in America’s crosshairs, it established America as the protector of the Gulf states, and it put American troops in Saudi Arabia to the consternation of at least one budding international terrorist. It made CNN famous (that’s bad, in hindsight), made Dick Cheney popular (very bad), and brought us the fiction that is “smart bombs,” so we could pretend that the US military doesn’t kill civilians anymore (very, very bad).

The Gulf War brought us Gulf War Syndrome, contaminated parts of Kuwait and Iraq with used depleted uranium ammunition, and, courtesy of the the retreating Iraqis, left oil wells all over Kuwait burning and leaking. The full health and environmental impacts of these things is still not fully known. The war also led Iraqi Kurds and Shiʿa Arabs to rebel against Saddam, only to be brutally suppressed when the US, which heavily encouraged their rebellions, decided in the end not to help them out. And it gave us the WMD issue, even as it actually marked the beginning of the end of Saddam’s WMD programs.

The Gulf War was a dramatic military victory that helped cement the feeling in the US that we’d Won The Cold War and were now The World’s Only Superpower®. And in hindsight, compared with anything else the US has done in the region since then, the victory looks like a phenomenal achievement. But the contours of US involvement in the Middle East over the past 25 years are rooted in—or at least developed via—this war. And last but not least, from the perspective of the Iraqi people the Gulf War was the start of decades of unremitting misery at American hands.