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Silhouette of Challenger tank crewman in turret, circa 1991. (Roger Ryan/Crown Copyright/IWM via Getty Images)

The First Gulf War and Its Aftermath

Hillel Fradkin & Lewis Libby

In August 1990, Saddam Hussein, ruler of Iraq, unexpectedly seized Kuwait, capturing it in 48 hours and incorporating it as Iraq’s “19th province.” American intelligence, believing Iraq exhausted by the recently concluded, decade-long Iran-Iraq war, had expected only posturing or limited aggression from Saddam. Instead, Saddam’s invasion would lead to what was then the most massive American military action in the Middle East since WWII.

Indeed, as events unfolded, America’s 1990 foray would be followed by an ever-increasing involvement in the region under both Democratic and Republican administrations. In the wake of 1990 would come permanent U.S. basing, and large American forces would remain in the region at levels heretofore only to be found in Europe and East Asia. There would come, as well, multiple and varied uses of American force, which would protect Western interests and some Muslim governments and peoples, but would strike at others. “America,” an Iraqi leader would say, “has been bombing my country for 25 years.”

Viewed from a quarter century’s remove, Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, which seemed so striking and unique at the time, in fact came at a mid-point in four long-running tales of regional dysfunction. In the long run, the unwinding of Saddam’s course—an effort, like many, marked by shrewd judgment and error alike—would directly or indirectly affect all four.

The first is the rise of Sunni radicalism, which had begun decades earlier. The second is Iran’s quest to preserve its 1979 revolution and spread its radical strain into a Shiite-Islamic empire. The third is the lurching crisis of autocratic misgovernance in the Middle East, a tale with few unblemished heroes since the 1981 assassination of Sadat by Sunni Islamists. To the dysfunction spiraling from the interaction of these three deadly and conflicting forces was added a fourth accelerant, the potential spread of weapons of mass destruction—a Middle Eastern preoccupation since the Israeli destruction of Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981.

August 1990

The role in this bedlam of Iraq’s 1990 invasion was neither well foreseen by contemporaries, nor inevitable as it transpired. President George H.W. Bush quite sensibly saw the invasion as a threat to the region’s state-based order and to the oil resources on which much of the world depended. Aggression, he reasoned, could not stand; Saddam could not be allowed to profit by it.

Fairly quickly after the August 1990 invasion, Bush decided first to defend Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf countries from further Iraqi attacks, and then to repel Iraqi forces from Kuwait. He laboriously built a vast, international coalition to this end. His defense team designed an extraordinary strategy and waged a new, high-tech war brilliantly. Ultimately, he seemed to achieve both his objectives quickly and decisively. He thus formally returned the Gulf region to the status quo ante of the regional state framework and its recognized borders.

It might have thus appeared that America’s work was now done and that its heightened level of engagement in the region would now recede. Not only had a remarkable coalition been built to defeat Saddam, but pre-war diplomacy had included a measure of U.S.-Soviet cooperation. The U.S.-Soviet rivalry that had required U.S. administrations of both parties to attend closely to regional developments seemed certain to subside. Indeed, within a year the Soviet Union, in another unexpected development, would be gone.

Swept up in this moment and the triumph over Saddam, President Bush and his National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft decreed a “New World Order.” It was to be a world in which nation states would forestall interstate aggression. Justice, administered through joint action under the UN, would reign.

In line with his conceptions, the Bush administration had ended the war abruptly, almost off-handedly, at 100 hours after ground combat began. To preserve his design for the coalition he had built, Bush liberated Kuwait and sued for peace. But Bush had also called for uprisings of oppressed Iraqis and, under advice from government officials, had half-expected Saddam’s stunning defeat to lead to his removal. Meanwhile, Scowcroft also planned for Iraq, presumably under new management, quickly to right itself to balance off its neighbor, Iran—in effect hedging New World Order with Old World Realpolitik.

The War Ends; Saddam Remains

The Gulf War had begun with the unanticipated resilience and aggression of Saddam Hussein, and its aftermath soon ran into another unexpected development—the yet again unanticipated resilience and aggression of Saddam Hussein. Saddam’s army, seeing that Bush had declared war over with Saddam still in place and his forces largely intact, rallied to Saddam. It ruthlessly then repressed Iraqi Kurds in the north and Iraqi Shiites in the south, even using chemical weapons on Shiites near U.S. forces. In the speed of events, Bush had failed to see that calling an early end to the war to protect his coalition, and leaving many Iraqi forces intact to protect against Iran, also undercut prospects for his third hope—Saddam’s removal.

Saudi Arabia, alarmed at the prospect of Saddam remaining in power, had urged protecting the Shiites as they rose up against Saddam, but the New World Order envisioned no such messy endings, and Bush stayed his hand. Under international pressure, the U.S. introduced a no-fly zone in the north to protect the border of Turkey and to prevent the mass murder of Iraqi Kurds, but Saddam’s slaughter of Shiites in the south continued largely unabated. In time, the U.S. created a no-fly zone there, too; but not before Saddam was secure and the slaughter had bred sufficient ill will among Iraqi Shiites to greatly complicate future American efforts in Iraq.

Yet more intelligence failures greeted America in the war’s immediate aftermath. When the Gulf War began, U.S. intelligence had believed Saddam to be years away from developing a nuclear weapon. But post-war inspections revealed he had been within a year of reaching that capability. Then, the U.S. and international inspectors believed Saddam’s biological weapons programs had ended; yet a defector in 1995 proved that false. So the U.S. required that inspection regimes be imposed on Saddam Hussein and tightened as time progressed.

Yet once again, Saddam proved defiant. America, it turned out, had misjudged its foe. Americans would never see the logic in raping Kuwait temporarily in return for receiving a drubbing. Saddam saw that his regime would survive an American response, if in fact one came, and spread fear amongst his neighbors. America assured the world that the Coalition only sought to free Kuwait, but this also reinforced for Saddam the safety of his course. Just in case America invaded Iraq, Saddam distributed weapons throughout schools and headquarters in southern Iraq to conduct a Baath-led insurgents’ war, a harbinger of 2003. In the end, Saddam’s judgment that the U.S. would not invade to topple him proved closer to right than Bush’s judgment that Saddam would fall.

So in the war’s aftermath, Saddam continued to defy the rules America wanted him to obey. Unable to leave, America hunkered down. Historians will judge whether President Bush had viable options to restrict or topple Saddam in early 1991 that he had not seized, or whether if Bush’s successor had acted differently, Iraq might have been turned from its course in the 1990s. But for so long as Saddam remained in power, he was inclined to bedevil America. And he did. By the time America would seriously turn once more to Iraq in the early 2000s, other trials had rushed ahead.

Between the Wars

The interim grew progressively uglier. In 1993, Saddam tried to assassinate former President Bush. President Clinton responded meekly, sending cruise missiles against Iraqi intelligence headquarters at night when they were largely unoccupied. In 1994, Saddam surged massive numbers of troops to the Kuwait border, threatening another invasion and forcing the U.S. to rush 30,000 troops to Kuwait to deter him – a game in which Saddam held the advantage. He shot regularly at U.S. and British planes enforcing the no-fly zones, hoping to capture a pilot. He supported terrorists and railed against Israel. Smelling terror in the wind, he draped himself in Islamism. He used international economic sanctions to enrich his regime and, hypocritically but successfully, portrayed America as using sanctions to kill Iraq children. In 1996, he uncovered and annihilated a CIA-sponsored coup attempt, humiliating the Agency. Meanwhile, Saddam repeatedly frustrated international weapons inspectors; and then, in 1998, he blocked inspections altogether.

President Clinton, under political pressure and at wits’ end, signed legislation in 1998 urging regime change in Iraq. Congress appropriated $100 million to generate, through scattered exile groups and opposition figures, something like the internal uprising America had neglected in 1991. However, Clinton spent little of the funds.

Meanwhile, as Saddam defied America and supported terrorists, Islamist fundamentalists struck at America repeatedly elsewhere. In 1993 and 1994, Sunni Islamists hit and targeted New York. In 1995, they struck an airliner. In 1996, the Taliban took power in Afghanistan, Sunni Islamists controlling Sudan convened international terrorists, and Shiite terrorism destroyed a U.S. facility in Saudi Arabia.

Then in 1998, Sunni Islamists operating under al-Qaeda struck U.S. embassies in Africa. According to Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda’s leader, this was a direct consequence of the First Gulf War. For, according to him, its prosecution by American forces had been unnecessary and had led to an unprecedented outrage—infidel Americans occupying Saudi Arabia, “the land of the two holy places.” In 2000, as Clinton was leaving office, al-Qaeda attacked again, nearly sinking a U.S. warship in Yemen.

The Consequences of 9/11

The 9/11 attacks by al-Qaeda in the U.S. followed, as well as a bizarre episode in which anthrax was sent through the U.S. mail. As the U.S. dislodged al-Qaeda from Afghanistan, evidence uncovered made it ever clearer that a future terrorist attack on the U.S. might include WMD, with ever more horrific consequences. U.S. intelligence services told President George W. Bush and his Secretary of State Colin Powell with high confidence, as they had Bush’s Democratic predecessor, that Iraq sought WMD—a proposition steeped in Saddam’s past and apparent decade-long behavior; and the President and Powell in turn passed this along to the world. Powell and CIA Director Tenet also told the public about Iraq’s suspected involvement with terrorists. The President, eyeing Saddam’s long and likely future course, would no longer tolerate illegal WMD programs in the hands of anti-Western Middle East dictators inclined to support terror. He deemed the danger to Americans too great.

In early fall 2001, the President opened at the UN six months of intensive diplomatic activity to disarm Saddam. He, like his father, would win Congressional authorization for war and build a sizeable international coalition to enforce UN resolutions. But, lacking the obvious predicate of Saddam’s 1990 invasion, Bush’s 2003 diplomacy was bumpier, less clean. Still, in the end, Coalition troops gathered once more in the Saudi desert, using infrastructure and relationships developed since Desert Shield. Once again they trained at donning WMD protective gear.

Saddam, too, drew lessons from 1990-1. Judging war still unlikely and expecting weeks of air bombardment when it came, he sailed for too long, as he was wont to do, too close to the wind. The stage for the next confrontation with Iraq was set.

Once the war rolled forward, the toppling of Saddam’s regime was inevitable. But the way Bush conducted the post-invasion was not. There were good moments, as Iraqis claimed their state and raised purple fingers in the first free elections they had known. Yet the failure to uncover advertised stockpiles of Iraqi WMD undercut pre-war presentations, and hence the apparent grounds for war. Bush responded by elevating his aim to build an Iraq democracy, which had not been his primary goal in launching the war; but he also arranged what appeared to be a multi-year occupation, disbanded the Iraqi Army, and left Iraqis vulnerable, steps that many claim diminished friendly Iraqi leadership and alienated others. As the tanks had halted, Bush had chosen to handle post-invasion Iraq much differently than he had Afghanistan; and this change of course was at odds with some of his own administration’s pre-war plans.

Democracy-building proved a slow process in Saddam Hussein’s brutalized land. Only the Kurds, protected since the Gulf War, were substantially ready to put aside violence. The Shiites, abandoned by the U.S. in 1991, harbored animosities that chafed under Coalition rule and bled into local militias susceptible to Iranian meddling. The dethroned Baath, flush with cash and weapons, and tribal Sunnis sought to maintain Sunni ascendancy in the face of a Shiite majority, while simultaneously fearing Shiite retribution for the 1991 massacres and decades of repression.

The Insurgency, the “Surge,” and Beyond

As Bush stumbled through several years of a failing military strategy and a lurching political process, Iraq’s fate was vastly complicated by the radical Sunni movements and revolutionary Shiite Iran, both of which poured fighters, weapons and advisers into the open wounds from Bush’s missteps. Tehran saw chaos in Iraq as a first line of defense against Western meddling in Iran and coveted the Shiite lands. Radical Sunnis, enemies of a democratic Iraq and Western influence alike, sought to provoke a civil war in which radicalism might flourish, and found willing partners among the Baath. A multi-headed insurgency and intra-Iraqi hostilities grew, bleeding America’s young and resources. Not until Bush changed generals and strategies in 2007 would he tame the insurgency.

Bush won the battle of Iraq in 2007-8, but in the preceding four years he had lost substantial ground in the domestic U.S. political wars. His successor had the political support to reject Bush’s project. Bush had sought to prevent the emergence of the kinds of ungoverned or, worse yet, radical-governed regions that had nurtured al Qaeda and promised state-supported terrorism. President Obama favored a different course. Neither in Libya—where he had used U.S. forces to help topple its leader, President Qaddafi—nor in Syria would he apply himself in efforts to mitigate the risks of disorder. In Iraq, he professed a willingness to leave U.S. forces behind, as his advisers and Iraqis urged; but he made at best weak efforts in negotiations to secure terms for this. The great determination Obama would show and the costs he would bear in negotiating with a hostile Iran would not be apparent in his dealing with Iraq. Unlike the years America would spend with troops usefully in Europe and Korea after their wars, President Obama seemed to welcome Iraq and the region setting off on their own.

But Iraq would prove hard to leave behind. Even for a president like Obama, whole-heartedly committed to and determined to effect a withdrawal from the region, the region’s dysfunction, lethality, and malevolence toward the U.S. required at least a passing involvement, if only for political cover. Obama declared America’s departure in 2011, calling Iraq a great success destined to govern its own affairs. Many decried this withdrawal, predicting Iraq would spiral downward. In fact, Iraq promptly began to fracture, with much of the country lost to the depraved and dangerous Islamic State—just the kind of rogue Islamist regime that Bush had feared would fill a void. In 2014, Obama had to order modest American forces back to war in Iraq. Obama’s rather leisurely campaign now extends to Syria as well.

Toward an Unsure Future

The First Gulf War of 1990-1 had seemed to secure the region’s state-based order. But, in retrospect, that order appears too fragile to secure. Rather than invasion by tank columns, order erodes under a steady pelting of mis-governance, external meddling, and fanaticism. The states themselves break down into civil war, as in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya, and a kind of cantonization threatens elsewhere, as in Lebanon.

Nor is it clear that the future multiplication of states will lead to a new state-based order. For the new dominant fact of life, politically and militarily, is imperial: the rise of Iran’s Shiite empire; the rise of the Islamic State’s new Sunni empire and caliphate. Each contends to bring more and more states or their remnants within their orbit, with Iran apparently enjoying the present advantage.

It now may appear that the First Gulf War was a kind of finger in a dike that proved to have far more cracks than one finger could remedy. But this itself may be an illusion. Historians may well judge that the current disorder in Iraq was not inevitable, that the Sunni Islamist and Shiite Iranian meddling could have been handled if the U.S. had not withdrawn in 2011, or subdued earlier than was done the first time in 2007-8. Historians may find that Libya and Syria could well have had different fates. Even the long, dreary defiance of Saddam that followed the Coalition’s six-day triumph in 1991 might have been altered, had a different course been followed.

The tangled legacy of policies good and ill should not obscure the nobility of the cause that President George H.W. Bush pursued when he rejected Saddam’s rape of Kuwait in the summer of 1990. The First Gulf War prevented a terrible chain of events that might have followed had Saddam not been resisted. We will never know for certain that chain, but we can guess at its horrors. Indeed, a decade later, American statesmen of both parties, guessing at the chain of horrors that even a diminished Saddam might inflict once freed of sanctions, saw cause enough for war.

That is the plight of statesmen: they must make responsible guesses about a future that they cannot know and that their own conduct will alter. In so doing, they may remove the threat that first spurred them to action. Those spared may little attend to calamities avoided. Critics may harp on errors in the course of lesser costs incurred, cynically ignoring the uncertain prospects of the perils that might have been. Statesmen face an additional risk: that their successors may mishandle or undo all they once sought.

Great statesmen make the right guesses, and then play their hand well. History may acknowledge good intentions and the uncertainties that lead to misjudgments, hesitations, and half-measures; but it will judge based on results. In 1991, and in 2008, results seemed promising, reminding us that this tale has not yet run its course.

President Obama has placed his bets on allowing events to drive the U.S. from Iraq, on leaving Syria and Libya in turmoil, and on negotiating with Iran. He will bear the responsibility if his guesses prove dramatically wrong; but he will not bear alone, or even primarily, their costs. History shares that fate more broadly.

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