Key question: What was the nature of the Gulf War conflict?

Learning Activities

1. Reading

  • read this wiki page about the Gulf War 1990-91 (or listen to it)
  • read the section on the Gulf War in the Scott and Simpson reading from last week.

2. Wiki Text Update
  • The three people charged with the Wiki Text Update this week are...Kevin, Romiz and Vanessa
  • EVERYONE make sure your text updates from last week have been completed.
  • Updaters to also create an mp3 file of them reading their recording which can then be added to the podcast feed.

3. Media Watch (S/N TASK)
  • Annotated article/website/blogpost about the Gulf War - or what the current situation is with Iraq saved to the Diigo group.

4. Questions

  • Using this week's text and further research on your own, answer the following questions and submit them on a word document via StudyWiz. You will have today and Thursday's lesson to work on them: (Also use the reading from the Scott and Simpson text from last week)

1. Why did Saddam Hussein invade Kuwait and what actions might have prevented him from doing this?
2. Why was it relatively easy for the UN to gain widespread support for the action against Iraq in 1991?
3. What was the ‘New World Order’ espoused by President George Bush?
4. Why did the coalition forces not capture Baghdad and possibly Saddam Hussein? Do some further research and find three possible reasons.
5. What were ‘safe havens’ and ‘no-fly zones’? Why were they established?
6. To what extent did Operation Desert Storm resolve the problem of Iraq?

5. Blog Post (S/N TASK)
  • write a blog post on the ning site answering this week's key question: 'What was the nature of the Gulf War conflict?'

6. Update your notes
  • either using a blog post or just keeping a word document, take notes on what you have learned this week. Remember, don't just restrict your reading to this wiki page and the text book sections.

Gulf War 1990-91
Text by James Oakes, St Helena Secondary College

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Political leaders said at the time that things would never be the same again after September 11, 2001 with the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York. The Cold War is probably over and perhaps the post-Cold War period is as well. We have entered a new phase that could be described as the West V Islamic Extremism where there is a rise in terrorism and the decline of superpower rivalry. This may well be seen new phase in world politics.

First however a little bit of perspective might be useful here. To begin with, the Cold War, against which this subject is measured, began at the end of World War II and continued until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. While no one superpower actually came to confrontation with the other, it was a period of considerable tension, with the ever-present threat of a nuclear exchange. With that finally over, the US relaxed. The Cold War was over and events in the 1990s are evidence of this.

Gerry Engwerda and James Oakes, International Studies 2005, Victorian Association of Social Studies Teachers (VASST) inc, Melbourne, 2004, p 46

The Gulf War

With one superpower remaining and without the restraining influence of the USSR, some countries, like Iraq, felt that an opportunity was there to settle some old scores to their own advantage. Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the subsequent successful United Nations military campaign, led by the US, to remove the Iraqis from Kuwait seemed to be setting a pattern for dealing with what were becoming known as ‘rogue’ states – states that did not or would not abide by the rules of good international citizenship – states such as Libya, Iraq and North Korea.

This new era, with its new ways of dealing with conflict, was very different from the Cold War. The Cold War was a war between two great powers, the US and the Soviet Union, and two distinct and mutually exclusive ideologies, democracy and communism. The Cold War was a cold war, not a hot one because there was no shooting at each other. Conflict was not direct, but rather through proxies. Because of the threat posed by the nuclear arsenals of both sides, direct warfare was avoided. The US and the Soviets never went to war directly, despite numerous wars in which they had a great stake, like Vietnam, Korea and Afghanistan.

With the end of the Cold War came what was to be called a ‘New World Order’, led by the US, where the emphasis was on a widely based or coalition approach to regional conflict, involving as many countries as possible, with the rules and the extent of the participation clearly spelled out and agreed to by all parties. This way, there could be no opting out or backsliding that would weaken the moral legitimacy and support for the cause. This was one of the main reasons why Desert Shield, set up to protect Saudi Arabia from Iraqi attack, in 1991 took so long to become Desert Storm, the actual campaign to dislodge the Iraqis from Kuwait.

There were other new elements as well. In this conflict, the other emphasis was on total air superiority – a sustained softening-up phase with aerial bombing and the use of high-technology military hardware. The idea was that the bombing would destroy communications and links with central command, while highly accurate ‘smart weapons’ would destroy key assets with minimal ‘collateral’ damage (accidental damage or civilian deaths).

All of this came to be reported to the world in daily one-hour news bulletins, highly managed by the military, footage from aircraft nose cameras, and so on. Audiences saw lots of destroyed tanks, but very few corpses. The war became sanitised and, unlike in Vietnam, reporters were not free to roam wherever they liked or to report for themselves.

When the time was right, the coalition attacked with overwhelming numbers and firepower against an enemy that was demoralised and disconnected, and who had no idea where the fire was coming from. Iraq suffered massive casualties. The main road back to Baghdad was littered with the bodies of Iraqi troops killed by tanks and helicopter gunships as they were trying to flee the fighting.

The coalition forces lost fewer than 200 men. At the end, ‘safe havens’ for minorities, such as the Kurds in Northern Iraq, were established and ‘no-fly’ zones established to prevent the Iraqi air force from attacking them. What happened after the shooting was over was becoming part of the overall plan.

This pattern was repeated in Bosnia and later Kosovo. Both were under attack from another ‘rogue state’, in this case Yugoslavia under Slobodan Milosevic, who sought to expand Serbia’s territories at their expense. The parallels between the two conflicts are numerous. The post-Cold War world seemed to be settling in for a period of relative stability and peace as the nuclear threat diminished, although the Middle East crisis between Israel, the Palestinians and her neighbours continues unresolved. (This is the subject of a case study later in the course.) Everyone breathed a sigh of relief at the end of the Gulf War, but unfinished business in Iraq and Afghanistan came back to haunt us. The world forgot about Afghanistan after the Russians left in 1989 and that, in retrospect, seems to have been a major mistake on the part of the West, given recent events.

The Gulf War, 1990–91

The end of the Cold War led to ethnic nationalism elsewhere. Whether you mark the end of the Cold War with the election of Gorbachev in 1985, the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989, or the disintegration of the USSR in 1991, the fact remains that the decline of the USSR as a world power loosened the reins that Moscow held over its client countries – countries like Iraq.

Iraq was carved out of the old Ottoman Empire by England after World War I, as indeed was Kuwait. Iraq was called Mesopotamia until 1932 and was effectively under British rule until that time. After 1932, a pro-British monarchy held power until 1958 when the socialist Baath Party overthrew it, with Saddam Hussein eventually becoming its leader in the 1970s.

Iraq saw Kuwait as being part of Iraq, but the British resisted all attempts by the Iraqis to take Kuwait by force, particularly after 1961, when Kuwait gained its independence. The Iraqis felt that Kuwait restricted its access to the sea and, because of its part in the Ottoman Empire, should have been returned to it anyway.

Other territorial disputes also came to the fore. The Iran–Iraq War (1980–88) started over access to the Shat al Arab waterway, Iraq’s main access to the sea. A 1975 settlement over the disputed waterway favoured Iran, but 1979 saw the radical Ayatollah Khomeini come to power in Iran. The chaos that ensued in that country, including the decimation of Iran’s officer class, gave Iraq the chance to get a more favourable outcome over the disputed waterway while its old enemy was distracted with internal problems. Iran meanwhile backed the Shiite (Shi’a) Muslims in southern Iraq against the Iraqi government. Iran itself is predominantly Shiite – the only Arab state that is. The Shiites parted from the majority Sunni Muslims in the Arab world over the issue of succession after the prophet Mohammed died.

A long gruelling war developed, with the superpowers on the surface remaining neutral, but probably favouring Iraq as a counterbalance to an expanding and radical Iranian influence in the Gulf. The war ended in 1988 in a stalemate. Iraq came out at the end of the war with huge economic problems. They blamed Kuwait for depressing the oil prices on which it depended, by flooding the world market with oil. The Kuwaitis were also accused of slant drilling under the border and tapping into Iraqi oil reserves.

At first, Iraq thought that the US would support them in any dispute with Kuwait because of US support for them in the Iran–Iraq War. Initially, George Bush said that the invasion of Kuwait was not a problem, so Iraq invaded Kuwait on 2 August 1990. By occupying Kuwait, Iraq then controlled 20% of the world’s oil reserves and, if they also took Saudi Arabia, that figure would rise to 40%. British PM Margaret Thatcher, detecting US indecision, pushed the US into action against Iraq, starting with UN-led sanctions. At the UN Security Council, on 2 August, Resolution 660 condemning Iraq’s action was passed. Four days later, Resolution 661 was passed which imposed economic sanctions against Iraq.

After that, Operation Desert Shield started, with the US pledging to defend Saudi Arabia. Despite talk by President Bush about the ‘stability of the Persian Gulf’, it was a conflict basically about the control of the oil which was so necessary to the West. The campaign against Iraq was to be UN-led, with the USSR and China not using their Security Council veto to bring the whole thing to a grinding halt. Note the significance of the cooperation between the US and the USSR over this matter and how different it was when compared to previous Cold War hostility. China too was supportive – after all it was trying to win back world favour after receiving bad press internationally from the Beijing massacre of 1989. There was widespread military support, from France and the UK in particular, but even Arab countries like Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia supported the anti-Iraq coalition.

In the end, 500,000 US troops were involved, along with 250,000 non-US troops. Germany and Japan donated two and four billion dollars to the effort respectively, but were not involved militarily; nor were the gestures fully appreciated. Twelve billion dollars alone came from the Gulf states. It was important that it be a widely based coalition in order to give it greater legitimacy. If everyone supported the US effort, how could it be wrong?

Meanwhile, Israel had to be restrained from becoming involved. Iraq had launched Scud missile attacks at Israel designed to provoke them into retaliatory action. Iraq linked the war to the Palestinian question to further antagonise Israelis. If Israel had become involved, then the Arab countries would have had to quit the coalition and it would have fallen apart. The US rushed Patriot anti-Scud missiles to Israel where they performed a highly publicised, but doubtfully effective, function in countering Iraqi missiles. Undoubtedly, its real value was that it kept Israel out of the war and prevented the conflict from widening and escalating.

But why go from economic sanctions to war? In short, economic sanctions take too long to take effect and time was not something that the UN coalition forces had. If the stand-off had dragged on for months while waiting for the sanctions to bite, most of the coalition members may have decided to quit. On 29 November, Security Council Resolution 678 authorised the use of ‘all necessary means’ to remove Iraq from Kuwait. A joint sitting of the US Congress narrowly gave it the thumbs-up.
So on 16 January 1991 Operation Desert Shield became Operation Desert Storm. The war lasted only weeks. Iraq was removed from Kuwait, but UN ground forces did not penetrate deeply into Iraq and Saddam Hussein remained in power. A ceasefire was signed at the end of February.

Gerry Engwerda and James Oakes, International Studies 2005, Victorian Association of Social Studies Teachers (VASST) inc, Melbourne, 2004, p 68


As a result of that ceasefire, Iraq had to accept the Kuwait border as it was and accept that chemical, nuclear and biological weapons, and missile systems with a range over 150kms, were to be available for inspection and destruction. If Iraq agreed, there would be a withdrawal of coalition forces from Iraqi territory. Iraq agreed and that kept Saddam in power.
Almost immediately, with a weakened regime in Baghdad, Shiites rebelled in the south and the Kurds, also seizing the opportunity, rebelled in the north. Both rebellions were put down by the elite Republican Guards of Iraq, however British PM John Major provided troops for a safe haven in northern Iraq for the Kurds. This provided a precedent for humanitarian intervention in other post-Cold War conflicts like Bosnia.
Bush spoke of a ‘New World Order’ free from terrorism and injustice and a new way for superpowers to deal with ‘rogue’ states who did not behave in a way that was acceptable to the international community. It would be based on collective action by the First World. It would mean a more moral era in world politics and a greater emphasis on broad-based collective action to settle international disputes.

It also meant the end of what was called ‘the Vietnam syndrome’ for the US. The US was back on the map as a First World power and overcame the fear of becoming bogged down in a war that would cost too many US lives. The memory of Vietnam had disappeared as a restraint on US policy, or had it? The Gulf War reaffirmed the role of the US as the one remaining superpower. The USSR believed that a compromise with Saddam was a better alternative to armed conflict, but did not object to the US-led UN action, as they knew that cooperation with the US was essential if this crisis was to be resolved. France and the UK learned that they could project their power outside Europe.


The issue was now how states should behave, and there was a new emphasis on the role of the UN and the use of multilateral action to resolve regional disputes. The US no longer had to act alone as the world’s policeman.

However, the formation of a coalition as a new way to tackle crises was all well and good, but not all conflicts might be as straightforward as this one. Ethnic nationalism, for example in Bosnia, was to prove far more difficult to deal with.

Difficulties with Saddam Hussein continued to the end of 2002. Weapons inspections agreed to at the end of the war were thwarted at every turn, with United Nations inspectors suspecting Iraq was still in possession of chemical, biological and possibly nuclear weapons. Targeted bombing occurred to ensure cooperation with inspection teams. The no-fly zones in the north and south of the country, which prevented Iraqi aircraft overflying Kurdish and Shiite territory, continued, as well as sanctions on all imports and exports except medicine.

Iraq – Ongoing conflict

The post-Gulf War period was dominated by concerns over sanctions, weapons inspections, no-fly zones, trade embargoes and the collapse of the Iraqi economy. It was a period of punishment. It also saw the continued survival of Saddam Hussein, against whom most of these measures were directed in the first place. Their purpose was to encourage the Iraqi people themselves to remove him from power. Between the end of the Gulf War and the Iraq War of 2003, the United Nations Trade embargoes did little to shift Hussein but they reduced once wealthy Iraq’s living standards by 2003 to a par with Ethiopia’s.

Sanctions in effect were first introduced even before the start of the Gulf War. They were designed to put pressure on Iraq to remove their troops from Kuwait. After the liberation of Kuwait, however, the sanctions remained. Saddam Hussein still had weapons of mass destruction – possibly nuclear, and probably chemical and biological, that had to be removed first and removed under proper inspection, before the sanctions could be lifted. The Iraqis were not in a position to disagree. At first, these inspections achieved remarkable results. The nuclear program was effectively scrapped; however the Iraqis were less cooperative when it came to dismantling their chemical and biological warfare plants. Assets went into hiding and on numerous occasions the Iraqi authorities simply refused entry to UN inspection teams. When the US and Britain bombed suspected plants in 1998, the Iraqis shut down the program altogether and, by December of that year, the inspectors basically shut up shop and went home.

While this put an end to the inspections program and any real monitoring of what the Iraqis were doing with their nuclear and chemical/biological programs, the sanctions remained. Initially, these sanctions meant a trade embargo that banned any trade contact with Iraq and froze its assets overseas. Later in 1991 food and medicine were made exempt. As a consequence, trade as a percentage of GDP fell by two thirds in 1991 and, by 1994, food rations were halved. Iraq went into an economic tailspin.
Most things relied on imports. Textile mills, farmers’ pumps, the telephone system and electricity generation all relied on parts and components that came from overseas. These were already in a bad state of repair after the recently ended eight-year war with Iran, so as the sanctions bit, the infrastructure started to shut down. Academics and engineers lost their jobs and were reduced to driving taxis held together with baling twine, or to selling newspapers. Electricity only worked on and off and the telephone network was hardly ever operational. Flea markets, where once-prosperous Iraqis sold off the remnants of their belongings, sprang up everywhere. Drainage and irrigation works that once kept salt from ruining the fertile south slowly shut down and prime agricultural land was lost. Teachers stopped turning up to school, and even when they did, malnourished children were not in any condition to make effective use of the time.

It was the children who were worst hit and Saddam Hussein made the most of it. ‘The Americans are killing the children’ went the cry. UNICEF estimated that up to 500,000 children could have been affected. The Americans certainly made the point that, while this was regrettable, it really was Hussein’s fault in the first place. Back in 1991, the Americans proposed an ‘oil for food’ arrangement whereby Iraq could sell limited amounts of oil and buy food with the proceeds. Saddam Hussein held out, possibly hoping for an end to sanctions altogether. It was not until 1996 that he finally agreed to the arrangement and even then it was still three months before the first food was delivered.

Under the new arrangements, no goods could enter or leave Iraq without the permission of the UN. That was the theory at least, but in fact the seals that were put around the borders were leaking from the very start. Officially, Iraq, with the second largest oil reserves in the world, was allowed to sell some US$3.4 billion worth of oil per year on the open market. However, this target was not achieved until some two years later, in 1998. The reason was bureaucratic inefficiency and the fact that the pumps didn’t work properly.

Officially as well, Iraq’s oil revenues were supposed to go into a UN account. A quarter of the money raised was then to go to war reparations, some would go to pay for the upkeep of the UN operations and the rest Iraq could use to buy food.

However, there was also a lot of trading in oil going on that avoided being paid into the UN account. Tankers of illegal oil went through Turkey and Iran, where queues at the border stretched for twenty or thirty kilometres. Syria established a brand new pipeline just for this traffic. Jordan obtained Iraqi oil at bargain basement prices. The truth of the matter was that the US and the UN knew about the situation, but could do little to stop it. Some countries like Turkey were perhaps being kept afloat only by access to this cheap oil. In the year before the second Iraq War, Iraq’s revenues from oil sales reached US$16 billion, but perhaps an additional quarter to a third above this figure was not disclosed or never saw the UN coffers.
Where was this money going? Certainly Iraqis were no longer starving to death, but no more money was being spent on the infrastructure Iraq needed to rebuild and get its economy moving again. Saddam Hussein was instead building new palaces and there were plenty of spoils for the favoured few. He was also suspected of diverting all that cash into weapons programs or sponsoring terrorist training.

Meanwhile, while Hussein endured, UN policy looked to be unravelling at the seams. The trade embargoes and sanctions were not working, and countries like France, Russia and China would have loved to see them go so that they could foreclose some lucrative oil deals that were in the pipeline, so to speak. The US introduced new ‘smart’ sanctions. For example, Iraq could buy vaccines but not refrigerated trucks; they could buy tractors but not bulldozers. In other words, anything humanitarian was OK, but the US was being very wary about ‘dual-use’ purchases – a bulldozer could handle earthworks but may also have been useful to the military. In the long run, none of this was working. Iraq was also mending fences with the Arab world and was going to great pains to portray its situation in the same light as the Palestinians, in the hope of winning further Arab support. Baghdad’s airport was once again open to overseas flights.

The US was also running out of allies. In February 2002, US air strikes on five air defence sites near Baghdad received support from only two of the original forty-strong coalition. France stopped patrolling the no-fly zones in 1998.

So what was the UN to do? President Clinton was reluctant to support the opposition Iraqi National Congress (INC), believing that these mainly wealthy ex-Iraqis were not up to the job. He did give them fax machines however. The Shi’a and marsh Arabs in the south could be called upon to help remove Saddam Hussein, but they had close ties to Iran and the US would not want to be encouraging them. If there was proof that Iraq was involved in the development of weapons of mass destruction, then that was all the excuse the US military needed to finish a job that they are keen
to see end. With the arrival of George W Bush in the White House in 2001, the stage was set. The US had drifted somewhat for eight years under Clinton. Now, under Bush, US foreign policy was to be sharply refocused on the ‘war against terrorism’.