Chapter 10


Many years will pass before the geopolitical implications of DESERT SHIELD-DESERT STORM, the first post-Cold War conflict fought outside the context of superpower competition, sort themselves out. The wartime coalition led by the United States included many Arab states, some of which might well have lined up with the Soviet Union under the old framework. The new grouping may yet help to bring about an accommodation between Israel, a long-term American ally, and these Muslim nations. In 1977 President Anwar Sadat of Egypt broke a long-standing impasse with a dramatic visit to Israel that ultimately led to peace between his country and the Jewish state. The Persian Gulf war seemed to have the potential to provide a jolt of the same magnitude and revive the process that has been dormant since then. The recent accord between Israeli and Palestinian leaders promises such an outcome.1

Other long-term effects of the war are less certain. To one degree or another, many of the governments in Southwest Asia have begun to examine their own relationships with their populations and are trying to come to terms with pressures for reform. Widespread revulsion against chemical weapons and the use of missiles against noncombatants may also affect the future of warfare, both in the region and elsewhere. At the moment, only the craving for oil by the industrialized world appears impervious to change.

Implications for Southwest Asia

The Southwest Asia campaigns surely halted and deflected the upward spiral of President Saddam Hussein and Iraq toward regional leadership, although perhaps only for the time being. Here too questions remain. Some of those involve the character of Saddam Hussein, whose wars with Iran and then the coalition of DESERT STORM were two of the most egregious blunders ever made by a twentieth-century dictator. Was he a disciple of Joseph Stalin, as suggested in a biography published just after the Persian Gulf war, or a compulsive gambler who kept throwing the dice and losing?2 Or perhaps the modern incarnation of a traditional Arab warrior-predator?3


Beyond questions involving the roots of the dictator's behavior lay those concerning the future of Iraq. In the period immediately after the war Saddam Hussein's regime reasserted its viability. The dictator, who had enhanced his prewar legitimacy by informal appearances throughout his realm, emerged from hiding. After three months away from the camera the visits resumed on 13 April 1991, starting in Irbil, a town in the country's troubled Kurdistan region.4

Saddam Hussein reaffirmed his authority in spite of the crushing economic sanctions imposed after a severe military defeat. Essentially, Iraq lost control of its foreign trade to the United Nations until it paid for the damage it did to Kuwait.5 Nevertheless, Iraq managed to delay United Nations efforts to inventory and destroy its remaining arsenal of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. As of late 1991, with its economy in shambles despite its vast oil reserves, the regime still remained firmly in power, even though its future role in regional affairs was unclear.

In neighboring Kuwait, with its independence restored, the emir returned to power and set about reestablishing his regime. The hundreds of oil well fires in Kuwait, the last one of which was finally capped in November 1991, served as ugly reminders of both Iraqi aggression and of the oil nexus of the conflict. Other less spectacular manifestations of the invader's vandalism and damage directly related to the war created a need for a massive effort to rebuild public facilities and restore services, in which the U.S. Army-particularly the Corps of Engineers-played an important role. But for the short term the prewar political status quo and the flow of oil had been restored.

That result conformed with the goals of the United States. As President George H. Bush noted when asked if he was disappointed about the lack of democratization in Kuwait, "The war wasn't fought about democracy in Kuwait."6 Instead, the war was about restoration of the status quo, presumably featuring a balance of power in which Iraq still served as a counterweight to the radical regime in Iran. Facing the possibility that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein would disrupt such stability as existed in the Persian Gulf region, the Bush administration stopped short of complete support for any of the Iraqi groups that sought to depose the Ba'th regime.

The issues and conditions in the region that could provide rationales for subsequent rounds of warfare persisted. The border disputes between Iraq and its closest neighbors remained unresolved. Even though it had been thrice defeated in major efforts to expand its access to the Persian Gulf at the expense of Kuwait, Iraq showed no signs of abandoning its aspirations in the area. In August 1991, barely six months after a crushing defeat, journalists reported yet another Iraqi effort to infiltrate Bubiyan island. Whether the incursion actually took place or Kuwaiti sources fabricated the story to convince coalition forces to stay, it was clear that the larger issue was not dead.7

Moreover, the huge disparities between rich and poor were a fact of life in Southwest Asia. Saddam Hussein had achieved some success in


exploiting regional antipathies and jealousies of the enormous wealth of Kuwait and other sheikhdoms. The war destroyed the livelihoods of countless thousands, many of them Palestinians who were no longer welcome in Kuwait. It also displaced huge numbers of Iraqis. So the war only widened the chasm between the region's rich and poor.

The gap was obvious to all, among them the men of Col. William L. Nash's 1st Brigade, 3d Armored Division. They were the last American soldiers to pull out of Safwan, the town that became famous as the location of the truce tent in which General Schwarzkopf had dictated the terms of the cease-fire in February 1991. Even as the men of the 3d Armored Division departed on 7 May, after providing nearly 1 million meals, over 1 million gallons of water, and 28,000 medical visits, they saw the children "by the sand track, one hand tapping their teeth, another their stomachs in the universal refugee sign language for 'Give me food.'" Then, seconds later, came "a blindingly white Mercedes-Benz," which "shussed by, its windows tastefully curtained, its driver shrouded in his white gutra, or headdress." The contrast was stark. As a watching American officer wryly observed, "That is what we fought for."8

Implications for the United States

DESERT STORM ended with the United States achieving its aims. The restoration of the prewar status quo seemed assured. However, Washington appeared inclined to go beyond its original goals and encourage the overthrow of the Iraqi dictator, provided that an alternative could be found that would not upset the regional balance of power. The situation that unfolded immediately after the war, with a Kurdish rebellion in the north and a Shiite uprising in the south, seemed capable of significantly altering that balance and leaving a weakened and truncated Iraq that might not be strong enough to serve as a counterweight to Iranian ambitions. Under those circumstances the United States backed away from assuring Saddam Hussein's downfall. War was frequently "a seedbed for revolution."9 Perhaps the situation would take care of itself, and a suitable group of rebels could bring about the fall of Saddam Hussein without direct American involvement or the fragmentation of Iraq.10

The cautious approach prompted some critics to argue that the administration lacked specific strategies for attaining its objectives in Iraq. President Bush seemed wary of the forces that such a result might unleash. William B. Quandt, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution and a former member of President Jimmy Carter's national security staff, assessed the Bush policy as "being made on the run." "We didn't have a grand design going in," he observed, "and we don't have a grand design coming out."11

The wartime coalition had also met its objectives. It had no mandate to end Saddam Hussein's despotism over Iraq and could only prevent him from tyrannizing other parts of Southwest Asia. With Saddam Hussein still


in power, the world had no guarantee that a similar aggression would not occur sometime in the future. That fact seemed to make it necessary for the United States to maintain a close watch over the region.

After the war, the United States appeared prudently reluctant to maintain a presence in the region. The government of Saudi Arabia, still the largest and most formidable nation bordering the Persian Gulf that tended to side with the United States, continued to shy away from an explicit alliance or an invitation to station troops on its territory. Moreover, the whole history of Western military intervention in Middle Eastern affairs-from the Crusades to the 1983 destruction of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut-was replete with examples of failure and disaster.12 If a vacuum existed there, perhaps it was best left unfilled.

The American reluctance to maintain a presence was offset to a degree by efforts to prepare for a return to the region if necessary. Postwar negotiations dealt with a wide range of possibilities, involving pre-positioning of equipment, joint training exercises, and arms sales. The Bush administration discussed these options with all six Gulf Cooperation Council members, deciding not to press for a permanent American ground force in Southwest Asia. Still, it seemed plain in the aftermath of the war that some sort of stable strategic relationship was necessary to protect the interests of the Persian Gulf countries and those of the United States.13

Worldwide attention to the plight of the hundreds of thousands who were uprooted by the war and subsequent efforts by the Iraqi government to crush rebellions forced Bush to act. The result was Operation PROVIDE COMFORT. On 5 April 1991 the president ordered American forces to provide relief for the half million Kurdish refugees who fled into Turkey after the Iraqi government quashed the uprising in northern Iraq.14

The day after relief operations began, Iraq accepted United Nations terms for a permanent cease-fire. The terms provided for the destruction of Iraq's most dangerous weapons and established procedures for reparations to Kuwait and for the lifting of trade sanctions. Iraqi acceptance of the resolution marked the formal abandonment by the United States of any possible action by the large force still in southern Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein's government.15

While troops under Lt. Gen. John M. Shalikashvili moved into northern Iraq to provide humanitarian assistance to the Kurds, other Americans gradually left the southern part of the country. By early May United Nations observers took over from Central Command posts in Iraq along the border with Kuwait. Colonel Nash's 1st Brigade was the last to go. Finally, in the middle of July, Shalikashvili's troops left too, ending one of the largest military relief operations. A small eight-nation rapid deployment force remained behind in southeast Turkey.16

As the operation in northern Iraq ended, it became clear that Iraq was not complying with United Nations mandates for the destruction of its unconventional arsenal and nuclear materials. Reports warned that Iraq had enough uranium to produce twenty or more nuclear weapons


within a decade. President Bush responded by approving a list of Iraqi targets that might be attacked if Iraq did not carry out its committments. Despite such threats, no air strike was imminent. The United Nations merely increased its surveillance of Iraq by air.17

Implications for the U.S. Army

Operations DESERT SHIELD and DESERT STORM presented the most important test of the U.S. armed forces since the Vietnam War. Victory initially appeared neither certain nor easy. President Bush and his advisers avoided the common mistake generally made when planning for low level wars: focusing on the potential for success and underestimating the full range of risks. If anything, the Bush administration may have taken an overly cautious approach to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The administration's oft-repeated observations on the size and power of Iraqi forces, the formidable nature of their defenses, and the serious possibility of chemical and biological warfare, prepared the American public and the deployed military forces for a long and costly conflict. As one defense analyst observed, "In Vietnam, the United States overestimated its own power and prowess and underestimated that of the enemy. Here, it was just the opposite."18

Although it may be premature to draw conclusions about the war or the U.S. Army's performance in the battle, some preliminary assessments are possible. The Southwest Asia campaigns provided a major test for the Army forces that were involved. In the course of the decade leading up to the war, the Army had overhauled much of its training, doctrine, structure, and materiel. The changes all contributed to the emergence of a combat force capable of waging a modern conflict. In just 100 hours of intense warfare, the Army's soldiers, equipment, and doctrine were put to the test and emerged successfully.

The victory validated a revamped politico-military structure based on the reorganization of the Department of Defense under the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act. That legislation had clarified the unified commander-in-chief's relationship with the individual services and the National Command Authority. During DESERT SHIELD and DESERT STORM the president designated General Schwarzkopf as the unified commander for the operation, supported by the other unified and specified commands and the services. President Bush concentrated on the larger diplomatic and strategic issues, leaving Schwarzkopf to concentrate on operational concerns. The president provided the necessary guidance, giving his military leader sufficient latitude to accomplish the mission.

In the same manner, the military plans were adequate for the task. The plans, as executed, reflected sound strategic judgment. General Schwarzkopf and his component commanders forced Iraq to fight their kind of war. They matched American military strengths against Iraqi


weaknesses. The coalition effort frustrated Iraqi attempts to inflict large numbers of casualties on the opposing military forces, as well as on Saudi Arabian and Israeli civilians, and thwarted Iraqi efforts to draw Israel into the war. As the Department of Defense report on the war noted, "We defeated his [Saddam Hussein's] strategy as well as his forces."19

On a broader level, the Persian Gulf conflict ushered in an era of more diffuse threats. The United States had to focus on regional developments that could ultimately menace its interests, rather than on global confrontation with the Soviet Union. The campaigns and their aftermath proved that the armed forces were capable of addressing this new situation and reaffirmed their ability to move quickly from combat operations into emergency relief work in northern Iraq and into nation-building in Kuwait.

The war may also have presaged a future marked by a tendency toward coalition warfare. In regional conflicts the United States would not be able to stand alone. It would need the approval and support of other governments before it could intervene in a regional crisis. And it would need help sustaining its forces in a foreign country and in a hostile environment, such as the Arabian desert. Although coalition warfare is inherently ad hoc and complex, the U.S. Army showed that it had the requisite depth of professional training, flexibility, and experience to handle the Persian Gulf operations.

DESERT SHIELD and DESERT STORM revealed a continued need for well trained and ready forces that could be dispatched abroad quickly to counter threats to American interests. In an era of shrinking budgets, base closures, withdrawals from forward deployments, and reductions in the size of the force, the Army successfully completed a massive deployment and buildup and defeated a formidable army. Furthermore, that success came amidst intense psychological pressure caused by Iraq's seizure of hostages and threats of chemical warfare.

The Persian Gulf crisis also marked the dawn of a new technological age and proved that the most advanced equipment gave a vital edge to an army. Precision-guided munitions were immensely effective. The war witnessed the first-and successful-use of cruise missiles, antiballistic missile defenses, and advanced reconnaissance systems, as well as unprecedented large-scale night-fighting. As the Defense Department after-action report stated, "American technology saved Coalition lives and contributed greatly to victory."20

Logistics played a critical role in success. Because of coalition air superiority, logistics specialists were able to work unhindered.21 Despite long supply lines and severe desert conditions, U.S. and coalition forces were adequately sustained, enabling the combat forces to complete their job. The logistical problems involved in delivering the troops and their equipment to Saudi Arabia seemed, at times, almost insurmountable to Army planners. But they found sufficient transportation assets to move the troops almost 8,000 miles by air and equipment 12,000 miles by sea. Yet, once in the theater, supplies did not always move forward as fast as


those who waited for them thought they should. One artillery battalion commander complained that "our logistics systems and people are not user friendly or customer-oriented." Other combat commanders agreed.22

Although DESERT STORM demonstrated that the Army could conduct maneuver and fire support in a very intense battle, that its small-unit leadership was sound, and that its weapon systems worked, the military operation left some questions. The defeat of a large but tactically incompetent and poorly led Third World army did not constitute a definitive test for doctrine, personnel, or equipment. Such a challenge could be provided only by an enemy force capable of maneuvering, of using its armor and artillery intelligently, and of employing a credible air force.

For example, the Abrams tank did not have to fight against a comparable modern tank. The T-55 and T-72 used by Iraq were obsolescent. The few hits on MlAls showed that the armor was good but did not indicate how it would have fared against the T-80. The Bradley also did well, but did not have to operate against the type of artillery and antitank fire of a comparable foe. Initial results showed that the Bradley was too small internally to carry the squad and all of its equipment and still allow for quick dismounts. Overall questions remained about the effectiveness of the Bradley-Abrams team as well as the Patriot. The Patriot, so critical to the success of the coalition, shot down a number of the Scuds sent aloft by the enemy, one at a time. No salvos of missiles tested the system. Any overall assessment would have to consider carefully "why we were successful, what worked and what did not, and what is important to protect and preserve in our military capability."23

These issues were still emerging when the war became a tool in interservice budgetary competition. With the overall military budget declining in the wake of the Cold War, some individual services were quick to use the Persian Gulf war to justify their claims for larger portions of defense allocations. The Air Force, asserting that its success in the war validated strategic bombing theory and proved the primacy of its own role, sought more and newer aircraft.24 The Navy, too, claiming it was the most readily deployable force when hostilities began, urged Congress to fund more ships. In their eagerness to win the largest possible share of the defense budget, the services sometimes lost sight of the specific circumstances of the victory in Southwest Asia. For all of its modernizing efforts, Iraq remained a Third World enemy, with no navy, a modest air force that largely did not stay for the fight, and a huge ground force armed with obsolescent weapons. Victory against such an enemy, as gratifying as it was, did not constitute a definitive test for any theory or doctrine.

Beyond the fight for money and operational considerations of doctrine, leadership, and equipment, Operations DESERT SHIELD and DESERT STORM were perhaps most important for what they gave to America. The overwhelming victory reaffirmed America's faith in its armed forces. And in some small measure, DESERT STORM also helped reaffirm America's faith in itself, in its products, performance, purpose, and dedication.25


1 Thomas L. Friedman, "Whose Pace in Mideast?," New York Times, 17 May 91, p. 1.

2 Efraim Karsch and Inari Rautsi, Saddam Hussein, A Political Biography (New York: Free Press, 1991), passim, Thomas L. Friedman, "Explaining Saddam: Hard Gambling," New York Times, 28 Sep 91, p. 6.

3 David Selbourne, "The light that failed, again," London Times Literary Supplement, 10 May 91, pp. 7-8.

4 Christine Moss Helms, Iraq: Eastern Flank of the Arab World (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1984), p. 34; New York Times, 15 Apr 91, p. 9.

5 Patrick E. Tyler, "Punished but Hanging On," New York Times, 7 Apr 91, p. 1.

6 Quote from Thomas L. Friedman, "A Rising Sense That Iraq's Hussein Must Go," New York Times, Week in Review, 7 Jul 91, pp. 1, 3.

7 Jerry Gray, "Kuwait Reports Repelling Iraq Force at Gulf Island," New York Times, 29 Aug 91, p. A1O.

8 Edward A. Gargan, "Last G.I.'s Leave a Major Iraq-Kuwait Border Post," New York Times, 8 May 91, p. 16.

9 Robert W. Stookey, America & the Arab States: An Uneasy Encounter (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1975), p. 161

10 Andrew Rosenthal, "What the U.S. Wants to Happen in Iraq Remains Unclear," New York Times, Week in Review, 24 Mar 91, p. 1.

11 Ibid.

12 Robert Fisk, "History Haunts the New 'Crusaders,'" London Independent, 9 Aug 90, p. 7.

13 Eric Schmitt, "U.S. Negotiating New Security Pacts in Gulf," New York Times, 1 Aug 91, p. A6; Anthony H. Cordesman, The Gulf and the West: Strategic Relations and Military Realities (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1988), p. 456.

14 Paul Lewis, "Iraq Approval Starts Peace Schedule," New York Times, 7 Apr 91, p. 14.

15 Ibid.; Patrick E. Tyler, "Main U.S. Forces Begin Withdrawal," New York Times, 9 Apr 91, p. A14; Eric Schmitt, "Last U.S. and Allied Troops Begin Withdrawal From Northern Iraq," New York Times, 13 Jul 91, p. 3.

16 Schmitt, "Last U.S. and Allied Troops Begin Withdrawal From Northern Iraq," p. 3.

17 Eric Schmitt, "U.S. Tries to Intimidate Iraq With Military Targets List," New York Times, 12 Jul 91, p. A3; Jerry Gray, "U.N. Using U.S. Spy Planes to Monitor Iraqi Arms," New York Times, 13 Aug 91.

18 R. W. Apple, Jr., "Done. A Short, Persuasive Lesson in Warfare," New York Times, Week in Review, 3 Mar 91, p. 1.

19 U.S. Department of Defense, Conduct of the Persian Gulf Conflict: An Interim Report to Congress (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1991), p. 1-2. Hereafter cited as Interim Report.

20 Ibid.

21 Apple, "Done. A Short, Persuasive Lesson in Warfare," p. 1.

22 Ltr, Lt Col Harry M. Emerson, "Letters," Military Review 71 (August 1991): 99. See also Memo, Lt Col Gregory Fontenot, 8 Mar 91, sub: Operation DESERT STORM After Action Report.

23 Interim Report, p. 1-3.

24 See U.S. Air Force, Reaching Globally, Reaching Powerfully: The United States Air Force in the Gulf War, A Report (N.p., 1991), pp. 11-14, 54-58.

25 Interim Report, p. 1-3.

page updated 7 June 2001

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