Gulf War I

Operation Desert Shield – 20 Years Later

It has been a tangled web we have woven the last twenty years. On Thursday, August 2, 1990, Saddam Hussein, “without provocation or warning, invaded and occupied the state of Kuwait, there by placing vital U.S. interests at risk.”1 Within two weeks, the United Nations Security Council passed resolutions 660 and 662 calling for the immediate removal of Saddam’s forces from Kuwait. While the UN would say this was about Kuwait, along with President George H.W. Bush, everyone knew what the conflict was about. It was about oil, simply oil.

For any one to say it was not was not paying attention. In the 1980s, Saddam Hussein had racked up huge debts fighting Iran. The war was costly in terms of both money and manpower. Saddam knew he had one way to pay off those debts and it was oil. Saddam tried unsuccessfully to get other oil countries to raise the price of oil. So, Saddam did the next best thing. He used on old territorial dispute with the tiny nation of Kuwait to get more oil.

“Our action in the Gulf is about fighting aggression and preserving the sovereignty of nations. It is about keeping our word, our solemn word of honor, and standing by old friends. It is about our own national security interests and ensuring the peace and stability of the entire world.” — President George Bush Remarks to Pentagon Employees, 15 August 1990

President George H.W. Bush denied it was about oil.

In the public, everyone knew it was about protecting the flow. “THE OIL MUST FLOW!” could have been taken directly out of the book Dune. In the coming weeks, Bush used his many years of contacts in the CIA and U.N. to build a coalition to stop Saddam Hussein from further expanding the conflict. Within 100 miles of the Kuwaiti border lay the richest oil fields in the world in Saudi Arabia. Bush began assembling forces to protect those fields. For if Saddam Hussein invaded Saudi Arabia and took those oil fields, he would control more than half of the world’s oil supply.

The U.S. had a tenuous relationship with the Middle East. Starting in 1933, the U.S. originally was helping the Saudis find water when it found oil instead. From President Franklin Roosevelt on up to Bush, every U.S. President tried to hold together that relationship. At times it was not easy – especially following the establishment of Israel. But somehow, the doors to the Kingdom always opened to the money of the US. Initially, Roosevelt and King Saud struck an oil for security deal back in 1945 and President Bush was going to live up to that bargain. The mission would be called Operation Desert Shield.

An experienced Saudi millionaire also offered his services to defend the Kingdom and the holy sites free of charge. This Mujaheddin freedom fighter who had spent the last few years fighting the godless communists in Afghanistan was rebuffed by the Kingdom. His name was Osama Bin laden.

The strange thing about what would become Operation Desert Storm was the UN would pass almost twenty resolutions to try to get Saddam out of Kuwait. Hussein would have none of it. Finally, Hussein was given until January 15, 1991 to get out of Kuwait. Saddam began to rattle his own sabers and proceeded to spout his version of trash-talking by putting down the royal family in Saudi Arabia as well as the US led coalition.

Over the course of four months, the circus played out on worldwide television. The conflict turned CNN from a fledgling cable network into the source of all information – in real-time. During the Vietnam War, the media was allowed to go wherever and whenever it wanted to but it was always a few days late with the real story. During Desert Shield, everything was captured live before the deadline of January 15, 1991. After that date, it was a different story, but the point is this conflict was going to be televised.

Despite the aggression, and despite reports of atrocities and stories of abuse, the buildup was not an easy sell in the U.S. The last war America had did not go so well. America was wary for a reason. Under the War Powers Act, the President needed the approval of Congress to send forces into the desert. After stories of babies being tortured were spread in the news did the measure pass the Senate by a slim 52-47 vote. Visions and prophecies of Nostradamus and the end of time flooded televisions. Americans were preparing for the worst. No one really knew what to expect as over 500,000 Americans poured off of ships and planes into the desert to protect the Kingdom. Saddam turned surreal as he began using human shields, hostages, and Kuwaiti children in his public appearances. It was getting weirder by the minute. Adding to the fact, images of Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney (with hair) and Secretary of State James Baker were put on the news as the two men made last gasp attempts at diplomacy. Baker even claimed the conflict would create jobs

In the end, the mission succeeded in defending and deterring the Kingdom from invasion by Saddam Hussein. The presence of US forces on Saudi soil would have repercussions later. The whole situation proved to be Bush’s finest moment. His whole political career had been about cultivating relationships. In the fall of 1990, Bush called in every contact he had made in his twenty-plus years in D.C. and used them to build a stunning coalition of force. This was a new test for the US in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Cold War was on its deathbed. The USSR would be gone in less than a year. The US was the only superpower left. If it did not protect the oil, who would? No matter what Bush said, everyone knew it was about oil. “The oil must flow…the oil must flow.”

Operation Desert Shield ended on January 15, 1991. It became Operation Desert Storm.

Next Post: Operation Desert Storm: The Fear of War