Small Wars Journal

Happy 20th Anniversary, Operation Desert Shield

Sat, 08/07/2010 - 2:26pm
Twenty years ago today was the official start of America's troubles with Iraq. Operation Desert Shield, a large-scale deployment of U.S., European, and Arab troops to Saudi Arabia, began on August 7, 1990. Five days before -- August 2, 1990 -- Saddam Hussein had ordered his army into Kuwait, starting a crisis that has dragged on to today. On the 20th anniversary of Saddam's attack, President Barack Obama gave a speech to the Disabled American Veterans. He boasted that his withdrawal plan from Iraq was on track. He passed over the opportunity to reflect on the anniversary America's troubles with Iraq began.

What followed from Operation Desert Shield has been a Twenty Years War against Iraq. Or at least Twenty Years and Counting. Although the end of this long war now seems in sight, some analysts believe America's troubles in Iraq are destined to extend well beyond December 31, 2011.

Some readers of this blog, along with many soldiers who have recently fought in Iraq, were not born when Operation Desert Shield began. With that thought in mind, we should pause on this 20th anniversary to contemplate whether the Twenty Years War was inevitable and whether it represented the best (least cost, least risk) choice available to U.S. policymakers.

In March 1991, President George H.W. Bush and his advisers opted for a Treaty of Versailles type settlement after the liberation of Kuwait. Saddam's regime was allowed to stay but was isolated and punished. Many at the time called for a Tokyo Bay solution -- a march to Baghdad, the removal of the regime, and presumably some sort of occupation. Bush the Elder and his advisers rejected that, explaining that such a course exceeded their mandate and would fracture the coalition they had assembled.

As the Twenty Years War has revealed, Bush the Elder's Versailles settlement didn't work any better than its namesake after World War I. In 2003, Bush the Younger attempted to finally bring the low-level war to an end by executing the Tokyo Bay option. The result was much pain and still no certainty that the Twenty Years War is really coming to an end.

Were there any other realistic options? Could Bush the Elder have opted for a Congress of Vienna instead of Versailles? Just as the European powers brought in Talleyrand to the Congress of Vienna and eventually allowed France a largely equal say after the Napoleonic Wars, should the United States and the other victors after the Kuwait war have worked with Saddam to establish a stable regional settlement? Iranian power still needed balancing, a role Iraq had played in the 1980s, and one Iraq still needs to play. By passing on a Congress of Vienna solution, did Bush the Elder pass up an opportunity to turn Iraq from a liability into an asset?

We have to assume that Bush, James Baker, and Brent Scowcroft, all experienced realists, were fully aware of the Congress of Vienna option. The obvious problem was that from a U.S. perspective, Saddam was simply too toxic to deal with. In order to generate public support for a military offensive to eject the Iraqi army from Kuwait -- which at the time many feared would become another Battle of the Somme -- Bush had to amplify Saddam's evil impression. That succeeded in generating support for the offensive. But it ruled out a Congress of Vienna after the war. In theory, the Clinton administration could have made a fresh diplomatic approach to Iraq. But the cost at the time of maintaining the Versailles settlement seemed low while the political risk of approaching Saddam was deemed too high.

War termination is a messy subject. The Twenty Years War goes on. Happy Anniversary!


Anonymous (not verified)

Mon, 08/09/2010 - 9:25am

Fast rewind Grehawk: It would seem non other than Dick Cheney, as Bush the Elder's SecDef, wasn't among the hard-pressed you might be referring to.

Greyhawk (not verified)

Sun, 08/08/2010 - 8:31pm

He'd have been hard-pressed to find someone who hadn't advocated the removal of the Iraqi dictator.

Anonymous (not verified)

Sun, 08/08/2010 - 10:46am

Nationalism is a powerful force. What came out of the Congress of Vienna did keep peace for 40 years, but in hindsight it was never compatible with the goals of Germany, nor would such a plan have worked with Saddam Hussein's ambitions in the region as well.

It is interesting that Bush the younger brought into his administration some of those that had served his father, and who had at that time, advocated the removal of the Iraqi dictator?

Desert Shield is a curious little starting point for our forays into the Middle East. Not only did it pave the way for the Iraq War of 2003, but the stationing of American troops in Saudi Arabia was one of the motivations for Osama bin Laden's eventual campaign against the US.

Mark Pyruz

Sat, 08/07/2010 - 8:52pm

Desert Shield: The Second Gulf War. It was an outgrowth of the First Gulf War, also referred to as the Iran-Iraq War. As a result of that war, Iraq's economy was in tatters and couldn't afford to pay back the massive war loans being demanded by Kuwait (among others). Saddam had a huge and relatively well equipped military, which if demobilized would swell the ranks of the unemployed, creating a security risk not unlike that which occurred in 2003 when Bremmer disbanded the Iraqi Army.

At that point in time, Saddam still had good relations with the US. For some reason, he was under the impression that an invasion of Kuwait was somehow acceptable. It was either a terribly false impression, or a gross miscalculation, or he was somehow misled. Whatever the case, it was catastrophic for the eastern Arab lands of Iraq and Kuwait. But, on the other hand, the end result of the ensuing conflict provided conditions that turned out to be extremely profitable for the US and certain US firms.

The profitability of the Second Gulf War may have provided a powerful inducement for launching the Third Gulf War (OIF). However, while this ongoing conflict may have been profitable for a few select US corporations, it unexpectedly turned out to be a spectacular drain on the US treasury (as well as incurring 30,000+ US casualties).

It will be interesting to see if there will be a Fourth or even Fifth Gulf War taking place within the next 5-15-30 years, and where that will end up reshaping the region, possibly in unexpected directions not unlike the general trajectory of the Third Gulf War.