I don’t know about you, but Operation Desert Storm – the name the Americans gave to the campaign that evicted Saddam Hussein’s invading army from Kuwait – doesn’t feel like a full quarter-century ago to me. I clearly remember the surrounding tension, the prevailing idea that somehow it was going to produce a global cataclysm.
When the air campaign started on January 17, 1991, received opinion held that it was merely a prelude to an extraordinarily difficult ground campaign. And there was much prognostication about the military prowess of Saddam’s Republican Guard, and how its warrior ethic would guarantee the mother of all battles.
However, when the war’s ground phase kicked-in on February 24, Saddam’s army – the Republican Guard included – folded like the proverbial cheap suit. Indeed, the battle was so one-sided that critics took to decrying it as gratuitous slaughter. If nothing else, it was a rhetorical switch of remarkable flexibility.
Looking back, the war was the kind of army-to-army situation that played to the strong suit of the technologically superior, predominantly American, coalition. It wasn’t about hunting guerrillas, pacifying a countryside, or winning hearts and minds.
Instead, the plan for dislodging Saddam was succinctly described by Colin Powell, then Chairman of the American Joint Chiefs of Staff: “Our strategy in going after this army is very simple. First we are going to cut it off, and then we are going to kill it.”
It was the kind of nuance-free objective that Second World War commanders like George Patton would have wholeheartedly endorsed. Freed from any multi-tasking distractions, they could focus on the one thing they really knew how to do, which was physically destroying the enemy.
Meanwhile, things weren’t entirely harmonious on the home front. Although Saddam’s seizure of Kuwait was clearly an act of aggression and the operation to evict him had United Nations approval, No blood for oil became the catchphrase of those who objected to military action. And let’s be frank, there was a sense in which it was about oil.
For many policymakers, the really ominous threat was the prospect of Saddam moving on from Kuwait to neighbouring Saudi Arabia, in which case the addition of Saudi’s massive reserves to those he already controlled in Iraq and Kuwait would make him kingpin of the world’s oil supply. That risk was deemed unacceptable.
However, this merely acknowledges that modern democracies are reluctant to go to war unless there’s a perceived vital interest at stake. And doing what’s necessary to preserve your ability to engage in a mutually agreeable transaction with the rightful owners of a critical resource is nothing to be ashamed of.
The war also had American political implications.
Initially, it appeared that decisive victory had guaranteed the re-election of George H. W. Bush. With poll approval numbers reaching up to 90 per cent, Bush seemed invincible in the upcoming 1992 presidential cycle. Accordingly, some of the prospectively more viable Democratic contenders begged-off the challenge.
One of these was Mario Cuomo, the New York governor who’d become the repository of the hopes and dreams of American liberals. Had he entered the race, Cuomo would have been the obvious frontrunner, the man to beat on the Democratic side.
Of course, how he would have done in an actual contest is entirely a matter of speculation, but my money would have been on him to take the nomination. After all, the guy who ultimately did win it – Bill Clinton – faltered badly in the early stages against a very weak Democratic field. Faced with an apparent heavyweight like Cuomo, Clinton’s opportunity to recover would have been severely attenuated.
Colin Powell was another guy impacted by Desert Storm.
Vaulted to prominence by his very visible role in the conflict, Powell could probably have had the Republican nomination if he’d deigned to run as Clinton’s re-election challenger in 1996. But he declined. And while we’ll never know how a Clinton versus Powell match-up would have turned out, it’s worth noting that when the Election Day exit poll asked the hypothetical question, Powell won by 12 points.
Two thoughts to wrap-up. The obvious one is that Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait and the American response dramatically impacted the politics of the Middle East. And the other is that, hitherto anyway, Lady Luck has been very kind to Bill Clinton.
Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.