by Austin Bay
August 4, 2020
On Aug. 2, 1990, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's elite Republican Guard tanks and mechanized infantry invaded oil-rich Kuwait, igniting a war that would have several names, among them Kuwait War and Persian Gulf War. Though the war's major combat operation, Desert Storm, didn't begin until January 1991, Desert Storm would become the pop nickname for the conflict, all but erasing from media talking-head memory its predecessor, Operation Desert Shield.
That's unfortunate, for Desert Shield was dramatically successful in shaping the political and military conditions that seeded Desert Storm's astonishing military success. It's doubly unfortunate, for Desert Shield provides an excellent model of planning and implementing "cocktail warfare" combining diplomatic power, information-media warfare and economic influence as well as utilizing logistical and intelligence capabilities.
Desert Shield officially began Aug. 9, 1990, but regional and global political and economic responses to Saddam's invasion were immediate. In 1990, Iraq and Kuwait had roughly 20% of the world's oil reserves. From Kuwait, Iraqi forces could disrupt an even larger percentage of the industrial world's energy supplies. An Iraqi armored corps in Kuwait threatened Saudi Arabia's northeastern oil fields with invasion or destruction so Saddam was positioned to disrupt an even larger percentage of the world's energy supplies. Oil's spot price spiked. Given global economic interdependence, even nations that didn't rely on Middle Eastern oil would pay a market tax for Saddam's treachery.
But Saddam wanted more than money; he sought global glory. A speech he delivered in Amman, Jordan, in February 1990 sketched his plan. After discussing the "Palestinian cause," Western Europe's decline and the Cold War, "suddenly, the situation," Saddam said, "changed in a dramatic way." The Cold War ended. America was "fatigued" and would fade, but "throughout the next five years," the U.S. would be unrestricted. He implied that defeating the U.S. entailed scraping the scar of Vietnam and threatening massive U.S. casualties. "Fatigue" and domestic self-recrimination would stall U.S. power. A crucial line stands out: "The big," Saddam said, "does not become big, nor does the great earn such a description unless he is in the arena of comparison or fighting with someone else on a different level." (Translation: If a minor leaguer wants to move up, he takes on the majors.)
Saddam possessed regional military superiority -- at least he thought so. His power cocktail had a diplomatic component (appeal to Arabs by invoking Palestine). He had an information and media warfare strategy designed to confound his real opponent, the U.S. After taking Kuwait, he had global economic clout -- or so he thought.
But in the week following the invasion, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia focused on creating a resilient international coalition capable of waging war against a common enemy, Iraq. Former U.S. President George H. W. Bush deserves personal kudos for his leadership, which solidified Saudi support.
The Desert Shield coalition began to take shape. American diplomats emphasized a coalition of equals organized for the specific purpose of liberating Kuwait. Emphasizing Saudi and Kuwaiti membership parried Saddam's pan-Arab diplomatic gambit. Eventually, Egypt and Syria would join. As the conflict evolved, President Bush and his team would improvise and adapt while remaining focused on the goal of liberating Kuwait.
American airpower blunted Saddam's military threat. Thanks to fast diplomatic work, U.S. Air Force aircraft quickly deployed to Gulf Arab air bases and Turkey. U.S. Navy and Marine aircraft flew missions from carriers operating in the Mediterranean, Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf.
The American logistical juggernaut began delivering U.S Army light infantry (paratroopers and special forces) and Marines to Saudi Arabia. French and British contingents arrived.
Saddam tried propaganda themes that resonated with European and American leftist "anti-war" protestors. The man responsible for murdering thousands of Kurds, Arabs and Iranians claimed Washington would spill "black and brown blood" fighting a "war for oil." He attracted a lot of sympathetic media, but the coalition held as responsible leaders and citizens ignored the tropes and focused on the task.
The coalition embargoed the sales of Iraqi and Kuwaiti oil -- an economic strike on Saddam. Oil peaked around $40 a barrel, and then prices began to fall as the coalition grew and the military buildup continued. Troops, tanks, ships and planes provided physical security, which politically and economically strengthened the coalition.
The military might sent Saddam an information warfare message.
The coalition, with a diplomatic masterstroke, secured a U.N. mandate requiring Iraq withdraw from Kuwait.
When Saddam missed the withdrawal deadline, the coalition launched Desert Storm.