Bush's close involvement with Gorbachev and the Soviet Union overlapped the biggest headline event of his presidency—the Persian Gulf War waged by an international coalition under American leadership to compel Iraq's dictator Saddam Hussein to end his country's aggression against Kuwait. The February 1991 victory in that war brought Bush the highest public opinion approval ratings of his presidency, overshadowing for a moment the controversial question of whether policy mistakes by the United States were partially responsible for the war in the first place.
Throughout the 1980s it was American policy to overlook the brutal aspects of the Saddam Hussein regime and to support Iraq in its long (1980–1988) and bloody war against Iran. The United States was following the old principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend—and Iran was an enemy, notwithstanding the Reagan administration's misconceived 1986 effort to curry favor through the secret sale of arms, an aspect of the Iran-Contra scandal. The Bush administration continued to favor Iraq in spite of Saddam Hussein's threats against Israel, overwhelming evidence that he was developing chemical, biological, and perhaps nuclear weapons, and his lethal suppression of the Kurdish minority in Iran (including use of poison gas). The administration believed that Iraq was an essential element in a Persian Gulf balance of power against a resurgent Iran and that the United States could persuade Saddam Hussein to moderate the unattractive features of his regime.
The administration's policy was spelled out in secret National Security Directive 26 in October 1989. It declared: "Normal relations between the United States and Iraq would serve our longer-term interests and promote stability both in the Gulf and the Middle East. The United States should propose economic and political incentives for Iraq to moderate its behavior and to increase our influence." These incentives included massive food exports to Iraq on favorable terms, a boon to American farmers, and the encouragement of trade in high-tech but nonlethal items. The administration resisted demands from human rights activists in Congress to impose sanctions against Iraq and dismissed Saddam Hussein's public threat to destroy half of Israel with chemical warfare as mere bravado. Washington also failed to note that illegal loans to Iraq from an Italian-owned bank in the United States were being used to develop weapons of mass destruction.
In spite of the helpful intentions of the Bush administration, Iraq was in a difficult economic condition. There was widespread unemployment. Oil prices, and hence national revenue, were down. The costs of repairing the damage of the long war with Iran were heavy and the country was deeply in debt to other Arab states. In mid-1990 Saddam Hussein claimed that neighboring Kuwait was draining Iraqi oil from an oil field astride the border. He said the entire field rightfully belonged to Iraq and indicated he might use force to take it. In July 1990 Iraqi armed forces began to move toward Kuwait.
The Bush administration's response was to try conciliation and hope for the best. April Glaspie, the American ambassador in Baghdad, was instructed to tell Saddam that the United States had no position on bilateral differences between Arab states, such as Iraq's dispute with Kuwait, although the use of force would, of course, be contrary to the UN Charter. This statement and the absence of any significant American military preparations probably contributed to Saddam Hussein's decision to invade Kuwait on 2 August.
Kuwait, smaller than the state of New Jersey and with a native population of less than a million (plus a million non-Kuwaiti guest workers from around the Middle East and southern Asia), could not stop the invasion. Within hours Iraqi troops occupied the country. The news reached President Bush while he was on vacation in Maine. He denounced Iraq for "naked aggression," froze Iraqi and Kuwaiti financial assets in the United States, and cut off trade, but said the use of American military force was not under consideration. After talking with British prime minister Margaret Thatcher at a previously scheduled meeting in Aspen, Colorado, however, Bush took a stronger line. Thatcher, whose reputation for courage flowed from her leadership in Britain's 1982 war against Argentina's aggression in the Falkland Islands, compared Saddam Hussein to Hitler. Bush returned to Washington determined that, as he soon declaimed, the aggression against Kuwait would not stand.
The immediate problem, however, was to ensure that Iraqi forces did not press on a few miles and seize the major oil fields of Saudi Arabia—thereby acquiring control of approximately 40 percent of the world's oil reserves. The question of how and when Iraq could be persuaded or forced to retreat from Kuwait came next. The administration moved quickly to secure international support in the United Nations Security Council where, thanks to post-Cold War relations with the Soviet Union and China, American proposals did not face a certain veto. A resolution condemning the Iraqi invasion (2 August) was followed by another imposing mandatory economic sanctions on Iraq (6 August). The protection of Saudi Arabia began with a successful trip by Secretary of Defense Cheney to Riyadh to persuade King Fahd to invite the stationing of American troops on his soil. On 6 August President Bush ordered the first forces of Operation Desert Shield to Saudi Arabia. The commander was General H. Norman Schwarzkopf.
Bush now operated at his best, "working the telephone" with leaders in a dozen different countries, lining up support for the opposition to Saddam Hussein, winning commitments to vote for crucial resolutions in the UN Security Council. His most difficult and sensitive task was to persuade the Soviet Union to be a partner in the enterprise. Bush had to be careful not to undermine Gorbachev's leadership at home; some of the Soviet leader's enemies within the USSR were accusing him of betraying an ally, Iraq, in order to become the lapdog of the United States. In the end Gorbachev provided full support for the coalition in the United Nations, but refused to send any Soviet military forces to participate in the campaign.
U.S. relations with Britain and France on the Iraqi question were good. Both supplied significant military forces and leadership. Relations with two other allies, Germany and Japan, were tricky. Both governments claimed that their constitutions prevented the use of armed forces outside their territory. The United States in these cases sought nonmilitary support. Japan ultimately contributed $14 billion and Germany $11 billion. Along with $16 billion each from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, a large part of American costs were defrayed. More than forty countries eventually contributed in some way to the effort to expel Iraq from Kuwait.
By October, Desert Shield was providing reliable protection to Saudi Arabia, but economic sanctions had not induced Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait. Bush decided that Iraq would respond only to military force. He ordered a sharp increase in the number of U.S. troops in the Gulf, thereby creating an offensive capability, but he waited until after the 6 November congressional elections to announce his decision.
At the end of November the United States went to the UN Security Council for authorization for the next stage: the forcible expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait. On 29 November the Security Council passed Resolution 678, giving Saddam Hussein until 15 January 1991 to withdraw from Kuwait, after which UN members were to employ "all necessary means" to liberate the country. "All necessary means," of course, meant war. The vote was twelve in favor, with Cuba and Yemen opposed and China abstaining.
As the confrontation moved toward probable war, President Bush at first refused to give Congress a role in deciding policy. Critics noted that the U.S. Constitution assigned the responsibility for declaring war to Congress. They conceded that a president, as commander in chief, did have the power to use military force without prior congressional approval when the United States was attacked or in other clear emergencies. But this confrontation was proceeding in slow motion. Bush said that he had the authority to act without Congress—especially in carrying out UN Security Council resolutions.
Critics also called for more time to let the economic sanctions work and warned that a war would be long and very bloody, an impression Saddam Hussein did his best to encourage with his bluster about the approaching "mother of all battles." Bush faced a dilemma. If a war waged without congressional authorization proved long and bloody (some said it could be another Vietnam), the resulting crisis could destroy his presidency. But if he asked for authorization and Congress said no, Saddam Hussein would be the winner. In January 1991 Bush concluded that he had enough votes to secure authorization. He asked for congressional support. Congress debated intensely for two days. A resolution to continue the use of sanctions rather than go to war failed narrowly. On 12 January the Senate by a vote of 52 to 47 and the House by 250 to 183 gave the president authority to use force—although Bush still claimed congressional action was really not necessary. The war—named Operation Desert Storm—began 16 January with a heavy bombing and missile campaign against Baghdad and Iraqi positions in Kuwait.
Iraq responded by firing intermediate-range Scud missiles, with conventional explosive war-heads, against Israel. At the time of the invasion of Kuwait, Iraq had suggested that a settlement of the Kuwait question should be linked to Israel's withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza and the establishment of a Palestinian state. The United States denounced the idea as a device for rewarding aggression and said there could be no "linkage." Now Iraq sought to create linkage by provoking a counterattack from Israel and thereby weakening the resolve of Arab nations to fight over Kuwait. The ploy failed. The government of Israel accepted the U.S. offer to provide Patriot antimissile defenses, manned by Americans, and refrained from retaliatory attacks on Iraq.
Intense air attacks on Iraq continued for more than a month. On the diplomatic front the Soviet government sent a high-level negotiator to Baghdad in an effort to distance itself from the United States. Fortunately, from Washington's point of view, nothing came of the Soviet effort. On 22 February, Bush gave Iraq a twenty-four-hour deadline: withdraw from Kuwait or face an invasion. Iraq responded by setting massive fires in Kuwait's oil fields and hurling verbal defiance. The land war began on 23 February and lasted for one hundred hours. The vaunted battle-hardened Iraqi forces were no match for American and coalition air power. With their communications cut off, without airpower, unable to follow the movement of coalition forces, they were helpless. Thousands were killed, tens of thousands surrendered or fled north toward Baghdad.
Bush, with the full support of General Powell, declared on 27 February that Kuwait had been liberated and Iraq defeated. Offensive operations would end at 8:00 A.M. the following morning, Gulf time. Iraq accepted the cease-fire and agreed to abide by all UN resolutions concerned with its invasion. Did Bush end the war too soon? General Schwarzkopf soon made that charge. Saddam Hussein was still in power and much of his army was intact. But the president had good reasons for the decision. The war had been fought to liberate Kuwait—a clear, single objective. To continue to fight for other reasons would have cost American lives and killed many thousands of Iraqis. The coalition in support of liberating Kuwait would break apart on the question of a larger war. Furthermore, the conquest of Iraq might saddle the United States with long responsibility as an occupying power. And finally, the elimination of Iraq would upset the balance of power in the Gulf to the advantage of Iran.
Victory in the Gulf War was the high point of the Bush presidency. Bush spoke expansively of a "new world order" in which all nations, large and small, would be protected from aggression, and the United Nations, freed from the obstructive use of the veto by antagonistic great powers, would function as originally intended. He also said that the United States had "licked the Vietnam syndrome"—meaning that the country was no longer paralyzed by even the thought of using military power, for fear of becoming embroiled in a quagmire.
There were other consequences. Although the United States had rejected Iraq's effort to link Kuwait and Israel, linkage in the Middle East was a reality. Secretary of State Baker worked after the war to bring the Israelis, the Palestinians, and the other Arab countries to a peace table for discussions. The first round of talks was held in Madrid, Spain, in October. Bush also brought pressure on Israel to restrict the establishment of new Jewish settlements in the territories occupied after the 1967 war. Specifically, in September 1992 he persuaded Congress not to consider Israel's request for $10 billion in loan guarantees for new housing for emigrants from the Soviet Union. Congress complied, but Bush was strongly criticized by many American supporters of Israel. The pressure worked. In 1992 a new government in Israel agreed to restrict the settlements and the loan guarantee was extended.
The consequences of the Gulf War were less positive in Iraq. Two groups of the Iraqi population—Kurds in the north and Shiite Muslims in the south—used Saddam Hussein's defeat as an opportunity to assert their rights against an oppressive central government. Saddam responded with military force. The United States was in a delicate position. The Kurds and Shiites had legitimate grievances and were victims of Baghdad's brutality. But to support them might lead to the breakup of Iraq, instability in the region, and entangling commitments. The compromise was to provide protection for the Kurds in a safe-haven area and to prohibit Iraq from using air-power against either the Kurds or the Shiites. The United States enforced two no-fly zones for this purpose.