Iraq seems more gripped by chaos and violence then ever. A Shiite led Government seems precariously on the brink of falling, and we are left wondering if our Shiite allies who look increasingly aligned with our Iranian adversaries are even worth supporting. This leads many to almost sound nostalgic for the rule of Saddam Hussein. However, this stems from collective amnesia and oversimplified histories.
The Carter Doctrine issued in 1980 reaffirmed the commitment of the United States to the security of our allies in the Persian Gulf including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates as well as the strategic importance of the region due to the danger of an adversary gaining control of the oil. What later became known as the Reagan Corollary was the promise of the United States to defend Saudi Arabia from attack by any hostile power. At the time the chief concern was Iran whose revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini railed against the United States and allies calling America the Great Satan. President Reagan responded to unprovoked Iranian attacks against Kuwaiti oil tankers by reflagging them as American ships, which put Iran on notice that an attack on Kuwait was equivalent to attacking the United States. Further acts of Iranian aggression were met with significant military strikes against their naval forces.
Cynics often imply that the United States is just another predatory party interested in taking Middle Eastern oil. As the historian Michael Oren often points out the United States played a key role in freeing Iran from both British and Russian domination after World War II. President Eisenhower’s unfortunate decision to take part in the toppling of democratically elected Mosadeq came as a result of being misled by the British that Mosadeq would somehow let in the Communists. Not only did this unacceptable act turn many Iranians against the United States, but it also went to great lengths to embolden the radical ayatollahs most hostile to Mosadeq.
Moreover the oil power of Saddam was a very real threat. With his enormous financial resources, he was able to hire the renegade NATO scientist Gerald Bull to build for him warhead delivery systems with potentially even intercontinental range. Bull’s career as an agent of Iraq is believed to have been ended by the Mossad. Saddam also contracted with the French to build the Osirak Reactor. Israel realizing Saddam’s dangerous plans successfully destroyed the reactor with a single famous airstrike known as Operation Opera. In the beginning of the last decade of the Cold War, the United States still found NATO badly outgunned by Warsaw Pact Forces, and could not afford to confront both Iraq and Iran simultaneously. Despite our ostensible alliance with Saddam, the USS Stark was nearly sunk by an attacking Iraqi fighter using French Exocet missiles resulting in the deaths of 37 American Servicemen. Had the ship been sunk, the cost in American lives would have proved even greater. Saddam successfully explained this away as an accident, but Saddam was only getting started.
Early in the morning of August 2, 1990, Iraqi forces streamed into neighboring Kuwait, quickly overwhelming Saddam’s tiny neighbor. While initially slow to react to the clear Iraqi preparations over the week before, the first Bush administration rushed into action. Bolstered by the strong support of Margaret Thatcher, the United States and Britain rushed the forces necessary to defend Saudi Arabia. Early on, satellite photos showed that Iraq was on the brink of making a move on Saudi oil wells. If Saddam Hussein had successfully gained control of them, the amount of power he would have controlled would pose a global threat. Also, the Bush Administration recognized that Saddam’s “naked aggression” threatened the growing peaceful global order that began after the end of World War II and was bolstered by cooling off of the Cold War. Desert Shield successfully protected Saudi Arabia from Iraqi invasion.
The launch of Desert Storm to free Kuwait launched a new period in military history. The operation was a stunning success that demonstrated a new overwhelming American strength in conventional forces that still exists to this very day. While the US was aided by Soviet Premier Gorbachev and Foreign Minister Shevardnadze, Russian and Chinese Generals would come to understand the full unchallengeable power of American conventional forces. Having secured the limited objectives of the mission, the Bush administration sought to quickly secure a lasting cease-fire.
A brutal slaughter of Shiite-Iraqis in Southern Iraq led to the creation by the Bush Administration of no fly zones in the North and South to protect both the Kurds and Shiites from the Bathist Regime’s continuing brutality. International inspectors quickly discovered that Saddam’s nuclear program to be far more advanced than previously realized. The next ten years were characterized by efforts to contain Saddam Hussein and the use of international inspections backed by the American and British military to dismantle Saddam’s WMD programs. Saddam’s cat and mouse games with the inspectors continued throughout this period. Efforts to stop Saddam during the Bush administration evolved into Clinton’s Dual Containment Policy against both Iran and Iraq. Even by the end of the Clinton Administration, the United States started to subtly change its aims towards regime change in Iraq.
Part of America’s efforts to contain Saddam Hussein involved debilitating sanctions. Unfortunately, Saddam was able to unfairly blame American sanctions for the suffering of the Iraqi people. He was even able to subvert the UN Oil for Food program intended to help his people so that he could still divert the funds for his ornate palaces and excessive military spending. Still the sanctions were critical for containing Saddam. Before his death, he admitted to planning to revive his nuclear weapons program once the sanctions inevitably fell apart. Islamic extremists could blame the United States for either being too weak to successfully remove Saddam, or possibly claim that it was actually the US secretly behind his continued rule. Additionally, preventing future aggression by Saddam against his neighbors required a large continuous deployment of forces in the region. Finally, the unpredictable nature of Saddam meant that he was perfectly capable of allying with his former Syrian, Iranian, and Hezbollah enemies against America and her allies in the region.
I will address some shortfalls of Operation Iraqi Freedom in a later article.