Exactly 25 years ago today, President George H.W. Bush addressed the nation from his desk in the Oval Office and announced the beginning of Operation Desert Storm, a military campaign to expel occupying Iraqi forces from Kuwait during the First Gulf War.
Seven months before Bush's announcement, Iraqi forces invaded and annexed Kuwait, the small, oil-rich Persian Gulf nation that borders Iraq to the southeast. The UN gave Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein until January 15, 1991 to withdraw his troops — a deadline that came and went with little action.
Kuwait is sandwiched between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, another oil-rich nation that was — as it still is in 2016 — an important US ally. At the time, Saddam's bellicose anti-Western rhetoric and threats to use chemical weapons against Israel had captured international attention. Saddam mollified Saudi concerns that he was eying their oil by signing a non-aggression pact.
Iraq and Kuwait, however, had been having ongoing disputes about the ownership of the oil fields on their shared border. Saddam personally assured King Fahd of Saudi Arabia that he had no intention of invading Kuwait, and Fahd chaired a meeting between representatives of the two nations. Just days later, the Iraqi army rolled into Kuwait.
The invasion posed a significant threat to the global economy. At the time, the majority of the world's available oil supply was located in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. In the weeks before the UN's January 15 deadline, a US-led coalition started to assemble some 900,000 military personnel in the region. When the deadline passed with no action, coalition forces launched Operation Desert Storm by bombarding Iraqi command and control targets from air and sea. Weeks later, the ground invasion began.
Bush boldly asked the Iraqi people to topple Saddam, comparing him to Adolf Hitler. In a radio broadcast, Bush called for "the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein the dictator to step aside." The call for rebellion sparked a Kurdish uprising in northern Iraq and a Shia uprising in the south. Without US support, both were brutally suppressed by Iraqi forces of Saddam's Sunni government.
It took just 100 hours for US-led coalition ground troops to drive Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Iraq suffered devastating losses in military personnel, and Kuwait's exiled leader returned to power. Saddam remained in control of Iraq, however, and his opponents were massacred in huge numbers. Mass graves discovered more than a decade later unearthed the remains of thousands of slaughtered Kurds and Shias. Instead of intervening further, the US turned its back on the chaos.
"Tonight in Iraq, Saddam walks amidst ruin," Bush declared on March 6, 1991. "His war machine is crushed. His ability to threaten mass destruction is itself destroyed."
Bush's decision not to continue the fight and oust Saddam has remained controversial. Lawrence Wright, author of The Looming Tower, a book about the origins of al Qaeda and the 9/11 attacks, has suggested that it was the presence of American troops in the Middle East together with Bush's initial encouragement of the unrest in Iraq that sparked the current era of chaos in the region and a deepening hatred for Western geopolitical dominance.
Colin Powell — the top-ranking US military commander during Desert Storm — told CBS in an interview on Friday that it was a "great disappointment" to Bush that coalition forces didn't topple Saddam during the First Gulf War. Powell later served as George W. Bush's secretary of state and pushed for the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
"Ten years later he was such a problem that the next President Bush felt it necessary to launch an operation to take him out," Powell said.
Watch the VICE News dispatch Retaking Ramadi From the Islamic State: The Battle for Iraq:
Though the al Qaeda attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon in 2001 were orchestrated by Osama bin Laden in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, which the US had already invaded and was busy occupying, the younger Bush argued that Saddam needed to be taken out because he had weapons of mass destruction. More than a decade after the end of the Gulf War, the US invaded Iraq on March 20, 2003, expecting a repeat of the swift and decisive victory that was won in Desert Storm.
Instead, that invasion triggered a series of catastrophic events that has thrown the Middle East into upheaval and continues to threaten US national security. It turned out that Saddam's alleged weapons of mass destruction did not exist, and many former members of his ruling Baath party went on to help form the Islamic State (IS), which now controls vast swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria. The group has also orchestrated terror attacks around the world, from the coordinated assaults last year in Paris to the deadly bombing that hit Indonesia's capital Jakarta on Thursday.
It's impossible to say for sure how the course of history would have changed if the US-led coalition had taken out Saddam back in 1991. At the time, the elder Bush saw the outcome of the war as a turning point for the good of the world.
"We can see a new world coming into view," Bush said, "in which there is a very real prospect of a new world order."
But 25 years later, as Iraq crumbles amid sectarian conflict and Islamist militancy, it's safe to say the new world order probably wasn't what Bush envisioned after Desert Storm.
Follow Tess Owen on Twitter: @misstessowen
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