It’s hard to argue the biggest event in America of 1990 was the Gulf War. Considering the country would not enter the war until January 1991, it says a lot about the impact that Iraq invading Kuwait had on international relations.
How did it begin?
It’s complicated. Saddam Hussein accused Kuwait of illegally draining oil fields that were in Iraq (actually they were on the border commonly shared by Iraq and Kuwait). He took this accusation a step further by blaming Kuwait and Saudi Arabia of keeping oil prices low to cater to Western nations buying oil from the Middle East. Because of this, he demanded that Kuwait and Saudi Arabia forgive $30 billion of Iraq’s debt.
Concerned of what could transpire, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak set up negotiations between the two nations in hopes of reaching an agreement before an intervention from Western nations, mainly the United States. Hussein quickly broke off negotiations and a day later, on August 2, 1990 he sent his troops in to invade Kuwait.
One of Hussein’s biggest mistakes was the belief that he would have the support of other Arab nations. It was quite the opposite as most of them denounced Iraq’s invasion. Both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd asked NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and the United States for help. The United Nations also called on Iraq to pull out of Kuwait but Hussein did nothing. On August 8, Hussein declared Kuwait as Iraq’s 19th province, claiming that the country had been seized.
*image of Uday Hussein in Kuwait (1990 AFP)
When did America get involved?
On the day Hussein announced Iraq had taken over Kuwait, the first American fighter planes started to arrive in Saudi Arabia in what would be the beginning of Operation Desert Shield. NATO, Egypt, and other Arab nations also sent troops to Saudi Arabia in fear of a possible Iraqi attack on the country.
Late in 1990, as the war continued, the United Nations issued an ultimatum to Iraq on November 29: Either withdraw from Kuwait or face the consequences. More specifically, this meant that America and other allied nations would go to war with Iraq. On January 17, 1991, the U.S. led a series of air strikes on Iraq, named Operation Desert Storm.
America made sure it had the public support of most of the world as it became prepared to go to war Iraq. In his book, War and the Media: Propoganda and Persuasion in the Gulf War, Philip M. Taylor points out that “it was essential for the planet’s greatest solely functioning superpower to carry with it not just American public opinion but world opinion as well” (p 5).
Compared to America and the coalition forces, Iraq only had support from six other countries (Algeria, Jordan, The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), Sudan, Tunisia, and Yemen). By the time America entered Iraq in January of 1991, it wasn’t World War III, but it did feel like the world versus Iraq.
As big of an event as the Gulf War appeared to be, it was short-lived. A little more than a month after the U.S. air strikes took place, President Bush issued a ceasefire, ending the Gulf War. It is estimated that up to 10,000 Iraqi troops were killed compared to only 300 coalition troops.
One of the most interesting parts of the Gulf War was the role of the media, namely CNN. In their book, Taken by Storm: The Media, Public Opinion, and U.S. Foreign Policy in the Gulf War, Lance W. Bennett and David L. Paletz put it best, “CNN wired the world” (p 6). They were the only news source that was able to report from inside Iraq when the coalition bombing began. Their coverage of the Gulf War helped turn CNN into one of the most legitimate news outlets in the media.
The tragic part about the Gulf War aside from all the deaths and economic damage it caused to both Kuwait and Iraq is the fact that it was far from over. Technically, the war had ended but turmoil in Iraq continues to this day. The American government would go on to have highly controversial interest in Iraq during the presidency of Bush’s son, George W. Bush, a little more than a decade later.
In conclusion, I thought it was important to add this video of the first air strike from the U.S. as it really gives you a great window into the media’s coverage of the Gulf War. Although it happened in early 1991, I feel it’s one of the most iconic moments from the war and deserved a place here.