The Gulf War

The euphoria caused by the drawing down of the Cold War was dramatically overshadowed by the August 2, 1990, invasion of Kuwait by Iraq. Iraqi control of Kuwait and the danger it posed to Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states threatened a vital U.S. interest, because the United States, and the West in general, remained dependent on this region for much of its oil supplies.

President Bush strongly condemned the Iraqi action and called for Iraq's immediate and unconditional withdrawal. An emergency session of the U.N. Security Council voted unanimously to condemn Iraq, urge a cease-fire and demand the withdrawal of Iraqi troops from Kuwait.

Later in August, Iraq announced the annexation of Kuwait, ordered the closing of all embassies in that country, and began taking U.S. and British citizens in Kuwait hostage. On August 8, President Bush went on national television to announce the deployment of U.S. troops to the Middle East. The president then worked to assemble one of the most extraordinary military and political coalitions of modern times, with military forces from Asia, Europe and Africa, as well as the Middle East.

In the days and weeks following the invasion, the U.N. Security Council passed 12 resolutions condemning the Iraqi invasion and imposing wide-ranging economic sanctions on Iraq. The 12th resolution, issued on November 29, approved the use of force by U.N. member states if Iraq did not withdraw from Kuwait by January 15, 1991. The new U.S.-Soviet relationship provided the necessary condition for the U.N. action to stem the Iraqi invasion. Without the new entente between the two countries, the United Nations would never have authorized military action against Iraq.

Members of Congress had publicly called on President Bush and the international community to exhaust all means for resolving the Gulf crisis peacefully. But the underlying issue was constitutional: the U.S. Constitution gives the legislative branch the power to declare war. Yet in the second half of the 20th century, the United States has repeatedly become involved in armed conflicts without such a congressional mandate, most notably in Vietnam. Some members of Congress declared that Bush must get congressional backing before going to war. Others argued, however, that Congress really wanted a voice in where, when and under what conditions the United States goes to war -- not the responsibility of declaring war itself.

On January 12, 1991, three days before the U.N. deadline, Congress granted President Bush the authority he sought in the most explicit and sweeping war-making power given a president in nearly half a century.

War broke out less than 24 hours after the U.N. deadline. The United States, Great Britain, France, Italy, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait succeeded in liberating Kuwait with a devastating, U.S.-led air campaign that lasted slightly more than a month. It was followed by a massive invasion of Kuwait and Iraq by armored and airborne infantry forces. With their superior speed, mobility and firepower, the allied forces overwhelmed the Iraqi forces in a land campaign lasting only 100 hours.

The United States and its allies achieved their military goal, but the victory was incomplete. Saddam Hussein remained in power, savagely repressing the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south, both of whom had risen in rebellion after the war. Hundreds of oil-well fires, deliberately set by the Iraqis, took until November 1991 to extinguish. Saddam's regime also attempted to thwart United Nations inspectors who, operating in accordance with Security Council resolutions, worked to locate and destroy Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear facilities and huge stocks of chemical weapons.

Indirectly, however, the Gulf War enabled the United States to persuade the Arab states, Israel and a Palestinian delegation to begin direct negotiations aimed at resolving the complex and interlocked issues that could eventually lead to a lasting peace in the region. The talks began in Madrid, Spain, on October 30, 1991. In turn, they set the stage for the secret negotiations in Norway that led to the historic agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, signed at the White House on September 13, 1993.