On the anniversary of the Gulf War, Stop the War convenor Lindsey German examines a quarter of a century of wars and occupations in the Middle East
Twenty-five years ago this week, Iraqi president Saddam Hussein launched his invasion of neighbouring Kuwait. Iraq was deeply indebted following Hussein’s lengthy war with Iran, and he wanted to cut oil production in order to raise prices. He had a number of grievances against Kuwait, which would not waive Iraqi debts and was keeping oil production high, as well as allegedly drilling in Iraqi territory.
He could be forgiven for thinking that such an action would be at least tolerated by his erstwhile ally, the US superpower.
It had, after all, backed Hussein for much of the bloody Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. It had intervened on Iraq’s side to ensure the defeat of its main enemy in the region, Iran, shooting down an Iranian civilian airliner over the Gulf in 1989.
A conversation between Hussein and the US ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie shortly before the invasion seemed to reinforce that view.
But in fact the US, under president George H W Bush, father of the Bush who launched the war on terror in 2001, took the invasion as a cause for war.
A UN resolution was immediately passed condemning the invasion and demanding withdrawal.
Later in the year the US issued an ultimatum to withdraw or face war.
The shooting and bombing war began in early 1991. The air war was unlike any seen before. In six weeks the US flew 88,000 sorties, aimed largely at Iraqi cities and their civilian populations. More munitions were dropped in these six weeks than on Germany in the whole of WWII.
It was a gross military imbalance that led to an early defeat for the Iraqi forces and their retreat from Kuwait back to Iraq.
The US bombing and shooting of retreating Iraqi troops on the Basra road — called a “turkey shoot” by one US pilot — caused mass public revulsion internationally. The war was a turning point: it marked the end of a long period dominated by the cold war, with the existence of two nuclear-armed major superpowers.
This tended to stop “rogue states” from acting unilaterally by agreement between the two powers. The US won the cold war with the collapse of the Soviet bloc from 1989 onwards. So the timing was highly significant.
After decades of cold war it marked a new departure in the post-WWII world. The first Gulf war, as it came to be called, was conducted in a way that reflected this transition.
It was stressed as a multilateralist operation, including UN involvement and backing. But at the same time the US was determined to show that it was the world’s sole policeman, hence the aggressive bombing campaign, the pursuit on the Basra road and the imposition of no-fly zones and sanctions on a defeated Iraq, further weakening its economy and infrastructure.
The war also shaped the next wars and the justifications for them. It had strong ideological components.
Citizens for a Free Kuwait was set up by a major US PR company which was in part funded by the Kuwaiti government in exile. A caucus on human rights in the US Congress heard evidence from a 15-year-old known only as Nayirah that she had seen Iraqi soldiers pull babies from incubators in Kuwaiti hospitals and leave them to die.
It turned out that not only were the stories false (even though they were repeated and endorsed at the time by Amnesty International) but that Nayirah was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the US and a member of the ruling royal al-Sabah family of Kuwait.
The war centred however on economic and strategic questions: the access to plentiful and cheap supplies of oil; the need to defeat US enemies in the region, primarily Iran but now also Iraq; the ability to influence and control the crucial Middle East in a post-cold war world.
The US victory in the Gulf war only created greater instability in the region. Large numbers of US troops were stationed in bases in Saudi Arabia, a key US ally and one of the biggest customers of US arms companies. There was widespread opposition to this, including from Osama bin Laden, funded by the US to fight the Russians during their invasion of Afghanistan, but now increasingly its enemy.
The penalties on Iraq also created grievances as Iraqi people suffered, without them denting Hussein’s position. An estimated 500,000 children died as a result of sanctions.
During the 1990s the levels of US intervention increased, for the most part in the former Yugoslavia, culminating in the bombing of Serbia during the Kosovo war in 1999.
This was not a UN but a Nato operation, a major step in Nato’s increasingly unilateral actions involving out-of-area operations.
The bombing campaign, which lasted more than two months, was justified on the grounds of humanitarian intervention, a doctrine spelt out by an increasingly belligerent Tony Blair in his Chicago speech in 1999.
When planes were flown into the twin towers in New York just over two years later, the stage was already set for the war on terror.
Bush, aided by his closest ally Blair, immediately launched a war on Afghanistan, where bin Laden was based. It overthrew the Taliban government in a matter of weeks following the bombing and invasion of one of the poorest countries in the world.
But Bush’s real target was Iraq. Immediately after the September 2011 attacks he and his advisers tried to make a link between one of the suicide bombers, Mohammed Atta, and Iraqi secret services — a link which proved to be totally false.
During 2002, Bush and Blair secretly agreed to launch a war on Iraq, which they went on to do in March 2003, despite the largest wave of opposition against war ever seen internationally.
The war on terror had very little to do with combating terrorism, and everything to do with the US and its allies trying to take out its opponents in the form of rulers of “rogue states.”
It was a new imperialism designed for the post-cold war neoliberal era, and its consequences were bloody and brutal. Up to a million died in the course of the Iraq war, with 4 million internal and external refugees.
The war was met with resistance in every country and failed in its stated aim of stabilising the Middle East. Traditional US enemies, in particular Iran, are in a stronger position than when the war began.
The countries that have seen intervention — including Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria — are among the most unstable in the world.
Wars rage in large parts of the Middle East and Africa, and across Afghanistan and Pakistan. There is a real threat of the conflict in Syria and Iraq escalating into a much larger war across the region, with calamitous consequences for the people there.
Terrorism is a much greater threat than it was in 2001. The Western powers have responded with more wars abroad and with Islamophobia and crackdowns on civil liberties at home.
Yet all these wars have generated mass opposition. There are now regular polling majorities against most interventions, and many of the largest demonstrations of recent years have been against war.
The first Gulf war heralded a new era of wars without end, but also a mass protest movement against them.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
More articles from this author
- Antisemitism, politics, and voting Tory - election briefing 6 December
- Boris Johnson should worry about his own families: not ours - election briefing 5 December
- The big question: can Trump keep his mouth shut for another 24 hours? – election briefing 4 December
- A low point even for Johnson - election briefing 3 December
- Labour and the warmongers – election briefing 2 December
- Who knew: 52% of the population matter? - election briefing 29 November
- Buckle up, the propaganda war’s about to get a lot rougher - election briefing 28 November