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1990

Bush orders Operation Desert Shield

On this day in 1990, President George Herbert Walker Bush orders the organization of Operation Desert Shield in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait on August 2. The order prepared American troops to become part of an international coalition in the war against Iraq that would be launched as Operation Desert Storm in January 1991. To support Operation Desert Shield, Bush authorized a dramatic increase in U.S. troops and resources in the Persian Gulf.

Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and hard-line Iraqi nationalists had always believed Kuwait should be part of Iraq, but nationalist propaganda aside, acquiring control of Kuwait’s oil fields was Hussein’s primary interest. In addition, control of Kuwait represented a strategic military objective should Iraq be forced into a war with its western-friendly Arab neighbors. Hussein calculated incorrectly that the United States and the United Nations, who were closely tracking Iraq’s military buildup along Kuwait’s borders, would not try to stop him. However, when Iraqi ground forces entered Kuwait on August 2, 1990, President Bush immediately proclaimed that the invasion “would not stand” and vowed to help Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in their efforts to force the Iraqis from Kuwaiti land.

On November 29, 1990, the United Nations Security Council authorized the use of “all means necessary” to remove Hussein’s forces from Kuwait, giving Iraq the deadline of midnight on January 16, 1991, to leave or risk forcible removal. After negotiations between U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and Iraq’s foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, failed, Congress authorized President Bush to use American troops in the coming conflict.

Just after midnight on January 17 in the U.S., Bush gave the order for U.S. troops to lead an international coalition in an attack on Saddam Hussein’s army. U.S. General Norman Schwarzkopf led “Operation Desert Storm,” which began with a massive bombing of Hussein’s armies in Iraq and Kuwait. The ensuing campaign, which is remembered in part for the United States’ use of superior military technology, introduced the term “smart bombs” to the global vernacular—precision-bombing devices aimed primarily at destroying infrastructure and minimizing civilian casualties. In response, Hussein launched SCUD missiles into Saudi Arabia and Israel. Iraq’s use of SCUDs, notoriously inaccurate weapons designed to terrorize civilian targets, nearly succeeded in inciting the Israelis to retaliate. Hussein hoped an Israeli military response would draw neighboring Arab nations into the fight on Iraq’s side, but he again committed a grave miscalculation. Bush reassured Israelis that the U.S. would protect them from Hussein’s terrifying SCUD attacks and Israel resisted the urge to retaliate. Soon after, U.S. –installed Patriot missiles destroyed SCUD missiles in flight and further foiled Hussein’s plan to goad Israel into a holy war.

Following an intense bombing of Baghdad, U.S.-led coalition ground forces marched into Kuwait and across the Iraq border. Regular Iraqi troops surrendered in droves, leaving only Hussein’s hard-line Republican Guard to defend the capital, which they were unsuccessful in doing. After pushing Hussein’s forces out of Kuwait, Schwarzkopf called a ceasefire on February 28; he accepted the surrender of Iraqi generals on March 3.

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