The New Yorker
Three months after United States Marines liberated Kuwait City, the victors of Operation Desert Storm...
By Mark Danner
June 03, 1991
Three months after United States Marines liberated Kuwait City, the victors of Operation Desert Storm are still being honored across the country. By July 4th, which President Bush has declared a special day to honor the troops, the ceremonies will have lasted twice as long as the hostilities. During these months, the war has become domesticated; Desert Storm seems now to have had less to do with Kuwait or Iraq than with America's resurgence-how Americans "kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all," in President Bush's phrase, and learned to pull together once again. Meanwhile, the real aftermath of the war-its effects on Iraq and Kuwait and other parts of the Middle Easthas steadily receded from our view. On the day when judges in Kuwait City sentenced a young Iraqi man to fifteen years in prison for wearing a Saddam Hussein T-shirt, Hollywood was congratulating the victorious American troops and parading an M-1 Abrams tank and a Patriot missile alongside Roseanne Barr and Jimmy Stewart.
The war-or, rather, the victorygained the President enormous popularity, and for most of the country the entire event has become an occasion for patriotic good feeling. Desert Storm has been reduced to a single, simple plot line, acted out by a few stock characters: the mad dictator, the resolute President, the heroic soldiers, the grateful citizenry. Details-the former intimate relations between the United States and Saddam Hussein's Iraq, for exampleremain unexplored. Congress, which might have been expected to investigate the dubious American diplomacy that preceded Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, largely abdicated its responsibility in the face of Desert Storm's high ratings. The roots of the war-why it actually happened-now attract the interest only of specialists and spoilsports.
Unfortunately, the muddled world out of which the Gulf crisis sprang last summer has gained little in clarity since the Marines marched into Kuwait City. United States policy in the Gulf has not fundamentally changed: its goal is to maintain at all costs "a secure and stable Gulf" (in Mr. Bush's phrase), in order to shelter the fragile, oil-producing, conservative Sunni regimes of the Arabian peninsula. That goal led President Nixon to anoint the Shah of Iran America's "policeman of the Gulf," and, after the Shah was overthrown, it drove Presidents Reagan and Bush to support Saddam Hussein's Iraq, which they saw as a bulwark against the ideological threat posed by the Ayatollah Khomeini and by the possibility that his Shiite revolution might spread through the Gulf. That same goal subsequently led President Bush to stand politely aside while Saddam Hussein-whom he had denounced as worse than Hitler-crushed the Shiite and Kurdish uprisings in his country.
On March 6th, a week after the ceasefire, the six Gulf states met in Damascus with Syria and Egypt and issued a call for "a new Arab order to boost joint Arab action." The essence of the new order was a plan to maintain Egyptian and Syrian troops "in the Saudi territories and other Arab countries in the Gulf," so as to "guarantee the security and peace of Arab countries in the Gulf region." The presence of Egyptians and Syrians, it was hoped, would eliminate any need for substantial American forces, with the political damage that their continued presence would entail. More important, the structure of the new Arab order-with Egypt and Syria sending troops to the Gulf, and the Gulf countries sending some of their wealth to Cairo and Damascus-might help to bridge the most dangerous fault line in the Arab world: that between the overpopulated, impoverished nations of the north and the underpopulated, oil-rich nations of the south. (Iraq, the source of the region's most recent upheaval, stands astride this fault line-as well as that between the Sunnis and the Shiites-and it's no accident that Saddam Hussein, after invading Kuwait, hoped to attract Arab sympathies by pointing to this basic inequality as his reason for doing so; he was very well aware that the fabulous wealth of the Gulf states and the greed and arrogance perceived as accompanying it engender great resentment in the rest of the Arab world.)
On May 8th, however, President Mubarak announced that he was pulling Egyptian troops out of the Gulf. The decision, Egyptian political and military officials told the Washington Post, reflected "Egypt's impatience with Saudi and Kuwaiti footdragging." Now that the war was over, the Gulf states were not so eager to play host to their Arab brothers from the north, and were still less eager to pay for their presence. Besides, a Gulf diplomat was quoted in the Post as saying, "who's going to attack you if they know the United States will come and protect you?" The Gulf states, an Arab journalist said in the same story, "want blue-eyed soldiers to protect them." The comment recalls that of a "senior Gulf official" quoted in the Wall Street Journal just before the war began. "You think I want to send my teen-aged son to die for Kuwait?" he asked, then chuckled. "We have our white slaves from America to do that."
Increasingly, the victory of Desert Storm seems to be leading not so much to a secure and stable Gulf as to an Americanized one. While twelve thousand American troops protect the Kurds in Saddam's Iraq, and five thousand work to keep the Emir's Kuwait functioning, American officials have begun murmuring about establishing a new United States base in Bahrain, about a "prepositioning" of equipment in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, about regular joint exercises" involving American troops in the Arabian desert. But many of the threats to "stability" in the Gulf hinge on the weaknesses of the rigid, undemocratic regimes there, and regular visits from the United States Marines, far from removing those threats, might well heighten them. And for the United States, barely a year after the end of the Cold War seemed to offer the promise of a reduced military budget and a greater attention to domestic problems, the Gulf War has brought a greater burden abroad and the strong likelihood of further entanglements in the Middle East. Beyond the parades and the celebrations of national selfrenewal, this is the real legacy of Desert Storm.