Just after midnight on August 2, 1990, an invasion force of approximately 100,000 Iraqi troops crossed into Kuwait. As mechanized and armored Republican Guard divisions breached the border and sped southward across the desert, Iraqi Special Forces commandos launched airborne and amphibious assaults into Kuwait City. The Kuwaiti military, outnumbered and taken by surprise by the well-coordinated offensive, was swiftly routed. By nightfall that first day, the country’s main bases and international airport were in Iraqi hands, as was the palace of the Kuwaiti emir, who narrowly escaped to Saudi Arabia. Within 48 hours, the occupation of Kuwait—proclaimed by Saddam Hussein to be Iraq’s long-lost 19th province—was largely complete.
This month marks the 25th anniversary of these events—the first major international crisis to confront the United States as the Cold War drew to a close, and one that culminated a few months later in America’s biggest war since Vietnam.
To leaders and policymakers at the time, it was taken for granted that the invasion of Kuwait, and the international response with which it was met, would carry far-reaching strategic consequences. Today, by contrast, the significance of the Gulf war is less obvious. In a world of transnational terrorist networks, resilient insurgencies, and hybridized warfare, much about the conflict seems like a relic from a bygone age—from its tank battles to the very notion that a war could be decisively won or lost over a couple of days by conventional armies clashing on open ground. For this reason, there is a temptation to remember Desert Storm a bit wistfully, as America’s last great triumph of the 20th century, rather than the opening act of the 21st.
This, however, would be a mistake. For all that the events of 1990-1991 feel distant from the problems of the present, the invasion of Kuwait very much did mark the dawn of a new period in U.S. foreign policy—one that, in key respects, continues to this day.
First, starting with the Gulf crisis, the most pressing tests for international order and U.S. leadership would emerge disproportionately from the greater Middle East, rather than the traditional incubators of upheaval—the geopolitical hothouses of Europe and Asia—where the United States had previously fought all of its major foreign wars. While challenges elsewhere would compete for Washington’s attention in the years after Desert Storm—including the disintegration of Yugoslavia, periodic tensions with North Korea, and the rise of China—it has been the problems of the Middle East that, rightfully or not, have dominated the U.S. diplomatic and security agenda during this period.
Second and relatedly, the Gulf crisis commenced the entry of the American military into the modern Middle East in a big way for the first time. Since the British withdrawal from east of Suez in the early 1970s, the United States had been gradually drawn into the vacuum left in London’s wake. This process was accelerated by the multiple crises of 1979—the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian revolution foremost among them—which inspired the Carter administration to establish a joint military task force for the region, an arrangement that would grow into U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). Later in the 1980s came the dispatch of U.S. peacekeepers to Sinai under the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement, the ill-fated Marine mission to Lebanon, and naval skirmishes with Iran.
But these were relatively modest or transient deployments. At the moment that Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, CENTCOM—in contrast to its European and Pacific counterparts—had no assigned forces of its own; it was a combatant command without combatants, composed of a planning headquarters in Florida and little else.
The Gulf war changed all of that, as nearly half a million troops surged into the Arabian peninsula to protect the Saudis and then liberate Kuwait. Even more important, a year after the ceasefire with the Iraqis, tens of thousands of American forces remained in the region, deployed in newly built desert garrisons and on ships offshore—part of a new force posture designed to contain a weakened yet still treacherous Saddam Hussein. Those troop numbers would soar under the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, with the dispatch of over 150,000 forces to Iraq and then another 100,000 to Afghanistan, before sharply falling off again. Yet even at the peak of the Obama administration’s military drawdown from the Middle East, before the rise of the Islamic State, CENTCOM still had tens of thousands of “enduring” forces in its area of responsibility—and that is without counting the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.