Book review: Into the Desert

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 January, 2013, 3:24pm

Into the Desert: Reflections on the Gulf War
by Jeffrey Engel (ed)
Oxford University Press


The 1990-1991 Persian Gulf war played well on television. All those slick, smart missile attacks launched by the United States-led coalition made for great theatre.

This new guide sets out to expose the truth behind the war's hi-tech exterior, by tapping the wisdom of a six-strong, all-star war wonk cast.

The line-up features the former Gulf War National Security Council official Richard Haass, supported by New York Times military guru Michael Gordon, and former foreign policy adviser to Britain's then prime minister Tony Blair, Sir Lawrence Freedman. Middle East guru Shibley Telhami explores the Arab side in depth.

The trigger for the war came on August 2, 1990, when Saddam Hussein invaded neighbouring Kuwait. On one hand, Saddam resented Kuwait's insistence that he repay the multibillion-dollar loan that fuelled his 1980-1988 war with Iran. On the other, he was hungry for oil and wildly optimistic.

"Saddam's calculation was that any American or allied force that sought to liberate Kuwait would be weakened and bloodied as it bulled its way through Iraq's defensive barriers and was pummelled by artillery," Gordon writes.

Saddam was especially gung-ho because he believed that angst triggered by the Vietnam war had sapped America's spirit.

After installing a puppet dictator, Saddam went about looting Kuwait. He apparently thought he was untouchable, but eventually America "regrouped". The United Nations-sanctioned counter-attack it led - Operation Desert Storm - began on January 16, 1991.

Armed with the latest smart weaponry, the US coalition quickly exacted a heavy toll on Saddam's huge but clunky force.

The operation was over in about seven weeks, Haass writes. Better still, it cost fewer than 200 American lives and under US$100 billion.

However, Into the Desert underlines that the war was marred by disasters for the US. American intelligence failed to foresee Saddam's Kuwait invasion. And after Saddam was routed, his scorched-earth retreat caused environmental devastation.

When America then promptly ended hostilities in line with its UN mandate, Saddam rallied his helicopters and clung to power, remaining after the US president who led Desert Storm, George H.W. Bush, left office in 1993. In a final fiasco, the defensive troop deployment the US embedded in Saudi Arabia fuelled al-Qaeda's rise.

Clearly, despite its smooth image, the Gulf war was messy, like most wars. In his chapter even the adviser to the hawkish Blair, Freedman, voices doubt.

In contrast, Ryan Crocker remains bullish. He believes Desert Storm was a stunning success driven by superb leadership.

But if Bush senior, his secretary of defence, Dick Cheney, and their friends were so hot, how come the younger George Bush had to re-invade Iraq in March 2003?