It was the first major foreign policy crisis for the U.S. since the end of the Cold War. Iraq, which had built up the fourth-largest army in the world with U.S. assistance, was heavily in debt after its costly eight-year war with Iran. It pressured Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to forgive its debts, but they refused. Iraq had claimed, since gaining independence from the United Kingdom in 1932, that Kuwait was rightfully Iraqi territory, and accused Kuwait of exceeding its OPEC quotas for oil production. This all came to a head in August 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait, a major supplier of oil to the United States, and also threatened Saudi Arabia. In the last months of 1990, the United States participated in the defense of Saudi Arabia in a deployment known as Operation Desert Shield. Over 500,000 American troops were placed in Saudi Arabia in case of an Iraqi attack on the Saudis. The U.S. further sought multilateral support in the UN Security Council. After Iraq refused to withdraw its troops from Kuwait, a U.S.-led coalition began a massive air attack on January 17, 1991. This was followed by a ground assault on February 24, which led to the end of the war on February 28.
Chas Freeman was U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm. In this segment, he discusses the “woolly mammoths” that reappeared in the region after the Cold War ended, his briefing King Fahd on the invasion, and advising General Schwarzkopf on the conduct of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy starting in 1995. You can read Part II here.
An Overview of the Middle East in 1990 — The Hairy Mammoth Lives
In the spring of 1990, the embassy, under my direction (actually, I did a great deal of the writing), did a series of three telegrams, which became known as the hairy mammoth series. The contention was that, with the end of the Cold War, things in the Gulf, as elsewhere, had fundamentally changed. The telegrams attempted to examine the strategic environment around Saudi Arabia, both on the Gulf and Red Sea, Horn of Africa fronts, as well as, of course, the Levant.
They became known as the hairy mammoth series because the thesis was that the Cold War, much like an Ice Age or a heavy winter, had covered the landscape to such an extent that it looked very much unlike what it was underneath the snow and ice. Suddenly, the ice of the Cold War was melting, and the familiar landscape, which had been obscured for nearly fifty years, was reemerging. Animals that we thought had been dead turned out to have been simply hibernating, and nationalist passions were re-arising. I think that somehow hairy mammoths came into this extended metaphor.
Looking at the world around Saudi Arabia at the end of the Cold War, one was struck by the effects of the collapse of bipolarity, the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union.
The Arab world traditionally had three centers of power that contended for ascendancy. They were Baghdad, Damascus, and Cairo, each place representing a very different personality within the Arab world. During the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, Riyadh arose as a fourth point of influence. It got to the point where nobody did anything very much in the Arab world without first checking with King Fahd, because, while they might take a dim view of the nouveau-riche character of Saudi society, they recognized that his money gave him influence, particularly influence with the United States.
By 1990, on the eve of the Gulf War, Saudi Arabia and Egypt had restored a good relationship. Their relations had been impaired, as Egypt’s relations with most Arab states had been impaired, after the Camp David Accords. Saudi Arabia, in fact, had bankrolled part of the Egyptian preparation for the 1973 crossing of the Suez Canal, which gave Sadat the bargaining leverage he needed to make peace with Israel. But I don’t think the Saudis were witting that that was his intention. They saw this purely as a recovery of Arab land from Zionist occupation. So, in 1990, actually President Mubarak of Egypt and King Fahd had established a quite cordial working relationship. It was the case that Mubarak did very little without checking with Fahd, and Fahd did increasingly little without checking with Mubarak. Nevertheless, under the surface, the Saudi-Egyptian relationship remained somewhat an arms-length relationship.
You have to remember the history of the Arabian Peninsula to understand this. On three occasions, armies from Egypt had attempted, twice successfully, to overthrow the al-Saud dynasty in Riyadh. At the beginning of the 19th century they sacked Riyadh and destroyed it. Later in the 19th century they manipulated family quarrels within the al-Saud and sent an expeditionary force that again overthrew the al-Saud. They did not welcome the conquest and reorganization of Saudi Arabia by Abd al-Aziz at the beginning of the 20th century. In the 1960s President Nasser attempted once again to overthrow the House of Saud, through his operations in Yemen, and subversive operations, including some commando operations and air operations in the Hejaz, the region of Saudi Arabia along the Red Sea coast. So there was a legacy of suspicion….
Nevertheless, I think the political relationship was clearly warming. One element of the warming was the increasing Egyptian coldness to something called the Arab Cooperation Council (ACC), which had been formed under Saddam Hussein’s leadership and which attempted to coordinate policy between Iraq, Yemen, Jordan, and Egypt. In retrospect, President Mubarak says he became aware that this was in fact seen by Iraq as an instrument of expansionism. And he basically dropped out of participation, leaving Yemen and Jordan to conspire with Iraq in the events that led up to the Gulf War.
Mentioning Egypt, from Saudi Arabia’s perspective, in other words, historically, the enemy has lain to the west. And that’s generally true of the Arabian Peninsula. At one point 1500 years ago Ethiopia sent an army that succeeded in conquering Yemen and advancing into portions of what is now Saudi Arabia, in fact coming quite close to Mecca. The Saudis, particularly those who live along the Red Sea coast, see themselves as part of, if not a Red Sea community, at least a network of Red Sea relationships, many of them with an unfortunate history….
Setting Desert Shield in Motion – Briefing Saudi Arabia
U.S. relations with Kuwait, notwithstanding Operation Earnest Will, which had escorted Kuwaiti tankers through the Gulf during the Iran-Iraq war, were not cordial. The Kuwaitis were not asking for help. As I understand it, only a couple of hours before the actual invasion, Nat Howell, the U.S. ambassador to Kuwait, asked the Kuwaitis whether they wanted us to do anything, and was told no…. Furthermore, Kuwait’s relations with Saudi Arabia, as I indicated, were not good, nor were they good really with other members of the Gulf.
The U.S. had no defense commitment to Kuwait implicitly, and certainly not explicitly. So I think the initial reaction was to treat this as a classic case of a quarrel in which the United States was not directly involved, where perhaps Iraq was intending to, as I said earlier, in effect, conduct a bank robbery, or at least a hostage-taking, and then bargain with Kuwait for financial advantage.
When, however, the Iraqi forces began visibly to prepare for further advance into Saudi Arabia, I think people remembered that the United Arab Emirates had been as much a target of Iraqi ire as Kuwait had been. And there began to be real alarm about the implications either of an Iraqi advance into Saudi Arabia or of an Iraqi position on the Saudi border, which would put it in a position to intimidate Saudi Arabia and perhaps dictate some measure of policy to Saudi Arabia….
Q: Before we get to that meeting. You were on this plane, flying out with Norman Schwarzkopf and Dick Cheney. What were you all talking about as you went? What was the mission to do, as they saw it, as you flew?
FREEMAN: The mission was essentially to describe the threat to King Fahd and to ascertain whether he wished assistance or not. To offer assistance, but not to cajole him into it.
I believe that in fact there was a great deal of effort made by Prince Bandar, who occupied a pivotal position…
Q: Whose position was what?
FREEMAN: He was ambassador to the United States. Almost a foster son, in many respects, of King Fahd, very close to the king. A man of great ability and energy, with unparalleled access in both capitals. Bandar had, himself, flown back, just ahead of Cheney, to Riyadh, to prepare the king for whoever it was that turned up, and clearly anticipated and wished to see a decisive American intervention.
But no one knew whether that would happen. So a great deal of the discussion was: “What will the king decide?” and “How should we present the intelligence material to him?”
Accompanying the group was a CIA briefer, with a great package of what is called PHOTINT, meaning overhead satellite photography, of Iraqi dispositions in southern Kuwait and along the Saudi border.
Q: It’s ideal country to find out who is getting ready for what, isn’t it?
FREEMAN: Exactly. It’s open, with clear skies at that season of the year. We asked this briefer to run through his briefing, and it was a very good briefing, but it was very much in the peculiar style of such briefings in Washington, with: “On the one hand…” “On the other hand…” “We don’t know.” “Probably.” “Probability of seventy percent this,” and blah bitty blah. It was my judgment, and I expressed it, that if King Fahd were given this sort of briefing, not being familiar with that particular style, it would simply confuse him. And I suggested that the briefer come to the meeting, but that, in effect, General Schwarzkopf provide his military judgments, rather than a normal intelligence briefing. And that is what happened.
The king really, as it turned out, had only two questions.
One was, “Is the threat to Saudi Arabia as grave as I believe it to be?” When the king, with General Schwarzkopf on bended knee in front of him, and the crown prince looking over the king’s shoulder, and the foreign minister looking on, with the deputy defense minister, Prince Abd al-Rahman, and the chief of staff, General Hamad, saw these photographs, particularly those which showed Iraqi patrols inside Saudi territory, he saw his judgment confirmed. So that answered his first question, is there a serious threat.
The second question, which he put rather bluntly to us, was, “What are you prepared to do about it?” And he said, “Frankly, if your reaction is the sort of thing I had from Jimmy Carter when I was threatened by Iran…” (in which the United States persuaded Saudi Arabia to accept the deployment of a squadron of F-15s, and then, when they were in the air en route to Saudi Arabia, announced that they were unarmed). The king said that if this was the sort of thing we had in mind, we needn’t have any further discussion.
Norm Schwarzkopf then briefed the king on the plan that became known later as Desert Shield. At that point, it had no name. And when the king saw that the American response involved the deployment of 220,000 people in our armed forces to Saudi Arabia, he said, “That is a serious response, and I accept.”…
So it is often made out that the United States went there determined to persuade the king to accept forces. That is not correct. The king did not require persuasion, and proved to be exceptionally decisive. He later said to me that this was in fact the only time in his many decades of public life that he had ever made a decision on his own, without waiting for consensus. And he said he felt qualified, by experience and by his understanding of the circumstances.
Secretary Cheney asked the king whether he could communicate to the president that there was a request. When he did so, the president ordered the 82nd Airborne to deploy to Saudi Arabia, as well as Air Force units and the like. And the first phase of what became known as Desert Shield was set in motion.
That, however, I must say, left many, many questions to be resolved. For one thing, as the 82nd Airborne rightly put it, they were, in effect, speed bumps, not an obstacle to Saddam’s further advance. The 82nd Airborne is a very competent, light-infantry paratrooper unit, and it would not have been able to stop the heavy Iraqi forces had they chosen to advance. They were essentially joined initially only by the Saudi Arabian National Guard, another light, very mobile force. And it took quite a while for the Saudi Arabian land forces to deploy. We had very little air power beyond that provided by the Royal Saudi Air Force. So for the first four or five weeks, perhaps, into September, we lived in a situation in which it was clear that if Iraq wished to prosecute its attack, we could not stop it. It was not until the middle of September that the military began to feel confident that they could hold Iraq some hundreds of kilometers inside Saudi territory, and in time press a counterattack. And it was not until early October, when the deployment was complete, that they were confident they could hold Iraq near the border.
The purpose of the deployment was wholly defensive. The mandate that we had from the United Nations, to which the U.S. government promptly applied for approval of this action, was to defend Saudi Arabia and to mount pressure on Iraq with regard to withdrawing from Kuwait. That involved an enormous deployment of naval forces, which began to board ships and divert them if they were carrying cargo destined for Iraq. This, in turn, led to endless complaints, primarily from Jordan, which was a primary transshipment point, through Aqaba, for Iraq.
I discovered only later that there was still an Iraqi detachment of about 1,200 men sitting up in the northern part of the Red Sea, near the Gulf of Aqaba, which had been managing Saudi-financed military supplies to Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War. They were interned and returned by the Saudis to the Iraqis….
I should go back and say that the decision to make a huge deployment of U.S. forces to Saudi Arabia (220,000 men and women, initially) was obviously problematic on many scores.
Advising General Schwarzkopf on U.S. Troops in Saudi Arabia
Before Norm Schwarzkopf left for MacDill Air Force Base, leaving Lieutenant General Chuck Horner, the commander of the Central Air Forces, behind as his forward command element in Riyadh, Norm and I had a long chat in which I basically made two points to him.
First was that my own readings of military history suggested that, unlike the British, who had become accustomed to operating with and among foreign forces of very different mentality, the U.S. had not really developed in the armed forces what I would call an adequate military-political function. And that liaison with Saudi forces and with local Saudi emirs, meaning governors and potentates, would be a major task. That this was an opportunity for Norm to develop a system that would be a model for future operations.
Second was that, given the nature of Saudi society, we could anticipate a huge amount of friction between American forces and Saudi forces unless certain things were made clear. Specifically, that there could be no use of alcohol. There could be no USO shows involving scantily clad women. And there would have to be some program of orientation and indoctrination for U.S. forces, so that they understood the nature of the society they had been thrust into.
All of this discussion, which Norm, having grown up partly in Iran, understood very well, I think paralleled his own thinking, and resulted in General Order #1, which was a godsend, because it banned liquor, it required all forces to have a one-week indoctrination in Islam and Saudi society, and it recognized the need for extreme discretion in the practice of religions other than Islam in Saudi Arabia. This, together with the exceptional discipline and remarkably high quality of the U.S. armed forces as they then existed, kept frictions to a minimum.
But, in parallel with this, the embassy and the consulates, most particularly Ken Stammerman, the consul general in Dhahran, established an extremely effective liaison process with the U.S. military and the local Saudi authorities, such that when incidents began to occur, they were either nipped in the bud or resolved, or if not resolved at least kept out of the newspapers, and therefore didn’t have a snowballing effect. As time went on the civil-affairs people in the military got awfully good at working with American consular officers on this. And the American consular officers got awfully good at working with local Saudi authorities. I think probably this element of the Gulf War experience, the fact that the relationship between the embassy and the consulates and the military was so close and cooperative, and that the two were able so effectively to manage the frictions between the Saudis and the U.S. military, is one of the great achievements.
It parallels one other, of which I’m personally very proud. Norm Schwarzkopf and I are the only war-fighting commander in chief and ambassador who have ever been co-located forward in a war zone. Historically, ambassadors and CINCs [commanders in chief] have had a very rocky relationship. Norm and I had an exceedingly cooperative relationship, with a great deal of mutual assistance provided. He kept me adequately informed of military plans; I kept him adequately informed of what was going on, on the political side. I supported him, and he supported me. I think it would be worth going on at some length, when time permits, about that relationship and how it was managed and why it worked, because both of us have strong personalities. Norm, in particular, unlike me, has a notorious temper and a leadership style that was very dictatorial, peremptory, and demanding. While he kept most of his subordinates in a state of fear and trepidation, the relationship that he enjoyed with me was cordial and cooperative.
These two things, that is the good connection between the ambassador and the CINC and the excellent connections between people on the ground managing the day-to-day frictions from this large U.S. presence, played a vital role in enabling us to build up in Saudi Arabia and ultimately to liberate Kuwait….