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On This Date: Bush & Congress Authorized the Use of Force in the Persian Gulf War

What do you think of the Gulf War resolution on its anniversary?

by Countable | 12.4.18

On January 14, 1991 ― one day before the UN deadline for Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to end his military occupation of Kuwait ― President George H.W. Bush signed the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution into law, thereby permitting U.S. intervention in what became known as the Persian Gulf War.

Why did it come up?

On August 2, 1990, the small, oil-rich nation of Kuwait was invaded and easily overpowered in a matter of days by the Iraqi military, which was the fourth largest in the world at the time, supplied by the Soviet Union, and battle-hardened from a nearly eight-year war against Iran.

Saddam Hussein then announced the annexation of Kuwait, giving him control of roughly 20% of the world’s proven oil reserves at the time, and began verbally attacking neighboring Saudi Arabia (which itself had 26% of the world’s oil reserves).

To deter further aggression by Saddam’s regime, the U.S. launched Operation Desert Shield on August 7th at the request of Saudi King Fahd and deployed military assets to the region, and ultimately the military buildup exceeded more than half a million U.S. troops. During the buildup, the Bush administration formed a coalition of 34 nations, 28 of which contributed troops and equipment to the effort (and others chipped in financially, as Japan and Germany contributed $10 billion and $6.6 billion, respectively).

The UN Security Council passed Resolution 678 on November 29, 1990, which gave Iraq until January 15, 1991, to withdraw from Kuwait and authorized “all necessary means” including military force to implement it. A week before the deadline, President Bush asked Congress to approve an authorization for the use of military force:

“The current situation in the Persian Gulf, brought about by Iraq's unprovoked invasion and subsequent brutal occupation of Kuwait, threatens vital U.S. interests. The situation also threatens the peace. It would, however, greatly enhance the chances for peace if Congress were now to go on record supporting the position adopted by the UN Security Council on twelve separate occasions. Such an action would underline that the United States stands with the international community and on the side of law and decency; it also would help dispel any belief that may exist in the minds of Iraq's leaders that the United States lacks the necessary unity to act decisively in response to Iraq's continued aggression against Kuwait.”

What did it do?

The Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution allowed the U.S. military to enforce the will of the UN Security Council as expressed through the 12 resolutions it had passed and remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

Congress took up the resolution on Saturday, January 12, 1991, with the Senate passing its version of the bill sponsored by Sen. John Warner (R-VA) on a 52-47 vote along mostly party-lines. Only 10 of the upper chamber’s 55 Democratic senators voted in favor, including then-Sens. Al Gore (TN), Joe Lieberman (CT), and Harry Reid (NV) ― while only two Republicans dissented: Sen. Chuck Grassley (IA) and former Sen. Mark Hatfield (OR).

An identical House resolution sponsored by then-House Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-IL) was also passed along mostly party lines, with Republicans supportive by a margin of 164-3, while only 86 of the chamber’s 267 Democrats voted in favor. The Senate then approved the House-passed bill by unanimous consent, before it was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on January 14, 1991 ― the day before the UN-mandated deadline ― who remarked:

“The debate on H.J. Res. 77 reflects the profound strength of our constitutional democracy. In coming to grips with the issues at stake in the Gulf, both Houses of Congress acted in the finest traditions of our country. This resolution provides unmistakable support for the international community's determination that Iraq's ongoing aggression against, and occupation of, Kuwait shall not stand.”

What has its impact been?

Operation Desert Storm kicked off on January 17, 1991, as the coalition, commanded by U.S. General Norman Schwarzkopf, began an intense aerial bombardment of the Iraqi military which lasted for 42 days. Once air superiority was established, the liberation of Kuwait began on February 24 and was completed three days later with the expulsion of the Iraqi military, who set fire to nearly 700 oil wells during their retreat (which weren’t fully extinguished until November).

The same day the ground campaign began in Kuwait, coalition forces invaded Iraq from positions in the Saudi desert, a “left hook” that caught Saddam’s military off-guard and out-flanked as they’d anticipated an amphibious invasion from the Persian Gulf. American, British, and French forces overwhelmed the Iraqis and pushed to within 150 miles of Baghdad before a ceasefire was declared on February 28, and the coalition withdrew back into Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

During the war, the coalition suffered 292 killed (147 from hostile action) and nearly 800 wounded (500 in combat) while Iraqi casualties were estimated at between 25,000 and 50,000 killed, and more than 150,000 wounded or captured.

The roughly 540,000 American troops in the Persian Gulf began their drawdown and withdrawal on March 10, 1991. Their presence in the Middle East would later be used by Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda as justification for their jihad against America and the West, including the September 11th terror attacks that killed nearly 3,000 Americans, leading to the Global War on Terror.

After the Gulf War ended, Saddam maintained his grip on power by quashing an uprising in 1991 by Kurdish and Shiite forces in northern and southern Iraq. In the years that followed, his regime attempted to hide its biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons programs from UN inspectors. (Iraq had used chemical weapons on numerous occasions against Iranian troops during the Iran-Iraq war and against Kurdish rebels and had pursued nuclear ambitions for decades.)

Those refusals prompted Bush to launch a missile strike on a nuclear complex on his final day in office in 1993. Strikes were also carried by President Bill Clinton in 1998 (who signed into law a bill making Saddam’s removal U.S. policy), and President George W. Bush in 2001 in response to subsequent refusals to allow inspections.

That eventually led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which removed Saddam from power but didn't uncover the active weapons of mass destruction programs feared by the coalition. Over the course of the campaign and the more than eight year occupation and insurgency that followed, nearly 4,500 American servicemembers were killed in action.


— Eric Revell

(Photo Credit: US Air Force / Public Domain)

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