The onset of the 1990s was a time of great relief for the United States, the victor of the Cold War, but also of immense uncertainty with regard to the future course of United States foreign policy, especially concerning the volatile but economically critical Middle East region.
The U.S. faced its first major test of the decade in August, 1990, when the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein occupied and proclaimed the annexation of Kuwait. The result was the First Persian Gulf War, waged from January 16 to February 27, 1991, in which the United States demonstrated a substantial shift in its Middle Eastern foreign policy, including a renewed military efficiency, increased political influence, and the willingness to firmly defend its strategic interests in the Middle East.
United States foreign policy in the Middle East prior to 1990 showed a surprisingly supportive attitude toward a dictatorship in Iraq that the U.S. would later confront. From 1980 to 1988, the Hussein regime was engaged in a bloody stalemated war against the militant theocracy of Iran. To contain Iran’s sphere of influence in the Middle East, the United States sent foreign aid and high-tech equipment to Hussein’s government (Norton 1069).
In the meantime, the United States government seemed oblivious to massive human rights violations within Iraq’s territory, as, in 1988, Saddam Hussein employed toxic nerve gas in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against thousands of Kurdish civilians in the north of Iraq.
The Soviet Union, meanwhile, reinforced Iraq’s arsenal with shipments of efficient T-72 tanks, while Hussein began to embark on a project for the research and development of nuclear weapons. Despite this dangerous buildup, many U.S. politicians feared to disrupt the flow of oil from the Middle East by intervening, as Iraq was a prominent member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.
Nevertheless, the threat to the economic status quo would come as a result of American passivity, when Saddam Hussein decided to annex Kuwait in order to cancel his own $14 billion debt to that country and seize its substantial oil industry (Norton 1067). Saddam Hussein intended to artificially boost OPEC’s profits by curtailing Kuwait’s dynamic oil production and thus spiking up the price of oil for the American consumer. The United Nations responded with an imposition of sanctions on the Hussein regime, while, for the next five months, containment and diplomacy were wielded in an unsuccessful attempt to resolve the situation.
Norton, Katzman, et. al. A People and a Nation. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994.
Wikipedia. Gulf War. 16 Apr 2004. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gulf_War.