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Discussing Operation Desert Storm


We've been covering the life and legacy of President George H.W. Bush today. A look now at his foreign policy; the first major foreign crisis for the U.S. after the end of the Cold War occurred during his presidency. In August of 1990, Saddam Hussein, the leader of Iraq, ordered his army to invade Kuwait. The small gulf country was a major supplier of oil to the U.S. Saudi Arabia was also worried. So in December, the United States launched Operation Desert Shield. We're going to turn now to a well-traveled war correspondent, our colleague, NPR's Deborah Amos. She arrived in Saudi Arabia two days after the invasion of Kuwait and was there for the duration. Deb, thanks so much for being with us.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.


SIMON: Tell us about Gulf War I. It was preceded by a lot of diplomacy, wasn't it?

AMOS: Well, he - President Bush is remembered for this phrase - this will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait will not stand. Here was a leader who - he was the last president who served in World War II. He was a diplomat. But what was important about the way he embraced this war, he was proud of being prudent. You know, it's said that...

SIMON: That was the word he used all the time.

AMOS: Yeah, he did. I just want to be prudent.

SIMON: Yeah.


AMOS: So, you know, it's said that Margaret Thatcher was the one who urged him into this war, but what's striking about what he did - he assembled more than 30 nations. Remember; they were called the coalition of the willing. I mean, you and I were both there in that war. It was striking to see Syria as part of that coalition, fighting on the side of the Americans. You know, we all waited in the desert. It took months to put that coalition together. The battle itself was a hundred hours. So the run-up was longer than the actual war.

SIMON: And as you note, the war itself was really just a few days. It came to an end with a sight that a lot of people will never forget.

AMOS: Oh, it was the Highway of Death, Scott. This was the road that went out of Kuwait City, the capital, back up to Iraq. And at, you know, the end of the war - and the war wasn't over at this point - there were Iraqi soldiers in tanks on that road. And the destruction was stunning. Now, what was interesting about this from the optics of a war is for the first time, reporters were getting to the scene. These were the most serious casualties anybody had seen in this hundred-hour war. And it is said that it was the Highway of Death that convinced President Bush to end the war, and he did a day after these pictures appeared on American and British television.

SIMON: Short of going to Baghdad, as some people were urging him, which brings up the question of how you assess President Bush's foreign policy legacy.

AMOS: Well, I think I'm best to talk about the Gulf War. He won that battle. But, you know, it can be argued that he lost the larger war. He didn't invade Iraq and finish off Saddam Hussein. He thought it was not prudent to do so. Others called him a wimp for that decision. You know, the war was the beginning of U.S. military bases in the Middle East. This was a major complaint of al-Qaida leader, Osama bin Laden. George W. Bush - President Bush urged the Shiite and Kurdish insurgents to rise up against Saddam. But in the end, he left them to face the wrath of that dictator alone. You know, he ended the war with this soaring popularity in the United States, but then he lost the election a year later. These were all the contradictions for this president.

SIMON: And we should note, because, of course, it has some effect today, a lot of Kurds felt very abandoned by the United States then, didn't they?

AMOS: Felt abandoned and in some ways protected because that decision in some ways led to that 10-year span that the Kurds had protected by the Americans. But there was a lingering resentment by both the Kurds and Iraqi Shia in the south. They got pummeled by Saddam, and there was a clear call for them to rise up. And they heard that call, and they did rise up, and they paid a terrible price for that.

SIMON: NPR's Deb Amos, thanks so much for being with us.

AMOS: Thanks, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.