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The Florida Keys War


Part 8


by Chris Oatley



Adapted from material originally posted at


Summary: In the previous seven installments of this series, we examined the situation which led to the Florida Keys War and the course of the war itself; how Cuba and the world as a whole were transformed in the war’s aftermath; and how the war’s political fallout hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union. In this latest chapter we’ll explore how the war’s lessons influenced the Bush Administration’s foreign policy in the early ‘90s.


Black Hawk Up: 1991-1993


General Norman Schwarzkopf, overall commander-in-chief for the UN expeditionary force in the Persian Gulf, felt a distinct sense of déjà vu as he authorized his ground and air units to begin Operation Desert Storm on January 13th, 1991. The strategy he was using to eject the Iraqis from Kuwait was similar to the one that  had been employed by General Harkins against Castro nearly thirty years earlier-- hit the enemy with maximum force right at the start of hostilities, then keep turning up the pressure on him until he finally cracked.

Accordingly, coalition warplanes carried out saturation raids against nearly every major military target in Iraq and Kuwait; command/control facilities were heavily bombed too, with special attention being lavished on the dozens of presidential palaces Saddam Hussein had erected for himself around Baghdad. Offshore, American and British naval task forces laid down a barrage of cruise missiles to suppress the Iraqi air force. 

For Cuba, Desert Storm marked its first large-scale military operation since the fall of the Castro regime; it also marked Havana’s coming of age as a major player on the world stage in the post-Cold War era. Since Brezhnev’s death, most of the Cuban government’s attention had been focused inward as it wrestled with economic recession and a resurgence of the type of organized crime activity which had once been a fundamental part of Cuba’s social landscape back in the Batista era. With the exception of providing the United States logistical aid when American forces crushed a Marxist coup attempt on the island of Grenada in 1983, the Cuban military had been conspicuously quiet for most of the past ten years as far as international events were concerned. 

Now, however, the Cuban armed forces were reasserting their capabilities with a vengeance. Having rebuilt their military arsenal with US and NATO help over a span of two-odd decades, they leaped into the fray in the Persian Gulf with a strength belying the island’s relatively small size....




Cuban-Kuwaiti ties dated back to the mid-1960s, when the Cuban government had hired engineers from Kuwait to help jump-start the country’s modest petroleum industry. Oil drilling had been going on in Cuba since the 1940s and many Western petroleum firms had operated refineries there prior to the Castro takeover, but it was during Reynaldo Ochoa’s second term as president that the Cuban government truly began investing in crude oil production as a means of boosting the country’s economy and decreasing its reliance on foreign aid. Co-operation between Havana and Kuwait City on the oil front led in turn to a series of cultural and trade pacts during the 1970s; by 1983 Cuba had established full diplomatic relations with Kuwait.

For Cubans old enough to have taken part in the anti-Castro insurgency, the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait brought back some uncomfortable memories. In their view, Saddam Hussein was trying to impose a foreign ideology-- Baathism --on the Kuwaitis just as Khrushchev had once sought to foist Communism on Cuba. Thus it was inevitable that Havana would support the US-sponsored global campaign to push Iraqi forces out of Kuwait.

Within 24 hours after the first bombs fell on Iraqi targets, advance units from Cuba, the United States, Britain and twelve other nations entered Kuwait. Not surprisingly, regular Iraqi army detachments broke and ran in the face of this irresistible show of force; Republican Guard1 squads, by contrast, fought like enraged demons wherever coalition forces encountered them. Cuba’s largest independent television broadcast service, in its nightly news reports about the fighting in the Persian Gulf, coined the nickname ‘los dementes’(‘the demented ones’) to described their frenzied behavior on the battlefield. 

Saudi Arabia, the chief Arab member of the anti-Saddam coalition, wanted to end the war as soon as the goal of pushing the Iraqis out of Kuwait had been achieved. However much the House of Saud despised the Baathist dictator, to them he was less troublesome than the chaos they were convinced would ensue if the coalition invaded Iraq and toppled his regime. 

The Cuban ambassador in Riyadh, Joaquin Reyes, sharply disagreed with this attitude. He argued that for the sake of a more secure future for all Middle Eastern countries, Iraq included, Saddam needed to be overthrown-- the sooner the better. If the Baathists were allowed to stay in power after the Gulf War was over, they would fester like a boil on the body politic in the Persian Gulf until another and more destructive war erupted; there was even, he suggested, the risk that Baghdad might finally succeed in developing its own nuclear bomb. Many of his fellow coalition diplomats agreed with his assessments; even Iran, hardly a friend of Cuba or Saudi Arabia, supported Reyes in his call for a push into Iraq.

In any case, real world events were overtaking the original battle plan for Operation Desert Storm; momentum had carried coalition ground forces so far so fast that by January 17th, just four days after the Gulf War began, at least one US Marines advance unit had crossed the Kuwaiti frontier near the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr. On January 19th, the Saudi embassy in Washington sent a letter to President Bush indicating that Riyadh was engaged in what the letter’s author described as "an intensive reassessment" of its stance on the feasibility of a large-scale offensive into Iraq.




"Intensive reassessment" was an understatement-- in point of fact a serious political split had opened up among King Fahd’s senior diplomatic and military advisors as to whether or not they should support an effort to topple the Saddam government. The majority of them still believed it was best to be content with driving the Iraqis out of Kuwait, but a vocal and steadily growing faction of dissenters was taking Ambassador Reyes’ part and advocating that Saudi Arabia assume the lead in the effort to end Baathist rule in Iraq.

The tone of the debate abruptly shifted on January 22nd, when an Iraqi Scud missile hit dead center on the Saudi royal palace in Riyadh. Two members of the royal family were killed in the Scud strike, plunging the desert realm into grief and sparking massive rallies calling for immediate retaliation against Iraq. Now the question was no longer if Saddam should be toppled, but when and by what means should it be done. Should the coalition act directly to overthrow the Baathists or bring about regime change through third parties within the Iraqi dissident movement? 

On January 27th, two weeks after Operation Desert Storm began, King Fahd’s cabinet finally reached a consensus on the question of overthrowing Saddam. In a dramatic and world-shaking turnabout from their previous stance, they now agreed that invading Iraq was the best if not only recourse for preventing another more costly war with Baghdad in the future. The die was now cast, and over the next seven days the world waited anxiously to see what would happen next...




The answer came just before dawn on February 5th as coalition air and ground forces began Operation Desert Fox, the invasion of Iraq. As had previously been the case in Kuwait, Iraqi regular forces for the most part capitulated quickly while Republican Guard squads bitterly resisted the coalition advance; what was left of the Iraqi air force rose to challenge coalition fighter squadrons in savage but ultimately fruitless air battles. 

Basra was the first major Iraqi city to be taken by coalition ground troops, surrendering to a combined British-Saudi infantry force on February 10th; 48 hours later, American units smashed  the Iraqi regular army’s top armored division at Nasiriyah in a slaughter that one newspaper account dubbed "a high-tech Kursk"2. In a televised address from one of his multiple presidential palaces near Baghdad, Saddam Hussein threatened to inflict "God’s unstoppable wrath" on the coalition-- a threat which sounded increasingly hollow given the punishment Iraq’s armed forces had already suffered since the war began and would keep sustaining as the war neared its end. 

At the same time that the United States and its coalition allies were penetrating enemy defenses in southern Iraq, a rebellion was breaking out in the north as the country’s long-oppressed Kurdish minority sought to make their dream of an independent Kurd state reality. Though as not as well-armed as the coalition armies or the Iraqi troops who tried to suppress their revolt, the Kurdish insurgents brought a fierce determination and a sharp knowledge of their homeland’s terrain to the fight, making an already grave situation for the Baathists that much worse. 

Desperate to keep Baghdad from becoming a battleground, dissident Iraqi generals now decided to mount their own insurrection in the hope that a new government could negotiate a cease-fire with the UN coalition. On February 22nd, 1991, during a late-night meeting of the Revolutionary Command Council3, Saddam was arrested and removed from his office as president of Iraq; a new provisional administration was then formed by the coup leaders and supportive civilian officials and instructed all Iraqi military personnel to suspend combat operations for the next 72 hours pending further orders. General Schwarzkopf, waiting to see what the new regime would do next, issued a cease-fire directive to his own forces the next morning; the Kurdish guerrilla bands retired to their mountain strongholds to rest and regroup. 

Then, on February 25th, the Iraqi ambassador to the UN contacted the US State Department with word that the provisional government in Baghdad wanted to discuss peace terms with the United States and its coalition allies. Two days later, an allied diplomatic party headed by Joaquin Reyes and US Secretary of State George P. Shultz arrived in Geneva to begin talks with Iraqi diplomats on a permanent peace accord.

On March 7th, 1991 the Persian Gulf War finally came to an end with the signing of a peace accord in Zurich. Under its terms coalition troops in southern Iraq would halt their advance at the town of Ar Ramadi; the Kurds would be granted a regional autonomy that, while falling short of the independence which the Kurdish rebels had sought, was a vast improvement on their lot under the Baathists; and Saddam Hussein and his most senior advisors would be placed on trial for crimes against humanity. 

American combat casualties in the Gulf War had been surprisingly light-- just 622 killed and 2,341 wounded. While those losses were sizable, they were a far cry from the 5,000-10,000 casualty figures critics of the decision to go to war had been grimly predicting. As a safeguard against civil unrest, the UN approved the deployment of peacekeepers to Iraq to assist the provisional government in maintaining law and order until the country’s new civil police force could assume responsibility for patrolling its cities and towns.




Desert Storm wasn’t just a military triumph for President Bush; it also represented a major political success for him as well. At the end of the war his approval rating had ballooned to 91%, and it remained in the high 80s thanks to his successful negotiation of a trade pact between the United States and Cuba in the summer of 1991. That pact gave the American economy a major boost at just the right time and defused one of the weapons the Democrats had been hoping to use to unseat the incumbent president— namely, concerns about a recession hitting the country during the final months of Bush’s first term.

Nonetheless, would-be successors to the commander-in-chief gamely soldiered on, hoping to find another way to weaken the Republican grip on the White House. Two of the most prominent challengers to Bush’s re-election bid were Texas millionaire Ross Perot, who was preparing to campaign for the Oval Office as an independent, and Arkansas governor Bill Clinton, who since 1984 had been touted as a strong contending for the Democratic presidential nomination. 

Fate would soon remove one of these men from the race. On January 21st, 1992, Steve Kroft of the CBS news magazine show 60 Minutes flew to Perot’s mansion to interview him about his planned run as an independent; Kroft had originally hoped for a sit-down with Governor Clinton and Clinton’s wife Hillary, but rival network NBC had unexpectedly scooped CBS on that front and was airing the Clinton interview as part of a special edition of Dateline. For Perot, who as a third-party candidate was having trouble getting the mainstream media to take his presidential bid seriously, the 60 Minutes spot looked like a golden opportunity to change that. 

Instead it turned out to be the end of the road for Perot’s 1992 campaign. Fifteen minutes into the taping, a mini-spotlight set up by one of the camera crew broke off its stand and knocked him onto the floor, leaving him in a coma that would last until late September. With Perot hospitalized, Bill Clinton became the sole remaining obstacle to a second Bush term-- and one the GOP proved fully capable of overcoming. 

Hammering relentlessly on issues surrounding the Democratic candidate’s character, the Bush campaign team widened their man’s already gargantuan lead in the pre-election polls. Gennifer Flowers, the cabaret singer whose audiotaped conversations with Clinton had launched a scandal in the press, figured prominently in a series of anti-Clinton TV ads, as did anonymous statements by two Arkansas state troopers said to have been assigned the job of helping Clinton conceal his affair with Flowers(and scores of other women) from his wife and the public. Hillary Clinton was quick to dismiss these ads as the work of what she dubbed "a vast deranged right-wing conspiracy", but millions of voters figured that where there was smoke there had to be, if not fire, at least a few glowing embers.

Bush won re-election by a comfortable margin, though not quite the landslide originally expected; he beat Clinton with 71% of the popular vote. When he was sworn in for his second term in January of 1993, the commander-in-chief’s first official act was to call a special meeting of the National Security Council to assess the top threats to US national security in the post-Gulf War era.

There was some disagreement about specifics in this area, but in general the NSC was unanimous on two critical points: (1) that terrorism would be the chief threat to US national security over the next 10-15 years; and (2)that nuclear weapons proliferation was still a major problem despite the breakup of the USSR. North Korea qualified in both categories: not only had its intelligence services perpetrated acts of murder, sabotage, and kidnapping against its neighbors in South Korea and Japan, but Kim Jong Il, the de facto North Korean head of state since Kim Il Sung’s death in a helicopter crash the week before Bush’s second inauguration, sought to make his homeland the world’s next major nuclear power. 

In February of 1993, as most of the country’s attention was split between the bombing of the World Trade Center and the arrest and trial of Branch Davidians cult leader David Koresh, CIA personnel in Asia began gathering evidence of North Korea’s intention to manufacture its own nuclear weapons. One month later, Bush’s UN ambassador, Edward J. Perkins, met with his Japanese and South Korean counterparts to outline a common agenda for finding ways to apply diplomatic pressure on Pyongyang to scrap its nuclear ambitions. By late June of 1993, Washington had enough proof on hand to go before the UN General Assembly and call for sanctions to be imposed against North Korea.

At the same time, Bush kept the military option open as well; a carrier battle group maintained a presence in the Sea of Japan during the entire first year of Bush’s second term as president, and plans to reduce US troop levels in South Korea were put on hold as Washington and Seoul braced themselves for a possible war with North Korea should Pyongyang continue to pursue a nuclear weapons capability in defiance of international law.




If Kim Jong Il needed further proof that the Bush Administration was serious about putting an end to North Korea’s nuclear weapons development, he got it in early September of 1993 when US Navy submarines armed with cruise missiles began patrolling the waters off the North Korean coastline within firing range of Pyongyang and the Yongbyon nuclear research complex. Air Force squadrons in Japan and South Korea held bombing drills as practice for an air strike should President Bush order one. Last but not least, US ground personnel had been placed on Defcon 3 and authorized to cross the DMZ into North Korean territory at the slightest hint that Pyongyang was about to test a nuclear device. 

These developments gave Kim pause to rethink his posture towards the United States. His generals had debriefed him on US strategy and tactics in the Gulf War, and they had made it clear that Bush would not shrink from a military confrontation no matter what the consequences of it might be.

On September 20th, the North Korean ambassador to the UN sent a letter to the White House stating that Pyongyang was willing to scrap its nuclear weapons research in return for economic and food aid from the United States and its allies in the Far East. Three days later, US and North Korean representatives met with  diplomats from Japan, South Korea, China, and Russia to begin six-party negotiations on a timetable for the dismantling of Pyongyang’s atomic bomb project.

Halfway around the world, meanwhile, US troops were engaged in anti-terrorism operations against Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid, whose private army was interfering with UN famine relief efforts in Somalia. On October 3rd, 1993, in the Somali capital of Mogadishu, these troops would take part in the most significant major US combat operation since the end of the Gulf War....


To Be Continued




1 Saddam Hussein’s personal security police.

2 Quoted from the February 11th, 1991 edition of the London Times.

3 The formal name for the defunct Baathist regime’s cabinet.


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