On Jan. 17, 1991, a broad
based coalition, led by the United States, launched Operation DESERT STORM to
liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. We know much more of the story now, twenty years later, than
we did then, even if we do not yet know how it will turn out. In particular, we
know much more about the Iraqi side of the conflict, thanks to the millions of
pages of Iraqi
government documents captured during the 2003 Iraq war. We also have twenty
years of subsequent experience to influence our judgment.
In retrospect, the U.S. conduct of
the 1991 Gulf War was a success, though one marred by a fundamental failure to
compel our adversary -- the most basic object of strategy.
On the positive
side, the war was a clear demonstration of the battlefield prowess of the U.S.
armed forces. It is hard for many today to remember, but the run-up to the Gulf
War saw many predictions that Iraq would inflict massive casualties on the
United States, and even that Iraq would defeat the U.S. military. Many analysts
predicted that a war would be protracted and costly to the United States.
Former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski forecast 20,000
casualties, while Patrick Buchanan predicted 30,000. Senator Ted Kennedy
estimated that there would be some 3,000 U.S. casualties per week, while
former Secretary of the Navy (and current Senator) James Webb warned that the
U.S. Army would be "bled dry" in three weeks. On the eve of the Gulf War, a
group of analysts operating under the auspices of the U.S. Army War College
wrote "We should ask ourselves whether we are prepared for [war with Iraq] -- in
our view we are not."
lopsided battles in the deserts of Kuwait and southern Iraq and the seemingly
effortless domination of the Iraqi air force indicated to many that warfare had
indeed changed. The contrast between prewar expectations of a bloody fight and
the wartime reality of Iraqi collapse struck many observers as an indicator of
fundamental change. In particular, the war witnessed the emergence of stealth
and precision-guided munitions (PGMs) as important instruments of war, even
though the more than 17,000 PGMs expended during the war comprised only eight
percent of the bombs dropped. What was novel was the intensity of the campaign: In six weeks, the coalition dropped more than double the number of laser-guided
bombs released over North Vietnam in nine months.
The Gulf War also
marked the high-water mark of post-Cold War cooperation. Skilled diplomacy
backed by a series of United Nations resolutions, allowed the Bush
administration to build a broad-based coalition to oppose Iraq. While it was diverse,
each of its members could agree upon the objective of ejecting Iraq from
Kuwait. The coalition encompassed 39 countries that spanned every continent. It
included not only the United States, leading regional powers, and our major
allies, but also former members of the Warsaw Pact, such as Czechoslovakia,
Hungary and Poland, as well as traditionally neutral states, such as Sweden. The
Soviet Union and China played an important role by not blocking action against
Iraq in the United Nations. Israel similarly aided the coalition by showing
forbearance in the face of Iraqi missile attacks.
Despite these impressive
accomplishments, the Gulf War was not the strategic masterpiece that many at
the time heralded. Indeed, the outcome of the war offers a vivid example of the
deep chasm that separates battlefield success from victory. The coalition was
highly successful at forcing Iraq out of Kuwait. However, the end of the war
saw Saddam still alive, in power, and -- most importantly -- unrepentant. President
Bush's diaries make it clear that he hoped that Saddam Hussein would be
overthrown in the wake of his army's defeat. But hope, as they say, is not a
strategy. Thanks to careful scholarship in the newly available Iraqi archives
by scholars such as Kevin
Woods and Mark Stout, we now know that Saddam Hussein actually viewed the
Gulf War as a victory for Iraq, because U.S. forces had stopped short of
entering Iraq and threatening his regime. Indeed, he saw the uprisings that
consumed Iraq in the aftermath of the war (uprisings that were more severe and
widespread than U.S. analysts appreciated at the time) as a greater threat than
the U.S.-led coalition.
Carl von Clausewitz famously
defined war as "an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will." Saddam's
subsequent behavior- - his defiance of the United Nations, 1993 attempt to
assassinate former President Bush, and his 1994 plan to re-invade Kuwait --
makes it clear that the Bush administration failed in this most basic of
strategic tasks. In ending the war unilaterally before Saddam had been
chastened, the Bush administration condemned the United States to a long-term
presence in the Gulf in an effort to contain Iraq. This presence, and the
sanctions imposed on Iraq due to Saddam's recalcitrance, in the end served as a
rallying cry for jihadists such as Osama Bin Laden against the United States and its
friends in the region.
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