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The Gulf War in retrospect

The Gulf War in retrospect

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."

Instead, the 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.