Desert Storm, the Last Classic War


Last Sunday marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the start of the Gulf War. Fought swiftly and successfully, today it looks like something of an anomaly, but its lessons remain valuable.

An Op-Ed by Richard Nathan Haass

Former Director of Policy Planning for the United States Department of State and advisor to Secretary of State Colin Powell

Richard Nathan Haass

Richard Nathan Haass

It was mid-July 1990, and for several days the U.S. intelligence community had been watching Saddam Hussein mass his forces along Iraq’s border with Kuwait. Most of us in the administration of President George H.W. Bush—I was then the top Middle East specialist on the National Security Council—believed that this was little more than a late-20th-century version of gunboat diplomacy. We figured that Saddam was bluffing to pressure his wealthy but weak neighbor to the south into reducing its oil output.

Iraq was desperate for higher oil prices, given the enormous cost of the just-concluded decadelong war with Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran and Saddam’s own ambitions for regional primacy. Saddam’s fellow Arab leaders, for their part, were advising the Bush administration to stay calm and let things play out to the peaceful outcome they expected. In late July, Saddam met for the first time with April Glaspie, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, and her cable back to Washington reinforced the view that this was all an elaborate bit of geopolitical theater.

But by Aug. 1—25 years ago this week—it had become apparent that Saddam was amassing far more military forces than he would need simply to intimidate Kuwait. The White House hastily assembled senior staff from the intelligence community and the Departments of State and Defense. After hours of inconclusive talk, we agreed that the best chance for avoiding some sort of Iraqi military action would be for President Bush to call Saddam. I was asked to pitch this idea to my boss, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, and the president.

I rushed over to Gen. Scowcroft’s small West Wing office and brought him up to speed on the deliberations. The two of us then walked over to the East Wing, the living quarters of the White House (as opposed to the working part). President Bush was in the sick bay, getting a sore shoulder tended to after hitting a bucket of golf balls. I briefed him on the latest intelligence and diplomacy, as well the recommendation that he reach out to Saddam.

We were all skeptical that it would work but figured that it couldn’t hurt to try. The conversation shifted to how best to reach the Iraqi leader—a more complicated task than one might think since it was 2 a.m. on Aug. 2 in Baghdad.

We were going through the options when the phone rang. It wasRobert Kimmitt, the acting secretary of state, saying that his department had just received word from the U.S. ambassador in Kuwait that an Iraqi invasion was under way. “So much for calling Saddam,” said the president grimly.

We didn’t know it at the time, but the first major crisis of the post-Cold War world had begun. Looking back on that conflict, which stretched out over the better part of the following year, it now has a classic feel to it—very much at odds with the decidedly nonclassic era unfolding in today’s Middle East. But the Gulf War is still worth remembering, not only because its outcome got the post-Cold War era off to a good start but also because it drove home a number of lessons that remain as relevant as ever.

Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait had taken us by surprise, and it took a few days for the administration to find its bearings. The first National Security Council meeting chaired by the president on Aug. 2—the day of the invasion—was disheartening since the cabinet-level officials couldn’t reach a consensus on what to do. To make matters worse, the president said publicly that military intervention wasn’t being considered. He meant it only in the most literal sense—i.e., that it was premature to start going down that path—but the press interpreted him to mean that he had taken a military response off the table. He hadn’t.

As the meeting ended, I went over to Gen. Scowcroft, who looked at least as worried and unhappy as I did. We quickly agreed that the meeting had been a debacle. He and the president were about to board Air Force One for Aspen, where the president was to give a long-scheduled speech on nuclear weapons and meet with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Gen. Scowcroft asked me to produce a memo for himself and the president outlining the stakes and the potential courses of action, including a U.S.-led military response. I returned to my office and typed away. “I am [as] aware as you are of just how costly and risky such a conflict would prove to be,” I wrote. “But so too would be accepting this new status quo. We would be setting a terrible precedent—one that would only accelerate violent centrifugal tendencies—in this emerging post-Cold War era.”

A second NSC meeting was held when the president returned the next day. It was as focused and good as the first one had been inchoate and bad. The president wanted to lead off the session to make clear that the U.S. response to this crisis would not be business as usual, but Gen. Scowcroft, Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger (filling in for James Baker, who happened to be in Siberia with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze) and Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney all argued that once the commander in chief spoke, it would be impossible to have an open and honest exchange.

The president reluctantly agreed to hold back. Instead, those three top advisers opened the meeting by making the strategic and economic case that Saddam couldn’t be allowed to get away with the conquest of Kuwait. Nobody dissented. A policy was coming into focus.

The next day (Saturday, Aug. 4), much the same group (now including Secretary Baker) met at Camp David for the first detailed discussion of military options. Gen. Colin Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, led off, after which Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf (who oversaw U.S. Central Command) gave a detailed assessment of Iraq’s military strengths and weaknesses, along with some initial thoughts about what the U.S. could do quickly. What emerged was a consensus around introducing U.S. forces into Saudi Arabia to prevent a bad situation from getting far worse—and to deter Saddam from attacking another oil-rich neighbor. A delegation headed by Mr. Cheney and Deputy National Security Adviser Robert Gates would go to Saudi Arabia to make the arrangements.

The U.S. had already put economic sanctions in place and frozen the assets of both Iraq and Kuwait (in the latter case, to ensure that they wouldn’t be looted). The U.N. Security Council—including China and the Soviet Union, with their vetoes—had called for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Iraqi forces from all of Kuwait.

After the meeting at Camp David, everyone but the president hustled back to Washington. He didn’t return until the next afternoon. Gen. Scowcroft called to tell me that he couldn’t be there when the president’s helicopter touched down and asked me to meet Marine One and let the president know what was going on. I hurriedly summarized the latest on a single page and borrowed a navy blazer, arriving on the South Lawn just moments before the president.

Once on the ground, President Bush motioned me over and read my update on the military and diplomatic state of play. He scowled as we huddled. Saddam was showing no signs of backing off, and the president had grown tired of assurances from Arab leaders that they could work things out diplomatically if just given the chance. The president was also frustrated with press criticism that the administration wasn’t doing enough. After our brief discussion, he stalked over to the eagerly waiting White House press corps and unloaded with one of the most memorable phrases of his presidency: “This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait.”

The stage was thus set for the next six months. Diplomacy and economic sanctions failed to dislodge Saddam. In mid-January, Operation Desert Shield—the deployment of some 500,000 U.S. troops, along with their equipment, to the region to protect Saudi Arabia and prepare to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait—gave way to Operation Desert Storm. The administration not only won U.N. assent for its bold course but also assembled a global coalition, stretching from Australia to Syria, for the military effort. In the end, it took six weeks of air power and four days of land war to free Kuwait and restore the status quo that had prevailed before Saddam’s invasion.

Those days seem distant from what we now face in the Middle East, with virtual anarchy in much of the region and jihadist extremists holding large stretches of territory. But the Gulf War is not just ancient history. Its main lessons are still well worth heeding.

Economic sanctions can only do so much. Even sweeping sanctions supported by much of the world couldn’t persuade Saddam to vacate Kuwait—any more than they have persuaded Russia, Iran or North Korea to reverse major policies of their own in recent years. Moreover, sanctions against Iraq and Cuba demonstrate that sanctions can have the unintended consequence of increasing government domination of an economy.

Assumptions are dangerous things. The administration of George H.W. Bush (myself included) was late in realizing that Saddam would actually invade Kuwait—and too optimistic in predicting that he would be unable to survive his defeat in Kuwait. Just over a decade later, several assumptions made by a second Bush administration proved terribly costly in Iraq. So did later rosy assumptions made by the Obama administration as it pulled out of Iraq, staged a limited intervention in Libya, encouraged the ouster of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and called for regime change in Syria.

Multilateralism constrains the U.S., but it can yield big dividends.Broad participation ensures a degree of burden-sharing. Due to contributions from the Gulf states and Japan, the Gulf War ended up costing the U.S. little or nothing financially. Multilateralism—in this case, the support of the U.N. Security Council—can also generate political support within the U.S. and around the world; it supplies a source of legitimacy often judged missing when the U.S. acts alone.

Even successful policies can have unforeseen negative consequences. Our one-sided military victory in the Gulf War may have persuaded others to avoid conventional battlefield confrontations with the U.S. Instead, urban terrorism has become the approach of choice for many in the Middle East, while other enemies (such as North Korea) have opted for nuclear deterrence to ensure that they stay in power.

Limited goals are often wise. They may not transform a situation, but they have the advantage of being desirable, doable and affordable. Ambitious goals may promise more, but delivering on them can prove impossible. The U.S. got into trouble in Korea in 1950 when it was not content with liberating the south and marched north of the 38th parallel in an expensive and unsuccessful attempt to reunify the peninsula by force.

In the Gulf War, President Bush was often criticized for limiting U.S. objectives to what the U.N. Security Council and Congress had signed up for: kicking Saddam out of Kuwait. Many argued that we should have “gone on to Baghdad.” But as the U.S. learned the hard way a decade later in Afghanistan and Iraq, getting rid of a bad regime is easy compared with building a better, enduring alternative. In foreign lands, modest goals can be ambitious enough. Local realities almost always trump inside-the-Beltway abstractions.

There is no substitute for U.S. leadership. The world is not self-organizing; no invisible hand creates order in the geopolitical marketplace. The Gulf War demonstrated that it takes the visible hand of the U.S. to galvanize world action.

Similarly, there is no substitute for presidential leadership. The Senate nearly voted against going to war with Iraq 25 years ago—even though the U.S. was implementing U.N. resolutions that the Senate had sought. The country cannot have 535 secretaries of state or defense if it hopes to lead.

Be wary of wars of choice. The 1991 Gulf War—unlike the 2003 Iraq war—was a war of necessity. Vital U.S. interests were at stake, and after multilateral sanctions and intensive diplomacy came up short, only the military option remained. But most future U.S. wars are likely to be wars of choice: The interests at stake will tend to be important but not vital, or policy makers will have options besides military force. Such decisions about the discretionary use of force tend to be far harder to make—and far harder to defend if, as is often the case, the war and its aftermath turn out to be more costly and less successful than its architects predict.

The historical impact of the Gulf War turned out to be smaller than many imagined at the time—including President Bush, who hoped that the war would usher in a new age of global cooperation after the collapse of the Soviet empire. The U.S. enjoyed a degree of pre-eminence that couldn’t last. China’s rise, post-Soviet Russia’s alienation, technological innovation, American political dysfunction, two draining wars in the wake of 9/11—all contributed to the emergence of a world in which power is more widely distributed and decision-making more decentralized.

The Gulf War looks today like something of an anomaly: short and sharp, with a clear start and finish; focused on resisting external aggression, not nation-building; and fought on battlefields with combined arms, not in cities by special forces and irregulars. Most unusual of all in light of what would follow, the war was multilateral, inexpensive and successful. Even the principle for which the Gulf War was fought—the inadmissibility of acquiring territory by military means—has been drawn into question recently by the international community’s passivity in the face of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.

It is a stretch to tie the events of 1990-91 to the mayhem that is the Middle East today. The pathologies of the region—along with the 2003 Iraq war and the mishandling of its aftermath, the subsequent pullout of U.S. troops from Iraq, the 2011 Libya intervention and the continuing U.S. failure to act in Syria—all do more to explain the mess.

The Gulf War was a signal success of American foreign policy. It avoided what clearly would have been a terrible outcome—letting Saddam get away with a blatant act of territorial acquisition and perhaps come to dominate much of the Middle East. But it was a short-lived triumph, and it could neither usher in a “new world order,” as President Bush hoped, nor save the Middle East from itself.

This article appears in full in The Wall Street Journal by permission of its original publisher.

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