Coalition Warfare in Iraq: Then and Now

A common critique of the Bush administration's war in Iraq is that George W.

A common critique of the Bush administration's war in Iraq is that George W. Bush failed to diplomatically harness as broad a coalition as his father George H. W. Bush had in the 1990-91 Gulf War.  This common wisdom holds that had the current President been as much of a statesman as his father, the situation in Iraq would be far more stable and certain than it is today.  Rarely, if ever, do the media, commentators or people on the street challenge this common wisdom.

Pausing for just a moment to peak behind the common mind's argument, however, reveals that the coalition configuration that fought against Saddam's regime last year and is now waging a counterinsurgency - against what's left of Saddam's thugs among the Sunnis, the Shiite militant movement catalyzed by Muqtada al-Sadr, al-Qaeda and other fundamentalist Islamic zealots - is much the same as the coalition that waged war against Iraq in 1991.

The 1990-91 war showcased a wide array of more than thirty countries that contributed forces to oust the Iraqi military from Kuwait, but the burdens of waging war - as distinct from photo opportunities - were carried by a lonely couple, the Americans and the British.  American and British forces spearheaded the coalition drives into and around Iraqi forces occupying Kuwait.  The French, after much political controversy and turmoil in Paris, eventually managed to dispatch a substantial force to the coalition.  To placate the French ego, their forces were assigned to holding down an Iraqi airfield far from harm's way and the major thrusts of American and British operations.  The Germans, under a more restrictive interpretation than today of their constitution sent only a handful of trainer aircraft to Turkey.

Arab forces from Egypt, Syria and the Gulf Cooperation Council added much political clout to the coalition, but little in the way of proficient men or arms for waging war.  Their major, if not only, contribution in battle was to carry the Kuwaiti flag into Kuwait City after it had been liberated by American and British forces.  The more significant contributions from the Arab Gulf states came in the form of financial backing, the provision of facilities and transit rights for the British and Americans forces waging the campaign.  Often overlooked today is that Arab opposition to marching coalition forces into Iraqi territory stymied any ambitious strategic thinking in Washington and London to set the removal of Saddam's regime as the political objective for Desert Storm.

Fast forward to examine the current conflict in Iraq and a sense of déjà vu arises when examining the military contributions to ousting Saddam's repugnant regime and the counterinsurgency operations now underway.  While the Bush Administration touts some eighty coalition members contributing to the war on terror - a figure that is near meaningless because it lumps token military contributions to operations against al-Qaeda, in Afghanistan and Iraq together - the number simply does not convey the critical characteristics of the war in Iraq.  Just as in the 1991 campaign, American and British forces spearheaded military operations in the 2003 war to oust Saddam.  The Americans made bold military dashes to take Baghdad while the British ably secured Basra.  The absence of French and German military contributions mattered little; just as their battlefield contributions to the first Iraq war were negligible.  Nor were Arab forces dispatched to help the American and British spearheads given political sensitivities and vulnerabilities reminiscent of those that caused Arab regimes to fear any prospects for coalition operations inside Iraq during the first Iraq war. 

But American and British forces did not use outer space as the staging point for the campaign against Saddam; they used received logistics, command and control facilities, airspace transit rights, port access and airbases to varying degrees from the Arab Gulf States much as Washington and London had in the earlier war.  While many Gulf States publicly denounced American and British war efforts in craven pandering to Arab public opinion, they privately lent the support needed to wage the war.  This reality belies the common wisdom's false dichotomy that this war is "unilateral," contrasting with the first Gulf war which was "multilateral."        

Despite all the confidence in the common mind about the strengths of coalition warfare of the first Iraq war and the weaknesses of coalition warfare in the second Iraq war, there are more similarities than differences.  And calls for more "multinational" participation in Iraq ring hallow against the political and military realities of the region and international security.  Europe's NATO members - save the British - and Arab forces made few battlefield contributions in the first Iraq war and are no more willing or able to contribute militarily to the second Iraq war.  Just as it was more than a decade ago, the Americans and the British find themselves a lonely couple waging "coalition" warfare in Iraq.    

 

Richard L. Russell is a Research Associate at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and teaches in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University.