The Buzz

Why No Nation Wants to Go to War Against America's Military in a Fair Fight

Without question, the war taught us that winning the decisive battle does not necessarily lead to the political outcomes we’d like. Coalition forces badly mauled the Iraqi Army and the Iraqi Republican Guard, and nearly annihilated the Iraqi Air Force. Nevertheless, the Baathist government managed to stay in power, despite revolts in the north and the south, as well as a draconian sanctions regime. Not even a pair of no-fly zones, designed to provide breathing room for rebels in the north and the south, could facilitate regime collapse.

Rather than a “solved” problem, Iraq became a long-term management issue—one that the United States was not prepared to handle. Instead of evaluating whether Iraq was weaker or stronger than it had been in 1990, Western analysts focused on minor year-to-year changes. Iraq’s shattered military forces could never hope to reconstitute themselves under any plausible timeframe. This fact was so true that it was perhaps too true; Iraqi weakness became boring. Analysis and political debate focused on trivial changes at the margins of Iraqi military strength, such as whether cheating on the sanctions regime could put a few tanks back into service, or whether Hussein had managed to squirrel away a few useless chemical munitions.

A coalition that had come together in the face of Iraqi strength could not remain together in the face of Iraqi weakness, notwithstanding U.S. efforts to overhype the threat. American PGMs could not, on their own, destroy Hussein’s regime. The United States wrapped itself in knots for twelve years, until the George W. Bush administration determined to “solve” the political problem by making it much, much worse.


In the wake of the war, the near total consensus was that the conflict represented a huge triumph of American arms, perhaps serving as a harbinger for a more assertive age of multilateral institutions, not to mention a more confident use of American power. This consensus has largely evaporated. The problems solved by American force of arms don’t remain solved, and the United Nations is anything but united. States can apparently even invade their neighbors and annex provinces again, without fear of military response.

And yet, we can overstate the degree to which the achievements of the war have dissipated. Few believe that the United States will fight anything like the Gulf War in the near future, and that’s in part because aggressors have become cagier about how they decide to fight. But it’s undoubtedly a good thing that most combatants struggle to keep their fights below the level that would trigger international, and U.S., intervention. America’s success in the Gulf War meant that future international problems would not resemble the Gulf War—and on balance, that’s a positive.

Robert Farley is a senior lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce. His work includes military doctrine, national security, and maritime affairs. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money and Information Dissemination and The Diplomat. Follow him on Twitter: @drfarls.

This first appeared in Oct. 2014 and is being reposted due to reader interest.