Key point: Washington won the war, but it made America over-confident. Even if the conflict was the right call, the question is how this hubris might play out in the long-run.
The United States and its coalition partners evicted Iraq from Kuwait over twenty-three years ago. Temporally, the Gulf War is closer to the fall of Saigon than it is to us today. Given the struggles of the past fourteen years, it’s difficult to remember how important the Gulf War seemed in 1991, as the Soviet Union neared its collapse.
The war suggested a bright future. The United Nations, riding the overwhelming power of American arms, could finally meet its true potential as a collective security and peacemaking organization. The thawing of the Cold War opened up political possibilities, while the remarkable effectiveness of American precision-guided munitions meant that warfare no longer demanded the destruction of civilian life and property.
In short, the Gulf War seemed to suggest that international institutions, underwritten by revolutionary advances in American military power, could finally solve real military security problems. The political and technological foundations for a transformation in the functioning of global politics were in place.
The intervening twenty-three years have given us time to reconsider this conclusion.
Winning the Conventional Fight
The ability of the United States to completely destroy a more or less modern Iraqi military establishment remains a remarkable achievement. Only a few doubted at the time that the United States Army, supported by airpower and by a huge international coalition, could prevail over the Iraqis. The extent of the victory, and its relative bloodlessness on the American side, surprised almost everyone.
This is especially true given that the influence of airpower was overstated. To be sure, Coalition air attacks badly attrited Iraqi main forces, damaged Iraqi logistics and broke the morale of many front-line Iraqi conscript units. However, Iraqi armored units nevertheless maneuvered under fire, moving into blocking positions and carrying out counterattacks. Even in these conditions, U.S. and British armored forces shattered their Iraqi opponents with only trivial casualties.
The Coalition victory was so lopsided that no state has risked conventional war with the United States and its allies since. This has become part of the problem. American opponents have increasingly focused on waging struggles at the margins of political and military conventionality. This has included terrorism, insurgent-style conflicts fought among the people and military-political struggles that remain just below the threshold for conventional military response. American military power, fueled by outstanding execution and modern technology, can still do remarkable things, but others have adapted.
Winning the Diplomatic War
The Gulf War was far from a unilateral use of American military power. U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, along with President George H.W. Bush, painstakingly built a coalition that tied together regional states with far-flung allies. They won the acquiescence of China, the Soviet Union and even Hafez Al-Assad’s Syria. They held this coalition together, despite Saddam Hussein’s efforts to shatter its cohesion by launching ballistic-missile attacks on Israel.
At the time, this seemed to suggest that collective-security institutions would manage (and hopefully deter) future conflicts. This expectation wasn’t entirely wrong, nor was it entirely right. The Wars of Yugoslav Disintegration involved both the United Nations and NATO, but the members could rarely agree on purpose or method. By the time of the Kosovo Conflict, the United States could only rely on NATO support, and that only came at great cost in time and trouble. By the time of the 2003 Iraq War, the United States had decided to dispense with multilateral management altogether, instead assembling the ill-fated “Coalition of the Willing.”
It’s not hard to appreciate why the collective-security system is troubled; in reality, there are relatively few “outlaw” states that genuinely have no friends, and that can be disciplined in apolitical terms. National interests still matter, as do patron-client relationships. Nevertheless, multilateral institutions haven’t gone away, and remained important to the political and military calculus in Afghanistan, Libya and Syria.
Decisive Battle Doesn’t Solve All Problems
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 several years ago and is being reposted due to reader interest.