January 17 is the 25th anniversary of the beginning of Desert Storm—George H. W. Bush’s first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to liberate Kuwait from his clutches, only to return it to its previous despotic rulers. The victory appeared to be smashing, as American military propaganda dazzled the world with footage of the accurate strikes against Iraqi targets, even though only a small percentage of the coalition’s weapons were precision-guided. Saddam’s third-rate army was blasted in half and had to retreat from Kuwait, and his air force either was impaired or had to fly to Iran to escape the reach of the American superpower. Saddam’s power was broken and he was no longer an offensive threat to his neighbors. Yet care should be taken when conducting such wars of choice—for even victorious ones can have a long trail of adverse unintended consequences.
The reasons for the United States to go to war against Saddam after his invasion of Kuwait were much less clear cut than have been imagined.
First of all, the reasons for the United States to go to war against Saddam after his invasion of Kuwait were much less clear cut than have been imagined. As economist David Henderson, who had worked in the Reagan administration, pointed out in between the massive U.S. military deployment to Saudi Arabia (Desert Shield) and the launching of Desert Storm to roust Saddam out of Kuwait: even if Saddam had gone on to invade Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the oil price hikes that he could have engineered would have only cost the American economy less than half of one percent of its GDP. In addition, Saddam likely would have taken less oil off the world market (to get those price increases) than the oil that was actually removed from the market by the grinding world economic sanctions imposed on Iraq after Saddam’s initial invasion of Kuwait and the destruction of Kuwaiti oil wells during the war as Saddam retreated from that small country. So if the United States undertook the war for cheap oil, it miscalculated terribly.
Jon Meacham’s recent book, Destiny and Power, on George H. W. Bush’s presidency, which examined Bush’s personal diaries, also indicated that Bush, a veteran of World War II, bought into the “Munich Syndrome,” which has infused U.S. foreign policy since British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain appeased Adolf Hitler over Czechoslovakia, leading to further German aggression (or so the narrative goes). In other words, Bush felt that if he let Saddam’s aggression stand, both Saddam and other aggressors would be emboldened by U.S. timidity. Yet by that standard, the sole U.S. superpower had to intervene in almost every conflict in the world or someone somewhere would see the United States as weak, thus leading to a snowball effect. Such a policy, even for a superpower, was and is unsustainable.
Moreover, in war, even tumultuous military victories can lead to unfortunate unplanned future disasters. Even after one of the most one-sided victories in American history, Desert Storm demonstrated this effect. Osama bin Laden, whom the United States had enabled by funding and assisting the Afghan jihadists against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, first concluded—from Ronald Reagan’s ignominious retreat under fire from Lebanon in the early 1980s after the group Hezbollah bombed the Marine barracks there—that terrorist attacks by small groups could cause the casualty-averse American superpower to withdraw from military interventions in the Muslim world. However, the impetus for bin Laden to begin his war on the United States, which later became a catastrophic threat to the American homeland on September 11, 2001, was his anger at the U.S. military presence on soil of Saudi Arabia—the Muslim holy land—before, during, and after Desert Storm in the 1990s. One of the U.S. government’s primary reasons for being is to protect its citizens and territory from external attack; on 9/11, it failed to do so from a threat that it helped create and motivate by conducting questionable overseas military interventions.
In addition, although in the popular mind, George H. W. Bush’s Desert Storm and his son George W. Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq were distinct events, in fact the first war never ended and merely escalated into the second. In between the two events, the war took the form of an allied no-fly zone, whereupon the fully demonized dictator Saddam didn’t even have control over his own country’s airspace and received periodic bombings. Of course, the younger Bush’s invasion of Iraq led to a long-term occupation quagmire and the consequent rise in opposition of an even more virulent regional version of bin Laden’s al Qaeda—al Qaeda in Iraq—which eventually morphed into the even more brutal group ISIS that has taken over parts of Iraq, Syria, and Libya and is threatening worldwide attacks.
As the 25th anniversary of Desert Storm rolls around, historians are finally beginning to question whether this short-term victory was really a long-term triumph. In a similar vein, perhaps the purveyors of history should also begin to closely examine whether other hallowed American wars—such as the Civil War and World War I—don’t fit the same abysmal narrative. If they did, maybe public opinion would change about jumping into wars of choice that have calamitous long-term implications.