NEW YORK – It was 20 years ago this month that Saddam Hussein, then the unchallenged ruler of Iraq, invaded Kuwait. What ensued was the first great international crisis of the post-Cold War era, one that, in less than a year, led to the liberation of Kuwait, along with the restoration of its government. This was accomplished with only modest human and economic cost to the extraordinary multi-national coalition assembled by President George H.W. Bush.
Since then, the United States has used military force numerous times for a range of purposes. Today, the US is working to extricate itself from a second conflict involving Iraq, trying to figure out a way forward in Afghanistan, and contemplating the use of force against Iran. So the question naturally arises: what can we learn from the first Iraq war, one widely judged as a military and diplomatic success?
One important lesson stems from the rationale for war. It is one thing to modify the behavior of a state beyond its borders, but quite another to alter what takes place within another country’s territory. The 1990-1991 Gulf war was about reversing Iraq’s armed aggression, something that was fundamentally inconsistent with respect for sovereignty, the most basic of all rules governing relations among states in today’s world. Once Iraqi military forces were expelled from Kuwait in 1991, the US did not march on Baghdad to replace Iraq’s government – or remain in Kuwait to impose democracy there.
The 2001 war against Afghanistan and the 2003 war against Iraq were markedly different. Both interventions sought to oust the governments in place at the time, and both succeeded in that goal. I maintain that the effort against Afghanistan was justified (to remove the Taliban government that helped bring about the 9/11 attacks), and that ousting Saddam Hussein was not.
But, regardless of one’s position on these questions, it cannot be disputed that replacing a government with something better and lasting is a different and much more ambitious goal than changing a government’s behavior. Successful regime change requires a long-term commitment of military force, of civilian experts trained to build a modern society, and of money and attention – and even then there is no assurance that the results will justify the investment.
Another set of lessons from the first Iraq war (and the second as well) suggests a limit to what can be expected from economic sanctions. Sanctions alone, even those supported by the United Nations Security Council and backed by military force, could not persuade Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait, control of which was a major prize for him. Nor could sanctions trigger a change in government in Baghdad. Indeed, over time their ability to bring results diminished.
A third set of lessons concerns international support. The participation of many governments not only distributes the costs of going to war, but also lends legitimacy to the enterprise. Multilateral backing can help sustain domestic approval, or at least tolerance, in the US and other countries, including the one where the hostilities are taking place.
So what do these lessons tell us about how to move forward in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran?
In the case of Iraq, President Barack Obama has repeated his pledge to end all US combat operations by the end of August, and to withdraw all US military forces by the end of next year. But, judging by Iraqi politicians’ inability to form a new government months after national elections, their failure to provide essential services, and, above all, the continuing deadly violence, nation-building in Iraq is far from complete. The Obama administration may want to reconsider its commitment to leave and, instead, negotiate a new accord (one that would allow as many as 20,000 US troops to stay in Iraq for years to come) if and when a new Iraqi government emerges.
In Afghanistan, the lessons revolve around the nature of what is being sought. History suggests that the US ought to think twice before continuing its effort to remake Afghan society or its government. Instead, the US would be wiser to limit itself to a narrower counterterrorism mission, one akin to what is being done in Somalia and Yemen (and, to some extent, in Pakistan).
In the case of Iran, the first Iraq war teaches us that economic sanctions will likely not be enough to persuade the Revolutionary Guards (who increasingly dominate the country) to accept verifiable limits on their nuclear program. Sanctions may, however, persuade some other powerful constituencies within Iran, namely the clerics, the businessmen of the bazaar, and political conservatives, to turn on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his Revolutionary Guard base.
But, if not, the question of whether to use military force to slow the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon will come to the fore. Only a few governments, at most, will support doing so. No one can predict or assume what a limited attack on Iran’s nuclear installations would accomplish, cost, or lead to. But not acting, in effect accepting Iran’s nuclear might, risks bringing about a more dangerous and possibly costlier future. As a result, it is Iran, even more than Iraq or Afghanistan, where the lessons of the Gulf war are likely to be debated and, ultimately, applied.