The Gulf War at 20

Twenty years ago this month, Saddam Hussein, then the unchallenged ruler of Iraq, invaded Kuwait, triggering the first great international crisis of the post-Cold War era. Today, it is Iran, even more than Iraq or Afghanistan, where the lessons of the first Gulf war are likely to be debated and, ultimately, applied.

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.

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