The Gulf War at 20

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.