Just after midnight on August 2, 1990, an invasion force of approximately 100,000 Iraqi troops crossed into Kuwait. As mechanized and armored Republican Guard divisions breached the border and sped southward across the desert, Iraqi Special Forces commandos launched airborne and amphibious assaults into Kuwait City. The Kuwaiti military, outnumbered and taken by surprise by the well-coordinated offensive, was swiftly routed. By nightfall that first day, the country’s main bases and international airport were in Iraqi hands, as was the palace of the Kuwaiti emir, who narrowly escaped to Saudi Arabia. Within 48 hours, the occupation of Kuwait—proclaimed by Saddam Hussein to be Iraq’s long-lost 19th province—was largely complete.
This month marks the 25th anniversary of these events—the first major international crisis to confront the United States as the Cold War drew to a close, and one that culminated a few months later in America’s biggest war since Vietnam.
To leaders and policymakers at the time, it was taken for granted that the invasion of Kuwait, and the international response with which it was met, would carry far-reaching strategic consequences. Today, by contrast, the significance of the Gulf war is less obvious. In a world of transnational terrorist networks, resilient insurgencies, and hybridized warfare, much about the conflict seems like a relic from a bygone age—from its tank battles to the very notion that a war could be decisively won or lost over a couple of days by conventional armies clashing on open ground. For this reason, there is a temptation to remember Desert Storm a bit wistfully, as America’s last great triumph of the 20th century, rather than the opening act of the 21st.
This, however, would be a mistake. For all that the events of 1990-1991 feel distant from the problems of the present, the invasion of Kuwait very much did mark the dawn of a new period in U.S. foreign policy—one that, in key respects, continues to this day.
First, starting with the Gulf crisis, the most pressing tests for international order and U.S. leadership would emerge disproportionately from the greater Middle East, rather than the traditional incubators of upheaval—the geopolitical hothouses of Europe and Asia—where the United States had previously fought all of its major foreign wars. While challenges elsewhere would compete for Washington’s attention in the years after Desert Storm—including the disintegration of Yugoslavia, periodic tensions with North Korea, and the rise of China—it has been the problems of the Middle East that, rightfully or not, have dominated the U.S. diplomatic and security agenda during this period.
Second and relatedly, the Gulf crisis commenced the entry of the American military into the modern Middle East in a big way for the first time. Since the British withdrawal from east of Suez in the early 1970s, the United States had been gradually drawn into the vacuum left in London’s wake. This process was accelerated by the multiple crises of 1979—the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian revolution foremost among them—which inspired the Carter administration to establish a joint military task force for the region, an arrangement that would grow into U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). Later in the 1980s came the dispatch of U.S. peacekeepers to Sinai under the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement, the ill-fated Marine mission to Lebanon, and naval skirmishes with Iran.
But these were relatively modest or transient deployments. At the moment that Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, CENTCOM—in contrast to its European and Pacific counterparts—had no assigned forces of its own; it was a combatant command without combatants, composed of a planning headquarters in Florida and little else.
The Gulf war changed all of that, as nearly half a million troops surged into the Arabian peninsula to protect the Saudis and then liberate Kuwait. Even more important, a year after the ceasefire with the Iraqis, tens of thousands of American forces remained in the region, deployed in newly built desert garrisons and on ships offshore—part of a new force posture designed to contain a weakened yet still treacherous Saddam Hussein. Those troop numbers would soar under the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, with the dispatch of over 150,000 forces to Iraq and then another 100,000 to Afghanistan, before sharply falling off again. Yet even at the peak of the Obama administration’s military drawdown from the Middle East, before the rise of the Islamic State, CENTCOM still had tens of thousands of “enduring” forces in its area of responsibility—and that is without counting the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.
Here, then, is another lasting product of the Gulf war: While the Obama administration in recent years has trumpeted a “pivot” to Asia, it was the invasion of Kuwait that precipitated the real military rebalance of the past quarter-century—a large-scale relocation of U.S. planes, ships, and personnel to the Middle East. The American military marched into the Gulf in late 1990 to evict the Iraqis from Kuwait, and it has never really left.
Yet perhaps the most instructive legacy of the Gulf war for the present day can be discovered in the conduct of the conflict itself. Indeed, a careful study of the U.S. response to the invasion of Kuwait reveals many of the elements that would characterize—and bedevil—the exercise of American power over the next quarter-century, including some of the recurring blind-spots and biases that would afflict subsequent administrations, Democratic and Republican alike.
In this respect, a review of the Gulf crisis—far from an exercise in nostalgia—provides an eerily prescient preview of the problems of America’s post-Cold War foreign policy. It also raises a host of unsettling and urgent questions about how much we have learned in the past 25 years, not only about the Middle East but about ourselves.
The Temptation of the Golden Key
In the weeks after Kuwait’s capture by the Iraqis, President George H. W. Bush sought to make sense of the situation by invoking a familiar and powerful historical analogy. Allowing the Iraqi invasion to stand, he warned, risked a repetition of the mistake made in the 1930s: Much as appeasement of Hitler by the Western democracies had only fed Nazi appetites, failure to confront Saddam’s conquest of Kuwait would invite further aggression by him and other rapacious dictators. By contrast, swift and decisive international action to evict the Iraqis from Kuwait would not only right an egregious wrong; it could define the character of post-Cold War geopolitics, cementing what Bush would later call a “new world order” of great power peace and cooperation.
This would not be the last time an American leader looked to Iraq and saw the country as the proving grounds for a broader doctrine. Over the next quarter-century, this would include, inter alia, the notion that, by ousting Saddam for his defiance over WMD and support for terrorism, the United States could set an example that would bring other rogue regimes to heel; that, by midwifing democracy in Iraq, the United States could inspire its spread across the rest of the Arab world; and that, by exiting Iraq, the United States could reduce tensions with Muslims worldwide and usher in a new period of diminished military entanglement in the Middle East.
To be sure, Iraq is not the only place where post-Cold War presidents have hoped to find a magic domino that, when toppled, would cause a succession of other longstanding challenges to tumble their way. The evergreen faith that, if only an Israeli-Palestinian settlement could be reached, the region’s other problems would suddenly shrivel in size, is another. So too is the belief, now ascendant, that a nuclear agreement with Iran will enable a cascade of other Middle Eastern conflicts to be settled.
The only thing as persistent as this kind of thinking in U.S. foreign policy over the past 25 years has been its failure to work—nowhere more spectacularly than Iraq.
In the first instance, the Gulf war proved to be every bit the model of international cooperation that the elder President Bush envisioned—a vast multinational coalition, blessed by the U.N. Security Council and with the hard-won acquiescence of Moscow. Yet it was a fleeting moment of solidarity—one that quickly proved impossible to sustain or reconstruct as subsequent crises flared. Nor did Saddam Hussein’s battlefield rout provide much of a deterrent to bad actors, whether Slobodan Milosevic or Osama bin Laden or Saddam himself, all of whom convinced themselves that political weakness lurked behind America’s technological superiority. Iraq was successfully driven from Kuwait, but the hoped-for new world order was nowhere to be found.
Subsequent attempts to convert U.S. actions in Iraq into universal coin would prove no more successful. Ousting Saddam Hussein in 2003, while it helped convince Muammar Qaddafi to abandon his nuclear project and temporarily intimidated the Iranians into freezing or slowing elements of their program, failed to curb overall proliferation trends; the next decade would witness historic nuclear advances by the rogue regimes in Pyongyang and Tehran and a near-breakthrough by Syria. Nor, nearly a decade later, would Obama’s military exit from Iraq result in a receding “tide of war”—quite the opposite.
This, then, is the first cautionary lesson from the Gulf war: American presidents and policymakers over the past 25 years have repeatedly gone in search of a “slam dunk”—a clear win that would ratify a broader set of rules and norms, validate a doctrine, and lower the cost of solving bigger problems. Iraq has repeatedly offered this prospect—a kind of golden key that, once pocketed, could be used to unlock solutions to a range of other, even more intractable national security challenges. It has yet to work as planned. In many cases, the initial effort faltered in Iraq, but even when a degree of success has been achieved there, it has proven of limited throw-weight elsewhere.
Failures of Intelligence, Failures of Imagination
The Gulf war is principally remembered for the success that the U.S. military achieved on the battlefield, epitomized by the precision airstrikes and lightning ground offensive that eviscerated Saddam’s once-fearsome war machine. What is less remembered is that it was a conflict that began and ended with the United States being caught by surprise.
Right up until the moment that the Iraqis crossed into Kuwait, the consensus within the U.S. government was that an Iraqi invasion was unlikely. “War weary Iraq will pose a military threat to small neighboring states . . . but will be reluctant to engage in foreign military adventures,” a classified Pentagon paper in 1989 predicted, according to Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor’s indispensable history of the conflict, The Generals’ War.
The problem was not a lack of satellite photos or human reporting that Iraqi units were massing along the Kuwaiti border. Rather, what lulled the Bush administration into complacency were the intellectual blinders of policymakers, who believed that Arab countries simply didn’t invade each other. This bias was reinforced by high-level conversations with regional leaders—including Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, King Fahd in Saudi Arabia, and King Hussein of Jordan—who assured their White House and State Department interlocutors that Saddam was bluffing and couldn’t possibly intend to seize Kuwait. They were wrong.
The second, equally big surprise came at the end of the conflict. To the extent the Bush administration gave much thought to the effect that smashing Saddam’s Kuwait occupation force would have on dynamics inside Iraq, it expected it would precipitate an internal coup that would replace Saddam with another Sunni strongman—overthrowing the discredited dictator but preserving the dictatorship, and, with it, internal stability.
Wrong again. Instead of a palace putsch, Desert Storm set off a prison riot—as Shiite Arabs and Kurds trapped in Saddam’s jailhouse seized the opportunity to rise up. American officials were once again caught flatfooted, as Iraq’s diminished yet still formidable forces wheeled back on the offensive, this time directing firepower against their own people—including with helicopter gunships that U.S. military commanders had absentmindedly allowed Baghdad to keep flying under the terms of the ceasefire.
Both cases—Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait and the mass uprisings against him—were partly failures of U.S. intelligence. But even more profoundly, they were failures of U.S. imagination.
This would prove to be a distressingly frequent feature of American foreign policy over the decades ahead, nowhere more so than in Iraq. American leaders would again and again be shocked and awed by unforeseen developments there—by the progress and scope of Iraqi WMD programs revealed in the wake of Desert Storm, and then by the absence of these programs after 2003; by the furies of insurgency and sectarianism that sprang up after Saddam’s dictatorship was pulled down; and, more recently, by the lightning advance of the Islamic State across the country and the similarly swift collapse of the Iraqi army.
Here then is another hard lesson from the first Gulf war for the post-Cold War world: The foreign policy establishment tends to assume the future will resemble the past; to fail to imagine—much less seriously plan for—contingencies that do not conform to its biases, expectations, and ideological predispositions; and to thus be taken by strategic surprise, from 9/11 to the Arab Spring, but nowhere more spectacularly or tragically than in the “Land of the Two Rivers.”
The aim of the Gulf war was fundamentally conservative: to defend a regional order that Iraqi aggression threatened to upend. An internationally recognized border had been erased; it had to be re-imposed. An internationally recognized state had been obliterated; it had to be restored. In contrast to the George W. Bush administration in 2003, which saw the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime as a spur to transformational change in Middle Eastern societies—“a forward strategy of freedom”—the George H. W. Bush administration had no revisionist agenda for the domestic affairs of Arab lands.
Yet the first Gulf war nonetheless had a revolutionary effect on the map of the Middle East: the creation, for the first time in modern history, of an autonomous, self-governing Kurdish state, in fact if not in law. When we talk today about the dissolution of the post-World War I borders and state structures of the Middle East, this was arguably one of the first boulders of the avalanche now rumbling across the region—and it was kicked loose by Desert Storm.
As with so much in the Middle East, this happened by accident, not design. While the Shiite revolt was put down by Saddam’s forces in the spring of 1991, a destabilizing flood of Kurdish refugees into Turkey—and the ghastly images of their plight broadcast worldwide—prodded Washington into belated action. A U.S.-enforced safe zone was established in northern Iraq, in which the Kurds—those long-suffering losers of the contemporary Middle East, promised a country by the victorious allies in 1920 only to be betrayed three years later under the Treaty of Lausanne—were afforded the chance to rule themselves.
The aftermath of the Gulf war thus marks the start of the ascent of the Kurds as a significant geopolitical factor in the Middle East—a trend that continues to reshape the region, not only in Iraq but also in Syria and Turkey. Kurdish empowerment would never become an explicit or primary goal of U.S. intervention in the region, but it has repeatedly ended up being its consequence. (Notably, what policymakers assumed would materialize in 1991, but didn’t—a decent, viable, alternative Sunni leadership—would prove a recurring stumbling block for U.S. strategy in Iraq and beyond.)
The trajectory of Iraqi Kurds after the Gulf war would prove prophetic for the region in another respect. As the first place anywhere in the Middle East where a dictator lost his grip on power through the combination of an indigenous uprising and U.S. intervention, Iraqi Kurdistan got a 20-year head start on the experiment in post-authoritarian self-government called the Arab Spring. The Kurdish experience foreshadowed many of the difficulties that would later confront and confound others.
Life after Saddam Hussein began hopefully for the Iraqi Kurds, with the newly liberated territory successfully holding elections. But the vote revealed a society deeply split between rival factions. An attempt at power-sharing between the two major parties soon broke down, and Iraqi Kurdistan fell into civil war, which then pulled in most of the neighboring states.
The conflict eventually came to an end after several years as the combatants grew tired of fighting and the United States forcefully stepped in as mediator; under a settlement brokered by Washington in 1998, Kurdish territory was soft-partitioned, with separate governments running rival halves of their nonexistent state—an arrangement that persisted for nearly a decade, until the dueling leaderships slowly came to see the benefits of burying the hatchet and merging most, if not all, of their respective administrations.
What to make of this? For one thing, the Iraqi Kurdistan experience should have been an early warning against any assumption that the removal of dictatorship quickly or inexorably leads to the establishment of peaceful, pluralistic democracy. It also should have exploded the fantasy—still in vogue—that, if only colonial borders could be redrawn along ethnic or sectarian lines, zero-sum politics suddenly recede. In fact, the short-order consequence of Kurdish liberation from the grip of Saddam Hussein—and the creation of a largely homogenous Kurdistan, cleaved from Arab Iraq—was neither stability nor democracy, but a bitter intra-Kurdish fight for domination.
But the story doesn’t end there. In fact, over time, a sort of political pluralism did develop in Iraqi Kurdistan, along with habits of compromise and toleration among competing centers of power. As a result, the area today has become a pocket of comparative decency and openness in a Middle East that has very little of these things.
Kurdistan therefore suggests that evolution towards more inclusive, tolerant, and—yes, democratic—politics is achievable, especially when the United States is prepared to be patient, stick it out over the long haul, and wield its influence wisely. Yet the path from absolutism to pluralism is anything but swift or irreversible; it is idiosyncratic, crooked, and protracted.
Unfortunately, these Kurdish lessons would go largely unnoticed by U.S. policymakers as they wrestled with Middle Eastern politics over the next quarter-century. Instead, the prevailing wisdom in Washington has tended to boomerang between periods of giddy exuberance about democratic inevitability in the region, in which success is presumed to lie just around the corner and requires only a gentle nudge in the right direction, and caustic fatalism about democratic impossibility, in which we tell ourselves that nothing we do matters and that the people of this region are destined to fight each other forever. The experience of the Iraqi Kurds reveals that neither of these attitudes is justified or productive.
Political-Military Divide and the Quest for Normalcy
The Gulf war is remembered for its swift, decisive victory against Saddam Hussein’s forces. A mere 100 hours after ground operations began, they were over, the remnants of the once-mighty Iraqi army in retreat along the Highway of Death. This rapid and seemingly unequivocal end to the conflict is invariably held up as a counterpoint to the 2003 march to Baghdad and the “long, hard slog” that ensued.
Yet this narrative of the first Gulf war is thoroughly misleading. Although the Pentagon did achieve conventional battlefield success in Kuwait, the conflict did not, properly speaking, “end” just because we declared it over. Rather, Saddam retreated, regrouped, and soon was back to threatening his neighbors, thwarting weapons inspectors, and chipping away at sanctions. This meant that the U.S. military was compelled not only to stay in the region in force, but to resume kinetic operations against the Iraqis, with no-fly zones and airstrikes—in short, a low-level, open-ended, and deeply unsatisfying conflict.
In all these respects, the true endgame of Desert Storm looks less like the relatively tidy conclusion of World War II, or even Korea or Vietnam, and more like the other messy, post-Cold War peacekeeping, counterinsurgency, and counterterrorism missions that would come after 1991.
In almost every one of these conflicts, the United States has followed a strikingly similar pattern. First, we achieved our stated military objective faster than anticipated, and at lower cost, but then proved spectacularly ill-prepared for managing the unanticipated consequences. In each case, policymakers reacted to the initial battlefield success by declaring some version of “mission accomplished” and turning attention elsewhere. And by the time Washington began to realize that its military victory had not, in fact, transmuted into a desired political outcome, a critical window of influence and opportunity had been lost.
That is what happened not only with Iraq in the spring of 1991, but again in Iraq in 2003 under George W. Bush and in 2009-2010 under Obama, after the success of the surge in stabilizing the country. A similar story played out with Bush in Afghanistan in 2001, and with Obama in Libya in 2011. Most remarkably—and perhaps alarmingly—these patterns have persisted across presidencies whose fervent foreign policy principle has been repudiation of the predecessor’s approach to the world. This suggests something bigger is going on here. But what?
Part of the explanation is rooted in what Robert Kagan has aptly described as Americans’ desire for (in Warren Harding’s coinage) a “return to normalcy.” Unlike during the early Cold War, when policy-makers recognized that open-ended commitments to the key theaters of that contest were going to be essential for our national security, the United States since 1991 has tended to intervene only reluctantly, and in the expectation that, as soon as a discrete objective was achieved, we could quickly downsize if not withdraw entirely. Far from being imperial, America’s long entanglement with Iraq is a story of our constantly looking for an exit strategy so that we could go home—and in doing so, perversely, fostering the conditions that have kept pulling us back in.
Another part of the problem lies in the U.S. tendency to see foreign policy challenges as either purely “political” or “military” in nature, and a U.S. national security bureaucracy that encourages and exacerbates this divide. Situations in which success requires a high degree of civil-military coordination—with the Pentagon and the nonmilitary institutions of our government working closely together, under a common plan—are zones of maximal risk for U.S. foreign policy.
Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor, in The Generals’ War, explicitly identify this problem. At the root of the Bush administration’s botched transition from conflict to post-conflict, they wrote in 1995, was its “failure to keep political and military objectives in synch.” What’s tragic is that the same criticism could be leveled against U.S. policy in Iraq at almost every other major juncture since these words were published. There are exceptions—most notably, the surge of 2007-2008—but they are few and far between.
Sadly, the latest chapter of U.S. intervention in Iraq appears to be hewing to the pattern. Like preceding administrations, the Obama administration has set an ambitious military objective—the defeat of the Islamic State—but seems to be doing little if any tangible planning for what will happen the day after the group is driven from Iraqi soil. Nor is there much evidence of institutionalized civil-military unity of effort—for instance, in the form of an integrated civil-military campaign plan. On the contrary, the Pentagon strike mission is being run out of a headquarters in Kuwait, while the U.S. embassy in Baghdad has the lead in managing Iraqi politics, with little apparent systematic coordination between these lines of operation.
In all these respects, the Obama administration—despite having framed so much of its foreign policy as a critique of prior blunders in Iraq—appears to be well on its way to repeating one of the most pernicious of them.
The Next 25 Years
In many ways, the past 25 years have witnessed what can be rightly called the progress of humanity. The failed and catastrophic idea of communism and the brutal empire it justified were peacefully interred. A globalizing economy has enabled hundreds of millions to raise themselves out of the most hopeless poverty. Innovation and generosity have stanched the suffering and death inflicted by once-unstoppable diseases, while information technology has radically expanded the availability and accessibility of knowledge.
Yet the passage of time does not, by itself, propel us into a better world. And in considering America’s long experience in Iraq, it is difficult to escape the sense that we have learned less during these years than we might have—and less than we should have.
Konrad Adenauer once quipped that the definition of history is “the sum total of things that could have been avoided.” But the task of a leader, in casting his or her gaze backward, is not to derive a sense of superiority from the mistakes of his predecessors, to slough off responsibility for the problems of the present, or to imagine alternative, more pleasing realities that might have come into being. It is to try to understand why and how intelligent, well-intentioned people nonetheless got important things wrong, to discern the patterns and pathologies to which we seem predisposed as individuals and as a polity, and to distill a set of lessons that can help in navigating the present.
Ours is not a political culture, to put it mildly, that is inclined towards this kind of exercise. Yet if America’s protracted entanglement with Iraq suggests anything, it is that the first step in charting the way to a better future must be a more honest and open reckoning with our past. What is equally clear is that, 25 years after Saddam Hussein’s army marched into Kuwait, our understanding of the long, complicated conflict it instigated has only just begun.
More from CNAS
How to increase the pressure on the Syrian government
Five years into Syria’s bloody civil war, it is clear that there is no appetite in Washington or European capitals for a more muscular military intervention to stop the Assad ...
By Peter Harrell
Al Qaeda Is Gaining Strength in Syria
The struggle for Aleppo poses an awful threat for the United States. The ongoing battle for what was once Syria’s second-largest city has united two of the most prominent oppo...
By Nicholas Heras
Fighting Terrorism in Syria: It's More Than ISIS
The fact of the matter is that although the United States has provided military assistance to individual Syrian armed opposition groups led by “trusted commanders” since 2012,...
By Nicholas Heras
From the Bottom, Up: A Strategy for U.S. Military Support to Syria’s Armed Opposition
As negotiations continue to uphold a teetering ceasefire in Syria, Center for a New American Security (CNAS) Middle East Security Program researcher Nicholas Heras has written...
By Nicholas Heras