Just after midnight on Aug. 2, 1990, an invasion force of about 100,000 Iraqi troops crossed into Kuwait. The Kuwaiti military, outnumbered and taken by surprise, 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 emir, who narrowly escaped to Saudi Arabia. Within 48 hours, the occupation of Kuwait was largely complete.
This month marks the 25th anniversary of these events.
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 tank battles to the 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 as America's last great triumph of the 20th century.
This, however, would be a mistake. The invasion of Kuwait did mark the dawn of a new period in U.S. foreign policy - one that, in key respects, continues to this day.
Perhaps the most instructive legacy of the Gulf War is that the U.S. response 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 the weeks after Kuwait's capture, President George H.W. Bush warned that allowing the Iraqi invasion to stand risked a repetition of the West's mistakes in the 1930s in responding to Hitler's aggression. By contrast, swift and decisive international action to evict the Iraqis from Kuwait would not only right an egregious wrong; it could define a "new world order" of great-power peace and cooperation.
This would not be the last time an American leader saw Iraq as the proving grounds for a broader doctrine. Over the next quarter-century, this would include the notion that, by ousting Saddam Hussein for his defiance over weapons of mass destruction 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 U.S. 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 Mideast.
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 long-standing 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 last 25 years has been its failure to work - nowhere more spectacularly than Iraq.
The Gulf War proved to be every bit the model of international cooperation that Bush envisioned. Yet it was a fleeting moment of solidarity that quickly proved impossible to sustain in subsequent crises. Nor did Saddam's rout provide much of a deterrent to bad actors, from Slobodan Milosevic to Osama bin Laden.
Subsequent attempts to convert U.S. actions in Iraq into universal coin would prove no more successful. Ousting Saddam in 2003, while it helped convince Moammar Gadhafi to abandon his nuclear project and temporarily intimidated the Iranians into freezing or slowing elements of their program, failed to curb overall proliferation trends. Nor, nearly a decade later, would President 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 last 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, but has yet to work as planned.
The Gulf War began and ended with the U.S. 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. Many policy makers believed that Arab countries simply didn't invade each other. This bias was reinforced by regional leaders who assured their White House and State Department interlocutors that Saddam was bluffing. 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.
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 again caught flat-footed, as Iraq's still formidable forces turned against their own people.
Both cases - Saddam's invasion and the mass uprisings - were partly failures of U.S. intelligence. Even more profoundly, they were failures of U.S. imagination.
This would prove to be a distressingly frequent feature of U.S. foreign policy over the decades ahead. 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: 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.
The Gulf War is remembered for its swift, decisive victory. A mere 100 hours after ground operations began, they were over, the remnants of the once-mighty Iraqi army in retreat, a rapid and unequivocal end to the conflict.
This narrative is thoroughly misleading. The conflict did not "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. The U.S. military was compelled not only to stay in the region in force, but to resume kinetic operations against the Iraqis - in short, a low-level, open-ended, and deeply unsatisfying conflict.
In all these respects, the end game of Desert Storm looks less like the relatively tidy conclusion of World War II, 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 U.S. 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 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 President 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, 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?
Unlike during the early Cold War, when policymakers recognized that open-ended commitments to the key theaters of that contest were going to be essential for our national security, the U.S. 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 by doing so, 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 sync." 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 2007-08 - 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, Obama's 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. 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 West German chancellor 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 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 that is inclined toward 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's army marched into Kuwait, our understanding of the long, complicated conflict it instigated has only just begun.
More from CNAS
Commentary9/11 swallowed U.S. foreign policy. Don’t let the coronavirus do the same thing.
For two decades, American foreign policy has been shaped by the 9/11 attacks. The catastrophic wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, our failure to see the full threat posed by Russia...
By Ilan Goldenberg
CommentaryBig Ideas for NATO’s New Mission in Iraq
Following U.S. President Donald Trump’s calls for America’s allies to “get more involved in the Middle East,” NATO defense ministers last month agreed to “enhance” the Atlanti...
By David H. Petraeus & Vance Serchuk
CommentaryThe Iranian Missile Strike Did Far More Damage Than Trump Admits
Over 100 American soldiers have been treated for traumatic brain injuries following Iran’s missile strike on Al Asad Air Base in western Iraq. The strike came in retaliation f...
By Loren DeJonge Schulman & Paul Scharre
PodcastGrappling With the Costs of Combat
Kayla Williams joins Ilan Goldenberg to discuss her time serving as an Arabic linguist in the U.S. Army and the human costs of armed conflict....
By Ilan Goldenberg & Kayla M. Williams