I’ve followed the writing of Jonathan Bernstein for quite some time, finding his take on the current political climate in the United States insightful. But his assertion about Desert Storm is weird:
Certainly, the execution of the Gulf War was far superior to what happened in 2003, and the immediate aftermath was much better, too. However, saying that the Gulf War was better than one of the biggest blunders in U.S. history doesn’t actually prove that it was a good idea.
As far as I can see, the Gulf War left behind an Iraqi regime turned into a clear enemy of the U.S., and U.S. troops permanently based in the Middle East to enforce a cease-fire and sanctions. The presence of the forces was one of al-Qaeda’s biggest grievances. And generally, the effort was costly, may not have contributed to long-term stability, and there was no clear end game.
In the wake of the ISIS (shouldn’t we be calling Sterling Archer to handle this situation?) takeover of much of the Sunni-majority areas of Iraq, pundits of a progressive persuasion are beginning to question if it is ever wise to engage in the Middle East with military force. Bernstein, however, acknowledges his expertise does not extend to military operations:
As a non-expert, my tentative conclusion is that it was a blunder, but I’m open to persuasion. Perhaps some good foreign policy analysts have addressed this and I’ve missed it, in which case I’d appreciate some pointers. If not, I’d love to see some discussion.
Might as well throw my two cents in, though I’m certain this won’t be read by anyone (maybe someone coming upon this post years, decades, or centuries from now might find an answer to ancient questions about the end of the Cold War).
War is Hell, and Truth is the First Casualty
Let me begin by stating this isn’t meant to condone the actions taken by any side in the lead-up to, the conduct during the war and in its aftermath. This…
To this day, most people regard Operation Desert Storm as remarkably clean, marked by the expert use of precision weapons to minimize “collateral damage.” While American TV repeatedly broadcast pictures of cruise missiles homing in on their targets, the Pentagon quietly went about a campaign of carpet bombing. Of the 142,000 tons of bombs dropped on Iraq and Kuwait in 43 days, only about 8% were of the “smart” variety.
The indiscriminate targeting of Iraq’s civilian infrastructure left the country in ruins. A United Nations mission in March 1991 described the allied bombing of Iraq as “near apocalyptic” and said it threatened to reduce “a rather highly urbanized and mechanized society … to a preindustrial age.” Officially, the U.S. military listed only 79 American soldiers killed in action, plus 59 members of allied forces.
A subsequent demographic study by the U.S. Census Bureau concluded that Iraq probably suffered 145,000 dead — 40,000 military and 5,000 civilian deaths during the war and 100,000 postwar deaths because of violence and health conditions. The war also produced more than 5 million refugees. Subsequent sanctions were estimated to have killed more than half a million Iraqi children, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and other international bodies.
…is well taken. Iraq has suffered horrifically from 1991 until the present. But Victor Marshall is brushing aside the injuries inflicted by Iraqis in a much smaller nation…
Some 300 Kuwaitis died as a direct result of the invasion and occupation. Of these, 9 were women. Around 190 Kuwaitis died in the invasion itself, especially the battles fought on August 2, or as a result of the air war and ground war, unexploded ordnance, or lack of medical care. The other 110 individuals were killed as a result of Resistance attacks or retribution. Of these, some 62 people were executed and 13 are thought to have died under torture. A further 22 were killed during civilian resistance (such as anti-Iraq demonstrations) and 13 during armed resistance.
One hundred and ten individuals killed as a result of Resistance attacks or retribution may not seem large. However, the numbers hide some chilling facts. First, many of those deaths were often barbaric, and followed days or weeks of brutal torture. Secondly, the average population of Kuwaitis in Kuwait for most of the occupation was about 300,000; this means that proportionally, twice as many Kuwaitis died in the seven-month occupation as Americans died in the decade-long Vietnam War. Thirdly, the number of dead does not reflect the trauma of hundreds, perhaps thousands of rapes and other assaults on Kuwaitis. Fourthly, this figure does not include the 564 Kuwaitis who remain unaccounted for, either because they are prisoners in Iraq or their bodies were destroyed or cannot be found.
Students of the Gulf War largely agree that Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait was primarily motivated by specific historical grievances, not by Hitler-style ambitions. Like most Iraqi rulers before him, Hussein refused to accept borders drawn by Britain after World War I that virtually cut Iraq off from the Gulf.
…gives cover to a mass-murderer and the atrocities committed by him and his cronies. Not only that, but the argument is spurious–whose claims in Israel/Palestine are valid under such logic? Ancient gripes or the suffering of people today? In regards to Kuwait, this is what mattered:
Iraq also chafed at Kuwait’s demand that Iraq repay loans made to it during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.
Proximity matters. The politically-minded Victor Marshall and Jonathan Bernstein seem to make an essential error in analyzing Operation Desert Storm. In trying to ascribe a higher purpose (either respectable or nefarious) behind deciding to go to war in 1991, these pundits overlook the fact that military realities often overshadow all other political considerations during the prelude to war.
Evolving Military Objectives
The military situation in 2003 was not at all the same as what George Bush (born 1924) faced in 1991 across the Arabian desert. Iraq possessed massive offensive military muscle in 1990:
More than any other country, Iraq is a nation under arms–a society dominated to an unparalleled degree by a war machine that consumes fully a quarter of the country’s oil-rich treasure and half of its able-bodied men.
Already Iraq’s army is the fifth largest in the world, a million men and growing, larger in raw numbers than the U.S. Army and Marine Corps combined. Currently mobilizing still more men, U.S. analysts now believe, Baghdad soon will have boosted that force by half, handing weapons and uniforms to three of every four men between the ages of 15 and 49. And each of these soldiers is held to a standard of unquestioning loyalty to one man: Saddam Hussein.
“In many ways, Iraq is like the Soviet Union: A great hell of a big military establishment,” said a U.S. official. “It’s their chief industry. They produce dates and oil and weapons”–and little else, he said.
The Iraqi army is an experienced, highly disciplined and well-equipped force–capable even of a complex helicopter-borne assault like the commando raid 10 days ago that seized the emir’s palace in Kuwait city long before heavy tanks arrived to secure the captured capital.
Those heavy tanks the LA Times spoke of were part of an immense Iraqi arsenal that numbered well over 5,000. Today, war hawks talk up Iran as becoming a major regional threat. 24 years ago, Iraq had the capability of launching armor- and artillery-heavy (conventional) cross-border incursions into Saudi Arabia even under relentless air attack. At the turn of the last decade of the second millennium, Iraq unquestionably was a massive threat to its neighbors even without chemical or nuclear weapons.
Jonathan Bernstein nearly hits why Iraq 1991 was fundamentally different than Iraq 2003:
The explicit goal was to enforce a worldwide ban against aggressive wars: don’t invade your neighbors, or the whole world will gang up against you. I’m not convinced that a would-be aggressor in 2014 looks back at the consequences of the Gulf War and decides not to invade its neighbor. There’s also the question of the justice achieved for Kuwait and its people. I suppose that’s real, but I’m not sure it’s worth much.
I have a question, Mr. Bernstein—how many countries was Saddam Hussein able to invade after 1991? None, right? Why is that?
These photos were taken in February 1991 along the infamous “Highway of Death.” Thousands of Iraqi Army armored, artillery, and auxiliary vehicles were struck by Coalition air strikes in a massacre of Hussein’s already-battered and beaten soldiers as they retreated from Kuwait.
Saddam Hussein had sent an immense force into Kuwait, a force that might have had designs on taking the United Arab Emirates (which would have required rolling through Saudi Arabia and its oil fields), according to General Norman Schwarzkopf. We can argue if Ambassador April Glaspie unwittingly green-lit Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait or how culpable the U.S. was in arming the Iraqis in the first place, but the fact that the vast majority of Iraq’s military vehicles in 1991 were Soviet or PRC in origin seems to indicate Hussein already had a quite adversarial relationship with the West. A historian a century from now might even conclude Desert Storm was the last conflict in the Cold War…
War is a Political Decision Made for Military Reasons
The American reaction to Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait on 2 August 1990 was more or less reflexive–the U.S. military had a conditioned, choreographed response planned out to what had become a real-world scenario.
Fear of a Soviet mechanized attack through Iran to seize the Persian Gulf’s oil fields had led the United States since the 1970s to pre-position Military Sealift Command vessels at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, loaded with armored vehicles and artillery that would be brought into the Gulf to meet up with arriving stateside marines and soldiers in the event World War III began.
The same principle applied to Iraq/Kuwait in 1990, in the buildup of combat forces on Saudi Arabian soil entitled Operation Desert Shield. Triumph in the Desert indicates 24% of the U.S.’s oil imports came from the Gulf in 1989, while Europe and Japan’s Gulf import quotient came to 42% and 67% respectively. Saddam Hussein managed to rally most of the industrialized world against him, especially after he moved the bulk of his forces up to the border between Saudi Arabia and Iraq’s new “nineteenth province.”
The maneuver was ostensibly defensive, as the formidable fortifications the Iraqis dug along the Kuwait/Saudi Arabian border attested. However, these same mechanized forces would soon find themselves “defending” Khafji in the first land battle of the war–a Saudi Arabian city 10 km from the Kuwaiti border that itself sits adjacent to two large oil fields.
U.S. Central Command was and remains responsible for American military planning in the Gulf region (in 1990 its commander was General Schwarzkopf). Once Hussein started to become a regional threat at the tail-end of the Iran/Iraq War that concluded in 1988, CENTCOM planners in Tampa had decades of plans involving an aggressor threatening the Saudi oil fields. The belligerents were assumed to be Russian, but the ill-trained and far more isolated Iraqis fit into the “enemy” markers just as easily.
As the Coalition (a collection of pissed-off oil importers and Arab states adjoining Saudi Arabia) marshaled a massive armored fist in the desert preceded and supported by vast, incredibly powerful air forces, the only stumbling block was political considerations. Should the Soviet Union (the U.S.S.R. collapse was still over a year away) threaten to intervene on behalf of its military customer, the Coalition might have had to wait for Hussein to commit an overtly hostile act against Saudi Arabia before flattening him. Instead, the Soviets voted to support UN Security Council Resolution 660, 661, 662, 664, 665, 666, 667, 669, 670, 674, 677 and 678. All twelve condemned the Iraqi invasion, and UNSCR 678 set 15 January 1991 as the deadline after which member states were authorized to evict the Iraqi military by force.
In Conventional War, Killing an Enemy Until He Surrenders is the Road to “Victory”
A simple, honest list of United States objectives in January 1991 might read like this:
- Sweep the Iraqi Air Force from the skies
- Defeat the Iraqi Army
- In the process of accomplishing 1 & 2, liberate Kuwait
Schwarzkopf himself stated:
I had to establish my own objectives, and my own objectives frankly turned out to be, you know, number one objective: Iraqis out of Kuwait, number two: inflict as much damage as I could on their armed forces so they couldn’t come back another day.
The kick them out of Iraq objective was one that was given to us by United Nations Resolution. But the second part of this thing; inflict maximum damage upon the Iraqi armed forces so that they cannot return, you know, shortly thereafter, was another objective that evolved. But again you’ll never find that in writing, anywhere.
Sure, these still serve political ends to some degree. After #3 was accomplished…
Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, left, Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell, center, and Desert Storm Commander Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf wave from the reviewing stand after they led a ticker tape parade through the streets of New York June 10, 1991.
…there were definite political overtones as serious consideration was made toward awarding both Powell and Schwarzkopf a fifth star. Though the political follow-through after Desert Storm was somewhat lacking—the last American military officer to earn five stars remains Omar Bradley in 1950, and George H. W. Bush failed to secure reelection in 1992.
In reality, political considerations took a back seat in 1991. The American forces had one overriding objective in Operation Desert Storm—eviscerate Iraq’s military. If Kuwait was liberated as a result, that was icing on the cake. That prime objective was accomplished in spades:
By most published estimates, in 1990 Iraq had a total of about 5,500 tanks, of which apparently as many as 4,200 were deployed in the Kuwait theater of operations. Accepting the highest USCENTCOM claim of 3,700 tanks destroyed during DESERT STORM, post-war Iraqi armor holdings should amount to about 1,800 tanks. The lowest reported number of tanks destroyed was about 3,000. And based on the reported vagaries of damage assessment by various intelligence agencies, the lowest estimate of tanks destroyed might be about half the highest claimed number, or about 1,800. According to one estimate, using spare parts and equipment salvaged after the war, Iraq managed to return to service most of the 2,500 tanks that survived Desert Storm.
IRAQI ARMY LOSSES (Kuwait only)
Tanks 4,280 3,008
AFVs 2,870 1,856
Artillery 3,110 2,140
Flight International March 6, 1991
The next twelve years the U.S. did engage in an expensive effort to interdict Iraqi attempts to reassert control in Kurdish and Shi’ite areas with mixed results, but succeeded completely in preventing the Iraqi Army from rearming:
Although Iraq does have an indigenous tank repair capability, presumably almost all of the tanks claimed by USCENTCOM were either abandoned in Kuwaiti territory, or were damaged beyond repair. Iraq is not known to have an indigenous tank production capability, nor are there any reports of sales of any major land combat systems to Iraq since DESERT STORM [reports of sales of spare parts notwithstanding].
What were the political considerations that were common to President Bush (born 1924), President Clinton and President Bush (born 1946) which lead three presidential administrations to put up with a containment strategy for a dozen years? What if there weren’t any? What if Iraq was dealt with strictly on military terms?
In twentieth century wars like Desert Storm (and conventional wars in general), everything boiled down to answering a few simple questions—can we find him? Can we kill him? When do we kill him? This might seem crude, but that was military reality during the Cold War. In the event that a full-scale war had erupted between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, the battlefield would have been crawling with targets. American military development during the latter half of the twentieth century increasingly emphasized getting bombs and shells on target the first time, every time—to counter the Soviet superiority in sheer numbers. The American armor maxim was “if you can see him, you can hit him; if you can hit him, you should kill him.”
The destruction of Iraq’s military during Desert Storm was so complete over a hundred of Iraq’s fighter pilots fled with their aircraft into Iran to escape certain death. Conventional combat is fairly straightforward in this regard—in the First and Second World Wars and Iraq 1991 American forces and their allies kept killing the enemy until victory (unconditional surrender or outright annihilation) was attained.
But this begs the question—why didn’t American forces advance into and overrun Iraq in 1991? Hindsight shows that stopping the war without capturing Basra let alone Baghdad was a prudent move, but that doesn’t answer the nagging question—why?
The Invasion Enigma
Desert Storm taught a valuable lesson—destroying an enemy doesn’t require deposing its leader. General Schwarzkopf was wrong:
Q: Saddam. What were your instructions with regard to Saddam Hussein?
Schwarzkopf: Well, the objective regarding Saddam Hussein was that he was in fact a center of gravity. He was the single most important person in Iraq, and not only that but in Iraq’s determination to fight this war.
Did Saddam Hussein’s capture on 13 December 2003 end the second Iraq/American war? Did his execution on 30 December 2006 have any effect on the incipient civil war? Oddly enough, Schwarzkopf knows where the real center of gravity laid in 1991:
Q: What do you remember about your encounter with them? Do you remember asking about the POWs?
Schwarzkopf: Well, my first order of business was the POWs and we knew exactly how many people were missing and we wanted an accountability of how many were alive, how many were dead, how many were POWs and this sort of thing.
So he sat down and said “I’m prepared to give you that information” And I said “Would you give it to me now?” And they reeled off the status of each one and how many bodies they had and this sort of thing.
And at that point I said “OK, I want to now talk about the return of the dead bodies.”
And he interrupted me and said “Wait a minute, how about our POWs? I want to know the status of our POWs.” And I said to him “Well very good. We have fifty thousand,” I believe the number was I gave him, “we have fifty thousand and we’re still counting.”
And his whole face just changed. Up until that time they had been a little bit arrogant I think, but I think at that moment they came to understand the magnitude of their defeat.
I don’t think they had the slightest idea how many people they had had captured and when I told them fifty thousand, their whole demeanor changed. And then subsequently, when we were. I was showing them the demarcation lines on the maps, and they said “Well, you know, why is it that our troops have to draw all the way back to these demarcation lines?”
And I said “You don’t understand, my troops are considerably forward of these demarcation lines! We’re the ones that are drawing back to establish these buffer zones so that we are not going to shoot each other”. And again this was the subject of a great deal of conversation and murmuring. I think, once again, they were shocked at how far we had advanced.
What prevented Schwarzkopf from advancing all the way to Baghdad? It certainly wasn’t Schwarzkopf himself:
So the bottom line, as far as I’m concerned, is that sure, emotionally I would have loved to have gone to Baghdad and grabbed Saddam Hussein, but this was not an emotional decision, it was a strategic decision, and strategically we were smart enough to win the war and win the peace.
“We?” Who’s these “we” people Schwarzkopf is referring to?
Q: I guess the key thing I’m coming back to is this. When I talked to the people who were sat in that room, in the White House…. Baker, Cheney, Richard Haass, Gates and Scowcroft and various other people who were sitting there…. They say yes there was concern on the part of Colin Powell about the slaughter. There was no concern among the politicians…What you’re telling me rather turns that on its head.
Schwarzkopf: Wait a minute. Wait. Just a minute now. Realistically, it is not a military decision to go to war any more than it is a military decision to end a war. The decision to go to war and the decision to end a war is completely, totally and one hundred percent a political decision. Period.
Schwarzkopf means “Washington.” All of the men PBS listed claim they were aware of the pitfalls and were opposed to advancing northwest, but is anyone buying that Dick Cheney thought that? Someone in Washington must have been the driving force behind limiting the war, and according to Richard Haass, it was President Bush (born 1924):
And the president, President George H.W. Bush, felt totally committed to not expanding the range. He almost felt it would have been something of a bait and switch, that he had gone to Congress and gone to the U.N. with a limited set of aims, and he was very worried about changing them midway through. He thought that he would sacrifice an awful lot of good will, particularly also in the Arab world. And he thought he could translate that good will into tremendous progress on Arab-Israeli peace.
Perhaps—but I don’t think this is the full story. For President Bush (born 1946) to expose with such certainty an Iraq invasion policy diametrically opposite his father’s earlier conviction…
REMNICK: But he made this decision extraordinarily early. You and others were told very, very early in the process that this was an irrevocable decision and that all the angst and arguments and furor and protests played out in the streets and in the press and elsewhere was really an irrelevancy in the end of the day. Why? What was the core of his conviction, as you witnessed it, as Powell witnessed it? What was at the center of it for him?
HAASS: David, I don’t know if there’s much I can add to what I just said, I mean, except to say it’s clear this decision was reached early. Usually in the U.S. government —
REMNICK: But how?
HAASS: Oh, well, how. I mean, well, how, I think it was largely reached in informal conversations and in people’s own thought processes. There wasn’t a meeting of a National Security Council in which the decision of whether to go to war was teed up. In government, you never know what you don’t know, but I would have known about that. And that never happened, that meeting. There was never this sort of formal decision-making where people thought through in a systematic way, to my knowledge, all the pros and cons of not going to war with all the policy avenues you could have taken as well as the pros and cons of going to war and the likely costs and benefits.
And the president was later asked about this and actually said he didn’t need such a formal meeting. He obviously knew where he stood. He obviously, he thought, knew where everybody else was, and essentially everybody else was comfortable with it except my boss, Powell, who did think not —
REMNICK: Forgive me for interrupting, but would you describe Powell as — you describe yourself in this book at 60-40 against the war.
…I think a powerful voice had to be backing both Presidents named George Bush. Cheney was Vice President in 2003, and is sometimes considered the most powerful VP in history. For George Bush (born 1924), that voice likely was Brent Scowcroft’s:
I thought we had two interests. One was to evict the Iraqi Army from Kuwait. But the other really was to get Saddam out of power.
No, it wasn’t.
Well, either covertly or overtly.
No. No, it wasn’t. That was never… You can’t find that anywhere as an objective, either in the U.N. mandate for what we did, or in our declarations, that our goal was to get rid of Saddam Hussein.
I guess the question that’s been raised to us by exiled Iraqis, is that America had the opportunity and didn’t take it. And not that it’s our responsibility, they say, to do that, but we were clearly in charge.
Let me pursue that a little. First of all, their view of the situation at the end of the war is … well, it’s not mine. Secondly, had we gone in and occupied Iraq, first of all, the coalition would have split up immediately. As it was, our Arab allies with troops on the ground did not let those troops go into Iraq. They stopped at the border.
Of Kuwait, yes. The coalition would have collapsed. We would have been in occupation of an Arab land, hostile Arab land. Look at the mood in that part of the world about the United States now.
Scowcroft, a retired Air Force lieutenant general and former National Security Advisor under Gerald Ford, succeeded Colin Powell on 20 January 1989 as George Bush’s (born 1924) first and only National Security Advisor. Scowcroft wrote, along with the second president he served, a piece entitled Reasons Not to Invade Iraq in 1998. Scowcroft also did not endear himself to President George Bush (born 1946):
In an interview with The New Yorker magazine, Scowcroft, whose relations with the Bush administration have been badly strained since he publicly warned against invading Iraq seven months before U.S. troops crossed over from Kuwait, argued that the invasion was counter-productive.
“This was said to be part of the war on terror, but Iraq feeds terrorism,” Scowcroft told the magazine, adding that the war risked moving public opinion against any new foreign policy commitments for some time, just as the Vietnam War did during the late-1970s and through the 1980s.
“Vietnam was visceral in the American people,” said Scrowcroft, who also served as national security adviser in the mid-1970s under former President Gerald Ford. “This was a really bitter period, and it turned us against foreign-policy adventures deeply. This is not that deep, (but) we’re moving in that direction.”
George Bush’s (born 1924) son apparently never understood that unconventional warfare, as seen in Vietnam, Afghanistan (for the Soviets and Americans) and Iraq after the 2003 disbandment of Saddam Hussein’s army, is an entirely different animal than mechanized combat.
From Bush the Wiser to Bush the Clueless
George Bush (born 1946) endlessly talked about “victory” in Iraq a decade and a half after Desert Storm, apparently unaware that convincing tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers to surrender (80,000 were taken prisoner in 1991) only occurred because the Iraqis couldn’t go home. Stranded along “Highways of Death” with hundreds of miles of empty, inhospitable desert separating themselves from Baghdad, Tikrit and Mosul, surrender was an easy decision over certain death.
After disbanding the army in 2003, tens of thousands of aggrieved Iraqi soldiers returned to their families and launched an insurrection.
To which Bush responded “bring ‘em on.”
A decade later, ISIS still heeds the American president’s call to arms.