LOS ANGELES - If there is one thing we can all agree on about the first Gulf War, it's that it ended too soon. The United States-led coalition should have moved on to Baghdad and decapitated its Butcher when it had the chance, preventing 12 interminable years of misery and deception.
As Slate commentator Mickey Kaus wryly suggested this week, 2003's Operation Iraq Freedom might be more effectively labelled, simply, as "Finish the Job."
It says something important about the unpredictability of war, and the famous historical amnesia of Americans, that the sentiments of this now-consensus opinion were almost nowhere to be found during the first giddy weeks after the allies' Feb. 28, 1991, victory.
As then-secretary of state James Baker defensively recalled in his 1995 memoir, The Politics of Diplomacy: Revolution, War & Peace, 1989-92, "Many of those who now complain that we erred badly by halting the war fully supported the decision at the time."
The fact is conveniently overlooked that the President's decision to order a ceasefire after 100 hours of fighting was enthusiastically endorsed by the military, our coalition partners, the Congress and American public opinion."
Why didn't a single member of the first Bush Cabinet make the case for regime change? Because that wasn't the carefully crafted, diplomatically vetted aim of the war -- liberating Kuwait was, with the secondary goal of making sure Iraq could no longer launch wars against its neighbours.
This point has been obscured, then and now, by the "no blood for oil" types, who have taken a legitimate grievance -- that U.S. policy in the Middle East has been dangerously warped by interest in petroleum reserves -- and turned it into a three-letter, one-size-fits-all conspiracy theory.
But it was also muddied by the 41st president himself, who spent much of the buildup to war comparing Saddam Hussein to Hitler, and encouraging the Iraqi population to revolt. (Wouldn't a real Hitler require more response than pushing him back over the border and levying economic sanctions?)
These mixed messages and mandates, of course, ended horrifically, with Saddam's regrouped Republican Guard turning its helicopter gunships on insurgent marsh Arabs to the south, and Kurds fleeing in the mountainous north. The Bush Administration wasted six murderous weeks doing nothing, before establishing the safe havens that would eventually allow Kurdish independence to flourish.
Twelve years of hindsight tell us this was a tragic mistake. But it also illustrates how much we've changed since then. In 1991, the U.S. was still deeply spooked by Vietnam, the last great foreign military adventure, and was unsure about its precise role in a convulsing world. Despite a UN mandate, 33 coalition partners (including Syria and Saudi Arabia), and a clear-cut rationale, domestic support for Gulf War I paled in comparison to its sequel. Four days before hostilities, the U.S. Senate approved military force by the razor-thin margin of 52-47, compared with the 77-23 vote in favour of Gulf War II last fall. Public opinion polls in 1990-91 showed deep ambivalence toward the conflict and a desire to maximize diplomacy, followed by a last-minute spike of two-thirds support; the same pattern held in 2002-03, only higher.
What changed? More than anything, the Sept. 11 massacre affected the States in a way outsiders seem to understand less and less. It dramatically lowered the bar for pre-emptive military intervention -- now, if Americans believe a dictator has the slightest inclination to support a catastrophic act of terror on our soil, he's in trouble. Isolationism, traditionally a thick strain in domestic politics, has now been marginalized into a fringe superstition, practised by the supporters of such failed presidential candidates as Pat Buchanan, Ralph Nader and Harry Browne.
Historical context is also considerably different. In 1991, every debate about foreign intervention was haunted by the ghosts of Indochina. The wholly unexpected speed and success of the war brought out a collective national exhale of relief and patriotism, which the administration did not want to jeopardize by getting bogged down in the kind of street-fighting that doomed the subsequent Somalia intervention.
"Emotionally," Baker wrote, "the success of the war was powerful tonic for the American psyche. In six short weeks, the bitter legacy of Vietnam had been swept away by Desert Storm. Euphoria permeated the country to a degree not seen since World War II."
Now, the relevant memories of war are the overwhelming victories of Gulf War I, Bosnia and Kosovo. The latter two conflicts also brought three new lessons that affect today's policy: 1) Modern Europe won't lead the way in flexing muscle to end racialist slaughter, even in its own back yard; 2) approval from the United Nations, which didn't authorize either action, is not a necessary precondition; and 3) we are willing to attack a sovereign country that hasn't attacked us.
There are other lessons to be mined from the spring of 1991. One is the banal but always-relevant observation that war is essentially unpredictable, and will create side-effects the combatants failed to plan for.
The first Bush Administration had been assured by its "moderate Arab friends" in Cairo and Riyadh that after his crushing defeat, Saddam "would be ousted by a coup within six to eight months." But Washington did nothing to engineer that coup (in fact, General Norman Schwarzkopf, who negotiated the final ceasefire, gave the Iraqis explicit authority to fly armed helicopters over its own territory, allowing Saddam to put down any rebellions).
Furthermore, Bush and Baker and Co. were far more worried about ethnic, religious and border instability than about the repressive actions of their anointed Hitler. "[We] feared Iraq might fragment in unpredictable ways that would play into the hands of the mullahs in Iran," Baker wrote.
Above all, there was no plan for Saddam staying in power.
"We never really expected him to survive a defeat of such magnitude," Baker wrote. "The result was a sobering reminder that the consequences of success are often far more intricate and unpredictable than anticipated."
Duration is also notoriously impossible to predict. Gulf War I was supposed to last several months, but was over in six weeks; the Kosovo aerial bombing campaign was supposed to wrap in a couple of weeks, but lasted three months, and was almost called off due to growing public opposition. Already in this new war, George W. Bush has warned the fight "could be longer and more difficult than some predict."
This very concern helped stay his father's hand. Again, James Baker: "Iraqi soldiers and civilians could be expected to resist an enemy seizure of their country with a ferocity not previously demonstrated on the battlefield in Kuwait. Even if Saddam were captured and his regime toppled, American forces would still be confronted with the spectre of a military occupation of indefinite duration to pacify the country and sustain a new government.
The ensuing urban warfare would surely result in more casualties to American GIs than the war itself, thus creating a political firestorm at home, criticism from many of our allies, and the dissolution of the coalition."
Dubya's "coalition of the willing" is a different beast than the Bush-Baker "New World Order" crowd.
For all the understandable worry over the great trans-Atlantic rift (eventual consequences of which we can only guess at now), allied governments must surely be relieved that this time around they don't have to pander to the concerns of the French, Russians and (to a lesser degree) various Mideast governments.
The Soviet Union used the distraction of a pending Gulf War to crush a Lithuanian protest on Jan. 13, 1991, killing 15. Baker, fearing a weakened "coalition," muted his protest. "We didn't want to be so harsh that Gorbachev might be tempted, as the President said, to bail out on us," he explained.
The Soviets, long-time backers of Baghdad, also mucked up the diplomatic process, as they would at every stage during the subsequent Balkan wars (culminating in Boris Yeltsin's bizarre 1999 "liberation" of Pristina's airport). For 13 years, American diplomats have held their noses to deal with Russian initiatives motivated nakedly by neurotic fear of global insignificance. Not this time.
Arab support for the 1991 coalition also came at a price -- an explicit, and in retrospect bizarre linkage to an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. Not that the conflict shouldn't be at or near the top of American Mideast policy, but what exactly was the connection with Iraq overrunning Kuwait? This time around, Bush gave last-minute lip service to a two-state solution, possibly as a boost to embattled British Prime Minister Tony Blair, possibly because he believes his neo-conservative foreign policy advisors who envision Operation Iraq Freedom as the first step in a regional wave of democratization.
As for France, with the firing of the first Tomahawk, the country has gone from first to last in our minds. Analysts attempting to assign blame for the UN Security Council impasse already give off the impression of fiddling while Rome bombs. It will take a historian to sort through Bush's unilateralist bluffing, and French President Jacques Chirac's fateful blanket "non," but I would like to suggest one unlikely turning point in Franco-American relations:
It was December, 2000, and I was in Lyon for the annual Christmas visit with the in-laws. The U.S. election was still contested, but it looked like Bush had won. Students at a nearby university were on the streets, protesting. Why? Bush's support for the death penalty. It didn't matter, to them, Bush's predecessor actually expanded the federal death penalty more than any president in history, or that the Clinton Administration, too, opposed Kyoto and the International Criminal Court. No, Bush was a dangerous cowboy, and Americans were crazy for electing him.
Knee-jerk European opposition to Bush is largely visceral and aesthetic, which is not a formula for policy innovation. After five months of diplomatic bait-and-switch, during which France kept arguing for measures, such as intrusive inspections, which it had openly opposed for a decade, U.S. public opinion has begun to return the insult.
But this has taken a back seat to the task at hand, which (unlike 1991) is being conducted French-free. By casting his position as a referendum on U.S. power, Chirac has alienated the Anglo-Saxon countries, but he also may have foreshadowed a world where countries view events through the distorting lens of obsession with the ever-more powerful U.S.
That would be a far cry from the new world George Bush and James Baker thought their war had ushered in 12 years ago today.
"I believed the invasion of Kuwait and its liberation by an American-led coalition had established a dramatic new reality in the region," Baker wrote. "Arab radicalism had been discredited, thus strengthening the hand of moderate Arab nations such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In defeating Iraq, the United States had earned the deep gratitude of all of the Gulf Arabs. At the same time, we had neutralized the gravest threat to Israel's security. The Soviet Union, long a force for trouble in the area, was now a partner of American diplomacy. And American credibility internationally was higher than at any time since the end of World War II."
Matt Welch is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. His work is archived at www.mattwelch.com