January 22, 2002

Gulf War One Reconsidered

Roughly eleven years ago, the United States began its aerial campaign to force Iraq to withdraw its troops from Kuwait. A few weeks later, General Schwarzkopf launched his famous flanking action on the ground with stunning success. The rapid victory for American arms brought an end to a vigorous debate which had begun nearly six months before, after Saddam Hussein's military annexation of Kuwait, and President Bush's rush of combat troops to Saudi Arabia to deter further Iraqi aggression.

For the war hawks, Saddam was a new Hitler; and the lesson of the 1930s was that aggression could not stand. The entire structure of the post-Cold War world depended on forceful American military action against Iraqi aggression.

But for the first time since the early 1950s, there were prominent pockets of antiwar sentiment on the Right: the columns of Patrick Buchanan and Robert Novak and Rowland Evans were widely read, and the three made TV appearances; Joseph Sobran, then a senior editor of National Review, was one of the founders of Committee to Avert a Middle East Holocaust; military experts like Edward Luttwak were skeptical that Iraq could be driven from Kuwait without thousands, even tens of thousands of American casualties.

Centrist liberals like Arthur Schlesinger Jr. disseminated the unpleasant but important truth that the Gulf Arabs whose nations and oil we were supposedly defending held the United States in complete contempt. Scarcely a week before the bombing began, Schlesinger quoted in the Wall Street Journal dispatch from Saudi Arabia: "You think I want to send my teen-aged son to die for Kuwait? We have our white slaves from America to do that." And, quoting a Saudi teacher: "The American soldiers are a new kind of foreign worker here. We have Pakistanis driving taxis and now we have Americans defending us."

In the weeks prior to the beginning of the bombardment, the don't-go-to-war-party was gradually winning the day. Polls showed public opinion almost evenly divided on whether to "give sanctions a chance" or to attack Iraq. The leaders of all the main Christian churches urged a negotiated solution to the crisis.

While there were few antiwar demonstrations, there was serious argument among opinion leaders at nearly all levels. Barely a year after the Soviet empire's collapse, Americans, as one foreign correspondent put it, were debating seriously "what it meant to be an American in the world in the 1990s."

For most people, the rapid military victory seemed to vindicate the pro-war side. The antiwar conservatives generally changed the subject. Saddam was ousted from Kuwait. The much vaunted Iraqi Republican Guards had fled in terror. Iraqi troops surrendered by the thousands, sometimes to journalists armed with no more than cameras. American casualties were measured not in the feared tens of thousands, but in the hundreds. The only question most asked was whether the US erred in assuming that Saddam would be toppled after he was forced to withdraw.

Afterwards, a few skeptical essays appeared, wondering what, actually, had been won. In the Atlantic Monthly, Christopher Layne argued that the Gulf War had not been in the national interest: Washington, argued Layne, had been manipulated by regional powers Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt, principally and emerged from the conflict with an intoxicating but unrealistic belief in its unchallenged power. Contrary to the Bush administration's rhetoric, no "New World Order" had been brought into being, there was little prospect for a durable Mideast peace, and great danger that the United States would be tempted into further interventions, of a scope far wider than the Cold War containment of Marxist-Leninism had allowed. The apparent "unipolar moment" brought about by the victory would, Layne said, prove fleeting.

Robert W. Tucker, writing in the conservative National Interest, noted the disparity between the negligible American casualties and the possibly hundreds of thousands of dead and wounded on the Iraqi side, and questioned whether such a slaughter could be fit into any theory of a "Just War." He was skeptical.

But generally, the feeling at the rapid collapse of the Iraqi forces was relief, even glee.

The debate over the first Iraq war whose surface this column has only skimmed didn't predict the future well, but any reader who delves into the periodicals of eleven plus years ago will be rewarded by its openness and intensity.

And who really was right? It now seems arguably correct (as it did not seem to me at the time) that the first Iraq war was ill-conceived. The United States action did manage to stabilize the world oil market, and pump billions of barrels from the Gulf in the roaring 1990s. As a result, SUVs now rule the road in the upscale suburbs.

Balanced against the putative benefits of the triumph of the gas-guzzler, global animosity towards Americans has increased tremendously. The decade of the 1990s saw the escalation of terrorist attacks against American interests and citizens, culminating in September 11. There may be far worse in store.

No one (to my knowledge) accurately predicted the chain of events which actually transpired: an easy American victory over Iraq, and the subsequent establishment of a sort of military protectorate over the Gulf, that in turn led to a fundamentalist reaction in most Arab states against American power and the American presence, thereby giving a fanatically anti-Western terrorist movement tens of thousands of potential recruits.

But no sane person could look at the world today, nearly 11 years after America waged its unnecessary war to ensure Kuwait's survival and the power of its corrupt ruling family, and say that world is a safer place for the average American because of it.

Text-only printable version of this article

As a committed cold warrior during the 1980's, Scott McConnell wrote extensively for Commentary and other neoconservative publications. Throughout much of the 1990's he worked as a columnist, chief editorial writer, and finally editorial page editor at the New York Post. Most recently, he served as senior policy advisor to Pat Buchanan's 2000 campaign , and writes regularly for NY Press/Taki's Top Drawer.

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