Two Mistakes in Iraq?

Since Americans are in the process of relitigating the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the 2009-2011 withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, Jonathan Bernstein has a pertinent question: should we also be reconsidering the wisdom of the 1991 Gulf War?

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. The people who pushed for regime change in Iraq during the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush presidencies were wrong about the probable effects of an invasion and occupation, but war opponents sometimes fail to acknowledge that the U.S. already was involved in difficult situation in the region. That doesn’t excuse the 2003 war, but it should raise further questions about previous mistakes.

What did the U.S. gain from the Gulf War? 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’m probably not completely objective on this issue, since in 1991 I was working for Sen. Sam Nunn, who led the opposition to the congressional authorization of that invasion of Iraq. I’d also point out that at least some of the proponents of the 2003 war did so on grounds that it was necessary to enforce the conditions of the post-Gulf-War truce. But the tendency to ignore the causal links between the 1991 and 2003 invasions is probably attributable to a dangerous willingness to make “success” as measured by U.S. casualties the test of a war’s moral acceptability and geopolitical efficacy. And that’s why one war often paves the road to another.

I’d be interested in gleaning readers’ retroactive thoughts about the Gulf War in the comments thread.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.