Academic journal article Parameters

Thirteen Years: The Causes and Consequences of the War in Iraq

Academic journal article Parameters

Thirteen Years: The Causes and Consequences of the War in Iraq

Article excerpt

The mission of our troops is wholly defensive," President George H. W. Bush intoned as elements of the 82d Airborne and US Air Force arrived in Saudi Arabia to defend it against an Iraqi invasion. "Hopefully, they will not be needed long." That was 8 August 1990.

Thirteen years later, the Americans are finally withdrawing from the land of Mecca and Medina--and the long, strange war against Saddam Hussein is essentially over. When it began, no one thought it would last 13 years, that it would set the stage for a global conflict unlike any in history, that it would fracture the Atlantic Alliance and mortally wound the United Nations. But it did. As the postwar period begins, it is largely left to the United States to face these realities and brace for new challenges. To avoid making similar mistakes in the aftermath of this war, the United States should be guided by these "Three R's": Rebuilding, Reviewing, and Reforming.

The Beginning

As others have explained elsewhere at great length, the forces of Arab nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism seldom work together. However, in a very real sense it was Saddam Hussein--once the personified definition of Arab nationalism--that catapulted fundamentalist al Qaeda into a terror superpower and set in motion a series of events that led to the bloodiest day on American soil since the Civil War.

By invading Kuwait in the summer of 1990, Saddam left the defenseless Saudis with two options--cut a deal and surrender, or allow the Americans to dig in. The Saudis chose the latter, hopeful that the American deployment would be short and small. Of course, those hopes weren't realized. The initial deployment of a few hundred troops swelled to some 600,000 in preparation for Operation Desert Storm. Kuwait was liberated and Saddam was weakened, but Washington declared a cease-fire before the American juggernaut could destroy key units of the Republican Guard, which were vital to Saddam's survival. Historian Derek Leebaert calls the war a "tactical success misread as strategic triumph." (1)

Deflecting criticisms of the war's untidy conclusion in their book A World Transformed, Bush and his national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, argued in 1998 that shutting down the ground war at the hundred-hour mark was the right thing to do. "The United States could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land," they concluded. (2) Of course, that's effectively what happened, at least in the eyes of Osama bin Laden and his followers.

In a sense, occupation was inevitable after the war; perhaps the United States ended up occupying the wrong country. Since a wounded Saddam could not be left unattended and an oil-rich Saudi Arabia could not be left unprotected, US troops took up permanent residence in the Saudi kingdom. The presence of foreign troops in the Muslim holy land galvanized al Qaeda, which carried out the attacks of 11 September 2001, which triggered America's global war on terror, which led inevitably back to Iraq, which is where America finds itself today. When viewed from this side of history, the events between 1990 and 2003 look like something out of a Greek tragedy--each decision fateful, each step leading inexorably to the very thing we hoped to prevent.

This is not to say that the first Bush Administration is to blame for the tragedy. The elder Bush crafted a historic diplomatic and military campaign, hewed to the UN mandate, and took a calculated risk that Saddam would fall. He wasn't the first President to make such a calculation, but like Kim, Castro, and others, Saddam survived. To finish him off, Washington waged what came to be known as "low-grade war." It consisted of sanctions, CIA operations, and weekly or even daily air attacks on targets of opportunity such as radar posts, SAM sites, and other facilities on the extreme periphery of Saddam Hussein's power.

Capitalizing on Washington's preoccupation with Iraq, al Qaeda and its partners launched a global guerilla war against the United States in 1993. …

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