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The True History of the Gulf War

It was a good, principled relationship in which we had to reach accommodation under pressurized conditions without compromising the basic functions of either journalism or army operations.

Fialka calls his study, for good reason, The Hotel Warriors: Covering the Gulf War. There were so many reporters in Dharan from news organizations big and small, and the preparations to deal with them so pitiful and disorganized, that many of them gave up and wrote their “war stories” from the Dharan International Hotel, shamelessly rewriting reports from the pools, and, in two cases known to Fialka, without changing a word from what was sent to The Wall Street Journal. A reporter from the women’s magazine Mirabella spent much of her time writing about the sex lives of female soldiers and drugs used by medical units. The press was clearly not without fault, as Fialka makes clear. Nevertheless, the main responsibility for the war reporting was the Army’s, which set the rules and permitted its officers to carry them out with the arrogance and capriciousness of a military caste apart.

One can only conclude from Fialka’s study that this was the worst reported war in American history. Fialka considers the implications:

The hard lessons of war must be learned, not reshaped to fit the commanders’ predictions. The matter of what worked and what didn’t in the Gulf War battlefields will cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars and drive major federal budget decisions for years to come. This was a war where the military remained in control of most of the evidence and where the Army commanders’ paranoid fear of the media helped bury one of the most positive Army stories since World War II. The acceptance of a loss like that raises the deeper issues of whether the Army becomes more open or closed to public view. If it is ignored, the question of an increasingly inward-looking Army is one that could come back some day to haunt us all.

The hard lessons of the war must also be learned by the press and television. Grenada was a war without witnesses, as Fialka says. The Gulf War was a war with too many witnesses, too many of them inexperienced and incompetent, who witnessed too little and wasted most of their time and efforts.

Fialka is almost as hard on the press as he is on the Army. He has performed the inestimable service of opening up this largely neglected aspect of the Gulf War. It remains to be seen whether the press and the Army choose to do nothing more about it and compound the damage done in the war.62


What, then, was the Gulf War?

It was a particularly two-faced war. On the positive side, it punished Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as an aggressor and deprived it of the spoils of its aggression. Every other country in this and other regions must now consider whether its ambitions will bring down upon it the superior firepower of the United States. For the time being, the United States cannot be neutralized by the threat of another superpower, such as the Soviet Union was once considered to be. For whatever it is worth, American ability to exert decisive power was established for the foreseeable future—if the conditions are right.

But an Iraq syndrome may be no better than the Vietnam syndrome. The one-sided victory in Iraq required a special kind of enemy—an enemy that did not fight. When Saddam Hussein said that the United States could not accept thousands of dead Americans, he was not necessarily fatuous. President Bush had much the same thing in mind when he promised the American people that this war was not going to be “protracted” and would have no “murky ending,” like the Vietnam War. The Gulf War was so short and sweet—for the Americans—that it was almost unique as wars go. Its military lessons, therefore, are extremely limited and may be little applicable in the future. The greatest mistake that can possibly be made is to think that the Gulf War proves that the United States has the power to do anything it pleases anywhere, with impunity.

Politically, it was a botched war. Kuwait survived but will never be the same. Nothing has been done to ameliorate the condition of the Shi’ites; something was temporarily done for the Kurds, but they may not be able to hold out against increasing pressure from Saddam Hussein’s forces, if the rest of the world forgets about them again, as it seems willing to do. Both Shi’ites and Kurds were encouraged by the United States to rebel, only to be abandoned once they had served our purpose, as if we had incurred no obligation to them. From the outset, President Bush announced that a war aim was the restoration of Kuwait’s previous regime, but at a later stage he might have added the rehabilitation of the Iraqi state system. In this respect, the war was deeply conservative in its main political aim. It was a war for the status quo in the region, not an advance installment of a “new world order.”63 Saudi Arabia came out of the war as the dominant Arab power in the Gulf and can be least expected to welcome anything new.

None of the disputes between Iraq and Kuwait—on borders, the two islands, the Rumaila oil fields—which have troubled their relations for decades, have been touched. Sooner or later these wounds will open again, because no regime in Iraq can permanently accept historic grievances.

Kuwait was and remains an anomaly. Its rulers show no sincere signs of having learned anything or forgotten anything, despite their near disaster. Their traditional policy of buying security and favor betrayed them, because their immense riches bred arrogance and overconfidence. It was not Arab sympathy for Kuwait that brought other Arab countries into the US-organized and -led coalition; it was the fear that what happened to Kuwait could happen to them. As long as “accidental states” like Kuwait have such excessive wealth for seemingly fortuitous and undeserved reasons, they attract the envy of less fortunate Arab states and the less fortunate within those states. To defend them against aggression is not the same as to deal with the problems which brought about the aggression.

Above all, the Gulf War set back the Arabs in their quest for self-definition. The Arab world has long been caught in the contradiction of trying to emulate the West for the sake of economic progress and of seeking to repudiate the West in order to be faithful to its religious heritage. When Saddam Hussein said that “the solution must be found within an Arab framework,” he sought to appeal to an Arab self-determination free of Western interference. His appeal failed because he was a threat to the very Arab nations from which he needed help or at minimum nonintervention. His crucial blunder was that he did not cover his Arab rear when he decided to advance on Kuwait. Without Saudi Arabia, the United States could not have moved into position, and without the United States, Saudi Arabia could not have rallied other Arab states.

As for the United States, it proved little more than that it can smite an opponent like Iraq in short order. Politically, it flinched when it was faced with the real challenge of somehow bringing into existence a new and better Iraq. By February 27, 1991, as General Schwarzkopf said, “there was nobody between us and Baghdad.” He was stopped by President Bush because the United States did not want to take on the risk of splitting Iraq as well as the responsibility of overthrowing Saddam Hussein’s regime and putting something else in its place. It was as if, in World War II, the Allies had stopped short of overthrowing the Nazi regime in order to evade the responsibility of governing Germany until conditions could be set in place to make possible another and better Germany.

After the decision was made to retire from Iraq and leave Saddam Hussein in control, the excuse was made that the United States was bound by the decision of the UN to do nothing more than liberate Kuwait. In effect, this justification shifted the responsibility from the United States to the United Nations. Yet though the United States had obtained one resolution after another from the UN, it had not made any effort to get a resolution dealing with the future of a beaten Iraq. By February 27, allied forces were well inside Iraq and needed no UN resolution to govern the territory already occupied. In any case UN Resolution 674 of October 29, 1990, had condemned Iraq for directly threatening “international peace and security,” a judgment broad enough to have permitted almost any policy to do away with the threat.

The UN was used both to get into the war and to get out of it. Saudi Arabia and Egypt were surely implicated in the decision to get out. They wished to teach Iraq a lesson not to aspire to Arab hegemony, but not so much of a lesson as to seriously weaken Iraq as a buffer against Iran. They preferred the Saddam Hussein they knew to a more liberal Iraq from which the contagion of a genuinely new order might spread to the authoritarian and autocratic Arab states. It was little noted that our Arab allies rather than the United States could have assumed the responsibility for setting up a post-Saddam interim regime in Iraq until the Iraqi people could find their voices and decide for themselves.

The decision to permit an Arab Hitler, as President Bush had called Saddam, to remain in power was political abdication and failure of nerve. It signified that we could dominate the region militarily but could not lead it politically. As a result, Saddam Hussein has been recovering his nerve and dares the victors to make good their victory. It is a perverse, paradoxical outcome for a “glorious victory.”

One domestic aspect of the war may have the most far-reaching consequences of all, because it touches the constitutional fabric of the nation. Other presidents have reached out for more and more power but not until George Bush did any president openly proclaim that he and he alone could decide on taking the country into war.64 This declaration of a presidential monopoly over the power to go to war has set a precedent which will haunt this country far longer than the Gulf War will remain a vivid memory. If it is permitted to go unchallenged, it represents a constitutional watershed of such consequence that future generations will look back at it with wonder that it could have slipped through so easily.

Far more important in the future of the United States than the dissolution of the Soviet Union or the victory in the Gulf War is what happens to the social and economic order in the United States itself. In another new book, Stephen R. Graubard does not overstate the danger that the greatest hazard before the United States is that it “will itself not be able to put its own house in order, that the disruptions following from this failure will affect the world more fundamentally and more permanently than anything produced by the collapse of the Communist utopia.”65 The foreign policy of the United States has become hostage to its domestic disorders, a condition made all the worse by the long refusal of the Bush administration to recognize the symptoms.

In the end, our Arab allies had far more at stake than did their Western benefactors. They were victors in a war which tore the Arab world apart and from which they had nothing to gain but the survival of the status quo. All the old Arab problems and contradictions remain and have even been exacerbated by the exhibition of Arabs fighting Arabs and of Arabs dependent on the West to save them from themselves.

In retrospect, Israel also paid a price for the war. Its relations with the Bush administration had been deteriorating for some time, but the war produced a problem which subtly moved the balance of US policy in favor of the Arab allies. When the Iraqi Scuds fell on Israel, it was enjoined not to retaliate on the ground that the coalition would fall apart through the defection of our Arab allies. In effect, keeping the Arabs in line was more important than permitting Israel to maintain a long tradition of active self-defense. Symbolically and realistically, Israel agreed to be defended by the United States and to defer to Arab pressure on the United States. Since then, it has become ever clearer that the status of Israel in Washington has changed from being regarded as a US ally to that of a client-state, which needs the United States more than the United States needs it. The crackup of the Soviet empire and the management of the Gulf War will be seen as the dividing line between these two eras of US–Israel relations.

For the United States itself, the Gulf War was no more than a passing incident. Washington’s span of attention is very limited, and one political happening quickly fades into another. A sharp drop in the polls was all that was needed to remind George Bush that he was president of the United States, not president of the world.

This is the second of two articles.


The True History of the Gulf War’: An Exchange March 26, 1992

  1. 62

    I am indebted to John J. Fialka for permitting me to read his manuscript and to discuss it here. The book is to be published next month by the Media Studies Project, Woodrow Wilson Center.

  2. 63

    One wonders whether it was realized how unoriginal this slogan is and how much it echoes another “New Order” against which we fought not so long ago. It has also been little remarked that “the new world order” is a direct descendant of Woodrow Wilson’s aim to make the world safe for democracy, once the bête noire of right-thinking Republicans.

  3. 64

    It was argued I can’t go to war without the Congress. And I was saying, I have the authority to do this” (Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, March 8, 1991, p. 284).

  4. 65

    Stephen R. Graubard, Mr. Bush’s War (Hill and Wang, 1992), p. 182.

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