The disastrous hubris of that first Gulf War 25 years ago

Turfing Saddam Hussein from Kuwait with a U.S.-led ground war that lasted all of about 100 hours made all things seem possible back in 1991, Brian Stewart writes. Unfortunately, it also sowed the seeds of misadventure that we are still reaping today.

Turfing Saddam from Kuwait in 1991 was the easy part, dealing with expectations was much harder

A younger Brian Stewart, in the desert outside Kuwait City, reporting for CBC News in 1991. (CBC)

There's a cruel irony in global affairs that apparent victories can so often return to haunt us as bitterly as the defeats.

I've thought about that this week as we marked the 25th anniversary of the start of the first Gulf War, at least its brief combat portion, which I covered and where I witnessed Western triumphalism at full tide in the Kuwait desert, sweeping all before it.

So it seemed, at least, that morning as I accompanied a mix of celebrating Arab troops within the U.S.-led coalition as they were about to enter Kuwait's capital and liberate it from Saddam Hussein's Iraqi invaders.

For the coalition, these were heady moments. While the so-called shock-and-awe air offensive against Iraq had lasted weeks, the land war in Kuwait was wrapped up in only 100 hours with limited coalition losses.

I had never seen a war end so quickly, with invaders turfed out and an actual field surrender.

In the euphoria of the moment there was the widely expressed hope that substantial change might come to the Middle East. If only.

'Dawn of a new world order'

Far more impressive even than the military operation was the sure-handed diplomacy of then president George H.W. Bush, who displayed a skill not equalled by any U.S. leader since.

He built a broad global coalition, including key Arab states, and worked hard to obtain UN backing to drive the invaders out "with all due force" if necessary.

Above all, he flatly refused to invade all of Iraq itself, knowing it would be insanely dangerous to upset the capricious balance of power there; and, also, that he had no UN mandate to do that.

Today's reality: Iraqi security forces patrol Ramadi, a city in central Iraq reduced almost to rubble in the battle with ISIS. (Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters)

That decision outraged America's conservative hawks, as did his decision to redouble diplomatic efforts to ease what turned out to be the last days of the Cold War.

Within months, that, too, was over, as Washington and Moscow embraced joint meetings aimed at ensuring world peace.

It's hard from our own gloomy era to recall the euphoria of 1991, which was hailed by many as the pinnacle of post-Second World War Western leadership, and "the dawn of a new world order," as the senior Bush called it.

Sense of betrayal

Of course, some of the euphoria seemed overwrought even then. Like when the noted political scientist Francis Fukuyama announced "the end of history" and "the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."

I guess you had to be there.

Still, what could go wrong with this clearly forward progress on all fronts?

Unfortunately just about everything that could go wrong did — and many of the most dangerous seeds of today's conflict were largely sown by that "triumph" itself.

For it was the arrival of U.S. military boots on the fundamentalist soil of Saudi Arabia, a lead coalition member, that so infuriated a little known Islamist, Osama bin Laden, in the process turning the aim of his new al-Qaeda movement primarily against the U.S., and leading directly to Sept. 11.

In return, a different Bush in the White House declared the vague "war on terror" that began with the invasion of Afghanistan and sparked a conflict that drags on seemingly without any hope of an end.

We also know now that the shock of that 1991 war profoundly deepened already intense animosities between dominant Sunni and minority Shia groups through the region.

Yemenis carry furniture from their house after it was hit by a Saudi-led airstrike earlier this month. Another Shia-Sunni conflict, it is the civil war the world often overlooks. (Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)

Saddam Hussein's shaken regime survived with enough Sunni support to brutally crush a Shia uprising in the south.

The Shia had mistaken the great triumph as a sign of a coming U.S. delivery, a betrayal they never forgave.

Revivalist dreams

In the aftermath, Iran began to increase its influence on behalf of Shia minorities throughout the region, building up its proxy militias inside Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, where they still fight to support the Assad regime against its mainly Sunni insurgents.

The tensions from these conflicts further escalated the long-standing regional rivalry between regional powers Iran and Saudi Arabia, which boiled over in the latest crisis over the Saudi execution of a Shia cleric.

Of course, this area was deeply troubled long before that first Gulf War. But there is little doubt that some of the seeds planted then significantly reshaped the spirit of U.S. foreign policy with severe consequences.

Before that war, the U.S. was in the grip of what was being called the "post-Vietnam syndrome," which was manifest in doubts about its military competence.

After the near flawless Gulf War victory, a new hubris infected a new generation of policy makers.

On the one side, there were liberals who urged intervention as a fix for humanitarian crises (Somalia, 1993) and neo-conservatives, a far more powerful voice when the Republicans were in office, who wanted to use U.S. muscle to spread democracy and capitalism (Iraq, 2003).

Old-school realists, normally cautious and warning against reckless adventures, were increasingly ignored.

The most disastrous consequence was the 2003 invasion of Iraq on the assumption that what worked in the first Gulf War — massive air power coupled with a lightning fast ground attack — would work just as well when it came to Iraq proper.

What American policy makers failed to take into account was what to do after, with a built-up country they knew shockingly little about.

No more glasnost. Russia's Vladimir Putin asks what was that question again about Ukraine. (Philippe Wojazer/Reuters)

The era's hubris also led NATO in the 1990s to push its eastern boundary to the very borders of Russia, despite strong warning from realists such as Henry Kissinger that this would likely provoke Moscow into a whole new era of hostility, which is pretty much what we see today.

That first Gulf War is rarely mentioned in the U.S. these days, as the notion of quick victories has largely faded.

It is worrisome, though, that you can still hear echoes of that dream among certain Republican presidential candidates as they try to sell the revivalist promise of an America strong enough to get what it wants globally, and get it fast. 

About the Author

Brian Stewart

Canada and abroad

One of this country's most experienced journalists and foreign correspondents, Brian Stewart is currently a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Munk School for Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. He also sits on the advisory board of Human Rights Watch Canada. In almost four decades of reporting, he has covered many of the world's conflicts and reported from 10 war zones, from El Salvador to Beirut and Afghanistan.


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