Bret Stephens: The Twenty Years' War

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mr. Stephens writes the Journal's "Global View" column on foreign affairs.]

Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990. Two decades later, on Aug. 18, 2010, the U.S. withdrew its last combat brigade from Iraq. Throughout those years U.S. military operations went under a variety of names—including Desert Storm, the Gulf War, Operations Northern and Southern Watch, Operation Iraqi Freedom, the War in Iraq—but over time they will be seen as part of an unbroken thread.

It ought to be called the Twenty Years' War. That was probably 19 years too long.

It matters what we call our wars, lest we fail to understand them—and lest we repeat them, because we failed to understand. When the Great War came to be spoken of as "the war to end all wars" (a line variously attributed to David Lloyd George, H.G. Wells and Woodrow Wilson) it underscored how ill-prepared that generation was to prevent the next great conflict.

Similarly in Iraq. In 1991, the first Bush administration failed to understand that its war was not against what Saddam had done in Kuwait. It was against Saddam himself, his regime, and the forces of Arab radicalism he typified and championed. Desert Storm, it turned out, proved an apt name for a military operation that had been blinded to its own real purposes.

Thus Kuwait was liberated but Saddam stayed on for another 12 years, supposedly—as Madeleine Albright notoriously put it—"in a box." In that box, he killed tens of thousands of Iraq's Shiites, caused a humanitarian crisis among the Kurds, attempted to assassinate George H.W. Bush, profited from a sanctions regime that otherwise starved his own people, compelled a "no-fly zone" that cost the U.S. $1 billion a year to police, defied more than a dozen U.N. sanctions, corrupted the U.N. Secretariat, evicted U.N. weapons inspectors and gave cash prizes to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers.

All this was war by another name, which meant that when the question of invading Iraq arose after 9/11, the choice was not between war and peace. Rather, as former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey wrote in these pages at the time, it was "between sustaining a military effort designed to contain Saddam Hussein and a military effort designed to replace him." For Mr. Kerrey, "the case for the second choice [was] overwhelming."..

comments powered by Disqus