Desert Storm Anniversary Reminds Us that Even Victorious Wars Are Problematic

tags: Desert Storm

Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. 

January 17 is the 25th anniversary of the beginning of Desert Storm -- George H. W. Bush's first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein's Iraq to liberate Kuwait from his clutches, only to return it to its previous despotic rulers. The victory appeared to be smashing, as American military propaganda dazzled the world with footage of the accurate strikes against Iraqi targets, even though only a small percentage of the coalition's weapons were precision-guided. Saddam's third-rate army was blasted in half and had to retreat from Kuwait, and his air force either was impaired or had to fly to Iran to escape the reach of the American superpower. Saddam's power was broken and he was no longer an offensive threat to his neighbors. Yet care should be taken when conducting such wars of choice -- for even victorious ones can have a long trail of adverse unintended consequences.

First of all, the reasons for the United States to go to war against Saddam after his invasion of Kuwait were much less clear cut than have been imagined. As economist David Henderson, who had worked in the Reagan administration, pointed out in between the massive U.S. military deployment to Saudi Arabia (Desert Shield) and the launching of Desert Storm to roust Saddam out of Kuwait: even if Saddam had gone on to invade Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the oil price hikes that he could have engineered would have only cost the American economy less than half of one percent of its GDP. In addition, Saddam likely would have taken less oil off the world market (to get those price increases) than the oil that was actually removed from the market by the grinding world economic sanctions imposed on Iraq after Saddam's initial invasion of Kuwait and the destruction of Kuwaiti oil wells during the war as Saddam retreated from that small country. So if the United States undertook the war for cheap oil, it miscalculated terribly.

Jon Meacham's recent book, Destiny and Power, on George H. W. Bush's presidency, which examined Bush's personal diaries, also indicated that Bush, a veteran of World War II, bought into the "Munich Syndrome," which has infused U.S. foreign policy since British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain appeased Adolf Hitler over Czechoslovakia, leading to further German aggression (or so the narrative goes). In other words, Bush felt that if he let Saddam's aggression stand, both Saddam and other aggressors would be emboldened by U.S. timidity. Yet by that standard, the sole U.S. superpower had to intervene in almost every conflict in the world or someone somewhere would see the United States as weak, thus leading to a snowball effect. Such a policy, even for a superpower, was and is unsustainable. ...

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