Key point: America’s success in the Gulf War meant that future international problems would not resemble the Gulf War—and on balance, that’s a positive.
The United States and its coalition partners evicted Iraq from Kuwait over twenty-three years ago. Temporally, the Gulf War is closer to the fall of Saigon than it is to us today. Given the struggles of the past fourteen years, it’s difficult to remember how important the Gulf War seemed in 1991, as the Soviet Union neared its collapse.
The war suggested a bright future. The United Nations, riding the overwhelming power of American arms, could finally meet its true potential as a collective security and peacemaking organization. The thawing of the Cold War opened up political possibilities, while the remarkable effectiveness of American precision-guided munitions meant that warfare no longer demanded the destruction of civilian life and property.
In short, the Gulf War seemed to suggest that international institutions, underwritten by revolutionary advances in American military power, could finally solve real military security problems. The political and technological foundations for a transformation in the functioning of global politics were in place.
The intervening twenty-three years have given us time to reconsider this conclusion.
Winning the Conventional Fight
The ability of the United States to completely destroy a more or less modern Iraqi military establishment remains a remarkable achievement. Only a few doubted at the time that the United States Army, supported by airpower and by a huge international coalition, could prevail over the Iraqis. The extent of the victory, and its relative bloodlessness on the American side, surprised almost everyone.
This is especially true given that the influence of airpower was overstated. To be sure, Coalition air attacks badly attrited Iraqi main forces, damaged Iraqi logistics and broke the morale of many front-line Iraqi conscript units. However, Iraqi armored units nevertheless maneuvered under fire, moving into blocking positions and carrying out counterattacks. Even in these conditions, U.S. and British armored forces shattered their Iraqi opponents with only trivial casualties.