The Gulf War Looks Less Like Victory


October 17, 1991|By JEFFREY RECORD

Arlington, Va. - How much easier it is to enter a war than sometimes to figure out later what it was all about.

More than 13 months after he invaded Kuwait, and six months after his army was ejected from that country, Saddam Hussein and his clan-run regime remain in power. He continues to defy the provisions of last March's United Nations-imposed cease-fire.

He denies U.N. inspection teams access to facilities suspected of harboring nuclear materials, chemical and biological munitions, ballistic missiles and the wherewithal to make them. He sends troops in mufti into the Kuwaiti side of the nine-mile-wide demilitarized zone to recover lost weapons and ammunition. He continues to make war on his hapless Kurdish population.

And he seems to have convinced many Iraqis that his very survival of Operation Desert Storm represents a resounding political victory over the United States and its coalition partners.

Saddam may be right. From a purely military standpoint, the war for Kuwait was a decisive victory for the coalition. Desert Storm swiftly defeated Iraqi forces in Kuwait, and nothing can ever detract from the courage and skill of those Americans in uniform who participated in it. The underlying premise, however, was that Saddam Hussein, his regime and his capacity to pursue weapons of mass destruction could not endure the air-dominant war unleashed against Iraq last January.

This was the pre-war view of the U.S. Air Force, which visited destruction upon Iraq and Iraqi forces, and restored to power in ++ Kuwait both a monarch who seems less interested in affairs of state than in pleasures of the flesh and a government that appears to have become more of an obstacle to Kuwait's reconstruction than its agent.

The war transformed most of Kuwait and much of the Persian Gulf into an environmental disaster area. And among the Iraqi people, with whom we said we had no quarrel, the war and continuing embargo have exacted an ever-rising toll of death and debility via deprivation and disease.

Finally, the war and its aftermath seemed to entangle us deeply and indefinitely in Iraq's internal affairs, from providing protection and relief to Kurds in northern Iraq to enforcing the sovereignty-compromising U.N. embargo and cease-fire. The war might have been a clean win militarily, but it has led us into a political minefield.

The mistake was in dealing with a symptom of the problem, the Iraq army's occupation of Kuwait, rather than the problem's source, the regime that sent the army. We lopped off some limbs but the trunk still stands, and we are now dealing with a Saddam consumed by a desire for revenge.

As long as Saddam and his clan rule Iraq, we can expect nothing but trouble from this outlaw state. Providing armed escorts for U.N. inspection teams will not do the trick. Nor will bashing suspect sites and facilities with a few more air strikes, even assuming we now know the location of every suspect activity. And where war failed to break Saddam, it is doubtful that an embargo will.

The survival of a defiant Saddam, along with apparently a good deal of his nuclear weapons program, represents a sharp political defeat for the Bush administration, which ironically has chosen as the primary means of breaking his will the very international economic and military embargo which it previously said would never work.

But from day one the administration has bungled U.S. policy toward Saddam. Until the invasion of Kuwait, it pursued a policy of appeasement. Then it went to war with Iraq to liberate Kuwait, but called off the fighting too soon. Then it stood by, lifting not a finger to assist the rebellions against Saddam it had sought to incite.

And now the administration is reportedly contemplating some kind of limited air action to compel Saddam's compliance with the cease-fire's provisions, as if a few more air strikes are going to succeed where the majestic ferocity of Desert Storm's 110,000 sorties over a six-week period failed.

What, exactly, did the war accomplish? Yes, it did liberate Kuwait. But wars are fought for immediate and distant political objectives, and Desert Storm's failure to achieve the latter has produced unintended political consequences -- some of which should have been foreseen, others not -- that provide rich grist for future conflict.


Jeffrey Record comments on military affairs for The Sun.

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