25 Years In Iraq, With No End In Sight – GREG MYRE
U.S. Marines arrive at Saudi Arabia’s Dhahran Air Base on Aug. 21, 1990. The U.S. began a buildup in the region just days after Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2 of that year. The U.S. military has been active in Iraq virtually nonstop for the past quarter-century. Gerard Fouet/AFP/Getty Images
It started so well. When Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990, the United States swiftly cobbled together a broad coalition, unleashed a stunning new generation of air power and waged a lightning ground offensive that lasted all of four days. Iraqi troops were so desperate to quit that some surrendered to Western journalists armed only with notebooks.
Kuwait was liberated, U.S. commander Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf was a hero, and the pundits confidently declared the U.S. had buried its “Vietnam syndrome,” the fear of being sucked into a quagmire. In the annals of war, it doesn’t get much easier than this.
So on the 25th anniversary of that first Iraq conflict, how is it possible that the U.S. is still entangled in a messy, complicated war with no end on the horizon?
Iraq President Saddam Hussein is shown in Baghdad in January 1991, just before the first U.S. war in Iraq. The American forces would oust the Iraqi leader 12 years later in a second war.
Aside from an intermission from December 2011 until August 2014, the U.S. military has been rumbling through the sweltering sands or soaring over the desert skies for this entire quarter-century, a military engagement unparalleled in U.S. history.
Before the first Iraq battle, the U.S. had never fought a large-scale war in the Middle East. Yet freeing a tiny Gulf emirate from Saddam’s clutches has morphed into a seemingly permanent state of war, metastasizing to so many countries it’s tough to put a precise number on it.
Here’s one way to count: President Obama has ordered airstrikes on seven Muslim countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Libya and Somalia) in less than seven years in office.
“Before 1990, the region was a secondary or even tertiary area of importance to Washington. The United States had rarely deployed military forces in the region,” Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official now at the Brookings Institution, wrote recently. “What had been a backwater for the U.S. military has become since 1990 the principal arena of conflict. This shows no sign of ending anytime soon.”
The U.S. military involvement has spanned four presidencies and a panoply of evolving goals.
In rough order, the shifting aims have been to reverse Saddam’s aggression, ensure the safe flow of oil from the Gulf, contain Saddam, oust Saddam, search for nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, build democracy, pummel al-Qaida in Iraq, and currently, suppress the self-proclaimed Islamic State. If there’s a unifying theme, it’s the U.S. forecasts that have consistently been too optimistic.
“It’s been a 25-year-long enterprise, with different aims and approaches, none of which have yielded the results promised,” said Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel who served in Iraq and now teaches international relations at Boston University.
The U.S. policies have included five distinct phases. Here’s a closer look at them and their consequences:
1. Overwhelming Force (1991): The world was turning America’s way when, after a six-month military buildup, the U.S. began bombing Iraq on Jan. 17, 1991. The Berlin Wall had fallen, the Soviet Union would crumble by year’s end and the U.S. was the lone superpower.
The brief war only reinforced the notion that the U.S. was uniquely positioned to remake the global order in the wake of the Cold War. The only debate at the end of the first Iraq war was whether the U.S. squandered an opportunity by not advancing all the way to Baghdad, ousting Saddam and occupying Iraq.
Iraqi antiaircraft fire lights up the skies over Baghdad in response to U.S. warplanes that bombed the Iraqi capital in the early hours of Jan. 18, 1991. The U.S. campaign drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait in a little over a month.
But President George H.W. Bush cautioned against the risks of taking over Iraq. His top military adviser, Gen. Colin Powell, summed it up with the “Pottery Barn rule” – if you break it, you own it.
Bush wanted to withdraw the troops as quickly as possible to avoid any potential complications. His successors have had similar instincts, yet each American drawdown in Iraq has been followed by a fresh wave of forces at a later date.
“The 1991 war was quick and easy and created the myth that this is how we could fight wars now,” said James Dubik, a retired general and Iraq veteran who’s now at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington. “This set us up for a misunderstanding of how to wage war in the years that followed.”
There were other unanticipated consequences. Osama bin Laden would cite the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia — sent in the run-up to the war and remaining in its aftermath — as one of his main grievances against the U.S.