Was Gulf War I a Mistake?

I’ve been thinking about this question a great deal lately, and have been meaning to open a thread about it. Then in the final Presidential debate, Bush brought up Kerry’s vote against Gulf War I in the Senate, so now I have to ask:

With the benefit of hindsight, was Gulf War I a mistake for the US? Was Kerry right to have voted against it?

Here, as I see it, are the negative consequences that have flowed from our engagement in Gulf War I:

  1. (Most important.) We ended the war with troops stationed in Saudi Arabia indefinitely. It has been a MAJOR irritant to many Muslims to have US troops stationed in their holy land. This has been one of al Qaeda’s great recruiting points (and, I’d imagine, is one of the reasons that most of the 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia). In a sense, you could say that Gulf War I triggered 9/11.

  2. We eliminated Iraq as a counterweight to the mullahs in Iran. After Gulf War I, Iran didn’t have to worry about another invasion by its neighbor to the South and was free to focus on other “activities.”

  3. For a decade, we punished the people of Iraq for the sins of Saddam Hussein. Sanctions devastated Iraq economically. This won us no friends in the region, and was another recruiting point for Islamic terrorists.
    Now let’s look at the other side of the coin. What would have happened if we had not gone to war with Iraq the first time around? What is the worst case scenario?

The reason given at the time (aside from “liberating Kuwait”) was our fear that Iraq would invade Saudi Arabia. OK. Let’s assume that’s true. (And I’m not sure I buy it.) How would Iraqi occupation of Saudi Arabia have made the lives of average Saudis any worse than they are today? Sure, the royal family would have lost out, but so what? And how would it have caused a detriment to the US?

What great benefits did we gain from Gulf War I? And has it been worth the costs?

Hmmm… interesting questions.
One thing I can think of right away is that Saddam’s chem/bio/nuke programs were destroyed by GW1 and the ensuing sanctions. There was a time that Saddam actually had these and wasn’t afraid to use them. While I don’t think he would’ve been dumb enough to use them against the US, he was a bad enough guy that a nuclear Saddam menacing the mideast is a less than appealing scenario.

Still, was that enough to stage GW1, given the negatives you’ve outlined? Hard to say. What would Saddam have really done had he continued unchecked throughout the 90s? Invade Saudi Arabia? Don’t think so. Another war with Iran? Maybe, but the first one was such a disaster that I don’ t think he would’ve tried it anytime soon. Attack Israel? Again, not too likely. The IDF isn’t exactly the Kuwaiti military, plus the US would’ve surely responded to that.

In the end, I don’t think there is a clear answer yet. I would love to be a historian 100 years from now after secret docuemenst are declassified and everything shakes out. Bet there’s a lot of surprising twists and turns waiting to be analyzed

Removing Iraq as the counterpoint to Iran may have helped Iranians push for change from within. There have been some steps forward there in recent years.

We could have chosen to pull troops out of Saudi Arabia and eased off sanctions gradually. I think these have to be judged independently of going to war at all.

I was asking similar question many times and even ran a related thread awhile ago. I didn’t get many answers. Hope you’ll do better.

In retrospect, I think we had to stay out and let Arabs deal with it themselves.

Yes, I’ve always thought the original gulf war was a mistake.

Saddam Hussein was a son-of-a-bitch, but I’m a political realist and I think that the United States shouldn’t be shy about working with sons-of-bitches if it advances our national interests. That’s how we won the Cold War and that’s how we won World War II. Stalin was the ultimate son-of-a-bitch … .

After the fall of the Shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein was our best bulwark against Islamic fundamentalism. Iraq provided a useful military counterweight to revolutionary Iran and an example of secular power in an increasingly theocratic region.

This is why I can’t get too worked up about the photos of Donald Rumsfeld glad-handing Hussein. In the geopolitical context of the late 1980’s, supporting Iraq against Iran was in the best interests of the United States. And hopefully, over time, we would have been able to exert some political pressure on him to be less of a son-of-a-bitch … .

As for your question. “What would have happened if we had ignored Kuwait?” I think that Hussein might have made a play for Saudi Arabia. And if he’d succeeded, then that would have been a bad thing for the United States. Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia together have a huge amount of the world’s petroleum reserves. Putting them all under the control of one man would mean that the United States (and Europe) would be essentially ceding control of its economy to Saddam Hussein.

This all went to hell when the first George Bush’s ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, sent a vague message about the United States position on Kuwait … .

Iraq’s position on Kuwait was not wholly unreasonable. The original partition was an artifact of British colonialism, not a reflection of an authentic ethnic divide. In Saddam Hussein’s eyes, Kuwait was a natural part of a greater Iraq. (As well as being an economic plum.)

Of course, a greater Iraq wasn’t in the U.S.'s interest. We wanted Hussein to be a regional counterweight. We didn’t want him to establish a power base to build toward regional hegemony. So the correct response to him should have been: “Uh uh, no way. Try it and we’ll drop you as a partner. In fact, we’ll oppose you with military force.”

Instead we said, “Well, we really don’t have an opinion in the matter.” Which Hussein took as a subtle endorsement.

Once he invaded Kuwait, we probably had no choice. Refusing to act would have sent a horrible message about American power and international relations. It threatened our oil supply. And it threatened Israel. And the Iraqi treatment of the Kuwaitis was awful.

But the outcome wasn’t anything to be happy about. A weakened Iraq meant a stronger Iran. And it meant a permanent U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia, which is one of the main things that pissed off Osama Bin Laden.

The roots of Al Qaeda can be traced to the first Gulf War (and, incidentally, to our support of the mujahadeen in Afghanistan in the 80’s). If we’d handled Hussein better in the late 1980’s, I don’t think 9-11 would ever have happened … .

How, exactly? (Bearing in mind that Saddam was, up until that point, a US ally.)

Personally, I think it was a good idea to stop (or rather, reverse) Hussein’s invasion of another sovereign country. You just can’t let that shit go on unchecked and expect the world to stay civilized.

Which is one reason why I’m so mortified that my country has gone and done the same damned thing to Iraq.

While I believe the forst Gulf war was mis-sold to the American public (“Saddam’s killing incubator babies! He’s amassing troops on the Saudi border!”), I think it was not a mistake. The preferred way to settle the disputes between Iraq and Kuwait should have been by diplomacy; but since Iraq didn’t play nice and Saddam decided to invade (partially encouraged by a belief the US wouldn’t care), forceful removal was the only viable option left.

Well, let’s run a thought experiment: Hussein’s real aim is to revive “Arab nationalism” and bring all of Arabia under Ba’athist rule. (Ba’athism was originally a secular, socialist, and pan-Arabist political movement.) After consolidating his hold on Kuwait, he invades Saudi Arabia. He gets some popular support from Saudis disconted with the autocratic rule of the House of Saud, and from SA’s large population of resident noncitizen guest-workers; on the other hand, he faces stiff resistance from the Shi’ites of the Eastern Province, who reasonably fear Hussein will treat them like he treats the Iraqi Shi’ites, and from the ultra-Wahhabbists, the ones who despise the House of Saud as corrupt and impious but hate the secularist Hussein even worse. Suppose, despite all this, he wins. The Saudi princes and the Wahhabbi extremists are executed, imprisoned, exiled, or driven underground. He then proceeds to do the same to all the monarchies of the Persian Gulf and the southern coast of Arabia, plus Yemen. Then he declares a new “United Arab Republic”. He works out a deal with Assad of Syria whereby Syria will join the UAR and Assad will get an important role in the government, if not the top spot. That leaves only Jordan and Lebanon – which he does not invade because by that time the U.S. has made it clear any attempt to take over either will be deemed a direct threat to Israel. But the Palestinians in Jordan (and the Territories) are very, very keen on joining the UAR, for obvious reasons. They rise up, overthrow King Hussein, and the new government demands union. We are now faced with a united Arabia – deterred from invading Israel only by the standing threat of massive American retaliation. But never mind that. (I said, never mind that! Fuck Israel! Without lubricant!) The important question is: Would unification under Hussein’s iron rule be a good or bad thing for the Arab peoples? Would they be better off or worse off than they were before?

Sadly enough, I think the answer is that they would be better off. At least the women wouldn’t have to wear veils and the traditional elites would be dispossessed.

So, we went to war with Iraq’s AtaTurk?

Only a whole lot nastier. But, yeah, basically. More like Ataturk than Hitler. (Though that is a close call, I’ll grant you.)

I think BrainGlutton has some really good points.

I was in college during GWI and rather ambivalent about the whole thing. I still am. I never felt it was a horrible evil, but it also didn’t seem like a great, noble cause.
It’s weird how time has flowed since then. Backwards, in a way. In the early 90s we were all proud of our smart bombs and how few of our troops had died. America had waged war humanely and with great power and skill.

Now we’re the bad guys with sizable numbers of our soldiers getting killed. The pride is gone, in place only malaise. Some progress.

I also think that Brain Glutton’s analysis of the might-have-beens is very good.

The biggest downside for the United States would have been that in combining the oil reserves of Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia Saddam Hussein would essentially put himself in a position to control of the global petroleum market. Control of the global petroleum market means control of the United States’ economy.

The first Gulf War was about oil … not in the sense that we were trying to take over Iraq’s oil fields, but in the sense that we were trying to prevent him from becoming the world’s dominant oil broker.

FWIW, I don’t think it was worth it … .

True. OTOH, what was he going to do with the stuff but sell it? The Iranians keep selling their oil on the world market – which means, in effect, selling it to the U.S. – no matter how much they hate us, because they need the money it brings.

I wonder if people are forgetting what a monster Saddam was?

Our mistake in GW1 was not removing Saddam.

This is a really good question, and I’ve been mulling over a closely related OP for a few weeks now. I’m still trying to formulate my answer, but I want to weigh in on BG’s analysis because I don’t share the view that it is a good one. BG seems to think that having the vast majority of the Arab world under one of the most brutal dictators of our time would be an improvement over the current situation. Firstlly, I don’t even want to imagine the thousands (millions?) of people who would be killed in the process, and in maintaining his position of power. Secondly, with all that oil wealth under SH’s control, the idea that his ambitions for power would end at the borders of the Arab world is naive in the extreme.

More later…

Well, if Reagan hadn’t given him those WMDs, maybe he wouldn’t have been as monstrous?

Using them was Saddam’s choice and responsibility, not Reagan’s.

I should point out that the negative consequences from Gulf War I haven’t stopped. They are ongoing. If we ever do see the dreaded mishroom cloud or a chemical or biological attack here, it might well be ultimately traceable to GWI.

Would those who believe it was important to stop Saddam still think it was worth it?