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?
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.
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.
2. Keeping Saddam ‘In A Box’ (1990s): If the U.S. wouldn’t overthrow Saddam, at least it could neutralize him. President Clinton’s mantra was to keep Saddam “in a box,” which was essentially the policy it inherited. This included a combination of international sanctions and the no-fly zones that the U.S. Air Force patrolled daily over the north and south of Iraq from the end of the first war in 1991 until the start of the second in 2003.
Clinton, instinctively cautious when it came to using American military force, is the only one of the past four presidents not to launch a new military campaign in Iraq. But his tenure was not exactly a period of calm. Iraq’s antiaircraft forces often challenged the U.S. warplanes, and the Americans responded.
“Most people forget this period, but there were frequent low-level hostilities,” noted Bacevich. “It was containment with guns blazing.”
Saddam played cat-and-mouse with U.N. weapons inspectors and reasserted his authority at home despite the constraints. His economic mismanagement, combined with the tough sanctions, impoverished Iraq. As the leading proponent of the sanctions, the U.S. faced criticism over the pain felt by ordinary Iraqis, yet the punitive measures did not improve Saddam’s treatment of his people or weaken his grip on power. The overall result was a muddled standoff and a sense that a showdown loomed.
3. Regime Change (2003): In ousting Saddam in 2003, as with the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 and Moammar Gadhafi in Libya in 2011, the U.S. greatly underestimated the turmoil that would follow.
The U.S. captured Baghdad in less than a month with a far smaller force than it employed in the first Gulf War. President George W. Bush and his administration expected the U.S. forces to be welcomed as liberators. The plan was for the U.S. troops to pack up and depart almost as quickly as they came.
“This was supposed to be a video replay of the 1991 war — a quick victory, then we leave,” said Dubik. “But we miscalculated when we saw the war as just fighting. It’s also a political act that you have to get right.”
Saddam’s Iraq epitomized the autocratic Arab states dominated by a single leader. No real institutions existed, aside from the security forces, which the Americans disbanded. All that remained was a huge, gaping void.
In Iraq and elsewhere, it’s been a challenge just to keep the lights on, let alone build a modern state.
Iraq, along with Syria, Libya and Yemen, have all been consumed by civil war. Other Arab states are shaky and none can claim to be a full-fledged democracy. The regional debate is focused on defensive measures to keep the chaos from spreading. Anyone preaching nation-building would have a tough time finding an audience.
4: The Surge (2007): The surge would feature prominently in any American highlight reel from Iraq, as a fresh influx of U.S. troops helped to dramatically change the trajectory of the war and introduced a modicum of stability to Iraq.
The surge was striking for two reasons, representative of the larger U.S. effort in Iraq.
First, the U.S. military operations have consistently had a rapid, clear impact. By increasing the force by some 30,000 troops, the U.S. quelled much of the sectarian violence that was dragging Iraq into civil war.
Second, the political part of the equation has always proved elusive. The success of the surge contributed to the notion that Iraq was sturdy enough to stand on its own. When the U.S. and Iraq couldn’t reach a deal on a continued U.S. presence, all American combat forces left the country at the end of 2011.
Obama, referring to both Iraq and Afghanistan, said at the time the U.S. “was departing these wars in a way that will make American stronger and the world more secure.”
But once the U.S. forces were gone, the gains slipped away under Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his policies favoring his fellow Shiite Muslims. His moves included purging the military of many Sunni military officers that the U.S. had trained for years.
5. Confronting The Islamic State (2014-?): Obama’s oft-stated goal in Iraq is to “degrade and defeat” the Islamic State. Under the current approach, which relies on U.S. air power and Iraqi partners on the ground, the “degrade” part of the mission appears realistic, but the “defeat” part will be much more difficult, according to many analysts. U.S. officials estimate it could take three to five years or maybe longer to defeat ISIS.
Overall, ISIS has been pushed back a bit since the air campaign began a year ago, but the group remains entrenched in western Iraq as well as eastern Syria.
Obama’s limited approach befits his wariness of military adventures in the Middle East and American skepticism about what can be achieved and maintained.
So what’s the best way forward?
There’s no consensus. Obama’s critics on the right saying he isn’t doing enough in Iraq and should send in special operators on the ground to bolster the air campaign.
Bacevich, the retired colonel turned professor, sees the best option as an updated version of Cold War containment, with the U.S. seeking to restrict or roll back the Islamic State — but steering clear of a full-scale ground war that includes a trillion-dollar, decade-long exercise in overhauling a dysfunctional state.
The hope is that over time, Islamic radicalism would burn itself out and groups like the Islamic State will lose their appeal when they fail to deliver. But optimism is in short supply.
Some young Americans who fought in the first Iraq campaign served full 20-year military careers and retired without ever seeing a conclusion to the Iraq campaign. Most of those joining the military today were not even born when that first war began.
“Perhaps the biggest error was overstating the importance of the Persian Gulf,” said Bacevich. “I don’t think it was a critical strategic interest. Yet here we are, after all these years, in a conflict from which we can’t extricate ourselves in a satisfactory manner.”
Greg Myre is the international editor of NPR.org and first covered Iraq in the 1991 war. Follow him @gregmyre1.