Ten Years After: Who Won the Gulf War?

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Youíd be forgiven for thinking we lost the Gulf War. After all, ten years to the day after it began, Saddam Hussein is still in power, his grip stronger than ever. He may even still have weapons of mass destruction. And Iraq is not a democracy. (Nor is Kuwait, for that matter, almost a decade after it was liberated by a U.S.-led alliance.) You may be forgiven for thinking that way, but you'd also be wrong. Because despite the official spin at the time, the Gulf War was not about Saddam Hussein or democracy or even weapons of mass destruction.

The Gulf War, plainly and simply, was about oil. Saddamís invasion of Kuwait dramatically increased his share of the world's oil supply, and if it had been allowed to stand, he may well have planned to roll over Saudi Arabia, too. And that scenario, which would have given him the power to unilaterally control and dictate oil supplies and prices, was never going to be acceptable to Washington or the other industrialized nations.

Bad guy or oil supply?

But wars are always mythologized, even as they're being waged, and that can often distort their meaning in the popular imagination. Ask American high school kids today about the reasons for World War II, and they'll probably tell you it had something to do with Hitler and the Jews. (In fact, the fate of the Jews under the Third Reich had no bearing whatsoever on the strategic decision-making of both Hitler and his Allied foes throughout the war.)

Ask Americans today to explain the Gulf War — which, of course, occurred within the living memory of most — and many may struggle to answer. That maybe because its mythology may have collided with the reality of its outcome: We celebrated victory, and yet the "bad guy" is still in power. The Gulf War wonít be remembered as a struggle over oil, because wars waged abroad in the national interest still need to be packaged as something a little more noble and transcendent — the last President Bush wasnít so foolhardy as to ask Americans to send their sons and daughters to die on foreign soil in order to keep the nationís gas pumps turning over. No, the pretext had to be more gallant. Enter the "Butcher of Baghdad" — whereas the U.S. had been happy to supply him with weapons and intelligence for his war against Iran in the 1980s, Saddam's invasion of Kuwait prompted President Bush to suddenly recognize him for the thug he'd always been, and begin painting him as a latter-day Hitler who had "invaded a small and helpless nation" and then "raped, pillaged and plundered" it.

Hitler's ghost

The legal basis for the war was established by a United Nations resolution ordering Saddam out of Kuwait, and a congressional vote to go to war if he failed to comply. Its legitimacy derived from the broad alliance of nations backing the effort. While they may have been skeptical of Western motivations — after all, it's not as if Washington goes about assembling international armies to force Israel to comply with U.N. resolutions — most Arab states felt more threatened by Saddamís expansionism than by the projection of American force.

But the key element in mobilizing Americans was the invoking of Hitler's ghost, and the idea of the Butcher of Baghdad on the march terrorizing his neighbors. Americans hate a bully, and many of them are willing to step in when they see one beating up on weaker people. And it's those instincts that have to be tapped whenever the nationís leaders choose to make war.

And so the bombardment that began on January 16, beamed live into America's living rooms by CNN, was imagined in the U.S. as some sort of crusade for justice. Hence the frustration and confusion attached to the fact that a decade after Washington proclaimed victory, the Butcher of Baghdad is still in power, still terrorizing his people (even if his neighbors are a lot safer), and still in command of a vast and deadly military.

How will Bush see the situation?

But the war was not about overthrowing Saddam or turning Kuwait into a democracy. It was about maintaining the oil supply from the Gulf — a war undertaken in the U.S. national interest. And by that measure, it was a success. Indeed, overthrowing Saddam in 1991 may not have actually served the U.S. national interest, because it would likely have demanded an extensive and very dangerous long-term military commitment in an implacably hostile region.

Of course the "national interest" is the standard President-elect George W. Bush says he'll apply to decisions over using force, decrying the "humanitarian" interventions of the Clinton years as a pointless depletion of U.S. military resources. But in his eagerness to turn the public against the idea of humanitarian intervention, he may do well to remember that, as the Gulf War shows, even the most calculated interventions in the national interest are always dressed up as humanitarian crusades.