Archive for Monday, October 29, 2001

Winning at war; losing at peace

October 29, 2001


— At the conclusion of the Gulf War in 1991, we wrote the following, which seems pertinent today:

America kicked the Vietnam Syndrome because a clear cut objective ejecting Iraqi soldiers from Kuwait was achieved through the use of massive force. This contrasts with the Vietnam War, which had no clear American objective and which was marked by the now-vilified strategy of graduated response. But the comparison is too simple and the conclusion too neat.

Iraq was invaded; its supply lines were cut; the deployment was massive. But what a difference an objective makes! Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of coalition forces in the Gulf, explained after the campaign's successful conclusion that nothing stood between his forces and Baghdad. We did not march to Baghdad, however, and this is supposed to be proof that America came to the region as liberators, not conquerors. It was a "just war" a moral war.

But, wait a minute. Are the Iraqi people less deserving of liberation than the Kuwaiti people? Did not President Bush make it clear from the beginning that we were making war on Iraq's leaders, not on Iraq's people? In fact, we had the military instrument at the right place and time to attain a much nobler goal than restoring the emir of Kuwait to his throne. We had the means to bring peace and democracy to a region of the world noted for its instability and violence, to a region that has often been called a powder keg which, like the Balkans three-quarters of a century ago, could spark a world war.

Instead, the objective did not match the means. Coalition forces probably killed more than 100,000 Iraqis during the war not out of hatred, but because that is the nature of war. War is the terrible last resort of politics. And, as such, it ought to render the greatest possible good.

Indeed, three benefits have come out of this war: Kuwait was liberated; U.S. military might was demonstrated to a surprised world; and U.S. influence in the Middle East has been strengthened. Also, there are arguments against going further, militarily: The U.N. did not specifically authorize it; coalition casualties would increase; U.S. troops would be compelled to occupy a hostile nation. The idea of a MacArthur regency as was employed in Japan after World War II is dismissed. Then, abandoning logic altogether, it is argued that Iraq has never been a democracy. Had Japan?

The fact is that the U.N. authorized the use of force to liberate Kuwait, but it did not restrict the scope of actions against Iraq, hence the present occupation of Southern Iraq by coalition forces. The casualty argument is difficult to comprehend, considering Schwarz-kopf's description of opposition as well as the performance of his forces to date. Finally, the job of occupying Iraq is quite different from the task we faced with hostile populations in Japan and Germany in 1945. Clearly, most Iraqis would like to be rid of Saddam Hussein.

By all accounts of the Vietnam War, the United States and its allies defeated the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces. Even the Communist Tet Offensive of 1968, which turned U.S. public sentiment against the war and ended LBJ's hopes of re-election, was a resounding battlefield success for American forces. This scenario set the stage. America would win on the battlefield and lose at the peace table. And this may well be happening again. Saddam Hussein remains in power, and his troops are bloodily suppressing revolts throughout Iraq as coalition forces stand by militarily potent, politically impotent. We may once again have won the war and lost the peace. The Vietnam Syndrome lives on.

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