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Book Review: Into the Desert

By (April 29, 2013) No Comment

intothedesertInto the Desert: Reflections on the Gulf War
Edited by Jeffrey A. Engel
Oxford, 2013

It has become conventional wisdom to say that the first Gulf War was one of necessity, while the second was one of choice – but in truth all non-defensive wars are chosen. What people really mean when they say a war like Desert Storm was “necessary” is that there were good reasons for waging it. The men who chose to fight the first Gulf War were very different from those who raced headlong into the second, and some of them have put a book together, the offspring of a conference held two years ago to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of Operation Desert Storm. Six people have contributed their thoughts, and three of them are former members of the first Bush Administration or close associates.

One goes into such a collection skeptically, and as expected, the lesser contributions are the defensive ones. Jeffrey Engel, who edited George Bush’s China Diary, spends much time justifying the decision to stop the ground war, which resulted in the slaughter of rebelling Shiites. Richard Haass, who was involved in that decision, does the same. There’s also a boilerplate introduction by Ryan Crocker, then an ambassador in the Middle East, consisting of platitudes about “decisive moments,” “resolve” and “credibility,” and which erroneously claims that the Allied counter-attack was welcomed by those in the region. (The response was actually mixed, as the excellent final essay by Shibley Telhami makes clear.)

But even the apologias have their virtues. Engel notes that in both Gulf wars, “long-term victory proved illusory,” and is forthright enough to acknowledge that oil and stability, not humanitarian concerns, were what motivated the United States and its allies. Similarly, Haass is willing to admit that for all the Bush Administration’s talk of a just “New World Order,” the first Gulf War was not a transformative event because America couldn’t solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ween itself off of foreign oil, or build effective international institutions. Lawrence Freedman, writing on the international politics of the Gulf War, notes more exactly that the minimal response (the no fly zones) to Saddam’s post-war massacres in the south set a very weak precedent for future humanitarian intervention, and that the rollback of Saddam’s armies wasn’t transformative either, for the simple reason that such naked state-on-state aggression is now rare.

Haass’ essay also makes a telling comparison, and in it we glimpse the essential character of the book. The first Gulf War, he says, was essentially a “reactive” war, “consistent with the universally accepted doctrine of self-defense” – a war of limited ambition. The second Gulf War, by contrast, was a “war of choice” where US interests were “decidedly less-than-vital,” one that committed as few American resources as possible to a “radical” initiative. None of the contributors to this collection (except, perhaps, poor Ambassador Crocker) would disagree. Because with the exception of the journalist Michael R. Gordon, they are all close to the so-called “realist” school of international relations, which holds, broadly, that nations are rational actors who behave in accordance with their self-interest, and that given this, the United States should do the same. With this in mind, Into the Desert can be seen as a rebuke to the advisors of the second Bush Administration from the advisors of the first.

Michael Gordon, in one of the collection’s strongest pieces, traces the linkages between each war, and explains how the decision to encourage and then abandon the rebellions in the south started a chain of events which led to the insurgency that followed the fall of Baghdad in 2003, one the second Bush Administration was utterly unprepared for. After the allies withdrew in 1991, Saddam expanded his network of paramilitary forces and established weapons caches throughout the country as a counter to Iraq’s restive Shiite and Kurdish populations. In 2003,

Assuming that Iraq’s conventional forces represented the main threat, American commanders failed to understand how Saddam had modified his strategy to put down a Shia rebellion. They neither prepared to fight the paramilitary forces that had been dispersed throughout southern Iraq nor understood that they might emerge as the nucleus of an insurgency once the regime was ousted. The Pentagon provided enough forces to topple the regime but not enough to secure the country or deprive insurgents of a potential sanctuary in Anbar province…

The transformation of the regime’s defensive counterinsurgency strategy to suppress a domestic rebellion into an offensive anti-American insurgency would eventually be deciphered by American intelligence. But by then a long, difficult war was underway.

Shibley Telhami, in his essay about Arab attitudes, explains how both sides misread regional feelings in 1990. Saddam believed local dismay at America’s post-Cold War primacy and support of Israel would allow him claim the mantle of Arab leadership, and Kuwait was a part of that calculus. He was mistaken. The Americans underestimated local fear of its presence on the ground and bitterness toward its alliance with Israel. As Telhami points out, those resentments live today.

Few of the contributors can agree on the first Gulf War’s significance in history. Freedman places it in the context of decolonization and the attendant loosening of “ties that once bound weak states to strong states.” Crocker thinks it signified the end of the Cold War, while Engel thinks Desert Storm was a “Cold War story.” But we can also think of the first Gulf War as yet another example of cold Great Power politics, of dominant nations acting in accord with perceived self-interest, and giving little more than cursory thought in the people on the ground. I suspect most of Into the Desert’s contributors would say that it’s always been this way, and I’m afraid they would be right.