Iraq is a blur now. Everyone from Norman Schwarzkopf and General Zinni to Tommy Franks and General Abezaid is mixed up in our memories. The public can’t quite separate Baathists from jihadists, Shiite from Sunni, or one coalition from another. Mostly the confusion arises because we have compressed four separate wars of two decades into some vague continuum.
War I (January 17 to March 3, 1991)
The First Iraqi War (“The Gulf War,” “Persian Gulf War,” “Gulf War I,” “The Four-Day War,” or “Iraqi-Kuwaiti War”) started over Saddam Hussein’s August 2, 1990, invasion of Kuwait. His occupation precipitated the American-led coalition’s efforts to reclaim Kuwait through land and air attacks. Saddam’s complete capitulation was seen as satisfying the war’s professed claim of restoring the sovereignty of Kuwait.
But despite retreating from Kuwait and suffering terrible damage to his armed forces, Saddam, like the Germans in 1918, claimed that his armies had been repelled while on the offensive. So he passed off a setback as a draw against the world’s superpower–and thus a win by virtue of his own survival against overwhelming odds.
In any case, we called off our forces before the destruction of the Republican Guard. We also refused to go to Baghdad; we let rebellious Shiites and Kurds be tragically butchered; and we failed to enforce all the surrender agreements. Apparently the U.S. wished to bow to the U.N. mandates only to expel Saddam from Kuwait, or was worried about our Sunni partners who wanted a lid on Kurdish tribalism and Shiite fervor inside Iraq.
War I was a response to years of appeasement of Iraq, American mixed signals during the Iran-Iraq War, and clumsy diplomacy. All may have given Saddam the message that his invasion of Kuwait was outside the realm of American interest.
War II (March 1991 to March 2003)
A rather different 13-year Second Iraqi War followed. Despite its length, the nebulous effort was not a mere “cold war.”
Indeed, there was far more direct engagement with our adversary than was true during our half-century conflict with the Soviet Union. For example, after the December 1998 “Desert Fox” campaign–aimed at suspected WMD depots following Saddam’s expulsion of the U.N. inspectors–General Zinni speculated that perhaps thousands of Iraqi soldiers had been killed in a few hours.
So-called “no-fly zones” took away two-thirds of Iraq’s airspace, requiring more than a third of a million allied air sorties. In many years, about every third day, allied aircraft fired missiles or conducted bomb attacks against Iraqi planes or batteries.
A U.N. trade embargo, coupled with the scandalous Oil-for-Food program, starved thousands of Iraqi civilians. Saddam, with foreign help, siphoned off cash and food for his own Baathist cronies.
Despite U.N. inspectors, bombs, cruise missiles, embargos, and boycotts, the second war, like the first, ended with Saddam still in power. He remained defiant, insisting that he had taken on the world and survived every conceivable coercive measure with his petrodollar income and rigid control over the country intact.
War II was a response to the failure to remove Saddam in War I.
War III (March 20 to April 9, 2003)
The Third Iraqi War–variously known as “Gulf War II” or “The Three-Week War”–was a conventional conflict. It began with the bombing of Baghdad and ended with the toppling of Saddam’s statue. Its purpose, unlike
Wars I and II, was the removal of Saddam and his Baathist regime, with replacement by a consensual government.
Controversy surrounds this third war’s aims and causes, given the administration’s fixation with weapons of mass destruction. Yet the U.S. Senate in October 2002 wisely listed 23 writs for regime change, ranging from fears of WMD, past violations of armistice and U.N. agreements, genocide, attacks on neighboring countries, and attempts to assassinate a former president of the United States.
War III was a response to the failure to remove Saddam in War II.
War IV. (April 2003 to present)
The Fourth Iraqi War (“The Insurrection,” “The Occupation”) began immediately after the end of the conventional fighting and continues today. It was framed by the fact that the United States would not simply leave after toppling Saddam yet had never really gone into the Sunni Triangle in force during the three-week victory. War IV was waged by a loose alliance of Wahhabi fundamentalists, foreign jihadists, and former Baathists against the American efforts to fashion an indigenous Iraqi democratic government.
So far this fourth war has taken more American lives (roughly 1750 combat dead) than Wars I-III combined, though probably not as many Iraqis have been killed as the tens of thousands lost in the first three conflicts. The aim of the terrorists was either the expulsion of the American occupying forces, the restoration of Saddam Hussein’s Baathists, the creation of a Sunni Islamic theocracy, or at least a return to the subjugation of the Kurdish-Shiite majority.
In response, the United States is conducting a multifaceted war to isolate the terrorists in Iraq: empower the Kurds and Shiites; warn Iraqi Sunnis that theirs is a choice between legitimate politics and endless violence and defeat; and promote democracy from the Gulf to Egypt and Lebanon in order to dry up the fonts of al Qaeda that flow into Iraq.
War IV was an effort to ensure there would not be another Saddam and thus more wars like I-III.
What lessons can we learn, other than that Iraq is a Westerner’s nightmare–in the heart of the ancient caliphate, next door to lunocracies in Syria and Iran, with petrodollars to spare for sophisticated weaponry, and with a history of dictatorship as the only alternative to tribal and religious bloodletting?
For all the pundits’ talk of “clearly defined objectives” and “exit strategies,” in the first three wars we articulated concrete methods and achieved limited aims. Saddam got out of Kuwait (I); Saddam was not able subsequently to attack his neighbors (II); and Saddam was removed (III).
The fourth war is not over, so we are not sure of the eventual outcome of its most ambitious goal, the establishment of democracy. Still, contrary to popular opinion, there have always been clear-cut intentions in these wars, which have been spelled out in advance and until now have been met.
Indeed, the problem has not been meeting the objective, but the objective itself. War I was unfortunately limited to the restoration of Kuwait. Yet the real crux was Saddam’s regime itself, which invaded Kuwait, attacked Israel and Saudi Arabia, and threatened to restart banned weapons programs.
War II, in some ways the longest and most costly of the four conflicts in terms of human misery on the ground, likewise failed to address the real issue. The nature of Saddam’s despotism–not just broken agreements, mockery of the U.N., or subsequent plots–was the source of the problem.
War III sought to remedy the failings of Wars I and II, and did so in the sense of removing Saddam and his Baathist regime. But it too was naïve in thinking Saddam’s rule was limited to a few Baathist henchmen rather than being composed of a large fascist infrastructure–with alliances of convenience with jihadist terrorists–that suffered comparatively little during the three weeks of fighting other than worry over a loss of its pride.
If we are victorious in War IV, Iraq will be analogous to a Germany, Japan, or Panama and pose no further problem. If we fail, it will be similar to Vietnam or Lebanon. In our defeat we will give up, go home, and probably not return.
There were always problems with public support that limited American options in these four wars and thus explained why we didn’t go to Baghdad, turned to a cold war, and are now facing insurgents from Syria and Iran after a relatively quick conventional victory that mostly bypassed the Sunni Triangle.
During War I, the U.S. Senate almost voted to cut off funding while troops were stationed on the front lines. In the latter stages of War II, President Clinton’s critics alleged its hot phases were a planned distraction from his impeachment, while our allies undermined sanctions and embargoes, leaving the U.S. and Britain alone to enforce the no-fly zones. The country was torn apart over the March 2003 start of War III, and has been even more divided over War IV. Critics either said we were naïve in our half-hearted efforts or too bloodthirsty in unleashing violence against the blameless “Iraqi people.”
War IV is now unpopular, but that is understandable because it is the costliest in terms of American lives–and the only one of the four that was not just punitive and thus not fought in a solely conventional manner.
Creating consensual government has proven much harder than freeing Kuwait, taking over Saddam’s skies, and toppling his regime–especially since all of those previous efforts did not really defeat and humble the fascists, and were confined only to our forte of conventional fighting.
In sum, after 15 years we are nearing a showdown with Iraq, since we finally chose to confront the real problem of a fascist autocracy–the result of Soviet-style Baathism imposed on a tribal society–recycling petrodollars to wage modern war at the heart of the world’s oil reserves and international terrorism.
Just as there was no third war with Germany or second war with Vietnam, there will probably be no fifth war with Iraq. We have finally learned our lesson: Victory or defeat and a change of circumstances–not breathing spells with dictators, U.N. resolutions, realpolitik truces, no-fly zones, or cruise missiles–finally end most wars.
Either the conditions that start a war–in the modern era usually some sort of autocracy that creates mythical grievances and is appeased in its desire for cheap victory–are resolved or they are not. Iraq War IV will prove that there will be no more Saddams–or that there will be plenty of them and the United States can’t do much about it.
But at least this final war in its ambitious goal to end the cycle is honest, and so will be decisive in the way the other three were not. If War IV is now the costliest for the U.S. and the most controversial of the series, it is because it is for all the marbles and offers a lasting and humane solution–and every enemy of the United States in the Middle East seems to grasp that far better than we do.
–Victor Davis Hanson is a military historian and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His website is victorhanson.com.