Iraq Redux: Not Another 1991 Gulf War

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

Skeptics warn us that we cannot assume that the next war with Saddam Hussein will be as easy as the last — especially since this time we are after his head, not the liberation of Kuwait. True, there is an array of strategic and tactical differences from a decade ago, but I’m not sure that any of the new realities presage a more difficult task than last time. If anything, the challenge is now clearer, more moral — and more suited to our own unique character and strengths.

We are told that because Saddam Hussein knows that we are after his person, he will do ghastly things in his last hours on the planet. But oddly, that is not the usual way of mad dictators in their last hours on earth. A doomed Hitler barked to his lieutenants to consider using the gas arsenal, but then balked upon their wise advice that the Allied retaliation would be nightmarish. Doomed Japanese madmen promised kamikaze attacks against the surrender ceremonies in Tokyo Bay before either being rounded up or sulking away. Milosevic talked of bombing nuclear-power plants and then was led off in handcuffs.

It is not an easy thing for a madman to pull down the world with him. Too many lackies are not willing to share a Fuhrer’s fiery Götterdämerung when there is a slight chance of cutting a deal and leaving the bunker alive. We should not even assume that Saddam Hussein in the last seconds of his life will not still ponder some final ruse to save his skin — an eleventh-hour fancy that would be impossible should he use weapons of mass destruction. And his henchmen will want to live in this world rather than join him in the fiery next, and so may not push the button when ordered — especially given American antebellum instructions that life next year can be either OK or very, very bad for them, depending on what choice they make when the bombs fall.

We are also warned that Israel might not be so “reasonable” as in 1991. Good. Knowing Israel this time will strike back hard, rather than being leashed by the United States will make it less, not more, likely that Saddam will strike at Tel Aviv. The entire Iraqi cult of the “39 scuds” in the decade after the Gulf War teaches us that unanswered attack in the Middle East is the real madness. Enduring missiles in 1991 without reprisals and to the cheers of Palestinians, and then unilaterally withdrawing from Lebanon prompted, not discouraged, the present cycle of violence. The fact that a cornered Saddam Hussein, in desperate need of a cause and an Arab jihad, has so far refrained from striking Israel before we act suggests that he equates such bravado with national suicide.

We are told that conquering Iraqi now is much more difficult than liberating Kuwait. Again, the very opposite may be true. Saddam’s military is worse, but ours is better than a decade ago and far more confident on the eve of battle. Before 1991 there was Vietnam; Afghanistan presages the present attack. If in 1991 we still suffered from a sense of postbellum Vietnam guilt and uncertainty, the last year after 9/11 has brought us confidence and righteous anger. Saddam Hussein controls only one-third of the Iraqi airspace; two-thirds are now very familiar to an entire generation of American pilots. In 1991 we had no idea of the extent of his weapons of mass destruction; now we have some idea of their nature and where he is likely to cache them.

Plentiful allies, of course, in theory are reassuring, but last time the Brits were stellar and the rest were mostly in the way, either haggling for the slots in the victory parade or carping that we could not go to Baghdad. So this time we get the benefits of real fighters without the costs of bringing along onlookers and show-boaters. Desperate Kurds and Shiites will prove better freedom fighters in liberating Iraq than opulent Kuwaitis and Saudis were in protecting their gold stashes. Before 1991, Saddam talked of the fearsome Republican Guard who had fought for a decade in Iran; this time we remember it was about an hour away from annihilation before the American M1s were called off. Like prizefighters, armies that were once badly beaten rarely wish for another licking in a rematch against the same opponent.

In 1991 we talked not of freedom, but dispassionately of fighting for “jobs” and “security,” code names both for oil. And we were ultimately embarrassed about leaving a murderer in power who subsequently butchered his own. Most of us felt additional unease about restoring a monarchy in Kuwait and fighting to protect an autocracy in Saudi Arabia. So something about the first Gulf War bothered Americans — suspicions that were only confirmed when unsavory Kuwaiti elites left their American hotels and were given back their country without requests for reform, while a “beaten” Saddam Hussein machine-gunned and bombed civilians, and while Saudi generals pinned medals on each other for being saved by Americans.

Not this time. No one is envisioning anything in postbellum Iraq other than the installation of a consensual government. No American is being told to defend Saudi Arabia or to free Kuwait. Instead our men and women are being asked to liberate an entire country from a fascist, not merely to protect the oil reservoirs of fundamentalists, anti-Semites, and despots. The cause, in other words, is far nobler this time around, and that perception will have a positive effect on our troops. I do not think that we will see Arab women jailed in a free Iraq for wanting to drive cars in the postbellum jubilation.

Analysts admonish that it is tricky to attack a country without warring against its people, and that it is especially hard to remove its dictator without killing his enslaved. The messy history of the recent years teaches us otherwise. We ousted Milosevic without killing thousands of Serbs, despite a series of tactical and strategic mistakes. And this time no one is calling for a Clintonesque air war with bombs in lieu of ground troops. Panama and Afghanistan proved that we can attack a country, rid it of its thugs, and in the process make life better not worse for the people.

Americans were bothered by the “Highway of Death” in 1991 and the scenes of hungry, pathetic conscripts being buried alive beneath tons of sand in the desert. In contrast, this war is focused precisely against the agents, not the draftees, of Saddam Hussein; in 2002 the latter at least will have a better chance of choosing to live on for a better cause rather than to die now for an evil man.

There may well be surprises in store for everyone when the shooting starts in Iraq. But comparison with the first Gulf War suggests cause for present optimism not despair; and we must not take counsel of our fears. We may be more easily caricatured by both friends and enemies as imperial, interventionist, and unilateralist than last time, but we are also fighting for a far better cause — and in a world that is no longer once what it was.

©2002 Victor Davis Hanson

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