Was the Gulf War (1990 to 1991) a success for the United States? To many, the answer is unequivocally “yes.” After all, the United States rallied the international community to punish aggression and liberate a small country (Kuwait) that had been invaded by its larger, authoritarian neighbor (Iraq). The country marshaled its formidable instruments of diplomatic, informational, military, and economic power to garner international support and achieved its objectives quickly at a relatively limited cost; adeptly executed joint and multinational military operations; and displayed astonishing military capabilities heralded as the beginning of a “revolution in military affairs.” These elements of the U.S. campaign should be celebrated and, where possible, emulated in the future.
But the United States should be careful not to mythologize its performance in the Gulf War. For example, war termination was handled haphazardly in a manner that hurt policy goals for regional stability. Following the war, great-power and non-state competitors sought to identify and exploit U.S. vulnerabilities with asymmetric responses while excessive military deference from allies often placed a greater burden on the United States. Lastly, U.S. military prowess in the war led to hubris, and reinforced a neglect for diplomacy, irregular warfare, stability operations, and governance. The country should continue to study the record of the Gulf War to identify and attend to demonstrated deficiencies, and to analyze subsequent responses of adversaries and allies.
On Aug. 2, 1990, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein ordered his armed forces to seize control of Kuwait. The Iraqi military secured the entirety of Kuwait and had troops poised on the border with Saudi Arabia by the following day. Saddam’s gambit to restore what Iraq claimed to be its 19th province rapidly assumed global dimensions.
Iraqi forces were poised to conquer the oil-rich northeastern portion of Saudi Arabia. Conceivably, along with its own considerable stockpiles, Iraq could then control half of global oil reserves. In the minds of American policymakers, this was a direct threat to U.S. vital interests.
Events evolved rapidly. With strong U.S. leadership, the United Nations condemned Iraq’s aggression, demanded its immediate withdrawal from Kuwait, and then levied an economic embargo when Baghdad failed to comply. Following an invitation from Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd, U.S. forces, primarily from the XVIII Airborne Corps, deployed to defend Saudi Arabia on Aug. 8 (this would mark the official start of Operation Desert Shield). In November, the United States began deploying an additional corps (the U.S. VII Corps from Germany) to build an offensive military option to evict Iraqi forces from Kuwait if Iraq did not accede to U.N. resolutions. At the end of the month, the United Nations authorized all necessary means to achieve its demands if Iraq did not comply by Jan. 15, 1991. American and Soviet diplomats, among others, could not convince Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait. However, diplomacy did succeed in gaining the release of hostages whom Iraq had seized. After receiving congressional support, the U.S.-led military coalition launched combat operations, consisting primarily of airstrikes, on Jan. 17, 1991 (the beginning of Operation Desert Storm). In late February, the coalition launched a ground offensive that forcibly evicted Iraqi forces from Kuwait. On March 3, the Iraqi and coalition leaders agreed to an armistice at the southern Iraqi town of Safwan. In short, a broad military coalition, led by the United States under a U.N. mandate, removed Iraqi forces from Kuwait and restored Kuwaiti sovereignty.
America’s Successful Response to Iraqi Aggression
There are several important successes from the Gulf War that are relevant to the present. First, the U.S. prewar policy and strategy were well matched to isolate Iraq and build a broad coalition to conduct military operations to enforce U.N. resolutions. The limited policy aims — essentially status quo antebellum — were supported by a commensurate military force. American officials focused on the withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait and the restoration of its sovereignty. The White House determined that overthrowing the Iraqi government was not particularly desirable (although many, including President George H.W. Bush, hoped for Saddam’s removal by some internal means) so as to preserve Iraq as a check against Iran. Moreover, regime change was not an aim supported by other nations that were crucial to diplomatic and military support for the war (primarily through the United Nations).
Increased cooperation among the different U.S. military services was another very positive lesson from the Gulf War. This was the first significant multi-service test after the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reform Act, which was designed to strengthen joint performance. Key elements included strengthening the authority of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs over the individual service chiefs (hence Gen. Colin Powell’s central role at the strategic level); giving the combatant commanders clearer authority over service components in a theater (Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf was commander of U.S. Central Command in this case); as well as seeking greater joint acculturation through assignment and educational prerequisites for officers filling critical joint positions and for any who would compete for general or flag officer promotion. Though growing pains demonstrated room for improvement, interservice rivalry and divided responsibilities were significantly abated in planning and executing joint operations during the Gulf War. Well-integrated joint operations tied platforms, units, and actions together to create multiple dilemmas for the Iraqi military.
Perhaps most importantly, the United States demonstrated restraint and avoided the temptations of fighting past the culminating point of victory. Given the relative ease with which Iraqi forces were defeated and ousted from Kuwait, some U.S. decision-makers were tempted to press their advantage deeper into Iraq itself. In a deft way, America’s military intervention in the Gulf War also restored the status quo without disrupting U.S. endeavors to manage what proved to be the final stages of the Cold War, particularly through careful diplomacy with the Soviet Union.
The U.S. armed forces displayed a well-integrated approach to the use of precision munitions and long-range strikes that cut across services and domains — land, sea, air, and space. Many saw it as a revolution in military affairs. The U.S. ability to move vast forces into Saudi Arabia from around the globe was a testament not just to combat power but to the incredible mobility afforded by air and maritime assets. American capabilities in space also played a crucial role for long-range communications and a satellite-based global positioning system that made it possible to navigate easily in trackless desert.
American Deficiencies in the Gulf War: Making the Results Durable
America’s intervention in the Gulf War was not a complete success. The United States failed to construct a durable regional security order after the war. What appeared to be an exceptionally daunting undertaking to simply defeat Iraqi forces in the theater of operations led to an overcautious approach to warfighting. The cautious approach included several weeks of airstrikes before launching the ground attack; insufficient recognition of Iraqi shortcomings (especially after the major Iraqi attack at Khafji in late January); a relatively slow-moving, deliberate main attack that was difficult to accelerate; and a mismatched approach to war termination that came up short on key military objectives both geographically (failure to close off the Iraqi retreat route) and operationally (in not destroying the Republican Guard).
According to National Security Directive 54, dated Jan. 15, 1991, there were four major war aims: complete Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, restore Kuwait’s government, protect American lives (in particular, free hostages), and “promote the security and the stability of the Persian Gulf.” The United States accomplished the first three objectives but not the last. Iraq freed American hostages seized in the conquest of Kuwait before the conflict and then released U.S. prisoners of war whom it had captured soon after combat operations. Combat operations were effective in evicting Iraqi forces from Kuwait and restoring Kuwaiti sovereignty. But regional stability in the Persian Gulf? What would sufficiently represent achievement of that objective? Before combat operations, key supporting goals included elimination of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons and destruction of the Republican Guard Forces Command. The execution of a cautious operational plan allowed a large proportion of the Republican Guard in Kuwait to escape, and aerial bombing of suspected weapons of mass destruction sites was a highly uncertain remedy for eliminating Iraq’s possible stockpiles. Combat alone was not enough to attain key policy aims.
The survival of Saddam’s regime, still well-armed, was in part secured through effective use of force against a Shiite uprising in southern Iraq. The intervention of the U.S. and other allied forces in Operation Provide Comfort and Operation Northern Watch thwarted a more bellicose Iraqi effort to subdue rebellious Kurds.
The problem was not so much with combat operations at the tactical and operational level but with the lack of foresight about what might be required to attain durable policy outcomes even with the continued existence of Saddam’s Baathist regime. Eventually, the United States declared northern and southern no-fly zones and stationed U.S. forces in the region to help support military operations to deter and contain Iraq. The United States also worked through the United Nations to establish an intrusive inspection regime to ferret out and monitor weapons of mass destruction programs and to promulgate the continuation of economic sanctions on Iraq to force compliance with U.N. resolutions.
Blowback and Blind Spots After the Gulf War
There were important second-order effects to military operations that continue to play out. The U.S. armed forces demonstrated an array of abilities, subsumed under the rubric of a revolution in military affairs, that showed how the United States was far more advanced militarily than its rivals and most of its allies. The conventional armed forces built primarily to fight numerically superior Soviet forces proved extremely effective against Iraq.
For Americans, the realization that U.S. capabilities appeared to be even more advanced than hoped help to build a confidence that arguably led to hubris or “victory disease.” In the Cold War, there was a sense of the U.S. armed forces as underdogs who would be hard-pressed to defend against a Soviet onslaught without having to resort to nuclear weapons. After the Gulf War, many Americans reveled in the military’s apparently unmatched superiority.
Other states and their armed forces quickly distilled their own lessons from the Gulf War. Several developed asymmetric conventional strategies to counter the United States. High among these efforts are Russian concepts of hybrid warfare and Chinese concepts of unrestricted warfare that include major components of competition and conflict below the threshold of war as well as heightened emphasis on new technologies (e.g., information warfare, cyber attacks, economic disruptions, artificial intelligence, and other non-military endeavors). This is the area that poses the greatest contemporary challenge for the United States. Russia and China have had time to close the gap with the United States in major areas of modern warfare. In particular, they have developed long-range precision strike systems such as anti-ship missiles, anti-aircraft systems, and other capabilities to thwart U.S. global deployment options.
Another lesson some learned from the Gulf War was to “never fight the U.S. without nuclear weapons.” This insight reflects an implicit acceptance among America’s adversaries that they might be unable to match the United States (or other rivals) in conventional terms for the foreseeable future. As a result, developing nuclear weapons could offset this disadvantage. India, Pakistan, and North Korea all joined the nuclear weapons club after the Gulf War, while Iran accelerated its nuclear activities.
America’s military intervention in the Middle East had long-term repercussions. Osama bin Laden and his followers cited the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia as one reason for their war against the United States. Bin Laden was motivated by grievances to include, “occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula” and continuing to punish the Iraqi people. During his experience in Afghanistan in the 1980s, bin Laden saw how Soviet forces had ultimately succumbed to much less technically sophisticated opponents. Might such techniques of irregular warfare used against one superpower be fruitfully applied against the other?
Military success in a war of limited aims left open the question of whether America’s military prowess in precision airpower, naval supremacy, and large-scale ground combat operations in open terrain would translate to other locations. Though not a failure, the Gulf War did not demonstrate U.S. military capabilities for irregular warfare, stability operations, or the stewardship of social and political affairs for a defeated and/or occupied population — all elements of counter-insurgency and state-building operations that had proved so difficult in Vietnam. The vulnerabilities of U.S. armed forces to such challenges were evident in subsequent operations in Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq (after 2003).
The demonstration of military prowess in the Gulf War included a problematic second-order effect for the relationship between the United States and some of its military allies. Even the most developed nations were (and are) extremely hard-pressed to match the complex and often exquisite U.S. military capabilities. Few bothered to try. Instead, U.S. allies opted for armed forces that relied even more heavily on the United States for critical capabilities and enablers, such as high-tech air, space, and maritime platforms. Furthermore, the absence of such capabilities also obviated the need for allies to develop the organizations to create and orchestrate the use of such exquisite capabilities. American success in the Gulf War created, in part, a new expectation that the U.S. military could easily intervene around the globe in ways that most allied military forces could not.
From a U.S. perspective, the Gulf War appeared to be a resounding success. Personally, as an artillery captain with the U.S. 1st Armored “Old Ironsides” Division, I deployed from Germany to the Gulf in December 1990, participated in the VII Corps main attack during the ground war, and was back in Germany by the end of April 1991. I was satisfied that our unit had performed brilliantly and that we had helped successfully accomplish our mission. After the Gulf War, I rose in rank (retiring in 2013 as colonel) and spent much of my military life as a strategist (back in Iraq a couple of times, as well as tours in Korea, Afghanistan, and the Pentagon) and as a faculty member (at the U.S. Naval War College and U.S. Army War College). During that time, I’ve regularly revisited the impact of the Gulf War.
The United States has much to be proud of in its performance in the Gulf War. American officials aligned policy and strategy well in the run-up to the war; successfully integrated diplomatic, informational, military, and economic instruments of power; and triumphantly conducted joint military operations that exhibited mastery of new and even revolutionary military-technical capabilities. This record becomes all the more impressive in light of the country’s tumultuous experience in the Iraq War and in Afghanistan.
In the immediate aftermath of the conflict, President George H.W. Bush enthused “by God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.” To an extent, Bush was right. Indeed, the U.S. military proved that it could project power with success thousands of miles from American shores. At the same time, that’s not the whole story. The Gulf War demonstrated shortcomings in war termination that helped thwart the creation of a durable security architecture in the Persian Gulf; provided an inflection point affecting the subsequent development of difficult policies and strategies by both adversaries and allies; and left open questions of American readiness for counter-insurgency and governance operations that were not tested during the Gulf War.
As successful as the U.S. performance in the Gulf War may have been, 30 years on it remains a source of justifiable pride and an instructive case for continued study.
Richard A. Lacquement, Jr., Ph.D., is research professor of national security affairs in the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute. He is a retired Army colonel (field artillery and strategist) with combat deployments in Iraq/Kuwait (1990 to 1991), Iraq (2003), and Afghanistan (2010 to 2011). He served as a strategist in the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Policy and for U.S. Forces Korea as chief of plans. He has been a professor at West Point, the Naval War College, and the Army War College, to include eight years as dean of the U.S. Army War College’s School of Strategic Landpower.
The opinions expressed here do not represent those of the Army War College, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.
Image: U.S. Army