A tale of two wars

Story highlights

  • Sunday is the 25th anniversary of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, which triggered the first war in Iraq
  • Lawrence Wilkerson: The Gulf War was based on a clear strategy in the Middle East
  • The invasion of Iraq in 2003 uprooted the successes of 1990-91

Lawrence Wilkerson served 31 years in the U.S. Army and was chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell (2002-2005). He currently teaches government and public policy at the College of William & Mary. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)The current degree of death and destruction in the Middle East is reason enough to assess the first Iraq war, which was launched 25 years ago this Sunday. But any assessment of the ultimate impact of that conflict cannot be completed without looking at its sequel, the invasion of Iraq by the "Coalition of the Willing," in then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's words, in 2003. Because that sequel unleashed the current devastation.

In the late summer and early fall of 1990, President George H.W. Bush responded to Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in a way that was no doubt a surprise to the dictator. After all, the U.S. had taken his side in the final years of his brutal war with Iran. But once he became president, Bush felt that if the U.S.-led new world order was to mean anything at all following the end of the Cold War, then outright aggression had to be stopped.
So when Hussein invaded Kuwait, Bush had to turn on him. But Bush was enough of a grand strategist to realize that he could not eliminate Hussein altogether, because if he did, the Iranians would be left largely unchecked in the region. And this would mean the precarious balance of power -- which the Iran-Iraq War had threatened but U.S. intervention had preserved -- would be destroyed.
    So he acted. Operation Desert Shield made the oil fields of Saudi Arabia safe; Operation Desert Storm, the measured defeat of the Iraqi Army, restored the balance of power. Iraq and Iran continued to cancel out one another, and the region was fairly stable.
    A dozen years later, though, President George W. Bush -- in an act of utter defiance of his father's grand strategy -- re-invaded Iraq and toppled its dictator. The result was the unleashing of the diverse elements at work in the region today -- from the civil war in Syria to the nefarious activities of ISIS. (It's also ironic that despite one of the ostensible reasons for the invasion being fending off the al Qaeda threat, the invasion led to an entirely new branch of al Qaeda, namely al Qaeda in Iraq.)
    The first Iraq war, or the Gulf War -- Bush's calculated strategic effort to establish a new world order following the Cold War's end -- then, was a resounding success, perpetuating what had been U.S. grand strategy since the end of World War II. The second Iraq war, in contrast, shattered that strategy, unleashing turmoil, death and destruction and millions of refugees throughout the region.
    How will historians judge these two conflicts in the future, perhaps another 25 years from now? Some will no doubt conclude that the first war sought to preserve a strategic condition that was untenable -- and that ultimately would have resulted in developments antagonistic to U.S. interests. The war preserved, for example, too much dependence on dictators, their ruthless behavior, and their oil. Such historians would argue that a change was necessary and that Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney wrought it, however unwittingly. Indeed, many neo-conservative voices argue that today.
    Others will point to the present turmoil in the region -- to Iran's ascendancy to hegemony and apparent quest for a nuclear weapon, and to the extraordinarily bellicose and increasingly undemocratic leadership in Tel Aviv -- as clear indicators that the change came far too swiftly, and without the proper preparation. Certainly, over 5 million refugees from the Syrian civil war are a further destabilizing force, particularly in Lebanon and Jordan.
    But perhaps more likely, the first conflict will be seen as having been based on a clear strategy that spanned half a century, in contrast to a war that was based on the predilections of a neophyte president and an overbearingly powerful vice president.
    Whatever history's ultimate judgment, in the meantime, this 25th anniversary of the first Gulf War should at least make us cognizant of the inappropriateness -- even wrongheadedness -- of the use of military force as the principal method of preserving U.S. interests in the world.
    Since the restraining influence of the Cold War disappeared, the U.S. has been interminably at war, from the Persian Gulf to Somalia, from Sarajevo to Pristina, from Kabul to Baghdad to Benghazi.
    It doesn't have to be this way. And we have a prime example of an alternative: the diplomatically produced agreement among the Permanent Five members of the U.N. Security Council, Germany, and Iran over Tehran's nuclear efforts.
    Indeed, it is interesting that the region that currently hosts the most calamitous and deadly state of affairs on the planet should offer up this quintessential example of a different, more positive way forward. But the world, not simply the U.S., will need to learn the lessons of the past to ensure that a more peaceful approach like this is given ample opportunity to succeed.