Twenty-five years ago this month, the conclusion of the First Gulf War inaugurated the post-Cold War global order. Militarily, U.S. forces dramatically outperformed pre-war expectations. Diplomatically, Washington assembled a coalition that shouldered the financial burden of the war. Domestically, the American public rallied around the flag. Meanwhile, the war exposed Iraq, the erstwhile Soviet client with the world’s fourth-largest military, as a paper tiger. By the end of 40 days of aerial bombing and 100 hours of ground combat operations, on February 28, 1991, it was clear to the Bush administration that the United States possessed the military edge and the political support to stand alone as the sole superpower that would set the terms of the post-Cold War world.
Although frequently overshadowed by the humanitarian interventions of the 1990s and the Global War on Terror of the 2000s, it was the Gulf War that fundamentally structured the geopolitical context in which the United States has operated since the Cold War.
The Cold War’s Death Knell
It is easy to forget that when Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, U.S.–Soviet relations remained the central preoccupation of U.S. foreign policy. By a stroke of luck, Secretary of State James Baker happened to be meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze when the crisis erupted. As Baker describes in his memoir, the two chief diplomats were able to quickly hammer out a joint statement condemning the “brutal and illegal invasion of Kuwait.”
Cooperating with the United States became the test case for Soviet “new thinking” in foreign policy. Despite the nearly 200 Soviet military advisors and several thousand civil technicians in Iraq at the time of the Kuwait invasion, as well as a strong Arabist coalition in the Soviet Foreign Ministry advocating for continued support to their Iraqi client, the Kremlin lent its support to U.S.-led efforts to roll back Iraqi aggression. Baker later marveled at the extent of U.S.–Soviet cooperation in the First Gulf War, describing it as “breathtaking.”
This cooperation sounded the death knell of the Cold War and enabled the United States to build an unprecedented international coalition through the United Nations. In part because of Soviet cooperation and Beijing’s desire to recover from its post-Tiananmen Square isolation, the UN Security Council proved an effective forum for coordinating the international community’s response to Iraqi aggression. Remarkably, a broad swath of Arab states also joined the coalition: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Syria, and Turkey. NATO allies also contributed a range of combat and logistical capabilities. For all of these reasons, the Gulf War coalition established the gold standard by which all future U.S.-led coalitions would be measured.
Harnessing the Precision Revolution
Despite the 39-nation coalition, the United States shouldered the bulk of the military burden in First Gulf War. U.S. crews flew more than 85 percent of sorties, while also contributing “all or almost all of the Coalition’s command and control systems, electronic warfare aircraft, heavy bombers, cruise missiles, and stealth capability.” The Department of Defense’s Final Report to Congress concluded that “no other nation was in a position to assume the military responsibility shouldered by the United States in liberating Kuwait.”
Indeed, for much of the American national security establishment, the Gulf War became a proof of concept for the U.S. military capabilities developed as part of the offset strategy in the 1970s and 1980s. When the U.S. military planned Operation Desert Storm, it expected a tough fight. Anticipating brutal combat, the Washington Post anonymously quoted one general: “Many, many people are going to die. And it’s important for people to understand that it’s not inconceivable we could lose.” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell warned the president that war against Iraq would be “harder than Panama and Libya. This would be the NFL, not a scrimmage.”
Of course, the reality turned out far different. The adversary that coalition troops encountered was a poor facsimile of the force they had anticipated fighting, and the United States dominated the battlefield. In keeping with the football metaphor, one marine pilot summarized the Gulf War as similar to “being in the Super Bowl, but the other team didn’t show up.”
This astounding combat performance seemed to reflect the success of a highly trained U.S. force with cutting-edge materiel. Even prior to combat, during Operation Desert Shield, U.S. forces deployed rapidly to the Gulf and went on to execute a historically unprecedented airlift that reached an operational tempo of 17 million ton miles per day — 10 times that of the Berlin airlift.
Stealth and low-observability platforms enabled the coalition to disable the Iraqi air defense system and destroy key command and control targets in the early days of the air campaign. Married with laser-guided munitions like the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM), F-117 and F-111F stealth jets proved highly effective at countering hardened Iraqi targets. The Gulf War Air Power Survey reported that precision sorties exhibited more than an order of magnitude improvement in the target/sortie ratio compared with dumb bombs. “Tank plinking” and shelter-busting demonstrated that U.S. conventional weapons had made a qualitative leap since the Vietnam War.
The Gulf War and the New World Order
The apparent lessons of the Gulf War transformed the George H.W. Bush administration’s grand strategy. As the Cold War ended, the administration sought a strategic concept to replace containment. The administration thought in 1990 that the new world order would feature “global interdependence and multipolarity” as well as substantial U.S.–Russian cooperation. But the stunning success of the Gulf War seemed to demonstrate that the administration’s strategic vision was insufficiently ambitious. Before the Gulf War, U.S. grand strategy called for military retrenchment amid multipolarity; after, policymakers recognized that the United States possessed the military edge and the political support to stand alone as the “sole superpower” that would set the terms of the post-Cold War world.
This strategic approach reflected several lessons of the Gulf War — lessons that continue to define U.S. foreign policy.
First, the Gulf War appeared to announce a conventional military dominance that together with the Soviet Union’s collapse enabled unprecedented freedom of action for the United States. The exuberant conclusions of the Defense Department’s Conduct of the Persian Gulf War: Final Report to Congress are worth quoting at length:
This war demonstrated dramatically the new possibilities of what has been called the “military-technological revolution in warfare.” This technological revolution encompasses many areas, including stand-off precision weaponry, sophisticated sensors, stealth for surprise and survivability, night vision capabilities and tactical ballistic missile defenses. … The war tested an entire generation of new weapons and systems at the forefront of this revolution. … Technology greatly increased our battlefield effectiveness … [and] gave the ground forces unprecedented maneuverability and reach.
Even as other studies, most notably the Gulf War Air Power Survey cited above, reached more temperate conclusions, it was clear that U.S. forces had achieved a significant lead in military capabilities over other major powers.
Having recognized its military-technological advantage — a gap that Moscow and Beijing also noted — U.S. grand strategy turned its attention to defending this edge. Desert Storm became a defense planning yardstick. As a result of the capabilities that proved effective in Iraq, the United States invested more aggressively in stealth, precision, and other high-end military technologies in a bid to increase its advantage even further. The apparent promise of these capabilities, as Sebastian Bae and David Betz have argued at War on the Rocks, contributed to the myth of the “easy” — and perhaps even “fun” — war, fought with high technology and low casualties.
Moreover, countering the proliferation of advanced weapons technology, and especially weapons of mass destruction (WMD), assumed even greater importance as an organizing principle for U.S. foreign policy. Post-war discoveries of the progress of Iraq’s WMD program only heightened concerns about covert nuclear proliferation.
The grand strategic implications of American military capabilities revealed by the Gulf War were profound. Prior to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, U.S. defense planning relied on the primacy of nuclear deterrence as well as the recognition that changes in the threat and fiscal environments required that the military do more with less. Yet the Gulf War victory seemed to show that, as the 1991 National Security Strategy (NSS) stated, the United States “remains the only state with truly global strength, reach and influence in every dimension.” A March 1992 draft of the famously controversial Defense Planning Guidance assessed the United States’ primary grand strategic objective more bluntly: deter the rise of a peer competitor or even a regional hegemon by increasing the benefits of cooperation with the United States and maximizing the costs of revisionism.
Second, the Gulf War introduced Iraq as the central preoccupation of U.S. post-Cold War foreign policy. Prior to the invasion of Kuwait, the Bush administration expected that the “Persian Gulf would be relatively quiet.” Notably, Iraq does not appear in the 1990 NSS, and the Middle East is lumped with South Asia in a small subsection of the document. Indeed, the Bush administration sought greater engagement with Iraq. Early in the George H.W. Bush administration, Central Command chief Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, who would go on to lead Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, developed a proposal for training and equipping the Iraqi military to better defend against coups and insurgencies.
After the Gulf War, U.S. grand strategy shifted along two key dimensions. Regionally, it elevated the importance of Iraq and the Persian Gulf. Functionally, it increased the priority of counter-proliferation of all advanced weapon technology, including weapons of mass destruction. As the 1991 NSS states: “The aftermath of the crisis in the Gulf portends a need for some measure of continuing presence in that region consistent with the desires and needs of our friends. … Our vital national interests depend on a stable and secure Gulf.” By mid-1992, the Bush administration had established two open-ended no-fly zones over Iraqi territory, one in the north and another in the south. These no-fly zones, which remained in place until the 2003 invasion of Iraq, placed U.S. and Iraqi national interests on a collision course for over a decade and entrenched a U.S. military presence in the region. Just as the Soviet Union was collapsing, Iraq came into focus as a new threat.
The legacies of the Gulf War continue to pervade U.S. foreign relations, though today’s world decreasingly resembles the one Desert Storm wrought. Twenty-five years later, it is time to revisit those legacies, as a guide to both understanding the past and producing better strategy going forward.
Maintaining a military advantage over current and prospective adversaries rightly remains a strategic priority for the United States. Though the U.S. military remains the world’s mightiest, U.S. conventional capabilities no longer boast the overwhelming superiority they once did. Enthusiasm for the peace dividend and subsequent Global War on Terror interventions largely directed investment away from advanced conventional systems. Technologies that were rare and sophisticated in 1991 are now commonplace. Russia and China played catch-up with costly modernization programs while also seeking asymmetric counters to U.S. conventional advantages.
In part, the gap between the United States and other major powers was allowed to narrow because of the United States’ persistent preoccupation with Iraq — a Gulf War legacy that the United States would do well to deemphasize going forward. Two and a half decades after the war’s end, Iraq remains a dominant focus of U.S. foreign policy. Even as the Obama administration sought to diminish U.S. involvement in Iraq, the rise of the Islamic State prompted military re-engagement. While Iraq surely has intrinsic strategic importance, it would be difficult to argue that its bearing on the U.S. national interest justifies the enormous cost that the United States has incurred — in blood and treasure, to be sure, but also in the opportunity cost associated with turning American focus away from prospective great-power rivals.
For much of the past 25 years, U.S. military hegemony was largely taken for granted, and the absence of a peer or near-peer competitor permitted vast freedom of action. But such dominance can no longer be presumed; rather, it must be actively preserved and adapted to the range of contingencies that the United States is likely to face, from the Baltics to the South China Sea and beyond. The Pentagon’s leadership understands this challenge and Secretary Ash Carter’s effort to refocus the military on deterring advanced competitors lays the groundwork for an important course correction.
American strategy has a tendency to be highly path-dependent. Foreign policy commitments become self-reinforcing over time as assumptions become taken for granted, U.S. policymakers determine that U.S. credibility is at stake, and issues develop constituencies in the national security bureaucracy. As such, revisiting the validity of lessons learned at key foreign policy junctures can reveal the forces that shape — and, at times, distort — American strategy.
Rebecca Friedman Lissner is an International Security Studies Fellow at Yale University and a PhD Candidate in the Government Department at Georgetown University.