The Eclectic One

…Because labels are a poor substitute for thinking

Iraq, what went wrong. Part I

Posted by Bill Nance on September 5, 2008

Editorial note: This is the first in a series of articles in which I will attempt explain what has happened in Iraq and how. By necessity the series is long, so I will break it up into somewhat more manageable bites. There is a great deal of complexity to to situation, and it deserves better treatment than can be reasonably addressed in a single post. I have been studying this matter intensely since 1993, and in doing so have come to many conclusions, which disagree with many of the most common arguments both for and against the current conflict in Iraq.

In 1993, two years after the defeat of Saddam Hussein’s army in Kuwait, one thing was abundantly clear: We screwed up in 1991.

The war ended for a several reasons, most of which seemed reasonable at the time. Indeed, the majority of those decisions were the right ones given the realities of February 1991. Hindsight is always 20/20, but in this case, the hindsight wouldn’t have changed most of the decisions about ending the conflict when and how we did. Mistakes were made, some things were just plain bad judgment. But many of the so-called mistakes were simply necessities. No war-time leader has unlimited options. To blame George HW Bush for “not finishing the job,” is to badly misunderstand the realities he faced.

First, the carnage among the Iraqi forces retreating out of Kuwait was playing very badly in the press around the world. We didn’t do anything wrong, but the grim reality of war is something few people are prepared to deal with, particularly after it’s clear the enemy has been utterly defeated. The coalition was absolutely right to do what it did. The goal was to destroy Iraq’s capability to retreat behind it’s borders only to launch another war after re-grouping. But war is an ugly thing; and seeing it’s consequences up close revolted many. We risked losing public support for the war if we continued.

Second, the assumption made at the time was that the Iraqis themselves would get rid of Saddam Hussein.

This was a miscalculation on the part of George HW Bush, and a predictable one. Hussein had launched an absolutely devastating war on Iran only a few years earlier. A war which the Iraqis lost and in which hundreds of thousands of Iraqi soldiers perished to no purpose. There were no repercussions for Saddam at that time, and it was overly optimistic to assume that things would be different in 1991.

Third, The prospect of invading Iraq with a western army was something our Arab “allies” (who were allies only in that we either bribed or frightened them into cooperation) would have decried. They would certainly have pulled out of the coalition completely, including Saudi Arabia, our only real base of operations. This would have made supporting such an invasion nearly impossible. Kuwait was in tatters, the condition of it’s ports unknown but suspect, and the oil-fires raging in the country presented serious problems for aviation. Imagine if, on day-6 of the Normandy invasion, Britain demanded total withdrawal of US troops and bases from its shores. That is the situation we would have faced had Saudi Arabia, already under enormous internal and external Arab pressure, kicked us out.

And so a ceasefire was signed, the Iraqis agreed to inspections and the relinquishing of of its weapons of mass destruction, and we called it good enough.

To be honest I don’t see what else we could have done. We might have hit the Iraqi army harder, we might have done a more thorough job blasting the Republican Guards, but even that would have produced a lot of problems for the coalition. Bush was stuck between a rock and a hard-place and I think he took the only road available to him.

The real mistakes, the ones which were predictable and frankly unforgivable, happened later. But it is important to remember how we got there in the first place. Cries of “We should have finished the job in the first place” are flat-out wrong. They ignore the facts on the ground at the time.

-To be continued-

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