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The US has forgotten the foreign policy lessons of the Gulf War

An abandoned Iraqi tank stood silent guard by a burning well in the Greater Burgan oil field, in Kuwait, on April 3, 1991.Roberto Borea/associated press

IT WAS THE MIDDLE of the night in Baghdad, Aug. 2, 1990, 25 years ago, when my phone rang. Half asleep, stumbling over the dog, I lifted the receiver to hear the disembodied voice of the embassy's Marine security guard: "Mr. Wilson, the White House." Stark naked, I snapped to attention, saluted, and waited for the president. The line went dead. Now wide awake, I called the National Security Council to learn that Saddam Hussein had sent his troops into Kuwait to annex the small neighbor. What followed was seven months of precedent-setting international diplomacy followed by the most significant US-led military victory since World War II.

What do we remember of that famous victory of a quarter-century ago? General Colin Powell's promise at the beginning of the Gulf War that we were "going to cut it [the Iraqi Army] off, and then we are going to kill it." Stormin' Norman Schwarzkopf's 100-hour war. CNN footage of the airstrikes on Baghdad and Iraqi troops surrendering en masse or dead along the infamous "Road of Death." These images may have made it seem so effortless in retrospect.


But forgotten, regrettably, in the fog of the Iraq War are the profound lessons of the Gulf War, especially relevant to us today. President George H.W. Bush termed the approach to international crisis management and resolution in this first conflict after the end of the Cold War "the New World Order," in which our national interests and goals would be best achieved in concert with our allies and broad international approval. That approach required the painstaking diplomacy of Secretary of State James Baker and the State Department, including our embassy in Baghdad to forge an international consensus and real coalition of like-minded nations.

At the embassy in Baghdad our task was to ensure that Americans and other affected civilians were moved out of harm's way and to communicate that Saddam should be under no illusions about American and international determination that his invasion of Kuwait would not stand. Thousands were evacuated from Kuwait and Southern Iraq, including Americans, but also Russians, Central Europeans, Egyptians, North Africans.


We threatened, cajoled, embarrassed, and made our demands known to the Iraqis in every way possible until all foreigners who wanted to leave were able to do so. Among them were several hundred hostages held by Saddam, 150 Americans as well as another 70 in our care to keep them out of Iraqi hands. We lost two Americans, a hostage who suffered a heart attack shortly after being taken the night of the invasion of Kuwait, and an employee of the embassy who died of a brain aneurysm that same night. There is no doubt that our personnel and their families were at risk, in considerable danger in fact. We persevered because the safety of our fellow citizens and the success of our policy to roll back Saddam's invasion of Kuwait depended on our efforts, much as the success of our efforts in Libya depended on Ambassador Chris Stevens' work, however dangerous it might have been. Fortunately, unlike today, in the aftermath of the Gulf War we never had to suffer the ignominy of preening political peacocks abusing their congressional power to seek partisan advantage.

In Washington, President Bush; his National Security Adviser, General Brent Scowcroft; and Secretary Baker were reaching out across the globe, securing military and financial commitments from friends and like-minded governments, while at the United Nations, Ambassador Tom Pickering led efforts to define the specific goals of the international community. The results constituted an unprecedented display of global cooperation: 32 nations contributed troops; 90 percent of the costs of the war were borne by other nations; and 12 resolutions were passed by the UN Security Council providing the international legal framework for our actions.


Comparing the Gulf War to the Iraq War of 2003, the contrasts become depressingly clear. In 2003, our actions were largely unilateral. Support was purchased, coerced, co-opted, or suborned. The United States could not even be bothered to go to the United Nations for the requisite resolution for the use of force. The massive costs were — and are — still being borne by the American taxpayer. We emerged from the Gulf War in 1991 with the political and moral authority, and the unity of purpose, to broker major progress on some of the most difficult issues in the region. But now we are so conflicted that we find the most significant nuclear arms agreement in years that would prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon under a fierce attack, lacking in facts but not funds from a right-wing casino magnate and his far right proxies.

While our current national security debate lurches from hyperbolic neoconservative chest beating to the most ominous fear-mongering, it would do us well to recall when realists and pragmatists held the ideologues at bay. We are still paying the price financially and strategically for the dire consequences of the neocon debacle in the Iraq War in which the lessons of the Gulf War were studiously ignored. We should remember now, as we consider the agreement with Iran, that when we have operated on the basis of international consensus, law, and convention, the United States has only enhanced its national security, strategic position, and prestige.


Ambassador Joseph Wilson was in charge of the US Embassy in Baghdad during the 1990-1991 Gulf War. He is the author of "The Politics of Truth."


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