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What Does History Have To Say About The Persian Gulf?
What the past tells of America’s role in the current crisis is sometimes contradictory—but always worth listening to
November 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 7
It was precisely this success, combined with overreaching, that produced a powerful—probably an invincible— coalition against Germany. Once its foes mobilized, total and disastrous defeat came rapidly, even though it may well have been considerably delayed by Allied blunders (among them Stalin’s insistence in the winter of 1942 on exerting pressure along the whole of the front, thereby dissipating the effect of the first terrible counteroffensive, and the Mediterranean strategy’s absorption of a bottlenecked resource, landing craft, with the possible loss of a year in the invasion of France, an area far more suited to the era’s offensive technique than the Apennines were). In 1939, 1940, and 1941, however, Hitler deployed the most effective military force in the world and with his allies menaced the whole of it, and the subsequent conflict was called a world war. Saddam Hussein, in contrast, deploys what is momentarily the most powerful local force in what is—and will continue to be—called the Persian Gulf.
The weak Gulf states have never been able to defend themselves against an adversary. The local balance of power having been twice distorted by the Iranian Revolution (first by Iran’s seeming so weak as to appear vulnerable to invasion, then by the Ayatollah’s regime in pursuing the war so incompetently as to risk losing decisively if the Iranians did not abandon it). The Iraqis finally struck at Kuwait, intending not merely extortion, as in the past, but grand larceny.
This increase in gall was itself the product of a remarkable conjuncture of events, not least the Reagan administration’s all but inexplicable series of successes in concealing from a majority of its own electorate its cowardice and irresolution (our response to Syria in Lebanon, our traffic with Iran) behind a screen of bombast and bullying (Grenada, Nicaragua). It is important to realize how absolute was the power vacuum into which Saddam Hussein moved. Of the other regional powers, both Turkey and Israel were absorbed by internal crises, and the unprecedented Iraqi build-up in the course of the Iraq-Iran War had eclipsed Syrian military power for the first time in memory. With all local adversaries simultaneously overawed or distracted, and American power apparently neutralized, Saddam Hussein finally nerved himself to attack a country with a standing army smaller than the New York City police force. Hitler was repeatedly astonished by his adversaries’ passivity; the spasm of activity by his adversaries has astonished Saddam Hussein. If he manages to hang on to the loot, his success will rest on neither his power nor his ruthlessness but will only illustrate the odd and intricate fault lines in the enormous composite force arrayed against him.
Not all useful historical analogies about the Kuwaiti affair, then, are to the thirties, not all of them are encouraging, and some important features of the situation have no parallel in our diplomatic and military history. Most significant, perhaps, is the fact that for the first time since our invasion of Mexico in 1847—where Winfield Scott’s tactics were perfectly suited to the job at hand—we have considered fighting a war we are prepared for.
Had Iraq invaded Saudi Arabia in the second week of August, badly outnumbered infantry with a lot of tactical air support would have tried to stop a massive assault by armor and mechanized infantry. It would have been an interesting fight, air power and little else against armor on clear terrain; no battle like it has ever been fought. It is, however, in some respects very similar to the situation we have spent the last forty-five years anticipating on NATO’s central front in Germany.
We would probably have done better against the Iraqis than we would have against our “real” adversaries in Europe. Americans have always had a bad tendency to overrate our air power versus Soviet armor, and much of our Cold War strategy was influenced by the military’s strong assurances that in the event of an invasion, American tactical air power would shatter Warsaw Pact armor and effectively interdict the echelons that followed it. Had it come to a fight, however, these assurances would have been given a severe test on complex and crowded terrain—the urbanized, densely populated North German plain.
The terrain now in question, though—the Kuwaiti-Saudi border on the coast—is an open killing ground, and killing tanks is much of what the U.S. Army has been thinking about since 1945; every war we’ve actually fought has thus been the “wrong one” in terms of the enemy, our available tactics, doctrine, and weapons. The antitank ordnance would probably have worked better on a pancake-flat coastal plain than it ever would have in Europe. It would have been the war the United States has spent the last forty-five years planning and, until a few weeks ago, finally came to think it would never, ever fight. Armies notoriously prepare for the last remembered war; in Kuwait we have come close to fighting precisely that. All the welltaken caveats about the Navy’s neglect of a swift sealift capability, the Air Force’s miserliness in procuring the sturdy but unglamorous A-10s, and so forth should not obscure this admirable, if largely serendipitous readiness.