- Historic Sites
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
For one thing, there probably aren’t a million men in the Iraqi armed forces; there are still relatively static infantry formations tied down on the Iranian and Syrian borders, and the recent about-face with Iran doesn’t mean that Saddam can prudently leave that front naked. A fair number of the units are geriatric homeguard elements, and the effectiveness of various elements of the Iraqi armed forces is said to have been impaired by measures taken to ensure their political reliability. The armor, the arm Saddam would need to drive down the coast, tends to be the most coup-prone (or at least coup-suitable) branch of any army, and Saddam is said to have deliberately factionalized, politicized, and riddled his with informers.
The best part of the Iraqi army is its engineers. They’re least likely to stage a coup; hence they’ve been permitted to become extremely professional. Holding Kuwait once they’ve been allowed to dig in is precisely what the Iraqis, on past form, would be best at. American Presidents are least likely to risk the casualties an infantry assault would necessarily incur, and air power alone cannot dislodge entrenched troops. History is eloquent on these last three points. Studying our enemy objectively, in political detail, and letting our studies inflect our military policy, is something we have never done enough of. In general the United States has shown no great understanding of either the weaknesses or the strengths of its enemies; since Ulysses S. Grant, it has concentrated on overawing or overwhelming them.
Rather than physically expel the Iraqis from Kuwait, some experts are urging the bombardment of Iraqi military and economic targets, presumably first with stand-off weapons to shatter air defenses, then with air strikes to destroy the air force, and finally with the progressive destruction of Iraqi assets, more or less at will.
Some thoughtful people, among them the former undersecretary of the Navy James Webb, make this case with considerable eloquence, and in so doing, they cite the lessons of a war that just now is, like Munich, very much in the public mind: Vietnam.
But everyone has his own lesson from Vietnam. Caspar Weinberger’s was that we must not commit military force without a near-universal consensus in favor of such a course. Some people drew the conclusion that the United States should never commit ground forces but rely instead on local clients for infantry. Others learned that we should apply all available force, including infantry, immediately; the disaster to avoid was an incremental escalation that allowed an adversary time to adjust to the intensification of the conflict. There were those who decided that guerrillas were simply invincible, and some extended this particular lesson to all Third World combatants (at the time of the canaltreaty ratification debate, this included Panama).
For Webb and his allies, the lesson of Vietnam was to refuse to limit ourselves to fighting on our enemies’ chosen ground. There are more recent episodes in our history, with lessons of their own. The thousands of foreign nationals imprisoned in Iraq and Kuwait are an impressive deterrent to implementing the bombardment plan. We may lack the decisiveness and cohesion to make effective limited war on cruel and cold-blooded forces; the Reagan administration’s bribery of and fawning upon some of its Middle Eastern adversaries (Iran, Syria, and Iraq all had a turn) are a particularly discouraging memory.
On television and in the newspapers the commentators sometimes reflect on these difficult facts and murmur that the sanctions will have to do the job. If indeed the embargo and blockade work, it will be because Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iran, and Syria all held tight. Four of these states are desperately poor, and we would be foolish to count on Saudi grit withstanding too much in the face of any Pan-Arabist noise. It is at least arguably a lesson of our postwar foreign policy that the more effective military and economic tactics are the ones most likely to have a disintegrating effect on alliance solidarity. The vital Arab wing seems particularly vulnerable here, and the East Asian states generally seem to have a very slender purchase on the realities of effective collective security. Hitler scared his enemies into at least an outward show of cooperation and an authentic collective resolve, but no one has been that frightening since.