Lost in the Desert 

How the Gulf War led us astray. 

The current nostalgia for the Gulf War will never be felt for the Yugoslavian conflict.

There was something almost too magisterial about Colin Powell’s return in triumph to Kuwait this week. As the newly christened Secretary Powell, he appeared tall and splendid on CNN, walking down the steps of his airplane, to be met by a cluster of Kuwaiti sheiks: There he was, a hero of the Gulf War, celebrating the 10th anniversary of the conflict from a new position of strength. Indeed, the whole event, attended by a gaggle of celebrity ex-politicians—Maggie Thatcher, George Bush Sr.—seemed to be drenched in a peculiar mixture of joyous relief and self-congratulation: At last we can celebrate something that the West got right.

Yet even leaving aside the obvious question of whether we did actually get the Gulf War right—Saddam Hussein is still there, after all, still causing terrible hardship for his people, still causing trouble for us—I was slightly bothered by another aspect of the backslapping ceremonies in Kuwait. Along with pointing out what we got wrong in the Gulf itself, it might also have been useful if those doing the celebrating had taken the opportunity to point out why the Gulf War set an extremely important and extremely misleading precedent, from which many mistakes then flowed. Hailed at the time as evidence of the New World Order, of a new type of American leadership, and even as a new way of waging multilateral warfare, the “lessons” drawn from the Gulf War then went on to confuse world leaders for the subsequent decade.

The problem can be summed up in one word: uniqueness. For at the time, the war was meant to have established the superiority of multilateral coalitions; the usefulness of the United Nations; the advantages of aerial bombing campaigns in an era of “smart” bombs. In fact, all these tools “worked” because of the peculiar and probably unrepeatable circumstances of the Gulf War and have been used rather less successfully ever since.

1) The Gulf War happened at a unique historical moment.

The Cold War was over. Russia—then still the Soviet Union—was still unsure of itself and was still inclined to join the West rather than oppose it. Partly as a result, the United Nations was briefly in sympathy with the West, understood broadly, and with the United States. Ten years on, this is no longer the case and may never be so again. On the contrary, Russia is growing ever more interested in playing its old adversarial role in the U.N. Security Council, as it chose to do during the Kosovo crisis, and in emphasizing its historic ties to Iraq and North Korea. It is also true, however, that although the Cold War was over, it was only just over—the men and material that were once meant to fight against the Warsaw pact were still in place. It was possible to ship them with relative speed from Germany to the Gulf, without making much extra effort. You couldn’t do it so easily now. Finally, the Arab-Israeli conflict was in one of its relatively less vicious phases. Oslo was still to come; the failure of Oslo was still to come. Given current passions in the Arab world, it is hard to imagine recreating a coalition that included the United States, Syria, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia all over again.

2) The Gulf War happened in a unique place.

The desert, it turned out, was an ideal battleground: no hills, no forests, not much even in the way of civilian population. Yet smart bombs didn’t really work there, or at least not as well as we were told they would. It’s hard to see them being very effective anywhere else. Oddly enough, Baghdad’s geographical isolation, coupled with Saddam Hussein’s ban on Western journalists, also made the war seem less dangerous: Almost no TV cameras were on the ground to record what happened when the bombs fell. Perhaps 100,000 Iraqis died—alongside 300 Americans—but it’s hard to remember them at all.

3) The Gulf War could be justified by a unique blend of humanitarian rhetoric and realpolitik.

Much is made in American foreign policy circles of the supposed gap between those American statesman who believe we should fight only when America’s vital interests are at state and those who believe that, as a moral superpower, America should always fight to defend the oppressed and the unjustly invaded wherever they may be. In fact, for most of the last century, American presidents generally only went to war when it was possible to make both cases. This was true of World War I (where both cases were rather spurious) and World War II (where both cases were extremely powerful), as well as most of the battles of the Cold War. To put it bluntly, the American public is uncomfortable with wars that are too blatantly in America’s interests, and its leaders are uncomfortable with wars that are too distant from America’s interests.

To his misfortune, Saddam Hussein’s attack on Kuwait fulfilled both criteria. On the one hand, his was a straightforward attack by one state upon the sovereignty of another state and could therefore be opposed on humanitarian grounds. “The use of force was moral,” CNN reported Powell saying in Kuwait. It also, quite frankly, threatened our oil supply, and everyone knew it.

4) Look, by contrast, at the wars of the former Yugoslavia.

Almost everything that was true of the Gulf War was never true of Bosnia and Kosovo—which is why I doubt that there will ever be a big “reunion” of the 10th anniversary of the bombing of Belgrade. I also doubt that Colin Powell’s successor, whoever he or she may be, will ever step off an aircraft in Sarajevo to be joyfully embraced by the natives. It just wasn’t the same: Everything that went right about the Gulf War went wrong in Yugoslavia. The terrain was hilly, which meant we were always hesitant to invade. The relative obscurity of the ethnic conflict meant that interventions were harder to justify to the American public, and as a result they happened months or years too late. The United Nations managed its peacekeeping missions badly: Even the mere existence of time zone differences were too much for the organization to handle. (Crises invariably occurred when U.N. bureaucrats, not equipped for 24-hour conflict management, had still not arrived in their New York offices.) The U.N. Security Council failed to be as pliable as it had been previously. The Russians were uncooperative at key moments. The various multilateral coalitions worked badly too, as is so often the case with multilateral coalitions, with Europeans and Americans quarrelling at other key moments, even working to undermine one another.

The Yugoslav wars were, in other words, just like what most wars have always been like over the centuries: messy, complicated, tragic, and morally ambivalent, invariably ending in some unsatisfying manner. That was what the history of the World Wars taught us, but it goes back further: Read War and Peace if you don’t believe me. But watched around the world on CNN (which has never been quite so successful again either; click here to see the network’s nostalgic tribute to the conflict that brought CNN’s highest ratings ever) the Gulf War appeared to be different.

At the time, it seemed more like a video game or a virtual war, with hardly any human costs. The desire to repeat the experience has bedeviled us ever since.