A Transformative Moment

The following is excerpted from the afterword to Michael Kelly's book Martyrs' Day, about the first Gulf War. Kelly was killed in Iraq in early April as he accompanied American forces advancing on Baghdad  

N ot long after the Gulf War ended, there was a victory parade held in Washington and, as I happened to be back in the United States at the time, I went to it. It was an oddly disquieting affair. The parade was all that that sort of thing should be, a splendid evocation of military might and military discipline—ranks and ranks of marching troops and America's great machines of war, overwhelmingly the best in the world, streaming down Pennsylvania Avenue past the White House. What was lacking was any real passion. Although the day was sunny and pleasant, the crowd that had turned out for the parade was surprisingly small, and there was something of a perfunctory feel to it. I saw a lot of people—both participants in the event and onlookers—who seemed happy to be there, pleased with themselves and life that day, but I didn't see anybody in the slightest danger of losing emotional control. There was no sense that I could detect of immense joy or vast relief and thanks be to God, the sort of emotions one associates with victory and the return of the victorious army. Indeed, it seemed to me, there was an undercurrent of let-down to the day.

I figured this to be fanciful, a product more of my own mood than anything real, but I don't think so now. I think even then there were the beginnings of a sense that we had come out of this thing with a great deal less than we should have—that we had in a sense muffed it. This sense that we had somehow managed to snatch a quasi-defeat out of victory soon grew much stronger and became much more defined. It was clear within a few months after the war that the Bush Administration's determination to end Operation Desert Storm at the so-called "Hundred Hours" marker, to allow what was left (and quite a lot was left) of Saddam's Republican Guard to escape, had been a disastrous decision—disastrous on a historic level, and disastrous in a way that led directly, if in a complex way, to the catastrophe of September 11, 2001, and to the belated, forced resumption of an unfinished war.

Above all, the United States missed its greatest transformative opportunity since the close of the Second World War. A unique thing about America is that although it is a colossal power it is not, in its heart or in its strategies, an imperial one. Alone among the super-nations through history, America has generally (there are exceptions) not sought to exploit its victories to rule over other nations. What transformed America's relationship with Europe was not just America's defense of Europe from fascism, but, even more extraordinary, America's behavior after fascism's defeat—its determination to stay in Europe not as a conqueror but as a protector against the continuing threat of communism, and to help rebuild Europe into what would become America's greatest economic rival. This postwar demonstration of the American ethos in action shattered the old dynamic between Europe and America and forged a new dynamic rooted in an earned respect and affection toward America on the part of the average European that would prove strong enough to sustain itself through half a century of cold war trials, and is sustained still.

What was above all lost in the decision to quit too soon in Iraq was the opportunity to demonstrate to the Arabic and Islamic nations the truth about America that Europe came to learn. What would have happened had the allied forces led by the United States in the Gulf War fought on into Iraq with the aim of destroying Saddam Hussein's army and ending Saddam Hussein's regime?

The effect of this in the dynamic between the West and the Arabic and Islamic nations would have been extraordinary, I think. As Americans have become much more aware since September 11, the extremist (and ascendant) strain in these countries draws its strength from several perceptions of the United States: that it is at bottom weak and fearful, that it is corrupt, that it is cynical and untrustworthy, that its motives for meddling in the Middle East are all about oil and power and imperialism. All of this could have been given the lie by a successful conclusion to the Gulf War; all of it was seemingly confirmed by the conclusion of the Gulf War that was allowed to occur. As far as anyone could see, the facts of the case were plain as day: To preserve its cheap oil and imperial prerogatives we sent in an army to prop up one kleptocracy (Saudi Arabia), rescue another (Kuwait), and destroy the regime of the only Arab state that had ever dared openly to challenge us. But in this latter goal we failed, because we were cowards and we ran away, and in running away, we chose to betray the poor people whom we had seduced into rising up against Saddam with promises of support—and we had thereby, cynically, sent thousands to their deaths.

This lesson, which was so destructive to any American hopes of building upon its tentative new identity forged in the Gulf War as an ally to Arab peoples, was repeatedly reinforced in the years following the war, and all of the reinforcing messages stemmed directly from the consequences of quitting too soon. Quitting too soon meant that Saddam stayed in power. In turn this meant that Saddam continued to refuse to cooperate with the strictures of weapons inspections and air control to which he had agreed in his treaty for peace. And that meant the United States and the United Nations must continue economic sanctions against Iraq, weapons inspections, and what would become in effect the longest (and most lopsided) air war in history, ten years as of this writing and still winging along.

Historians looking back on the time from the waning days of the Gulf War until September 11 will, I think, tend to see it as a sort of phony-war time, a time of delusion and inattention at the highest levels of policymaking. The general delusion was that we were living, to borrow a phrase, at the time of the end of history—a time of no great thematic struggle, no clash of ideologies. Some, most notably the historian and theorist Samuel Huntington, argued the counter-case. We were not living in the era of the end of thematic struggle but in a dawning era of new (or rather very old) thematic struggle: not between competing political and economic ideologies, but between competing nationalist movements and competing cultures: a clash of civilizations.

Seen in this light, the Gulf War was no mere operation, no discrete and isolated "crisis" that could be contained well or poorly but was at any rate containable. But the views of such as Huntington were not welcome during the two Clinton administrations, which, in foreign policy terms, were characterized by a policy structured nearly entirely around sporadic crisis-management. Somalia came and went, and so did Rwanda, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo, and all of these were just "crises," to be contained by "operations." In part, this mind-set reflected the inadequacies of a president who, until very late in his term, was astonishingly uninterested in anything to do with matters apart from domestic politics. In at least as large a measure, however, the crisis-management way of looking at the world reflects a larger mind-set, the mind-set of the U.S. military and the U.S. government in general, the mind-set that called the Gulf War an operation, and declared it ended for reasons no more rational than my favorite one, publicly given at the time: "The Hundred-Hour War" had a nice ring to it. That, I hope, is all done with now.