Viewed as a postscript to Vietnam, the Second Gulf War qualifies as a clear-cut success that gave rise to problematic second-order effects. For officers such as Powell, Schwarzkopf, and Franks, Desert Storm signified redemption, not least of all because, as Powell put it, “the American people fell in love again with their armed forces.” Politically, this brief and seemingly epochal campaign also largely dismantled any restraints on the use of force. At the time, President Bush happily asserted that “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.” He was justified in making that claim. But did the new “Desert Storm syndrome” that emerged in its place—a belief that the United States now enjoyed unparalleled military supremacy—mark an improvement? Time would tell. Meanwhile, in the years immediately ahead, the American soldier, showered with popular affection, was going to get one helluva workout.
Viewed in the context of America’s expanding military involvement in the Greater Middle East—the primary interest here—Operation Desert Storm accomplished next to nothing. The Bush administration’s declaration of victory in 1991 did, in fact, turn out to be premature. That results fell short of expectations stemmed less from flawed generalship, however, than from a fundamental misreading of the overall situation.
Although during the coming decade Washington developed an Ahab-like mania regarding Saddam, the Iraqi dictator was merely a symptom of what the United States was contending with. The real problem had a multitude of aspects: the vacuum left by the eclipse of British imperial power; intractable economic backwardness and political illegitimacy; divisions within Islam compounded by the rise of Arab nationalism; the founding of Israel; and the advent of the Iranian Revolution.”
It’s hard to imagine how any victory over Iraq, no matter how complete, could have remedied this menu of challenges. After another decade of trying, the United States gave up the attempt. After 9/11, rather than vainly trying to prop up the Greater Middle East, Washington set out to transform it. A fundamental misreading of Desert Storm helped make that attempt appear plausible. The result was a disaster.