On Feb. 28, 1991 the first Gulf War was declared “over” and the victors packed up and went home. Iraq’s armed forces were crippled and Kuwait had been liberated from Baghdad’s grip. The American-led multi-national military force that repelled Iraq from Kuwait was hailed in almost all corners of the globe as a paragon of multilateral cooperation and a new world order.
George H.W. Bush, former head of the republic’s most prominent clandestine spy agency, mustered up enough international support to justify the invasion of the Gulf and the crippling of Iraq’s military. Thirty-five countries participated in Desert Storm, and Germany and Japan, neither of which sent any actual troops to region, wrote generous checks to the coalition for the war.
It seemed as though the world was finally on its way to cooperating on large-scale projects that involved enforcing agreed-upon rules, and that the capitalist United States of America was going to lead this new world order with a gentle guiding hand rather than socialist revolution.
Today, though, Iraq is still in the news cycle, which means terrible things happen there regularly. What happened?
In 2003, the United States turned its back on multilateralism as a way of policing agreed-upon international rules. That didn’t help. What helps even less is Iraq’s own recent, postwar history. Iraq lined up on the side of the Soviets in the early phase of the Cold War. Iraq’s leaders were anti-colonialist, pro-secular, and pro-socialism, which made working with the Soviet Union easier to do than working with the United States. Iraq’s financial support for Palestinian militancy earned the country a spot on the State Department’s terrorist sponsors list in late 1979.
The relationship between the United States and Iraq changed in 1980, though, when the latter invaded Iran and started a brutal eight-year war against the Ayatollah and his minions. Suddenly, Iraq and its military was awash with American military aid and American weapons. While it is tempting to conclude that the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88 was the result of American machinations (Iran had just thrown out a pro-American dictator in 1979), the resulting support for Iraq by Washington was just happenstance.
The unintended consequences of the republic’s support for Saddam Hussein in the 1980s are still not very well understood, especially when compared to the support Washington gave to the mujahideen in Afghanistan. Most people (well, most people who spend time on sites like RealClearHistory) understand that Washington’s support for guys like Osama bin-Laden in the 1980s had to do with bogging down the Soviets in a demoralizing, unwinnable war rather than any kind of ideological sympathy.
The alliance between Washington and the mujahideen in Afghanistan is pretty well understood today. The alliance between Washington and Saddam Hussein is not. The U.S. and Iraq had a common enemy: the pro-Shi’a, anti-American revolutionaries in Iran. The alliance was one of convenience, not ideology. Politics still drives much of this ignorance, I think. Leftists are keen to point to Iraq as a major GOP failure, which makes Republican willingness to acknowledge mistakes almost nil.
At any rate, as the war between Baghdad and Tehran ground down to a halt, Iraq found itself in debt to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Hussein and other elites also found Iraqi society to be in turmoil. Eight years of war was not rewarded with a decisive victory, and the economy had only gotten worse throughout the 1980s. Saddam Hussein demanded that Kuwait forgive Iraq’s debts. Kuwait refused to oblige. So, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and started the First Gulf War. The rest, they say, is history.