Twenty years ago this week, the war known as “Desert Storm” ended with the United States and its allies utterly victorious and President George H. W. Bush’s vision of a “new world order” seemingly validated. Aggression had been met, turned back, and punished. So decisively, it seemed, that no rogue state would try anything like Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait again. Bush’s approval ratings soared, briefly, to 90 percent.
That now seems not merely a long time ago but like something from another, dimly remembered age. Which may account for why not much was made of the anniversary. There were no speeches and no parades recognizing a military triumph that would, we were told, usher in a Pax Americana.
U.S forces carried most of the weight in the fight, though a coalition of nations had been assembled and a few of them made a material contribution to the battle. For others, participation was mostly symbolic. The heavy lifting and fighting was done by more than half-a-million Americans with overwhelming air and sea power that had been built up during the Cold War and was finally, conclusively unleashed.
Coalition forces flew some 100,000 combat missions and dropped nearly 90,000 tons of bombs. The air war was largely an American undertaking and it made the world aware, for the first time, of what “smart bombs” could do.
Who could stand up to that? The United States was supreme. And in the flush of invincibility, hardly anyone bothered to ask why, exactly, this war had been fought and what, now that it had been won, victory meant for the future.
As for the first part of the question, it seems that war had been fought in the cause of… well, what exactly?
“Stability” turned out to be the best answer. This had been a battle to defend the sanctity of established borders and to deter aggression. No Wilsonian stuff about making the world — or even the Mideast — “safe for Democracy.” Kuwaiti royalty had fled to the safety of London ahead of the invading Iraqis and returned, after the fighting was done, to resume life as before. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein may have been embarrassed by his defeat but he was still in power and still killing his political enemies — wholesale and retail.
But borders went back to what they had been and, so, the cause of stability had triumphed. But it was — as the next 20 years proved — a most unstable and ephemeral victory. And, perhaps, one never worth the price. Americans who were infants when their country declared victory over Saddam Hussein grew up to become soldiers or Marines and casualties in another war to depose him.
Whatever stability may have been accomplished two decades ago, it now looks exceedingly fragile in that part of the world where there is, certainly, no peace. The American troops are gone and Iraq descends into chaos. In Syria, meanwhile, the regime subdues its dissident citizens with artillery. Libya remains in a state of chaos after a civil war in which the United States backed the winners but not with troops or sufficient material to buy any influence. Egypt, a country which annually receives some $1.3 billion from the U.S., holds American citizens for trial in a fashion that makes them more hostages than defendants. Iran, of course, remains hostile, belligerent, and on the verge of becoming a nuclear power.
This, then, is the new world order and may explain why there were no anniversary parades to commemorate the victory in Desert Storm.
It could be, one thinks, that George H.W. Bush at 90 percent approval and returning American troops being honored with a Manhattan ticker-tape parade was the high point of a kind of naïve, hopeful faith in internationalism. This time, we had finally gotten it right. No more refusing to join the League of Nations and retreating into isolationism. No more unilateral adventures like Vietnam. From now on, it would be about UN resolutions and international coalitions.
Today, our Secretary of State, is stymied in the UN in an effort merely to condemn the Syrian regime. China and Russia will not go along. Ms. Clinton forcefully expresses her dismay and nothing changes. Members of the U.S. Senate publicly argue that we must come in on the side of the Syrian dissidents. With arms, only. No mention of troops.
Does anyone on earth believe the United States has sufficient stamina to see through any commitment we make in Syria. Or anywhere else? The days of a half-million man expeditionary force are gone. We are reluctant, even, to send spare ordinance.
One wonders whether, if we knew then what we know now, we would undertake a Desert Storm again. Or if we might just let the Kuwaitis find some accommodation with their new occupiers. The new world order has perished. And along with it, one thinks, the faith in internationalism for its own sake.
It is time, many no doubt think, to fall back behind our own borders — claim it is for the sake of “stability” — and bring the troops home. From Afghanistan — where our “allies” are killing our soldiers for burning the Koran, whether or not the victims actually did the burning — and also from Germany where we have been doing garrison duty since the fall of Berlin and are not needed to do anything, really. The mission is symbolic — holding together the now-pointless NATO.
We tried that new world order. Gave it our best and certainly more than any other nation on earth. Nice idea, too bad it didn’t work out.
Time, now, to come home.