Thomas G. Mahnken: The Gulf War in Retrospect





[Thomas G. Mahnken is a Visiting Scholar at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies at The Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). Between 2006 and 2009, he served as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for policy planning. In that capacity, he advised the Secretary of Defense and Under Secretary of Defense for Policy on strategy and planning.]

On Jan. 17, 1991, a broad based coalition, led by the United States, launched Operation DESERT STORM to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. We know much more of the story now, twenty years later, than we did then, even if we do not yet know how it will turn out. In particular, we know much more about the Iraqi side of the conflict, thanks to the millions of pages of Iraqi government documents captured during the 2003 Iraq war. We also have twenty years of subsequent experience to influence our judgment.

In retrospect, the U.S. conduct of the 1991 Gulf War was a success, though one marred by a fundamental failure to compel our adversary -- the most basic object of strategy.

On the positive side, the war was a clear demonstration of the battlefield prowess of the U.S. armed forces. It is hard for many today to remember, but the run-up to the Gulf War saw many predictions that Iraq would inflict massive casualties on the United States, and even that Iraq would defeat the U.S. military. Many analysts predicted that a war would be protracted and costly to the United States. Former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski forecast 20,000 casualties, while Patrick Buchanan predicted 30,000. Senator Ted Kennedy estimated that there would be some 3,000 U.S. casualties per week, while former Secretary of the Navy (and current Senator) James Webb warned that the U.S. Army would be "bled dry" in three weeks. On the eve of the Gulf War, a group of analysts operating under the auspices of the U.S. Army War College wrote "We should ask ourselves whether we are prepared for [war with Iraq] -- in our view we are not."...


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