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Op-Ed: Operation Desert Storm Offers Enduring Lessons on U.S. Global Leadership

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Nearly 30 years after the end of Operation Desert Storm to drive Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait following Iraq’s invasion of the oil-rich emirate, it is worthwhile to reflect on lessons learned that may be relevant today.

To take us back to that period, the United States was the undisputed global power having prevailed in the Cold War; however, we still faced the ghosts of Vietnam when U.S. military power and strategy were held in check and defense budgets slashed. Apart from the smaller operations in Grenada and Panama to thwart anti-U.S. leaders, our ability to wage a broad-scale diplomatic and military effort had not been tested.

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President George H.W. Bush’s experience, relationships and reliance on his military and national security experts led to one of the most decisive military victories in the 20th century. It should be noted that there are critics who felt strongly that Saddam Hussein should have been removed from power, in part because — as is the case today — the Kurds were viciously attacked in the wake of the war. We have learned however that there is a difference between completing a defined military mission that enjoyed nearly unanimous international consensus and taking on the wholesale remaking and rebuilding of a nation and its society.

President Bush knew when he declared victory quickly and limited the mission short of regime change in Iraq, he was avoiding adding further fuel to the embers of an unsettled Middle East whose fragile borders and ethnic divisions can be easily explode.

a7.desert.oped.holliday.quote.storyI would like to highlight five lessons that I think are worthy to remember having played a small role in Desert Storm and looking at the world from the vantage point of the Meridian International Center:

  • Diplomacy matters. Even up until the brink of war, the Bush administration met with Iraqi leadership to give them an opportunity to withdraw from Kuwait. The U.S. built a broad-based coalition with traditional allies such as France and the United Kingdom, but one that also included unlikely players such as Turkey and even Syria. Because everyone was clear on the mission and objectives based on a collective view of the aggressor, cooperation was easier. Finally, the U.S. sought and received international legitimacy by working through the United Nations system in parallel with military preparations.
  • Having superior military technology matters. Only a few short years since the Soviet Union privately declared its military could not keep up with the pace of technological transformation on land, sea, air and space, the U.S. saw the fruits of its investment in research and development through a decisive, crushing blow to one of the world’s largest armies in a matter of days. Superior airpower and tank technology were evident on the battlefield, and a military that was properly supplied and equipped proved to be an overwhelmingly superior force. Maintaining this edge should not be underestimated today.
  • Trust is the coin of the realm. Leaders around the world trusted that President Bush was a man of his word in international affairs and that the United States saw this mission as the necessary stand of the world against a blatant invasion of a sovereign country. One reason for this trust was that many efforts to build the coalition and negotiate were conducted discretely without bravado and with shared interests in mind.
  • The Middle East requires American diplomatic leadership. From the Suez Crisis in 1956 to protecting Israel and the Gulf, as well as efforts by numerous administrations to promote a Middle East peace process, we are reminded of the imperative of American leadership in the region. It is precisely because America does not want to be engaged in endless wars in the Middle East that it must maintain active diplomacy and strategic engagement as a deterrent to instability. We will not fix all the problems, but we can make them worse by turning them over to others who do not share our values and interests.
  • We need to take care of our veterans. Over half a million men and women participated in Desert Storm and many still live with the wounds and strains of that conflict. They were greeted as heroes by a grateful nation but in many cases their legacies are eclipsed in public memory by the more recent conflicts in the region, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While Desert Storm was short in duration, for those who served in that war, the memories are still alive. Their contributions should be remembered.

With the current tensions along the Turkey-Syria border, not to mention threats around the world ranging from Iran to North Korea to Russia, it is important that we reflect on a period in our global history when nations came together with American leadership and united around an effective diplomacy and military strategy that accomplished a clearly defined, internationally vital objective.


About the Author

Stuart Holliday is president and CEO of the Meridian International Center and served on active duty as a naval intelligence officer during Operation Desert Storm.

Last Edited on October 31, 2019