Comparing the two Gulf Wars

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright May 2015


Some wars go well and some wars go poorly. All wars are surprising in how they turn out.

In the case of the two Gulf Wars that America participated in during the 1990's and 2000's we have a wonderful example wars being conducted and ending in dramatically different fashions. From the American point of view the First Gulf War conducted by George H. W. Bush (Bush Sr.) was a marvelously well-conducted war. From that same American point of view the Second Gulf War conducted by George W. Bush (Bush Jr.) came out miserably.

This essay is about comparing these two, to point out what was done right in the first war and what was done wrong in the second. The lessons provided by comparing these two apply to many other wars that have been fought, and will be fought.

The Background

The First Gulf War was fought just after the eight-year long Iran-Iraq war had wound down. This was a blood-letting war (my term) for the Iranian Revolution. The Iraqis got to play the part of the blood-letters and were supported in this effort by the Sunni Arabs of the region and the United States.

Note that this should have been a blood-letter for the Iraqis as well, but Saddam chose to continue being an adventurist at this point rather than transforming into a conciliator. He was adventurist eight years earlier when he started the Iran-Iraq War by invading Iran's oil provinces when the Iranians looked to be so deep in chaos that they could not respond well.

Another big change in the world situation just before this war started was the dissolving of the USSR in 1989-91. This meant that the former Soviet Union states were now concentrating on internal issues and not willing to devote much time, effort or attention to Middle East issues.

Yet another change was that Bush's predecessor, Ronald Reagan, had been doing a lot to get American thinking moving beyond the post-Vietnam shyness syndrome that was a Nixon/Carter legacy. Specifically, he had conducted a series of quick-win military engagements to restore American's confidence in the ability of the American military to win wars quickly and well. The first in this series was on the island of Grenada in 1983.

Reagan and Bush had been doing things right. Saddam had been doing them wrong. Saddam started this war by invading and occupying Kuwait, and declaring it was now part of Iraq. He felt the world owed him even more than it had already paid him for holding off the Iranians for eight long years, and giving him Kuwait was suitable payment.

The invasion was a surprise, but the Bush administration responded very well to it.

The virtues of the First Gulf War

Here are the applause-worthy elements of what Bush Sr. put together:

o He mustered sufficient force to make this into a "splendid little war". It was quick and decisive. ("Sufficient" in this usage means overwhelming.)

o He was masterful at gaining allies for the cause. This list included the UN. Hussein was delusional in starting the war in the first place, but Bush Sr. showed wonderful skill at taking advantage of his diplomatic blundering.

o He let the generals conduct the war. He didn't micromanage.

o He and the generals set specific and reachable goals for the war, and these didn't drift with time.


Compared to Bush Sr., Saddam Hussein came across looking like Bozo the Clown. In the eyes of the US media he transformed from controversial hero into full-fledged villain. Still in spite of that transition and the deep embarrassment of losing so quickly, he survived as ruler of Iraq. At the time that was a surprise to the Bush administration. This turned out to be a waving yellow flag. (my term)

Tip: Watch for "Waving Yellow Flags"

Saddam's survival was mystery, and one of the interesting lessons from this element of the war is that mysteries of this nature need to be examined carefully -- the mystery happens because there is a good reason for it, but that reason is not clear to the people being surprised -- in this case the Bush administration.

In sum, this war was well fought. It was so well fought, it came to be first taken for granted, and then steadily forgotten.

It isn't often talked about in history books, but when this evolution of thinking about a war happens, it is one of the hallmarks of a well fought war. And this phenomenon has important consequences: It was this quick forgetting about his spectacular victory that cost Bush Sr. his reelection. In the US it is usually a given that winning a war gives you the presidency, but Bush Sr. managed to break that rule.


It is ten years later. The post-USSR states and Iran have had ten years of recovering from their conditions at the start of the First Gulf War. Russia and Iran are ready to do some meddling in the Middle East again.

But the big change is in America. America has been deeply and scarily surprised by the 9-11 Disaster. This event was both novel and scary. It resulted in a Panic and Blunder situation. (my term) The novelty and scariness of 9-11 caused the American people, the media, and the Bush Jr. Administration to go into a deep panic, and many of their actions over the next decade were blunders made in response to the panic. Starting the Second Gulf War was just one of many Blunders, another was the Patriot Act, but the war has become the most memorable.

The vices of the Second Gulf War

Bush Jr. did so much wrong compared to his father, it is almost as if he was trying to make a "do's and don'ts" statement that could be passed down through the generations.

Here is a quick list:

o The war was stared in response to the 9-11 panic. Unlike Saddam invading Kuwait, 9-11 was both a surprise and deeply scary for Americans. The scary part is important. As a result of it the war was hastily planned, and planned by people who were deeply scared at the time. It ended up becoming as much a blunder as Saddam's starting the first Gulf War.

o Bush Jr. did not spend much time or effort on lining up allies. He did not have the "excuse" of Saddam's blundering to get him started on this, and he spent very little time on crafting or spreading some alternative message that other leaders could get behind and support. The result was the WMD fiasco that the war is now famous for.

o The goals set by Bush Jr. were grandiose, and they changed steadily with time. As a result there was no way to fight for a short time and then say, "We won." and send the troops home.

o He did not start the war with overwhelming force, and the military stayed on a tight budget for years thereafter.

o When the Iraqi governing structure vanished as US troops moved across the land, it surprised him. And this made post-fighting recovery even more expensive and more chaotic.


This is a great list of ways not to conduct a war.

But, again, this is not pure and simple "Blame Bush". One of those forgotten elements in the story telling about Gulf War Two is that the sloppy planning was enthusiastically supported by a nation of people who were also deeply scared -- Americans were demanding quick revenge for the Twin Towers, and government actions that would insure it never happened again. "Blaming Bush" for this sloppily-conducted war is convenient, but a mistake. He had the will of the American people firmly behind him when he started this affair, and he had record high approval ratings when he made his Mission Accomplished speech.

Also, as noted above, the mystery of Saddam not falling from power after Gulf War One was a yellow flag waving concerning conditions in Iraq. The solution to the mystery was: It meant there was no one to replace him. No replacement could be found by the behind-the-scenes Iraqi leaders who supported him. They knew, even in 1991, that it was either Saddam, someone even crazier than him, or complete chaos, so they continued to back him. But, given the deep, deep panic caused by 9-11, it is not too surprising that the Bush Jr. administration chose to ignore this waving yellow flag.


These two wars were fought over the same ground between the same contenders only a decade apart. But the conduct of the wars was night and day different. In those differences are some great lessons about how wars should and should not be conducted, and when to be really, really careful before starting a war.


--The End--