Saying that the Gulf War was better than one of the biggest blunders in U.S. history doesn’t  prove that it was a good idea. Photographer: Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images
Saying that the Gulf War was better than one of the biggest blunders in U.S. history doesn’t  prove that it was a good idea. Photographer: Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images

Here’s something I’ve been wondering about:: Although everyone but a few dead-enders now says the 2003 war in Iraq was a terrible mistake, a consensus has emerged that the fiasco makes George H.W. Bush’s 1991 war look better by comparison.

Really? Certainly, the execution of the Gulf War was far superior to what happened in 2003, and the immediate aftermath was much better, too. However, saying that the Gulf War was better than one of the biggest blunders in U.S. history doesn’t actually prove that it was a good idea.

As far as I can see, the Gulf War left behind an Iraqi regime turned into a clear enemy of the U.S., and U.S. troops permanently based in the Middle East to enforce a cease-fire and sanctions. The presence of the forces was one of al-Qaeda's biggest grievances. And generally, the effort was costly, may not have contributed to long-term stability, and there was no clear end game. The people who pushed for regime change in Iraq during the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush presidencies were wrong about the probable effects of an invasion and occupation, but war opponents sometimes fail to acknowledge that the U.S. already was involved in difficult situation in the region. That doesn’t excuse the 2003 war, but it should raise further questions about previous mistakes.

What did the U.S. gain from the Gulf War? The explicit goal was to enforce a worldwide ban against aggressive wars: don’t invade your neighbors, or the whole world will gang up against you. I’m not convinced that a would-be aggressor in 2014 looks back at the consequences of the Gulf War and decides not to invade its neighbor. There’s also the question of the justice achieved for Kuwait and its people. I suppose that’s real, but I’m not sure it’s worth much.

George H.W. Bush’s performance in Europe was excellent and underrated, but I’m just not sure why the Gulf War is seen as a success or a smart choice.

As a non-expert, my tentative conclusion is that it was a blunder, but I’m open to persuasion. Perhaps some good foreign policy analysts have addressed this and I’ve missed it, in which case I’d appreciate some pointers. If not, I’d love to see some discussion.

To contact the writer of this article: Jonathan Bernstein at Jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net.