The First Thirty Days

Oct. 1, 1990

In August, just as the nation was turning out the lights on the defense program, crisis struck in the Middle East. Six days after Iraq invaded Kuwait, US Air Force fighters were on location in Saudi Arabia, ready to fight, and a massive airlift had been assembled to deliver ground forces, equipment, and supplies.

At this writing in early September, it is unknown whether the culmination is to be war, stalemate, or some sort of negotiated settlement. Whatever happens, the first thirty days of the crisis should have been instructive.

As David Broder put it in a Washing-ton Post column, the crisis shattered a “dangerous myth” that the US no longer needs military strength. It further demonstrated, Mr. Broder said, that “we bought a lot more in the military buildup of the 1980s than the overpriced toilet seats Pentagon critics held up to constant ridicule.”

As Mr. Broder points out, the United States is fortunate to have airlift and sealift capacity “that made this deployment a logistic miracle” and weapons that “would be the telling difference if war comes.”

Slow learners, however, remain among us. They say the Iraqi despot, Saddam Hussein, is a unique threat, that his military power is overrated, that he can be defeated with relative ease, and that it would be easier yet if our forces had simple, sturdy equipment rather than the esoteric weapons on which we spent our money.

That is hogwash. Of course this threat is unique. Most threats are. Before August 2, the instant experts who now perceive no other threats were not worried about Iraq either.

Of course the United States can defeat Iraq in battle, but we should not expect a pushover. Many of Saddam’s weapons are below par, but even the older arms have some military value, and an appreciable part of his equipment– MiG-29 fighters and Su-25 attack aircraft, for example–is modern.

Some of his troops are ragged, but he still has a million of them. The quality of his chemical weapons may be questionable, but it’s good enough to put our own forces into hot, bulky, protective gear.

The United States owes its advantage to advanced capabilities. Our aircraft and tanks are better than Saddam’s, We can fight at night. We can operate against lethal defenses. Our well-trained forces have the benefit of timely information from airborne and battlefield sensors. We can place power where it’s needed. Analyst Jeffrey Record, who created a furor last spring by suggesting the Air Force had outlived its usefulness, now writes that “we would be stupid to try to slug it out with Iraq on the ground” and that “US airpower could prove the decisive instrument of Iraq’s defeat.”

It was not necessary to develop the American military presence from scratch. US ships and capable carrier-based fighters were already in the area. Nevertheless, everyone breathed a bit easier once the Air Force and some ground divisions arrived to put more muscle in the order of battle.

The prompt positioning of superior forces stopped Iraq short of uncontested domination of forty percent of the world’s oil. The United States says there won’t be a war unless Saddam starts it, but that leaves some problems hanging.

Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.)–whose House Armed Services Committee voted, two days before the invasion of Kuwait, to cut defense by $24 billion next year–says, “Our bottom line boils down to ridding the world of Saddam Hussein or his army.” In Mr. Aspin’s view, if Saddam merely pulls out of Kuwait with his forces intact, he can still intimidate his neighbors with raw power that he has demonstrated his willingness to use.

“It would not be long–two to five years, say–before he made his next land grab,” observed The Economist. “By the mid-1990s, the West is likely to depend rather more than now on oil from the Gulf, and the Soviet Union may depend rather less on the goodwill of the West. Beating Mr. Hussein then, when Iraq could be nuclear-armed and economically strong, would be much harder.”

The crisis caught radical reductions to US defense in the planning stage and the defense industrial base beginning to disintegrate. Neither the defense program nor the industrial base is yet beyond recovery. A wise nation might now reconsider their importance in light of recent experience.

Furthermore, the US should look again at the signals it is sending, especially to those who do not mean us well.

The sobering fact is that deterrence failed in the Middle East. Perhaps Saddam is a megalomaniac, and no logic would have forestalled him. The more likely assessment, though, is that he “miscalculated” when he invaded Kuwait and threatened Saudi Arabia.

If the second view is correct, what led him to miscalculate and figure he could get by with aggression? Who else, in what situations, threatening which US interests, might also miscalculate– and why