Chicago Tribune
March 13, 2005

America's Unfinished War--And The Effort To Redeem It

By Douglas A. Macgregor

Before leaving Iraq in 1991, many gulf war veterans with frontline experience against the Iraqi army concluded that Desert Storm had been a kind of Iraqi Dunkirk, an unfinished war or, more precisely, a strategic defeat for American arms.

To many, the generals' declarations of victory over a weak and incapable Iraqi army seemed hollow. By the time 500,000 American and allied combat troops attacked on Feb. 24, 1991, no more than 200,000 of the 380,000 Iraqi troops originally deployed in and around Kuwait were left to defend against coalition ground forces.

In the fighting that followed, 87,000 Iraqi troops were taken prisoner and an estimated 25,000 Iraqis were killed, but Saddam Hussein's regime endured.

Despite the overwhelming force that President George H.W. Bush provided, Desert Storm's most important objective, the destruction of the Republican Guard corps, was not accomplished. The generals knew that, without the Republican Guard to protect him and impose his tyranny on the people of Iraq, Hussein would be vulnerable to attack from his numerous enemies inside Iraq's borders, but it was not to be.

The palsied movement of the U.S. Army's most powerful combat formation, the VII Corps, a force with more than 100,000 troops and 1,000 M1 tanks, ensured that as many as 80,000 Iraqi Republican Guards--along with hundreds of tanks, armored fighting vehicles and armed helicopters--would escape to mercilessly crush uprisings across Iraq with a ruthlessness not seen since Josef Stalin.

Millions of Arabs and Kurds inside Iraq were consigned to a fate no less terrible than the fate of millions of Europeans condemned to 50 years of Soviet occupation at the end of World War II.

Sadly, the same American government that incited the rebellion against Hussein's regime simply stood by and did nothing. Under orders not to interfere, VII Corps soldiers watched from their positions along the Euphrates River as Republican Guards smashed Hussein's opponents.

America intervened in Iraq in March 2003 for many reasons, one of which was to redeem the strategic defeat of 1991. Pushing the Iraqi army out of Kuwait was never enough to satisfy America's strategic interests in the Persian Gulf any more than expelling the British army from the European continent had been enough for the Germans in 1940.

Mixed feelings on occupation

Today, Americans are justifiably delighted with the removal of Hussein's regime, but they have mixed feelings regarding the occupation of Iraq. Many have yet to determine whether America went to Iraq to liberate an oppressed population and to remove a dictator with aspirations to build nuclear weapons or whether the goal was to incorporate first Iraq and then the whole Middle East into a vague American version of a globalized world.

Still, after two years of violence in Iraq, any positive sign, such as the election in January, is welcomed. To the advocates for the Bush administration's policy of installing democracy with military power, the elections vindicated the president's policies.

But to the critics of the administration in the U.S. and Europe, the Iraq emerging from the two-year occupation presents a different picture.

In the "winner-take-all" political culture of the Arab world, the Sunni Arabs of central Iraq saw no reason to legitimize the election with their participation. Less than 2 percent voted. Participation among the long-oppressed Kurds and Shiite Arabs was predictably high; the incentives for Kurds and Shiite Arabs to vote were strong.

Now, regional experts are troubled by the slow buildup of new Iraqi Army units consisting mainly of Shiite Arabs and Kurds.

Many fear that American military power may have inadvertently created in two years what Iranian military power could not achieve through eight years of war with Hussein: the foundation for an Iranian client state in Iraq. Frankly, it is too soon to pass judgment.

Look to history

What Americans should remember is that the parliamentary democracies established by the British and French in their former Arab colonies and protectorates did not survive the departure of the British and French armies.

The British who worked hardest to build the foundation for democratic governance discovered quickly that only institutions fundamentally Arab in character and origin had any chance of survival. And these institutions have little in common with English-speaking concepts of government.

Over the last 12 years of the Clinton and Bush administrations, American foreign policy has tended to focus Americans' attention on the surface mechanics of democracy, on popular elections in the aftermath of American military intervention in Haiti, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo rather than on the true foundations of democratic government and the rule of law--among them, a strong civil society with a complex market economy that supports a thriving middle class.

Unfortunately, 12 years of economic sanctions destroyed Iraq's middle class, and Hussein's skilled manipulation of ethnic and religious rivalries undermined what little cohesion existed in the country before 1991, making it very unlikely that democracy of the kind that English-speaking peoples struggled 500 years to achieve will now emerge in Iraq after only two or three years of American military occupation.

The true test of whether democracy has sunk real roots into the deserts of Southwest Asia will come when America withdraws its forces. Then, we will know whether America's strategic defeat of 1991 has indeed been redeemed.

Douglas A. Macgregor is a former Army colonel and a gulf war veteran.

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