Today in Middle Eastern history: Operation Desert Storm begins (1991)

Today is the 25th anniversary of the first airstrikes of Operation Desert Storm, the “oh, it’s just one play on the slots–what could go wrong?” of America’s full-blown gambling addiction to blowing things up in the Middle East. Thanks to YouTube, you kids out there can relive it as it happened, at least “as it happened” to Americans watching from their sofas:

That’s not necessarily to criticize the Gulf War, at least not in isolation. Although he was America’s good close pal when he was heroically gassing tens of thousands of Iranians throughout much of the 1980s, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait was obviously unjustifiable, the human rights abuses that followed were heinous, and the threat he posed to Saudi Arabia, and therefore to a sizable portion of the world’s oil supply, was genuine. Believe me, I don’t like the fact that we’re all so dependent on oil–I think we should have started a serious transition to alternative energy more than forty years ago–but given that we are so dependent on oil, I can understand why it was deemed intolerable in 1990 that such an obviously malign actor should be one more military offensive away from controlling a third or so (or whatever it was back then) of the world’s oil reserves.

Also, you know, there was wide global consensus that Saddam’s invasion needed to be rolled back, lots of support both in and out of the region, and the war was fought under pretty self-contained aims. All I’m saying is that if you’re making a list of the most damaging, most self-defeating, least justifiable military interventions the United States has ever undertaken, I don’t think the Gulf War would rank very highly. If it hadn’t kicked off 25 years of American fun and games in the Middle East, I’m not sure how much you could really criticize it, to be honest.

Of course, it did kick off 25 years of American fun and games in the Middle East. Admittedly, America’s current struggles with respect to that part of the world have roots that go back earlier than the Gulf War–arming the Afghan Mujahideen, for example, and backing Saddam as he was gassing those Iranians, for another–consider that the United States hasn’t left the nation of Iraq alone for so much as a solid month since 1991. We started off low-key, just an embargo and some sanctions that killed a few hundred thousand people, maybe the occasional airstrike or ten, but after 9/11 we came back with a real vengeance (literally). The Gulf War put Saddam in America’s crosshairs, it established America as the protector of the Gulf states, and it put American troops in Saudi Arabia, which was apparently aggravating to certain people. It made CNN famous (that’s bad, in hindsight), made Dick Cheney popular (that’s bad), and brought us “smart bombs,” so we could pretend that American weapons don’t kill innocent bystanders anymore (that’s also bad).

The Gulf War brought us Gulf War Syndrome, dispersed spent depleted uranium weaponry all over Kuwait and parts of Iraq, and the retreating Iraqis left behind burning and leaking oil wells whose environmental impacts are still not entirely known. It led Iraqi Kurds and Shiʿa Arabs to rebel, only to be brutally suppressed when the US, which encouraged their rebellions, decided not to help them out. And it gave us the WMD issue, even as it actually marked the beginning of the end of Saddam’s WMD program.

So, look, I don’t really have any deep point to make here. I understand why the Gulf War is looked at as a great victory–in purely military terms it was a victory, which is more than you can say about anything the United States has done in the Middle East since then. On the other hand, a lot of that stuff we’ve been doing in and to the Middle East over the past 25 years has roots of some kind or another in this war. And from the perspective of so many of the Iraqi people, the Gulf War was the start of a quarter-century of largely unremitting misery, thanks to Saddam but also thanks to the United States.

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