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When the neocons wanted to 'go all the way to Baghdad' after 1991 war

H.W. Bush instead showed restraint. His son, a decade later, did not. There are lessons for our next steps with Putin here.

Analysis | Europe

Russia’s war in Ukraine is tempting American policymakers to repeat one of their most serious mistakes. 

In 1991 Saddam Hussein’s Iraq presented a constellation of problems quite similar to those presented by Vladimir Putin’s Russia today. Saddam, like Putin, was a dictator who invaded his neighbor. Then, as now, the U.S. was committed to ensuring that the invasion would fail. Some policy advocates even dared hope that the invasion’s failure would bring about the dictator’s overthrow at home.

What happened instead was a travesty. The American-led coalition easily defeated Iraq’s occupation forces and restored Kuwait’s independence. Yet the war didn’t really end, it widened. With Saddam still in power the region’s peace remained in jeopardy. Neoconservatives and other hawkish pundits therefore called for U.S. forces to go all the way to Baghdad. 

The George H.W. Bush administration judged that to be unwise, if not impossible. The coalition the U.S. had assembled to liberate Kuwait would not hold together for an invasion of Iraq. And if U.S. forces did depose Saddam, who or what would they put in his place? A dozen years later, when the second George Bush finally did invade Iraq, the same question remained. It was answered by years of anarchy and civil war, whose effects spread to Syria and seeded the ground for the Islamic State.

There was no peace in the intervening years either. Kurds and Marsh Arabs who believed they would have American backing in a rebellion against Saddam rose up, only to be slaughtered. The U.S. responded by creating a no-fly zone over Northern Iraq. America’s seemingly simple victory in the Persian Gulf War gave way to an open-ended crisis. 

Iraq was hammered by sanctions whose brunt was felt not by Saddam but by the Iraqi people. Neoconservatives continued, in the years before the 9/11 attacks, to call for the U.S. to wage war for regime change in Iraq. In 1998 Congress passed the Iraq Liberation Act, which stated: “It should be the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq and to promote the emergence of a democratic government to replace that regime.”

Substitute “Vladimir Putin” for “Saddam Hussein” and “Russia” for “Iraq” and the same language could find favor in Congress today. If so, it shows how little America’s political class has learned from our bitter experience with Iraq.

The same question applies now as before. Who or what would really take the place of the dictator? In Iraq, what initially filled the vacuum was not the weak democratic government we sponsored but a bloodbath fomented by Islamist militias and outside extremists. After years of horror, the killing subsided and left a weak state susceptible to Iranian influence. And Iraq’s troubles are nowhere near over.

The odds that an orderly, pro-Western regime will succeed Vladimir Putin in Russia are no better than the odds ever were that liberal democracy would flourish after Saddam. To acknowledge this in no way minimizes the atrocities of Saddam or Putin. It only recognizes that further atrocities are more likely than not in their wake. 

Mark Twain said that history does not repeat, but it rhymes. Ukraine is fighting for itself with American arms, rather than relying upon American forces for its liberation. A U.S. invasion of Russia along the lines of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 is almost unimaginable — though not quite. If Russia did collapse into civil war as a result of Putin’s foreign wars, the U.S. might well be drawn into the fray. And just as weapons of mass destruction served as a rationale for the George W. Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq, actual weapons of mass destruction — of which Russia has thousands — could change every kind of strategic calculus in the future.

Yet the basic problem is the same as the one that confronted America’s leaders in 1991. Despite the pretentious talk of international law, the world is not a state, and it has no apparatus for dealing with powerful criminals. There is no satisfactory remedy for a “rogue state.” The remedy that the first Bush administration applied to Iraq — sanctions and containment, with prayers for regime change — only produced a prolonged conflict that ultimately flared into another hot war. Decades of crippling sanctions applied to pariahs such as Iraq and North Korea have failed to liberalize or to undermine those regimes. 

Indeed, while the advocates of sanctions and international ostracization make some very sophisticated arguments for the efficacy of their policies, to the untrained eye it appears that hardline sanctions regimes have the effect of calcifying the very problems they are meant to address. If you wanted to insulate your regime from liberalizing influences and perpetuate a Stalinist or theocratic system, you could hardly do better than to get your state added to the Axis of Evil blacklist. 

Turning Russia into a colossal North Korea is no way to exorcize the demons of Putinism. Nor is it safe for the Western-led world order. Russia as a pariah state would have every incentive to cooperate with other pariahs, states and non-state actors alike. And while Russia and China will always have their differences, if China wished to refrain from overt conflict with the West it could find Russia a useful proxy for anti-Western measures. 

The U.S. had three options after the Persian Gulf War, two of which were counterproductive and the third of which was morally unthinkable. The unthinkable option was the rehabilitation of Iraq even with Saddam Hussein still in power. Because that was unthinkable, one of the other approaches had to be tried — and over the next 12 years, both were. The U.S. could sanction and isolate Iraq, in the blind hope that somehow Saddam would spontaneously fall. Or the U.S. could force his demise. The one way left a wound to fester, the other excised a tumor at the price of almost bleeding the patient to death.

America’s foreign-policy makers today have the chance to learn from history. But inertia is already compelling them to relive the errors of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Putin cannot practically be removed and he cannot morally be tolerated; so Russia will become what Iraq was in the 1990s, only far more dangerous and more difficult to contain. 

One advantage of a liberal and democratic order over a tyranny is the variety of ideas that can be considered without fear of reprisal. A dictator’s advisors must watch their words. Our own democracy has succumbed to conformity, however. Even powerful men and women would rather be wrong in a group than right on their own. And what passes for right and wrong is largely the in-group’s consensus opinion anyway.

But the costs of repeating with Russia the mistakes that were made with Iraq over the last 30 years are too great to excuse elite conformism today. The unthinkable does have to be thought: Russia must be offered a way out of this bloody mess of its own making. Putin’s age and possibly faltering health may (or may not) spare the West from the stain of having to tolerate him for long. What is essential, no matter how long Putin remains in power, is that America does everything in its limited power to keep Russia from becoming worse than it already is. 

That means providing a path for the eventual easing of sanctions and the restoration of Russia to the Western-led international community. The war in Ukraine must end first, and the West will have to think about the war’s end in terms of European stability, not primarily in terms of justice. Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014 was unjust, but Russian control of the peninsula is not incompatible with a stable Europe or a prosperous Ukraine. The Donbas situation is more difficult. And while everyone should be clear that Ukraine will not be eligible for NATO, Russia’s war has obviously strengthened the alliance and will almost certainly lead to its expansion.

A path to rehabilitation is not a victory for Russia. It is an alternative to the paths that the West pursued with Iraq, paths that led to longer and greater conflict. Vladimir Putin has proved he learned nothing from the collapse of the Soviet empire or the humiliations of Boris Yeltsin’s wars. We in the West have to be better students of our own recent history.

President George H.W. Bush visits the troops in Kuwait on Thanksgiving during the first Persian Gulf War, Nov. 22, 1991. (National Archives)
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