If the Democrats won the U.S. presidency in 1988 -- as they could have, with a different candidate or different tactics -- would there have been a Gulf War in 1991? Would there have been an invasion of Iraq if Al Gore won the presidency in 2000? Unlikely.
The U.S. Senate in 1990 authorized the Gulf War by a slim majority, 52 to 47 votes. Most Democrats, haunted by Vietnam, opposed George H.W. Bush's efforts to free Kuwait from under the thumb of Saddam Hussein, fearing another Vietnam-style quagmire. Admiral William Crowe, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Carter, and Zbigniew Brzezenski, Carter's National Security Advisor, opposed the Gulf War on the grounds it would exacerbate Middle East tensions and Kuwait did not involve vital American interests.Barack Obama's Secretary of State, John Kerry, was then a senator from Massachusetts and opposed the first Gulf War, giving an almost pacifist speech, quoting from the anti-war novel, "Johnny Got His Gun." So did Obama's Vice President, Joe Biden. As Biden explained later to The New York Times. ""We didn't trust the old man...When it was over, I said, 'Well, we should have voted for it, if we'd known he was going to do it that way.' "
Democrats also questioned whether the U.S. had the right to interfere in a longstanding three-decade dispute between Iraq and Kuwait, to kill tens of thousands of civilians, primarily to keep low oil prices in the U.S.
Many Democrats in 1990 and 1991 saw the looming war with Iraq as a diplomatic failure, the result of the first Bush administration giving false signals to Saddam Hussein that the US had no compelling interest in Kuwait. They pointed to a fateful meeting between Hussein and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq at the time, April Glapsie, one week before Saddam's troops invaded Iraq. Glapsie told Saddam President Bush desired "friendship" with Iraq, had no treaty obligations with Kuwait, and gave no indication that the U.S. would retaliate if Saddam annexed Kuwait. After the two-hour meeting, Glapsie cabled the State Department about "Saddam's message of friendship to President Bush."
In the meeting, Saddam complained that Kuwait was keeping oil prices in the region so low that "his country had been forced to cut the pensions it paid widows and orphans," as Der Spiegal reported in 2010 after reviewing Glapsie's cables. "At this point," Glaspie's report stated, "the interpreter and one of the notetakers broke down and wept."
The U.S. had supported Saddam in his war with Iran in an effort to prevent Iran from exporting Islamic revolution to other countries. Glapsie was also impressed that Saddam hired a group of six intellectuals to draft a new constitution for Iraq. According to Der Speigal, Glapsie in her diplomatic cables
explicitly contradicted a report by the US Embassy in Kuwait that said Saddam's erratic behavior suggested "internal pressures and instability of his regime" - which, with hindsight, seems highly likely. The ambassador in Baghdad insisted Saddam was motivated by many things, but putsch rumors were not one of them.
In a retrospective analysis written in 1994, Claude Rakisits of the University of Colorado laid the diplomatic failure more at the doorstep of the international community than of the George H.W. Bush administration. It's doubtful a different president would have succeeded diplomatically where the Bush 41 administration did not, he wrote.
Many doubted Saddam Hussein, given the opportunity, would stop after he annexed Kuwait. Saudi Arabia feared an attack from Saddam. Saddam was quoted as saying he should have continued into Saudi after invading Kuwait, although some military analysts doubt he could have succeeded in conquering Saudi Arabia.
An emboldened Saddam could have controlled a hefty percentage of Middle Eastern oil, a frightful prospect to the US and its allies. More than 50 percent of the world's oil supply at the time came from the Gulf, and the US depended on the Middle East for 25 percent of its oil supply. And a coalition of 32 countries were willing to commit forces to remove Saddam from Kuwait. (A slightly smaller coalition of 25 nations was willing to commit troops to the war in Iraq for the duration of that war.)
It's likely that if a Democrat like Michael Dukakis or Gary Hart won the presidency in 1988, Saddam would have invaded Kuwait without a call to arms by the US. The intensity of the US reaction may have depended on how high the price of oil rose. Still, there was an important principal at stake: Saddam had invaded and annexed a sovereign nation, Kuwait.
But even with dovish Democrats in the White House, it's doubtful Saddam could have occupied Saudi Arabia -- with whom the US has treaty agreements -- without raising the ire of the U.S. and its allies, as well as of Saddam's longtime nemesis, Iran. Would Saddam have stopped with Kuwait? Was his army of half a million soldiers, much larger than the Saudi army -- professional enough to occupy and conquer Saudi? He did in fact attack Saudi oil fields as a runup to the first Gulf War. Could he have been contained from further aggression without a long and costly war to topple him and try to rebuild Iraq? Historians are still debating these questions.
While Dukakis or Hart might have tolerated an Iraqi occupation of tiny Kuwait, there would have been enormous outrage if Saddam invaded Saudi Arabia and fear over his control of Gulf oil prices. The first American response after Saddam invaded Kuwait was to better arm Saudi Arabia. Even dovish Democrats would have been forced to respond militarily or risk the label of "appeasement" like Britain Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's ignominious agreement with Adolph Hitler.
Granted, there would have been many complaints on the left that Gulf state monarchies, with their dearth of democracy and lack of respect for human rights, were hardly worth the lives of American soldiers. And leftist predictions that toppling Saddam and rebuilding Iraq would take years if not decades, with dubious results, proved absolutely true.
If Saddam could not be contained, if he invaded Saudi Arabia, it would have been up to the dovish Democratic president to persuade Americans and the world that Saddam fancied himself another king like Nebuchadnezzar who ruled over the neo-Babylonian empire, conquered Jerusalem and sent the Jews into exile. Or saw himself as another conquering Arab hero like Saladin, who turned back Christian crusaders and ruled over much of the Middle East. If Saddam were not overthrown, the American president would have to make the case that his intention was to dominate the entire region, to eventually invade the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and even Egypt.
Saudi Arabia had offered to topple Saddam by itself, but the US objected, fearing that would lead to more extremism in Iraq. The US wanted to direct the reconstruction of Iraq and attempt to build an Iraqi democracy.
From America's perspective at the time, there were few downsides to the first Gulf War. It was over quickly, few Americans lost their lives, the "Vietnam Syndrome" was cured, U.S. soldiers were greeted as liberators by Kuwait, and Saddam was contained.
It is rarely noted that more than 100,000 Iraqi and Kuwaiti civilians, 20,000 Iraqi soldiers, and less than 500 coalition soldiers were killed in the first Gulf War. Many soldiers also suffered from Gulf War Syndrome as well as post-traumatic stress disorder.
Tom Mahnken, writing on "The Gulf War in Retrospect" for Foreign Policy magazine, points to new research indicating that Saddam Hussein viewed the first Gulf War as a victory for Iraq "because U.S. forces had stopped short of entering Iraq and threatening his regime...Saddam's subsequent behavior- - his defiance of the United Nations, 1993 attempt to assassinate President Bush 41, and his 1994 plan to re-invade Kuwait -- makes it clear that the Bush administration failed in this most basic of strategic tasks."
The war was a military success but it was not a strategic success because Saddam remained in power, America's Iraqi allies who opposed Saddam were abandoned, and the US remained engaged with Iraq for another very costly 17 years.
Was Kuwait Worth Fighting For?
The Gulf War was not about preserving democracy in Kuwait. It's a very small country of, even today, less than a million citizens, and 2 million "non-nationals." It's a welfare state with free health care, free education, free or reduced price housing for all citizens.
Iraq had decades-long border disputes with Kuwait pre-Saddam. During Saddam's reign, Kuwait (and Saudi Arabia) gave his regime lots of money.The Emir backed Saddam in his war with Iran. After the Gulf War, Saddam recognized Kuwait as an independent country in 1993/4.
Kuwait was a British colony from 1899 when it joined the Brits to protect itself from the Ottomans, until 1961, when it was granted "independence" though British Petroleum was calling a lot of the shots and still has a lot of influence -- hence, the Brits' interest in keepingKuwait "independent."
What If No War in Iraq?
Al Gore won the popular vote in the 2000 presidential election. If he became president, he maintained in 2002, he would not invade Iraq. He knew that the intelligence on Saddam's weapons of mass destruction was mixed -- the Bush administration exaggerated that threat -- and he predicted the US could not bring democracy or stability to Iraq even it it spent trillions of dollars and tens of thousands of American lives. But if Gore did not invade, how would things have turned out?
Jeff Greenfield in "43: When Gore beat Bush" speculates that Gore would have been pillioried by Republicans, led by Senator John McCain, for his failure to attack Saddam. His vice president, Joe Lieberman, a staunch advocate of the war, would probably have resigned. The Republicans would have exploited Americans' sense of insecurity after 9/11, probably with ads morphing Gore into an appeasing British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain before World War II. With the American economy in recession, Gore would not have been a popular president.
Could he have won re-election against a Republican Party clamoring for war, equating Saddam with Hitler, frightening Americans with details of the dictator's weapons of mass destruction, and promising an attack on Iraq as the only way to advance America's security? It would probably have been the most hysterical fear-mongering since the Joe McCarthy era. At least we were spared that.
The two Bush administrations exaggerated the threat of Saddam Hussein, while Democratic opponents of the two wars with Iraq minimized Saddam's threat and what the results of inaction would be.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can also wonder whether Saddam Hussein would have survived the Arab Spring. It's doubtful, given that dictators in Tunisia and Egypt were swept away, while a dictator in Syria teeters on the verge of collapse.
We'll have to leave it to historians to sort out who was ultimately right on the fateful decisions regarding Iraq.