The Gulf War "ended" when offensive operations were suspended at midnight, February 28, 1991. But did this end the war? There is a critical, unexamined assumption in both The United States should go to war with Iraq and The United States should not go to war with Iraq write-ups, namely, that the current situation in Iraq can correctly be called "peace". This has it exactly backwards -- the United States is already at war with Iraq.

The rant I want to have today is, the choice before the U.S. and indeed the rest of the international community is not whether to go to war in Iraq. We are already at war. The choice is between a) continuing the war, but changing tactics from siege to invasion, b) continuing the war under essentially the same tactics, or c) abandoning the war and accepting the status quo ante bellum.1

Are We Not Already At War With Iraq?

Nowadays, war is rarely declared formally. However, the phrase "all necessary means", which was the key part of U.N. Security Council Resolution 678, has a specific meaning in the context of international law that includes making war. Therefore, by law, the coalition forces may be said to be "at war" with Iraq until the terms of resolution 678, and subsequent resolutions such as 1441 that refer to and extend the original resolution, are fulfilled. My understanding is that under international law, countries enjoying a ceasefire are still considered to be "at war". UNIKOM, the United Nations Iraq-Kuwait Observation Mission, a.k.a. the peacekeepers, have their own web page at This page makes it pretty clear that the legal situation is identical to, or very similar to, the situation in Korea. South Korea is still "at war" with North Korea.

Casus Belli During the Ceasefire

The UNIKOM page documents a "series of incidents on the newly demarcated boundary between Iraq and Kuwait involving Iraqi intrusions into the Kuwaiti side of the DMZ and unauthorized retrieval of Iraqi property from Kuwaiti territory" that ended February 5, 1993. This sounds like a polite way of saying Iraq was testing to see if another attempt to invade Kuwait would meet with resistance. It marks the fourth time Iraq has violated the borders of a neighbor:

  • Iran during the 80's in the Iraq-Iran War;
  • Kuwait in 1990-91;
  • Saudi Arabia (remember the Airmen and Marines at Kafji!) on January 30, 1991;
  • Kuwait again in 1993;
Throughout the "ceasefire", Saddam continued to target coalition aircraft that are legally occupying the no-fly zone with missile tracking radar. No, not the "normal" radar that is used to track a plane's location -- Saddam could legitimately use that kind of radar, to make sure aircraft weren't exceeding the no-fly zone. As far as I can tell, none were prior to December, 1998, when the Clinton Administration bombed selected military buildings in and around Baghdad. In fact, throughout most of the 1991 - 1998 period, Saddam had been targeting coalition aircraft using the particular type and frequency of radar that is only used to attack a plane with a missile. Typically, coalition aircraft responded by destroying the radar site. In several cases, it appears that Saddam had deliberately located these radar sites in the midst of civilians.

Other incidents include Iraq's ongoing defiance with regards to WMD, return of war prisoners (One US pilot and about 600 Kuwaitis1a) and seized property, payment of reparations, and numerous humanitarian violations, as detailed in Resolution 1441. Any of these incidents or violations has historically been considered casus belli.

And, from the Iraqi point of view, occupying Iraqi airspace, interdicting all sorts of shipments as part of the oil-for-food program (essentially, a land and sea blockade), and aerial bombardment would be considered casus belli.2

Before you criticize, please note, these incidents are not necessarily offered here to argue that we should invade (although that argument is attempted below). My point for now is simply to show how we are fooling ourselves if we think the Gulf War ever ended in any meaningful way. It hasn't.

This is Peace?

More importantly for the innocents the anti-war folks profess to care so much about, the actual reality of civilian life in Iraq is one of ongoing war. This is documented:

Of course, Mr. Ritter and I probably disagree about what to do about this awful situation, but clearly, our current policies towards Iraq are, in moral and humanitarian terms, hard to distinguish from siege warfare.

It's Really a Question of Tactics

The supreme irony is, the fear that invading Iraq will be the start of another Vietnam ignores the fact that we are, in many ways, already engaged in another Vietnam. The real question is, will an invasion of Iraq, the tactic that we never tried in Vietnam but probably should have, be a way to end the current quagmire?

I am writing in favor of a change in tactics from siege to invasion. The third alternative, abandoning the siege entirely, is outside the scope of this write-up, but I hope some of the "give peace a chance" types will have the courage of their convictions and make the case for it.

Moral Reasons for a Change in Tactics

The Iraqi people are suffering. It's remarkable, and eerie, how much our current "siege" approach has in common with the limited warfare, selective bombing approach that was tried in Vietnam. Much of the bombing and operations other than war we did in Vietnam was not designed to destroy the enemy's ability to make war, it was designed to "send a message". For example, during the endless peace talks, when we felt the North Vietnamese weren't offering the right concessions, or when we felt they'd withdrawn earlier ones, we'd bomb selected targets to "send a message". Our diplomats could give themselves a lovely pat on the back because all these "messages" were "preventing" a "war". But many died, and countless more had their lives totally disrupted.

Conversely, whenever our bombing was effective, North Vietnamese diplomats had merely to return to the negotiation table. We'd obediently order a bombing halt, leaving the enemy free to rest, resupply, and rebuild.

Sound familiar? Laying siege to Iraq makes little sense as a military tactic, given our advantages. If we are not bombing and laying siege to Iraq to achieve victory, what exactly are we doing there?

One of the other moral arguments against invading Iraq goes something like,

"Look at Afghanistan. We invaded, but have proved unable to rebuild that country; the new "democracy" there is fragile; it is really a government of the warlords, not a government of the people, and it will probably endure only as long as peacekeepers continue to support the Kabul regime. The people in power their are only slightly less oppressive than the Taliban. It's immoral to invade because it kills a lot of people, destroys a lot of stuff, and leaves the country "free" but in practical terms no better off that it was before. Meanwhile, a policy of containment or siege could eventually result in something like the reunification of Germany, or the fall of the Soviet Union, which was victory without a war."
Of course, the moral and financial cost of the cold war siege was tremendous. Over the years a great many died in various skirmishes and proxy wars. Millions more languished in the Gulag. While the West largely flourished, two entire generations, numbering in the billions, grew up under the anguish of totalitarianism. Any moral calculus has to take into account not just the number of lives saved, but their quality of life too. If the West had invaded the Soviet Union before it got the bomb, it's entirely possible the world might have been better off.

A related argument is that because containment was less violent than war, it allowed the contained countries to develop a sort of civil society, thus laying the groundwork for democracy to take over once the totalitarian regimes fell. But did it really? The most successful post-containment Democracy, the former East Germany, was successful not because they embraced the modicum of democratic institutions that had developed under Communism; rather, it was successful because it rejected almost every vestige of Communism, and adopted the democratic institutions of West Germany. Today, for example, the German Communist party is weaker and less successful than e.g. the French or British communist party.

Meanwhile, in the former Soviet Union, in which there were no historical and cultural ties to a working, 20th century democracy, it looks likely that democracy will flourish, but it's by no means certain, and the going has been very tough. My point is that the real work of building a democratic society didn't begin under containment, it only really got started after containment prevailed and the totalitarian regimes fell or (in the case of China) made a strategic decision to reform.

Contrast this with the situation in Japan after WW II. Here a country with little if any domestic democratic tradition3, and which was occupied by a foreign power, was nevertheless able to build successful democratic institutions in record time.

By all the evidence I can see, containment was no better than invasion at laying the groundwork for democracy. Which is to say, the old adage "war doesn't solve anything; peace is build in the aftermath, not during the war" still holds true; it's just that we forget that siege or "containment" is just as much a form of war as outright invasion.

Of course, Japan and pre-Cold War West Germany may be the exceptions rather than the rule. Most of the time invasion doesn't result in peace or democracy. It's possible that containment is slightly more likely to result in peace than invasion, but the difference is marginal. For example, an invasion will destroy a great deal of the country's physical infrastructure, but starting from a clean slate can have a certain advantage. A long siege will cause most infrastructure to fall into disrepair, and what infrastructure survives is likely to be hopelessly out-of-date in the case of a multi-generational siege. Is that possible marginal advantage of a siege ("sure we starved them into submission, but at least we didn't pull the trigger") worth the moral cost of afflicting years of suffering?

The relevant moral question is, since neither containment nor invasion is a guarantee that the aftermath will result in peace, why prolong the struggle when you can end it with a decisive blow? Siege is only allowable under the Just War Doctrine when victory through invasion is not possible.

Of course, you could decide it's wrong to even contain Saddam, but that will have to be the topic of another write-up.

Realpolitik, Military and Financial Reasons

In the current, politically correct siege, we've ceded the strategic and tactical initiative to Iraq; we have made clear the limits of what we will do militarily, and we've left the opponent free to test those limits with impunity. We are sending billions of dollars of aircraft to expend smart weapons that cost a million or more a copy, to destroy targets that probably cost a tenth of a million or less, and that have no strategic importance. The Soviet Union fell without war, some argue, because we induced them to spend too much on their military. But at the current missile-to-camel rate of exchange, we can't afford to spend Iraq into submission.

It's true, Saddam will probably respond to an invasion via some form of asymmetric warfare. Under the invasion tactic, we gain a measure of control over the circumstances and timing of his retaliation and can be that much better prepared for it. Not only that, his ability to organize effective retaliation is severely limited by the fact that his troop morale, communications, financial, and military infrastructure is collapsing around him due to our invasion. If the siege ever succeeds in it's goals, it would make it nearly impossible for Saddam to maintain control, and so it too caries the risk that he'd use the weapons as his regime is collapsing. Paradoxically, the siege tactic is less risky than the invasion tactic only if we never intend for it to actually succeed in it's goals!

True, our attack may become the inspiration for future generations of terrorists after Saddam is gone. Oops, wait a minute...we already gave them their inspiration back in 1991. The Iran-Iraq war lasted eight years; surely there must have been periodic lulls in the fighting. Yet this eight year period is considered to have been one long war. Don't you think the future oral history and folk tales4 of the region will record the period of 1991 to the present as one long war? It's unclear to me how we can be so sure a 12 year war that ends by invasion will produce much more resentment than say a 20 year war that ends some other way (but may well end in invasion anyhow if Saddam is caught committing some new atrocity.)

Besides, as long as there is suffering in the world, there will be a supply of fanatics and fools that may be recruited into terrorism. We are a strong enough society to absorb the first blow from them. But combine that with the logistical, tactical, and technical support of a state sponsor, and allow the sponsor to control the timing and circumstances of the terror attack, and it's clear we can no longer absorb the blow. If 9-11 and the Anthrax attack had occurred during the 2000 Florida election fiasco, the risk of domestic rioting, poorly conceived military action, and unintended consequences would be far, far greater than the risk the current situation: a wary but generally supportive public5, a carefully planned military campaign, and a foreign policy that has been subject to more public scrutiny and debate than any policy since Mutually Assured Destruction and Containment became our policy during the Cold War.6

If we invade, we have the difficult question of, will the regime that replaces Saddam really be any better? Let consider the worse-case scenario, that the U.S. led post-Saddam coalition, ends up "policing" (or since we are being honest, occupying) Iraq. The billions we spent each year enforcing the siege will instead be spent preventing Iraq from degenerating into civil war and ensuring that a higher proportion of food and other aid gets to those who need it.

And who knows, there's at least chance genuine democracy will break out, as happened in East Germany, Poland, Czech and Slovak republics, the Philippines, South Africa, and (well sort of) in Russia and Panama. The closest we came to real progress between Israel and Palestine was in the aftermath of the 1991 phase of the Gulf War. Perhaps the conclusion of the Gulf War would lead to similar opportunities.

Currently, politicians, not generals, are dictating the tactics and in other ways hamstringing the troops and micromanaging the Iraq conflict. Siege is only an appropriate military tactic when the opponent's defenses cannot be breached by assault, or in the case of the Cold War, when the opponent is able to promise Mutually Assured Destruction. Thankfully, that is not (yet) the case with Iraq.

A War In Support of Diplomacy?

We aren't fighting to win. The current approach is weakening the Iraqi country and it's people, but shows no signs of getting rid of Saddam or inducing him to change his mind about the West and the U.S. If anything, it appears to have strengthened his resolve. Psychologically, our tactics seem designed to piss off the Iraqi people by causing them to suffer, without teaching them the desired lesson that the current Saddam can indeed be decisively defeated, and that any future "Saddam" will similarly lead their country to ruin. Meanwhile, the credibility of U.S. Diplomats, not to mention that of the U.N., is severely strained. The U.N. is unelected, has no standing army, and is mostly dependant on the whims of it's member states for it's funding. It's only source of legitimacy is the sense that *all* nations must respect the U.N. President Bush was onto something when he pointed out that the U.N. Security Council's very credibility as an institution is at stake in Iraq.

If the Security Council cannot act to somehow bring a rogue nation back into the community of nations, one is left wondering what is the point of having a Security Council. Since institutions such as a coalition of democracies, multi-lateral treaties, NATO, and even the much-maligned Security Council will have to be credible in order to avoid future conflicts, invading Iraq now might ultimately strengthen future diplomacy.

And yes, that means we must soon begin holding other groups, including Israel and the PLO, to any binding Security Council resolutions they've violated.

Thanks for Reading

Over and over I am struck by this point: Most casualties in a siege are civilian. In a siege, the military typically gets preference for food, medical care, and so on. Referring to the 1991 phase of the Gulf War, the Washington Post article cited above notes that in terms of civilian casualties:

Each year of containment is a new Gulf War.

Saddam Hussein is 65; containing him for another 10 years condemns at least another 360,000 Iraqis to death. Of these, 240,000 will be children under 5.

Those are the low-end estimates. Believe UNICEF and 10 more years kills 600,000 Iraqi babies and altogether almost 1 million Iraqis...

To me, at this point in history, given a choice between ongoing containment and outright invasion, the only wise and moral choice is invasion. Lets finally put an end to this horrible Gulf War.

As always, your constructive criticism is welcome.


October 31, 2003: The United States is still at war in Iraq. I've written down some thoughts recent developments and possible outcomes of the current phase of the conflict, and speculated about their implications for practical wisdom, morality, diplomacy, military tactics, etc. I've also commented on the larger war against Islamists a.k.a. Islamofascism, movements that should not be equated to Islam as a religion. At some point I'll attempt some synthesis. Meanwhile, enjoy (or hate, depending on your outlook) these:


1. Or nearly ante bellum. Linca points out, the (at the moment) autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq might remain independent. I suppose it might also fall victim to Turkish hegemony. But, we have to be realistic -- if we renounce war of any form, including containment, we have to acknowledge the possibility that Saddam's Republican Guard would turn it's guns northward...

1a. Six hundred prisoners may not sound like much. But consider: according to the Kuwaiti Ambassador to the US, 600 prisoners means that one out of every one thousand citizens of that tiny Gulf Emirate is rotting in Saddam's jails.

2. dabcanboulet points out, US and UK special forces reportedly are now on the ground in Iraq, which from the Iraqi point of view, would be a casus belli. See Possibly, Israel is there as well, see My thought would be, some will say this proves the US, UK, or Israel started the Gulf War II, but really, it's been ongoing since Saddam started it in 1991. Nor are these incursions necessarily a violation of the ceasefire, which arguably has been rendered moot by Saddam's repeated violations since 1993, including his repeated missile launches at coalition patrol aircraft.

3. Linca points out, Japan had elements of democracy prior to WW II, citing and My quick perusal of these Web pages make me wonder if Japan's "imperial democracy" was more about having an "efficient", Western-style bureaucracy, which would have been pro-heavy industry and which would contain elements of the Rule of Law, without those other elements of democracy, entrepreneurial capitalism and elections. And, my understanding is that unlike Afghanistan, Iraq under Saddam also has an advanced (by Arab standards) bureaucracy that wants to (re-)build it's industrial and scientific infrastructure...anyway, I will have to think some more about the Japan-Iraq comparison...thanks Linca.

4. Linca also points out, today's terrorists recruit with video tapes and the Internet, that's hardly what one thinks of when one reads "oral history and folk tales". But why shouldn't it be? Aren't you huddled around your electronic campfire as you read this? Don't you feel a sense of community and shared history and tradition on e2? </tangent>

5. I'm referring to the US public's support. According to, (contains a nice graph) at no time during the past year has support for the war fallen below 52%, and is currently (Feb. 24-26, 2003) around 60%. At no time during the past year has opposition to the war exceeded 43% and is currently around 40%. The question asked throughout the polling period was "Would you favor or oppose invading Iraq with U.S. ground troops in an attempt to remove Saddam Hussein from power", which as polls go, is fairly specific and frank. These scientific polls had +/- 3% error. With UN approval, support jumps to a staggering 78%. That's remarkable for a country that historically is tolerant or even fond of low level conflicts but reluctant to commit to a full-on war.

I'm fully aware of conventional wisdom that "world opinion" is against the war, I'm just not sure how one measures world opinion when a great many people in the world are not free to express their opinion. I agree that European opposition to the war is strong and genuine, but I wonder if it will turn out to be similar to the European opposition to the US during the Reagan years.

And, I just know I'm going to come to regret noding about anything as changeable as public opinion!

6. I continue to be puzzled by those who claim, apparently with a straight face, that we haven't had any, or nearly enough, debate on this issue. What exactly is it that they do over at the UN? If you feel that the "real" debate isn't happening at the UN, that the UN fails to address the key issues, etc., what does it say about the viability and usefulness of the UN, "our last, best hope for peace" and discussion?

Even far away from the rarefied chambers of the UN...yes, even several hundred yards away, in NYC's many TV and cable news studios...I feel there's been quite a bit of coverage of the issue, and I dare say, healthy and rigorous debate.

  • The PBS shows NewsHour with Jim Lehrer (originally a NYC show, and still "in association with Thirteen/WNET New York"; see and Frontline (see have covered the topic from countless different points of view;
  • Both houses of the US Congress debated the issue, live on C-SPAN; all manner of Committees and Subcommittes continue to debate the issue; you can see transcripts and video at
  • C-SPAN also carried hours and hours of the larger anti-war protests over the past year, not just the recent ones. The coverage was live-to-tape and generally speaking, unedited footage.
  • Also on C-SPAN you'll see significant parts of the UK Prime Minister's weekly question period and the larger House of Commons debate;
  • Portions of the recent French Parliament debate were on C-SPAN, as were some of Sadaam's rantings and excerpts from Al-Jazeera. Instructions for streaming video from Al-Jazeera are at
  • Newspapers and TV shows worldwide have had extensive coverage of the issue. Interestingly, unlike say the Y2K or Michael Jackson coverage, I haven't seen widespread signs of media burn-out, and this after month upon month of coverage;
  • I am sure a some on E2 are sick of the issue, but to date I've noticed less E2 Burnout on the topic than expected;
  • I am a Web consultant by trade, and the owners of several non-political forums and e-mailing lists, who by policy eschew off-topic content, have asked me for tips on how to prevent people from posting about the war!
In my experience, people on all sides of this topic are more engaged on Iraq and other foreign policy questions now than at any time I can remember, as far back as the Nuclear Freeze movement (which at the time I supported). I have to wonder if what the "not enough debate" folks really mean is, it'll never be enough debate until they get their way.

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