March 20, 2003
By Alan W. Dowd

Some observers are calling this Gulf War II, but it's actually the second act of a war that never really ended.

If anything, the twelve years between the liberation of Kuwait and the liberation of Iraq may one day be described not as the second Gulf War, but as the second phony war. The first was waged in the autumn of 1939 when France and Britain talked about defending Poland against the Nazis but did nothing to help.

While the names and scenery are similar to that of 1991, much has changed in the intervening years. For example, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, it was a British prime minister who kept an American president from "going wobbly." Today, the U.S.-U.K. special relationship is arguably even more important; but if the past two months of diplomatic doubletalk are any indication, it was President George W. Bush who steadied his British partner as the appeasers tried to seduce him away.

Soon after the invasion of Kuwait, the world came together to isolate Iraq. With the Cold War melted away, the elder Bush used the UN to build an international consensus against Iraq. In fact, the Gulf Crisis breathed life into the UN, which had grown comatose over the previous 37 years. The Soviet Union and the United States stood together. Arab states stood up against a fellow Arab regime. And seemingly the entire world agreed that Iraq's invasion and annexation of Kuwait should be reversed. In a word, the United Nations was, well, united. It was, as some observers gushed at the time, a universalist moment.

But it was only that, a moment. From Somalia to Bosnia to Rwanda to postwar Iraq, the UN reverted to form for the balance of the 1990s, failing a string of tests and leading us inevitably back to the unfinished business in Baghdad. Twelve years after the foreshortened blitzkrieg of 1991, the world is anything but united. Resolving only to be unresolved, as Churchill said, the once-great powers have shrugged and averted their gaze. Faced with certain vetoes from France and Russia, strong opposition from Germany and China, and enough abstentions to make any vote meaningless, the United States and Britain withdrew still another resolution calling for Iraq's disarmament and decided to lead a coalition of the willing into Baghdad. By contrast, at the beginning of the Gulf War, Washington assembled a global coalition of perhaps 100 nations. As we come to the end, most of them have fallen away—Canada, Mexico, France, Germany, Turkey, Syria, and the list of goes on. Indeed, we scrambled to gain the support of Cameroon and Angola. Simply put, the universalist moment has past. It has been replaced by what might be called the realist moment.

Long scorned by Europe for being too idealistic, the American people are now scorned for being realistic. In a sense, when the World Trade Towers fell from the sky, the scales fell from America's eyes, and America finally saw the world the way it was. It is not hopeless or beyond repair. However, nor is it the seamless network of economic partnerships, good neighbors and enlightened actors we pretended it to be in the 1990s. As before, it is a world where force defines behavior, where freedom and civilization must be defended with weapons, not words.

This sentiment simply didn't hold on the home front in 1991. Indeed, the splintered UN of today is something like the divided and uncertain America of yesterday. On the eve of war in 1991, America was deeply conflicted over the president's determination to liberate Kuwait. Some polls revealed that not even a majority of Americans supported the president. This division was exquisitely reflected by Congress, which didn't even vote on a war resolution until the second week of January 1991. The president was three days shy of ordering U.S. pilots into combat without Congressional approval. When Congress finally voted, the split was 250-183 in the House and a razor-thin 52-47 in the Senate.

This time, Congress took up the matter well in advance, and did so with gusto. To some it was almost too easy, too nonchalant. "I'm in my 50th year in Congress," howled Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), "and I never thought I would find a Senate which lacks the backbone to stand up against this stampede, this rush to war." Reflecting how much the nation has changed between the first and second acts of the Gulf War, the final roll call was 296-133 in the House and 77-23 in the Senate.

As so often happens during long conflicts, the war aims have changed since 1991. At the beginning of this war, we tried to teach the Iraqi dictator a lesson. But since survival is victory, the only lesson he and his ilk learned was to acquire the kinds of weapons that will shield them from attack and thus preserve their regimes. As Tony Blair observes, now it is the world that "has to learn the lesson all over again—that weakness in the face of a threat from a tyrant is the surest way not to peace but to war." And so today, the aims are not to punish or weaken Saddam's regime, but to utterly destroy it.

During the first act of this war, Saddam Hussein tried to win support and buy time by linking the Iraq-Kuwait dispute with the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. The elder Bush dismissed this scheme out of hand, repeatedly saying there would be "no linkage" between the two.

However, the younger Bush recognizes that there is indeed linkage between Saddam Hussein's dictatorship and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After all, Arafat's Palestine and Saddam's Iraq are two pieces of a global terror puzzle, two fronts in the same war. Saddam's regime bankrolls suicide bombers who seek to destroy the common enemy of the thugs that run al Qaeda, the fundamentalists that run Iran, and the terrorists that run proto-Palestine. Whether or not they comprise an axis in name is irrelevant—they already act the part. And like the Taliban, they are not long for this world.

The second act of this long, strange war is now begun. There won't be a third.