COLLEGE STATION, Texas — It's been two decades since an American-led coalition expelled Saddam Hussein's Iraqi army from Kuwait — and global leaders are still grappling with the challenges of the new world heralded by the Gulf War.
"In the case of Desert Storm, I honestly believe history will say we got this one right," former president George H.W. Bush said Thursday at Texas A&M University's basketball arena, as he opened a 20th anniversary symposium on the war.
Members of Bush's war cabinet, including Dick Cheney and Colin Powell, discussed the legacy of the first major military conflict after the Cold War — as well as some of the lessons that have not been easy to apply in the years since.
"It's an era when small states can create big problems," Ryan Crocker, U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2007 to 2009, said in an interview before the event. The modern world features "space for a host of non-state actors to play dangerous roles. Al-Qaida is the most important; but there are others."
Cheney and Powell went on to play prominent (and conflicting) roles in the fires of 9/11-style terrorism, Afghanistan and Iraq during the presidency of Bush's son, George W. Bush. Big questions remain about how to confront each of those challenges and others.
"We're trying to create mechanisms" for an era that began with the end of the Cold War, said Crocker, who organized the event in his position as dean of the Bush School of Government & Public Service at Texas A&M.
The Gulf War was the first major conflict that occurred as the Soviet Union was collapsing, a time in which the rules of international conduct were up for grabs. Iraq challenged the world with its invasion of Kuwait.
James Baker, secretary of State in the first Bush administration, called Operation Desert Storm "a textbook case of the way to conduct a war," one that worked on four levels: diplomatically, politically, militarily and economically. Diplomatically, the United States had the support of the United Nations and assembled a 34-nation coalition that included the Soviet Union and Arab countries. Politically, Bush won an authorization of force from a Democratic House and Senate. Militarily, the United States deployed more than 500,000 troops. Economically, Baker said, the United States paid $10 billion of the $70 billion war tab, and coalition partners picked up the rest.
"You always do better if you have allies with you," Baker said in an interview, a point he reiterated at the symposium. "You need political support at home. We got other people to pay for it."
Baker resisted applying those lessons to the Iraq War, noting he was not part of the second Bush administration. He did say that by 2003, Saddam Hussein had violated numerous United Nations resolutions, that Congress authorized military action and that intelligence agencies believed (erroneously) that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
Former vice president Dan Quayle and former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft also attended the symposium, as did representatives from Kuwait.
Scowcroft noted that Bush knew the world was changing and wanted to establish a "new kind of rules of the road, a New World Order if you will."
Timothy Naftali, a biographer of George H.W. Bush, said in an interview before the event that the Gulf War demonstrated the importance of having three things: allies abroad, strong political support at home and clear public objectives on the battlefield.
Naftali called the Gulf War "one of the milestones of the post-Cold War world" and said people should consider what the world might look like if Saddam had been allowed to "gobble up" Kuwait. That would have encouraged more aggression from "other dictators with troubled frontiers," Naftali said. "It set a pattern for international cooperation against military aggression."
Yet those lessons have been tough to apply, as shown by conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and bloodletting after the breakup of Yugoslavia during the 1990s.
In the old days of their Cold War rivalry, the U.S. and the Soviet Union could control the actions of many countries. Now it's a multipolar world, and war and terrorism are only a few of the challenges.
As Crocker pointed out, any problem in any one country could affect any number of neighbors, whether it's nuclear weapons in North Korea and Pakistan or financial crises in Greece or Ireland.
"I'm not sure the international system has thought through all this," he said.