It occurs to me that for all the talk of the general ineffectiveness of sanctions and inspections in the run up to Gulf War II (or, as I like to think of it, Gulf War I Continued), we can look back at containment and say with confidence that it was successful in keeping Iraq weak and hapless. We can all be thankful that there was no cataclysmic armor battle on the outskirts of battle between the Republican Guard and our forces, and our bombing notwithstanding, we can thank containment for that. Back in 1991, the Iraqi army was dealt a vicious defeat at the hands of the Americans — unfortunately not enough of one enable the people of Iraq to overthrow him in the aftermath of the war, but enough to render the Iraqi military impotent as an offensive fighting force. Since then, an extreme effort has been made to prevent Iraq from reconstituting its military. Thus, when we started this war, Iraq had no air power at all and more importantly, they basically had only those armored vehicles that have survived since Gulf War I.
At this point, I still wouldn’t rule out use of chemical weapons, but if they are employed, it will be in a terrorist fashion rather than as a tactical weapon used as part of a battle. During the Iraq/Iran war in the eighties, chemical weapons were used often and effectively as a counter to Iran’s “human wave” attacks by the Iraqi army. Yeah, they gassed their own troops sometimes, but they apparently were pretty good at using chemical weapons to kill Iranians for their own advantage on the battlefield. We’ve seen none of that whatsoever. It probably wouldn’t have worked anyway, because the US has the equipment and training to avoid taking casualties to those sorts of attacks, but the point is that Iraq hasn’t even tried it. I think you have to put that down to containment as well, at least partly.
There’s no question that containment was, in many ways, a failure. Certainly Saddam Hussein let the deprivation of revenue due to sanctions trickle down to the people of Iraq in the most brutal way possible, and we continued to be left without a sensible exit strategy outside of war. But our ability to dominate Iraq in the ground war, while certainly advantageous in terms of avoiding loss of life, also casts doubt on whether war was necessary in the first place. The battle plans were drawn under the assumption that Iraq was impotent, and it turns out that from a strategic standpoint, that’s true. Small bands of partisans with guns and RPGs have been flies in the ointment who have killed some US soldiers and have contributed to the deaths of many Iraqi civilians, but as the Pentagon has often pointed out, they haven’t affected the larger battle plan. So maybe containment wasn’t so ineffective after all.