Lessons learned in the First Gulf War have shaped the trajectory of US post-Cold War nuclear and non-proliferation policy.

Although the ultimate political success of the Gulf War remains contested, the United States’ military success was staggering.1 US conventional war-fighting abilities – largely untested in combat since Vietnam – demonstrated the potential of the information revolution, as precision-guided munitions enabled pinpoint strikes against regime targets and global positioning system (GPS)-guided troops manoeuvred in the desert with unprecedented coordination.2

The experience of the Gulf War was formative for the United States’ post-Cold War strategic thinking. Washington had overestimated the Iraqi threat – and, by extension, that of the Soviet Union and its client states – and underestimated the United States’ own military dominance. It was especially formative for US thinking about nuclear weapons. The Gulf War highlighted the danger posed by nuclear proliferation to regional powers, and the United States’ insufficient tools to counter it. Finally, the Gulf War reshaped how American policymakers and war planners conceived of nuclear weapons’ role in the United States’ national-security strategy.

These lessons explain the broad trajectory of US nuclear and non-proliferation policy after the Cold War, and continue to carry weight today. Yet the world has changed significantly since 1991, and, as Washington confronts pressing proliferation threats while also undertaking a massive nuclear-modernisation programme, it is worth re-evaluating these lessons in the light of two and a half decades of new evidence.

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Rebecca Friedman Lissner is a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She previously served as a Special Advisor to the Deputy Secretary at the US Department of Energy. This article draws on a longer study, ‘Assessing the Nuclear Lessons of the First Gulf War’, published by the CSIS Project on Nuclear Issues.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

October–November 2017

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