03/24/2011 10:13 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Libya, Iraq and Desert Storm

As UN Resolution 1973 is being implemented over Libya, ghosts of the 2003 invasion of Iraq exactly eight years earlier emerge. But the comparisons are much more apt to Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Clearly there are major differences but first the similarities.

UN Resolution 678 of 29 November 1990 sanctioned Operation Desert Storm. It authorized the use of force to expel Saddam Hussein and his forces from the territory of Kuwait. When that mission was accomplished, the coalition forces did not continue on to Baghdad to oust Saddam. The Libyan mission is also limited, in this case to protecting civilians from the butchery sure to follow a Gaddafi triumph. His removal from office, however desirable, is not covered by the UN Resolution. If he survives the no fly zone implementation, there are sure to be lingering disputes, just as there were after Desert Storm.

By contrast, UN Resolution 1441 of 8 November 2002 gave Saddam a "last chance" to comply but did not specifically authorize military force. When it became clear that a second resolution giving such authorization would not be approved. The U.S., UK and Spain declared that the first resolution was sufficient.

The specified causus belli and military objectives were much clearer in Desert Storm than in Iraq or Libya. The invasion of Kuwait was an unambiguous challenge to the international community and the goal of expelling those forces was straightforward. The rationale for the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq wavered from weapons of mass destruction to bringing democracy to the Middle East. Regime change was an explicit aim. The Libyan no fly zone has a clear goal, protecting the civilian population from Gaddafi's revenge, but that is not as precise as the Desert Storm goal. What means are authorized to achieve such protection are not specified nor are the allowed rules of engagement.

A second similarity between Libya and Desert Storm is the participation of Arab nations. Numerous Arab nations supported, participated in and financed Desert Storm. Several Arab nations are participating in the Libya operation. The Arab League has endorsed the no-fly zone although it may be backing off somewhat. Media reports indicate approval on the "Arab Street" even stronger than during Desert Storm. Amazingly, there are no scenes of American flag burning or other anti-American protests.

By contrast, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was not supported by any Arab government, nor was there Arab military participation. Arab populations strongly opposed the invasion and occupation and demonstrated their disapproval.

There are, of course, many differences between Desert Storm and the Libya no fly zone. The Libya operation is an air and naval operation. President Obama has specifically ruled out ground forces and the UN Resolution precludes an occupation, although perhaps not the temporary use of ground forces. Ground warfare was the heart of the Iraq invasion and occupation and also of Desert Storm, although most of the latter's ground warfare took place in Kuwait, not Iraq.

The structure of the coalitions is also different. Desert Storm and Iraq coalitions were put together over many months and there was no question but hat the U.S. would lead them. The Libya coalition of necessity had to be put together quickly and on the fly. And it is yet unclear what entity will take the political lead after the initial phase.

Another major issue is that of U.S. Congressional authorization for hostilities. This authorization was given for Desert Storm and Iraq but was not requested for Libya. The War Powers Resolution requires Congressional consultation and reports. But presidents have held that the resolution is unconstitutional and have treated such reports as voluntary, not mandatory. There is much disagreement from all sides of the political spectrum on the applicability of the resolution in the Libyan case.

Perhaps the biggest difference is whether we can answer the question: "How does this end?" Desert Storm achieved its military objectives brilliantly and efficiently. The 2003 Iraq invasion toppled Saddam Hussein but we are still trying to extricate ourselves after the expenditure of too many lives, allied and Iraqi, and too much treasure. It will be years, perhaps decades before a final judgment can be made.

We cannot yet see how the Libya operation will end. If Gaddafi is ousted and a stable representative and responsible government is established, it will be a triumph. If a stalemate or civil war results, it will be a continuing problem. If Gaddafi emerges victorious, it will be a disaster.