A Justifiable, If Not Just War The American Persian Gulf War Essay, Research Paper
A Justifiable, if not Just, War:
The American Persian Gulf War
The American-led war against Iraq in the Persian Gulf in 1991 was one of the defining moments of the post-Cold War era. Although its six-week duration was relatively short when compared with conflicts such as the Vietnam, Afghan or Korean Wars, the scale of the war and the magnitude of the destruction involved were nonetheless significant.
A question that was, and has been, much debated is whether the U.S. Administration, under President George Bush, was justified in going to war against Iraq which was, and remains, under the regime of Saddam Hussein. This essay will argue that, in terms of a just war, the American involvement in the region was morally ambiguous and probably unjustifiable. However, in terms of American interests – and, indeed, in terms of the economic and political interests of many other parties in the conflict – the American-led war with Iraq was justifiable. This distinction, as will be seen, is important considering the complex network of interests and interested parties that focused on the Persian Gulf in 1990-91.
In military terms, the Persian Gulf War represented the culmination of modern military technology and tactics. In the first two weeks of the air campaign against Iraq, the Allied air forces dropped more conventional explosives on Iraq and Kuwait than had been dropped in World War Two, which had lasted 310 weeks. To maintain its 430,000 troops in the war, the United States military had to move some 6 million pounds of supplies a day (Hiro, 4).
It was a war that was to end in an overwhelming victory for the American-led coalition. During the six-week campaign Iraq suffered approximately 82,000 casualties – a number arrived at through a critical analysis of the inflated figures provided to the media by both sides, with over three-quarters being military personnel. In comparison, the allied coalition lost, in the entire seven-month period of crisis and the war itself, only 376 military personnel in combat and accidents (Hiro, 397).
In terms of financial cost the amount was staggering. By late March 1991, the cost to the allied armies amounted to some $61 billion; with the Americans paying $17.9 billion (0.34% of the US annual GDP) and the allies $43.1 billion. The Saudi Arabian government itself paid an estimated $43 billion in subsidies to the allies, as well as in costs for maintaining the armies on its soil (57.3% of its annual GDP). Kuwait’s government-in-exile paid $22 billion to finance the allied armies (over 300% of its annual GDP) at a time when they would suffer staggering financial losses as a result of the 640 oil wells that would be put out of commission when set ablaze by retreating Iraqi troops. The Iraqi economy was, needless to say, completely devastated by the conflict; a cost that would continue past the end of the hostilities as a result of the United Nations’ trade embargo against Iraq (Hiro, 397-398).
Clearly, there were enormous costs from the war that were borne by all sides in the conflict; although more by some parties than others. While President Bush could not have factored all of these costs into his decision-making processes prior to engaging in conflict, they nonetheless allow us to better assess the question of justification from a historical perspective. At this point, it would be useful to review the historical factors contributing to the conflict.
The Iraqi invasion and occupation of Kuwait, that began on August 2 1990, was the product of both long-term, as well as immediate, historical factors. The state of Kuwait has its origins in the late nineteenth century when powerful local families asserted their independence from the Ottoman Empire which then controlled, in one form or another, much of the Middle East including what would eventually become Iraq. The ruling Shaikh of Kuwait was only able to do this with the tacit support of the British Empire; support which assumed official status in 1914 when Kuwait became a British protectorate (Hiro, 11). With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire into a variety of nation-states, the newly independent nation of Iraq would repeatedly, in the following decades, lay claim to the Emirate of Kuwait. Thus Kuwait was only able to maintain its sovereignty with British military and diplomatic aid.
The price of this aid may be seen in a secret telegram sent to British Prime Minister Macmillan by his Foreign Secretary after a meeting with the American Secretary of State in 1958: “at all costs these oilfields [in Kuwait] . . . must be kept in Western hands. The immediate problem is whether it is good tactics to occupy Kuwait” (Hiro, 17).
Clearly, the British, and later the Americans, considered Western control over Kuwaiti oil to be an important national interest for some decades. Similarly, Iraq had long-standing territorial claims against Kuwait. These conflicting interests would come to a head in 1990 at the close of the Iran-Iraq War.
The eight-year long war with Iran had been incredibly costly for Iraq. It had financed its military largely with subsidies from the Arab (Sunni Muslim) Gulf States such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait who were nervous about the spread of Islamic fundamentalism from Persian (Shi’a Muslim) Iran. These subsidies amounted to some $15 billion a year for eight years, a debt which had come due at the close of the war (Amery, 11). Saudi Arabia was willing to waive part of the debt, in consideration of the fact that Iraq had been fighting in its interests in the war. Kuwait, on the other hand, insisted upon full repayment of this debt (Amery, 5).
On July 25, 1990, just days prior to the invasion, Saddam Hussein met with the American Ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie. The transcript of this exchange indicates that this debt – and Kuwait’s flouting of OPEC export limits which had the effect of lowering Iraq’s oil revenues – was a key point in the increasingly hostile relationship between Iraq and Kuwait:
Hussein: “As you know, we spilled rivers of blood in a war that lasted eight years, but we did not lose our humanity. Iraqis have a right to live proudly; we do not accept that anyone may injure Iraqi pride or the Iraqi right to enjoy high standards of living. . . . Kuwait and the UAE (United Arab Emirates) were at the forefront of this policy aimed at lowering Iraq’s position and depriving its people of higher economic standards.”
In his discussion with the Ambassador, Saddam Hussein was clearly attempting to discern the American position on his dispute with Kuwait, while at the same time reassuring the Americans that he sought no conflict with them. Indeed, in the transcript he repeatedly makes reference to his appreciation of America’s primary interest in the area, and reassures the Ambassador in this regard: “We understand clearly America’s statement that it wants an easy flow of oil. . . . The United States wants to secure the flow of oil. This is understandable and understood” (Salinger, 51).
The problem Hussein faced, and why he probably arrived at the misconception that the United States would tacitly approve of his invasion of Kuwait, was that the American Administration, in the period immediately prior to the conflict, was highly sympathetic toward the Iraqi regime.
Although it is hard to believe today, after years of public denunciations of Saddam Hussein, in the late 1980s Hussein’s Iraq was seen as a bulwark against the much greater threat of Islamic fundamentalism from Iran. As late as April 1990, Senator Bob Dole, a later Republican candidate for the Presidency, led a delegation to Iraq to reinforce the American desire for closer ties with Hussein’s regime. This was an issue of particular concern to Dole as farming states, such as his Kansas, exported $1 billion in wheat and food products to Iraq every year (Salinger, 25).
Later that same month Secretary of State James Baker, in an appearance before a Senate appropriations subcommittee, was notably reluctant to condemn Iraq for its possession and threatened use of chemical weapons: “I am not taking sides in the argument” he observed (Amery, 85). Indeed, up to five days before the invasion, when President Bush was informed in a CIA briefing that Hussein was preparing to invade Kuwait, the State Department “continued to state publicly, for the world and Saddam Hussein to hear, that the US would remain neutral in any Iraq-Kuwaiti conflict, asserting that the US had no obligation to come to Kuwait’s aid militarily” (Amery, 82).
Although it is a matter of historical record that many individuals in the Congress, the government, and the national security agencies were concerned about this policy, it does appear that the Bush Administration was continuing the policy Bush had himself lobbied for as Vice President in the Reagan Administration: that Iraq could play an influential and useful role in the region in the future (Amery, 84). By the time of the Gulf War, Iraq had become America’s third largest trading partner in the Middle East, after Israel and Saudi Arabia, and was the buyer of substantial amounts of American military hardware; often through a variety of covert or third-party channels (Ridgeway, 14). Therefore, despite the attempts of the Bush Administration to revise the historical record after the fact ( “Our position then was what it is now – such a seizure is a violation of international law and unacceptable to this administration” (Amery, 83)), the US government clearly bears some of the fault for Hussein’s misreading of the international situation.
When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait on August 2 1990, driving the Emir of Kuwait into exile in Saudi Arabia, the reaction in the West was quick and decisive. That same day, President Bush signed an executive order banning trade with Iraq and, along with Britain, France and the Soviet Union (Iraq’s main arms supplier) froze Iraq’s and Kuwait’s assets in the United States. In the military realm, he dispatched an aircraft carrier battle group to the Persian gulf, while on the diplomatic front he engineered a unanimous United Nations Security Council Resolution condemning the invasion and demanding an immediate withdrawal of Iraqi forces (Ridgeway, 59).
It is difficult to assess, in light of the historical record noted above, why the Bush Administration made what appears to be such a sudden about-face on the subject of Iraq. Within a matter of days the United States had gone from what was previously a somewhat diplomatic relationship with Iraq to the point where the Bush administration was drawing parallels between Saddam Hussein and Adolf Hitler. Clearly, Hussein could by no means be compared, in power or significance, to the Nazi dictator whose ambitions plunged Europe and much of the world into the Second World War (Hiro, 192).
Many sources on the American side later cited Bush’s personal intervention as being the driving force behind the American response to the invasion. In the words of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell, Bush was the “spark plug and fuel” for Desert Shield and Desert Storm (Yetiv, 63). Indeed, Powell worried privately how Bush personalized the conflict with Hussein and commented on:
“how much it affected Bush’s ad hoc policymaking, characterized by an occasional lack of consultation with others and extreme vitriol against Saddam. Even Secretary Baker expressed concern to aides that the White House was speeding toward an armed confrontation with Saddam.”
Bush’s justification for Operation Desert Shield, and later Desert Storm was primarily, as he announced to the public on August 3 1990, that the “integrity of Saudi Arabia” was one of America’s “vital interests” (Ridgeway, 60). However, it is clear from both the diplomatic record prior to the invasion, and from historical accounts of the time, that Hussein had no intention of attacking Saudi Arabia. Indeed, the military realities of the region were such that he could have invaded the Kingdom in the wake of his occupation of Kuwait, and there would have been little the United States could have done – with no significant military forces in the region at the time – to stop him (Hiro, 120-21). That he did not suggests that he had no wider interest than invading Kuwait.
The Bush Administration and the United States, however, clearly did have wider interests. It appears clear that the United States had no real moral justification for the war. Contrary to popular belief, Bush’s main military advisers at the time, Generals Powell and Schwarzkopf, argued against the use of military force (Yetiv, 65). However, Bush was thinking beyond the issues of Kuwait’s territorial integrity, or even the threat to America’s oil supplies from the region which was, incidentally, a highly exaggerated threat given the fact that Iraq, bankrupt in the wake of the Iran-Iraq War, had publicly stated its wish to sell as much oil to the West as it could pump (Carpenter, 42).
Instead, it seems clear President Bush was thinking of historical precedents such as Chamberlain’s failed policy of “appeasement” of Hitler, to which Bush referred repeatedly during the crisis. Indeed, this caused Defense Secretary Cheney to come to the conclusion that Bush’s “formative years . . . in World War II as a Navy pilot in the Pacific were shaping American policy in the 1990s” (Yetiv, 68). A more immediate precedent lay in the disasters of the Vietnam War and President Jimmy Carter’s Middle East policy which encouraged a belief in the decline of American power.
With the near-collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the United States was confronted, in the 1990s, with the dangers and possibilities of a ‘new world order.’ Bush recognized that, were the United States to allow other parties to determine the shape of that order, it would have grave implications for American global prestige and power. Indeed, it is important to note that:
Before the Gulf War, it was fashionable to talk about American decline and to discuss the rising power of Germany and Japan. After the war, such talk subsided. Germany and Japan, which made no strong stand against Iraq, looked weak during the crisis, while the United States appeared confident, capable, and even dominant.
In this context, President Bush was justified in leading the military intervention against Iraq. Prior to Saddam Hussein’s invasion American policy was ambiguous and confusing. Bush recognized the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait for the historical turning-point that it was and used it to his, and his country’s, advantage.
Were the United States to have appeared hesitant to use the substantial military forces it had built up in the Reagan era, it would have been seen by the rest of the world as a ‘paper tiger’. The Bush Administration’s remarkably successful diplomatic effort in constructing the coalition against Hussein established the country as the undeniable leader of the global community in the post Cold War era (Yetiv, 68).
The renewed international fear and respect for American political and military power, which occurred as a result of the Gulf War, may be seen today in regions such as the former Yugoslavia, where European nations were notably unable to stop Serbian aggression until the United States intervened. Similarly, the free hand the United States has possessed in shaping the Israel-Palestinian peace accords is another direct outcome of the increase in American prestige and power in the wake of the war. Although Bush could not have predicted either of these occurrences, he clearly realized that the future role and influence of the United States in global affairs depended upon his taking a strong stand against Saddam Hussein. In this regard, despite the costs of the Persian Gulf War, the American military intervention was politically, if not morally, justified.
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of Order. London, ON: Canadian Institute for Policy
Carpenter, Ted Galen. America Entangled: The Persian Gulf Crisis
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Hiro, Dilip. Desert Shield to Desert Storm: The Second Gulf War.
London: HarperCollins, 1992.
Ridgeway, James (ed.). The March to War: From Day One to War’s
End and Beyond. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1991.
Salinger, Pierre and Eric Laurent. Secret Dossier: The Hidden
Agenda Behind the Gulf War. New York: Penguin, 1991.
Yetiv, Steve. The Persian Gulf Crisis. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1997.