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Was the First Gulf War the Last Triumph of Multilateralism?

The First Gulf War may have been the last time that so many countries and the UN agreed to come together under the flag of multilateralism to confront authoritarianism in the Middle East.
Gary Grappo, First Gulf War, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait anniversary, UNSC Resolution 678, US-led coalition First Gulf War, Saddam Hussein Iraq, Iraq Kuwait invasion, George W. H. Bush Iraq, US Secretary of State James Baker Iraq, US diplomacy history

1st Armored Division, 7th Corps, Operation Desert Storm, Kuwait, 2/28/1991 © Everett Collection / Shutterstock

August 04, 2020 06:15 EDT

This week marks the 30th anniversary of Iraq’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait. Desperate to pay off his nation’s seemingly insurmountable debt, acquired as a result of his invasion of and the futile 8-year war with Iran that had just ended, Saddam Hussein saw oil-rich Kuwait as the solution. Iraq had never recognized Kuwait’s sovereignty, claiming it had been hived off by the British during its occupation of Iraq in the early 20th century. Moreover, as he and many Iraqis asserted, it really was Iraq’s “19th province.”

The World Without American Leadership


Saddam deployed Iraqi troops to the border in July of 1990, prompting concern among neighboring Arab countries and the United States. In a much-reported meeting with then-US Ambassador April Glaspie late in July, he was asked about his intentions. Glaspie took pains to explain that the US had “no opinion” on Arab-Arab disputes, further expressing the US hope that the Iraqi-Kuwait border question might be resolved soon and without the use of force. (Egypt has been trying to mediate the dispute.) Saddam interpreted her response as an American green light to invade, as egregious a misinterpretation of a diplomatic communication as there ever was.

A Multilateral Approach

Within hours of the August 2 invasion, the UN Security Council convened and ordered Iraq’s immediate withdrawal. It was ignored by Saddam, as were multiple subsequent UNSC resolutions. Saddam did not believe that the US or any other nation would take action to defend the small patch of desert at the end of the Persian Gulf, despite its outsize oil wealth and massive reserves.

He was wrong. Under the leadership of President George H. W. Bush and his able secretary of state, James Baker, the US organized a 34-nation coalition, including many Arab states and NATO allies. Armed with a UNSC resolution authorizing “all necessary means” if Saddam did not withdraw his forces by the January 15 deadline, the US and other coalition forces began assembling in Saudi Arabia, which many feared would be the next target of Saddam’s ambitions. Facing more than 650,000 troops and a massive US, British and French air assault, Iraqi forces were driven out of Kuwait. The three-day campaign cost coalition forces some 300 deaths, including 146 Americans. Iraqi casualties were never officially ascertained, but estimates range from 20,000 to 26,000 killed and 75,000 injured. Over 1,000 Kuwaitis also died, mostly civilians.

The Kuwait incursion proved even more humiliating and costly than Iraq’s ill-fated invasion of Iran. Numerous and increasingly costly sanctions (including on critical oil exports), intrusive UN weapons inspectors and expansive no-fly zones in the country’s north and south decisively placed Iraq in pariah-nation status in the world. Ultimately, it set the stage for the American invasion and occupation of Iraq and Saddam’s removal in 2003.

Leadership When It Counted

The First Gulf War marked a significant achievement for American diplomacy, one that would be difficult to replicate today. Though Saddam remained unmoved by American warnings and UNSC resolutions and sanctions, the international community proceeded deliberately but measuredly before employing force. The UNSC’s approval of Resolution 678, which authorized the use of force, obtained 12 affirmative votes, including from four of the five permanent members (China abstained) and only two negatives (Cuba and Yemen).

Deft diplomacy on the part of Bush and Baker attracted 33 other nations to the coalition that expelled Saddam’s forces. Secretary of Baker met on several occasions with Saddam’s foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, to resolve the crisis. This was a marked contrast to George W. Bush’s approach to, and eventual invasion of, Iraq in 2003, which failed to secure UNSC approval and incurred considerable worldwide condemnation.

Importantly, despite a virtually open road to Baghdad and against the urgings of some in the US at the time, in 1991 President Bush withdrew all US forces from Iraq and did not seek to remove Saddam. This proved to be critical in maintaining the unprecedented coalition he had organized to address a Middle East crisis. Bush Sr. was able to capitalize on that achievement by assembling world leaders in Spain later that fall for the Madrid Conference, which brought together many of the same Arab countries from the coalition, plus Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and co-sponsor the Soviet Union to address the Arab-Israeli conflict. The conference became a stepping stone for increased action on the part of many Arab countries, the Palestinians and Israel, and the progress that followed.

The Era of Great Power Rivalry

The First Gulf War itself and what followed demonstrated what principled, deft and concerted diplomacy on the part of the US can achieve. Clearly, the task remains significantly short of its ultimate goal. But the hope of that seems all the more distant as the US under President Donald Trump eschews the Bush/Baker approach to multilateral diplomacy in favor of narrow, one-sided bilateral diplomacy. The latter has proven to be a contributing factor in the region’s — and perhaps the world’s — decided move toward “great power” competition.

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Nations as diverse as Russia, China, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and others now vie for increased influence and even dominance in the Middle East and elsewhere. Never a partisan in great power competition, the US now stands strangely quiet on the sidelines as these nations attempt to carve out spheres of influence, from the Crimea and Ukraine, to South and Central Asia, the Far East and the Middle East. For some of the peoples of the Middle East — Syria, Yemen and Libya — this has meant misery and devastation, and for the rest of the region, instability, uncertainty and fear. US-led multilateralism at a time when it stood unparalleled in military, political and economic power in the world helped address a genuine Middle East crisis 30 years ago. In that sense, America’s and the world’s actions in Iraq may very well have been the mythical “good” war in the Middle East, as much an oxymoron as that may sound.

In an era of great-power maneuvering, it would be inconceivable to imagine now a similar response in the event of another crisis between nations of the region, say Iran and Saudi Arabia. With rival major powers choosing sides, one could more easily envision competing alliances being drawn up, culminating in the sort of conflict the world saw in Europe in World War I.

Great-power competition seldom, if ever, leads to stability or peace. World War I amply proved that. The example of the First Gulf War, however, proved that multilateralism, especially when led by a powerful but principled nation, can diffuse escalating tensions, avert greater disaster and provide at least the prospect and a framework for peace and stability.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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