A review of The Gulf Conflict, 1990-1991. By Lawrence Freedman and Efraim Karsh.

Penguin, 1993.

“What is at stake is more than one small country; it is a big idea: a new world order – where diverse nations are drawn together in common cause, to achieve the universal aspirations of mankind: peace and security, freedom and the rule of law.”

These words, uttered by President George Bush on January 29,1991, now have an eerie hollowness to them. Indeed, two years after the conflict, Saddam Hussein is still in power, George Bush is out of power, and the genocide being perpetrated in the Balkans gives lie to the idea of any “new world order.” What we instead have is the same old world order, with some new players in the game.

Any account of the Gulf conflict will have to consider both the causes of the war and its aftermath. This book does an admirable job of analysing both, as well as all the events which transpired between the two. As a study on the war itself, this volume should remain a standard text for quite some time to come.

Of interest is the analysis of events leading up to the war, and how the conflict concluded. Concerning the former, the authors make it clear that the conditions for united action against an aggressor state were both unique and unambiguous. The need to stop Saddam was clear, and the conditions for doing so were perfect: “It was Saddam Hussein’s misfortune that 1990 found the United Nations with a rare will and capacity for action, largely because the United States and the Soviet Union were able to act in concert.”

The authors however do think a case can be made that the Bush Administration’s pre-war pro-Iraqi slant and unclear signals contributed to Saddam’s decision to invade Kuwait.

The way the war ended was also seen as a blunder  by many, with a few more days of fighting possibly resulting in Saddam’s downfall. The authors however think it was appropriate for fighting to have stopped when it did: “Actively working towards the fragmentation of Iraq could cause more problems than it solved.”

Whether or not a few more days of fighting would have been strategically and morally acceptable, the fact remains that the new found confidence America discovered during the war has all but dissipated. That may in part explain its reluctance to enter the Yugoslavian quagmire. Conclude the authors, “The Gulf War may reinforce the basic predilection to stay clear of civil wars.”

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