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THE POST-GULF WAR BARGAIN

A decade ago, the United States faced a defining moment in the Middle East. It had just deployed overwhelming force to liberate Kuwait and destroy Iraq's offensive capabilities. The outcome of the Gulf War, combined with the collapse of the Soviet Union, had left the United States in an unprecedented position of dominance in the region. Washington was debating what to do with this newfound and unchallenged influence. With the rapid collapse of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the United States finds itself again at a crucial point of decision in the Middle East. But this time it has had little opportunity to ponder what to do. As Washington scrambles to define a policy for "phase two" of the campaign against terror, policymakers should look back to how the United States fared the last time it had such an opening.

At the end of the Gulf War, some idealists argued that it was time to spread democracy to a part of the world that knew little of it. They suggested starting with Iraq, using U.S. military might to topple Saddam Hussein and install a democratic regime, as had been done in Germany and Japan after World War II. And they questioned the wisdom of reinstalling the emir in liberated Kuwait, advocating instead that the United States should bring democracy to the sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf.

These ideas got short shrift at the time. President George H.W. Bush strongly preferred the regional status quo, and America's Arab allies, determined to return to business as usual, were quick to reinforce his instinct. The Saudi rulers, for example, had come to understand how dangerous talk of democracy was for their own grip on power when Saudi women spontaneously expressed their desire for greater freedom by doing the hitherto unthinkable: driving themselves up and down the streets of Riyadh.

Even while the Iraq crisis was raging, these Arab allies had anticipated the idealistic U.S. impulses and had found a way to deflect them. They extracted from the president and his secretary of state, James Baker, a promise that after the war the United States would focus on solving the Arab-Israeli conflict. Sure enough, Washington obliged, leaving them alone to reestablish the old order in their troubled societies.

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