Never before in American history was there a period quite like it. For 48 days the United States moved inexorably toward war, acting on authority granted by an international organization.

On November 29, 1990, in an unprecedented step, the United Nations Security Council authorized the use after January 15, 1991, of "all necessary means" to achieve the withdrawal of Iraqi forces from the territory of Kuwait. On January 12 the Congress of the United States authorized President Bush to use American armed forces to implement that resolution. This too was unprecedented.

By then the United States found itself only days away from war with Iraq. How had it arrived at such a pass? Again and again this question was asked, in congressional debate and among the American people.


The August 2 invasion came as a shock. Almost until its very eve, Washington had assumed that Saddam Hussein was either bluffing in his threats against Kuwait or would only mount a limited incursion. The fact that Saddam not only invaded the entire country but then quickly annexed it accounts in large part for the increasingly outraged American reaction. The United States was concerned that Saddam's next target would be Saudi Arabia; this was also the fear of the Saudi rulers themselves. Hence, in the very first days of the crisis, the United States made a major commitment of its power and secured strong international support for its demand that Iraq withdraw unconditionally and immediately.

The Bush administration argued that the crisis was a "defining moment," that it was a political test of the embryonic post-Cold War world order. Aggression had to be resisted and reversed. Moreover no power could be permitted to dominate an area that contained resources so vital to the well-being of the international community. Finally it was argued that only an overwhelming show of force and international solidarity would persuade Saddam to give up his gains. Thus the Security Council not only demanded Iraqi withdrawal, it imposed mandatory economic sanctions on Iraq. American troops began to arrive in Saudi Arabia by August 7.

In retrospect this period created a strong but erroneous expectation: that the U.N. objectives could be obtained peacefully, that Saddam would back down since, as the experts agreed, he was a "survivor," not a martyr. From the outset there was a built-in tension between the strategy of relying on sanctions, which implied long-term attrition, and the desire to achieve an early but peaceful solution. The terms set by the U.N. coalition were for unconditional withdrawal, which left little room for negotiating flexibility. In the minds of many world leaders, therefore, proposals for a settlement came to be more and more equated with compromise, not on Kuwait but on circumstances that would be created after an Iraqi withdrawal. Among the concessions suggested were linkage with the Arab-Israeli dispute, a guarantee of an international Middle East peace conference and a promise of post-withdrawal negotiations between Kuwait and Iraq. There was even speculation over the acceptability of a partial Iraqi withdrawal. A troublesome question is whether in this phase Saddam was persuaded that the coalition would not proceed beyond economic sanctions but would, in time, offer a major compromise.

In the United States the debate took a different turn. Some argued that the crisis was by no means a "defining moment" but a unique event in a special area: its outcome would only marginally affect the post-Cold War order; Saddam was a creature of the turbulent Persian Gulf and would not have imitators in other areas of the world-and that therefore an early outcome was not mandatory. On the other hand, other Americans argued with growing vehemence that it would not be enough to remove Saddam's forces from Kuwait; his regime and its war-making power would have to be destroyed as well, lest he acquire a nuclear capability. Within the administration it came to be argued that a negotiated outcome was unlikely; that more direct pressures would be required.

On November 8 President Bush announced a substantial increase of U.S. troops in the region in order to ensure that the coalition had an "adequate offensive military option." In effect Washington was passing from a policy of containment to one of forcible liberation.


The president's new strategy required reestablishing domestic consensus as well as international support. The support of world leaders proved less difficult to garner than that of the United States Congress.

It was not clear that the great powers, particularly the Soviet Union and China, which had supported the defensive strategy and imposition of economic sanctions, were ready to proceed to a more aggressive strategy. Mikhail Gorbachev especially seemed reluctant to turn up the pressure, holding out some hope for a negotiated solution. China abstained on the final Security Council vote to authorize force; had Beijing voted against the resolution, it would not have passed. On the day following the vote the Chinese foreign minister met with President Bush for the first time since the Tiananmen Square crisis. Obviously, maintaining the coalition was exacting a price. This was later evident in the restrained reaction to the Soviet crackdown in Lithuania.

The change of strategy of November 8 provoked a sharp response in the United States. A strong segment of congressional opinion held that the strategy of sanctions had not been given a fair chance. Even if sanctions ultimately were proved insufficient, it was argued, Iraq's forces would have been significantly weakened by the embargo. Prominent political figures, statesmen and warriors of yesteryear testified that time was on the side of the United States. The counterargument was that an American reluctance to use force, or to press the confrontation to a showdown, would cause the international coalition to disintegrate and that some coalition members, especially the Arab countries or the U.S.S.R., might seek a separate peace.

It was this political tension that led the Bush administration to announce on November 30 its willingness to hold talks with Iraq. The domestic debate cooled, but the offer to talk provoked fears that Washington would be vulnerable to endless negotiating gambits. These fears turned out to be groundless, however, for to the surprise of many Iraq remained unwilling to exploit the obvious diplomatic openings, offered mainly by the Europeans. Saddam's intransigence on these political opportunities is still puzzling.

The administration had worked itself into an awkward position. It had effectively abandoned the middle course, staying with the sanctions, by adopting a deadline. It could not retreat without suffering major political losses; it had to adopt a policy of "no negotiations and no concessions." When direct Iraqi-U.S. talks finally took place on January 9, Secretary James A. Baker had, in effect, no cards left to play. Once again Baghdad made no effort to exploit the increasing anxiety over war. Even a gesture might have had a major effect on the U.S. congressional debate that followed immediately.

The administration chose the course of threatening war on the rationale that it would be the stance most likely to bring about a peaceful withdrawal. But in doing so, it had to confront Congress, not at all united or certain that the course of war was the best strategy toward an agreed goal. President Bush finally obtained congressional authorization, but the debate and the vote itself foreshadowed troubles to come: profound resentment was expressed against America's allies, especially Germany and Japan, and not since 1812 had so strong a vote against authorizing hostilities been cast in Congress.

George Bush did not blunder into war. At each juncture over a six-month period he weighed his options and made his choices. The president had to maintain an unprecedented and fragile international coalition, retain domestic support for a course that might end in war, and bring increasing pressure to bear against an opponent whose very rationality was open to question. The president and his advisers were haunted by lessons learned from the 1930s; they feared Munich more than Vietnam. At the very end the president voiced the same argument that had been implicit since the outset: that the best chance for peace was to threaten war. As of 11:59 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on January 15, that strategy had failed. The next day the war against Iraq began.

Perhaps historians will not remember 1990 only as the year of the gulf crisis. For Germans it was the year of unification. For the British it was the end of more than a decade of Thatcherism. In South Africa Nelson Mandela was released. In Poland Lech Wale??a was elected president. Democratic governments began to take hold in eastern Europe, while in the Soviet Union there was an ominous intensification of crisis.

1990 was indeed a "defining moment," but the shape of the post-Cold War order was far more uncertain at the end of the year than it had seemed at the beginning.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now