President Bush's triumph in the Gulf War is in danger of becoming a footnote in contemporary history, not the turning point it should be. His preliminary postwar efforts to establish a durable security system in the Middle East lack a strategic focus. America's readiness to resume arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the gulf emirates and the tentativeness of the arms control proposals unveiled for that region last May are more suggestive of past failures than future promise. The initiative of Secretary of State James A. Baker to convene an Arab-Israeli peace conference seeks again to arrange direct talks between adversaries, not to advance a conceptual approach for transforming regional conflicts. The vision that forged an international coalition and achieved success on the battlefield is not evident on the diplomatic front.

Opportunities to establish a stable regional order will not last long. Victory has left the United States the preeminent military power in the Middle East, as it did at the end of the Second World War. This time, however, American power is not as self-contained or rooted in a hegemonic economic position; it must rely on the political and financial support of other countries.

But neither is the United States constrained from proceeding along a new path, as it had been in 1945-48, because of its growing preoccupation with containing Soviet power, rebuilding Western Europe and deferring to the vestigial imperial pretensions of a depleted Britain and France. In the 1990s the United States may not be the dominant power it was in 1945, but relative to the other major actors in the international arena it alone is positioned, and perhaps only briefly, to shape the course of events in the Middle East for years, even decades, to come.

Just as the campaign to undo Saddam Hussein's aggression against Kuwait could not have been mounted or carried to a decisive conclusion by any power but the United States, so too does the establishment of a system of security in the Middle East depend on U.S. leaders seizing the moment to pioneer an arrangement that will end the vicious cycle of wars and ever-increasing expenditures on arms, to ensure security for all states in the region.

Behind the rhetoric of President Bush's call for "a new world order" lies the reality of an international system hurtling dangerously out of control. The old system and old ways are no longer adequate to the security needs of member states. Economic pressures, demographic upheavals, political instability exacerbated by ethnic and religious tensions, and budding conflicts over scarce resources are taking place in a world of profound environmental and societal disruptions. If these challenges are to be tackled with any success, a period of stability is essential. Pax Americana is not the answer: the United States has neither the power, the wealth nor the urge to impose an imperial order. At the present crossroads, ideas and institutions to encourage development, democratization and nation-building depend on first achieving a condition of security.


What happened in the gulf between August 2, 1990, and February 28, 1991, was the result of a unique confluence of circumstances. For once the concept of collective security as envisioned in the U.N. Charter worked. The U.S. response to Saddam Hussein's aggression was central, but the United States could not have done it alone; strong supporting assistance was needed. Five circumstances made for success in the gulf crisis: U.S. leadership; U.S.-Soviet cooperation; U.S. military capability; the role of the United Nations; and the willingness of nations to share the burden.

President Bush's leadership was crucial. A full assessment of the influences that determined his response to Iraq's aggression will have to await publication of documents and memoirs. (For example, what role did then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain play in the American president's decisions? Early in the crisis she reportedly urged President Bush to react forcefully and demand nothing less than an immediate and complete Iraqi withdrawal, on the grounds that aggression must never be allowed to garner benefits.) Nevertheless even at this date a few factors appear to have been important in shaping the president's choices. George Bush was a child of the 1930s and a veteran of World War II. His formative political attitudes were shaped by the conviction that appeasement does not pay and that aggression must not go unanswered. In his reaction to the invasion of Kuwait, the remembrance of Munich resonated. By inclination an activist but also very much the pragmatist, Bush was motivated by concrete political goals, uncluttered by extraneous or imagined foreign policy complications.

His approach and the subsequent decision to use force was not the only possible response. Judging by the speeches and writings of key figures in the Carter administration, had the Democrats controlled the White House the response might have been quite different. There probably would not have been a massive military deployment in the gulf or an international mobilization to defeat Saddam Hussein on the battlefield. Instead the approach would have been based on protecting Saudi Arabia and deterring further Iraqi expansion, not liberating Kuwait. Sanctions would have been given more time, with protests confined to the United Nations and overtures to seek concessions from Saddam Hussein linked to pressuring Israel to put the Palestinian issue on the bargaining table. In the final analysis force would have been avoided for domestic political reasons and for fear of triggering an anti-American backlash in the Muslim world.1

All the more remarkable then was Bush's determination to see the crisis through to the end and use force, when all else had failed. With patience and tact he skillfully forged the international coalition, rallied support at home, cultivated the Soviet Union's cooperation (a development that owed a great deal to the special relationship between Secretary Baker and then-Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze) and obtained strong U.N. Security Council resolutions that ultimately included the right to use force to ensure Iraqi compliance.

The age-old debate over how significant the individual leader is in affecting the course of events received another affirmative answer in Bush's impact on the gulf crisis. To an even greater extent this was true of Saddam Hussein, who invariably chose the worst possible move at each step in the mounting crisis.2

The end of the Cold War and improved U.S.-Soviet relations made possible the American-led military campaign in the gulf. Without Soviet cooperation in the United Nations, Bush's task would have been much more difficult, perhaps impossible. In helping, Moscow jeopardized a lucrative relationship with its richest Arab client.

For the first time since the 1956 Suez Crisis the two superpowers did not back different clients in a Middle East conflict; and for the first time since the 1967 Six Day War the Soviet Union did nothing to shield a prized client from the consequences of its military folly. Not only did Moscow watch from the sidelines as the Iraqi military machine that it had largely created was destroyed, but it gave Washington the green light to proceed.

For three months, though deploring the Iraqi aggression and agreeing to the imposition of sanctions, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev had refused to approve the use of force. His personal adviser, Yevgeny Primakov, an Arabist, had held lengthy discussions with Saddam Hussein on a number of occasions to find a face-saving, nonmilitary way out of the crisis, one that would have maintained the Soviet-Iraqi relationship and Moscow's substantial stake in the country. Surprising, therefore, was Gorbachev's decision at the end of November 1990 to support U.N. Security Council resolution 678 authorizing the use of force, if necessary, to "restore international peace and security in the area." Gorbachev's support meant that the date for the final showdown could be fixed. Primakov and the Arabists in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs lost to Shevardnadze (who, ironically, broke with Gorbachev three weeks later over domestic issues).

With the Soviet Union's unequivocal commitment to the liberation of Kuwait, the U.N. resolutions assumed much greater importance and facilitated Bush's task of convincing the U.S. public of the necessity to pursue the military option. A Soviet veto of U.N. resolution 678 would have deprived President Bush of the imprimatur of U.N. legitimacy, complicated consensus-building at home and weakened the international coalition. It might have swayed votes in the Senate in January 1991 and forestalled a positive vote for the use of force without an explicit declaration of war. By going along Gorbachev enabled Bush to go ahead.

That Moscow did not contribute military forces to the coalition was to be expected: the combination of incipient civil war at home and popular revulsion against eight years of war in Afghanistan imposed severe restraints on Gorbachev. In late February 1991, when the coalition brought Iraq to the brink of defeat, Gorbachev tried to broker an eight-point plan to give Saddam a face-saving way out. But despite scattered reports to the contrary, there is no evidence that Moscow did much (if anything) for Saddam. Gorbachev did not assist Iraq at the expense of defying U.N. resolutions; Moscow did not divide the international coalition or break the embargo or send additional Soviet advisers. The Soviet Union's behavior was sufficiently responsible and supportive for détente to have survived its toughest trial to date.


The availability of combat-ready forces capable of confronting Iraq's battle-tested army made Bush's political determination credible. In retrospect, Saddam Hussein's timing was as poor as his judgment. He failed to appreciate that the end of the Cold War, the unification of Germany and the signing in November 1990 of an agreement to reduce conventional forces in Europe all signified a momentous change in Soviet policy, away from relying on military means to achieve political goals and toward fostering reconciliation with the West. For Bush this confluence of events was providential. It gave him access to the military power he needed. More than half of the 540,000 U.S. troops sent to the gulf came from the central European front, where they had been primed to deter and if necessary fight invading Soviet forces. Together with British and French contingents they represented the cream of the army that NATO had been honing for combat for years. Their deployment, a magnificent logistical feat in itself, demonstrated the strength of the U.S. sea and airlift capability.

It was Bush's good fortune to have such a military force readily available. A few years down the post-Cold War road, another gulf-type operation will be nearly impossible, given the deep cuts that are being projected in U.S. and West European defense budgets. In 1990 the United States had not yet begun to draw down its 380,000 troops in western Europe; by the mid-1990s this number will be reduced to about 100,000. Nor will combat air power, built with the Soviet Union in mind as the possible threat, be as formidable.

The third factor was the role of the United Nations. After years of ineptitude marked by Cold War divisions and unwillingness to condemn Third World aggressors, the United Nations reclaimed a major role in international relations. In legitimizing an international coalition that cut across established alliances, it helped bring about the defeat of Iraq. From the beginning the Security Council dominated the handling of the crisis, and its early moves quickly isolated Iraq diplomatically and economically. Most members of the General Assembly disapproved of Iraq's invasion, with its implicit threat to their own national existence, and allowed the great powers to work out a solution. Both the Arab League and the nonaligned movement were hopelessly divided and without resources to act.

With each successive step, and the coalition's obvious intention to persevere, pivotal states reversed deeply established policy positions: Turkey abandoned its aversion to intervening in any Arab conflict that did not directly involve its own security; Syria dropped its anti-Western stance and joined with the "imperialists" to topple an Arab rival; Iran did nothing to interfere with U.S.-engineered military operations, and it impounded the Iraqi military aircraft seeking a haven from the coalition's bombing; and Israel exercised uncharacteristic restraint, absorbing Iraqi Scud missile attacks and relying on U.S.-manned batteries of Patriot antiballistic missiles to protect its territory, thereby frustrating Saddam's attempt to transform the Gulf War into a new Arab-Israeli war.

With widespread support in the United Nations, countries like Jordan, Yemen, Libya, Algeria and the Sudan who tilted toward Iraq dared not challenge the blockade. This support gave President Bush the mandate he needed to isolate doubters at home and to push ahead with operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Once again it was the United States that shouldered the principal military responsibility; as in the case of Korea in 1950, it was this readiness to do so that assured a successful outcome for a U.N. operation to reverse an aggression.

Security is costly. As the price tag for deploying more than 600,000 troops to the gulf for an indeterminate period became an integral part of the debate in the United States over the relative merits of relying on sanctions or resorting to force, the president was compelled to solicit large financial contributions from wealthy countries: the gulf states, of course, and also Japan and Germany, the latter complying only after persistent U.S. prodding. In this instance, burden-sharing worked, but it was Washington's leverage, not the authority of the United Nations, that pried the funds loose from countries allied to the United States. This time their refusal to contribute would have occasioned serious strains in relations with the United States on whom they are still dependent militarily. Not so, though, in the future, when the United States, operating with a reduced military capability in a Eurasian environment inhabited by a less threatening Soviet Union, will find its ability to elicit military and financial assistance from allies for policing activities in Third World conflicts greatly diminished. If current plans for implementing U.N.-sponsored peacekeeping and arms control measures in the gulf cannot be adequately financed, then any prospects for establishing a new security system in the region are doomed to fail.


A combination of unforeseen circumstances, therefore, led to the defeat of Saddam Hussein. In the process they gave rise to a new strategic environment, which effectively utilized could begin an era of regional stability and security. But the contours of this new environment are liable to change, and once changed they will be difficult to reshape in so felicitous a configuration. It is as if an upheaval has shaken or destroyed previous political-military positions and structures, and new ones have not yet been settled on. The material for rebuilding is at hand, but whether the architecture will be the old and familiar or new and original remains to be seen.

The most prominent feature of the new strategic environment is the reemergence of the United States as the preeminent military power in the Middle East. For the first time since 1945 the United States has the apparent ability to prevent regional wars. However it can do so only if it is willing to be responsible for regulating the weak multipolar system that emerged after 1945, and in particular since the late 1960s when Britain pulled out of the gulf and the Soviet Union entered as a major influence in the Arab world.

Victory brings the opportunity for change. But unless U.S. influence is harnessed to a grand strategic purpose that transforms regional conceptions of security, it will evanesce, and the Gulf War will fade in memory as American power withdraws before leaving the rudiments of a new security system in place. U.S.-Soviet cooperation, rooted in mutual self-interest and convergent regional aims, could make possible a type of quasi-hegemonial order in which U.S. activities to prevent future wars were tied to general monitoring by the U.N. Security Council.

This new situation stems from Moscow's shift from imperial rivalry to incipient accommodation. It is an outgrowth of the end of the Cold War, and the Soviet Union's parlous domestic situation, urgent need for détente and disenchantment with what Moscow has reaped in the Arab world. For three decades Soviet weapons made war in the Middle East (and much of the Third World) possible. These gave client states military options against regional rivals and spawned a multipolarity that placed conflict at its core. Regional actors acquired instant influence. They were able to exploit the U.S.-Soviet rivalry, accumulate powerful arsenals and trigger wars for reasons that had little to do with their security, for example, the Yemeni civil war (1962-67), the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) and the 1990 Iraqi seizure of Kuwait. Moreover at various times Moscow's protection shielded Egypt, Syria, Libya and Iraq from the consequences of their mistakes and perpetuated regional conflicts.

The second salient characteristic of the new strategic environment is the emerging congruence of American and Soviet aims in promoting regional stability, which is a necessary condition for a durable détente. By avoiding the polarizing commitments that fueled their imperial rivalry during the Cold War period, the two powers can do much to prevent a recurrence of the region's destabilizing cycle of wars. The prospects of their détente in the 1990s are far better than in the 1960s or 1970s, mainly because of Moscow's determination to end the Soviet Union's post-1917 isolation from Europe and European culture. Moscow knows that the key to making the Soviet Union a normal great power in Europe is to improve relations with the United States. All this has profound implications for prospects of security in the Middle East, because even a limited American military presence, if deployed with Soviet agreement for specific purposes, could have far-reaching consequences.

A third feature of the new environment is the shift in influence from the weak to the strong. Paradoxically the local actors were able to use the Cold War for their own ends, because their superpower patrons accorded them an importance far beyond their actual strategic-political value. As they were lavishly supplied with weapons, so were their rivals. This militarization bred an increased dependence, a realization that security and survival were based on having a reliable patron-protector. As long as the superpowers were absorbed with their own rivalry and content to foster regional polarization, they subsidized the regional ambitions of their clients; as long as they were driven by a quest for short-term advantages, they allowed themselves to be manipulated.

Détente has diminished the importance of Middle East clients and highlighted their extreme vulnerability: no country in the region can defend itself against major attack. All need access to outside assistance more than ever in this age of high-tech weapons and the rapid obsolescence of expensive arsenals. Saudi Arabia and the gulf emirates are the weakest-and the most logical candidates for a testing of a new security system. The gulf crisis demonstrated that unaided they are prey to covetous neighbors.

Like the leaders of any government the Saudis understandably want to retain maximum flexibility to pursue their interests, but their survival depends on protection by outside powers. In the past, Saudi realpolitik relied on a mix of survival insurance in the form of large-scale purchases of expensive weapons and the manipulation of great power rivalry and interest, as in the latter stages of the Iran-Iraq War when the Saudi-dominated Gulf Cooperation Council prompted Kuwait to maneuver the United States and the Soviet Union into reflagging Kuwaiti tankers. Iran was not permitted to emerge victorious over Iraq, lest the general balance of power in the area be upset. In 1990 the United States reacted as it did against Iraq partly for the same valid strategic reason-to prevent one regional power from controlling the oil in the gulf.

In the future who is going to manipulate whom-and for what purposes? For the United States to subordinate strategic objectives to commercial concerns would be to accept the role of pawn to Saudi Arabia's king and to condone the kind of unbridled corruption and arrogance that brought on the gulf crisis. Moreover politics-and business-as usual in the gulf will encourage perpetuation of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Under such conditions the consequences will surely be as doleful and costly as they have been in the past.

A new approach is needed, the principal aim of which should be to use the present short-lived opportunity to establish a different kind of security system. Only in an environment in which governments feel safe from aggression can the laudable dreams of justice, democratization and development have a chance of being realized; only then can the oil-rich gulf Arabs be induced to invest in the needy lands of the region. To expect any security system to do more than ensure security is to doom it to failure from the outset. No externally devised arrangement can-or should be expected to-by its limited nature end the manifold divisions and historically rooted ethnoreligious tensions between competing elites and groups.


War between nation states must be prevented. All countries in the region must be safeguarded against attack, conventional or unconventional (chemical, biological, nuclear). There must, however, be no confusion on this score: the absence of war is not synonymous with peace. The United States is capable of achieving the former, but not the latter. Its power lies in an ability to deter and punish attacks by one country against another, not to dampen or resolve ethnic or communal strife, whose roots are in premodern times.

Of central importance to the goal of security is the realization that it was the clash of armies that disrupted regional stability and that on occasion brought the superpowers into near-confrontation and scuttled tentative efforts at détente. Only nation states command armies capable of upsetting regional balances and unleashing widespread conflagrations. In this light, whatever the justice of Palestinian or Kurdish claims to statehood, their grievances are not of strategic concern, if only because neither has the ability to wage war and overturn the existing multipolar system in the Middle East. It may be noted also that no Arab government, regardless of its proclaimed pro-Palestinian sentiment, has ever gone to war to advance the cause of Palestinian statehood; nor will any ever go to war on behalf of the Kurds.

Second, U.S. efforts should focus on the gulf. It is there that the United States went to war to repel aggression, and there that its power and influence can be brought to bear to pioneer a new approach. Twice in a decade Iraq threatened the survival of regimes in the region. Iraqi power can be limited and the independence of its neighbors assured. To establish a stable system, the cooperation of Iran and Pakistan, both of which have vital interests in what happens on the Arabian peninsula, will be required.

Given this as the U.S. priority, Secretary Baker's initiative to promote an Israeli-Palestinian negotiation makes little strategic sense. Not even Syrian President Hafez al-Assad's apparent readiness to enter into direct talks with Israel changes the situation. Delays and diversions in organizing an international conference are inevitable, and they should not become the focus of the administration's Middle East policy. Compared to the gulf, the Arab-Israeli sector is strategically a minor sideshow in a period of U.S.-Soviet détente. In retrospect, Baker seems to have been motivated by several factors: a stronger concern for politics along the Potomac than calculations of gulf security; his personal desire to reassert a primary foreign policy role after being sidelined during the gulf crisis; the judgment that Israel's dependence on U.S. aid to resettle Soviet and Ethiopian Jews made the time ripe for resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict; the belief that movement on the Palestinian issue would make Arab governments more willing to support a U.S. security plan in the gulf; a need to deflect attention away from the embarrassing Kurdish question; and a desire to redeem a promise President Bush had made to Congress. Whatever the reasoning the initiative has been distracting. Its thrust needs redirection.

Third, the U.N. Security Council must not again be marginalized. The United States is pursuing bilateralism when it should instead be promoting increased responsibilities for the United Nations. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney's travels to the gulf promote arms sales, but not "a new order"; they convey an unwarranted deference to Saudi wishes and a return to business and politics as usual.

A permanent inspectorate of peace-preserving forces should be constituted under the aegis of the U.N. Security Council. Operating on a five- to ten-year term, it would ensure Iraqi compliance with U.N. resolutions, undertake on-site and ongoing verification of military deployments along the borders of all the gulf countries and introduce confidence-building measures like those being institutionalized in Europe. These U.N. peacekeeping units-initially stationed in Iraq and Kuwait and eventually in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Oman-would be equipped with the latest surveillance technology, under some leasing arrangement with the United States and the Soviet Union, and be viewed as international civil servants, responsible to the U.N. Security Council and its Military Staff Committee. The annual cost to the United States would be the equivalent of one B-2 bomber-about $500 million to $600 million-and Japan, the European Community and each of the oil-rich Arab states in the gulf would be assessed equal amounts. The U.N. contingents currently operating in Iraq would have their mandate broadened to include all the gulf countries.

Fourth, the tidal flow of arms to the region must be slowed, not just missiles, but tanks, artillery and high-performance aircraft. Despite the enormous difficulties that stand in its way progress on this issue is prerequisite for any new approach to gulf security. Arms sales are big business; competition for a share of the market is intense. If left unregulated it will worsen. From 1974 to 1989, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council accounted for more than 75 percent of the estimated total of $220 billion to $250 billion oil-for-arms trade in the Middle East, with Iraq being the biggest single buyer. A moratorium on sales is unrealistic, but allocation of a share of a curtailed and controlled market to leading arms exporters might be worth exploring. Senator Joseph Biden's (D-Del.) proposed cartel arrangement, dividing the sales of different types of weapons among leading exporting nations, merits a try. In addition to regulating the kinds and quantity of weapons introduced into the region and apportioning a fair share of the market among the major exporting nations, the cartel, operating under the aegis of the Security Council, would be responsible for monitoring arms shipments.

U.S. and Soviet satellites could track suspect air transports and arrange for on-site inspection at various air fields. The U.S. navy, supported by auxiliaries from other members of the Security Council, would bear the primary responsibility for ensuring that heavy weapons coming by sea through the Straits of Hormuz and the Bab el-Mandeb accorded with the quantities fixed by the cartel. Although other powers would participate in sea-going operations, only the United States has the capability for such an ongoing and extensive task. These inspection activities would be self-financing, the costs being borne by importers and exporters.

Such measures would rely heavily on the power-projection capability that the United States currently possesses to develop a new way of ensuring security in a crucial part of the world. An integrated approach, which controls and monitors both the flow of arms and the deployment of armies, would prevent the military buildup of any regional actor from exceeding the legitimate needs of self-defense. It would reduce regional insecurity by developing confidence in the levels of weaponry available to potential enemies and in the ability of a U.N.-mandated operation to ensure accountability from all parties. In time this might make local actors more amenable to lower levels of arms and encourage them to focus their resources on nation-building and development.

None of this will be easy. It may well prove to be unworkable. Still, let it not be written of George Bush's attempt to establish a new system of security in the gulf that it was found difficult and hence not tried. He will probably be the last American president to have served in the Second World War. He may also be the last one to have the opportunity and the means to show the way to a new world order.

1 See for example Zbigniew Brzezinski, "Patience in the Gulf, Not War," The New York Times, Oct. 7, 1990; and George W. Ball, "In Search of Answers to the Middle East Crisis," The Philadelphia Inquirer, Dec. 7, 1990.

2 According to an Iraqi dissident source, in a tape smuggled out of Iraq, Saddam Hussein told his commanders before the outbreak of actual hostilities that he was obeying God's orders in defying the U.N. resolutions. Overruling the skepticism of his military, he insisted that the United States would not be able to deploy enough troops to defeat Iraqi ground forces and that the coalition's technological superiority could be offset by "simple methods," such as holing up in underground shelters so that enemy planes would have no visible targets and waiting for the multinational coalition to break up. See Falah A. Jaber, The Guardian, June 11, 1991.

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  • Alvin Z. Rubinstein is Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania and a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute of Philadelphia.
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