Principles of the Gulf War 1990-91

Ralph Zuljan

On August 2, 1990 the armed forces of Iraq invaded Persian Gulf state of Kuwait and began a conflict that would see the world community united in opposition and willing to take up arms to restore the Kuwaiti sovereignty in what came to be know as the Gulf War. The liberation of Kuwait constituted a test of the "new world order" that George W. T. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev had proclaimed and the rejuvenated United Nations Security Council (UNSC) that was to be the new basis for international security. But the Gulf War was really about only one thing: the need to respect established sovereignties and their boundaries. It is all too easy to forget the momentous historical context in which the Gulf War took place and the tremendous significance a lot of world leaders attached to affirming the legitimacy of existing borders at that time. That context made all the difference in building a coalition in support of all means necessary to get Iraq to comply to the UNSC demand for a withdrawal from Kuwait.

Opponents to the relentless drive to war in 1990 said it was all about oil. While it is case that Iraqi annexation of Kuwait would have implied Iraqi control the largest single reserve of oil in the world, it was probably more significant to the international community that Iraq had a long standing claim on the territory of Kuwait. Recognizing the Iraqi annexation would have made little difference to the availability or price of oil. It would have made an enormous difference to how other potential border disputes might be settled. And, of particular concern to the great powers at this moment in history, was the question of ambiguous postwar territorial redistribution at the expense of what was then Nazi Germany.

Less than a year before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the Berlin Wall had been breeched on November 9, 1989 signaling the end of the Cold War that had divided Germany and Europe for over four decades. The fall of the wall also signaled the beginning of German unification. Most European countries had at least some reservations about a reunited Germany, some more than others. Postwar Poland incorporated a great deal of former German territory. The Russia, at the time part of the Soviet Union, occupied a piece of formerly German territory too. Even France nominally had disputed German territory. There were rumblings about what to do about it. By the time Saddam Hussein's forces crossed into Kuwait negotiations between the two German states and the wartime Allies of France, UK, USA and USSR were nearing a conclusion on what effectively was the formal end to World War II. The status quo ante borders of the two Germanys established after the defeat of Nazism became recognized as the de facto border of the new Germany.

While everyone, including the Germans, seemed satisfied, there was a nagging feeling evident at the time that something more definite than a legally dubious agreement was needed to ensure lasting respect for the existing borders in Europe. The Iraqi invasion and occupation of Kuwait probably could not have happened at a better time to serve this purpose. Here was an opportunity for the world community to demonstrate its commitment to the respect of existing borders and signal its willingness to respond to the use of military force to alter the status quo. It is the only time in the history of the United Nations that the Security Council actually showed itself more-or-less united in calling for a military intervention.

Prior to the actual fighting, there was a widely held belief that the Iraqis were well enough entrenched with a good enough army, including a lot of veterans of the Iran-Iraq War 1980-88, to put up serious resistance. Some US military experts estimated that as many as 10,000 American casualties could result from fighting to dislodge the Iraqi armed forces. But the importance of what was at stake was great enough that none of the governments were deterred even though there was a well understood possibility that thousands of coalition troops would be killed in the process of achieving the UNSC approved objective of getting Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait. Of course, the actual results of the war fighting proved to be a lopsided affair.

At the conclusion of hostilities on February 28, 1991, a sovereign Kuwait was reestablished while the boundaries of Iraq were respected even though it was defeated in battle. The UNSC mandate that had allowed such a broad international coalition to form in opposition to Iraq did not allow for the occupation or destruction of a sovereign Iraq either. The Gulf War was one of the few wars in history fought specifically over a principle, respect for borders. It was a war fought against the idea of allowing the use of military aggression to resolve a territorial dispute. In this limited sense, the present intervention in Iraq has little to do with the Gulf War.

Originally published in "Articles On War" at on February 1, 2007.

Former links associated with this file include: