The Gulf War: Overcoming the Collective Action Problem

The havoc unleashed by the 1991 Iraqi annexation of Kuwait marked the first major international crisis in a unipolar post-Cold War world. For the first time since the inception of the United Nations, a member nation had been fully annexed by another, part of Iraq’s plan to become a Middle East hegemon. Previously open to neoliberal free markets, Gulf oil reserves were held hostage, generating an international uproar. Following the failure of peaceful negotiations, a robust US led, yet UN-sanctioned coalition deployed to the Saudi Arabian desert, forming a Desert Shield which would later transition to a Desert Storm to liberate Kuwait. Despite stemming from decades of self-serving conflict, the Gulf War remains the high-water mark of post-Cold War international cooperation, serving as the premier example of how skillful domestic diplomacy can unify a multinational response and overcome the collective action problem against hegemonic aggression.

If state actors want to preserve the sanctity of international law, they must oppose aggression by other actors. Traditionally, because the complexities of multilateral conflict make collective action difficult, the opportunity for a punitive international response to an aggressor is limited. Threatening to undermine the existing global order, the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was a textbook case of said aggression. Fortunately for Kuwait, as the declining Soviet Union pursued a non-interventionist foreign policy, the UN found itself armed with a newfound capacity for action. No longer would collective security be stymied by a bipolar struggle for supremacy. Instead, the world was on the brink of a New World Order, where under American leadership, “diverse nations [would be] drawn together in common cause to achieve … peace and security, freedom and the rule of law.” Multilateral intervention in Kuwait would be the first step in codifying this idealist liberal worldview. 

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, by 1980, American dependence on foreign oil was a staggering 42 percent of total consumption. As a result, securing the availability of Persian Gulf oil imports, and by extension, maintaining Gulf regional security, was paramount to American foreign policy. To achieve this, the US initially relied on the monarchies of Iran and Saudi Arabia to serve as the ‘gatekeepers’ of American interests in the Middle East. However, this arrangement was abrogated following the Iranian Revolution, which saw the instability-generating rise of Ayatollah Khomeini, an anti-Western cleric who viewed the revolution in Iran as the start of a broader Muslim uprising that would sweep the Gulf clean of Western imperialists and their collaborators. 

Given Khomeini’s unnerving rhetoric, it was no surprise that when conflict erupted between Iraq and Iran in 1980, those with economic interests in the Middle East threw their support behind Saddam Hussein, fearing that a victorious Iran would “slice through Iraq to the oilfields of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia” and capture the world’s oil reserves. In a true display of realpolitik, nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and the West, funneled billions of dollars into Iraq to protect the global oil trade. Subsequently, the US also adopted the Carter Doctrine, which established that America would use force to defend its national interests in the Persian Gulf.

Adversaries: Ayatollah Khomeini, left, and Saddam Hussein, right. Illustration by The New York Times, photographs by Bettmann/Corbis and Gamma-Keystone, via Getty Images

When Iraq and Iran negotiated a ceasefire in 1988, Saddam found himself with a dangerous surplus of foreign debt and offensive military capabilities. The Iran-Iraq War had seen the Iraqi economy’s rapid militarization, with about 21% of the Iraqi labor force serving in the armed forces by 1988. Naturally, such a sharp increase in the number of military personnel resulted in an equally sharp increase in military expenditures, which the Iraqi government financed by taking out numerous high-interest foreign loans. By the end of hostilities, it is estimated that Iraqi foreign debt was $80 billion. Having ‘sacrificed’ his country to protect the GCC nations, Saddam was enraged when repayment was demanded, as he had viewed the GCC financial contributions not as loans, but as endowments. From that point on, Saddam grew increasingly paranoid of a conspiracy to weaken Iraq. He accused Kuwait of intentionally producing oil in excess of OPEC quotas to lower the oil price to harm Iraqi profits, thereby engaging in economic warfare. 

Angered and humiliated by the continued degradation of the Iraqi economy, Saddam invaded Kuwait on August 2nd, 1990, expecting that the kingdom’s wealth would provide a quick solution to his country’s economic crisis. What Saddam did not expect, however, was the broad-based multinational response that would stand in his way.

Having established pre-invasion “that disputes [between Iraq and Kuwait should] be settled peacefully and not by threats or intimidation,” the Department of State immediately dispatched UN Ambassador Pickering to draft a resolution condemning Iraq. The UN’s newfound capacity for productive discourse, combined with the exceptionally heinous nature of Saddam’s violation of international law, resulted in the Security Council’s swift and unanimous issuance of Resolution 660 calling for an immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait. While Ambassador Pickering was in New York, Secretary of State Baker was in Moscow, drafting a joint US-Soviet statement condemning Iraqi aggression. Given the international scope of the conflict, a statement from both superpowers sent a powerful message of unity to the world, thus preventing the exploitation of Cold-War divisiveness by Saddam.

President George H. W. Bush, left, and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow in 1991. Rick Wilking/Reuters

However, despite unprecedented US-Soviet cooperation, the international response in the early stages of the conflict was plagued by impediments to collective action, namely among the Gulf states. Wary of previous instances of foreign intervention that only proved to exacerbate regional tensions, the League of Arab States wished to resolve matters in-house, and pressed Washington to support what Yasser Arafat described as: an “Arab solution [and] not an international one.” A far cry from the unconditional withdrawal spelled out by Resolution 660; an Arab solution would likely involve Iraqi appeasement and Kuwaiti concessions specifically regarding Iraqi claims over Kuwaiti islands in the Gulf, thereby emboldening Saddam in the process. Following a call from British Prime Minister ‘Iron Lady’ Thatcher, urging President Bush “to [not] go wobbly,” Bush strengthened his resolve and deemed that anything less of an unconditional withdrawal was unacceptable, proclaiming that Iraqi aggression would not stand. Pressured economically by the West and internally, by Western-friendly members such as Egypt; the Arab League finally capitulated and passed its own resolution condemning Iraq and calling for its unconditional withdrawal.

Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat meets with Saddam Hussein in 1988.

Up to this point, the Bush Administration had exhibited hesitation and uncertainty regarding direct intervention in the Gulf. While Saddam’s invasion was no longer a fait accompli,  it was not obvious what the US should do next. The Iraqi occupation of Kuwait had already secured Saddam a substantial portion of the world’s oil reserves, and his troops stationed on the Saudi border stood poised to double that figure. Therefore, similar to the threat posed by Iran a decade earlier, Saddam’s aggression threatened not only the collective good of state sovereignty, but the stability of global oil markets as well. As a result, defending Saudi Arabia as per the Carter Doctrine would be the first course of action. However, at the time, it was uncertain if Saudi King Fahd would even permit US troops to defend his country, given the Arab League’s history of apprehension towards foreign intervention. Ironically, following a diplomatic mission made by US Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, it was revealed that Fahd actually welcomed Western protection and was worried about a lack of American commitment. As a result, within hours, President Bush appeared on national television to announce Operation Desert Shield, a “wholly defensive” deployment of over 500,000 US troops to the Saudi Arabian desert made only after “unparalleled international consultation.”

Operation Desert Shield. US Army Photo/Sgt. Renee Sitler

With Desert Shield underway, Ambassador Pickering and the UN Security Council continued to deliberate, formulating resolutions to compel Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait. In accordance with Chapter VII of the UN Charter, Resolution 661, which was ratified without incident on August 6th, imposed a full economic embargo on Iraq, while Resolution 665 authorized a naval blockade. Determined to exhaust peaceful options before resorting to force, the Security Council hoped that an economic war of attrition would ultimately compel Saddam to capitulate. Ultimately, although the trade embargo successfully crippled an already struggling Iraq, economic warfare did not seem to faze Saddam, who grew obstinately uncooperative. 

In response to Saddam’s stubbornness, President Bush started to advocate for a resolution authorizing direct military intervention to present Iraq with a final, unmistakable display of UN resolve. Bush’s calculated decision to pursue a UN Resolution instead of unilateral action under Article 51 of the UN Charter was due to the importance of framing a use of force decision in a way where it would not be viewed as “a cowboy operation.” Consequently, while the US could count on  cooperation from the permanent five, ‘P5’ members of the Security Council (minus China) in ratifying such a resolution, the real challenge lied with the approval of the ‘non-aligned,’ temporary members of the Security Council, which in 1990 included Colombia, Cuba, the Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Malaysia, Yemen, and Zaire. With 7 out of 15 possible votes, these nations represented a potential veto to a proposed resolution, giving them serious bargaining power. 

As a result, drafting a resolution authorizing punitive military action was complicated. The wording could not be so strong as to constitute a declaration of war, nor could it be ambiguous, which would translate to a lack of resolve. In the end, Resolution 678 was adopted with 12 votes for, two votes against, and one abstention. While the Resolution did not expressly authorize military force, it did give Iraq a deadline of January 15th, 1991, to willingly withdraw from Kuwait before the UN would be authorized to use “all necessary means” to ensure compliance. 

As per a strategy of sticks and carrots, many of the non-aligned members who were initially opposed to such a resolution had agreed to ratify under the threat of economic penalty or were convinced to do so following the inclusion of a “pause of goodwill” clause, which would afford Iraq a final opportunity to comply peacefully. Members who had voted against the revolution, namely Yemen and Cuba, had emphasized their concern over the ambiguity of the “necessary means” clause, citing that such a statement gave the US too much leverage. In exchange for their stubbornness, they were punished by the immediate cessation of World Bank, IMF, and US aid. China, the Council’s lone abstainer, did so in exchange for an easement of economic sanctions levied following the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

With the possibility of military action now extremely likely, and given America’s status as a military superpower, it was accepted by US policymakers that the US would have the most boots on the ground during a peace enforcement mission. However, as the American presence in Saudi Arabia became increasingly protracted, the high costs of sustaining force projection were met with domestic belt-tightening. American generals, predicting that a war would last months and result in tens of thousands of casualties, projected costs at roughly $70 billion. As a result, to minimize the financial strain on taxpayers, it became imperative to secure the support of a broad-based coalition. Such a coalition would not only provide much-needed funding but would also further increase the legitimacy of any military actions taken, eliminating rumors of an Orientalist dynamic to the conflict. As a result, securing financial and military commitments from other nations, or ‘burden sharing,’ became the focus of US efforts.

Secretary of State James Baker. Terry Ashe /The Life Images Collection/ Getty

Working in conjunction with Ambassador Pickering, Secretary of State Baker embarked on an international fundraising mission, nicknamed the ‘Tin Cup Tour.’ Traveling to nine countries over 11 days, Baker secured about $61 billion, covering more than 80% of the war’s total cost. The lion’s share of the contribution, roughly $36 billion, came from the oil-rich GCC nations of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates, who had the most to lose if a US withdrawal were to occur. According to Baker: the GCC “weren’t going to argue over dollars,” since they needed American troops. 

Citing that their constitutions had forbidden foreign military intervention, Japan and Germany contributed roughly $16 billion to the war effort as measures of good faith, dispelling any notions of freeloading. In addition to securing financial assistance, Baker secured unexpected military contributions from several nations through a series of quid-pro-quo deals. Most notably, in exchange for eliminating a $7 billion debt, Egypt pledged 45,000 troops, the largest commitment made by a non-Gulf member of the Arab League. In addition, Syria, a longtime US adversary, also pledged troops in an attempt to improve relations with the US. Baker’s efforts had brought “the conservative Saudi monarchy, the militant Syrian regime, and the moderate Egyptian regime” together to fight against Iraqi aggression.

US soldiers stand watch in Saudi Arabia. Pascal Guyot/AFP/Getty Images

Despite Saddam’s best efforts to exploit the Coalition’s diversity to his advantage, both through the use of Western hostages and linkage to the controversial Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, as the January 15th deadline neared, a broad-based coalition of 34 nations stood unwavering, ready to take the fight to Saddam. Under the unified command of US General Norman Schwarzkopf, Coalition forces began Operation Desert Storm on January 16th to affect “the immediate, complete, and unconditional withdrawal of all Iraqi forces from Kuwait” to restore Kuwait’s legitimate government. As per ‘Shock and Awe’ doctrine, Coalition aircraft, flying from bases in Saudi Arabia, quickly gained air superiority and bombed the Iraqi Air Force into submission. Following the airstrikes, ground forces overwhelmed Iraqi positions, pushing Iraqi troops out of Kuwait and back into Iraq, ending the war in just 42 days.

Holistically, the Gulf War was a resounding success. Saddam’s hegemonic aspirations were checked by a broad-based multinational coalition that would have been unfathomable a decade earlier, made possible by skillful US diplomacy, and legitimized by a series of UN Resolutions. While critics have since argued that Desert Storm planners ignored the long-term political implications of an invasion, such criticisms were made with the benefit of hindsight and do not find fault in the diplomatic process itself. As a result, despite the Gulf War’s changing legacy, what remains true is that it was a remarkable episode of international cooperation. The initiative exhibited by domestic leaders such as President Bush, Ambassador Pickering, and Secretary Baker, in conjunction with other world leaders, serves as a shining example of how unilateral diplomacy can be utilized to overcome collective action problems on an international scale. 

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