War is inevitably an exercise in politics. In the best case the political process provides checks and balances that can contain or even prevent war. In other cases the political process itself is the primary driving force towards war. These two realities are not mutually exclusive. The Persian Gulf War of 1991 provided evidence of both political realities. Politics influenced the nature and the course of the war, and vice versa. In the context of what has happened since 1991 the Persian Gulf War, also known as “Desert Shield” and “Desert Storm”, is a fading memory. The political importance of this war cannot be underestimated, however.
The socio-political impact of this war would come to fruition within a decade. This impact is part of a continual process of reflexivity between war and politics, particularly in the United States. For better or worse, the Presidency itself was altered by this war and the associated political processes. Storm Clouds The Persian Gulf War of 1991 had immediate causes. When Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi military invaded oil-rich Kuwait a crisis was created. The United States and a coalition of mostly Western nations were compelled to respond. Kuwait was a strategically important ally in the Middle East.
If the invasion was allowed to stand, Saddam Hussein would be in position to launch an attack against Saudi Arabia, another important ally. After working several months for a resolution within the United Nations, the coalition prepared to launch an attack. The agreed upon mission was limited to ousting Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Going any further would require much more discussion. For Iraq, the invasion of Kuwait came on the heels of a failed war with Iran in which millions were killed. War debt was draining Iraq’s coffers. There was also a political angle for Iraq. Saddam sensed that he could not appear to be weak in any way.
Using revisionist history, Saddam claimed that the Iran war had somehow been a success. That message was driven home as Saddam erected even more palaces and monuments dedicated to himself. The invasion of Kuwait was a calculated political gamble. The United States and other nations had backed him in the war with Iran. He believed, at worst, that those nations would be ambivalent to his takeover of tiny Kuwait. Meanwhile he peppered the Iraqi media with trumped up charges against Kuwait. Even if he was eventually forced out, Saddam believed that he could plunder the wealth of Kuwait before retreating.
With a demoralized military after the Iran war, Saddam also felt he had to keep his army occupied so they could not conspire against him. He tried to put them in a easily winnable situation in an effort to solidify his own power. Knowing how Saddam operated, the United States made certain not to underestimate him. Senator William V. Roth, Jr. (R. -Del. ) Said that “He is as unpredictable as a desert storm and as deceptive as a mirage” (Mitchell, 1991). When Saddam failed to comply with repeated United Nations resolutions, the coalition mobilized itself for war.
As in any war, the crisis that caused the start of the war was simply the culmination of many prior socio-political movements and actions. With that in mind the American administration started a concerted political effort to build internal support for the war. The threat was maximized for public consumption. “President Bush declared that what is at stake is a New World Order” (Abdulla, 1994). Having successfully swayed public opinion, the administration now had to successfully fight the war in both military and political terms. Politics and Policy In Washington politics the terms “Vietnam War” and “quagmire” are toxic.
Any association with them can mean the quick death of a policy or military initiative. In the lead-up to the war politicians capitalized upon the Vietnam syndrome from a number of angles. Opponents of any military intervention used the phrase “potential quagmire” numerous times in their arguments. Once it was apparent that a war was going to take place, even supporters used this term in an attempt to shape the type of war it would be. In other words the political situation required that the coalition go in with overwhelming force, but minimize civilian casualties at the same time.
The administration knew it could not allow an extended guerilla conflict to emerge. The powerful triangle of war, television and politics had defeated the Johnson administration during Vietnam. This time, the administration was prepared to take extreme measures to prevent such a situation from happening again. Meanwhile, coalition leaders toed a tricky political line in maintaining world support for the action. Since before the war had even begun the issue of oil had prompted loud voices of disapproval about the impending war. Opponents claimed that the U. S.
led coalition was not so concerned with Saddam’s violation of International Law or with the freedom of a formerly sovereign nation. Instead, they claimed that the primary reason for the upcoming attack was to secure fuel for the oil-thirsty Western nations. Oil was a vital strategic concern. Access to cheap oil was a pillar underneath the American economy. Two of the most reliable pre-war suppliers were Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. In defending these nations, the U. S. hoped not only to secure its oil supply but also force a split between the nations in the OPEC oil cartel.
In the political arena, though, this by itself was not a justifiable reason to fight a war. This sentiment was particularly true among the European nations in the coalition. Holding this coalition together was critical to the overall effort. From the perspective of the administration, the war could not be seen as “trading lives for oil”. That would reinforce world perceptions of the United States as a greedy empire. Eventually the eroding effect of public opinion would have weakened the tenuous coalition. In fact, this had been part of Saddam’s political strategy from the outset.
“Saddam Hussein apparently counted on American public pressure to prevent a committment of troops to defend either Kuwait or Saudi Arabia” (Carlisle, 2003). Vietnam might be thought of as a constrained war, not in terms of casualties but in terms of the lengths the U. S. was willing to go to ensure victory. The Gulf War, in contrast, was a “careful” war. Every attempt was made to minimize both coalition casualties and the public reporting on those casualties. The military also went out of its way to project the image that Iraqi civilians were not targets.
Reports began to surface about large numbers of Iraqi casualties, but they were largely squelched by the constant presentation of surgical strikes on the enemy. For his part Saddam tried to play up images of apparently innocent Iraqi casualties. American officials admit, in hindsight, that Saddam played the political game well. After all “Saddam is a politician not a soldier” (Dunnigan, 1992). The Outcomes Militarily, the Gulf War at first appeared to be as close to flawless as is possible. The Iraqi military was swept out of Kuwait in a matter of weeks.
The military had taken reporters into their ranks while still tightly controlling the flow of information. Images of deadly accurate smart bomb deployments and successful interception of Iraqi SCUD’s by American Patriot missiles permeated the nightly news. President Bush’s approval ratings skyrocketed to unprecedented levels. Politically the effort was less successful. According to U. S. News & World Report: “But inasmuch as victory suggests the decisive defeat of an opponent, there was none. This triumph without victory was perhaps the most striking irony of the entire conflict” (1993).
The U. S. had hoped that Saddam would be overthrown in the process, but was unable to make the case that it should be done by the coalition. When parts of the country revolted against Saddam, the lack of coalition help allowed Saddam to crush them brutally. At the time, the outcome seemed acceptable. According to R. W. Apple, Jr. : “they appear to have done just enough to make it unlikely that a second Persian Gulf war will erupt any time soon” (1991). In hindsight it is apparent that this set the stage for another Gulf War. Ten years later, the U. S.
and a smaller coalition of nations launched an attack with the expressed purpose of overthrowing Saddam. The Presidency The Gulf War of 1991 was a watershed moment in the history of the Presidency of the United States. The War Powers Act theoretically reserved the right to make war to the U. S. Congress. An increasingly long line of Presidents have resisted this notion, finding loopholes in order to “defend American interests”. The Gulf War was unique in that the President undertook a sustained effort to marshal international support before even gaining domestic support.
Critics charge that Bush was trying to “circumvent Congress by seeking United Nations approval” (U. S. News & World Report, 1993). There was dissent in the Congress to the asserting of political power by the President. Many felt that the issue was not thoroughly debated. George Mitchell (D. -ME) wrote that: In effect the President, overnight, with no consultation and no public debate, changed American policy from being part of a collective effort to enforce diplomatic sanctions into a predominantly American effort, relying upon the use of American military force. (Mitchell, 1991)
Nevertheless, this would become the template for future Presidents wishing to undertake military action. A formal declaration of war, as they saw it, was unnecessary. As the Commander-in Chief the President is charged with defending American interests. A further asserting of Presidential power was the perceived “shackling of the press” (U. S. News & World Report, 1993). For the first time, a full-scale effort to control the modern, multimedia press was undertaken. The “in the National interest” argument was used to full effect. From this perspective the administration could paint uncooperative media as unpatriotic or untrustworthy.
Conclusion In Vietnam, television had shown Americans the realities of modern warfare. Political ramifications soon followed. In the Gulf War of 1991, the conflict was, in fact, planned from a political and media perspective. The war marked an increase in the assertion of Presidential power. It also marked an increase in the ability of that branch to use the media, public opinion and internationalism to increase that power. It was a political evolution that has now become commonplace. Was the Persian Gulf War of 1991 a success? Militarily, it was. The military carried out its proscribed mission with remarkable efficiency and media savvy.
In terms of international politics, it merely preserved the status quo while not resolving any underlying problems. In terms of domestic politics it allowed for an increase in Presidential power while setting the template for future military conflicts in successive administrations. The template worked efficiently for a while, but by the end of the second Bush’s administration the political pendulum was swinging back toward Congress and more hesitancy in carrying out large-scale military actions. Works Cited Abdulla, Abdulkhaleq. “Gulf War: the socio-political background.
” Arab Studies Quarterly. 16. 3 (1994). Apple, R. W. Jr. “After the War: Politics: Another Gulf War? ” The New York Times. 10 Mar. 1991: B01. Carlisle, Rodney P. Persian Gulf War. New York: Facts on File, 2003. Dunnigan, James E. & Bay, Austin. From Shield to Storm. New York: Morrow & Co. , 1992. Mitchell, George. “Confrontation in the Gulf: War and Peace: A sampling from the debate on Capitol Hill. ” The New York Times. 11 Jan. 1991: A03. U. S. News and World Report. Triumph Without Victory: the unreported history of the Persian Gulf War. New York: Random House, 1993.
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