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Why the Gulf War Was Not in the National Interest
by Christopher Layne

The fundamental question of statecraft has always been, What are a nation's vital interests -- those for which the nation will go to war? What considerations of national interest prompted the Bush Administration to believe that the United States had to wage war in the Persian Gulf? As U.S. policy evolved during the pre-war crisis, three national-interest justifications emerged as bases for it: the need to guarantee an uninterrupted flow of Middle East oil (which entailed defending Saudi Arabia); the need to counter the threat to the Middle East posed by Iraq's military arsenal, especially its chemical, biological, and prospective nuclear weapons; and the need to ensure peace and stability in the Middle East.

The Oil Argument

LAST fall in a campaign speech, George Bush said that the Gulf crisis was about aggression, not oil. Clearly, aggression was a factor, but, as Bush himself repeatedly stated, so was oil. Admittedly, oil is important -- but not important enough to justify the Gulf War. Several points need to be made about the oil argument. First, given the centrality of the Arabian Peninsula's oil reserves, a case can be made that no hostile power should be allowed to dominate the region. The need to prevent an Iraqi invasion of Saudi Arabia was, therefore, a key consideration for Washington, and the Saudis would not have asked for U.S. assistance unless they had reason to believe that an attack was imminent. However, this threat could have been -- and was -- countered without war, through deterrence, containment, and the economic embargo of Iraq. (Apparently this was precisely the course of action recommended by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell.) Moreover, such a strategy could have been implemented with far fewer than the 200,000 U.S. soldiers initially deployed in Operation Desert Shield. A limited and temporary U.S. air, naval, and ground presence would have sufficed to dissuade the Iraqis from further aggression and to buy time for Saudi Arabia and its regional allies to organize an all-Arab defense of the desert kingdom.
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More on foreign policy from The Atlantic's archive.

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From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashbacks: "Iraq Considered" (October 1, 2002)
Should the U.S. intervene in Iraq? Articles from 1958 to the present offer a variety of perspectives.

Flashbacks: "The Intervention Question" (April 7, 2000)
Atlantic articles from 1967 to 1996—by George McGovern, Ronald Steel, Jonathan Clarke, John J. Mearsheimer, and Robert D. Kaplan—take up the issue of American interventionism.

Flashbacks: "Who Are the Kurds?" (February 17, 1999)
Two Atlantic articles from the past decade put the "Kurdish problem" in perspective.

Flashbacks: "Oil and Turmoil" (July 11, 1996)
Three Atlantic authors tackle the issues of politics, oil, and the Persian Gulf.

Second, the August, 1990, crisis was far different from the situation in 1980 when, in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, U.S. policy-makers worried that Moscow could seize control of the Persian Gulf and blackmail the West geopolitically. Nor was the Gulf crisis a replay of 1973, when OPEC tried to use its monopoly power to extort political concessions from the West. Interestingly, at that time the United States never seriously considered using armed force to break OPEC. Whereas OPEC had a monopoly position, Iraq, even after overrunning Kuwait, controlled a mere seven percent of current world oil production -- far too small a share to have enabled Baghdad to impose a stranglehold on the world economy. Moreover, the oil argument rested on a shaky economic foundation. Saddam Hussein's Iraq was no different from any other oil producer: Iraq needed to sell oil, not withhold it from the market, because oil was Baghdad's only significant revenue source. Like other producing nations, Iraq also had every reason to avoid driving oil prices up to a point where consumers would have had an incentive to switch to alternate energy sources.

Third, granting Iraq's inability to control the world oil market, the United States and other affected nations nevertheless were understandably mindful of the distribution of oil wealth in the Middle East. As others have pointed out, if Kuwait had been invaded by a less powerful or ambitious nation, the event might have passed unnoticed. However, alarm bells go off when a nation like Iraq, with regional geostrategic aspirations, expands its oil revenues through conquest, because it is likely to use the additional income to augment its military power. This is a valid concern, especially so with Saddam Hussein's Iraq, but it is one that can be addressed diplomatically. In Iraq's case, the embargo against oil exports deprived Baghdad of most of its income; it could not afford to buy either new weapons systems or spare parts to maintain its existing military force.

Fourth, there was always the possibility that Saddam Hussein's Iraq (or some other OPEC power in the future) could have chosen to behave in an economically irrational fashion by using its oil resources to achieve political or ideological objectives rather than wealth. Over time, of course, the requirements of supply-and-demand equilibrium would force such a rogue oil producer to return to an economically rational oil-pricing policy. In the intervening period, however, the U.S. and world economies might suffer unpleasant dislocations. But this simply illustrates a basic problem: the Persian Gulf is an endemically turbulent region. Even now, after America's victory, access to Persian Gulf oil remains precarious. One of the Gulf War's key lessons is clear: rather than absorbing the costs of preparing for, and perhaps fighting, future Middle Eastern wars, America would be better off developing other energy sources and cutting its reliance on imported oil.

The "Keep Saddam From Getting Nukes" Argument

A SECOND national-interest justification for U.S. policy was the threat posed by the prospect of an Iraq armed with nuclear (and biological and chemical) weapons. The Bush Administration was slow to employ this rationale, although its supporters were not. As early as last August conservative and neoconservative war hawks such as Frank Gaffney, Jr., Henry Kissinger, Richard Perle, A. M. Rosenthal, William Safire, and The Wall Street Journal claimed that smashing Iraq's military potential and destroying its capacity to develop nuclear weapons was America's overriding objective in the Gulf. Liberal supporters of Bush's policy also embraced the contention that the potential Iraqi nuclear threat to the United States was, as The New Republic put it, "the real reason there needs to be war against Iraq." The Administration apparently discovered the Iraqi nuclear threat when it read the results of a New York Times/CBS poll last November which suggested that of all the reasons offered as justification for fighting Iraq, the only one resonating with the American public was the need to keep Saddam Hussein's finger off the nuclear trigger. Within days Bush was warning that Iraq was only a few months away from detonating a crude nuclear device and that the United States itself could be imperiled.

The notion that Iraq was a near-term nuclear threat was perhaps contrived to undercut those who wanted to give economic sanctions an additional twelve to eighteen months to work before war was considered. Before the war the expert consensus was that Iraq was five to ten years away from acquiring an operational nuclear force. Even then Iraq would have posed little direct threat to the United States, because it would have taken far longer for Baghdad to have developed the capability to deliver nuclear weapons intercontinentally. (Moreover, the notion that Iraq would expose itself to certain destruction by America's overwhelmingly superior nuclear arsenal -- unquestionably the outcome if Baghdad ever attacked the United States with nuclear weapons -- is sheer fantasy.) This is not to say, however, that the problem of nuclear proliferation is a matter of indifference.

Within the next thirty years Japan and Germany will almost certainly become nuclear powers, as a necessary complement to their emerging great-power status. A host of smaller nations also have the capability to become nuclear powers. Some of these nations are potential aggressors (North Korea, Libya), others are situated in already unstable areas (Egypt, Iran, South Africa), and still others are involved in tense confrontations with neighboring states (Pakistan, South Korea). Nevertheless, the spread of nuclear weapons need not in itself be destabilizing. On the contrary, if both of a pair of nuclear-armed rivals have invulnerable retaliatory forces, both will be deterred from using nuclear weapons. Under such conditions nuclear weapons have no war-fighting utility, because using them against an adversary ensures one's own destruction. Moreover, under such conditions the risk of conventional war is also lowered, because both sides understand the risks of escalation.

Nuclear proliferation should nonetheless not be encouraged, and the international community should attempt to curb the spread of nuclear-weapons-related technology. But when proliferation does occur, the proper response is to stabilize emerging regional nuclear balances through arms-control regimes that promote the acquisition of invulnerable second-strike retaliatory forces; to disseminate command-and-control technology to ensure that nuclear weapons are not used inadvertently or accidentally; and to tutor the new nuclear powers in security safeguards to protect against the theft or unauthorized use of their nuclear weapons. It is extremely important not to overreact to the emergence of new nuclear powers. It would be tragic if other nations (India in relation to Pakistan, for example) used the Gulf War as a precedent to justify preemptive military action against prospective nuclear rivals. Even the prospect that an egregious government may acquire nuclear weapons does not automatically justify a strike against its nuclear facilities.

Nuclear weapons incline their possessors to risk-averse rather than risk-taking behavior. For example, in the 1960s many feared what would happen when China became a nuclear power. Before China obtained nuclear weapons, its leaders repeatedly said that among the great powers China alone could fight and win a nuclear war, because with its huge population it could absorb the casualties from such a conflict. Once China actually became a nuclear power, however, its declaratory and strategic politics conformed to the more cautious practices of the nuclear club's other members. Of course, the world is an unpredictable place, and there is always the possibility, however remote, that nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of a "crazy" regime. However, Israel in 1981 and the U.S. air campaign in 1991 demonstrated that such a regime could be disarmed without incurring the political, diplomatic, and military risks (not to mention the economic cost) of engaging in a major land war. Moreover, the risk that the United States would ever have to contemplate such action in the future could be reduced substantially by deploying a strategic defense system.

The Peace-and-Stability Argument

THE third national-interest justification for going to war was the need to ensure peace and stability in the Middle East. Notwithstanding America's brilliant military victory, the final verdict on the Gulf War has yet to be rendered. As President Bush has stated, that verdict will turn on the war's impact on the region's politics. The prospects for a favorable political and diplomatic outcome are not good.

First, there is the matter of Iraq. Who will govern if Saddam Hussein is overthrown? Traditionally, Iraq's political culture has been marked by violence and instability, and a happy democratic outcome is not likely. Would a post-Saddam Hussein government adopt a less threatening foreign policy? It would in the short run, because postwar reconstruction will absorb Iraqi energies for some time. Eventually, however, Baghdad will reassert its long-standing aspirations for regional predominance. Iraq's national aspirations (including its designs on Kuwait) long pre-date Saddam Hussein, and they will not disappear just because he does.

Of course, there is the possibility that Iraq may break up. America's determination to crush Iraq humiliated Saddam Hussein, thereby making his ultimate downfall somewhat more possible. The terms of the permanent cease-fire were also structured to further that goal. At the same time, the U.S. military campaign weakened Iraq to the point where its dismemberment is a real likelihood, notwithstanding the insurgents' defeat in what was surely only the first round of Iraq's civil war. This civil war -- which plunged the United States into a moral and political quagmire -- and the plight of the Kurdish and Shiite rebels and refugees were foreseeable outcomes of Washington's Gulf policy.

The big-time use of military power is a blunt instrument, and when bludgeons are used, the results are messy. Before the Gulf War some foreign-policy analysts warned that a conflict would have long-term destabilizing effects: Iran would emerge as the region's dominant power, and a vanquished Iraq would be prone to internal strife and in danger of disintegrating completely. Since its creation, after the First World War, Iraq has been a fragile entity, with its Sunni Muslim elite dominating restless Shiites and Kurds. In the aftermath of the Gulf War, Syria, Iran, and Turkey -- each of which has irredentist claims on Iraq -- have encouraged and abetted turmoil there. Now Iraq faces the prospect of continuing internal unrest and possible eventual Lebanonization. A power vacuum there, should it occur, would bode ill for Middle Eastern stability, the maintenance of which was the Administration's objective in the war.

Washington's initial realpolitik inclination to stay out of Iraq's civil war was prudent. But Bush was trapped by his own moralistic new-world-order rhetoric, and, pressured from both political flanks, the Administration wobbled into making an open-ended commitment to the Kurds. As a recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff report said, "Unless the United States is prepared to abandon the Iraqi people, it will be involved in the Iraqi quagmire for a long time to come." But the Administration cannot be absolved of responsibility for the horrific Iraqi civil war. If the United States had followed a realistic policy from the beginning -- by avoiding war -- these tragic events almost certainly would not have occurred.

But the Administration refused to listen to the analysts who said that a war in the Gulf would trigger upheaval of precisely this kind. Moreover -- inexcusably -- Washington did virtually no thinking of its own about the conflict's predictable consequences. As Robin Wright reported in theLos Angeles Times on January 14 of this year, only on the eve of hostilities -- when the decision to go to war had already been made -- did the Administration finally set up a high-level interagency study group to think about the Gulf crisis's end game.

The Administration compounded its complicity by actively trying to galvanize the Iraqi people into overthrowing Saddam Hussein. Washington was far more culpable in its encouragement of the Iraqi rebels than in its role in Hungary in 1956. Then it was merely the semi-official Radio Free Europe that arguably helped to incite the anti-Soviet revolution. This time, on February 15, the President of the United States himself explicitly encouraged Iraqis to revolt. When the policy chickens finally came home to roost in Iraq, the Administration engaged in the morally appalling spectacle of wringing its hands over the Kurds and Shiites while simultaneously washing its hands of any responsibility for their fate. This was worse than disingenuousness; it was prevarication.

The Administration has been an innocent abroad in a region where problems are intractable and politics are Byzantine. The United States has been manipulated by regional powers -- Saudi Arabia, Israel, Syria, Turkey, and Egypt -- pursuing their own agendas. There is a lesson in all of this that many conservatives and some liberals have overlooked: the United States should avoid overseas Wilsonian crusades. In some circles the war has produced the intoxicating belief that American power is unchallenged and that Washington can lay down the rules for behavior both among nations and within them. But Americans should beware of the overweening ambition that is born of hubris. The world is not infinitely malleable. The United States has seldom done well trying to stage-manage the process of political change in other countries. It is the people in those countries who pay the price when American experiments in "nation-building" go awry. There are many problems in the world but few of them have "Made in America" solutions.

At this writing the Administration's postwar drive for peace in the region looks stymied. The Palestinian issue appears as intractable as ever, and it remains the key to achieving a broader Arab-Israeli accord. Washington wants Israel to embrace the peace-for-land formula -- returning the Golan Heights to Syria and creating an independent Palestinian state. Syria and Saudi Arabia will certainly not recognize Israel unless it makes these concessions. For strategic and ideological reasons, to say nothing of indignation at the Palestinians' pro-Iraq stance during the war, the Israelis are not likely to be forthcoming. Failure to resolve the Palestinian question, whether by shuttle diplomacy or by a U.S.-convened peace conference, would result in diminished U.S. influence in the Arab world, demonstrating the insubstantiality of the diplomatic capital that Washington accumulated during the Gulf War. Failure could fuel tensions in the Arab world that could cause yet another Arab-Israeli war.

Wars invariably have unintended consequences for the victors -- leaving them to deal with unforeseen postwar political turmoil (like that in Iraq) and creating pressures to assume new military commitments (like the expanded, permanent U.S. military presence in the Gulf which Washington is projecting). In the final analysis, wars are fought to win political victories, not battlefield ones -- something to which the Administration gave little thought before plunging into the Gulf. Before going to war statesmen should be confident that their nation will be better off diplomatically when the conflict ends than when it began. But now that the Gulf War is over, Washington cannot make this claim. Even strong backers of the Bush Administration's Gulf policy, like The New Republic, concede the obvious: "There will be no 'new world order' in the Middle East. Without Saddam there is merely, perhaps, the chance of less chronic disorder" (italics added). More likely, the Middle East in the future will be just as much prone to armed conflicts, rapacious dictators, upheaval, and instability as it was before the war. Whatever influence America has to shape events in the Middle East is a rapidly wasting asset. The Soviet Union, Iran, and the countries of Western Europe have their own views about the political and security arrangements that should be put in place in the region. Moreover, Washington is likely to have little leverage over its Middle East clients, notwithstanding America's wartime exertions on their behalf, on any regional issues -- including the Arab-Israeli problem and a postwar Gulf security regime. These nations will be resistant to U.S. pressures because the matters at stake in the Middle East are far more important to them than they are to the United States.

Clearly, bringing peace and stability to the region is a goal that is not and never was within Washington's reach. Other than the dubious satisfaction of liberating Kuwait and restoring its government -- a corrupt, repressive, and undemocratic regime that, to paraphrase Bismarck's comment about the Balkans, was not worth the bones of a single American soldier -- it is hard to see what lasting gains the United States has secured from the Gulf War.

The "New World Order" Argument

DURING the national debate leading up to the war, the Bush Administration tried vainly to articulate a coherent, cogent, and convincing rationale for risking war with Iraq. The Administration's difficulty, which was widely commented on, supports the supposition that the mainsprings of America's Gulf policy lay not in the Middle East but elsewhere: in the American foreign-policy elite's values and premises, which are encapsulated in the new-world-order concept. This hypothesis can be tested quite easily. The Bush Administration advanced two lines of argument to explain its policy. One framed the policy in traditional national-interest terms. The other placed the Middle East crisis within the context of Washington's new-world-order objectives. If the former reasons do not hold up when examined, it can readily be inferred that the latter actually drove U.S. policy.

Those who have called the Gulf War the first worldwide crisis of the post-Cold War era are wrong. U.S. foreign policy is still very much driven by Cold War thinking -- the same vision of world-order politics that has driven American policy since the end of the Second World War. Rather than weighing its tangible concerns in the crisis, the United States was dragged into the Gulf by the deadweight of the Cold War's intellectual baggage. The Bush Administration's reaction to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait was a Pavlovian response right out of the Cold War. U.S. policy-makers did not stop to ask whether rote Cold War responses were relevant in a world where the political, military, and economic balance of forces was shifting dramatically.

The new world order is the Bush Administration's response to the intellectual crisis in U.S. foreign policy caused by the Cold War's end. Deprived of the Cold War as a justification for active global military and diplomatic engagement, U.S. policy-makers needed to come up with a substitute rationale for globalism. But in this respect the transition from the Cold War to the new world order was easy. With the Soviet menace receding, a new justification for globalism magically appeared -- summed up in the Administration's avowal that the post-Cold War world is characterized by "uncertainty, instability, and danger." According to Administration officials, in this dangerous and uncertain new world diminishing Soviet power does not lessen the threat to American interests. On the contrary, they say, the United States will be even less secure in the post-Cold War world than it was in the post-Second World War era, owing to anti-American regimes in the Third World, drug traffickers, antidemocratic insurgents, terrorism, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to hostile states. Consequently, the Bush Administration says, the United States must maintain the same military commitments (Europe, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Latin American, Southwest Asia) and the same mix of forces (though at a reduced level) that it maintained during the Cold War -- notwithstanding that these alliances and force structures were specifically tailored to contain the Soviet Union. As Defense Secretary Dick Cheney told the Senate Budget Committee in February of 1990, "America should continue to anchor its strategy to the still-valid doctrines of flexible response, forward defense [and] security alliances . . . . Even the extraordinary events of 1989 do not mean that America should abandon this strategic foundation." (One wonders just what would, in the Administration's view, justify a fundamental shift away from globalism as the basis for America's national strategy.) The Bush Administration's geopolitical response to the Cold War's end was succinct: Read our lips -- no new thinking.

To replace the obsolete mission of containing the Soviet Union, American internationalists have declared that the U.S. role in the post-Cold War world is nothing less than preserving the "peace and stability of the world" in this purportedly new, uncertain, and dangerous era. Iraq's invasion of Kuwait became, for the Administration, "the first assault on the world we seek" and the test case of whether the post-Cold War world would sink into anarchy or be governed instead by "an international order -- a common code of the rule of law that promotes cooperation in place of conflict." For the new world order to work, its architects say, the United States must oppose aggression everywhere and appease it nowhere. Although the new world order is supposed to be defended under the principle of collective security, U.S. leadership of the international community is nevertheless seen as indispensable, because, as the sole remaining superpower, the United States supposedly bears unique responsibilities.

There is in fact nothing new about the Bush Administration's new world order. Its rhetoric and assumptions have a familiar ring. The same kind of thinking led the United States into Vietnam. As the former Secretary of State Dean Rusk stated in his memoirs, As I Saw It, the belief that America was responsible for stopping aggression everywhere and upholding international law underlay U.S. policy in Vietnam -- another Wilsonian crusade fought primarily by the United States (as the Gulf War was) in the name of collective security. True, the Gulf War differed from Vietnam geopolitically, topographically, and in its outcome. But in one crucial respect the two wars were identical: both were fought in behalf of, as Bush put it, the "vital issues of principle" associated with world-order politics. In neither instance did concrete U.S. national interests necessitate fighting a war.

Those Hoary "Lessons of the 1930s"

LIKE the cold war version politics, Bush's new world order rests on a set of interconnected premises about the nature of international stability, the validity of the "1930s analogy," and the efficacy of collective security. These assumptions cannot withstand close examination.

To begin with, the new world order's goals are unattainable. War, aggression, and instability are not exceptional events -- they are inherent features of world politics. Indeed, since 1945 there have been ten major interstate wars (excluding America's wars, in Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf), over forty various other interstate conflicts (again excluding U.S. actions, in Guatemala, Lebanon, Grenada, Libya, and Panama), some twenty wars of liberation from occupation or colonial rule, and nearly sixty internal conflicts (civil wars and struggles for autonomy or secession).

The future does not promise to be more tranquil. George Bush notwithstanding, the "day of the dictator" is not over. Many nations are ruled by repressive and aggressive governments. Because nationalism is rampant in the Soviet Union, East Central Europe, and the Third World, conflict is likely to be more prevalent in coming years. Irredentist and ethnic strife could trigger wars in these areas. The fact that the borders in these regions -- largely drawn by the First World War victors in East Central Europe and by the former colonial powers in Africa and the Middle East -- do not coincide with racial, religious, and ethnic dividing lines increases the odds for turmoil: turmoil that some of the participants might regard as entirely justified. Obviously, the United States cannot be responsible for rectifying every violation of international behavioral norms, or for punishing, or overthrowing, every evil ruler in the world. The problem with world-order politics, however, is that it rests on legal and moral notions that purportedly have universal applicability, and provides no criteria for determining which overseas conflicts affect vital American interests and which are of only peripheral concern to the United States.

From the outset of the Gulf crisis President Bush compared Saddam Hussein to Adolf Hitler and equated the Iraqi threat with that posed by Nazi Germany in the 1930s. This analogy was fanciful, though no doubt presented sincerely. Saddam Hussein certainly is evil, but he is no Hitler. More important, Iraq was not another Nazi Germany -- as demonstrated by the very ease with which U.S. forces vanquished it. By Third World standards pre-war Iraq was powerful, though as the Iran-Iraq war had demonstrated, its offensive capabilities were limited. But pre-war Iraq was not a world power, and with its limited population and limited industrial-technological base, it had no prospect of becoming one. Nazi Germany, on the other hand, was Europe's second most populous nation (behind the Soviet Union), its most formidable military and economic power, and a world leader in science and technology. As such, by gaining control over all of Europe, Nazi Germany could have upended the global balance of power and ultimately threatened the United States -- something Iraq was utterly incapable of doing.

Still, Bush's invocation of the 1930s was understandable, because since the Second World War, U.S. policymakers have viewed international relations through the prism of Munich. The 1930s analogy rests on the assumption that "aggression" must be resisted -- not "appeased" -- wherever it occurs, because it will snowball unless firmly stopped. As President Bush put it, if the United States had "not responded to this first provocation [Iraq's invasion of Kuwait] with clarity of purpose, if we do not continue to demonstrate our determination, it would be a signal to actual and potential despots around the world." Many who supported the Administration's policy echoed Bush by arguing that if the United States had not intervened to stop Saddam Hussein when it did, it would have had to fight later, when Iraq had increased its strength through conquest.

Although deeply ingrained in the American world view, the 1930s analogy is based on a false idea of how nations behave. As the political scientist Kenneth Waltz, of the University of California, has pointed out, because nations want to preserve their independence, they form alliances -- "balance" -- against extremely powerful or very threatening regimes. Nations do not, except under rare circumstances, "bandwagon" -- appease or cast their lot with those who threaten them. The balancing tendency is richly illustrated in European history. The successive hegemonic bids of Charles V, Louis XIV, Napoleon, the Kaiser, and Adolf Hitler were all frustrated by anti-hegemonic coalitions. In his book The Origins of Alliances, Stephen M. Walt, of the University of Chicago, used the pattern of Middle Eastern strategic alignments from 1955 to 1979 to test Waltz's balancing-bandwagoning hypotheses. Walt found that like their European great-power counterparts, Middle Eastern nations almost always balance against threatening neighbors.

The findings of Middle East experts support these conclusions. As Dankwart Rustow, a Middle East expert at the City University of New York, observed several years ago,
While many Middle Eastern countries individually nurse expansionist or hegemonic ambitions, all of them collectively, by their preference for the weaker side and their readiness to shift alignments regardless of ideology, offer strong support for the status quo . . . . the pattern of hostility, interaction and maneuver thus has its self-balancing features.
If the United States had refused to intervene (or sharply limited its military involvement) in the Persian Gulf, it is a very good bet that Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, and probably Iran would have organized a defensive coalition against Iraq. And though an Arab alliance with Israel was certainly unlikely, the members of this anti-Iraq group would have winked at any strikes at Iraq's nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons facilities that Israel made. Those in Washington whose premise was "We must stop him now or else" got it wrong. Balancing will occur regardless of what the United States does; nations resist threatening powers because it is in their own interest to do so, not because they are doing Washington a favor. The 1930s analogy completely misses the point: the more threatening a state becomes to its neighbors, the more certain that nation is to find that they have allied in opposition to its expansionist goals.

The Cold War's end has destroyed whatever shreds of plausibility the 1930s analogy might have had. In a bipolar world it was easy to assume that there were no geostrategic peripheries and that all U.S. security commitments abroad were interdependent. Under such conditions it could at least be argued (and frequently was) that credibility itself was a vital interest worth fighting for and that America's credibility would be undermined by any failure of U.S. resolve. But the passing of the Cold War and the emergence of multipolarity mean that U.S. policy need no longer be driven by a morbid obsession with establishing credibility in secondary regions in order to demonstrate the reliability of U.S. security commitments in more vital areas.

Finally, it should be noted that the 1930s analogy is deeply flawed historically. Following the Second World War the myth took hold that throughout the 1930s Britain had been blind to the growing menace of Nazi Germany and had naively attempted to appease Hitler. Following the opening of the relevant British archives this myth was exploded by such distinguished scholars as Corelli Barnett, Brian Bond, Maurice Cowling, David Dilks, Norman Gibbs, Martin Gilbert, Richard Gott, Keith Middlemas, and G. C. Peden. London was keenly aware of the rising German threat, but its response was severely constrained by Britain's economic weakness, the bitter political and class polarization of British society, widespread domestic opposition to rearmament, the lingering psychological impact of the First World War, the absence of reliable allies, the lack of support from the Dominions, and the fact that Britain's worldwide interests were also menaced by Japan and Italy. While preparing as best they could for war, British policy-makers were determined to exhaust every diplomatic avenue, because they believed -- correctly, as it turned out -- that another world war would be disastrous for Britain and for Europe.

Britain refrained from going to war in 1938 because it believed, correctly, that it and France lacked the military capability to prevent Germany from overrunning Czechoslovakia and because, up to November of 1938, it still had reason to believe that its vital security interests in Western Europe could be maintained through diplomacy and deterrence. When, between November of 1938 (the Kristallnacht pogrom) and March of 1939 (the German occupation of Prague), it became clear that Germany was seeking European hegemony rather than only rectification of the Versailles Treaty, a domestically united Britain and empire moved to resist Berlin. Those who think that Britain waited too long to act should remember that history turns on narrow margins. If Germany had been checked in 1940, our collective memory of the 1930s (and America's pre-war "isolationism") would be quite different. In this regard it is worth recalling that many German generals were at least as surprised as their Anglo-French counterparts by their victory in the Battle of France.

An Overlooked Lesson of the 1930s

BUT the second world war might never have happened, and Hitler might never have come to power, if the victorious First World War Allies had abstained from imposing a humiliating, one-sided peace settlement on Germany. By the 1930s the British realized that the Versailles Treaty was poisoning European politics, and Berlin's demands -- the Rhineland, Austria, the Sudetenland, and the Polish Corridor -- were generally perceived in both England and Germany to be just.

This illustrates a diplomatic conundrum deeply imbedded in world politics. There is no clear rule that tells statesmen when necessary diplomatic adjustment becomes dangerous appeasement, but any attempt to establish world order must come to grips with the tension between those states that wish to maintain the international status quo and those that wish to change it.

Because the international system has some of the rudimentary elements of a society (common norms, values, and institutions), states aspire to a just order. However, that is not their overriding objective, and indeed in an anarchic world -- lacking a central authority to make and enforce rules -- it cannot be. Because world politics is anarchic and competitive, international mechanisms for reconciling stability with the need for change are poorly developed. When diplomacy fails to adjust an unacceptable status quo, an aggrieved state often uses or threatens to use force, which remains the ultima ratio in world politics. Nations that seek change in this fashion are considered aggressors by the status-quo powers. Yet it is historically commonplace for states to use military power to further their national objectives and increase their strength at the expense of their weaker neighbors. America's war against Mexico in 1846, which secured Texas and California for the United States, is a good example.

The Persian Gulf crisis therefore actually illustrates a typical pattern in international relations. Saddam Hussein may have been disingenuous in embracing the cause of Palestinians and disadvantaged Arabs, but his policy resonated among Arabs who resent Western dominance and who saw the pre-war Middle East status quo as unacceptable. These kinds of problems will abound in world politics regardless of how the Persian Gulf crisis turns out. No "world order" that fails to provide a means for resolving such issues peacefully is worthy of the name. But it is the very difficulty of finding pacific answers to contentious problems that makes world order a perennially elusive goal. At the same time, as Waltz has noted, a world-order policy contains two dangers to which the United States must not succumb. First, because "justice" cannot be objectively defined in world politics, America is often tempted to equate its policy preferences with the just solution to a problem. Second, it is easy to forget that in a world teeming with dissension and controversy among nations ending strife "would require as much wisdom as power," and in U.S. diplomacy, wisdom is a scarce commodity.

The belief that collective security can work pervades new-world-order thinking. The Gulf War has sparked speculation that a multilateral institution like the United Nations will play an important role in maintaining peace and stability in the post-Cold War world. However, although the UN played a key role in legitimating the anti-Iraq coalition, it would be a mistake to read too much into this.

The UN was structured by the Second World War Grand Alliance so that it could intervene effectively only when the interests of the Security Council's five permanent members coincided. As it happened, in the Gulf crisis the Big Five's interests did overlap. Nevertheless, although Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and China backed America's anti-Iraq coalition, each did so for national-interest reasons that had little, if anything, to do with Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. This convergence of great-power interests was fortuitous and is unlikely to be repeated often in the future. The Gulf War certainly did not establish a new world-community consensus about an international code of conduct or a means of enforcing one.

In fact, the description of the Gulf crisis as a "collective security" enterprise shows how the definition of that term has grown vaguer during the post-Second World War era. Americans have always viewed traditional alliances with some distaste. Collective security, however, has been seen as something noble and pristine. Accordingly, U.S. policy-makers have learned to describe all U.S.-led alliances (including NATO) as collective-security instruments. Washington has believed that U.S. interventions abroad derive legitimacy from being conducted under the collective-security rubric. President Bush himself confirmed that in the Gulf the UN was merely a flag of convenience for what was essentially an American war. As he said, if the UN had refused to back U.S. policy, "I might have said, To hell with them, it's right and wrong, it's good and evil; he [Saddam Hussein] is evil, our cause is right, and -- without the United Nations -- sent a considerable force to help." Collective security is a rhetorical smokescreen obscuring the fact that the United States bears a disproportionate burden when it comes to defending the interests it shares with other nations.

THE belief that collective security can work is alluring, but given the nature of the international political system, it is chimerical. For collective security to work, all states must view themselves as members of a single community with an overriding interest in maintaining world order. But whereas states favor order and justice in the abstract, they frequently disagree about what these concepts mean when they are applied to concrete situations. Moreover, a collective-security system requires that nations surrender their freedom to define their national interests pragmatically, because it rests on the premise that aggression anywhere is always equally threatening to all nations. Consequently, adherence to collective-security principles can actually undermine a nation's vital interests and divert policy-makers' attention from more serious long-term threats to international security. The 1930s provide an example: by supporting League of Nations sanctions against Italy for its invasion of Ethiopia (an event that had no direct impact on the balance of power in Europe or on important Anglo-French interests), London and Paris pushed Rome out of the anti-German Stresa Front that had coalesced in early 1935. The loss of Italy as an ally against Hitler weakened the Anglo-French strategic position in Europe and strengthened the German one.

Collective security's requirements run counter to the imperatives of international politics: in a competitive realm states seek to maximize their autonomy; there is no automatic harmony of interests; each state's survival and success is ultimately a matter of self-help As Inis Claude has written, traditional statecraft "does not posit a seamless web of international peace and order, nor assume as self-evident the proposition that every state has a stake in preventing war or suppressing aggression wherever it may occur." Although there may be occasions when U.S. participation in multilateral efforts is justifiable, Washington should never cede to others its power to determine when U.S. military action abroad is called for.

The Dangerous Precedent Set by the Gulf War

THE United States fought and won the Gulf War, but it must break its habit of fighting wars where its national interests are not involved. Such wars may be just -- and the war against the brutal Saddam Hussein met the criteria for a just war -- but by definition they are not necessary. And unnecessary wars are seldom wise ones.

Some analysts have argued that the Gulf War will not be a model for future U.S. global strategy. Yet in coming years America may be even more actively engaged abroad than it was during the forty-five years from the Second World War to the outbreak of the Gulf crisis. Geopolitically, the Cold War's end has removed an important constraint on U.S. military intervention, because there is no longer much risk that a regional conflict will escalate into a full-scale superpower conflict. Ideologically, moreover, new-world-order interventions may have somewhat broader domestic appeal than the old-style Cold War kind. The old Cold War liberal-conservative split over the propriety of U.S. intervention against Communist or Marxist regimes could be transcended on both the left and the neoconservative right by a resuscitated "anti-fascism" that would commit the United States to overthrowing tyrannical, totalitarian, well-armed nations that are unwilling to play by West-mandated rules when it comes to world politics or to their own internal political structures. Indeed, the new world order -- which is based, according to Bush, on the need for "fighting aggression and preserving the sovereignty of nations" -- is even more all-encompassing than the Cold War version of world-order politics, which merely sought to contain (or roll back) communism and Marxism-Leninism.

The Boer War Analogy

NEVERTHELESS, the new world order is not a basis for a sustainable post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy, not least because there is no consensus for post-Cold War globalism. Support for the Administration's Gulf policy was largely after the fact. On the eve of hostilities Americans were evenly divided about the advisability of using force against Iraq. And as a postwar Newsweek poll showed, notwithstanding the Gulf triumph an overwhelming majority of Americans believe that the United States should not be more willing in the future to use military power to solve international problems.

Some have suggested that the Gulf War has revived the historical debate between internationalists and isolationists. But the alternative to the kind of internationalism embodied in the new world order is not isolationism but national-interest realism -- a concept that, as Hans Morgenthau said, should, by putting American interests first, save the United States from both "moral excess and political folly." Realism's essence is that statesmen must be governed by what Max Weber called the ethic of responsibility: policies must be judged by their consequences, not by their intentions.

President Bush nicely illustrated the difference between world-order politics and realism when he told David Frost that no price is too high to achieve the new world order. But every realist knows that the means and ends of foreign policy must be proportionate; the interests at stake must be balanced against the consequences of pursuing them. Notwithstanding the Administration's grandiose rhetoric, the United States cannot afford to be a geopolitical Don Quixote, righting the world's wrongs. This is something that American internationalists seem not to understand. On the contrary America's triumph in the Gulf has caused them wildly to exaggerate U.S. power in world politics. In this sense the Gulf War poses the same question for the United States that the Boer War (1899-1902) raised for England: Does it confirm global preeminence or mask an ongoing decline in relation to emerging great powers?

The British Empire in 1900 sprawled across the globe and seemed to be at the apogee of power. Most Britons were optimistic about the nation's future, and there was even hope for a new world order based, in Zara Steiner's words, on "the vision of arbitration, international law and perpetual peace." In retrospect, we know that Britain's world dominance was an illusion and that the First World War was just around the corner. Britain was already suffering from what Paul Kennedy calls "imperial overstretch" -- involving a gap between strategic commitments and the willingness or ability to pay for them -- and its economic strength was eroding in relation to that of the United States and Germany.

Some British leaders, notably Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, recognized the predicament and sought, unsuccessfully, to restructure Britain's world role. The Boer War did cause some changes in Britain's diplomatic policy, and also led to much-needed military reforms. But after all, Britain won the war, and because no major setback dramatized the increasing precariousness of the country's world position, the underlying problems of strategic overextension and structural economic weakness went fundamentally untreated. This ultimately led to Britain's strategic nightmares of the 1930s and its rapid eclipse after the Second World War.

The Revivalists Get It Wrong

U.S. revivalists -- those who believe that America is resurgent after the Gulf War and who reject the thesis that American power has declined from a peak that occurred at the end of the Second World War -- have misperceived America's geopolitical situation as badly as turn-of-the-century optimists misperceived Britain's. Addicted to America's post-1945 global leadership role, they have constructed a number of clever but unconvincing arguments to show that geopolitical primacy and the world-wide military commitments that go with it do not contribute to the relative decline of U.S. power. At first they contended that rather than America's having become weaker since the end of the Second World War, other nations have gotten stronger -- but that is precisely what relative decline is all about. Then revivalists argued that decline was an illusion because America was never "hegemonic" -- but since power in world politics is always relative, not absolute, not even the strongest powers get their way all the time. Revivalists also like to point out that most of America's relative economic decline occurred from 1945 to 1973, that America's post-1945 economic predominance was exaggerated by the "Second World War effect," and that America's present share of world product approximates its "normal" (1938) share (about 25 percent). Although this is true as far as it goes, it overlooks the fact that Washington's core global commitments (Western Europe, Japan, South Korea) were assumed when U.S. power was at its zenith, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when America was responsible for half the world's manufacturing output. Moreover, beginning in the 1980s U.S. strategic obligations actually expanded (notably in the Persian Gulf), even though America's relative economic power had already contracted.

The latest revivalist argument holds that the United States can easily afford both an ambitious international-security role and extensive social spending, because defense spending's share of the GNP is declining. It is true that defense spending is consuming a smaller share of America's GNP, but this misses two key points.

First, the United States has consistently invested a far greater share of its GNP in defense than have economic powerhouses like Germany and Japan (and, unsurprisingly, there is a strong correlation between low defense spending and high national-productivity gains). And second, the cumulative effect of investing resources in defense rather than in the more productive civilian sector has damaged the U.S. economy. Those who believe that the United States can, as Joseph S. Nye, Jr., has said, afford both domestic welfare and international security, fail to acknowledge the tremendous increase in the overall burdens on the American economy since 1938, the baseline year. Defense spending was then 1.5 percent of GNP; today it is 5.5 percent. Domestic spending was then only 5.4 percent of GNP; today it is 14.3 percent. Revivalists suggest that Americans are undertaxed and should pay more to preserve global U.S. commitments. But total federal, state, and local receipts in 1989 amounted to 30.3 percent of GNP, as against 16 percent in 1939.

Revivalists have turned "decline" into an epithet, and they see the Gulf War as a confirmation of their triumph over the so-called "declinists." But revivalists have failed to demonstrate that America enjoys a special exemption from history. The United States faces the same dilemma that confronted earlier great powers: the dominant world role is made possible by a thriving economy, but as the costs of international dominance rise, an increasing share of national resources must be invested in maintaining world-power status rather than in economically productive endeavors. The paradoxical effect is that the pursuit of global primacy undermines the economic foundation upon which primacy rests.

The Fleeting "Unipolar Moment"

AMERICAN internationalists need to rethink the definition of superpower status in the post-Cold War world. They should begin by remembering that at the turn of the century the struggle for world economic leadership -- and hence geopolitical leadership -- was, in the words of the military historian Corelli Barnett, largely "lost in the school yards and quadrangles of Britain." Unless U.S. imperial overstretch is acknowledged and corrected, the United States may someday soon find that it has become a Potemkin village superpower -- with a facade of military strength concealing a core of economic weakness. The Persian Gulf has shown that the transformation may already be occurring. After all, real superpowers do not have to beg their allies to finance their overseas military expeditions.

Nevertheless, revivalists claim that the United States is "bound to lead" in "organizing collective action," because if it does not, "no one else will." The Gulf War, they say, proves that the world is not multipolar, because Germany and Japan have been revealed as "one-dimensional" superpowers (that is, economic superpowers only). But this "unipolarism" is based on a flawed revivalist definition that confers superpower status only on nations with overseas military commitments. The real measure of superpower status is a nation's combined score on size of population and territory, resource endowment, economic and technological capability, military strength, and political stability and competence. By this standard the world is, or soon will be, fully multipolar, with Germany and Japan joining the United States and the Soviet Union (or Russia) as great powers.

When all is said and done, revivalists deny multipolarity's nascent reality simply because they find distasteful its implications: diminished U.S. influence (by definition, the only superpower in a unipolar world carries more weight than one great power among several in a multipolar world) and the risk that the new great powers might follow independent foreign policies, form rival trade blocs, or act "irresponsibly." Revivalists think that the United States can "contain" Germany and Japan while simultaneously using its military power to extract economic concessions from U.S. allies -- notwithstanding that this tactic has never proved successful. It didn't stop Germany's Ostpolitik, which began in the 1960s; restrict Western European trade with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe during the Cold War; force Japan to open its markets; or prevent the recent GATT talks from collapsing owing to European intransigence. Now that the Cold War is over, other nations will be even less willing to pay an economic price for U.S. military protection, because American security guarantees are far less important.

The foreign-policy establishment's belief that America is "bound to lead" creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. As long as other nations believe that the United States will do the hard work of defending their interests, they are tempted to sit back and let it do so. The absence of Germany and Japan from the Gulf did not mean that the world is not (or is not rapidly becoming) multipolar; it simply showed that those countries are playing the world political game more ably than the United States. The logic of a U.S. world-order policy is clear: other nations get rich by investing their resources in economically productive activities, but Americans get to risk death and impoverishment protecting other nations' interests. In this sense American "leadership" in the Persian Gulf crisis is a damning indictment of the foreign-policy establishment's failure to adjust to new international realities, and it shows just how far present-day revivalists have strayed from America's postwar realist tradition. After all, the long-term goal of men like George Marshall and George Kennan (and other realists, such as Dwight Eisenhower, Robert Taft, and Walter Lippmann) was to restore a functioning multipolar balance of power so that the United States could free itself from its crushing global responsibilities by devolving them to other great and regional powers.

A Balancer Strategy

IRONICALLY, the inevitable backlash against America's proclamation of the "unipolar moment" will hasten the final transformation of the international system to multipolarity. President Bush may now, after the Gulf War, believe that the United States "has a new credibility and that what we say goes," but other nations get very nervous when they hear such talk. With the Soviet Union on the sidelines geopolitically, other nations will see a unipolar America as the main threat to their autonomy and interests. As the elder statesman Paul Nitze has pointed out, the new world order -- together with the unipolar notion from which it is derived -- is harmful to American interests, because it will cause other nations to direct their balancing behavior against the United States. This should not be a surprise. Since the modern state system emerged, unipolarity has never been more than momentary; when it seems to be imminent, nations typically combine to check the power that is striving for predominance. In world politics, in other words, unipolar moments never last. In the aftermath of the Gulf crisis fear is already widespread in the Soviet Union, Europe, Japan, and the Third World that America is now excessively powerful. And in Germany and Japan serious national debates have begun about the need for those nations to assume their world responsibilities fully and to acquire such instruments of national power as will put them on an equal footing with the United States.

World politics is never "normal." Unwanted or unanticipated events -- war, aggression, crisis, and instability -- are facts of international life. The issue is how the United States should react to such events. In a balancing world, modesty in actions and aspirations should be America's foreign-policy watchword. Because few external events pose an immediate danger to the United States, it can usually afford to react deliberately to events -- to wait and see if a potential threat becomes a real one. Therefore, in the post-Cold War world, instead of being the world's policeman the United States should strive to play the balancer's role -- encouraging the formation of anti-hegemonic coalitions, supporting them financially (which means that Washington must first clean up its fiscal mess), assisting them logistically (for example, by transporting an ally's troops to a hot spot), but only rarely providing them with direct military aid (and then for the most part limiting it to air and naval support).

A balancer strategy would turn on a simple truth: other nations have at least as much interest in secure sea lanes, economic stability access to raw materials, and regional stability as does the United States -- and often more. The less the United States does militarily, and the less others expect it to do, the more other nations will do to help themselves. Thus a balancer strategy -- the foundation of Britain's successful eighteenth-and nineteenth-century diplomacy -- aims at burden-shifting, not burden-sharing; that is, at forcing others to take the primary responsibility for defending common interests. Cardinal Richelieu, the great French statesman, pointed out to Louis XIII the inherent advantages of the balancer's role: "A singular prudence" had enabled Richelieu, acting on the King's behalf, "to occupy the forces of the enemies of your state by those of your allies, putting your hand to your purse rather than your arms, and entering into open warfare only when your allies could no longer subsist alone." The Germans and Japanese clearly understand what Richelieu was talking about, even if Washington does not.

America is not bound to lead a new world order. American internationalists have never understood that because of the interlocking factors of geography, nuclear weapons, and still-impressive great-power capabilities, the United States has choices that other nations lack. Since the end of the Second World War, most recently in the Gulf, the United States has chosen to exaggerate minor threats to its security (the 1930s analogy) and to equate its safety with the maintenance of world order. Such a policy is the prerogative of an extremely powerful nation. But this kind of foreign policy has real costs, and relative decline means that America's margin for error has narrowed. Nevertheless, U.S. foreign policy has remained wedded to outdated, faulty assumptions about the nature of international relations. The real issue facing the U.S. foreign-policy community, is this: Is the Persian Gulf crisis the Cold War's final installment, or will Washington continue to be guided by the mythology of an earlier era? Before American policy can adjust to a changing world, however, American policy-makers need to adjust the way they think about world politics. The Gulf crisis is proof that old ways of thinking die hard.

Copyright © 1991 by Christopher Layne. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; July 1991; Why the Gulf War Was Not in the National Interest; Volume 268, No. 1; pages 54 - 81.

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