The Gulf Crisis

George Bush
George Bush; drawing by David Levine


With the end of the cold war and the onset of the Gulf crisis, the United States can now test the validity of the Wilsonian concept of collective security—a test which an automatic Soviet veto in the Security Council has precluded for the past forty years.

The administration first began such a test when, on August 2, the day of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, it successfully sponsored a Security Council resolution finding that invasion “a breach of international security.” That finding met the formal precondition for invoking the mandatory enforcement machinery of Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter.

Then, without waiting for that machinery to take effect, the administration responded to an urgent Saudi request for help by deploying forces under the asserted authority of Article 51 of the Charter, which reserves the right for nations to take actions of “individual or collective self-defense…until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.”

The administration maintained that juridical position only briefly; it quickly found that it could enlist the support of other nations only by following the carefully calibrated step-by-step arrangements provided by Articles 39 through 42 of the Charter. So, redefining its procedural grounds for action, it joined with other Security Council members to obtain resolutions nullifying the annexation of Kuwait, demanding the freeing of foreign nationals, calling for economic sanctions as an enforcement measure, and if those sanctions proved ineffective, even authorizing member states to use limited military force.

Although the administration’s activities up to this point were beyond reproach, our government now made what, in my view, was the first of two tactical errors. In moving to defend Saudi Arabia it should have avoided the impression that the enterprise was primarily an American project. Presumably the President was so impressed by fear of an imminent Iraqi move toward the Saudi oil fields that he seems to have given a free hand to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As might have been expected, they did what came naturally.

Keenly aware that they were more likely to be blamed for positioning inadequate forces than for providing an excess of force, the Joint Chiefs displayed spectacular speed, putting in place in three weeks forces and equipment equivalent to those America in 1950 had taken three months to deploy in South Korea.

To many experts outside the government that vast armada seemed excessive. America, they thought, could have halted the extension of Iraq’s aggression by maintaining its naval blockade, deploying at least two aircraft carriers with planes equipped for heavy bombing, and limiting ground deployments in Saudi Arabia to probably not more than an armored brigade—a headquarters plus five battalions, or a total (including support personnel) of little more than five thousand men.

Such a collection of forces, air, sea, and ground, should have been sufficient to halt any further Iraqi adventure toward the Saudi oil fields…

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