George Ball on the Middle East

When Iraq invaded Kuwait, the situation seemed urgent. American representatives had shown King Fahd and his Saudi advisers communications intercepts which indicated that Iraq might he intending to continue its predatory sweep to the Saudi oil fields. Since the Saudis by themselves would not be able to stop them, the King reluctantly decided to invite American help. That help was provided, but initially with only a limited objective: to protect Saudi Arabia and avoid what could become a dangerous monopoly of the world’s oil resources.

As the situation evolved in further discussions at the UN Security Council, the objective of intervention was gradually reformulated. No longer was it a question simply of defending the Saudis. The crass lexicon of power politics gave way to a more abstract and thus nobler level of justification: the need now was to halt ‘aggression’ as that term is employed in the United Nations Charter. This new purpose found expression in 12 far-reaching resolutions which the Security Council adopted in the following few weeks. The first confirmed that Iraq’s move against Kuwait had indeed constituted an ‘aggression’ – a finding which made available the enforcement machinery outlined in Chapter Seven of the UN Charter. As a first step in activating that machinery, the Council authorised a trade and financial embargo against Iraq.

Anxious to build emotional support for his policies, the President undertook to demonise Saddam Hussein, while also personalising the conflict to such an extent that it looked like a slanging match between a cartoon figure named Saddam and another named Bush. At the same time Secretary of State Baker, with his instinctive concern for domestic political approval, publicly stated that the purpose of American intervention was simply ‘jobs’.

Mindful of the need to persuade the voters to support the huge troop deployments he apparently already had in mind, the President seemed to feel it essential to generate in them a virulent hatred of the opposition. That effort led many thoughtful Americans to question whether a democracy could ever conduct a limited war. If it was necessary to indulge in hyperbolic denunciations so as to get the people to fight, a leader, carried away by his own rhetoric, might easily end up going far beyond his original objectives in order to justify his vituperation. Sure enough, it soon appeared from what Bush was implying that America dared not content itself with anything other than the death of Saddam Hussein, or at least his removal from power. That inspired a futile and demeaning press discussion as to whether the Government ought to modify its settled policy forbidding the assassination of other nations’ leaders.

Although passionate fulmination is the enemy of legality, it was finally called to the President’s attention that all the Security Council had authorised was the enforcement of its resolutions: for the Council to sanction any action to change the Iraqi leadership would represent interference in internal affairs of a kind firmly excluded by the Charter. At the same time the reaction to the President’s demagogic statements was so adverse that he hastened to restore the case for America’s involvement to a higher plane by reverting to the vital need to halt ‘aggression’.

Despite this new higher tone, the issue of oil continued to intrude in the public discussion. Although oil was something all Americans could understand, its significance as an issue ultimately depended on the prejudices of the individual interpreter. On the one hand, oil gave a grubby reality to America’s decisions; on the other, it detracted from the purity of the American intention.

Questions of motivation apart, the events that led to the war were unambiguous. To enforce the trade and financial embargo, the Bush Administration organised a formidable coalition of both Arab and Western powers. Many hoped – and even assumed – that the President would thereafter try one by one to exhaust the whole list of non-violent measures set out in the United Nations Charter before resorting to military force. They also assumed that when he promised to move the nations to ‘a new world order’ he intended to use the UN machinery to shape his grand design.

Rumblings from the White House soon revealed a shift towards unilateralism. By November, the President began to express doubts that an economic embargo alone would secure full compliance with the Council’s resolutions. Instead, he implied, the Coalition should back its economic enforcement efforts with the threat of military intervention, and his actions made it clear that he considered a visible deployment of military might essential to give credibility to that threat. As soon as the Security Council authorised its members to use ‘all necessary means’ to achieve the enforcement of its resolutions, he ordered a doubling of America’s already huge deployment. This immediately complicated the issue. In the view of military leaders, a deployment of roughly half a million men and women rendered the system of rotating military personnel impracticable. Yet to retain such a huge complement of men and women under desert conditions for the indefinite period required to test the full efficiency of economic sanctions would, they felt, impose too much hardship. Since the feasibility of alternative strategies has now been made moot by the rapid conclusion of the war, that contentious issue can be left for future scholars. Yet victory need not preclude an honestly-faced regret that the experts were denied the chance to test the effectiveness of enforcement measures in a situation almost ideally designed for their use.

Similarly, the fact that the strategy finally adopted largely achieved its purpose should not discourage us from reflecting on the consequences of America’s national impatience, which prevented us from testing the potential of Article 43 of the Charter. This provides for the creation of a true United Nations force flying the blue flag and operating through an international chain of command. By failing to avail ourselves of that provision we created at least the appearance of a Pax Americana, since it was the United States rather than the Security Council which took the key decisions.

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