Soviet Invasion Of Iraq Essay

The near seventy-year history of the Soviet Union is one dominated by its tradition of foreign military interventions that spanned most of its existence and stretched geographically from Krakow to the Kuril Islands. Within this trajectory, the Soviet invasion of, and subsequent war with Afghanistan (1979-1989) stands out in particular, as a lasting legacy of the Cold War. Globally, its outcome continues to plague international society in the current struggle between the Western liberal democratic order and Islamic extremism. Domestically, the remains of the war have rendered the nation’s political institutions, economy and society fragile, and transformed Afghanistan into a battlefield for factional rivalries and a breeding ground for religious fundamentalism. As a rooted historical understanding of the war is necessary to contextualize the struggles from the region that dominate our contemporary international affairs, the very nature of the event’s historiography has evolved over time. Previously, it was commonplace among scholars to examine the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan within the Cold War framework: the USSR invaded foreign nations in the name of socialist internationalism, prestige and with the objective to thwart their Western enemies. However, this assessment failed to acknowledge the nuances of the Soviet decision-making process and account for those unique developments within the theatres of intervention. Contemporarily, a number of historians have analysed the events of the Cold War through a ‘pericentric lens’, which has shifted the scholarship from examining the events of the conflict from their ‘core’ – from the White House and the Kremlin – to the ‘periphery’. This scholarly shift reshapes our understanding of, and approach to Cold War dynamics through elaborating the interplay of a range of factors, and magnifying the intricacies of the Soviet and American decision-making processes.

The invasion of Afghanistan was the Soviet Union’s final foreign military intervention before its eventual dissolution in 1991. Soviet troops invaded Kabul on December 25th 1979, on order from Moscow to replace the radical Hafizullah Amin with the Soviet-endorsed Babrak Karmal as head of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. On December 31st, the Politburo announced, that by overthrowing Amin, they would ease the pace of Afghanistan’s communist revolution and thereby protect the communist (PDPA) regime from collapsing due to its domestic unpopularity, and thereby ceding to Islamist and Western forces. Although in hindsight this provides the justification surrounding Moscow’s decision, it gives little consideration of the concerns that drove the USSR to invade. Expanding upon those factors central to Soviet decision-making in 1979, this essay will argue that the Soviet decision to invade Afghanistan was foremost driven by the security concerns a rapidly weakening Afghanistan, vulnerable to Islamic extremism and Western encroachment, posed to the Soviet Union’s southern borders. As the attempts at negotiation and sending advisors had failed to stabilise the PDPA regime from collapse, and consequently facing an increasingly narrowing set of options, military intervention became the favoured alternative. Facilitating this decision was the threat of the ‘reversibility of communism’ pervading across fragile Third World socialist states like South Yemen, Ethiopia and Angola; the pressures imposed by the Ustinov-Gromyko-Andropov troika in Politburo decision-making, heightened by reports by on-ground Soviet staff and advisors who were increasingly involved in Afghan affairs; and the end of Détente framework following the rejection of the SALT II Agreement by the United States Congress.

In the aftermath of the Soviet invasion, a range of historians interpreted the invasion within the broader continuum of Russian and Soviet foreign Policy. Milan Hauner cited Russia’s inherent desire to control Afghanistan, stemming from the Great Game (1813-1907), through which they would have access into warm water ports and the Gulf oilfields. A.Z. Hilali similarly places the invasion within the trajectory of Soviet Union’s relationship with its satellites and emphasises Soviet prestige in sustaining its grip on client states. Matthew Ouimet broadens this analysis, pointing to Soviet ‘grand strategy’, which fuses Soviet national interests with those of left leaning states globally. Though these historians skillfully place the invasion within the nature of Russian/Soviet foreign policy, they fail to distinguish Afghanistan from other Soviet interventions. Unlike Hungary (1956) or Czechoslovakia (1968), communism emerged independent of Soviet interference in Afghanistan, which until 1978 was neutral within the Cold War and peripheral to Soviet-American rivalry. Furthermore, the decision to invade was not immediate: the Kremlin faced the option to intervene in March 1979 – following the Heart Rebellion – to stabilise the domestic situation, but rejected that proposal and instead only intervened in December. Therefore, it is vital to bridge an understanding and elaborate on those short-term factors that caused this volte-face from March to December.

The invasion was a culmination of a process whereby the USSR became increasingly, and actively involved in Afghanistan’s domestic affairs after the PDPA regime emerged in 1978 and failed to procure widespread support for their socialist reforms. Following the Saur Revolution (27-28 April 1978) a Democratic Republic of Afghanistan emerged with Nur Muhhammad Taraki as Premier and PDPA General Secretary; Babrak Karmal as his deputy; and Hafizullah Amin as Foreign Affairs Minister.[1] The USSR, quick to recognise the DRA, was cautious in engaging with Afghanistan, given the Kremlin’s concerns over extent of political stability the PDPA would attain due to its lack of experience in Afghan politics. [2] In May 1979, Soviet ambassador Aleksandr Puzanov reported that the USSR would gradually set aside earlier reservations about the new regime and welcome the PDPA as comrades.[3] From its initiation, Taraki’s regime sought to engineer Afghanistan into a new era and transform it into a modern socialist nation.[4] However, the contrast between Marxist-Leninist ideology and the influence of cultural and religious traditions over Afghan society proliferated domestic popular backlash and rural opposition in reaction to the PDPA’s reforms. In spite of Puzanov’s recommendations to ease the reforms’s pace and preserve party unity between the rivaling Khalq and Parcham factions[5] as a bulwark to rural opposition,[6] the regime instead implemented land reforms and female literacy campaigns in early 1979. Moreover, Taraki purged Parchamites from cabinet, and subsequently dismissed Karmal from his post in July 1978 to strengthen the Khalq in government.[7] Opposition to the reforms gained momentum throughout the countryside, and culminated in the Herat Uprising in which rebels violently demonstrated against the PDPA.[8] Efforts to control the rebellion failed and instead military officers and soldiers defected and joined the rebels.[9] The Herat Uprising surfaced Soviet concerns over Afghanistan’s future; statesmen like Gromyko declared that “under no circumstances may [the USSR] lose Afghanistan”[10] at the March Politburo meeting. Moscow was convinced that neither Taraki nor Amin could control the deteriorating situation alone, and in consequence Moscow increased their on-ground advisors from 1000 in January to 5000 in August 1979, and delivered large quantities of weapons consisting of tanks and helicopter gunships.[11] The impact of the Herat Uprising was two-fold: it exposed the inherent failures of the PDPA regime and the scant popular appeal of its revolution, and marked a significant shift in Soviet policy toward Afghanistan. The USSR no longer solely sought a successful PDPA revolution, but became entrenched in Afghanistan’s domestic affairs to facilitate its stable socialist transformation.

The change in Soviet policy from sending advisors and being involved in Afghan affairs in March, to full-scale intervention in December, was the result of the narrowing of options available to the Politburo throughout 1979 as it failed to stabilise Afghanistan’s continually weakening domestic situation. Although the Politburo vetoed military intervention in March, under the premise that its involvement in Afghan affairs would stabilise the domestic situation, Amin continued to implement policies following his own agenda. Amin used the Herat Uprising to consolidate his own political position, in which he assumed Premiership on 27th March[12] and by July he took office as Defence Minister.[13] His increased power position reflected Afghanistan’s worsening domestic situation due to Amin’s fixation on implementing reforms rapidly. This alongside his ‘balanced’ foreign policy, in which Amin sought rapprochement with the US, China and Pakistan[14] sparked the Kremlin’s hostility toward his rule. They preferred Taraki as he retained close relations with the Soviets and was open to their advice on the pace of reforms. Having deployed Vasiliy Safronchuk and General Ivan Pavlosky as advisors to Kabul to oversee and attempt to stabilise the political situation, Amin isolated Taraki by overthrowing pro-Taraki politicians in cabinet and retained his stance on the pace of reforms.[15] However, Amin’s power struggle piqued on September 16th in which he overthrew Taraki in a bloody coup d’état and subsequently assassinated Taraki on October 9th. This provided a critical turning point for the Soviet decision-making process and pushed the Kremlin to take firm action. With Amin as the sole ruler of Afghanistan he would continue his reforms at a radical pace, consequently proliferating domestic turmoil. Having seen the failure of their methods, and Amin’s resolute approach to the PDPA revolution, the Soviets were pushed to assert control over Afghanistan and replace Amin decisively in order to stabilise the country and safeguard the future of the Afghan revolution.

Trepidations over the regime that would overthrow the PDPA were central to the Politburo’s decision to invade Afghanistan. The Soviets feared that the proliferation of Islamism in reaction to the PDPA and their reforms would subvert the crumbling socialist regime and give rise to an anti-Soviet, Islamist Afghanistan on the Soviets’ southern border. As the PDPA initiated their early reforms, which sought to bring ethnic equality to rural tribes; cancel debts incurred by small farmers; and abolish bridal dowries in 1978[16], conservative landowners and clergymen who opposed reforms united against the government as the National Salvation Front.[17] The NSF actively opposed the PDPA and engaged in campaigns to overturn the course of their reforms. Though many Afghans would benefit from reforms, the PDPA’s ideological basis and their intention to reshape Afghanistan sharply conflicted with the religious and cultural structures inherent in Afghan society.  Contributing to this internal crisis was the support Pakistani General Zia ul-Haq gave to Islamist Afghans. The ISI endorsed Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his radical Islamist group, Hezbi-i-Islami to undermine and overthrow the PDPA, and armed them with supplies and the military resources necessary to achieve this.[18] Similarly, the land reform provoked the emergence of the National Islamic Front of Afghanistan led by Pir Sayed Gailani.[19] Though these different rebel groups rivaled one another, their opposition to the reforms united them against the PDPA, and their existence and active resistance discredited the Taraki-Amin regime.  PDPA rule decentralised under the autonomous rule of rebel groups and by September 1979 rebel formations were active in 25 out of 28 provinces, and controlled 17 of those provinces.[20]

Ultimately, Soviet fears that a weakened PDPA would succumb to internal subversion by these groups, and result in an Islamist Afghan regime accentuated the perceived need for intervention. These concerns heightened as the Iranian Revolution overturned the Shah and resulted in an anti-American Islamist state ruled by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.[21] Although historians like A.Z. Hilali argue that Islamism instigated Soviets alarm of Islamist spillover into their Central Asian Republics, which would disenfranchise Soviet rule,[22] examination of Soviet archival material suggests otherwise.[23] Instead, the Soviets feared that an Islamist Afghanistan would ally itself with Iran and Pakistan, and assert hostility toward the USSR due to Moscow’s association with the failed PDPA regime.[24] This outcome would weaken the Soviet’s southern border and encircle the USSR with hostile powers: China to the Southeast; Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan to the South; and the Western Bloc to the West.

The Kremlin’s security apprehensions intensified with intelligence of American counter-insurgency forces subverting the PDPA. Misgivings surrounding Soviet encirclement through external forces emerged after October as Soviet relations with Amin broke down. Once Amin overthrew Taraki, he engaged in a more balanced foreign policy whereby he engaged with America.[25]  In October, Amin signaled a distancing from the Soviets as his staff openly criticised Moscow in a meeting with other Ambassadors[26] and throughout November and December, the Soviets saw Amin make desperate attempts to establish relations with Pakistan.[27] Moscow consequently became increasingly suspicious of Amin and doubted his commitment to the USSR and socialism. The KGB accused him as a CIA agent and posthumously, Brezhnev denounced Amin as “an agent of American Imperialism.”[28] Although for the Soviets this led to direct intervention, Matthew J. Ouimet rightly contends that this simply justified Soviet intervention.[29] Nevertheless, until the Saur Revolution, Afghanistan maintained a neutral Cold War policy and engaged in friendly relations with both the USA and the USSR. It was equally in the Americans’ interests to stabilise the situation in Afghanistan to protect their Pakistani allies, as it had been in the Soviets’ to protect their southern border. However, the triumph of the Iranian Revolution, and presence of American warships in the Persian Gulf and the consequent speculation over an American attack on Iran intensified threat of similar American counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan.[30] It would serve to both contain Afghan Islamism, and then to make Afghanistan a base by which to later invade Iran, and thereby stabilise the Gulf region. American encroachment – like Islamism – would geopolitically isolate the Soviet Union and would also foster a situation in which the American missiles would point up at the USSR as experienced with Turkey in the 1950s. The Soviets calculated that by invading Afghanistan, they could safeguard their border from American encroachment and depose Amin to stabilise the deteriorating domestic situation in the country. Therefore, the decision to intervene was made on the basis of a calculus that a failure to do so would facilitate Islamist or American encroachment on the Soviets’ southern border.

However, Islamism and Western Encroachment alone did not compel the Politburo to pursue action.  KGB officers on the ground in Afghanistan heightened the perceived security threat that these two factors posed to the Soviets, thus fostering a feeling that full-scale invasion was needed. Since the 1950s, the KGB had been active in Afghanistan, building a covert station there, making contact with local communists and becoming versed in Afghan politics.[31] The Politburo depended upon these officers to assess the Afghan situation as they did on the growing PDPA crisis. However, having been ‘localised’ in Afghan affairs, the KGB invested much of its financial and political capital in the Parcham. Therefore, once Taraki exiled Karmal from the government and Amin overthrew Taraki in his coup, the KGB reported to the Politburo that “the situation in Afghanistan could be saved only by the removal of Amin from power” and his replacement by Karmal and his Parcham colleagues.[32] To achieve this, in November, the KGB brought Karmal to Moscow to plan to oust Amin and set up a new Parcham government.[33]

Faced with resistance from the military bureaucracy that argued against intervention, thus influencing the Politburo against invading in March, the KGB staff played on Soviet security concerns to achieve their aims. KGB reports exaggerated the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and consistently championed that the only plausible action was intervention. The KGB alleged that Amin was a CIA agent and supported their claims with confirmations from Afghan secret police chief – a long time KGB contact – Assadullah Sarwari who had leveled this accusation against Amin since 1967.[34] Concerns over Western encroachment in Afghanistan were matched with exaggerated KGB reports on increases in Mujahedeen control across Afghanistan’s provinces and the increasing influence wielded by Pakistan and China having armed insurgent groups like Hizbi-i-Islami.[35] Although Moscow deployed senior Soviet officials to provide a secondary assessment of the situation, those officials sent reports contradicting the KGB[36], exacerbating the Politburo’s Afghanistan dilemma. Ultimately Moscow trusted the KGB reports as Afghanistan rapidly deteriorated after Amin’s take-over because those officials, unlike the KGB, were, as Braithwaite contends, “men with little or no experience” in Afghanistan.[37] The on-ground KGB staff’s ability to expose and heighten the threat Islamism and Western Encroachment posed on Soviet security induced the fear and panic necessary in the Politburo by which they agreed that only decisive action could resolve Afghanistan’s situation.

Ultimately, the decision was taken by the Dmitriy Ustinov (Defence Minister), Andrei Gromyko (Foreign Minister) and Yuri Andropov (KGB Chairman) ‘troika’, which dominated the decision-making process whereby invasion was sanctioned as they controlled the key foreign policy institutions.[38] Preoccupations with Soviet security and ideology resonated in reports sent by the KGB whereby they championed the decision to invade Afghanistan. The trio feared that the failure to act would instead permit the emergence of a new regime that would ultimately encircle, and confront the Soviets with a hostile power on their Southern border.[39] Such a situation would mirror the years before the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which America encroached on the USSR’s western border in deploying Jupiter missiles to Turkey. Although these fears were contingent, Gibbs rightly asserts that such ‘old-school’ perceptions of rivalry influenced decision-making.[40] Andropov served as Ambassador to Hungary during the Hungarian Revolution (1956) and convinced Khrushchev to intervene militarily.[41] Brezhnev too, viewed the spiraling situation in Afghanistan from the same decision-making lens as in the Prague Spring (1968): that it was necessary to restore order to preserve socialist rule.[42] Furthermore, he saw Afghanistan within the framework of the larger Cold War struggle: the failure of the PDPA in Afghanistan would expose the ‘reversibility of socialism’ and threaten those other politically fragile socialist Third World nations like South Yemen, Ethiopia and Angola.[43] However, as Afghanistan alongside these states were never within the Soviet sphere, prestige did not directly influence Brezhnev. Rather, it heightened the security threat and necessitated invasion to safeguard the socialist model to protect Soviet borders from being confronted by adversaries.

Therefore, the decision-making process within the troika also determined the decision to invade, achieved primarily through the troika’s manipulation tactics within the Politburo. Andropov supported KGB claims of Amin’s Western links by confirming that the CIA recruited Amin while studying in America. Andropov simultaneously ignored conflicting reports that underplayed the domestic situation’s deterioration.[44] Similarly, Ustinov championed intervention, asserting that anything other than a military invasion would “seriously alter the military-strategic situation in the region” to the detriment of Soviet security.”[45] Furthermore, to sanction intervention, this trio regularly silenced those Politburo voices against intervention.[46] The troika’s influence on Soviet decision-making ultimately shaped the final decision to invade. Brezhnev was confident to pursue intervention, as it appeared to be the only effective way the USSR could both safeguard the PDPA from increasing threats and protect their own Southern border.

The demise of détente in 1979 and the stable security framework détente set up for the USA and the USSR provided the timing by which the Soviet Union could invade Afghanistan. Throughout the duration of Politburo meetings, Soviet decision-makers were concerned with the impact that any military action in Afghanistan would have on the USA and the damage it may make to the détente framework. As Ouimet explains, détente constrained the Soviets from acting as freely on the basis of upholding socialist internationalism like in Hungary or Czechoslovakia, to save a Third World communist coup.[47] As archival documents highlight, Brezhnev was strongly committed to détente and was concerned with American views of the Soviets had they intervened in Afghanistan immediately after the Herat Uprising.[48]

Ultimately, the end of détente limited the potential strain on Soviet-American relations, which consequently made it easier for the Soviets to choose intervention. Brezhnev and Carter were still negotiating SALT II throughout 1979[49] and it could have been seen as hypocritical for the Soviets to invade Afghanistan while simultaneously discussing limiting their armaments stockpiles. Nevertheless, as the United States Congress failed to ratify SALT II in July 1979, the Soviets were freed from this binding security framework. While some historians claim that the deployment of Pershing II missiles in Europe in December 1979 pushed the Soviets intervene due to its unsettling effect on the otherwise stable European balance, the missile deployment and the Soviet decision occurred on the same day.[50] Moreover, the information lag time from Soviet agents to Moscow limited the likely impact deployment would have had on Moscow. Therefore, by December, with détente no longer constraining Soviet policy, the Politburo ratified the decision for a full-scale invasion.

In conclusion, the decision to invade Afghanistan was the result of an intertwined set of concerns and interests within Moscow. The political crisis within Afghanistan threatened the survival of the PDPA regime, and simultaneously gave way to rising Islamism and the potential for Western encroachment. Crucially, in either scenario, the Soviets would face a hostile power encircling their southern border, thus posing a major threat to their security. Although the Kremlin reached such a realisation by March, following the Herat Uprising, it was the limiting of alternative options between March and December that compelled the Soviets to choose a military approach to Afghanistan. Although this was the major reason behind the Soviet’s decision to invade Afghanistan in 1979, a number of other factors exacerbated or accelerated this underlying process. Notably, trusted field KGB staff exploited Moscow’s security threats by exaggerating and distorting the true situation, whereby invasion would take place and satisfy their own vested interests in deposing Amin and replacing his rule with a Parcham-dominated cabinet, led by the much-favoured Karmal. Combined with the troika’s dominance of the Politburo decision-making process, the KGB agents’ manipulation of other cabinet members and ability to play on Brezhnev’s ‘old school’ fears and perceptions of power and security, encouraged the final decision to intervene, which on an international level was also facilitated by the cotemporaneous demise of détente and its constraints on Soviet decision-making.


Braithwaite, Rodric. Afgansty: The Russians in Afghanistan, 1979-1989. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.

Galeotti, Mark. Afghanistan: The Soviet Union’s Last War. London: Frank Cass, 2001. Print.

Garland, Nicholas. Hammer & Crescent. 1980. British Cartoon Archive, The Daily Telegraph 3 Jan. 1980: 41. Print.

Garthoff, Raymond L.. . Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1994. Print.

Gibbs, David N.. “Reassessing Soviet Motives for Invading Afghanistan: A Declassified History.” Critical Asian Studies 38.2 (2006): 239-263. Print.

Girardet, Edward R.. Afghanistan: The Soviet War. Abingdon: Routledge, 2012. Print.

Giustozzi, Antonio. War, Politics, and Society in Afghanistan, 1978-1992. Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2000. Print.

Hauner, Milan. The Soviet War in Afghanistan: Patterns of Russian Imperialism. Lanham: University Press of America, 1991. Print.

Hilali, A.Z.. “The Soviet Decision-Making for Intervention in Afghanistan and its Motives.” The Journal of Slavic Military Studies 16.2 (2003): 113-144. Print.

Kakar, M. Hasan. Afghanistan: The Soviet Invasion and the Afghan Response, 1979-1982. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. Print.

Kalinovsky, Artemy. “Decision-Making and the Soviet War in Afghanistan: From Intervention to Withdrawal.” Journal of Cold War Studies 11.4 (2009): 46-73. Print.

Mitrokhin, Vasili, and Christopher M. Andrew. The World was Going our Way: The KGB and The Battle for the Third World. New York: Basic Books, 2005. Print.

Ouimet, Matthew J.. The Rise and Fall of the Brezhnev Doctrine in Soviet Foreign Policy. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. Print.

Saikal, Amin, Melvyn P. Leffler, and Odd Arne Westad. The Cambridge History of the Cold War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Print.

Urban, Mark. War in Afghanistan. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. Print.

Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “Documents on Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan.” Cold War International History Project e-Dossier 4 (2001): 128-184. Print.

Primary Source Documents From Documents on Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan e-Dossier 4 By Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (In Chronological Order):

Document 1: “Political Letter from USSR Ambassador to Afghanistan A. Puzanov to Soviet Foreign Ministry, ‘About the Political Situation in the DRA’”, 31 May 1978

Document 2: “Record of Conversation, Soviet Ambassador A.M. Puzanov and Taraki”, 18 June 1978

Document 6: “Transcript of CPSU CC Politburo Discussion on Afghanistan”, 17-19 March 1979

Document 30: “Gromyko-Andropov-Ustinov-Ponomarev Report to CPSU CC”, 29 October 1979

[1] Urban (1990), 7-8

[2] Hilali (2003), 114

[3] Document 1 in CWIHP (2001), 133

[4] Giustozzi (2000), 9

[5] The Khalq (led by Taraki and Amin) were a faction within the PDPA formed by Pashtuns of non-elite classes, while the Parcham (led by Karmal) comprised of middle and upper class socialists. The two factions differed on their approach toward socialism: the former advocated a radical transformation, while the latter championed a gradual process.

[6] Document 2 in CWIHP (2001), 134

[7] Urban (1990), 19-20

[8] Galeotti (2001), 7

[9] Urban (1990), 30

[10] Document 6 in CWIHP (2001), 137

[11] Urban (1990), 32

[12] Urban (1990), 29

[13] Ibid., 36

[14] Hilali (2003), 115

[15] Kakar (1997), 35

[16] Galeotti (2001), 6

[17] Urban (1990), 17

[18] Saikal (2010), 127

[19] Urban (1990), 28

[20] Giustozzi (2000), 6

[21] Saikal (2010), 114

[22] Hilali (2003), 130

[23] Document Collection in CWIHP (2001)

[24] Document 6 in CWIHP (2001), 141

[25] Galeotti (2001), 11

[26] Braithwaite (2011), 71

[27] Garthoff (1994), 1027

[28] Girardet (2012), 27

[29] Ouimet (2003), 92

[30] Ibid., 93

[31] Hauner (1991), 88

[32] Kakar (1997), 50

[33] Mitrokhin et al. (2005), 398

[34] Garthoff (1994), 1026

[35] Ibid., 1027

[36] Braithwaite (2011), 61

[37] Ibid., 75

[38] Kalinovsky (2009), 49

[39] Document 30 in CWIHP (2001), 158

[40] Gibbs (2006), 255

[41] Mitrokhin et al. (2005), 398

[42] Hilali (2003), 119

[43] Ibid., 123

[44] Braithwaite (2011), 77

[45] Ouimet (2003), 93

[46] Kalinovsky (2009), 50

[47] Ouitmet (2003), 92

[48] Document 6 in CWIHP (2001), 143

[49] Garthoff (1994), 1039

[50] Kalinovsky (2009), 50


Written by: Uday Rai Mehra
Written at: The London School of Economics and Political Science
Written for: Odd Arne Westad
Date written: May 2014


Editor’s Summary: For a long time after the 1991 war over Kuwait, that event seemed to mark a turning point in the region, along with such contemporary developments as the Soviet Union’s collapse, the Cold War’s end, and the Madrid conference’s commencement of direct Arab-Israeli peace negotiations. A decade after the fighting, however, the changes seem to have been more limited or perhaps relatively temporary ones. This article tries to assess what has and has not changed in the Middle East during the decade since the Kuwait crisis.    

How did the 1990-1991 Kuwait crisis and the ensuing war affect Arab politics and polities during the decade that followed?

Addressing this question during the years between 1991 and 2000 might well have produced an analysis seeing that Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and subsequent defeat–along with several other contemporaneous events–as a turning point in Middle Eastern history. Those additional developments included the Soviet Union’s collapse, the Cold War’s end, and the emergence of the United States as the world’s sole superpower.

By seizing and annexing Kuwait, Iraq had shown a disregard for its neighbors’ sovereignty so great that it provoked the near-unanimous condemnation of Arab states to the point that they backed a war to expel its presence.  Moreover, they allied with the non-Arab (and often harshly criticized) United States in this conflict. Egypt and Syria sent troops, and the Arab world endorsed tough sanctions against the Iraqi regime. Each of these steps was unprecedented.

Clearly, such steps were provoked by powerful motives. In the case of Kuwait and the other Gulf monarchies, there was a clear and rational fear that Iraq might well extinguish their independence altogether and loot their assets. For other Arab states, notably Egypt, Iraq posed a threat to seize the leadership of the Arab world and to involve it in new and ultimately disastrous adventures. A few countries–like Jordan and Yemen, as well as the PLO–supported Iraq, and Saddam Hussein’s case had some real appeal for the Arab masses. But Saddam’s popularity seemed threatening to other Arab leaders. Indeed, it appeared to endanger their survival just as much as did his aggressive behavior.(1)

In response to these trends and events, it seemed as if an era of pragmatism and moderation was developing in the region. Features of this shift appeared to include:

–A decline in Pan-Arab nationalism.

–Increasing political differences among Arab countries and their legitimacy as individual nation-states, including willingness to take steps in their own interests even if it broke with the previous Arab consensus and ideology.

–An increasing willingness of moderate Arab (especially Gulf Arab) states to work closely with Washington,

–Some discernible progress toward more open societies, stronger civil societies, and democratization.

–The weakening of radical regimes and their isolation from each other as well as within the region as a whole.

–The hope that Syria would join the moderate camp.

–The expectation that Iraq’s regime would remain isolated and weak, perhaps even falling from power.

–A successfully advancing Arab-Israeli peace process.

–The failure of radical Islamist movements to seize power or expand the revolutionary threats they posed to Arab governments.(2)

–A relevant, if non-Arab, factor was the growth of a reform movement in Iran which enjoyed support from an overwhelming majority of the population there. This possibility of a triumph for moderation in Iran would undercut the strength of Islamist, radical, anti-American, and anti-peace process forces in the Arab world as well.

–The need to take into account the military lessons of the 1991 war. On the one hand, this meant the relative obsolescence of the Arab armies which did not have high-technology arms, and on the other hand an increasing interest (though not necessarily success) in obtaining Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), especially missiles.(3) 

In this context, then, the Kuwait crisis created–or at least played an important part in–a major transition for the region.

By the year 2001, however, these hopes were thrown into question or even refuted. The most obvious of these problems was the collapse of the Israel-Palestinian and Israel-Syrian peace processes. While the details of these events can be debated and analyzed in many ways, the fundamental problem was the difficulty for Syria or the Palestinians in making peace with Israel even in the context of major and extensive Israeli concessions.

As important as this breakdown was, however, it was not an isolated occurrence. A number of other developments were increasingly clear during the period coinciding roughly with the tenth anniversary of the Gulf war in January 2001:

–The Arab-Israeli conflict was not fading from the scene as much as had been hoped. Especially important was the fact that moderate states were not ready to put pressure or even strong encouragement on Syria and the Palestinians to make a compromise agreement, even one based on meeting roughly 95 percent of their demands.

–The prospects for serious economic or political reform in Syria seemed to fade as new President Bashar al-Asad decided to follow many of the policies of his father and predecessor. He limited change and cracked down on dissent.(4)

–Individual nation-states were still wary of Pan-Arab nationalism’s appeal, limiting their own autonomy.

–Leaders took the safer, easier path of accepting and even intensifying public opinion on key issues, including Arab-Israeli relations. They made little attempt to change the views of the masses, which continued to accept many of the ideas that had held sway before 1990. It should be noted that public opinion is not an unchangeable force of nature but a also construct. With their sweeping control over public debate through the media, educational system, repression, and other means, Arab leaders have more control over this sector than do their counterparts in other countries. 

–In general, the tone of government propaganda and rhetoric, as well as a media highly influenced by the state, remained largely unchanged.

–Progress toward democracy or just the creation of a strong civil society remained extremely limited. Even Egypt cracked down on nonpartisan human rights groups and research centers that made mild criticisms of government policy.

–Weapons of Mass Destruction, especially missiles, proliferated in the region. Iraq and Iran were on the verge of obtaining nuclear weapons. In part, the choice of such arms was a response to the high cost of conventional weapons, as well as their being seen as a powerful means of projecting influence onto neighbors.

–While Moscow’s role remained far more limited than that of the historic Soviet Union, it began to return as a factor countering U.S. influence. This channel became particularly significant in the proliferation of weaponry and opposition to American sanctions on Iran and Iraq. In contrast to the Cold War era, Russia was usually more interested in profits than in political influence. By the same token, its military supply relationship with Syria was held up by that country’s inability to pay past debts.(5)

–The 1990-1991 anti-Iraq coalition was steadily weakened, with Russia, France, and China all opposing the sanctions on Iraq and some other U.S.-led efforts. On the Arab side, only low-level delegations were sent to the tenth anniversary celebration of Kuwait’s liberation and the event was not celebrated outside of Kuwait itself.(6)

–As sanctions weakened, Iraq reemerged both on the Arab political scene and in terms of successfully circumventing the sanctions. Thus, by the tenth anniversary of the war, President Saddam Hussein remained relatively unscathed and on the verge of a comeback. 

–Within non-Arab Iran, too, hopes for reform largely failed. President Muhammad Khatami, though elected by a large margin and given a big parliamentary majority, proved unwilling or incapable of leading a domestic movement for actual change. And Iran’s foreign policy remained as it had been before, supporting subversive and armed movements, as well as building long-range missiles and nuclear weapons.(7)

Thus, moderate regimes did not become more moderate; radical regimes remained hardline and grew in relative strength. Reform efforts failed, the Arab-Israeli peace process fell apart. The United States was unable to use its sole superpower status to win any longer-term gains, though the restriction of Iranian and Iraqi power during the 1990s was a real achievement.

Of course, the achievements of the postwar decade should not be neglected. Kuwait gained real peace and sovereignty. The U.S. role in the Middle East in general, and the Gulf in particular, was strengthened. Gulf stability was put on a stronger footing. Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty and the Arab-Israeli peace process was given its best chance in history, moving further from international conflict if not actually arriving at a negotiated solution.

Nevertheless, it could be said that much of the progress and change that had apparently followed the allied victory in 1991 had dissipated during the decade that followed.

Whether this was inevitable or not, and how this setback might have been avoided, is of course a matter for debate. It should be clear, though, that to attribute all these factors and more largely or solely to the failure to complete a final Israel-Palestinian peace agreement is highly erroneous, blocking any serious attempt to understand the region.

As a case study on these issues, let us first consider the issue of Gulf security, the situation closest to the Kuwait war’s experience and lessons. The Gulf strategic situation is a triangle in which two stronger sides–Iran and Iraq–confront a weaker and richer third grouping, the Arab monarchies. These states, all members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), include: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman. Historically, the United States played a secondary and outside, but increasingly vital, balancing role.(8)

British protection of the Gulf monarchies ended with that country’s withdrawal in 1971. During the 1970s, these kingdoms sought to preserve their security by appeasing radical Iraq. Iran’s Islamic revolution came to power in February 1979, ushering in a new stage in which Iran was now the threat and the GCC saw Iraq as its protector. Iraq invaded Iran in 1979, seeing that state as both a threat eager to spread Islamist revolution and as a weak enemy that could be easily defeated. To protect themselves from Iran, the GCC states also asked the United States to convoy their oil tankers. They also bought huge amounts of weaponry from the United States, though their forces were still nowhere near able to protect themselves solely by their own efforts.

The war ended with a nominal Iraqi victory in 1988. But Iraq had suffered huge economic losses during the fighting. Both as compensation and reward, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein sought Arab leadership and loot from the GCC states. In 1990, he occupied Kuwait. The GCC states had to turn to the United States to save them, which it did as the head of a coalition during the 1991 war.

Looking over this history from the vantage point of 1991, the GCC states could draw some important lessons from their experience:

1. Despite the rhetoric of Arab brotherhood and anti-Americanism, the GCC states knew that other Arab countries were more likely to subvert than to protect them. Consequently, they showed little interest in schemes for Egyptian and Syrian forces to be present to ensure their security. Their proper goal was to promote their own sovereignty, national identity, individual interests, and economic progress.

2. Having spent many years appeasing Iran and Iraq at various times, only to see the guard dog turn into a wolf threatening to blow their houses down, the GCC states seemed to prefer that both countries be deterred. In short, they wanted both Iran and Iraq to be kept isolated and militarily weak. On the U.S. policy side, this strategy came to be called “dual containment.”

     3. In contrast to their long practice of keeping the United States at arms’ length, the GCC states now viewed it as their protector, giving it unprecedented military access to the Gulf and to their own territory.(9)

These lessons from the Kuwait crisis and war largely governed GCC practices in the 1990s but eroded–at least points two and three–as the decade continued. It should be noted that the overwhelming majority of this decline took place during the period (1993-2000) when Arab-Israeli negotiations were generally progressing and hopes of an agreement were high.

The basis of this change, then, lay in local Gulf developments. Saddam Hussein still governed Iraq and defiantly rejected efforts to disarm or moderate him.(10) At the same time, the United States was unable to remove him or force him to change his policies. The international coalition that had defeated Iraq broke up, with Russia, France, and China taking the lead in rejecting tough action and urging a reduction in sanctions.

     In this context, the bottom line was that the GCC states knew that Saddam Hussein would survive and continue to threaten them. Meanwhile, they did not want to rely completely on U.S. backing, since this proved ineffective in ousting Saddam and–they worried–might not continue forever. Their poor understanding of American interests and motives, as well as the way its policies were formulated, enhanced their suspicion.

Overriding any apparent contradiction to this point, however, they also knew that the United States would continue to help them no matter what they did. In other words, the amount of U.S. protection they could expect would remain unchanged even if the GCC states provided no help in advancing the Arab-Israeli peace process, refused to support tough action against Iraq, and moved toward appeasement of Iraq or Iran. In general, this proved to be a correct assessment.

At the same time, in contrast to U.S. policy, several GCC states, especially Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, saw Iran as a potential ally against Iraq. They also expected that easing relations with Tehran would reduce that country’s threat to their security. Thus, the Saudis led in a successful campaign to improve GCC-Iran relations.(11)

In addition, fearing Saddam Hussein, the GCC states were unwilling to take stronger measures against him. With the partial exception of Kuwait, they accepted his reintegration into the Arab world. While public opinion played some role here, the main consideration was strategic. After all, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait remained most reluctant to remove sanctions on Iraq–facing the same basic structure of public opinion as the other GCC states–because their situation made them more vulnerable to his threat.

Still, the GCC states knew they would have to deal with Saddam Hussein’s regime in the future and often saw no point in making it any angrier with them. They could enjoy the fruits of sanctions that weakened Iraq and U.S. protection while also trying to reduce Iraqi antagonism.

In a sense, then, the GCC response to the United States strategy of dual containment was increasingly what might be called “triple insurance,” maximizing their potential backing (or reducing threats) from Iran, Iraq, and the United States whenever possible. Its three principles are:

–Improving relations with Iran so that it could balance Iraq.

–Appeasing or not antagonizing Iraq to reduce the likelihood that it would become an immediate threat.

–Seeking U.S. protection to keep both Iran and Iraq weak, while also deterring them from intimidating or attacking.(12)

Thus, a decade after the Gulf war, the old strategic triangle had reappeared. The GCC states relied on U.S. protection in addition to–rather than instead of–a policy including appeasement of both Iran and Iraq, while trying to use Iran to counterweigh Iraq. Rather than irreversibly changing the nature of Gulf strategic relations, the Kuwait crisis and war had opened another transient era within that framework. It had a temporary impact in most respects, though it also had a long-range effect in increasing both GCC mistrust of Iraq and dependence on U.S. help.

This basic model fits other aspects of the region as well. The events of 1990-1991 had a real effect on the area but did not bring about as much change as might have been expected earlier. Traditional models, though modified, reasserted themselves.

Each issue, of course, has a different history and interpretation. Following is a brief discussion of potential patterns and lessons emerging from the Kuwait crisis and their fate during the ensuing decade.


It could be argued that the 1990-1991 crisis demonstrated the dangers of Pan-Arab nationalism to Arab rulers. After all, this ideology was used by Saddam to legitimate his seizure of Kuwait as well as his broader ambition to subvert or subordinate all other Arab states. Millions of people throughout the Arab world accepted Saddam’s claims to regional leadership and supported his seizure of Kuwait.  This attitude was understandable. After all, if Arab countries should be cooperate as closely as possible and even be united into one state–an idea that achieved near official status, at least in public, throughout the Arab world–Iraq’s action was a proper and patriotic (in Pan-Arab terms) step.

In short, it became apparent that pan-Arab nationalism furnished a popular ideological cover for nation-state imperialism. By accepting and promoting such concepts, other Arab states and leaders were undermining their own freedom of action and even sovereignty. History had shown this political framework to be a formula for instability, mutual subversion, intervention, and conflict. At the same time, it had inhibited the development of democracy as well as economic or social development.

Consequently, during the 1990s it seemed as if Arab governments were acting more individualistically than ever before: forming alliances with the United States, moving toward peace with Israel, and pursuing other policies as it suited their interests. The fact that the moderate states no longer feared their radical neighbors also widened their freedom of actions.

By the turn of the millennium, however, the situation was returning to a status closer to its historic patterns. The return of Iraq to the Arab fold, the lack of criticism for Syria’s continued occupation of Lebanon, Arab willingness to subordinate their strategy to the decisions of Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, and other such moves showed the enduring appeal of Arab solidarity.

It should be emphasized that this process remained more verbal than practical. There was some increased wariness of Arab states toward their “brothers” and a far greater reluctance to take risks on their behalf than in earlier decades. For example, solidarity with the Palestinians evoked no specific governmental activities, not even financial contributions to their cause. Similarly, the GCC countries were not going to abandon their stronger connections with the United States. In Egypt and Jordan, peace with Israel as a policy–though not as an acceptable norm for the public and media–were accepted.

Still, the ideological constraints on individual states remained roughly–though arguably somewhat less–strong than they had been in the pre-1990 years. While this could be attributed to public opinion, or the Arab “street,” the fact was that this was a useful tool for governmental control and national solidarity. A country could be filled with impoverished people, plagued by corruption and government inefficiency, mired in undemocratic practices, and so on, but all these issues would disappear in an orchestrated passion on the Palestinian question. This is not to say that the emotional factor was not there, but it was no accident that this was the only issue where government “felt” itself required to “yield” to public sentiment. And that same sentiment was constantly fostered by the state-controlled media, educational system, officials’ statements, etc., to a fever pitch. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that this is virtually the sole issue on which the public or media is permitted to speak at all.

Implicitly, despite this persistent focal point, there was a long-term trend toward nation-state patriotism. By the year 2000, almost all the Arab states had around a half-century history of independence. They had built up their own economic and political patterns though culture–given the shared Arabic language–tended to flow more easily across borders. Each state, too, had its own geopolitical situation, allies, and enemies. Still, the differentiation among them remained more implicit than explicit, at least in terms of constraints on their foreign policy behavior.

Of course, nation-state self-interest had also been a major factor in Iraq’s seizure of Kuwait. Saddam Hussein’s goal was, after all, to strengthen Iraq, unite the country’s communities–the Kurds and Shia–which were less enthusiastic about his rule and to provide its citizens with additional resources. Kuwait’s resistance also drew from a sense of national self-assertion against an invader and brutal occupier. Still, in the Arab world a decade after the Kuwait war, nation-state patriotism was the political sentiment that dare not speak its name.


Did the Kuwait crisis and war suggest the need for domestic changes in Arab states? Cumulatively, the half-century culminating in the 1991 debacle had been a very bad era for Arab peoples and polities. A mere list of the problems and failures during these years would require several pages. The Arab countries had lagged behind many others in the pace of their economic development and social progress. They were, as a group, less democratic and more repressive. Few, if any, of their basic foreign policy goals had been achieved.

Consequently, a key question in evaluating this process is on whom to place the blame for all these shortcomings. Externalizing the Arab world’s problems–to attribute them to American (or Western) imperialism, Zionism, and local traitors serving these enemies–prevented the kind of reappraisal necessary to fix the internal factors at the root of the problems and catastrophes. Lacking such a real shift–and despite the fact that the political systems and ideologies had failed–meant that the domestic and international situations would not be solved or resolved.

The great majority of leaders, scholars, and journalists in both the West and the Middle East expressed real hope that such a process might happen in the aftermath of the Kuwait crisis. Perhaps an alternative model of thought and policy was possible. If the Soviet bloc had once provided a political and economic example for some Arab states, these mentors had now clearly failed on their own terms. Aside from the factor of massive oil income, progress or success was visibly lacking for the Arab world. It had not defeated or destroyed enemies, who seemed to grow stronger over time.

How would the Kuwaitis and Gulf Arabs generally maintain their support for an Arab nationalism which had almost destroyed their independence? Why would countries cling to systems that had failed so badly to redeem their promises except for their ability to keep incumbent governments in power? When much of the rest of the world was moving to democracy would the Arab world remain bogged down in dictatorships that were repressive at home and waged ruinous wars or continued confrontations abroad? Would anti-Americanism remain so deep and bitter when the United States had saved the Arab world from Iraq? Could the Palestinians sustain a half-century-long struggle in which they had derived no state for themselves and had failed to destroy Israel?

Yet ten years after the Kuwait war’s end, it was hard to see any major changes in how a single Arab state was being governed compared to the situation in 1990 or even in 1980, 1970, or 1960. There was no significant advance toward democracy anywhere, despite some small gains in the Gulf Arab states. Civil society remained extremely weak, with governments continuing to control or repress independent voices. Even the public debate over these issues was still quite staid compared to everywhere else in the world.

This is a remarkable outcome, even though it is generally taken for granted. Political systems that don’t work very well or fail to achieve their goals may be expected to be subject to change or at least to serious challenge. Policy premises that do not accord with external realities, thus producing real international failures, might be corrected or at least carefully reexamined.

Of course, the explanation is partly that the systems do function adequately in terms of keeping rulers in power and to maintain internal order.  Not a single coup or real regime change took place in the Arab world between 1990 and 2000 or, indeed, from 1980 either, with the exception of the peripheral states of Yemen and Sudan.(13) Moreover, the basic political concepts shaping Arab politics remain fundamentally popular, though this might in part be attributed to their reinforcement in state-controlled media and educational systems.

The picture, then, of a repugnant and repressive Iraqi dictatorship failing to meet its people’s needs, launching invasions of neighbors and generally disrupting the regional system–a view held in the West–has not become an effective political factor in promoting change in the Middle East.  The same result holds for democratic and economic reforms prevailing in many areas elsewhere in the world. Some, but surprisingly little, debate of this kind emerged in the aftermath of the Kuwait crisis and war.  


In thinking about foreign policy within the region, there are several issues put into a different light by the Kuwait crisis. One of these questions, Gulf security, has already been discussed as a case study, above. Other critical points affected by this event include the attitude of states toward Iraq; Israel and the Arab-Israeli peace process; and Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD).

Attitude toward Iraq

Why did the sense of threat from Iraq among many Arab states–though far less so for Saudi Arabia and Kuwait–fade over time despite the fact that the same leadership holding the same ambitions continued to rule there?  There are many different reasons for this trend.

To some extent, of course, such a process is natural and inevitable. Yesterday’s enemy may have strategic uses at a different time. New issues and problems crowd out older concerns or at least reduce them to a lower priority. Sustaining the same policy for even a decade can itself be seen as an impressive consistency. The foregoing of economic advantage to maintain the sanctions, the increased granting of basing facilities to the United States, and Jordan’s decision to receive leading Iraqi defectors–despite threats from Saddam Hussein–are all examples of Arab steadfastness in continuing to support the anti-Iraq coalition.

Other factors include the fact that Iraq’s defeat and continued military weakness made it seem far less threatening. At the same time, if Iraq were to be too hard-pressed and collapsed this outcome would have certain geostrategic disadvantages for some Arab states as well as furnishing a dangerous precedent for their own survival as regimes and as countries.

Moreover, since they understood that the United States would stand guard over them against any Iraqi threat and do the unpleasant work of containing Baghdad regardless of their own behavior, Arab governments knew they would lose nothing by giving rhetorical comfort to that regime. Moves by Gulf Arab monarchies toward detente with Iran were also steps toward trying to find an ally that would help preserve their sovereignty and deter any Iraqi aggression.

Equally, since the United States could not overthrow Iraq’s ruler and conceivably might fail to protect them from him in the future, Arab leaders also wanted to avoid antagonizing Saddam too much lest he take revenge on them some day. The Iraqi leadership carefully promoted this fear in order to encourage a return to past appeasement policies by Gulf Arab states, Jordan, and others.

In addition, several countries–notably Jordan and Syria–gained economically to an enormous extent by bypassing the sanctions. Iraq was determined to make such behavior worthwhile for them in terms of commercial benefits and low-cost oil.

While domestic public opinion also affected Arab governments, it was only in the framework of reinforcing all the points listed above. Factors here included feelings of Arab brotherhood, sympathy for the suffering of the Iraqi people (and not necessarily support for the regime), reassertion of familiar attitudes, anger at outsiders seen as victimizing Arabs.

The idea that Iraq might be helpful in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict was only one point among many in setting this trend. And even with all these factors, the movement toward rapprochement between the Arab world and Iraq was still slow and limited. It still took almost a decade to readmit Iraq to the top level of Arab League activity during the year 2000. And it was China, France, and Russia–and not Arab states–which took the lead in the anti-sanctions campaign.

At the same time, and despite the fact that Egypt, Jordan, and Syria took a friendlier attitude toward Iraq’s demands for an end to all sanctions, not all Arab states were ready to forgive Iraq for its past behavior. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait continued to insist that Baghdad must fulfill all UN resolutions before sanctions should be lifted. Indeed, this factor remained powerful. At the March 2001 Arab summit, for example, the Kuwaitis stood firm. The sanctions should end, they argued with support from the Saudis, only if Iraq promised not to threaten Kuwait again and if it adhered to UN resolutions rectifying its behavior.

In short, the lesson that Iraq was a major threat receded somewhat into the background but was by no means forgotten by other Arab states, especially those that faced the greatest risk from Baghdad’s future behavior.

Attitude toward Israel, the Palestinians, and the Arab-Israeli Conflict

The Kuwait crisis and war also prompted, albeit along the lines of preexisting trends, some Arab rethinking about Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict. With Iraq (as well as radical Islamist movements and Iran) as such a clear and present danger to the survival of Arab regimes, it was harder to claim that Israel was the principal threat.

Moreover, the conflict with Israel seemed more and more like a situation that created a dangerous permanent atmosphere of crisis; could draw Arab countries into costly, losing wars; provided a rationale for dictatorship; justified counterproductive economic or social policies; and inhibited necessary cooperation with the United States. Thus, rather than serving the interests of Arab countries (or in some cases, regimes), continuing this unwinnable battle was endangering their survival as well as progress.

Aside from the Palestinians, and especially after 1973, few Arab rulers were eager to fight Israel and they were not required to do so.  While this policy of no war/no peace helped Arab politicians survive, it also inhibited progress and opened the region to enormous dangers.  If extremism in the pursuit of Arab rights was no vice and moderation in the face of an allegedly evil Israel was no virtue, the resulting atmosphere fostered revolutionary Islamic movements, expensive arms races, catastrophic civil wars, and an Iraqi dictator invading your country. 

Nonetheless, a series of events slowly and consistently chipped away at the Arab political and ideological system, making it seemingly hard to sustain a belief in pan-Arab nationalism or even the likelihood of Arab unity, the destruction of Israel, and a triumph over the West.  The 1967 and 1973 military defeats by Israel were followed by Lebanon’s vicious twenty-year civil war, starting in 1974, Egypt’s defection from the anti-Israel camp in the late 1970s, Iran’s 1979 revolution, and the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. 

The year 1982 alone saw a triple disaster.  The Syrian army massacred thousands of civilians in Hama, showing the hollowness of the radical regimes’ populist, progressive rhetoric.  Iranian troops crossed into Iraq for the first time, pointing up the genuine threat of Persian power and radical fundamentalism to Arab regimes.  Israel’s army went into Lebanon and defeated the PLO and Syrian forces, thereby showing Israel’s continued military superiority, the Soviet and Arab states’ unwillingness or inability to respond, and the readiness of some Arabs to ally themselves with Israel. 

The 1980s brought much more bad news about Arab failures, defeats, and divisions.  Israel not only remained strong but huge numbers of immigrants from the Soviet Union and expanding settlements on the West Bank seemed to show that time was not on the Arabs’ side.  In contrast, Moscow’s power continued to decline and collapsed completely in 1991. Radical Arab regimes, even those possessing huge oil reserves, were unable to show economic progress. The reality of individual Arab nation-states–each with its own interests, which had once seemed much less real than the pan-Arab aspiration–had become undeniable. 

Nevertheless, so great was the old system’s staying power that Saddam Hussein, the newest incarnation of the old order, was still the 1990 Arab summit’s hero.  But not only did he fail to deliver on his promise of Arab victory and resurgence, he also graphically showed that the price of alleged glory would be more wars, defeats, and perhaps political suicide for other Arabs. His adventure showed once more–perhaps, but not definitively, for the last time–that the most dangerous of men to the Arabs was he who actually believed and tried to implement their slogans. 

There were many in the Arab world, then, who argued that the conflict with Israel was obsolete and that a compromise negotiated peace was preferable. This atmosphere was sustained to a greater or lesser degree through the 1991 Madrid conference, through the 1993 Oslo agreement and for a seven-year peace process.  At the critical moment when agreement was closest, however, the decision of Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat not to make peace with Israel in 2000 and his launching of a new uprising instead, set off a new era which appeared to move the region back into the pre-1990 era. Old attitudes and rhetoric quickly reappeared. And if Arab states talked far more toughly than they acted, this too had usually been true from the mid-1970s onward.

In sharp contrast, it had seemed in the aftermath of the 1991 war that the old ways could no longer continue for the Arab system amidst a growing sense of the conflict’s futility and wastefulness.  Individual Arab states showed increasing readiness to seek their own interests.  At the least, Arab states were walking away from the conflict.  At most, they were ready to make peace and try to turn it to their advantage. The Madrid conference of 1991, itself a product of the Kuwait crisis, was the beginning of the most promising peace process in a half-century of the Arab-Israeli conflict, including a Jordan-Israel peace treaty.

Some of these same criteria had seemed to apply to the Palestinians.  In 1991 they were at the low point of their fortunes. Their own intifada had petered out and their hero, Saddam Hussein, had been defeated. Their ally, the USSR and its Soviet bloc, had collapsed. Arab states were less interested in helping them. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, angry at the PLO’s support for Saddam Hussein, cut off aid, producing a financial crisis as well as the expulsion of about 300,000 Palestinians from Kuwait.

Around 350,000 Palestinian refugees had fled Iraq or been forced out of Kuwait. The United States, which the PLO had usually viewed as its arch-enemy, was the world’s sole superpower.  Israel appeared stronger than ever. If ever there was a time for the Palestinians to make a compromise peace, recognizing that they could not achieve their maximal goals, the 1990s offered that opportunity.

The history of the ensuing Syria-Israel and Palestinian-Israel peace processes is very complex. Jordan did make full peace with Israel and several other Arab states took steps in that direction. But from the standpoint of a decade after the Kuwait war, the two main Arab protagonists were unable to reach an agreement with Israel, even after Israel offered to meet virtually all their demands. Arguably, this failure on the Arab side was due to weak leadership, afraid to make tough decisions and unable or incapable of altering public opinion; an inability to break with the past, overwhelming suspicion of Israel; and a range of other factors.

The bottom line was that the Palestinians and Syrians proved unable to meet the challenge of achieving a compromise peace with Israel–albeit on good terms for themselves–and the Arab world would not shake lose from their veto power in ending the conflict. At the same time, though, the Kuwait crisis marked a turning point after which Arab state support for the Palestinians–aside from the purely verbal level–reached an all-time low.

The Kuwait crisis had provided an opportunity to end the conflict–by strengthening the United States, weakening the radical Arab forces, and showing that the traditional Arab policy led to very dangerous results for the Arabs themselves. The crisis probably did diminish the conflict considerably but the final breakthrough remained beyond reach.

Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

During the Kuwait war, Iraq fired missiles at both Israel and Saudi Arabia. The threat of Iraq’s potential use of WMD–along with its drives to obtain nuclear bombs, chemical and biological capabilities–made the Arab world more aware than ever of these new weapons. If the Gulf Arab states perceived a heightened threat, they would have to consider new ways of defending themselves. The war also brought to the fore the question of missile defense.

Nevertheless, different Arab states had a variety of responses to this new strategic environment. Gulf Arab monarchies purchased state-of-the-art air forces, Egypt pursued a more traditional arms build-up, while Syria failed to find funding for major arms purchases. In general, though, there was no progress on missile defense, though the Saudis and Kuwaitis continued to field Patriot systems. Regarding WMD, Iraq was stymied by international sanctions and inspections, though it sought to continue such programs whenever possible. Other Arab states decided not to launch crash programs to obtain nuclear weapons. Most money, though Syria did have impressive missile forces, went into conventional weapons.(14)

In general, there was no “peace dividend” from the Kuwait crisis. On the contrary, the war showed the heightened need for military forces. In this sense, the Kuwait conflict had the opposite impact on the Arab world (and the Middle East in general) that the simultaneous Cold War’s end had for the West.


America’s role and influence as the world’s sole superpower was recognized and further consolidated in the Kuwait crisis.(15) Thereafter, moderate Arab states continued efforts to maintain good relations with the United States and to use it as a protector, no matter how their public posture differed from that image. Even Syria tried to give the impression that it was showing cooperation with U.S. efforts to further the Arab-Israeli peace process. The PLO, at least in its form as the Palestinian Authority (PA) governing the West Bank and Gaza, became a virtual American client. And after a long struggle involving U.S. sanctions, Libya surrendered two intelligence agents for trial in the bombing of a U.S. airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.

Only Iraq remained openly defiant of the United States. Yet while sanctions remained, Baghdad did not suffer greatly for that response. Sanctions remained but were steadily weakened. The Gulf war coalition broke up, with France, Russia, and China leading the way in opposing the tough U.S. strategy on Iraq. The United States launched limited bombing raids, maintained no-fly zones, and preserved the Kurdish autonomous area in the north.

What was most noticeable and notable were the limits on U.S. power and influence, which could be attributed either to mistaken U.S. policies or the nature of the regimes, its problems, and its regimes. The United States was unable to press the PA or Syria into signing peace agreements with Israel, despite that country’s many offers of concessions on almost all the key points. Equally, it could not keep some countries from breaking the sanctions on Iraq or the U.S.-imposed sanctions on Iran. The United States had very little success in persuading other Arab states to move closer to peace with Israel, especially Saudi Arabia and Iran, which it had saved during the 1991 crisis.

While there are frequent complaints from the Arab world that the United States is a bully, the prevailing attitude seems to ensure that such a splendid bully is on one’s own side. Moreover, there is ample reason to argue that American failures came about not because it was perceived as a bully but because it did not use its influence powerfully and effectively.

Why should various Arabs show gratitude to the United States as their protector and liberator when they didn’t have to do so in order to obtain the benefits? Indeed, there were interesting countervailing factors on this point. To indicate dependency and appreciation for American help would bring U.S. demands for reciprocal behavior. Moreover, in the context of their world view, Arab leaders feared that the United States might seek to control the Gulf, or the Middle East in general, subordinating them in an imperial manner.

In short, while U.S. power was predominant and Gulf Arab states were ready to grant Washington a more important role than ever in protecting Gulf security, the gains made during the decade fell far short of earlier expectations. The apparent lesson in the Arab world from the Kuwait crisis was that the United States could be more helpful but they could avoid paying much of a price for that assistance.

At the same time, Arab states in the Gulf were less afraid of U.S. involvement and intervention than they had ever been before. They were very much aware that the United States was their source of arms and protector, which often exercised influence on their behalf.

It might seem, then, that the lessons from the Kuwait crisis remain more limited than they appeared to be in earlier years. The rhetoric of the largely state-controlled media as well as of the general public seems relatively close to the pre-crisis norms. One could argue that the experience’s memory and impact–like others in life and politics–have worn down or worn out over time. Yet at the same time, lessons and opportunities available from the experience of 1990-1991 have been neglected, making it possible that such events might be repeated in future.

Another, not uncomplimentary, perspective, is that Arab leaders have learned more than they like to say. One key lesson of Middle Eastern politics for them had long been not to talk explicitly about their conclusions. There continues to be a distinction between the principles by which they live and act, and public expression. The danger, of course, is that public expression can once again become dominant in the creation of new crises.  


1. These issues are discussed at greater length in Barry Rubin, Cauldron of Turmoil: America in the Middle East, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1992 and in the author’s “The Kuwait Crisis, 1990,” in Ami Ayalon, Middle East Contemporary Survey, 1990, Volume 14, (NY, 1991). It is interesting to note that this fear of another state’s militancy winning internal support was also a key factor in Iraq’s own decision to invade Iran a decade earlier.

2. Barry Rubin, Contemporary Islamist Movements in the Middle East (SUNY Press, 2001). Turkish Edition: (Avrasya, Ankara, 2001); and Barry Rubin, Islamic Radicalism in the Middle East: A Survey and Balance Sheet,” Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, Vol. 2 No. 2 (May 1998); and Emmanuel Sivan, “Why Radical Muslims Aren’t Taking Over Governments,” MERIA Journal, Vol. 2 No. 2 (May 1998); Joseph Kostiner, “State, Islam and Opposition in Saudi Arabia,” MERIA Journal, Vol. 1, No. 2 (May 1997).

3. See Barry Rubin and Thomas Keaney, The Armed Forces in the Contemporary Middle East (Frank Cass, 2001) and Barry Rubin, “The Military in Contemporary Middle Eastern Politics,” MERIA Journal, Vol. 5, Number 1 (March 2001).

4. Yosef Ben-Aharon, “Negotiating With Syria: A First-Hand Account, MERIA Journal, Vol. 4 No. 2 (June 2000); Barry Rubin, “Understanding Syrian Policy: An Analysis of Foreign Minister Faruq al-Shara’s Explanation,” MERIA Journal, Vol. 4 No. 2 (June 2000); Eyal Zisser, “Decisionmaking in Asad’s Syria,” MERIA Journal, Vol. 2. No. 2 (May 1998).

5. Robert O. Freedman, “Russia and the Middle East: The Primakov Era,” MERIA Journal, Vol. 2 No. 2 (May 1998); Robert O. Freedman, “Russian-Iranian Relations in the 1990s,” MERIA Journal, Vol. 4 No. 2 (June 2000); Oksana Antonenko, “Russia’s Military Involvement in the Middle East” MERIA Journal Vol. 5, No. 1 (March 2001).

6. Barry Rubin, The Region at the Center of the World: Crises and Quandaries in the Contemporary Persian Gulf, (London: Frank Cass, 2001).

7. A.W. Samii, “The Contemporary Iranian News Media, 1998-1999,” MERIA Journal, Vol. 3, No. 4 (December 1999); A.W. Samii. “Iran’s 2000 Election,” MERIA Journal, Vol. 4, No. 1 (March 2000)

8. Barry Rubin, “The Persian Gulf After the Cold War: Old Pattern, New Era,” MERIA Journal, Vol. 3, No. 2 (June 1999)

9. On GCC security policy and relations with the United States, see Jon B. Alterman, “The Gulf States and the American Umbrella,” MERIA Journal Vol. 4, No. 4 (December 2000); Joseph Kostiner, “The United States and the Gulf States: Alliance in Need,” MERIA Journal, Vol. 2, No. 4 (December 1998); Joshua Teitelbaum, “The Gulf States and Dual Containment,” MERIA Journal, Vol. 2, No. 3 (September 1998); Sean Foley, “The UAE: Political Issues and Security Dilemmas,” MERIA Journal, Vol. 3, No 1 (February 1999); Turki al-Hamad, “Will Gulf Monarchies Work Together?” MERIA Journal, Vol. 1, No. 2 (May 1997).

10. Amatzia Baram, “Saddam Husayn: Between his Power Base and the International Community,” MERIA Journal, Vol. 4, No. 4 (December 2000); Laurie Mylroie, “Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction and the 1997 Gulf Crisis,” MERIA Journal, Vol. 1, No. 4 (December 1997); Kenneth M. Pollack, “Current Iraqi Military Capabilities,” Meria News, 1998/No. 4 (February 1998).

11. Teitelbaum, op. cit.

12. For assessments of Iran’s power and politics, see Michael Eisenstadt, “The Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran: An Assessment,” MERIA Journal, Vol. 5, No. 1 (March 2001); Seth Carus, “Iran and Weapons of Mass Destruction,” MERIA Journal, Vol. 4, No. 3 (September 2000).

13.  On stability in the GCC states, see Daniel L. Byman and Jerrold D. Green, “The Enigma of Political Stability in the Persian Gulf Monarchies,” MERIA Journal, Vol. 3, No. 3 (September 1999); Daryl Champion, “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: Elements of Instability with Stability,” MERIA Journal, Vol. 3, No. 4 (December 1999).

14. For an evaluation of the threat from WMD, see George Tenet, “Weapons of Mass Destruction: A New Dimension in U.S. Middle East Policy,” MERIA Journal, Vol. 4, No. 2 (June 2000).

15. On U.S. policy during this period, see Jon B. Alterman, “The Gulf States and the American Umbrella,” MERIA Journal, Vol. 4, No. 4 (December 2000); Michael Eisenstadt, “U.S. Military Capabilities in the Post-Cold War Era: Implications for Middle East Allies,” MERIA Journal, Vol. 2, No. 4 (December 1998); Robert O. Freedman, “U.S. Middle East Policy in the Second Clinton Administration,” MERIA Journal, Vol. 3, No. 1 (February 1999); Robert J. Lieber, “U.S. Middle East Policy in The Clinton Second Term,” MERIA Journal, Vol. 1, No. 1 (January 1997); Barry Rubin, “U.S. Foreign Policy and Rogue States,” MERIA Journal, Vol. 3, No. 3 (September 1999); Amin Tarzi, “Contradictions of U.S. Policy on Iraq and its Consequences,” MERIA Journal, Vol. 4, No. 1 (March 2000).  

*Barry Rubin is Deputy Director of the BESA Center for Strategic Studies and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA). His books include Cauldron of Turmoil; Paved with Good Intentions: The American Experience and Iran; Armed Forces of the Middle East; Revolutionaries and Reformers: Islamist Movements in the Middle East; The Region at the Center of the World: The Contemporary Persian Gulf; Iraq’s Road to War, and The Israel-Arab Reader.

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Filed Under: MERIA Journal Volume 05, Number 02 (Jun 2001), Middle East Politics, Regional

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