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A New World Order: The importance of the 1991 Gulf War

Written by Louise Kettle.

Twenty five years ago, on 17th January 1991, the offensive operations of the Gulf War began. A coalition of 39 countries launched a campaign to roll back the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein. The war saw the deployment of around 45,000 British forces, the largest since the Second World War.

Throughout the previous year, tensions between Kuwait and Iraq had escalated. The bitter Iran-Iraq war had left Iraq in severe economic difficulties with its per capita income halved and an estimated $67 billion worth of damage to infrastructure. In addition, Baghdad had borrowed around $80 billion from other countries and, following the war, foreign debt servicing and defence costs consumed seven-eighths of Iraq’s oil export revenue.

Iraq’s potential oil income was limited by OPEC quota regulations. By spring 1990 Kuwait and the UAE were exceeding their OPEC quotas and thus suppressing worldwide petroleum prices. Kuwait used this leverage to place pressure on Saddam to repay his war loans and to settle ongoing border disputes. Despite attempts by other Arab nations Saddam was in no mood to negotiate and on 2nd August 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait, deposed the ruling family and maintained military occupation.

The UN called for Iraq’s immediate and unconditional withdrawal but as the weeks went by it became clear that Saddam had no intention of leaving. On 29th November 1990 the UN Security Council adopted resolution 678providing Saddam with six weeks to withdraw before the coalition was authorised to “use all means necessary” to remove Iraqi troops. The six weeks expired on 15th January 1991 and two days later air bombings began.

The importance of the Gulf War then

Operation Desert Storm, or Operation Granby in the UK, was not only significant in terms of scale, but also in terms of timing. The end of the Cold War had seen a reduction in international tensions and led many Western states to reconsider their military expenditure. The expectations of a post-Cold War “peace dividend” had led Britain to its “Options for Change” defence review which proposed reducing the military to a “smaller but better” force, designed primarily for deployment in East Europe. Within a week of announcing its initial conclusions Iraq invaded Kuwait, challenging the future of British defence policy.

There was also a deep concern that the post-Cold War era provided the opportunity to establish – in the words of President George H Bush, quoting Winston Churchill – a “new world order” and the Gulf War was to set the precedent for the future approach of the international community.

For President Bush and Prime Minister Thatcher the new order was to include intolerance for military aggression and the strengthening of international cohesion, international law and liberal institutions, including the UN. In so doing, they would seek to establish inclusive and decisive responses to international crises, diplomatically and militarily.

Throughout the Gulf War the UK worked to ensure regional support for an international response through the Arab League and bilaterally with Middle East countries. Britain even sent officials to Syria, in secret, to negotiate and reopen diplomacy after a four year hiatus. The government also temporarily restored relations with Iran and only failed to receive commitment to the coalition from Jordan.

Many other countries across the world also offered support and military contributions. Germany took part where they could, including mine clearing operations and deploying medical units. Sweden, who had not seen active combat since 1813, returned to service. Even the Argentineans arrived to support the British naval flotilla.

The legacy of the Gulf War for now

Operation Granby was concluded 43 days after the offensive operations began, with all military objectives completed on 28th February 1991. The decision not to continue to Baghdad, and to capture or kill Saddam Hussein, had significant repercussions for the next two decades and remains an important legacy from the events.

This decision was based upon the objectives of the “new world order” of liberal institutionalism and sticking to the limitations of the UN mandate. The British Prime Minister, John Major, prophetically noted in his memoirs “If the nations who had gone to war on the basis of international law were themselves to break that law, what chance would there have been in the future of order rather than chaos?”

Twelve years later much of the work to create a cohesive international approach, and respect for international law and institutions, was undone by the 2003 war in Iraq. In particular, the conducting of operations without regional or UN support proved highly controversial and severely damaged US and UK reputations.

As the international community continues to face a new threat in the region today – Daesh – an opportunity for wounds from the Iraq War to be healed has emerged, in pursuit of tackling a dangerous and common enemy. The threat has again provided the international community with the occasion to unite and create a new, new world order based upon legitimate coalitions, working through the UN and with regional partners.

The recent UK Strategic Defence and Security Review placed an emphasis on “rules-based international order”. However, it also stated that institutions needed to change in the context of new challenges and that the UK would be working to “adapt” to meet these requirements.

Before such “adaption” occurs the important events of the Gulf War should be revisited. Operation Granby not only revealed that local and international support was possible but that it was also extremely productive. Such support provided legitimacy, finances, personnel and many other benefits. One post operational report by the Ministry of Defence even audaciously noted that the advantage of conducting operations from the world’s largest petrol forecourt (Saudi Arabia) could not be overlooked.

Louise Kettle is an Assistant Professor in the School of Politics and International Relations. Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.

Published inConflict & SecurityMiddle East & North Africa

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