Summary of "Epilogue: The War in the Gulf"

Summary of

Epilogue: The War in the Gulf

By Louis Kriesberg

This Article Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff

Citation: Kriesberg, Louis, "Epilogue: The War in the Gulf," chapt. in International Conflict Resolution, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992) pp. 223-36.

Kriesberg discusses three approaches to understanding the escalation of the Gulf conflict: realist, pluralist or populist, and conflict resolution. Realists will describe the Gulf conflict as essentially a conflict among states. In this view the main adversaries are the states of Iraq, Kuwait, the United States, Saudi Arabia. The realist approach takes states' interests to be relatively clear and fixed. Kriesberg argues that government leaders, and differing social norms, beliefs and identities also played a significant role in shaping the Gulf conflict. Kriesberg analyzes the phases of escalation in the Gulf conflict using each of the three approaches.

Early Escalation in the Gulf Conflict

Parties to the conflict tend to give partisan accounts of the starting point. The U.S. tends to identify the beginning of the Gulf crisis with Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. Iraq refers to an earlier history of disputes with Kuwait. Iraqi claims against Kuwait regarding a long time border dispute increased sharply after the end of the Iran-Iraq War. Kriesberg argues that clear signs of an emerging crisis were present in early 1990, as Iraqi verbal attacks and demands against the U.S., Israel and Kuwait increased. Iraq demanded withdrawal of U.S. military forces from the region, stricter adherence to OPEC oil quotas and direct payments to Iraq from other Arab nations. Iraq threatened Israel with chemical weapons. By July 1990 Iraqi troops were massed on the Kuwaiti border.

Realists see this escalation as intentional. In this view Hussein calculated that Iraq's interests would be best served by a rapid occupation of Kuwait. The lack of a credible deterrent force from either Kuwait or the U.S. made the invasion gamble seem reasonable to Iraq. Hussein assumed that Iraqi control of Kuwait would be difficult to undo after the fact. From a realist perspective, the key to preventing such escalation was clearer and more forceful deterrence on the part of Kuwait, the U.S. and allied nations.

Pluralist or populist theorists stress the domestic factors in the adversarial counties. In particular, pluralists point to the substantial military capabilities of the parties, and to domestic social structures which support authoritarian military regimes. In this view, escalation might have been prevented by undermining domestic popular support. Domestic support for aggression could have been altered by equalizing the distribution of wealth in the region, and by making progress on Palestinian issues.

The conflict resolution approach attributes escalation primarily to the failure of communication between the U.S. and Iraqi governments. The balance of power among the adversaries is also an important factor. The conflict resolution approach would move to prevent escalation by creating supportive conditions for negotiations. As an interested third party, the U.S. should have made its own views clearer. The U.S. could also have helped balance power between Iraq and Kuwait. Kuwait would have been empowered by improving its relations with potential ally Jordan. By reopening a dialog with the PLO, the U.S. would have undermined popular support for Iraq as friend to the Palestinians.

Escalation to War

The Gulf conflict escalated sharply with Iraq's August 2, 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Hussein agreed to withdraw from Kuwait on the condition that the Arab League not condemn the initial invasion. The League however voted to condemn Iraq's actions. The U.S. also condemned the invasion. The Americans debated whether to apply economic or military sanctions, and concluded that military force was required. Coalition air forces and ultimately ground forces were deployed to drive Iraq out of Kuwait.

Realists view the escalation to war as necessary given the U.S. and coalition states' interests. Goals included driving Iraq out of Kuwait, destroying Iraq's offensive military capabilities, and undermining support for Hussein as a leader. In the realist view, war was an appropriate means to these ends. An alternative realist interpretation suggests that both sides expected the other to capitulate to the threat of force. War was not initially intended, but occurred when neither side backed down.

The pluralist approach emphasizes that the bureaucratic rigidity within each society involved in the conflict made it difficult to revise policies once in place. Early Iraqi concessions could have undermined support for the coalition. Pluralists point out that Mubarak, Fahd, and Bush all felt deceived and betrayal by Hussein, and that those feelings played a role in motivating their response to Iraq. Pluralists tend to argue that economic sanctions could have been effective given time. Conflict resolution theorists argue that a negotiated settlement could have been reached, and war was unnecessary. They point out that mediation efforts were limited. They stress the risks, costs and long-term consequences of war, and argue that coalition allies had unrealistic expectations regarding the effectiveness of force. Conflict resolution theorists also point out that coalition goals did not take into account Iraqi vital interests. While the war did remove Iraq from Kuwait, it did not resolve the conflict.

After the War

Coalition forces succeeded in liberating Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. Coalition forces did not succeed in destroying Iraq's military capacity, or in removing Hussein from power.

Realists tend to see the war as justified. The victors will have a large say in future peacemaking moves in the region. The PLO will have less influence as its popular support is weakened. The U.S. seeks to restore the region to its pre-war conditions, but with a nonthreatening Iraq. Further collective action in the region will focus on limiting Iraqi military capabilities.

Pluralist and populist theorists express concern that deteriorating economic and social conditions will tend to further destabilize regimes in the region. Ethnic and religious identities will continue to be bases for organization. The destabilization may provide opportunities to encourage democratization and greater ethnic autonomy, and to create more complex social and political structures which better reflect reality in the Middle East.

Conflict resolution theorists argue that a negotiated settlement might have achieved the same general goals but at a much lower cost in lives, environmental damage, and the standard of living for millions of people in the region. They point to the end of the Cold War as an example of such a success. The conflict resolution approach stresses a broader account of national security, which includes economic interests, the standard of living, personal, cultural and social autonomy, and personal safety in addition to the military defense of borders. This wider range of issues allows for greater trade-offs, and so a better chance of reaching mutually acceptable agreements.


Kriesberg concludes that the realist perspective does not provide an adequate explanation of conflict escalation, and can be counterproductive when used to guide policy. Pluralist and conflict resolution approaches add valuable insights but are not adequate on their own. Kriesberg points out that conflicts are inherently "messy." Conflicts do not have clear boundaries and their long term consequences are unpredictable. Lastly, Kriesberg argues that values affect both policy choices and the choices of explanatory theories.