Summary of "The Gulf Crisis: Failure of Preventive Diplomacy"

Summary of

The Gulf Crisis: Failure of Preventive Diplomacy

By Claude Rakisits 

This Article Summary written by: Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: Claude Rakisits, "The Gulf Crisis: Failure of Preventive Diplomacy," chap. in Building International Community, Kevin Clements and Robin Ward, eds. (St. Leonards, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 1994) pp. 58-103.

Rakisits examines the use of preventative diplomacy in the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and identifies a number of factors contributing to its failure in that case.

The Context

Although Iraq had claimed Kuwait as a lost territory on numerous occasions, Iraq had no legitimate historical claim to Kuwait. Iraq wanted access to the Gulf. After failing to get that access in its war with Iran, Iraqi attention returned to Kuwait. Iraq had amassed a substantial war debt, and Kuwait was one of Iraq's creditors. The Iraqi economy was in crisis, and Iraq lacked the funds to rebuild its infrastructure, or even import needed food. Also, Iraq perceived itself as having defended and sacrificed its own people to protect the other, wealthier Arab nations from Iranian fundamentalism.

As soon as the Iraq-Iran war ended, Kuwait started over-producing oil. This drove the price of oil down just when Iraq most needed the income from oil sales. Moreover, Kuwait was likely pumping oil from the Iraqi side of a shared oil field. Unlike Saudi Arabia, Kuwait refused to forgive Iraqi war debts. Kuwait had supported Iraq during the war with Iran. After the war ended, Kuwait moved to strengthen its ties with Iran, while opposing Iraqi membership in the Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC). Kuwait viewed compromise with Iraqi demands as capitulation to threats and intimidation, and so took a hard-line stance against Iraq's demands.

Preventative Diplomacy

Saddam Hussein gave a number of warning signals between Feb. 1990 and the invasion date of August 2, 1990. In a July 17 speech he threatened, "if words fail to protect Iraqis, something effective must be done."[p. 64] However, only the U.S. and the other Arab nations made any attempts at preventative diplomacy.

The U.S. sent mixed and confusing signals to Iraq. The U.S. believed that Iraq was simply bluffing and threatening. If there were an invasion it would be a limited one. On the same day that the State Department stressed the strong U.S. commitment to "supporting the individual and collective self-defense of our friends in the Gulf, " another State Department spokesperson stated that "we do not have any defense treaties with Kuwait, and there are no special defense or security commitments to Kuwait."[p. 70]

Saudi Arabia, backed by other Arab nations, exerted pressure on Kuwait to negotiate and settle the dispute with Iraq. The leaders of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt engaged in active, if ineffective, diplomacy, traveling extensively between Baghdad and the other Arab capitals. Misperceptions and ambiguous signals led the Arab nations to underestimate the likelihood of an Iraqi military invasion. Saudi Arabia arranged a meeting between Kuwaiti and Iraqi representatives on July 31, 1990. Kuwait offered some concessions but the meeting ended inconclusively.

Saddam Hussein appears to have viewed that meeting as Kuwait's last chance to address Iraq's demands. Iraq invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990.

Diplomacy After the Invasion

Iraq's invasion of Kuwait threatened international security in a number of ways. First, it was a violation of the international principle of state sovereignty. Such violations must be opposed if such international principles are to remain strong. Second, Iraq presented a threatening trend. Iraq was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. Third, such weapons made Iraq a threat to regional military security. Fourth, had Iraq seized Saudi Arabia it would have gained control over nearly half the worlds oil supply, and become the dominant power in Middle Eastern affairs.

Arab nations continued to search for an "Arab solution" to the crisis, seeking to avoid outside interference in Arab affairs. In the days immediately after the invasion, Hussein was able to use the desire for an Arab solution to forestall any response, and further entrench Iraqi forces in Kuwait. Iraq had no intention of withdrawing from Kuwait, but as long as there was hope of an Arab solution, the Arab nations were reluctant to accept international intervention.

The Arab League Council was internally divided, and unable to take decisive action against the invasion. While the League did pass a number of resolutions condemning the invasion and reaffirming Kuwait's sovereignty, they were unable to mobilize member nations under the Arab League defense pact.

The U.S. responded to the invasion with diplomacy, and the preventative deployment of military forces. Operation Desert Shield sent defensive forces to Saudi Arabia. With the Saudi Arabia safe from Iraqi invasion, the U.S. was content to allow the Arab nations to pursue their own diplomatic solution, so long as any eventual settlement did not reward Iraq for its aggression. The Soviet Union's cooperation was key in establishing Desert Shield, and Soviets engaged in their own diplomatic efforts to secure Iraqi withdrawal. France also had an active diplomatic presence.

International diplomatic measures were complemented by a series of United Nations Security Council Resolutions condemning Iraq's actions, reaffirming the sovereignty of Kuwait, calling for humane treatment of Kuwaitis and third-party nationals being held as hostages, and leveling sanctions against Iraq. Security Council Resolution 678, adopted on November 29, 1990, explicitly authorized the use of force to remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

Sanctions and diplomacy failed to effect Iraq's timely withdrawal from Kuwait. A U.S. led international coalition of forces attacked on January 15, 1991.

Why Diplomacy Failed

Rakisits identifies a number of factors which led to the failure of diplomacy, both before and after the invasion. One of the most significant factors was the misperceptions on the part of the Iraqi leadership. Iraq did not understand the radical changes in the Soviet Union, and in U.S. Soviet relations. They expected the Soviets to oppose U.S. military involvement in the Middle East. The Iraqi leadership did not understand U.S. domestic politics. They believed the U.S. was still unwilling to use military force in the aftermath of Vietnam. They also underestimated President Bush's need to improve his popularity ratings and get rid of his popular image as a "wimp." Saddam believed that there was an ongoing U.S. conspiracy trying to depose him, and so viewed any U.S. statements with extreme suspicion. Finally, the Iraqi leadership overestimated their ability to amass popular Arab support, and overestimated Arab unwillingness to accept U.S. intervention and troops.

Another significant factor was the misperceptions and mixed signals from the international community. The U.S. in particular sent mixed signals to Iraq. Arab states also sent ambiguous signals, indicating some willingness to accommodate Iraq's demands. Kuwait's hard-line refusal to negotiate signaled to Iraq that nothing short of force would move Kuwait to compromise. Western nations underestimated Saddam's determination to act to redress Iraq's grievances. Western nations assumed that invading Kuwait was not in Iraq's best interests, and realizing this, Iraq would not invade.

The UN's contribution to preventative diplomacy was too little too late. The UN showed little interest in the initial dispute, even after Iraqi troops began massing on the Kuwaiti border. UN member states also failed to bring the issue before the Security Council. The UN Secretary- General failed to exercise his broad discretion, and neither discussed the issue with the parties, nor brought it before the Security Council. The Secretary-General may have failed to act due to insufficient information on the crisis.

Regional organizations did not do much preventative diplomacy either. The Gulf Cooperation Countries did not adequately stress its principle of collective self-defense. The Arab League did not pursue mediation, though its charter authorizes it to mediate any dispute which threatens to lead to war. This failure was largely due to divisions among its member nations.


Rakisits makes four suggestions for more effective preventative diplomacy in the future. First, UN member states should act promptly to bring disputes to the attention of the Security Council. Second, the UN Secretary-General should initiate informal discussion with disputing parties before the dispute becomes a crisis. If those discussion are unproductive, then the Secretary-General should refer the matter to the Security Council. Third, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) should be used more. "Where a dispute has been present for many years, and has the potential to lead to a major crisis," it should be brought to the ICJ for adjudication or an Advisory Opinion. Finally, regional organizations should play a greater role in preventative diplomacy. However, such organizations are often internally divided and lack credibility, and so in many cases the UN will remain the best suited organization to undertake preventative measures.