U.S. Strategy After the Gulf War

Against the Current, No. 33, July/August 1991

Richard Hutchinson

BY AUGUST 1990, a debate had developed in elite circles, and was intensifying in the popular arena, over the role of the United States in the “post-Cold War world.’ Paul Kennedy’s thesis of “imperial overstretch,” outlined in his 1987 book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, had been replied to by Joseph Nye in his Bound to Lead (which he presented in summary to the 1990 annual meeting of the Trilateral Commission in Washington).

The relation of military power to economic competitiveness was increasingly questioned in the context of expanding Japanese and German spheres of influence, the onset of recession, growing public indignation over the scope of the Savings & Loan and banking bailouts, and the defection of some conservatives, in the wake of the collapse of communism, to isolationism and even populism. Some went so far as to say that both superpowers had been defeated by the Cold War.

An early response to the declinist view declared in 1988, “At issue is the viability of military power as a general instrument of diplomacy … U.S. restraint today reflects not the image of power but rather its limitations … The gap between U.S. capabilities and credibility may widen further as the world becomes increasingly multipolar.” (Meeting the Mavericks: Regional Challenges for the Next President, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1988)

The war on Iraq constituted the Bush administration’s response to this debate: As a January 18 editorial in the Wall Street Journal stated, “(T)he most significant gain of all will come if America, and above all its elite, recover a sense of self-confidence and self-worth.”

U.S. Strategy After Containment

U.S. grand strategy since the late 1940s had been defined by the overriding mission of containment (of the Soviets), despite ceaseless U.S. intervention in the Third World (or global South). As recently as 1988, the centrality of containment was still projected in the Discriminate Deterrence report of the Commission on Integrated Long-Term Strategy, commissioned by the National Security Council and Department of Defense under Reagan and Weinberger.

Many progressive writers, seizing on the section of the report addressed to ‘low-intensity conflict,” have missed precisely its integration of planning for Third World intervention, as a lesser component of containment, into the ‘high-intensity’ preoccupation of there-port The Soviets’ withdrawal from Eastern Europe led to a fundamental reassessment of strategy; now, the major U.S. war made possible by Soviet retrenchment has moved the Empire’s military strategy “beyond containment onto uncharted terrain.

Pentagon strategy can be broken into low, mid and high- intensity warfare. Euphemisms to be sure, these terms do serve to classify diverse means of bloodshed and mass murder. Both the CIA and Special Operations Forces on the low-intensity end, and nuclear and aerospace weapons on the high, expanded in the 1980s. These are both continuing.

What had been missing since 1975 was conventional, or mid-intensity, warfare. As Discriminate Deterrence puts it, “Our failure in Vietnam still casts a shadow over U.S. intervention anywhere, and other setbacks—notably those we suffered in Lebanon—have left some predisposed to pessimism about our ability to promote U.S. interests in the Third World. Our ability to persevere in such wars is always questionable.”

It was to be George Bush, supposedly less militaristic than Ronald Reagan, who oversaw the reassertion of mid-intensity warfare via wars against Panama and Iraq. An early 1989 Bush Administration Policy review, quoted in the New York Times on February 23, proclaimed: “In cases where the U.S. confronts much weaker enemies, our challenge will be not just to defeat then but to defeat them decisively. For small countries hostile to us, bleeding our forces in protracted or indecisive conflict or embarrassing us by inflicting damage on some conspicuous element of our forces may be victory enough, and could undercut political support for U.S. efforts against them.”

The Emerging MIC Doctrine

This set the terms for the Powell-Schwarzkopf doctrine of overwhelming force. The emerging middle-intensity conflict (MIC) doctrine flows out of the upper end of low-intensity warfare and from the containment-era Rapid Deployment Force, which aimed to quickly assemble U.S. forces to defend the Persian Gulf against the Soviet Union. (Michael Kiare has described this development in a series of articles in the Nation, The Progressive and Technology Review.)

The target of the new doctrine is the so-called “regional hegemon,” meaning a regional power that may assert its own agenda and become militarily expansion-1st in the absence of the regulating effects of U.S.-Soviet competition. It is further posited that development of “weapons of mass destruction, particularly of nuclear, chemical, biological and ballistic missiles (by such a new power, of course, not by a Western superpower) is intolerable and must be checked. Discriminate Deterrence pointed to this factor within its containment framework: The arsenals of the lesser powers will make it riskier and more difficult for the superpowers to intervene in regional wars. The U.S. ability to support its allies around the world will increasingly be called in question.”

Another 1988 study was critical of Discriminate Deterrence and of the containment fixation. Meeting the Mavericks (Center for Strategic and International Studies) first pointed to the new security environment, the threat of “maverick” powers and a new doctrine:

“Three trends, already underway, are beginning to undermine the superpower order: the rise of aggressive regional powers or power blocs, the proliferation of military technologies across the spectrum of capabilities, and globalized competition with the closest allies of the United States for economic and political influence … As the United States moves into a more diffuse environment, its interest in Third World events may no longer be regarded either as troubles hooting at the margins of security or as subsets of the central U.S.-Soviet rivalry. Instead, the ability to cope with regional challengers must become a central objective of U.S. foreign policy.”(1)

To cite just one indication that this is the guiding view of the Administration, here is Richard Haass, senior director for Near East and South Asian Affairs of the National Security Council, writing in the Spring of 1990:

“We are moving toward a world in which power is greatly diffused and in which the ability of great powers to regulate regional order as they once did is reduced. The cause and consequence of what might be termed international deregulation are dear. We are seeing the emergence of competing and increasingly powerful regional states around the world. The result is a world in which, in addition to the five declared nuclear powers, several countries possess an unacknowledged nuclear capability and many more are working to develop one.”

Haass goes on to point out the proliferation of the so-called unconventional I weapons as well as improving conventional arsenals, then adds: It is true that these developments are global, but it is more accurate to say that they are most visibly, and dangerously, taking place in the area that embraces the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, and South Asia. It is here that we find Libya, Egypt, Israel, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, and India—each and every one of them states that possess impressive conventional military inventories as well as one or more unconventional military capabilities and the means to deliver them.” (Washington Quarterly [CSIS], Winter 1991, from April 30, 1990 speech to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy)

The War on Iraq

To the observant, the U.S. war on Iraq could not have come as a total surprise, given news coverage of Iraq for at least several months before Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait Following on think-tank studies like Meeting the Mavericks, a high-profile campaign of demonization had been launched against Saddam Hussein by the Spring of 1990, epitomized by the June 4 cover story of US News and World Report labelling Saddam “The Most Dangerous Man in the World” because of his weapons programs. It has come out in the February 1991 issue of the Naval Institute’s journal Proceedings that a major war game was carried out in July, 1990, featuring the scenario of defending Saudi Arabia against Iraq.(2)

Philip Agee makes an important analogy between the Korean War and the Iraq War in his Z magazine article “Producing the Proper Crisis.” In 1950 the NSC-68 containment strategy had already been prepared by Dean Acheson and Paul Nitze, and Korea became the pretext to implement it; in 1990, at a minimum, leading forces in the United States were ecstatic over the invasion of Kuwait, which gave them a golden opportunity to assert U.S. control over the region and dominance in the world.

Several elements suggest a conspiracy by the United States to provoke war. By its nature, it would be very hard to prove. Some of the elements are: 1) The well-known failure of both Ambassador April Glaspie and Assistant Secretary of State John Kelly to strongly warn Sad-dam Hussein against his impending invasion. 2) The assertion by Jordan’s King Hussein, in a March 5 Village Voice article, that Kuwait and Saudi Arabia had struck a deal to pay off part of Iraq’s debt from the 1980-88 Gulf war, and that at a late July meeting with Iraq where the deal was to have been consummated, Kuwait reneged, saying that they weren’t afraid of an Iraqi invasion, “we are going to bring in the Americans.” 3) Kuwait’s overselling its OPEC quota, driving down the price of oil and strangling the destitute Iraqi economy, which had to have been done with U.S. connivance.

Fourth, according to the October 21, 1990 London Observer, Iraq, on the recommendation of an unofficial Bush Administration envoy and former ambassador, had commissioned the very same Center for Strategic and International Studies that produced the Mavericks report—to develop an “aggressive oil policy”! It seems that an understanding was reached that Iraq should push for $25 a barrel, as reflected in a March 1, 1990 interview with the CSIS energy security director in the Arab Gas and Oil Journal, and in U.S.-Iraq diplomatic exchanges leaked by Iraq to U.S. TV.

All this adds up to the possibility that the United States may have worked both sides of the Iraq-Kuwait antagonism in order to inflame it We may reject this notion as being crazy, as does Noam Chomsky, but the conspiracy theory would explain more satisfactorily than any other the strange message the United States sent to Iraq as it became clear that an invasion of Kuwait was imminent.

The New Threat and Our Response

The sign that Cohn Powell wanted to put up after the invasion of Panama is now huge neon blinking sign—”Superpower Lives Here.” If it is an economically decaying superpower, that just makes it meaner. The main purpose of the imperial legions is to preserve what Noam Chomsky calls the Fifth Freedom: freedom to rob and plunder.

Capital’s profitability overall is at stake in the maintenance of a “stable international investment climate,” not just that of the military sector. The Bush administration’s 1992 budget proposal maintains the 25% cut in the military over the next several years; this would seem to prove that the Gulf War was not simply a ploy to boost military sector profits. The military Keynesianism of the 1979-86 buildup is being modified, though not abandoned.

Conspiracy or no, we face a new phase of U.S. military intervention. It will likely center in the part of the world stretching from Northern Africa through the Near East to Southwest Asia. The U.S. Army is being reshaped into a Quick Reaction Force. The national security elite has defined a new enemy, in the Third World: the regional hegemon. A pretext, weapons proliferation, has been promulgated to justify “deterrent disarmament” Charles Krauthammer has most concisely expressed the position that this should become the centerpiece of U.S. post-Cold War strategy in a Foreign Affairs article called “The Unipolar Moment.”

Leading candidates for the next U.S. attack include Libya and Cuba. But the most serious immediate threat is now of a south Korean strike on a north Korean nuclear facility. A propaganda blitz has portrayed north Korea as the next “renegade state,” and if the south strikes, the north would respond at risk of unleashing an “Iraq” on themselves as the United States “comes to the defense of its ally.”

This calls for an immediate outcry and action. New doctrines are not yet set in stone. Right now is a fluid situation, both in the real world and in the world of the imperial strategists. But we can see the horrifying consequences of this emerging MIC doctrine.

There are some big problems for the Pentagon in generalizing the new doctrine. First, they designed the war on Iraq at every step to minimize U.S. casualties, to avoid triggering a virulent outbreak of Vietnam Syndrome. The optimal conditions they enjoyed to carry out an air war may never come again.

The war certainly did not prove the U.S. army’s capability to fight or sustain casualties—the Iraqi army was retreating and its troops easily surrendered. Geography and bad strategy on the part of Iraq played a part in its defeat, but on a deeper level the question of morale is even more important The Iraqi troops could not have been motivated to fight for Saddam’s regime; this will not apply to popular movements or governments against which the United States will intervene in future wars.

The sick slaughter of Iraq does not prove that the United States can successfully fight the LIC kind of war that it is now escalating in Peru. And when Newsweek asked people right after the war ended, 13oes success in the Persian Gulf War make you feel the United States should be more willing to use military force in the future to help solve international problems?” only 32% said yes; 60% said no. Evidently the Vietnam Syndrome lives on.

But if we want to prevent future Iraq Wars, we cannot sidestep the official rationale that justifies intervention. There is a hole in arguments made by the movement, precisely on the question of weapons proliferation: it is not enough to say that the United States shouldn’t sell arms in the Third World. The logic too easily leads to the conclusion that though it may have been wrong to sell them in the first place, at least the problem is “solved” when the war is launched and the weapons destroyed.

It is not enough to push for arms control Arms control regimes inevitably favor the status quo—if everyone stops where they are, then the United States and Israel will still have nuclear arsenals and the Arab states won’t If what you are really concerned about is proliferation of weapons to “dangerous Third World madmen,” then if arms control fails, war is the logical continuation of the same policy.

Progressive writers spoke of Iraq as a “pariah state” deserving of international sanctions. Coming from anyone in the United States, this can only represent a morally debased realpolitik. We have no right to advocate such measures anywhere until after the successful conclusion of the long-needed “international sanctions” against the United States, the world’s most defiant terrorist state at-large. Activists in the United States must challenge the idea that it has any moral right to maintain and use arsenals of mass destruction itself and at the same time to condemn those arsenals in chosen Third World countries, much less to attack them.

Leonard Spector, the foremost establishment expert on nuclear proliferation, talks about “hostile proliferators” to distinguish countries like Iraq from Israel or South Africa. But as far as most people in the world are concerned, the United States is the most dangerous and hostile proliferator of all. And it is U.S. weapons that we must challenge, including the revived Star Wars systems converted for use in mid-intensity Earth War aggression, along with any and every war campaign the United States launches against so-called “weapons states” in the global South. Our aim must be to stop the next war before it begins.


  1. Note the point on competition with allies: The end of the Cold War evidently leads not to more potential allies but to more potential enemies. Note also that immediately as Bush took office in 1989, CIA chief Webster began delivering unusually public pronouncements frequently addressing the threat of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, and ballistic missile proliferation.
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  2. What confused people later, and what has still been the one-sided focus of some excellent muckraking by the Village Voice, for instance, was the fact of ongoing U.S. loans, agricultural credits, arms and technology sales, including through third parties, right up to August 2. Not one story has gone back and retraced the anti-Saddam campaign; once that is done, It becomes dear that either there were two competing factions over U.S. policy toward Iraq, or that a two-track policy was being pursued.
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July-August 1991, ATC 33