Arabian Nightmares: Washington’s Persian Gulf Entanglement

November 9, 1990 • Policy Analysis No. 142

For any society, the key question of statecraft is what are the nation’s vital interests–that is, those for which it will go to war. Although the United States and Iraq are on course for an all‐​out war, it is far from clear that America’s vital interests are at stake in the Persian Gulf crisis. It is time to ask–before it is too late–whether Washington’s aims in the gulf, which go far beyond the defense of Saudi Arabia, justify going to war with Iraq.

Animated by understandable revulsion at Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s brutal subjugation of Kuwait, the United States reacted in a frenzy of war hysteria. Across the political spectrum, politicians called for Saddam’s head, and the massive deployment of U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia quickly followed. Passion is never a good reason to go to war, however. We need only remember how enthusiastically Europe rushed into war in 1914. Four years of carnage in the trenches erased that enthusiasm. America’s crusade in the Persian Gulf may not turn out as badly, but now that sober second thoughts are beginning to set in,(1) it is increasingly apparent that America has plunged headlong into a commitment that has a high probability of ending in a setback (diplomatic or military) and little chance of achieving Washington’s objectives–especially its long‐​term ones.

At least 200,000–and ultimately perhaps 300,000–U.S. troops are gathering in Saudi Arabia. Does Saddam pose enough of a threat to U.S. vital interests to merit such a massive military response? Clearly, Iraq cannot jeopardize the most vital of American interests: the physical security and territorial integrity of the United States. Iraq is a powerful country by Third World standards, but in no sense is it a world power. (If Iraq had intercontinental nuclear weapons, the threat to U.S. security might be assessed differently. But it does not, and the United States–or other nations–can prevent Iraq from becoming a nuclear power without risking a major Middle Eastern land war.) Because the United States is not directly threatened, the Bush administration has scrambled to find reasons that will persuade Americans that their sons should be put in harm’s way in the Persian Gulf. Those reasons fall into two categories: the need to maintain access to Persian Gulf oil and the need to defend the international system against aggressor nations.

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