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The Absence of Grand Strategy

The United States in the Persian Gulf, 1972–2005

Steve A. Yetiv

Publication Year: 2008

Great powers and grand strategies. It is easy to assume that the most powerful nations pursue and employ consistent, cohesive, and decisive policies in trying to promote their interests in regions of the world. Popular theory emphasizes two such grand strategies that great powers may pursue: balance of power policy or hegemonic domination. But, as Steve A. Yetiv contends, things may not always be that cut and dried. Analyzing the evolution of the United States' foreign policy in the Persian Gulf from 1972 to 2005, Yetiv offers a provocative and panoramic view of American strategies in a region critical to the functioning of the entire global economy. Ten cases—from the policies of the Nixon administration to George W. Bush's war in Iraq—reveal shifting, improvised, and reactive policies that were responses to unanticipated and unpredictable events and threats. In fact, the distinguishing feature of the U.S. experience in the Gulf has been the absence of grand strategy. Yetiv introduces the concept of "reactive engagement" as an alternative approach to understanding the behavior of great powers in unstable regions. At a time when the effects of U.S. foreign policy are rippling across the globe, The Absence of Grand Strategy offers key insight into the nature and evolution of American foreign policy in the Gulf.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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List of Tables

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p. vii

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pp. ix-xi

All great powers, from the Romans to the Mongols, from the Spaniards to modern-day Americans, have ventured afar, sometimes to plunder and pillage and at other times to defend their security against real and imagined threats. In pursuing their varied goals, they have resorted to multiple approaches, some effective and others calamitous, ranging from the high stakes of unbridled force and hegemony seeking to the low jinks of...

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Introduction. No Grand Strategy

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pp. 1-17

Realists of various stripes assume that in a world of anarchy—one with no highly developed and effective government, police, laws, and community above the state level—states must help themselves. Anarchy breeds insecurity among states which pushes them to hedge their bets by balancing against the strongest state rather than bandwagoning (aligning) with...

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1. Exploring Great Powers in Regions

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pp. 18-27

The United States has faced profound threats and attempts at outright hegemony not only at the regional level from Iran and Iraq but also from outside states at the global level, which has complicated efforts to develop foreign policy toward the region. The Soviet Union played a key role in the international relations of the region in part of the period covered in this book. Hence, we need to consider U.S.-Soviet competition...

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2. The Nixon Administration’s Twin Pillars

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pp. 28-42

The Persian Gulf rose in importance in great-power jockeying during the two world wars of the twentieth century. But it was really after the discovery and large-scale development of oil, chiefly after World War II, that it gained larger global economic prominence. Indeed, the United States started to take stock of Saudi oil not only as an economic...

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3. The Reagan Administration and the Iran-Iraq War

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pp. 43-64

History is sometimes shaped by the sheer, grinding flow of minor events and processes and at other times forged by grand events, shocks to the system, sometimes in the same time period. In the Middle East, the events of 1979 were shocks and need to be understood if we are to make sense of the subsequent history in the region, the rise of the American regional profile, and the strategies that Washington chose to deal with complex threats...

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4. The Bush Administration and Constructive Engagement

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pp. 65-75

At the extremes, states can placate or confront other states in the effort to get them to do something that they otherwise would not do—the classic definition of a power or influence. Placating others can be a sensible strategy if it achieves this goal, but it can fail and simply strengthen the strongest actor. That is roughly what occurred in American foreign policy toward Iraq from 1988 until Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990...

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5. The Iraq War of 1991

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pp. 76-90

In August 1990, Iraq stunned a world still basking in the evanescent glow of the fall of communism and the end of the Cold War. Its brutal and unabashed invasion of Kuwait was a clarion signal that a new world order had certainly not yet dawned, much less shined, and might not be in the offing at all. Iraq’s invasion...

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6. The Clinton Administration and Saddam Hussein

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pp. 91-105

Despite the disastrous Iraq war and stringent postwar UN sanctions, Saddam Hussein was not overthrown and actually oversaw what appeared to be an ambitious program of postwar economic and military reconstruction. His resilience as a leader complicated U.S. foreign policy, but Iraq was not left to engage in adventurism. Rather, it faced containment first by the administration of the elder Bush and then under the Clinton administration’s...

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7. Containment-Plus and Regime Change in Iraq

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pp. 106-115

Containing Iran and Iraq proved to be a major challenge for the United States and its allies. Over time, dual containment became less tenable as a strategy, owing to international criticism, global noncooperation with Washington’s approach, enduring Iraqi intransigence, and Iran’s resurgence in the region.∞ Iran and Iraq defied sanctions with some efficacy, but partly because Iraq was viewed as a greater threat, its...

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8. The Iraq War of 2003

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pp. 116-144

The Iraq war was launched in March 2003, but U.S.-Iraqi tensions had been building throughout the 1990s. Although the 1991 war had severely weakened Iraq, not only did the wily dictator from Takrit fail to cooperate with UN inspectors as mandated by UN Resolution 687, but he acted as if he had weapons of mass destruction (WMD), which he evidently did not. The great irony was that he may well have thought...

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9. The Decline of Balance-of-Power Policy

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pp. 145-165

So far, this book has shown that the United States did not behave much as an active balancer in the Gulf region, although when it did balance, it did so more often against the most threatening state in the region than the strongest one. This chapter introduces a temporal dimension to this analysis. It first draws on the foregoing chapters to show that balance-of-power policy declined in America’s approach to the region...

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10. The Balance Sheet, So to Speak

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pp. 166-181

This chapter cycles back on the book and summarizes and elaborates upon its findings and arguments. It begins by evaluating balance-of-power and balance-of- threat policies and then draws on this analysis for an examination of the grand strategy of balance of power (active and offshore balancing) versus the grand strategy of hegemony...

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11. Theory, Strategy, and Realism

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pp. 182-191

Like all great powers in history, the United States has sought to secure and advance its interests in faraway regions. It has been slowly drawn into these regions and particularly into Middle East politics in the past two decades. American security became inextricably linked to events in the Persian Gulf, largely because the United States and the entire global economy had become dependent on oil. And the United States...

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Conclusion. Reactive Engagement

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pp. 192-197

The United States, like other great powers in modern world politics or in history, could have pursued a grand strategy, but this book strongly suggests that it did not do so. The core of this book showed that the United States did not often act as an active balancer, carefully seeking to manage the regional balance of power and to apply balance-of-power policy. And it was even less likely to act in this manner over time from...

Appendix: Core Interviews

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p. 199


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pp. 201-229


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pp. 231-244


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pp. 245-250

E-ISBN-13: 9780801896873
E-ISBN-10: 0801896878
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801887826
Print-ISBN-10: 0801887828

Page Count: 264
Illustrations: 1 map
Publication Year: 2008

OCLC Number: 549548210
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Absence of Grand Strategy

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Subject Headings

  • Middle East -- Foreign relations -- United States.
  • United States -- Foreign relations -- Middle East.
  • United States -- Foreign relations -- 1981-1989.
  • United States -- Foreign relations -- 1989-.
  • Iran-Iraq War, 1980-1988.
  • Persian Gulf War, 1991.
  • Iraq War, 2003-.
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