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Reviewed by:
  • The Gulf War of 1991 Reconsidered
  • John Mueller
Andrew J. Bacevich and Efraim Inbar , eds., The Gulf War of 1991 Reconsidered. London: Frank Cass, 2003. 186 pp. $36.95.

Conquest, one of the great staples in the history of the human race, has gone out ofstyle in recent decades. Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, in fact, marks the only [End Page 191] time a member-state of the United Nations has conquered another member-state and tried to incorporate it into its territory. The war that ensued a few months later to reverse Iraq's now-anachronistic act of conquest is the subject of this retrospective assessment. It consists of a set of essays that are crisp, focused, and well-edited (except for varying spellings of "Schwarzkopf") and that look at the conflict from Arab, Israeli, and American perspectives.

Michael Klare explores the impact of pre-war arms transfers from the West on Saddam's Hussein's preparations for invasion. Gregory Gause, Gabriel Ben-Dor, and Efraim Karsh assess the war's impact on the Arab world, and Efraim Inbar and Stuart Cohen do the same for Israel. Finally, Thomas Mahnken critiques U.S. strategy at the end of the war, and Andrew Bacevich surveys the war's effect on the United States.

One might reasonably conclude from this book that, viewed in broad perspective, the war was not a major historical event and that it actually had only a rather limited impact—although perhaps the Kuwaitis, scarcely mentioned by the essayists, might champion a different point of view. Cohen argues that the war at best highlighted and reinforced trends in Israel that were already under way. Mahnken laments (as have many others) that restraint at the end of the war failed to accomplish something truly significant, Saddam Hussein's ouster, which he seems to think could have been accomplished in 1991 simply by "continued US pressure on his regime" (p.135). Bacevich argues that the war scarcely ushered in the new world order hoped for at the time, and he finds its impact mostly in atmospherics: a "technological utopianism" that has sometimes encouraged tepid intervention elsewhere, the blurring of the distinction between military and civilian, and an unfocused belief in U.S. superpowerdom as reflected in embarrassing and arrogant vapidities (which he thinks play well in Peoria) such as Madeleine Albright's declaration that the United States is the "indispensable nation" because "we stand tall" and therefore can "see further into the future than other countries" (p.163). Karsh suggests that the war at best "underscored" some historical trends in the Middle East, including the decline of pan-Arabism and of the notion that there was, or is, a "clash of civilizations" between the area and the West (citing, however, a book published after the war that avidly promotes the idea). Karsh also believes the war demonstrated that great-power influence plays only a secondary role in the area, a judgment a number of Iraqi soldiers probably would dispute.

The book was sponsored by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Israel and there is, not surprisingly, a considerable emphasis on the role that Israel did, or did not, play in the conflict. In particular, some of the essays discuss what they take to be the dilemma Israel faced at the time. During the war, Iraq showered a few dozen wildly inaccurate Scud missiles on Israel that caused very little material damage and only a few casualties as noted by an Israeli authority cited by Cohen (p.92). Israel had threatened to retaliate if such attacks occurred, but the usual deterrence calculation was turned on its head in this instance because Saddam Hussein actually wanted to provoke a strike by Israel because, as Ben-Dor stresses, that would have shattered the remarkable support among Arab countries for the American-dominated [End Page 192] war (p.58). In other words, retaliation by Israel would have been really foolish.

Because the huge U.S. military machine was systematically destroying the most potent and threatening anti-Israeli army in the neighborhood, one would have thought that this factor alone would have been enough...