Making Sense of the First Iraq War

Making Sense of the First Iraq War

Image courtesy of Britannica.

Much of what goes on in the Middle East can be traced back to the Persian Gulf War (also known as the Gulf War, Desert Storm, the First Iraq War, and more). However, many people nowadays don’t know much about the war or what caused it. Here is a paper I wrote about a year ago which takes a look at the war and why it happened. Enjoy!

To understand and analyze the Persian Gulf War, it is necessary to take into consideration the decade or so preceding the war. Iraq’s previous war with Iran was partially responsible for the beginning of the Persian Gulf War. The Iran-Iraq war was a direct cause of the Persian Gulf War for the following reason: Iraq’s national mood was worsened by the stalemate with Iran. Specifically, Iraq’s immense war debts and casualties put Iraq in an extremely uncomfortable position.[1] During the Iran-Iraq War, Iran was simultaneously fighting Iraqi forces and attacking Kuwaiti oil tankers. This gave Kuwait a clear incentive to try to stop the Iran-Iraq War, and Kuwait loaned Iraq fourteen billion dollars to bring about the end of the war.[2] Iraq also owed more than twenty billion US dollars to a number of other Gulf creditors, which was due to be paid off by 1990, exacerbating Iraq’s debt issues.[3]

            Following the end of the Iran-Iraq War, Kuwait sought to collect on the loan it gave to Iraq during the war. Believing that Iraq had done Kuwait a favor of equal value to the loan by ending the war with Iran, Iraq asked Kuwait to dissolve the debt. Kuwait, however, believed that the loan should be repaid regardless of Iraq ending the war, leading the two countries to become more antagonistic towards each other. This antagonism occurred mainly in the form of OPEC negotiations, as Iraq asked OPEC countries to reduce oil production to increase the value of Iraq’s oil, allowing Iraq to repay its debt more quickly. Meanwhile, Kuwait sought to increase its production considerably, much to the dissatisfaction of Iraq.[4]

            The back-and-forth between Iraq and Kuwait continued for some time until it reached its climax when Iraq accused Kuwait of slant drilling. Slant drilling is a process of oil extraction which involves “drilling in a diagonal manner” – in this case, into Iraq’s Rumaila oil field territory just over the border – “meaning that Kuwait was stealing Iraq’s oil rather than taking their own.”[5] This is not a matter of speculation regarding the background for the Persian Gulf War – Saddam Hussein himself stated Kuwait’s practice of slant drilling as a reason for the invasion.[6]

            Another relevant historical aspect is the longstanding territorial claim Iraq has on Kuwait. Upon invading and conquering Kuwait, Hussein claimed that Kuwait was Iraq’s “nineteenth Province.” The labeling of Kuwait as an Iraqi province was by no means new – in fact, Iraqi president Abdul Kareem Qasim made this exact territorial claim in the 1960s. Hussein fully believed that this historical territorial claim was still relevant and applicable in 1990, and therefore his actions were justified. Additionally, Hussein believed that invoking this claim would cause his soldiers to fight with “greater vigor.”[7]

            Lastly, it is necessary to note the longstanding rivalry between Iraq and Iran, which predates their war and continues to this day. Each side has long been wary of the other, and this was especially true after the Iran-Iraq War concluded. Therefore, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait can and should also be attributed to an attempt to project Iraq’s power in the region. Hussein once said, “Ayatollah Khomeini and Iran would have occupied all of the Arab world if it had not been for Iraq.”[8] As is made evident by this statement, Hussein clearly views himself and Iraq as defenders of the rest of the Arab world against Iranian influence. Therefore, expanding Iraq’s territorial holdings in the Middle East and widening its sphere of influence are seemingly natural steps for Hussein and Iraq to take.

            As alluded to earlier, Iraqi-Kuwaiti relations were deteriorating well before the beginning of the war. The animosity between Iraq and Kuwait finally caused a hot war on August 2, 1990 when Iraq invading Kuwait due to Iraq’s inability to repay its war debts and allegations of slant drilling. The high-ranking members of the Kuwaiti government fled the country, and Kuwait was occupied in a matter of hours. In that time, the UN voiced its displeasure by condemning the invasion. A few days later, the UN placed sanctions on Iraq, hoping to pressure the Iraqi government into backing down. By August 8th – less than a week after the start of the war – Iraq formally annexed Kuwait and made it the country’s Nineteenth Province.[9]

            While much of the action occurred within Iraq and Syria, there was a great deal of activity among other countries, too. Arab countries were split on the Persian Gulf War with a number of countries supporting each side. Meanwhile, a coalition of thirty-nine countries – led by the United States – joined forces with the intention of repelling Iraqi forces from Kuwait if they did not voluntarily leave by January 15, 1991. Iraq did not comply, and the Allied Coalition began Operation Desert Storm by bombing Iraqi forces on January 16th. On February 24th, the Allied Coalition began its ground offensive in Kuwait. Two days later, Iraqi forces began to withdraw from Kuwait. The mass retreat caused what can only be described as a traffic jam, turning many retreating Iraqis into stationary targets, causing many to call this retreat the “Highway of Death.” Over the coming weeks, Iraqi forces continued to flee Kuwait, and Iraq agreed to a ceasefire agreement on April 6, 1991. On April 11th, the UN declared the Persian Gulf War officially over, although Kuwait was not entirely free of Iraqi forces until August 28, 1991.[10]

            The most important individual in the Persian Gulf War was, by far, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. As previously mentioned, there are a number of historical, political, and economic factors that can be used to explain the cause of the Persian Gulf War. However, none of these were capable of starting the war on their own or together. Saddam Hussein is ultimately responsible for the Persian Gulf War, as it was his decision to invade Kuwait in 1990. In Hussein’s eyes, war with Kuwait was the only solution to Iraq’s problems. Annexation of Kuwait would allow Iraq to take control of Kuwaiti oil reserves, cancel Iraq’s war debts, and expand Iraq’s power in the region.[11]

            The other key individual in the Persian Gulf War was George H. W. Bush, who was the President of the United States at the time. The Bush administration was caught off guard by the sudden invasion and occupation, but quickly gathered itself and condemned the invasion. Along with thirty-eight other countries, the US formed the Allied Coalition and began Operation Desert Shield, which was the buildup of coalition forces. On the home front, Bush sought to get the necessary domestic support to go to war, and he eventually got narrow congressional approval. On January 16, 1991, Bush’s forces led the Allied Coalition with massive air strikes, and the ground offensive commenced on February 24th. By March 6th, Bush declared “tonight, Kuwait is free.” President Bush masterfully led the Allied Coalition in repelling Iraqi forces and ending hostilities in only a few months.[12]

            The UN was the most important institution involved in the Persian Gulf War. The UN was initially responsible for condemning the invasion and placing sanctions and a trade embargo on Iraq. Militarily, the UN Security Council authorized the use of force against Iraq’s military and set the deadline for withdrawal for January 15, 1991. Although it was split by the conflict, rendering it largely ineffective, the Arab League was also important in that it showed the regional divide on the Persian Gulf War.[13] NATO was another important institution in the Persian Gulf War, most notably for its role in sending troops to Saudi Arabia to deter an Iraqi invasion.[14]

            The clearest consequence of the Persian Gulf War was the liberation of Kuwait following a relatively brief period of Iraqi occupation. Hundreds of thousands of Kuwaitis fled the country, while over a thousand Kuwaitis died at the hands of the Iraqi military. Iraq lost between twenty and thirty-five thousand soldiers.[15]

            Perhaps more important than the direct consequences of the Persian Gulf War are the indirect consequences. One cannot help but see the Persian Gulf War as a precursor to the Iraq War of 2003. Saddam Hussein contributed to the beginning of the Iraq War by suppressing any uprisings in Iraq, while the US contributed by instituting no-fly zones and economic sanctions.[16]

            One theory of international relations that can be applied to the Persian Gulf War is realism. Realism is a theory of international relations that focuses on international affairs as a struggle for power in an anarchic world. Realism also focuses on states as the main actors as they battle for increased power and security. This power is usually manifest in the form of military power, but can also be state diplomacy.[17] When analyzing the Persian Gulf War, the first portion of the war – the portion which involved only Iraq and Kuwait – is best analyzed from the dyadic level of analysis. The dyadic level of analysis is a level of analysis which focuses on a pair of states. The focus in the dyadic level of analysis is “the nature of pairs of states (dyads), that is, mutual or shared characteristics, and the interaction between these pairs of states. Here, the focus is primarily on patterns of that escalate in intensity and hostility and lead to war.”[18]

            The most relevant dyad in the Persian Gulf War consists of Iraq and Kuwait. As is consistent with realism, the aforementioned dyad can be analyzed by comparing the relative military power of each state. Relative military power is especially important in classical realism because of the importance placed on the distribution of power. According to classical realism, “parity is seen as good; it keeps the peace by deterring would-be aggressors.” On the other end of the power distribution spectrum is preponderance, which “undermines deterrence and tempts those who have it to go to war with weaker states.”[19] The temptation is present because relatively strong states are more certain of victory – or whatever goal they wish to achieve – and are also more confident in their ability to act unchallenged by the international community.

            The classical realist theory of power distribution is especially applicable to the Persian Gulf War. At the time of the invasion, the Iraqi military consisted of nearly one million men, 4,500 tanks, and hundreds of fighter jets and helicopters.[20] This made the Iraqi military the world’s fourth-largest fighting force.[21] Kuwait, on the other hand, had an army consisting of only 16,000 soldiers.[22] According to classical realists, this preponderance of power makes war within the Iraq-Kuwait dyad much more likely. On the topic of distribution of power, it appears as though classical realists are correct.

            While military power is often the primary form of power analyzed by classical realists, it is by no means the only form of power. Neo-realists are more open to studying other forms of power, as they tend to believe that power is a difficult thing to qualify and quantify. Neo-realists certainly believe that military power is extremely important, but are also more open to considering power as taking other forms, such as economic strength or control of resources. As with military power, neo-realists believe that states will act to maintain or increase their relative power when it comes to the economy or resources. Offensive realists – neo-realists who “take the position that anarchy compels all states to maximize their relative shares of global power” – argue that increases in power lead to an increase in security.[23] Offensive realists would surely recognize that control of a resource as vital as oil leads to increases in power and, by extension, security. Offensive realists would offer Iraq’s desire to control Kuwaiti oil reserves as another realist explanation for the Persian Gulf War. According to History, Iraq’s annexation of Kuwait gave Iraq control over twenty percent of the world’s oil reserves and substantial access to the Persian Gulf.[24] Oil revenues play a vital role in most Middle Eastern economies, and the Iraqi economy was no exception. Additionally, Iraq accused Kuwait of slant drilling and stealing Iraqi oil, giving Iraq another reason to invade Kuwait.[25] Controlling a greater amount of the world’s oil – as well as more territory – allowed Iraq to further project their power, which offensive realists would argue would also improve Iraq’s security.

            Another theory of international relations that can also be applied to the Persian Gulf War is idealism, which is also known as liberalism. Idealism’s alternative name of liberalism is appropriate in that idealism places a good deal of emphasis on basic liberal principles, such as free trade, diplomacy, and cooperation among states. It is worth noting that idealists view international politics as a combination of conflict and cooperation. Unlike hardline realists, idealists believe that cooperation is possible despite the anarchic international system. Rather than viewing the anarchic international system as a zero-sum game, idealists believe that international politics is a “nonzero-sum game where all sides can make mutual gains.”[26]

            The aforementioned liberal principles of free trade, diplomacy, and cooperation can be applied to better analyze the dyad of Iraq and Kuwait. Leading up to the Persian Gulf War, Iraq and Kuwait’s relations began to deteriorate. Perhaps the high point of Iraqi-Kuwaiti cooperation came during the Iran-Iraq War, which saw Kuwait loan Iraq fourteen billion US dollars.[27] Of course, it is worth noting that this cooperation was somewhat forced by the ongoing war, but this cooperation did certainly bring the two countries closer, even if it was just for the duration of the war.

            Given that such an important event of cooperation occurred soon before the Persian Gulf War, one may wonder how idealists would explain a war suddenly occurring. To answer this, idealists would point to the sudden breakdown in cooperation between Iraq and Kuwait. Soon after the end of the Iran-Iraq War, Kuwaiti officials asked Iraq to repay the loan. However, Iraq refused to repay the loan, believing Iraq had earned the fourteen billion dollars by putting an end to the war. Relations further deteriorated when Iraq asked OPEC members to reduce their oil production in an attempt to raise oil prices, which would allow Iraq to pay off debts more quickly. Many countries agreed, but Kuwait did the opposite and asked to increase its production by fifty percent. Lastly, the allegations of slant drilling were the last example of the two states failing to cooperate. After exhausting diplomatic and economic tactics, Saddam Hussein felt that his only option was to invade Kuwait.[28]

            Another idea central to idealism is the belief that anarchy is the key problem of the international system. Clearly, this belief best fits on the systemic level of analysis, which views war as “a product of some aspect of the structure of the international system itself – the balance of power within the system, the hierarchical structure of status and prestige in the system, or cycles of economic growth and decline embedded in the structure of the international system.”[29] The lack of international order inherent in anarchy makes wars more likely. Therefore, idealists argue that steps should be taken to lessen the likelihood of wars occurring. Among these steps are “international organizations, the creation of international regimes based on international norms and international law, and ultimately world governance.” Additionally, “international organizations that provide collective security can help to deter aggression.”[30] One such international organization that appeared in the Persian Gulf War is the United Nations.

            The UN intervened in the Persian Gulf War within hours of it beginning by condemning the invasion on August 2, 1990. Four days later, the UN imposed “an almost complete financial and trade embargo” on Iraq. By the end of August, the UN strengthened its sanctions by authorizing the use of military force to enforce the embargo. On November 29, the UN Security Council authorized the use of force against the Iraqi military if Iraq failed to leave Kuwait by January 15, 1991. Preparing for the inevitable use of force, thirty-nine nations – led by the US – formed a military coalition against Iraq. After Iraq failed to leave Kuwait, coalition forces began bombing Iraqi military targets on January 16. On February 24, coalition forces began a ground offensive to rid Kuwait of Iraqi forces, and on April 11th, the UN declared that the Persian Gulf War was over.

            While the actions of the UN are important, the reasoning behind the actions are especially relevant to idealists. The UN intervention in the Persian Gulf War is an example of the responsibility to protect (R2P). R2P is defined as all states having “a responsibility to protect their citizens from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. Additionally, states have the responsibility to “stand ‘prepared’ to take collective action in cases where national authorities ‘are manifestly failing to protect their populations’ from these four ills.”[31] Put more simply, states have a responsibility to protect their own citizens and, when other states cannot protect their own citizens, to protect other states’ citizens, too. UN intervention in the Persian Gulf War marked the first major occurrence in which R2P was invoked, and the success of UN intervention in the Persian Gulf War has served as a shining example of the benefits of humanitarian intervention.[32]

            A third theory that can be applied to explain the Persian Gulf War is Marxism. According to Marxism, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” The two classes are the bourgeoisie – the middle and upper class – and the proletariat – the working class – and Marxists believe that the bourgeoisie exploits the proletariat.[33] According to Marxists, all of politics is built upon an economic substructure, and politics functions as an expression of the economic differences between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. This has resulted in the bourgeoisie gaining control of governments and, by extension, the world by pulling “all nations, even the most barbarian, into civilization.”[34] Therefore, the bourgeoisie effectively has complete political and economic control.

            Due to the versatility of Marxism, it can be applied to the Persian Gulf War on the sub-state, state, and systemic levels. The sub-state level of analysis is a level in which it is argued that a relatively small number of individuals make a state’s decisions.[35] On a sub-state level, Marxists can point to the George H. W. Bush administration for evidence of the bourgeoisie exploiting the proletariat. Marxists, being generally cynical of the motives of those in power, such as George H. W. Bush, would argue that Bush’s desire to intervene in the Persian Gulf War was to preserve the US’s access to oil and prevent Iraq and its citizens from gaining any power. The Bush administration, being full of the bourgeoisie, would likely profit personally from preventing Iraq from controlling that much of the world’s oil supply.

            A similar argument can be made on the state level of analysis, which focuses on the nature of certain states that make them more or less likely to go to war.[36] For the state level of analysis, it is necessary to assume states are unitary actors and to divide the world’s states into two groups; the Global North and the Global South. The North consists of the wealthy or bourgeoisie states, while the South consists of the proletariat states. Marxists would argue that the Persian Gulf War can be explained on a state level using Marxism. Iraq sought to exploit Kuwait for its oil, causing Iraq to invade Kuwait. In turn, the United States sought to exploit Iraq’s newfound oil reserves, causing the United States to intervene in the Persian Gulf War. It is a common belief within Marxism that rich countries use state power to exploit poor countries in the international political economy, often through the use of force.[37] Although it occurred over a decade later under a different administration, many Marxists would point to the US’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 to support this claim.

            Lastly, Marxism can be used to explain the Persian Gulf War on a systemic level. As previously stated, Marxists believe that capitalists – that is, the bourgeoisie – effectively control the world. In other words, a “transnational capitalist class” has been created that runs the world’s political system.[38] The UN coalition that fought the Iraqi military consisted of the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and many other states which were and are wealthier than Iraq.[39] Additionally, the three aforementioned states – the US, the UK, and France – are all Western capitalist countries, supporting the argument of a “transnational capitalist class.” Furthermore, the United Nations – which played a large role in the Persian Gulf War – has aided in the spread of economic liberalism, which Marxists argue has contributed to the exploitation of the proletariat.

            Realism, idealism, and Marxism each offer their own unique perspective when analyzing the Persian Gulf War. While all make valid points, realism provides the most useful lens for interpreting and understanding the Persian Gulf War. Realism provides by far the best explanation of the initiation to the war by showing the various factors that made war more likely within the dyad. Classical realism explains the way in which a disparity in military power led to war, while neo-realism and, more specifically, offensive realism, explain how alternative forms of power – such as economic strength and access to resources – also made war more likely. Realism also does the best job of explaining the goals of the actors involved, as Iraq clearly wanted to dissolve its war debts and gain access to Kuwaiti resources. Realism also did a great job of explaining why Iraq was able to annex Kuwait so easily due to the difference in military power between the two states.

            While realism clearly provides a great lens through which to view the Persian Gulf War, analysis of this conflict could not be complete without recognizing idealism’s ability to explain the eventual outcome of the war. While realism can explain why Iraq invaded Kuwait and how Iraq annexed Kuwait so easily, it has trouble explaining why the UN and many of its member countries intervened. Idealism, on the other hand, champions the concept of R2P, which is the best explanation for why the international community intervened and ultimately liberated Kuwait and defeated Iraq.

Works Cited

“Army." Federation of American Scientists.

Bellamy, Alex J. "Realizing the Responsibility to Protect." International Studies Perspectives 10 (2009): 111-28.

Cashman, Greg. What Causes War?: An Introduction to Theories of International Conflict. 2nd ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2013.

Encyclopaedia Britannica, The Editors of. "Persian Gulf War." Encyclopædia Britannica.

Fitzgerald, Peter. "Causes of the Gulf War." The Finer Times.

"George H. W. Bush: Foreign Affairs." Miller Center.

"How the Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait Shook the World." The National.  world-1.616561.

"Igniting Iraq's Invasion of Kuwait – Loans, Land, Oil and Access." Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training.

“Iran-Iraq War,” History,

"Iraq Invades Kuwait."

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. Manifesto of the Communist Party. New York, NY: International Publishers, 2004.

Oatley, Thomas. International Political Economy. 5th ed. New York, NY: Routledge, 2016.

"Saddam States Reasons for Kuwait Invasion." GulfNews. July 21, 2009.

Snyder, Jack. "One World, Rival Theories." Foreign Policy, November/December 2004, 52-62.

"Timeline: Iraq's Invasion of Kuwait, 25 Years On." Al Jazeera.

Watson, Matthew. Global Political Economy. Edited by John Ravenhill. 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford           University Press, 2014.

Weiss, Thomas G., and Gareth J. Evans. Humanitarian Intervention: Ideas in Action. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2012.

[1] “Iran-Iraq War,” History,

[2] Peter Fitzgerald, "Causes of the Gulf War," The Finer Times,

[3] "Igniting Iraq's Invasion of Kuwait – Loans, Land, Oil and Access," Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training,

[4] Fitzgerald, “Causes of the Gulf War.”

[5] Fitzgerald, “Causes of the Gulf War.”

[6] "Saddam States Reasons for Kuwait Invasion," GulfNews,

[7] “Saddam States Reasons for Kuwait Invasion.”

[8] “Saddam States Reasons for Kuwait Invasion.”

[9] "Timeline: Iraq's Invasion of Kuwait, 25 Years On," Al Jazeera,

[10] “Timeline: Iraq’s Invasion of Kuwait.”

[11] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, "Persian Gulf War," Encyclopædia Britannica,

[12] "George H. W. Bush: Foreign Affairs," Miller Center,

[13] “Timeline: Iraq’s Invasion of Kuwait.”

[14] Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Persian Gulf War.”

[15] "How the Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait Shook the World," The National,

[16] “How the Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait Shook the World.”

[17] Jack Snyder, "One World, Rival Theories," Foreign Policy, November/December 2004, 52-62.

[18] Greg Cashman, What Causes War?: An Introduction to Theories of International Conflict, 2nd ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2013, 12.

[19] Cashman, “What Causes War?,” 376.

[20] “How the Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait Shook the World.”

[21] “Army." Federation of American Scientists.

[22] “How the Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait Shook the World.”

[23] Cashman, “What Causes War?,” 385.

[24] "Iraq Invades Kuwait,",

[25] Fitzgerald, “Causes of the Gulf War.”

[26] Cashman, “What Causes War?,” 170-1.

[27] Fitzgerald, “Causes of the Gulf War.”

[28] Fitzgerald, “Causes of the Gulf War.”

[29] Cashman, “What Causes War,” 12.

[30] Cashman, “What Causes War?,” 171.

[31] Alex J. Bellamy, "Realizing the Responsibility to Protect," International Studies Perspectives10 (2009): 111-28.

[32] Thomas G. Weiss and Gareth J. Evans, Humanitarian Intervention (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2012): 1-4.

[33] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party (New York, NY: International Publishers, 2004): 9.

[34] Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party.

[35] Cashman, What Causes War?, 12.

[36] Cashman, What Causes War?, 12.

[37] Thomas Oatley, International Political Economy, 5th ed. (New York, NY: Routledge, 2016): 12.

[38] Matthew Watson, Global Political Economy, Edited by John Ravenhill, 4th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014): 44.

[39] Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Persian Gulf War.”

Economic Liberalism Just Leads To Liberalism

Impeachment Moves Forward, Democrats Move Backward

Impeachment Moves Forward, Democrats Move Backward