The Kuwait Crisis: Sanctions, Negotiations, and the Decision to Go to War (Case Study #14)

(1990, reprinted in 1996)

On the first anniversary of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, President George Bush offered the following analysis of the efforts of the United States and its coalition partners: "What liberated Kuwait was an unprecedented effort, one that brought together most of the international community, initially in support of sanctions, ultimately in support of military force and always consistent with the principles and resolutions of the United Nations."

Yet one month later, UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar in his annual report characterized the UN efforts to resolve the Kuwait crisis as "a startling failure of collective diplomacy."

How could two people so intimately involved in the same event arrive at such opposite evaluations of its success?

Iraq's invasion of Kuwait represented the first major challenge to the post-Cold War visions of a "New World Order" for the maintenance of peace and security. For the first time the United States had to decide how to use its position as the world's sole superpower to assist in resolving an international crisis.

While the UN moved swiftly to condemn the invasion and to impose economic sanctions, much of the pressure for UN approval of military action came from the United States. Iraq's actions presented the United States with the task of balancing the allure of traditional forms of military force and great power-pressure diplomacy with attempts to define and advance the concept of common security.

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