The Persian Gulf War

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Compare the first Gulf War and the 1990s Balkans wars, focusing on their nature and the US role.

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Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm (the former referring to the six month period of time during which the United States and its partners tried to negotiate with Iraq while preparing for the initiation of military actions intended to liberate Kuwait and the latter the actual military operations against Iraq) and Operations Deliberate Force and Noble Anvil (the respective code names for military operations during the two major Balkans conflicts of the 1990s involving Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo) differed greatly in a number of ways. The mission to liberate Kuwait following Iraq’s August 1990 invasion obviously occurred in the Middle East and involved a coalition of nations from both within and outside the region. There were clear lines separating combatants, as Iraq’s invasion involved the deliberate crossing of internationally-recognized borders (though Iraq’s main grievance involved an ongoing dispute regarding the demarcation of oil drilling rights between it and Kuwait). Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein felt emboldened to take this step through an act of diplomatic ambiguity on the part of the administration of President George H.W. Bush.

Once Operation Desert Shield transitioned to Operation Desert Storm—in effect, the military buildup in and around Saudi Arabia, the territory of which was used to stage the assault on Iraqi forces—the war was over very quickly. Because Saddam Hussein’s actions were a clear violation of international law, because of his record of brutality, and because President Bush had decided not to allow coalition forces to proceed all the way to Baghdad to remove Saddam from power, Operation Desert Storm enjoyed overwhelming international legitimacy. Six months of diplomatic efforts intended to convince Saddam to withdraw from Kuwait failed, and military action was deemed (by many but not all) as warranted.

When longtime dictator Josip Broz Tito died in 1980, it was assumed that the inherently fragile Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia would eventually break apart. While it took longer than anticipated for Yugoslavia to disintegrate, it finally did. In 1991, the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic and the Croatian leader Franjo Tudjman both sought to carve out large pieces of the predominately Muslim region of Bosnia-Herzegovina. This began a four-year war in which the concept of genocide returned to Europe for the first time since World War II (such were the scale of atrocities committed in particular by the Bosnian Serb militias and Serbian Army against the population of Bosnia-Herzegovina).

This is a little subjective, but one can argue that in contrast to the Bush administration’s quick and decisive decision to evict Iraqi forces from Kuwait, the United Nations’ conduct of diplomatic activities during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina were not only ineffective but also made the situation worse. U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and his special envoy for Yugoslavia, Japanese diplomat Yasushi Akashi, established rules of engagement guiding NATO military actions that were so restrictive in limiting NATO actions that Serbia and its Bosnian Serb allies were able to commit innumerable atrocities before the United States finally stopped the genocide.

The second Balkans War, which involved the region of Kosovo that Serbs view as the birthplace of their nation, was less protracted because the lessons of Bosnia-Herzegovina dictated that Serbian atrocities could not be allowed to occur with the kind of impunity that had been the case in the earlier conflict. The establishment of the Kosovo Liberation Army, comprised of ethnic Albanians determined to break away from Serbia, initiated an increased level of violence in the region that United Nations diplomacy again failed to restrain. While neither side in this conflict was without sin, Serbian military actions again crossed all lines of legality and morality with respect to human rights violations. Once US special envoy Richard Holbrooke announced the failure of diplomacy, NATO began airstrikes against Serbia that effectively ended the latter’s aggression (although problems remained in Kosovo and in Macedonia.

If one is going to compare Operation Desert Storm with Operations Deliberate Force and Noble Anvil, the similarities in terms of the effective use of American and allied air power in bringing about a relatively quick end to armed conflict are worth noting. If the comparison extends to the diplomatic efforts carried out by the United Nations, the contrast is clearer. The six-month period during which the United States and its partners consolidated military forces in the Persian Gulf Region while diplomats attempted to resolve the dispute without war stood in strong contrast to the more protracted periods of diplomatic activity during the two Balkans conflicts, especially during the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Awful atrocities, especially those carried out by Serbian militias at what was supposed to be a United Nations-protected refugee camp for Bosnian civilians at Srebrenica, took place while the world watched.

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