The Persian Gulf War

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How did the First Gulf War and the Balkan Wars differ in nature, US leadership, and international cooperation?

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Both of these conflicts were the long-term result of the breakup of empires after World War I.

The Balkan countries had been part of the Austrian and Ottoman Empires prior to the twentieth century. Both of these empires collapsed during World War I (1914–1918), and the victorious Allies created a new country, Yugoslavia, by bringing together at least seven nationalities: the Serbs, Croats, Montenegrins, Macedonians, Slovenians, Bosnian Muslims, and Kosovar Albanians. These ethnic groups, for the most part, had little love for one another, but the country was held together by powerful leadership for most of the next seventy years. With the collapse of Communism in 1991, Yugoslavia broke up into states whose boundaries were disputed, and the results were the Bosnian and Kosovar wars of the 1990s.

The nearly contemporaneous Gulf War was also ultimately the result of artificial boundaries long before established by outside powers. The Ottoman Empire had contained the various Arab countries which are now independent. Iraq as a sovereign state was simply a creation of borders drawn by the British after World War I. In 1991, Saddam Hussein arbitrarily decided that Kuwait, as well, "belonged to" Iraq, just as Serbian leaders believed that areas claimed by other Balkan ethnic groups should be part of Serbia.

The difference between the Balkan situation and that of Iraq/Kuwait was that the former was based on the continuation of centuries-old ethnic and religious conflict. Serbian nationalists, who were Eastern Orthodox Christians, were opposed to having "their" land taken by either the Roman Catholic Croats or the Muslims of Bosnia. Though religious conflict exists in the Arab world (especially between the Sunni and Shia groups), this was not the cause of the Iraqi takeover of Kuwait. This event was simply a power grab by a leader (Saddam) who was disgruntled over what he considered the arbitrary sovereignty of oil-rich Kuwait and its wealthy rulers.

In both cases, the international response was led by the United States, but this was partly by default, owing to an international dynamic in which no one else wanted or was able to play a leadership role. The European powers, ever since the devastation of World War II, have been reluctant to engage in any military ventures, even when a problem is occurring on their own continent. In general the United States has taken on the "policeman of the world" role; in the Middle East, no other country would take any initiative, though George H.W. Bush was able to put together a huge coalition to oppose Saddam's incursion into Kuwait. And because the Soviet Union was itself on the verge of collapse, Mikhail Gorbachev had neither the will nor the ability to oppose the United States in its attack on what was a nominal ally of his, Iraq. Iraq was clearly seen to have taken an action against international law in invading Iraq. In the Balkans, the situation was somewhat more ambiguous, though the Serbs were considered aggressors who had little if any justification for their actions. In fact, their campaigns in both Bosnia and, later, Kosovo were considered genocidal by much of the international community.

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