A quarter of a century ago on 2nd August 1990, the first major international crisis of the post-Cold War world began. After months of objections by Iraq for Kuwait to reduce their oil production and cease flooding the international marketplace, thus harming the profits of an Iraq still crippled economically by a long and destructive conflict with Iran, Saddam Hussein gave the green light for a military invasion. 100 000 Iraqi soldiers crossed the border into Kuwait around 2 am. By 2 pm, they were in full control of the country.

While this act caught the international community off-guard, what followed over the next seven months was an unprecedented diplomatic and military effort, led by the United States, which saw a precise multilateral military operation to remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait. It took a little less than five weeks in total, and a ceasefire was reached 100 hours after ground operations began. It was an unquestionable military and international diplomatic success, leading George H.W. Bush to coin the infamous phrase “the New World Order”, in which America would achieve its national interests and goals in concert with its allies and with broad international approval. The Cold War was officially over, and multilateral diplomacy and a credible UN would establish the rule of law internationally. It was arguably the high point of US hegemony.

With the benefit of hindsight, the Gulf War now looks less like a template for the conflicts to come, but rather a complete anomaly. A war with clear beginning and end dates, fought between two conventional armies, won by a multilateral coalition working strictly to the objectives and mandate bestowed upon them by multiple UN Security Council resolutions. In many ways, the completeness of the coalition victory in the Gulf War reinforced and guaranteed the failures of US foreign policy in the following years. And while it would be unfair to point the finger of blame directly at the Gulf War for the current state of chaos in Iraq and the wider Middle East region (the lion’s share of that blame would have to be directed at the Gulf War’s sequel, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which shared very little in common with its predecessor), the lessons taken from the Gulf War by the US and other powers would prove vital in the events and outcomes that would follow in the Middle East over the next 25 years.

First and perhaps most obviously, the failure of economic sanctions placed on Iraq during the Gulf War to force their withdrawal from Kuwait, and the subsequent overwhelming speed and success of the military operation to remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait created a dangerous precedent in US foreign policy. Of course, sanctions did not work in this case because Hussein viewed the invasion as a matter of life and death for Iraq, much in the same way that Russia views Ukraine today. No amount of diplomatic or economic sanctions would prevent or avert their actions in their own geopolitical spheres. However, the US’s readiness to use military force in later international conflicts, even when diplomatic options had not been exhausted, would prove to be a major downfall of post-Cold War US foreign policy.

This readiness to use military force was also compounded by the Gulf War’s unprecedented media coverage and portrayal as a ‘surgical’ war. This was the first war in which the public were able to see several military innovations, such as camera-equipped high-tech weapons being deployed against Iraqi targets. Images of precise aerial bombing and the use of night vision equipment allowed for continuous coverage of the war, but also allowed the US military to control the imagery of the conflict. Whilst the US public gained an appreciation for the military capabilities of aerial assault with little risk to coalition forces, the Gulf War created a reliance on such technology and military tactics which has directly lead to the US’s current drone-centric military policy, and with it hundreds of civilian casualties across the Middle East, sowing the seeds for the rise of fundamental extremism.

Perhaps most importantly, the Gulf War’s resounding military success taught the most persuasive lesson to the opponents of the US: conventional warfare is dead. Both state actors like Iran and non-state actors like al-Qaeda learned that military and strategic success against the US would be best achieved through covert means; subversion, sabotage, terrorist attacks, and local proxies instigating destabilizing acts of civil unrest and low-level violence within Middle Eastern countries. When the US launched largely unilateral military operations in the 2000s within Afghanistan and Iraq to prevent terrorist attacks and the development of WMDs, it quickly became apparent that the swift military-based victories of the past were no longer an achievable goal.

The Middle East in which the Gulf War took place is largely gone now. In its place is a simmering regional conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, nations like Syria and Iraq on the brink of becoming failed states, and terrorist groups like ISIS gaining unprecedented funding and power. In the end, the Gulf War did not usher in a new world order, but it did set us on the pathway to the current anarchy that now reigns in the Middle East.  

Words by Wade McCagh