Deterrence in the Twenty-first Century

Deterrence in the twenty-first century - Air University Press


If this letter had included a stronger tone, one that emphasized

a threat to use military power to block any move by Iraq

to settle the dispute by means of the Iraqi Army taking over

Kuwait, Saddam might have put the invasion plan on hold. Using

20-20 hindsight, it is easy now to conclude that President

Bush’s letter, though reasonable on its face, was evidently not

the warning shot across the bow that the situation required.

The US response was too mild to influence a dictator who did

not play by any agreed-upon international rules and who was

bent on seizing a prize that could solve most of his financial

and security problems if his aggression went unopposed.

Saddam Hussein might have interpreted the mild US response

as a green light to do what he wanted to do. Certainly, it was not

a stern warning to cease and desist. He might well have calculated

that the United States was distracted elsewhere and that

it would not respond forcefully to a fait accompli. Kuwait might

have looked like a prize that could easily be taken, an immediate

benefit that could be realized with only a distant, intangible,

and uncertain risk being run in undertaking to occupy it. This

would fit with the pattern of Saddam Hussein’s operational code

at home and abroad: plan carefully, conceal your moves, and

then strike decisively and violently to achieve your ends. Also,

preemptively attack against your unprepared, unsuspecting, misled

opponent. Moreover, Saddam did not think the US leadership

had much of an appetite for combat or battle casualties, as

it had withdrawn when it had had its fill of casualties in

previous conflicts in Vietnam and Lebanon.

As former secretary of state James Baker notes in his memoir,

“With his flagrant move into Kuwait, Saddam Hussein’s ambitions

revealed themselves in all their grandiosity.” 20 The question

that comes to mind regarding this scenario is why the

United States did not do more to deter his attack on Kuwait. The

answer was that the Bush administration’s leadership was distracted

and simply did not anticipate such a violent move from

Saddam Hussein. James Baker further explained this point,


With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to argue that we should have recognized

earlier that we weren’t going to moderate Saddam’s behavior,

and shifted our policy approach sooner to a greater degree than we did.

At the least, we should have given Iraqi policy a more prominent place on


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