Stages of Deterrence: The Gulf War

Law & Theory Dec 31, 2019

By Kemal Kongar


After months of angling towards offensive military action, Iraq invaded, occupied, and legally annexed Kuwait in 1990. What followed was a year of diplomatic posturing and brinkmanship that culminated in the Gulf War. Aiming to answer the question: “Why was Saddam Hussein not deterred when facing foes with overwhelming military superiority?” this article will examine the tactics employed by actors in the conflict that aimed to deter the other from pursuing certain military strategies. Focusing on the Iraqi escalation, the coalition reaction, and the ceasefire, both conventional and unconventional weapon deterrence will be covered. While it would not be accurate to assume that Saddam was behind every single Iraqi action, both domestic and foreign, his unwavering grip over the state cannot be overstated. Thus, we will put great emphasis on Hussein’s psyche and political history since these things directly affected Iraqi policy. In other words, individual level analysis will be employed thoroughly to understand both the Iraqi and the American perspectives.

Deterrence Before the Invasion of Kuwait

Iraq’s debt-GNP ratio had ballooned after a costly war against Iran and was worsened by the state of oil prices around the world. Saddam Hussein thought that seizing Kuwait, which Iraq had a claim on rooting back to its formation in the early 20th century, would help alleviate the pressure on the Iraqi economy and boost his standing with the people. This made Iraq’s temporal horizon focused on short-term gains, increasing their risk tolerance and making them less likely to capitulate to foreign demands.

Although U.S. satellites picked up on Iraqi troop movements towards the Kuwaiti border, response to this clearly aggressive move was timid. Neighboring Arab states were quite reluctant to facilitate more American involvement in the region, making it difficult to make credible deterrent threats towards the Saddam regime. Without the support of key regional allies such as Saudi Arabia, the U.S. diplomatic mission found it impossible to respond to Saddam’s actions with anything but calls for peaceful solutions. Along with this lack of Arab support, there were other factored that led to the absence of solid military deterrence on the U.S.’s part.

Firstly, with the ongoing crisis in Soviet Europe, American attention was on the collapsing Gorbachev regime. This made them reliant on regional intel from Arab states, none of whom believed that Saddam was serious about the invasion.  Secondly, this belief of benignancy extended to the prevailing intelligence in the States. Even as the anti-American rhetoric ramped up in the months leading to the invasion, it was still assumed that Saddam had become a reformed, humbled man after the Iran-Iraq War. As Schneider puts it,

no one who understood Saddam Hussein’s volatile nature, his extreme ambition and his lifelong tendency toward violence should have been surprised. Just the fact that a strong military under his command resided next door to a poorly defended neighbor in Kuwait that was oil rich should have suggested vigilance in any crisis brewing between the two.”

While the unprepared nature of Iraq’s neighbors and Western powers can be explained through this misunderstanding of Saddam’s character, one must still explore the ineffectiveness of general deterrence before the invasion of Kuwait. While not signaling towards immediate military retaliation, the U.S. was still a major power in the region and continued to conduct naval drills. This makes it harder to understand Saddam’s indifference towards American involvement. However, looking at post-war interviews and analyzing his political history, one can reach certain conclusions about Hussein’s psyche going into the Gulf War.

On a personal level, using swift and brutal acts of violence, Saddam had always seized the moment during his rise to political omnipotence in Iraq. President Bush, his counterpart in the U.S., on the other hand, was an Ivy League educated career politician. Given the relative lack of information each had on the other’s motives and personality, it is not surprising that individual level analysis failed to convey the resolve each party had on upholding their state’s political interests through military means. Secondly, Saddam was convinced that the numerically superior Iraqi army would be able to inflict enough casualties to coalition forces to require a retreat. Six months before the invasion of Kuwait, Saddam publicly stated:

the weakness of a big body lies in its bulkiness.  All strong men have their Achilles heel.  Therefore...we saw that the United States departed Lebanon immediately when some Marines were killed...  The whole U.S. Administration would have been called into question had the forces that conquered Panama continued to be engaged by the Panamanian Armed Forces.    The United States has been defeated in some combat arenas for all the forces it possesses, and it has displayed signs of fatigue, frustration, and hesitation when committing aggression on other people’s rights and acting from motives of arrogance and hegemony.”

Clearly, the U.S.’s past failures in being able to retain public support for foreign intervention motivated Saddam to go ahead with military action. Then Secretary of State James Baker later claimed that nothing short of a massive escalation in troop count in the region could have deterred Iraq.

Deterrence Before the Coalition Invasion

Drawing lessons from Vietnam and Lebanon, Saddam assumed that if Iraqi troops could inflict enough casualties from their well-fortified positions in Kuwait, the American led coalition would have no option but to stop military operations for the sake of preserving domestic stability. Unfortunately for him, several inconsistencies in this strategy led to the failure of Iraqi deterrence. Firstly, the American commitment to Operation Desert Shield involved over half a million troops being stationed on the Iraqi border. Combined with the rest of the coalition forces, even on a quantitative level, the anti-Iraq military strength was certainly enough to match Saddam’s army. As a side effect, the U.S. bound itself to a military campaign against Iraq. Maintaining such a troop presence in the region long term would simply not have been possible. Thus, swift action had to be taken. The coalition needed to act fast and then get out for the sake of preserving popular support. This led to a zero-sum game where Saddam was effectively presented with an ultimatum: order a full retreat or face annihilation. As a result, he had no room to maneuver to ‘save-face’ before the Iraqi people, as any retreat would have been seen as capitulation to enemy demands. Furthermore, the true power of the coalition forces laid in their qualitative superiority. As Schneider wrote “It was clear to most military experts that the coalition would have control of the air and sea around Kuwait. Further, coalition ground forces had superior armor, superior artillery, superior mobility, superior training, superior protective gear against chemical and biological weapons, and superior intelligence.”.

Saddam clearly underestimated the technical capabilities the coalition forces had in disabling Iraqi defences, communications, and crucial infrastructure. As we have seen after the invasion, this resulted in minimal casualties for the allied forces and maximum casualties for the Iraqi forces.

A second part of the pre-invasion deterrence was the possible use of WMDs. As Saddam tried to provoke an Israeli response in order to break up the Arab forces in the coalition, there was real fear that unconventional weapons would be used on Israeli population centres. While this did not happen, the diplomatic signaling from all sides resulted in a heightening of tensions. It also helped legitimize the coalition’s aims, making the operation more popular. While Iraq did not have nuclear weapons, Saddam believed that his binary chemical weapons (such as VX and GB) would have been enough to demolish Israel, giving them armament parity[GS1] . A nuclear attack on Iraq would have resulted in the complete demolition of Israel, and vice versa. This created a relatively unprecedented international crisis where a nuclear first strike against a non-nuclear state was seen as a real possibility. As part of a larger American policy aiming to contain all sorts of WMD usage by hostile states, the U.S. took on the role of prime deterrent, signaling that the use of non-nuclear WMDs could in fact result in nuclear retaliation. James Baker later stated that the American deterrent strategy was ‘calculated ambiguity.’ This meant that President Bush and other high-ranking American officials’ comments could have been interpreted as threatening either nuclear retaliation or disproportionate conventional retaliation. In the case of WMD use by the Iraqi regime, the American government wouldn’t have to lock itself to a single military strategy. Overtly stating that nuclear weapons would be used in the case that red lines were crossed, and then not using them, would have had massive implications for nuclear deterrence legitimacy around the globe. It was also crucial not to give off the image that nuclear weapons were just another option in the United States arsenal. With the global order changing through the collapse of the Soviet satellite states, it was important not to fall into the Cold War trap of causing nuclear standoff through an underappreciation of the dangers of such weapons. This constrained response was key as the Israeli government indicated that it would be willing to introduce nuclear weapons to the region. This stance was reiterated by Secretary of Defense Dick Chaney, making it a credible threat.

In order to respond to the potential nuclear strike, Saddam ordered his top commanders to launch WMDs into Israel in the case of a communications breakdown with Baghdad. This created a dangerous precedent for the war since, while some commanders claimed that such an event only would have happened in the case of a nuclear attack on the capital, others indicated that the order to launch the missiles would be given in the case of a hostile siege or takeover of the city. Luckily for Israeli and the Iraqi people, the ceasefire after the liberation of Kuwait made this a non-issue.


Needing the oil revenue from Kuwait to secure his grip on Iraq, Saddam Hussein was willing to risk the lives of his citizens over a universally shunned invasion of a small neighboring state. What followed was a complex evolution in deterrence rhetoric involving the United States, Israel, and Iraq. With the risk of weapons of mass destruction being introduced into the theater, it is important to understand why the war did not go in Saddam’s favour. While each stage of deterrence during the crisis is unique, one underlying theme is the ambiguity of diplomatic cables from Iraq. Quite shockingly, the Iraqi deterrent strategy was never made public. Even though there were real risks of nuclear and chemical annihilation of several states and millions of people, it never occurred to Saddam to state his intentions, along with his red lines, clearly. A more transparent strategy could have secured Iraqi sovereignty through a heightening in the perceived risk of an invasion, removing the possibility of a coalition march on Baghdad. After the war, it was revealed that Saddam was ready to order the use of unconventional weapons if such an operation were to take place. The credibility of this order is strengthened by the fact that the Saddam regime used nerve agents shortly after the ceasefire in order to supress a large Kurdish uprising in Northern Iraq that threatened their grip on the state.

Another factor in the Iraqi defeat was the lack of swift military action possibilities by the central regime in Baghdad. With the coalition forces disrupting supply lines, communications, and infrastructure, it was impossible to get accurate and up-to-date information about the conflict. Coupled with his own commanders giving inaccurate information due to fear for their personal safety, Saddam simply did not have enough time to use his WMDs in order to prevent a possible invasion of the Iraqi heartland. It is reported that he was considering battle planes for the defense of key cities even as his frontline collapsed and the army started to rout.

In conclusion, the failure to deter Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War was caused by three primary factors. Firstly, with a short time-horizon, Iraq needed strong military deterrence to cancel the invasion of Kuwait as it was seen as a necessity for the state and the government to survive. This did not happen since the U.S. and its allies failed to understand the motives and determination of Saddam Hussein. In return, Saddam did not realize that the massive troop surge in Saudi Arabia was practically an ultimatum to withdraw from Kuwait since such a buildup could not have been maintained for long. Finally, the WMD stockpile in Iraq convinced Saddam that the coalition forces could not risk major military operations for the fear of retaliation through the use of chemical weapons. Combined, these factors led a small regional power not being deterred by a global superpower.


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