Rather Be


Explaining Foreign Policy: US Decision-Making & the Perisan Gulf-War

By: Steve A. Yetiv

Steve A. Yetiv is a Political Science and International Studies professor at Old Dominion University. He is the author of seven books that mostly pertain to foreign policy, energy security and decision making. The latest of these titles was published in 2015.

A War for Peace

By: Matthew Keasberry

How did the United States make the decisions that took it to war in the Persian Gulf in 1991, and why did it choose war.” Steve A. Yetiv attempts to answer this question to the full extent in his book Explaining Foreign Policy: US Decision-Making and the Persian Gulf War. Yetiv’s main focus is to explain the behavior and decisions of the US government leading up to the first Persian Gulf War. Rather than focusing on the battles and technology used in the war, Yetiv describes the conflict by delving into the actions and thought processes of key players in the conflict and its effect on the US, a US that during that time grasped to understand the changing world, as then Secretary of State James Baker put it, “We were living in a revolutionary time. What I had known all my life had changed. We weren’t thinking about balance of power in the Middle East because power was changing all over the world.”1

Yetiv begins with a brief overview of the Gulf war and its aftermath. In the introduction Yetiv states “ It proved to be one of the defining events of the 1990’s, an anachronism that clashed with visions of a more peaceful post-cold war era.”2 The US had a desire to set up a new world order in the post cold war era that would help to avoid major conflicts. Yetiv then explains the five perspectives used throughout his book which are the Rational Actor Model (RAM), Cognitive, Domestic Politics, Groupthink, and the Governmental Politics Model. Yetiv calls the use of these five perspectives the “integrated approach.” The final parts of the introduction talk about the importance of the individual throughout this conflict, namely George H.W. Bush and Saddam Hussein as the key players in the conflict. Chapter one gives more background information on the Persian Gulf conflict. The US understood the strategic importance of the Persian Gulf as far back as the 1930’s. When the British pulled out in 1971, the job of maintaining regional stability was handed to the US. In the 70’s, the region experienced instability due to events such as the Iranian Revolution, Iranian Hostage Crisis, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. At the time, the US was wary about intervention because of the ongoing cold war and “Vietnam syndrome.” The 1980’s only got worse as war broke out between Iran and Iraq which lasted eight years, during which Iraq received massive amounts of aid from the US allowing Iraq to amass a large army that surpassed any in the region. Yetiv then discusses US interests beginning with the “oil factor”, with Kuwait under its control Iraq now controlled 19 percent of the world’s oil, if Iraq were to engulf nearby Saudi Arabia it would then control 44 percent of the world’s oil supply effectively shifting the balance of power in the Middle East and effecting economies all over the world. An important task of the US government was getting Saudi Arabia to allow US troops in their kingdom for Operation Desert Shield, and obtaining support from a very anti-west Arab world. Yetiv makes a point at the end of the chapter by saying that the war was not just about oil, the end of the Cold War made it possible for a new world order to be created, the basis of it being “an era in which the aggressive use of force was unacceptable, in which it would be rejected through collective security, and in which great power cooperation was possible and necessary.”3 Scowcroft, a former national security advisor under Bush, portrayed the US vision for the post cold war world, a vision that would soon be under attack.

Chapters two and three cover the Rational Actor Model (RAM) and Cognitive Processes. The goal of the Rational Actor Model is to maximize the perceived national interests. The RAM perspective and its potential involvement in decisions pertaining to the Persian Gulf are summed up by Yetiv when he states “The Persian Gulf Crisis allowed Washington to transform feelings about a new era into a more pliable vision and approach, while simultaneously advancing its national interests and asserting its global primacy at a time that it was viewed, in some quarters, as in decline, as a country that might be eclipsed by a rising Germany or Japan.”4 This is describing the RAM perspective because it speaks of the interest of the US to retain its global dominance. This perspective displays that the reason that the government went to war was to protect national interests such as oil and to increase its power. In chapter three, the Cognitive Perspective is described by Yetiv. A topic covered in this chapter is the effect of historical analogies on the people involved in the conflict with a large focus on the cognitive process of President George H.W Bush. The historical analogies used in this chapter are based off the events of the Munich Pact and the Vietnam War. The Munich Pact made by Neville Chamberlain made an attempt to appease Hitler by giving him Czechoslovakia. This historical analogy heavily affected Bush who suffered through World War II. He personalized this issue and began to compare Saddam Hussein to Hitler; the use of emotional rhetoric did not help with rising tensions. Bush and his inner circle who made many of the decisions leading up to war commonly referred to this analogy and said that the US needed to take a stand and prevent a similar situation from occurring. A main focus of the chapter is Bush’s thought process. He felt that compromising with Saddam Hussein would make him into a modern day Chamberlain. Because of this, Bush would be less likely to negotiate and instead move towards war. The second analogy was based on the Vietnam War. This analogy created inconsistent expectations for both sides. It made Saddam believe that the US would shy away from war and that the US did not have the resolve to fight a ground war against Iraq which had no trouble accepting casualties unlike the US. The Vietnam Analogy had the opposite effect to what Saddam believed, in Bush’s words “when this war is over we will have kicked, once and for all the so-called Vietnam Syndrome.”5 To summarize, the Vietnam analogy made both sides push for war instead of negotiations.

Domestic politics is the topic of the fourth chapter. The goal of the Domestic Politics perspective is to use something else to distract from domestic concerns, or to further the goals of a political party. Once again, Bush is the focus of this as he used the war as a distraction from his floundering domestic record and the recent tax hike he made. The war caused his approval rankings to skyrocket and secured his legacy. In chapter five, the Groupthink theory is covered, which consists of a group of “like minded decision makers that make defective decisions and group insulation from sources that do not share the same ideology or opinions.”6 A prime example is the “Group of 4”, Bush’s inner circle consisting of Bush, Vice-President Dan Quayle, National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, and Chief of Staff John Sununu. This was an insulated group of like minded decision makers that had a profound effect on the decision to go to war. In terms of how this played a part in the war, the Groupthink mentality in Bush’s inner circle made war inevitable because there was no one in the group pushing for negotiations because they all pushed for war.

Chapter six covers the Governmental Politics Model which provides insight on the Persian Gulf conflict by showing decision making leading to war influenced by the advancement of agency interests. Bush’s statement that the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait would not stand was an action by the U.S. government that showed it was moving away from economic sanctions and moving towards a more forceful removal of Iraq from Kuwait. The United States followed this statement up by doubling U.S. troops in the area with 200,000 soldiers in November. Chapter seven serves as a reflection on all of the mentioned perspectives and how they played a role in the path to war. Chapter eight pertains mostly to Bush and how he attempted to convince the public to go to war; he commonly resorted to emotional rhetoric “Using the lens of Munich, Bush saw Saddam as evil, implacable, rapacious and as a leader who needed to be cut down in size.”7 The chapter focuses on Bush as a driving force; Bush favored the war option and was a key player in gathering up the necessary coalition forces. Yetiv makes the point of saying that “the war is an example of the significant power of the presidency.” He was able to have such successes and establish a 38 nation coalition force for Operation Desert Shield which included Middle Eastern nations and Russia, with support from economic powerhouses such as Japan and Germany. This truly diverse force increased confidence in the wars results because the US had the support of the world’s most powerful nations.

Chapter nine brings up the Group of 8 which was Bush’s inner circle, and how the perceived casualty figures effected the administration’s decisions. “The Department of Defense estimated 10,000 casualties...,”8 by the end of the war the coalition casualties were numbered at 300. As the war got closer, the US became more confident because of the huge coalition force built up in the Gulf which included more than 500,000 US soldiers. Worldwide support and military information on Iraq from Russia bolstered the United States’s confidence leading up to Operation Desert Storm. On August 2nd, Desert Storm began with a thunderous bombardment that effectively annihilated Iraqi air and ground defenses. A ceasefire was announced on February 28, 1991, with most of Iraqi resistance gone. The purpose of Chapter 10 is to tell the audience that the integrated approach can be used for more than just the Persian Gulf War. The final chapter of the book answers the question “was the war in Iraq a success.” The obvious answer is yes; the US led coalition decimated the Iraqi army in a massive ground and air campaign with little casualties for the coalition. The U.S. also achieved their goal of freeing Kuwait and reestablishing Kuwait’s government. In the short run, the U.S. achieved their goal of regional stability; however, the mistake of allowing Saddam Hussein to remain in power would later destabilize the region again in the 2003 Iraq war. The stated reason for not marching into Baghdad to remove Saddam was that it would have been harder to find a leader for Iraq and a strong Iraq was needed in the region to maintain stability and to keep Iran from rising to be the dominant regional power. The administration was criticized for ending the war to soon, but Bush wanted to pull out to avoid getting stuck in the Persian Gulf and doing more than the coalition’s mandate. The end of the chapter is dedicated to connecting the 1991 Gulf war to the 2003 Iraq war which was a recent event at the time of this book’s publishing.

Throughout his book, Yetiv wanted gives insight on the decisions leading up to the First Persian Gulf War, by explaining foreign policy decisions through five different perspectives which includes the Rational Actor Model (RAM), Cognitive, Domestic Politics, Groupthink, and the Governmental Politics Model. Yetiv believed that the use of multiple perspectives which he calls the “integrated approach” can, and should be applied to major historical events as the Persian Gulf Crisis and that the only way to truly understand the decisions being made is to learn the five major perspectives and their effect on the crisis. By doing this, Yetiv provides insight on Bush and his inner circle which called for war,and some insight into the mind of Saddam Hussein and why he never backed down even as tensions increased. Yetiv clearly explains governmental behavior during the crisis and how the “existence of a real, live enemy imparts vitality to our doctrine and makes our blood circulate.”9 Essentially stating the unifying effects of an accepted enemy.

Steve A. Yetiv is a political scientist and professor at Old Dominion University, he is the author of multiple books that tend to focus on U.S. foreign policy, decision making, and energy security. Yetiv tends to keep his work fact based, rather than heavily opinionated. While the book focuses primarily on the buildup and aftermath of war instead of the fighting itself, the book still gives insight that is necessary to understand the conflict. This book was published in 2004 right after military operations in the 2003 Iraq War ended, and Yetiv connected the two conflicts at the end of the book and talked about the consequences of the First Persian Gulf war and its varied success stating “Just as fast as the euphoria of military victory came, it went away, to be replaced by stark realities. In 1991, Operation Desert Storm was a success, but the patient lived-and proceeded to suppress brutally the Kurdish and Shia uprisings.”10 Shows that even though the U.S. succeeded it was only short term, and the failure to get rid of Saddam made the war’s success up to interpretation.

The overall reviews of the book are positive, since they generally praise Yetiv for producing a well researched book on foreign policy analysis. A review of this book done by Richard Herrmann, a political science professor at Ohio State University, said that the book was a “fresh and interesting contribution that brings together competing decision making theories to produce a rich interpretation of the event.”11 Herrmann goes on to say that another reason he found the book interesting was because Yetiv considered both U.S. and Iraqi decision making processes leading up to war which granted more insight into the conflict overall. A second review of this book by Dr. Laura Neack, a political science professor at Miami University is more critical of Yetiv stating that the book “would have been more successful if it offered the five perspectives as competing models rather than as approaches that would be integrated.”12

Explaining Foreign Policy: Decision-Making and the Persian Gulf War was a detailed and highly informative account of the Persian Gulf War. The use of five perspectives provides valuable insight into the decisions made and the people who made them which ultimately led to war, a situation described as “not having a recipe for reversing.”13 Analysis of the cognitive processes of Bush and Saddam along with the connections to the 2003 Iraq war greatly increases the reader’s understanding of the war’s upbringing and its aftermath. Along with that, it provides interesting sides of the story not commonly covered such as the effect of historical analogies on the war.

The book does well to document the social, political, and economic changes brought around by the end of the Cold War and rising terrorism. Yetiv mentions how the military success in the Gulf War helped to kick the “Vietnam Syndrome,”14 and how military involvement in the Persian Gulf created even more anti-American sentiment in the region leading to terrorism in the future. The impact of technology is mentioned in the book. Yetiv mentions how the superior weapons technology possessed by the U.S. made the war a complete mismatch, along with that he brings up how well documented the war was because of the rise in media. The war was fully covered on television.

The First Persian Gulf War was the first major post cold war crisis. Yetiv’s greatest skill is his ability to explain the decisions leading up to war without affecting the explanation with bias, while at the same time, putting together a thoroughly detailed book covering the crisis and its aftermath. His use of the “integrated approach”15 greatly enhances the reader’s ability to understand the conflict in a new light.

[1] Yetiv, Steve. Explaining Foreign Policy: US Decision-Making and the Persian Gulf War. John Hopkins University Press, 2004. 2.
[2] Yetiv, Steve. 1.
[3] Yetiv, Steve. 37.
[4] Yetiv, Steve. 38.
[5] Yetiv, Steve. 80.
[6] Yetiv, Steve. 105.
[7] Yetiv, Steve. 158.
[8] Yetiv, Steve. 188.
[9] Yetiv, Steve. 89.
[10] Yetiv, Steve. 222.
[11] Herrmann, Richard. Rev. of Explaining Foreign Policy: US Decision-Making and the Persian Gulf War. Review from John Hopkins University Press.
[12] Neack, Laura. Rev. of Explaining Foreign Policy: US Decision-Making and the Persian Gulf War. thefreelibrary.com2005
[13] Yetiv, Steve. 28.
[14] Yetiv, Steve. 80.