Conflict and Levels of Analysis

The Gulf War in 1991

Term Paper, 2009

10 Pages, Grade: 1,3


The Gulf War in 1991

In the midst of a dissolving bilateral world order – one of the former superpowers rapidly declining, the other one being left as the only future superpower – new international conflicts popped up – as in the case of the second Gulf War in 1991. The causes for this conflict are various. For reasons of clarity, I am subsequently going to explain in Kenneth Waltz’ spirit several causes on the three levels of analysis, i.e. the individual level, the state and the systems level. By means of a literature analysis I will discuss why Iraq seized Kuwait and in consequence, the international community of states stepped in – with a particular focus on the USA due to their leading role in this war. But first of all, I am going to outline the conflict itself.

The conflict

Three main phases can be distinguished (Kjeilen 2008): 1. Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait, 2. following diplomatic negotiations and sanctions against Iraq and 3. the allied attack on Iraq.

On 2 August 1990, Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait, annexing the country as 19th province of Iraq (for facts and a timetable compare BBC 2008 and Filzmaier et al. 2006, p. 167). Hence, the United Nations sharply condemned Saddam Hussein’s act and imposed altogether twelve resolutions to achieve Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait (among them Resolution 660, demanding Iraq’s immediate retreat, and Resolution 661, imposing economic sanctions on the country, BBC 2008), and set the deadline of 15 January 1991 for compliance. After five months of fruitless negotiations the UN Security Council finally authorized military force to liberate Kuwait.

On 16 January 1991, a multinational coalition – comprising in its majority democratic states, but also of course, the indirectly threatened Arabic neighbours (CNN 2001), started a military intervention (among others the US operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm). This coalition was led by the United States who provided for two thirds of the allied forces. In consequence, Saddam’s brief “guest performance” ended quickly on 27 February after only five weeks of combats, finally resulting into a ceasefire between the conflict parties. In April 1991, the truce actually went into effect.

Three levels of analysis

Where we after all see the causes for such a conflict like the Gulf War depends on our respective theoretical lenses, according to our particular prevailing view (see Mingst 2004, p. 80). These lenses – or levels of analysis – decide whom we identify as relevant key actors (or units of analysis). There is no uniform or fixed number of levels of analysis, but in general scholars deploy between three and five levels, according to which theories can be organized. So e.g. Robert Jervis uses four levels of analysis (Jervis 1976, p. 15).

Maybe the most famous approach was designed by Kenneth Waltz. In his 1959 book Man, the State, and War he explains the causes of war by distinguishing three levels (or “images”): the individual, the state, and the international system. On each level can be found causes that lead to international conflict. The first level focuses on the actions of individual human beings, taking certain effects on international relations. The second level concentrates on domestic factors within the state, while the third level emphasizes characteristics of the international system.

While the arguments for why wars occur are rather general on the systemic level (theory can be applied quite universally), they become more and more specific via the state- towards the individual level, where reasons as a rule can be only applied to specific states, groups or persons whose decisions are usually unique each time (compare Rousseau’s triangle of the levels of analysis, 2008, p. 4). Last but not least, different perspectives on the respective levels result in distinct approaches for conflict solutions.

1. The individual level – Why Iraq seized Kuwait

On this level various actor theories are situated (like e.g. Jervis’ approach of cognitive dissonance from 1976). The primary cause of war substantiates „in the inherent sinfulness and avariciousness of man” (Singer 1960, p. 454), which means that “moral principles of individuals may translate into that of nations” (Webber 2008). Human nature gives rise to certain behaviour, being based e.g. on the stupidity of some single decision-makers, on pure egoism or on personal preferences of a specific individual, which in turn can lead to conflicts and war.

The main actor on the individual level with regard to sparking off the second gulf war through occupying Kuwait is the former Iraqi leader himself – Saddam Hussein. I must note that several of the subsequently outlined aspects could also be placed on the state level. However, as Saddam was Iraq’s undisputable autocratic ruler, with all decisions finally made by him, the respective points are placed within the individual level.

Individuals-as-actors theories (Wolfers 1976, p. 4) explain motives and choices that led power-seeking dictator Saddam (“drive for supremacy”, Washington Post 1990) to the occupation of Kuwait. In this case, Saddam’s attack on the one hand presented an obvious opportunity to provide his country with expected gains in terms of securing valuable oil reserves (Saddam accused Kuwait of taking Iraq's oil through slant drilling, thus jeopardizing Iraqi interests by illegally exceeding the OPEC-quota), and furthermore strategic advantages through a large access to the gulf (Filzmaier et al. 2006, p. 167). On the other hand, he was convinced that Kuwait for historic reasons anyway belonged to Iraq, “seeking to redress what he believed to be an illegal situation inherited from the British colonial empire – the independence of Kuwait”, since areas of the southern oil fields in fact had belonged to the Iraqi Basra province before colonization (Mingst 2004, p. 56).

However, according to Jervis the most important cause for conflict lies in man’s own (miss-)perceptions and beliefs about the world (often differing from reality), and hence specific behaviour in terms of decisions following out of it (1976, p. 28f.). Saddam was deceived in the assumption that the international community, being in the midst of the dissolution of the bipolar world order, wouldn’t react as fiercely to his step. Their putative distraction by the bedlam of that time made Saddam more confident in his actions. In addition, US ambassador Glaspie’s ambiguous statement as to supporting Iraq’s interests could have made Saddam even more reliant that he had nothing to fear (Mingst 2004, p. 56). This is a vivid example how “decision-makers are faced with a large number of competing values, highly complex situations, and very ambiguous information”, leading to poorly reconsidered decisions and policies (Jervis, 1976, p. 31).

In addition, Levy’s scapegoat or diversionary hypothesis explains, how Saddam tried to distract from inner economic difficulties resulting from the Iran-Iraq gulf war in the 1980s (with an estimated 70$ billion of debts, Washington Post 1990) and the decreased revenues from oil production through his “assertive national policies which appear to enhance the power and prestige of the state” (Levy 1989, p. 92). By invading Kuwait he also hoped to refurbish his personal image as the undisputed leader, because “the old ideology and personality cult had begun to fail in rallying support” (Washington Post 1990).

Last but not least one could argue that the cause for Iraq’s annexation of Kuwait is the result of male aggressiveness, in this case inherent to Saddam’s personality. Hinde points to several characteristics that increase the probability of aggressive social behaviour: reasons contributing to the development of such a behaviour underlie among others environmental factors (family interaction patterns, conditioning and learning through observation), personality (men generally tend to be more aggressive than women) or cultural norms (Hinde 1993, pp. 19, 22, 27).

Nevertheless, concentrating only on the individual and his or her motives plus perceptions is “inadequate and misleading” (Wolfers 1976, p. 8). Other levels of analysis also provide valuable insights for causes of conflicts.

2. The state level – Why the USA stepped in

Causes for why the multinational coalition under the auspices of the United States attacked Iraq can be found in the nature states, i.e. domestic factors that have certain impacts on their behaviour in terms of foreign policy. As the majority of alliance partners were democracies (except for, of course, the directly threatened Arab nations), one could claim that they went to war because Iraq was an authoritarian regime.

Scholars like Singer argue that “the nature of a state's political institutions, its modes of production and distribution, the quality and origins of its elites, and (sometimes) the characteristics of its people determine whether that state will be peaceful or belligerent” (1960, p. 457). According to liberalism, or more precisely democratic peace theory, some types of regime are considered to be more aggressive and war-prone (authoritarian states), others less (democracies). However, as to democracies this is only true among themselves (Doyle 1986, p. 1151, Levy 1989, p. 87). When democracies face authoritarian states, democracies go as often and as fiercely to war as non-democratic regimes.

However, against its own kind democracies are considered more peaceful, because they usually don’t fight each other. In this context, Jackson and Sorensen identify three fundamental aspects for this fact (2007, p. 111ff.):

1. Democracies share similar “political cultures based on peaceful conflict resolution”, to a large extent codetermined by the people who elect their own governments (i.e. a system of checks and balances, which constrains rulers in their actions, Levy 1989, p. 84).
2. They have common moral values (like freedom of communication), leading to negotiation for the settlement of conflicts, and thus the rejection of war (with other democracies).
3. The international system is characterized by a high level of integration and interdependence that promises to be more peaceful.

In consequence, “promoting freedom will promote peace” (Doyle 1986, p. 1151). It is generally thought that in sum the amount of war can be reduced by spreading democracy through the implementation of institutional reforms (Mingst 2004, p. 62). Therefore, the US urged on the use of violence against authoritarian Iraq, in their eyes an unjust and incalculable regime, in order to turn it into a transparent and peaceful democracy.

Another reason why especially the US went to war was for geopolitical reasons, protecting their national interests in the region in terms of steady and secure oil flows. Iraq was considered as potential aggressor regarding its oil rich neighbours (Mingst 2004, p. 56). If Iraq gained control over the oil reserves in the region, the United States would get into trouble. Hence, such regimes as Iraq should know that they would face a fierce response if they attack other states and would be prevented to advance further. Thus, not only Kuwait was threatened by Iraq’s step, but also the neighbouring oil states that feared to be next (Kjeilen 2008). In particular Saudi Arabia, whose closest and most powerful friend was the US, was afraid. On 7 August 1990 the Saudi kingdom formally requested assistance from their ally US, asking for deployment of ground and air forces on Saudi soil (Leyden 1991). In the end, the US also attacked to protect its key supplier Saudi Arabia.

Last but not least, it was obvious that Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons which Iraq used against Iran in the first Gulf War, and in addition against his own people (Rayment 2008). Besides, Iraq was supposedly developing a nuclear weapons program, which presented a further threat for its oil rich neighbours and for the community of states.


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Conflict and Levels of Analysis
The Gulf War in 1991
Free University of Berlin  (Center for Global Politics)
International Security
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ISBN (Book)
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conflict, levels of analysis, Konflikt, security, Sicherheit, gulf war, Golfkrieg
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Natalie Züfle (Author), 2009, Conflict and Levels of Analysis , Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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