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Within the scope of this research, we will try to assess the validity of the claim that security threats are never real but always socially constructed. The claim can be analyzed using multiple examples, however, it seems like the best case where it can be seen as presumed security threat was extended from the national to global level by one country is the example of the Gulf War. What has to be explained here is why America found herself assuming the initiative in responding to the Iraqi invasion given the fact that the two countries could not be regarded as ‘enemies’ in the usual sense (such as, for example the United States and the Soviet Union were during the Cold War), and that there were few if any issues over which they were in direct contention (unlike the United Kingdom and Argentina over the Falkland Islands). Perhaps the first thing that needs to be said is that given her immense independent power the United States was the only country that could respond. If America had decided not to respond it is almost certain that there would have been no response - at least no response that was likely to affect an Iraqi withdrawal. (Hare et al 1994)
However, having said that, the factors determining America’s response were indirect rather than direct, related as much to her status and ‘responsibilities’ as a global power as to the threat to her vital and direct national interests. Perhaps the main determinant of US response was the implication of not responding. Very often states are motivated in their actions by the necessity to avoid the consequences of inaction rather than because there is a ‘positive’ reason for taking action. (Brown 1991) Oil was certainly a factor but was only one among others and even then its importance lay not so much in the American demand for energy as in the oil-dependence of the world economy as a whole. But especially important was the dependence of Europe and Japan on Middle Eastern oil. Another oil crisis for Europe and Japan would eventually affect the US economy itself. So the American interest in the ‘oil factor’ was as much to do with its macro-economic significance as to the amount of American corporate money directly invested in the Kuwaiti oil-fields.
The two other major reasons related more directly to America’s political and strategic interests in the region and to the potential American role in the future world security order in the aftermath of the Cold War. The Iraqi invasion and annexation of Kuwait represented a change in the balance of power in the Gulf region and hence in the Middle East as a whole. Certainly as a major adversary of Israel any Iraqi expansionist moves would expect an American interest. (Hare et al 1994) But even in the absence of the Israeli factor America would have a clear interest in ensuring the integrity of the western-oriented Arab states in the Gulf region, including Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. It was the implied Iraqi threat to Saudi Arabia that made an American response inevitable—notwithstanding the British prime minister’s alleged chiding of the American president that it was not a time for ‘wobbling’. (Hare et al 1994) An enduring American self-interest is a more likely explanation of America’s response to the Iraqi invasion than the chivvying of a British prime minister.
The longer-term ‘global’ context would also have been an important dimension of America’s perception of Iraqi actions. What might be termed the ‘loneliness of the single global policeman’ syndrome will no doubt have been a consideration in the analysis and planning of the American crisis decision-makers. (Rogers et al 1992) The breakdown in the post-war global balance of power between the ‘east’ and ‘west’ entails the relaxation of the superpower restraints on Third World client states and a potential for more violent and coercive behavior by a number of regimes in this category. American inaction in response to Iraq’s invasion would have risked the message being received (even if it had not intentionally been sent) by many of these regimes that similar action by them in the future would not bring forth an American reaction.
“The principle of pour decourager les autres would have been an important reason for the United States to be seen to be taking action even though she ensured it was in the context of the United Nations.” (Watson 1991) It was in this context also that an American ‘victory’ was inevitable. A future world security order based upon a pax americana would require a clear demonstration in the first post-Cold War crisis of the American ability and willingness to take action. An American ‘defeat’ in the Gulf crisis would have had far more serious consequences than the American ‘defeat’ in Vietnam (both for the United States and for the future system of international order), which to some extent explains the American determination to pursue its objectives in the crisis to conclusion. (Rogers et al 1992)
It is interesting to review more closely the dynamics of the crisis itself to see how the actual threats were exaggerated by the American policy makers. The first phase of the crisis can in some ways be regarded as the ‘phoney phase’. (Brown 1991) It was essentially the phase during which the Iraqis took actions which served to communicate their determination to stay in Kuwait and in which the Americans and her close ally the United Kingdom had to consolidate international opinion against that action. It was a period during which Allied coercive pressure on Iraq lacked credibility because it lacked a time-scale and it had not specified the consequences of the failure of the Iraqis to withdraw from Kuwait. This was partly because the American administration was not certain how far it was prepared to go in getting the Iraqis out of Kuwait and it was not certain how far politically it was possible to go in terms both of its domestic constituency and in terms of the international community. The continuation of such a lack of clarity and credibility of its intentions risked a diplomatic defeat for the Americans.
The ‘low pressure’ strategy adopted by the Americans during this phase was thus partly making a virtue of necessity and partly the required ground-laying of a more offensive coercive strategy in the next phase of the crisis. The major element of coercion in this low-pressure strategy was the imposition of sanctions. In terms of the structure of the crisis sanctions served a number of purposes. Firstly they a served symbolic function - at least something was being done to exert pressure on Iraq. Secondly, and perhaps more cynically, the imposition of sanctions, whether effective or not, served to ease the collective conscience of the United Nations and in any case, from the point of view of the leaders of the opposition to Iraq, were a necessary political precursor to make acceptable more intense pressure later on. It might be going too far to suggest that sanctions were essentially a cosmetic, but it was clear from the beginning, despite views to the contrary by some quite prominent foreign-affairs observers, that economic sanctions would not be enough to pressure Saddam Hussein to withdraw his forces from Kuwait. (Watson 1991)
The major practical functions of the reliance on sanctions as a coercive instrument during this ‘phoney phase’ were firstly that time was required to assemble a credible military force for use if necessary, and secondly, time was required to achieve the political consensus in the United Nations to authorize the use of force if necessary. By early November some ten Security Council resolutions had been passed condemning Iraq, which indicated a considerable degree of consensus in the international community; the United States had succeeded in achieving an unlikely coalition among the major Arab states, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria, and the American mid-term Congressional elections had been completed. It was now necessary for the Americans to convert what had hitherto essentially been a less than credible threat against Iraq into a more active coercive strategy. (Watson 1991)
The requirements of what Thomas Schelling has called a strategy of ‘compellence’ are that you must make it clear what you want your opponent to do, within what time-scale he should do it and what consequences will follow if he fails to comply. (Rogers et al 1992) The credibility of the coercive threat depends upon firstly specifying these elements clearly, secondly communicating them unambiguously to your opponent and, thirdly, clearly demonstrating your will and capability to deliver the consequences threatened. The latter depends not only on the possession of the military power to do so but on the construction of the necessary political climate internationally and domestically that would make it possible.
The next phase of the crisis was signaled by the crossing of the first intermediate threshold - ‘the US decision to use force threshold’. (Brown 1991) The American assessment that force would have to be used to eject the Iraqi military from Kuwait may have been made earlier, but it was not clearly signaled until the announcement on 8 November of a massive reinforcement of American military forces in the region. This decision converted the American force in Saudi Arabia from merely a defensive one to an offensive capability necessary to force an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait rather than merely deterring an Iraqi attack on Saudi Arabia. The rest of this second phase, much shorter than the previous phase, was devoted by the Americans to firming up their coercive credibility firstly by continuing the military build-up and secondly by ensuring a United Nations sanction for the ultimate use of force. The crucial factor determining the latter was agreement by the Soviet Union. It was announced on 27 November that Mr Gorbachev agreed to the ultimate use of force. Security Council Resolution 678 of 28 November authorized ‘all necessary means’ to effect Iraqi compliance with UN resolutions and stipulated a deadline, 15 January 1992, by which that compliance had to be completed. (Watson 1991)
Thus the crucial elements of America’s strategy of compellence against Iraq were essentially in place and the passing of Resolution 678 represented the next intermediate threshold which began the third phase of the crisis. It was America’s capability and willingness to use force, together with the agreement of the international community through the United Nations that it would sanction such a course, that was the major ‘watershed’ of the crisis - the point after which war seemed the most likely outcome. It was from that point that maximum coercive pressure was applied to Iraq.
The third phase saw the continued build-up of Coalition military capability in the region in order to further strengthen the credibility of the threat to Iraq whilst at the same time allowing the significance of that pressure to seep through to the Iraqi leader ship in the hope that it would be persuaded to comply with UN resolutions. This was the phase that saw most pressure for some face-to-face negotiation at which the effect of this coercion could be made manifest by some agreement that would resolve the matter short of actual war. A significant feature of this phase was the argumentation over direct negotiations. For both sides direct negotiations were necessary not only to explore areas of possible compromise but, perhaps more importantly, to be seen to be willing to give their respective opponents the benefit of the doubt and not appear to go to war without having exhausted every possibility of avoiding it. In fact the talks themselves became one of the instruments of coercion and that is why their timing assumed such importance. (Watson 1991)
In itself the apparent Iraqi belief that the fact that their major opponents were democracies acted as a constraint on their ability to go to war and to pursue such a war to a conclusion was misjudged. That democracy is a source of weakness rather than strength is a particular misconception of demagogues. What democracy does on the whole is to ensure that wars are not entered into frivolously by governments subject to legitimate challenge by opposition forces, but once entered into are supported. However, there are two conditions to such support: one is that the cause has to be seen to be a just one and the other is that the war is conducted in a ‘humane’ and reasonably efficient manner. The false deduction from the American experience in Vietnam made by the Iraqis was that it was the scale of casualties that led to the withdrawal of public support. In fact the scale of casualties were significant but only in the face of a lack of clear and justifiable reason for being in Vietnam in the first place and secondly in their apparent inability to draw the war to a successful conclusion. This was one of the contexts in which the Americans were determined that a Gulf War would not be ‘another Vietnam’. (Henken 1995)
However, what was much less credible as a deterrent threat was the claimed ability of the Iraqis to hold down the Coalition forces in a long drawn out war (à la Vietnam) which would go on for months if not years. There was never any prospect of that happening primarily because Iraq was so completely isolated. Ultimately the reason the North Vietnamese could hold out virtually indefinitely against the Americans was their continuous resupply from outside - from the Soviet Union. In a war with the US-led Coalition force Iraq would not be able to call on external sources of the massive military and economic support that would be required to sustain a long campaign. (Henken 1995) Neither was it realistic to expect that there existed within Iraq the military will and capacity nor the economic depth necessary for such a campaign.
The key link in the chain of argument leading to this prognostication of course was the Israeli response. The credibility of the Iraqi threat to Israel was clear; less certain was the inevitability of the consequences of an actual attack. In the event this was the link to which most American attention was devoted in order to prevent such an Israeli response. Ultimately the weakness of this deterrent threat was that the carrying out of the threat was not in the hands of the Iraqis. They could and did attack Israel; they could not however determine the Israeli response. That particular element of the Iraqi deterrent rested with the Americans and Israelis and thus was beyond Iraqi control. The American’s officials ability to present the situation in the Gulf as both national and global threat allowed US armed forces to receive significant support (both military and with regards to public opinion). It is apparent that while some threat for the global community and for US in particular was present, the threat as it was perceived by the general audience was socially constructed by the United States.