In early August of 1987 the Third World War came to an end. The guns fell silent, strategic forces came off their high alert statuses and the world breathed a collective sigh of relief. In the final twenty-four hours of the war the planet teetered on the edge of the abyss with the United States and Soviet Union engaged in a perilous contest of nuclear escalation. Fortunately, bold action on the part of the United States and the emergence of cooler heads in Moscow prevented the situation from tumbling into a major thermonuclear exchange.
In the days and weeks that followed, global focus was fixed on Europe as negotiations got underway to bring about a formal end to the conflict and begin the arduous task of recovery and rebuilding. However, before long the first signs of potential post-war flashpoints and geopolitical instability became evident. The conclusion of the world war had regrettably left many loose ends dangling, so to speak. Centuries old ethnic rivalries, buried through the Cold War years, came roaring back to life. More alarming, it served to spawn the birth of new dissension and conflicts destined bring about complex troubles in the near term, as well as in the decades to come. Out of these continuing and potential hotspots, I have selected a pair to examine briefly.
The Persian Gulf presented the West with an immediate potential challenge. Iran and Iraq were abiding by the terms of a ceasefire, though it was assumed by regional and global actors alike that the cessation of hostilities between Tehran and Baghdad would be temporary. Saddam Hussein and Ayatollah Khomeini both had their own plans for the region. However, each leader understood that his respective designs could not be set into motion until their nation had effectively disengaged from its rival. Militarily, Iraq had suffered more material loss and casualties during World War III then had Iran. And Saddam Hussein’s troops had been taught a painful lesson by the US military as well. Nevertheless, Iraqi forces were superior in almost every way to their Iranian counterparts. This advantage would be temporary if the Iran-Iraq war returned to its pre-war intensity.
Then there was Kuwait, still under Iraqi control. The presence of large numbers of US forces was expected to deter Iraq from moving against Saudi Arabia, however at some point Kuwait had to be liberated. Saudi Arabia and the other GCC states were incapable of pushing the Iraqis from Kuwait on their own. This task would fall to the United States and its allies, though before this could be done US forces in the Gulf region needed to be reinforced. Unfortunately, it would be some time before enough US ground and air forces were available and ready for that mission. So, for the time being, the only option was to keep current US forces in place as a tripwire and hope it was enough to keep Saddam honest.
Yugoslavia was a nation on life support even before July of 1987. The arrival of the Third World War served to provide opportunities for the breakup of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia to commence ahead of schedule. By 3 August 1987 Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia/Herzegovina had declared independence from the Serb-dominated central government in Belgrade. Government forces were deployed to all three breakaway republics and engaged in heavy fighting. Croatia had made a brazen diplomatic move in July of ’87 to gain diplomatic recognition and military assistance from NATO. Brussels did not agree to either but attempted to provide at least some small assurances to the government in Zagreb that its fight was not forgotten. Slobodan Milosevic continued to proclaim that a breakup of Yugoslavia would be opposed in every way so long as the means to do so remained.
Unfortunately, after the fighting ended in Europe the growing civil war in Yugoslavia pushed to the back burner. Eastern Europe was rapidly coming unglued and the domestic situation in the Soviet Union was deteriorating swiftly. NATO attention was fixated on these two hot spots and not on the growing unrest in the Balkans. In time this would prove to be a grave error. Yugoslavia’s breakup would become official in November 1987 and signal the start of the Yugoslav wars that would see tens of thousands of innocent civilians murdered and a significant disruption to Europe’s economic recovery following the Third World War. Eventually it would take the commitment of a sizeable NATO military force to help bring peace to the region and stabilize the Balkans permanently.