Punitiveness and U.S. Elite Support for the 1991 Persian Gulf War

Recommended citation: Peter Liberman, Punitiveness and U.S. Elite Support for the 1991 Persian Gulf War,” Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 51, No. 1 (February 2007): 3–32. https://www.jstor.org/stable/27638536

Abstract: There is a substantial moralistic streak in U.S. elite attitudes about war against states perceived as evil. Among opinion leaders, death penalty supporters were substantially more likely than opponents to support the 1991 Gulf War, condone the Iraqi death toll, and favor escalating the war to topple Saddam Hussein. These relationships persist after controlling for ideology, nationalism, and instrumental beliefs about force and thus probably result from individual differences in retributiveness and humanitarianism, moral values known to underlie death penalty attitudes. Foreign policy expertise moderated this effect only on the regime change issue, and then only moderately, suggesting that “moral punitiveness” might also influence the thinking of decision makers. President George H. W. Bush evidently felt real moral outrage during the crisis about Iraq’s aggression, but he refrained from escalating the war to punish Saddam more severely for it.