Economists fear what they call “black swan” scenarios, in which events unpredictably deviate far beyond what is normal or expected. In a sense, the 1990s was one long black swan event, filled with drastic, largely unforeseen tumult that caused existing balances of power to abruptly crumble. From the rubble, we saw the rise of many of the new forces and conflicts that have come to dominate U.S. and world events.
One of the most game-changing events of the decade came in the summer of 1990, when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who long had been viewed by the U.S. as a counterbalance to Iran, shocked the world by invading and annexing neighboring Kuwait. That forced a change of U.S. policy, and in January 1991, the U.S. and a coalition of allies launched what became known as the First Gulf War and forced the Iraqis to withdraw. The U.S. and its allies, however, chose to leave Hussein in power, a decision that would help set the table for a second Gulf War 12 years later.
Another key event was the demise of the Soviet Union, five months after an unsuccessful coup in August 1991. By the end of that year, former Soviet republics such as Ukraine had declared independence, and the USSR itself was replaced by a smaller, less powerful Russian Federation led by pro-Western President Boris Yeltsin. By decade’s end, however, Yeltsin resigned and appointed in his place Vladimir Putin, a former Soviet KGB official who in the years that followed would strive to regain some of the territory and power that his old country had lost, and reemerge as an antagonist to the West.
While a longtime threat to the peace suddenly was gone, new and bloody ethnic conflicts soon arose. In the African nation of Rwanda, 800,000 people were killed in a genocidal campaign in which the West failed to intervene. Fighting also broke out in the disintegrating former communist nation of Yugoslavia. Eventually, after Bosnian Serb militias massacred thousands of Muslims in the city of Srebrenica in the summer of 1995, the U.S. and its NATO allies intervened to stop the killing. In 1999, the U.S. and NATO had to use air strikes to end another war in Kosovo, another part of the former Yugoslavia.
In the U.S. the balance of political power also shifted. In 1992, Democrat Bill Clinton defeated incumbent President George H.W. Bush in an unusual three-way election race that featured maverick billionaire Ross Perot as third-party candidate. Clinton, who won reelection in 1996, would preside over a long economic boom that briefly even erased the national budget deficit. But his efforts to reform the nation’s healthcare system failed, and in 1994, his party suffered a disastrous election defeat, losing control of both houses of Congress. In 1998, after an investigation exposed Clinton’s affair with a subordinate, he became the first President in 130 years to be impeached. But Clinton survived the effort to remove him from office.
During the 1990s, a new threat to peace emerged in the form of the Middle Eastern extremists who bombed the World Trade Center in New York in 1993, killing six people. The new face of the enemy was Saudi radical Osama bin Laden and his group Al Qaeda, who in 1998 called for the killing of Americans all over the world. That summer, the terrorist group bombed two U.S. embassies in east Africa, killing 224 people and injuring thousands. In retaliation, Clinton ordered a cruise missile attack on Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan and a Sudanese factory believed to be controlled by the group, but bin Laden was not harmed. It was the start of a conflict that would result in more tragedy and years of war in the decade that followed.