The media has been filled this week with tributes to the late President George H.W. Bush. He is portrayed as a smart, pragmatic leader, who chose wise counsellors like James Baker,very different from his wilful son, George W. Bush, who led the U.S. into a disastrous attack on Iraq in 2013, the most fateful foreign policy blunder ever made by an American leader.
The fact, however, is that it was the blundering of George H. W. Bush and Baker in 1990 that set the stage for George W. Bush’s calamitous move 13 years later. It was Papa Bush, after all, who sent American troops half way around the world to launch the First Gulf War, an error of tragic proportions; responsible in its own way for much of the horror that afflicts the Greater Middle East to this day.
Ironically, it happened just as the U.S. seemed about to become king of the global roost, the greatest military power the planet had ever known. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was no power around to challenge U.S. hegemony. It was left to America to blight its own future. What is also extraordinary about the First Gulf War is that, like the outbreak of World War I, it was all so unnecessary, the result of feckless leadership, inept diplomacy and shocking miscalculations by both leaders, Saddam Hussein and George H.W. Bush.
The problem, in 1990 was that Bush and his top aides were obsessed by the disintegrating Soviet empire. They were largely oblivious to the political storm that was brewing in the Gulf between Saddam Hussein and the leaders of Kuwait. Saddam had just “won” an incredibly bloody nine-year war with Iran, only to find himself in a mounting feud with his immensely wealthy Gulf neighbour, Kuwait. As Saddam saw it, by attacking revolutionary Iran, he had been defending Kuwait’s interests as well. But now that Iran was defeated, and Iraq was bled white, the Kuwaitis wanted their money back.
The Kuwaitis dismissed Saddam’s claims and continued to demand their loans be repaid. Riled by what he saw as their arrogant, aggressive stance, Saddam became increasingly belligerent. At the same time, however, as he was mobilising his troops, the Iraqi dictator was attempting to figure out how the U.S. would react if he actually proceeded to invade Kuwait. He never got a clear signal.
Washington hoped that everything could be settled peacefully. But in the summer of 1990, the elder Bush and his advisors had no clearly defined views on how the U.S. would react to an invasion of Kuwait. Indeed, senior officials made it clear that the U.S. had no military commitment to defend Iraq’s oil-rich neighbour.
Those officials included George H.W. himself. He’d been muddling along for years trying to deal with Saddam, at first seeing him as America’s ally in the war against Iran and a market for American goods; at other times as a corrupt, untrustworthy and incredibly brutal megalomaniac.
In the summer of 1990, he was still unsure how to handle the Iraqi dictator.
Incredibly, even as some American officials were adamant that the U.S. had no commitments to Kuwait, other senior Americans were reassuring top Kuwaitis that the U.S. was totally in their corner, and urged them not to buckle to the Iraqi leader’s demands. One of those was General Norman Schwartzkopf, then American commander for the Gulf region, who personally told Kuwaiti officials that the U.S. had their back. The director of the CIA was also encouraging Kuwaiti to keep the economic stranglehold on Saddam.
When it finally came, Saddam’s August 2, 1990 invasion of Kuwait caught President George H.W. Bush and his team flat-footed. But, once he had finally made the decision to send in the troops, George H.W. Bush spurned serious negotiations. According to a later investigation by the U.S. Congress, a diplomatic solution satisfactory to the interests of the United States may well have been possible in the period following the invasion–had the White House been interested in diplomacy. It wasn’t.
No longer deterred by the now crumbling Soviet Union, the U.S. president felt free to deploy America’s massive military might half way across the globe. He would rid the world, he grandly declared, of a tyrant “worse than Hitler.”
This, mind you, was the same leader that the U.S. had backed with battlefield intelligence and weapons in the war against Iran. At the beginning, in an eerie fashion, Papa Bush’s fierce determination to destroy Saddam Hussein in 1990 matched George W’s obsession with Saddam 13 years later.
And just as George Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003, would turn out to be an unmitigated disaster for the United States, so was George H.W. Bush’s decision in August 1990 to dispatch more than 150,000 troops to Saudi Arabia. It was that act, more than anything else, that provoked Osama Bin Laden to declare al-Qaeda’s war on America. It led directly to al-Qaeda’s attacks on U.S. targets in the Gulf, in Africa, and then in New York on 9/11. The reason the Saudi rulers finally reluctantly agreed to accept those “infidel” foreign troops was their fear, encouraged by the Bush administration, that Saddam’s troops in Kuwait were poised to invade Saudi Arabia. But were they? Or did the administration of George W. Bush use the same kind of trumped up scare tactics in 1990 to justify deploying U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia, as George W. Bush employed to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003?
Neither the CIA nor the Defence Intelligence Agency thought it probable that Iraq would actually invade Saudi Arabia. As Colin Powell himself later conceded, if Iraq had wanted to invade Saudi Arabia, it had a long border with that country; there was no need to go through Kuwait.
With Saddam’s forces trounced in Kuwait, in 1991 George H.W. Bush called for the Iraqis to rise up and overthrow Saddam. But, when the Shiites and Kurds responded, and it looked as if their revolt would be successful, Bush not only turned his back on the rebels, but, by allowing Saddam’s ‘defeated” forces to continue to fly their helicopter gunships, while forbidding U.S. forces in Iraq to aid the rebels in any way, the U.S. actually helped the Iraqi dictator crush the uprising with horrific results. And today, more than a quarter of a century after the first Gulf War, from Syria to Iraq to Afghanistan to Yemen, after a horrific waste of millions of lives and trillions of dollars, America remains mired in its never ending, budget-draining, globe-spanning War Against Terror.