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Article © 2005 Stephen J. Sniegoski.
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Gulf  War  1991:
Prefiguration and prelude
to the 2003 Iraq debacle

Part Two



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On August 2, 1990, Saddam Hussein's Iraqi army swarmed into Kuwait, meeting minimal Kuwaiti resistance. The ruling al-Sabah family fled, and Iraqi forces occupied the entire country.

With Iraq's invasion, American policy underwent an abrupt and complete volte-face. President George H.W. Bush denounced Saddam's move as heinous aggression that could not be allowed to stand. Whereas Saddam's barbaric actions heretofore had been largely ignored by the administration, now it trumpeted them to high heaven — even describing nonexistent atrocities such as the killing of incubator babies by the invading Iraqi forces in Kuwait. [30]

President Bush quickly made preparations to send troops to Saudi Arabia to protect the kingdom from an Iraqi attack that he alleged was imminent. But King Fahd of Saudi Arabia was hesitant about allowing American "infidels" on Islam's most sacred soil. A U.S. influx of that kind would certainly ignite fierce opposition from many of his strongest religious supporters. Thus, the Saudi monarchy, along with other Arab leaders, especially King Hussein of Jordan, was initially not disposed to use force against Saddam's Iraq, preferring instead to rely on compromise to encourage Saddam to remove his forces from Kuwait. If the Saudi ruler rejected the American troops, however, the United States would not be able to fight Saddam. As General Schwarzkopf would recount: "There was absolutely no way in the world we could rapidly deploy our air forces if we couldn't go in and use the Saudi military airfields that were in place. There was no way we could possibly deploy the Marine Corps and bring in the Marine pre-positioned ships and equipment, without using the Saudi ports." [31]

To win King Fahd's support, therefore, the Bush administration not only relied on diplomatic pressure but even resorted to deception. It apparently exaggerated the threat of an Iraqi armed invasion of Saudi Arabia, through the use of doctored satellite pictures, in order to scare the Saudis into accepting both U.S. troops on their territory and eventual military action against Iraq. [32]

Israel was ecstatic at the reversal in American policy toward Iraq, which vindicated Israel's claim of the threat posed by Saddam. "We are benefiting from every perspective," said Yossi Olmert, director of the Israeli government press office. "Of course, we can lose big if Saddam decides to attack us next. But at least the rest of the world now sees what we have been saying all along." [33]

Israel wanted strong measures to be taken against Iraq, not simply to drive it from Kuwait but, more important, to destroy Iraq's military power and eliminate a regional rival. President Chaim Herzog even called on Washington to use nuclear weapons in its attack. But Israel did not fully trust the United States to carry out a military attack, fearing that it might actually opt for a negotiated peace. On December 4, 1990, Israeli foreign minister David Levy reportedly threatened the U.S. ambassador, David Brown, to the effect that if the United States failed to attack Iraq, Israel would do so itself. [34]

The crisis in the Persian Gulf also helped Israel by eliminating the American pressure to make concessions to the Palestinians. As it turned out, however, that would simply be a respite for Israel, as the Bush I administration would reapply the pressure in the war's aftermath.

Neoconservatives played a leading role in promoting the U.S. war on Iraq, setting up the Committee for Peace and Security in the Gulf, co-chaired by Richard Perle and New York Democratic Rep. Stephen Solarz, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Asian and Pacific affairs; the new pressure group would focus on mobilizing popular and congressional support for a war. [35] Neocon warhawks such as Frank Gaffney, Jr., Richard Perle, A.M. Rosenthal, and William Safire, and the neocon organ The Wall Street Journal, emphasized that America's war objective should not be simply to drive Iraq out of Kuwait but also to destroy Iraq's military potential, especially its capacity to develop nuclear weapons; the latter result was Israel's fundamental objective. The Bush I administration would come to embrace the neocons' position. [36]

Support for the war often hinged on the issue of support for Israel. As columnist E.J. Dionne wrote in the Washington Post: "Israel and its supporters would like to see Saddam weakened or destroyed, and many of the strongest Democratic supporters of Bush's policy on the Gulf, such as Solarz, are longtime backers of Israel. Similarly, critics of Israel — among conservatives as well as liberals — are also among the leading critics of Bush's gulf policy. 'That's embarrassing,' said William Schneider, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, 'because there seems to be a hidden concern — either pro- or anti-Israel.'" [37]

Patrick J. Buchanan would make the much-reviled comment that "there are only two groups that are beating the drums for war in the Middle East — the Israeli Defense Ministry and its amen corner in the United States." [38] But even Jewish liberal Richard Cohen opined in late August 1990 that "the problem I have with those who argue for a quick military strike is that they seem to be arguing from an Israeli perspective.... The United States is not immediately threatened by Iraq — as Israel was [in 1981] and is." Cohen concluded that "those who plump for war are a bit premature, attempting to make the Middle East safe for not only oil [the American interest] but for Israel as well." [39]

The strategy of eliminating Saddam's military power precluded diplomatic efforts to get Saddam out of Kuwait, which were put forth by numerous parties including the Arab League, France, and the Soviet Union. Iraq itself made various informal compromise offers. Early on, however, the Bush administration precluded any face-saving gesture being offered to Iraq in its assertion that aggression could not be rewarded. The United States offered Saddam only a choice between war and total capitulation. Needless to say, a similar hard line had not been applied to numerous other aggressors.

On August 22 Thomas Friedman, the New York Times's chief diplomatic correspondent, ascribed the Bush administration's rejection of the "diplomatic track" to its fear that if it became "involved in negotiations about the terms of an Iraqi withdrawal, America's Arab allies might feel under pressure to give the Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein, a few token gains in Kuwait to roll back his invasion and defuse the crisis." [40]

What explained the complete transformation of the Bush administration's policy toward Iraq? Why would the administration not simply opt for a compromise agreement after Saddam's invasion, since that seemed to be an acceptable condition before the war? Explanations run the gamut. One implies a conspiracy — that the Bush administration intended to fight Saddam and deliberately gave him the impression that he could get away with an invasion of Kuwait, in order to establish a casus belli. At the same time the United States urged Kuwait to resist Saddam's demands in order to bring about the war. [41]

While it sounds logical, the conspiracy thesis assumes too much planning on the part of the U.S. government. Another theory, one involving Israel, would seem more plausible. Steven Hurst in The Foreign Policy of the Bush Administration contends that Washington pursued a hard line to accommodate Israel, to presumably make it amenable to granting concessions regarding Palestine. Establishing peace in the all-important Palestinian/Israeli conflict would be impossible, Hurst emphasizes, if the United States went too far in appeasing Saddam. [42]

But it seems also that President Bush's personality was a significant factor in the policy shift. Bush was only tangentially involved in Iraq policy prior to the Kuwait invasion. Baker and the State Department essentially directed the policy to placate Saddam, unaffected by outside cries about Saddam's threats or even by opposition from within the administration by the Department of Defense, headed by Dick Cheney. Baker, in fact, continued to oppose military intervention after the invasion of Kuwait, instead preferring a peaceful compromise. General Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, also opposed military action, preferring instead a policy of sanctions. [43]

President Bush's intention upon learning of the invasion was actually to follow the pacific policy laid out by Baker. However, the hard-liners toward Iraq were bellowing about American appeasement. Bush was now on center stage, and he was concerned about appearing weak, which was how the critics were already describing his policy toward Iraq.

An encounter with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on August 3 in Aspen, Colorado, where Thatcher was attending a conference, drove Bush from uncertainty to avid support for war. Thatcher insisted that the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait could not be allowed. "Don't go wobbly on me, George," she lectured the president. As one of Thatcher's advisors later quipped: "The prime minister performed a successful backbone transplant." [44]

Bush's biographers Peter and Rochelle Schweizer explain his adoption of a militant war stance: "George Bush, like so many of the others in his family, was obsessed with the notion of measuring up to the challenge.... George had become convinced in the early weeks of August 1990 that his great test would be the struggle against Saddam Hussein. For the first time in his life he made a geopolitical struggle intensely personal. Before, he had always spoken about war and geopolitics in terms of national interest and American security; now he was more direct and personal." [45]

The United States would ultimately unleash Operation Desert Storm, beginning with a massive air bombardment on January 16, 1991, followed, 39 days later, by a four-day ground war that expelled Iraqi forces from Kuwait and induced Saddam to accept a cease-fire on March 3. The war established a peace that would greatly weaken Saddam, including the requirement that Iraq not possess an arsenal of chemical, bacteriological, or nuclear weapons. That comported with the position of Israel, which sought to weaken its enemy.

The quick and decisive defeat of Saddam by the U.S.-led coalition was a stunning and humiliating blow to the Arabs of the Middle East. Not since the heyday of Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel-Nasser had one man embodied all the aspirations of Arab radicalism as had Saddam Hussein. As neocon Joshua Muravchik wrote in late January 1991 after the start of the brief war: "If — as seems all but certain — the war ends in Saddam Hussein's utter humiliation, the sobering effect should be enormous. With Mr. Hussein's Baath Party in tatters, Soviet influence a thing of the past, Islamic extremism losing its luster in Iran, and the myth of unity shattered as never before, the Arab world may be ready finally for realism and moderation." [46]

But for the defeat of Saddam to be advantageous to Israel, Iraq would have to be devastated. During the American bombing campaign, neocon Bruce Fein wanted to make sure that the country was reduced to rubble. Fein was concerned that the United States, in its effort to avoid civilian casualties, was not creating sufficient havoc. Especially upsetting was the "woolly-headed acquittal of the Iraqi people of any responsibility for the arch-villainous actions of their president." It was necessary, Fein asserted, to punish the Iraqi people:

Why, therefore, should Mr. Bush instruct the U.S. military scrupulously to avoid civilian targets in Iraq even if a contrary policy would more quickly destroy Iraqi morale and bring it to heel? During World War II, the Allied powers massively bombed Berlin, Dresden, and Tokyo for reasons of military and civilian morale. Winston Churchill instructed the Royal Air Force to "make the rubble dance" in German cities. Why is Mr. Bush treating Iraqi civilians more solicitously than the enemy civilians of World War II?
Fein did not just want to kill the Iraqi people during the war; he held that in the postwar period the Iraqi people should be assessed reparations. [47]

Beyond the destruction of Iraq's infrastructure, the neoconservatives hoped that the war would lead to the removal of Saddam and the consequent American occupation of Iraq. However, despite the urging of Defense Secretary Cheney and Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz to adopt a military plan to invade the heartland of Iraq, that approach was never adopted, in part because of the opposition from Powell and Schwarzkopf, the field commander. [48]

Moreover, the United States had a UN mandate to liberate Kuwait, not remove Saddam. To attempt the latter would have caused the warring coalition to fall apart. America's coalition partners in the region, especially Turkey and Saudi Arabia, feared that the elimination of Saddam's government would cause Iraq to fragment into warring ethnic and religious groups. That could have included a Kurdish rebellion in Iraq, spreading to Turkey's own restive Kurdish population. And the Iraqi Shi'ites, likely falling under the influence of Iran, would increase the threat of Islamic radicalism in the vital oil-producing Gulf region.

In 1998, the first President Bush would explain his reason for not invading Iraq to remove Saddam thus: "We would have been forced to occupy Baghdad and, in effect, rule Iraq. The coalition would instantly have collapsed, the Arabs deserting it in anger.... Had we gone the invasion route, the United States could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land." [49] In his 1995 memoirs Baker would similarly observe that the administration's "overriding strategic concern in the [first] Gulf war was to avoid what we often referred to as the Lebanonization of Iraq, which we believed would create a geopolitical nightmare." [50]

George H.W. Bush had essentially realized his major goals: the unconditional withdrawal of all Iraqi forces from Kuwait; the restoration of what he considered the legitimate Kuwaiti government; and what he thought was the protection of the region from any future Iraqi aggression. In short, the foremost concern of the first Bush administration, in line with the traditional American position on the Middle East, was regional stability. As Norman Podhoretz would negatively sum up Bush I's policy 13 years later:

When Saddam Hussein upset the balance of power in the Middle East by invading Kuwait in 1991, the elder Bush went to war not to create a new configuration in the region but to restore the status quo ante. And it was precisely out of the same overriding concern for stability that, having achieved this objective by driving Saddam out of Kuwait, Bush then allowed him to remain in power. [51]

Israel and its neocon allies sought just the opposite: a destabilized, fragmented Iraq (indeed a destabilized, fragmented Middle East) that would enhance Israel's relative regional power.

February 24, 2005

To Part Three (conclusion).
Return to Part One.

© 2005 Stephen J. Sniegoski. All rights reserved.

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