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Gulf  War  1991:
Prefiguration and prelude
to the 2003 Iraq debacle

Part Three (conclusion)



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Rejecting an American occupation of Iraq as too dangerous, the first President Bush sought to remove Saddam by less aggressive means. In May 1991, he signed a presidential finding directing the CIA to create the conditions for Saddam's ouster. As it emerged, the plan consisted largely of generating propaganda and supporting the Iraqi dissidents who came to form the Iraqi National Congress. The hope was that members of the Iraqi military would turn on Saddam and stage a military coup. That was not to happen.

In the process of terminating the war on Iraq, the Bush administration allowed Saddam to brutally suppress uprisings by the Kurds and the Shi'ites. What made that seem like an especially immoral betrayal was the fact that, during the war, Bush had called for the people of Iraq to rise up against Saddam. Now, as Saddam smashed the rebellions, neoconservatives and other supporters of Israel were outraged. A.M. Rosenthal angrily declared that "that by betraying the rebels the U.S. is truly intervening — on the side of the killer Hussein." To the argument that American intervention might break up Iraq, Rosenthal questioned the need for a unified Iraq: "Anyway, were Americans sent into combat against Saddam Hussein so that Washington should now help him keep together the jigsaw country sawed out of the Middle East by the British after World War I?" [52] Here Rosenthal was questioning the entire principle of stability that had traditionally guided American policy in the Middle East.

"Two months after a brilliant military campaign ended in victory, Mr. Bush has achieved the worst of worlds for millions of Iraqi rebels and for American policy in the Mideast," opined Rosenthal in the New York Post of April 23, 1991. But the solution Rosenthal had in mind involved more than just providing immediate protection for the Kurds and Shi'ites. He emphasized that "there will be no peace as long as Saddam Hussein rules, and threatens to rise again." [53]

Rosenthal presented what would become the key neocon solution for the Middle East — regime change and democracy. He contrasted the reliance on a democratic approach to the traditional policy of "realism" in the Middle East, which the Bush administration continued to pursue in the aftermath of Gulf War I:

For many years now the "realists" have dominated American foreign policy, particularly on the Middle East. They constantly search for a "balance of power" that is unattainable because it is based on dictatorships, which by their very nature are the cause of instability. They dismiss the concept of morality in international affairs and believe that democracy is impossible in the Middle East.

Yes, it is impossible — as long as the realists have their way and we appease the Saddam Husseins and Hafez al-Assads of the area, coddle the oil despots and are in a constant twitch of irritation about our support of Israel, the only democracy in the area.

Just see where Realpolitik has gotten us in the Mideast: Iran in the hands of religious fanatics, Syria and Libya ruled under terrorist fascism, Saddam Hussein still in power, marauding — and a million Iraqi refugees clawing for food, crying out their hunger and betrayal. [54]

William Safire, too, wrote of the immorality of abandoning the Kurds and Shi'ites. "Must history remember George Bush as the liberator of Kuwait and the man who saved Iraq for dictatorship?" Safire asked. "U.S. troops will return home with a sense of shame at the bloodletting that followed our political sellout." [55]

Krauthammer would blame Bush's failure to intervene to save the Kurds and Shi'ites on the president's risk-averse personality, in respect of which his war on Iraq represented an aberration:

After seven months of brilliant, indeed heroic, presidential leadership, George Bush's behavior after the Persian Gulf War — his weak and vacillating hands-off policy — is a puzzle. The best explanation is this: Bush was like the man who wins the jackpot in a casino and walks right out the front door refusing even to look at another table. There are many reasons Bush decided to cash in his chips even if that meant abandoning the Iraqi rebels to Saddam Hussein's tender mercies — a policy partly reversed when the extent of the Kurdish catastrophe became clear. There was the fear of getting dragged into a civil war, a belief that international law and the wartime coalition would support saving Kuwait's sovereignty but not violating Iraq's, and his susceptibility to pressure from his Saudi friends, who feared both the fracturing and democratization of Iraq. These were all factors, but the overwhelming one was the president's persona: A man of pathological prudence, having just risked everything on one principled roll of the dice, was not about to hang around the gaming room a second longer. It was a question of political capital. After 30 years in politics Bush had finally amassed it. He was not about to spend it in Kurdistan. The willingness to risk political capital is not just a sign of greatness in a leader, it is almost a definition of it. [56]

But the fact is that while the Bush administration maintained the traditional concern of American foreign policy for stability in the Middle East, it was willing to risk political capital: it was willing to return to pressuring Israel to move away from its effort to colonize the West Bank. In defying the powerful domestic Israel lobby, that policy was bound to stir up a hornet's nest for the Bush administration. But the postwar public-opinion polls showed overwhelming support for President Bush. In early March 1991, just as the war ended, Bush's approval rating stood at a stratospheric 90 percent. [57] That seemed to provide enough political cushion against the inevitable damage that Bush and Baker would suffer in pursuing their foreign-policy agenda.

Essentially, that policy sought to fit U.S. policy toward Israel within the overall framework of maintaining stability in the region. It saw Israel as the unstable element. If the Jewish state would make concessions to the Palestinians, tension would subside across the entire Middle East, for it was the Israeli oppression of the Palestinians that created a major Arab grievance exploited by anti-American destabilizing elements in the region.

The Bush administration now was especially desirous of placating the Arab coalition that had supported the war, by making American policy in the Middle East more even-handed. In supporting a Western attack on a fellow Muslim and Arab country, the leaders of the Middle Eastern states had risked engendering internal opposition from religious and nationalistic elements, and those rulers expected some reward for their loyalty to the United States.

Bush and his people thus returned with vigor to their pre-war effort of trying to curb Israeli control of its occupied territories. They focused on a demand that Israel stop constructing new settlements in the occupied territories, as a condition for receiving $10 billion in U.S. loan guarantees for the resettlement of hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Despite Washington's objections, Israel had launched a building boom in the occupied territories intended by Prime Minister Shamir's rightist government to ensure permanent Israeli control there. The plan would boost the Jewish settler population by 50 percent in two years. Asked in early April 1991 how Israel would respond to a U.S. request to freeze Jewish settlement activity, Ariel Sharon, then housing minister, adamantly stated that "Israel has always built, is building, and will in future build in Judea, Samaria [biblical names for the West Bank], and the Gaza Strip." [58] In May 1991, Secretary Baker harshly condemned the Jewish settlements in testimony before the Foreign Operations subcommittee of the House Appropriations committee, asserting that "I don't think that there is any bigger obstacle to peace." [59]

Shamir's Likud government and Israel's American supporters strongly resisted the Bush administration's efforts. In his news conference of September 12, 1991, Bush went before the TV cameras to ask Congress to delay consideration of the $10 billion in loan guarantees being demanded by Shamir. The president dared to speak directly of the pro-Israel pressure, saying that "I'm up against some powerful political forces, but I owe it to the American people to tell them how strongly I feel about the deferral.... I heard today there was something like a thousand lobbyists on the Hill working the other side of the question. We've got one lonely little guy down here doing it." [60]

In performing an end run around the Israel-friendly mainstream media and appealing directly to the American people, however, Bush struck a responsive chord. A public opinion poll two days later found that 86 percent of the American people supported the president on the issue. But that public support apparently rendered some members of the administration complacent about the political power of the pro-Zionist lobby. When the danger of alienating Jewish-Americans was broached to Baker, he was alleged to have uttered that most taboo-shattering of profanities: "F*ck the Jews. They didn't vote for us." [61]

Bush's opposition to Shamir's policy probably contributed to bringing down the Likud government in January 1992. In the subsequent Israeli national election in June 1992, Shamir lost to the Labor Party led by Yizhak Rabin, which ran on the popular slogan "Land for Peace." (While Rabin was amenable to pursuing a peace process with the Palestinians — for which he was awarded a Nobel Peace prize in 1994 — the extent to which Jewish settlements on the West Bank would be reduced and the chances for a future viable Palestinian state were always questionable.)

However, while the situation changed in Israel, supporters of Israel in the United States remained intransigent. They were outraged over the administration's public pressuring of Israel. The neocons set up an organization to back the Israeli position on settlements, giving it the Orwellian moniker Committee on U.S. Interests in the Middle East. Members included such neoconservative stalwarts as Douglas Feith, Frank Gaffney, Richard Perle, and Elliot Abrams. [62]

As the 1992 election approached, the Bush administration, seeing its popularity plummet, tried to mend fences with its Zionist critics. In July 1992, Bush announced that Washington would provide the loan guarantees after all. His concession won him no pro-Israel support.

The role of Israel's chief lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), in the loan-guarantee controversy was starkly revealed in a private conversation in October 1992 between the president of AIPAC, David Steiner, and potential contributor Harry Katz, which the latter secretly taped. Steiner boasted about AIPAC's political sway, saying he had "cut a deal" with James Baker to give more aid to Israel. He had arranged for "almost a billion dollars in other goodies that people don't even know about." [63]

When Katz brought up the concern that Baker had cursed the Jewish people, Steiner said, "Of course, do you think I'm ever going to forgive him for that?" He acknowledged that AIPAC was backing Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton, and had supported him before he received the nomination. Steiner boasted that AIPAC had numerous supporters in the Clinton campaign and that Clinton would put their people in top positions when he entered office. In fact the Democratic platform contained a strong pro-Israel plank (proving that not all platform planks are just for show), and the Clinton campaign attacked the Bush administration for "bullying" Israel.

Like other supporters of Israel, some neoconservatives were trending toward Clinton. Richard Schifter, assistant secretary of state for human rights under Reagan and the first Bush (until March 1992), had become a senior foreign-policy advisor for the Clinton campaign. Schifter was also working with AIPAC's David Ifshin to bring fellow neocons back into the Democratic Party. [64] And a number of other neocons such as Joshua Muravchik, Penn Kemble, Morris Amitay, Edward Luttwak, and R. James Woolsey would openly back Bill Clinton. Many others remained at least cool to Bush's re-election. [65] Even longtime conservative commentator William Safire would back Clinton. Moreover, Clinton appealed to neocons by virtue of his support of the neoconservative idea that promoting democracy should be a central feature of American foreign policy. [66] The neocons would see promotion of democracy as a means of undermining Israel's enemies in the Middle East, none of which was ruled in a democratic manner.

Many neocons with strong Republican connections were hesitant to completely make the switch to Clinton, but they would at best be lukewarm Bush supporters. Even a defense of Bush by one of those supporters, Daniel Pipes, acknowledged the difficulties in supporting the president. "If there's a lot of agreement on anything this election year," Pipes wrote, "it's that friends of Israel should not vote to re-elect George Bush. The mere mention of his name in Jewish circles evinces strong disappointment, even anger." [67]

Clinton received the highest level of Jewish support of any Democratic presidential candidate since Franklin D. Roosevelt. According to an American Jewish Congress exit poll, 80 percent of American Jews voted for Clinton, compared to 11 percent for Bush. In 1988, 35 percent of American Jewish voters had backed Bush. [68] And the George H.W. Bush who emerged from the Gulf War with an astronomical 90 percent approval rating went down to a humiliating defeat.

What one sees in the first Gulf War is a temporary and partial shift from America's traditional policy of working to maintain stability in the Middle East to a policy firmly aligned with that of Israel to militarily defeat Israel's greatest enemy at the time. While Washington had previously provided arms to Israel to enable it to defeat its enemies — most conspicuously in the arms airlift during the Yom Kippur War of 1973 — the United States had never before gone to war against a primary enemy of Israel. In fighting an enemy initially identified by Israel and its American supporters, American policy in the 1991 Gulf War prefigured the Bush II administration's war on Iraq, which would be on a much grander scale.

Under the Bush I administration, the war and the defeat of Saddam still took place within the overall foreign-policy framework of maintaining stability — and in its rejection of an American occupation of Iraq, the administration certainly did everything it could to try to restore the status quo, to the great consternation of the friends of Israel who desired regime change and continued destabilization. However, as it happened, the very establishment of the American military presence in the Middle East had a destabilizing effect. It would feed into the popular grievances exploited by Islamists such as Osama bin Laden. America would become a primary enemy on a par with Israel.

The drastic American military intervention into Middle East affairs had unleashed forces that could not be reversed. The tinder was dry and needed only the neocons of the Bush II administration to light the spark of a new American war, utterly transforming American policy. To avoid the likelihood of a future war, the United States would have had to pull out of the region after 1991, and that was an approach alien to all Establishment geostrategic thinkers, wedded as they have been to a policy of international intervention on the part of the U.S. government.

The second, greater war would not have started when it did had the neocons not been able to gain control of foreign policy in the George W. Bush administration, a seizure of power that resulted from the 9/11 terrorist disaster. However, the neocons, though newly empowered, could not have initiated the 2003 war if the earlier war had not taken place. In that sense the 1991 Gulf War was a prelude to the 2003 war on Iraq, in which the U.S. government would pursue a policy in complete harmony with the thinking of the neocons and the Israeli Likudniks to precipitate regime change and destabilize the Middle East.

March 8, 2005

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© 2005 Stephen J. Sniegoski. All rights reserved.

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