Blowback from unintended consequences of Bush’s 1991 war continues


George H.W. Bush, who died last Saturday at the age of 94, has been lauded as a great US president, a humble patrician and a man who served his country during World War II as an air force pilot and from that time on. Ahead of his election to the top job in 1988, he was head of the Republican Party, vice president to Ronald Reagan, a member of Congress, ambassador to the UN and China and head of the Central Intelligence Agency. He had experience in war, politics and intelligence. He was not, however, a great US chief executive and lost re-election in 1992, becoming a rare one-term president.

During his eight years in the administration of his Republican predecessor, Bush should have gained a feel for the Middle East, its politics and its conflicts. He was one of Reagan’s aides and, hopefully, advisers when the US trained and armed Afghan mujahedin to fight the Soviet army in Afghanistan. He was also in place during the Iraq-Iran War (1980-1988) and Israel’s deadly and disastrous 1982 war on Lebanon, which culminated in the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians in the south Beirut neighbourhoods of Sabra and Chatila and the creation of Hizbollah.

Bush was a man of war, not peace. He mounted an invasion of the Central American Republic of Panama in December 1989-January 1990, with the aim of toppling and capturing that country’s dictator, General Manuel Noreiga, who was accused of attacking US residents of Panama, smuggling drugs to the US and laundering money. He also had tried to cozy up to the Castros in Cuba. Bush pledged to return Panama to democracy and respect for human rights, the usual promises given to countries where the US intervenes militarily and fails to deliver neither democracy nor rights.

Bush clearly did not understand this region. Its citizens have suffered protracted warfare because once in the White House (1989-1993), he decided to go to war against Saddam Hussein after the Iraqi army invaded and occupied Kuwait on August 2, 1990.

Iraqi troops went into Kuwait after the emirate exported more oil than its quota fixed by the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, reducing the price and costing Iraq, Baghdad claimed, $14 billion. Iraq accused Kuwait of stealing $2.3 billion by pumping oil from the disputed Rumeila field and called on Kuwait to cancel a debt of $15 billion loaned to Iraq to prosecute its war with Iran, which had tried to export its Shiite revolutionary ideology to Sunni Arab countries.

During a July 25, 1990 meeting with Saddam Hussein, US ambassador to Baghdad April Glaspie expressed US concern over the massing of troops on Iraq’s southern border and sympathy over Iraq’s need for funds to rebuild after the war with Iran. But, significantly, she stated, “We have no opinion on your Arab-Arab conflicts, such as your dispute with Kuwait. Secretary [of state James] Baker has directed me to emphasise the instruction, first given to Iraq in the 1960s, that the Kuwait issue is not associated with America.”

A month later, journalists asked Glaspie what she meant by her remarks and accused the US of encouraging Iraq to invade Kuwait. She replied, “Obviously, I didn’t think, and nobody else did, that the Iraqis were going to take all of Kuwait.” Clearly, the Bush administration thought Iraq was going to take part of Kuwait if negotiations with the emirate failed and would accept this fait accompli.

Once Iraq seized all of Kuwait, Bush stated the invasion “Will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait.” He obviously did not regard his invasion of Panama “aggression.” Bush promptly imposed punitive sanctions on Iraq and began to assemble a coalition of Western and Arab forces to drive the Iraqi army from Kuwait. Compromises proposed by Saddam Hussein were either dismissed or ignored by Bush. Jordan’s King Hussein, who strongly opposed the war Bush was determined to wage, dispatched envoys to Baghdad with the aim of coming up with a formula to avert war. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat attempted to mediate. Both failed.

George H.W. Bush’s Iraq war launched 27 years of conflict in this region. Instead of focusing on Iraqi troops and military installations in Kuwait, Baghdad, Basra and the rest of Iraq were attacked. Power plants, factories, the nuclear research reactor, bridges and other infrastructure were bombed. At least 20,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed; the US suffered 148 troop fatalities. Sanctions deprived Iraqis, in violation of international law, of food, medicine and other essentials, including chlorine to purify water. Tens of thousands of children succumbed to malnutrition and illness before sanctions were eased.

Bush refused to invade Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein, but urged Iraqi Kurds and dissident Shiites to revolt. Bush did not dispatch US troops to rescue them when the Iraqi army crushed the rebellion, killing thousands. Bush declared the Kurdish majority region a “safe haven” and imposed a “no fly zone” to protect the Kurds from Iraqi warplanes.

Blowback continues from the unintended consequences of Bush’s 1991 war.

Resentment over the US military presence on the soil of Saudi Arabia led to the rise of Al Qaeda under its Saudi founder Osama Bin Laden. His 19 followers, including 15 Saudis, carried out the September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, DC.

If the senior Bush had refrained from attacking Iraq and opted for a non-military solution to the occupation of Kuwait, it is unlikely that his son, the callow, inexperienced George W. Bush would have mounted his invasion and occupation of Iraq. After ousting the secular government of Saddam Hussein, he installed a pro-Iranian Shiite fundamentalist regime. Al Qaeda rooted itself in Iraq and fought the occupation and was joined by the Mahdi Army of independent Iraqi cleric Muqtada Al Sadr.

The 2005 Iraqi constitution, drawn up under US tutelage, granted the Kurds autonomy in Bush’s “safe haven” and in September 2017, they proclaimed independence, prompting the government to crack down and force them to renounce secession. Turkey, which faces Kurdish demands for self-rule, threatened to blockade the Iraqi Kurdish region.

In 2012-2013, Al Qaeda in Iraq gave birth to Al Nusra and Daesh and deployed them in Syria to complicate the civil conflict in that country, which had been overlaid by proxy wars involving both regional and international powers. Daesh set up its “caliphate” in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa and returned to Iraq, seizing Sunni cities in the west of the country, and in June 2014 capturing Mosul, Iraq’s second city in the north. It has taken the armies of Iraq, Syria, the US and its Western allies to contain Daesh. The blowback from the late George H.W. Bush’s 1991 war has been stunning.


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