My earliest memory of war was under George H. W. Bush. It was 1990 and the US was mobilizing to send troops to Saudi Arabia to defend the kingdom from Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.
“The crisis in the Persian Gulf, as grave as it is, also offers a rare opportunity to move toward an historic period of cooperation,” he said before a joint session of Congress on September 11, 1990. Today that new world order has come crashing down.
Bush’s vision of a world that would emerge “freer from the threat of terror, stronger in the pursuit of justice, and more secure in the quest for peace,” has been shattered.
His believed that the “nations of the world, east and west, north and south, can prosper and live in harmony.” Instead nationalism and religious extremism have rapidly increased globally and cynical rulers have emerged, plunging the world into uncertainty and leading to the greatest refugee crises since World War II.
Bush’s life was shaped by the Second World War, where he served in the navy. He went on to work in business and then ran for Congress. Short stints at the UN, in the US Embassy and in China led to his appointment as head of the CIA. He became Ronald Reagan’s running mate in 1980 after failed presidential ambitions of his own. As Reagan’s vice president he gained valuable experience on the international stage, traveling to key hot spots, such as Central America and Russia, while attending many meetings and events with key foreign leaders. Schooled in the Cold War, he gained the knowledge necessary to hold his hand firmly on the tiller of world affairs as it ended.
He came into office in January 1989, just three months before the Tiananmen Square protests began in China. Bush’s administration banned arms sales to China over the crackdown on the protests. In October, East German leader Erich Honecker stepped down, setting in motion the fall of the Berlin Wall in November and the Velvet Revolution that swept Czechoslovakia in December. Nicolae Ceausescu, the Romanian dictator, was killed the same month after protests took over his country. Bush found himself confronting a massive earthquake on the international stage as the Soviet Union disintegrated.
At the same time, he sent the US military into Panama, sketching out a policy of humanitarian intervention that would come to dominate the 1990s. Bush would also seek to intervene in Somalia in 1992. This conception of the US as the new global policeman helped lay the groundwork for Washington’s robust response to Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990.
Bush helped construct a massive coalition to confront Saddam. More than two dozen countries joined, including Syria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. In addition, a plethora of Western European countries sent soldiers as well as Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland.
This was indeed a new world order, with soldiers on the battlefield who had recently been Cold War enemies. Men also came from as far away as Pakistan and Bangladesh, New Zealand, Australia and the Philippines to eject Saddam from Kuwait. It was a war like any other, in which the US was able to bring its technological superiority to the battlefield and revolutionize combat operations.
Saddam’s army, which was massive on paper, was swept aside with large casualties on the Iraqi side, and few on the coalition side. This provided valuable lessons for a new generation of war fighters who would go on to craft US policy over the next decades, but it also led to some hubris and arrogance. The US didn’t understand that while one can defeat a dictator, it’s harder to defeat insurgents and terrorists, some of whom saw the war in Iraq as a formative experience of US domination of global affairs.
Bush and his generals also sketched out a US doctrine that conceived of a quick end to war with clear goals. Ten years later, his son would launch wars that are still being fought and have no end in sight.
Bush Sr. used the wave of support for the Gulf War to launch a drive for peace in the Middle East.
“All of us know the depth of bitterness that has made the dispute between Israel and its neighbors so painful and intractable,” he said in a March 1991 speech to Congress. “Yet, in the conflict just concluded, Israel and many of the Arab States have for the first time found themselves confronting the same aggressor.”
He said the time had come to put an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Bush administration pushed for the Madrid peace conference of November 1991. Then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir was seeking $11 billion in US loan guarantees to help with absorbing immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Shamir had a difficult relationship with the US administration, especially secretary of state James Baker.
Baker had excoriated Israel on its policies in 1990, and he saw Israel as run by right-wing obstructionists who didn’t care about peace. Nevertheless, Shamir said in November 1991, “with an open heart we call on the Arab leaders to take the courageous step and respond to our outstretched hand in peace.”
The Bush administration helped push to annul UN Resolution 3379
, which equated Zionism and racism.
In the end, Bush left office unable to craft the new world order of which he had sought to be an architect. He left the world a more peaceful place than he found it and he devoted great energies to create a framework for US humanitarian intervention and support for democratization. Today we are seeing the undoing of many of these policies for which Bush pushed.
The world is drifting toward a multi-polar world where US global hegemony is decreasing amid a rising China, Putin’s Russia and other regional states that policies divergent from the US. The Bush administration members would be surprised to see that their ideas for an Israel-Palestinian peace have not come to fruition. Theirs was a worldview that stood firm for US global dominance in world affairs and saw the US as a guiding light. It was also a world in which they sought consensus, globalization under US power and treaties shepherded through with Washington’s benevolence.
It was a unique time, those four short years. It was also a very naive time in America, one in which many took for granted that the US was on the right side of history, confirmed by the Soviet failure, and that this kind of walk in the clouds of dreams about a reordered world would continue into the 21st century.
Those who grew up in that era, like I did, were shocked to find out that just 10 years after Saddam was thrown out of Kuwait, that all the evils that his regime conjured up would soon be visited by many other people around the world, and the religious, ethnic and nationalist fanaticism festering under the surface in Baghdad would come to flow throughout the world. Bush won the war in 1991, but he never had a chance to win the peace.
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