George HW Bush and the ‘American era’ in the Middle East
Depending on who one talks to in the Arab world, Bush is either hailed as a brave visionary or written off as a war criminal
In October 1990, when the United States and the Soviet Union co-chaired the Madrid Peace talks between Arabs and Israelis, the two bitter enemies sat across from each other for the first time since the 1948 creation of Israel.
Secretary of State James Baker did the shuttle diplomacy and took ultimate credit for the historic event, famous for its political significance and the high drama that unfolded during its opening session.
A landmark achievement for the United States, it marked the start of the so-called “American Era in the Middle East.” It was also the beginning of the end of Russian influence in the region. Two months later, the USSR was dissolved.
The Madrid process eventually led to the 1993 Oslo Accords between Yasser Arafat and Yizhak Rabin, and the 1994 Wadi Araba Agreement between Israel and King Hussein of Jordan. It even came close to inspiring a Syrian-Israeli peace agreement in the mid-1990s.
The engineer of the original Madrid breakthrough was George HW Bush, the 41st president of the United States, who died at his home in Houston over the weekend, aged 94. Depending on who one talks to in the Arab world, he is either hailed as a brave visionary and history-maker or dismissed and written off as a war criminal. To the generation of Arabs who supported Saddam Hussein, Bush falls into the second category.
Bush and Iraq
In the US, Bush is known for the 1990 liberation of Kuwait. In the Arab world, he is remembered for purportedly having given the green light for the initial invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein’s forces.
At a bare minimum, the Bush Administration (1989-1993), was seen as giving Baghdad the false impression that the US would not interfere if Saddam’s army embarked on a military adventure in Kuwait. That pledge — as understood by Saddam — was delivered by Bush’s Ambassador to Baghdad, April Glaspie. According to cables released by the Bush Library, her first meeting with Saddam took place on July 25, 1990.
Saddam had complained to Glaspie, saying that Kuwait was ignoring OPEC quotas — costing him billions in lost oil revenue — and pumping crude oil from a disputed oil field.
According to a transcript declassified and released by the Margaret Thatcher Foundation in 1998, Ambassador Glaspie said that she “had served in Kuwait 20 years before; then, as now, we took no position on these Arab affairs.”
Eight days later, the Iraqi Army stormed its tiny neighbor, occupying the oil-rich sheikhdom.
As a veteran of World War II who was shot by the Japanese, Bush considered Saddam Hussein another Hitler. After a demand for the unconditional withdrawal of Saddam’s forces from Kuwait, which the Iraqi leader ignored, Bush drew up the famed coalition that staged “Operation Desert Shield.”
Saudi Arabia bankrolled the operation with $36 billion (out of a total cost of $60 billion), while Arab heavyweights like Egypt and Syria sent troops to the Arabian Desert, placing them under the command of Bush’s trusted general, Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of all coalition forces. Bush made sure that it was an “international coalition” and not just an American and European one, as he believed that support for his war from Arabs and Muslims was crucial.
The conflict, which shaped the minds of an entire generation of Arabs, famously started in February 1991. It was over in 100 days, ending with the liberation of Kuwait and the death of 20,000 Iraqis. Subsequent sanctions slapped on Saddam’s regime bankrupted Iraq and destroyed the lives of millions of Iraqis while having no effect on the Iraqi dictator, his sons, or his entourage.
Iraqis accuse Bush of obliterating their once mighty army and of encouraging Shi’ites and Kurds to rebel against Saddam, only to look the other way when they actually did so, resulting in the massacre of thousands. Bush Sr also refused to allow his forces to push forward to Baghdad to topple Saddam — something that was eventually done by his son, George W Bush, in 2003.
“To occupy Iraq would shatter our coalition,” said Bush back in 1991, “turning the whole Arab world against us.” It would also, he said, “make a broken tyrant into a latter-day Arab hero.”
However, the 1991 Gulf War did just that for Saddam. It also introduced a heavy American military presence in Saudi Arabia — something that enraged a Saudi citizen named Osama Bin Laden who cited that presence, among other things, as one of the reasons for the terrorist attacks of 9-11. On a more positive note, it also triggered the Middle East peace talks, eight months later.
Bush was no Arab sympathizer and is also remembered for successfully lobbying the United Nations to revoke a 1975 resolution linking Zionism to racism. Using his influence, however, he forced the Israelis to show restraint when Saddam Hussein fired Scuds at Tel Aviv and Haifa. He had a troubled relationship with then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, especially after he withdrew loan guarantees for further settlements unless the Israelis promised to erect none in Gaza and the West Bank.
Shamir was pushing for an expansion of settlements to absorb the rising number of Jewish settlers coming from the USSR. In September 1991, he spoke of the pressure being applied on him for that purpose “by a thousand Jewish lobbyists on Capitol Hill, against little old me.” Shamir was also entirely unimpressed with having to sit across the table from representatives of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), who attended Madrid as part of the Jordanian delegation.
The former US president, scheduled to be laid to rest on Thursday in Texas after a four-day tribute, leaves behind a very different landscape in the Middle East. America’s influence in the region is declining and rapidly being replaced by that of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Syria, a country that Bush courted during the peace process, is at extreme odds with the United States. Iraq is still in a shambles, thanks to the combined efforts of the Bush dynasty. The Arab-Israeli conflict is far from over, hampered by the very obstacles that existed when Bush left the White House in 1993.
Countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council are curious when it comes to dealing with Bush’s fourth successor, Donald Trump, who shows little or no interest in promoting peace or stability in the region.
The Saudis are particularly upset, given the contradicting signals they have been receiving from Trump, who says that he will support them until curtain fall yet refused to end support for Qatar after its 2017 diplomatic quarrel with Riyadh, and more recently, left them in confusion over the Khashoggi Affair.