For centuries, the Middle East has cast a long and dark shadow over the legacy of many a statesman wanting to leave his mark on history. Unlike Europeans, the Americans largely resisted the allure of the region until 1945, when President Franklin D Roosevelt met with Saudi King Abdul Aziz on board the USS Quincy. That is when the sands of Arabia turned into a quagmire for America and its Presidents.
With the creation of the state of Israel not long after that meeting, US Presidents became embroiled in the Middle East to such an extent that many now believe that America’s interests no longer have priority in Washington’s foreign policy.
When the Cold War came to an end and the Berlin Wall was knocked down it seemed that history had gifted the 41st President of the United States, George Herbert Walker Bush, a chance to carve a legacy to be proud of. A “New World Order” was taking shape, one in which Bush Snr saw himself as the main architect.
The death of the USSR — America’s number one enemy for decades — and the decline of communism were monumental events. For millions, though, the legacy of Bush Snr — like that of his son George W Bush, who became President a decade later — came to be defined by events that would unfold in a different continent, based on what he did and did not do in the Middle East.
Born in 1924 to an affluent family in the suburbs of Boston, Bush Snr went on to become a World War Two fighter pilot. Unlike his successors Bill Clinton, George W Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, he had experience working in the federal system before entering the White House, having served as a Congressman, US Ambassador to the United Nations and China, the Director of the CIA and Vice President for eight years under President Ronald Reagan. His experience of public service prior to becoming President is said to be why he was a political realist, especially when it came to Israel. It is fair to say that he was at odds with Tel-Aviv more than any other US President.
Since his death last week at the age of 94, benign tributes have been pouring for Bush Snr which tend to whitewash his record; he has even been championed as the person who ended the cold war “without firing a shot.” Little attention has been paid to his record in the Middle East.
Seizing on the historic events in Europe during his presidency, George H W Bush mis-sold his adventures in the Middle East, telling a captivated world audience that the 1991 Gulf War was part of a global shift ushering in a “New World Order”. His campaign to cobble together an international coalition against Saddam Hussain has been cited as one of his greatest achievements. He did indeed line up a broad coalition against Iraq, including a significant British contingent alongside around 400,000 US troops.
Bush’s case for war to end Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait, however, has been denounced as dishonest. Like his son thirteen years later, who lied about weapons of mass destruction to justify the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, Bush Snr’s case for war “was sold to the public on a pack of lies.”
He told the world that, “What is at stake is more than one small country; it is a big idea: a new world order, where diverse nations are drawn together in common cause to achieve the universal aspirations of mankind — peace and security, freedom and the rule of law.” What followed was anything but security, freedom and the rule of law for the people of Iraq and the wider region.
Bush launched Operation Desert Storm in 1991 to devastating effect. US forces are reported to have dropped 88,500 tons of bombs on Iraq and Iraqi-occupied Kuwait, many of which resulted in horrific civilian casualties. One incident cited by rights groups is a raid by US aircraft on public shelters in Baghdad which killed 408 Iraqi civilians. Human Rights Watch said that the US knew in advance the location of the shelters and concluded that it was “a serious violation of the laws of war.”
An act that would go down in history as one of the one worst lies ever told to make the case for war saw the Bush administration parading a member of the Kuwaiti royal family pretending to be a nurse who had witnessed Iraqi soldiers killing Kuwaiti babies. Nayirah Al-Sabah, it was discovered later, was actually the daughter of the Kuwaiti Ambassador. She went before the US Congress masquerading as a volunteer nurse who had witnessed alleged atrocities.
The six-week war to free Kuwait culminated in a ground campaign lasting just 100 hours. Having won a decisive victory over Saddam Hussain, Bush the realist resisted the temptation to go to Baghdad and force a regime change. Instead, he called on the Iraqis to rise up against their President. Many did so, including Kurds in the north, but Saddam survived. Fearing reprisals, Bush established a no-fly zone over Iraqi Kurdistan in 1992 to prevent a massacre.
One of the unintended consequences of the war in Iraq was the rise of Osama Bin Laden. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, the wealthy Saudi Bin Laden offered to raise an army of Arab Afghan veterans to fight the “godless” Saddam. His offer was rejected and Riyadh invited US troops into the Arabian Peninsula. By January 1991, some 300,000 foreign troops were stationed on Saudi territory. The war boosted the network of US military bases across the Gulf which now support troops in Afghanistan and forces fighting against Daesh in Iraq and Syria.
The presence of US troops in the Kingdom became a source of great tension between Bin Laden and the Saudi royal family. The fall out resulted in the late leader of Al-Qaeda leaving his homeland and regrouping elsewhere. This was cited by him as a major grievance in advance of the 9/11 terror attacks in America.
Having routed Saddam Hussain with the support of many Arab countries, Bush used his political capital to find a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. He authorised US Secretary of State James Baker to begin talks in Madrid in 1991 between the PLO and Israel. The bilateral and multilateral negotiating tracks established during this period culminated in the 1993 Oslo Accords.
Bush Snr’s political realism saw him take a tough stance against Israel. Seeing an opportunity to end the conflict in Palestine with a possible peace deal, he moved to break Israeli intransigence by refusing to approve $10 billion in loan guarantees to help the Zionist state to cope with a wave of Jewish immigration from the former Soviet Union. Doing what no other US President had done in order to give peace a chance, he dared to tie military and economic aid to Israel with a limit on settlement construction in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the occupied Syrian Golan Heights. It is said that this is one reason why he didn’t win a second term in office.
Bush promised to lead the world into a “New World Order” wherein the rule of law and the UN would take centre stage in global politics. Judged by that standard and the chaos that has unfolded in the Middle East over the past 30 years and more, not least the ongoing devastation of Iraq, the instability caused by the US military presence in the region and the Israeli colonisation of Palestine, the tainted legacy of George H W Bush will forever be remembered more for his many failures in the Middle East than any successes noted elsewhere.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.