The Gulf War In Retrospect: the “Isolationists” Were Right

by , January 16, 2001
Ten years ago, George Herbert Walker Bush unleashed the mightiest military machine on earth against a poor, Third World country whose only “crime” consisted of redrawing the map of the Middle East as originally drawn by the British Foreign Office. Iraq has always claimed Kuwait as its “nineteenth province,” an assertion that history in the main supports. In the aftermath of World War I, having promised their Arab allies independence, the British went back on their word, and, in signing the Sykes-Picot treaty of 1916, implemented the chief axiom of politics: to the victor goes the spoils, which the Brits naturally reserved for themselves and the French. It was left to Sir Percy Cox to draw the first line in the sand (literally) at the 1922 conference of Uqair, creating the state of Iraq – but severing Kuwait, previously an adjunct of Basra, which was made an official British protectorate, and narrowing Iraqi access to the Persian Gulf. So the Iraqi “invasion” – or reclamation, depending on your viewpoint – came as no surprise to students of Middle East history, and should have come as no surprise to US policymakers, who had advance notice that Saddam was on the march – and did everything to encourage him. WHATEVER HAPPENED TO APRIL GLASPIE?

Eight days before the outbreak of the Gulf war, Saddam summoned April Glaspie, then the American ambassador to Iraq, and launched into a tirade. He railed about the pernicious role of the British in the region, reminded her that without Iraq the Iranians would not be stopped from taking over the whole region by anything short of nuclear weapons, and complained about the “economic aggression” of Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates in agitating for lower oil prices. He made it all too clear that he intended to use force to stop what he claimed were Kuwaiti incursions onto Iraqi territory in the so-called Neutral Zone. Glaspie replied that the Americans, too, had experience with “the colonialists,” which indeed seems odd given that the US and these very “colonialists” would be jointly bombing the hell out of Iraq is a little over a week’s time. As for the price of oil, Ms. Glaspie opined that “We have many Americans who would like to see the price go above $25 because they come from oil-producing states.” At a time when the US secretary of state was none other than James Baker, a Texan who virtually personifies Big Oil, the implications of what the US Ambassador was telling Saddam were inescapable. Glaspie went on to say:

“I think I understand this. I have lived here for years. I admire your extraordinary efforts to rebuild your country. I know you need funds. We understand that and our opinion is that you should have the opportunity to rebuild your country. But we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait. I was in the American Embassy in Kuwait during the late 60′s. The instruction we had during this period was that we should express no opinion on this issue and that the issue is not associated with America. James Baker has directed our official spokesmen to emphasize this instruction. We hope you can solve this problem using any suitable methods . . .”

YELLOW AND GREEN

If that was a diplomatic yellow light in response to Saddam’s stated intent to use force, then the President’s message to Saddam was a green light for the invasion. As Elaine Sciolino has pointed out in an interview with CSPAN, Dubya’s daddy didn’t even mention the tens of thousands of Iraqi troops poised to strike at Kuwait, and never raised the issue of Kuwaiti sovereignty or declared his intent to defend it. “It was a very, very weak memo,” says Sciolino, a reporter for the New York Times and author of The Outlaw State: Saddam Hussein’s Quest for Power and the War in the Gulf, “and it is much more dramatic than even April Glaspie’s transcript which has gotten so much attention. So that Saddam didn’t really think that there was going to be a huge hue and cry when he invaded Kuwait.” Saddam thought what Glaspie and her superiors wanted him to think, and the rest is history.

THE SURVIVOR

“This will not stand,” the First Bush declared, and soon expanded the war aims of the US from simply defending Kuwait to invading Iraq. But a decade later Saddam Hussein is still standing, and to the Arab “street” – the teeming, resentful Arab masses, seething with anger at the US for its Israel-centric policy in the Middle East – he is standing considerably taller. After ten years of sanctions, and nearly continuous bombing, the Americans and their British allies haven’t managed to land a bomb directly on their taunting antagonist, nor have they managed to starve him and his people out of existence – although this isn’t because they didn’t make a mighty effort.

NO CLEAN SHEETS

The barbarism of the sanctions is underscored by an aside in Ron McKay’s excellent piece in the Scottish Sunday Herald on what “depleted” uranium is doing to Basra. Describing the hospitals of Basra, McKay writes: “The patients lie on sheetless beds because detergents are banned on the grounds that they can be put to dual use – a crude bomb manufactured from a box of Persil, presumably.”

LAUNDRY DETERGENT – WEAPON OF MASS DESTRUCTION

In the perfervid imagination of our deranged rulers, detergent is a weapon of mass destruction, it has a “dual use” and must be embargoed lest Saddam unleashes the lethal potential of Tide. The real purpose of such restrictions is to completely dehumanize and defeat the Iraqi people. Imagine life with no clean sheets! But in ten years they have not succeeded: politically, Saddam’s position is more secure than ever, and it turns out that his reported ill health was merely wishful thinking on the part of the Iraqi opposition in exile. What US and Britain have been able to do is inflict a lot of suffering. The hospitals of Basra, McKay reports, “are full of young people suffering from horrendous tumors, most of them not even born when the Gulf war ended.” While the fingernails and hair of children who played in the “depleted” uranium-soaked fields of Kosovo fall out, and more fall sick and die, the US and the Brits refuse to acknowledge their own documented worst fears about the new weaponry and its effects. What else do we need to know before we realize that we are being ruled by moral and mental degenerates, who somehow believe that the concept of war crimes cannot apply to them.

CONTINUITY

The “depleted” uranium controversy reminds us how the course of US foreign policy generally stays unchanged in its essentials from one administration to the next. It was the First Bush who pissed radioactive poison on Iraq, and the Great Pants-dropper soon followed up by similarly defecating all over the former Yugoslavia. Is the Second Bush even now unzipping, getting ready to unleash yet another load of irradiated waste products on Iraq from a safe height?

GOING AFTER IRAQ

The very first words out of Colin Powell’s mouth, after it was formally announced that he would be Secretary of state-designate, were that he intended to “re-energize” the sanctions against Iraq, and he strongly implied that Saddam’s overthrow was a hope we should do more than wish for. The selection of Donald Rumsfeld as the new defense secretary, with the ultra-hawkish Paul Wolfowitz ensconced as his deputy, ensures that US policy in the region will become even more militant and irrational: both Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz signed a letter urging the Congress to pass legislation arming the divided, disoriented, and largely antidemocratic Iraqi opposition, and the Clinton administration, in one of its final acts, authorized the release of $12 million to organize a revolution from within Iraq. The plan, which doesn’t provide the Iraqi “revolutionaries” with any arms, is apparently for the Iraqi National Council to set up distribution points for goods embargoed elsewhere, and thus set up “liberated” zones controlled by the opposition that could be expanded outward.

EMBRACING CLINTONISM

This foreign policy bequest to the incoming administration is received with open arms by Bush advisors such as Richard Perle, an ultra-hawk who opines that Team Bush (II) will embrace this Clintonian initiative. “It’s not a question of blocking them in or forcing them into a situation they would object to,” he said. “My guess is they will wish to support the opposition.” As to whether this means backing up the “liberated zones” with military force once Saddam attacks them remains to be seen. But here again we see the essential continuity of American foreign policy as hegemonistic, aggressive, and relentlessly focused on the oil-rich Middle East. This hasn’t changed in ten years, or twenty, but there is reason to hope that it can and will change as we enter the real new millennium.

CONSERVATIVES VERSUS THE “NEW WORLD ORDER”

When the First Bush got up on his high horse and proclaimed the advent of “a New World Order,” his thin patrician lips forming the syllables of this ominous phrase so as to give it an almost lascivious lilt, a great many conservatives were naturally repulsed. The phrase offended the stern republican (small-r) sensibilities of traditional conservatives, who largely advised abstention from the temptations of empire, which they associated with an advanced state of decadence. “There are plenty of things worth fighting for,” said Pat Buchanan, “but lowering the price of gas by ten cents a barrel is not one of them.” A decade before the attack on the USS Cole, Buchanan asked:

“How is such a war to end? After destroying Iraq’s military and regime and driving its army out of Kuwait, who keeps them out? Of the answer is US troops, will not those troops become targets of the same terrorists who picked off our Marines in Lebanon?”

THE BOOMERANG EFFECT

The fight for a foreign policy that puts the interests of America and Americans first has engaged the conservative imagination ever since the end of the cold war and the discovery – or rediscovery – that the main enemy is in Washington D.C. (yes, no matter which party is in power). The Gulf war, and the Bushian rhetoric accompanying it, heightened their hostility to internationalism. The Kosovo disaster only confirmed the sneaking suspicion that government intervention abroad has the same effect abroad as it does at home – only in the case of the US Marines in Lebanon, the USS Cole, and the victims of the bombings at US bases in Saudi Arabia, the boomerang effect was spectacularly and immediately fatal. It was, after all, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives that gave Clinton the most trouble over the Kosovo war, and GOP congressional leaders are calling for the US to withdraw from the Balkans. The logic of their position will eventually force them to call for US withdrawal from the Arabian peninsula. Events in the Middle East are fast rendering our traditional policy of unconditional support to the House of Saud irrelevant. The sidelining of King Faisal, and the rise of the heir apparent, Crown Prince Abdullah, will force the US to confront the issue the fuels the popularity of Osama bin Laden as an Arab folk hero: the continued presence of foreign troops on Saudi soil, which is a religious and political affront to the great majority of Saudi citizens. Their new king will reflect the sentiments of his people, or else risk the loss of legitimacy – and the potential end of the House of Saud, which could wind up in the same dustbin of history wherein resides the Iranian Shah and his fellow Pahlavis.

GEOPOLITICAL CHESS

As a prelude to the expected fireworks in the Middle East, Afghanistan may become the latest battleground in the Bushian attempt to seize the oil fields of the Middle East. The US has been making noises about a joint Russian-American drive to drive the Taliban from power, but Putin is no fool and Moscow, preoccupied with Chechnya, is unlikely to get drawn back to that particular briar patch. Putin is furthermore very much concerned about American incursions into the Caucasus, which is one reason for his recent visit to Azerbaijan, the first visit by a Russian leader to the region in recent memory. The elaborate game of geopolitical chess being played at the top of the world is going into high gear, now that an administration that is not only beholden to Big Oil but actually is Big Oil has taken over the direction of US foreign policy. Afghanistan is one door to the oil-rich Caucasus, so is pro-Western Georgia (which now wants to join NATO!) and Iraq is another: which door Dubya chooses is a matter of military and political opportunity, as well as chance, but whichever one he walks though will involve a major military operation. Remember, these are the people who are formally committed to the so-called Powell Doctrine, which, in essence, is the principle that US military force is not to be considered or applied lightly: once the decision to intervention has been made, it must be carried out with “overwhelming force.”

SMALL MERCIES

When I consider the kind of change we can expect from the new administration, I am struck by this theme of continuity that underlies US foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East,. Instead of the slow death by “depleted” uranium poisoning and the effects of the embargo, Iraqis can look forward to a quick death in a hail of cluster bombs. This is a particularly obscure example of God’s mercy, but surely Team Bush (II) can recruit some Republican theologian into elaborating on it at great length.

Read more by Justin Raimondo