The late George H.W. Bush is being lauded around the world, essentially for his Gulf War of 1991. Why are we celebrating it?
The war seemed like a good idea at the time. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein had invaded oil-rich Kuwait threatening the price of oil – not the supply, but the price. Worse, it was outright aggression. President Bush likened Saddam to Hitler and vowed that his conquest would not stand.
We can date our never-ending conflicts with Islam to that vow. That 100-day war allowed the U.S. to plant a network of new military bases around the Persian Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, homeland of Osama Bin Laden. It was this military presence near Islam’s holiest sites of Mecca and Medina that turned Bin Laden into our worst enemy. Before that, he was our CIA proxy battling Russian aggression in Afghanistan.
Our relations with the Islamic and Arab worlds have a long and tortured history going back some 1,500 years. Things were shaping up after the Second World War until a new Israel was forced on Palestine. Oil became the next point of conflict in 1973 when we saved Israel – and probably prevented a nuclear war – during the Yom Kippur War. Remember the first retaliatory Arab oil embargo and the agonizing lines at the gas pumps?
Arab terrorism had mainly been a Jewish problem – the Munich Olympics massacre, airline hijackings, the Achille Lauro ship hijacking, and suicide bombings within Israel – until the Gulf War of 1991. That’s when Al Qaeda came into being and targets were placed on our backs. The first World Trade Center bombing was in 1993, the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were gutted in 1998, the USS Cole was attacked in 2000, and 9/11 changed us forever in 2001.
I recall my discomfort at work in 1991 when my boss handed out patriotic pins to wear in support of Desert Storm. He had never served in the military and the debacle of the Vietnam War was very much imprinted in our collective memory.
Many Americans opposed Bush’s “good war.” Even though the war received a UN blessing, some allied nations erupted in street protests. In Italy, 100,000 workers and 30,000 students stopped work for one day. And, there were attempts to blockade an airbase near Milan to prevent it being used to refuel American B52s.
Nevertheless, the Italians sent a fighter squadron to the Gulf with 314 men. It made the news when an Italian Tornado “went missing” and the two crew members were captured by the Iraqis after a bombing run. In Italy, they were heroes – a la captured Vietnam War pilot John McCain. But, it didn’t play well, as you might guess, when reported on American news.
We may honor George H.W. Bush for his tireless service to our nation and for his gentle and honorable character, but few leaders in history can survive the “what if?” test.
What would our world be like without the Gulf War? Saddam was the Arab bulwark against Persian Iran. He launched and fought an insane war against the Ayatollahs, draining Iraq’s resources from 1980-1988. It was to restore his finances that he invaded wealthy Arab Kuwait in 1991.
Iraq was Israel’s worse nightmare then, not ours. We know what happened after the Gulf War: Iran became Israel’s new nightmare, and ours is now the Islamic World. When you connect the dots of history, rather than treat every upheaval as isolated and unique, you better understand the folly of war.
Saddam, the murderer and aggressor, served our purposes until 1991 in the spirit of realpolitik – a German word that aptly describes dealing with “the devil we know.” What came after him, according to a new Brown University study, has cost us nearly $6 TRILLION in wars and counterterrorism. Don’t even ask about the human toll.
Let us recall that our civilization once confronted a hostile Islamic World many years ago. Rather than invading its sacred precincts to deliver “shock & awe” on battlefields we opted to avoid conflict and “scratch our ear with the other hand,” as an old Italian saying goes. Those were the days of the brutal Ottoman Turks and our ‘other hand’ was a guy named Columbus.
What if? -JLM