• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Bush Abroad

The incoherent nature of American policy in the Gulf region before August 1990 can be explained by its second feature, its failure to pay sufficient attention to that part of the world. General Schwarzkopf tells us in his recent book that as the new Commander of Central Command (in charge of operations in the Middle East), he drew up war plans in 1989–1990 in which the old hypothesis of a Soviet invasion of the Gulf region was replaced by an Iraqi attack.29 But official policy did not reconsider relations with Iraq once the Iran-Iraq war was over, and the crisis between Iraq and Kuwait developed in July 1990 without creating any sense of urgency in Washington (partly because of reassuring messages from Mubarak and King Hussein)—even though Saddam was threatening to use force and left the possibility of force open in his famous meeting with Ambassador Glaspie. Thus if Saddam was comparable to Hitler, as Bush claimed, the Bush administration failed to recognize him for what he was, just as so many statesmen in Europe in the 1930s had failed to see the difference between Hitler and, say, Bismarck. When Bush, during the crisis, asserted that there had been nothing as important morally since World War II,30 or denounced Iraqi atrocities in Kuwait, one wonders where he was looking when earlier Iraqi atrocities had taken place, and how so evil a monster appeared so suddenly.

The other blot on Bush’s record concerns the outcome of the war. Here it was the administration that miscalculated. If Saddam Hussein was like Hitler—a charge that was used to justify the huge build-up of allied forces and the ferocity of the campaign—then the only appropriate outcome would have been his fall. Bush had hoped he could both remove him from power and avoid getting trapped in Iraq’s complex internal affairs, by inflicting on his enemy a defeat that would incite the Iraqi military to eliminate him without any further change in Iraq’s political and social system. He invited the Iraqi people and military to revolt against Saddam, but he had no intention of supporting a popular uprising. When the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south tried to oppose him, the rebellion (left to its own devices) actually helped Saddam consolidate his battered power, and he crushed his enemies with the force and weapons he still had, among others the attack helicopters that the politically naive General Schwarzkopf had allowed him to use, accepting the claims of Saddam’s generals that they were needed for “civilian” purposes.31 In drafting the terms of Saddam’s capitulation, the Security Council omitted any reference to human rights and minorities.32 Only British and French pressure, as well as Turkish protests against the flood of Kurdish refugees, led Bush to provide, belatedly, some military protection to the Kurds. Domestic criticism a year later led him to extend a more limited form of partial protection to the Shiites.

This miserable story—which includes the continuing mistreatment of the Kurds and Shiites by Saddam—points to a genuine dilemma. If the Gulf War were a traditional conflict aimed at restoring the territorial status quo and at curbing Iraq’s dangerous power, then the US would now be faced with the risk of having to deal in the future with the same Saddam Hussein whose methods and designs had led to the crisis, and who could be counted on to try to build up new resources for revenge (as Hitler had done against the treaty of Versailles). Indeed, this risk was compounded by the fact that he had sent into Kuwait far fewer forces than the allies thought, and that some four-and-a-half of his divisions in the war zone still managed to escape.33 In this respect, the decision in Washington to call for a cease-fire after a “hundred hour war” and Schwarzkopf’s preoccupation with minimizing allied casualties are open to criticism. 34

A different dilemma arises if Bush and the allies wanted to go to the root of the trouble: Saddam’s designs and methods, which did not distinguish between brutality and repression at home, and terror and aggression outside (whereas, his enemy Assad, in Syria, knew how to keep his two fronts distinct, and, abroad, pursued limited goals—in Lebanon—with sly and stealthy methods). In that case the US and whatever allies it could muster would have had to do much more. At a minimum, they would have had to capture and dismantle not merely most of the forces deployed in and around Kuwait, but most of Saddam’s army and high command, and they would have had to seize and destroy the country’s stock of heavy weapons and production of weapons of mass destruction. The UN, despite its resolutions and inspections, still has not achieved this last goal.

More plausible would have been the coalition strategy advocated by Tucker and Hendrickson35—but only as an alternative to their preferred strategy of containment—and by members of the Iraqi opposition abroad: to aim at the removal of Saddam and of his regime and the formation of a new Iraqi government, respectful of human rights. They argue that such a course would have allowed for a much less fierce military strategy, one which would not have required the destruction of the civilian infrastructure and the mass killing of frontline soldiers because it would have concentrated on the seizure of Baghdad, not on Kuwait and southern Iraq.

Tucker and Hendrickson recognize that most of America’s allies, especially the Saudis and the Turks, would have balked at this strategy. And it also seems true that the desire to exorcise the humiliation of Vietnam which, as they show, dominated official strategy, led Bush and his team to fear, above all, being trapped in Baghdad. They wanted, in the words of A Clock-work Orange, a quick in-out. Schwarzkopf confirms that “the Baghdad option” was never considered.36 The Arabs’ forces refused even to enter Iraqi territory during the war; they would have been more reluctant still to follow the US all the way to the capital, although many Arab leaders would have been relieved if Saddam had fallen.

General Schwarzkopf argues that only the British would have joined the US in going to Baghdad if he had continued the fighting; but he never entertained the different strategy concentrating on Baghdad that Tucker and Hendrickson propose. If it had been followed it seems likely that the US, as the dominant member of the coalition, could have overcome the reluctance of most of its allies. Unlike in Vietnam, the risks of a protracted war and of popular resistance—that is, of a military quagmire—were not high. A short occupation would have been necessary to eliminate or neutralize the regime’s military forces and highly repressive security organizations, and to put in place a new regime based on the consent of representatives of the Shiites, of the Kurds, and of anti-Saddam Sunnis. The legal cover would have been an admittedly broad interpretation of Security Council resolution 678 of November 29, 1990, which authorized “all necessary means” to “restore international peace and security in the area”; but the language did, after all, also serve as the cover for the bombing of Iraq and the crippling of its arsenal.

Bush failed to understand that the old legal barrier between external and internal affairs if often a political absurdity, whether in cases of secession, as in Yugoslavia, or when human rights violations and the crushing of minorities defy international obligations. The result of his misconceived strategy, for the moment, is a weakened Saddam and a degree of “humanitarian” protection for the Kurds. For the future, however, Saddam still has formidable means of internal repression and opportunities for manipulating other countries; and a “humanitarian” approach to political issues, while it helps the victims survive, often does little to prevent others from becoming victims, whether in Bosnia or in Iraq. The fundamental issues that Iraq posed to the Arab world are unresolved. Bush stopped the war in the way he did because of his concern for “stability”—the stability of the system of existing states. But in Iraq, as in Yugoslavia ans the former Soviet Union, and even in China, protecting the stability of states means often little more than protecting the regime in power; it fails to address domestic sources of instability that can all too easily spill over into international upheavals.


Two qualities distinguish Bush’s diplomacy. The first is inconsistency. I have already referred to his different treatment of the aggression of Saddam and of Milosevic. In Iraq and in Haiti after the overthrow of Father Aristide, the US has been most reluctant to intervene in domestic affairs and relies on ineffectual sanctions to produce changes in governments that savagely violate human rights. But in Panama the US has no inhibition about removing by force an abusive leader, and in the Phillipines, when Mrs. Aquino was threatened by a coup in December 1989, American military assistance helped her to survive. the concern, in both these cases, was probably not so much democracy as safeguarding American influence.37 In the case of Panama, while Noriega was captured even though Saddam was not, there were many similarities with the subsequent Persian Gulf War. In “Operation Just Cause” as in Desert Storm, the civilian casualties were heavy, and in Panama the level of force used was certainly disproportionate. In both cases, the press was kept at bay. In both cases, the deeper causes of trouble and misery were left intact. Most striking of all, in both cases we had to fight, at great cost to the civilian population, leaders we ourselves had helped to stay in power , whose thugishness had often served our interests, and whose crimes or misdemeanors we knew about and abetted.38

The same kind of inconsistency marks American attitudes toward the UN. Bush wrapped himself in its mantle during the Gulf War and, in September 1992, he gave his blessing to the new secretary general’s ambitious proposals for expanding the peace-keeping role of the organization. But the US government has put little pressure on Congress to pay the UN the money the US owes in arrears, not to mention the sums Boutros Ghali’s plan would require. In relations with the European Community, we find, on the one hand, a comparable contradiction between verbal support for European integration and policies that tend to undermine it, not only, as was mentioned above, in dealing with security, but also in monetary matters (the fall of the dollar, tolerated if not encourage by the adminstration, has, by strengthening the deutschmark at the expense of all other West European currencies, contributed to the collapse of the European Monetary System). Moreover, excessive demands made by the administration for changes in the European Community’s agricultural policy (which is highly protectionist but is being gradually reformed) have contributed to blocking a new agreement on worldwide free trade, even as the administration was successfully working on a free trade zone for all of North America.

What also stands out in Bush’s record is a failure to look far into the future and to reconsider America’s role in the world after the end of the cold war. The administration has failed to address deeply threatening international issues such as population growth in the poorer countries and environmental damage. Even in the Middle East, where America’s military and economic commitment has been spectacular, little has been done to address, or to reflect upon, such long-term sources of disruption as Islamic fundamentalism, domestic social inequality and political authoritarianism (for instance in restored Kuwait, in Saudi Arabia, even in Egypt), or the fact that the biggest producers of oil, except for Iraq, are the least populated and most traditional countries. It is true that belatedly, and as a reward to the Arab members of the coalition, the administration has brought Israelis and Arabs, including the Palestinians, to the negotiating table; and it acted courageously in making the cessation of West Bank settlements a condition for guaranteeing further Israeli loans. But it has remained reluctant to take an active part in resolving the main difficulties between the different sides. Whatever progress is now occurring results primarily from the change in the Israeli government, from Assad’s reevaluation of his interests, and from Palestinian weakness. And one of the main requirements for peace in the Middle East, a curtailment of arms sales to the region, has been sacrificed to the political needs of the Bush reelection campaign.

Nor has there been any thoughtful reconsideration of America’s role in Europe or in the Far East, the other two regions of vital interests during the Cold War. NATO’s survival as a somewhat pointless tool of general reassurance contrasts with America’s increasing irrelevance to West European affairs and absence from Central and East European affairs. And while Japan still finds the American security guarantee useful, both as a shield against eventual militarism at home and as a guarantee against future troubles with China or Russia or in Korea, the US has not yet devised a coherent strategy aimed at trying to persuade Japan to move in what State Department jargon would call a constructive direction—i.e., to become a global civilian power, engaged in international institutions, rather that either a military superpower or a dominant regional power in Asia.39 Bush’s lamentable journey to Tokyo in January 1992, with his escort of overpaid and underachieving businessmen, only consolidated this view that has been spreading in Japan—that America has entered a period of decline.

The Bush administration has never made up its mind on a central issue. Did it want a new “world order” in which the US, as the winner of the cold war and only remaining superpower, would now aim at preventing the growth of any rival, as a Pentagon policy paper suggested a few months ago? Or would the strains on American resources and the need to deal with an accumulation of domestic issues require that the US become less active in foreign affairs and that costs and responsibilities be transferred to other countries? Twisting the arms of Japan and Germany led them to pay for much of the cost of the Gulf War; but this was neither the way to shake them out of their reluctance to play bigger parts in world affairs nor the way to preserve, in the long run, American supremacy.

At present, three ideologies dominate the intellectual debate on America’s role. Neo-isolationists want the US to deal only with threats to America’s physical security, political independence, and domestic liberty. they find no such threats at present, and therefore argue that the US should let other powers, and regional balances of power, take care of all the world’s woes.40 Realists such as Henry Kissinger want the US to continue to be the holder of the world balance of power, the arbiter of the main regional power groups, and the watchdog against all potential imperialistic trouble-makers. Internationalists want a greater roel for multilateral institutions and more emphasis on human needs and rights, the environment, and democracy.

All three views are flawed. The first discounts excessively the risks a world of fragmentary chaos would entail for the US, and exaggerates the ease with which it could disengage from, and transfer to others, accumulated interests and commitments. The second view, calling itself realist, neglects a major aspect of reality: the vast changes that have swept the world in the second half of the twentieth century (such as the spread of and demand for democracy) and the unwillingness of Americans to accept “the amoral and often cynical calculations of power politics.”^41 the internationalists have not thought through how democracy and human rights could be promoted in a world in which the obstacles to both remain formidable, and in which self-determination and self-government often clash with individual rights. Nor do they sufficiently take into account domestic resistance to and backlash against international institutions and commitments. (This is happening in Western Europe today.)

Ultimately, American strategy in the world will have to be a delicate combination of retrenchment, realism, and internationalism (the latter will be indispensable if one wants to begin dealing effectively with the needs, demands, and suspicions of the poorer countries). One can find elements of all three, although mainly of the second, in the Bush administration. But it has been more a matter of improvisation than a strategy, and it has been inadequate. During the campaign so far, moreover, nothing has been said to suggest that the other presidential candidates have a coherent foreign policy to offer to the public.

  1. 29

    Schwarzkopf, It Does Not Take a Hero, pp. 286 ff.

  2. 30

    Quoted in Smith, George Bush’s War, p. 238.

  3. 31

    Schwarzkopf, It Does Not Take a Hero, p. 489; also Heikal, Illusions, p. 319.

  4. 32

    See the remarks by Philip Alston, “Human Rights in the New World Order,” in Mara R. Bustelo and Philip Alston, editors, Whose New World Order? (Leichhardt: The Federation Press, 1991), pp. 91–92.

  5. 33

    See Heikal, Illusions, p. 318, and Les Aspin and William Dickinson, Defense for a New Era (US Government Printing Office, 1992), pp. 32–33.

  6. 34

    Schwarzkopf, It Does Not Take a Hero, pp. 442, 468–471.

  7. 35

    Tucker and Hendrickson, The Imperial Temptation, Chapter 12.

  8. 36

    Schwarzkopf, p. 497.

  9. 37

    See John Quigley, The Ruses for War (Prometheus Books, 1992), chapters 27–29.

  10. 38

    See Noam Chomsky, Deterring Democracy (Hill and Wang, 1992), pp. 150 ff.

  11. 39

    Unpublished paper, “An American Strategy for Japan’s Global Role,” September 1992.

  12. 40

    See the books of Earl Ravenal and Ted Galen Carpenter listed above.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print