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New World Disorder

In the end, the one-hundred-hour war was successful in forcing Saddam to withdraw from Kuwait. But from his book and other sources we learn that Bush did not want the kind of withdrawal that Gorbachev and his emissary Yevgeny Primakov had arranged in February 1991, after the air bombardment of Iraq had begun. According to Gorbachev, Saddam had agreed to withdraw “immediately and unconditionally from Kuwait, beginning the day after a cease-fire.” The Iraqis, Gorbachev said, would be out in three weeks. This was not good enough for Washington, Scowcroft writes. It was neither immediate nor unconditional. The Americans would not stand by and watch the Iraqis have their way in Kuwait during the month to come. The next morning, forty-five minutes short of the deadline for Saddam to withdraw, Gorbachev made one last attempt to stave off the ground war: the Iraqis were now prepared to leave in four days. It was still not good enough. The main obstacle to an agreement was Washington’s demand that Iraq also abandon its military equipment. At 8:00 PM, Washington time, February 24, the ground campaign began.

Unlike Clinton, who in November 1998 hoped that the threat of military action would force Saddam to accept inspection, Bush and Scowcroft feared that Saddam would promise to withdraw before the allied forces could destroy the Iraqi army. What Bush and Scowcroft wanted was more than Iraqi withdrawal. As Bush wrote in his diary, “We must disarm the Republican Guard.” Since Saddam Hussein had no air support for his troops, the allied aircraft, Bush thought, would have a field day. What the Americans did not know, however, was that the plan to trap the elite Republican Guard in Kuwait was not working. The Guard had not been sent to reinforce the Iraqi front lines. Consequently, as Scowcroft writes, “most of those troops would not be caught by the encirclement.”

With Kuwait’s liberation, Bush declared the war was over, the victory won. Of the US forces, only 79 had been killed in action; 212 were wounded, and 45 missing. The US military refused to discuss how many Iraqis had died both during and after the war. Anything resembling the body counts of the Vietnam War was to be avoided. It was left, several years later, to the US Bureau of the Census to estimate that, in addition to expected peacetime deaths, the Iraqis lost some 145,000 people as a result of the war. “Only 5,000 of these were civilians who died during the war,” the bureau said. “There were also 40,000 military deaths during the war and 100,000 postwar civilian deaths due to violence and health conditions.”3

In their book neither Bush nor Scowcroft considers the human costs of the war. Nor, it must be said, have most of the commentators on the war in the American press and in the many books on the subject that have since appeared. Bush and Scowcroft write only that after it was over they found that “more of the Republican Guard survived the war than we had believed or anticipated.” In addition, Saddam had more than twenty divisions in other parts of Iraq, ready to crush both the Kurds and the Shi’ites, whom Washington, in its broadcasts, had irresponsibly encouraged to rise up against him.

Saddam’s defeat did not break his hold on power. Except for the Kurd enclave in the north, Iraq remained intact, which is exactly what Bush and Scowcroft wanted. Their strategic goal was that Iraq should remain sufficiently strong to counter Iran in a balance of power in the Gulf. The possibility that Iraqis might work out a plausible and more democratic government of their own if Saddam Hussein was overthrown never seems to have been seriously explored by Bush or Scowcroft. For them, the Kurdish rebellion, however brave, did not serve the interests of the United States. On the contrary, the uprising “distressed” Bush and Scowcroft, since it allowed Saddam to rally his army to suppress the Shi’ites and the Kurds. Still for Bush and Scowcroft the war was a thoroughly satisfying exercise in power politics. After the war, as Bush and Scowcroft write: “We stood almost alone on the world stage….” And the Germans and Japanese underwrote most of the costs of the operation.


Bush’s approach to international relations has been largely followed by Clinton, not only in Iraq but in his efforts to establish a working relationship with China. After the massacre of Chinese students and workers in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, Bush writes, he asked himself “how to condemn what we saw as wrong and react appropriately while also remaining engaged with China.” After suspending military sales and contracts to China, Bush therefore decided to send a letter to Deng Xiaoping, expressing his “great reverence for Chinese history, culture and tradition.” He explains that he was under great pressure to do even more than merely impose sanctions on China, but he “resisted that clamor.” Bush concluded his letter by asking Deng to show clemency toward the students and to find a way to let the dissident physicist Fang Lizhi, who had taken refuge in the American embassy, to leave the country. Bush believed the best way to get his message across to Deng was to have a distinguished American emissary talk to Deng personally. Who better than Brent Scowcroft, who knew Deng better than any of his colleagues?

On June 30, 1989, Scowcroft took off for the Middle Kingdom. Deng quickly made it clear to him that the problems between America and China “cannot be solved by two persons from the perspective of being friends.” Scowcroft calls his trip “useful,” but apart from Fang Lizhi’s departure into exile it is not clear that any tangible results came out of it. Two months after Scowcroft’s trip Bush admitted that he had made little progress. Deng finally replied in August that he was continuing to put down any rebellion; he brusquely criticized the United States for “permitting” the Chinese dissidents and students in the United States “to carry out their activities against the Chinese government.”

In November 1989 Bush wrote to Deng again, suggesting that he would send someone to debrief Deng after his meeting with Gorbachev in Malta; later Bush told the new Chinese ambassador that he wanted to send a team to China to see how to develop a “road map” which would “lead us back from the brink on which we had been poised since June.” That road map was finally completed by the Clinton administration, when the policy of “engagement”—“strategic dialogue” with China, which means no loud complaints about Chinese repression—was worked out under Madeleine Albright and national security adviser Samuel Berger.

Bush’s legacy in Somalia and Bosnia was far more troubling. He sent troops to Somalia in December 1992 to help carry out a UN-authorized humanitarian mission to feed a starving population. This turned into a political and military nightmare for Clinton when he took office six weeks later. The US humanitarian mission there might have never taken place had the television networks not stirred up popular opinion by showing starving Somalis. The Bush administration felt it had to do something but it did not adequately understand that the Somalis were not suffering from a natural disaster but were victims of a conflict between armed factions. The US tried clumsily to intervene in that conflict by having US Rangers—without the prior knowledge of the UN command—try to capture General Mohammad Aidid. When the corpse of an American soldier was dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, Clinton decided to withdraw the American military expedition by the spring of 1994.

With no clear national interest involved, Clinton was finally prepared to accept an unsatisfactory political solution to what had always been a political problem. Once Somalia had ceased to be important as a staging ground for cold war rivalries in East Africa, and the United States and the Soviet Union had stopped giving aid to its dictator, the country disintegrated into a collection of fiefdoms dominated by Aidid’s son. Bush’s Somalia intervention was a telling betrayal of the realist policies he, Baker, and Scowcroft advocated.

Far more serious was the Bosnian catastrophe. The attempts by Serbia to dominate through terror and conquest large parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina seemed to fulfill the requirements for military intervention in a post-cold war world, especially after Bosnian sovereignty was recognized by members of NATO at the end of 1991. If NATO’s mission was not to contain military conflict across borders, then what was NATO good for?

Yet the Bush administration set the pattern of futile and deceptive diplomacy in Bosnia that Clinton followed for years. It made condemning noises and refused to take effective action. When Secretary Baker met with Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic in June 1991, he told him that if he persisted in backing the Bosnian Serbs, “Serbia will stand alone. The United States and the rest of the international community will reject Serbian claims to territory beyond its borders. Serbia will become an international outcast within Europe for a generation or more.” This threat had little effect on Milosevic. Baker left the former Yugoslavia convinced that “civil war” was inevitable. The leaders he met with, in Baker’s words, “seemed to be sleep-walking into a car wreck, and no matter how loud you yelled—or in the case of Milosevic, practically slapped them in the face—they just kept on going.”4

According to Warren Zimmermann, Bush’s ambassador to Yugoslavia, that country “no longer enjoyed its former geopolitical significance.” Both Zimmermann and Bush’s deputy secretary of state, Lawrence Eagleburger, concluded, in effect, that “if Yugoslavia’s significance to the United States has heretofore been great, owing to the flourishing of the Cold War, then its significance must now be slight.”5

As a result of this “flawed premise,” as Mark Danner pointed out in his comprehensive analysis of the Yugoslav crisis in these pages,

In 1990 and 1991, when vigorous early diplomacy should have been brought to bear, the “principals” had their hands full preparing and directing the Gulf War; then, having triumphed in the Gulf with an ease none had anticipated, they had little interest in risking victory’s political rewards by undertaking what appeared certain to be a much more risky engagement in a country that seemed plainly to have outlived its importance.

Since the Bush administration was not prepared to take any military action to prevent Milosevic’s offensive against Croatia or Bosnian Muslims, the Serbian president was free to ignore Baker’s warnings. Danner is doubtless right that the autumn of 1991 was probably “the last chance” for the United States to halt the war which had begun between Serbia and Croatia at relatively low cost, and thereby “to prevent the outbreak of the much more savage war in Bosnia in March 1992.”

Bush, however, was unwilling to make use of what he had called the “reestablished credibility” of the United States following the Gulf War to intimidate the Serbs with any serious threat. Instead, he was only too happy in 1991 to pass on the responsibility for settling the Yugoslav conflict to the Europeans, who seemed willing to deal with it. “This is the hour of Europe,” said Foreign Minister Jacques Poos of Luxembourg. But the Europeans failed to impose a settlement in the former Yugoslavia. In the years that followed, the horrors of the Bosnian war eventually impelled the Clinton administration to use NATO forces to bomb the Serbs and then to send a substantial contingent of American soldiers to keep the peace.

President Clinton and his cabinet have largely accepted the rhetoric of Bush’s foreign policy. They view America as the “indispensable nation.” They see their task as one of trying to mobilize international institutions and allies to manage the post-cold war world in the sometimes thankless pursuit of stability. In fact, however, like Bush, Clinton has often found himself both unable to anticipate some major crises and without the power to forestall them. Whether in Kosovo or in Russia and other depressed parts of the world economy, the administration scrambles belatedly to deal with situations whose human costs and threats to international peace grow more grave each day.

In coping with those threats America’s much-cited status as the world’s one remaining superpower is often not much help at all. In crisis after crisis, the US government has been unable to make the kind of financial commitments that are needed for peacekeeping and international economic stability. In Bush’s case, the financial constraints were imposed because of the deficits Bush had inherited from Reagan; in the Clinton administration, a notoriously parochial Congress has denied or delayed monies needed for America’s contribution to international institutions, such as the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund. In the post-cold war period, a comprehensive US approach to international relations has yet to be conceived, let alone carried out.

November 19, 1998

  1. 3

    Frank Hobbs, “Population Estimates for Iraq,” Population Studies Branch, Center for International Research, US Bureau of the Census, January 1992, cited in Robert A. Pape, Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War (Cornell University Press, 1996), p. 357.

  2. 4

    James A. Baker, III, The Politics of Diplomacy: Revolution, War and Peace, 1989-1992 (Putnam, 1995), pp. 481-483.

  3. 5

    Cited in Mark Danner, “The US and the Yugoslav Catastrophe,” The New York Review, November 20, 1997.

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