Bush and the Persian Gulf War

By Hank Davis

The death of George H.W. Bush calls up memories of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Pundits celebrate Bush’s diplomatic genius and recall how hard he worked to remove the Iraqi military from Kuwait by peaceful means. Saddam Hussein would not budge and Bush in the end had no alternative but use force. The story is well known. A closer look suggests a quite different one.

On Aug. 12, 1990, and then again on Aug. 23, just weeks after invading Kuwait, Saddam offered to withdraw his troops. The first offer broadcast on radio was untenable, requiring an Israeli withdrawal from “occupied Arab land.” The second offer, passed in secret to the White House, was more serious. In an Aug. 29 article for the Long Island paper Newsday, “Secret Offer: Iraq Sent Pullout Deal to U.S,” Knut Royce identified its main demands, “sole control” of the Rumaila oil field and “guaranteed access” to the Persian Gulf.

By early January 1991, Saddam’s demands had softened considerably. Indications were that a withdrawal from Kuwait hinged on a commitment by the United Statees to an international peace conference devoted to the Palestinian issue. As the The New York Times reported on Jan. 3, 1991: “Iraqi officials have hinted that Mr. Hussein would be willing to withdraw from Kuwait after winning some statement from the administration that it intends to put the Palestinian problem higher on its agenda.” On Jan. 8, the paper reported that Saddam “appeared eager to resolve the crisis peacefully by leaving Kuwait in return for a still unspecified commitment from other nations to solve the Palestinian problem.” The bottom line: Saddam may have been looking for a face-saving concession from Bush, a fig leaf to cover his withdrawal from Kuwait.

Bush refused to provide it. The reason goes beyond Bush’s demand for an unconditional withdrawal, his not wanting to “reward” aggression. It turns out that a key war objective for the United States was not the liberation of Kuwait, but the destruction of Iraq’s offensive military capability, a goal best achieved through war. If a negotiated withdrawal had been reached and war avoided, Saddam would have escaped with his military intact. This was unacceptable.

Henry Kissinger and Richard Pearle were quite open about the matter in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in late November 1990. Both viewed Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait as an “opportunity” to scale back Saddam’s sizeable military force. As fellow panelist Edward Luttwak put it: “[T]he invasion of Kuwait is not the problem, but rather is an opportunity to deal with the real problem, which is Iraq’s military accumulation.” During the same hearings, former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger drew the obvious conclusion. If a major downgrading of Saddam’s military becomes the goal, then “quite obviously” the only alternative “will be war.”

Two months later, with Operation Desert Storm raging, Andrew Rosenthal noted for the New York Times [Jan. 22, 1991] that this larger goal was indeed in play. “The Bush administration is taking advantage of combat in the Persian Gulf to try to achieve military aims that go beyond an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait,” Rosenthal notes further that eliminating Iraq as a military threat “made war the only logical solution,” and that the objective had to be left unstated until war broke out.

Concern turns to disgust when one recalls that during the 1980s the United States oversaw the build-up of Saddam’s military force. Recall the famous picture from 1983 of a smiling Donald Rumsfeld shaking Saddam Hussein’s hand. We hoped that Saddam’s Iraq could serve as a counterweight to revolutionary Iran.

One often hears that “everything changed” on Sept. 11, 2001. It is tempting to say instead that “everything changed” on Aug. 8, 1990, the day President H.W. Bush began placing a half a million U.S. troops on Saudi soil. Everything changed when the United States broke its promise and kept troops in Saudi Arabia, using the country as a launching pad for a devastating 10-year war of attrition on Iraq. One thing leads to another. The innocent bear the burden.


Hank Davis is a resident of Brooklin. He has a Ph.D. in philosophy and teaches the subject for the University of Maine-Augusta. Sources for this op-ed are available at [email protected].

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