As we go to press, the forty-first president of the United States, George Herbert Walker Bush, has just been laid to rest. His serious term of office during the final years of the Cold War (1988-92) seems lightyears from our own decadent period of no-holds-barred political con-artistry. The Soviet Union was imploding, though the timing was still hard to predict. The speed at which the Berlin wall fell in 1989 thrilled the "free" world, most of which had assumed there would never again be a united Germany — or independence in the Baltic states or Eastern Europe or Central Asia. Odd ideas began germinating during those heady days, notably Francis Fukuyama's "end of history" thesis. But the opportunity to rearrange the world closer to our heart's desire seized many minds, from the benign to the malevolent.
Saddam Hussein, perhaps assuming a governor had been removed and that stasis was no longer enforceable by Moscow, became a ripe target by shooting off his mouth. Washington had helped Iraq eke out a "victory" over revolutionary Iran after an eight-year bloodletting, but he seemed ungrateful, threatening to "burn Israel to the ground" if it attacked Iraq. At the time, he was paying rewards to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers, so was in Israel's crosshairs. He had money problems too, which President Bush exacerbated by secretly inducing Kuwait to over-pump its crude oil. It cost him $1 million a day, while his large army loitered about, unpaid and restless. You know what followed: on August 2, 1990, Saddam sent the soldiers into Kuwait to collect their remuneration at will (see Milton Viorst's Storm from the East for details).
Bush, perhaps prompted by Margaret Thatcher, who happened to be visiting Washington at the time, decided he had to do something to rescue Kuwait. It turned out to be a "coalition of the willing," countries from around the world, including Egyptian and Syrian forces — though not the Arab guerrillas who had been fighting in Afghanistan to bring down the Soviet Empire. Osama bin Laden asked for the Iraq job but was rebuffed. The Saudi king obviously preferred "the best or nothing." In short order, the Iraqis were driven from Kuwait, although not pursued to Baghdad. Bush held to longstanding U.S. dogma, the Weinberger Doctrine (later re-baptized for Colin Powell): overwhelming force, no preemptive wars or guerrilla actions in which the U.S. advantage would be trivial.
On its way out of Iraq, the U.S. government made rash promises to the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south that they would be supported if they rose up against their regime. Some of them did so and were mercilessly cut down. U.S. backing did not materialize. To be fair, President Bush had something bigger on his mind: a comprehensive Middle East peace conference, to be convened in Madrid and attended by every concerned party, including Israel's right-wing government and Palestinians from the Occupied Territories — but no PLO members or Yasser Arafat himself.
Secretary of State James Baker had already put the Israelis on notice at the 1989 AIPAC conference that the Israel-centric policies of the Reagan years were over, if Israel persisted in expansionism. Territory for peace and rights for the Palestinians would now be U.S. policy, and crushing Saddam Hussein seemed to make real change thinkable. Alas, the new Yitzhak Rabin government outmaneuvered Bush, approaching Arafat in secret and offering him a separate peace, to be negotiated privately under Norwegian auspices, at Oslo. Out of funds, having alienated his Gulf supporters by being too cozy with Saddam, Arafat couldn't sustain his organization. So Israel allowed the PLO to come in from the cold and return, with their side-arms, to a part of their homeland. Tragically, the Israeli partner in this strategy, Prime Minister Rabin, was assassinated by a right-wing Israeli extremist who is still revered by many.
George H.W. Bush tried to midwife an equitable solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, but he underestimated what he was up against. Few mainstream journalists ever considered this issue seriously in analyzing his failure to win a second term. It was not central to his defeat, perhaps, considering his broken "no new taxes" pledge and the Ross Perot insurgency, which shaved off a sizable chunk of the conservative vote. Our old-school-gentleman president did not leave behind a memoir to set the record straight according to his own lights.
Bush's successor Bill Clinton tried to dually contain Iran and Iraq while hoping the new prime minister would make his life easier on the Arab-Israeli front. He overestimated Ehud Barak, however, and left office without finishing the job. On the way out the door, he bent to pressure and made regime change in Iraq U.S. policy. When al-Qaeda struck America on September 11, 2001, early in the younger George Bush's term, neoconservatives led by Vice President Dick Cheney seized the opportunity to "humiliate a major Arab country," as Paul Wolfowitz declared was necessary. In the meantime, they attacked Afghanistan, headquarters of terrorist mastermind Bin Laden. Long after his death and 17 years after the original attack, U.S. troops are still mired in that insurgency.
The balance of forces was tilted toward Iran once the Iraqi army and the Baath Party were dismantled by the U.S.-led "coalition." Suddenly Tehran seemed invested with mythical power. As Ryan Crocker said at the recent MEPC Capitol Hill conference on Saudi-Turkish rivalry — a topic that gained salience in the aftermath of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi — when one asks if we have hit bottom yet, "In the Middle East there is no bottom." It can always get worse; it certainly did after Iraq was destroyed. Some improvement has taken place (see the special section on Iraq, brought to the journal by Sterling Jensen of the UAE's National Defense College). To fill in some historical gaps, we also provide a look at the authoritarian regimes of Saddam Hussein and Hafez al-Assad.
The Cold War and the Soviet Union may be a receding memory, but Russia is back in the Middle East, and not just in Syria and Libya. In our "Spheres of Influence" section, Robert Mason uses the term to describe Moscow's foreign engagement from Grozny to Damascus to Amman and Abu Dhabi. This is in addition to Russia's efforts to control the energy supply to Europe's south and across North Africa and the Levant. Conflict in the region's many hot spots has provided the opening for Russian meddling. China is also all over the region, attempting to ameliorate security challenges and spread prosperity, mostly by means of its Belt and Road Initiative. Pakistan and Iran also figure in our smorgasbord of a winter issue.