There is a touch of poetic justice for George Bush the Younger in the current state of affairs in the Persian Gulf. Bush takes the White House after Saddam Hussein’s flamboyant success in making a shambles out of United Nations weapons inspections and in the midst of his audacious campaign to unravel what remains of UN economic sanctions against Iraq. Even other Persian Gulf countries have moderated their positions toward Saddam in light of his ostentatious and highly popular condemnation of Israel’s violent retaliation against the new Palestinian Intifada. What might this mean for the future of Kuwait and the other Arab gulf states?
I should start by saying that I was an enthusiastic supporter of the U.S.-led rollback of the August 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. When the invasion occurred, I had been home for only a few weeks following a five-month research Fulbright in Kuwait. The people whose lives and livelihoods were threatened by the invaders were people I knew and cared about.
The idea that the governments of Kuwait and Iraq were even remotely equal (and therefore equally undeserving of external support) in their domestic human and civil rights records was ludicrous. Iraq has been marching toward greater totalitarianism since its 1958 revolution; Kuwait is democratization’s poster child. Indeed, liberating Kuwait allowed the continuation of a decades-long indigenous social movement to liberalize Kuwait.
Kuwaiti citizens have been active democratizers since the early 1920s, when civic leaders tried-and failed-to get the ruler to accept a citizens’ advisory council. In 1938, after oil was discovered and Kuwaitis feared that this same ruler would keep all the proceeds for himself, urban merchants organized elections for a parliament. That body wrote and passed the country’s first written constitution. Although the ruler crushed the democracy movement in March 1939, exiling and imprisoning its leaders, many Kuwaitis continued to see themselves as entitled to participate in the governance of their community.
When a more liberal ruler assumed power in 1950, he not only instituted programs to distribute sums from Kuwait’s vast oil revenues to Kuwaiti citizens but, in the early 1960s, also presided over the writing and ratification of a liberal constitution. His successors never showed the same degree of support for democracy and civil rights as he did, but Kuwaitis still enjoyed a substantially more open society than did their neighbors, despite some ups and downs.
For example, on the eve of the Iraqi invasion, Kuwaitis were enduring a second illegal suspension of the parliament and civil liberties by their ruler. Yet they continued to assemble and petition their ruler for redress of their grievances, activities illegal under the suspensions. Some protesters were arrested and a few were even jailed-for weeks. In 1990 in Iraq, such behavior would have merited imprisonment and, very possibly, execution. As someone who had spent the first five months of 1990 observing these events at close quarters and discussing them with Kuwaiti and Iraqi friends, I was very aware of the differences.
Few Americans were concerned about Kuwaiti politics and society in August 1990. U.S. leaders-and citizens-knew that economic interests were the real impetus for intervention. “Jobs,” said Jim Baker. Even though U.S. protesters insisted that the United States should not trade blood for oil, apprehension that the takeover of Kuwaiti oil fields by Iraq would translate into greater market power for Saddam and higher oil prices for consumers was a primary motivation for rolling back the invasion in the minds of U.S. policymakers.
The construction of the coalition to liberate Kuwait provided clear evidence that the cold war was indeed over. As such, it also represented a triumph for the United States, which found itself the last great power in the world. In his 1991 State of the Union message, George Bush the Elder made this point clearly:
Halfway around the world, we are engaged in a great struggle in the skies and on the seas and sands. We know why we’re there. We are Americans—part of something larger than ourselves. For two centuries we’ve done the hard work of freedom…. What is at stake is more than one small country, it is a big idea—a new world order, where diverse nations are drawn together in common cause to achieve the universal aspirations of mankind: peace and security, freedom, and the rule of law.
When it was over, however, the 100-hour ground war received mixed reviews. Some were dissatisfied that coalition leaders had halted their efforts before Saddam’s elite forces were vanquished in the field and the Iraqi leader was captured or killed. Others were grateful that a “strongman” remained in a united Iraq. They feared that this country, cobbled together from three disparate segments of the Ottoman Empire some seventy years earlier, might fall apart without one. Spectres of Islamist Iran moving into the resulting power vacuum trumped impulses to rescue Iraqi citizens from a brutal regime or to imagine a different way to stabilize the Iraq-Kuwait border other than through a desert equivalent of the Maginot Line.
The paternal legacy of the 1990-91 Gulf War leaves Bush the Younger with four dilemmas arising out of the war and the “new world order” that it revealed. The first is a result of how the war was conducted. Limited war, rather than vengeful slaughter, and a victory achieved at a low cost in allied lives are laudable achievements—though that must be qualified by the stunning lack of concern for the huge numbers of Iraqi casualties, both on the battlefield and among the Shi`a in southern Iraq who were encouraged to revolt against the regime and then abandoned to be slaughtered by Saddam’s avenging troops. Yet despite frequent exclamations that the coalition victory signified the end of Vietnam syndrome in the United States, the opposite was actually the case. Fearing negative public opinion and faltering allied support, the ground operations were closed down by U.S. policymakers as soon as the minimum objective, the liberation of Kuwait, had been achieved. As a result, Kuwait was free-but so was Saddam.
The second dilemma comes from the paternal Bush’s failure to preserve and extend the remarkably cooperative alliance represented by the coalition to liberate Kuwait. Howls from the Republican right notwithstanding, Bush’s “new world order” was based on sovereign nation-states huddled beneath an expanding global capitalism. The immediate gratification of discovering that the U.S. had achieved global hegemonic status overshadowed the uncertain rewards of sharing power and investing in institutions designed to meet the governance needs of the now-globalizing world. The U.S., as number one, found it lonely at the top and unruly all around.
The third dilemma stems from a reluctance to deal with the consequences of past errors. Iran is not only a potential check to Iraqi ambitions but also a powerful, diverse, and pivotal state in the politics of the Persian Gulf as a whole. As the coalition leader and the new global hegemon, the United States should have stopped sulking (about both the Carter-era hostage crisis and the Reagan-era “arms for hostages” fiasco) and approached Iran as a potential partner in devising a postwar security system for the region. Indeed, if Iraq was not going to be defeated but merely expelled from Kuwait, even Iraq should have been consulted with regard to initiating a regime designed to enable all the gulf states to work together to ensure their own security. There is no guarantee that either Iran or Iraq would have responded positively, or that the smaller gulf states would not have been justifiably concerned at inviting the foxes to help run the henhouse. But that’s what hegemonic power is for: to guarantee the preservation of the system by demanding good behavior, that is, by underwriting the rule of law that the elder Bush was so proud to associate himself with.
A fourth major dilemma arises from framing liberalization almost entirely in economic terms. The importunities of aspiring investors and salesmen have placed enormous economic and domestic political burdens on Kuwait and the other small Gulf states. Arm-twisting in aid of arms sales is particularly problematic. These states, with the possible exception of Saudi Arabia, are too small to defend themselves against aggressive neighbors. Prodding them to buy junior portions of expensive weapons systems that can’t, without external intervention, preserve their sovereignty and autonomy is little more than a disguised demand for payback. Similarly importunate public demands by the Clinton administration that Kuwait and the other small gulf countries pump more oil for the convenience of SUV drivers in the United States also undermine the legitimacy of seemingly acquiescent governments. Combined with the prominence of U.S. support for Israel in the midst of a bloody reincarnation of the Palestinian Intifada, whose first act took place during the administration of Bush the Elder, all of this meddling deepens the wedge between the Persian Gulf governments and their populations—a fissure that Islamist groups, augmented by radical Afghanistan veterans home from the war (another embarrassing Reagan legacy), are eager to exploit.
The likelihood that Bush the Younger is prepared to resolve these dilemmas is small. Not only would he have to revise and perhaps even repudiate his father’s policies; he would have to do this on the advice and with the help of the very same people who had devised and executed those policies in the first place. Perhaps the new president Bush should reconsider his position on inheritance taxes. If a portion of these dilemmas had been removed from his father’s legacy, he would be in a position to develop a foreign policy for the Persian Gulf better suited to satisfy the interests of Kuwait, its neighbors, and the United States.