George Bush I: The Man Who Helped Make September 11 a Reality

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As Americans embarrassingly stumble into a mawkish "remembrance" of those awful attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon a year ago, I would like to take time to "honor" (if that is an appropriate word) the man who more than anyone else made those attacks a reality: George H.W. Bush. While conservatives blame Bill Clinton and Democrats still are looking to find if the present George W. Bush Administration was culpable (it was), I would like to turn to the real source, the man whose legacy we seem to have forgotten.

If anything, conservatives claim that the only problem of Bush I was the failure to "take out" Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War. Actually, I would like to question whether or not there should have been a war in the first place and point out that the Gulf War, for all of the supposed glory it brought the U.S. Armed Forces, was a huge disaster that continues to this day to have awful repercussions upon much of the world.

To understand the magnitude of Bush I’s folly, we need to return to 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait in early August. The previous fall, the communist regimes of Eastern Europe had fallen and the once-formidable U.S.S.R. was beginning to break up, as the Cold War had ended. For people who had lived their entire lives under the shadow of all that the struggle between East and West had been, this was a wonderful and heady moment.

With the end of the threat of nuclear war between the U.S.S.R. and the USA having ended, for a brief moment, it seemed that prospects for a larger peace could not have been greater — that is until that fateful day when Iraq invaded Kuwait. In another era, this invasion would have gone unnoticed, as the actions of one desert regime against another would not have had any effect upon the world scene. However, because of the fact that a huge portion of the world’s crude oil comes from the Persian Gulf region, that was enough to make politicians panic, as people began to assess the possibilities of Saddam Hussein having control over that oil.

The U.S. Government dealings with Hussein himself provide an informative study of how not to engage in foreign policy. During the 1980s, when Iraq was at war against Iran, which had held a large number of Americans as hostage in the last year of Jimmy Carter’s administration, Hussein was seen as a U.S. ally. Like the Muslims who hold to the belief that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," the U.S. Government courted Hussein as a "moderate" who could stand as a bulwark in the region against the fanaticism of the Iranian Islamic regime. After all, Iraq was a secular country, despite its overwhelming Muslim population, and there was a thriving Christian community there.

Even when an Iraqi warplane attacked a U.S. ship in the Persian Gulf in 1987, killing dozens of U.S. sailors, the U.S. Government, then under Ronald Reagan, accepted Iraq’s apology for its "mistake" in much the same way the U.S. Government told the public that the deadly 1967 Israeli attack on the U.S.S. Liberty also was a "mistake." Even when Hussein’s armed forces used poison gas against Iranian soldiers, Iraq was still regarded as a "moderate" regime in State Department language.

In July 1990, however, it all changed. After the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, indicated to Hussein that the Bush Administration would not object to an invasion of Kuwait, the Iraqis took the U.S. at its word and sent its armies over the border, meeting almost no resistance. (At the time, there was a legitimate dispute at the Iraq-Kuwait border involving the Kuwaiti practice of drilling sideways under the border to extract oil from pools in Iraq. No one seems to have remembered that this was Hussein’s main gripe, although Iraqis never have regarded Kuwait, which once was part of Iraq, as a legitimate state in the first place.)

After Iraq invaded Kuwait, Bush demanded that the Iraqis leave at once. Saddam, once our ally, all of a sudden was a demon, a threat to world peace and someone who was obsessed with obtaining and building "weapons of mass destruction." The Saudi Arabian Royal Family also privately expressed fear that Saddam (who probably was more popular in Saudi Arabia than the corrupt rulers of the royal family) would turn his military might towards them.

The Saudis, as well as the Israelis and others who saw this as a golden opportunity for a U.S. military response, began to raise the specter of Iraq "controlling" the world’s largest single oil source. Journalists began to write about the possible reappearance of the dreaded "gas lines," forgetting that the chaos at the gas pumps in the USA during the 1970s was the direct result of government price controls on domestic crude oil and gasoline. The prospect of the U.S. Armed Forces being able to set up permanent bases also appealed to a number of Democrats and Republicans, not to mention Israeli politicians who realized that dragging their best "ally" into the Middle East morass would further cement ties between the USA and Israel.

None of this is to suggest that Saddam was a "good guy" or someone one of us would want for a neighbor — or a head of state. However, he was just as oppressive before his armies attacked Kuwait as he was afterwards, yet the U.S. Government eagerly did business with him. All during the 1980s he was openly developing his WMDs, but few in this country said anything about his megalomania or his alleged threats to humanity.

Not surprisingly, a spate of atrocity stories sprang from Kuwait. No doubt, some were true, but many others were false and done with the full knowledge of the U.S. State Department. At the same time, oil prices climbed upward, in part due to the uncertainty that understandably ruled the markets and due also in part to Bush’s embargo on oil from Iraq and Kuwait. Many in the government, as well as some of the "experts" in the oil industry, were predicting prices of $70 or more a barrel. (Oil prices actually briefly climbed to about $41 a barrel before plummeting to about $20 after the war began.)

What few people were pointing out was that Saddam could not prop up his own government without selling oil. The idea that his armies would conquer the entire Arabian Peninsula, then withhold the vast amounts of oil there as a way to hold the western democracies hostage needs to be better examined, as it has always been held out as a justification for going to war. (After the war was over, Bush crowed to a group of enthusiastic supporters that had the USA gone to war, oil would have gone to $100 a barrel.)

I have no idea what goes on in the mind of a dictator, and especially someone like Hussein. Whether or not he had the idea of grabbing oil and holding the West hostage I cannot say. Even had that been his plan, one has to question if it could work.

First, his armies would have had to successfully carry such a plan of conquest, which was not an automatic given, although Iraq had the largest and best-equipped army in the region. The Persian Gulf area is large and a place of hostile conditions and weather, and the more spread out his armies would have been in this area, the more vulnerable he and they would have been. In other words, even had he planned to seize the entire peninsula instead of just Kuwait, I have my doubts he could have succeeded as easily as many were saying.

Second, oil does no one any good when it is in the ground. Withholding oil might have gained him some short-term results, but in the longer term, the only way he could have made the revenues necessary to keep his government afloat would have been to sell the oil, and lots of it. Furthermore, had he actually launched this grand scheme instead of simply holding on to Kuwait (which is what he insisted all along was all he had planned to do), Saddam would have been practically inviting an invasion of western armed forces into his country, and I believe he understood that point quite well. Instead, he invaded Kuwait after he mistakenly believed that the USA would not retaliate against him.

To make matters worse, a number of different groups, from the neoconservatives to Israel’s political allies painted this whole episode as a replay of the Munich crisis of 1938, with Hussein being the new Hitler. While Saddam was a pretty nasty guy with a moustache who would utter some bad things about Israel and the Jews, to compare his regime and its armed forces to the military machine of the Third Reich is ludicrous. For that matter, even the vaunted Wehrmacht had already lost steam by 1943 and was backpedaling from many of its earlier conquests even before the Allied invasions at Normandy. If the mighty German armed forces could not hold their own, what makes one think that Iraq could have succeeded where better armies had failed?

This is not to say that Bush’s venture had unanimous support, even in Congress, which barely granted him permission to go to war, although no declaration of war was actually given. Unfortunately, leftists who opposed Bush, chanting, "No blood for oil," were claiming that had the government implemented all of the crackpot conservationist and alternative energy schemes that had been churned out by economic illiterates during the 1970s and early 1980s, the USA would have been "energy independent" and would not have been affected by the events in the Gulf. Thus, they undermined their own arguments by trying to use the crisis to promote their own statist — and useless — programs.

There is no doubt, however, that many oil executives were relieved to know Bush was going to war, as this seemed to be confirmation for them that the U.S. Government would do anything to protect oil interests. Furthermore, I suppose they were happy to see the implementation of permanent U.S. military bases in Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia.

After the war, Bush claimed that the great victory by anti-Saddam forces would help create a "new world order." Indeed, we have our "new world order," although it is not exactly what the elder Bush thought would happen.

First, the war made the economic situation at home even worse, something that led to his electoral defeat by Bill Clinton in 1992. Second, the wanton slaughter of the Iraqis, the implementation of a permanent regime of sanctions against Iraq, and the presence of U.S. troops on Muslim soil has enraged many Middle Easterners, giving strength to the followers of Osama bin Laden and others who have made it their mission in life to drive the Americans out.

Third, the idea that the placement of U.S. bases in places like Saudi Arabia has not made Israel any more secure. In fact, it seems that the situation has so galvanized anti-U.S. and anti-Israel sentiment to the point that Israel is less secure now than it was before the Gulf War.

Last, the Gulf War ultimately gave us the events of September 11. I have no doubt that had the elder Bush listened to voices of reason instead of the war hawks, the World Trade Towers would still be standing and Saddam would just be another dictator to ignore instead of being a vengeful head of state wanting revenge. The peaceful promises that seemed in reach after the end of the Cold War have vanished, and now we have an ongoing war against "terrorism," as the younger Bush contemplates "finishing the job" that his father began. The evil genie was let out of the bottle in 1990, and I doubt it will ever be corked, at least in my lifetime.

William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

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