“Suddenly, a season of peace seems to be warming the world,” the New York Times exulted on the last day of July 1988. Protracted, bloody wars were ending in Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, and Nicaragua, and between Iran and Iraq. Later that year, Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat, under pressure from Moscow, renounced terrorism and implicitly recognized Israel’s right to exist. But the most dramatic development was still to come. In December 1988, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev declared the Cold War over:
the use or threat of force no longer can…be an instrument of foreign policy. This applies above all to nuclear arms. …let me turn to the main issue – disarmament, without which none of the problems of the coming century can be solved. …the Soviet Union has taken a decision to reduce its armed forces…by 500,000 men. …we have decided to withdraw by 1991 six tank divisions from East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, and to disband them. … Soviet forces stationed in those countries will be reduced by 50,000 men and their armaments, by 5,000 tanks. All Soviet division remaining…will become clearly defensive.
He promised to reveal Soviet plans for the “transition from the economy of armaments to an economy of disarmament” and called upon other military powers to do likewise through the United Nations. He proposed a 50 percent reduction is offensive strategic arms, asked for joint action to eliminate “the threat to the world’s environment,” urged banning weapons in outer space, and demanded an end to exploitation of the third world, including a “moratorium of up to 100 years on debt servicing by the least developed countries.”
Still, he was not finished. He called for a UN-brokered cease-fire in Afghanistan as of January 1. In nine years of war, the Soviets had failed to defeat the Afghan insurgents despite deploying 100,000 troops, working closely with local Afghans, and building up the Afghan army and police. He proposed an international conference on Afghan neutrality and demilitarization and held out an olive branch to the incoming administration of George H. W. Bush, offering a “joint effort to put an end to an era of wars, confrontation, and regional conflicts, to aggressions against nature, to the terror of hunger and poverty as well as to political terrorism. This is our common goal and we can only reach it together.”
The New York Times characterized Gorbachev’s riveting hour-long speech as the greatest act of statesmanship since Wilson’s Fourteen Points in 1918 or Roosevelt and Churchill’s Atlantic Charter in 1941 – “the basic restructuring of international politics.” And, the Times proclaimed, “he promised to lead the way unilaterally. Breathtaking. Risky. Bold. Naïve. Diversionary. Heroic. …his ideas merit – indeed compel – the most serious response from President-elect Bush and other leaders.” The Washington Post called it “a speech as remarkable as any ever delivered at the United Nations.”
Bush had not yet moved into the White House after trouncing Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis in the recent election. Trailing by 17 points during the summer, Bush struggled to overcome what was widely being described as the “wimp” factor. For a while, it looked like the election might turn on the issue was too much of a wimp to be president. Some thought it odd that Bush, a recipient of a Distinguished Flying Cross, who had flown fifty-eight combat missions in the Pacific during World War II, would be do derided. Newsweek considered it a “potentially crippling handicap – a perception that he isn’t strong enough or tough enough for the challenges of the Oval Office.” Not even the fact that Bush captained Yale’s baseball team earned him a pass. The Washington Post’s Curt Suplee wrote, “Wimp. Wasp. Weenie. Every woman’s first husband. Bland conformist. These now shop-worn pejoratives are the essence of George Bush’s ‘image problem’ – the vague but powerful suspicion of many citizens that the vice president may be too feckless and insubstantial to be the leader of the free world.” “He’s been reduced to a cartoon,” his second son, Jeb Bush, complained.
Commentators attributed the image to his wealthy, pampered upbringing and his Ivy League education. Always staid and reserved, he had been nicknamed “Poppy” as a boy. Despite resigning from the Council on Foreign Relations and Trilateral Commission, he couldn’t shake the image of being the ultimate “Establishment “ candidate – the man endorsed by David Rockefeller. On top of that, most of his political offices had been appointments. None of Reagan’s charism had rubbed off on his as Reagan’s vice president. It turned out that Reagan didn’t like Bush and hadn’t wanted him on the ticket, but his preferred choices – Senator Paul Laxalt and Representative Jack Kemp – wouldn’t fly. Bush’s kowtowing to Reagan and the right-wing policies he had previously opposed, including what he called “voodoo economics,” made him look weak and unprincipled “I’m following Mr. Reagan – blindly,” Bush told one reporter upon receiving the nomination. He went so far as to call Oliver North, a man he would have once found contemptible, he “hero.” One commentator noted that Bush tried on “the boorish philosophy of the political Right…to get closer to the Oval Office.” Bush’s initial victory in the New Hampshire primary frustrated his principle opponent, Bob Dole, who fumed, “There’s nothing there!”
People thought he lacked a home or community – he officially resided in a Houston hotel – and derided his tendency to end sentences with “muddy” phrases like “whatever it is” and “all that sort of stuff” and mocked his “speech disturbances: sentence incompletion, interruption of word sequences and tongue slips.” Feisty Texas Governor Ann Richards quipped at the Democratic National Convention, Poor George. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”
When parading his war record, defending gun rights, frequenting barbeques, and shamelessly pandering to the Right did nothing to help Bush change his image, he tried a different strategy. He questioned Dukakis’s patriotism and openly played the race card with a campaign ad about furloughed murdered Willie Horton that appealed to voters’ fear of crime. But the coup de grace came when CBS news anchor Dan Rather pressed him on his involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal. Bush was ready to pounce. He challenged the question’s fairness and angrily retorted, “It’s not fair to judge my whole career by a rehash on Iran. How would you like it if I judged your career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set in New York? His strategy worked. Reporters referred to the “Rather Bushwacking,” calling Bush a “bully.” Few noticed that Rather’s questions about Bush’s role were entirely legitimate. During the campaign, Bush insisted that he had been “out of the loop – no operational role” in the illegal operation, but in his taped diary the former CIA director admitted, “I’m one of the few people that know fully the details.” Bush would later pardon former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger to avoid testimony about Bush’s role in the scandal.
Bush’s foreign policy team included James A. Baker III at State, Dick Cheney at Defense, and General Brent Scowcroft as his national security advisor. Scowcroft chose Robert Gates as his number two man. Paul Wolfowitz took over as undersecretary of defense for policy.
While in New York to address the United Nations, Gorbachev met with Reagan and Bush, seeking help on arms control and troop withdrawal. Bush Bush’s advisors remained skeptical and the CIA, whose intelligence capabilities had been degraded by years of unrelenting right-wing assault, completely misread with was occurring. As Gates later admitted in his memoirs, “the American government, including the CIA, had no idea in January 1989 that a tidal wave of history was about to break upon us.” Gates and Cheney were most skeptical of Gorbachev’s initiatives and sought ways to take advantage of his willingness to reform the Soviet system. For the most part, Cheney’s opposition to working with Gorbachev prevailed. Cheney opposed an early summit, fearing that Gorbachev’s initiatives would weaken Western resolve. Bush decided on a strategy that would further erode Soviet military strength: whereas Gorbachev was calling for eliminating tactical nuclear weapons in Europe – an offer most Europeans applauded – the United States countered that the Soviet Union should remove 325,000 troops in exchange for a U.S. cut of 30,000. Bush and Gorbachev did not meet for another year.
While neglecting the Soviet Union, Bush continued to play the China card, building on the economic and political ties that Reagan had forged with Chinese leaders, who has assisted in toppling pro-Soviet governments in Afghanistan and Cambodia. As former ambassador to China, Bush intended to maintain close relations. He plans were almost derailed by Beijing’s brutal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators. As television viewers around the world looked on, the People’s Liberation Army slaughtered 3,000 demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, wounding 10,000 more. But Bush resisted pressure to punish China’s rulers, initially even opposing legislation allowing the 43,000 Chinese students in the United States to remain in the country beyond their one-year visas.
Gorbachev hoped to jump-start the Soviet economy, which had been moribund since the late 1970s. He knew that the Soviet Union could no longer afford war in Afghanistan, support for third-world allies, and a military establishment that consumed more than 20 percent of GNP and more than half of total government expenditures. Soviet officials decided to cut their losses. They ended support for Cuban troops in Angola and Ethiopia and Vietnamese troops in Cambodia and pulled Soviet troops out of Afghanistan in 1989. The third world, an arena that had looked so promising a decade earlier, was now unraveling. The Soviet people had tired of expensive and ill-fated adventures. The Afghan war had cost the lives of 14,000 Soviets and hundreds of thousands of Afghans, drained scarce resources, and inflamed anti-Communist feeling throughout the Muslim world. Young Muslim radicals who had once turned to socialism now looked to radical Islam. The faltering Soviet economy no longer provided a viable model for development. Fed up with the repressive and costly policies of many of the Soviet Union’s third-world allies, who resisted his demands to change their ways, Gorbachev proposed that the United States and the Soviet Union both stop interfering in third-world affairs and let nations settle their dispute amicably.
At the Moscow summit in May 1988, Gorbachev asked Reagan to cosign a statement affirming peaceful coexistence and disavowing military interventions into other nations’ internal affairs. Reagan refused to sign. Undeterred, Gorbachev acted unilaterally. Historian Odd Arne Westad grasped the significance of this extraordinary appeal: “Gorbachev and his advisors…developed an understanding of the significance of national self-determination that went beyond those of the leaders of any major power in the twentieth century. The Soviet president practiced what both liberals and revolutionaries had been calling for at the beginning of the century – a firm and idealist dedication to letting the peoples of the world decide their own fates without foreign intervention."
Not only did the United States not accept this principle, it worked actively to subvert it, exploiting the openings Gorbachev had provided in the third world. The United States continued to fuel Islamic radicalism. Many of the U.S.-backed jihadis who had fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan joined the Islamic cause in Chechnya, Bosnia, Algeria, Iraq, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Kashmir, and elsewhere. Ethnic and tribal conflicts also erupted in Africa and the Balkans.
Gorbachev urged Eastern European governments to embrace the spirit of perestroika. Poland was the first to act. In April 1989, the government of General Wojciech Jaruzelski agreed to free elections. In June, candidates from the Solidarity trade union federation, with clandestine CIA support, soundly defeated the Communists, who peacefully relinquished power, agreeing to participate in a Solidarity-led coalition government. Unlike in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Soviets did not intervene. In May, Estonia and Lithuania declared their sovereignty. Latvia followed in July. Gorbachev encouraged the reformers. In late July, Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze explained the Soviet acceptance of these changes to Secretary of State James Baker: “If we were to use force, then it would be the end of perestroika. We would have failed. It would be the end of any hope for the future, the end of everything we’re trying to do, which is to create a new system based on humane values. If force is used, it will mean that the enemies of perestroika have triumphed. We would be no better than the people who came before us. We cannot go back.”
Other Eastern European nations followed suit. In October, the ruling Communists in Hungary declared themselves social democrats and established a republic. That month, following Gorbachev’s visit to Berlin, demonstrators drove Erich Honecker from power in East Germany. And finally, on November 9, 1989, East and West Berliners jointly began tearing down the Berlin Wall, desecrating the Cold War’s most reviled symbol. Gorbachev’s foreign policy advisor, Anatoly Chernyaev, wrote in his diary, “The Berlin Wall has collapsed. This entire era in history of the Socialist system is over. … This is the end of Yalta [and] the Stalinist legacy. … This is what Gorbachev has done. … He has sensed the pace of history and helped history to find a natural channel.” But the transformation of Europe was far from over. The Czech parliament responded to demonstrations and a general strike by electing poet Vaclav Havel prime minister. One by one, all the Eastern European Communist governments fell. The world watched in disbelief. A peaceful revolution had occurred across the socialist bloc as citizens, burdened by decades of government repression and bureaucratic ineptitude, clamored for a better life. Gorbachev rejected the long-held view that controlling Eastern Europe was crucial to Soviet security. He believed that removing the drain of Eastern Europe would allow the Soviet Union and its allies to rapidly develop humane, democratic socialist systems.
Gorbachev saw this as a new beginning, but many U.S. policy makers hailed it as the ultimate vindication – the triumph of the capitalist West after decades of Cold War. It was “the end of history,” State Department policy planner Francis Fukuyama declared, anointing Western liberal democracy “the final form of human government.” In September 1990, Michael Mandelbaum, director of East-West studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, exulted, “the Soviets…have made it possible to end the cold war, which means that for the first time in 40 years we can conduct military operations in the Middle East without worrying about triggering World War III. The United States would soon test that hypothesis.
The Bush traveled to Poland and Hungary in July, he deliberately avoiding saying or doing anything that might provoke a Soviet response. Having previously derided “the vision thing,” even the tearing down of the Berlin Wall failed to elicit a jubilant response on his part. He explained, “I am not an emotional kind of guy.” He told Gorbachev, “I have conducted myself in ways not to complicate your life. That’s why I have not jumped up and down on the Berlin Wall.” “Yes, we have seen that” and “appreciate” it, Gorbachev replied.
Though willing to allow for the radical transformation of Eastern Europe, Gorbachev hoped the end of the Cold War would lead to the dissolution of NATO as well as the Warsaw Pact. Recognizing that that might not happen, he insisted that NATO at least not expand farther to the east. He was even willing to allow for reunification of the two Germanys as long as NATO troops and weapons were not permitted on former East German soil. But he and other Russian leaders who believed they had received ironclad U.S. and German promises that eastward expansion by NATO would never be permitted were in in for a rude awakening when the Clinton and second Bush administrations continued expanding right up to Russia’s doorstep. Russian leaders expressed outrage and a sense of betrayal. Although U.S. officials over the years, have insisted that no such promises were ever given, recently release documents appear to substantiate the Russian claims.
In February 1990, Bush, Baker, and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl sought ways to convince Gorbachev to remove the 380,000 troops in East Germany and renounce legal claims of occupation dating back to Germany’s surrender in 1945. They wanted to avoid the growing demand from many of the newly liberated countries to demilitarize Central and Eastern Europe, a move that would have diminished U.S. domination of Europe. Baker met with Gorbachev on February 9 and asked him, “Would you prefer to see a unified Germany outside of NATO, independent and with no U.S. forces or would you prefer a united Germany to be tied to NATO, with assurances that NATO’s jurisdiction would not shift one inch eastward from its present position?” Baker recorded Gorbachev’s reply that “any extension of the zone of NATO would be unacceptable.
Helmut Kohl met with Gorbachev the following day and stated that “naturally NATO could not expand its territory” into East Germany. On February 10, German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher conveyed the same message to Eduard Shevardnadze, stating, “We are aware that NATO membership for a unified Germany raises complicated questions. For us, however, one thing is certain: NATO will not expand to the east.” To make sure that his Soviet counterpart understood that this applied to all of Eastern Europe and not just Germany, Genscher added, “As far as the non-expansion of NATO is concerned, this also applies in general.”
Upon receiving Kohl’s assurance, Gorbachev approved German reunification. But no legally binding papers were signed. The deal was not in writing. And Gorbachev later compounded the problem by agreeing in September to allow NATO expansion into East Germany in exchange for desperately needed financial assistance from Germany.
Clearly, Gorbachev thought there had been an agreement and felt that he had been blindsided. The United States and West Germany had promised not to expand NATO “as much as a thumb’s width further to the East,” he insisted. President Dmitri Medvedev was equally perturbed, contending in 2009 that the Soviet Union had gotten “none of the things that we were assured, namely, that NATO would not expand endlessly eastwards and our interests would be continuously taken into consideration.” U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Jack Matlock has agreed that the Soviet Union was given a clear commitment.” The German newsmagazine Der Spiegel conducted its own investigation in late 2009, finding that “after speaking with many of those involved and examining previously classified British and German documents in detail, SPIEGEL has concluded that there was no doubt that the West did everything it could to give the Soviets the impression that NATO membership was out of the question for countries like Poland, Hungary or Czechoslovakia.” Historian Mary Elise Sarotte, author of an award-winning book on this period, explained, “In summary, Gorbachev had listened to Baker and Kohl suggest to him for two days in a row that NATO’s jurisdiction would not move eastward, and at the end he agreed to let Germany unify.”
The United States, for its part, appreciated Gorbachev’s restraint in Eastern Europe but didn’t hesitate to use force in its own backyard. Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega had long been the United States’ boy in Central America. He had twice attended the U.S. Army School of the Americas in the Panama Canal Zone and had been on the CIA payroll since the 1960s. Corrupt and unscrupulous, he profited from assisting Columbia’s Medellin drug cartel, but he also fingered Medellin rivals to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. His assistance to the contras in Nicaragua won him protection from top Reagan administration officials, including William Casey, Elliot Abrams, and Oliver North. But his 1988 indictment on U.S. federal drug charges and his overturning of Panama’s 1980 presidential election finally convinced Bush that he was more of a liability than an asset. With U.S. encouragement, Panamanian military officers attempted a coup. The United States, however, offered no assistance. The chair of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, David McCurdy, bemoaned the “resurgence of the wimp factor.”
In December 1989, Bush decided to act unilaterally, and bypass Congress, in violation of the War Powers Act of 1973. He sent 15,000 troops to assist the 12,000 already in the country to overthrow Noriega and take down his Panamanian Defense Forces and paramilitary units in what the United States called “Operation Just Cause.” Bush attempted to defend the invasion, claiming that he had acted “only after reaching the conclusion that every other avenue was closed and the lives of American citizens were in grave danger.” One reporter pushed Cheney for an explanation: “Mr. Secretary, following the failed coup in Panama, you came into this room and you made a number of arguments justifying our decision not to get more heavily involved. You…said it wasn’t up the United States…to go willy-nilly around the world knocking off governments. … Why is your earlier assessment, which you made in this room two months ago, not valid anymore?” Cheney responded, apparently with a straight face, “I think we as a Government bent over backward to avoid having to take military action,” only invading when it became clear that “American lives were at risk.”
Latin Americans angrily condemned the return to gunboat diplomacy. Mexico proclaimed that “fighting international crimes is not excuse for intervention in a sovereign nation.” Cuba denounced the “new imperialist aggression” and said it showed “the disdain of the United States for international law.” The Organization of American States voted 20 – 1 to “deeply deplore” the invasion. Only a U.S. veto blocked a similar UN Security Council action.
Latin Americans’ bitterness about the invasion, which violated the charter of the OAS, would persist for years. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks by Al-Qaeda, the editors of the Nicaragua-based magazine Envio wrote that in December 1989, the government of George Bush Sr. ordered the invasion of Panama, a military operation that bombed civilian neighborhoods and killed thousands of Panamanians just to flush out a single man, Manuel Noriega. … Was that not state terrorism?” they asked.
Soviet U.S. expert Gerogi Arbatov warned that the invasion would strengthen Soviet hard-liners, who would see through the hypocrisy of the United States’ praising Soviet nonintervention while it was itself overthrowing governments. They had good reason to feel that way. The invasion was indeed a signal that Soviet inaction would not curb U.S. bellicosity; it might, in fact, embolden the United States to act more recklessly. The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward pointed to Colin Powell’s support for the invasion as critical to Bush’s decision making. Powell declared, “We have to put a shingle outside our door saying ‘Superpower Lives Here,” no matter what the Soviets do, even if they evacuate from Eastern Europe.” Neocon Elliott Abrams concluded that the United States should have invaded sooner and speculated that “the reduced danger of escalation makes limited military action more rather than less likely.”
Noriega eluded U.S. forces for almost a week before seeking asylum at the Vatican Embassy. The United States surrounded the embassy with enormous speakers and, despite Vatican protests, blasted rock music – songs like “I Fought the Law (And the Law Won),” “Nowhere to Run,” and “You’re No Good” – around the clock. Noriega was sentenced to jail in the United States for drug trafficking. In the aftermath of the seemingly successful and popular military action, the supine Congress failed to challenge the president for flouting the War Powers Acts, which requires the White House to seek congressional approval for the use of force in other countries.
But Bush wasn’t finished. The Reagan administration had cozied up to Iraq Saddam Hussein, removing Iraq from the State Department list of terrorist states and backing it in its war against Iran. Even Saddam’s use of chemical weapons to crush the Kurdish resistance had elicited little protest. Following a clumsy attempt by the United States to pin that crime on Iran, Bush extended an additional $1.2 billion in credits and loans to Saddam while Kuwait demanded that Iraq repay the money it had borrowed to wage war on Iran. Kuwait also refused to abide by OPEC oil quotas, driving down the price of oil at a time when Iraq desperately needed the revenue to repay over $40 billion in accrued debts. Further angering Saddam, Kuwait, which had been part of Iraq until 1961, rejected Iraq’s claims on their disputed border.
U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie met with Saddam in Baghdad on July 25, 1990, assuring him that Bush “wanted better and deeper relations” and had “no opinion” on its border dispute with Kuwait, which had been no friend of the United States. Senator and former UN Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan described Kuwait to fellow senators as “a particularly poisonous enemy of the United States” whose “anti-Semitism was at the level of the personally loathsome.” Saddam took Glaspie’s remarks as a signal that the United States would acquiesce in his Kuwaiti takeover. The following week, three Iraqi divisions entered Kuwait, giving Iraq control of one-fifth of the world’s oil supply. In September, Glaspie effectively confirmed that she had led Saddam on, telling the New York Times, “I didn’t think – and nobody else did – that the Iraqis were going to take all of Kuwait.”
Cheney, Powell, and General Norman Schwarzkopt rushed to meet with Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd. They showed him doctored photos of 150,000 Iraqi troops and 1,500 tanks poised just across his border in Kuwait and convinced him to allow a large U.S. military force onto Saudi soil, giving the United States its long-sought toehold in the region. The deception was soon exposed. A Japanese newspaper obtained satellite photos showing no Iraqi troop buildup in the area. American media took interest in the story. ABC news purchased additional satellite photos the following month, reconfirming the original assessment. Newsweek called it “the case of the missing military presence.” “In fact,” Newsweek reported, “all they could see, in crystal-clear detail, was the U.S. buildup in Saudi Arabia.” U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Charles Freeman warned, “This will never work. All it’s going to take is one photo of some GI pissing on the wall of a mosque, and the Saudi government will be overthrown.” Despite Pentagon pressure to bury the story, Jean Heller, a highly respected reporter with the St. Petersburg Times, decided to pursue it, obtaining more photos that showed to physicist and defense analyst Peter Zimmerman, who exposed the fraudulence of the U.S. claims. Newsday reported the comments of one senior U.S. commander who acknowledged, “There was a great disinformation campaign surrounding this war.”
There is no evidence that Saddam ever intended to invade Saudi Arabia. Powell acknowledged that for the first three weeks, Iraq could have marched unimpeded into Saudi Arabia if it had so desired. He agreed with Turkish and Arab leaders that sanctions would force Saddam to reverse course. Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara urged the Senate to use sanctions, not war. In fact, the UN-imposed sanctions were taking a tremendous tool on Iraq. In October, CIA Director William Webster reported that sanctions had curtailed 98 percent of Iraq’s oil exports and perhaps 95 percent of its imports. Zbigniew Brzezinski testified that an invasion could be “highly counterproductive,” turning the Arab world and European allies against the United States and causing chaos in the region.
The pressure mounted quickly for a strong response by Bush. The Israeli press led the charge. An editorial in Hadashot was typical. “The pro-Iraqi puppet Government in Kuwait,” it lashed out, “is an expression of U.S. impotence and the weakness of President George Bush. Bush, until now at least, resembles Chamberlain in his knowing capitulation to Hitler.”
Bush turned the tired Munich analogy on its head. In an August 8 televised address to the nation, he described Saddam as “an aggressive dictator threatening his neighbors” and compared him to Hitler. He kept the rhetoric at a fever pitch. Washington Post editor Charles Paul Freund dissected the Bush strategy: “Bush’s major rhetorical device in constructing his argument against aggression was Hitler. … Saddam Hussein’s sudden media Hitlerization was…another chapter in a process we have seen several times in recent years involving such figures as ‘strongman’ Noriega of Panama, the ‘fanatical’ Khomeini of Rian, and Libya’s ‘madman’ Gadhafi.”
Comparing Saddam Hussein to the most justly reviled figure of the twentieth century struck many observers as unreasonable, even absurd. At a campaign event in the Boston suburbs, Bush suggested that Saddam was worse than Hitler in using hostages as “human shields” at potential military targets. When asked how this could make him worse that the man responsible for the Holocaust, Bush equivocated, “I didn’t say the Holocaust, I mean, that is outrageous. But I think brutalizing young kids in a square in Kuwait is outrageous, too. I was told that Hitler did not stake people out against potential military and that he did, indeed respect – not much else, but did, indeed respect – the legitimacy of the embassies. So, we’ve got some difference there.”
Bush also announced that U.S. troops were headed toward the Persian Gulf to take up positions in Saudi Arabia. He decided to act before the Saudis came up with their own solution to the crisis, fearing that a Saudi initiative might undermine U.S. domination of the region and its oil resources. Given the Saudi’s disdain for the Kuwaiti oligarchy, he feared that an “Arab solution” would leave Iraq in a powerful position.
Meanwhile, Kuwaiti officials hired the world’s largest public relations firm, Hill & Knowlton, to sell the war. The firm’s Washington director, Craig Fuller, had been Bush’s chief of staff when he was vice president. Fuller helped orchestrate the largest foreign-funded effort ever undertaken to manipulate U.S. public opinion. On October 10, at hearing sponsored by Congress’s Human Rights Caucus, a fifteen-year-old girl testified that she had been a volunteer in a Kuwaiti hospital when Iraqi troops burst in. She described what she had witnessed: “They took the babies out to of the incubators, took the incubators, and left the babies on the cold floor to die.” Bush cited the story repeatedly in making the case for war: “It turns your stomach to listen to the tales of those that have escaped the brutality of Saddam the invader. Mass hanging. Babies pulled from incubators and scattered like firewood across the floor.” It was later discovered that not only was the young witness lying about having been at the hospital, she was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States and a member of the ruling family. By the time the fraud was exposed, U.S. bombing of Baghdad had already begun.
On November 29, the final UN Security Council resolution authorized use of “all necessary means” to force Iraqi evacuation from Kuwait. Votes for the resolution didn’t come cheap. Egypt had almost $14 billion of debt written off by the United States and the Gulf states another $6.7 billion. Syria received over $2 billion from Europe, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab states.
For joining Cuba in voting against the resolution, Yemen was punished severely. A senior U.S. diplomat informed the Yemeni ambassador, “That was the most expensive ‘no’ vote you ever cast.” Three days later, the United States cut $70 million in desperately needed aid to Yemen. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) started squeezing Yemen, and Saudi Arabia expelled 800,000 Yemeni workers.
While understanding the importance of marshaling international support to provide a “cloak of acceptability” to their invasion, U.S. leaders made it clear that they weren’t about to relinquish control to the United Nations or anyone else. As Bush and Scowcroft explained in their memoirs, “It was important to reach out to the rest of the world, but even more important to keep the strings of control tightly in our hands.”
The U.S. public was also sharply divided. Approval of Bush’s handling of the crisis had dropped by 30 percent in three months. Despite Bush’s rhetoric about the nobility of the United States’ motives, it was difficult to sell the despotic leaders of Saudi Arabia or Kuwait as paragons of democracy. Nor was it easy to make the case that crucial U.S. interests were at stake. The United States, unlike Western Europe and Japan, depended very little on Kuwaiti oil. In fact, Iraqi and Kuwaiti oil combined accounted for only 9 percent of U.S. imports. And neither the Europeans nor the Japanese were eager to go to war over Kuwait.
Confronted with growing opposition, administration officials seized upon another strategy to frighten both the American public and vacillating UN officials. In late November, Cheney and Scowcroft appeared on Sunday talk shows brandishing the nuclear threat. Cheney spoke about Iraq’s nuclear weapons progress and its chances of achieving “some kind of crude device” in less than a year. Scowcroft told David Brinkley that Saddam might achieve that goal within “months.” “Once has to assume,” he added, “that he might be more willing to use nuclear weapons than has any other power.” Scowcroft had apparently forgotten which country it was that had previously dropped nuclear bombs on an adversary and had threatened to do so again dozens more times over the years. And, as if the nuclear weapons threat weren’t frightening enough, Scowcroft added the terrorist threat for good measure. When asked, “What we have heard is that [Saddam] has gathered a whole raft of terrorists into his country and they are standing around awaiting instructions. Is that right?” “That’s right,” Scowcroft replied.
Despite Cheney’s insistence that congressional approval of the use of force was not needed, Bush decided to take the measure to Congress. With antiwar protestors filling the streets, the House passed the war resolution on January 12 by 250 – 183. The Senate passed it 52 – 47.
By mid-January, the United States had 560,000 troops in the region. Almost 700,000 would serve by the end of the war. This gargantuan force was justified by even larger estimates of the number of Iraqi troops. Powell estimated half a million, Cheney a million, and Schwarzkopf 1.5 million.
The security Council resolution had given the Iraqis until January 15, 1991, to withdraw their forces. Had Saddam been more savvy, he might have outfoxed the Americans who were most bent on war. New York Times reporter Judith Miller had earlier described what one European diplomat termed the “nightmare scenario” for the Americans: an Iraqi withdrawal that would leave Saddam in power and his arsenal intact, especially if it were accompanied by calls for elections to determine Kuwait’s future political status. If that had happened, the carefully crafted U.S. game plan could have unraveled and Saddam would have survived. The Saudis would have felt compelled to request the removal of all international forces, whose stay in the country, Bush and King Fahd had promised, would last only as long as the danger persisted. The ruling Sabah family in Kuwait would either be toppled or have its powers sharply constrained. U.S. plans to establish a long-term presence in the Gulf region would be thwarted.
The Iraqis would pay severely for Saddam’s failure to snatch diplomatic victory from the jaws of military defeat. Operation Desert Storm began on January 17, 1991. The United States pummeled Iraqi facilities for five weeks with its new high-tech weapons, including cruse and Tomahawk missiles and laser-guided bombs. After having crippled Iraq’s communications and military infrastructure, U.S. and Saudi forces attacked battered, demoralized, and outnumbered Iraq troops in Kuwait, who put up little resistance. U.S. forces slaughtered escaping Iraqis along what became known as the “highway of death.” They deployed a new category of weapons made out of depleted uranium, whose radioactivity and chemical toxicity would produce cancers and birth defects for years. Victims may have included U.S. soldiers, who suffered what became known as Gulf War Syndrome. But enough of the Republican Guard escaped the slaughter to ensure that Saddam would retain his hold on power.
Bush and his advisors decided not to push to Baghdad to overthrow the regime, recognizing that such a move would bolster the regional hegemony of Iran, antagonize the United States’ Arab allies, and embroil the United States in a costly and complicated occupation. Cheney warned, “Once we cross over the line and start intervening in a civil war…it raises the very real specter of getting involved in a quagmire figuring out who the hell is going to govern Iraq.” On another occasion, he elaborate:
It’s not clear what kind of government you would put in place of the one that’s currently there now. Is it going to be a Shia regime, a Sunni regime, or a Kurdish regime? Or one that tilts toward the Bathists, or one that tilts toward the Islamic fundamentalists? How much credibility is that government going to have if it’s set up by the United States military when it’s there? How long does the United States military have to stay to protect the people that sign on for that government, and what happens to it once we leave?
Colin Powell agreed with Cheney. The United States didn’t want to occupy Iraq, and there was no “Jeffersonian democrat waiting in the Ba’ath Party to take over.” The United States, he argued, was better off not getting “mired down in a Mesopotamian mess.”
Wolfowitz and fellow State Department official I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby disagreed. But Bush resisted their urgings. “Trying to humiliate Saddam…would have incurred incalculable human and political costs,” he later explained. “We would have been forced to occupy Baghdad and, in effect, rule Iraq.” He added that “there was no viable exit strategy.”
U.S. officials urged the Iraqis to rise up and topple Saddam. Shiites and Kurds responded en masse. But the United States stood idly by while the Iraqi government crushed the uprising, using poison gas and helicopter gunships. Still, the war showcased U.S. military power. Bush proclaimed a new world order and gushed, “The ghosts of Vietnam have been laid to rest beneath the sands of the Arabian desert.” One White House speechwriter programmed his world processor so he could write “New World Order” by hitting a single command key. Among those who dismissed this empty “burst of triumphalism” was conservative columnist George Will, who wrote, “If that war, in the which the United States and a largely rented and Potemkin coalition of allies smashed a nation with the GNP of Kentucky, could…make America ‘feel good about itself,’ then America should not feel good about itself.” He noted “how close Bush came to unilaterally amending the Constitution by stripping from Congress all right to involvement in the making of war. Bush only grudgingly…sought constitutional approval for launching the biggest military operation in U.S. history, an attack on a nation with which we were not at war.” In two months of bombing, the United States destroyed much of Iraq’s infrastructure, including roads, bridges, sanitation facilities, waterways, railroads, communications systems, factories, and the electrical grid, and caused immense suffering. In March, the United Nations described the bombing as “near apocalyptic,” driving Iraq back into the “pre-industrial age.” A Harvard team reported a “public health catastrophe.” The continuing UN sanctions exacerbated a miserable situation, reducing real wages by over 90 percent. Although estimates vary widely, credible sources report that over 200,000 Iraqis died in the war and its aftermath, approximately half of them women and children. The U.S. death toll stood at 158.
“By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all!” Bush rejoiced. But privately, he was more circumspect. As the war was coming to an end, he wrote in his diary that he was experiencing “no feeling of euphoria.” “IT hasn’t been a clean end,” he regretted. “There is no battleship Missouri surrender. This is what’s missing to make this akin to WWII, to separate Kuwait from Korea and Vietnam.” As with Saddam Hussein remaining safely ensconced in power, victory seemed hollow and incomplete.
Gorbachev, meanwhile, had even less to celebrate. Just a few days after signing the START I treaty, on August 18, 1991, as he prepared to give even greater autonomy to the Soviet republics, Communist hard-liners placed him under house arrest. Boris Yeltsin, president of the Russian Republic, led a popular uprising that returned Gorbachev to power. But Gorbachev’s days were numbered. He was determined to use whatever time he had left to pursue his nuclear arms control agenda. START I would limit both sides to 6,000 strategic nuclear warheads and 1,600 delivery systems. Gorbachev also pushed for elimination of the 45,000 smaller-yield tactical nuclear weapons that the United States and the Soviet Union had placed primarily in Europe. Although less dangerous than the powerful strategic weapons that were being slowly reduced, some of these battlefield weapons could yield up to a megaton, which was the equivalent of almost seventy Hiroshima bombs. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell commissioned a study that recommended eliminating the tactical nuclear weapons, but it was rejected by the Pentagon. “The report went up to the Pentagon policy staff, a refuge of Reagan-era hard-liners, who stomped all over it, from Paul Wolfowitz on down,” Powell wrote in his memoirs. Cheney stomped, too. Despite the setbacks, both sides made significant unilateral cuts in their nuclear arsenals that would reduce, though not eliminate, the danger of complete nuclear destruction.
On Christmas Day, having lost his base of support, Gorbachev resigned. The Soviet Union was no more. The Cold War had ended. The most visionary and transformative leader of the twentieth century had yielded power. Even some people in the United States had come to appreciate the immensity of his contribution. James Baker had said to him in September 1990, “Mr. President…nobody in the world has ever tried what you and your supporters are trying to do today. … I’ve seen a lot, but I’ve never met a politician with as much bravery and courage as you have.”
As wasteful and dangerous as the Cold War was, it had brought a kind of structure and stability. What would happen now? Would peace and tranquility return? The United States had been blaming social and political upheaval on the Soviet Union for the previous forty-six years. In truth, though, the Soviets had more often than not exercised restraint upon their allies. And what would now become of the United States’ vast military and intelligence establishment, which had been constructed to counter a deliberately exaggerated Soviet threat? How would the hawks justify the bloated military budget that for decades had diverted resources from needed development to expensive weaponry and gaudy defense sector profits? And what would come of Gorbachev’s promise to reduce the once massive Soviet nuclear arsenal to less than 5,000 warheads?
The answers would soon be forthcoming. In 1992, Paul Wolfowitz oversaw the creation of a new “Defense Planning Guidance,” forecasting future challenges to U.S. interests. An early draft insisted that the United States not allow any rival to emerge that could threaten U.S. global hegemony and that it take unilateral and preemptive action against states attempting to acquire weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The draft outlined seven potential war scenarios and warned that the United States must be prepared to simultaneously fight wars against North Korea and Iraq, while resisting a Russian incursion into Europe. The New York Times reported that the classified “documents suggest levels of manpower and weapons that would appear to stall, if not reverse, the downward trend in military spending by the mid-1990s.”
The plan provoked a firestorm of criticism at home and abroad. It was a “Pax Americana,” Senator Joseph Biden charged – “an old notion of the United States as the world’s policeman.” Senator Robert Byrd called the Pentagon strategy “myopic, shallow, and disappointing. The basic thrust of the document seems to be this: ‘We love being the sole remaining superpower in the world and we want so much to remain that way that we are willing to put at risk the basic health of our economy and the well-being of our people to do so.’” Future presidential candidate Pat Buchanan called it a “formula for endless American intervention in quarrels and war when no vital interest of the United States is remotely engaged.” The New York Times decried its “chest-thumping unilateralism.” The Pentagon backpedaled so fast that it tripped over its own lines. A Pentagon spokesman insisted that the plan hadn’t been seen by Wolfowitz, who drafted it, or by Cheney, though he admitted that it was in line with Cheney’s thinking.
Bush’s 91 percent approval rating at the end of the Persian Gulf War blinded leading Democrats to his election vulnerability, leaving the door open for Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton. Clinton, who chaired the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, rans as a “new kind of Democrat” – one positioned midway between the liberals and the conservatives. He promised a business-friendly administration that would lower the deficit, cut middle-class taxes, strengthen the military, and “end welfare as we know it.” With Ross Perot siphoning off 19 percent of the popular vote, Clinton trounced Bush in the electoral college.
The Democrat’s euphoria over capturing the White House was short-lived. Republicans weakened Clinton out of the gate by blocking his attempt to secure the open admission of gays into the military, but the much more telling blow would be struck in defeating his plan to overhaul the health care system. Among advanced industrial countries, only the United States and apartheid South Africa lacked a national health care system. The Republicans and their business allies spent $50 million to frighten the American public and deny health coverage to millions of citizens. Richard Armey, chair of the House Republican Conference, prepared for what he called “the most important domestic policy debate of the past half century…the Battle of the Bulge of big-government liberalism.” Armey believed, “The failure of the Clinton plan will…leave the President’s agenda weakened, his…supporters demoralized, and the opposition emboldened. Our market-oriented ideas will suddenly become thinkable, not just on healthcare, but on a host of issues. … Historians may mark it as…the start of the Republican renaissance.”
The 1994 midterm elections gave Republicans control of both branches of the Congress for the first time in forty years. Both parties lurched further to the right. Succumbing to conservative pressure, Clinton ended Aid to Families with Dependent Children, which had helped poor families since the Great Depression, and supported a war on drugs and tough-on-crime legislation. The U.S. prison population exploded from a half million in 1980 to 2 million twenty years later. Forty-five percent of those incarcerated were African American, and 15 percent were Hispanic.
Post-Soviet Russia also moved to the right. Yeltsin turned to Harvard economics Jeffrey Sachs and other USAID-funded Harvard experts for help in privatizing the economy. Sachs had advised on Poland’s initial transformation from socialism to capitalism, an effort that would double poverty in two years and, by some estimates, plunge over half of Poland’s population into poverty by 2003. Sachs and company encouraged First Deputy Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar and Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais to subject Russia to even more intense “shock therapy” than Poland had experience. Gorbachev had resisted similar demands by the G7, IMF, and World Bank. Another key player was Undersecretary of the Treasury Lawrence Summers. As the World Bank’s chief economist, he had recently created a furor by signing a supposedly sarcastic memo, declaring, “The economic logic behind dumping…toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable,” adding, “I’ve always thought that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly UNDER-polluted.” Brazil’s secretary of the environment told Summers, “Your reasoning is perfectly logical but totally insane…a concrete example of the unbelievable alienation,…social ruthlessness and…arrogant ignorance of many conventional ‘economists.’”
Russia’s flirtation with crony capitalism proved equally insane. Before the Russian people knew what hit them, Yeltsin had deregulated the economy, privatized state enterprises and resources, eliminated desperately needed subsidies and price controls, and established privately owned monopolies. The Western aid and debt relief that Sachs promised never materialized. Sachs later blamed Cheney and Wolfowitz for pursing “long-term U.S. military dominance over…Russia.” Conditions worsened while Clinton was in office. In what Russians called “the great grab,” the nation’s factories and resources were sold off for a pittance to private investors, including former Communist officials, who became multi-millionaires overnight.
The Russian people didn’t share in the frivolity. Russia’s economy collapsed. Hyperinflation wiped out people’s life savings. Tens of millions of workers lost their jobs. Life expectancy plummeted from sixty-six to fifty-seven years. By 1998, more than 80 percent of Russian farms had gone bankrupt. Russian GDP had been almost cut in half. The Russian economy shrank to the size of Holland’s. In 2000, capital investment stood at 20 percent of what it had been a decade earlier. Fifty percent of Russians earned less than $35 per month – the official poverty line – and many hovered just above. Russia was rapidly becoming a third-world nation. Embittered, Russians joked that they thought the Communists had been lying to them about socialism and capitalism, but it turned out they were only lying about socialism.
Sachonomics worked similar miracles in other former Soviet republics, where the number of people living in poverty jumped from 14 million in 1989 to 147 million – and that was before the crash of 1998. Famed Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who returned to Russia after being exiled for two decades, described the situation in 2000:
As a result of the Yeltsin era, all the fundamental sectors of our states, economic, cultural, and moral life have been destroyed or looted. We live literally amid ruins, but we pretend to have a normal life…great reforms…being carried out in our country…were false reforms because they left more than half of our people in poverty. … Will we continue looting and destroying Russia until nothing is left? … God forbid these reforms should continue.
Popular disdain for Yeltsin fueled anti-Americanism. Russians also bristled over U.S. involvement in the energy-rich Caspian Basin region and expansion of NATO to include Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic – a move that ninety-two-year-old George Kennan called “an enormous and historic strategic error.” Russians condemned the U.S.-led NATO bombing of fellow Slavs in Yugoslavia in 1999. One survey reported that 96 percent of Russians considered the bombing a “crime against humanity.” In 2000, 81 percent saw U.S. policy as anti-Russian, most respondents believing that the United States was imposing a “reverse iron curtain” on Russia’s borders. Economically crippled, Russia placed greater reliance on its nuclear arsenal as its last line of defense, broadened the circumstances under which it would use nuclear weapons, and began modernizing its arsenal.
Dangerous incidents occurred. In 1995, Soviet radar operators mistook a Norwegian rocket launch for an incoming ballistic missile. Yeltsin activated his nuclear football for the first time. He and his top military advisors debated whether to launch a nuclear counterattack against the United States until Russia’s nine early-warning satellites confirmed that Russia was not under attack and the crisis ended. By 2000, only two of those satellites were still operating, leaving Russian blind for much of the day.
Polls showed that Russians preferring order over democracy, with growing numbers pining for the “good old days” of Stalin. Though Clinton extolled Yeltsin as the architect of democracy, the Russian people deplored his illegal shutdown of and armed assault on the elected parliament, his launching a bloody war against the breakaway republic of Chechnya in 1994, and his stewardship of the collapsing economy. Gorbachev denounced Yeltsin as a “liar” who had more privileges than the Russian tsars. Polling single-digit ratings, Yeltsin resigned on December 31, 1999, and was replaced by former KGB officer Vladimir Putin.
Once Afghanistan’s Russian-backed government fell in 1992, the United States lost interest in that distant, barren land, where life expectancy stood at forty-six years. A bloody civil war erupted between various Islamist factions and ethnic groups. One consisted largely of afghan refugees recruited from madrassas – Saudi-sponsored religious schools in Pakistan. These fanatical religious students, or talibs, formed the Taliban – with help from the Pakistani intelligence service. Many had already received military training in CIA-financed camps. Most had studied textbooks developed by the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s (UNO) Centre for Afghanistan Studies in a program funded by USAID to the tune of $51 million between 1984 and 1994. Published in Dari and Pashtu, the dominant Afghan languages, the books were designed to stoke Islamic fanaticism and spur resistance to the Soviet invaders. Page after page was filled with militant Islamic teachings and violent images. Children learned to count using pictures of missiles, tanks, land mines, Kalashnikovs, and dead Soviet soldiers. One leading Afghan educator said, “The pictures…are horrendous to school students, but the texts are even much worse.” One, for example, shows a soldier adorned with a bandolier and a Kalashnikov. Above his is a verse from the Koran. Below is a statement about the mujahideen, who, in obedience to Allah, willingly sacrifice their lives and fortunes to impose Sharia law on the government. Students learned to read by studying stories about jihad. When the Taliban seized Kabul in 1996, they continued using the same violent jihadists texts, simply removing the human images, which they considered blasphemous. Girls would be spared the indignity of seeing such texts, though; they were banned from school entirely. The Taliban subjected all Afghans to the most extreme Sharia law, banning visual images and instituting public amputations, beatings, and executions. Women lost all rights, including the right to work and go out in public without a male escort.
Also in 1996, the Taliban welcomed a young Saudi named Osama bin Laden back to Afghanistan. He returned as head of Al-Qaeda (The Base), an extremist organization committed to driving the United States and its allies out of the Muslim world and reestablishing the caliphate. He had been part of the CIA netherworld, recruiting and training the foreign militants who flooded into Afghanistan to battle the Soviet infidels. Funding came largely from Saudi royal family members eager to spread their strict Wahhabist form of Islam. Bin Laden’s father was one of Saudi Arabia’s wealthiest men. Above all else, bin Laden decried the presence of the United States’ “infidel armies” in Saudi Arabia, Islam’s holiest land, and condemned U.S. support for Israel. Openly pledging to expunge U.S. allies in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and Palestine, he issued his first fatwa in 1992, calling for jihad against the Western occupation of Islamic lands.
Bin Laden delivered on his threats. A 1995 Al-Qaeda bombing of a U.S. military base in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, killed five U.S. airmen and wounded thirty-four. The following June, a powerful truck bomb destroyed a building in the Khobar Towers complex in Saudi Arabia, killing 19 U.S. airmen and wounding 372. The Saudi government, given its close ties to the bin Laden family, steered the U.S. investigation toward Saudi Shiites tied to Iran. FBI Director Louis Freeh met repeatedly with Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who convinced his that Iran was involved, despite bin Laden’s brazen claims of responsibility for both bombings. Bin Laden experts in the FBI and CIA were handcuffed in their investigations.
But the Saudi bombing, that year’s bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City by right-wing domestic terrorists, and the sarin gas attack in a Tokyo subway by Aum Shinrikyo caught the attention of some administration officials. In January 1996, the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center opened a new office. Its sole responsibility was to track Osama bin Laden, who was setting up terrorist training camps in Afghanistan.
While barely acknowledging the Al-Qaeda threat, Clinton administration officials were alert to investment possibilities in the region. Clinton pushed for building pipelines to ship the oil and gas from former Soviet republics in Central Asia along routes that bypassed Iran and Russia. Studies placed the total value of Central Asian oil and gas reserves at between $3 trillion and $6 trillion. The administration supported efforts by the U.S. oil company Unocal to build a $2 billion pipeline to transport natural gas from Turkmenistan to Pakistan and India. “By Unocal prevailing,” noted a State Department official, “our influence will be solidified, the Russians will be weakened, and we can keep Iran from benefiting.” Counting on the Taliban to stabilize the war-torn country, Unocal celebrated the Taliban’s seizure of Kabul. It was a “very positive” development, said Unocal’s executive vice president. Neocon Zalmay Khalilzad, a Unocal consultant who had worked in the State Department under Wolfowitz and in the Defense Department under Cheney, agreed. Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid explained that some U.S. diplomats “saw them as messianic do-gooders – like born-again Christians from the American Bible Belt.”
Unocal pulled out all the stops to win approval of its pipeline. It hired the University of Nebraska’s Center for Afghanistan Studies to help create goodwill and do some needed vocational training. The Center was to teach fourteen basic skills, at least nine of which would be of direct use in building the pipeline. To make this happen, the Center needed to be in the good graces of both the major rival factions in Afghanistan: the Northern Alliance and the Taliban. The Omaha World-Herald reported that the Northern Alliance “has been criticized by the U.S. State Department, the United Nations and human-rights groups for terrorism, rape, kidnapping of women and children, torture of prisoners and indiscriminate killing of civilians during battles.” And they, by most standards, were the good guys. The Taliban, which then controlled about 75 percent of the country, including stretches where the pipeline was to run, were accused by Amnesty International of “gender apartheid” and of facilitating the growth of nearly half the world’s opium supply. When asked why an academic institution would accept such a role, aside from the substantial sum Unocal was paying, the Center’s director, Thomas Gouttierre, replied, “I don’t assume a private corporation is evil.” Nor did he have much of an issue with the Taliban, whom he described as “the same sort of people who spawned William Jennings Bryan. They’re populists. … They are not out there oppressing people.”
The victims of Al-Qaeda’s 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, were not so certain about the Taliban or their guests. The bombs detonated ten minutes apart, killing more than two hundred people. Two years later, Al-Qaeda struck again with a suicide attack against the USS Cole. Clinton gave the okay to kill bin Laden at his base camp in Afghanistan. After the bombings, Unocal pulled out of the pipeline deal, but others remained interested. Enron, whose chief executive Ken Lay was a major backer of George W. Bush, envisioned building a pipeline that could supply cheap natural gas to Enron’s faltering Dabhol power plant in India. Dick Cheney, who had become CEO of Halliburton, also set his sights on the oil reserves. He told a 1998 gathering of oil industry executives, “I can’t think of a time when we’ve a region emerge as suddenly to become as strategically significant as the Caspian.”
Although the United States faced no clear threat from hostile nations, the Clinton administration squandered the promised peace dividend in a new wave of military spending. In January, 2000, it added $115 billion to the Pentagon’s projected Five Year Defense Plan, bringing the total to $1.6 trillion and proving that Democrats were even more tough-minded on defense than their Republican adversaries. It continued spending profusely on missile defense, even though experts warned that the costly system would never function as envisioned and enemies and allies alike feared that its pursuit indicated that the United States was striving to achieve a dangerous first-strike capability. Clinton also refused to sign the Ottawa land mines treaty, and oversaw an increase in U.S. arms sales from 32 percent of the world market in 1987 to 43 percent a decade later, the lion’s share going to countries with deplorable human rights records.
The greatest pressure for increased military spending came from a single-minded group of neoconservatives, spearheaded by William Kristol and Robert Kagan, who, in 1997, formed the Project for the New American Century (PNAC). The PNAC harked back to Henry Luce’s vision of unchallenged U.S. global hegemony. The group’s founding statement of principles deplored the fact that the United States had lost its way under Clinton and called for return to “a Reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity.” The founders claimed a direct lineage from Scoop Jackson’s bunker to Team B to the Committee on the Present Danger, with a few minor detours along the way. They were a far cry from Carter’s Trilateralists. The original signers included Elliot Abrams, William Bennet, Jeb Bush, Dick Cheney, Eliot Cohen, Midge Decter, businessman Steve Forbes, Francis Fukuyama, Frank Gaffney, Fred Ikle, historian Donald Kagan, Zalmay Khalilzad, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Norman Podhoretz, former Vice President Dan Quayle, Henry Rowen, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz. They and other members and collaborators, including Richard Perle, Kenneth Adelman, Richard Allen, Richard Armitage, John Bolton, Jean Kirkpatrick, Charles Krauthammer, Daniel Pipes, and former Director of Central Intelligence James Woolsey, would dominate political discourse and policy making during the George W. Bush administration as completely as the Trilateralists had dominated Carter’s. The consequences would prove even more damaging for humanity – far more damaging, in fact – than the misguided policies implemented by the Brzezinski-dominated Carter administration.
PNACers laid out their program in a series of reports, letter, and statements. They demanded increased defense spending, completion of the United States’ domination of space, and deployment of a sweeping missile defense system. They insisted that the United States be able to “fight and decisively win multiple, simultaneous major theatre wars” and police “critical regions,” especially the oil-rich Middle East. Their first order of business was toppling Saddam Hussein and establishing a new government under the aegis of Ahmed Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress. In January 1998, PNACers urged Clinton to circumvent the UN Security Council and take unilateral military action. But Saddam hadn’t provided sufficient provocation.
Since the Gulf War, UN weapons inspectors had been overseeing destruction of Iraq’s WMD. U.S.-and British-enforced no-fly zones and harsh sanctions had caused immense suffering. In an interview with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Lesley Stahl noted, “We have heard that a half million children have died…that’s more children than died in Hiroshima,” and asked, “is the price worth it?” Albright replied, “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price – we think the price is worth it.”
Experts would debate the precise number of Iraqi children who died as a result of the sanctions. In December 1995, two UN-affiliated researchers, writing in the British medical journal The Lancet, placed the number at 567,000, but later lowered that estimate. In 2003, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, speaking at a joint press conference with George Bush, said, “Over the past five years, 400,000 Iraqi children under the age of five died of malnutrition and disease,” using that as an excuse to justify an invasion that would add tens of thousands of more that total.
Though Clinton resisted the pressure to invade, he and his secretary of state laid the rhetorical groundwork for Bush and Cheney. Albright warned, “Iraq is a long way from [the United States], but what happens there matters a great deal here. For the risks that the leaders of a rogue state will use nuclear, chemical or biological weapons against us or our allies is the greatest security threat we face.” On another occasion, Albright had the audacity to declare, “If we have to use force, it is because we are American; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future.”
Clearly, Neither Albright nor Clinton saw very far into the past. In late October 1998, Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act, which asserted, “It should be the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq and to promote the emergence of a democratic government to replace that regime.” Saddam immediately stopped inspections but backed down under the threat of war in mid-November and allowed the inspections to continue.
Albright’s hawkishness rankled the more sober-minded members of the administration. During one discussion, Albright asked, “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it. Colin Powell recalled, “I thought I would have an aneurysm. American GIs were not toy soldiers to be moved around on sort of global game board.”
The 2000 election was the most scandalous in U.S. history. George W. Bush defeated John McCain in an ugly Republican primary that laid the groundwork for the tactics he would use in the general election. Bush shed his compassionate conservatism and attacked McCain furiously from the right. He reached out to the neo-Confederates, unreconstructed segregationists who fought to keep the rebel flag flying over the South Carolina state capitol. He spoke at Bob Jones University, who claim to fame was its policy of banning interracial dating among students. But most notoriously, Karl Rove and the Bush brain trust planted the idea that McCain, “the fag candidate,” had fathered an illegitimate black daughter and his wife, Cindy, was a drug addict. McCain responded, “The political tactics of division and slander are not our values…those who practice them in the name of religion or in the name of the Republican Party or in the name of America shame our faith, our party, and our country.” McCain was correct, but the tactic worked among a Republican Party base that was moving sharply to the right.
For his running mate, Bush selected Dick Cheney, who had fortuitously been put in charge of vetting potential nominees. Republicans hoped that Cheney, a veteran of several administrations and six terms in Congress, would lend gravitas to a ticket headed by the lightly regarded, inexperienced former Texas governor. Cheney had made a fortune during his brief stint as CEO of Halliburton, retiring in 2000 with a $34 million severance package. In 1998, he merged Halliburton with Dresser Industries, forming the world’s biggest oil services firm. Halliburton was also a major defense contractor through its subsidiary Brown & Root. Bush and Cheney faced off against Vice President Al Gore and Senator Joe Lieberman. The race was complicated by the participation of reformer Ralph Nader and conservative Pat Buchanan.
As the election approached, polls indicated a tight outcome. Bush advisors feared their candidate would win the popular vote but lose in the electoral college. They readied plans to orchestrate a popular uprising accusing Gore of using the antiquated electoral college to thwart the public will.
The election was very close indeed. Nationally, Gore won the popular vote by 544,000. Winning Florida would have also given his victory in the electoral college. The majority of voters clearing intended to vote for Gore. But confusing “butterfly ballots” in West Palm Beach caused many elderly Jewish voter to inadvertently vote for Buchanan, who was sometimes accused of anti-Semitism and whom those voters, in particular, despised, and antiquated punch card machines in poor, heavily Democratic districts caused state officials to invalidate 180,000 ballots either for not clearly identifying a candidate or voting more than once. But most troubling was that tens of thousands of pro-Gore African-American voters had been purged from the voting lists and denied the right to vote by Republican election officials, who had been directed to do so by the Bush Florida campaign cochair, Secretary of State Katherine Harris, on the pretext, often incorrect, that they were convicted felons. In the end, more than 10 percent of African Americans were disqualified compared to only 2 percent of Republican-leaning whites. Had the rates been equal, more than 50,000 more African Americans would have voted in Florida, giving Gore an overwhelming lead and ensuring his election. But because of the irregularities and the 97,000 votes that went to Nader, Bush clung to a miniscule lead of less than 1,000 votes out of 6 million cast. If certified, Bush would will the election by 272 – 266 electoral college votes.
The deck was stacked against Gore. Bush’s younger brother Jeb was governor. Harris, a fierce partisan, was in charge of certifying the results. Partial recounts cut Bush’s lead below 600 votes. Fearing that the full state recount that Gore demanded would sink him, Bush deployed family consigliere James Baker, his father’s campaign manager and secretary of state, to use every available court challenge to block the recount. The Bush campaign also flew down a small army of members of Congress, congressional staffers, and lawyers to run the operation on the ground, many arriving in corporate jets leased to the campaign by Bush’s friend “Kenny boy” Lay of Enron and Cheney’s friends at Halliburton.
The ground operation was overseen by House Republican Whip Tom DeLay. Some 750 Republican operatives swarmed into three predominantly Democratic counties that were considering recounts. At raucous rallies, they portrayed themselves as local citizens outraged that Gore was stealing the election, a theme echoed by Republican media allies. On November 22, the Republican field army, fortified by right-wing Cubans, physically disrupted the Miami-Dade canvassing board’s attempt to examine almost 11,000 disputed ballots in what the Wall Street Journal called a “door-kicking, window-banging protest.” The fifty-person mob, which included staffers of DeLay and Senator Trent Lott, was led by New York Congressman Joh Sweeney, who started them chanting “Shut it down!,” “Three blind mice,” and “Fraud, fraud, fraud.” Members of the canvassing board were physically assaulted, and Supervisor of Elections David Leahy was punched. One thousand more Cuban Americans, they were told, were on the way. The Brooks Brothers Riot, as it was dubbed because of the well-dressed insurgents, achieved its goal, forcing the frightened board members to abandon their recount, which, the Journal reported, was expected to help Gore “chip away” at Bush’s lead.
The operatives repeated their performance in heavily Democratic Broward County, outnumbering Democratic protesters outside the courthouse by ten to one. Among those observing the shutdown of the Miami-Dade canvassing board was Wall Street Journal editorial writer Paul Gigot, who commented, “If it’s possible to have a bourgeois riot, it happened here Wednesday. And it could end up saving the presidency for George W. Bush.”
Harris disallowed other recounts and certified Bush the winner by 537 votes. Though outspent in Florida by more than four to one, Gore continued to fight through the courts. On December 8, the Florida Supreme Court ordered a statewide recount of all ballots recorded as showing a no vote or more than one vote in cases where names were both checked and written in. With his lead falling below 200 votes, Bush appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to stop the recount. Seven of the nine justices had been appointed by Republican presidents and five of the seven by administrations in which Bush’s father was either president or vice-president. The Supreme Court voted 5 – 4 to stop the recount, handing Bush the election. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer dissented, charging, “Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.” Other alleged that an outright coup had occurred.
Bush promised to govern as a “compassionate conservative.” But Cheney’s selection of right-wingers and neocons to fill key administration positions made clear that compassion and compromise would be in short supply. For defense secretary, the dour vice president-elect picked his mentor Donald Rumsfeld, whom Henry Kissinger had called “the most ruthless man I have ever met.” Jim Baker reminded Bush, “you know what he did for your daddy,” referring to Rumsfeld’s effort to derail his father’s political career in the 1970s. But Bush took perverse pleasure in picking a man who had so openly defied his father. Rumsfeld, a man of prodigious arrogance, and Cheney, gloomy, dyspeptic, and pathologically secretive, would dominate foreign policy making, consistently riding roughshod over Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Cheney was on a mission to restore the power of the executive branch, which had steadily eroded, he believed, since the passage of the War Powers Act in 1973 and Watergate. Sharing Cheney’s contempt for public opinion, Bush surrounded himself with yes-men and true believers. He told Bob Woodward, “I do not need to explain why I say things. That’s the interesting thing about being the President. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation.” He held fewer press conferences than any other modern president, addressed only prescreened audiences, and set up special zones to isolate protesters far from his appearances.
From the start, serious debate over domestic policy concerns were conspicuous by its absence. One of the few who tried to instigate such discussions was John DiIulio, whom Bush had chosen to head the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. DiIulio, a respected political scientist from the University of Pennsylvania who had previously taught at Harvard and Princeton, stuck out like a sore thumb in this administration. Not only were he and Treasury Secretary Norman Mineta the only Democrats in the administration, he was, according to journalist Ron Suskind, the administration’s “big brain.” Bush called him, “one of the most influential social entrepreneurs in America.” He was also one of the few who took seriously the commitment to “compassionate conservatism,” speaking, for example, about the need to save “the least, the last, and the lost.”
Surrounded by neoconservative ideologues and harassed constantly by the religious Right, DiIulio lasted barely eight months. On October 2002, he opened up in a letter to Suskind in which he expressed admiration for the president, who, he said, was “much, much smarter than some people…seem to suppose” but criticized the environment in the White House, where, from the president on down, there was virtually no discussion of substantive domestic policy concerns: There were no actual policy white papers on domestic issues [and] only a couple of people in the West Wing who worried at all about policy substance and analysis. … [The] lack of basic policy knowledge [is] somewhat breathtaking. … This gave rise to what you might call Mayberry Machiavellis – staff, senior and junior, who consistently talked and acted as if the height of political sophistication consisted in reducing every issue to its simplest, black-and-white terms for public consumption, then steering legislative initiatives or policy proposals as far right as possible.
Whereas the first President Bush and Clinton had made some efforts at diplomacy and coalition building, Bush 43 exhibited the kind of “chest-thumping unilateralism” that neocons had demanded for decades. He announced that he would not send the International Criminal Court treaty to the Senate for ratification, despite the fact that Clinton had signed it and virtually every other Western democracy had joined. Perhaps he and Cheney anticipated that membership in the world’s first war crimes tribunal might interfere with their future plans. Bush then rejected the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which 150 nations had signed. He repudiated the Kyoto Protocol on global warming; abrogated the ABM Treaty with Russia, which freed him to expand the costly and unproven missile defense program; disavowed the Middle East process; and suspended talks with North Korea on its long-range missile program. Cheney strategically positioned loyalists throughout the bureaucracy and worked closely with Rumsfeld to expand the role and influence of the Pentagon. Though lacking a popular mandate, Bush and Cheney proceeded to ride roughshod over the opposition, taking advantage of the fact that the Republicans controlled the presidency and both houses of Congress for the first time since the 1920s.
This Bush administration, as Ralph Nader put it, was “marinated in oil,” with two oilmen at the helm and Chevron board member Condolezza Rice, who had a double-hulled oil tanker named after her, as national security advisor. Cheney quickly put together an energy task force and began formulating a new national energy policy based on securing control of Persian Gulf and Caspian Sea oil. He fiercely resisted efforts to force the disclosure of task force participants’ names and their discussions. A top NSC official instructed NSC staff to cooperate with the task force as it tried to “meld” together its review of “policies toward rogue states” like Iraq and “actions regarding the capture of new and existing oil and gas fields.” Cheney told an audience of oil industry executives in 1999, “There will be an average of two percent annual growth in global oil demand over the years ahead along with conservatively a three percent natural decline in production from existing reserves. That means by 2010 we will need on the order of an additional fifty million barrels a day. So where is the oil going to come from? …the Middle East, with two-thirds of the world’s oil and the lowest cost, is still where the prize ultimately lies.” The task force urged the administration to pressure Middle Eastern nations whose governments controlled their oil industries “to open up areas of their energy sectors to foreign investment.”
Congressman Dennis Kucinich spelled out the implications:
Oil is a major factor in every aspect of U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf. As yourself: What commodity accounts for 83 percent of total exports from the Persian Gulf? What is the U.S. protecting with our permanent deployment of about 25,000 military personnel, 6 fighter squadrons, 6 bomber squadrons, one aircraft carrier battle group, and one amphibious ready group based at 11 military installation? …the disproportionate troop deployments in the Middle East aren’t there to protect people, who constitute only 2 percent of the world population.
Cheney and Bush spent their first eight months in office aggressively pursuing the PNAC agenda. They paid little, if any, heed to the terrorist threat. The attacks on September 11, 2001, could have and should have been prevented. NSC Counterterrorism Chief Richard Clarke tried to alert top administration officials, including Cheney, Rice, and Powell, to the Al-Qaeda threat from their very first days on the job. He warned that an attack was imminent. On January 25, he requested that Rice call an urgent cabinet-level “principals” meeting to discuss the threat. He finally got his meeting on September 4.
Warning signs abounded in the summer of 2001. Intercepted Al-Qaeda messages stated that “something spectacular” was about to occur. FBI agents reported suspicious behavior by individuals who wanted to know how to fly passenger airplanes but were not interested in learning how to land. Tenet received an August briefing paper titled “Islamic Extremist Learns to Fly” about the arrest in Minnesota of Zacarias Moussaoui after officials at the flight school he was attending reported his strange behavior. Clarke testified that CIA Director George Tenet was running around Washington with his “hair on fire,” trying to get Bush’s attention. In late June, Tenet told Clarke, “I feel it coming. This is going to be the big one.” Intelligence agencies issued threat reports with headlines such as “Bin Laden Threats are Real,” “Bin Laden Planning High Profile Attacks,” “Bin Laden Planning Multiple Operations,” and “Bin Laden’s Network’s Plans Advancing.” Alerts warned of a high probability of near-term “spectacular” attacks resulting in numerous casualties and causing turmoil in the world. According to writer Thomas Powers, in the nine months before September 11, intelligence personnel “had warned the administration as many as forty times of the threat posed by Osama bin Laden, but that is not what the administration wanted to hear, and id did not hear it.”
The Presiden’s Daily Brief that Bush received at his Crawford, Texas, ranch on August 6 was headlined “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US.” It discussed the threat of Al-Qaeda operatives hijacking planes. Bush was an uninterested as ever, telling his CIA briefer, “All right. You’ve covered your ass, now.” Tenet later testified that “the system was blinking red.” Still, Bush had the temerity to tell a news conference in April 2004, “Had I any inkling whatsoever that the people were going to fly airplanes into buildings, we would have moved heaven and earth to save the country.”
Rice was equally culpable and equally disingenuous. During the summer of 2001, Tenet and CIA counterterrorism chief J. Cofer Black pushed her to adopt a plan to thwart bin Laden’s pending attack, but Rice was preoccupied with ballistic missile defense. Frustrated, Black later remarked, “The only thing we didn’t do was pull the trigger to the gun we were holding to her head.” Rice later commented, “I don’t think anybody could have predicted…that they would try to use an airplane as a missile, a hijacked airplane as a missile.”
Bush and Rice’s lack of interest was shared by others in the administration. Acting FBI Director Thomas Pickard told the 9/11 Commission that he had briefed Attorney General John Ashcroft twice that summer about the terrorist threat, but that, after the second briefing, Ashcroft told him he didn’t want to hear about it anymore. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz also discounted the warnings. Rumsfeld went further, threatening, as late as September 9, to get the president to veto Senate Arms Services Committee plans to transfer $600 million from the missile defense budget to counterterrorism.
Nor at any time did many predict that Bush, Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and their cronies would use this criminal assault on the United States as an excuse to launch wars against two Islamic nations – wars that would cause far more damage to the United States than Osama bin Laden ever could – or to begin shredding the U.S. Constitution and the Geneva Convention.
Next, Chapter 13: THE BUSH-CHENEY DEBACLE – “The Gates of Hell Are Open in Iraq”