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Middle East Scandals and the Resulting Invasion of Iraq

Kevin Phillips has come up with his own theory concerning the three Middle East scandals and the resulting invasion of Iraq. Bush was reluctant to stop US shipments of weapons, technology, advanced chemical and biological supplies, financing, and sharing of military intelligence with Iraq, and his State Department insisted almost to the day of the US intervention that Iraq would be allowed to seize some of Kuwait's oil-production areas to prop itself up after the immense drain on Iraq's economy and military of the Iran-Iraq war. Bush consistently refused to listen to reports that Iraq was trying to build a nuclear weapons program. On April 25, Secretary of State James Baker refused to criticize Iraq's threat that it would meet any threat of nuclear attack with chemical weapons; indeed, the Reagan and Bush administrations had long supplied Iraq with chemical weaponry specifically for use against Iran. Biological and even nuclear weapons programs were permitted to grow in Iraq under Reagan and Bush; much of the nuclear and biological weapons materials found and destroyed by UN inspectors in the early 1990s had been supplied by the US; it was later revealed that in September 1989, two of Iraq's chief nuclear scientists had been invited by the Bush administration to participate in a symposium in Portland, Oregon on nuclear detonation.

On July 19, Bush's Secretary of Defense, Dick Cheney, said publicly that the US would defend Kuwait if it was attacked by Iraq; Bush forced Cheney to back down from that position the next day. On July 24, Defense Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said, "We do not have any defense treaties with Kuwait, and there are no special defense or security commitments to Kuwait." On July 25, the US ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, told Saddam Hussein, "We have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreements with Kuwait." Glaspie acknowledged that the US understood and sympathized with Iraq's disputes with Kuwait, particularly Kuwait's pilfering of Iraqi oil reserves through "slant-drilling" at its border oil facility at Rumalla, and Kuwait's attempt to inhibit Iraq's economic recovery by overproducing oil and selling it at bargain prices. On July 28, CIA director William Webster told Bush that an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was imminent, but it was likely that Iraq would only annex the disputed Rumalla oil fields along with two uninhabited islands under Kuwaiti control that blocked Iraq's access to the Persian Gulf. Bush seemed unconcerned with that projection. On July 31, Assistant Secretary of State for the Middle East John Kelly told a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee, "Historically, the US has taken no position on the border disuptes in the area, nor on matters pertaining to internal OPEC deliberations." Asked if any treaties existed that would compel the US to protect Kuwait's borders, Kelly said no. Two days later, on August 2, Iraq invaded Kuwait.

The first response from the US was ambiguous at best. Bush said that the US had no intention of becoming involved in the dispute. Opinion in the State Department favored the view that Hussein would invade all of Kuwait merely to use the occupied nation as a bargaining chip to retain his original, more limited, objectives. The afternoon of August 2, Bush flew to Colorado for a conference, where he met with Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Most public accounts of that meeting have Thatcher merely "stiffening Bush's spine," but former Texas governor John Connelly says the conversation was bluntly political. According to Connelly, Thatcher told Bush, "George, I was about to be defeated in England [in 1982] when the Falklands conflict began. I stayed in office for eight years after that." After meeting with Thatcher, Bush reversed course, telling the press that the US was indeed considering military options. He telephoned Saudi Arabia's King Fahd to insist, against the evidence from his own intelligence agences, that Iraq was gearing up to invade Saudi Arabia. Bush went on national television that evening to tell the American public that King Fahd had asked for US troops to defend his country against a potential Iraqi incursion. Bush added that Iraq's invasion of Kuwait "will not stand." Colin Powell, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was not consulted; neither were many of Bush's highest officials in the State and Defense Departments. Many of them were shocked.

Bob Woodward later wrote, "Powell marveled at the distance Bush had traveled in three days. To Powell, it was almost as if the President had six-shooters in both hands and was blazing away." Phillips writes that politically, Bush's reversal made sense. "If George H.W. Bush was going to reverse from weak conciliation into high-profile, two-fisted confrontation, he needed a stage full of new scenery and evil, large-scale plotting. Having the Saudis fearfully ask for US troops to protect them against a rampaging Saddam Hussein was a start; so was likening the Iraqi leader to Hitler (a comparison requiring someone able to menace more than Kuwait).

"The Washington public relations firm of Hill & Knowlton, boasting former Bush chief of staff Craig Fuller as its chief operating officer, was hired -- for some $10.7 million, it would later develop -- to promise the rescue of Kuwait on behalf of a front group, the sheikhdom-funded 'Citizens for a Free Kuwait.' The result was one of the greatest travesties -- and critical political successes -- in the annals of media-age war making. In October 1990, a fifteen-year old Kuwaiti girl, named only as 'Nayirah,' testified before the Human Rights Caucus of the US House of Representatives that the Iraqi soldiers invading Kuwait tore hundreds of babies from hospital incubators and killed them. It turned out, after investigation by Amnesty International and others, that this was a lie. There were just a few incubators in Kuwait, and hardly any babies in them. Nayirah hadn't been to any hospital -- she was the daughter of Saud Nasir al-Sabah, Kuwait's ambassador to the United States and a relative of the ruling family." However, this information wasn't available as yet. Bush used Nayirah's testimony at every opportunity to inflame US sentiment against Iraq in general and Saddam Hussein in particular. Six times in one month, he referred to "312 premature babies at Kuwait City's maternity hospital who died after Iraqi soldiers stole their incubators and left the infants on the floor," and "babies pulled from incubators and scattered like firewood on the floor." Bush's use of Nayirah's testimony helped bring into line Senate Democrats still wanting to deal with Iraq through the use of sanctions. No one wanted to be seen as supporting baby-killers. Seven senators later said that they switched their votes to favor military intervention in Kuwait because of Nayirah's story; the resolution passed the Senate by six votes.

Geopolical professor Edward Luttwak slammed the Bush decision to target Iraq: "Happily leaving behind all serious concern for the economy, and even more happily content to see photographs of Saddam Hussein replacing those of Neil Bush on the front page, George Bush threw himself into crisis management on a full-time basis with boyish enthusiasm, barely turning aside to explain, most unconvincingly, the reason for it all." Political correspondent Elizabeth Drew wrote, "When he [Bush] personalized the issue as one between himself and Saddam Hussein, when he swaggered and did his Clint Eastwood routine, when he said that Hussein 'is going to get his ass kicked,' he gave credence to the idea that he was proving something." Phillips adds, "In retrospect, he was hiding at least as much." Phillips goes on to note that, even though the post-war letdown and mounting scandal investigations led to Bush's 1992 defeat, he "was only beaten in 1992 -- not shattered. He and his advisors believed that without special prosecutor Walsh's preelection Iran-Contra announcement, they might have overtaken Clinton in the last days. When the public stopped following Bush's scandals in late 1992 and turned its attention to Clinton's instead, the ex-president's ratings started climbing again. His credibility resurged, with most of the negative details fading from national memory. Saddam Hussein, for his part, was soon confirmed as a bipartisan bogeyman, whose convenience as a target also came to serve Bill Clinton. In any event, the defeated president had a new supporter warming up in the bullpen." -- Kevin Phillips