The death of former United States president George H.W. Bush at the age of 94 has pushed pundits, here in the Arab world and elsewhere, to contemplate the legacy of a leader who oversaw momentous global events, most of which continue to shape our world today. The 41st US president’s legacy is not as controversial as that of his son, George W. Bush, whose decisions to invade and occupy Afghanistan and Iraq in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks continue to dog US leaders and generals until today. In contrast, Bush Sr was a more subtle leader with deep understanding of global affairs and America’s long-term interests in a changing world.
It is not surprising that Bush Sr was praised by many Arab leaders as a man who stood up to tyranny and took the historic decision, backed by a United Nations mandate, to build the largest post-Second World War military coalition to evict Saddam Hussain’s forces from Kuwait in 1990. Saddam’s outrageous invasion of Kuwait would not be tolerated and the Iraqi strongman had failed to comprehend the repercussions of the waning power of the Soviet Union, which would collapse a year later.
But even as US troops and their partners were able to crush the Iraqi army in 100 days, killing more than 20,000, Bush was careful not to cross into Iraq to oust the Iraqi leader. In his view, that would have turned Saddam into a martyr and upset the moral support that Washington had received from its Arab allies. Just over a decade later, his son would commit what would in hindsight be considered as the most irresponsible foreign policy blunder by invading Iraq, under false pretexts, and toppling Saddam and his regime. The cataclysmic outcome of that move would trigger a series of geopolitical tremors whose reverberations are being felt even today.
Not that Bush Sr was compassionate towards the Iraqi people. He imposed strict economic sanctions against Iraq that continued long after he left the White House. These sanctions were so brutal that they claimed the lives of more than a million Iraqis, including children. His administration’s urging of Iraqi Shiites to rebel following Saddam’s defeat in Kuwait may have lit the first spark in what would later turn into a bloody sectarian showdown. And his imposition of a no-fly zone over Iraqi Kurdistan gave Kurdish leaders a much-needed boost to revive their separatist ambitions.
But the Iraq episode laid the groundwork for a new chapter in US-Arab relations. The presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia, from where operation Desert Storm was launched, provoked extremists who would later rally around a young and ideologically driven terrorist called Osama Bin Laden. The fact that many Arab countries, including Syria and Egypt, had joined Bush’s coalition of the willing paved the way for one of his most daring regional initiatives: The Madrid peace conference of 1991. This was the most important international and regional venue to be held on the Arab-Israeli conflict since the Geneva peace talks of 1973. The Madrid process failed to bring about a comprehensive peace agreement, but it provided a cover for Israel and the Palestinians to hold direct secret talks in Oslo, which later culminated in the signing of the Washington Accords in 1993.
In contrast to the policy of the administration of US President Donald Trump today, Bush Sr had challenged the Likud-led Israeli government on colony expansion in 1991 by refusing to approve a $10 billion (Dh36.78 billion) loan guarantees. The 41st president stood alone as Congress and Israeli lobbyists tried to put pressure on him. In the end, the president would have his way. But many believe that his confrontation with Israel backers, while supported by the public, had contributed to his failure to win a second term in office.
Despite his popularity following the liberation of Kuwait, Bush Sr had failed to understand that the economy came first for voters.
Madrid peace conference
His breakthroughs were in the realm of foreign affairs; the liberation of Kuwait, ending the arms race, support for the reunification of Germany, convening the Madrid peace conference. For the region, the Gulf War reshaped America’s role and relationships and certainly gave way to important new players who would now play a major role in the history of the region. Those include Al Qaida and the ideology of confrontation with the West, while seeking to set up an Islamist ‘Caliphate’ that it espoused. We can trace the roots of political Islam’s resurgence; eventually leading to the birth of nihilist groups such as Daesh, back to the events of the early 1990s.
Sectarian tensions that would eventually rip up the region had their first signs back in the early 1990s. The invasion of Iraq in 2003, as the younger Bush sought to conclude what he believed was an unfinished business with Saddam, would allow Iran to implement a sinister regional agenda.
The legacy of Bush Sr will be seen through different prisms here in the Arab world. But these different perspectives also underline the fact that when it comes to recent history, both leaders and subjects continue to struggle as they attempt to comprehend past lessons and agree on a common vision for the future.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.