Operation Desert Storm – The Gulf War
Looking back on it, the Gulf War – if America’s massive assault on Iraq with minimal resistance can really be called a “war” – seems like surreal theater. Few events have so keenly delineated the distance between reality and spectacle. Even more alarming, the war left little question which domain we inhabit. Other than the obvious – yes, Saddam Hussein did invade Kuwait and, yes, that was really, really bad – very little in the predominant government-media view of the situation intersected with anything verifiable.
The U.S. government’s actions leading up to, during, and after the war suggest that the inaugural battle of the New World Order was some kind of a manufactured crisis with a hidden agenda.
“The shallow, Nintendo view of the war on TV was false,” former Pentagon defense expert Pierre Sprey testified to Congress. “It was created by hand-picked videotapes and shamelessly doctored statistics.” “Surgical” air strikes? “About as surgical as operating on a cornea with machetes,” as one Washington Post columnist wrote just a month into the bombardment.
“Kuwait will once again be free,” predicted George Bush, announcing the start of bombing. “Long martial law hinted by Kuwait,” noted a New York Times headline as the war wound down.
George Bush said that Saddam Hussein was in some ways worse than Hitler. His point is arguable, but the fact is that the very same George Bush signed a National Security Directive in 1989 ordering closer ties with Iraq and clearing the way for $500 million in credits to Mr. “Worse-than-Hitler.” This is not surprising. Bush had spent nearly a decade in an administration weirdly enamored with Iraq, despite occasional public denunciations of Saddam Hussein’s police-state governance.
“Saddam’s military machine is partly a creation of the Western powers,” reported investigative journalist Murray Waas. Throughout Iraq’s eight-year way of attrition with Iran, the governments of France, Britain, and Germany sold the Iraqi strongman everything from fighter places and Exocet missiles to ingredients for brewing nerve gas. The United States – technically – maintained an embargo on arms sales to Iraq, but the Reagan administration let it be circumvented by encouraging third-party munitions sales as well as through direct sales of “dual use” technology: computers, even helicopters, which the Iraqis pledged to use only for “education” or “recreation.” Nudge, nudge, wink, wink. According to Waas, when Bush took office as president, Dual-use sales “shifted into a far more alarming area – the prerequisites of weapons of mass destruction.”
After the brief Gulf War, inquiries into these arms transactions erupted into a short-lived scandal dubbed Iraqgate. At the center of the storm was a seemingly insignificant Atlanta branch of a multinational Italian bank, Banca Nazionale del Lavoro (BNL), which somehow spirited $5 billion to Iraq over two years until raided by the FBI on August 4, 1989. Yet under the Bush administrations, the accused bank managers were not indicted for more than a year. And then, by some coincidence, the indictment was returned one day after Bush declared a cease fire in the Gulf War.
Officials of the tiny BNL branch were portrayed as “rogue operators” by government prosecutors who didn’t find it worth their time to ask how $5 billion (yes billion) could find its way from one bank to a “Worse-than-Hitler” dictator without the knowledge of government officials or at least the bank’s higher-ups in Italy.
The Reagan and Bush administrations shared not only money and materiel but also intelligence information with Saddam as Iraq battled the forces of the evil Ayatollah in Iran.
“In other words,” said former Reagan National Security Council staffer Howard Teicher, “we advised the Iraqis on how to prepare for war with the United States.”
Leading up to the invasion of Kuwait, the United States sent Saddam Hussein not only aid but also comfort. Just a week before the August 2, 1990, invasion, Saddam sat down with U.S. ambassador April Glaspie – the now-infamous “green light” meeting. Glaspie was unnervingly blasé given the impending crisis. She even made a point of noting that the United States had “no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait.” She also told Saddam that none other than Secretary of State James Baker had passed on word that “the issue was not associated with America.”
Saddam apparently took Glaspie’s remarks as carte blanche, and maybe they were intended that way. Hard to believe, given the administration’s later public position, but this laissez-faire attitude was wholly consistent with Bush administration policy. A few days after the Glaspie Hussein confab, and just three days before the invasion, John Kelly, the assistant secretary of state in charge of the Middle East, testified before Congress, where he was asked if in the event of an Iraqi military action, “Is it correct to say that we have no treaty, no commitment, which would oblige us to use American forces?”
“That’s exactly right,” Kelly replied. Another shining green light.
No one promised the United States would not use force. But if the Bush administration’s aim was to prevent war, it was picking an odd way to go about it. if anything, Bush and his buddies were egging the Iraqis on.
The Kuwaiti al-Sabah monarchy, which stood to suffer the most, also exhibited bizarre behavioral symptoms. In a preinvasion summit Iraq demanded $10 billion from Kuwait as compensation for singlehandedly fending off the forces of Islamic funamentalism for eight years by engaging Iran in a disastrous stalemate war. The demand was not altogether unreasonable, and, in fact, Kuwait agreed to pay. But the al-Sabahs offered only $9 billion – a deliberate slap in the face. Later, after other agreements were reached, Kuwait would alter their terms. At the time, Saddam’s troops were massing on the Kuwaiti border. Courage on the al-Sabah’s part? Not likely, since they were the first ones out of the country when the tanks rumbled south. They chilled out in a five-star Saudi hotel while Bush’s “coalition” fought their battle.
“If Saddam comes across the border, let him come,” said Kuwait’s foreign minister, Sheikh Sabbah, to Jordan’s King Hussein in the midst of the preinvasion non-negotiations. “The Americans will get him out.”
He had reason for confidence. When Iraqi troops ransacked the Kuwaiti Foreign Ministry they found a November 22, 1989, memo recording the results of a meeting between Kuwaiti officials and officials of the CIA.
“We agreed with the American side that it was important to take advantage of the deteriorating economic situation in Iraq in order to put pressure on that country’s government to delineate our common border. The Central Intelligence Agency gave us its view of appropriate means of pressure. . . . .”
The CIA denounced the document as bogus – but admitted that the meeting took place.
There was another interesting, if somewhat less sinister meeting – this one on April 12, 1990 – with five u/ senators powwowing with the “Butcher of Bagdhad.” Republican Alan Simpson sucked up to ol’ Butch, telling him that his problems “lie with the Western media and not with the U.S. government. . . . And it is a haughty and pampered press; they all consider themselves political geniuses.”
This sentiment was echoed later by Glaspie, who shared with Saddam her opinion that “if the American president had control of the media his job would be much easier.”
Ah, but during the Gulf War the American president did have control of the media. As did the military. Herding reporters into “press pools” proved effective – helped along by the journalists’ acquiescence.
“If you look at it from the outset, the press was reflecting the view of the government,” said Los Angeles Times Washington Bureau chief Jack Nelson, “and it never really changed.”
Robert Fisk, Middle East correspondent for the British Independent was one of the few reporters to ignore the pools. When he showed up at one scene where the pool reporters had clustered awaiting the official military handouts, he was met by an NBC reporter who greeted him by saying, “You asshole. You’ll prevent us from working. You’re not allowed here. Get out.”
The vituperative press pooler was Brad Willis, whose version of the incident, as recounted in Harper’s publisher, John MacArthur’s, book about the Gulf War press, included an extra detail. Fisk, Willis claimed, posed as a pool member and Willis, displaced by Fisk, was then bounced from the scene as a result. If Fisk’s gambit succeeded, not only Willis but the whole pool would have been deprived of coverage because the nature of pool reporting was not to compete for the best story but to share the military’s prescrubbed version of the story.
“It was a textbook example of the probably deliberate divide-and-conquer strategy of the U.S. military,” wrote MacArthur. “Fisk, of course, wanted an uncensored exclusive and would do whatever it took to get it; he didn’t want to share. Willis, playing by the Pentagon rules, was angry at the prospect of getting beaten by another reporter who was breaking the rules.”
Consequently, with Fisk one of the rare exception, war reporting took on a quasi-Orwellian demeanor. The press-promulgated paradigm of the conflict was Yellow Ribbonsville, U.S.A. versus Satanic Saddam. American reporters, almost to the one, referred to the U.S. military as “we,” obviating any remaining distinction between journalist and subject and casting time-honored “objectivity” to the desert winds. Iraqi Scud missiles became “terrorist weapons” and “horrifying machines of death,” while U.S. bombs were “smart.” When Newsweek put the Stealth bomber on its cover it asked, “How many lives can it save?”
“That was the spin,” marvel media critics Martin Lee and Norman Solomon in their book, Unreliable Sources. “American weapons don’t destroy lives; they save them!” After all, dead Iraqis did not count as “casualties.” They were merely “collateral damage,” which in Time magazine’s definition meant “dead or wounded civilians who should have picked a safer neighborhood.”
“Denial was the key to the psychological and political structures supporting the war,” Lee and Solomon wrote.
As for the war’s motives, the interests of Western-based multinational oil companies and perhaps more important, the Western banks where Kuwaiti and Saudi oil Sheiks stowed their profits were treated with silence.
While Bush administration propaganda was treated as fact, the U.S. media was quick to denounce Iraqi “propaganda,” even when it wasn’t propaganda – as in the infamous case of the Baby Milk Bombing. A week into the war, CNN’s Peter Arnett, the only Western reporter in Bagdhad, drew global condemnation for reporting that an allied bombing raid had destroyed Iraq’s only infant-formula factory, leaving the nation’s newborns hungry.
The U.S. military pooh-poohed the Iraqi claim. “It was a biological weapons facility, of that we are sure,” said Joint Chiefs chairman Colin Powell. But the French contractors who built the plant and the New Zealand dairy technicians who visited it regularly swore it was exactly what the Iraqis said it was.
The Macneil/Lehrer News Hour showed a short clip of wounded Iraqi civilians – with the commentary that the scenes were subject to “heavy-handed manipulation” by the Iraqi government. As Lee and Solomon point out, the barely subliminal message was that anyone concerned about Iraqi suffering was a Saddam Hussein dupe.
Late in 1991, former Bob Woodward collaborator Scott Armstrong reported another unstated motivation for the war – though his story in the left-wing Mother Jones magazine met with major media indifference. Armstrong wrote that the previous decade, and at an astronomical cost of $200 billion, the United States and Saudi Arabia had assembled a massive infrastructure of “superbases” in the desert. This was all done without public, or even congressional knowledge. The war protected those bases, and the bases were instrumental in fighting the war.
Bush’s star burned bright in the Gulf War glow, but somehow he managed to fritter away his political capital and lose his reelection attempt. But even in defeat, Bush, or at least his kids and pals, got a boon from the Gulf War. According to reporter Seymour Hersh, Neil and Marvin Bush; family friend and Bush’s secretary of state, James Baker; and once high-flying chief of staff John Sununu (among others) have all worked hard to strike war-spoils deals with the Kuwaiti government.
Baker represented Enron, America’s biggest builder of natural gas pipelines. The Enron exec who dispatched Baker to Kuwait wondered aloud to Hersh: “Is there any reason American companies shouldn’t profit from the war in Kuwait?”
American politicians continue to profit. Bush’s successor, Bill Clinton, enjoyed a healthy boost in his then-pallid polls when on June 26, 1993 – two and a half years after the Gulf War ended – he ordered another bombing raid on Bagdhad.
Why? The given rationale was that the Iraqis had attempted to assassinate Bush when the ex-president had visited Kuwait a few months earlier. Kuwait arrested seventeen supposed low-level conspirators in the plot, but as Hersh reported, “The American government’s case against Iraq – as it has been outlined in public, anyway – is seriously flawed.”
The dread Iraqi terrorists hand-picked for the Bush job included a coffee shop owner and a male nurse – the latter was the only source of information about the supposed plot. Most of the aspiring assassins were whiskey smugglers. The Kuwaitis have been known to exaggerate, especially about Iraqi violations of the sovereignty. When a group of Iraqi fishermen unwisely landed on the Kuwaiti island of Bubiyan, the Kuwaiti press release said that an Iraqi naval force had attempted to invade the island only to be defeated by crack Kuwaiti troops.
None of the male nurse’s evidence has proved conclusive, or even close. The most solid bit of evidence is the “signature” of an electronic remote control detonator found in the bomb allegedly sent to blow up Bush. But Hersh reports that the piece was a common scrap of circuit board whose signature was anything but dsitinctive.
It is doubtful whether the “real” reason why the United States went to war in the Persian Gulf will ever emerge – and even more doubtful whether there was a single, identifiable motive. Unlike in Vietnam, where the ambiguous outcome elicited natural suspicions, in the Gulf the decisiveness of victory has buried the reality deeper than any Iraqi or American soldier who went to a sandy grave.