It was a hot August day in Washington, and President Bush was annoyed. Saddam Hussein and Iraq had just invaded Kuwait, something the CIA assured him would not happen. “Now what?” the President asked. “We said this was an Arab-Arab matter, but an invasion?”
Defense Secretary Cheney laid out the options, saying a force of about 150,000 could remove Saddam from Kuwait if the US wanted to use force. This would be best with UN approval. National Security Council chair Brent Skowcroft had sent his assistant, Robert Gates to talk to Colin Powell, head of the Joint Chiefs of staff. Powell, along with regional commander Norman Schwarzkopf, was skeptical of the US taking too big a role. Gates agreed.
“Maggie insists we not let this stand,” Bush said, referring to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. “We’re entering the post-Cold War era, what we do will determine the future. What if we show that we’ll have a new world order, one where force can’t determine outcomes, and the UN can act to assure international law? Wouldn’t that be a great legacy to leave going towards the 21st Century?”
Vice President Quayle nodded. “Makes sense,” he said. Cheney agreed, “we can do it.”
Skowcroft spoke up. “That’s a nice dream,” he said, “but here’s the reality. Saddam stands in the way of an expansive Iran. The Soviets are wounded but not dead – Gorbachev could be removed by a coup at any moment. Get rid of Saddam and what if the majority Shi’ites take over – they’d naturally ally with Iran making the strategic situation worse. We spent the last decade trying to assure Iran couldn’t expand. We don’t want to give them an Islamicist Shi’ite Iraq!”
“Tell me about the Shi’ites,” Bush said, trying to get the details straight. “We have to get this right.”
Cheney sighed. “60 to 65% of the population is Arab Shi’ites – the same sect as the Iranians, though Arab rather than Persian so they’ve also got natural divisions.”
“So Saddam’s base is only about 35-40%?” Bush asked. “What about the Kurds?”
“They’re Sunni, and are about 15% of the population. Saddam’s base is less than 30% – the Sunni Arabs,” Cheney continued. “Get rid of Saddam and there could be real sectarian violence and even an extremist revolt.”
Gates walked in, sitting down next to Skowcroft. “Powell thinks using US military force in the region is very dangerous; if we do, he wants us to build up a force of 500,000 in Saudi Arabia.”
Cheney whistled slightly, “That brings its own set of problems.”
CIA Director William Webster spoke up, “The Saudis have a problem with this millionaire’s son, Osama Bin Laden…”
Gates interrupted, “part of the Arab mujaheddin that fought the Soviets in Afghanistan. He was radicalized and now may be looking for an enemy.”
Webster looked at Gates cross eyed, “Excuse me,” he said, “Unless you want my job let me continue. Yes, and he’s telling the Saudis he can remove Saddam – and there’s a chance he could become a problem for us in the region. Moreover, with all due respect to the iron lady, she’s not likely to last the rest of the year in power, there’s a revolt brewing against her in her own party.”
Bush frowned. “I can’t buy this ‘new world order’ thing. This region is too tricky, what’s our best strategic move.”
Skowcroft nodded at Gates who spoke up. “We make a deal with Saddam. The Kuwaiti government is one of the most hated in the Arab world, it’s a small clique of people who can trace their lineage back to living there in the 1920s. They hire Arabs and Pakistanis at very low pay to do most of the work, they’re arrogant and obnoxious. Convince Saddam to leave Kuwait, but in favor of a democracy. Give him some of the northern oil fields as well – that’s where the slant drilling took place. Forgive Kuwaiti loans.”
Cheney leaned in, “So let him get away with it? Is that smart?”
Skowcroft continued, “War would be too risky – Iran would probably gain the most, and they’re the real regional threat. Powell agrees. This way we can turn up a PR campaign against the Kuwaiti royal family and bill this as progress – a new democracy. Saddam wants US support, he wants to replace Iran as our ally in the region to assure stability of the Persian Gulf oil supply. Let’s give him that.”
Bush sighed. “But the Saudis…”
“The Saudis will go along if we grant them assurances,” Cheney continued. “They’ve been allied with Saddam the last decade. We need someone to broker a deal, maybe the Vice President.”
Bush looked at Quayle. “No f-ing way,” he thought silently to himself.
Gates interjected. “Someone with experience, how about tapping Rumsfeld?”
Bush looked agitated, “that son of a bitch! He’d double cross me.”
“We can use him,” Skowcroft countered. “He’s wanting back in the game, he can show his usefulness. It’s in his interest to be loyal.”
They kept talking. The deal would be to tap Saddam as the new American ally, thus containing Iran. They’d work with Assad in Syria and the Saudi royal family to create stability. A new Kuwait would be dependent on the US and thus accept the concessions to Iraq. The Saudis would be encouraged to “deal with” Bin Laden. Saddam’s Iraq would quietly accept the existence of Israel and pressure the PLO to make a deal.
By January 1991 all was in place, and on January 16, 1991 the Iraqis signed a friendship treaty with the US, setting out the public terms of the deal, including the creation of a new Kuwaiti democracy. President Bush would visit Iraq in March, and be warmly greeted by a smiling Saddam Hussein who said, “together we will assure stability in the region.”
(Mubarak, Saddam and Arafat would represent a new stability in the Mideast)
On September 11, 2001, the PLO and Israel agreed to a final deal. President Bush, standing next to Saddam Hussein who helped broker the deal, thanked the Iraqi leader as well as former President Bill Clinton, whose work started the process leading to this agreement. The region was stable and at peace. The Saudis had ferreted out the Bin Laden organization, killing its leader. Saddam ruthlessly pursued Islamic extremists and would be terrorists, promising that modernization was the goal for the region.
Yet…when the 2011 Arab spring protests spread from Tunisia to Syria and Iraq, the US role in supporting brutal dictators like Saddam led to widespread distrust of the US, leading many to wonder “did we do the right thing in 1991? Should we instead have gone to war and not made a partnership with a tyrant like Saddam?”