It suddenly occurred to me that the endless US interventions in the Middle East familiar to us today really date to August 1990, and have, since that month and the fateful decision made in it, followed on a path set down at that time. August 1990 was the month George H.W. Bush and his foreign policy people decided on the intervention against Iraq in its local war against Kuwait. In other words, there is a traceable ‘genealogy’ of US Middle East interventions that start with the August 1990.
This idea occurred to me suddenly while reading a book called The Back Channel, by William J. Burns, published in March 2019 and recently given to me by my friend Aaron S. The author, Burns, is one of the most significant US State Department figures of the 1990s–2010s whom you’ve never heard of. The chances are fair that he could be sworn in as Secretary of State in Jan. 2021, if a Democrat wins.
I’ve been reading the Burns book and making a lot of notes on the margins, a running commentary on what he’s saying, how he says it, whom he talks about and what he says about them, lines he attributes to people, and also what he does not say. It’s worth paying attention to Burns because of how close to action he was for so long. It’s also inevitable that memoirs are self-serving. He is a confirmed member of the insider-elite. I may have more to say about the book on these pages at a later date.
As I write, I am at page 200 of 423 pages of main text, and his narrative is on the year 2006. His descriptions of things in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s through 2005 are now done. The narrative straddles the years of the emergence my own entry into awareness/consciousness of ‘politics’ and world events and many years before it. In other words, some of what he’s writing about I do not remember at all, having not been born or been too young (1980s, early 1990s), some I remember as a child, and so could make little if any sense of at the time (1990s); and some I remember with an emerging, quasi-adult consciousness (early 2000s). This kind of book is great, then, because it’s a retrospective on my own life so far, as it relates to foreign policy and my observations of them, but it also extends the narrative back to a +15 years or so, guided by Burns’ expert (if self-serving…memoirist’s) hand.
I can see I am already getting carried away. I will just get to it:
One thing I took away from what he wrote, and this is my interpretation and not his, is that the cycle of endless interventions, the cycle of wars, bombings, sanctions, and sundry meddlings that are, for me, unnecessary at best, began suddenly in August 1990 with the decision to fight Iraq. Problems or forays into the Mideast that predate Aug. 1990 notwithstanding, there was no constant drumbeat to overturn this or that “regime” before that, or if one did hear such talk, it was prudently never really acted on. (One could argue on tangents on why this was, the USSR existed, for one thing). The drumbeat has been fairly consistently after that.
It strikes me that people of the future may even refer to the Mideast interventions of my lifetime as a single thing, a series of wars, just as the Thirty Years War was eventually so-named. It so happens that as of August 2020, this one will also be thirty years long.
Burns would, if presented with the proposition, probably disagree that it was August 1990 set the precedent for the endless Mideast wars of (at best) questionable US national interest. This is my own conclusion from his writing.
In the margins of this book I have been freely critical of Burns’ writing, jotting in a lot of asking questions he won’t ask. It’s understandable that he won’t ask, but the book would be a lot more interesting if he did. One question that arose and occurred to me to jot in, more than once: Was the intervention in August 1990, viewed from 2020, worth it? If one accepts that it rolled out the red carpet for the next thirty years of Mideast interventions, I would say definitely ‘No.’
I’ve noticed it is fashionable, as of the 2000s and 2010s, to say George H.W. Bush and his group did a great job with the “Gulf War,” so I cannot expect very many to heartily agree with me on this one. It is true, though, that opposition to the intervention against Iraq was substantial, with Congress split and much of the public against the war. (Not referenced by Burns but looked up by me while he was on the subject is this July 1991 Atlantic article, “Why the Gulf War was Not in the National Interest.” Reading through it, I find much to agree with.)
Somehow the idea of the Mideast interventions all being linked, as in a series of locked-in foreign policy commitments and through opening up what people sometimes call “political space” for such open-ended action and world-policing, had not really occurred to me in full form before. I am sure this is largely because I am too young to have any memory at all of the 1990–1991 Gulf War and so it was rather off my radar, and I accepted the conventional wisdom on “that one being different.” It was the glance behind the curtain via something in Burns’ book that got me thinking it wasn’t.
This reading of the history of the 1990s–2010s ignores the role of the Neocons, who developed into an organized, coherent, disciplined force, and a radical force, intellectually speaking, in the 1990s. I would not deny them their due. But they were simply turbocharging the slow march ongoing by the Aug. 1990 intervention decision; after the discrediting of the Neocons, not much even changed too fundamentally, because again the precedent had been set, and intervention is a pandora’s box too tempting and with too much vested interest to contain. As I write, we’ve had thirty years of versions of the same script playing out.
If my reading of the significance of August 1990 and the decision to go to war is right, Aug. 1990 should rank up with Aug. 1914 as a month of diplomatic failure in the West, worth studying as a lesson, though we are certainly still close to it for this to be too effective. That is to say, we’re still in it, and so passions run high and people tend to sort themselves in the blue-team-red-team machine to be informed of what their real opinions are on the latest intervention.