The Bush legacy in the Gulf

The course George HW Bush set for US-Gulf relations after the Cold War is now being gradually abandoned.

Gulf war 1 - Bush AP
In this November 22, 1990 file photo, President George HW Bush poses with US soldiers during a stop at an airbase in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia [File:Scott Applewhite/AP]

Last Saturday, as world leaders and the international media reacted to news that George HW Bush had passed away, three landmark towers in Kuwait City were lit up with the portrait of the former US president and the US and Kuwait flags.

This was one of many tributes to a man Kuwaitis credit with liberating their country from Iraqi occupation in the early 1990s. 

Bush was halfway through his one-term presidency when Saddam Hussein sent 100,000 Iraqi troops and 700 tanks into Kuwait in August 1990. Until then, the Middle East had not been a major focus of his administration, which was preoccupied with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, the re-unification of Germany and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. 

That all changed with the Iraqi invasion of its much smaller and wealthier neighbour.

Bush later recalled that the first 48 hours after Iraqi troops crossed the Kuwaiti border were the “most hectic” of his presidency up to that point. 

Over the next seven months, until the Iraqi surrender in late February 1991, the crisis was the top foreign policy priority of the Bush White House.

This had as much to do with the nature, location and timing of the crisis as it did with restoring Kuwaiti sovereignty or “facing down a threat to decency and humanity”, as Bush framed it in his January 1991 State of the Union address.


It was, for example, the first time since Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev agreed to end the Cold War in December 1989 that a regional player had tried to swallow a small actor lacking military power.

This challenge to the evolving post-Cold War balance of power was all the more intolerable because it took place in a region that was home to 65 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves and 45 percent of its net oil exports.

Kuwait’s oil-rich neighbours, in particular Saudi Arabia, were terrified that Saddam would turn on them next. “He who eats Kuwait for breakfast is likely to ask for something else for lunch,” the influential Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, is said to have warned.

The crisis also occurred at a time when an anxious world was still struggling to work out what the post-Cold War international order would look like and what role the US, as the only remaining superpower, would play in it.

Many speculated that in the absence of the Soviet threat, US leaders would lack the political will or the domestic support to continue to play a lead role in international affairs. 

Some even argued that the US would now be eclipsed on the global stage by non-military powers like Japan, the European Union or even the United Nations. 

In reality, the ease with which the US built a global anti-Saddam coalition and defeated his army in Kuwait put paid to such speculation.

At home, this helped Washington overcome the “Vietnam Syndrome” that had influenced public and elite opinion on military engagement overseas since the withdrawal from Southeast Asia in the early 1970s.

Abroad, it provided the opportunity to showcase to the world just how dominant US diplomatic and hard-power capabilities would be in Bush’s evolving “new world order”. 

It also sent an important message to would-be allies that the US would come to their assistance when needed and would honour its obligations as the dominant global player to promote and protect their interests, as well as their security.

In the post-war Gulf, this new US commitment was conceived primarily in military terms and expressed itself in new defence treaties with local partners and the stockpiling of enough military hardware and pre-positioned heavy equipment in the region to fight, or at least start, a war at a short notice.

A common joke of the time was that the US was settling into the region so well it should join the Arab League. 

Bush’s intervention in Kuwait failed to secure him a second term in the White House. He also faced criticism from various sides.

Some refused to accept the legitimacy of his “war for oil” as the peace movement of the day termed it or saw his intervention in Iraq as a classic case of neo-colonial aggression that would define the post-Cold War era. 

Others accused him of being too cautious for refusing to go into Iraq and overthrow Saddam or for failing to provide support for anti-Saddam forces in Iraq who rose up in response to events in Kuwait. 

He also faced criticism for being too beholden to the interests of Saudi royals, an accusation that would become even more pronounced during his son’s presidency in the post-9/11 era and is very evident now in the Trump administration’s handling of the Khashoggi affair

During his two terms as president, Bill Clinton followed the Bush approach in the Gulf of pursuing US interests and those of local allies by using the threat of overwhelming force to keep Iran and Iraq in check.

In the decade and a half since the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, Bush’s successors in the White House, beginning with his own son, have all found it far more difficult to reach agreement with local Gulf partners on what the US security role should be than he did following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the successful resolution of the Kuwait crisis.

In part this is due to the changing nature of threats in an age when strong insurgencies, transnational non-state violent actors, popular revolt and intra-state clashes like the one that resulted in the June 2017 blockade of Qatar have all come to the fore.

But it is also a consequence of the erosion, during the presidencies of George W Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, of three of the defining hallmarks of George H W Bush’s international engagement and leadership: caution, reliability and predictability in using the massive hard and soft-power capabilities of the country to promote its interests and those of local allies.

This was Bush Senior’s foreign policy legacy to the world and it was introduced in response to the Kuwait crisis. 

Its erosion since then has led to rising scepticism over the effectiveness and legitimacy of US foreign policy choices. It has also been an important factor in the shrinking power gap between the US and its main international competitors.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.