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United States Foreign Policy in the Middle East after the Cold War

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This is an excerpt from Conflict and Diplomacy in the Middle East: External Actors and Regional Rivalries. Get your free copy here.

On 2 August 1990, the people of Kuwait City awoke at 5am to the sound of Iraqi tanks rolling down their streets. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein intended to annex the small Sheikhdom of Kuwait, Iraq’s “19th province,” and tap its massive oil reserves. The invasion did not come entirely out of nowhere. Iraqi troops were massed at the border as the result of an oil dispute with its tiny neighbor, and the United States tried to persuade Iraq to solve its problems with Kuwait peacefully. This action was the first time one sovereign state had invaded and annexed another since Indonesia annexed East Timor in 1975; and it was the first major challenge to world order since the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall. This chapter examines key events in US foreign policy in the Middle East from Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iraq in 1990 to Donald Trump’s announcement of US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018. It shows how America’s strong position at the end of the Cold War and the end of Operation Desert Storm in 1991 led to a period of American hyper-involvement in Middle Eastern politics that ultimately weakened its regional standing.

The Persian Gulf War

The global reaction to Saddam Hussein’s invasion and annexation of Kuwait was virtually universally negative. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) issued Resolution 660, demanding that “Iraq withdraw immediately and unconditionally all its forces to the positions in which they were located on 1 August 1990.” Saddam Hussein’s blatant act of aggression and territorial aggrandizement put an end to decades of stalemate in the Security Council when the USSR and the US voted together on UNSCR 660.

It was not immediately obvious how the United States would react to Saddam’s aggression; and it was by no means certain that the US had any interest in fighting a war to restore Kuwait’s sovereignty. Congress was divided. The Senate approved the use of force against Iraq by a vote of just 52–47, significantly closer than the 77–23 approval of the 2003 Iraq War. President George H.W. Bush saw an opportunity to establish a “new world order” in which territorial aggrandizement was a product of the past, and adherence to global norms was the wave of the future. He supported a war and it was his decision to make.

Bush wanted a grand coalition operating with UN approval, not a purely American intervention. UNSCR 678 passed on 29 November 1990. It gave Saddam Hussein “one final opportunity” to withdraw from Kuwait. If he did not, the resolution, “Authorize[d] Member States… to use all necessary means” to compel him. “Operation Desert Storm” began on 17 January 1991. Nearly every country in the world joined the coalition – Yemen backed Iraq and Jordan remained neutral. Americans fought alongside 31 diverse countries’ armed forces. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Japan, South Korea, and Germany were the major funders of the war effort. In the end, the US Congress’s General Accountability Office found that Desert Shield and Desert Storm were, “fully financed from allied contributions without using US taxpayer funds” (Conahan 1991, 12). The Warsaw Pact did not provide support, but it did not interfere. The zero-sum world had ended, and the Warsaw Pact dissolved itself on 1 July 1991.

Desert Storm ended on 28 February 1991. Saddam Hussein was still president on 1 March. President Bush and Brent Scowcroft, Bush’s national security advisor, said of the decision not to remove Saddam Hussein from power, “Trying to eliminate Saddam, extending the ground war into an occupation of Iraq, would have violated our guideline about not changing objectives in midstream… and would have incurred incalculable human and political costs…. We would have been forced to occupy Baghdad and, in effect, rule Iraq…. Had we gone the invasion route, the US could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land” (“Bush on Iraq” 1998, par. 3). The world would later learn just how accurate that assessment was.

The defeat of Saddam Hussein is often described as the peak of American power and global influence. One headline called it, “the pinnacle of American military supremacy” (Blair 2016). It resulted in the establishment of new American bases in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia (bases that were soon used to establish “no fly” zones to protect Iraq’s Kurdish and Shia populations), and record personal popularity for President Bush. Bush decided to use the high standing of the United States, and his personal popularity, to bring an end to the Israeli/Arab conflict.

Israel and the Peace Process

United States support for Israel has been a consistent feature of US foreign policy in the Middle East for more than 40 years. The US/Israel relationship is often portrayed as unwavering, but there are periods of tension and stark disagreements.

In Desert Storm, President Bush asked Israeli President Yitzhak Shamir not to retaliate in the event of an Iraqi attack. It was more than just a polite request. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney refused Israel’s request for the “friend/foe” codes that would allow its fighters to identity enemy aircraft. This made it effectively impossible for Israeli fighters to engage Iraqi targets without risking the accidental downing of a friendly plane. In recompense, the US deployed its Patriot missile defense system to protect Israeli cities from Saddam Hussein’s Scud missile attacks. The missile impacts caused two deaths and injured over 1,000 (Haberman 1995, par. 7). Despite early reports heralding the Patriots’ success, a 1991 Israeli Air Force report concluded, “there is no evidence of even a single successful intercept” (Weiner 1993, par. 5). Nevertheless, American pressure kept Israel out of the conflict.

Secretary of State James Baker arranged a conference in Madrid on 30 October – 4 November 1991. The participants were the US, USSR, Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and representatives of the Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza. This was the first time that these parties sat together, and one of the last times that the USSR sat with anybody. The Soviet Union formally dissolved on 26 December 1991.

The Madrid Conference did not itself yield any significant achievements, but led to the mutual recognition between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which was not present in Madrid. It also set in motion secret talks between Israel and the PLO in Oslo, Norway. These talks led to framework agreements on Israeli–Palestinian peace – Oslo 1 and Oslo 2 (the “Oslo Accords”). But the George H.W. Bush Administration would not be a part of further negotiations. Bill Clinton defeated Bush in the 1992 election and made Israeli–Palestinian peace a presidential priority.

Nine months after Clinton’s inauguration, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shook hands with Clinton and with each other on the White House lawn. The Oslo Accords had been negotiated largely without American help, but Oslo was a “process” and the two parties were just at the start. The premise of the Oslo Process was the “two-state solution” as the basis for a final Israeli–Palestinian peace agreement. Arafat returned from his Tunisian exile to the West Bank to assume control of the new “Palestinian Authority” (PA).

The Oslo Accords did not discuss four major issues, which were deemed “final status issues” to be resolved at an indeterminate later date. These issues were: the status of Jerusalem; final borders; the fate of Israeli settlements; and the fate of Palestinian refugees. President Clinton played an active role in the negotiations between Israel and the PA, but the hopes expressed that day on the White House lawn did not last long. Rabin’s assassination by a Jewish extremist on 4 November 1995 and a wave of suicide bombings by the Hamas terrorist group were just two factors that caused the “peace process” to stall.

Clinton brought Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to Camp David for two weeks in Summer 2000. The two sides came closer than ever before to reaching an agreement. After Camp David, President Clinton developed his own peace proposal. The day after George W. Bush’s inauguration the two sides met again in Taba, Egypt in an attempt to reach a final agreement based on Clinton’s proposal. However, the negotiations at Taba were cut short by Israel’s election of Ariel Sharon as its new prime minister. He had a different view of the peace process, and the same four issues remain between them today.

Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda

The Israeli/Palestinian peace process was just one of many major events that followed Desert Storm. The Saudi royal family may have been grateful to America for protecting the Kingdom, but not everyone was happy about a permanent American presence so close to Mecca and Medina. It was a particular affront to Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden fought in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union, and there he met a man named Abdullah Azzam. Together they founded al-Qaeda, “The Base,” in 1988. Al-Qaeda was quickly linked to a series of terrorist acts against the US including a 26 February 1993 attack on the World Trade Center and the 25 June 1996 attack on the US military installation in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.

US intelligence agencies were keenly aware of bin Laden and attuned to the danger he presented, but he was not yet a household name. Bin Laden made international news on 7 August 1998 when al-Qaeda suicide terrorists blew........

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