When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and effectively ended the Cold War, there was tremendous relief and a sense of hope for the future. One writer even boldly declared that it marked “The End of History” and, as a natural result, the end of war.
Since global communism—perceived as the main, if not sole, threat to global peace—had been vanquished, President George H. W. Bush promised that Americans would soon enjoy a “peace dividend.” Taxpayers commonly understood this to mean that military spending would be downgraded and the billions that had been siphoned from them to fight communism would be shunted back into their pockets.
But the promised peace dividend never came. With communism defeated, Arabs and Islam were presented as the new threat for the world’s lone surviving superpower. In response to this “threat” that didn’t seem to exist until the Soviet Union fell, the US is now spending more on defense than it was during the Cold War. By 2004 the US defense budget was almost twice that of the next 15 military powers combined. More than twenty years after Bush promised a peace dividend, Washington is still stretched all over the greater Middle East, which is ablaze.
Country by country, here’s what went wrong:
Kuwait was an artificial entity created by the British. Since gaining independence in 1932, every government in Baghdad had claimed Kuwait to be an Iraqi province. After being Washington’s ally for nearly ten years during Iraq’s ruinous war on Iran’s western border, Saddam Hussein was looking for a “peace dividend” of his own after that war ended in a stalemate. He had a legitimate quarrel with Kuwait over oil. Acting as a presumptive US ally, Saddam consulted Washington about it. Washington’s seasoned ambassador to Baghdad, Ms. April Glaspie, appeared to indicate in face-to-face conversations that the matter did not concern Washington.
No matter. President George H. W. Bush and James Baker III decided in their ultimate wisdom that Washington had to jump in and prevent annexation. Desert Storm commenced with an aerial bombardment in January 1991 and then a ground assault in February. Ironically, Desert Storm turned Osama bin Laden into an Islamic-world hero. Prior to that, he had been America’s de facto ally. He had led a considerable contingent of Muslim volunteers in the 1980s when they fought against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
In Desert Storm’s aftermath, Washington quarantined Iraq as part of an effort to oust Saddam from power. Murderous and draconian economic sanctions were imposed. There was malnutrition and the degradation of Iraq’s civilian infrastructure, especially water-purification plants. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children died. Lesley Stahl confronted Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in a famous 60 Minutes interview about the policy. Albright stated in a moment of unguarded candor that the sanctions were “worth it,” even if the overall situation was difficult to understand.
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