How We Squandered the Peace Dividend

May 06, 2011

Multiple Pages
How We Squandered the Peace Dividend

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.

“That’s not a peacetime dividend. That’s a huge wartime debt.”

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.


The blowback from American meddling in the Middle East came on September 11th, 2001, eight months into G. W. Bush and Dick Cheney’s neoconservative regime. The terror attacks provided Cheney and his operatives with a field day. There were now no limits to what Washington might attempt to do in the world.

Iraq is still smoldering from the unprovoked 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation. Washington has constructed a billion-dollar embassy in the middle of Baghdad’s Green Zone, but the Shiite government that Washington installed in Iraq wants American troops out of the country as soon as possible. It has been estimated that the price of war in Iraq will cost the US Treasury anywhere from eight hundred billion to three trillion dollars. That’s not a peacetime dividend. That’s a huge wartime debt.

Peace Prize Obama’s “right war” in Afghanistan (as distinguished from the Republicans’ “wrong war” in Iraq) is rapidly going from bad to worse. The fact that General Petraeus has been nominated to head the CIA tells you that Washington has thrown in the towel in Afghanistan. There is nothing Petraeus or anybody else can do there. The Pentagon has hit the wall in Afghanistan, like the Kremlin and the British Empire did before it. And the “dividend” will be another bill of at least four hundred billion dollars—drawn, as it always is, from the taxpayers’ account.

Libya is the next convenient target, either by default or as a kind of afterthought. As if there were not enough on Washington’s plate already, Obama’s national security team has allowed itself to be talked into joining Libya’s civil war. It looks as if Robert Gates tried to inform the White House’s masterminds that the US military was stretched to the limit. It did not matter. Obama and Hillary pushed through UN Security Council resolution 1973, which gave all interested parties enough cover to do whatever they wanted.

Muammar Gaddafi is a gangster just like Saddam Hussein was, but at least he is a gangster among his own people. He and his sons could be watched and curtailed, if need be, from over the horizon. Even more than G. W.‘s “shock and awe” invasion of Iraq, Obama’s air war in Libya is blatantly unconstitutional, unauthorized by Congress, and in general, just plain nuts on various levels.

All the above is the natural cumulative result of Washington’s flawed decisions in the Cold War’s aftermath. Why couldn’t DC have withdrawn from “foreign entanglements” and left Middle Eastern security to those in the Middle East? None of this activity is consistent with a peace dividend. Precisely the opposite—it’s a financial liability that will last generations.

How such blood-soaked destruction in Muslim lands benefits the average American is hard to fathom, especially when it comes to oil’s price on the world market and the gargantuan tax bill for such needless meddling.

The peace dividend that was promised back in 1989 has vanished and along with it, a golden age which might have been. Washington’s wrongheaded Middle Eastern interventions remain open-ended and largely unfunded. We have nothing to gain—and everything to lose—in places such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. On the surface, the incendiary policy that squandered the peace dividend may be considered shortsighted and benighted. Looking deeper, it could be a monstrous crime by insiders who know they will never be held accountable.


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