President George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st president of the United States, passed away Friday, 30 November. With his death, a historic era — not only for the world, but also for the Middle East — comes to an end.
Few American presidents came to the White House with deep knowledge and wide experience in foreign affairs as President Bush enjoyed.
From being the permanent representative of the United States to the United Nations in New York in the early 1970s, to being director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), to being a diplomatic representative to China under Mao Zedong and finally vice-president to Ronald Reagan from 1981 to 1989.
He was elected the 41st president of the United States after defeating the Democratic challenger Michael Dukakis in the same year the Berlin Wall came down, bringing with it the promise of a “New World Order”, an order President Bush himself, in a book co-authored with National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, characterised as “A World Transformed”.
One year later, the Soviet Union disappeared and many governments and people around the world went along with Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” prediction. Communism was defeated both in practice and in theory, paving the way for the universal adoption of capitalism and Western-style democracy.
In the Middle East, the state of affairs back then was not that rosy nor certain. The region had just seen the end of the eight-year war between the Iraq of Saddam Hussein and Khomeini’s Iran, with Iraq victorious, and all those powers that had supported Iraq in its war against Tehran hailing this victory as their own against revolutionary Iran under the ayatollahs.
As far as peace between the Arabs and the Palestinians, on the one hand, and the Israelis on the other was concerned, the only tangible move forward on the ground, then, was the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty of March 1979.
With the ceasefire between the Iraqis and the Iranians oil prices fell below 10 dollars a barrel, a price the Iraqis saw as a conspiracy by the West and the Gulf-oil producing countries, in particular, Kuwait, to which Iraq owed $60 billion dollars.
Seemingly, the Kuwait government was not willing either to curtail its oil production, nor to reschedule Iraqi debt. So, on 2 August 1990, Iraqi forces crossed the borders into Kuwait and Iraq announced immediately after the annexation of what it called the 19th Iraqi governorate.
The invasion of Kuwait was a major strategic miscalculation on the part of Saddam Hussein who, a few months earlier in March 1990, had threatened to use chemical weapons against Israel.
The threat caused an international uproar, in particular in the United States, that took it very seriously. To try to calm the situation in the Middle East, former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who was on good speaking terms with Saddam Hussein at that time (Egypt and Iraq were members in what was called the Arab Cooperation Council with Jordan and Yemen), stepped in and mediated between the United States under president Bush and Iraq.
Former Senator Bob Dole, in his capacity as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, came to Cairo to meet with president Mubarak who had successfully arranged a meeting for Dole with the Iraqi president in Baghdad the same month.
The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait with the threat of using chemical weapons against Israel posed a serious challenge to American interests in the Middle East and to American leadership of the New World Order that was emerging after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
From 2 August till the convening of the emergency Arab Summit in Cairo on 9 August, Egypt and other Arab powers had called on the late Iraqi president to withdraw from Kuwait, but to no avail.
Egypt in these seven days worked for what was characterised as an Arab solution; that is to say, returning the status quo ante peacefully and without resort to force, unaware that other plans had been drawn up.
A US-led coalition, with Egypt and other Arab countries participating, including Syria under Hafez Al-Assad, liberated Kuwait on 25 February 1991, on the same day of the anniversary of independence for Kuwait.
During military operations to liberate Kuwait, the Bush administration asked Israel not to retaliate against Iraqi missiles that had targeted Israel, for fear that Israeli participation, albeit indirect, would lead to the withdrawal of some Arab armies, especially the Egyptian and the Syrian forces, from the Desert Storm coalition.
With the liberation of Kuwait, the Bush administration concluded that peace between the Arabs and the Israelis had become a strategic priority from the perspective of the United States’ strategy in the Middle East. This was the genesis of the Madrid Peace Conference on 29 October 1991.
The Bush administration worked tirelessly to bring the Israelis to the negotiating table. Then-prime minister of Israel Yitzak Shamir balked at participating in the proposed conference, but the threat of James Baker, US secretary of state at the time, to withhold loan guarantees to Israel that amounted to billions of dollars obliged the Israeli government to agree to go to Madrid.
The conference, ironically, proved to be transformative in the history of the Middle East. Ironically, because it put the Arabs and the Israelis on the road of gradual normalisation of relations without ever delivering peace, be it between Arab countries and Israel, or between the latter and the Palestinians, till this day.
In October 1994, Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel and the idea of regional cooperation between the Arabs and the Israelis took root in the minds of policymakers.
Three Middle East and North African summits (known as the MENA conferences) from 1994 to 1996 followed. And to drive the point home, former Israeli prime minister Shimon Perez wrote a book in 1994 about a triangular regional cooperation in the Middle East that was supposed to rest on Gulf money, Arab labour and so-called Israeli superiority in technological and managerial skills.
Despite the years that separate us from the Madrid Conference, and in the absence of a lasting peace in the Middle East, the legacy of the administration of president George Herbert Walker Bush still guides developments in the region.
In conclusion, and on a more personal note, I believe the 41st president of the United States was a man of great character and integrity. He was a true statesman the like of whom are very difficult to come by in today’s world.
May he rest in peace.
* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 December, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Two worlds transformed