George H. W. Bush and the First Gulf War

Lawrence Freedman talks about Bush execution of the Gulf War, management of the war's aftermath, and handling of the Intifada.
  • Transcript


Lawrence Freedman: Well, I think- first, I think, you know, when one looks back, of all the presidencies I

looked at, it seemed to me this was the most coherent foreign policy team- they were sort of working together- they were more or less like-minded in what they were trying to achieve. It was probably the pinnacle of American prestige, and the reason, after the defeat of Iraq in the first Gulf War, after they’d occupied Kuwait and the United States pushed them out. There are a lot of flaws of the elder Bush Administration, but that achievement in itself, whatever one thinks now about not getting rid of Saddam Hussein at the time, when they had the chance, at the time, this was considered to be responsible and restrained and very statesman-like on Bush’s part. And it left him with enormous prestige. Now, I think he saw that this was the time to try to move forward the Arab/Israeli conflict, and with James Baker- they took a pretty tough line with Shamir, who had been Prime Minister, who was also Likudnik like Begin, but actually more hard-line in some ways even than Begin, and an extraordinarily- very stubborn man. And I think they out-maneuvered him to the point where he lost an election and Yitzhak Rabin came in. And I think the poignancy for the Bush Administration- that Bush Administration- was that they just got themselves to the point where they were able to build on some foreign policy achievements. When the election came and Bush removing James Baker from being Secretary of State, when he was really- made himself, you know, quite a considerable figure to run his campaign.

Remember, that momentum was lost and then of course Bush, being defeated, meant it was lost altogether. But I think you can see in ’91, ’92, real American political muscle in the region and the framework being set, the taking issues forward, into the coming- also, we should note the great advantage of the Soviet Union with just evaporating and withdrawing from the scene, so that the old bulwark of the radicals, which was support from Moscow, was suddenly nowhere to be found, and they felt incredibly vulnerable as a result of that.
Brett Dobbs: How do you think he handled the Intifada?

Question: How do you view George H.W. Bush’s handling of the Intifada?

I think- I mean, the Intifada was a moment of truth for Israeli politics in that they suddenly realized that they couldn’t- instead of having Arafat- who was sort of an old-style Nasserite radical, secular- people had remembered him, you know, with a gun in one hand, always walking around in battle fatigues and so on. And the terrorism of the Eighties- all of these associations of the Palestinians in the Eighties- I mean, pretty negative- they were associated with terrorism, with uncompromising attitudes towards Israel, as unyielding, and if the Israelis look tough in response, it was, well, you know, the Palestinians asked for it. Then all of a sudden you have, from within the territories, kids throwing stones, having demonstrations, and the Israelis really beating down on them, and causing enormous tensions within Israeli society itself.

The Israelis were having real doubts as to where they were going, or what they were doing, and could they sustain that, and so on. So, I think the first test was for Israel itself, and I think it was out of that- so someone like Rabin is a very good example- realized that they couldn’t go on like that. I think an American Administration- as was often the case, I think, with Bush- well, it started under Reagan- picked it up. I mean, they saw what was going on. But then of course the effects were to some extent countered because the Palestinians handled the Gulf War itself so badly- Arafat supported Saddam- became almost a sort of courtier of Saddam- based himself in Baghdad- and that lost the Palestinians not only ground with the Americans, but with the rest of the Arab world. And then you have the extraordinary exodus of Jews from the collapsing Soviet Union, which reinforced Israel on its demographics. So I think the effects of the Intifada were probably recognized more within Israel and had a shift in Israeli opinion, perhaps more than they did for the Americans, who got moved on and distracted to other things.

Recorded on 5/19/08