Things Done Changed: America in the ‘90s

Chapter Six: The Mother of All Battles

Prince Turki al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia was vacationing in the United States in the summer of 1990, staying in Washington, D.C. One evening he decided to take in a movie. It was August, still time to catch one of the big summer blockbusters. Despite a few hit stand-alone features, it had unfortunately been the year of sub-par sequels and franchise extensions in Hollywood, with movies like Back to the Future III and The Godfather Part III both dimming the trilogies. Moviegoers were similarly disappointed in Predator 2, Robocop 2, Rocky V and Child’s Play 2. The latest Brat-Pack-out-west flick Young Guns 2 was buoyed by a smash hit by a now-solo Jon Bon Jovi, “Blaze of Glory,” but it too left some fans longing for the original.

Now, if one were in the mood for an instant-classic cinematic sequel in 1990, Gremlins 2: The New Batch was the best choice. It’s best to consider the first Gremlins as a prequel to Gremlins 2, a prelude to the masterpiece. In short, Gremlins 2 was about mutant terrorists taking over Donald Trump’s flagship building. (A thinner veil couldn’t be found for a detestable New York City real estate billionaire named Daniel Clamp.) And while the original movie had trained audiences to loathe and fear the dark spawn of the cuddly Gizmo, moviegoers couldn’t help but perversely pull for the little terrorists as they tore through Trump’s property.

But while Prince Turki was head of Saudi intelligence, he wasn’t intelligent enough to know that Gremlins 2 was the sequel of the summer, not Die Hard 2, Inexplicably, the prince chose Die Hard 2, the summer blockbuster starring Bruce Willis as Officer John McClane. But, as we’ll see, it could not have been a more fitting choice. In the Die Hard sequel, McClane is on vacation, just like our Saudi prince, and not just anywhere but in Washington, D.C., just like Turki. Officer McClane’s capital city holiday is interrupted when terrorists hijack a plane, and in a wild moment of life instantly imitating art, just as Prince Turki, head of Saudi intelligence, was settling in to a movie about a man whose vacation in Washington is interrupted by international events, his own vacation in Washington was interrupted by international events. Suddenly, in the dark of the theater, a man tapped the prince on the shoulder. Turki was whisked away to the White House. From there he went to CIA headquarters, where he spent the night. Saddam Hussein’s army had just invaded Kuwait, neighboring Saudi Arabia, and soon had hundreds of thousands of troops were massed within striking distance of Turki’s homeland. That’s how the Saudi prince’s American vacation ended on August 2, 1990.

America’s long war in Middle East began in August 1990, shortly after Prince Turki returned home with a seemingly unceasing deluge of US troops close behind. Most accounts of American war in the Middle East begin on or just after September 11, 2001, but any account that starts in 2001 is incomplete at best. The attack in 2001 is something that happened in the middle of a much longer war. Military historian Andrew Bacevich dates the beginning of what he calls the “American war for the greater Middle East” to 1979, but August 1990 is when boots-on-the-ground, active military action in the region began. It’s when Osama bin Laden, formerly in league with Washington, found himself in direct competition with his old benefactors in Washington. The United States moved troops into the Middle East in late 1990 and have not left since. There has been a state of unbroken, permanent war in Iraq for nearly 3 decades, and the first troops of that war landed in the summer of 1990.

Images like this one in (November 1990) of the US spreading into the deserts of the Middle East would become commonplace over the next three decades. Nearly 700,000 troops would eventually be under the command of General Norman Schwarzkopf once the buildup was complete.

Two meetings in Saudi Arabia, both within weeks of each in 1990, would significantly alter world history. The first was the hard sell from Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, who traveled to Jeddah in early August with Centcom commander General Norman Schwarzkopf to convince the Saudi royal government to allow US troops on Saudi soil, ostensibly to defend the kingdom from any further advance by Hussein’s forces. The Saudi royals were not at all unanimous in their willingness to allow US troops into the “land of the two holy mosques,” the global center of Islam said to be kept free of foreign, non-Muslim interlopers, according to some interpretations of the Prophet Muhammad’s dying words. Cheney had to persuade the Saudi government to permit a vast American military presence on the peninsula, promising that the Americans would leave after mission was over. (Uninterrupted American military presence persisted until 2003, when newly achieved bases in Iraq, following the invasion of that country, allowed for replacement footholds in the region.) The Saudi king acceded to the request and the Saudi sky quickly filled with hulking transport planes bringing the largest military buildup of its sort since WWII.

During the first days of the American troops’ arrival, a young Saudi war hero home from Afghanistan sought his own meeting with the Saudi royals. Osama bin Laden, having been a popular figure in the recently successful expulsion of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan, proposed his own Islamic guerrilla army to defend Saudi Arabia from Saddam’s forces. Bin Laden, a member of one of the wealthiest Saudi families, began what author Lawrence Wright calls “a frenzied round of lobbying” among the king and senior princes, warning them against the foreign, non-Muslim protectors and offering his own detailed proposal to mount an opposing force to Saddam. Bin Laden and his own tacticians met with Prince Sultan — who, as minister of defense, was the Saudi analog of Dick Cheney — in what Wright describes “a bizarre and grandiose replication” of the Cheney/Schwarzkopf meeting just weeks before. Like the American delegation, “Bin Laden brought his own maps of the region and presented a detailed plan of attack, with diagrams and charts, indicating trenches and sand traps along the border to be constructed with the Saudi Binladin Group’s extensive inventory of earth moving equipment.”

“I am ready to prepare one hundred thousand fighters with good combat capability within three months,” bin Laden assured the Prince. “You don’t need Americans. You don’t need any other non-Muslim troops. We will be enough.” As in a subsequent meeting with Prince Turki, it was explained to bin Laden that Saddam possessed one of the largest militaries in the world, all the more powerful after having honed its force against the Iranians. “We pushed the Soviets out of Afghanistan,” bin Laden would say, boasting of the mujahideen’s guerrilla tactics in the caves and mountains of Afghanistan against the Russians. The princes could barely suppress mockery at the idea of bin Laden’s men squaring off against Saddam’s thousands of tanks and bombers. Prince Turki was said to have laughed at bin Laden’s proposal. Bin Laden’s offer was “spurned,” in journalist Robert Fisk’s words, “with what fateful consequences we might only imagine.” According to Wright, “For the first time, [Turki] was alarmed by the ‘radical changes’ he saw in bin Laden’s personality” as Arab sovereignty and Muslim sanctity were, as he saw it, abused by the American behemoth.

Bin Laden’s mounting fury at the Americans joined with the Awakening movement in Saudi Arabia, spread in a network of cassette tapes of Islamic clerics and scholars also incensed at the US presence. The tapes were like an early social media, copied and re-copied and sent along social circuits throughout the kingdom and beyond — analog retweets on a scale of millions. “It is not the world against Iraq. It is the West against Islam,” listeners would hear on one popular Awakening tape by Safar al-Hawali, a scholar often cited by bin Laden. “If Iraq has occupied Kuwait, then America has occupied Saudi Arabia. The real enemy is not Iraq. It is the West,” al-Hawali charged.

“No matter what the outcome, the harm is done,” Ali Mahmoud, Associated Press bureau chief in Bahrain, told Robert Fisk in the first days of the Americans descending on the Saudi peninsula. The invitation of the Americans, Mahmoud warned, “will long be resented and will never be condoned. When this crisis is over, the worst is yet to come.” Fisk observed, “If King Fahd was ‘the custodian of the holy places,’ the 82nd Airborne was now the custodian of ‘the custodian of the holy places.’ To many Arabs, this sounded like blasphemy.”

The meetings in August and September of 1990 were the beginning of a violent geopolitical dynamic that would persist for another three decades, with the extremism of Sunni jihadists and American neoconservatives (or neocons) acting in tandem to twist the ratchet toward more and more destruction and war, what Daniel Denvir calls a “murderous dialectic.” The neocons were advocates of unilateral military action, even preemptive action, to extend American power and defend its interests. They were, more or less, imperialists of the traditional sort, and Dick Cheney in Saudi Arabia represented the neocons grabbing the imperial steering wheel just as the new post-Cold War latitude allowed for their aims to flourish. Osama bin Laden’s nascent al Qaeda was the other dark side of the new American imperial global reach, with each feeding the other, each expansion of aggression begetting an amplified response from the enemy.

In 1990, with the Soviet Union in collapse, the neocons in President Bush’s administration saw the way cleared to establish the United States as the globe’s only imperial power, the sole sovereign able to project its power and prerogative anywhere on earth. Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait provided the perfect venue to display America’s high-tech military power for the world to see. The United States still suffered from what was called the “Vietnam syndrome,” the imperial malaise in the wake of having lost to peasants in Southeast Asia. It’s worth noting that the ignominious American retreat from Vietnam in 1975 was more recent to Americans in 1990 than the 9/11 attacks are to Americans today. President Bush himself even explicitly referred to the war against Iraq in the context of the “Vietnam syndrome” and its cure. Very suddenly the globe’s lone superpower, the neocons in Bush’s White House saw the opportunity for Washington to reintroduce American military might. The US had to make an announcement of its power and its willingness to use it.

Once convinced by the hawks in his government (neocons Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Scooter Libby, Stephen Hadley, Condoleezza Rice, John Bolton, and Henry Kissinger protege Brent Scowcroft were all in Bush’s administration), Bush was very much committed to war, despite extensive efforts underway in the region to find a settlement. The president kept a diary, and entries from the early days after the Bush team turned toward war reveal that the peacemaking already underway in the Middle East was a threat to the Bush team’s vision. “I began to worry that the Saudis might be considering compromise,” Bush wrote. There was, he wrote, “a historical Arab propensity to try to work out ‘deals.’” Later, in November, Dick Cheney deployed a full media offensive, appearing on all four networks in a single day as part of an effort to head off a deal that the Saudis looked to be reaching with Iraq and Kuwait. A White House aide admitted, “We needed to dampen the talk of a peaceful settlement.”

Bush continued the push for war over the objections of Arab leaders. Even King Hussein of US ally Jordan implored Washington to let the matter be handled within the region by Arab partners. Giving an interview to Time magazine in early November for an American audience, King Hussein also joined the chorus of voices pointing out that the presence of invading US troops based in the “country that is the custodian of the holy places” might see the region “driven toward greater extremism.” More cautious members of Bush’s team, like Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, urged restraint and patience. But all signs from Bush’s team pointed toward war. Bush began deploying the telltale indicator of a war bearing, calling Saddam Hussein “Hitler revisited” and analogizing inaction to “appeasement” during Hitler’s early conquests.

During the fall and early winter, Bush sought congressional and international support for military action, achieving modest help from the British and the French and a window-dressing of support of Arab states to form a “coalition” that was almost entirely superficial to the conduct of what was an American war effort. The French foreign minister, privy to much of the coalition-building, also described the heedless propulsion toward war from Bush’s team: “The Americans were determined to go to war from the start.” The media, too, hungered for war. “One U.S. radio reporter warned his listeners in the first week of January that the Gulf crisis was ‘sliding’ towards a settlement,” writes Fisk, who describes how “peace fears loomed” when Arab-brokered deals appeared ready to bring resolution. It wasn’t just the neocons in the White House who wanted war now; it was a national clamor that was building for America’s debut as the world’s first unchecked imperial superpower.

Little did anyone know, perhaps except Cheney and his cadre of neocons, that the actions taken in those fateful first weeks would bring nearly three decades of unbroken war and terrorism. Richard Clarke, first appointed by President Reagan to the State Department and later by Bush, would later observe that “the rise of Al Qaeda in the 1990s, the [2001] US invasion of Afghanistan, the second US war with Iraq [2003], the rise of ISIS, all followed that August 1990 decision to deploy large US forces to the Gulf.” As Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou points out, Saddam Hussein’s bombastic promise that a US confrontation with Iraq would be the “mother of all battles” ended up being more accurate than he could have known, yet in a different way than the Iraqi president intended. The conflict birthed decades of war and hatred, an inferno from which we still see no escape.

Active war continued throughout the ’90s. The United States effectively occupied more than half of Iraq by maintaining a no-fly zone above the majority of the country, meaning that only US planes could fly and, moreover, those military aircraft could attack essentially at will, which they did. US Air Force Chief of Staff General Ronald Fogelman would say later in the decade: “What we have effectively done since 1992 is conduct an air occupation of a country.” Just shy of 250,000 sorties (or military air missions) were flown in total during the decade’s occupation of southern and northern Iraqi skies. Those attack aircraft fired on Iraq whenever the Pentagon desired it. Cruise missiles were intermittently fired into Iraq during the decade as well, with such attacks ordered by President Bill Clinton providing the very crucial continuation of policy from President Bush and making US policy vis-a-vis Iraq into bipartisan orthodoxy. In just 1999 and 2000, the last two years of the Clinton administration, more than 2000 bombs and missiles were used against Iraq in just the southern air occupation zone.

But the war, begun at the periphery of imperial reach, would eventually move back toward the interior, bringing elements of the war to the United States, much like an infection in an extremity coursing its way to the heart. New fissures and faultlines opened at the core of American power after germinating at its outposts. When the second decade of the war touched the American homeland, enemies, and potential enemies, could be made out of fellow citizens in the metropole itself. “The homeland is the battlefield,” is how powerful Republican senator Lindsey Graham would eventually describe the new terrain in 2013. Muslims, and even those suspected of being Muslim, were held in varying degrees of suspicion, suddenly sorted — by some, at least — into a different class of citizenship or national belonging. But far more broadly, those even seen as sympathizing with an imagined global Muslim enemy were seen by many as tainted by a supposed evil or treacherousness.

The metastasization would continue when, in 2008, a duly elected president would be widely believed to be a Muslim and therefore subject to various means of othering. Many conservatives took to calling the 44th American president “B. Hussein Obama” to stress his sharing that exceedingly common name with the late Iraqi president, intensifying the phenomenon of the already otherized black American with a new dimension of foreignness: one’s closeness to the contagion of Islam. President Obama’s successor would begin his path to power by deftly transposing the Obama-as-Muslim motif and becoming the nation’s foremost articulator of this new American reflex, publicly suspecting President Obama of being a foreign interloper to the office, a foreign threat in the very seat of imperial power. Nearly three decades after Washington drew new battle lines half a world away new lines separating new enemies only continue to trace their way back in.

Writer — bylines at Salon, Alternet, McSweeney’s, Flagpole Magazine