Kissinger's Gulf Wars

By Jonas, George | Queen's Quarterly, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Kissinger's Gulf Wars


Jonas, George, Queen's Quarterly


On the fifth anniversary of George W. Bush's invasion of Saddam Hussein's fiefdom, let me succumb to the temptation of offering a counterfactual version of history. Had Henry Kissinger been born in 1943 instead of 1923, he could have helped shape US foreign policy in the 1990s instead of the 1970s. What would have happened if he had done so?

SOME PEOPLE consider the German-born scholar and diplomat a reincarnation of Prince Klemens von Metternich, the father of the balance of power. Be that as it may, Kissinger certainly selected the 1815 Congress of Vienna for his doctoral dissertation. He is a declared champion of realpolitik. As Richard Nixon's gift to the world, Kissinger helped America extricate itself from Vietnam and achieve peace with honour, or (some say) perhaps without it. He then laid the groundwork for the matchmaking of the century: the Forbidden City brokering of a steamy liaison between Karl Marx and Adam Smith, eventually producing the robust if somewhat bizarre love child of present-day China.

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Question: had Kissinger been George Bush the Elder's foreign policy advisor in 1990, where would we be in 2008?

Specifically, had it been Kissinger's watch,

1) would America have stopped Iraq in 1990? If it had,

2) would it have broken off the campaign, leaving Saddam in power? Had it done so,

3) would it have invaded Iraq again 13 years later? If the answer is yes,

4) after defeating Iraq in a few weeks with almost no casualties and capturing Saddam before the end of 2003, would it have continued to sit in Baghdad's "Green Zone" year after year, incurring over 4,000 dead and 20,000 injured, for no military purpose, in order to build a Western-style democracy in Mesopotamia?

Before exploring this, a word on mixing muses. Counterfactuals entail inviting comic Thalia and epic Calliope to share a stage with historic Clio. Is this valid? Is it in good taste?

Well--counterfactuals have gone in and out of fashion. In recent years not only writers of historical fiction, but earnest scholars, who a generation ago would have considered such parlour games unseemly, have been toying with them. History, in addition to being the teacher of life, as it was in Cicero's day--historia est magistra vitae--is also becoming life's song and dance man. Some blame corporate capitalist greed for turning education into entertainment, while others point to the collapse of class and ethnic barriers around ivory towers leading to the toleration of fantasy, gossip, banter, and frivolity within the discipline. I say, never mind. We know from chaos theory that microscopic changes at the source can lead to cosmic changes downstream. "What-ifs" are legitimate questions-even though literal-minded Montessori graduates dismiss them, arguing that counterfactuals are meaningless, and if one's grandmother had had three black legs, she would have been a piano.

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So be it. Let's sit at the piano and play.

SAY what you will of Saddam Hussein, he was not stupid. Wicked, yes, stupid no. Even so, he failed to understand something about the West. Failing to understand it nearly cost him his fiefdom and his life in 1990. As he was incapable of learning his lesson, fifteen years later it cost him both.

What Saddam the "realist" never understood was that Westerners are not realists. They are idealists, at least up to a point. They are not guided solely or entirely by self-interest. Much as they need oil, they would not do anything for it. Henry Kissinger understood this. It used to frustrate the hell out of him; he tried to wean the West away from idealism, but as a realist he took it into account that he could not. Saddam simply did not get it.

Iraq's dictator was convinced America was not going to interfere with his invasion of Kuwait in the summer of 1990. That was why he reacted with a smile (noted in the transcript) when US ambassador April Glaspie said that "the Kuwait issue is not associated with America. …

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