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Twenty Years of Dick's Tricks Got Us Here

Enemy-Maker, Arms Dealer, User of Controversial Weapons Cheney had a curious knack for finding foes when his defense budgets were under the gun

For better or worse, Americans - including the American media -- have collective Alzheimers when it comes to silly things like, oh, geopolitics, recent history and goofy military endeavors with trillion-dollar price tags: on the positive side, our memories ensure that unlike most nations we typically don't hold grudges for long, but on the negative side, our forgetfulness can make deciphering the world, and our effect upon it, an impossibility. This was illustrated two weeks ago, when veteran powermonger Dick Cheney and his snaking half-smile slithered out of high-ranking federal office once again, his latest exit accompanied by a flurry of nearly identical articles about the "Cheney Legacy" -- the most foul-smelling of any American official ever.

While pundits duly listed his most recent sleazy moves - the bogus campaign for invading Iraq, the Cheney-approved torture techniques, the secret CIA kidnappings of suspects, the establishment of Guantanamo, the contracts to Halliburton et al and wiretapping of U.S. citizens -- these essays about the stains and slime left behind by America"s least favorite Dick (even Nixon was more popular at his nadir) neglected to examine the most shocking part of Dick's rise: how Cheney created America's worst enemies -- decades ago - only to slay them as vice president. And the columnists and analysts also forgot to mention how the US defense budget appears to have had everything to do with Cheney's enemy-making machine.

Few even recalled Cheney's first and longest-lasting contribution to the current state of US-Middle Eastern relations - his 1989-1992 stint as Secretary of Defense under President George H. W. Bush. It marked a turning point: Cheney charged the U.S. into the Middle East for the first time as a bona fide fighting force, security provider to assorted oil-rich kingdoms, big time arms dealer to nearly all Arab countries, and was often seen as an occupying force in the Persian Gulf, where the U.S. began building and leasing a string of dozens of military bases, many of which it continues to use. It was then, two decades ago, that Cheney's actions made foes of the two foreigners who would most emblemize the threats to the George W. Bush administration -- namely, Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. And they've come in real handy for Cheney, being wheeled out as reasons to boost the American military budget to its highest ever.

And the reason, one might argue, that then-defense secretary Cheney was so keen to get us into the Middle East was the $300 billion defense budget that he was peddling in 1990 - a budget that kept getting shot down in Congress. The problem: the war chest request Cheney devised (with underling Paul Wolfowitz) - a budget that revamped the military and shot multi-billions of dollars into the "Star Wars" missile defense system, newfangled Patriot missile systems and Stealth bombers -- had been designed when we had an enemy, specifically the "Evil Empire" of the Soviet Union. By 1990, the "evil empire" was falling apart and the Cold War was tepid. There was no reason for such pricy, high-tech war toys, with no horned serpent in sight. But then, in the nick of time, Cheney found one, creating another in the process.

After months of hearing from congressional heavyweights that his budget would shrivel for lack of a threatening monster, Cheney received his worst news yet on August 1, 1990. The New York Times ran a story detailing the latest whack: "In a blow to the Bush Administration, the House Armed Services Committee voted today to end production of the Stealth bomber and cut nearly $2 billion from the Pentagon's proposal for the ''Star Wars'' anti-missile program." It was the panel's first vote ever to eliminate a major weapons system....The Pentagon has hailed the bomber, the B-2, as an essential part of its strategic arsenal. Opponents of the $63 billion program argue that the Stealth, named for its ability to evade radar, is not only too expensive but also unnecessary in a time of easing global tensions....the House panel approved a military budget that would shave $24 billion from the Administration's proposal of $307 billion for the fiscal year [1991] beginning Oct. 1.... reflect[ing] Congress's determination to slash Pentagon spending more than at any time in well over a decade."
Merely one day, later, however, that derailed budget was heading back on track - and in fact Cheney's "white" (trace-able) budget would be over $320 billion for that fiscal year - with missile defense and the snazzy new anti-missile system and stealth planes well-funded, of course. The reason: on August 2, 1990, Saddam Hussein sent his troops rolling into Kuwait, a country that he owed billions to, accused of slant drilling into Iraqi oil fields while creating a glut and making OPEC oil cheaper, all the more painful to broke Iraq.

Never mind the words of April Glaspie, US ambassador to Iraq: when Saddam told her of his plans to invade Kuwait the week before - she had responded that "[W]e have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait"
- giving what Saddam took as a "green light": once the Iraqis rolled in, Cheney for one cared plenty. Forget the letter of friendship to Bush (which noted Cheney's aggressive talk) that Saddam had given her that urged warmer relations.
Ignore the fact that Arab leaders argued no war was needed -- Saddam would back off if Kuwait lent him an island (to allow Iraq direct Gulf access). And delete from your memory that Jordan's King Hussein had negotiated an agreement with Saddam to pull back from Kuwait.

The non-military suggestions were shushed, the negotiations were halted - and Cheney had the trident-bearing demon he needed. All the more when a CIA satellite photo suddenly materialized some two days later -- showing Saddam's troops amassed on the borders of Saudi Arabia, which holds a quarter of the world's oil. The validity of this map (kept away from press scrutiny) has been questioned; at best, it never made a clear-cut case that Saddam planned to roll his troops into Saudi Arabia, with which he had friendly relations. According to US ambassador Chas Freeman, who accompanied Cheney and General Norman Schwarzkopf on their August 1990 visit to Saudi Arabia's King Fahd, the satellite photo was nonetheless presented as an open-n-shut case -- essentially, Saddam's at your door, he's gonna invade, and you need our help to protect your oil riches - to sell U.S. security and a future war to the non-military-minded King Fahd.

As Schwarzkopf knelt on bended knee before Fahd, and Cheney explained the gravity of the situation, the monarch so panicked that he relented to allow American troops to set up on Saudi soil - not fully calculating the costs he would incur. For starters, he had to make a hefty donation to bribe the religious establishment (which runs the Saudi courts, schools and media) to break with the state religion (the rigid Sunni sect, Wahhabism) and allow infidels to tread on Saudi soil, which holds Muslims' two holiest sites - a very controversial move. Secondly, Fahd couldn't appear to be selling out to the West - and he paid billions to assorted Arab leaders (including of Egypt and Syria) to back the US presence, and to fight in 1991's Desert Storm; in fact, Fahd footed so much of the bill for that war (for which the U.S. was paid billion of dollars to fight) that oil-rich Saudi Arabia was soon taking out loans. Thirdly, he had to deal with Osama bin Laden, who'd just returned from fighting off Soviets in Afghanistan with his overzealous Muslim warriors, the mujahideen. Alas, Osama wanted to take on Saddam with his warriors, but the royals sniffed at the plan; bin Laden in turn so badmouthed the monarchy that he was booted out of the country, heading to Sudan, where he formed al Qaeda, and vowed to take down the U.S. and the Saudi monarchy.

With staggering force - there were 500,000 U.S. troops alone fighting in the U.S.-led multinational coalition - and a show of new weapons, including, according to Ambassador Chas Freeman, white phosphorus bombs, the anti-Saddam forces drove the Iraqis from Kuwait in February 1991, killing thousands as they fled (often in stolen cars) along the so-called Highway of Death. According to Ambassador Chas Freeman, one of the first to enter Kuwait, the devastation was remarkable. "I visited Kuwait two or three days after its liberation, and have never seen anything like the black sky and the towering flames, something resembling the floor of Hades, on the one hand, and the so-called Road of Death north of Kuwait, in which perhaps 16,000 Iraqis were killed as they left Kuwait with their loot, in many cases killed by phosphorous bombs, which do not produce a pretty corpse."
(See: Charles Stuart Kennedy "Interview with Ambassador Chas W. Freeman," Oral History Project, Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, April 14, 1995.)

While Saddam wasn't killed, President George H. W. Bush and others in his administration urged the Kurds in the north and Shia in the south of Iraq to rise up against the dictator. Believing that the U.S. would back them, the Kurds and Shia rebelled, until Saddam's troops quashed the uprising, killing thousands. The continuing threat of Saddam to Kuwait (as well as other potential attacks on oil kingdoms) proved profitable for American arms dealers: the U.S. government (including the Secretary of Defense Cheney) helped arrange for billions of U.S. arms sales - Middle East countries are still our biggest arms clients - as well as the establishment of a necklace of U.S. bases along the Gulf, and forged security agreements with countries that had previously shunned them, from Kuwait to the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. The U.S. military continued to protect Saudi Arabia too - though that proved messy; Cheney had promised Fahd the troops wouldn't stay long, but despite hints, they remained stayed put in Fahd's holy land for thirteen years - raising the ire of clerics - until the new king, Abdullah, finally shooed them away in 2003 (when many moved to Qatar).

The George H.W. Bush administration was ejected in 2000, but the enemies Cheney had created remained: throughout the Clinton administration, Cheney (along with Wolfowitz, his former boss Donald Rumsfeld and the rest of the Project for the New American Century gang) demanded boosts in the defense budget, called for the removal of Saddam Hussein (who began negotiating opening up virgin oilfields to any country except the US and Britain), and demanded continuing with the money-sucking high-tech program once called Star Wars (now better known as missile defense).

Campaigning on promises to pump up the military, Cheney (and his puppet George W. Bush) vowed to take out Saddam (a goal stated in the GOP charter of 2000) and within days of entering the White House, Cheney and Bush (along with Britain's Tony Blair) were secretly plotting Saddam's demise, along with mapping out the location of Middle East oil reserves (in the Cheney-headed secretive Energy Task Force, the full proceeding of which were never revealed despite judicial calls to turn them over.) Cheney, soon headed the anti-terrorism team, and was actively involved in the defense budget. In February, the defense budget was presented - calling for a huge increase to missile defense, boosted spending on this Star Wars offsho0t to $8.3 billion, and making it the number one priority of the defense program.
Despite protests from Congress on its shoddy performance and violation of the anti-ballistic missile treaty with Russia (soon shredded), Cheney, Rumsfeld and Bush were obsessed with keeping the high-price tag missile defense system afloat.

And this is where the tale of Cheney comes full circle: much like his defense budget in 1990, the missile defense budget kept getting hacked by Congress. In fact, on September 8, 2001, a New York Times story ran: the Senate Armed Services Committee had cut $1.3 billion from the missile defense budget.

Cheney and Rumsfeld immediately began lobbying against that cut, and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice was pulled in as well, scheduled to give a briefing on the matter the following Tuesday. She never had a chance to give her briefing that day. An enemy from Cheney's past - created when Cheney persuaded King Fahd to relent to U.S. troops slaying Saddam - had reappeared on the radar -- at just the right moment. Like Saddam's timely invasion of Kuwait, 21 years before, the acts of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda that day would justify not only complete funding of the missile defense project, but such a remarkable boost in military spending, that defense now eats up more of the national budget than anything else. And that's yet another item that future historians might want to include in the "Legacy of Our Least Favorite Dick."

Melissa Rossi is the author of What Every American Should Know about the Middle East, which includes all kinds of forgotten history.