The Myth-Making Around George H.W. Bush
Most press in the United States have lionized former President George H.W. Bush, insisting he was a “kinder” and “gentler” statesman, who possessed a decency rarely exhibited in government anymore.
As the federal government mostly shuts down and stock markets remain closed on the day of the forty-first president’s funeral, the press have another full day to gloss over and completely disregard the parts of Bush’s career that were scandalous and grossly impacted people throughout the world.
In particular, any mention of the invasion of Iraq, which Bush launched in 1991, is unquestionably treated as a momentous victory. He is praised for not pursuing a long and costly military occupation.
Douglas Brinkley, who is CNN’s presidential historian, said, “James Baker [former chief of staff and secretary of state for Bush] likes to say people don’t ask me why we didn’t go into Baghdad anymore. There’s Gulf War One, which we did it right. We liberated Kuwait, filled our mission, and went home and called ‘Operation Desert Shield’ a huge success.”
“And then there’s the Second Gulf War where we tried to go in and take Baghdad and run civil society in Iraq. And that second war didn’t work well because we overextended the limits of a U.S. intervention,” Brinkley added.
The Persian Gulf War is cast as a good military adventure because it wasn’t the sequel launched by his son when he was president.
“In January 1991, he assembled a global coalition to eject Iraqi invaders from Kuwait, sending hundreds of thousands of troops in a triumphant military campaign that to many Americans helped purge the ghosts of Vietnam,” praised the New York Times editorial board.
No attention whatsoever is paid to the lasting effect it had on Iraqis or the numerous U.S. troops that developed what came to be known as Gulf War illness. Nor is there any consideration of the manner in which the public, press, and politicians were collectively manipulated into supporting a war by his administration.
The Persian Gulf War was the first war, where U.S. military forces deployed depleted uranium. More than 300 tons of depleted uranium were used.
Insecticides, pesticides, and bombing attacks were also responsible for releasing toxins into the air. This resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops and Iraqis.
The book, “Toxic Sludge Is Good For You,” documents how Hill & Knowlton, which was then the largest public relations firm in the world, sold the war to Americans and masterminded a campaign on behalf of Kuwait. It was run by Craig Fuller, who was Bush’s close friend and political adviser. They sought to identify which messages resonated emotionally with citizens and used the Wirthlin Group for daily opinion polls.
“The fact that Saddam Hussein was a madman, who had committed atrocities even against his own people, and had tremendous power to do further damage, and he needed to be stopped,” was the theme that worked best on Americans, according to former Wirthlin executive Dee Alsop.
Hill & Knowlton invented a hook for going to war. On October 10, 1990, a 15 year-old Kuwaiti girl named Nayirah testified before a Congressional Human Rights Caucus. She said she volunteered at a hospital, where she saw Iraqi soldiers take “babies out of the incubators.” They “took the incubators and left the babies on the cold floor to die.”
This story was used in the press and before the United Nations Security Council to convince the public of the need for war. But Nayirah was a part of the Kuwaiti royal family. Her father was Saud Nasir al-Sabah. He was Kuwait’s ambassador to the United States. Hill & Knowlton Vice President Lauri Fitz-Pegado coached Nayirah, and Kuwait’s own investigators eventually confirmed that her testimony was a lie.
When an invasion was imminent in 1991, the press did not investigate or expose this propaganda operation. A little more than a decade later, the press fell for another similar operation involving the same country and alleged “weapons of mass destruction.” And now, with Bush’s death, it becomes clear that a narrative manufactured by Bush that conceals dark truths is etched into the establishment’s history of the country forever.
The war was not merely provoked by Saddam Hussein’s actions. As Nora Eisenberg recalled in a piece for AlterNet, “Soon after the 1988 termination of the 8 year Iraq-Iran War, the Pentagon began planning the destruction of Iraq. In October 1990, Colin Powell referred to a new military plan for Iraq developed the year before.”
Eisenberg vividly recounts the destruction:
The air and missile attack of Iraq continued for 42 days, dropping more bombs in that brief period than bombs in all wars in history combined. Iraqi aircraft and anti-aircraft or anti-missile ground fire offered no resistance. The aerial and missile bombardment in a matter of hours destroyed most military communications and over the course of the next few weeks attacked Iraqi soldiers who were unable to secure food, water, and equipment due to this breakdown. Some 100,000 Iraqi soldiers died, according to General Schwarzkopf, most of whom were incapable of fighting.
Mosques, homes, schools, hospitals markets, commercial and business districts, factories, office buildings, vehicles on highways, bridges, and roads were common targets. Though estimates of civilian deaths during the war range from 25,000 to over 100,000, all count children at above 50% of the immediate casualties. And after 6 weeks, the most sophisticated of Arab states was in ruins.
It is estimated that over 100,000 people in Iraq died in the aftermath of the Gulf War from “dehydration, dysentery, malnutrition, starvation, and illnesses, from contaminated water, starvation, and exposure to impure water, hunger, cold, and shock.”
Bush is widely venerated for his support for U.S. troops. Barry McCaffrey, a former military general who was deployed in the Middle East, recalled how Bush visited soldiers during Thanksgiving when an attack was impending. Yet, if Bush cared so much, why did the government lie about Gulf War illness and deny treatment to veterans who suffered and were dying?
Robert Miller wrote in his 2002 book, “America’s Disposable Soldiers: The Real Truth Behind Gulf War Illness,” about the unsettling reality that the government knew all along what caused the illness. “They were told their problems had nothing to do with their service in the military. They were assured their problems were all in their minds. And they were told that whatever their problems were, to be assured it had absolutely nothing to do with their recent wartime service in the Gulf War.”
“They were thus denied government assistance by an indifferent system led by superiors who cared more about their own careers than their subordinates’ injuries,” Miller added.
Miller summarized, “The United States military and political leadership, by extensively bombing Iraq’s nuclear, biological, and chemical facilities for forty-two consecutive days before the ground invasion of Kuwait, released a contagion among all those nearby. The American ground army of more than a half a million were downwind and in close proximity to the Iraqi chemical sites.”
Seven hundred thousand or more soldiers have complained of health problems as a result of toxic hazards unleashed in the war. In 2015, eighty percent of Gulf War illness-related claims were denied in 2015 by the Veterans Affairs Department.
The government has engaged in a very minimal amount of research into what caused the illness, and so long as they fail to settle on what was responsible for this sickness, they can deny the reality of what was done to soldiers in the Persian Gulf War.
Jon Meacham, a historian who wrote the book, “Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush,” has had columns widely published in the days since Bush’s death. For Time Magazine, he argued Bush “believed in the essential goodness of Americans” and in the “nobility of the American experiment.
In 1990, Bush was lobbied by his son, Jeb, to release Orlando Bosch, who was a right-wing terrorist and CIA-backed operative from Cuba. Bosch was involved in the bomb attack on Cubana Flight 455 in 1976. It killed 73 people.
Back in 1976, the Costa Rica government arrested Bosch. They offered to extradite him for trial. The U.S. government knew he was implicated in attacks on Cuban embassies in several countries, an assassination attempt on the Cuban ambassador to Argentina, and the bombing of a Mexican embassy in Guatemala City. Yet, Bush, who was the director of the CIA, displayed his “nobility” by declining the offer.
The Bush administration did not like that it would have to close several Southern Command bases in Latin America under a 1977 treaty by 1999 and would also lose control of the Panama Canal by 2000. Officials needed a pretense to renegotiate treaties and prolong the U.S. military’s presence in the region. So, in 1989, Bush invaded Panama to topple the regime of Manuel Noriega, who initially was courted by the U.S. to rule the country.
Thousands of people in Panama died, and they were buried in mass graves that were hidden from the country’s population. (All of this is vividly documented in Barbara Trent’s 1992 film, “The Panama Deception,” which won an Academy Award, and can be viewed here.)
Six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and their housekeeper’s daughter were murdered in 1989 by U.S.-backed Salvadoran security forces in 1989. The U.S. supported the right-wing dictatorship in a dirty war in El Salvador for several years.
Bush’s administration refused to initially believe that the country’s security forces were responsible for the murders, and officials were even willing to defend the dictatorship from consequences as the world responded to news of the murders.
While George H.W. Bush was President Ronald Reagan’s vice president, he played a role in the dirty war in Nicaragua against the Sandinistas.
But the New York Times editorial board cheered Bush for “removing a dictator from Panama” and “ending a crippling debate over Nicaragua,” which effectively disregards any concerns over war crimes.
There actually is no mention of Iran-Contra in the Times editorial board’s tribute to Bush. It is not briefly recalled in a longer piece on his life in government either, perhaps because it would clash with Times’ notion that he had “uncommon grace.”
To be clear, Bush was a part of the infamous Iran-Contra operation, where funds were raised to finance anti-communist militants by selling weapons to Iran.
The conspiracy, which included lying to Congress and the public, was a national scandal. But Bush pardoned six people, including former Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, and aided the national security apparatus’s effort to cover up the full extent of what happened and prevent accountability for criminal conduct.
Former CIA director John McLaughlin was a lowly officer. He has appeared on multiple news programs, particularly on MSNBC, to champion how Bush ran the CIA when he was director from January 30, 1976, to January 20, 1977. Bush was apparently accessible to lower-ranking officers. He would talk to them in the halls. He would drink coffee with them on weekends. He also restored relations between the CIA and Congress so that the agency was not completely abolished.
This doesn’t capture the significance of the role Bush performed for shadow government. He was brought in at a time when the public had a heightened awareness of the true role the CIA can play in the world. There was widespread scrutiny of how the CIA had spied on groups opposed to Vietnam War, as well as CIA assassination attempts on foreign leaders and concerted efforts to topple foreign governments. Elites wanted him to convince members of Congress to bring their scrutiny to an end so the agency could move forward.
Regardless of the attention the agency received as those operations became public, the CIA remained involved in backing state terrorism by right-wing governments in South American countries. This cross-border campaign was known as Operation Condor.
As detailed by Consortium News founder and journalist Robert Parry, “In early fall of 1976, after a Chilean government assassin had killed a Chilean dissident and an American woman with a car bomb in Washington, D.C., George H.W. Bush’s CIA leaked a false report clearing Chile’s military dictatorship and pointing the FBI in the wrong direction.”
Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier and American co-worker Ronni Moffitt were murdered by a remote-controlled bomb in an attack that occurred on U.S. soil in an area of Washington, D.C., known as Embassy Row. The attack was masterminded by Chilean intelligence Chief Manuel Contreras, who was a paid asset of the CIA.
The car bombing occurred on September 21, 1976, and the following month, the CIA consulted with Contreras on the assassination.
The CIA suspected the role of the Chilean government in the murders. Still, Bush’s CIA deliberately misled Newsweek so the public was led to believe the country’s secret police had nothing to do with the attack.
Strong evidence also exists that President Jimmy Carter was not re-elected in 1980 because of an “October surprise” that was engineered by the CIA-within-the-CIA. George H.W. Bush and officials linked to Reagan were implicated in this conspiracy to ensure Reagan became president.
Bush was instrumental in shielding shadow government from justice and threats of abolition. Through his lifelong commitment, a later incarnation of the CIA was able to launch notorious operations involving torture, rendition, and targeted assassinations in the global “war on terror” without any fear of significant repercussions whatsoever.
Moreover, as Meacham declared, “Bush established that, on his watch, America would not retreat from the world but would intervene decisively when the global balance of power was in jeopardy.”
Bush set a standard for what is acceptable to elites when waging American empire. His son was reckless. It’s also conventional wisdom that President Donald Trump has an even worse grasp how to project American power appropriately. It does not matter what crimes were committed or how many people died. This is what the political establishment desires from U.S. presidents.