Opinion

For Better or Worse, George H.W. Bush Changed the Face of the Middle East

The U.S. intervention in the Gulf War and the launching of the Madrid peace conference continue to influence the course of events in the region after a quarter of a century

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President George H.W. Bush meets with his military advisors at the Pentagon to discuss the Gulf crisis, in Washington August 15, 1990.
\ GARY CAMERON/ REUTERS

The passing of President George H.W. Bush allows us to evaluate the way America’s role in the Middle East was shaped by his presidency.

Without question, the two most significant events of his single term in office were the Gulf War and the Madrid peace conference. They advanced and cemented the United States’ role as the guarantor of the security of the Gulf states and the sponsor of efforts to achieve peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

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By the time Bush became president, the United States had already been a security partner of Saudi Arabia and the other Arab states of the Persian Gulf for decades. The essential bargain struck by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz al Saud — American security support in exchange for the accessibility of Gulf energy resources to the United States and its trading partners — was longstanding.

U.S. weapons supplies and a modest military presence in the region following the British withdrawal in the early 1970s to secure energy supplies were its main manifestations. 

But it had never been put to the test in the face of a potentially existential threat until Saddam Hussein’s forces rolled into Kuwait in August 1990. Bush made an early decision to come to the defense of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, deploying first a defensive force of some 200,000 troops, and then more than doubling it to provide the forces, in coalition with dozens of other countries, necessary to expel Iraq from Kuwait.

The U.S.-led victory in that war left a legacy that is still with us today. U.S. forces remained in the Gulf in significant numbers, eventually deploying to a range of bases in the Gulf states and continuing to contain both Iraqi and Iranian aggression. It is scarcely imaginable that the Iraq war led by President George W. Bush, the troubled occupation that followed and dominated U.S. foreign policy for a decade, and the eventual, fitful transition in Iraq toward a U.S.-allied democracy, with a Kurdish autonomous area in the north, would have been possible without the commitment represented by the first Gulf War.  

Today, the U.S. military presence in the Gulf is largely oriented toward containing Iran, but its presence in significant numbers dates to the post-Kuwait invasion months of 1990.

In the aftermath of the Gulf War, which brought the United States into closer partnership with many Arab countries, President Bush and Secretary of State James Baker sought to reanimate American efforts to promote Arab-Israeli peace. Relatively little had occurred on this front in the decade following the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt, although the Reagan Administration, in its final weeks, did initiate a dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization. But Bush and Baker saw an opportunity to advance a longstanding American interest.

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In the months following the Gulf War, Baker was relentless in cajoling Israel, Syria, Jordan, and a Palestinian delegation to attend a Middle East peace conference, which was eventually held in Madrid in October 1991. The conference itself produced no substantive breakthroughs, beyond having Israeli delegates seated at the same table with sworn enemies. But Madrid launched both bilateral and multilateral tracks of talks that continued for years.

Peace negotiations evolved and took on new forms in the years that followed, particularly after Israel and the PLO signed the Oslo Accords in 1993. Those negotiations were conducted out of the sight of American officials, but the Madrid process provided essential cover to give the parties space to explore new opportunities in secret. The result — mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority — has defined the terrain of U.S. peace efforts on the Israeli-Palestinian track during the Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama Administrations. Even President Donald Trump, for all his skepticism of that structure, has not yet acted to definitively dismantle it.

The Israel-Jordan peace agreement was also made possible by the opening created in Madrid, as well as the separation of Jordanian and Palestinian interests marked by Oslo. Talks on the Israeli-Syrian track for some two decades also derived from what was launched in Madrid, although they reached what was likely their definitive conclusion in 2011 with the eruption of the Syrian civil war.

As the region has changed — with the transition in Iraq, the rise of an Iranian threat, the collapse of the Syrian state, and the ups and downs of Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts — the U.S. role has had to adapt with it. But the initiatives launched and structures put in place during the presidency of George H.W. Bush remain relevant and have defined United States efforts, both successful and otherwise, to navigate all that the region has thrown at it. 

That legacy makes the Bush presidency, in some respects, one of the most influential on America’s role in the Middle East in the past century, with contributions whose relevance continues a quarter century later. 

Daniel B. Shapiro is Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. He served as U.S. Ambassador to Israel, and Senior Director for the Middle East and North Africa in the Obama Administration. Twitter: @DanielBShapiro