Deja Vu All Over Again

Why can’t they learn? In 1990, the United States sent troops into Saudi Arabia at the request of the royals who were panicked over bogus pictures of the Iraq army under the late Sadaam Hussein massing on their eastern border and the Iraqi invasion of tiny Kuwait.


Scott Peterson reported for The Christian Science Monitor in 2002, a key part of the first Bush administration’s case “was that an Iraqi juggernaut was also threatening to roll into Saudi Arabia. Citing top-secret satellite images, Pentagon officials estimated in mid-September [of 1990] that up to 250,000 Iraqi troops and 1,500 tanks stood on the border, threatening the key US oil supplier.”

A quarter of a million troops with heavy armor amassed on the Saudi border certainly seemed like a clear sign of hostile intent. In announcing that he had deployed troops to the Gulf in August 1990, George HW Bush said, “I took this action to assist the Saudi Arabian Government in the defense of its homeland.” He asked the American people for their “support in a decision I’ve made to stand up for what’s right and condemn what’s wrong, all in the cause of peace.”

But one reporter — Jean Heller of the St. Petersburg Times — wasn’t satisfied taking the administration’s claims at face value. She obtained two commercial satellite images of the area taken at the exact same time that American intelligence supposedly had found Saddam’s huge and menacing army and found nothing there but empty desert.

She contacted the office of then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney “for evidence refuting the Times photos or analysis offering to hold the story if proven wrong.” But “the official response” was: “Trust us.”

Heller later told the Monitor’s Scott Peterson that the Iraqi buildup on the border between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia “was the whole justification for Bush sending troops in there, and it just didn’t exist.”

The troops remained Saudi Arabia even after their presence was no longer needed. Their presence raised the ire of the son of a Saudi construction magnate, Osama bin Laden, which precipitated the rise of Al Qaeda. Ten years later the US was attacked on 9/11. Most of us remember very well what happened next. Once again, the US is about to repeat its 1990 lie by sending troops into Saudi Arabia. Only this time the evil regime is Iran, who hasn’t invaded anyone.

This time, however, the ostensible threat to Saudi Arabia comes from naughty Iran, the American national security state’s current favorite exaggerated villain. And, of course, Iran—unlike our onetime “partners” in Iraq—hasn’t invaded anybody. Thus, the U.S. troop infusion is more preemptive than reactive. It’s no matter; few Americans (or even most media/political elites) seem to notice.

Besides, what could go wrong? After all, the U.S. stations its military personnel all over the Middle East, so why not in “friendly” Saudi Arabia too? After all, Jared Kushner, the son-in-law in chief, maintains a well-known bromance with his pen pal, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), and President Trump revels in the profits from massive arms sales to the kingdom. Still, the answer to the question is a stark one: Quite a lot can go wrong, actually. It has before. [..]

First, the U.S. government backed a megalomaniacal dictator in Iraq during his eight-year invasion of Iran. After that war ended in a draw, Saddam Hussein thought perhaps he’d test his American support and gobble up small, but oil-rich, Kuwait. When Riyadh panicked, feared for its own bordering oil fields and invited in the U.S. military, the Saudi royals angered and alienated the other significant American time bomb: Osama bin Laden—the wealthy Islamist Saudi jihadi that Washington had backed (during the 1980s) in his fight with the Soviets in Afghanistan.

See, bin Laden believed his own legend: That his fellow foreign volunteers, known as “Afghan Arabs,” had turned the tide and driven the Soviets from Afghanistan. In reality, it was mostly native Afghan rebels, buoyed by generous American and Gulf States military aid, that had won the war—but that mattered little to bin Laden, the dogmatic, privileged son of a Saudi construction magnate. When Iraq swallowed Kuwait and threatened Saudi Arabia in 1990, the prodigal son offered to return, raise a new army of jihadis and defend the kingdom against Hussein’s forces. Rebuked by the Saudi king and overshadowed by the massive U.S. military, bin Laden developed a lifelong animus toward both the kingdom and America. The vendetta would prove extremely pivotal, a history-altering event. [..]

Bin Laden was a veritable monster, but, well, he had a point.

The rest, as they say, was history. The bombing of two American embassies in Africa (1998), the bombing of the USS Cole at the port of Aden, in Yemen (2000), and, most tragically, the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Thousands of Americans died in the combined attacks; President Bush the Younger started a war that’s yet to end and can’t be won. It’s been going for nearly 18 years. The total cost (so far): 7,000 American troops dead, at least 244,000 foreign civilians killed and a cool $5.9 trillion in U.S. tax dollars wasted.

Perhaps American policymakers, pundits and the people at large ought to remember this tragic course of events, what the great author Chalmers Johnson referred to as “blowback.” If they did, it’d be clear that today’s fresh infusion of U.S. troops back into the vicinity of the Islamic holy places is a major event with potentially devastating consequences for the U.S. military—and perhaps even the American homeland.

It seems this latest move into Saudi Arabia is all risk and no reward. What can the U.S. possibly achieve in the kingdom: protecting a venal Saudi theocracy that can defend itself quite easily from the inflated threat of sanctions-laden Iran? The risks, on the other hand, are many, and bear striking resemblance to what did unfold the last time Washington thought it prudent to garrison Saudi Arabia.

Maybe the U.S. will get lucky and suffer only a few terror attacks on its troops in the kingdom. Then again, Washington might just blunder into an unnecessary, unwinnable, unethical war with the Islamic Republic of Iran, a nation of 80 million, and further destabilize an already precarious region. The nightmare, but totally possible, scenario would be the radicalization of new Saudi and transnational jihadis who then take the fight to New York or Los Angeles.

It’s happened before, back when America was far less unpopular in the Mideast and the Muslim world than it is today. Don’t count it out.

Yes, the US is directly responsible for Al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden may be dead but his organization lives on in the shadows all over the world and the US keeps poking a stick at it.