39 Enemy Tryouts, 1988-2000


The Cold War came to an end shortly after George H. W. Bush took office. In my neck of the woods, the Contras were supposed to have laid down their weapons by the early summer of 1990. “In exchange for handing over their guns, the Contras were to be protected inside seven security zones until the disarmament process is completed June 10.”[1] So the Contras inside of Nicaragua were stalling while the Contras inside of Honduras were handing over their American weapons. It would be a while before Contras inside Nicaragua felt secure enough to self-disarm. Anyhow, the was an election in Nicaragua, and the US-backed candidate, Violeta Chamorro, was victorious. But while the political arm of Nicaragua was out of the hand of the Sandinistas, the Sandinistas still controlled the military and so Contras feared giving up their weapons until the new pro-US, civilian government dismantled the Sandinista military machine (full of all sorts of Russian equipment from AK-47 rifles to fixed and rotor-wing aircraft).

Meanwhile, in El Salvador, “peace” broke out. The FMLN laid down their weapons in exchange for changes to the Salvadoran political and military branches. Negotiations began in 1989 and formally ended in 1993, so the process was quite a bit longer than what happened in Nicaragua but not as long as in Guatemala. In Guatemala, the peace process came to fruition in 1996 when in exchange for laying down their arms, Guatemalan guerillas received vocational and educational training. They wanted to avoid the pitfalls experienced in Nicaragua and El Salvador, such as the failure of the international community to provide aid.[2]

Yes, the Cold War came to an end. And there were great celebrations in Europe, especially in West and East Germany, and even more so in Berlin. And peace broke out throughout Central America (well, kinda’), but trouble was brewing in Panama. Panama was rn by the US-supported dictator Manual Noriega. Noriega came to power under mysterious circumstances. The Panamanian leader Omar Torrijos died in a plane crash. There was speculation that Noriega played a role. After some promotions and wheeling and dealing (and reneging on those deals), General Manual Noriega (the head of the Panamanian Defense Forces) became the dictator of Panama.

Noriega was not a choir boy. He sold US weapons, at a personal profit, to Communist guerrillas throughout Central America to the embarrassment of the US government. Initially, he did stop (slow down?) Colombian drugs from flowing into the US, but then sold those drugs on the black market in Central America. So, he made some money in weapons and drugs. He also made some money as a paid counter-narcotic operative for the United States. A few hundred thousand dollars a year. And then towards the end of the Cold War, Noriega began shifting alliances -accepting money, equipment, and diplomatic cover from Nicaragua and Cuba.  Then a carload of US military personnel was attacked by Panamanian civilians and Panamanian military forces, resulting in the death of two American servicemen. The next day President Bush authorized the US invasion of Panama, ostensibly to arrest Noriega on drug charges. Yes, Noriega was found guilty in absentia of drug smuggling.

The military operation, named Just Cause, lasted about one month and achieved all objectives.


We needed Noriega during the Cold War. We did not need him afterward and his actions suggested a need to adjust American foreign policy. Was the Panamanian example going to be the model for the New World Order? Was the US going to run around the world to disconnect the Cold War monsters we had created/needed the last 50 years?

The next opportunity came in the form of a charismatic, pro-Western, Middle Eastern strong man named Saddam Hussein who led Iraq, the counterbalance to Iran. Not just an enemy of the US, but the enemy to the Persian Gulf.

Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, right, and Saddam Hussein are seen in Baghdad in this 1978 photo.

Slowly Saddam Hussein will incorporate all military and political powers under his own control so that when the Iran-Iraq War begins (September of 1980), Iraq is Hussein and Hussein is Iraq. US support for Saddam Hussein predated Iraq’s massive invasion of Iran. There was special operations training, dual-use technology, non-US located weaponry, and intelligence, for example. At the same time, the US (CIA) was working with the Iranian government to shore up their forces in case of or to prevent an Iraqi invasion. As the (great war criminal) Henry Kissinger once said, “It’s a pity both sides can’t lose.”[3]

So, in September of 1980 Iraq invades Iran for numerous reasons such as their desire to control the Shatt al-Arab and because Iran had been calling for Iraq’s Shi’a Kurds to rise up against the Iraqi Ba’ath Party. Keep that in mind. Before the War began the Kurds, who will not be a partisan, will nonetheless, be called upon by co-religionists to battle against Saddam Hussein. An existential threat. More on the Kurds when the War comes to an end.

1980 was a presidential election year. President Carter was squarely focused on Afghanistan and fighting the Russians there. The Republican candidate, Ronald Reagan, would have been getting some sort of intelligence briefings. Not to the extent of the president, but something. Reagan won the election and on January 20th, 1981, the Iran-Iraq War becomes Reagan’s baby to rock.


Enough of the background. The war comes to an end. Saddam Hussein takes the chemical weapons that the US gave him and launched an attack against his Kurds, killing thousands with poisonous gas.[4] The US response was not to charge to the UN or even to cut Iraq off from products and intell, but rather Reagan sent an envoy to assure Hussein that all is well. It was still the Cold War and the US needed pro-Western leaders, even if they were evil, brutal dictators who slaughtered their own people.

But the Cold War was coming to an end and President George H.W. Bush was at the helm for that event. The US was negotiating an end to the military conflict in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala, and sent in troops to arrest the dictator of Panama and to install the democratically elected leader.

But then Kuwait came knocking on Baghdad’s door. You see, while Iraqis did the fighting (and dying) Kuwait did the paying for the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq War and Kuwait wanted Iraq to start paying them back. Saddam Hussein said no, Kuwait then started to take Iraq’s oil (cross border). Iraq massed troops on the border. Bush sent the US Ambassador April Glaspie to talk with Hussein. He wants to know the US position on this Arab-Arab issue. Glaspie says the US takes no position on issues as they relate between Arab nations, “like your border disagreement with Kuwait,” thus giving Hussein the green light to go.[5] Iraq invades Kuwait. And, President Bush is unhappy.

But not that unhappy. The old man whipped together a massive coalition. French and Syrian paratroopers. Amazing what he was able to do! Very quickly was the international force able to push Iraq out of Kuwait (from the south) and set up a protective area for the Kurds in the north. With Saddam Hussein being in control of the middle or central strip of the country. I forget which US armor division had Hussein cornered when they were ordered to withdraw, allowing Hussein to escape. Bush will repeatedly say that he was given the authority by the UN and the UN did not give the authority to kill or arrest Saddam Hussein. So much for the idea that the US was going to run around the world after the Cold War turning off all our Cold War-era pro-US dictators. Saddam Hussein would go on to live another day. Or, more like 15 years or so.

With the demise of Iraq as we knew it, the State Department came up with the idea that there was not a single country that could threaten the US. Rather, the scenario was that 3 countries would attack the US, US interests, or US allies simultaneously. That was the new enemy. And, the likely candidates were North Korea, Iran, and Syria.

So, the US went to war or lead an international coalition to protect Kuwaiti oil fields. It wasn’t for freedom or democracy, as it was in Panama because the people of Kuwait had no democracy and their freedoms were exceptionally limited. Certainly, women did not hold the same freedoms as men in Kuwaiti society. So, the war was to protect Kuwaiti oil. The US went to war in Panama to protect the country’s democratic traditions (such as the recent national election) and the freedoms of Panamanian people and American citizens. Two very different reasons. In other words, there was not a change to the way Bush looked at foreign policy, at least there was not going to be a policy of turning off our Cold War-era dictators that we so much needed back in the day.

If anything, Bush was pretty conservative, thoughtful, and careful in his actions. For example, shortly after taking over from Reagan, there was a massive pro-democracy protest in China, on and around Tiananmen Square, in Beijing. The Communist Chinese responded by opening fire on the unarmed protestors, slaughtering hundreds.


As with the other chapters, I have no doubt that this chapter contains inaccuracies therefore, please point them out to me so that I may make this chapter better. Also, I am looking for contributors so if you are interested in adding anything at all, please contact me at james.rossnazzal@hccs.edu

  1. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1990-04-27-mn-161-story.html
  2. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1997/03/05/guatemalan-rebels-exchange-weapons-for-dreams/9499d0b0-7a7e-424a-b848-2b071af016ed/
  3. https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/commentators/johann-hari/i-support-bush-on-iraq-but-i-ll-join-the-protests-79037.html
  4. https://theweek.com/articles/460716/how-helped-saddam-hussein-use-chemical-weapons-against-iran
  5. https://msuweb.montclair.edu/~furrg/glaspie.html


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

Our Story: An Ancillary to US History Copyright © 2018 by James Ross-Nazzal is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book