Twenty years ago, in spring 1991, the United States was at a crossroads that would decide the near-term fate of American democracy, but that reality wasn't apparent to many. What was clear was that the U.S. empire was resurgent.
President George H.W. Bush had just won a smashing victory in the Persian Gulf War, restoring popular support for a militaristic global agenda. The Gulf War had capped a decade of Ronald Reagan and Bush reconstructing the national consensus for foreign wars that had been shattered in the 1970s by Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers and Watergate.
Celebrating this domestic side of his military victory, Bush declared on Feb. 28, 1991, "We've kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all."
Reagan and Bush had achieved this success by rebuilding the walls of government secrecy and defending them with new weapons of propaganda and with an elite palace guard of national security intellectuals, known as the neoconservatives.
Outside the empire's walls -- and in retreat -- were Americans who believed in a democratic republic, a system of governance that depended on a well-informed electorate and disagreed with the imperial goals of open-ended U.S. military dominance of the world.
These Americans had been on the defensive for most of the 1980s, except for a brief rally during the Iran-Contra scandal, when they managed to strip away some of the lies and deceptions that were concealing the secret foreign policy of the United States.
But the Iran-Contra offensive had fallen short. The Reagan-Bush defenders proved to be both well-entrenched and adept at counterattack. There also was a serious lack of will among most of the officials entrusted with the Iran-Contra banner. They had happily settled for a few minor concessions.
So, when the Iran-Contra smoke cleared, the imperial forces had lost a few fighters and had surrendered some ground, but -- on balance -- were even stronger. The most important secrets had been protected and those who had aggressively pushed the Iran-Contra attack had been bloodied, too.
Then, in February 1991, President Bush crowned the imperial comeback with a militarily unnecessary ground war driving Iraqi troops from Kuwait during 100 hours of carnage that thrilled Americans as they watched green-tinted images of Iraqi tanks and other targets getting blown to bits. [See Consortiumnews.com's "Kicking the Vietnam Syndrome."]
The Final Charge
That was the state of play two decades ago, in spring 1991, when there was one last attempt to break through the battlements with investigations that could have discredited the defenders of empire.
There were two prongs to this final attack, one examining whether the Iran-Contra scandal actually had originated during the 1980 election campaign with Reagan-Bush emissaries contacting Iran behind President Jimmy Carter's back to thwart his efforts to free 52 American hostages, and the other looking into secret U.S. support for Iraq's Saddam Hussein during his eight-year war with Iran.
Both scandals -- known popularly as the October Surprise mystery and Iraq-gate, respectively -- had the potential to shine a harsh light on the dark underbelly of the Reagan era and damage President Bush's prospects for reelection in 1992.
Bush, a former CIA director, had been wounded by the Iran-Contra scandal (and the widespread suspicion that he lied when he claimed he was not in "the loop" about those arms-for-hostage deals), but the petering out of the investigation had enabled him to recover enough to defeat the hapless Democratic candidate in 1988, Michael Dukakis.
In 1991, the victory over Iraq transformed Bush into a war hero of sorts, but also brought renewed attention to the mysterious actions of Reagan and Bush regarding Iran in 1980 and toward Iraq over much of the decade. The questions were: Did Bush participate in secret contacts with Iran while still a private citizen in 1980, and did he help build up the Iraqi army that invaded Kuwait in 1990?
In other words, was Bush less a hero than a co-conspirator in a secret foreign policy that had spun out of control and had to be cleaned up at the expense of many lives and much money?