Why We Are Stuck in the Sand

Realpolitik in the Gulf.
  1. On the morning before Yom Kippur late this past September, I found myself standing at the western end of the White House, watching as the color guard paraded the flag of the United States (and the republic for which it stands) along with that of the Emirate of Kuwait. The young men of George Bush’s palace guard made a brave showing, but their immaculate uniforms and webbing could do little but summon the discomforting contrasting image—marching across our TV screens nightly—of their hot, thirsty, encumbered brothers and sisters in the Saudi Arabian desert. I looked away and had my attention fixed by a cortege of limousines turning in at the gate. There was a quick flash of dark beard and white teeth, between burnoose and kaffiyeh, as Sheikh Jabir al-Ahrnad Al-Sabah, the exiled Kuwaiti emir, scuttled past a clutch of photographers and through the portals. End of photo op, but not of story.

    Let us imagine a photograph of the emir of Kuwait entering the White House, and let us see it as a historian might years from now. What might such a picture disclose under analysis? How did this oleaginous monarch, whose very name was unknown just weeks before to most members of the Bush Administration and the Congress, never mind most newspaper editors, reporters, and their readers, become a crucial visitor—perhaps the crucial visitor—on the President’s autumn calendar? How did he emerge as someone on whose behalf the President was preparing to go to war?

    We know already, as every histori...

Originally published in Harper's, January 1991