Dancing on the hagiography of George HW Bush

Dancing on the hagiography of George HW Bush
5 min read
05 Dec, 2018
Blog: Bush Sr gave the green light to Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, then presided over a war crime on the infamous 'Highway of Death', notes Hadani Ditmars
George Bush's foreign policy set the stage for the nightmare that was to come [Getty]
As the hagiography of the late George Bush Senior continues, I remember my first trip to Baghdad in 1997, when crossing the threshold of the Al Rashid hotel necessitated stepping on a mosaic tiled image of the former American president framed by the words "Bush is Criminal".

The memory of the "highway of death", where American and allied forces participated in a turkey shoot of retreating Iraq forces (and some civilians), leaving corpses rotting for miles in the desert, was still fresh in the minds of Iraqis.

Deemed a contravention of the Third Geneva Convention by former US attorney general Ramsey Clark, the massacre had also made a widow of a woman I befriended at the hotel. Ahlam worked as a hairdresser at the Al Rashid hotel salon, and told me about her husband's death on the highway, and her subsequent struggle to raise two children in sanctions-plagued Iraq, one new year's eve in 1998.

Even fresher in the Iraqi memory then was the three-day bombing campaign instigated not by a member of the Bush Republican dynasty, but by Bill Clinton - some said in an effort to distract attention from the Lewinsky scandal.

Clinton, together with his UK counterparts, oversaw the draconian sanctions regime in Iraq that starved a captive population - already held hostage to wrecked infrastructure bombed by Bush the First - increased Saddam's power, wiped out the middle class, destroyed what had been the best public health and education systems in the Arab world, and stopped items like chlorine, vital to water purification in a desert country, (as well as oxygen tanks, spare parts for generators, and even stethoscopes) from entering the country as so called "dual use" items.

When half a million Iraqi children subsequently died from water-borne diseases, Madeleine Albright - then the US ambassador to the United Nations - infamously told 60 Minutes: "It was worth the price".

Comparing American presidents - Republican or Democrats - and their callous disregard for the lives of Iraqis can often feel like a macabre game of "spot the difference".

But that night I met Ahlam in the al-Rashid - a few metres from the infamous Bush mosaic - was far from the remote geopolitical theories discussed in London and Washington. Or even from the naked hypocrisies of the oil for food programme that punished the people, emboldened the regime and still enriched the pockets of Western oil companies via "silent" sanctions-dodging partners. "Ils sont des hypocrites, les americans," an Elf Aquitaine executive pronounced at breakfast that same day in the Al Rashid’s cavernous marble café.
I cannot so blithely erase the memories of Ahlam's anguish from my mind

I was simply tired of getting hassled by Iraqi police - who assumed I was a local "working girl" every time I returned to the hotel with my mainly male Western colleagues, so I decided to stay in for the night and get a pedicure. There was a rumour that the CNN team was having a big party on the 11th floor of the brutalist concrete tower that we journos called home then, some five years before the invasion when it would become HQ for US Marines, who promptly obliterated the offending mosaic of Bush.

But I cannot so blithely erase the memories of Ahlam's anguish from my mind, nor whitewash Bush Senior's role in a war crime. That night I met Ahlam, the reality of the "highway of death" hit home in a visceral moment of both pain and solidarity.

That night at the al-Rashid salon, although I'd tried to maintain a cool professional distance, replying to her question "where are you from?" with a casual "Canada" reply, Ahlam outed me and my Lebanese genes. The pedicure required a leg-lifting manoeuvre from one chair to another at which point Ahlam cried out "wallah! You have legs just like an Iraqi woman!" - pointing at my decidedly unskinny thighs.

Soon my secret was out, and the ladies at the salon opened up about their lives. Ahlam was not the only one whose husband had been killed on the "highway of death". Others too spoke out about their conscripted husband's farewell kisses before they disappeared completely, leaving them to fend for themselves in a new reality where the dinar had devalued by 1000 percent and ration cards would only last for the first 10 days of each month.

And they spoke too - where government minders dared not tread - of Saddam as "a son of the USA" and of their memories from "before", when they could afford televisions and holidays abroad and well… simple things like eggs.

The first Gulf War was precipitated by Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, ostensibly to exact "war funds" from the Kuwait emir after Iraq bankrupted itself "defending the Gulf" from the "Iranian menace" in a horrific war that killed a million on both sides. It was only at the end, they say, that former American agent Hussein realised that Reagan had been arming both sides. The invasion of Kuwait had been given the green light by US Ambassador April Glaspie who told the Iraqi president that the US would not intervene in "inter-Arab affairs".

Later, Bush Senior would encourage Shias and Kurds in the South and the North to rise up against the former ally he had left in power, only to abandon the uprisings to Saddam's brutal "justice".

Still later, his son George W Bush, whose disastrous invasion in 2003 was partly born out of revenge against "the guy who tried to kill my dad one time" would usher in an era where thousands of Iraqi children's fathers would be killed, and where their widows could no longer seek refuge in beauty parlours, subsequently targeted by newly empowered extremists.

I often wish that mosaic of Bush Senior had been preserved for archival purposes - along with all those images of Saddam in different guises that used to grace the facades of public institutions.

And that all the widows they created could meet one more time in that old Al Rashid salon, and with freshly pedicured feet, dance together on the faces of the men who terrorised them.

Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone, and has been writing from and about the MENA since 1992. Her next book, Between Two Rivers, is a travelogue of ancient sites and modern culture in Iraq. www.hadaniditmars.com

Follow her on Twitter: @HadaniDitmars