Foreign Policy

Why Bush (Senior) Didn't Blow It in the Gulf War

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Anthrax! Where, one wonders, might terrorists have gotten anthrax powder, processed and milled to just the right size and consistency to waft freely through the air but then lodge fatally in the lungs? Could the source be, perhaps, the Trilateral Commission? The World Trade Organization? France? Or—now here's a thought—Saddam Hussein?

The tyrant of Iraq has retained both the capability and the determination to obtain weapons of mass destruction. He has thumbed his nose at the West and turned economic sanctions into a propaganda weapon. He is weakened militarily but still menacing enough to require the presence of American forces in Saudi Arabia, thus inflaming anti-American sentiment among Islamic hard-liners who are glad to have reasons to be inflamed. And now we can guess that he is helping to kill Americans anonymously, having learned the drawbacks of killing them openly.

If there is one thing that everyone now agrees is true, it is that the first President Bush blew it when he called off the war on Saddam. America should have finished the job in 1991 and removed Saddam from power, driving from Basra to Baghdad if necessary to find and eliminate him. The failure to do so showed, once and for all, the bankruptcy of coalition war-making and the folly of quitting when the enemy is still on his feet.

Wrong.

Or, to be more exact, partly right, but in a way that is unhelpful at best and misleading at worst. Given what the Administration knew in February 1991, and given the nature of the war it was fighting then, the President's decision to stop when he did was a good one. Those who say George H.W. Bush left the job unfinished are undoubtedly right, but they are right in the same unhelpful way that it is right to say I should have sold my stocks when the market peaked. Like stockbrokers and quarterbacks, Presidents and generals must base their decisions on what they know and see rather than on what may become apparent later on. The real lesson of the Gulf War's early end is not that Bush blew it but that the very compelling reasons to quit then underscore the equally compelling reasons not to quit now.

Early on the morning of February 28, 1991, the White House phoned the headquarters of General H. Norman Schwarzkopf in Riyadh with orders to cease fire against Iraqi forces at 8 a.m. The ground war was only four days old but had been crushingly successful. Iraqi forces were disintegrating, fleeing, surrendering. Still, Saddam's elite Republican Guard units were largely intact and rapidly escaping toward the Iraqi city of Basra, near the Kuwaiti border. The American command needed more time if was to destroy or disarm those divisions. Thanks to Bush's cease-fire, the Republican Guard got away, soon to reappear in southern and northern Iraq slaughtering thousands of hapless Shiites and Kurds whom the United States had encouraged to rebel.

During the Civil War, President Lincoln repeatedly and rightly cursed his generals for licking their wounds rather than giving chase to battered but undefeated Confederate troops. Military doctrine then and now warns against letting the enemy escape to fight again. So why did Bush let the Republican Guard and their leader get away? For four reasons, all of them sound, given (one cannot repeat this qualification too often) the way things looked and the war America was fighting at the time.

Politically, the Administration wanted to keep its coalition together, and the coalition included Arab states whose participation was crucial, both militarily and diplomatically. Although the Arab partners might have acceded to a few more hours or perhaps days of fighting, more than that—as might have been necessary to finish Saddam—could well have pushed them beyond their limits. Then the war would have changed from World versus Iraq to United States versus Arabs—not a war Bush wanted to fight.

People who today criticize the elder Bush for letting the coalition constrain American action in 1991 forget that the coalition had both strategic and tactical reasons for concern. The Saudis and Egyptians, for instance, pressed Bush to stop not because they had any affection for Saddam, nor even primarily because they feared domestic backlash (though that was certainly a factor, and an Islamic revolution in Cairo or Riyadh just then could have been catastrophic), but because they feared that the one thing that might be worse than Saddam would be the chaos that might follow his destruction. In particular, they worried about the rise of a fundamentalist Shiite regime—another Iran, perhaps—in part or all of Iraq. That, in turn, might have tipped fundamentalist dominoes throughout the region.

The goal of the Gulf War, for Bush and the Arab allies alike, was not to impose a new order on the region but to restabilize the old one. Strategically speaking, that meant caging the overweening Saddam, not toppling him. Moreover, until 1990 Saddam had been a savage bully, but one America had done business with. It was reasonable to expect that after the fighting he might settle down, play by the rules, and pocket billions in diverted development aid like any self-respecting kleptocrat. That he would instead become psychopathically fixated on revenge could not have been known until after the fact.

Tactically, too, destroying Saddam looked costly. The Republican Guard was melting as fast as it could into Basra. Rooting it out could have meant street combat, with significant American and civilian casualties. No one—not the allies, not Bush, and not the Pentagon—relished fighting that type of war, particularly when doing so was not clearly necessary.

Finally, there was a humanitarian problem. By the end of the war, the Administration was coming under attack at home for its "turkey shoot" of the Iraqi forces fleeing toward Basra. Annihilating a prostrate enemy may be good military doctrine, but it was not sustainable in a theater where Americans were fighting for oil rather than for survival. Under the circumstances, and mostly to their credit, Americans and Europeans did not have the stomach to shoot Iraqis, even armed ones, in the back.

Afterward, things turned out badly. Bush made matters worse by allowing Saddam to turn his remaining military forces against his domestic opposition. That was a serious and avoidable error, for which Bush's Administration deserved blame. Still, if you believe that ending the war while Saddam was still in power was a foolish misjudgment, recall the apparent alternative: a drawn-out hunt for Saddam as American and civilian casualties mounted in urban combat; a humanitarian crisis with Iraq using civilians as shields and propaganda weapons; rather than just a few thousand American troops stationed in Saudi Arabia to inflame the ire of Islamic radicals, an American or Western occupation of an Arab nation, with little if any Arab support. Not clearly needing to go down that road, Bush was right to pull up short.

His son, by exactly the same token, would be wrong to pull up short. George W. Bush's situation is the obverse of his father's. The current President Bush answers not a faraway threat to regional stability but multiple attacks on American soil. He is not defending American hegemony; he is defending America. For that reason, Americans will have few qualms this time about fighting hard and taking casualties. A turkey shoot of Al Qaeda forces would not break many hearts at The New York Times.

In 1991, the coalition was fundamental to the war's aim, which was to restore stability in the region; this time, the coalition is incidental to the war's aim, which is to defend the United States of America. Stability remains an issue: The current Bush Administration is right to worry about keeping diplomatic damage to a minimum, and about such niceties as installing a postwar government that the Pakistanis and Pashtuns can live with. Nonetheless, this time the aim of the war is not to preserve the order of things but to change it, even at what is likely to be a considerable cost to peace and quiet in the region and in the world and in America. No one imagines that Al Qaeda and Mullah Omar, if spanked, would behave themselves. The enemy has declared his implacable hostility to America; if he wins, we lose. Restoring a sustainable status quo ante is not an option, and therefore is not a goal.

In short, this is a real war against a real enemy, and not a "military operation" against a regional bully. It is fundamentally an American war, rather than a coalition war; and it is being fought not to restore an old power balance but to establish a new one, for better and also, inevitably, for worse. The first George Bush, notwithstanding the errors revealed by hindsight (and compounded by President Clinton), was a good war leader because he quit prudently. The second George Bush will be a good war leader if he perseveres doggedly.

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