by Victor Davis Hanson
The American Legion
A slightly shorter version of this essay appears in the April 2007 issue of The American Legion.
On the early morning of February 28, 1991, over a half-million United Nations-sponsored coalition troops on land, sea, and air were about to crush the final core of Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army that just seven months earlier had stormed into Kuwait and ravaged the country.
Only a day earlier, tank units of the American 1st Armored Division, sweeping in a vast pincer movement into Iraq, from the north and west had demolished rearguard elements of Saddam Hussein’s fleeing Republican Guard.
Indeed, in less than an hour, American armor and supporting aircraft had blown apart sixty heavy T-72 tanks, nine T-55 tanks and 38 armored carriers. In the analysis of one account of the Gulf War, the armor duel was “more like a one-sided clay pigeon shoot than an armored battle.”
What was left at dusk on February 27 of Saddam Hussein’s best troops — four or five Republican Guard divisions — were almost cut off near Basra and facing the same fate as earlier fleeing Iraqis from Kuwait who were pounded relentlessly by coalition air power. So within hours, Saddam’s entire military-political infrastructure would be nearly wrecked — and thus any chance that Baathist Iraq could threaten its neighbors or even rein in its restive minorities.
But then suddenly at 8AM on February 28, the coalition abruptly stopped. A ceasefire was declared — a mere 100 hours after the land war began, less than six weeks after the start of the punishing air campaign. In the words of Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who was the chief advocate of cessation, “There is chivalry in war”. He added that they should all worry about the “psychic cost” of butchering a supposedly defeated enemy. And besides, a 100-hour-war had a nice ring to it.
Almost immediately, howls of protest arose from some military officers in the field, officials at the state department and the Pentagon, and outsider observers. Such anger continues to this day — and also still frames the current acrimony over the second Gulf War of 2003.
American division commanders like Gen. Barry McCaffery — ready to obliterate entire brigades of the uncommitted Republican Guard — were troubled. Even Air Force General, Merrill McPeak, a member of the Joint Chiefs, felt the war had ended at least two or three days too soon. Deputy Centcom commander, Gen. Calvin Waller, was furious at the news of a sudden halt and the very idea of negotiated settlement, followed by some sort of proposed demilitarized zone, “What the hell is that for?…We don’t want another Korea, do we?” Instead he had suggested to Schwarzkopf, “Why not go ahead and complete what we were going to do?”
Although later finger-pointing would focus on both Gens. Powell and Schwarzkopf, there is good reason to believe that Schwarzkopf, the Centcom commander on the ground in Iraq, had been inclined to continue the war for a few more days, or at least 24 hours. Although he gave into pressure from the White House to stop (“I have no problem with it.”), and had wrongly boasted “the gate was closed” on the retreating Iraqis — when in fact they were not surrounded as they approached the southern city of Basra — Schwarzkopf certainly did not offer to cease the moment that a bullying enemy found itself soon facing annihilation.
As the Americans and their coalition partners drew back, and the armistice was concluded, further controversy almost immediately surrounded the conditions of the hastily arranged cease fire. Saddam himself did not attend. His officer corps that did was certainly not humiliated in the surrender ceremonies planned for the desert town of Safwan — that first had to be captured from the Iraqis!
Once there, his surrogate generals came proudly away with guarantees of the territorial integrity of Iraq and accompanying promises of American withdrawal. Iraqi commanders were even allowed to use their helicopters for “transportation.” They would almost immediately manipulate that concession by freely using gunships to demolish Kurdish and Shiite uprisings in sight of hamstrung postwar coalition troops.
The war’s limited goals, as set out by President Bush, ratified by the U.N. sanctioned coalition, and insisted upon by the Arab League, were to eject Saddam from Kuwait — no more. As far as the American administration officials were concerned, once Saddam was defeated and humiliated in Kuwait, he would lose face and perhaps be overthrown in Iraq by either Shiites and Kurds or disaffected Sunnis and Baathists.
All sides at first seemed relieved by the abrupt cessation. The macabre Iraqi retreat under American bombardment from Kuwait — especially the carnage on the so-called “Highway of Death” — had been televised around the globe. While initial media reports of many thousands incinerated were false, there was still enough taped carnage to turn world opinion toward support for an immediate end of such savage operations.
The unease was not just within the media. Senior Pentagon official in their top-secret Crisis Management Room saw slides of the carnage that their pilots were inflicting on retreating Iraqis. And they almost immediately voiced concern that the military, in the words of Richard Haas, the National Security Council Director for Near East and South Asia Affairs, would “be seen as piling on.”
When both Kurdish and Shiite minorities rose up to the north and in the south, observers perhaps thought that they would shortly break away from Saddam’s weakened central government in Baghdad. Or at least they might obtain concessions for some sort of autonomy from a defanged dictator Saddam, surrounded as he was by hundreds of thousands of enemy troops, many of them still on his own soil.
But over the next few days, the joy of victory was soured by the realization that thousands of Shiites and Kurds were being butchered by Saddam, many of them by the very helicopter gunships permitted under the armistice accords. Global journalism after castigating the Americans for too much force on the Highway of Death, this time faulted them for too little — as it now broadcast tragic pictures of hungry and cold Kurds huddling on bare slopes, after fleeing from Saddam’s vicious counterattacks.
Eventually after two weeks of such slaughter, the Americans, British, and French would establish no-fly zones over two-thirds of Iraq’s airspace — a situation to last twelve years until March 2003. And for more than a decade, at periodic intervals, successive frustrated American Presidents would seek to “keep Saddam in his box.” Containment required U.N. inspection teams, embargoes, boycotts, and occasional cruise missile and bombing attacks — before ending with a second war to remove Saddam altogether, and to correct the perceived incompleteness of the first.
What was the reasoning behind that critical moment of hesitation on February 28, 1991 that turned a stunning immediate tactical victory into a long-term strategic stalemate?
In a word, American realism prevailed — especially worries over the future balance of power in the region, and the fragility of the oil-rich Persian Gulf. Secretary of State James Baker summed up the calculation best. In summer 1990 he had made it known, through the American ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, that the United States did not wish to intervene in border disputes between Arab nations. After Saddam took that apparent nonchalance as a green light to invade and annex Kuwait, Baker then reversed course and announced that the war to eject him would be focused on “Jobs, jobs, jobs” — that is, the need to avoid an American recession caused by Saddam’s possible strangulation of Gulf oil supplies.
Secretary Baker’s realpolitik was seconded by Chairman of the Joint Chief, Gen. Colin Powell, and National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft. Neither wished to see American armies bogged down in a civil war in Iraq — especially when an ascendant theocratic Iran might capitalize on a weakened Iraq and an overextended United States. In the words of Scowcroft “Geopolitics” would demand an immediate cease-fire. For his part, Powell scoffed at the idea of going to Baghdad to help the anti-Saddam revolutionaries, “as if lots of little Jeffersonian democrats would have popped up to run for office.” President Bush agreed with the advice to stop, but he voiced a sort of anxiety nonetheless, “We don’t want to screw this up with a sloppy, muddled ending.”
Diplomats, both here and abroad, reminded the Americans that their United Nations’ coalition mandate ended with the liberation of Kuwait. Anything further might raise the ire of Europeans who had not signed onto removing Saddam, from whom the French had obtained lucrative oil concessions, and the Germans substantial contracts for everything from machine tools to reinforced bunkers. For their part, Arab countries let it be known that they would not support a Western offensive operation against another Arab state — especially to support dissident and supposedly pro-Iranian Iraqi Shiites over Sunni Baathists. And with over 500 oil wells still flaming in Kuwait, and Saddam’s spills polluting the shoreline of the Gulf, Western nations had no desire to start another war in Iraq before the detritus of the last one was cleaned up.
Initially domestic opinion had been sharply divided over going into Iraq. The United States Senate had authorized the war by a mere five votes. So the Bush administration had legitimate worries that a popular victory might turn into a disastrous American occupation in a violent post bellum Iraq — and thus turn the public against the war in the months before a tough re-election bid. Why throw away a popular and relatively cost-free victory by an uncertain occupation?
Idealists countered in vain about the terms of armistice. Undersecretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz, remonstrated that it was wrong to let Iraqi dissidents be butchered just miles away from victorious American troops, as if our soldiers were “idly watching a mugging”. Others pointed out that as long as the calculus of aggression remained in Iraq — circulating petrodollars, sophisticated weapons purchases, and a megalomaniac dictator — there would never be peace.
But what is undisputed is that few on February 28, 1991 — or even during the subsequent 12-year on-off again cold war with Saddam — realized that this hasty decision not to finish the war by going to Baghdad years later would figure prominently in the raging controversy over the second Iraqi war.
Indeed, until the difficult postwar occupation of Iraq commencing in April 2003 to the present, the communis opinio of the 1990s was that the Americans had committed a serious moral and strategic error in allowing Saddam to survive. Almost every one involved in that administration’s decision of 1991 would later turn on each other in recriminations when hostilities broke out again in 2003. Brent Scowcroft stood by the decision. And so he severely criticized George W. Bush’s choice to remove Saddam — and then declared himself vindicated by the subsequent insurgency that has tied down the United States between 2003-7.
Colin Powell, who had given multifarious reasons to end the war at its 100th hour, and for over a decade had defended that realist decision in the face of mounting criticism, wavered on the second war. Always the team player, as Secretary of State in the younger Bush administration, he reluctantly made the case for the preemptive war with arguments that he had rejected12 years earlier.
Former Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney defended the stop order after leaving office in 1993. But as Vice President a decade later he apparently came to believe in the post September 11 climate that he had been mistaken — given Saddam’s violations of armistice and United Nation accords during the1990s. In any case, he became a vehement advocate of reentering Iraq in 2003.
But the oddest development was the tension that inevitably arose between George Bush Sr. and his son, President George Walker Bush. In the hours after the 1991 armistice President Bush himself had seemed troubled, “And now Saddam Hussein is still there — the man who wreaked this havoc upon his numbers.” But later in his memoirs and through public interviews, the elder Bush never voiced official regret about leaving Saddam in power — even after the dictator’s constant violation of the no-fly-zones, and rumored attempts to kill Bush himself. In the end, he never recanted his official postbellum proclamation, “Kuwait is liberated. Iraq’s army is defeated. Our military objectives are met.”
Yet, much of his own son’s rationale to remove Saddam in 2003 was predicated on the “mistake” of leaving Saddam in power in 1991. Thus the first Bush was left with the dilemma of either criticizing his own past conduct or his son’s present decision; just as the younger Bush was forced to be largely silent about his contemporary critics, lest he fault his father’s earlier “wrong” choice. Indeed, much of the actual plan of 2003 to invade through Kuwait, move northward along the Tigris and Euphrates corridor, and end up in Baghdad was based on a secret Pentagon contingency operation “The Road To Baghdad” developed in 1991.
So was halting on February 28, 1991 the right decision?
Of course not — if the controversy is predicated solely in terms of allowing the fighting to continue a few more days, ensuring the destruction of the Republican Guard that slaughtered so many in the war’s aftermath. But the larger question of going into Baghdad, toppling Saddam, and occupying the country until a new government emerged, is more hotly disputed than ever.
Defenders of that 1991 stoppage point to the present chaos in Iraq as proof of what would have happened far earlier. But advocates of the second war respond that a golden moment was lost when both the Kurds and Sunnis were willing to fight Saddam, effused with good will toward the United States — a transitory trust lost when we cynically allowed them to be slaughtered, and sadly not to be altogether regained when it was essential to the success of the subsequent occupation.
In the end, wise hindsight depends on the current pulse of the ever-changing battlefield — and later developments that sometimes do not unfold for years. Initially leaving Saddam in power was deemed sober — but only for a few days when it appeared he was so weakened that it seemed inevitable that Iraqis themselves would overthrow the Baathist murderers.
Yet within weeks by March 1991, after thousands had been killed, expert opinion shifted. The war was redefined as a tragic lost opportunity at best, and a stalemate at worst. And so the architects of the limited first Gulf War were on the defensive throughout the ensuing decade. And why not as the world witnessed 350,000 sorties in the no-fly zones, the corrupt, but lethal United Nations Oil for Food program, repeated violations of the 1991 armistices, and periodic bombing of Iraq?
The question seemed again resolved by April 9, 2003 with the toppling of Saddam’s statue in Baghdad, and the belated end to the Hussein nightmare, as the “mistake” had finally been rectified once and for all.
But the unexpected insurgency of ex-Baathists and Islamic terrorists that commenced in summer 2003 and continues to this day rekindled the embers of the fifteen-year-old controversy as never before. Suddenly former critics of the senior Bush now praised his past realist caution for earlier avoiding the present “fiasco.”
Most recently former Secretary of State James Baker headed a bi-partisan commission to salvage the American effort in Iraq, and preened in passing, “I am no longer asked why we did not remove Saddam” — an apparent admission that the Hussein autocracy was preferable to the chaos that inevitably would follow for Americans in removing him. Supporters of the 2003 war, however, still maintained that it was lost Iraqi good will through our past indifference that made the present postbellum democratization so problematic.
Nor is such second-guessing unusual. It often takes years and subsequent events to adjudicate the wisdom of the way wars end. Marathon was seen as a glorious victory in 490 B.C. Yet a decade later it was rethought as only as a brief prequel to a near disastrous second Persian invasion. Americans still don’t quite know whether Woodrow Wilson was too soft or too hard on a beaten Germany after World War I — or whether the Versailles Treaty ensured the start of a second.
We still fight over the morality of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — and whether otherwise we would have really lost a million casualties by invading Japan. Gen. George Patton thought we had fought World War II to free Eastern Europe from a Nazi dictator only to ensure by 1945 a Russian version took his place — a poignant observation during the Cold War, but one losing its resonance during the last decade of freedom after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Stopping at the Demilitarized Zone in Korea in 1951-3 seemed smart at the time, given the horrific losses on all sides, Russian nuclear patronage of North Korea and Chinese intervention. But by 2006 and the specter of a nuclear-armed and lunatic Kim Jong Il, the decision to cease the advance when we were finally back on the offensive appears to have left a far more dangerous enemy to subsequent generations.
If there is one constant across time and space, it is that wars are usually finished only when one side accepts defeat and agrees to political concessions of the victor. Otherwise, a classic bellum interruptum follows along the model of Rome’s three Punic Wars, or the on-again, off-again half-century-long conflict in the Middle East. It was no surprise that the President’s notorious “Axis of Evil” — Iraq, Iran, and North Korea — all had unfinished business with the United States in a manner that former enemies of America in decisive wars — Germany, Japan, Italy, and Vietnam—did not.
Nowhere does the decision to halt in February 1991 loom larger than in contemporary journalistic accounts of both the first and second Iraqi wars. In narratives such as The Generals’ War (1995) by Michael Gordon and Gen. Bernard Trainor, written during the unhappy period of no-fly zones and Saddam’s continual violations of U.N. accords, Gen Powell is castigated as a Hamlet-like figure who is afraid to use the overwhelming power of the American military to achieve strategic success. And he is contrasted with the lone principled voice of Paul Wolfowitz! The authors fault the unnecessarily large American force, the unwieldy coalition that hampered strategic options, the shake-down of allies to make the war pay for itself, and regrettable realist worries over Iran and oil rather than the welfare of the Iraqi people. But most of all, The Generals’ War, like Rick Atkinson’s similar Crusade (1993), notes the irony that a defeated Saddam stayed in power while victorious George Bush lost his presidency.
Fast forward to the present. Contemporary journalists, like some of the policy makers in the first Bush administration, suddenly have reversed course. Gordon and Trainor themselves wrote a new j’accuse of the second conflict, Cobra II, that came out during the messy occupation. Their new targets are the once principled, but now apparently naive Paul Wolfowitz and neo-conservative idealists determined to bring freedom to Iraq. A Pentagon brass that once sent too many troops now is faulted for sending too few. And realpolitik is as admired as it was once ridiculed, as present policy makers foolishly empowered Iran, and naively assumed that Iraqis could establish a democracy where it had never existed prior. Rick Atkinson, like fellow journalist Bob Woodward, became a critic for similar reasons — and so likewise missed the irony that much of the administration’s argument for attacking Iraq in 2003 was predicating on rectifying the mistaken ending to the war of 1991, and its related lapses that had been so ably documented by these journalists in the depressing interval between the wars.
What about the future assessment concerning that fateful moment in 1991? It is conceivable that should Iraq’s present democracy stabilize, American casualties cease, and reform spread to the wider Middle East, public opinion will shift once more. Then the second war of 2003 will be once again seen as the proper closure for the flawed end of the first on February 28, 1991.
©2007 Victor Davis Hanson