The Way to War

George Bush
George Bush; drawing by David Levine

With every passing day of the Gulf War it became increasingly clear that Washington’s goals extended well beyond the announced one of liberating Kuwait. Thus, during the initial weeks of the conflict, US bombers pounded not only command-and-control centers, troop formations, airfields, and other targets directly related to freeing Kuwait, but also nuclear research facilities, weapons development centers, industrial plants, oil refineries, electrical power grids, and other components of Iraq’s long-range war-making capacity.

When the Soviet Union proposed its peace plan, which would have allowed Saddam Hussein to leave Kuwait with much of his army and his prestige intact, the Bush administration firmly rejected it. On February 23, when the US-imposed deadline for an Iraqi withdrawal passed, American commanders waited no more than eight hours before launching a ground attack. It seemed clear that the US was as much committed to crippling Saddam Hussein as to liberating Kuwait.

This broader goal was present well before the fighting began. In fact, as far back as October, the administration had concluded that expelling Iraq from Kuwait was not enough—that Saddam Hussein’s power to threaten neighboring states had to be contained as well. Once adopted, this objective became the driving force behind the policy, making the White House increasingly willing to risk a military confrontation with Iraq. An account of how this came about helps to explain why we went to war and how we waged it.


In the first three days after Iraqi tanks moved into Kuwait, President Bush held a series of emergency meetings at the White House and at Camp David to fashion a response. Present at most of the sessions was a core group of advisers: Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell, Secretary of State James Baker, White House Chief of Staff John Sununu, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, and Scowcroft’s deputy, Robert Gates. Over the next five months, several administration officials told me, these men would continually be at the President’s side, forming a tight circle of decision-makers that would control virtually every aspect of policy. Occasionally, the group would expand to include other officials, but the inner sanctum would remain beyond the reach of most government officials. Even the Joint Chiefs of Staff would have trouble getting to see their commander-in-chief.

People outside the government, too, had little part in the process. From time to time, the President would meet with specialists on the region—for instance. Lucius Battle, the former president of the Middle East Institute, and Fouad Ajami, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Such sessions were rare, though, occurring no more than once every five or six weeks, according to officials. For the most part, the administration showed little interest in what experts on the Middle East had to say. In November, for instance, Judith Kipper of the Brookings Institution met Saddam Hussein in her…

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