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The Way to War

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 capacity as a consultant to ABC News; returning to Washington, she received not so much as a phone call from the administration. All in all, George Bush and his aides worked in a highly insulated environment, largely cut off from other perspectives.

At those early August meetings, the President and his men took a number of swift decisions that would prove to have fateful consequences. The main matter before them was whether to send US troops to Saudi Arabia. Within hours of the invasion, Bush had told reporters that he had no intention of doing so, but he began to reconsider after meeting Margaret Thatcher on August 2 during a previously scheduled joint appearance in Aspen, Colorado. According to Newsweek, the British prime minister told Bush that Saddam Hussein had to be stopped and that only an American show of strength could accomplish that. By the time Bush returned to Washington, he was leaning heavily toward some type of deployment.

Only one of his advisers opposed the idea. Colin Powell had served two tours in Vietnam and, like many other officers who had fought there, felt squeamish about committing large numbers of Americans far from home. In 1984 Powell was working as an aide to Caspar Weinberger when the secretary of defense issued his famous rules of military engagement. “Before the US commits combat forces abroad, there must be some reasonable assurance we will have the support of the American people and their representatives in Congress,” Weinberger had said, drawing on the Vietnam experience. Powell had taken the advice to heart. He had also absorbed the lessons of October 1983, when the illconsidered deployment of Marines in Lebanon had ended in catastrophe. Now Powell expressed reservations about sending troops to the Arabian desert.

The secretary of defense had no such qualms. Dick Cheney had not fought in Vietnam. In fact, he had no military experience whatsoever. Probably the most hawkish member of the inner circle, Cheney argued for a flexing of American muscle. This reinforced the President’s own instincts, and so the decision was made: the US would send troops to the Gulf.

But how many? At this point, the administration’s aim was entirely defensive in nature, seeking to deter an Iraqi attack on Saudi Arabia. For this purpose a relatively small ground force combined with ample air and sea power would probably have been adequate. But the Vietnam experience again imposed itself. If troops had to be committed, Caspar Weinberger had said, the military “should do so wholeheartedly, and with the clear intention of winning.” Powell wanted to make sure that he would have enough forces in place to repel an Iraqi attack should one occur. So, he said, he would want to send units of the 82nd airborne division, the 101st airborne division, the 24th mechanized infantry division, and the 3rd cavalry division, plus naval warships, air force fighters, and a marine amphibious unit—more than 100,000 troops in all.

Deploying such a large force would create some problems of its own. For one thing, it would require mobilizing the reserves, which, in turn, would cause hardship for tens of thousands of Americans. Parents would be separated from their children, workers taken from their jobs, career plans disrupted. Clearly, there was a limit to how long such a force could be left in the field. Yet the economic sanctions the President was planning to impose on Iraq would require many months to take effect. The potential conflict did not preoccupy Colin Powell, however, Pentagon sources say. His main concern was to make sure that this would not be another Vietnam, that the military would not be asked to fight another unpopular war. What better way to test national resolve than to mobilize large numbers of civilians?

To the extent that others might have challenged this logic, memories of Vietnam again intervened. Everyone remembered how Lyndon Johnson had involved himself in minute military matters, to the point of selecting bombing sites for American planes. The results had been disastrous, and President Bush was determined to avoid a repetition, sources close to Powell told me. So the general would have his wish: the deployment would be a large one.

On August 5, Secretary Cheney left for Saudi Arabia to seek King Fahd’s permission to station American troops in his country. According to published reports, some of Fahd’s advisers regarded the plan as excessive, but the king himself was worried about Iraqi battalions massing on his border, and he readily acquiesced.

Once the word reached Washington, Powell ordered General Norman Schwarzkopf, the commander of all US forces in the Mideast, to set the deployment in motion. As it progressed, the force grew larger still. For the Pentagon did not have at hand a deployment plan adapted to the current crisis. The plan it did have—a remnant of the cold war—was based on the premise of a Soviet invasion of Iran. At the time of the Iraqi invasion Schwarzkopf had been adapting the plan to take into account a possible attack on Saudi Arabia, but much remained to be done. Forced to improvise, he fell back on the all-purpose deployment plan the Pentagon maintains for emergency situations anywhere in the world. It sets rigid deployment levels for every conceivable type of job, from tank operators and artillery gunners to chaplains, mechanics, and cooks. Armored personnel carriers, Sherman tanks, anti-aircraft missiles, field hospitals, radar experts, paratroopers, electricians, trench specialists, psychological warfare teams—all were hurriedly airlifted to the Gulf, swelling the force there to almost 200,000. The deployment, Colin Powell would later say, was like “moving the entire city of Richmond, Virginia, 8,000 miles to the Saudi desert.”

An impressive achievement, to be sure, but apparently no one had really thought through why Richmond had to be moved in the first place. “There was absolutely no attempt to design an appropriate force,” according to Edward Luttwak, a military strategist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who helped to develop the AirLand doctrine that has guided the US military in the Gulf. “Saudi Arabia could have been defended with 20,000 Air Force personnel and 16,000 ground troops.” Putting in so many ground forces, he said, made it “more costly to stick with the policy of economic sanctions.” Indeed, stationing so large a force overseas made its eventual use all the more likely. And the Bush administration was slowly arriving at a justification for doing just that.


During the Gulf crisis, President Bush kept aboard Air Force One a copy of Martin Gilbert’s The Second World War. As he shuttled about the country and the world, seeking to build support for his policy, he regularly dipped into its 747 pages. For Bush, who had flown fifty-eight missions as a fighter pilot during World War II—and for Baker and Scowcroft, who belonged to the same generation—that earlier event provided a convenient reference point for the current one. “The thing that kept really coming up, especially in the early months, was the example of the 1930s,” one official told me. “Whenever people sat down together, the talk would turn toward the subject of appeasement. Everybody was clear that this wouldn’t be another Munich.”

The President first laid out the historical parallels in a speech at the Pentagon on August 15. Speaking in a martial setting, with rows of generals and admirals facing him, the President declared, “A half century ago, our nation and the world paid dearly for appeasing an aggressor who should, and could, have been stopped.” Referring to Hitler, he added, “We are not going to make the same mistake again.”

The advisability of referring to Hitler was the subject of vigorous debate within the administration prior to the speech. The White House had received abundant reports about Iraq’s atrocities in Kuwait, but it worried about “demonizing [Saddam] too much,” a senior administration official recalled when I talked to him in February. “People wanted to keep the language from getting too hot” lest the President himself become the issue. In the end, the White House decided to keep the reference to Hitler historical, rather than personal. It was not gas chambers and genocide that the President apparently had in mind when he spoke but the Rhineland, Munich, and Czechoslovakia.

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