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.

As it turned out, the administration had little to worry about. The speech attracted some criticism but more praise. Indeed, the Hitler imagery quickly captured the public imagination. “We learned something from the ‘30s, but let us reflect also that Hussein has already gotten away with more than Hitler had before he finally was challenged,” Mortimer Zuckerman wrote in the August 20 U.S. News and World Report. A few days later, William Safire devoted an entire column to “The Hitler Analogy.” And the September 3 issue of The New Republic featured a cover photo of Saddam with his mustache clipped to resemble Hitler’s. “Furor in the Gulf,” the headline read.

As it crept into the political discourse, the Hitler analogy took on a life of its own, causing important changes in the policy itself. All the discussion about Chamberlain and appeasement made the very idea of talking with Baghdad suspect. Of course, it was not clear that there was anything to talk about. Iraqi forces were already looting Kuwait and imprisoning many of its citizens. Saddam Hussein had declared Kuwait to be Iraq’s nineteenth province, and he seemed unwilling to settle for anything less. Still, opening a line of communication might have allowed a face-saving arrangement at least to be explored—one, for example, in which Iraq would agree to withdraw in return for vague assurances that other regional problems (i.e., the Arab-Israeli one) would later be addressed. As Saddam became more and more identified with Hitler, however, the already dim possibility of dialogue became increasingly remote.

The consequences of the analogy ran deeper than that, though. The more the past was analyzed, the starker its message seemed. Just as Munich had allowed Hitler time to build up his forces, so might Saddam emerge as a greater threat if he were allowed to remain in power. With oil reserves as limitless as his ambition, the Iraqi leader would be in a position to develop more weapons of mass destruction. For some, the logic seemed irrefutable: an Iraqi pullout from Kuwait—even if unconditional—would not really serve American interests in the Gulf. “Even attainment of the UN objectives might provide only a breathing space if Saddam Hussein remains in office and Iraq continues to build up its nuclear and chemical weapons potential,” Henry Kissinger observed in The Washington Post on August 19. The New Republic argued that “if Hussein agreed to pull out of Kuwait and the United States went home, he’d still be in position to dominate the region, build up his nuclear arsenal, and plot to win his way another day.” (In fact, while Hussein was clearly trying to acquire nuclear weapons, he had as yet no nuclear arsenal.)

The writer most closely read at the White House, one official told me, was Jim Hoagland of The Washington Post. Hoagland had covered Iraq for years and had had several meetings with Saddam Hussein. Such first-hand experience endowed his writings with special authority within the administration. “He had an effect on people’s thinking,” the official said. Hoagland left little doubt about where he stood. As early as August 7 he called for the use of “convincing military force against the Iraqi dictator to save the oil fields and to preserve American influence in the Middle East.” Ronald Reagan’s “strike against Moammar Gadhafi’s terror network,” he added, was “the right model for Bush to update and expand upon in dealing with Saddam.”

In other quarters, too, opposition was building to any outcome that would leave Saddam in power. In the wake of Iraq’s invasion, President Bush was frequently on the phone to Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Both men expressed alarm at the prospect of Saddam’s emerging from the crisis with his arsenal intact. Having assumed such a prominent position in the anti-Iraq coalition, they feared the consequences should Saddam survive. In other words, a peaceful solution to the crisis was for them no solution at all.

The same was true for Israel. Ever since making peace with Egypt, Israel had regarded Iraq as its most dangerous adversary in the region. When the Iran-Iraq war came to an end, Israel fully expected to be Saddam’s next target. That he had gone after Kuwait instead seemed only a temporary distraction from his ultimate goal. Indeed, on April 2, 1990, Saddam Hussein, in announcing that Iraq had developed powerful new chemical weapons, declared that “we will make the fire eat up half of Israel, if it is tries to do anything against Iraq.” Kuwait’s fate did not particularly concern Israel; after all, the ruling Sabah family had bankrolled the PLO for years. Disposing of Saddam, on the other hand, seemed a precondition for lasting peace in the region.

Unfortunately for Israel, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s relations with the Bush administration had reached a low point, and the two men barely spoke during the first few months of the crisis, according to John Newhouse, writing in The New Yorker.1 However, on Capitol Hill, several members of Congress—some of them long-time backers of Israel—were growing concerned over the administration’s seeming indifference to the long-term threat posed by Iraq. Among those most worried was Representative Stephen Solarz. During an appearance by James Baker before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in early September, the Brooklyn Democrat gave voice to his fears:

I would like to know how you would respond to those who have argued that if Saddam Hussein should unconditionally withdraw his forces from Kuwait that it would be a Pyrrhic victory for the international community, inas-much as it would leave intact his nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs, not to mention his million man army and the rest of his military infrastructure as a whole. I would like to know if you believe that the elimination of that military potential should become an important objective of the international community as we move toward a satisfactory resolution of this crisis.

Baker responded with a vague comment about the need to create a “new security structure” for the region. Solarz pressed the point:

Mr. Secretary, very bluntly, is it possible to eliminate the Iraqi nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs without physically destroying them?

Baker replied:

It is not possible to eliminate them without destroying them. It is conceivably possible, I think, Mr. Solarz, to come up with a security structure that would make it so clearly to the detriment of any subsequent leader or even the present leader to use or contemplate using any of those weapons that there would be very little risk that they would be used.

Dissatisfied, Solarz began seeking allies for a tougher position. He found one in Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the United States. It would be hard to think of a more unlikely couple—a Brandeis graduate from New York who was once an antiwar activist, and a former fighter pilot who was among the most flamboyant members of the House of Saud (and who during the Iran-contra affair had helped to funnel Saudi money to Richard Secord and Albert Hakim). Over the years, though, the two had become friends—Solarz had visited Bandar in his palace in Saudi Arabia—and they now shared a strong desire to see Saddam finished off.

On October 24, the two men gave a dinner in the Capitol building. The guests included the Kuwaiti and Egyptian ambassadors and a half dozen or so members of Congress, among them Representative Robert Torricelli, a middle-of-the-road New Jersey Democrat who was an ally of Solarz’s on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Senator Howard Metzenbaum (who would later vote against the administration’s resolution authorizing the use of force). Bandar made the case that Saddam’s ability to threaten the region had to be curtailed once and for all, and that economic sanctions were not going to do it. Two days later, a follow-up meeting was held at Bandar’s estate in suburban Virginia. Joining the prince, Solarz, and Torricelli were, among others, Richard Perle, the famously tenacious former Pentagon official, and Robert Strauss, the former national chairman of the Democratic party. They decided to set up a bipartisan group to lobby for a policy of confrontation with Baghdad. Energetically seeking new members, they made an early convert of Ann Lewis, the former political director of the Democratic National Committee and a one-time adviser to Jesse Jackson. Along with Perle, she became a co-chair of the group, called the Committee for Peace and Security in the Gulf.

The White House welcomed the committee’s activities. The existence of a high-profile group that included prominent Democrats willing to support a tough line on the Gulf lent the administration’s policy a bipartisan cast. The committee, in turn, used its access to press the White House to expand its objectives to include “denying Saddam his extensive military capabilities,” Robert Torricelli told me. “We pushed the administration on this.”

The committee found a sympathetic ear in Brent Scowcroft and his top Middle East aide, Richard Haass. Though little known outside official circles, the thirty-nine-year-old Haass had an important part in shaping the administration’s Gulf policy. As the NSC’s senior director for Near East and South Asian affairs, he regularly briefed the President and helped draft many of his speeches (including the one on Hitler). Hardly a scrap of paper on foreign policy issued from the White House that did not first pass through Haass’s hands.

He was not, however, a scholar of the Middle East. Most of Haass’s visits to the region had been brief, apart from a year he spent in Israel while a junior at Oberlin College. Haass’s writings on the Middle East were scant as well, consisting mostly of an August 1986 piece in Commentary magazine about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Titled “Paying Less Attention to the Middle East,” it argued that, in view of PLO intransigence and Soviet ambitions, the US should no longer encourage Israel to pursue a policy of trading territory for peace. As a State Department official from 1981 to 1985, Haass had concentrated on regional security matters and European affairs. Moving on to Harvard’s Kennedy School, he devoted most of the next three years to arms control and the handling of regional conflicts. Haass, in short, was a generalist.

That, in turn, made him more open to the views of groups like the Committee for Peace and Security in the Gulf. Unlike regional specialists, who tended to assign great weight to Arab sensibilities, Haass saw the region primarily in relation to US security, which, he believed, was closely linked to Israel’s. In his book Conflicts Unending: The United States and Regional Disputes,2 Haass maintained that “any successful American policy would require continued support of Israel—political, economic, and military.” As in his Commentary article, he argued that the Palestinian issue was not yet “ripe” for resolution. “Israel,” he added, “is likely to be receptive to American views, and open to taking risks, only if the government and the people believe that the United States is acting as a friend and will be with Israel in any crisis.” Such opinions about the strategic value not only of Israel but of Saudi Arabia and Egypt as well made him sympathetic to the view that Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction and his capacity for military aggression had to be destroyed.

Ironically, the same strategic vision that now made Saddam seem so menacing to Haass and other administration officials had made him seem a desirable ally before August 2. As the nation with the largest military force in the Middle East, Iraq had long been valued in Washington as a counter-weight to the fundamentalist regime in Iran. Throughout the Iran-Iraq war, the Reagan administration had faithfully backed Baghdad, to the extent of sharing sensitive intelligence information with Saddam Hussein. Even when the war ended, in 1988, Washington continued to back Baghdad with agricultural credits despite the regime’s many known atrocities. As soon as the war with Iran ended, for instance, Saddam turned his fury on his own people, gassing Kurdish villages in the northern part of the country. Thousands were killed and many more were forced to flee the country. When the US Senate voted 87 to 0 to impose sanctions on Iraq, the Reagan administration responded with a frantic lobbying campaign that eventually killed the bill.

Soon after taking office, the Bush administration initiated a review of US policy toward Iraq. It was conducted by an interagency “deputies committee” set up to oversee US policy in the Persian Gulf. Richard Haass was one of its members. Saddam’s police-state practices were, of course, well known in Washington. The State Department’s own human-rights report for 1988 thoroughly documented the chemical attacks on the Kurds. It also reported the routine practice of political killings, disappearances, and torture. Summing up, the report termed Iraq’s human rights record “abysmal.” Nonetheless, in the summer of 1989, the deputies committee recommended a continuation of the Reagan policy.

During the next year, “constructive engagement” with Iraq would be the prevailing theme. “Iraq is an important state with great potential,” Assistant Secretary of State John Kelly declared on October 27, 1989, in a major address on the Middle East. “We want to deepen and broaden our relationship.” As late as July 1990, the administration blocked a congressional bid to deny Iraq loan guarantees as a protest against its human rights record.

Everything changed on August 2, of course. Those who had so assiduously courted Saddam Hussein before that date now branded him a modern-day Hitler. The day-to-day monitoring of the crisis fell to the same deputies committee that had called for giving support to the dictator. (In addition to Haass, the members included the NSC’s Robert Gates; Robert Kimmitt, an under secretary of state and one of James Baker’s top aides; Paul Wolfowitz, an under secretary of defense and a close adviser to Dick Cheney; Admiral David Jeremiah, Colin Powell’s deputy; and Richard Kerr, the number two man at the CIA.) October would be the key month in the committee’s deliberations. The military leaders had made it clear that the troops in the desert could remain there for no more than six months before they would have to be rotated. With the midway point fast approaching, the administration would have to decide whether to stick with sanctions. The deputies devoted numerous sessions to the matter. They concluded that, economically, the sanctions were working very well—“more tightly,” in fact, than anyone had expected, a senior official told me.

This assessment was reflected in the public statements of administration officials. On October 17, for instance, James Baker told a Senate panel that “sanctions are beginning to have an impact. We believe that the sanctions on exports have been particularly successful. There is no oil getting out.” In closed-door testimony in the Senate, a top CIA official estimated that the sanctions had reduced Iraq’s imports by 90 percent and its exports by 97 percent, helping to bring about a 40 to 50 percent drop in the country’s GNP. Not a single high-tech military part had been smuggled in, the official added. CIA director William Webster would confirm much of this assessment publicly on December 5, telling a House panel that the sanctions would cause serious damage to Iraq’s air force within three to six months and to its ground forces in nine months.3

Nonetheless, a number of considerations were pushing the White House away from sanctions and toward a much tougher line. There were continuing calls for action from commentators like William Safire and Jim Hoagland. There were mounting fears in Tel Aviv, Cairo, and Riyadh about the prospect of Saddam’s remaining in power. There were increasing reports from refugees of summary executions, torture, and looting in Kuwait. There were clear indications of an Iraqi buildup on the Kuwaiti-Saudi border. And, finally, there were 200,000 US troops sitting in Saudi Arabia with no clear mission. If the administration continued to rely on sanctions, those troops could still be there well into 1991 as the presidential election approached—not an enviable situation for George Bush.

And so, on November 8, the President announced that he was dispatching more than 150,000 additional troops to the Gulf. The initial deployment, he said, had done little to modify Saddam’s behavior and so he wanted an “offensive military option” to show he meant business. To the extent that it had been difficult to sustain 200,000 soldiers in the field, it would prove doubly so with twice that number. In effect, by ordering the new deployment, the administration was indicating its acceptance of the view that a return to the status quo ante was unacceptable—that, one way or another, Saddam Hussein’s war-making powers had to be radically reduced.


From November on, as the military prepared to go to war, the administration prepared the political groundwork. Shortly after the President’s surprise announcement of the new troop deployment, the United States asked the UN Security Council to authorize the use of force in liberating Kuwait. According to a Western diplomat, the original American proposal contained no waiting period. The idea of adding an interval to allow for negotiations was proposed by the Soviets and grudgingly accepted by Washington as the price of their support. The US wanted a January 1 deadline; Moscow held out for the 15th. As finally approved on November 29, Resolution 678 called for not only the liberation of Kuwait but also the return of “peace and security” to the region—an exceedingly vague phrase that US officials privately maintained encompassed the destruction of Iraq’s military capacity.

On November 30, President Bush announced that he was sending James Baker to Baghdad and inviting Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz to Washington. Widely applauded on Capitol Hill, the move raised hopes that war might somehow be averted. But the optimism soon faded as the two sides began to argue over dates. Bush had said that any “mutually convenient time” before January 15 would be acceptable; when Baghdad chose January 12, though, the President said this was too close to the UN deadline. Eventually, Baker and Aziz met in Geneva on January 9. There, during a six-hour meeting, Baker presented, and Aziz rejected, a bluntly worded letter from President Bush. “Anything less than full compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 678 and its predecessors is unacceptable,” stated the letter, which was drafted by Richard Haass. “There can be no reward for aggression. Nor will there be any negotiation.” Aziz was equally uncompromising, and when he invited Baker to visit Baghdad to see Saddam, the secretary of state declined. Baker never did make it to Baghdad.

The administration did not seem disappointed with this outcome. Indeed, Bush’s initiative seemed to hold little promise from the start. The idea of sending Baker to meet Saddam without first preparing for the meeting through lower-level contacts disregarded some elementary rules of international diplomacy. And the President’s insistence that Baker not negotiate—only demand an unconditional withdrawal—seemed designed to court failure. According to Elizabeth Drew writing in The New Yorker,4 Baker seemed genuinely interested in pursuing a diplomatic solution but was reined in by more hardline officials, particularly Brent Scowcroft. “At first, I felt they were seriously looking for a political dialogue,” I was told by William Quandt, a Middle East specialist at the Brookings Institution and a former member of the NSC. “In retrospect, though, it seems they never intended to have a serious diplomatic outcome—only to affect the domestic debate. The whole thing looked as if it wasn’t meant to work in the first place.”

With the January 15 deadline fast approaching, Congress took up the proposed resolution to authorize the president to use force in the Gulf. The vote was clearly going to be close, thanks in large part to Senator Sam Nunn, whose opposition to using force before sanctions could be fully tested provided cover to Democrats in both houses who were troubled by the administration’s seeming eagerness to do battle. The Committee for Peace and Security in the Gulf helped to provide cover of a different sort. A few weeks earlier, the President had invited some of its members to the Oval Office. Stephen Solarz was among them. “I came away from the meeting feeling that, in the event of our going to war, Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction would be high up on the list of priorities,” he told me.

Solarz and other members of the committee began urging members of Congress to support the President’s policy. On January 9, Solarz met with Brent Scowcroft at the White House to refine the language of the proposed resolution. The debate began the next day, and Solarz helped to lead the pro-administration forces in the House. In the end, eighty-six Democrats in the House and ten in the Senate voted for the resolution. The committee, says a senior administration official, “made a real difference on the Hill. People like Solarz were very good as a balance to Nunn because it showed that some of the smartest, most knowledgeable people in this area were on our side of the issue.”

In the days leading up to the deadline, some administration officials thought Saddam might begin a partial withdrawal from Kuwait, thereby putting pressure on the US to delay its assault. This prospect caused “something close to panic” among administration officials, Edward Luttwak told me. “The worst-case scenario in their eyes was that he says ‘yes’ and withdraws.” In fact, one official told me that the administration had anticipated such a contingency and had plans for frustrating it, but exactly what those plans consisted of he would not say.

He did talk about the administration’s goals for the Middle East once the crisis passed. They included the development of more cooperative relations among the region’s Arab nations, the creation of new economic institutions to ensure a broader distribution of oil wealth, and progress toward an Arab-Israeli settlement. This last point, the official said, “should be addressed with a lot of energy.” Finally, he added, the US would seek a “more realistic set of security arrangements in the Gulf.” He explained: “In the future, our friends in the Arab world will not rely as much as they did on Arab diplomacy. There will be a greater dose of realism, a recognition that diplomacy must be based on deterrence.” In other words, the US would continue to rely on balance-of-power considerations to maintain stability in the region. Exactly what type of regime might eventually replace Saddam Hussein’s was a question he did not address.

One way or another, though, the administration believed Saddam had to be halted. “My own reading is that there was a very strong inclination on the part of the Bush administration to take advantage of this unique situation,” Gary Sick, who handled Persian Gulf matters for Jimmy Carter’s NSC, told me. “With all the forces we had over there, with the coalition in place and functioning—if they were ever going to stop this guy, this was the moment to do it.” In the end, says Sick, “Bush bought into the imagery of the Hitler analogy.”

So, too, in his way, did Saddam Hussein. Had the Iraqi dictator been less intransigent, less removed from reality, he could probably have escaped the cataclysm awaiting him. However, from the initial weeks of the crisis, when a hint of flexibility on Iraq’s part could have conceivably opened the way to a settlement, until the eve of the UN deadline, when a move to withdraw could have stayed the executioner, Saddam Hussein acted like the determined and deranged dictator Washington had made him out to be.

And so, on the evening of January 16, the liberation of Kuwait began—with a relentless attack on Iraq’s military machine.

February 28, 1991

  1. 1

    February 18, 1991, p. 77.

  2. 2

    Yale University Press, 1990.

  3. 3

    The New Republic, February 11, 1991, p. 20.

  4. 4

    February 4, 1991, p. 84.