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Bush Abroad

This is precisely what was wrong with the other option: negotiation. It is true that the Bush administration showed no real desire to achieve a compromise; it was deeply suspicious of the “Arab solution,” involving a less than total Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, that King Hussein and President Mubarak advocated in early August; Bush apparently thought that a negotiated withdrawal would be a “nightmare scenario.”6 A careful reconstruction of Saddam Hussein’s own moves,7 however, does not convince one that he himself was ever eager for such a deal, especially not after the arrival of US forces in Saudi Arabia and his condemnation by a majority of Arab states at their summit meeting in early August. All the bargains he did suggest would have left him the political winner. It takes two to make a deal and neither party was willing; each side, in fact, spent a great deal of time, up to January 15, rejecting proposals made by self-appointed intermediaries.

Many mysteries remain, especially on the Iraqi side;8 it is clear that Saddam Hussein miscalculated the American reaction as well as that of the Saudis and other Arabs, but it is still not certain whether the invasion of Kuwait was an impulsive move followed by blustery improvisations in which Saddam Hussein trapped himself, or a calculated operation whose effects—a war—he had considered, even though he made a huge mistake about its outcome. If he had really wanted to get out of the trap, even the distaste of the Bush administration for a deal and its determination to humiliate him could not have prevented him from doing so. Just as he made a sudden concession to Iran of the territorial gains he had achieved in the Iran-Iraq war, he could have avoided an attack by pulling most of his troops out of Kuwait.

Another line of criticism concerns the “policy of minimum candor”9 followed by Bush throughout the crisis. He and his closest advisers seem to have decided very early in August to expel Saddam Hussein forcibly from Kuwait, and yet even Colin Powell thought for a while that the US would not go to war for Kuwait.10 The Bush administration exaggerated the danger of an Iraqi invasion of Saudi Arabia in order to obtain Saudi consent to American troop deployment (although how much persuasion King Fahd actually needed remains another mystery).11

These deployments were presented as defensive long after General Schwarzkopf, prodded by Powell, had started to prepare an offensive operation. Even though the President made a resounding statement about the occupation of Kuwait—“This will not stand”—on August 5, he did not announce the offensive buildup until after the mid-term election, on November 8. He delayed making a request for support from Congress until the House and Senate had very little choice, at the last minute before the war. The US goal gradually escalated from the protection of Saudi Arabia, to the liberation of Kuwait, to the crippling of Saddam’s war potential. Saddam’s army was described as much more powerful than officials must have known it was.12 All this is true, and deserves to be criticized; so do the ways in which the press and television were controlled and neutralized by the military during the war.13 A good Machiavellian would answer that once a goal is agreed on as a worthy one, it justifies tricky means, and that maximum candor could have backfired dangerously, especially at home.

Another case against the war has been presented with great power by Robert W. Tucker and David Hendrickson in The Imperial Temptation. 14 They offer an alternative policy, one that would have relied on sanctions insofar as the liberation of Kuwait was concerned, and would have mainly consisted in “punitive containment” through guarantees to, and air and naval protection of, Saudi Arabia.

Tucker and Hendrickson argue that the US had no binding commitment to Kuwait and that Saddam Hussein’s power was miniscule compared to Hitler’s (or to that of the Soviets in the 1950s and 1960s). It could therefore have been taken care of by rigorous containment rather than war. Even if one accepts their argument about Iran’s nuclear potential—that it could always have been kept in check by Israel or destroyed by American precision-guided weapons—they are too abrupt in dismissing any international obligation to Kuwait under the UN Charter. The annexation of one member of the UN by another is a particularly serious case of aggression; and while Tucker and Hendrickson are right to point out that minimizing violence in international affairs is no less important than resisting aggression, there may well be instances in which such resistance, undertaken in the hope of minimizing future violence, can only take the form of force.15

A more troubling line of criticism in The Imperial Temptation concerns the kind of force that was used. Theorists of the “just war,” since Augustine and Saint Thomas, distinguish the justice of going to war (jus ad bellum) from the justice of the means used in war (jus in bello). Even if, with Michael Walzer or George Weigel, 16 one acknowledges the justice of going to war for the sheik of Kuwait, the means that were used raise two different moral questions. The first concerns the air war. It is true that, unlike in the Second World War, a deliberate effort was made not to target civilians directly, and that the new technology of war reduces considerably the risk of what the antiseptic literature of warfare calls collateral damage—hitting civilians while targeting military objectives.17 Some writers have celebrated this as a triumph of the two key principles of jus in bello, discrimination (between combatants and noncombatants) and proportionality (the means should not exceed the goals).18

This is far too crude a judgment. For nothing is gained if direct attacks on people’s lives are replaced simply by deliberate attacks on all the underpinnings of civilian life. As it happens, the list of targets deemed military included almost the entire electrical power grid of Iraq as well as its communications networks and most of its water and sewage systems. Thus the bombing resulted in a major health crisis in the country, not to mention the environmental disaster in Kuwait, “the biggest oil spill in history,”19 to which both sides contributed. And there was in fact serious “collateral damage,” when old-style weapons missed their targets or when a targeted shelter turned out to be used by civilians.20

The second moral issue is that of the so-called “turkey shoot” of fleeing Iraqi soldiers at the end of the ground war. Killing soldiers is accepted under the jus in bello, but is this still right when the soldiers are neither volunteers nor mercenaries but the forcibly drafted cannon fodder of a tyrant and plainly in full flight from an overwhelming enemy? One might reply that this criticism is often made by people who, at the same time, deplore that Saddam Hussein was left with enough soldiers to crush his internal enemies. But the loyal soldiers he used to restore his power were not those who were fleeing Kuwait and who might have been captured rather than slaughtered during their rout.

But the main trouble with celebrating either the morality or the success of the war is that—like just war theory itself—it neglects both what happened before and what happened after the period of crisis. Just as much as World War II, the Gulf War was, to use Churchill’s words, an unnecessary war, which only became “necessary” because of the very mistakes made by those who, having tolerated and even encouraged the growth of a monster, had to fight him in order not to be further damaged by their creation. The record of American policy toward Iraq between the end of the Iraq-Iran war in 1988—a war in which the US at times supported both sides, and later fully tilted toward Iraq out of an understandable fear of Iran, while remaining willfully blind to Saddam Hussein’s crimes, methods, and goals—and August 2, 1990, is beginning to be known.21 Two features stand out.

The first is that the US sent remarkably mixed signals to the Iraqi dictator. The Bush administration was not alone in contributing to his power. Still, sensitive military technology and intelligence information were sent to Iraq even after 1988 (despite some Pentagon objections, but under pressure from the Commerce and State Departments). The Atlanta branch of the Italian Banco Nazionale del Lavoro helped Iraq “obtain billions of dollars in loans from the US,”22 an episode that deserves further investigation, and the administration opposed the attempt by Congress to impose sanctions on Iraq for its violations of human rights (the Reagan administration had been equally protective in 1988, after Saddam’s use of chemical weapons against the Kurds).23 In January 1990, the President signed an executive order certifying the necessity to continue providing Iraq with loan guarantees. This policy of friendship, aimed at “moderating” Iraq, was the one the hapless Ambassador Glaspie was trying to carry out when she assured Saddam Hussein shortly before his invasion that the US was neutral in the dispute between Iraq and Kuwait.

On the other hand, the US approved some steps against Iraq. There was the much talked about Voice of America editorial of February 15, 1990, which criticized the human rights record and the brutality of the Iraqi regime, the Administration’s blocking of the sale of advanced furnaces to Iraq,24 and the continuing American presence (the CIA in Kuwait, advisers in Saudi Arabia) in countries that had increasingly hostile relations with Iraq.25

In the days before the invasion of Kuwait, American statements ranged from April Glaspie’s soothing remarks to Saddam Hussein and Assistant Secretary of State John Kelly’s plea for more trade with Iraq and denial of any obligation to defend Kuwait, to a contradictory statement by the Secretary of Defense. The Kuwaitis were themselves probably encouraged by US diplomats to resist Iraq’s demands.26

Saddam Hussein seems to have derived from these mixed messages an equally mixed conclusion. On the one hand, he became convinced that the US was out to undermine his regime and to check his power at a time when he faced formidable financial difficulties as a result of the Iran-Iraq war; he expressed his distrust of the US and verbally attacked American imperialism and alleged American-Israeli plots in several Arab summits in 1990.27 On the other hand he also convinced himself that he could defy the American imperialists, because they knew nothing about the Arabs, and would not have the stomach to fight a protracted and bloody war. “His expectation that the US sought to destroy him became a self-fulfilling prophecy,”28 because he underestimated the reactions, determination, and formidable power of American opponents angered by the hostility of a man they had hoped to pacify by trade and friendly gestures. A mixture of appeasement and distaste on the American side resulted in failure to deter Saddam, and, on Saddam’s part, a will to confront Bush: it was the worst of both worlds.

  1. 6

    See Jean Edward Smith, George Bush’s War (Holt Company, 1992), p. 175.

  2. 7

    The best reconstructions are in Smith, George Bush’s War, and Mohamed Heikal, Illusions of Triumph (London: HarperCollins, 1992).

  3. 8

    For example, the bizarre episode of Iraq’s announcement of a prompt withdrawal from Kuwait, which was canceled while the Arab summit was meeting.

  4. 9

    Smith, George Bush’s War, p. 169.

  5. 10

    See General Schwarzkopf, It Doesn’t Take a Hero (Bantam, 1992), pp. 297, 316.

  6. 11

    Dilip Hiro, Desert Shield to Desert Storm (Routledge, 1992), discusses three different versions of the Saudis’ call for help, pp. 119 ff.

  7. 12

    See Smith, George Bush’s War, p. 150; Heikal, Illusions, p. 20; Elaine Sciolino, The Outlaw State (Wiley, 1991), pp. 27–28.

  8. 13

    See the books of Philip W. Taylor, John R. MacArthur, and Hedrick Smith (editor) listed above.

  9. 14

    (Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1992), chapters 7–8.

  10. 15

    See the pungent remarks of Fred Halliday, “The Left and the War: Four Underlying Questions,” in Haim Bresheeth and Nira Yuval-Davis, editors, The Gulf War and the New World Order (Zed Books, 1991), pp. 272–276.

  11. 16

    See Michael Walzer, “Justice and Injustice in the Gulf War,” in Jean Beth Elshtain, Sidney Hauerwas, Sari Nusseibeh, Michael Walzer, and George Weigel, But Was It Just? (Doubleday, 1992), pp. 1–18, and George Weigel, “From Last Resort to Endgame: Morality, the Gulf War, and the Peace Process,” But Was It Just?, pp. 43–60.

  12. 17

    See the books of Colonel Summers and R. Hallion listed on page 55.

  13. 18

    See especially J.T. Johnson and George Weigel, Just War and the Gulf War (Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1991), pp. 33 ff.

  14. 19

    T.M. Hawley, Against the Fires of Hell (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992), pp. 41 ff.

  15. 20

    See Hawley, Against the Fires, chapter 10, and Middle East Watch, Needless Deaths in the Gulf (New York Human Rights Watch, 1992).

  16. 21

    See Michael A. Palmer, Guardians of the Gulf (Free Press, 1992), chapter 8; Sciolino, The Outlaw State, chapter 7; Smith, George Bush’s War, pp. 45 ff.

  17. 22

    See Sciolino, The Outlaw State, p. 143; Eric Alterman, Sound and Fury (HarperCollins, 1992), pp. 256–257.

  18. 23

    See Deborah Amos, Lines in the Sand (Simon and Schuster, 1991), pp. 59 ff.

  19. 24

    See Smith, George Bush’s War, p. 51, and Sciolino, The Outlaw State, p. 153.

  20. 25

    See Heikal, Illusions, pp. 173 ff., and Amos, Lines in the Sand, pp. 41 ff.

  21. 26

    See Milton Viorst, quoted in Smith, George Bush’s War, p. 271, from his New Yorker article “A Reporter At Large: After the Liberation,” September 30, 1991, pp. 64–66.

  22. 27

    Heikal, Illusions, pp. 122–135.

  23. 28

    Janice Gross Stein, “Deterrence and Compellence in the Gulf, 1990–1991,” International Security, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Fall 1992), p. 178. This article is the most careful analysis of Saddam Hussein’s assumptions, expectations, and miscalculations that I have come across.

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