Norman Schwarzkopf
Norman Schwarzkopf; drawing by David Levine


The United States had about six months in which to warn Iraq what it faced if it invaded Kuwait. Though Saddam Hussein made repeated threats, no such warning went out from Washington. The reasons for the failure are of more than historical interest, because the people who failed then are still in the same positions.

One factor was the unusually narrow decision-making process in the Bush administration. The President, the secretary of state, and a handful of others—if that many—seem to be able to cope with no more than one problem at a time. In the spring and summer of 1990, they had other things on their minds and paid little attention to Iraq and Kuwait.

A second factor was hinted at by April C. Glaspie, the American ambassador in Baghdad, who pointed out that the Kuwaitis and Saudis were also wrong. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and Asian Affairs John H. Kelly likewise stressed that the Kuwaitis had guessed wrong. “The Kuwaitis didn’t think that they were going to be attacked the night that they were attacked,” he said. “Nobody in the Arab world thought he [Saddam Hussein] was going to do it.”1 Assistant Secretary of International Security Affairs Henry S. Rowen also stated: “The Kuwaitis, of course, who had the most to lose, did not understand his [Saddam Hussein’s] intentions. Others did not. These were Arabs looking at this. So they were all working on a different theory, and we indeed were, to a large extent, ourselves, and that was that he would coerce the Kuwaitis into paying a great deal of money. That was the theory they were operating under, and that turned out to be wrong.”2

In effect, US policy before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was not really made in the United States. It was little more than a mirror-image of what friendly Arab rulers were telling the United States to think.

Third, Glaspie said that she and everyone else did not believe that “the Iraqis were going to take all of Kuwait.” The emphasis should be on “all.” The prewar Iraqi demands had emphasized debts, islands, and the Rumaila oil field, all of which appeared to be amenable to compromise and blackmail. It may well be that some deal could have been worked out if the Kuwaitis had been more receptive. In this respect, the Kuwaitis as well as the Iraqis surprised the other Arabs.

When Saddam Hussein told Glaspie that “the solution must be found within an Arab framework,” he can be taken to have meant that he intended to haggle and drive a hard bargain in the Arab tradition. But Saddam was no ordinary Arab leader and, in any case, he had been advertising his demands publicly for six months without apparent effect. There is even some reason to believe that his final decision to invade may have been made impulsively, based on a miscalculation of US reaction, even as the United States had miscalculated his action. One military account of the war says that Iraqi units were surprised by the order to invade Kuwait, which they received less than half a day before the attack.3

The Americans could take some comfort from the fact that the British were no smarter. British ministers received an assessment from the Cabinet Office the day before the invasion to the effect that Iraq would not invade.4

As for Kuwait, it was, paradoxically, one of the Arab states that had done the least to merit American gratitude. For years, its foreign policy had been one of the most virulently anti-American in the region. In 1983, Kuwait had refused to accept as ambassador Brandon H. Grove, Jr., a veteran US diplomat, because he had served as US consul in East Jerusalem. The Kuwaiti press was rabidly anti-American. In The Washington Post of June 24, 1984, its correspondent in Kuwait, David B. Ottaway, had observed that Kuwait was “accustomed to blaming the United States for all the ills afflicting the Arab world, and the gulf in particular.” During the debate on the Gulf War in Congress in January 1991, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan recalled:

I was also, if I may just say, once our Ambassador to the United Nations. I remember Kuwait at the United Nations as a particularly poisonous enemy of the United States. One can be an antagonist of the United States in a way that leaves room for further discussions afterwards. But the Kuwaitis were singularly nasty. Their anti-Semitism was at the level of the personally loathsome when Resolution 3379 equating Zionism with racism passed the General Assembly. The Kuwaitis were conspicuously poisonous.5

Too late, the mea culpas confessed to what had gone wrong. Former President Reagan admitted: “We committed a boner with regard to Iraq and our close friendship with Iraq.”6 President Bush said: “Well, we tried the peaceful route. We tried working with him [Saddam Hussein] and changing [him] through contact…. The lesson is clear in this case—that that didn’t work.”7 Bush also explained: “We tried just before the end of the Iran-Iraq war to have better relations and to see a different side. And what happens? He takes over Kuwait, and that was it right there.”8


Saddam was like Hitler but not in the way Bush intended when he likened Saddam to Hitler. It took Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939 to bring on World War II after a long period of appeasement. It now took Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait to bring on the Gulf War after a similar period of appeasement. In both cases, war might have been avoided if it had not taken so long to find out that trying to get better relations and seeing a different side were roads to war. Oddly enough, Bush seemed to think it was to his credit that it had taken him so long to see Saddam Hussein as another Hitler—as someone who could not be changed through contact. Yet, once made, Bush took his Hitler analogy so seriously that he foresaw a Nuremberg-type trial for Saddam once the Gulf War ended.9


On August 2, 1990, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, Washington was virtually empty of the highest officials, and the most concerned US ambassadors were not at their posts. President Bush was on his way to Aspen; Colorado, to deliver a speech. Secretary of Defense Cheney was set to accompany him and then to go on vacation. Secretary of State Baker was in Irkutsk, Siberia. General Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was setting out on a vacation. Ambassador Glaspie was on the way back to the United States from London. Charles W. Freeman, Jr., ambassador to Saudi Arabia, had gone to the United States on vacation five days before the invasion.

Yet the decision to resist Iraq’s takeover seems to have been made within seventy-two hours. Bush later said that he had “decided to act to check that aggression” within three days, after 120,000 Iraqi troops and 850 tanks “had poured into Kuwait and moved south to threaten Saudi Arabia.”10 At that time, the United States was primarily concerned about Saudi Arabia—hence the term “Desert Shield,” which applied to Saudi Arabia, not Kuwait. For another three months, US policy was ostensibly defensive, and the decision to go on the offensive was apparently not made until October 30, 1990, when it was decided to double the force in Saudi Arabia to more than 400,000 troops.

This decision was apparently made narrowly in the White House. According to General Schwarzkopf’s biographers, Colin L. Powell, “had been skeptical about moving to an offensive operation.” Schwarzkopf had allegedly said to his family, “Powell is not a cowboy.”11 Elaine Sciolino, whose book, The Outlaw State, is both knowledgeable and astute, records the following reactions: President Turgut Ozal of Turkey assured President Bush that “sanctions would bring Saddam to his knees within a month.” The Egyptian Foreign Minister Esmat Abdel Meguid thought that it would take two months at most. Secretary of State James A. Baker III, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, and his deputy, Robert Gates, also favored sanctions. On October 25, 1990, just before President Bush made his critical decision to double the American force in Saudi Arabia, CIA Director William H. Webster told the National Council on World Affairs Organization in Washington that sanctions were working so well that they had cut off 98 percent of Iraq’s oil exports and perhaps as much as 95 percent of its imports.12 Outside the administration, much military and civilian opinion disliked the “military option.”

The principal impetus for war seems to have come from President Bush, mainly abetted by Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, Vice-President Dan Quayle, and National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft. It was a peculiarly presidential war, whose political effect depended largely on whether it could be fought speedily and with minimal casualties on the American side.

The alternative to war during this period of waiting or indecision was economic sanctions. It was rejected, ostensibly because it would take too long, could not be maintained over a lengthy period, and might not succeed in the end. Yet a surprising number of influential observers preferred sanctions to war, basically because they were appalled by the havoc that war was sure to inflict on both Iraq and Kuwait, as well as its possible cost to the United States. In fact, they were right about the havoc to Iraq and Kuwait and were misled by administration spokesmen about the probable American casualties.

General Schwarzkopf himself did not rule out the effectiveness of sanctions before the war option was adopted. In an interview on September 13, 1990, he said:

If we figure, as has already been announced, that Iraq is losing one billion in revenues every day the sanctions are in effect, then it’s going to be interesting to see how much loyalty he has in his armed forces when he’s unable to pay their salaries, feed them, and resupply them with fuel and spare parts and ammunition. So I think that’s the next move right now.13

The irony of the present postwar position is that we are still waiting to see how long Saddam Hussein can hold out against the very sanctions that we rejected before the war. If sanctions are so futile, it is difficult to understand why we should persist with them indefinitely, as we are doing now. For President Bush, sanctions are good enough to force Saddam Hussein out of Iraq but they were not good enough to force him out of Kuwait.


If the cost of the war is limited to the United States, it was minimal. If it is seen as a whole—by what it did to all the combatants and victims—the war was something else. Once the Iraqis knew that they could not hold on to Kuwait, they committed crimes and depredations from which Kuwait may never recover. Once Kuwait was liberated, hundreds of thousands of non-Kuwaitis, on whom the country once depended for its working force, were heartlessly expelled without trial or discrimination. These refugees have scattered over the entire Middle East and represent a vast human calamity.

For Americans, however, the greatest burden of responsibility rests with the repeated boast that US bombing of Iraq had intended to minimize civilian casualties and had brilliantly succeeded.14 What it may have intended, what it targeted, and what it accomplished are not remotely related.

A report, Needless Deaths in the Gulf War, by Middle East Watch, is sickening to read. The destruction of Iraq’s electrical system, communications facilities, factories, railroads, waterways, bridges, and highways—in fact, the entire infrastructure—showed that bombing could not be limited to military targets only.

In one of the briefings with General Schwarzkopf, Brigadier General Glosson, commander of the 14th Air Division, assured correspondents: “We’re striking only military targets.”15 It is hard to believe that these generals did not know that the Iraqi infrastructure was as much a necessity to civilians as to the military. Their culpability is not that they fought the war in the only way they knew how; it is that they presented the bombing as a clean and chaste technical exercise, as if to soothe the consciences of the people back home or perhaps their own.

Caught between the aftermath of US bombing and Saddam Hussein’s self-interest, the Iraqi people are paying the highest and most protracted price for the war. In March 1991, a UN survey described the bombing of Iraq as “near apocalyptic” and warned that it threatened to reduce “a rather highly urbanized and mechanized society to a pre-industrial age.”16 In April, a twelve-member Harvard study team went to Iraq and found, as one member reported, that “there is a public health catastrophe due to the cumulative effects of the Allied bombing and resulting sanctions.”17 In August 1991, an international study team, consisting of eighty-seven researchers from over twelve countries and embracing a wide variety of disciplines, including medicine, public health, and environmental sciences, went to Iraq. It found that the public health crisis was worse than before.

Those suffering the most are children, elderly, women, and the poor. Food is still not available and the water is highly contaminated. Children play in the raw sewage which is backed up in the streets…. Two world renowned child psychologists stated that the children in Iraq were “the most traumatized children of war ever described.”… The Iraqi economy is in a state of collapse. Real earnings are less than 7 percent of what they were before the start of the Gulf crisis.18

Of all those who testified before the House Select Committee on Hunger on November 13, 1991, the most searching analysis of the deeper issues was made by Representative Jim McDermott of Washington state, a physician, who also visited Iraq in August with a human rights group. His remarks went to the political and ethical heart of US policy:

Today, I want to address the political and moral dilemma that America faces in Iraq. Since the end of the Gulf war, our singular focus has been the downfall of Saddam Hussein. But given the public health disaster in Iraq today, we must ask ourselves, at what point does the starvation of 18 million people take precedence over our attempts to remove one person from power? The Iraqi people did not vote for Saddam Hussein, yet hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, most of them children, are hungry, sick, and dying because of Saddam’s intransigence and our commitment to oust Hussein at all cost.

Starving the people of Iraq will not topple Saddam Hussein. He is eating, and his advisors and the Republican Guard are eating. Hussein will continue to hold out, and I do not doubt that he is willing to let the Iraqi people starve in the process. We are confronted with an ethical and moral dilemma: What is more important—feeding the Iraqi children or opposing Saddam? I believe a majority of the American people would overwhelmingly support providing humanitarian aid to the children of Iraq. The Administration needs to find a way to provide that aid.

McDermott was referring to the impasse created by UN Resolution 706 of August 15, 1991, approving the sale of $1.6 billion of oil by Iraq but with conditions which Saddam Hussein has refused to accept. These well-meaning conditions required the Iraqi government to permit the UN to establish a system of monitoring and control to ensure that the revenues from this one-time sale of oil would be used for the benefit of Iraqis most in need and not for the benefit of the Iraqi government. The only result has been an exchange of accusations—that Saddam Hussein is preventing aid from coming to the most needy Iraqis and that the UN is undermining Iraqi sovereignty.

It is a dilemma, but one that the Bush administration refuses to face. By bombing Iraq so heavily and indiscriminately, and then leaving Saddam Hussein in power, the administration produced the worst possible outcome for the Iraqi people. The administration has been satisfied to put all the blame on Saddam Hussein on the ground that “there is a limit to what we, as part of the international community, can do in the absence of Iraqi cooperation.”19 This rationalization ignores the fact that the United States deliberately decided to stop short of ousting Saddam Hussein from power and thereby assumed some responsibility for the bitter fruit of this decision. That Saddam Hussein will do anything to hold on to power, including sacrificing his own people, comes as no surprise. The children, the sick, the elderly, the women, and the poor are paying for a US policy that shows no sign of getting rid of Saddam Hussein and punishes those least responsible for him. It would seem to be time to reconsider a policy that is politically futile and morally indefensible.


Whether Saddam Hussein had intended to invade Saudi Arabia through Kuwait is questionable, though President Bush as late as November 8, 1991, charged that if it had been left up to the Democrats, America would be sitting “fat, dumb and happy with Saddam Hussein maybe in Saudi Arabia.”20

One view, from a military source, is that Saddam Hussein planned to go from Kuwait into Saudi Arabia but was logistically unable to do so. A major reason, it is said, was that too many Iraqi tanks had broken down.21 Another view, that of James E. Akins, the former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, is that Saddam did not intend to invade Saudi Arabia, and that Secretary of Defense Cheney had to convince the Saudis that an invasion was imminent.22

In fact, on August 6, 1990, Secretary Cheney, General Schwarzkopf, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Paul Wolfowitz, and Ambassador Freeman met with King Fahd in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He was shown satellite photos of Iraqi forces on the border and, as Cheney related, told that they were “deployed for further aggression.”23 Yet, as two well-informed authors report, Bush administration officials later admitted that neither the CIA nor the Defense Intelligence Agency thought it probable that Iraq would invade Saudi Arabia.24 On August 6, too, Saddam told the US chargé d’affaires in Baghdad, Joseph Wilson, that the question of attacking Saudi Arabia “has not even crossed my mind.”25

It seems that the Saudis were not of one mind. King Fahd’s younger half brother, Prince Abdullah, is said to have been distinctly unenthusiastic about a large US presence in the Gulf.26 On October 21, 1990, the defense minister, Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, suggested that it would be a brotherly act for Kuwait to cede or lease the islands of Warba and Bubiyan to the Iraqis, because it would give them an outlet to the Gulf.27 But Fahd apparently made up his mind to go with the Americans, and he had the last word. In any event, the apparent threat to Saudi Arabia did not last more than a few days after Kuwait was invaded. The switch from “shield” to “storm” was made after any danger to. Saudi Arabia had passed.

The Bush administration had some difficulty working out a party line on why the war was necessary. The problem seemed to be whether to take the low or materialistic road, the high or moralistic road, or both.

On August 15, 1990, in one of his first efforts to provide a rationale for resisting Saddam Hussein, Bush said that “our jobs, our way of life, our own freedom, and the freedom of friendly countries around the world will suffer if control of the world’s great oil reserves fell in the hands of that one man, Saddam Hussein.” These reasons were both mundane and implausible. That “jobs” should have been mentioned first suggested that Bush, as in a domestic political campaign, sought primarily to appeal to the voters’ pocketbook. It was, however, a peculiarly crass reason to go to war, if it came to that, halfway around the world. But just how “our own freedom,” except possibly the freedom to run cars on cheap gas, would suffer enough for a war was left unexplained.28 The reference to oil implied we were fighting for everyone else’s cheaper oil. Finally, the “one man” theme was introduced, leaving the rest of Saddam’s regime in the clear and making his personal elimination a central war aim. On another occasion, Bush made the invasion “pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”29 It would have been interesting if Bush had tried to explain how American national security as well as freedom were jeopardized in Kuwait.

On October 16, 1990, Bush apparently had second thoughts about the stress on oil and decided to take the moralistic high road—“the fight isn’t about oil; the fight is about naked aggression that will not stand.” On November 13, 1990, by which time the decision had been made to send so many troops to Saudi Arabia that war was unavoidable, Secretary Baker reverted to the homespun and decided to bring the war “down to the level of the average American citizen.” He said that one word summed up the situation: “jobs.” Republican Senate Minority Leader Dole also took the same line and helpfully spelled out the one reason why the United States was in the Gulf crisis—“O-I-L.”

Once the decision had been made to resist Saddam’s annexation of Kuwait, Bush cast about for some form of validation of his policy, though he asserted that he did not need one. Like President Truman in the Korean War, Bush at first chose to seek votes at the United Nations instead of the US Congress, as mandated by the US Constitution. By August 2, 1990, the United States had UN Resolution 660, condemning the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and demanding immediate withdrawal. Eleven other UN resolutions soon followed.30

The UN votes were not without their cost. From the cases that we know about, others may be inferred. About $7 billion by the United States and $6.7 billion by the Gulf states are said to have been written off Egypt’s debts.31 Syria was the beneficiary of $200 million from the European Community, a Japanese loan of $500 million, and more than $2 billion from Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, though none of the 18,000 Syrian troops in Saudi Arabia actually fought.32 Turkey protected its $500 million a year in military aid. The Soviet Union received $1 billion in aid from Saudi Arabia and credit guarantees from the United States. Yemen was cut off from $70 million in foreign aid for voting the wrong way. After the delegate from Yemen received some applause for his negative vote, Secretary Baker said: “I hope he enjoyed that applause, because this will turn out to be the most expensive vote he ever cast.” For not exercising its veto, China’s foreign minister was given a reception at the White House after suffering diplomatic isolation for a year and a half following the Tiananmen Square massacre.33

One book, George Bush’s War by Jean Edward Smith, is particularly useful in following just how President Bush maneuvered to take the country into the war.34 Smith points out that Bush committed himself to force Iraq out of Kuwait on August 5, 1990, the day before the meeting of Secretary Cheney with King Fahd.35 From that point on, Bush had apparently made up his mind to drive Iraq out of Kuwait, while insisting publicly that he was merely trying to protect Saudi Arabia.

By August 8, the first troops of the 82nd Airborne had arrived in Saudi Arabia. On that day, Bush for the first time made a statement of his policy. It was peculiarly double-edged, because it explained that the mission of the troops was “wholly defensive” and at the same time demanded “the immediate, unconditional and complete withdrawal of all Iraqi forces from Kuwait.” How the second aim could be accomplished, if the troops were in Saudi Arabia just to defend it, was left a mystery.36 At a press conference at that time, Bush even spoke favorably of economic sanctions instead of war. By this time, moreover, the danger of an Iraqi attack on Saudi Arabia was known in Washington to have passed.37 As General Powell later admitted, Iraqi forces could have moved into Saudi Arabia virtually unopposed for three weeks after having taken over Kuwait. If they did not do so, it was because they had given up any intention of invading Saudi Arabia. In that case, there was no need to continue pouring thousands upon thousands of US troops into Saudi Arabia, if all they were supposed to do was to defend it.

By August 21, the original, defensive rationale clearly could not hold. When Bush was asked whether he still maintained that the military mission was purely defensive and whether he ruled out driving Iraq out of Kuwait, he replied equivocally: “I don’t rule in or rule out the use of force.” To Smith, this reply was disingenuous—“the defense of Saudi Arabia was merely window dressing to get American forces to the Gulf.” By September 11, in an address to the joint session of Congress, Bush spoke only of undoing Iraq’s annexation of Kuwait and made no more mention of defending Saudi Arabia. Smith considers this speech “a decisive transition in American policy.”

On October 31, when Bush decided to double the number of US forces in Saudi Arabia, then already 230,000, war was clearly on the way, though at a press conference on November 8 he preferred to say that he merely had “not ruled out the use of force at all.” When Bush offered to send Secretary Baker to Baghdad and to invite the Iraqi minister, Tariq Aziz, to Washington in the days before the US forces went on the offensive, nothing came of it, because Bush changed the dates as soon as the proposal was accepted. To Smith, it was “a public relations gambit and nothing more.” His verdict is harsh: “Throughout the crisis, Bush dissembled.”

In his reconstruction of Bush’s road to war, Smith uses such terms as “disingenuous,” “less than candid,” “a ruse,” “minimum candor,” and “dissembled.” In his view, the American people were led step by step into a war by a president who deliberately misled or beguiled them.

Meanwhile, the immensity of the US military buildup to 580,000 troops by January 15, 1991, required a similarly elephantine estimate of the Iraqi enemy’s military resources.38 The centerpiece was Saddam Hussein’s “million-man army.” As Secretary Cheney put it, there was no one in the region “to stand up to Saddam Hussein’s million-man army.” The war against Iran, he said, had left Saddam “with a warhardened military force—disciplined, organized, and tough.”39 General Schwarzkopf improved on Cheney by giving Iraq a 1,500,000-man army, together with 5,000 tanks and 1,000 aircraft. According to Schwarzkopf, “If he [Saddam] chooses to, he could bring a tremendous amount of military might to bear in an attack on Saudi Arabia.”40 In and around Kuwait alone, General Powell stated, Iraq had 500,000 troops, including approximately 4,000 tanks, 2,500 armored personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles, and 2,700 artillery pieces.41

In 1990, the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College put out an analysis of “Iraqi Power and US Security in the Middle East” that reflected influential military opinion. It contained these nuggets:

For the foreseeable future, debt repayment will fully occupy the [Iraqi] regime; it will have neither the will, nor the resources to go to war.

Baghdad should not be expected to deliberately provoke military confrontations with anyone.

[Iraqis are] capable of tenacious defense of their homeland and well practiced at the tactical level with intricate defensive systems.42

One of the mysteries of the Gulf War is how such an analysis from such a source could have been so wrongheaded. It was put out before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and reflected a current of opinion that sought to downplay the danger from Iraq. After the invasion, the official military line went in the opposite direction and overplayed the military threat from Iraq, with the result that the American and allied forces deployed in the area were grotesquely excessive.


In fact, the Iraqi army put up almost no defense at all. The war took the form of forty-two days of allied air bombardment and one hundred hours of ground attack. The sides were so mismatched that it was hardly a war at all.

The best authority on the nature of the war is General Schwarzkopf. He said of the Iraqi air force:

The only thing that’s really surprised me, as I’ve already stated many times about the Iraqis, is the fact that their air force, particularly, hasn’t chosen to fight, and also how easy it was to completely take out his air-defense system in such a way that we have freedom of action.43

As you know, very early on we took out the Iraq air force.44

Instead of fighting, Saddam Hussein sent part of his air force into safekeeping in Iran. On January 20, 1991, Schwarzkopf announced that “we’ve flown more 30,000 sorties, and we’ve lost only 19 aircraft.” 45

The ground offensive opened at 4 AM on February 24, 1991. At the end of that afternoon, Schwarzkopf said, “there was nobody between us and Baghdad. If our intention had been to overrun and destroy Iraq, we could have done it unopposed, for all intents and purposes, from this position at that time.”46

On February 27, Schwarzkopf was asked whether he thought “this would turn out to be such a cakewalk as it seems.” He did not balk at the term “cakewalk.” His reply was:

First of all, if we had thought it would be such an easy fight, we definitely would not have stocked 60 days’ worth of supplies on these log bases…. So we certainly did not expect it to go this way.47

Mass Iraqi surrenders began as early as February 24. Three days later, over 50,000 prisoners were taken. Indeed, they had been deserting even before the initiation of the ground attack. Clearly based on the interrogation of prisoners, Schwarzkopf gave an interpretation of this phenomenon:

One of the things we learned immediately prior to the initiation of the campaign—it contributed, as a matter of fact, to the timing of the ground campaign—is that so many people were deserting. What’s more, the Iraqis brought down execution squads whose job was to shoot people in the front lines. I have to tell you, a soldier doesn’t fight very hard for a leader who is going to shoot him on a whim. That’s not what military leadership is all about. So I attribute a great deal of the failure of the Iraqi Army to their own leadership. They committed them to a cause that they did not believe in. They are all saying they didn’t want to be there, they didn’t want to fight their fellow Arabs, they were lied to when they went into Kuwait, and then after they got there, they had a leadership so uncaring that they didn’t properly give them water, and in the end, kept them there only at the point of a gun.48

This statement raises the question of why so many Iraqi soldiers were needlessly slaughtered. The ratio of Iraqi to American losses has been estimated as a thousand to one.49 US losses were 148 dead, of whom 38 were killed by friendly fire. One American military source pointed out that fewer Americans died in the war than had died accidentally in Saudi Arabia before the fighting. “It was actually safer to be in combat on the ground in Kuwait or Iraq than to walk some parts of major American cities.”50

A British correspondent, Stephen Sackur, happened to come across the remains of an Iraqi convoy that had “panicked, seizing any vehicle that looked capable of taking them to Iraq before the Allies could close in.” The scale of the American attack on this helpless convoy appalled him:

Was it necessary to bomb the entire convoy? What threat could these pathetic remnants of Saddam Hussein’s beaten army have posed? Wasn’t it obvious that the people of the convoy would have given themselves up willingly without the application of such ferocious weaponry? The hundreds who, by some miracle, did survive were duly taken prisoner. They included two women and a child….

Who were these Iraqis killed in their hundreds, burnt beyond recognition on the Mutla Ridge? It’s a fair bet that most of them were nothing more than conscripts—regarded by Saddam Hussein as expendable.51

The story of one division seems to have been typical:

The 24th Division, for example, raced more than sixty miles into Iraq before meeting a single enemy soldier. Even then, the enemy was always looking the wrong way. “Never once did we attack an enemy force that saw us coming or was dug in prepared to defend against our attack,” said Major General [Barry R.] McCaffrey. “They were unaware we were there and they were looking the wrong way.”52

Little more needs to be said about the character of the war than what General Schwarzkopf told David Frost:

They chose not to stay and fight. That’s why, when the armchair strategists are now all saying, “Well obviously there couldn’t have been as many people there because the war was over so quickly…” They could have had ten times more people, but the people have to decide to stay and fight. If they don’t…you know, a football game can be over very quickly if the other team decides not to play. And that’s what you had in this case. I mean, when the kick-off came, O.K., our team was there to play. Our team came to play ball. And, they were not willing to fight.53

The British forces found the same lack of resistance. Stephen Sackur, who covered the war for BBC Radio, reported:

Deprived of food and water for days, with inadequate clothing and third-rate equipment, the Iraqi Army could hardly have been less suited to the battlehardened, ruthless image which was peddled on its behalf in the weeks leading up to the ground attack. This mismatch between expectation and reality clearly had a profound effect on many British troops. Several came up to me before the interim ceasefire was announced and told me that they felt “the slaughter” had gone on long enough. The truth about the ground offensive, it seems to me, was that the Iraqi troops simply refused to fight.54

There is even reason to believe that the Iraqi forces in sheer numbers did not outnumber the Americans in battle, as General Schwarzkopf claimed. He said that “they really outnumbered us about three-to-two,” and considering the heavy service contingents in American ranks, “we were really outnumbered two-to-one.”55 An experienced British correspondent, John Simpson, has cast serious doubt on these figures:

Intelligence estimates put the number of Iraqi troops in the theatre of war at 540,000. After the war was over it became known that, when the Iraqi army was at full strength in early January [1991], there were fewer than half that number: approximately 260,000. Once the bombing began, the desertions began in earnest…

When the ground offensive began the coalition forces numbered almost 525,000, though by no means all of them took part in the final assault…

By the time the ground offensive began the Iraqi strength must have fallen well below the initial figure of 260,000: possibly even below 200,000. The Allied Forces had an advantage of between two and two-and-a-half to one, depending on how large the Iraqi rate of desertion was. That was far more than the number required to do the job. US military intelligence, which had provided the grossly exaggerated Iraqi troop figures, was one of the main failures of the entire campaign. It wasn’t only the quantity but the quality of the Iraqi army which was inflated.56

An American source explained what was wrong with the intelligence data:

From early in the campaign, Allied intelligence analysts estimated that there were nearly a half a million Iraqi troops in Kuwait and southern Iraq. This number was arrived at from information obtained from satellite photos and intercepted radio messages. From that data came the estimate that there were at least forty [Iraqi] divisions in the area…

With only periodic (several times a day) satellite overflights, it was possible to get “snapshots” of what the Iraqis had on the ground and draw up a list of the major formations (combat divisions) being moved to the area…. But despite all this effort, one item in particular could not be counted with precision: people. This was not considered crucial, as it was known how many troops there were in a combat division. Or at least it was known how many troops there were supposed to be in a division, and that’s apparently where the problems arose in getting an accurate head count.57

Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak seems to have advised the Americans in advance that the Iraqi soldiers would not fight. In November 1990, Representatives Cury Weldon of Pennsylvania and Arthur Ravenel, Jr., of South Carolina were members of a congressional delegation visiting Egypt. At a congressional hearing in December, Weldon said that President Mubarak had told them that “at the first sign of any type of military offensive…the initial troops who border the Kuwaiti line would turn and run because they are not committed to this conflict.” Ravenel confirmed that Mubarak “has a very low regard for the professional capabilities of the Iraqi military….” According to Mubarak, Ravenel said, you could take out Saddam’s air, which could probably be done in a matter of hours. You could also remove his identifiable missile firing sites and cut off his food and water. There would be no place to hide in the desert. There would be supply problems with the tremendous amount of people that he has deployed in Kuwait, and “Mubarak said on several occasions,…the rest would just run away.” General Powell listened to them and replied that he did not want to take a chance that Mubarak might be wrong.58

Mubarak was not the only one. According to Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, members of Congress who visited Saudi Arabia in August 1990 were told that “Saddam Hussein’s command centers and communications, his air bases, offensive missiles and anti-aircraft emplacements can be destroyed by US and Saudi air power in a matter of hours.” They were assured that Saddam’s army numbered between 200,000 and 300,000 men, not one million. One Saudi official said: “They will panic. Without communications, how will they know what to do?”59

An American prophet who also proved to be uncannily right was former chief of the Air Force, General Michael Dugan. In an interview in The Washington Post of September 16, 1990, he incautiously disclosed that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had decided to use “massive bombing” to defeat Iraq. He declared that the Iraqi Air Force “has very limited capability,” that the Iraqi pilots “did not distinguish themselves in the war against Iran,” and that the Iraqi army was “incompetent.” He also wanted to target Saddam Hussein, his family and personal guard, as a way of ending the war quickly. He was almost immediately dismissed for his indiscretions, but he had taken the measure of the Iraqi forces and had come much closer to what was needed to beat them than Powell and Schwarzkopf, with their excessive demands.

These predictions, made before the event, were so close to what actually occurred that they make one wonder on what the official assessments of the Iraqi forces were based. In the event, one thing is clear about the Gulf War: It was not a glorious victory and could not have been a glorious victory against an enemy that was so outclassed and did not fight.


General Schwarzkopf’s flair for public relations obscured the humiliation and degradation to which American and allied journalists were subjected by the US army in the field. A study by John J. Fialka of the Washington bureau of The Wall Street Journal for the Media Studies Project of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, based on his experiences and those of over a hundred fellow journalists who covered the war, should be required reading by every publisher, producer, editor, and journalist with any interest in war reporting or just honest reporting. Readers and television viewers would benefit from it, too.

After the war was over, seventeen of the major news organizations, including the Associated Press, The New York Times, The Washington Post, the four main television networks, and others, protested to Secretary of Defense Cheney against the “real censorship” during the war which confirmed “the worst fears of reporters in a democracy.” 60 But Cheney gave them the brush-off, and nothing more has been heard of the matter since.

Pentagon officials and “media chieftains” negotiated for more than six months on a policy for covering the war. They negotiated to such effect that, according to Fialka, the 159 journalists covering US units alone “were an undigestible lump being fed into a military press-handling system that was already woefully short of resources and teetering on the verge of collapse.” The Pentagon had insisted that reporters had to be accompanied by “military escorts,” but there were not enough escorts and vehicles to do the job. In the Civil War, accounts of the battle of Bull Run reached New York in twenty-four hours; accounts of the Gulf War took three to four days and in one case two weeks to get from the battlefield to the headquarters in Dharan. One news photographer’s film took thirty-six days and some photographs never got back at all.

The reporters were not all guiltless; many had never covered a war, did not know how to do it, and asked ignorant or silly questions. The Marine Corps was far more hospitable than the Army to reporters and as a result the marines received more coverage than their role in the war deserved, especially on television. But the main impression left by this study is the unprecedented control of the press by Army commanders. Generals, not editors, often picked favorite reporters to cover their units and gave them privileged communications. Even when reporters had a story, they could not get their copy or film sent off from the desert except through an Armydesigned “pony express” of couriers and escorts, who were “hopelessly undermanned, underequipped, and poorly trained and motivated for their jobs.” But there was worse—sheer malignant hostility.

Fialka relates incident after incident in which reporters were hampered and frustrated. He names names and places; so many reporters went through the same ordeals that they take on a systematic character. Some officers were clearly out to revenge themselves on the press for having “lost” the war in Vietnam. An Associated Press photographer, Scott Apple-white, was handcuffed, beaten, and had one of his cameras smashed by US and Saudi military policemen when he photographed the crash of an Iraqi Scud missile on a barracks near Dharan. The antics of the “escorts” and public affairs officers would have made a Marx Brothers movie. Army generals decided what was fit to print or see, often down to the most absurdly finicky details:

Scott Pelley, a CBS news correspondent, found his escorts in the 18th Airborne Corps had been instructed not to let the television crew shoot pictures of soldiers arguing. Steve Elfers, a photographer with the Army Times, was about to take a picture of a First Cavalry Division soldier with a rag wound around his head when his escort told him that the division commander, Major General John H. Tilelli, had decreed that no pictures could be taken of troopers unless they had their helmets on and their chin straps buckled.61

Martha Teichner of CBS summed up the experience of the press in the Gulf War:

You’ve got incompetence from the bottom up and you’ve got resistance from the top down and it met where we were, in the pool. It all came together, and it was disastrous.

It did not have to be like that. British reporters were helped, not hindered, by their army. The American press was left without electronic equipment in the field, because the military required that it be left behind in Dharan; the British Army helped their press to set up and use satellite phones and satellite broadcasting equipment in the battlefield. As a result, British readers and viewers knew more about their troops and more quickly. A postwar report by the British International Press Institute stated:

It was a good, principled relationship in which we had to reach accommodation under pressurized conditions without compromising the basic functions of either journalism or army operations.

Fialka calls his study, for good reason, The Hotel Warriors: Covering the Gulf War. There were so many reporters in Dharan from news organizations big and small, and the preparations to deal with them so pitiful and disorganized, that many of them gave up and wrote their “war stories” from the Dharan International Hotel, shamelessly rewriting reports from the pools, and, in two cases known to Fialka, without changing a word from what was sent to The Wall Street Journal. A reporter from the women’s magazine Mirabella spent much of her time writing about the sex lives of female soldiers and drugs used by medical units. The press was clearly not without fault, as Fialka makes clear. Nevertheless, the main responsibility for the war reporting was the Army’s, which set the rules and permitted its officers to carry them out with the arrogance and capriciousness of a military caste apart.

One can only conclude from Fialka’s study that this was the worst reported war in American history. Fialka considers the implications:

The hard lessons of war must be learned, not reshaped to fit the commanders’ predictions. The matter of what worked and what didn’t in the Gulf War battlefields will cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars and drive major federal budget decisions for years to come. This was a war where the military remained in control of most of the evidence and where the Army commanders’ paranoid fear of the media helped bury one of the most positive Army stories since World War II. The acceptance of a loss like that raises the deeper issues of whether the Army becomes more open or closed to public view. If it is ignored, the question of an increasingly inward-looking Army is one that could come back some day to haunt us all.

The hard lessons of the war must also be learned by the press and television. Grenada was a war without witnesses, as Fialka says. The Gulf War was a war with too many witnesses, too many of them inexperienced and incompetent, who witnessed too little and wasted most of their time and efforts.

Fialka is almost as hard on the press as he is on the Army. He has performed the inestimable service of opening up this largely neglected aspect of the Gulf War. It remains to be seen whether the press and the Army choose to do nothing more about it and compound the damage done in the war.62


What, then, was the Gulf War?

It was a particularly two-faced war. On the positive side, it punished Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as an aggressor and deprived it of the spoils of its aggression. Every other country in this and other regions must now consider whether its ambitions will bring down upon it the superior firepower of the United States. For the time being, the United States cannot be neutralized by the threat of another superpower, such as the Soviet Union was once considered to be. For whatever it is worth, American ability to exert decisive power was established for the foreseeable future—if the conditions are right.

But an Iraq syndrome may be no better than the Vietnam syndrome. The one-sided victory in Iraq required a special kind of enemy—an enemy that did not fight. When Saddam Hussein said that the United States could not accept thousands of dead Americans, he was not necessarily fatuous. President Bush had much the same thing in mind when he promised the American people that this war was not going to be “protracted” and would have no “murky ending,” like the Vietnam War. The Gulf War was so short and sweet—for the Americans—that it was almost unique as wars go. Its military lessons, therefore, are extremely limited and may be little applicable in the future. The greatest mistake that can possibly be made is to think that the Gulf War proves that the United States has the power to do anything it pleases anywhere, with impunity.

Politically, it was a botched war. Kuwait survived but will never be the same. Nothing has been done to ameliorate the condition of the Shi’ites; something was temporarily done for the Kurds, but they may not be able to hold out against increasing pressure from Saddam Hussein’s forces, if the rest of the world forgets about them again, as it seems willing to do. Both Shi’ites and Kurds were encouraged by the United States to rebel, only to be abandoned once they had served our purpose, as if we had incurred no obligation to them. From the outset, President Bush announced that a war aim was the restoration of Kuwait’s previous regime, but at a later stage he might have added the rehabilitation of the Iraqi state system. In this respect, the war was deeply conservative in its main political aim. It was a war for the status quo in the region, not an advance installment of a “new world order.”63 Saudi Arabia came out of the war as the dominant Arab power in the Gulf and can be least expected to welcome anything new.

None of the disputes between Iraq and Kuwait—on borders, the two islands, the Rumaila oil fields—which have troubled their relations for decades, have been touched. Sooner or later these wounds will open again, because no regime in Iraq can permanently accept historic grievances.

Kuwait was and remains an anomaly. Its rulers show no sincere signs of having learned anything or forgotten anything, despite their near disaster. Their traditional policy of buying security and favor betrayed them, because their immense riches bred arrogance and overconfidence. It was not Arab sympathy for Kuwait that brought other Arab countries into the US-organized and -led coalition; it was the fear that what happened to Kuwait could happen to them. As long as “accidental states” like Kuwait have such excessive wealth for seemingly fortuitous and undeserved reasons, they attract the envy of less fortunate Arab states and the less fortunate within those states. To defend them against aggression is not the same as to deal with the problems which brought about the aggression.

Above all, the Gulf War set back the Arabs in their quest for self-definition. The Arab world has long been caught in the contradiction of trying to emulate the West for the sake of economic progress and of seeking to repudiate the West in order to be faithful to its religious heritage. When Saddam Hussein said that “the solution must be found within an Arab framework,” he sought to appeal to an Arab self-determination free of Western interference. His appeal failed because he was a threat to the very Arab nations from which he needed help or at minimum nonintervention. His crucial blunder was that he did not cover his Arab rear when he decided to advance on Kuwait. Without Saudi Arabia, the United States could not have moved into position, and without the United States, Saudi Arabia could not have rallied other Arab states.

As for the United States, it proved little more than that it can smite an opponent like Iraq in short order. Politically, it flinched when it was faced with the real challenge of somehow bringing into existence a new and better Iraq. By February 27, 1991, as General Schwarzkopf said, “there was nobody between us and Baghdad.” He was stopped by President Bush because the United States did not want to take on the risk of splitting Iraq as well as the responsibility of overthrowing Saddam Hussein’s regime and putting something else in its place. It was as if, in World War II, the Allies had stopped short of overthrowing the Nazi regime in order to evade the responsibility of governing Germany until conditions could be set in place to make possible another and better Germany.

After the decision was made to retire from Iraq and leave Saddam Hussein in control, the excuse was made that the United States was bound by the decision of the UN to do nothing more than liberate Kuwait. In effect, this justification shifted the responsibility from the United States to the United Nations. Yet though the United States had obtained one resolution after another from the UN, it had not made any effort to get a resolution dealing with the future of a beaten Iraq. By February 27, allied forces were well inside Iraq and needed no UN resolution to govern the territory already occupied. In any case UN Resolution 674 of October 29, 1990, had condemned Iraq for directly threatening “international peace and security,” a judgment broad enough to have permitted almost any policy to do away with the threat.

The UN was used both to get into the war and to get out of it. Saudi Arabia and Egypt were surely implicated in the decision to get out. They wished to teach Iraq a lesson not to aspire to Arab hegemony, but not so much of a lesson as to seriously weaken Iraq as a buffer against Iran. They preferred the Saddam Hussein they knew to a more liberal Iraq from which the contagion of a genuinely new order might spread to the authoritarian and autocratic Arab states. It was little noted that our Arab allies rather than the United States could have assumed the responsibility for setting up a post-Saddam interim regime in Iraq until the Iraqi people could find their voices and decide for themselves.

The decision to permit an Arab Hitler, as President Bush had called Saddam, to remain in power was political abdication and failure of nerve. It signified that we could dominate the region militarily but could not lead it politically. As a result, Saddam Hussein has been recovering his nerve and dares the victors to make good their victory. It is a perverse, paradoxical outcome for a “glorious victory.”

One domestic aspect of the war may have the most far-reaching consequences of all, because it touches the constitutional fabric of the nation. Other presidents have reached out for more and more power but not until George Bush did any president openly proclaim that he and he alone could decide on taking the country into war.64 This declaration of a presidential monopoly over the power to go to war has set a precedent which will haunt this country far longer than the Gulf War will remain a vivid memory. If it is permitted to go unchallenged, it represents a constitutional watershed of such consequence that future generations will look back at it with wonder that it could have slipped through so easily.

Far more important in the future of the United States than the dissolution of the Soviet Union or the victory in the Gulf War is what happens to the social and economic order in the United States itself. In another new book, Stephen R. Graubard does not overstate the danger that the greatest hazard before the United States is that it “will itself not be able to put its own house in order, that the disruptions following from this failure will affect the world more fundamentally and more permanently than anything produced by the collapse of the Communist utopia.”65 The foreign policy of the United States has become hostage to its domestic disorders, a condition made all the worse by the long refusal of the Bush administration to recognize the symptoms.

In the end, our Arab allies had far more at stake than did their Western benefactors. They were victors in a war which tore the Arab world apart and from which they had nothing to gain but the survival of the status quo. All the old Arab problems and contradictions remain and have even been exacerbated by the exhibition of Arabs fighting Arabs and of Arabs dependent on the West to save them from themselves.

In retrospect, Israel also paid a price for the war. Its relations with the Bush administration had been deteriorating for some time, but the war produced a problem which subtly moved the balance of US policy in favor of the Arab allies. When the Iraqi Scuds fell on Israel, it was enjoined not to retaliate on the ground that the coalition would fall apart through the defection of our Arab allies. In effect, keeping the Arabs in line was more important than permitting Israel to maintain a long tradition of active self-defense. Symbolically and realistically, Israel agreed to be defended by the United States and to defer to Arab pressure on the United States. Since then, it has become ever clearer that the status of Israel in Washington has changed from being regarded as a US ally to that of a client-state, which needs the United States more than the United States needs it. The crackup of the Soviet empire and the management of the Gulf War will be seen as the dividing line between these two eras of US–Israel relations.

For the United States itself, the Gulf War was no more than a passing incident. Washington’s span of attention is very limited, and one political happening quickly fades into another. A sharp drop in the polls was all that was needed to remind George Bush that he was president of the United States, not president of the world.

This is the second of two articles.

This Issue

January 30, 1992