Authors: Andrew J. Bacevich
Tags: #General, #Military, #World, #Middle Eastern, #United States, #Middle East, #History, #Political Science
Yet history itself was on the move, complicating the task of its would-be managers. For decades, the nexus of world politics had been the divided city of Berlin. With reunification, however, Berlin lost its centrality. Among the places that policymakers in Washington eyed as a potential successor, Baghdad almost immediately emerged as a leading contender.
In this elevation of the Iraqi capital to the status of historical epicenter, the campaign known as Operation Desert Storm marked a notable point of inflection. Understanding that campaign—what it did and did not signify—is crucial to our understanding of the much larger undertaking within which Desert Storm once seemingly formed such an important part. At the time, dazzled observers compared it to the German conquest of France in 1940—evidence of unrivaled military mastery. Today, if the comparison still pertains, it does so only in this ironic sense: As with Germany following the Battle of France, victory served to foster illusions and underwrite folly.
Appreciating this outcome requires distinguishing between what actually happened on the battlefield and the interpretation that Americans assigned to what they believed had happened. Arguably, in all wars a gap exists between perception and reality, but in this instance, that gap turned out to be especially wide.
The Second Gulf War began on August 2, 1990, when Iraq remorselessly invaded, occupied, and soon thereafter annexed neighboring Kuwait. Sandwiched between Saudi Arabia and Iraq, this speck of a country occupies a perch along the Persian Gulf that has been both blessing and curse. Even before Saddam Hussein rose to power, Iraq had coveted the Emirate of Kuwait, much as Americans in the late nineteenth century had coveted the Kingdom of Hawaii—both small monarchies that ambitious republics deemed unworthy of independent existence.
Yet the complaints that inspired Saddam Hussein to act derived from more proximate considerations. During the Gulf War’s previous iteration, the al-Sabah family that runs Kuwait like a personal fiefdom had loaned Saddam billions to fund his fight against Iran. As with the Reagan administration, antipathy toward Iran rather than affection for Saddam had inspired Kuwaiti generosity. Even so, since Iraq had been fighting on Kuwait’s behalf (and by extension on behalf of all Arabs and all Sunni Muslims), Saddam thought it only appropriate that the al-Sabahs should forgive Iraq its debt and even provide an additional line of credit to help Iraq’s recovery from its exertions.
The Kuwaiti government begged to differ and even persisted in other annoying behavior. Saddam charged Kuwait with violating OPEC production quotas, which drove down world oil prices, and with extracting crude oil from a field to which Baghdad laid claim. Both had the effect of hurting the already-ailing Iraqi economy. Fed up, Saddam took matters into his own hands and simply seized what he deemed rightfully his.
Here come to life was the contingency that Paul Wolfowitz had foreseen and that CENTCOM had discovered once the putative Soviet threat had gone away.
Back in 1898, when the United States annexed Hawaii, no great power had cared enough about the fate of the islands to restore Queen Liliuokalani to her throne. This was not the case in 1990 when Iraqi tanks rolled into Kuwait City. In Washington, the administration of George H. W. Bush expressed outrage and vowed to act. Gulf War 2.0 was at hand.
Until that moment, U.S. policymakers had been hoping to moderate Iraqi behavior and “increase our influence” by offering Baghdad “economic and political incentives.” An Iraq devastated by years of war, after all, had needs that the United States could help fill. Cultivating “normal relations,” the Bush administration calculated, would “serve our longer-term interests and promote stability in both the Gulf and the Middle East.”
Now, in a single stroke, Saddam had rendered that policy inoperative. What would replace it? On August 5, dismounting from his helicopter on the White House lawn, President Bush made his own position clear: “This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait.”
This time around, in contrast to the First Gulf War, the United States was siding with the victim, not the victimizer.
From a military perspective, the immediate task was to deter Saddam from further aggression. The Iraqi troops who had sent Kuwaiti royals scurrying into exile now threatened the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which every U.S. president since Franklin D. Roosevelt had vowed to protect. The time to make good on that commitment had now arrived.
On a hastily arranged visit to Jeddah, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, accompanied by CENTCOM commander General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr., briefed King Fahd on CENTCOM’s plans for defending the kingdom. Using a series of charts, Schwarzkopf described in detail the proposed buildup of U.S. forces. His “main message was the scale of the operation, to make sure the king understood that we were talking about flooding his airfields, harbors, and military bases with tens of thousands” of American troops. The scale of the proposed commitment showed that Washington meant business. Speaking for President Bush, Cheney assured Fahd that defending Saudi Arabia from possible Iraqi attack defined the limit of U.S. aims. “We will seek no permanent bases,” he said. “And when you ask us to go home, we will leave.”
Setting aside religious and other sensitivities—hosting a large number of non-Muslim foreign troops in the Land of the Two Holy Places was likely to rile up the devout—the king gave his assent to the American proposal. On August 7, the implementation of OPLAN 1002-90, Defense of the Arabian Peninsula, commenced. In reality, Cheney’s promises notwithstanding, U.S. troops were never going to “go home.” From this point forward, U.S. military engagement in the Greater Middle East became permanent and sustained, rather than occasional and episodic.
Among those unhappy with King Fahd’s decision was a young Saudi veteran just back home from the successfully concluded Afghanistan War. Osama bin Laden strenuously objected to relying on infidels to solve a dispute among Arabs. To liberate Kuwait, he offered to raise an army of mujahedin. Rejecting his offer and his protest, Saudi authorities sought to silence the impertinent bin Laden. Not long thereafter, he fled into exile, determined to lead a holy war that would overthrow the corrupt Saudi royals. Even before the Second Gulf War was fully underway, conditions leading to a third were forming.
In the meantime, U.S. forces began deploying to Saudi Arabia. Among the first to arrive was a brigade from the army’s 82nd Airborne Division along with squadrons of F-15 fighter-bombers from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. The cargo ships pre-positioned in the Indian Ocean at Diego Garcia, filled with weapons, munitions, and other equipment, set sail. As Schwarzkopf had promised, a flood of troops and equipment to support the operation now known as Desert Shield followed. On they came, the United States demonstrating its matchless capacity to move people and things across long distances. In the first sixty days alone, 107,000 personnel and 520,000 tons of cargo arrived in Saudi Arabia. A decade of work by CENTCOM planners was now paying off.
While the initial commitment of U.S. forces made an important political statement, those forces possessed limited combat capabilities. As cargo ships delivered tanks and heavy artillery and as additional naval and air assets closed on the region, however, that soon changed. By early October, a combined arms force numbering several divisions had formed, backed by squadrons of attack aircraft operating from twenty-one separate bases and a huge naval armada that included four carriers. Coalition combat aircraft already outnumbered Saddam’s air force by a comfortable margin. Schwarzkopf now expressed confidence that he could defeat any Iraqi push into Saudi Arabia. “No way they’re going to seize the oil fields,” he assured General Colin Powell, the JCS chairman.
The CENTCOM commander’s assigned mission was to ensure the security of Saudi Arabia. He had now done that.
A remarkable convergence of circumstances facilitated this concentration of combat power. Saddam himself helped enormously by doing nothing to impede the arrival of U.S. forces. Additional Iraqi divisions dispatched to Kuwait dug in and sat. By assuming a defensive posture, Saddam forfeited the initiative; for Washington, it was an unearned but welcome gift.
At least as important were changes in the international environment. Less than a year before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the fall of the Berlin Wall had upended global politics. Although the myopic Saddam appeared not to notice, the passing of the Cold War endowed Washington with a freedom of action it had not enjoyed since the mid-1940s. Nowhere was that freedom of action more pronounced than in the military realm. The United States now possessed excess military capacity and vastly greater flexibility when it came to its employment.
George H. W. Bush, the last American president to have acquired meaningful national security experience prior to taking office, was quick to appreciate the implications of this opportunity. Just months before, in a fair imitation of Theodore Roosevelt, he had ordered U.S. forces to oust from power Panama’s Manuel Noriega, a longtime CIA asset who had outlived his usefulness. The operation was both an echo from another time and a precursor of things to come. Now the Bush administration set about mobilizing a broad anti-Saddam coalition that left Iraq virtually friendless. Working through a UN Security Council that demonstrated seldom-seen responsiveness and cohesion, the United States isolated Iraq diplomatically and imposed punishing sanctions.
To give the military mission an international face, the administration actively recruited troop contingents from anyone willing to contribute.
Countries agreeing to send (mostly token) forces ranged from traditional allies like Great Britain and France to Arab nations such as Egypt and even Syria.
To defray the costs of the U.S. military deployment, senior U.S. officials trolled through foreign capitals soliciting financial contributions. Ultimately, the effort known informally as Operation Tin Cup netted a tidy $53 billion.
As a consequence, unlike subsequent campaigns in America’s War for the Greater Middle East, this particular one did not undermine the U.S. economy or add to the national debt. For the moment at least, policing the region elicited appropriate compensation.
By early October the forces earmarked for Operation Desert Shield were nearly all in place. With Saddam showing no inclination to withdraw from Kuwait, the next move was clearly Bush’s to make. The president had two options. He could bide his time to see if sanctions might eventually persuade Saddam to pull out. Or he could evict Iraq from Kuwait forcibly. For the members of Bush’s inner circle—General Powell excepted—waiting had next to no appeal.
Already, CENTCOM staff officers under Schwarzkopf’s direction were hard at work assessing ways to take the offensive. On October 10, they shared their thinking with Secretary Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, now the Pentagon’s third-ranking civilian as undersecretary for policy. Neither Cheney nor Wolfowitz liked what they heard—a hey-diddle-diddle, straight-up-the-middle attack “directly north into the heart of Iraq’s most lethal forces.” The concept just “didn’t make any sense,” Cheney thought.
A snarky Pentagon civilian called it the “charge of the Light Brigade into the Wadi of Death.”
The plan fared no better when briefed to President Bush the following day. So the defense secretary tasked Wolfowitz to come up with something more promising. The policy planner thus became a military planner, an expansion of portfolio that Wolfowitz welcomed.
Not for the last time in America’s War for the Greater Middle East, civilian leaders found it necessary to prod the military into thinking more creatively. Drawing on a bit of potted history—a British offensive emanating from Transjordan that captured Baghdad in 1941—and incorporating the advice of a retired general to give the scheme a veneer of professional credibility, Wolfowitz’s team devised what became known as the “Western Excursion.” The idea was simplicity itself: avoid a frontal assault; insert U.S. forces
the enemy, thereby rendering his position untenable—just like Douglas MacArthur at Inchon in 1950. It was Miles Ignotus all over again.
In 2006, a similar collusion between eggheads and a retired general set the stage for “the Surge,” an escalation of the Third Gulf War to which we will attend in due course. In this instance, resenting the intrusion of outsiders into the military sphere, Powell and Schwarzkopf peremptorily rejected the “Western Excursion” as logistically unfeasible but then offered up a somewhat tamer version of the same idea: a fixing attack on dug-in Iraqi defenders, followed by a powerful flanking maneuver—all of this preceded by an extensive bombing campaign.
Here was an approach on which military and civilian leaders could concur. The only hitch: Implementation required a considerably larger force than the one currently at hand. To go on the offensive, Schwarzkopf wanted more of everything: tanks, artillery, bombers, aircraft carriers. He currently had 265,000 troops under his command. He was asking for twice that. Bush and Cheney were not going to argue the point. As Cheney put it later, “We gave them absolutely everything they asked for.” There was going to be “no excuse possible for anybody in the military to say that the civilian side of the house had not supported them.”