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Desert Storm Turns Twenty: What Really Happened in 1991, and Why it Matters, Part II of II

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This is the second installment of a two-part series. Read Part I here.

Having rebuffed American and U.N. demands that he leave Iraq, Saddam watched the U.N. deadline -- January 15, 1991 -- come and go. Baker had threatened at Geneva that "midnight of January 15th is a very real date," and indeed it was. The next day, Operation Desert Shield became Operation Desert Storm. Desert Storm began in January with a massive air campaign -- Operation Instant Thunder -- whose name was chosen to distinguish it from the pin-pricking Lyndon Johnson air campaign in Vietnam -- Rolling Thunder -- which had gradually increased pressure. Instant Thunder was front-loaded: 100,000 sorties that dropped 88,500 tons of bombs on Iraq immediately. The ground offensive kicked off a month later. A problem arose: it now seemed clear that the U.S. coalition would win; the revised war aim was to grind down the Iraqi military and destroy the WMD facilities. But the Iraqis were running away. Could the coalition destroy the bulk of the Iraqi army and annihilate the Republican Guards before they crossed back into Iraq and appealed for a cease-fire? Could they maintain any leverage over the Iraqis if Saddam simply abandoned Kuwait?

The most heavily-trafficked line of retreat was the principal Iraq-Kuwait highway, which filled with Iraqi infantry columns and vehicles trying to reverse out of Kuwait. Saddam knew that the Arab members of the coalition would not join any attacks on Iraqi units once they had left Kuwait, and suspected that other coalition partners like the French would follow suit. Allied forces, racing to hit the Iraqis before they could cross the Euphrates River, pounced on the traffic jams along Highway 8 and slaughtered them. General Barry McCaffrey called the Iraqi units -- infantry and armor alike -- "tethered goats." Neither the troops nor the officers exhibited any initiative. Alerted by juiced-up pilots who spoke excitedly about their easy kills along the Iraqi lines of retreat, the press began referring to American strikes on Highway 8 as "the turkey shoot," the route itself as the "Highway of Death." "Anything with wings and a bomb rack" was sent aloft to participate in the slaughter. Saddam milked the images of death -- burnt-out passenger buses, private cars, and even scorched baby carriages -- for all they were worth in trying to wring sympathy from the Arab street and world opinion. "The victimizer had become the victim," two historians noted. Coalition forces lurched after the blundering, bleeding Iraqis, Schwarzkopf screaming into the telephone to speed Franks up.

The Air Force stopped bombing the coastal highway running north from Kuwait City through Basra and over the causeway that bridged the Euphrates. That was a grave error exploited by the Iraqis, who poured up the road and out of Kuwait unscathed. It was a signal failure of jointness and "air-land battle," and attributable to the growing problem of "friendly fire" -- far more dangerous to the coalition than Iraqi fire -- and to fears in Washington that a second "highway of death" would be politically calamitous for America's image. Bush fretted that he would be accused of "butchering the Iraqis" and "shooting them in the back." He conceded a cease-fire after just 100 hours of combat on February 27.

The critical meeting in the Bush White House took place at 1 pm on February 27. Bush, Scowcroft, Cheney, Powell, Robert Gates and British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd agreed that they needed to force terms on Saddam, and not wait for him to request a cease-fire on his own terms. The allies agreed -- mistakenly -- that they had destroyed Iraq's WMD capabilities in the air campaign. Although the Air Force pronounced itself capable of bombing Iraq "until they're down to two stone axes and a pushcart" and coalition ground units were within striking distance of the Iraqi capital -- the 101st Airborne Division sat astride Highway 8 just 150 miles from Baghdad -- the coalition was losing the will to go on. Thatcher, who might have argued for a drive on to Baghdad to remove Saddam, had left office in November 1990, and been replaced by John Major, who evinced a desire to end the war quickly.

Bush called for a "clean end." The main thing, Bush insisted, was to avoid "charges of brutalization," of piling on just to kill Iraqis in the war's last hours. Secretary of State Baker concurred: "We have done the job. We can stop. We have achieved our aims. We have gotten them out of Kuwait." But, like everyone else in the room, Baker worried about "unfinished business." What would become of the Saddam Hussein regime? Would the Americans give it a shove, or let it stand? In Riyadh, Schwarzkopf was declaring victory at the Hyatt Hotel -- "the gates are closed ... we almost completely destroyed the offensive capability of the Iraqi forces" -- and assuring the press that going to Baghdad was not in the cards. That ingenuous revelation prompted a startled protest from Paul Wolfowitz in the Pentagon, who agreed that the allies probably weren't going to Baghdad, but considered it foolhardy to tell that to the Iraqis. Wolfowitz and the other "Washington hawks" -- the future neo-cons -- were still hoping for a coup, and wanted to keep pressure on Saddam.

In Riyadh, the deputy Centcom commander, General Calvin Waller, also expressed amazement at Washington's hasty, charitable concession of a cease-fire, when only about half of the Republican Guard's equipment had been destroyed, and before the last bridges over the Euphrates had been demolished, effectively bottling up the Iraqi army, most of which was still south of Basra, squarely in the sights of the U.S. forces. American planners had planned to disarm and dismount the Iraqis and then send them streaming back into Iraq on foot. That was the kind of image that would humiliate Saddam and rock his regime. "You have got to be shitting me. Why a cease-fire now?" Waller expostulated. "One hundred hours has a nice ring," Schwarzkopf chuckled. "That's bullshit," Waller said. "Then you go argue with them," Schwarzkopf said. "Them" was the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Pentagon, and the Bush White House. Schwarzkopf had never squared off against Powell and was not about to begin now. Powell set the tone in the J.C.S., and talked the other chiefs into an early end to the war. Desert Storm had evicted Saddam from Kuwait and erased the stain of Vietnam, so why fight on?

Air Force Chief of Staff General Merrill McPeak privately protested the "merciful clemency" offered Saddam, but publicly supported Powell. President Bush too wanted to quit while he was ahead. In Washington, the analogy on everyone's mind was not Vietnam, but Korea, where a limited American war -- to evict the North Koreans from the south -- had slipped (under MacArthur's gung-ho influence) into an unlimited struggle to destroy the North Korean communists that had dragged on bloodily and inconclusively for three years and then left American troops as a permanent fixture in South Korea. Few wanted to risk this easy victory and expand American liabilities by rolling the dice and pushing north to Baghdad. Powell ridiculed the notion: it was not as if "a lot of little Jeffersonian democrats would have popped up to run for office" in Baghdad on America's coattails. Still, Bush felt tension and incompleteness everywhere. "Why do I not feel elated?" President Bush asked aloud. He knew why. The instigator of the war had survived to fight another day, and there was little that Bush could do to change that outcome. In his diary, Bush wrote of his anger at seeing Baghdad Radio broadcasting victory even as U.S. forces trounced the Iraqis. But the coalition would not support continued combat in Iraq or Kuwait merely to "destroy Iraqi forces," nor would many Americans. The war was not cheap either; 390 Americans had died in combat, and the bill for the war stood at about $620 billion. "We need to have an end. People want that. They are going to want to know that we won and that the kids can come home. We don't want to screw this up with a sloppy, muddled ending." Within a year, two-thirds of Americans would come to believe that President Bush had terminated the war too soon, and the unresolved issue would contribute to Bush's defeat in the elections of 1992.

The Hundred Hour War ground to an equivocal close, over Paul Wolfowitz's recondite objection that "100-hour war" would be a politically disastrous term since it would evoke memories of the 100-hour Franco-British-Israeli attack on Egypt in 1956. ("Would 99-hour war be better?" Cheney joked.) Bush had confidently predicted that the Iraqi "troops will straggle home with no armor, beaten up, 50,000," but they were more numerous than that, and they had extricated lots of armor. American surveillance photos of southern Iraq revealed the depressing news that Saddam had pulled one-quarter of his tanks and half of his APCs from Kuwait. Worse, the tanks that escaped were largely Republican Guard. Indeed the Republican Guard divisions in Kuwait had pulled off a desert Dunkirk, extricating 80,000 troops with large numbers of tanks, helicopters, and heavy guns.

"The end game: it was bad," McCaffrey recalled. "First of all, there was confusion. The objectives were unclear. And the sequence was wrong." Ordinary Iraqis expressed wonderment at Saddam's continued hold on power. Retreating troops fired their AK-47s into the portraits and murals of Saddam that lined their routes home. An Iraqi cement worker muttered: "Kuwait destroyed by Saddam. Iraq destroyed by combined forces. But Saddam is still in his chair." The Shiites of southern Iraq, who had begun to seethe even before the ground war, exploded into rebellion after the cease-fire. Saddam was weakened and discredited. The moment to rise up had arrived. In northern Iraq, the Kurds made the same calculation. They took President Bush's awkward March 1 declaration as a call to action: "In my own view, I've always said it would be - that the Iraqi people should put him aside and that would facilitate the resolution of all these problems that exist, and would certainly facilitate the acceptance of Iraq back into the family of peace-loving nations."

But even as he incited the Iraqis to rebel, Bush rejected any push to Baghdad and conceded Saddam the use of armed helicopters on his side of the border. Saddam promptly exploited the American concession not to hop-scotch over shattered roads and bridges but to blast his rebellious subjects from the air. Bush 41 expressed again his mixed feelings about Desert Storm, this time to a (startled) White House press conference: "You know, to be very honest with you, I haven't yet felt this wonderfully euphoric feeling that many of the American people feel." The father's doubts would sow the son's resolve to, as Bush 41 concluded, "cross the last 't' and dot the last 'i.'"

In Iraq, meanwhile, Schwarzkopf traveled to Safwan to accept Saddam's surrender. The whole truce was badly managed. Although President Bush continued to lament the absence of a "battleship Missouri" moment, the Missouri was actually available, on station in the Persian Gulf, and Schwarzkopf wanted to use it, but was deterred by the logistics of transporting herds of coalition representatives and reporters to the battleship on short notice. Safwan -- an Iraqi airfield just over the border from Kuwait -- would have to do. Yet none of the coalition partners insisted on Saddam's presence at the surrender ceremony, which was a glaring oversight. President Bush wanted Saddam there, but recalled that he and his advisers "asked ourselves what we would do if he refused." Continue the war? Bad. Retreat from the demand of Saddam's attendance? Worse. Powell and Schwarzkopf thus contented themselves with two four-star Iraqi generals, and Bush did not insist on anything more. The "Washington hawks" -- Cheney and Wolfowitz in particular -- felt certain that Powell and Schwarzkopf were being played by Saddam, and letting relatively minor military considerations override long-term political ones. Although Westerners treated beaten enemies with respect, Middle Easterners regarded such courtesy as weakness. "Norm went in uninstructed," a senior Bush administration official recalled. "He should have had instructions," but he didn't. "The process broke down. The generals made an effort not to be guided. It was treated as something that was basically a military decision, not to be micromanaged." Schwarzkopf insisted that he'd been forced to "wing it" precisely because he'd been given no proper instructions. Chas Freeman, the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, spoke of "a total failure of integration between military and political strategy." The narrow-minded fury with which the neo-cons would plot and launch the 2003 Iraq War derived in part from their conviction that the cautious Army generals had thrown away real victory in 1991.

At Safwan, Schwarzkopf staked out cease-fire lines, ordered a prisoner exchange, and demanded details on Iraqi minefields, but did not insist that Saddam turn over his WMD or his Scuds. As the Kurdish and Shiite revolt flared into life -- responding to U.S.-funded radio appeals from transmitters in Saudi Arabia -- Saddam repressed it viciously. One hundred and seventy thousand Kurds and Shiites fled their towns and villages to escape Saddam's wrath. Many hid in the mountains of the north or the marshes of the south or continued into Turkey and Iran as refugees. "When the Iraqi helicopters started coming out, firing on the Iraqis, that's when we knew it was bullshit," a U.S. Army captain bitterly recalled.

Taken off guard amid the hubbub of victory, Bush and his air commanders hastily clapped "no-fly zones" over northern and southern Iraq, expedients that would have been unnecessary had Bush simply demolished the Republican Guards and forbidden the Iraqis to fly. Two historians of the war noted Schwarzkopf's "surprising disinterest in the internal situation in Iraq." To the amazement of the beaten Iraqis, Schwarzkopf "guaranteed" them that the last coalition soldier would leave Iraq the minute the last coalition "ammo and gasoline trucks" were rounded up and put on the road. Bush and Schwarzkopf could have insisted on humane treatment of the Kurds and Shiites, a new constitution, or even a new regime. They could have squatted on the Rumaila oil field - seized by McCaffrey in the last hours of the war -- until Saddam met their political demands, or paid the costs of the war. Instead, in practical military style, they filled their gas and ammo trucks and left. Powell and the J.C.S. vetoed an effort by America's U.N. Ambassador Thomas Pickering to declare Iraq south of Basra a demilitarized zone, a step that would have sheltered the Shiites and held the Rumaila oil field as collateral for Saddam's good behavior. Powell and Schwarzkopf worried that Kurdish and Shiite secessionists might "Lebanonize" Iraq and suck the U.S. military into a civil war, leaving, as Powell put it, Uncle Sam to "sort out 2,000 years of Mesopotamian history." President Bush would not have forgotten just how narrow and precarious support for the war had been in Congress and the press. Virtually everyone had predicted blowback and "mission creep," so the president took pains to avoid both, even at the cost of a partial victory. Limited wars generally end with limited results.

When Army General Steven Arnold prepared a secret Centcom contingency plan that called for a march to Baghdad to remove Saddam and install a friendly regime that would permit "a long-term U.S./Western military presence in the region" -- remarkably like the 2003 plan -- Schwarzkopf's headquarters recoiled in horror. Arnold's plan implied that Desert Storm had been a partial victory, leaving lots of unfinished business in its wake; Schwarzkopf, Powell and Bush -- despite the president's doubts -- wanted it recognized as a decisive one. For its part, the State Department feared that Arnold's suggestion of "attacks across the Euphrates River to provide political leverage" against the Saddam regime would tilt America too far toward the Iraqi Shiites. If the Shiite south broke away and rallied to Iran, America would have fought a war to strengthen the Islamic Republic of Iran. Nobody in Washington wanted that outcome, yet. The debates in 1991 prefigured similar debates in 2003, with the difference that they were more openly contested in 1991, but suppressed by "group-think" in 2003.

In the White House, Scowcroft told the president to stand down. "Geopolitics," he said, dictated that Washington let Saddam crush the Shiite revolt. It was not in America's interest for Iraq "to fall apart." Iran would be the prime beneficiary of such a development. Scowcroft and his chief Middle East expert, Richard Haass, had reminded Bush throughout the war that regime change in Iraq must not be an American aim because a vacuum in Iraq would destroy the regional balance of power as well as Bush's coalition. "Mr. President," Haass told Bush, "I know what you want; I just don't see how it's going to happen."

Powell warned of mission creep and recommended again that the U.S. get out quickly and cleanly. Powell quarreled with Wolfowitz and told him to stop acting as if the question of aiding the Shiites was still open. Wolfowitz grumbled that Powell and Schwarzkopf were seeking "rapid disengagement to preserve the luster of victory." Indeed the ruthless determination with which Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and the neo-cons would construct the Iraq War twelve years later derived from their conviction that great opportunities to reinvent Iraq had been squandered at Safwan. "The military's attitude was we have won," Wolfowitz bitterly recalled. "Let's cut this cleanly and not let the civilians load us with a lot of missions. Safwan was too hasty and too dignified."

In May 1991, Bush acknowledged that the victory in Kuwait had been anything but decisive when he extended the pre-war economic sanctions against Iraq "until Saddam Hussein is out of power." The D.I.A. confirmed that Saddam's nuclear weapons program "had been slowed but not halted" by Desert Storm. After the war, Saddam employed 2,000 foreign-trained scientists and 18,000 engineers, proof that Saddam was sparing no expense to join the nuclear club. If sanctions and U.N. inspections ever ceased, Saddam would have a bomb "in two to four years." Bush and Scowcroft later explained their decision not to intervene in Iraq's internal affairs or press on to Baghdad to overthrow Saddam in their joint memoir - A World Transformed. Bush noted that the war's object was simple: to eject the Iraqis from Kuwait, restore Kuwait's independence, and degrade the Iraqi military. "To occupy Iraq would instantly shatter our coalition, turn the whole Arab world against us, and make a broken tyrant into a latter-day Arab hero." Bush accurately predicted the fate of his less reflective son: "To march into Baghdad ... would condemn young soldiers to fight in what would be an unwinnable urban guerrilla war. It could only plunge that part of the world into even greater instability and destroy the credibility we were working so hard to establish." Secretary of State Baker concurred, arguing that a drive to Baghdad would have transformed a war to rescue Kuwait into "a U.S. war of conquest" that would have snared the Army in "urban warfare and military occupation." Schwarzkopf too was prescient: "I am certain that had we taken all of Iraq, we would have been like the dinosaur in the tar pit - we would still be there." With what sounds like black humor today, Schwarzkopf also noted the prohibitive cost of such a venture, "of occupying Iraqi territory and maintaining or restoring government, education, and other services for the people of Iraq." Surely, Schwarzkopf concluded, "this is a burden the beleaguered American taxpayer would not have been happy to take on." Secretary of Defense Cheney, who would become the sharpest exponent of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, also argued against a push to Baghdad in 1991. "Saddam," Cheney said, "is just one more irritant, but there's a long list of irritants in that part of the world."

Cheney was right. Even a hardliner like Margaret Thatcher worried about "getting an arm caught in the mangle." Summing up the White House discussions on war termination, Rick Atkinson found that "Bush and his men concluded that the excessive price of total victory would be indefinite responsibility for rebuilding a hostile nation with no tradition of democracy but with immensely complex internal politics." Their probity would be confirmed in the years after 2003. Still, the Persian Gulf War left a bad taste in everyone's mouth. Because of his vacillation at Safwan, Bush now found himself precisely where he didn't want to be -- "bogged down in a civil war." The suffering of Iraq's Kurds and Shiites was so visible that Bush belatedly rethought his war aims. In April 1991, he abruptly decided that "Saddam is discredited and cannot be redeemed." Having earlier resolved to leave Saddam in power to ensure a balance of power, Bush now vowed to remove him from power, a task that would have been easier just a month or two earlier when there were a half million U.S. troops in country. Bush resorted to half-measures: economic sanctions, no-fly zones, and a big, apparently permanent U.S. military presence in the region that would embarrass the House of Saud and inflame radicals like Osama bin Laden.

A year after the war, Saddam mocked President Bush from Baghdad and claimed victory: "It was George Bush with his own will who decided to stop the fighting. Nobody had asked him to do so." Seizing on that appearance of presidential weakness, Bill Clinton campaigned that year against President Bush -- and beat him -- chiding Bush for not putting Saddam and his acolytes on trial for war crimes. Clinton would prove no more effective than Bush in removing Saddam. Perhaps Colin Powell said it best, in his post-war memoirs, when he compared the pressures weighing on Bush's war termination with the pressures weighing on Meade after Gettysburg, or on Eisenhower in 1945 as the Russians raced for Berlin. It was easy to say that the generals should have done more, but at what cost, in lives, treasure and opportunity? That lingering question, which appeared hypothetical when Powell wrote his memoirs, would shortly be answered by President Bush's son.

Dr. Geoffrey Wawro is the General Olinto Mark Barsanti Professor of Military History and Director of the Military History Center at the University of North Texas. He is the author of Quicksand: America's Pursuit of Power in the Middle East (Penguin Press, 2010.)