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Geoffrey Wawro

Geoffrey Wawro

Posted: January 22, 2011 12:01 PM

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.'"