Monday, Jan. 07, 1991

In The Gulf: Bold Vision — What If We Do Nothing?

During the heady days after his Inauguration, George Bush delighted in leading guests on private tours of the White House. He often paused in the hideaway office beside his bedroom before a favorite painting of Abraham Lincoln conferring with his generals during the Civil War. "He was tested by fire," Bush would muse, "and showed his greatness." And to one friend, Bush wondered aloud how he might be tested, whether he too might be one of the handful of Presidents destined to change the course of history.

On Aug. 1 he found out.

It was about 8 p.m. in Washington and Bush had gone upstairs for the evening, when an aide brought an urgent message from the White House Situation Room. Iraq had invaded Kuwait. At first, most diplomatic and intelligence analysts believed Saddam Hussein would confine his thrust to long-disputed border areas. But as Bush followed the latest reports — from the CIA and CNN — Iraqi tanks churned into the Kuwaiti capital, forcing the royal family to flee. It was a full-blown takeover.

Next morning the world was waiting to hear what Bush had to say about that blatant act of aggression. At 8, just before an emergency session of the National Security Council, he invited reporters in for a brief exchange. "We're not discussing intervention," Bush insisted. "I'm not contemplating such action." He stammered a bit, as he often does when he is tired — or when he does not believe what he is saying. This time it was both.

As Bush would later recall, he had made an "almost instantaneous" judgment that the U.S. must intervene. In fact, even before sunup on Aug. 2, he had begun to move against Iraq. When Bush awoke shortly after 5, his National Security Adviser, Brent Scowcroft, was at the President's bedroom door. He immediately got Bush's signature on a pair of executive orders freezing the assets of Iraq and Kuwait in the U.S. and prohibiting trade. The two men then resumed the discussions they had begun the night before, talking through their options: Let's get the allies to follow us on the asset freeze. Buck up the other Arabs to condemn Iraq. Keep Israel quiet. Get the Soviets on board. Work the U.N. Go for economic sanctions.

Both men were determined to do more — much more. But Bush — obsessed with secrecy as always — would mask his inclinations, at least initially, even at his first NSC meeting on the crisis.

At that session, once the reporters had been herded out and fresh coffee had been poured, the atmosphere was relaxed and matter-of-fact. One by one, Bush's top generals and diplomats, spymasters and energy experts reeled off their analyses. The prevailing attitude among the group, recalled one White House official, was "Hey, too bad about Kuwait, but it's just a gas station, and who cares whether the sign says Sinclair or Exxon?" Anyway, what can we do? Doesn't Iraq have the Middle East's largest army, and aren't we a long way from the scene?

There was little sense that big U.S. interests were at stake — until the President spoke. He asked a simple question that decisively shifted the debate: "What happens if we do nothing?"

A Dog That Would Bite
That question could have been Bush's graven motto, at least before 1990, and it still could be in all but foreign affairs. During the first 18 months of his presidency, communism collapsed, the cold war ended, freedom spread across the Soviet empire, and Nelson Mandela's release after 27 years in South African prisons raised the prospect that apartheid might soon come tumbling down. Except when Bush invaded Panama to remove an irritating dictator, he had mostly sat and applauded politely as these momentous events unfolded. His rationale was sound enough: when things are going your way, don't get in the way.

Bush's instincts were entirely different in the gulf crisis. This time, letting events take their course would not suffice. This was the moment for which he had spent a lifetime preparing, the epochal event that would bear out his campaign slogan, "Ready to be a great President from Day 1." And Bush's instincts were only confirmed as the consequences of allowing Iraq to swallow Kuwait became clear.

If Iraq's aggression succeeded, an emboldened Saddam might send his troops into Saudi Arabia or intimidate the lightly defended petrokingdom, as well as its neighbors, into obeying his dictates. Fifty-six percent of the world's oil supplies would come under the sway of a ruthless dictator who is trying to amass a force of long-range missiles that could hit every state in the region, including Israel, with chemical, biological and — in a few years — nuclear weapons. Every petty tyrant who wanted to redraw the map of the world by force, who hated a neighbor or coveted that neighbor's goods, would have learned a lesson: in the post-cold war world, aggression pays.

Bush knew that only one power, the U.S., could thwart Saddam. The U.N. might pass a sheaf of resolutions, just as it has over the decades in trying to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, and with no more effect. As the Arabs and Israelis both like to say, dogs bark but the caravan passes.

Bush also knew, however, that Saddam had good reason for anticipating an ineffectual response. Only eight days before Saddam's army rumbled into Kuwait, U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie had told him, on instructions from the State Department, that Iraq's "border differences" with the tiny sheikdom were of no concern to the U.S. An outright takeover was another matter — but no U.S. official made that point to Saddam until after the fact. The American dog, Saddam assumed, would bark but never bite.

Bush, however, would prove him wrong. Against the initial judgment of many advisers, Bush was convinced that Saddam must be stopped now, before he became even more dangerous. Bush had been leafing through Martin Gilbert's The Second World War, and he cited Winston Churchill's view that World War II need not have been fought if Hitler had been thwarted in his 1936 push into the Rhineland, when he was weak enough to be deterred at relatively low cost.

Bush resolved that he, not Saddam, would shape the new world order emerging in the aftermath of the cold war. In this new order, the U.S. and the Soviet Union would work together through the U.N. to finally achieve the collective + security promised by the organization's founders in 1945. Bush thus found the "vision," at least in foreign policy, that he has long lacked.

Bush recognized that the U.S., as the last remaining superpower, must continue to lead, but with a different style. It must accommodate the rise of the economic giants Germany and Japan, and of various regional powers, while coaxing the Soviet Union, despite its retrenchment, to play a constructive role. America, Bush reasoned, must lead through painstaking and often frustrating coalition building — precisely the sort of personal diplomacy and horse trading at which he has excelled in the gulf crisis.

At first, Bush turned to the U.N. mainly to provide diplomatic cover for the Soviet Union and Saudi Arabia, as well as other Arab states reluctant to ally themselves with the "U.S. imperialists." But as the U.N. showed surprising backbone — first condemning Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, then imposing a stifling trade embargo and authorizing the use of military force to back it up — Bush grew ever more respectful of the organization.

As he implemented his developing vision, Bush, unlike Ronald Reagan, was no lone cowboy singlehandedly dispensing rough justice but a sheriff rounding up a posse of law-abiding nations. If his style is multilateral, however, it is anything but open. In the gulf crisis, as elsewhere, he zealously guarded his real intentions and game plan. All along he has retained tight control of virtually every detail of U.S. action, revealing as little as possible about his plans to the American people and to Congress.

That approach, however, could ultimately undermine Bush's policy in the gulf. The President's penchant for secrecy, his cunning stratagems, his willingness to commit the world's most powerful nation to a course that he alone determines, helped him assemble the alliance. But those very qualities engender doubts in the mind of many Americans, who have learned from Watergate and Vietnam not to invest too much faith in any one man.

Focus on the Saudis
In Paul Theroux's novella Doctor Slaughter, a young scholar at a dinner party observes that China's population has recently reached 1 billion. "Wrong," tut-tuts another guest, an international banker. "There are two people in China. And I know both of them."

George Bush could make the same claim. After the invasion, the intimate knowledge of world leaders and world politics that he had acquired during his years as ambassador to the U.N., envoy to Beijing and CIA director helped him forge an unprecedented international alliance. Throughout, Bush has displayed an exquisite sensitivity to diplomatic nuance and the need for subtle compromise — and sometimes outright bribes — required to bring together such mutually suspicious bedfellows as Syria, Israel, Iran and the Soviet Union. His performance went beyond competence to sheer mastery.

The initial focus of Bush's diplomatic offensive was Saudi Arabia. Though the kingdom feared it might be next to fall to Saddam's rapacious army, King Fahd had grave reservations about seeking U.S. protection. The King, Bush knew, was leery of accepting non-Muslim troops, whose presence might provoke unrest among deeply xenophobic elements of the Saudi clergy and people. He also could not afford to have the conflict portrayed as Iraq and the Arab masses vs. the wealthy monarchs of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and their "Western imperialist defenders."

From the earliest hours of the crisis, Bush worked to overcome those qualms. After his initial NSC meeting, he tried to phone King Fahd but failed to reach him. Bush then flew to Aspen, Colo., for a long-scheduled rendezvous with Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who urged him to counter Iraq strongly. As the two leaders talked, Fahd returned Bush's call. The President told him, we think you are in danger. We are willing to offer air support and more. Fahd, in this and later conversations, expressed three concerns. If the U.S. sent troops to protect his kingdom, would the force remain until there was no longer a threat from Iraq? Once the threat was removed, would the U.S. withdraw its troops immediately? Finally, would the U.S. sell Saudi Arabia the advanced warplanes and other weapons it would need to defend itself? Bush's reply: yes, yes and yes.

In the capital on Aug. 3, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, put the hard sell on Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the brash, 41-year-old Saudi ambassador to Washington. Bandar, a U.S.-trained fighter pilot, was shown satellite photos of Iraqi armored divisions massing along the Saudi border as though poised for an assault on the oil fields near Dhahran, 175 miles away. Bandar called his uncle the King, and assured Bush that U.S. forces would be welcome in Saudi Arabia.

Within weeks, it was the Saudis who were putting a hard sell on the U.S. They were so alarmed by the growing Iraqi threat just over their border that Bandar and Prince Saud al Faisal, Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister, urged the U.S. to kill Saddam, using any necessary means. The astonished Bush politely declined, then observed to aides afterward, "It sure is easy for other people to say what the U.S. ought to be doing to Iraq."

Bush recognized from the first that the Saudis would not accept U.S. troops unless other Arab states, the U.N. and the Soviet Union also supported action against Iraq, and he and his aides were working overtime to arrange that. They helped pass a U.N. resolution condemning Iraq within hours of the invasion. Secretary of State James Baker, who was traveling in the Soviet Union, stood with his counterpart in Moscow and issued a joint declaration demanding Iraq's withdrawal. Algeria, Egypt and Morocco publicly condemned Iraq for the invasion. And the Arab League, in an unprecedented show of resolve, followed suit.

Bush called a second NSC meeting for Friday, Aug. 3, and made clear that he had decided to dispatch forces to deter any attack on Saudi Arabia. Two days later, however, Bush expanded his goals to include the liberation of Kuwait, declaring, "This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait."

Over the next 30 days, Bush would place 62 phone calls to government leaders and heads of state. He pressed Japan, Germany and wealthy Arab states to provide emergency assistance for Turkey, Egypt and Jordan, nations hit hard by the embargo on trading with Iraq. He called on Saudi Arabia and Venezuela to pump more oil to make up for the 4 million bbl. daily shortfall resulting from the blockade on Iraqi and Kuwaiti shipments.

But this whirlwind of diplomacy represented only half of Bush's strategy. The other half was to present Saddam with a stark choice: quit Kuwait or be driven out by military force. To that end, Bush set in motion the largest U.S. military deployment since Vietnam. It began five days after Saddam's invasion with the dispatch of 210,000 troops to Saudi Arabia, enough to deter an Iraqi onslaught.

Once Bush had vowed to liberate Kuwait, General Powell urged him to deploy a force so massive that if war became necessary, it could be fought all out and won quickly, unlike Vietnam. By November, Bush had authorized a doubling of the force to 430,000, giving him the capacity to go on the offensive if Saddam refused to meet the Jan. 15 deadline set by the U.N. for Iraq to quit Kuwait.

Bush also learned a valuable lesson from Jimmy Carter's obsession with the U.S. hostages seized by Iranian students in 1979. Determined not to repeat that mistake, Bush deliberately downplayed Saddam's holding of 3,000 Americans, some of whom were placed at key military installations as "human shields" against American attack. Bush repeatedly insisted that he would not be deterred from military action by the hostages' fate. In early December his stern stance produced results. Saddam released his captives, apparently convinced that his "foreign guests" would not forestall a U.S. offensive and that releasing them might reap a propaganda benefit.

Muddling the Message
Despite his virtuosity in welding the international alliance, Bush has stumbled in explaining his strategy to his countrymen. He has consistently and clearly spelled out four goals: complete Iraqi withdrawal, restoration of Kuwait's government, protection of American citizens abroad and creation of regional stability. But in explaining his strategy and tactics for attaining those goals, Bush has been halting, ineffective and less than candid. He has particularly left doubts about why the wealthiest allies are contributing so little to this crusade, about his sudden rush to use force if Iraq does not comply with the U.N.'s demands by Jan. 15, and about what sort of peaceful settlement, if any, the U.S. would accept with Iraq.

At times, Bush has likened Saddam to Hitler and claimed Iraq is on the brink of obtaining nuclear weapons. (The consensus of Bush's intelligence experts is that an Iraqi nuclear weapon is about five years away.) Such belligerent talk suggests that Bush, despite his public statements, would not be satisfied with an Iraqi retreat but would seek to destroy Saddam's ability to threaten his neighbors by obliterating his arsenal.

The goals of American strategy were probably debated most thoroughly last Aug. 23 in an unlikely setting: aboard Fidelity, Bush's speedboat, bobbing off Kennebunkport. While Bush and National Security Adviser Scowcroft trolled for bluefish, they reviewed the U.S. experience four decades earlier in Korea, another "police action" fought with U.N. authorization. Scowcroft reminded Bush that soon after General Douglas MacArthur's bold victory at Inchon in September 1950, the U.S. succeeded in restoring the situation that existed before the outbreak of war by pushing Kim Il Sung's invading army back to the < 38th Parallel, the boundary dividing North and South Korea. The U.S., however, tried to unify Korea by driving all the way to the border with China. The result: Beijing intervened and drove American forces back almost as far as the old border. The conflict lasted nearly three more years, cost tens of thousands of additional U.S. and civilian casualties and poisoned U.S.-Chinese relations for 20 years. All to end up back at the status quo ante.

In the gulf crisis, Scowcroft warned, a war fought not only to liberate Kuwait but also to cripple Iraq could splinter the coalition that Bush had so masterfully assembled. It could trigger violent resentment by the Arab masses against the U.S. and the Arab regimes allied with it. And it could create a power vacuum that Syria and Iran might rush to fill.

Iraq's massive conventional and chemical arsenals and its fast-track nuclear-weapons program, Scowcroft argued, had to be contained. But that could best be done through a continuing embargo on weapons and weapons technology and by a security arrangement among the U.N., the U.S. and the Arab states. "The world was not willing to make war on Iraq for these reasons before the invasion of Kuwait," said Scowcroft, "and it is not clear why the U.S. and its allies should continue a war against Iraq after the liberation of Kuwait."

Shortly after this discussion, Bush and his top advisers decided to make clear to Saddam that he could withdraw from Kuwait and still save both his skin and his face. He could tell his people that the invasion had got the attention of Kuwait and forced it to negotiate Iraq's demands for access to ports and control of the Rumaila oil field, which runs under both Iraq and Kuwait. Once a decent interval had passed after Iraq's withdrawal, the U.S. would not object if Kuwait made concessions to Iraq. Also, the U.S. would press for progress on the Palestinian issue, and Saddam could claim whatever credit he liked.

This message was delivered both privately — through the diplomatic channels of the U.S. and its Arab allies — and publicly, most notably in Bush's Oct. 1 speech before the U.N. General Assembly.

Down to the Wire
With the Jan. 15 U.N. deadline only two weeks away, both Saddam and Bush face fateful decisions. So far, Saddam has shown no real interest in a peaceful withdrawal. He has reinforced the 100,000 Iraqi soldiers and 350 tanks deployed in Kuwait and southern Iraq in the days just after the invasion + with 410,000 more troops and 4,100 tanks. Bush's attempt to "go the last mile" for a peaceful settlement by inviting Iraq's Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz to the White House and dispatching Baker to Baghdad for a face-to-face talk with Saddam has degenerated into a dispute over when these meetings could take place.

Pressures are mounting on Bush to bring the crisis to a speedy conclusion. Not least of these are the economic hardships the crisis has exacted on Iraq's neighbors. And high oil prices are dragging down the economies of every country save the few that supply oil.

The calendar exerts a grim logic. In March, gulf temperatures begin to rise as high as 100 degrees F, threatening both soldiers and weapons. On March 17 the world's Muslims begin observing Ramadan; in mid-June the annual pilgrimage to Mecca begins. The Saudi government, already uneasy about the army of infidels on its soil, is unlikely to approve the launching of an offensive at either time.

Even domestic politics has become a factor. Democrats on Capitol Hill have grown increasingly critical of what they view as an ill-considered rush to war. Many are angered by the President's stubborn refusal to consult with them in advance of his most momentous decisions. Bush's doubling of the U.S. force stunned lawmakers, military and diplomatic experts and a large slice of the public. Georgia's Sam Nunn, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, held public hearings at which a parade of former high-ranking intelligence, defense and foreign policy experts from both parties counseled a more patient course.

But the Administration has many reasons for not waiting to see if sanctions can wear down Saddam's resolve. One is the difficulty of holding the alliance together for the year or more it might take for the blockade to pinch harder. That will become even more difficult if, as Bush fears, Saddam announces a partial withdrawal from Kuwait that would leave him in possession of Bubiyan and Warba islands and the Rumaila oil field. With so little at stake, some allies — and some Americans — might no longer believe a war was worth fighting.

In addition, a showdown postponed for a year or more would complicate Bush's 1992 campaign for re-election. Says an adviser to Bush: "We could have the economy in the toilet and the body bags coming home. If you're George Bush, you don't like that scenario."

Thus far, the greatest threat to the President's gulf policy has been posed not by Saddam but by one of Bush's long-standing weaknesses. He has found no voice to match his vision in the gulf.

While lavishing personal attention upon the foreign leaders in the anti-Iraq coalition, Bush has turned almost as an afterthought to the equally crucial task of convincing his countrymen that his course is just, his timing and strategy sound. He has brushed aside Congress's insistence that the Constitution empowers it alone to declare war. In private, Bush disdainfully insists he can ignore Congress as long as there is no consensus for or against his gulf policy.

History Lessons
In recent weeks Bush has spoken often of the "lessons of Vietnam." He means the military lessons: that if the U.S. goes to war, it must go to win, with overwhelming force instead of gradual escalation. A quick knockout would deprive critics of time to organize opposition, and the cheers of victory would drown out their protests. But the President has not digested an equally salient message from Vietnam: that the U.S. should not go to war without solid support from Congress and the people.

According to Scowcroft, the gulf crisis poses a crucial question: "Can the U.S. use force — even go to war — for carefully defined national interests, or do we have to have a moral crusade or a galvanizing event like Pearl Harbor?" Polls indicate that a majority of Americans support the use of force if Iraq will not leave Kuwait peacefully. But a large minority retain serious doubts. If war is necessary, there is little doubt that the U.S. and its allies will prevail. But it could prove a Pyrrhic victory if the cost in American lives is so high that it provokes a new wave of isolationism.

Bush's answer to the question he posed at the outset of the crisis — "What happens if we do nothing?" — was not to sit back and watch how events played out, as he had done so often before. It was to move, quickly and with great skill, to confront an act of aggression that might have set a disastrous precedent for the fragmented world that is emerging. His next moves could determine what future Presidents say when they gaze at his portrait on the White House wall.