Prewar Period Was Test of Wills Between Hussein and Bush WAR IN THE GULF

March 10, 1991|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON — Washington. Seen in retrospect, the initial White House reaction to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was remarkably low-key: a statement that deplored the use of force by Iraq and said the United States and Kuwait were seeking an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council. Even the following day, President Bush said he was not contemplating intervention.

The muted response gave Arab leaders the early diplomatic lead. But Mr. Bush decided quickly to resist, and started to assemble and use the key tools that marked his management throughout: constant high-level contact with allied leaders; Soviet cooperation; high-profile presidential appearances; and well-prepared action by the United Nations Security Council.

Protecting Persian Gulf oil supplies was the dominant motivation. Even if Saddam Hussein failed to push beyond Kuwait, his threat of doing so could allow him to dictate terms to weaker states. Added to this were the simple fact of aggression, America's commitment to stand by its friends and Iraq's chemical and biological weapons capability and nuclear ambitions.

From then on, the gulf crisis became largely a test of wills between two men, neither of whom took a precise measure of the other. Mr. Bush said as late as last December that his "gut" told him Saddam Hussein ultimately would withdraw. Mr. Hussein's list of miscalculations was longer: He underestimated Mr. Bush's ability to hold the international coalition together, overestimated Arab "street" pressure on governments, misunderstood American public opinion and, finally, misjudged his own forces' ability to wage a ground war.

Of the two, however, only Mr. Hussein was willing to gamble everything on his own hunches. Mr. Bush prepared carefully and steadily for the prospect that his own "gut" feeling would be wrong and he would have to go to war.

Militarily, the United States' hands were tied until King Fahd, reversing policy and flouting generations of Arab sentiment, allowed American troops on Saudi soil after President Bush dispatched Defense Secretary Dick Cheney to meet with him.

The arrival soon afterward of U.S. forces brought one of the most nerve-racking periods of the crisis, officials say. Had Mr. Hussein chosen that moment to attack Saudi Arabia, he could have overwhelmed the then-small American force.

His hesitancy endowed the U.S. and its allies with more freedom to choose when to fight. Other opportunities were seized: Soviet willingness to halt arms shipments opened the way for the most successfully implemented sanctions regime, later backed up by sea and air power, in memory; Syrian President Hafez el Assad's enmity toward Saddam Hussein and Iran's need to expand ties with the West paved the way for approaches that brought military support from Damascus and neutrality from Iran.

The chief tenet of the allies' pressure campaign on Saddam Hussein was that he would respond only to force or the threat of force. Sanctions imposed by the United Nations were coupled with military power. The administration decided toward the end of last year that the Iraqi military's ability to withstand sanctions could well outlast the allied coalition.

As early as last fall, while outwardly claiming its mission was to defend Saudi Arabia, the Bush administration planned to project enough power in the region to convince Mr. Hussein that if he didn't withdraw voluntarily, he would be forced out. There are hints that early goals also included the destruction of Iraq's military machine. Soviet envoy Yevgeny Primakov writes that former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, at a meeting in October, saw no way to avoid war. She was noncommittal only on its timing.

From the outset, President Bush refused to bargain. The United States offered vaguely to compromise around the edges by pledging a broader Mideast peace process once the crisis ended, but never budged on the central point of demanding total withdrawal, restoration of the Kuwaiti government and implementation of U.N. resolutions.

Reversing predecessor Jimmy Carter's bitter experience, Mr. Bush gained leverage, rather than losing it, from the agony of American hostages. He and his spokesmen stoked public outrage over Iraq's use of foreigners as human shields while refusing to let their plight drive policy.

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