"Historians are going to second-guess forever" why President Bush decided to stop the gulf war before Iraqi forces were annihilated. This statement by Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the victorious commander of Operation Desert Storm, is one the administration can hardly dispute despite its overtone of criticism. It raises wrenching questions as Saddam Hussein's troops blast away at Kurdish and Shiite rebels while the United States stands by.
What suddenly is in dispute is whether General Schwarzkopf actually recommended to the president that the battle should go on. In a taped interview last night, the general said, "Frankly, my recommendation had been, continue the march."
Not so, the administration replied. Defense Secretary Richard Cheney said the decision to stop military action on Feb. 27 "was coordinated with and concurred in" by General Schwarzkopf. Added Marlin Fitzwater, White House spokesman: "It [General rTC Schwarzkopf's statement) contradicts what happened at the time." He said the president had Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, call the field commander to ask if he had any problems with the decision to halt the offensive, and the answer was no.
Even if this turns out to be a 24-hour Washington flap, as Mr. Fitzwater suggested, rather than a dramatic Truman-versus-MacArthur kind of confrontation, it illustrates again the difficulties the administration is having in formulating policy to handle the current, chaotic situation in Iraq.
The president wants Saddam Hussein toppled but he also wants to avoid having Iraq turned into another Lebanon, torn by warring tribes and factions that cancel out any possibility of effective central government control. He wants to avoid getting involved in a civil war, yet the U.S. is already so deeply involved, by reason of its military presence, that even inaction is a form of intervention.
Just yesterday, Turkey's President Turgut Ozal warned that the U.S. decision not to shoot down Iraqi combat helicopters being used against the insurgency will help Saddam Hussein cling to power. This was at odds with a Bush statement that Saddam's hold on office is not likely to last very long because the Iraqi people "are fed up with him."
What the president obviously hopes for is a neat, clean military coup that would dispatch Saddam as surely as General Schwarzkopf could have dispatched him by force. Then Iraq could form a government acceptable to the Kurds and the Shiites and capable of maintaining Iraq's integrity as a secular, unitary state.
The president is finding that decisions on building the peace are even more complicated than decisions to go to war. His best hope, at this juncture, is that the United Nations cease-fire resolution will impose such harsh penalties on Iraq, with Saddam in power, that the rewards for ousting him will become irresistible.