Bush's moral crisis

William Safire

April 04, 1991|By William Safire

WASHINGTON — WHY DID ALL the weight of the Bush administration come down on General Schwarzkopf for revealing that the decision to abort the war a day too soon was not unanimous -- or as the general later half-clarified, not as originally planned?

The reason is that the pre-decision disagreement within the National Security Council was supposed to be kept secret.

No president lightly consigns thousands of human beings to certain death. He had personally and publicly assured the Kurdish and Shiite rebels that Saddam's gunships would be grounded; his general on the scene admitted he had been "suckered" into agreeing to let them fly.

When a decision is made to place pragmatism above morality -- in this case, to accept historic accountability for choosing military dictatorship over a less orderly system of PTC self-determination -- the president expects his advisers to close ranks, to "sign on" to the decision.

Rules of deep background preclude me from attributing this to any sources other than my own imagination, but here were the conflicting forces:

The strongest voice for ending the shooting before Saddam Hussein's army was destroyed was Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs. True to his Weinberger training, he did not want us to be blamed for overkill, or to be drawn into responsibility for replacing Saddam Hussein; he wanted U.S. troops withdrawn before American public opinion became impatient or terrorists hit.

Supporting this was the State Department's James Baker, influenced heavily by Saudi Arabia's Prince Bandar. Reasoning: only a Sunni Muslim military dictator in Baghdad would be stable enough to provide a balance against Iran, and a U.S.-imposed democracy might split into three nations.

Mildly opposing this premature cessation was the national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, not happy about leaving the job half done, and Vice President Quayle, concerned about the president's credibility with the rebels and the world. Defense Secretary Cheney, in light of Powell's reminder about losing lives in Lebanon, zipped his lip.

Result: President Bush wavered, then decided to cut his winnings and go home. He flip-flopped on his pledge to shoot down Iraqi gunships, leaving his spokesmen admitting "ambiguity." In the name of realpolitik, he made our forces bear shamefaced witness to the bloodletting now under way.

Must history remember George Bush as the liberator of Kuwait and the man who saved Iraq for dictatorship? Preserving Saddam I or planting Saddam II would have other costs: People (( like the too-trusting Kurds now know they can get killed by relying on Bush's assurances. U.S. troops will return home with a sense of shame at the bloodletting that followed our political sellout.

Having refused to impose the opportunity for the rudiments of democracy in what we left of Iraq, Bush would then presume to impose his settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute. Good luck.

For one bright, shining moment we had a president who made the White House pre-eminently a place of moral leadership. George Bush did not go to war primarily for oil, or for jobs or even for protection against incipient attack; his decision to liberate Kuwait was bottomed on hard-rock principle, to right a wrong in a world too accustomed to accommodating imperial wrongdoing.

That moral courage, backed by the will to use power, carried the day, rolling over contrary opinion, emboldening the coalition, vitiating the will to fight of the Iraqi troops. It wasn't "self-righteousness" after all; it was right.

Now that same feeling for a moral world order demands we give the people of Iraq a last chance for freedom.

We are there, occupying a fifth of the country; we created the opportunity for a federation of autonomous peoples; we cannot creep away with our internal allies exposed to Soviet-made aircraft and tanks.

Bush still has time to say: "No more population-killers. Our aircraft will destroy any plane or chopper or tank or heavy artillery that moves. Fight if you must, but with rifles and knives in a primitive form of self-determination."

Why wobble now? If we are too timid to impose democracy, we owe it to our sense of right and wrong to at least level the killing field.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.