Baghdad or bust: a good idea?

October 17, 1994|By Georgie Anne Geyer

Washington -- WITH THE RENEWED Iraqi threat to Kuwait, the key question of the gulf war in 1991 hovers, still unresolved, over this new period: Should the United States have gone all the way to Baghdad?

Sometimes it is paraphrased: Should we have destroyed Saddam? And occasionally it is couched in the affirmative, as in words from the White House last week: "We mustn't make the same mistakes again!"

But what really is the truth behind this still unanswered question? Two of the top original players grappled with that last week -- and, I believe, offered some insights.

"One of the things we did when we made the decision not to go to Baghdad was to analyze our behavior since World War II," said Gen. Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser in the Bush White House who directly made the decisions over the war. "We particularly looked into the historical hazards of changing your intentions after things were going well.

"We took the Korean War. Remember, after the Inchon landing, everything looked so good. And so we advanced to the North, China came in, we fought two more years and ended up with what we could have had in the beginning, except for 20 years of enmity that followed with China.

"We thought long about whether we should add Saddam to the list of our goals," Mr. Scowcroft said, speaking to the annual advisory board meeting of the Center for Strategic and International Studies here. "But, first, we didn't know how to do that. We couldn't even find Manuel Noriega in Panama, which we knew like the backs of our hands. We targeted every place he'd ever slept, and finally he surrendered."

Moreover, the general went on, there was another overriding strategic concern in the complicated gulf war equation. "Not only might we still be there in Baghdad," he continued, "but the coalition that we put together so carefully would have been destroyed. Our Arab allies would have left us. One of the benefits of the war was that, once it was over, we left.

"And that made possible the entire Middle East peace process, which is now progressing so well."

Interestingly, at the elegant dinner the same night at the National Portrait Gallery, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was also moved by the dramatic events of the week to voice his slightly different ideas.

"If you look at the United States in the postwar world," said Dr. Kissinger, "we always stopped military actions too soon." [We didn't go to Hanoi, we didn't go to Pyongyang, we didn't go to Baghdad.] "I personally thought we should have forced the overthrow of Saddam.

"On the other hand," he said, with a kind of ironic shrug, "most of those who are now criticizing us for not going to Baghdad have no moral position -- they were originally against the war completely. I would have kept it going another 48 to 72 hours."

Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, who commanded the war so brilliantly, wanted to destroy more of Saddam's Republican Guards. "We had them in a rout and we could have continued to wreak great destruction upon them," he said at the time. "But the president made the decision that we should stop at a given time . . . and I think that was a very humane and courageous decision."

But, he correctly prophesied, "It's one of those ones that historians are going to second-guess forever."

So, who is right? Is this a question that should haunt not only those picky historians but all of us who care about America's place in a new and elusive world, where limited victories will surely be a pattern of the future?

Personally, I think it's time we laid the question to rest. For, frankly, it never made much sense to me.

The "On-to-Baghdad" crowd didn't seem to have any understanding of a savage desert country where our men and women would have had to fight their way through shadowy souks. How easily and provocatively Saddam Hussein, with his consummate conspiratorial mind, would have hidden. How foolish we soon would have looked -- and how many lives we would have lost, in addition to Mr. Scowcroft's larger peace.

The final sorry fact is that, even had we "gotten" Saddam Hussein, any new leader in that perverse land would have looked disturbingly much like him.

The argument to keep the fight going longer has merit, but, as the wise and measured Mr. Schwarzkopf says, that is a "call" that honorable men and women can consider. Surely and endlessly, they will.

Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.

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