Bush's unfortunate inheritance: Iraq and war

February 09, 2003|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

GEORGE SANTAYANA's observation about what happens to people who ignore history is a cliche in times of war or preparation for it. But let me quote the great philosopher anyway: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Santayana came to mind last week while I was watching a repeat of the excellent PBS Frontline television documentary on the last Persian Gulf war in 1991. It was a reminder of President George Bush's legacy to his successor, Bill Clinton and, as it turns out, to his own son. The elder Bush cannot have imagined that his namesake son would be in this spot, or that he would be president for that matter. But he is, and one can only wonder what he would like to say to his dad about leaving Saddam Hussein in power with all those Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Young George Bush certainly must remember the past. So must his chief advisers, especially Vice President Dick Cheney, who was defense secretary, and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

But most Americans probably do not remember the details beyond these: that Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990; a U.S.-led coalition launched airstrikes against Iraq beginning five months later; a month later, the United States led a ground assault against Iraqi forces in Kuwait and drove them out in less than five days; Bush senior's popularity seemed to make him unbeatable in 1992 (wrong!) and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of the allied forces, was the most celebrated military hero since Eisenhower.

In the documentary, made five years after the war, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who was in office in 1991, noted that neither she nor Bush were leaders of their countries anymore, but Saddam Hussein was still leader of Iraq.

"I wonder who won," she observed wryly.

Now that war against Iraq seems sure to happen unless Hussein starts turning over his WMD quickly and abundantly, it's worth revisiting some of the other facts around that first war, which the Frontline documentary laid out, especially the motivation (oil) and the broken promises (mainly to the Shiites of the south of Iraq, and the Kurds of the north).

First, when Hussein started his plan to go to war against Kuwait in 1990, the United States still had diplomatic relations with Iraq. Hussein inquired of April Glaspie, the chief U.S. diplomat in Baghdad, what Washington's attitude was in the matter. She said, in effect, that the United States does not have a dog in this fight, which left Hussein with the impression that he was free to do what he wanted.

Second, Bush and his senior advisers were so preoccupied with the end of the Cold War that they did not comprehend the seriousness of the Iraqi threat until it was too late. And when Iraq invaded, the first impulse was to make sure Hussein did not move on to take over Saudi Arabia (oil). The defense of Saudi Arabia was the first objective in the hours after the invasion of Kuwait. Bush vacillated over whether the United States would fight to liberate Kuwait. Thatcher, who had knocked off Argentine invaders in the Falklands, seems to have persuaded Bush he had no choice but to liberate Kuwait.

Third, after the Iraqis were driven from Kuwait, Powell was so unsettled by the grim images of death and devastation wrought against the Iraqi army that he persuaded Bush to call a cease-fire. That was all very well, but the bulk of the Iraqi elite forces and equipment escaped, surviving to fight another day as we are about to realize.

(In the documentary, Schwarzkopf described what he thought would have happened if his army had gone all the way to Baghdad: "I think we'd still be there, we'd be like a dinosaur in a tar pit, we could not have gotten out and we'd still be the occupying power, and we'd be paying 100 percent of all the costs to administer all of Iraq.")

Fourth, and this is the most ignominious part, throughout the war Bush I had exhorted Iraqis to rise up against Hussein, saying that he wanted regime change. The Shiites of the south were inspired to do just that. They launched a rebellion against Hussein's authority, but Hussein's forces came back to viciously suppress that rebellion, and the United States did nothing about it. Later, the Kurds of the north rebelled against the Hussein regime, marching all the way to Kirkuk, the oil center. But the Bush administration did nothing to help them and they were slaughtered by Hussein's forces.

That was the legacy of the first gulf war, and it's worth remembering as the younger Bush embarks on his mission to complete the first war. He speaks of regime change, but the Shiites of southern Iraq are not there to remember; they were wiped out or fled to Iran. And the Kurds of the north must be very dubious indeed, for a couple of reasons.

One is that they were so cynically left swinging in the wind by the last administration. The other is that the Bush administration, in its push to get Turkey into the alliance against Iraq, has been promising the Turks they may send their army into the northern Iraq area known as Kurdistan.

The Turks hate the Kurds almost as much as Hussein does. The Kurdish campaign for independence in Turkey is violently suppressed. As one Iraqi Kurdish official told The New York Times last week, "We regard America as liberators, and our neighbors as looters."

But here's the final historic fact that's worth remembering. Turkey used to rule all of Iraq. Turkey was thrown out by British-led forces in World War I. Now the Turks are coming back? Saddam Hussein should appreciate the irony of that turnaround more than anyone.

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