MARCH 1991 - VOLUME 12 - NUMBER 3
E D I T O R I A L
Having earlier abandoned its effort to force Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait by applying economic sanctions and having begun an unnecessary air war, the Bush administration launched a ground war on February 22, 1991 that could have been averted. Much of the slaughter of Iraqi soldiers and destruction of the region could have been avoided if President Bush had responded seriously to the February 21 Iraqi offer to pull out of Kuwait.
While ultimate responsibility for the needless loss of life lies with the Bush administration, it could not have ignored repeated Iraqi peace offers without the complicity of others.
Before Operation Desert Shield turned into Operation Desert Storm, there was significant opposition among foreign policy commentators and Congress to commencing offensive military action. Ex-chairs of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, former secretaries of defense and state and top foreign policy advisers offered eloquent pronouncements on the merits of maintaining economic sanctions. Many in Congress stood up to executive pressure and voted against authorizing the president to launch a war against Iraq.
As soon as the war began, however, such elite opposition evaporated. The day after the war began, Congress voted, with only six dissenting votes, to "commend and support the efforts of the President as Commander in Chief in the Persian Gulf hostilities."
The reversal was equally notable among the foreign policy establishment. Retired Admiral William Crowe, former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Service Committee in November that economic sanctions and the political coalition forged against Iraq "have already achieved a great deal. The argument that Saddam is winning and being rewarded I believe is both weird and wrong. Obviously this fact is overlooked by those calling for more direct action." But once the war started, his office told Multinational Monitor, Crowe supported the president's policy.
Similarly, before the war, Lieutenant General William Odom, former director of the National Security Agency, told the same Senate Committee that the strategy of economic sanctions against Iraq "has much to recommend it. To date, it has been a winning strategy." But, once the war began, he too threw his support behind the president.
Crowe and Odom's turnarounds were typical. No member of the military or foreign policy establishment remained an outspoken opponent once the war began.
Moral cowardice, fear of political repercussions and a twisted sense of patriotism--"we must be united behind the president during the war--even if his policy is wrong"--combined to unify a previously divided elite in support of the war. At the root of the agreement was a shared belief that the United States has the right to project its military force anywhere in the world, a belief that was more fundamental than what had only been a significant tactical disagreement over how to respond to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.
The silencing of opposition from public figures has had important consequences. Vocal opposition to the war from members of Congress or the foreign policy establishment could have been a rallying point for those who opposed the war and those who had questions about it. The support Bush enjoyed may have been significantly diluted. And, had the president feared the political consequences of public dissent, the entire course of the conflict might have been different.
Most significant, perhaps, was the refusal of Congress to respond positively to the January 29 Baker-Soviet statement on the war. The few members of Congress who tried found they were unable to garner any support for a resolution supporting the statement, which said that "a cessation of hostilities would be possible if Iraq would make an unequivocal commitment to withdraw from Kuwait." Members of Congress feared being labelled doves.
The Baker-Soviet statement formed the basis for the February 21 Iraqi-Soviet peace proposal. Iraq offered to pull out of Kuwait and release U.S. and coalition partner prisoners of war. In other words, it met the original, stated goals of Operation Desert Storm. But Bush dismissed the offer, opting instead to undertake a ground war to demonstrate U.S. military might and to destroy Iraq's military.
Had Congress and the foreign policy elite insisted on the validity of the Iraqi peace offer, based on the January 29 U.S.- Soviet statement, the ground war could quite possibly have been averted.
A negotiated victory for the U.S.-led coalition would have avoided the needless slaughter of tens of thousands of Iraqis and much of the war's environmental destruction, including the firing of Kuwaiti oil wells. The reality of that lost possibility should override the jingoistic fervor that has swept across the United States since the war's end.