When Bush went to war
John H. Sununu, a former governor of New Hampshire and White House chief of staff, has just published a book called “The Quiet Man: The Indispensable Presidency of George H.W. Bush.” In this passage, excerpted with permission from the publisher, HarperCollins, Sununu recounts Bush’s decision in 1990 to go to war with Iraq in defense of Kuwait.
By early fall , the president could look back with pride on what had been accomplished in the weeks since the Iraqi army had taken over Kuwait. He had, through a series of resolutions at the United Nations, clearly defined the need to undo the occupation. He had convinced our principal allies to participate in a naval “quarantine” to enforce economic sanctions against Iraq. He had persuaded our oil-producing allies to increase production to minimize the impact of the loss of Iraqi and Kuwaiti oil supplies. He was well on his way to building a broad military coalition, probably the broadest since World War II, to apply pressure on Iraq, or, if necessary, forcefully expel it from Kuwait. In short, Bush had succeeded in isolating Iraq and restraining it from using its military might any further than it already had done.
Inevitably, all presidents eventually discover how strong an impact the political pressure of public opinion can have on their capacity to develop and implement policy. They learn that doing what is right and doing what is popular don’t always overlap. In Bush’s case it was true not only in the complex and extremely partisan budget negotiations underway in Congress in late 1990, but also in the simultaneous preparations underway in the Middle East.
It soon became clear that partisan politics would attack both the broad policy and the details of what the president felt had to be done by the United States as the leader of this new coalition. Bush learned that, despite assertions of the Democratic leadership in Congress to the contrary, partisanship was part and parcel of the budget negotiations, and eventually that same partisanship crept into the preparations for and execution of the war in Kuwait, but public support was with him, even though his critics were saying that he had not yet made the case for strong action in the Gulf to the public or to Congress.
As we moved closer to the day when he would have to make a final decision on whether to send men and women into battle, the president met regularly with people outside the national security establishment to hear their thoughts and concerns. Some of them, people he cared about deeply, came with impassioned pleas not to use force.
Bush occasionally got frustrated when he met with members of Congress — usually with the leadership, and virtually always on a bipartisan basis — to explain the national security implications of the escalating crisis. He felt that pure partisanship was influencing congressional leaders who should have known better, such as Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia, who appeared fixated on compromise even if it allowed Saddam Hussein to remain in control of what he had taken in Kuwait.
On September 11, Bush addressed a joint session of Congress. As always, the chamber was packed and the speech was televised nationally. Bush reported to Congress and the nation where things stood with the coalition and our allies. He offered a summary of his talks with [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev in Helsinki. He hoped Congress and the nation appreciated, he said, the long-term implications of the fact that the two superpowers were handling the situation cooperatively. It was, he said, a historic moment.
The address happened in the middle of the nasty partisan battle over the budget. [Treasury Secretary Nicholas] Brady, [budget director Richard] Darman, and I were able to report to the president that we were making progress. What the president was doing in the Persian Gulf was earning him strong public backing, and that support was putting pressure on the Democrats to work harder in search of a solution to the budget problem and the budget deficit.
Ten days after he addressed Congress, the president invited the joint leadership to the White House to discuss where Congress stood on the events unfolding abroad. Speaker Tom Foley and Senate majority leader [George] Mitchell had supported the president in his coalition-building and the US response to the crisis so far, but they warned the president that the issue of hostilities was a different question. They were very specific in making the point that, as Foley put it, “If we engage in hostilities, the war powers issue would resume.” This was their way of suggesting that the president could not use force to push Hussein out of Kuwait without getting a vote of approval from Congress. The president didn’t agree, but listened to their presentation respectfully.
On the Republican side, both Bob Michel, the House minority leader, and Bob Dole, the Senate minority leader, expressed strong support for all the president had done and might need to do. Even with that support, however, arming our allies in the coalition was a complex process. Providing military equipment to countries like Saudi Arabia involved a convoluted process of consultation, notification, concurrence, and approval from Congress. The president explained that the more we built up the Saudi military, the less we would need American forces. Even though he started the process in August, it wouldn’t be until nearly the last day in October that an arms package would finally get through Congress.
At the end of September, General Colin Powell asked for a meeting with the president. When he came to see us in the Oval Office. I noticed that Powell seemed a bit more tired and tightlipped than usual. There was none of the good-natured banter that usually started one of his meetings with President Bush. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs summarized the progress being made in the movement of materials and troops to Saudi Arabia, then got to the point that he wanted to make sure Bush heard.
“Mr. President, this is one of the biggest military offensives ever put together,” he explained sternly. “And it is one of the most complicated. If you decide to liberate Kuwait by force, it is going to take half a million troops, a couple of thousand aircraft, thousands of tanks, a handful of carrier groups, a couple of hundred ships and billions of dollars of ordnance.”
Like many military leaders, Powell was rightly reluctant to commit forces to combat. I had no problem with that, but he now was asking for essentially double what he and the Joint Chiefs had previously said they needed.
At first I thought Powell was testing the president’s resolve. Then I realized he was just making it abundantly clear this was going to be a high-stakes, high-risk undertaking. In direct and specific terms, he was letting the president know that if he decided to go to war with Iraq, then it should be done — and must be done — with a large enough commitment of resources to ensure success.
The tactic, I suspected, was also an effort by Powell to cover his own back should things go wrong. I had noticed throughout his tenure that Powell kept an open line to reporters, such as his friend Bob Woodward at The Washington Post, to make sure his own achievements and perspectives had a clear outlet in the press. In his discussion that day with Bush, Powell was asking for virtually every available asset, perhaps with the expectation that Bush would not provide it.
The president took it all in. He sat quietly in his chair and listened intently. He could have balked at the request for additional resources. He could have sent Powell back to the Pentagon to find a way to do the job with less. He could have tried to minimize the cost and avoid the impact such a huge mobilization would have on public opinion.
George Bush didn’t do any of those things. Without hesitation, President Bush committed. With eyes locked on the general he said, “All right, Colin. You’ve got it. And if you need anything else to get the job done right, you just let me know.”
The Vietnam War had been managed by a president who seemed to always give the armed forces just a little less than what they requested. It had been a recipe for failure. I had seen it. George Bush had seen it, too. And he would have none of it.
It took a second for it to sink in, but then I realized what Bush had just done. In his calm, low-key style, he had brilliantly navigated one of the most significant moments of presidential leadership since the end of World War II. It was the foreign policy equivalent of his admonition regarding the savings and loan debacle on the domestic side: “Fix it and fix it fast.”
In that moment, with his deliberate and decisive words, George Bush changed the environment in which US strategic responsibilities and resources would be committed. No more post-Vietnam Syndrome. No more Paper Tiger. No more Reluctant Superpower. The die was cast, and the message to Colin Powell and the military was clear: get the job done, and get it done right. There would be no hesitation at or interference by the top of the chain of command from that moment on. You will have all the resources you need, he told Powell, but from now on there will be no excuse for failure.