Hoover Daily Report

The Guns of August, 1990

via Wall Street Journal
Monday, August 23, 2010

The Wall Street Journal

AUGUST 23, 2010

The Guns of August, 1990
The last 20 years would have been very different had American forces taken that open road to Baghdad the first time around.


He struck in early August, 20 years ago, at a time when the Cold War had just ended, and the world was replete with claims that wars of conquest had become a thing of the past. This was Saddam Hussein's summer, and his conquest of Kuwait, the rich principality next door.

He came for the loot; his soldiers headed to the gold souk and the central bank. He also dispatched his armies right up to the Saudi-Kuwaiti border, making a bid for mastery over the Persian Gulf and its oil supplies. He didn't worry about the Americans, since he was sure they did not have the stomach for a fight. But American power would call Saddam's bluff, it would shatter his army, and with it the myth of Iraq as a mighty power—the Prussia of the Arab world.

In many ways, we still live in the grip, and in the shadow, of that summer. A vast force is still in Iraq, 50,000 American soldiers will be there, even as the "combat troops" are withdrawn by the end of this month. A meandering trail led from that summer right up to 9/11 and to the second American campaign against Saddam Hussein in 2003.

For nearly two decades, the Persian Gulf had been left to find its own balance of power. The British had pulled out of "east of Suez" by 1971. They had grown weary of empire, the calling and the wealth needed for imperial burden having ebbed away. The Americans had been reluctant to fill the void.

The interregnum between the British and the Americans had been an unmitigated disaster. Arab "brotherhood" had turned out to be a sham, Saddam had sacked Kuwait to widespread Arab approval. It was an oil well with a flag, radicals said of Kuwait, a rich, selfish place better folded into a new Iraqi power.

The desert Arab powers had no answer to Saddam's brazen aggression. In times past, they had lobbied for American protection, but they had wanted the Americans "over the horizon," a discreet distance from their protectors. Their world now in the wind, they were done with subtlety and wanted the protectors on the scene.

Saddam Hussein had bet that the House of Saud would never dare call in the Americans; the Saudis surprised him. The guardians of that realm were in no mood for guesswork. Saddam could have struck into Saudi Arabia, or stayed on their border, keeping open the possibility of an invasion. He could have severed the oil-rich Eastern Province of the Saudi kingdom from the rest of the country. It was farewell to purity, and so a vast American-led military coalition would descend on the Arabian Peninsula.

"First we're going to cut it off, then we're going to kill it," Gen. Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said of the Iraqi army, and of the American plan for that war. A colorful commander, gruff and plain-speaking, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, emerged as a hero of that war. The American public took to that war, and it proved easier than many of its detractors had thought.

"We were 150 miles from Baghdad, and there was nothing between us and Baghdad," said Gen. Schwarzkopf after a ground war that lasted a hundred hours. But the Iraqi army was not "killed"; no sooner had the dust of battle settled, the victors were seized with doubts and caution. Saddam Hussein was spared, he was left with his helicopter gunships, and enough military force to terrorize his own.

George Herbert Walker Bush called on the Iraqis to "take matters into their own hands." They rebelled, took him at his word, and 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces in the Kurdish north and the Shiite south slipped out of the tyrant's grip. But the tide soon turned, and the remnants of Saddam's army would prevail in a great display of merciless terror. America had betrayed the rebels. In 2003, an American expedition dispatched by George W. Bush would find, stalking it, a memory of that betrayal.

With the Iraqi despot spared, the skies over southern Iraq had to be monitored, and they were from the Saudi realm next door. There had been Saudis who had been made uneasy by the American military presence. The American forces that stayed on to monitor Saddam's regime fed and confirmed those suspicions.

This was the material that a pampered child of a construction dynasty, born and raised in Jeddah, Osama bin Laden, evoked when he set out to challenge the House of Saud. The sacred earth of the Arabian Peninsula, Islam's birthplace, was being defiled, bin Laden exhorted. He had been a bit player, a fund-raiser for the jihad in Afghanistan. Now he rose as a warrior of the faith, to do battle against the "infidels" and their local collaborators.

The road to Manhattan and to the Pentagon, and to 9/11, had opened. Strictly speaking, Saddam hadn't launched those terror attacks. But the war that defeated then spared him provides the essential background of the furies that would come America's way on a clear September morning in 2001.

Those were young Arabs, 19 of them, the pilots and the muscle aboard those planes on 9/11. Their leaders and financiers were in the badlands of Afghanistan, and on the Afghan/Pakistan frontier, courtesy of the Taliban. It was judged prudent (rightly so, in my view) that a "light" campaign, with special forces and proxy allies, would strike at the terrible seminarians in Kabul.

The bigger effort, the big guns and the heavy brigades, would aim for Baghdad, the reluctance of 1990-91 would be torn asunder. The unfinished war against the Iraqi ruler would be resumed. There he was, after 9/11, in the midst of American grief and concern, bragging about his might, and his awesome weapons of destruction.

A whole history—speculative, the domain of judgment and preference and hindsight—could be written about the "might have beens" of American forces taking that open road to Baghdad the first time around.

Mr. Ajami is professor at The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.