Lines in the Sand: George H.W. Bush and Creating the Coalition

Note: President George H.W. Bush (1989-1993) served this nation with distinction and honor as a veteran of the Second World War, Congressman, CIA Director, Vice President, and finally President, and passed away last week on November 30, 2018. This is dedicated in his honor.

From August 1990 to February 1991, one major issue dominated the administration of the 41st President George H.W. Bush was that of the crisis in the Persian Gulf. During this period, the United States and its allies faced Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein after his unprovoked invasion of the small, oil-rich Kuwait. The war itself only lasted for several weeks, but in the months preceding the Coalition-led liberation of Kuwait, a slow and deliberate process was set in motion by President Bush to form a group of nations to oppose Saddam Hussein’s aggressive actions in the region. The President successfully built up this alliance and was successful in keeping all his options open until the last moment. He was still willing to make peace with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to prevent what was one of the most successful wars for the United States during the 20th century. While the United States did go to war with Iraq, Bush can be praised for keeping the path towards peace open throughout the months preceding armed conflict. He built up both domestic and foreign support for a war and proved himself to be an effective wartime President before the war even broke out.

In early November 1990, several months after the crisis in the Persian Gulf began, President Bush sat for an interview and was asked to discuss what he would do to respond to Americans being starved in Kuwait due to the Iraqi occupation. He responded “Let’s just wait and see. Because I have had it with that kind of treatment of Americans.”[1] This statement outlines the entire attitude of the Bush Administration since Iraq invaded Kuwait on August 2, one of cautious aggression. President Bush throughout the crisis sent “…contradictory signals on whether the U.S. is preparing to launch an armed attack to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait,”[2] unsure of whether he wanted to commit the United States to a full military intervention. Bush during the crisis seemed to base his strategy in dealing with Saddam Hussein on both a mix of public opinion and the situation on the ground, waiting before making the final decision on whether to go to war.

Throughout the buildup to Operation Desert Storm, which began on January 17, 1991, public opinion played a major role. Still reeling from the Vietnam War which ended a little under two decades prior, the public in October 1990 and in the early months of the crisis felt uneasy about going to war with Iraq.[3] Americans during this period still had memories of the war fresh in their minds. With the Cold War at that point in its final months, it is understandable that the country did not want to risk going to war. If mishandled, “the crisis could prompt devastating consequences for the world economy…and almost inevitably generate major regional instability throughout the Middle East.”[4] Americans feared both the possibility of another long war, as well as of economic catastrophe while just coming off the boom of the 1980s. While other Presidents did not take public opinion too seriously prior to engaging in conflict, the buildup allowed for the creation of a unique scenario where in the months preceding a war, the Commander-in-chief took the public’s concerns over a possible war into consideration.

The buildup of troops near the Iraq and Kuwait borders during the months preceding Desert Storm was meant as a deterrence and a threat to Iraq’ leader, Saddam Hussein. Along with a global trade embargo, President Bush hoped that a military buildup could force Hussein to concede that he lost Kuwait and was unable to maintain his control over the region without being defeated on the field of battle or even on the world state diplomatically. Senior officials in the Pentagon had “…little doubt they would ultimately defeat Saddam Hussein, they think the cost could be high…Intelligence analysts in Washington, meanwhile, project total U.S. casualty figures as high as 20,000.”[5] The risk of a war that could cost thousands of American lives did not sit well with President Bush, who himself was taking into consideration the fact that he could be stuck in a quagmire similar to that of Vietnam, a ghost that constantly was hanging over this crisis.

Even from the start of the buildup, the President seemed unsure of what to do in regard to the Iraqi threat. At a press conference on August 2, 1990, just shortly after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait began, the President responded to the question of military intervention. He said that “We’re not discussing intervention…But what I want to do is have it limited back to Iraq and have the invasion be reversed and have them get out of Kuwait,”[6] indicating that while Bush was not at the time discussing a military intervention, the Commander-in-chief already began backing the idea of Iraq either willingly removing themselves from the country or the United States along with a multilateral force pushing the withdrawal of Iraq from Kuwait. In August 1990 the public remained divided on the issue of military action, while “Half expected a bloodless resolution to the confrontation, but a third said they expected fighting.”[7] Even though there was clear support from the public towards the President’s decision to be strong against Saddam Hussein and to deploy troops to Saudi Arabia, “…4 out of 10 Americans…expressed reservations about the American intervention.”[8] Americans clearly were concerned about Saddam Hussein’s expansion into Kuwait, but a significant number it appears did not wish to place American lives in danger.

President Bush during the Persian Gulf Crisis can easily be praised for both his strong actions and for taking into consideration public opinion, and at the same time not allowing it to completely determine American action in the Persian Gulf region. Despite his clear efforts to use a show of force to uproot Hussein from Kuwait, Bush also displayed a clear desire to resolve the crisis in Kuwait diplomatically rather than militarily. Even though there was an American buildup in the region, where by the end of August 1990 “The administration also confirmed that it is selling $2.3 billion of weapons to Saudi Arabia,”[9] There were early signs indicating that the President was building up the United States’ strength in the region, and that he also attempted to build a regional and possibly even international coalition.

Even up until the final days of the crisis before the war broke out, President Bush allowed for diplomatic channels to remain open. As the United States began to move heavy bombers into the staging grounds in Saudi Arabia during the first days of 1991, the President began to plan for last-minute negotiations between United States Secretary of State James Baker, and a representative from Iraq, possibly even Saddam Hussein himself. While “Senior administration officials indicated that the U.S. hasn’t agreed on a precise new date…they suggested that the initiative involves a new proposal for arranging a meeting between Mr. Baker and Iraqi officials in a third country,”[10] the Iraqi President’s timeline for a negotiation with the United States came too close to the January 15 deadline, indicating that the President wanted a clear time between the end of the deadline and the start of hostilities so as to create a clear image of what he wanted for the region over the coming days and weeks.

Despite his efforts to keep a door open for a diplomatic solution, the Commander-in-chief can also be criticized for his failure to find such a solution. Even in the final weeks of the buildup, he attempted to speed up the process of going to war with Saddam Hussein. Just prior to the January 15 deadline for the Iraqi President to pull his troops out from Kuwait, United Nations Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar called for “President Saddam Hussein to turn the course of events away from catastrophe, and toward a new era of justice and harmony based on the principles of the United Nations Charter.”[11] This was a clear last-minute attempt by the United Nations to broker a peace on the eve of war. While Hussein even began to release American and other foreign hostages on December 31, 1990, Bush’s reaction to the release was “perfect–welcoming back Saddam’s prisoners, but immediately warning that this move in no way brings the crisis closer to resolution.”[12] Even when the Iraqi leader released the detainees, the Administration held no interest in calling it a concession, but instead turned around and instead saw the President making a stand against the dictator.

Perhaps one of the greatest cases President Bush made to attack Iraq during this crisis was the possibility of President Hussein obtaining nuclear weapons. While Bush made several arguments throughout the crisis, none was more urgent in the minds of Americans then the threat of “…an unpredictable and power-mad Saddam Hussein from obtaining nuclear weapons.”[13] According to a November New York Times poll, approximately 54% believed that a war was necessary to curtail the development of nuclear weaponry and other weapons of mass destruction from getting into the hands of Saddam Hussein.[14] The Commander-in-chief even openly admitted during his Thanksgiving address to American soldiers near the Kuwaiti and Iraqi frontiers that “Those who would measure the timetable for Saddam’s atomic program in years may be seriously underestimating the reality of that situation,”[15] admitting outright that the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iraq may be an inevitable future the United States needed to face. While the issue of protecting Kuwaiti sovereignty and United States interests in the region were among the primary causes President Bush used to justify an intervention, the issue of a nuclear Iraq persisted as the most prevalent cause for the war.

The President’s Thanksgiving visit to Saudi Arabia saw him give “…the most ominous warning…about Iraq’s nuclear program, an issue he hasn’t stressed previously because his policy doesn’t specifically call for wiping out Iraq’s nuclear capability.”[16] Iraq possessing nuclear weapons worried Americans more than the myriad of other issues for going to war. As the crisis began to approach its climax, critics of the Bush Administration found it more necessary to intervene for the sake of eliminating a potential nuclear threat. One critic opined that “…if Iraq is left with Saddam Hussein plus nuclear reactors,”[17] the United States may not only be forced to contend with a nuclear power in the region, but also face embarrassment from not being able to remove such a clear threat. These factors forced the President to act quickly as the crisis lengthened.

The diplomatic and domestic buildup to the war can both be criticized as well, particularly with President Bush’s relations with Congress during this time. Throughout the Gulf Crisis, the Democratic Party in Congress had a peculiar aversion to fighting against Saddam Hussein and Iraq, the Democrats “…suddenly talking a mixture of pacifism and American nationalism….”[18] During a Senate visit to American and other Coalition troops along the Iraqi border in mid-December 1990, Senators such as Majority Leader George J. Mitchell and Bob Graham observed that while the President can be praised for his handling of the crisis, that “there is still a lack of understanding of what we’re engaged in here.”[19] Bush failed in his capacity as Commander-in-chief to lay the groundwork for Congressional support towards military action in the Middle East. He had a strong domestic coalition to support him, as well as a significant portion of the American public to back him in the polls. Despite this, he can be criticized for not gaining the full support of the United States Senate, which usually served as a key force in major foreign policy decisions.

On December 4, 1990, House Democrats “adopted a nonbinding policy statement…declaring that President Bush should not initiate any offensive military action…without the formal approval of Congress unless American lives were in immediate danger.”[20] This resolution was a firm sign from opponents of the Bush Administration that they were against a war without support from Congress, highlighting a clear divide over the authorities of the President during wartime. Earlier during the crisis Congress backed the Commander-in-chief, and in October 1990 even “overwhelmingly approved resolutions supporting President Bush’s initial deployment of American troops to the Gulf.”[21] Bush now faced a crisis of confidence within his own government as he attempted to build the case for an intervention. These tensions highlighted a clear divide between the two deciding factors on whether the United States should enter a military conflict, the Presidency, and the Congress. The blurring of these lines between the powers of the two branches of government proved to be problematic by December 1990, casting doubt on whether a war could even be launched.

Following failed talks between Secretary of State Baker and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz on January 9, 1991, and with the January 15 United Nations deadline fast approaching, war became inevitable. Congress voted to allow the President to use military action after the deadline, the resolution barely passing the Senate and getting through the House with more significant support.[22] While wartime Presidents traditionally hold a great level of support among Congresspeople and the public, the close vote in the Senate proved that despite building up an adequate case in support of a war, this forced Bush to face significant opposition in getting his war launched. Issues such as Iraq’s unprovoked invasion and subsequent occupation of Kuwait, the holding of American and other foreign hostages, as well as the clear threat of a nuclear-armed Iraq, while they provided a justified cause of war against the Iraqi dictatorship did not convince a significant number of Congresspeople to support Operation Desert Storm. While President Bush failed to gain the support of large numbers of Democrats in both houses of Congress, he still did manage to build up his case for intervention, and successfully did launch a war into Kuwait to liberate the country.

For these reasons, President George H.W. Bush’s handling of the buildup to the Persian Gulf War had both its positives and negatives. The President can be praised for his allowing such a wide diplomatic window for Saddam Hussein to escape armed intervention, something which he did not take advantage of. He can also be praised for, among other things, balancing public approval with his desire to go to war. Despite these praises, Bush can also be criticized for acting too slowly during this crisis and for his failure to quickly gain a consensus among the American people and a Democratic Congress for a war. During the five-month period before hostilities began, the President can be ultimately add his handling of the crisis to his record as an example of leadership during an international crisis, as well as for being a beacon of freedom and democracy across the globe against a warlord intent on harassing his nation’s neighbors.

[1] Otto Friedrich, “On the Warpath,” Time, November 12, 1990.

[2] Friedrich, “On the Warpath.”

[3] Michael Oreskes, “Confrontation in the Gulf; Poll Finds Strong Support for Bush’s Goals, but Reluctance to Start a War,” The New York Times, October 1, 1990.

[4] Zbigniew Brzezinski, “Patience in the Persian Gulf, Not War,” The New York Times, October 7, 1990.

[5] Bruce W. Nelan, “Ready For Action,” Time, November 12, 1990.

[6] George H.W. Bush, “Remarks and an Exchange With Reporters on the Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait,” Press Conference, The White House, Washington, D.C., August 2, 1990.

[7] Michael Oreskes, “Confrontation in the Gulf; Poll on Troop Move Shows Support (And Anxiety),” The New York Times, August 12, 1990.

[8] Oreskes, “Confrontation in the Gulf; Poll on Troop Move Shows Support (And Anxiety).”

[9] Robert S. Greenberger and Gerald F. Seib, “Saddam Damps Hope of Early Accord; U.S. Rushes More Weapons to Saudis,” The Wall Street Journal, August 30, 1990.

[10] Gerald F. Seib, “Baker Is Preparing for Mideast Trip; New Initiative for Iraq Talks Readied,” The Wall Street Journal, January 3, 1991.

[11] Gerald F. Seib and Robert S. Greenberger, “U.N. Makes Final Appeal Designed to Give Iraq a Face-Saving Way to Leave Kuwait — U.S. Issues Blunt Warning As Baghdad Continues To Fortify Its Positions,” The Wall Street Journal, January 16, 1991.

[12] “On the Brink,” National Review, December 31, 1990.

[13] William R. Doerner, “When Will Saddam Get the Bomb?” Time, December 10, 1990.

[14] Doerner, “When Will Saddam Get the Bomb?”

[15] Doerner, “When Will Saddam Get the Bomb?”

[16] Gerald F. Seib, “Bush, on Visit to Troops in Saudi Arabia, Warns Iraq May Soon Have Nuclear Arms,” The Wall Street Journal, November 23, 1990.

[17] William F. Buckley, Jr., “Wartime?” National Review, December 3, 1990.

[18] John  O’Sullivan, “Fire when Ready, de Cuellar,” National Review, December 31, 1990.

[19] Philip Shenon, “Standoff in the Gulf; Senate Democrats Cautious on War,” The New York Times, December 16, 1990.

[20] Susan F. Rasky, “Mideast Tensions; House Democrats Caution Bush on War,” The New York Times, December 4, 1990.

[21] Rasky, “Mideast Tensions; House Democrats Caution Bush on War.”

[22] Richard Lacayo, “A Reluctant Go-Ahead,” Time, January 21, 1991.

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