By Robert Parry & Norman Solomon
- Behind Colin Powell's Legend: Dodging Peace
An enduring image of the Persian Gulf War is the picture of the two generals -- Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf -- celebrating the 1991 military victory in ticker-tape parades. They seemed the perfect teammates, a politically savvy chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Powell) and the gruff field commander (Schwarzkopf).
But the behind-the-scenes reality often was different. Time and again in the march toward war, Powell represented the interests of a political leadership that hungered for a clear military victory to erase the painful memories of America's defeat in Vietnam. Schwarzkopf and other commanders on the front lines argued for careful planning and, if possible, a settlement that would force Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait without costing the lives of American soldiers.
According to contemporaneous accounts of the Persian Gulf War, these conflicting priorities even led Powell to shirk from presenting to President Bush a last-minute plan that Schwarzkopf thought might have averted the ground war. On Feb. 21, 1991, less than three days before the land assault began, Powell and Schwarzkopf had hammered out a cease-fire proposal for presentation to the National Security Council. But faced with Bush's obvious desire for the ground war, Powell substituted a different proposal that made the fighting inevitable.
Yet, in the glow of the quick Persian Gulf victory, Powell's double-cross passed unnoticed. Powell and Schwarzkopf basked in public acclaim -- and Bush boasted of his administration's success in avenging the American humiliation in Vietnam.
Exorcising the "Vietnam Syndrome" demons had been a priority of the Persian Gulf War almost from the beginning. As the ground war was starting, conservative columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak spotted this White House obsession. On Feb. 25, 1991, they wrote that an initiative by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to broker Iraq's surrender of Kuwait "stirred fears" among Bush's advisers that the Vietnam Syndrome might survive the Gulf War.
"There was considerable relief, therefore, when the President ... made clear he was having nothing to do with the deal that would enable Saddam Hussein to bring his troops out of Kuwait with flags flying," Evans and Novak wrote. "Fear of a peace deal at the Bush White House had less to do with oil, Israel or Iraqi expansionism than with the bitter legacy of a lost war. 'This is the chance to get rid of the Vietnam Syndrome,' one senior aide told us."
Though Iraq's civilians and Saddam Hussein's soldiers already had suffered tens of thousands of dead during a month of devastating bombing, the White House felt that more punishment was needed. A ground war could annihilate the Iraqi forces as they retreated and again prove America's war-fighting mettle. But Schwarzkopf saw little reason for U.S. soldiers to die if the Iraqis were prepared to withdraw and leave their heavy weapons behind.
Powell was in the middle. He wanted to serve the desires of Bush and the hawks, while still representing the concerns of the field commanders. Stationed at the front in Saudi Arabia, Schwarzkopf thought Powell was an ally. "Neither Powell nor I wanted a ground war," Schwarzkopf wrote in his memoirs, It Doesn't Take a Hero.
But at key moments in White House meetings, Powell sided with Bush in savouring the psychological value of a successful war. "I cannot believe the lift that this crisis and our response to it have given to our country," Powell told Schwarzkopf as American air sorties pummelled Iraq. In mid-February 1991, Powell also bristled when Schwarzkopf acceded to a Marine commander's request for a three-day delay to reposition his troops.
"I hate to wait that long," Powell fumed. "The President wants to get on with this." Powell explained that Bush was worried about a pending Soviet peace plan which sought to engineer an Iraqi withdrawal with no more killing.
"President Bush was in a bind," Powell wrote in his own memoirs, My American Journey. "After the expenditure of $60 billion and transporting half a million troops 8,000 miles, Bush wanted to deliver a knock-out punch to the Iraqi invaders in Kuwait. He did not want to win by a TKO that would allow Saddam to withdraw with his army unpunished and intact."
Then, on Feb. 18, Powell relayed a demand to Schwarzkopf from Bush's National Security Council for an earlier attack date. Powell "spoke in the terse tone that signaled he was under pressure from the hawks," Schwarzkopf wrote. But one of Schwarzkopf's field commanders still protested that a rushed attack could mean "a whole lot more casualties," a risk that Schwarzkopf considered unacceptable.
"The increasing pressure to launch the ground war early was making me crazy," Schwarzkopf wrote. "I could guess what was going on. ...There had to be a contingent of hawks in Washington who did not want to stop until we'd punished Saddam. We'd been bombing Iraq for more than a month, but that wasn't good enough. There were guys who had seen John Wayne in The Green Berets, they'd seen Rambo, they'd seen Patton, and it was very easy for them to pound their desks and say, 'By God, we've got to go in there and kick ass! Got to punish that son of a bitch!' Of course, none of them was going to get shot at. None of them would have to answer to the mothers and fathers of dead soldiers and Marines."
Then, on Feb. 20, Schwarzkopf sought a two-day delay because of bad weather. Powell exploded. "I've got a President and a Secretary of Defense on my back," Powell shouted. "They've got a bad Russian peace proposal they're trying to dodge. ...I don't think you understand the pressure I'm under."
Schwarzkopf yelled back that Powell appeared to have "political reasons" for favoring a timetable that was "militarily unsound." Powell snapped back, "Don't patronize me with talk about human lives."
By the evening of Feb. 21, however, Schwarzkopf thought he and Powell were again reading from the same page, looking for ways to avert the ground war. Powell had faxed Schwarzkopf a copy of the Russian cease-fire plan in which Gorbachev had proposed a six-week period for Iraqi withdrawal. Recognizing that six weeks would give Saddam time to salvage his military hardware, Schwarzkopf and Powell devised a counter-proposal. It would give Iraq only a one-week cease-fire, time to flee from Kuwait but without any heavy weapons.
"The National Security Council was about to meet," Schwarzkopf wrote, "and Powell and I hammered out a recommendation. We suggested the United States offer a cease-fire of one week: enough time for Saddam to withdraw his soldiers but not his supplies or the bulk of his equipment. ...As the Iraqis withdrew, we proposed, our forces would pull right into Kuwait behind them. ... At bottom, neither Powell nor I wanted a ground war. We agreed that if the United States could get a rapid withdrawal we would urge our leaders to take it."
But when Powell arrived at the White House late that evening, he found Bush angry about the Soviet peace initiative. "The President's problem was how to say no to Gorbachev without appearing to throw away a chance for peace," Powell wrote in his memoirs. "I could hear the President's growing distress in his voice. 'I don't want to take this deal,' he said. 'But I don't want to stiff Gorbachev, not after he's come this far with us. We've got to find a way out'."
At that point, Powell sought the President's attention. "I raised a finger," Powell said. "The President turned to me. 'Got something, Colin?'," Bush asked. But rather than outlining the one-week cease-fire plan that had emerged from the Powell-Schwarzkopf conversation, Powell offered a different idea.
"We don't stiff Gorbachev," Powell explained. "Let's put a deadline on Gorby's proposal. We say, great idea, as long as they're completely on there way out by, say, noon Saturday," Feb. 23, less than two days away. Powell clearly understood that the two-day deadline would not give the Iraqis enough time to act, especially with their command-and-control severely damaged. The plan was a public-relations strategy to guarantee that the White House got its ground war.
"If, as I suspect, they don't move, then the flogging begins," Powell told a gratified George Bush.
The next day, at 10:30 a.m., a Friday, Bush announced his ultimatum. There would be a Saturday noon deadline for the Iraqi withdrawal, as Powell had recommended. Without knowing that Powell had never raised the one-week cease-fire idea, Schwarzkopf and his field commanders in Saudi Arabia watched the President's speech on television and grasped its meaning.
"We all knew by then which it would be," Schwarzkopf wrote. "We were marching toward a Sunday morning attack."
When the Iraqis predictably missed the deadline, American and allied forces launched the ground offensive at 0400 on Feb. 24, Persian Gulf time. Though Iraqi forces were soon in full retreat, the high-tech allies slaughtered tens of thousands Iraqi soldiers in the 100-hour war. U.S. casualties were remarkably light, only 147 killed in combat and another 236 killed in accidents or from other causes.
"Small losses as military statistics go," wrote Powell in his memoirs, "but a tragedy for each family."
On Feb. 28, the day the war ended, Bush celebrated the victory. "By God, we've kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all," the President declared.
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