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Not Taking Out Saddam Was George H.W. Bush’s Finest Hour

The heartfelt words of grief and condolence began to roll in [1] only minutes after George H.W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States, passed away at his home at the age of 94. Bush Senior, as he was often called, was a foreign policy giant among his peers, with a résumé (congressman, CIA director, ambassador, vice president, president) that none of his presidential successors have come close to matching. The world was extremely fortunate to have him in the White House when the Berlin Wall came crumbling down and the Soviet Union fell apart. He was a man who knew the world, who established relationships with foreign leaders on multiple continents over a period of decades, and who understood that good statecraft is defined as much by caution, prudence, and wisdom for the big picture as it is by toughness and machismo.

What will George H.W. Bush be best known for? The reunification of Germany after nearly five decades of being carved in two is no doubt at the top of the list. Bush’s management of a crisis and opportunity no one saw coming was a masterful display of his intellect, realpolitik, and grace. As former U.S. ambassador to Germany John Kornblum wrote [2] in Politico last weekend, “Bush seemed immediately to understand what was going on” while many of Europe’s politicians were still scrambling with their hair on fire. Germans, Europeans, and Russians [3] alike deeply appreciated Bush’s dexterity and humility during this time of immense change, especially when many cold warriors in Washington were eager to dance on the Soviet Union’s grave.

Others will likely cite the swift and decisive conclusion of the 1991 Gulf War, a conflict that resulted in a humiliating surrender [4] by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein after only 100 hours [5] of ground combat. The elder Bush’s most significant accomplishment, however, may very well be a decision he didn’t make: authorizing a U.S. invasion of Baghdad to remove Saddam Hussein from power.

It’s difficult to put into words just how courageous this choice was at the time. By the time American aircraft began striking Baghdad in January 1991, Saddam was a household name in America—a 20th-century villain who had mercilessly invaded a smaller neighbor to subjugate its people and steal its natural resources. The Iraqi dictator was compared to the most ruthless despots in memory, from Adolf Hitler to Joseph Stalin. Nobody (except Saddam’s sociopathic sons Uday and Qusay) would have missed Saddam had a U.S. bomb happened to level one of his palace residencies while he was sleeping. Neither was there much concern that killing Saddam or removing his Baathist regime from power would be an especially gruesome task for U.S. Armed Forces. The same Iraqi military Saddam had once boasted about had been relegated to a frightened ragtag crew surrendering to American forces in the desert and a graveyard of smoking tanks on the roadside. The momentum of the U.S.-led military campaign was epitomized by the nickname of the American general commanding it: “Stormin’ Norman” Schwarzkopf.

President Bush, however, wasn’t an “emotional kind of guy.” While he knew that the United States could easily dispatch the Iraqi strongman, he also realized that doing so would open a Pandora’s Box of known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. There was no guarantee that Baghdad would resemble Paris 1944, with millions of happy Iraqis joyously waving American flags and climbing on the tanks to kiss American GIs on the cheek. The notion that Iraq would succumb to a Western-style democracy overnight was, to put it generously, fanciful. And the multilateral coalition that the Bush White House had assembled—which included a number of Arab allies—would have likely broken apart had Washington made the decision to advance into the Iraqi capital. So instead, Bush agreed to a ceasefire [6] in order to negotiate a peaceful settlement of the war. As a man with deep experience acquired over years of service in the U.S. government, he recognized that going further than what the U.N. Security Council resolution permitted would not only be a breach of international law but a slippery slope to a long-term American occupation in the heart of the Arab world.

As Bush’s secretary of state James Baker explained [7] in the pages of The Los Angeles Times five years after the Gulf War concluded, “[a]ll our political and war aims, as enunciated by the Bush administration throughout the crisis, had been achieved. Our strategic objective was accomplished: Kuwait was liberated, and Hussein’s ability to threaten his neighbors in the future was substantially diminished.” Seven years later, on the eve of the very war of choice he’d wisely avoided more than a decade earlier, Bush 41 remained confident [8] in his decision to end the Gulf War when he did. “I believe we would have lost faith back then with our allies if we’d said we were just kidding; we’re now going to march into Baghdad,” he said. Up until he took the oath as vice president, it was a sentiment that former defense secretary Dick Cheney wholeheartedly agreed with [9].

The tragedy of Bush 41 is that his son George W. Bush was his opposite in many ways. Whereas Bush Senior viewed strategic restraint as a positive quality, Bush Junior derided it as appeasement to the evil forces seeking to dominate the world order. The United States would have been far better served if the son had taken the father more seriously. Fortunately, it isn’t too late for America’s current and future leaders to do so.

Daniel R. DePetris is a foreign policy analyst, a columnist at Reuters, and a frequent contributor to The American Conservative.

15 Comments (Open | Close)

15 Comments To "Not Taking Out Saddam Was George H.W. Bush’s Finest Hour"

#1 Comment By Clyde Schechter On December 4, 2018 @ 2:29 pm

“Fortunately, it isn’t too late for America’s current and future leaders to do so.”

Well, it’s always better to, at any point, desist from evil things than to continue doing them. But it is probably long past the point where we can minimize the consequences of what we have already done. We are responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths in the middle east, and remain actively engaged in Saudi Arabia’s siege of Yemen. Drone attacks based on “signature strikes” continue to take out random civilians who get mistaken for terrorists, or just happen to be too close to a real terrorist when the latter gets taken out.

Does anyone seriously believe that by now we are not the most hated nation on earth? If your family were decimated in an air attack on a wedding by, say China, do you not think you and your descendants would wait for an opportunity to take revenge on them? Eventually there will be another Osama bin Laden who figures a way to outsmart the Department of Homeland Security, and that person will have plenty of eager volunteers to come and slaughter as many as they can in the US. At some point, perhaps even soon, our interminable belligerence will alienate even our staunchest allies, and they will stop cooperating with us. We are careening towards a comeuppance, and I have no doubt it will eventually happen. The only questions are when, where, and how great the carnage will be. In that sense, it is already far too late.

#2 Comment By HenionJD On December 4, 2018 @ 3:23 pm

Of course, it might have been nice had Bush not cynically encouraged the Kurds and other elements to rise against Saddam, by allowing them to think that we might support his overthrow. I’m sure the rebellions caused confusion and tied up some Iraqi forces which might have otherwise faced Coalition Troops. Once they were no longer useful to the conduct of the war, they would be and were abandoned. We even thoughtfully left Saddam the tools to accomplish this task

#3 Comment By b. On December 4, 2018 @ 3:23 pm

DePetris peddles the usual affirmation tripe from the blob. Here’s a an alternative:

Bush [41] indeed “witnessed the restoration of Ukraine’s independence”. But it happened against his strong advice. Bush had feared that the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was too weak, and that a dissolution of the Soviet Union would end in utter chaos. He traveled to Moscow and Kiev in an attempt to keep the union together.
[10]

The reality of Gulf War I was the same inept bumbling that guided his son:

[11]

#4 Comment By HenionJD On December 4, 2018 @ 3:25 pm

Of course, it might have been nice had Bush not cynically encouraged the Kurds and other elements to rise against Saddam, by allowing them to think that we might support his overthrow. I’m sure the rebellions caused confusion and tied up some Iraqi forces which might have otherwise faced Coalition Troops. Once they were no longer useful to the conduct of the war, they would be and were abandoned. We were even thoughtful enough to left Saddam the tools to accomplish this task.

#5 Comment By Saad On December 4, 2018 @ 3:30 pm

Bush sr. hoped to remove Saddam by crippling sanctions but when that did not work, his son moved in. Keeping Saddam in Baghdad would only have worked as part of a comprehensive peace treaty. Without it, Saddam portrayed himself as the ultimate ‘victor’ of the Gulf war necessitating the second Gulf war and its desastrous outcome.

#6 Comment By EliteCommInc. On December 4, 2018 @ 4:57 pm

“Bush Senior, as he was often called, was a foreign policy giant among his peers, with a résumé (congressman, CIA director, ambassador, vice president, president) that none of his presidential successors have come close to matching. The world was extremely fortunate to have him in the White House when the Berlin Wall came crumbling down and the Soviet Union fell apart. He was a man who knew the world, who established relationships with foreign leaders on multiple continents over a period of decades, and who understood that good statecraft is defined as much by caution, prudence, and wisdom for the big picture as it is by toughness and machismo.”

Three cheers to him and the man who prompted that course, President Richard Nixon. Interesting article in the Spectator on their relationship.

I am not sure there was a single voice in that administration that contended that the very idea of invading an unstable, nonthreat such as a Iraq was an unwise choice.

Instinctively, Pres Bush Jr. knew the case was weak. I am forever, dismayed that Dir. tenet, simply did not shrug his shoulders and say — that’s the evidence and been done with it.

#7 Comment By Nicole On December 4, 2018 @ 5:10 pm

As Vice-President, GWHB was also instrumental in saving the life of Romanian Orthodox priest Fr George Calciu and many others from the Romanian torturous regime. He made it possible for him to come to the United States. Beautiful profoundly pertinent book with photo of the VP and Fr George: Fr George Calciu: Interviews, Homilies and Talks published by St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood Press. Review at [12].

#8 Comment By TS On December 4, 2018 @ 5:44 pm

Saddam Hussein was installed by the CIA (google it for NYT article). U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie told Hussein that the U.S. was not interested in his proposed invasion of Kuwait (ditto). President Bush thus got a nice little war to raise his political capital, and our CIA asset remained in place. A decade later, President Bush the younger’s neocon administration had a different agenda, to seize Iraq and make it a palimpsest for their economic theories. Which failed monumentally, leaving the destroyed state that currently endures.

#9 Comment By Oleg Gark On December 4, 2018 @ 5:49 pm

Leaving Saddam in-place during 1991 was also part of the Iran containment policy which was successful until the Iraq War undid it. Had Saddam been left alone to die of old age in office, there would be a lot fewer Iranian agents and Quds Force troops running around Iraq, Syria and Lebanon these days. On the other hand, the US did eliminate the enormous stockpile of Iraqi WMDs, with which Saddam was determined to conquer the planet in the manner of a James Bond villain.

#10 Comment By Whine Merchant On December 4, 2018 @ 7:36 pm

It is sad but so predictable that so many “conservative” [i.e. Trumpian GOP/Tea Pot] sites are deriding this as Bush 1’s “failure”. Some even ascribe his “failure” as wimping-out.

#11 Comment By Fred Bowman On December 4, 2018 @ 9:14 pm

Sadly for America, George H.W. Bush was the adult to serve as POTUS. RIP Mr. President.

#12 Comment By Braintree On December 4, 2018 @ 11:23 pm

Restraint. Prudence. Where’d they go? None of that with the elder Bush’s successors. Curse of the Boomer Presidents.

#13 Comment By Fran Macadam On December 5, 2018 @ 1:04 am

That may have been the finest hour, out of the other 23 abysmal ones, where the State Department, via April Glaspie, implicitly gave permission to Saddam, who was a covert ally of America in the Iran-Iraq war:

“We have no opinion on your Arab-Arab conflicts, such as your dispute with Kuwait. Secretary Baker has directed me to emphasize the instruction, first given to Iraq in the 1960s, that the Kuwait issue is not associated with America.”

Kuwait was diagonally drilling across the border with Iraq and extracting from oil reserves in Iraq.

The American decision to attack Iraq resulted in thousands being incinerated along the highway to Baghdad and then the thirteen year air embargo by U.S. aircraft over Iraq, until the inevitable escalation in 2003.

Mr. Bush was also head of the CIA, during some of the hours that were not its finest.

He was only on the Republican ticket with Reagan, because it was thought Reagan was too radical, and the Rockefeller wing needed to be mollified. He was far more interventionist than Reagan had been, and his subsequent mistakes in promulgating the New World Order as Full Spectrum Dominance over all other nations was an act of hubris that presages our fall as the consequences reverberate.

#14 Comment By Tom Cullem On December 5, 2018 @ 4:28 pm

Yes, I’m sure the fleeing Kurds massacred by Saddam’s air gunboats thanks to Bush’s and Cheney’s decisions are filled with admiration at the demonstration of “courage” from the safety of the Oval Office.

I saw an interview once with one of the American pilots flying above the massacre who couldn’t believe his ears when he was told to “stand down” and not intervene, and had to watch it happen below. The man had clearly never recovered from his devastation.

I won’t argue that leaving Saddam in place was a sensible bit of containment that Junior ignored. But that didn’t need to mean giving a butcher carte blanche. That massacre will stand along with every other sellout of humanity politicians the world over have gotten away with.

#15 Comment By SteveK9 On December 5, 2018 @ 4:56 pm

Sorry, but even better would have been not invading Iraq at all. Kuwait was also siphoning oil from a reservoir largely under Iraqi territory. Kuwait would not have been missed.