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Desert Storm: Debate still rages - Did it end too soon?

Former President Bush defends his handling of the first war against Saddam Hussein and Iraq in 1991. But a historian writes that an "inconclusive war termination" set the stage for a second war - Iraqi Freedom - 12 years later.

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GOLDSBORO, N.C.Editor's note: This is another in a series of reports by WRAL and WRAL.com about "Desert Storm: A Forgotten War," in which military units and service men and women from across North Carolina served 20 years ago. Veterans are encouraged to share with WRAL.com and its readers your memories and pictures from that war

President George H.W. Bush staunchly defends his handling of "Operation Desert Storm," but the debate about whether he brought the war to a successful close continues.

Saturday, in a lengthy analysis of the first war between a U.S.-lead coalition against Saddam Hussein and Iraq that raged 20 years ago, a military history professor and author raised doubts about Desert Storm's ending.

"It's been twenty years since we went to war in Iraq for the first time. The years have been kind to Desert Storm, which is now remembered as an unalloyed triumph. But was it?" writes Dr. Geoffrey Wawro, who teaches at the University of North Texas.

"The way Desert Storm was shaped, fought and finished revealed tremendous indecision in Washington, half measures on the battlefield, and an inconclusive war termination that sowed the poison seeds of Operation Iraqi Freedom," he said.

The U.S. went to war against Saddam again in 2003 under the command of Bush's son, George W. Bush.

Another view on war's end

The journal Foreign Policy also questions whether the war truly was successful.

"Carl von Clausewitz famously defined war as 'an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will,'" Foreign Policy noted, citing the renowned German military strategist. "Saddam's subsequent behavior – his defiance of the United Nations, his 1993 attempt to assassinate former President Bush, and his 1994 plan to re-invade Kuwait – makes it clear that the Bush administration failed in this most basic of strategic tasks.

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"In ending the war unilaterally before Saddam had been chastened, the Bush administration condemned the United States to a long-term presence in the Gulf in an effort to contain Iraq. This presence, and the sanctions imposed on Iraq due to Saddam's recalcitrance, in the end served as a rallying cry for jihadists such as Osama Bin Laden against the United States and its friends in the region."

Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under the first Bush and secretary of state under the second, was among officials gathered with the elder Bush at a symposium last week to discuss the war. The first President Bush hosted some 3,500 people, including many who were Gulf War veterans, at the event at Texas A&M University, which is the home of his presidential library.

"There is a legitimate argument as to whether we stopped too soon," Powell said. "We accomplished the mission. President Bush made the right decision."

Wawro, who published "Quicksand: America's Pursuit of Power in the Middle East" last year, writes in the online analysis in great detail about various aspects of the war with a special emphasis on the war's ending.

"A year after the war, Saddam mocked President Bush from Baghdad and claimed victory: 'It was George Bush with his own will who decided to stop the fighting. Nobody had asked him to do so.' Seizing on that appearance of presidential weakness, Bill Clinton campaigned that year against President Bush – and beat him – chiding Bush for not putting Saddam and his acolytes on trial for war crimes.

"Clinton would prove no more effective than Bush in removing Saddam," Wawro noted.

"Perhaps Colin Powell said it best, in his post-war memoirs, when he compared the pressures weighing on Bush's war termination with the pressures weighing on Meade after Gettysburg, or on Eisenhower in 1945 as the Russians raced for Berlin. It was easy to say that the generals should have done more, but at what cost, in lives, treasure and opportunity? That lingering question, which appeared hypothetical when Powell wrote his memoirs, would shortly be answered by President Bush's son."

Saddam himself tried to head off a ground war after his forces had been pummeled by U.S. and coalition aircraft over a period of 40 days and 40 nights – a campaign orchestrated by North Carolina native and N.C. State graduate Buster Glosson, an Air Force brigadier general.

Hussein tried to avoid a ground war

In new archival material released just before the Bush event and reported by the New York Times, Saddam wrote in a letter to Soviet Union Mikahil Gorbachev: "The situation is getting worse. Our nation and army are confused. We are asking ourselves which one is more significant, the Soviet Union's proposal or the Americans' threats?"

Gorbachev was attempting to broker an end to the war. Saddam ended up criticizing Gorbachev.

"He tricked us," Hussein said. "I knew he would betray us!"

Hussein, who would be hanged after Iraqi Freedom, called Gorbachev a "scoundrel."

Retired Gen. Walter Boomer, a North Carolina native and commander of all U.S. Marine units in Desert Storm, was among the guests at the symposium in Texas. Boomer has said he believes that the ground war phase of Desert Storm was ended too soon. Given three more days of combat, Boomer told WRAL.com in a recent interview, the allied coalition would have destroyed Iraq's armed forces, leaving the future of Saddam's regime in doubt.

Bush: 'History will say we got this one right'

Bush the elder, however, said at the event that he made the correct decisions.

"I don't think we could have done anything differently," Bush told The Associated Press in an interview. "I would have liked to see Saddam Hussein do himself in in some way, but that wasn't our objective."

The U.N. mandates for the war called for the ejection of Iraq, not regime change.

James Baker III, Bush's secretary of state, concurred.

"We would have been breaking our word to the rest of the world," Baker said, if the U.S. had sought to remove Saddam. "You would have been turning a war of liberation into a war of occupation."

At the event, Bush reaffirmed his view about how the war should be judged.

"A few things I probably could have done better, but in the case of Desert Storm, history will say we got this one right," The AP quoted him as saying.

Among the guests was Sheikh Ahmad Humood Jaber Al-Sabah, who attended as a representative of Kuwait's ruler.

"Believe me, Kuwait and its people will never forget you," he said. "We carry in our hearts what you did for us each and every day."

By letter, Schwarzkopf salutes the war fighters

Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, who commanded the allied coalition in Desert Storm, was unable to attend the Bush event due to health reasons. But he did send a letter that Powell read to the attendees

"The events of 1991 remain some of the proudest in this soldier's life," Schwarzkopf wrote. "My thoughts are with those who gave their lives."

He called the men and women who fought in the war "the thunder and lightning of Desert Storm."

"Our mission was victorious because we had the best-trained military in the world, the president had fortitude to make tough choices when they needed to be made and the unwavering support of the American people," Schwarzkopf added. "Our mission in Kuwait ended 20 years ago, but the impact will endure for generations to come."


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