It was the evening of August 1, 1990 in Washington, and halfway around the world, Iraqi forces, encountering little in the way of resistance, moved quickly to consolidate their control of Kuwait. National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and I hastily arranged a late interagency meeting, one that would run until the early hours of the morning, on the secure closed-circuit video system. We still didn't know the full extent of Iraq's intentions—but we knew we had to move quickly.
Improvisation was the order of the day. There was no playbook and no contingency plan for dealing with this scenario or anything like it. Agreement was reached to freeze not only Iraqi assets in the United States (the president was awakened in the middle of the night by Brent to sign the necessary papers) but also those of Kuwait. We also decided to go to the United Nations right off the bat to get a Security Council resolution calling for an Iraqi withdrawal. The fact that the Soviets and Chinese lined up with us was a good sign. The Soviets then went a step further by agreeing to a joint statement that backed up the U.N. resolution. This sent a
powerful signal to Saddam. Indeed, it is worth noting that for Secretary of State James Baker it was this action, more than the earlier crumbling of the Berlin Wall, that signified the end of the Cold War.
The first formal NSC meeting of the crisis was convened the morning of August 2 with President George H.W. Bush in the chair. The meeting itself was unfocused. Several people opined about Iraqi intentions and our military and diplomatic options. What worried me (and, as I soon learned, Brent and the president as well) was the apparent readiness of some in the room to acquiesce to what had taken place. They seemed to suggest there was nothing we could do about it and that instead the focus of U.S. policy ought to be on making sure Saddam did not go any farther.
As soon as the meeting ended, the president left for Aspen, Colorado, to give a long-scheduled speech on U.S. military strategy. I walked out of the room and expressed my unhappiness to Brent. He agreed and told me to write up something that he could give to the president upon his return. The conclusion of my memo was that the strategic price of allowing Iraq to keep Kuwait would be enormous, and that evicting Iraq would likely require the use of military force on our part: "I am aware as you are of just how costly and risky such a conflict would prove to be. But so too would be accepting this new status quo. We would be setting a terrible precedent—one that would only accelerate violent centrifugal tendencies—in this emerging 'post–Cold War' era."
The second NSC meeting on the crisis, on Friday, August 3, could not have been more different. People had had time to find their bearings and collect their thoughts. The president wanted to set a fundamentally different mood. Before entering the Cabinet Room, it was decided that Brent would give the Churchill speech, that is, a rousing call for reversing Iraqi aggression. "My personal judgment is that the stakes in this for the United States are such that to accommodate Iraq should not be a policy option" is how he began. Brent could be a good deal more forceful and opinionated than people realized; his soft-spoken demeanor, slight appearance, and almost ascetic manner masked a powerful intellect, and a strong philosophy of American purpose. Deputy Secretary of State Larry Eagleburger echoed Brent, emphasizing not only how our response would shape the era but that allowing Saddam to keep Kuwait would give him sway over Saudi Arabia, OPEC, and Israel. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney then echoed Larry. There was no decision, but the future direction of U.S. policy was there for all to see.
Two days later, a call came for me from Scowcroft's office. Brent came on the line, saying the president would be returning from Camp David in about an hour, and that I should be there to brief him when he got off the helicopter. I said fine, but after hanging up I got uneasy. I had been home for only a few hours the night before, and was dressed quite casually. The consensus around the office was that I didn't need a tie but I did need a blazer. I borrowed one from one of the guys working there. The sleeves were several inches too short.
The bigger challenge was getting something ready for the president. I sat down at the computer to type out the state of play, militarily and diplomatically. The lack of sleep was clearly taking its toll, as my normally modest typing speed had slowed to a crawl. Standing there next to me was Condi Rice, my colleague on the NSC staff responsible for the Soviet Union, who happened to have stopped by that day. Condi couldn't take it. She yanked me out of my chair and typed away with impressive speed, taking down my summary of the messages received from King Hussein of Jordan and others in the region telling us not to overreact.
With the president about to arrive, I was running out of time. The immediate problem was that I couldn't recall how to get out to the White House lawn. Again Condi came to the rescue, and pointed me in the right direction. When the president's helicopter landed, I handed him a sheet of paper and, as he scanned it, we talked about the latest developments. He was clearly frustrated with the lack of diplomatic progress. Asked by the waiting journalists how he would prevent the installation of a puppet government, Bush could barely contain himself. "Just wait. Watch and learn." His parting words were even stronger. "This will not stand. This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait."
The key to understanding George Herbert Walker Bush and what made him tick was his sense of decorum. It was anything but axiomatic that the United States would decide to deploy half a million troops halfway around the world to rescue a country that few Americans could find on a map. A different president and set of advisors might have tolerated Iraqi control of Kuwait and limited the U.S. response to sanctions so long as Saddam did not go on to attack Saudi Arabia. But Bush was genuinely offended by the Iraqi invasion and then absorption of Kuwait. It was simply not how civilized countries behaved toward one another. It harkened back to a cruder era of international relations when might made right.
More than a decade later I worked for his son, President George W. Bush, as director of the State Department's policy planning staff under Colin Powell. Once again I found myself involved in a war with a President Bush and Saddam Hussein's Iraq. There, however, the resemblance ends.
From what I saw and heard then, the younger Bush's decisions were not, as some of his detractors claim, the result of any shortage of intelligence or because he was manipulated by his vice president and others. Bush is smarter, much smarter, than people generally understand. He also had a good fix on the attributes and weaknesses of those around him; Bush read people as well as you would expect from someone who succeeded in getting elected president. His fault was that he was quick to reach conclusions (be it about policy or people) and often viewed changing course as a sign of weakness, something a strong leader (to his way of thinking) would resist. He was attracted to do what was bold. Such big actions appealed to his competitive side—what better way to confound one's critics—and served the desire to distance himself from his father, who favored prudence and tended to eschew the dramatic.
As 2003 began, with Iraq the dominant issue, I decided to make a last-ditch effort at slowing down a war that seemed anything but prudent. I closed the door to my office and typed out a memo to Powell that argued that despite all the buildup it was not too late for the United States to back off using force. To be sure, there would be real costs, both actual and perceived, if we did stand down. Saddam would remain in place. Calling things off would raise questions among friend and foe alike as to what we were made of. There would even be some people in the Middle East, always a cauldron of conspiracy theories, who would conclude that the United States actually wanted Saddam to remain in power. But like all policy options, the costs of this one had to be weighed against the costs of continuing down the path we were on, which I believed were far larger.
I knew what I argued was explosive—if it leaked, it would be a major story and then some—so I handed the memo to Powell rather than send it to him through the formal secretariat. I told him to give it to the president on the off chance Bush was having second thoughts and was feeling trapped. Powell read it and put it in his pocket—literally. I didn't expect him to give it to the president, but to use the arguments if an opening presented itself. Apparently, none did. And even if one had, there was no real chance that the memo would have changed anything. I wrote it as much as anything for my own peace of mind. The president was too committed to turn back.
In contrast to the first President Bush, I would see this president only intermittently: at some relatively large interagency meeting, or when Powell would take me in tow for one of his regular Oval Office sessions. The longest conversation we had was in the conference room on board Air Force One flying back from the Northern Ireland summit a few months later, in April 2003. For more than an hour it was just the three of us—Bush, Powell, and me. What struck me more than anything was how comfortable Bush was with his decision to attack Iraq. Here we were, three weeks into the war, and he appeared totally at peace with what he had decided and how it was unfolding. It was real confidence, not bluster. But I was struck, too, by how unconcerned the president seemed to be with all the complications that I and others had predicted would come his and our way. He had a penchant for the big and dramatic and was not about to allow the doubts of others or the details to sidetrack him.
How did George W. Bush reach this point? I will go to my grave not fully understanding why. There was no meeting or set of meetings at which the pros and cons were debated and a formal decision taken. No, this decision happened. It was cumulative. The issue was on the table from the outset of the administration, but before 9/11, Iraq was simply one of many concerns on an evolving foreign policy agenda. After 9/11, the president and those closest to him wanted to send a message to the world that the United States was willing and able to act decisively. Liberating Afghanistan was a start, but in the end it didn't scratch the itch.
Iraq was fundamentally different. The president wanted to destroy an established nemesis of the United States. And he wanted to change the course of history, transforming not just a country but the region of the world that had produced the lion's share of the world's terrorists and had resisted much of modernity. He may have sought to accomplish what his father did not. The arguments put forward for going to war—noncompliance with U.N. resolutions, possession of weapons of mass destruction—turned out to be essentially window dressing, trotted out to build domestic and international support for a policy that had been forged mostly for other reasons.
Would there have been a second Iraq war had there been no 9/11? Counter-historical questions are impossible to answer confidently. Before 9/11 there had been some activity in the bureaucracy about Iraq, but there is little evidence that it amounted to more than background noise. September 11 transformed the administration into the proverbial hammer looking for a nail. Iraq became that nail.