Commentary Magazine

Colin Powell's War

It is only four years since the sensational victory of the United States and its allies that drove the Iraqi army out of Kuwait in a helter-skelter flight for survival after just 100 hours of fighting. At the time, this amazingly brief and successful war seemed to mark the beginning of an era in which the remaining superpower had definitively accepted its responsibility for collective security. The prestige of the United States and its President were extremely high, their prospects for continuing leadership apparently excellent.

Only days after the victory, however, a reporter asked President Bush why he seemed so somber: “Aren’t these great days?” The President replied:

You know, to be very honest with you, I haven’t felt this wonderfully euphoric feeling that many of the American people feel. . . . But I think it’s that I want to see an end. You mentioned World War II—there was a definitive end to that conflict. And now we have Saddam Hussein still there—the man that wreaked this havoc upon his neighbors.

It did not take long for the President’s sense of unease and disappointment to become widespread, and for the general euphoria to fade. He himself was defeated in his bid for reelection, and to a remarkable degree the war has been forgotten. Today, only four years later, Saddam is still in place and still a cause of active concern, not least because of the question of Iraq’s nuclear- and biological-weapons capabilities.

The Generals’ War, a new book by Michael R. Gordon, a New York Times reporter, and General Bernard E. Trainor1 tells the story of that conflict, shedding light on why it came about, how it was fought, and why it came to such an incomplete and unsatisfying conclusion. The book takes its place alongside what is still the best scholarly account of the war, The Gulf Conflict by Lawrence Freedman and Efraim Karsh (1992), and such popular treatments as Bob Woodward’s The Commanders. But The Generals’ War also introduces much new evidence, most of it in the form of interviews with participants in the policy decisions and in the action itself—military and civilian, Americans, allies, and enemies.

There are problems in using such conversations, all of which took place after the war was over. Many are anonymous; the book cites such sources as “current and former administration officials,” “senior intelligence official,” and “Iraqi Shiite leaders.” These citations put a heavy burden of trust on the reader. And even in the case of those who are named, it is a notorious fact that the memories of participants are imperfect and tend to be self-serving. Still, future historians will find The Generals’ War useful, and the rest of us have much to learn from it.



The authors regard the conflict in the Gulf as a war that need not have happened, “a stunning failure of America’s policy of trying to deter war.” The available evidence supports that view.

Since 1984, the United States had befriended Iraq as a counterweight against Iran, its larger, potentially more powerful, and virulently anti-American neighbor. We had favored and assisted Iraq in its war against Iran, and we persisted in that policy thereafter. We did this even though we understood that Saddam Hussein was ambitious and something of a rogue.

Saddam was a military dictator who repressed his own people, especially the Kurdish minority, against whom he had used chemical weapons. He was evading the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and was attempting to build his own nuclear arsenal. He was on good terms with the Soviet Union, having acquired most of his military equipment from that source, and he had amassed the largest army in the region, reckoned by some to be the fourth largest in the world. He was bitterly hostile to Israel, America’s ally.

American policy, nonetheless, was to avoid confrontation with Saddam, to maintain good relations, and to continue supplying him with credits, grain, and even the high technology that could be used for sophisticated weapons. The policy was based on the assumptions that Iraq was still needed to balance Iran and that, in the words of Bush’s National Security Adviser, Brent Scowcroft, it was possible “to make this guy a reasonably responsible member of the international community.”2

But Saddam was not inclined to be reasonable. He was badly short of money and deeply in debt, in particular to Kuwait, which insisted on repayment. To meet his needs he wanted the OPEC states to reduce oil production in order to raise the price, which had dropped considerably in recent years. The leaders of Kuwait, however, demurred. And apart from these considerations, there was a quarrel between Iraq and Kuwait over the control of some islands in the Gulf.

In July 1990, Saddam launched a diplomatic assault on Kuwait, outlining a variety of “grievances,” and began to mass large numbers of troops and tanks along the border between the two countries. He demanded, according to Freedman and Karsh in The Gulf Conflict,

the raising of oil prices to over $25 a barrel; the cessation of Kuwaiti “theft” of oil from the Iraqi Rumailia oilfield and the return of the $2.4 billion “stolen” from Iraq; a complete moratorium on Iraq’s wartime loans; the formation of “an Arab plan similar to the Marshall Plan to compensate Iraq for some of the losses during the war [against Iran].”

The U.S. responded by stating that it would support “the sovereignty and integrity of the Gulf states” and by insisting “that disputes be settled peacefully and not by threats and intimidations.” But it did not regard Iraq’s efforts as aimed at war. When the U.S. ambassador, April Glaspie, was called to see Saddam, she kept up the conciliatory policy her government had all along been pursuing. Saddam, as Freedman and Karsh tell it, treated her to some tough talk:

“If you use pressure we will deploy pressure and force. We cannot come all the way to you in the United States but individual Arabs may reach you.” To emphasize his point, he observed that the Americans lacked Iraq’s readiness to lose 10,000 men in a day’s combat.



Yet Ambassador Glaspie remained conciliatory, assuring Saddam that she had direct instructions from the President to try to improve relations. Although Congress had tried to impose economic sanctions, the administration had blocked them. As for the setting of oil-production quotas, this, she said, was strictly a matter for the Arabs: Saddam’s insistence that Kuwait should not exceed them deserved Arab support. Finally, although the American view was that disputes must be settled peacefully, the United States had no opinion on the quarrel between Iraq and Kuwait over the border between them. Freedman and Karsh conclude: “The natural interpretation for Saddam to put on this, especially in the light of his opening harangue, was that the United States was still offering him a hand of friendship while urging him to be good.”

There seems little doubt that the weakness of American policy, “combining threats with appeasement,” encouraged Saddam to move. The threats came chiefly from Congress and the appeasement from the administration. Asked by a Congressman what would happen if the Iraqis crossed into Kuwait, a State Department official replied that the United States would be very concerned but that it was under no treaty obligations to use force. Yet Congress itself was hardly tigerish on the issue; it did not support any action beyond economic sanctions. In short, Saddam had good reason to believe that the United States would not get in his way.

The Bush administration’s refusal to acknowledge the failure of its efforts to moderate Iraq’s behavior is only part of the story, however. The Generals’ War also blames General Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a powerful force in shaping American diplomatic as well as military strategy. The authors describe Powell as a “new breed of American commander,” skillful in dealing with Congress and the media, “wise in the ways of Washington.” Legislation passed in 1986 had given the chairman new powers and Powell exploited them fully, “wielding power and influence beyond that exercised by any previous chairman.” In the crisis leading up to the Gulf war he was the overwhelmingly dominant military figure, and once the war started his influence over the civilians who were ostensibly making policy decisions was formidable.

According to the authors of The Generals’ War, the chief determinant of Powell’s thinking was the American defeat in Vietnam, and these were the lessons he took from it:

If force was to be used, it should be overwhelming, and its application should be decisive and preferably short. Military intervention should not be undertaken unless the outcome was all but guaranteed. The aims in using force needed to be precisely defined beforehand, and as soon as they were achieved American forces should be quickly extracted, lest the Pentagon slide into a quagmire. American casualties had to be held to a minimum.

To be sure, these ideas formed the conventional post-Vietnam wisdom of most of the Army’s leadership, but the chairman held them so strongly that in the Pentagon they were called the “Powell Doctrine.” So deep was Powell’s influence in the preliminaries to the war, in its conduct, and in its conclusion that in The Generals’ War he emerges as the largest and most important character.



On August 2, 1990 the Iraqi army invaded Kuwait with a force much greater than was needed for easy conquest. The invasion was a textbook case of aggression, which even Iraq’s friends did not try to defend. American interests were also very much involved. A key to the crisis was oil. With Kuwait in his hands, Saddam Hussein controlled 20 percent of the world’s known oil reserves. If he were to proceed to take over Saudi Arabia as well, that percentage would double. Even if he only overawed the Saudis, as his control of Kuwait would surely do, he could count on a dominant voice in the councils of OPEC and the policies it pursued.

Those opposed to the use of force during the crisis frequently trivialized the issue of oil, saying it simply masked a desire on the part of the United States and its allies to keep the price low. But its true importance was as an element of a grand strategy. Any state controlling so large a percentage of the world’s petroleum could wield a powerful economic weapon for political purposes. With the wealth he would acquire, Saddam could build an even larger and more powerful army, equipped with the latest weapons. This would change overnight the political balance in the Middle East, compelling the moderate Arab states loosely aligned with the United States to join the side of turmoil. The prospects would then grow for a serious war in the region in which the United States would be at a disadvantage, without friends or bases.

William Hyland, then editor of Foreign Affairs and a former Deputy National Security Adviser, painted a persuasive and alarming picture:

The Saudis would be looking down a gun barrel. And we would be asking for an Arab-Israeli war in five years in which nuclear weapons would probably be used by both sides. . . . The issue is this: can we tolerate the continued existence of Saddam Hussein with his military machine intact?3

Lawrence Eagleburger, Deputy Secretary of State at the time, also pointed out that the Iraqi aggression would set “all the wrong standards for the post-cold-war world—telling local dictators that now the rules of the game might have changed to make it possible to get away with aggression.” It was, in short, plain that aggression in the Middle East was bound to entangle the United States.

But America’s military leaders did not seem to grasp any of this. After the invasion, Powell was reluctant to use military force to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait. He and General Norman Schwartzkopf, as well as previous chairmen of the Joint Chiefs, favored economic sanctions, and he was willing to wait as long as two years to make them work. (In this he was joined by Senator Sam Nunn and many congressional Democrats.)



At the first meeting of the National Security Council after the invasion, Powell is quoted by Bob Woodward in The Commanders as having asked: “ ‘Don’t we want just to draw a firm line with Saudi Arabia?’ ” As the form of the question makes clear, it was a suggestion rather than an inquiry. Powell, according to Woodward, “said he saw the issue as deterrence—stopping Saddam from coming into Saudi Arabia.” From that moment until he was forced to abandon it, “containment” of Saddam within Kuwait was the policy he favored.

This judgment would seem to suffer from an almost incredible strategic innocence. We now know that Saddam already had stocks of chemical and biological weapons, and was making rapid progress toward the acquisition of nuclear ones. Drawing the line at Saudi Arabia would have left Saddam with his ill-gotten gains earned by flagrant aggression, with his large military force intact, and with his prestige in the Middle East enormously enhanced after having faced down the United States, the West, and the world. For Saddam, it would be a success at least as significant as the remilitarization of the Rhineland had been for Hitler.

Luckily, President Bush, powerfully motivated by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, was by now determined to drive Saddam out of Kuwait. His first challenge was to persuade Saudi Arabia to permit the placement there of large numbers of American forces. With Saddam’s tanks pointed like a dagger at their heart, the Saudis should have welcomed American protection, but in fact they greeted the offer cautiously. They did not trust America’s commitment, fearing (according to Woodward) “that the U.S. might send over some aircraft as a gesture but then not follow it through, thereby leaving the Saudis to face the consequences alone.” The Saudi ambassador in Washington, Prince Bandar Ibn Sultan, reminded Scowcroft that in 1979, after the fall of the Shah of Iran, President Carter had sent squadrons of F-15’s to Saudi Arabia as a gesture of support, only to announce when the planes were halfway over that they were unarmed. Woodward quotes Bandar in effect as saying that “the consequences had been devastating to the Saudis and lived on. Frankly, he said, we’re worried. Do you guys have the guts or don’t you?”

With considerable effort the Saudis were finally persuaded of American seriousness. But their doubts were in fact justified. As the decision on war drew closer, congressional opposition remained firm. Late in November, the Speaker of the House, Tom Foley, told the President that he needed to wait until the new Congress convened in January before taking any action, and Foley thought it likely that at that point Congress would support economic sanctions for another year. When the President rejected this course, Foley replied, “If after January 15 you decide to go to war, you’ll have to come to Congress.”

The Senate Majority Leader, George Mitchell, concurred. When James Baker, Bush’s Secretary of State, asked if Congress would at least consent to an offensive action that was limited to air power, Mitchell said no. Two weeks earlier, Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney had likewise met with a group of Congressmen and come away with no promise of support. In Woodward’s telling, Cheney “found himself thinking of August 1941, just four months before Pearl Harbor, when the House was able to muster only a one-vote margin for continuing the Selective Service system.”



It was chiefly to deal with congressional opposition that Bush agreed on November 30 to go “an extra mile for peace” by offering direct talks with Iraq to achieve a peaceful resolution of the crisis. He would send Baker to Baghdad and would himself meet with Iraq’s Foreign Minister, Tariq Aziz, in Washington. Baker was the one who had recommended this course of action, which fit his own reluctance to go to war. From the first he had been unhappy about an offensive military action, hoping to resolve matters through diplomacy.

But it was the pressure from the domestic political situation that made Baker’s suggestion attractive to the President. By now, the United Nations had authorized the use of force, intensifying public apprehension and congressional opposition. Sam Nunn, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a most powerful figure on defense and military questions, was vigorously against military action, and two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs were also testifying in Congress against war. Baker’s most effective argument (so Woodward writes) was that the President “had to stop the political bleeding.”

But the “last-mile-for-peace” initiative alarmed America’s allies, who feared it might be the first mile to retreat. As Woodward recounts, Prince Bandar thought that “Americans would never understand Arabs. A peace offering 24 hours after the UN victory [authorizing the use of force] would send precisely the wrong message to Saddam: a message of weakness.” Bandar told Scowcroft: “ ‘To you sending Baker is good will; to Saddam it suggests you’re chicken.’ ” His own conclusion was that “Bush and Baker had given Saddam great comfort at what should have been the Iraqi leader’s moment of greatest distress.”

Bandar was right about Saddam’s reaction. “He was ecstatic,” in Woodward’s phrase. From the first he had sought direct negotiations with the United States, to no avail. Now, just when the UN resolution was putting the greatest pressure on him to retreat, the American offer gave him new courage. “Perhaps he had been right, after all, in telling Ambassador Glaspie . . . that the U.S. did not have ‘the stomach’ for a costly war.” The Iraqi press exulted that Bush’s initiative was “a submission to Iraq’s demand . . . namely, the need to open a serious dialogue on the region’s issues.” From Baghdad the BBC reported that, “There’s no mistaking the feeling here that President Saddam Hussein has got the Americans on the run.”

After some stalling on Saddam’s part, and amid great nervousness on the part of America’s allies, Baker met Aziz in Geneva on January 9, 1991. No agreement resulted, but the negotiations did serve their political purpose at home. On January 12, Congress voted on a motion authorizing the use of force against Iraq, and it passed in the House by a wide margin, 250 to 183. In the Senate, the vote was 52 to 47; if three Senators had gone the other way, the motion would have lost.

One of the questions that puzzled many at the time was why Saddam seemed willing to risk a war he was bound to lose. Dennis Ross, head of Policy Planning in the State Department, offered an explanation to a reporter in October 1991:

What I underestimated was his perception of our resolve. He just didn’t believe us. He had watched CNN . . . and his concept of the [congressional] debate was that it was a sign of weakness. Debate and dissent meant that we would fall victim the same way we fell victim in Lebanon and the same way we did in Vietnam. . . . He thought we were hamstrung domestically. . . . The reality of what war meant for him didn’t sink in until after the bombing [started in January].

Freedman and Karsh come to similar conclusions:

The problem was not only Saddam’s misguided confidence, based on his defensive success against Iran, but also the mixed signals from Washington including the “mile-for-peace” initiative, which came over as reflecting American weakness, in the sense of deteriorating popular support.

Consequently, the administration failed to convince Saddam of the seriousness of its intention. . . . The Iraqi leader remained confident that through a combination of bluster and inducements he might strengthen the peace camp in the West to such an extent that war would be averted.



As thucydides observed long ago of the Spartans, Saddam turned out to be a convenient enemy. He was given countless opportunities to withdraw and keep his army, weapons, and country intact. Had he pulled out of Kuwait, the United States would have similarly pulled back, and in a while his power would have begun once again to impose itself on the region. By then, the Americans would have been far away and would have found it very hard to rally themselves and their allies for another effort. In short, Saddam and his powerful military apparatus could have remained in place had not his stubborn miscalculation forced the American hand.

Saddam was equally convenient in his conduct of the war. Thirty-eight days of allied devastation affected neither his stubbornness nor his military deployments. The bulk of his forces remained dug in facing Saudi Arabia, while his enemies went around his left flank and through his debilitated and demoralized front line. In four days his army was smashed and routed, suffering heavy casualties.

For weeks before the offensive, American television and newspapers had been filled with dire predictions, often voiced by experienced military officers and others not previously associated with pacifism or the antiwar movement. This war, they said, would be long and hard, the casualties great. There was much talk of body bags, of losses on a disastrous scale. In the event, however, U.S. casualties in battle amounted to 148 dead and 458 wounded; other coalition members suffered 92 dead and 318 wounded. Freedman and Karsh:

In just over 100 hours, coalition forces captured over 73,700 square kilometers of territory. Fifteen percent of Iraq was under coalition control. The Iraqi army which had been in occupation had been effectively cut to pieces. No more than seven of the original 43 Iraqi divisions were capable of operations. . . . After all the gloomy predictions of thousands of casualties, the total was remarkably small.

The authors of The Generals’ War take a dimmer view than this of the conduct of the war, and of its conclusion. They find the claims made for the success of American joint operations to be overdrawn, writing that “each service fought its own war.” They are critical of the military commanders’ estimate of the enemy, which overrated the quality of Iraqi forces and underrated the damage done to them by aerial bombardment. As a result of this miscalculation, they write, there were no plans for dealing with the swift collapse of the Iraqi army, and inadequate plans for cutting off escape. “Like General George Meade at the battle of Gettysburg in the Civil War, Schwartzkopf defeated his enemy, but allowed him to escape to make further mischief.”

Bush had compared Saddam Hussein with Hitler, and made his removal from power an aim of the war. Yet at the war’s end a considerable part of the Republican Guard—Saddam’s best and most loyal troops—had escaped to safety with its tanks, and was thus in condition to preserve the dictator’s power and crush the resistance of the Iraqi Shiites, Kurds, and others. The decision to end the fighting was taken, in Washington, before the American ground forces had cut off the escape route of the fleeing Iraqi forces. As Gordon and Trainor write:

The commanders who knew the most about the battlefield were not asked for their views. . . . Powell and the White House decided to end the war based on initial, fragmentary intelligence reports instead of waiting for a fuller accounting.

According to these authors, the haste to end the war was traceable less to military or diplomatic reasons, or the dictates of international policy, than to considerations of public relations and domestic politics. Powell in particular “was determined that the military would erase the stain of Vietnam and come out of the Gulf war victorious with its honor intact.” That meant avoiding casualties, avoiding the appearance of unnecessary killing of Iraqis, and avoiding any involvement in the postwar settlement of Iraq.

All this, however, inevitably resulted in leaving Saddam in power—a nuisance at the very least, and a potential future menace. Ever since the war’s end, U.S. planes and UN investigators have been compelled to police Iraqi activities. Gordon and Trainor note some of the consequences:

Three and a half years later, some of the same Republican Guard forces that Powell thought had been largely destroyed again menaced Kuwait. And in October 1994, some of the same American units that took on the Iraqis in 1991 were ordered back to the Gulf to prevent a possible second Iraqi invasion.

Just this March, two Americans were arrested for crossing the Kuwaiti border and wandering into Iraq’s territory and were given harsh jail sentences, apparently as a means of putting pressure on the U.S. to lift the UN’s economic sanctions.



Right after the end of the Gulf war it may still have been possible to believe, in the words of Freedman and Karsh, that we had seen “the return of the United States to a self-confident and effective role at the heart of international affairs.” But no longer. Desert Storm was not the first step in a clear, vigorous, and steady policy of active peacekeeping. The hasty, confused, unsatisfactory conclusion of the war became instead the pattern for a hesitant, confused, and unsatisfactory foreign policy, carried on for the rest of the Bush administration and continued by the Clinton administration.

Ever since the end of the war, the American approach to the world’s trouble spots has been marked by the same attitudes that allowed the war to come in the first place, as well as those that helped produce its flawed conclusion. Instead of being the first act in the establishment of a New World Order of peace, the war was the prelude to a period of disorder in such disparate places as the former Yugoslavia, Somalia, Haiti, Korea, and Chechnya, among others. It is especially ironic that the American general who opposed the war, who wrongly predicted that it would exact a great cost, and who played a leading role in bringing it to a premature conclusion should have emerged as a major national hero, mentioned as a serious contender for a position on a national ticket and as a possible third-party candidate for President.

Today, potential disrupters of the peace are still unsure how, or whether, the U.S. and its allies will respond to their provocations and, therefore, may be more tempted to take a chance. For that reason alone, Americans need to study the history of the Gulf war and its lessons. The Generals’ War is a good place to start.


1 Little, Brown, 551 pp., $27.95.

2 Quoted in A.L. George, Bridging the Gap (1993).

3 Washington Post, December 2, 1990.

About the Author

Donald Kagan, Sterling Professor of Classics and History at Yale, is the author of Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy, On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace, and, most recently, The Peloponnesian War (2003), drawn from his earlier four-volume history of that conflict. Mr. Kagan served as dean of Yale College from 1989 to 1992.

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