December 26, 2000
Behind Colin Powell's Legend
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Persian Gulf War
An enduring image from 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 smooth 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 a ground war in Kuwait and Iraq, Powell wavered between siding with Schwarzkopf, who was willing to accept a peaceful Iraqi withdrawal, and lining up with President Bush, who hungered for a clear military victory.
The tension peaked in the days before the ground war was scheduled to begin. Iraqi forces already had been pummeled by weeks of devastating allied air attacks both against targets in Iraq and Kuwait.
As the clocked toward a decision on launching a ground offensive, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev tried to hammer out a cease-fire and a withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait. President Bush and his political leadership desperately wanted a ground war to crown the American victory.
Schwarzkopf and some of his generals in the field felt U.S. goals could be achieved through a negotiated Iraqi withdrawal that would end the slaughter and spare the lives of U.S. troops. With a deadline for a decision looming, Powell briefly joined the Schwarzkopf camp.
On Feb. 21, 1991, the two generals hammered out a cease-fire proposal for presentation to the National Security Council. That last-minute peace deal would have given Iraqi forces one week to march out of Kuwait while leaving their armor and heavy equipment behind. Schwarzkopf thought he had Powell’s commitment to pitch the plan at the White House.
But Bush was fixated on a ground war. According to insiders, he saw the war as advancing two goals: to inflict severe damage on Saddam Hussein’s army and to erase the painful memories of America’s defeat in Vietnam.
At the NSC meeting, Powell reportedly did reiterate his and Schwarzkopf’s support for a peaceful settlement, if possible. But sensing Bush’s mood, Powell substituted a different plan, shortening the one-week timetable to an unrealistic two days and, thus, making the ground war inevitable.
Set on a Ground War
Though secret from the American people at that time, Bush had long determined that a peaceful Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait would not be tolerated. Indeed, U.S. peace initiatives in early 1991 had amounted to window-dressing, with Bush privately fearful that the Iraqis might capitulate before the United States could attack.
To Bush, exorcising the "Vietnam Syndrome" demons had become an important priority of the Persian Gulf War, almost as central to his thinking as ousting Saddam's army from Kuwait.
Conservative columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak were among the few who described Bush's obsession publicly at the time. On Feb. 25, 1991, they wrote that the Gorbachev initiative brokering 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."
In the book, Shadow, author Bob Woodward confirmed that Bush was adamant about fighting a war, even as the White House pretended that it would be satisfied with an unconditional Iraqi withdrawal.
“We have to have a war,” Bush told his inner circle of Secretary of State James Baker, national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and Powell, according to Woodward.
“Scowcroft was aware that this understanding could never be stated publicly or be permitted to leak out. An American president who declared the necessity of war would probably be thrown out of office. Americans were peacemakers, not warmongers,” Woodward wrote.
On Jan. 9, 1991, when Iraqi foreign minister Tariq Aziz rebuffed an ultimatum from Baker in Geneva, “Bush was jubilant because it was the best news possible, although he would have to conceal it publicly,” Woodward wrote.
The Air War
On Jan. 15, U.S. and allied forces launched a punishing air war, hitting targets in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities as well as Iraqi forces in Kuwait. Weeks of devastating bombing left tens of thousands of Iraqis dead, according to estimates.
The Iraqi forces soon seemed ready to crack. Soviet diplomats were meeting with Iraqi leaders who let it be known that they were prepared to withdraw their troops from Kuwait.
Still, Bush recognized the military and psychological value of a smashing ground offensive. A ground war could annihilate the Iraqi forces as they retreated while proving America’s war-fighting mettle once again.
But Schwarzkopf saw little reason for U.S. soldiers to die if the Iraqis were prepared to withdraw and leave their heavy weapons behind. There was also the prospect of chemical warfare that might be used by the Iraqis against advancing American troops. Schwarzkopf saw the possibility of heavy U.S. casualties.
Powell found himself in the middle. He wanted to please Bush 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.
At key moments in White House meetings, however, Powell sided with Bush and his hunger for outright victory. "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 pummeled 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 the pending Soviet peace plan which sought to engineer an Iraqi withdrawal with no more killing.
"President Bush was in a bind," Powell wrote in 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."
On Feb. 18, Powell relayed a demand to Schwarzkopf from Bush's NSC for an immediate attack date. Powell "spoke in the terse tone that signaled he was under pressure from the hawks," Schwarzkopf wrote. But one 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."
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."
An Angry President
But when Powell arrived at the White House late that evening, he found Bush angry about the Soviet peace initiative. Still, according to Woodward’s Shadow, Powell reiterated that he and Schwarzkopf “would rather see the Iraqis walk out than be driven out.”
Powell said the ground war carried serious risks of significant U.S. casualties and “a high probability of a chemical attack.” But Bush was set: “If they crack under force, it is better than withdrawal,” the president said.
In My American Journey, Powell expressed sympathy for Bush’s predicament. "The President's problem was how to say no to Gorbachev without appearing to throw away a chance for peace," Powell wrote.
"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'."
Powell sought Bush's attention. "I raised a finger," Powell wrote. "The President turned to me. 'Got something, Colin?'," Bush asked. But Powell did not outline Schwarzkopf’s one-week cease-fire plan. Instead, Powell offered a different idea intended to make the ground offensive inevitable.
"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 their way out by, say, noon Saturday," Feb. 23, less than two days away.
Powell understood that the two-day deadline would not give the Iraqis enough time to act, especially with their command-and-control systems severely damaged by the air war. 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 president.
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.
Schwarzkopf and his field commanders in Saudi Arabia watched Bush on television and immediately 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 allies pursued and slaughtered tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers in the 100-hour war. U.S. casualties were light, 147 killed in combat and another 236 killed in accidents or from other causes.
"Small losses as military statistics go," wrote Powell, "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 exulted.