A First-Lens Analysis
George H.W. Bush: Moral Realist?

A Third-Lens analysis of the Persian Gulf Crisis would reveal a regional balance-of-power dynamic in line with the expectations of realist theory. A First-Lens focus on George Bush, however, suggests that power politics was not the only variable shaping this key player's decision making.

Bush's success in organizing a truly international diplomatic response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait opened the possibility of two coercive strategies. The first relied on economic sanctions to convince the Iraqis that possession of Kuwait carried more cost than benefit, while the second rested on the threat physically to remove Iraqi troops through military force. The second U.N. resolution passed after the invasion placed an economic embargo on Iraq that was subsequently strengthened in resolutions passed later in the fall of 1990. Key advisers, such as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, suggested that economic sanctions should be given some time to work. However, according to Bush himself (and his key advisers who spoke after the war), Bush settled quickly on the larger goal of using force to push Iraqi out of Kuwait rather than relying on economic sanctions to do the job. Stepping off his helicopter at the White House on 5 August 1990, Bush was faced with a barrage of reporters' questions on his pending decision. He turned and stated emphatically, "This will not stand, this will not stand . . . this aggression against Kuwait!" (Bush, George H., and Brent Scrowcroft, A World Transformed (New York: Knopf, 1998), p. 3.)

General Colin Powell was at home watching the president's arrival on CNN. He was surprised by Bush's statement and realized that the president might have just committed the U.S. military to a much bigger job than had been discussed in the National Security Council meetings that had been held over the past two days. Powell wrote later, "The thought process, however, was pure George Bush. He had listened quietly to his advisors. He had consulted by phone with world leaders. And then, taking his own counsel, he had come to this momentous decision and revealed it at the first opportunity."(Powell, Colin, My American Journey (New York: Random House, 1995), p. 467.) Commenting on Powell's analysis, Bush wrote in 1998,

Afterward, Colin Powell remarked that he felt I really had declared war on Iraq that Sunday. It was a widespread reaction. In retrospect, I don't know if I had yet determined that the use of force would be required. . . . It was still too early to make that call. On the other hand, I certainly felt that force could be necessary. I had decided that it was up to Saddam. I never wavered from the position that I would do whatever it took to remove Iraq from Kuwait." (Bush, George H., and Brent Scrowcroft, A World Transformed (New York: Knopf, 1998), p. 333.)

While meeting transcripts, memoirs, and diary entries support Bush's contention that he was not convinced initially that war was necessary and that he held out hope until late in the crisis that Saddam would backdown, the U.S. president proved uncomfortable ceding the initiative to Hussein. Bush's thinking about the crisis evolved from an initial view of it as a regional balance-of-power problem to something much broader. By September, a moral component had entered Bush's thinking, and he admits that he began to see the crisis as one of good versus evil and right versus wrong. In a diary entry of 22 September 1990 he wrote, "I've just read a horrible intelligence report on the brutal dismembering and dismantling of Kuwait. . . . The problem is, unless something happens soon, there may not be a Kuwait—there may be no records—no one will know who Kuwait citizens are. . . . This just hardens my resolve. I am wondering if we need to speed up the timetable." (Bush dairy account cited in Bush, George H., and Brent Scrowcroft, A World Transformed (New York: Knopf, 1998), p. 374.)

Bush had also been reading Martin Gilbert's history of World War II and felt that the parallels between German aggression in 1939 and Iraq's aggression in 1990 were strong. Unless resisted, Saddam would continue on the offensive. Bush later noted, "I caught hell on this comparison of Saddam to Hitler, with critics accusing me of personalizing the crisis, but I still feel it was an appropriate one."(Bush, George H., and Brent Scrowcroft, A World Transformed (New York: Knopf, 1998), p. 375.) The analogy between Hitler and Saddam Hussein in Bush's mind focused on both the lessons of Munich (that appeasement of aggression begets aggression) and on Hitler as evil. World War II had shaped young George Bush's life. While he understood the Gulf Crisis was not on the scale of World War II, Bush felt that he was facing an adversary like Hitler.

Bush seems particularly to have been personally moved and angered by the accounts of torture and killing contained in an Amnesty International report on the situation in Kuwait. He ordered copies of the report sent to coalition ambassadors and important members of Congress. The importance of the report was vividly demonstrated during a meeting with the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, who told Bush that he could not condone violence in response to the Iraqi action. Bush lashed back by pointing to the Amnesty International report on atrocities said, "How do we handle it when these people are being raped?" He notes caustically in his diary of that day, I wondered, "What would be the Bishop's position in World War II?" (Bush diary account cited in Bush, George H., and Brent Scrowcroft, A World Transformed (New York: Knopf, 1998), p. 428.)

The emotional side of Bush's thinking is evident in his 24 December 1990 diary entry, which reads, "I keep thinking about the Gulf, and I see the faces of the young pilots I met when we first got to Dhahran—'let us go; let us do our job; we can do it'; and then the Marines and the Army guys – young, young, so very young. I think of Iraqi babies, and yet, I think of the evil that is this man." (Bush diary account cited in Bush, George H., and Brent Scrowcroft, A World Transformed (New York: Knopf, 1998), p. 434.) In more straightforward language he wrote to his family a Christmas letter in which he stated, "I look at today's crisis as 'good' vs. 'evil.' Yes, it is that clear." (Bush, George H., and Brent Scrowcroft, A World Transformed (New York: Knopf, 1998) p. 435.)

Two days later, the emotional angle was still sharp. Bush writes, "Baker calls me at 3:45 on the 2nd ...and says 'don't close the door on my going to Baghdad to meet Saddam Hussein,' and I tell him I'm inclined to slam the door and leave it closed because this guy is jerking us around..."(Bush diary account cited in Bush, George H., and Brent Scrowcroft, A World Transformed (New York: Knopf, 1998), p. 437.)

The Sands of Time

Bush's moral perception of the crisis inclined him toward moving effectively sooner than later. An increasing sense that time was actually working against him combined with this ethical conviction to produce a feeling of diplomatic urgency. Bush knew that the coalition would not stay together forever, Congressional support was very mixed, and that public opinion was fluctuating. In a Gallup poll taken just before Thanksgiving, 51 percent of those asked opposed using military force to drive Iraq out of Kuwait, while only 37 percent supported the idea.

Bush's World War II experience as a pilot shot down in combat clearly shaped some of his thoughts about how to proceed. He noted in his diary that his war experience made him cautious about ordering troops into battle, but also convinced him of the importance of winning. Waiting now seemed to be a losing strategy. He became increasingly convinced that the issue had to be brought to an end soon. On 17 October he wrote, "I'm not sure where our own country is. But if they saw a clear provocation . . . they would be supportive of knocking the hell out of this guy." (Bush diary account cited in Bush, George H., and Brent Scrowcroft, A World Transformed (New York: Knopf, 1998), p. 383.)

The question was how to remove Saddam Hussein's forces from Kuwait if Iraq refused to withdraw. One answer was to take advantage of some provocation, such as a terrorist attack or the mishandling of hostages or diplomatic personnel remaining in the U.S. embassy in Kuwait City, which the Iraqis had encircled but had not entered. Bush focused on the idea of provocation more than any of his other advisers. He was convinced that the United States needed to be ready to react immediately in such an instance. He began pushing for military options and a moving up of military capabilities. Brent Scrowcroft, his national security adviser, and others downplayed the provocation scenario and kept focus on the need for coalition action. Eventually, however, Bush's focus on urgency led to a decision to move the United Nations to establish a deadline by which Kuwait had to be freed or military action would be taken. Adding to his diary on 17 October, Bush concluded, "we must get this over with." (Bush diary account cited in Bush, George H., and Brent Scrowcroft, A World Transformed (New York: Knopf, 1998), p. 382.)

The U.N. Security Council's passage of resolution 678, which approved the use of force, was a monumental diplomatic achievement. Bush credits the tireless efforts of James Baker and Thomas Pickering, but Bush's personal interventions with Gorbachev, French president Mitterand, and Chinese president Yang Shangkun secured unanimity among the five permanent members of the Security Council. Bush now felt that a "huge burden had been lifted from my shoulders. It eased some of the problems of coalition maintenance and resolved the debate about the need for a provocation. . . ."(Bush, George H., and Brent Scrowcroft, A World Transformed (New York: Knopf, 1998), p. 415.)

Interestingly, armed with the resolution, Bush began to believe that Saddam might leave Kuwait without war. The sense of urgency that drove his decision to request the U.N. use of force resolution seemed to lessen slightly. Driven in part by his personal experience with war, Bush now shifted to direct communication with Iraq as a last chance effort. He offered to send James Baker to meet directly with Saddam Hussein and offered to meet personally with Iraqi Foreign Minister Aziz. In January, as the deadline approached, he wrote a letter directly to  Hussein.

On one level, these diplomatic forays could be viewed as nothing more than going through the motions to justify war. There is some evidence that as the deadline approached, U.S. officials were concerned that Iraq would accept resolution 660, which would have allowed Iraqi troops to station themselves on the Kuwaiti border. Bush knew that the coalition would not allow a permanent U.S. presence on Arab territory. Ironically, if Hussein had accepted the resolution, Bush surmised, Iraq would have been in a better strategic position than it was while occupying Kuwait under economic sanctions. Under such a scenario, Bush hypothesized that time would become an ally of Iraq. If Iraq could stall an end to the crisis, the coalition would eventually wither. Bush placed great emphasis on the coalition and knew its fragility. This led to the determination that there could be no delay in going to war once the deadline passed.

Bush admitted later that he became concerned that his offer to have one more diplomatic chance for peace may have been misinterpreted as weakness. He suggested after the war that the Iraqi leadership probably mistook his position and reasoned that the Americans "are weak, they will not attack us, or why is Bush continuing to make peace feelers." (Bush, George H., and Brent Scrowcroft, A World Transformed (New York: Knopf, 1998), p. 437.)

By January, war had become a better strategic option for the United States, since a prolongation of the crisis might have been exploited by Iraq. Bush remained concerned about potential casualties, but this did not dominate his thinking. Most analysts were predicting heavy casualties in the range of 10,000 U.S. troops with former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara predicting losses of closer to 30,000.  Bush's military intelligence estimates were actually closer to 2,000, which was still a significant number in Bush's mind (remarkably the United States lost only 148 personnel in the ground war, with the coalition's total, including Americans, under 220). If anything, however, his emotions were more fully engaged by the need to stop Iraqi brutality. He probably drew the conclusion from his own wartime experience that great sacrifice would lead to the defeat of a greater evil.

The Baker-Aziz talks broke down in early January, and the next week was spent preparing for war. There does not seem to be any evidence that Bush was looking for a way out. He was prepared for war and now just waited for the U.N. deadline to pass. In fact, on the morning of 15 January 1991, he tape-recorded his concerns about how he would know when to end the war. He was confident of a battlefield victory and was already thinking about possible political settlements in the region.

What does a First-Lens focus on George H.W. Bush reveal about why Iraq and the United Nations went to war in January 1991?