aven't we been here before? President George Bush facing off with Saddam Hussein, public support for war divided, allies diffident, Arabs recalcitrant, talk of thousands of casualties and use of weapons of mass destruction one has a creeping sense of déjà vu. The same points are being made today as 1990, frequently by the same people. It was not self-evident in late August 1990 that the United States would go to war with Iraq, despite the ongoing military buildup under Operation Desert Shield. There were many alternatives to armed conflict, and the debate over the proper course was intense. Then, as now, people designed their arguments according to their predispositions. However, now the results of the prior arguments are known, the predictions sorted out. We know who was right and who was wrong. So why the same old tunes?
For example, the line in 1990 was that U.S. ground forces were unprepared for the task that awaited them. They were trained to fight in Europe against the Soviet Union, not in the desert against Iraq. Our equipment might not work under harsher desert conditions. The Iraqi Army (fourth largest in the world) was comprised of battle-tested veterans of the decade-long conflict with Iran, which gave them innumerable advantages. Not to mention the fact Saddam Hussein possessed chemical weapons and had a propensity to use them. The firmly entrenched, experienced, and motivated Iraqi soldiers would inflict punishing casualties on the less-experienced allied forces. Senator Edward Kennedy (D., Mass.) summed up the then-current wisdom of the antiwar side when he said that the coming conflict would "look more like World War I and trench warfare than anything we've had." He predicted 100 American KIA's per day for as long as the war continued. Of course, such predictions would have come true had the allies disregarded their preponderant advantages of air supremacy and maneuver and made the expected frontal assaults on the Iraqi trenches. Luckily, allied war planners were smarter about military operations than the pundits, which came as no surprise except maybe to the pundits.
Today the "trench warfare" mantra has been replaced by "street fighting in Baghdad." Loosely interpreting the details of a purported war plan printed in the New York Times last July 29, Chris Matthews recently painted a fanciful picture of American troops parachuting directly into the Iraqi capital (despite the unfortunate experience of some U.S. 82nd Airborne troopers who landed in St. Mére Eglise the early morning of June 6, 1944 and were slaughtered) and getting into various unfortunate situations. He concludes that "this invasion of Iraq, if it goes off, will join the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, Desert One, Beirut and Somalia in the history of military catastrophes." Again, this statement would be true if the CENTCOM planners adopted the approach he described, but one suspects that such straw men will bear the same relationship to the actual plan as trench fighting did to General Schwartzkopf's hail-mary envelopment maneuver. Military leaders, more than anyone, are cognizant of the potential for high casualties if operational plans are poorly crafted. They do their best to maximize survival while still meeting mission requirements. Yet, critics are certain to continue to paint the worst-case scenarios as highly probable if not certain, or to maintain that regardless of the extent of preparations, favorable results can never be 100-percent guaranteed (so best to just do nothing).
Opponents of an invasion state that public support for an attack is declining, which is true though it has yet to reach levels of ambivalence seem in the summer of 1990. In fact, public support for military action against Iraq was divided right up to the beginning of the air war in January 1991. A Time/CNN Poll from January 14, 1991 (the day before the deadline for Iraqi withdrawal) showed only 41 percent support for military action versus 45 percent for continuing the sanctions regime. Yet, when the President launched the air attacks three days later, 84 percent reported that "the United States and its allies did the right thing."
Speaking of sanctions, the "let sanctions do their magic" argument is still in evidence. A New York Times editorial in August 1990 concluded that "the embargo against Iraq can work, can break President Saddam Hussein's will - provided that those who demand instant military solutions are held at bay." Today former Secretary of State Madeline Albright is ready to declare victory: "I believe that Iraq and Saddam Hussein are contained pretty well within this sanctions box." Yet the gaps in the sanctions regimes are well known Saddam exports around half a billion dollars of illegal oil through Syria every year, and uses the profits to prop up his regime, and perhaps to fund research and development of weapons of mass destruction. Of course, we cannot know for certain if the weapons programs exist without a vigorous inspection regime, which Iraq opposes. So ironically, the need to verify the sanctions could be the cause of war.
One hears again that a war would lead to a domestic economic crisis, without really specifying why or what form it would take. No crisis resulted from the 1991 war and the economic contraction that preceded it was followed by seven quarters of economic growth. One also hears that war would lead to chaos in the oil markets, which did not erupt even when Iraq set the Kuwaiti oil fields ablaze. Crude oil prices declined in 1991 from the pre-war run-up, and continued to go down the next three years. The market had discounted the oil disruptions by adjusting in advance, as markets are wont to do, and in fact are doing right now. Why should anyone believe that an oil shock would develop this time around when so much more oil is available outside the Middle East than in 1990?
Then, as now, antiwar Republicans are treated as more newsworthy than pro-war Democrats. In 1990, Pat Buchanan was being quoted regularly to illustrate the dissent in the GOP camp, while Les Aspin (D., Wis.), who in August 1990 stated that "guaranteeing our bottom line boils down to ridding the world of Saddam Hussein or his army," was not nearly as much in evidence. Today Dick Armey is being given strange new respect from the media, and the New York Times would rather misrepresent the views of Henry Kissinger than give front-page exposure to a Democratic supporter of the president (if one can be found).
Today the argument is made that our allies will not cooperate with an attack Iraq and we cannot act without them. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has flatly denied the latter assertion; but it should be noted that 12 years ago the allies did not instantly sign on to the conflict either. President Bush methodically forged a 22-country coalition to prosecute the war against Iraq through patient and persistent diplomacy, a feat that should not be underestimated. Moreover, for those who dismiss the current President Bush as a unilateralist, it is worth noting that he and his team have put together a coalition of more than 80 countries to fight the global war on terrorism.
In 1990, the possibility of a general Middle Eastern meltdown was a popular argument against concerted action. For example, Senator Carl Levin (D., Mich.) stated somewhat ambiguously in November 1990, "Precipitous American use of large-scale force could also bring about a broader conflagration in the Middle East with unknown results." The results are now known, and no such pandemonium broke out. The same argument is being made today with about the same level of specificity. This is the most patronizing and demeaning of the arguments because it assumes the Arab world is a homogenous mass motivated chiefly by a Pavlovian response to the concept of "Arab unity." But the myth of Arab unity was best illustrated by the intra-Arab invasion of Kuwait by Iraq. In 1990, the Bush team managed to enlist Egypt and even Syria into the anti-Iraq coalition. One can expect that the rules of realist foreign policy have not been repealed since then. The separate states of the region all have their own national interests, and each will approach the situation differently, but even if they do not join the allies it is hard to see why any of them would have an interest in fomenting a general war, especially when it is unlikely they would prevail.
A variation on this argument is that if the United States attacks Iraq, Saddam will attack Israel with chemical or biological weapons, Israel will strike back perhaps with nuclear weapons, and the predicted chaos will ensue as Arab states pile on. This was expected in 1991, and while Saddam did lash out at Israel with conventionally armed scud missiles, even the Syrians recognized Israel's status as a victim of aggression. It is difficult to understand why the Arab states would allow themselves to be pawns in Saddam's game. They will not behave in a way contrary to their interests, and they would realize little gain placing themselves on the wrong end of a war with Israel. Furthermore, if this argument holds sway and we in fact do nothing, Saddam Hussein will have successfully deterred the United States using weapons of mass destruction, which is one of the principle outcomes the U.S. seeks to prevent.
There is a subtle variation in the critical attention being paid to one issue. Twelve years ago Michael Kinsley chided President Bush for taking a vacation rather than dealing with a developing international crisis. One hears the same complaint today but back then the press delighted in contrasting the cool breezes of Maine with the punishing heat of the Kuwait desert and the sufferings of U.S. forces. Today it is the press that suffers in the Texas heat and can only dream of the more temperate clime of Kennebunkport.
A final assertion redux is that "the president has not made his case" which was stated by Senators Tom Harkin and Sam Nunn (among others) in 1991, and is frequently heard today. Technically speaking it is not an argument it could be a simple descriptive statement, but more likely it is being used as a political posture. As a debating point it is an intellectual abrogation; it has no affirmative value, it argues for or against nothing in particular, it takes no stand, one can say it no matter what the president says in short, it is the perfect statement for anyone who wants to evade responsibility. Expect more of it.
James S. Robbins is a national-security analyst & NRO contributor.