Memo: To Arm Chair Generals
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: The WSJournal Feb. 21, 1991
This important Wall Street Journal editorial appeared three days before the end of the Gulf War in 1991. The Journal editors then made the argument that instead of merely kicking Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, which for all practical purposes was accomplished by February 21st, the allied forces should march on to Baghdad to eliminate him. The United Nations Resolution that authorized the use of force to expel Saddam did not authorize occupation of Iraq, which meant the Journal was advocating unilateral action even then. President Bush, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all agreed they should abide by the terms of the UN resolution and the promises made to the coalition members. This editorial line of reasoning has been extended and embellished in the years since. The seminal editorial is worth reading for its intellectual foundations. I disagreed with it at the time and have ever since.
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On to the Elbe?
The Wall Street Journal Review&Outlook 21 February 1991
As a war waged by a coalition draws to its end political aspects have a mounting importance. In Washington especially longer and wider views should have prevailed. It is true that American thought is at least disinterested in matters which seem to relate to territorial acquisitions, but when wolves are about the shepherd must guard his flock, even if he does not himself care for mutton.
So Winston Churchill, in his history of World War II, started the chapter on his strenuous but unsuccessful effort to prod Eisenhower's armies into grasping the chance to beat the Russians to Berlin, instead of stopping nearly unopposed on the Elbe River 60 miles away. After the emergence of the Iron Curtain, the Soviet enslavement of Eastern Europe and the Berlin blockade, he wrote that this decision "played a dominating part in the destiny of Europe, and may well have denied us all the lasting peace for which we had fought so long and hard."
The Elbe, of course, had been designated at Yalta as the border between British-American and Soviet zones of occupation. Eisenhower saw no purpose in taking American casualties for territory to be handed back to Russians. He was also preoccupied with the necessity of hard fighting in the Bavarian Mountains to take Hitler's National Redoubt, which turned out to be a myth. And he tended to agree with Russian assertions, in their case entirely insincere, that "Berlin has lost its former strategic importance."
Churchill argued that the capital remained crucial: "While Berlin holds out great masses of Germans will feel it their duty to go down fighting." His political point was not that the West should renege on Yalta, but that it was already apparent that the Russians were not living up to their part of that agreement. To provide negotiating leverage on the organization of Eastern Europe, or failing that to liberate as much as possible, he wrote to Eisenhower in 1945, "I deem it highly important that we should shake hands with the Russians as far to the east as possible."
Churchill believed he lost the argument because of a "deadly hiatus," with Roosevelt dying and then Truman struggling to consolidate his Presidency. Yet somehow the Elbe decision seems characteristically American. When America is aroused it can be remarkably efficient at war, but it often pulls back from carrying force to its logical conclusion.
We will not dwell on the Yalu, where we rather tend to sympathize with Truman instead of MacArthur. In Vietnam, the first mistake was to enmesh ourselves by sanctioning a coup against our ally, the second was to commit forces piecemeal. If we had mined Haiphong Harbor in 1965 as we did in 1972, Southeast Asia would not be the sinkhole it is today.
Perhaps the biggest strategic mistake in the postwar era, though, was shrinking from the British and French use of military force against Nasser. We undercut the British with financial power, refusing to allow them to borrow on their swap networks to support the pound. In financial terms, the favor was repaid in 1971, when the Bank of England's inquiry about $2 billion in swaps to defend the dollar led to the closing of the gold window and the collapse of the Bretton Woods monetary system.
In military terms, the episode was a turning point in Britain's decision to withdraw its forces east of Suez, in particular from the Persian Gulf. In regional terms, it was a turning point in the development of pan-Arab militancy. Egypt, which historically had its doubts, decided it was an Arab nation. And Nasser's Voice of Cairo forged the consciousness of youths such as Moammar Gadhafi and Saddam Hussein.
We rehearse this history as coalition troops prepare for a ground offensive intended to wrap up the Gulf War, apparently ready to move upon orders from President Bush. We assume, perhaps optimistically, that Mr. Bush will reject the bait being dangled by the Gorbachev-Saddam alliance. We assume, equally optimistically, that the hand-wringing about a ground offensive is misplaced and that it will go quickly, though of course not painlessly. What worries us is whether, even under those circumstances, we will finish the job.
The allied war plans, at least as we discern them, contemplate cutting into Iraq to surround the forces in Kuwait, then holding that line hoping that the Iraqi people and the Iraqi military will remove Saddam Hussein. While the political goal is to displace Saddam, the military mission is to liberate Kuwait. We understand the logic of this plan, and we hope it works.
Success would of course clearly redeem the pledge that Saddam's conquest will not stand, and of course his advanced weapons programs have already been devastated from the air. The plan would inflict a massive military defeat, the conquest and presumably surrender of a half-million man army. It would avoid the further casualties implicit in a strike to Baghdad. It would dilute the image of a neocolonialist America enraging the Arab bazaars. Perhaps most comforting of all, it would avoid a direct American responsibility for governing a ruined Iraq.
But would it end the war?
Only if an anti-Saddam coup eventuated. This is not inconceivable. The defeat would be devastating, and the embargo and air attacks could be continued. There are already reports of an anti-Saddam riot in one Iraqi city. But then, where is the historical precedent? What dictator ever has been overthrown under such circumstances? Hitler hanged the generals conspiring to kill him, allowing Rommel the luxury of suicide. Noriega personally shot a would-be coup-maker. No one we know of has called Saddam a Mussolini.
And what if no coup succeeded and Saddam hunkered down in Baghdad? Would the coalition have the political stamina to maintain the sanctions and continue the bombing? The Soviets would do what they could to prop him up, and he would do what he could to become another Nasser. With a Saddam regime lingering on even in a crippled state to make propaganda and mount terrorism, there would be little prospect of the more stable Gulf envisioned in the United Nations resolutions or Mr. Bush's new world order. We suspect that in history's judgment this outcome would not redeem the present massive U.S. effort, let alone potential casualties from chemical weapons in a ground campaign.
The only logical conclusion of events so far is that Saddam must go. His removal from Baghdad -- by death, flight or, preferably, capture -- is the sine qua non of international peace and security in the Gulf. If this can be accomplished by liberating Kuwait and promoting a coup, so much the better. But there is also much to be said for doing directly what must be done. As the likely battle develops, we would hope that the offensive would not stop at some Elbe in the desert simply because that fulfills the immediate military mission. The first political goal is to remove Saddam from military command and political power, and we hope our commanders would not pass up any opportunity they have to get that job done.