Saddam promised "the mother of all
battles." What he got was the battle of all mothers.
At first, it felt like a model
war--World War II all over again.
When Desert Storm began, there was an intoxicating sense of collective
unity, as Americans rallied around the flag, the president, and the military.
The U.S. media tumbled, jumped, and cheered. Lee Greenwood's song "God Bless
the USA," originally released in 1984, was dusted off, and became the theme
tune of the war. Meanwhile, the yellow ribbon symbolized grassroots
participation in the struggle.
Bush's approval ratings jumped 18
points to 82 percent. Impressively, after taking the nation into war, there was
a 27-point surge in Bush's score for "making progress" at "keeping the nation
out of war."
But while the U.S. victory was
impressive, it was not total like in World War II. Bush called a halt to the
fighting after freeing Kuwait, leaving Saddam Hussein in power.
It was the right decision.
Escalating the war by marching on Baghdad would have destroyed the allied
coalition. It would also have been illegal. The United Nations mandate only covered
the liberation of Kuwait, not overthrowing the Iraqi dictator. And regime
change would have left the United States in charge of creating a new government
in post-war Iraq--a task for which it was not in the least bit prepared. As Secretary of Defense Dick
Cheney remarked in 1992:
And the question in my mind is, how many additional
American casualties is Saddam (Hussein) worth? And the answer is, not that
damned many. So, I think we got it right, both when we decided to expel him
from Kuwait, but also when the President made the decision that we'd achieved
our objectives and we were not going to go get bogged down in the problems of
trying to take over and govern Iraq.
But Americans had other ideas. During the war, well over
70 percent of the public favored a march on Baghdad. Even when pollsters
reminded people that the United Nations had only authorized a war to free
Kuwait, a majority of Americans wanted to fight for regime change anyway. And
strikingly, most of these hawks were willing to sacrifice thousands of extra
U.S. lives to remove Saddam.
In American eyes,
the war was morally black and white--necessitating total victory. After all,
Bush described the conflict as: "good versus evil, right versus wrong, human
dignity and freedom versus tyranny and oppression."
determined to punish Saddam. He was a picture-perfect villain, who invaded a
weaker neighbor, took Americans hostage, fired Scud missiles at Israel and
Saudi Arabia, and burned oil fields. In a January 1991 poll of West Virginians,
Adolf Hitler only narrowly defeated Saddam Hussein for the title of most evil
leader of the twentieth century (43 percent to 36 percent).
"People in Nebraska
want this guy dead," reported Senator Bob Kerrey about opinion in his home