Op-Eds by Jim

…and the Horrors of A Desert War

September 23, 1990
by James Webb, The New York Times

President Bush has not only embarked on his own voyage into the Persian Gulf, that Bermuda Triangle of Presidencies. Unlike his two immediate predecessors, he has dragged more than a hundred thousand of our troops with him. And as the President struggles at home, our troops have been learning to cope with a sun that can melt electrical wiring, sand so fine that few filters can keep it out of gear boxes and a growing ennui that seeps through even the most careful monitoring of the press corps.

The debate over our role in the Persian Gulf crisis has focused on national, rather than specific military goals. The fundamental questions, upon which all others inevitably rest, have not been addressed. Why did we send such a huge contingent of ground troops in the first place? And under what conditions are we going to use them or bring them home?

Answers are not forthcoming. Military officials intimate that the question would expose tactical options. Administration officials talk in vague terms: Defense Secretary Cheney is telling us to prepare for a commitment that may take years. Others have been quoted as saying we may be there for a decade. At the same time we are being reassured, amidst many loud calls to initiate a war with Iraq, that the U.S. military commitment is wholly defensive.

As one who opposed the Reagan Administration’s overt tilt toward Iraq which caused the Persian Gulf problems in 1987 and 1988, I have no desire to give consolation to Saddam Hussein now that he is getting the attention he deserves. But if our experience since World War II tells us anything, it is that justifiable national goals are too frequently lost through unfocused and ineffective military policy. And the strongest likelihood is that our ground buildup in Saudi Arabia is the product not of conscious strategy, but of an initial overreaction that compounds itself with the arrival of every C-5 transport.

The Kuwaiti dilemma is not new. This is the third time since 1961 that Iraq has asserted, militarily, its claim to Kuwaiti territory. As such, positioning U.S. aviation units into Saudi Arabia with ground forces to defend them as appropriate as a short-term guarantee of Saudi sovereignty. But the huge buildup of forces began after it became clear that Iraq had no military design on Saudi Arabia. And couple with escalating rhetoric, it has created an intractable siege, with the survival of the President Bush, as well as Saddam Hussein, handing in the balance.

The U.S., whose interests in the region are far less than Kuwait’s, Saudi Arabia’s, Israel’s, Europe’s and Japan’s, is carrying the overwhelming burden. True, others are involved in small scale — the Egyptians, who stand to benefit to the tune of at least $7 billion in forgiven debts, the Syrians, traditional enemies of Iraq, who are sending a few thousand soldiers, other Arab nations whose royal families are also threatened, European and other allies who are throwing in a ship or two here, and a military unit there. We appear to have traded the promise of greater economic help to the Soviets for Mikhail Gorbachev’s rather noncommittal statement of support.

And now we are out on the international hustings, asking for financial contributions for our effort. Mr. Bush hastens to assure us that this does not make our soldiers mercenaries, but anyone with a relative or loved one in Saudi Arabia will quickly argue that this is not a fair trade.

And what is the impact, strategically, of the introduction of all these ground forces? In grand sum, it can only be judged as negative.

Those who have called for massive, pre-emptive air strikes against Iraq must now contemplate the detriment of tens of thousands of American soldiers within range of Iraqi chemical weapons, as well as possible terrorist attacks from Iraq and now Iran.

Those who worry about the possibility of crisis in other parts of the world must recognize that a large percentage of American maneuver forces — including as much as half of the Marine Corps — are tied down in the waiting game in the desert.

Those who believe we should use these forces offensively should realize that this would galvanize the Arab world, invite chemical retaliation and an expansion of the hostilities, produce great numbers of casualties and encourage worldwide terrorism — in short, open up a Pandora’s box.

This is not to say that our soldiers and marines would not fight well. The Iraqi army is not a very good army; it is also war-weary. But it demonstrated against Iran the time-honored maxim that the armies of totalitarian nations are capable of absorbing huge losses — recall the 3.7 million German soldiers who died in World War II, and the million Communist soldiers who died in the Vietnam war.

The President should be aware that, while most Americans are laboring very hard to support him, a mood of cynicism is just beneath their veneer of respect. Many are claiming that the buildup is little more than a “Pentagon budget drill,” designed to preclude cutbacks of an Army searching for a mission as bases in NATO begin to disappear.

Others wonder about the predominance of Texans in the Administration, and the dual benefit that higher oil prices will bring to the Southwest: a more robust economy and the concomitant salvation of many S.&L.’s. Others, myself included, worry greatly about a military commitment that has taken on a momentum of its own — or perhaps a hidden strategy.

General Colin Powell is said to have advised the President that the U.S. should take this sort of military action or it would no longer be a superpower. This calls to mind the Suez Crisis of 1956, after Egyptian leader Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. The British were reeling from a budget affected by the military costs of maintaining the Empire. The Suez Canal was vital for transporting oil. And Anthony Eden, the British Prime Minister who had great antipathy toward Nasser for his anti-British rhetoric, wanted him “destroyed.”

Britain went forward, largely to preserve its place at the table of the great powers, drawing in the French and the Israelis. Their attack sputtered in the desert. The U.S., their banker, threatened to withhold support for the British pound if they did not cease their invasion. The Soviets moved into Hungary. And sure enough, when the dust settled, Britain was no longer a great power.

Too much is at risk, and too many questions remain for this buildup to continue without the Administration clarifying its direction. And if offensive action is in the cards, it should be taken only after the President receives a declaration of war from the Congress.