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transcript: to the brink of war
Jan. 15, 1991 was the deadline for the United Nations resolution that allowed the use of force against Saddam Hussein if he did not withdraw from Kuwait. In this FRONTLINE report, which aired that night, correspondent Hodding Carter examined the critical decisions inside the White House, the State Department, and the Pentagon that brought the nation to the brink of war.

ANNOUNCER: Tonight, in Washington and in Baghdad, the deadline for peace in the Persian Gulf is about to expire. It is Jan. 15, 1991, and it seems inevitable that the United States of America is going to war.

President GEORGE BUSH: This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait.

ANNOUNCER: Tonight on FRONTLINE, the inside story of how the Bush administration decided to send U.S. troops to the Gulf.

EVAN THOMAS, Newsweek: The person setting the agenda is Bush and the driving force, the most hawkish voice, is Bush's.

ANNOUNCER: Correspondent Hodding Carter examines the calculations and the miscalculations that brought us to this moment.

ANN McDANIEL, Newsweek: Saddam had not really done anything they expected during this entire crisis.

ANNOUNCER: Tonight, how America was led to the brink of war. This is FRONTLINE, a special report.

HODDING CARTER, Narrator: Good evening. I'm Hodding Carter. On this dark night, there is only more grim news to report. The White House said today Iraq will be living on borrowed time after the deadline for its withdrawal from Kuwait passes at midnight. Iraq said "the furnaces of hell" await America and its allies in the Gulf. At dawn this morning, the president of the United States was seen walking alone on the White House grounds. He is described as reflective and resolute, praying for peace but ready for what lies ahead.

But we did not arrive at the edge of this precipice overnight and in this FRONTLINE special report, we will look back at the last six months, at the events, the decisions and the men who have brought us to this moment. At its core, this is a story about President George Bush, about how he and his closest advisers made the critical choices that have poised over 400,000 U.S. troops for battle. It is a story told by other voices, however. The administration declined to make any of its top officials available for on-camera interviews, so we have relied on the observations and perceptions of some of Washington's best reporters, men and women who talk to those officials on and off the record every day.

Tonight's broadcast was produced by Michael Kirk and Michael Sullivan. It is called "To the Brink of War."

July 17, 1990 -- a Tuesday. It was hot in the capital. The U.S. Senate was passing a textile import bill. At the Pentagon, there was concern about six soldiers who had gone AWOL in West Germany. And at the White House, President George Bush was meeting with British opposition leader Neil Kinnock. On July 17, Secretary of State James Baker was in Paris nailing down one of the administration's most successful foreign policy triumphs: the reunification of Germany.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN, The New York Times: They had gotten almost, maybe a little bit cocky about their abilities to manage the world and international affairs.

NARRATOR: Pulitzer Prize-winner Thomas Friedman reported from the Middle East for 10 years. He is now The New York Times chief diplomatic correspondent in Washington.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: So we had the Nicaragua election. That had gone quite well for the administration. Panama had been a relative success. But if you look at, again, the big game, which was Europe, the Soviet Union, Germany, a lot of this was set in motion by other people abroad. In fact, virtually all of it. We, the United States, were in a very reactive mode and the key for the administration was to react coolly, calmly and sensibly to these events initiated by others and to manage them as well as they could. But they didn't appreciate, I think, at that point, what was lurking on the other side of Aug. 2.

NARRATOR: July 17 in Iraq was the 22nd anniversary of the revolution that brought President Saddam Hussein's party to power. After its eight-year war with Iran, Iraq was now billions in debt and angry with its Arab neighbors about the low price of oil, its chief source of cash.

In his anniversary speech, Hussein threatened Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. "Iraqis," he said, "will not forget the maxim that cutting necks is better than cutting the means of living. Oh, God almighty, be witness that we have warned them."

In the United States, the speech seemed to pass almost unnoticed. When pressed for a response, the State Department spokesman avoided any criticism of Iraq.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: I think they saw him as his earlier administrations saw him, as a thug and a bully in a neighborhood of thugs and bullies, but our thug and our bully, that basically this guy had been -- this is how he was perceived, as a bulwark against these wild, crazy and uncontrolled Iranians and as long as, you know, we can keep him reasonably under control -- and better to have a dialogue with him as opposed to shutting him off -- basically, you know, we can control him.

NARRATOR: In April, Secretary of State Baker and his Middle East advisers did review the U.S. relationship with Iraq, but decided not to change policy.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: It was just not really high on anyone's radar screen. Obviously, it was percolating through the bureaucracy, but no one saw it as a fuse that could blow up the whole world.

NARRATOR: On July 23, a week after his speech in Baghdad, Saddam Hussein moved from threats to action and began massing troops on the Kuwait border. Thirty thousand troops became a hundred thousand a week later.

On July 25, April Glaspie, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, was summoned to meet with Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. According to an Iraqi transcript, Hussein harangued the ambassador about his dispute with Kuwait over the price of oil. Ambassador Glaspie told Hussein, "The president personally wants to deepen the relationship with Iraq." She did express concern about the Iraqi troops on the Kuwaiti border but added, "We don't have much to say about Arab-Arab differences, like your border differences with Kuwait ... All we hope is you solve these matters quickly."

Robin Wright, an author and correspondent for the Los Angeles Times has reported on the Middle East for 18 years.

ROBIN WRIGHT, Los Angeles Times: I don't think we were basically -- we basically understood the depth of the feeling. We didn't understand that Saddam was economically in dire straights and that he would use an historical claim on Kuwaiti land to help his own economic situation as well as his egomaniacal political ambitions, not only in the Gulf but in the entire Arab world.

NARRATOR: During that final week of July, as Hussein reinforced his troops, several Arab leaders privately assured the U.S. that he would not invade. And the State Department continued to make it clear the U.S. would not intervene in the dispute.

REPORTER: Do you happen to know if the United States has any commitment to Kuwait, to defend Kuwait or to assist it against aggression?

MARGARET O. TUTWILER, State Department Spokesman: We do not have any defense treaties with Kuwait and there are no special defense or security commitments to Kuwait.

CONGRESSMAN: If Iraq, for example, charged across the border into Kuwait and for whatever reason, what would be our position with regard to the use of U.S. forces?

JOHN KELLY, Asst. Secretary of State: I cannot get into the realm of "what if" answers.

CONGRESSMAN: In that circumstance, it is correct to say, however, that we do not have a treaty commitment which would obligate us to engage U.S. forces?

Mr. KELLY: That is correct.

CONGRESSMAN: That's correct?

Mr. KELLY: That is correct.

Ms. WRIGHT: The fact that no U.S. official ever actively intervened to say, "Wait a minute. Don't go too far or else you'll face the wrath of not only America but the entire industrialized world," I'm sure helped pave the way for Saddam's decision to take one of the most daring military actions of the 20th century.

NARRATOR: On Aug. 1, the CIA reported to the president that Iraqi troops on the Kuwaiti border were now capable of launching an invasion. In Siberia, Secretary Baker was meeting with the Soviets. He told foreign minister Eduard Schevardnadze of the CIA report and said, "We hope you'll restrain these guys." Schevardnadze replied he was confident that Iraq, a Soviet client, would not invade.

At the Pentagon that afternoon, the Joint Chiefs were briefed on the Iraqi build-up by General Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East.

RICK ATKINSON, Washington Post: At that time, Schwarzkopf gave a rather vivid description in a somewhat low-key manner of what the Iraqi forces were capable of doing.

NARRATOR: Rick Atkinson reports on the Pentagon for The Washington Post.

Mr. ATKINSON: He did not predict that there would be an invasion. There were no alarm bells that went off. The chiefs came out of there and went about their business.

TED KOPPEL, ABC News: [Nightline] U.S. intelligence sources confirm that within the past few hours, more than 100,000 Iraqi troops have massed along that country's border with Kuwait and now there are reports--

NARRATOR: That night, as the nation learned of the invasion on television, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft monitored the situation at the White House and briefed the president.

ANN McDANIEL, Newsweek: The following morning, the president comes into the Oval Office at about 5:40 in the morning, actually stops an aide in the hall and asks, "What's going on," begins to read the newspapers--

NARRATOR: Ann McDaniel is White House correspondent for Newsweek magazine.

Ms. McDANIEL: --and then the day's meetings begin on what they are going to do. Bush makes his first public announcement during that day.

President BUSH: We're not contemplating such action.

HELEN THOMAS, Associated Press: You're not contemplating any intervention or sending troops?

President BUSH: I'm not contemplating such action and I again would not discuss it if I were.

NARRATOR: That morning, the president flew to Aspen, Colorado, for a previously scheduled speech and a meeting with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Ms. McDANIEL: She encourages him to -- quote, unquote -- "draw the line in the sand," to send military forces to Saudi Arabia not only to protect Saudi Arabia but to let Saddam know that if he attacks Saudi Arabia, he'll be attacking the United States, as well, and its allies.

Prime Minister MARGARET THATCHER: We cannot have a situation where one country marches in and takes over another country which is a member of the United Nations.

EVAN THOMAS, Newsweek: I think Mrs. Thatcher appealed to something that's nascent in Bush, but Mrs. Thatcher helped draw it out, which is this World War II vision of standing up to the bully, of drawing the line--

NARRATOR: Evan Thomas is the Washington bureau chief for Newsweek.

Mr. THOMAS: The Hitler analogy, all of this resonates for Mrs. Thatcher. She's a walking female imitation of Winston Churchill and she uses that Churchillian rhetoric and I'm quite sure that in her conversations with Bush she sounded quite Churchillian and it was a dose that he needed. It appealed to something that was already in him, but I think it did stiffen his spine.

Ms. McDANIEL: He gets on the phone constantly. He starts on the phone the first morning, starts calling the Arab leaders, the European leaders, both asks them what they think and tells them that his inclination is not to let this stand, although he doesn't tell them what he intends to do about it. He also gets on the phone to Gorbachev and has Baker talking to Schevardnadze to get some feel for where the Soviets are going to be here.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: I think that from the moment of the invasion they understood that the international coalition would only be as strong as the U.S.-Soviet cooperation, that if the Europeans saw the Soviets going in another direction, they would have come to Washington and said, "Geez, we'd love to be with you but if you and the Soviets can't agree -- you know, I mean, we really, we're going to sit this one out."

NARRATOR: In Moscow, less than 48 hours after the invasion of Kuwait, the United States and the Soviet Union issued an unprecedented joint statement condemning Iraq.

Secretary of State JAMES BAKER: The Soviet Union and the United States, as members of the United Nations Security Council, consider it important that the Council promptly and decisively condemn the brutal and illegal invasion of Kuwait by Iraqi military forces.

NARRATOR: On Friday, Aug. 3, the CIA reported to the president that Iraqi troops and tanks were rolling toward the Saudi Arabian border and that Hussein could be planning an invasion of that strategic U.S. ally, which has 25 percent of the world's oil reserves.

Ms. McDANIEL: At 6:00 o'clock on Friday, he for the first time really sits down with his national security staff and talks with them about what are the options, what can we do here. That's the meeting where Colin Powell tells the president, "We have to let Saddam Hussein know that if he invades Saudi Arabia, he'll be attacking the United States and to do that, we have to send thousands of troops to the desert."

NARRATOR: By most accounts, when the president left for his retreat at Camp David Friday night, he had already decided to put American forces into Saudi Arabia. And the next morning he gathered his key advisers to discuss the military options.

Mr. ATKINSON: There are basically five people who are making the decisions: Cheney, Powell, Scowcroft, Baker and President Bush. It's a very tight circle.

Mr. THOMAS: The person setting the agenda is Bush and the driving force, the most hawkish voice, is Bush's and he's not getting strong disagreements from his advisers. They're basically acquiescing and then figuring out, "OK, how do we accomplish this?"

Mr. ATKINSON: I don't know if there was of any substantial naysaying or anyone who stood up and said, "Wait a minute. What are we getting ourselves into here? What are the long-term ramifications of this? Are we prepared for a bloody, months-long war that's going to cost us thousands of casualties? Is Kuwait worth it?"

NARRATOR: The next day when the president returned to the White House, he would not talk about his military plans but he made his strongest and clearest statement yet on his attitude toward the invasion.

President BUSH: This will not stand. This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait. I've got to go. I have to go to work.

NARRATOR: A day later, President Bush ordered the first of a planned 200,000 American troops to the Gulf. The mission he gave the military was to defend Saudi Arabia and deter further Iraqi aggression. It said nothing about driving Iraq out of Kuwait.

Mr. ATKINSON: But the military guys, like everyone else, watch CNN and television and they saw the President say, "This will not stand." There was a disconnect, as it were, between the stated objective militarily and the president's apparent political agenda, a puzzlement over whether the two eventually were going to marry up.

NARRATOR: On Aug. 8, in one of the president's rare speeches from the Oval Office, he announced his decision to send American troops to the Gulf, emphasizing that the action was defensive and that he was banking on sanctions to force Hussein from Kuwait.

President BUSH: --that the United States will do its part to see that these sanctions are effective and to induce Iraq to withdraw without delay from Kuwait. America does not seek conflict but America will stand by her friends. The mission of our troops is wholly defensive. If history teaches us anything, it is that we must resist aggression or it will destroy our freedoms. Thank you and God bless the United States of America.

NARRATOR: Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait surprised President Bush. It surprised most of the world, in fact. But perhaps equally surprising was the swiftness and certainty with which George Bush responded by ordering the biggest U.S. military deployment since the Vietnam War. This from a president whose watchwords in foreign policy had been "prudence" and "caution."

But perhaps we shouldn't have been surprised at all. Fifty years ago, George Bush was a student at the elite Phillips Academy at Andover, Massachusetts. In June 1940, the month Paris fell to Hitler, Henry Stimson, soon to be FDR's secretary of war, came to talk to the students.

Mr. THOMAS: He's a 16-year-old schoolboy sitting there under the elm trees and this revered figure that stands up at a time when America's essentially isolationist, trying to avoid the war in Europe, and he says, "It's your obligation to stand up to the bully, to face down the bully, to protect small countries when they're rolled over by bad guys like Hitler." That had to have had an impact on Bush and one bit of evidence that it did is a couple of years later, as soon as he graduated, he's off to war.

NARRATOR: In 1942, while most of his classmates were going on to college, 18-year-old George Bush became the youngest pilot in the U.S. Navy. He flew 68 missions in the Pacific until his plane was shot down in 1944. At Yale, after the war, Bush's long-time friend, former Congressman Thomas Ashley, heard first-hand about what happened that day.

THOMAS ASHLEY, former Congressman: The Japanese antiaircraft, I think probably a 20-millimeter, caught him just in the rear of -- just behind the pilot's compartment, killing his crewman and a very dear boyhood friend who was the third person in the plane.

INTERVIEWER: War is not an abstraction for George Bush.

Rep. ASHLEY: No, not at all. He saw it first hand. He saw it real and he, you know, was in a plane that was blown apart and parachuted, was picked up by an American submarine, served on that submarine. So this wasn't movie stuff. This was real stuff.

Mr. THOMAS: Clearly, he was forged by a really searing experience early in his life and it left him with a powerful lesson, that you have to go to war for what you believe in.

NARRATOR: By Aug. 10, eight days after the invasion, when the president left for his vacation in Maine, the major elements of his plan to stop Saddam Hussein were already in place. Hussein was diplomatically isolated. Most of the world now supported the economic sanctions and American troops were flowing to the Gulf.

Through most of August, the president stubbornly clung to his vacation plans, refusing, his aides said, to allow the crisis to make him a prisoner in the White House. But despite the display of public confidence, there was deep anxiety in the president's camp.

Ms. McDANIEL: By the time we were in Kennebunkport with Bush in mid to late August, the president, when he put in place the naval blockade, his advisers said to him, "What happens if we fire across the bow of the first Iraqi tanker and they fire back?" And Bush responded, "We go for it." There was tremendous fear in Kennebunkport. While there were all these stories that nothing was going on up there and that Bush was running around playing a lot of sports, in fact, the staff was petrified, sitting on the edge of their beds in hotel rooms, watching the intelligence come across of these tankers moving closer and closer to the blockade and thinking that war might be just about to start.

NARRATOR: The thousands of hostages taken by Saddam Hussein following the American deployment of troops were also causing anxiety at Kennebunkport. The memories of the hostage fiascos of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan were still fresh.

President BUSH: We're not helpless, no. But as we've seen with hostage situations, and I don't think this is one, sometimes it's very difficult.

Ms. McDANIEL: I think George Bush made a decision very, very early in the process that he could not be Carter-ized, that he was not going to stake the entire policy on the hostages and it would be tragic if those innocent Americans had to die in order to force Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, but that that was simply the cost of doing what was right.

NARRATOR: On Sept. 11, six weeks into the crisis, when President Bush came to Capitol Hill, he was able to give a glowing report on his diplomatic success in building a worldwide coalition. The president had just returned from a quickly-called summit with Mikhail Gorbachev. The Soviet leader had firmly endorsed the American policy toward Iraq. Because of that Soviet support, the U.S., for the first time since the Korean War, was willing and able to use the United Nations to organize world support against aggression. In the first five weeks of the crisis, the Security Council had adopted five tough resolutions against Iraq.

President BUSH: This is not, as Saddam Hussein would have it, the United States against Iraq. It is Iraq against the world.

Senator SAM NUNN (D-GA): But there was very broad support in Congress and I was one of those. And, in fact, I know very few people who were not in favor of protecting Saudi Arabia and warning Saddam Hussein that further attack would lead to conflict with the United States.

President BUSH: Thank you. Good night and God bless the United States of America.

NARRATOR: But the president paid a price for their early successes. Reversing a firm U.S. policy, he proposed that in return for Egypt's political and military support, its $6.7 billion debt be forgiven.

And the administration had also drawn Syrian President Hafez al-Assad into the alliance against Hussein. Before the crisis, Syria had been condemned by the U.S. as a terrorist state for harboring men like Ahmad Jibril, suspected in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: It was hotly debated within the inner circle, about whether Baker should go to Damascus and if he did, to what extent, in general, the United States should be embracing Syria. There was certainly one school within the State Department and the administration in general that said, "We will undermine the legitimacy of our international coalition if we begin embracing people like Hafez Assad," and that "How can we be speaking about a new world order and defending the principal of non-aggression when we have as one of our key partners a man who leveled one of his own towns, Hama, and killed 20,000 of his own people?" So that was one argument. The other school countered that, "Look, it's only one issue here, now, and that's who wins and who loses. And if Hafez Assad can help us win, then we're going to bring him in. We're going to sup with the devil as long as we can win."

INTERVIEWER: The president, of course, came down on that side.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: It can be logically inferred that the president was really, I think, the most enthusiastic proponent of the need to bring in anybody who was going to help us win.

NARRATOR: But Saddam Hussein met the America-led alliance head on and raised the ante, putting 360,000 troops into place by the end of September, and they were digging in deep along the Saudi border. Despite his isolation, it appeared Saddam Hussein was not planning to budge from Kuwait. In October, the Gulf crisis entered its third month, a month in which the administration would rethink its strategy as George Bush's troubles began to build.

Monday, Oct. 8: In Jerusalem, Israeli police opened fire on Palestinian stone-throwers at the Temple Mount in the Old City. Twenty-one Palestinians were killed. Fearing the incident could destroy the coalition of Arab countries arrayed against Saddam Hussein, the U.S. took the unusual step of backing a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israel for the killings.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Suddenly the whole focus on Iraq gets shifted to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and you have a period of weeks there where the focus is lost, and at the same time, a dawning awareness that Saddam Hussein isn't really very impressed with these sanctions. I had seen several senior officials at the time, one of whom, a very senior official, said to me, "You know, it's a lot easier to see how we got into this than how we get out of it."

NARRATOR: From the CIA, the president was hearing good news and bad news about the impact of economic sanctions. The bad news: The Iraqis would be able to feed themselves for a long time. The good news: Virtually all of Iraq's imports and exports had been cut off.

INTERVIEWER: You read the reports. Do the reports tell you the sanctions are working?

Sen. NUNN: I don't think there's any doubt about it. They're having a tremendous effect on the Iraqi economy. We're worried now about our own country going into recession. We're talking about a diminishing gross national product, somewhere 3 to 6 percent. That's a serious economic matter. If we get up to a 20 percent reduction in our gross national product, people would be talking the word "depression." The Iraqis since August have already had about a 50 to 60 percent reduction in their gross national product. About half of all the goods and services are gone.

Ms. McDANIEL: The sanctions were actually working much better than the White House ever imagined they would work, in the sense that very little was getting into Kuwait. They had managed to seal the borders fairly effectively. But Saddam Hussein was not responding as they expected he would respond to the sanctions, nor were the Iraqi people, so though they were effective, they'd begun to realize that sanctions alone would not convince Saddam Hussein to leave Kuwait.

PETER JENNINGS, ABC News: President Bush continues to take a political beating. Mr. Bush's approval rating has dropped 19 points in the last month--

NARRATOR: By the middle of October, the ABC/Washington Post poll showed that support for the president's policy in the Gulf was dipping to a new low, though still a majority.

DEMONSTRATORS: [chanting] No blood for oil! No blood for oil! No blood for oil!

NARRATOR: The next day, opponents of his Gulf policy confronted the president at a campaign rally in Iowa and that weekend saw the first organized nationwide anti-war marches of the Gulf crisis.

INTERVIEWER: Do you think Saddam Hussein looks at us and says, "Paper tiger"?

Ms. WRIGHT: I think Saddam Hussein looks at the United States and its recent military record -- Vietnam, Beirut -- and says, "This is a country that is not prepared to take the course, that public pressure, anti-war fervor will grow and will eventually force the U.S. to back down.

Ms. McDANIEL: I think the administration was beginning to feel -- at that point they were getting messages back from third parties that Saddam Hussein just did not treat this seriously. He was willing to wait the economic sanctions out. He believed he could split the coalition. He believed the American public would never support any military conflict.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: And George Bush's problem -- and I think they recognized that -- was that in a game of chicken with Saddam Hussein, Bush had no credibility, that here you had a guy, you know, prep school, Andover, Yale, Skull and Bones, you know, U.N., trying to convince Al Capone that he was tougher than he was and it wasn't working. It certainly wasn't working through sanctions.

Mr. ATKINSON: One of the things we don't know is what was going on in George Bush's head in the middle of October. But what we do know is that beginning in October, there was serious thought given to, "What would you do if the president orders us to go on the offensive?"

NARRATOR: On Oct. 23, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Colin Powell, met in Saudi Arabia with the head of American forces, General Schwarzkopf.

Mr. ATKINSON: One of the things that they talked about specifically is, "What would you need, Norm, for a decisive force" -- "decisive force" is an important phrase -- "if you were ordered to expel forcibly Iraq from Kuwait? At the same time, the president apparently came to a decision around the 24th of October that he wanted to provide the offensive capability.

NARRATOR: Over the weekend, Powell and the Joint Chiefs put together their plan for an offensive force, a plan that would more than double the U.S. troops to 430,000. On Tuesday, Oct. 30, President Bush met with the Congressional leadership. He did not mention he was planning a dramatic build-up of forces. The same day, Powell and Defense Secretary Cheney briefed the president on the Pentagon plan.

Mr. ATKINSON: The president apparently took it all in and on the 31st, Halloween, Wednesday, decided at that time that, yes indeed, he was going to add phase two and that the decision would be held secret 'til after the election, which it was. It stayed secret for eight days.

NARRATOR: At the same time, President Bush sent Secretary of State Baker on a round of talks with U.S. supporters to lobby for a new Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force to drive Hussein from Kuwait. On Nov. 8, Baker met with Schevardnadze and Mikhail Gorbachev at the Soviet president's dacha outside Moscow.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: These three men all, essentially, talked themselves into the idea that at this time, unless Saddam Hussein is faced with two choices and two choices only -- stay in Kuwait and die, leave and live -- he's really not going to be moved. But one of the points that Gorbachev made to Baker was that if we're going to go for this resolution, you've got to understand, President Bush has to understand, that "If you authorize the use of force by the U.N., then you've got to be ready to use that force if Saddam doesn't actually leave by Jan. 15 or by whatever the deadline is." And he looked Baker in the eye and said, "Are you really ready to use that force if this guy calls your bluff?"

INTERVIEWER: And Baker said?

Mr. FRIEDMAN: He said, "Yes."

INTERVIEWER: "Yes, we're ready to use it"?

Mr. FRIEDMAN: "We understand," he said.

NARRATOR: Later that same day, the president announced his decision to more than double the U.S. forces. Operation Desert Shield became Operation Desert Sword.

President BUSH: I have today directed the secretary of defense to increase the size of U.S. forces committed to Desert Shield to insure that the coalition has an adequate offensive military option should that be necessary to achieve our common goals.

NARRATOR: Changing Operation Desert Shield to Desert Sword was a momentous decision, but it did not represent a fundamental change in U.S. objectives. From the beginning, the president had said Saddam Hussein must leave Kuwait. But he had now changed his mind about what it would take to force him out. Despite his enormous success in convincing the world to stand against Iraq, President Bush believed he had failed to convince the one man who counted: Saddam Hussein.

In secret, the president had decided that only the threat of all-out war would convince Hussein to withdraw and he was now gambling that by sending more troops, by making his threat credible, he would never have to deliver on it.

President LYNDON JOHNSON: [July 28, 1966] I have asked the commanding general, General Westmoreland, what more he needs to meet this mounting aggression. He has told me and we will meet his needs.

NARRATOR: If there is one single event which haunts President Bush and the men around him, it is Vietnam.

Mr. THOMAS: The whole desire to do this quickly, all-out, to not be slowly sucked into something incrementally, that is the central lesson of Vietnam and they say that they've learned it. They all refer to Vietnam.

Mr. ATKINSON: Bush very specifically said to the Chiefs, "Don't give me another Vietnam." He said publicly, "This will not be another Vietnam."

Powell came of the generation of young officers who were in Vietnam and to a man, I would say, they share the belief that -- the conventional wisdom, as it were -- that the gradualism of Vietnam was a bad thing, that it cost us many lives.

To avoid the quagmire, the best thing to do is to hit them with everything you've got right away. That's clearly the strategy. This doctrine of overwhelming force that has been driving phase two of the deployment.

Ms. McDANIEL: They also are concerned because the American public remembers Vietnam. It is the war in many Americans minds and so the White House feels it has to differentiate the situation, it has to convince the people in order to win support that this will not be another Vietnam.

1st CONGRESSMAN: Ten, fifteen, twenty thousand kids coming back to this country in body bags to--

2nd CONGRESSMAN: I think the president has a real obligation, here, to explain why liberating Kuwait is in our vital interest, that is--

NARRATOR: On Capitol Hill, where support for the president's policy had been strong through the first three months of the Gulf crisis, the surprise announcement that he was doubling the U.S. troops drew immediate reaction.

3rd CONGRESSMAN: If George Bush wants his presidency to die in the Arabian desert, he can get his wish.

Sen. EDWARD KENNEDY (D-MA): The president effectively is thumbing his nose at Congress. He's really--

Mr. THOMAS: I think that in many ways, Bush is contemptuous of Congress and didn't take them seriously enough, that he was politically inattentive to Congress. And the greatest proof of that is that he didn't tell Sam Nunn, who is the chairman of the Armed Services Committee and the most powerful voice on these matters in Congress, that he was doubling our troop strength until 30 minutes before he announced it to the public. That was a mistake.

Sen. NUNN: I did not know it until about an hour before and of course the first thing I said was, "What does this do to our capability of letting the embargo have time to work?" So that had a signal, a very strong signal, to me that the Bush strategy number one -- that is, the embargo being the main vehicle to get Iraq out of Kuwait, with the military forces being there to deter, defend and enforce the embargo -- that mission had fundamentally changed. The sanction policy was not going to be given time to work.

COKIE ROBERTS, National Public Radio, ABC News: When Sam Nunn raises questions about military preparedness or Sam Nunn says that he thinks that sanctions should work because--

NARRATOR: Cokie Roberts reports on Congress for ABC and National Public Radio.

Ms. ROBERTS: --members of Congress respond differently than if someone who is traditionally perceived as a liberal anti-militarist raises the same questions. So by him raising these questions, it's raised them in a lot of people's minds.

NARRATOR: On Nov. 14, with talk in the air about a special session to debate the crisis, the president decided to meet Congressional criticism head-on by inviting the leadership to the White House.

Ms. McDANIEL: There are some people at the table -- Dick Gephardt suggests that we ought to let the economic sanctions go for two years. There's a lot of chuckling at the table as they realize that would be November 1992. So the president pulls out of his pocket a copy of the Constitution and there is some debate back and forth about the powers of the presidency and the powers of the legislative branch. And Bush basically listens to it and then says, "I've consulted you up until now. I will continue to consult you." Then Senator Boren says, "Well, I don't think there's any need for a special session. We've expressed our views." The others go, "Hear, hear." There's some clapping around the table and they fold up and go home.

Ms. ROBERTS: In the Congress, what you mainly have is people who want it both ways, people who want to be able to say, "We are for the president. We support his policy. We're against aggression. We're tough." But on the other hand if everything goes bad, to be able to say, "We told him so. We warned him. We have no fingerprints."

Mr. FRIEDMAN: As a result of that meeting, I think Baker, Bush and Scowcroft basically decided that they had to have a U.N. resolution authorizing force as much for their international coalition as for their domestic one. Their argument was, "Geez, if we can get the Ethiopians and the, you know, the Finns to sign on to this, surely we can get Tom Foley and Bob Michel to sign on to it." So that was when the decision was really made to go for it.

NARRATOR: By late November, the administration was making its final moves at the U.N., lining up votes for a Security Council resolution authorizing the use of military force against Iraq.

CONGRESSMAN: War is not neat. It's not tidy. And once you resort to it, it's uncertain and it's a mess.

NARRATOR: At the same time, Senator Nunn opened new hearings on the Gulf, featuring a parade of witnesses critical of the president's decision to push the stand-off with Iraq to a swift conclusion. There were some surprises, like Colin Powell's predecessor, Admiral William Crowe.

Admiral WILLIAM CROWE: It would be a sad commentary if Saddam Hussein, a two-bit tyrant who sits on 17 million people and possesses a gross national product of $40 billion, proved to be more patient than the United States.

NARRATOR: But on Nov. 29, with Secretary of State Baker personally doing the last minute lobbying, the United Nations Security Council authorized the use of force if Iraq did not leave Kuwait by Jan. 15.

Secretary BAKER: Simply put, my friends, it is a choice between right and wrong -- between right and wrong.

NARRATOR: The administration had what it wanted. There had been a line in the sand and now there was a firm ultimatum, a deadline in the sand, as well. It had been nearly 30 years since a president had so deliberately taken the nation to the brink of war. In October of 1962, following the discovery of long-range Soviet missiles in Cuba, President John F. Kennedy called together a select group of his advisers who would meet in secret to decide how to answer the threat. Theodore Sorenson was one of them.

THEODORE SORENSON, JFK Special Counsel: There was diversity of opinion. There was diversity of background. There was debate within our group and as a result of that debate and long discussion, opinions changed and slowly a position was hammered out, which the president stated in a television address to the nation, quite different from what his position might initially have been.

President JOHN F. KENNEDY: Good evening, my fellow citizens. This government, as promised, has maintained the closest surveillance of the Soviet military build-up on the island of Cuba.

NARRATOR: A naval blockade was established and the U.S. delivered an implied ultimatum to the Soviets, threatening force if the missiles remained. Then as now, the president had to convince one man.

Mr. SORENSON: Even at the hottest moments of the Cuban missile crisis, we were engaged in a correspondence, sometimes public and sometimes private, with Krushchev. And that turned out to be key to the peaceful resolution of the crisis in the end.

NARRATOR: Formal letters were exchanged between the two leaders and diplomatic back channels were used, as well. In a critical private conversation, the president's brother met with the Soviet ambassador and told him that if Krushchev would back down, then later the U.S. would withdraw its obsolete missiles from Turkey. In the end, Krushchev did remove the missiles from Cuba and today Sorenson says the key to that success was the kind of group the president had assembled to advise him.

Mr. SORENSON: I would say it's important for the president to seek a diversity of advice and not simply to have cheerleaders who are unanimous in their views.

INTERVIEWER: Suppose the circle had been a lot smaller. Do you think the outcome would have been different?

Mr. SORENSON: You know, Kennedy had two crises in Cuba. The first was called the Bay of Pigs and that was a plan which was held very tightly within a very small group. It was not subjected to any serious debate or diversity of opinion. And Kennedy got a black eye and the country got a black eye because it turned out to be a fiasco. And he was determined the second time around to have a different procedure, to consult outsiders as well as insiders, career experts as well as political appointees, people of different views and judgments. And the result was much better.

NARRATOR: On Nov. 30, the day after the U.N. resolution authorizing force, President Bush invited the Iraqi foreign minister to Washington and offered to send Secretary Baker to Baghdad.

President BUSH: I will suggest to Iraq's president that he receive the secretary of state at a mutually convenient time between Dec. 15th and Jan. 15th of next year.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: The prime motivation of sending Baker on this mission was for domestic political reasons. The president wanted to be able to stand up and say, "I've gone the extra mile to avert a war." But I don't think anyone really seriously believes that somehow this meeting is going to do it.

NARRATOR: The Iraqis immediately accepted Bush's offer, subject to an agreement on the dates, and a few days later Hussein announced he was releasing all foreign hostages immediately.

Ms. McDANIEL: On the day the hostages were released, there was a real sense among some of his top staff that that was a signal that Saddam knew that George Bush was serious and within 24, 36 hours they began to think, "Well, letting the hostages go was a pretty smart public relations move on Saddam Hussein's part" and backed off some of that joy.

NARRATOR: Despite the hopes raised by the hostage release, Iraq and the U.S. were at odds over a date for Baker's visit. Hussein insisted on Jan. 12. The White House said that was too close to the deadline.

President BUSH: And it simply is not credible that he cannot over a two week period make a couple of hours available for the secretary of state on an issue of this importance. Unless, of course, he is seeking to circumvent the United Nations deadline.

Ms. McDANIEL: Mid to late December, when Saddam refused to meet with Jim Baker, refused to agree to a date over that 15-day period the White House offered, it suddenly dawned on George Bush and his top advisers that Saddam had not really done anything they expected during this entire crisis. There was no signal that Saddam Hussein was going to get out of Kuwait. They have suddenly become very discouraged.

NARRATOR: By Christmas, President Bush had achieved enormous success in convincing most of the world that resolving the Gulf crisis would define a new world order. But now in the end game, what mattered most was his ability to convince Saddam Hussein and that would depend in part on how well he understood his adversary.

Ms. McDANIEL: George Bush trusts very few people. He's comfortable with people he knows, he relies upon. I do think he's been listening to other heads of state, but I don't think he has reached out very much to the expert community.

NARRATOR: One expert the president did speak with is Fouad Ajami, professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Ajami believes the president gets most of his sense of Saddam Hussein from talking with Arab leaders like Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.

FOUAD AJAMI, Johns Hopkins University: Mubarak had gone to Baghdad at the height of the Iran-Iraq war, when the war was going badly for Saddam. And instead of seeing the self-confident Saddam, blustering Saddam, bravado Saddam, he saw a broken man. There is also a kind of a portrait of Saddam being offered to the Americans by the Egyptians that says, "Look, we know this man. We did business with him. We saw him on the verge of psychological breakdown during the Iran-Iraq war. He is not really the courageous man he says he is. He's a frightened man."

NARRATOR: In late December, in a Time magazine interview, the president said about Hussein, "My gut says he will get out of there."

Ms. McDANIEL: Since the new year, for the first time, the very top people in the administration have begun musing about how they may have miscalculated, how they may have misread Saddam, that they may have applied Western values and a Western measurement to Saddam Hussein, who really by all indications does not think like the president of the United States.

Something happened to the president personally, I think, during December and particularly the Christmas holidays. I think he had some quiet time, 12 days at Camp David. George Bush is not known for going anyplace and sitting still for 12 days. His staff was stunned that he could possibly go to the mountains and spend that much time. I think he came to grips himself with the fact that nothing had worked so far, that Saddam Hussein had not responded in any way. And on Jan. 1, he came back and told his staff he had worked through this issue. In his mind, it was black and white. It was good and evil. He didn't want to go to war but if he had to go to war, he was prepared to do it.

NARRATOR: As a new Congress convened, President Bush made a final offer for a meeting between Secretary Baker and Iraqi Foreign Minister Aziz. The president said he was willing to make one last attempt to go the extra mile for peace. In Geneva, the meetings lasted more than six hours, exceeding expectations and raising the hopes of many who did not know what was happening in the room.

Ms. McDANIEL: After the third session, which is the final session, the secretary of state then calls the president again and basically gives him a very grim read-out, tells him that Tariq Aziz wouldn't even accept the letter.

Secretary BAKER: Regrettably, ladies and gentlemen, I heard nothing today that -- in over six hours, I heard nothing that suggested to me any Iraqi flexibility whatsoever on complying with the United Nations Security Council resolutions.

REPORTER: Would Iraq agree to leave Kuwait if he promised an international conference on the question of Palestine?

TARIQ AZIZ, Iraqi Foreign Minister: I did not put it that way.

President BUSH: Here we were, listening to a 45-minute press conference after the secretary of state of the United States had a six- hour -- six hours worth of meetings over there and there was not one single sentence that has to relate to their willingness to get out of Kuwait and so--

Mr. THOMAS: I thought in his press conference, he seemed edgy, nervous, impatient. He's clearly made his peace with going to war and I don't think he wants to dither around much longer. I think he's ready to go and he's fearful of a long, protracted hand-wringing process both at home and abroad.

NARRATOR: The day after the breakdown of talks in Geneva, the United States Congress began its long-avoided debate on whether or not to authorize the president to use military force against Iraq after Jan. 15.

Sen. PAUL WELLSTONE (D-MN): But this is the truth. I could not accept the loss of life of any of our children in the Persian Gulf right now, and that tells me that in my gut I do not believe that it's time to go to war!

Sen. STROM THURMOND (R-SC): I implore this body to demonstrate to the world, and especially Saddam Hussein, that we are behind our president and the United Nations.

INTERVIEWER: Why now is Congress putting its fingerprints on this?

Ms. ROBERTS: Because they're embarrassed not to. I think that there was a lot of pressure not to have a vote, not only from members of the Congress but from the White House. But finally the voices raised saying, "If you want to have a Congressional prerogative that says, 'We have the power to declare war' and you keep silent with a deadline in front of you, don't ever bring it up again."

Sen. NUNN: I see no compelling reason to rush to military action. Of course, there are no guarantees on economic sanctions. There are also no guarantees on war. Where are the guarantees on war?

Sen. JOHN DANFORTH (R-MO): It is unthinkable that our government would now lose its will. Having urged the world to approve combined action, it is not an option for the Congress of the United States to disapprove what we for months have asked others to support.

Sen. GEORGE MITCHELL (D-ME): And the truly haunting question which no one will ever be able to answer will be: Did they die unnecessarily? For if we go to war now, no one will ever know if sanctions would have worked if given a full and fair chance.

NARRATOR: After three days of debate, the House and the Senate both adopted a resolution giving the president the authority to make war on Iraq.

President BUSH: What the Congress did today was indeed historic. And I will conclude here by once again thanking them, thanking them for coming to grips with the question, obviously thanking them for backing the position that is so strongly held by so many countries around the world. Thank you all very much.

NARRATOR: And so at the end of the game, the leader of the last superpower seemed to be holding all the cards. He had convinced the world, a majority of the American people and finally the Congress of the rightness of his course. From what we know tonight, it has been a course charted almost entirely by the instincts of George Bush, who drew his own lessons from World War II about the price of appeasement and from Vietnam about the cost of gradualism. In a decision taken in secret and ratified by a close-knit group of like-minded advisers, the president had calculated that by deploying overwhelming military power, he could force Saddam Hussein to back down without firing a shot. And now, in the last hours before the deadline, the difference between war and peace is riding on whether the president of the United States was right or wrong.

For FRONTLINE, I'm Hodding Carter.

 

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