05-18-2016 | Simple Vanity

Desert Storm was a replay of Operation Praying Mantis, albeit on a far grander canvas. By nightfall on February 27th, American commanders estimated that given one more day the demolition of the Iraqi army would be complete. Before that day could arrive, however, Desert Storm ended.

In Washington, where destroying the Imperial Guard had never figured as a particular imperative, priorities were shifting. Concern for appearances was displacing serious strategic analysis. To some observers, it looked like the Americans were piling on a hapless and defeated foe. The optics were changing in ways that threatened to tarnish perceptions. When to call time was emerging as the question of the moment.

Powell was quick to sense - and embrace - the new mood. "The doves are starting to complain about all the damage you're doing," the closeted four-star dove told Schwarzkopf on a call to Riyadh. "The reports make it look like a wanton killing." What would Schwarzkopf think about calling a halt on the 28th? After briefly hesitating, the CENTCOM commander gave way. The idea of winning a Five-Day War, outdoing the vaunted Israelis by one day, caught his fancy. (The several weeks of bombing that had preceeded the ground attack did not figure in his arithmetic.)

Soon thereafter, Powell updated President Bush and his senior aides in the Oval Office. "Mr. President, it's going much better than expected. The Iraqi army is broken. All they're trying to do is get out," he reported. "By sometime tomorrow the job will be done." Norm concurred in this assessment, Powell added.

"If that's the case," the commander in chief asked, "why not end it today?" Once again, Bush was far in front of his subordinates. Ducking into the president's study, Powell quickly called Riyadh. What if the president terminated hostilities later that very day? "I don't have any problem," Schwarzkopf replied. "Our objective was to drive 'em out and we've done that." Desert Storm would end at midnight Washington time, the president decided, a nice, tidy one hundred hours after the ground offensive had begun.

With the clock ticking down, Schwarzkopf, channeling MacArthur, seized the moment to lay down his own narrative of events that unfolded. In a globally televised presentation subsequently known as "The Mother of All Briefings" - Saddam had vowed to defeat the Americans in "The Mother of All Battles" - the CENTCOM commander declared victory. It was a masterful performance, alternately pugnacious, sarcastic, humane, and self-depreciating. His overarching theme emphasized the historic, indeed unprecedented, nature of the US-led coalition's military achievement. In a "classic tank battle," it had all but obliterated the Iraqi army. Any remnants that survived were trapped. "The gates are closed." It was time to stop. "We've accomplished our mission." The problem was that he had not. And the gates were not closed.

Later the same night, Bush himself appeared on television. Absent Schwarzkopf's bombast, he affirmed Schwarzkopf's verdict. "Kuwait is liberated," the president announced. "Iraq's army is defeated. Our military objectives are met." It was time to move on: "the war is now behind us." The first of Bush's claims was indubitably correct, the second partially so. Unfortunately, the last two assertions missed by a wide margin, with considerable implications for the future.

In fact, substantial elements of the Republican Guard remained intact. Nor were they hemmed in. The unilaterally declared ceasefire offered the prospect of escaping back to Baghdad; they wasted little time in doing just that.

Compounding the error, Schwarzkopf bungled the ceasefire's implementation. In a position to impose, he instead chose to concede, with regrettable consequences. The fault was not his alone. Strangely enough, the suspension of operations caught American political and military leaders alike by surprise. No one in a position of authority had given much thought to what would happen next. Washington had provided CENTCOM with no instructions regarding the terms of any agreement to terminate hostilities. So Schwarzkopf drafted his own...


...when that meeting convened on March 3 at Safwan, an Iraqi airfield not far from the Kuwaiti border, satisfying the presumed demands of History competed with more substantial considerations. The atmosphere was rife with grandstanding. Earmarking furnishings for the Smithsonian Institution "in case they ever wanted to re-create the Safwan negotiation scene" emerged as a priority.

To demonstrate that he harbored no grudges against his adversaries, Schwarzkopf magnanimously agreed to grant an Iraqi request to resume use of their military helicopters. "Given that the Iraqis had agreed to all our requests," he later explained, "I didn't feel it was unreasonable to grant one of theirs." So much for the prerogative of dictating terms. The event adjourned with comradely saltues and handshakes all around.

- Andrew Bacevich, America's War for the Greater Middle East p. 126-128.

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