The Gulf War had ended. Kuwait, viciously occupied by Iraq in August 1990, had been freed by a massive US-led coalition. Saddam Hussein's forces had been routed, and the despicable tyrant had suffered a crushing defeat. Though the United States had gone to war to liberate the people of Kuwait, President Bush (the elder) openly championed the liberation of Iraq's people too. Four weeks into the war, he publicly urged Iraqis to overthrow Saddam.
"There's another way for the bloodshed to stop," he said in Washington on Feb. 15, 1991. "That is for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein the dictator to step aside, and to comply with the United Nations resolutions and then rejoin the family of peace-loving nations."
On March 1, Bush repeated his call for a rebellion. "I've always said . . . that the Iraqi people should put him aside and that would facilitate the resolution of all these problems."
The Iraqis, listening to Bush' on Voice of America, the BBC, and the CIA-sponsored Voice of Free Iraq, got the message loud and clear. The long-suffering Shi'ites in the south and Kurds in the north responded to the President. Encouraged by the assurance that America was with them, and knowing that 400,000 coalition troops were nearby, they seized the moment to break free of Saddam's tyranny.
An uprising began in the south. On March 3, a tank gunner in Basra was cheered when he fired a shell into the giant portrait of Saddam hanging in the city's main square. Within days, the Shi'ite heartland was in open revolt; in Karbala, Najaf and other cities, officials of Saddam's Ba'ath Party were overpowered and either killed or forced to flee. Soon the Kurds rose up as well, liberating Sulaimaniyah and other cities in the north, and uncovering horrific evidence of the Ba'ath regime's crimes against the Kurdish people.
The rebels swiftly took 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces. Freedom, and Saddam's end, were within reach.
But help from America never came. Bush had described Saddam as "Hitler revisited" and repeatedly threatened him with Nuremberg-style war crimes trials. But at the decisive moment, Bush denied the Iraqi people the limited American assistance they needed to topple one of the planet's most savage totalitarians. Crucially, he refused to override General Norman Schwarzkopf's decision to exclude helicopters (even armed helicopters) from the coalition order grounding Iraq's military aircraft. And so, with US troops looking on, Saddam's forces proceeded to crush the uprising with nightmarish barbarity.
One of the regime's tactics was to warn residents to leave a city before the army attacked, specifying the evacuation routes that were safe. Then, once those routes were thronged with miles-long columns of civilians desperate to escape the fighting, the helicopter gunships would open fire, strafing the refugees with machine guns.
The violence Saddam’s forces committed were nothing short of horrific. Among innumerable other atrocities, "children who would not give their parents' names to soldiers were doused with gasoline and set on fire."
In the weeks that followed, Saddam's forces slaughtered tens of thousands of Iraqis, filling hundreds of mass graves in the process. Bush refused to intervene, insisting that it had never been his goal "to get Saddam Hussein out of there by force." Saddam would rule Iraq for 12 hellish years more. It would take us getting involved in another war to eventually depose him. That war was paid for in blood and treasure, including the lives of more than 4,400 Americans.
Late last week, with Libyan ruler Moammar Khadafy's troops surging toward Benghazi and preparing to annihilate the rebels defending it. For weeks, President Obama appeared to hesitate over a response to the anti-Khadafy uprising, but his rhetoric declaring that the dictator "must leave" and promising Libya's people that America "will stand with them in the face of unwarranted violence" was loud. Unfortunately, it was not matched by action.
At the 11th hour America backed a UN resolution authorizing "all necessary force" to stop Khadafy's rampage. I can not help but wonder if it dawned on Obama that he was on the verge of repeating Bush the Elder's disastrous blunder? On Friday, he warned firmly that all attacks on Libyan civilians "must stop," and that a pullback of Khadafy's troops "will be enforced through military action." Now, US missiles have begun striking Libyan air-defense systems around Tripoli and the western cities of Misurata and Surt. The president's resolve comes late -- dangerously late. But if he has realized at last that there is no time to hesitate, hopefully it is not too late to save the Libyan resistance and avoid a much longer, far more costly war.
Live Long and Prosper....