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Bush tells Gulf vets why Hussein left in Baghdad

by S. H. Kelly

Former President George Bush took the opportunity at the "8th Annual Reunion of Our Victory in the Desert" Feb. 28 to explain his reason for stopping Operation Desert Storm after 100 hours.

The mission was to eject Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, and that mission was accomplished, Bush told more than 200 Desert Storm veterans gathered for dinner Sunday night at Fort Myer, Va. Most of the veterans there had fought with VII Corps in the Gulf War which ended Feb. 27, 1991.

Bush said he didn't get into the business of second-guessing his military commanders when they told him the mission was complete.

Bush said he can understand those who say, "Why didn't you finish the job?" It burns me up, because we tried to finish the job -- peacefully," he explained, adding that he tried to do it with sanctions and by assuring Hussein that the coalition forces didn't want one single soldier sent in harms way.

It was only after all peaceful means failed, he said, "that we had to fight. We ended the war in, you ended it, what was it, a hundred hours."

"I'll never forget," he said, when Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin Powell "came over and said it was time to end the fighting -- mission accomplished. I said, 'Do [Gen. Norman] Schwarzkopf and the commanders agree.'"

Bush said that within 30 seconds Powell had Schwarzkopf on the phone assuring him that the mission had been accomplished.

"I don't believe in mission creep," he continued. "Had we gone into Baghdad -- we could have done it, you guys could have done it, you could have been there in 48 hours -- and then what?

"Which sergeant, which private, whose life would be at stake in perhaps a fruitless hunt in an urban guerilla war to find the most-secure dictator in the world?

"Whose life would be on my hands as the commander-in-chief because I, unilaterally, went beyond the international law, went beyond the stated mission, and said we're going to show our macho?" he asked. "We're going into Baghdad. We're going to be an occupying power -- America in an Arab land -- with no allies at our side. It would have been disastrous."

Bush said, "We don't gain the size of our victory by how many innocent kids running away -- even though they're bad guys -- that we can slaughter. ... We're American soldiers; we don't do business that way."

"Am I happy that S.O.B. is still there?" Bush asked, then answered, "No."

Bush said his memory of Vietnam influenced his thinking during the Gulf War. He recalled that politicians during the Vietnam War kept changing the conditions under which U.S. forces fought -- bombing halts and cease-fires.

He said his view was different, and it was a view that was backed up by the secretary of defense and military leaders.

"Let the politicians do their diplomacy -- and we worked hard to bring about a peaceful solution. We didn't want any man or woman put into harm's way," Bush said.

"We worked hard to form an international coalition," he explained, calling it historic in originality, diversity.

"But once the military mission had been defined and the fighting begun, I thought we ought to get the hell out of the way and let the military fight the war and win, and that's exactly what you did. And God bless you for doing it," he said, gesturing to retired Gen. Frederick M. Franks Jr., who commanded VII Corps during Desert Storm.

Bush said the United States learned in World War II -- and learned it again before Operation Desert Storm -- that you can't appease an aggressor. "And had we gone for Saddam's ploys, had we capitulated to those advocating a more-passive course, had we relied totally on sanctions ... then we would have sent a signal of weakness to other would-be aggressors around the world," he said.

"But we didn't do that," he continued. "We were clear in our purpose from the start. And just for the record, we gave peace a chance. Between August and the time you had to go into battle, we gave it a chance.

"Once it was clear that our diplomacy had failed, that U.N. resolutions would not work, that Saddam had no interest in peace ... we did what we had to do -- no more, no less."

"We said this aggression would not stand," he said, adding that the soldiers kept his word.

"Three times when I was president, I was called upon to make a decision that only the president can make, and it's the toughest decision any president can make ... when you're going to send somebody else's kid into harm's way."

He said that, perhaps because of his own service in the military, the decision was never easy. He said it should never be easy for any commander-in-chief.

"The decision to go to war is one that defines a nation to the world, and perhaps more importantly, to itself."

He said that he knows he called on "all branches of our military to do some extraordinary things, but not once was I let down or was the country let down."

At the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, he said, he was apprehensive that there was a lot that could go wrong with the situation in Central and Eastern Europe rapidly became more fluid. That, fortunately, did not happen, he said, and the confrontation -- the Cold War -- ended without a shot being fired.

Returning to the issue of Hussein's longevity, Bush jokingly called it "a sore spot with me" to be "out of work while Saddam Hussein still has a job. It's not fair," he asserted.

Still however, "he is no threat to invade another sovereign nation, and pillage its culture, and murder its citizens. He can brutalize his own people, and torment and torture them, but he can no longer pose a threat to his neighbors. And that's just one of the benefits" of Desert Storm.

"As a result of that historic victory, we also saw American credibility go up. You all did this," he said, gesturing to the assemblage.

Bush recalled Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev calling him the second day of the bombings requesting a bombing halt. "'We have an arrangement with Saddam Hussein that he will leave the sands of Kuwait,' he said.

"We didn't need to consult," Bush explained. "I watched with horror bombing pauses of Vietnam when everybody kind of reinforced their positions, and our soldiers were the losers," Bush said.

"I said we don't need a bombing pause. He knows how he got in there -- all he's got to do is put his weapons down and walk out. Of course he wasn't prepared to do that at all," Bush said.

"In only a few times in America," Bush said, "does history present us the direct opportunity to shape the world we live in. And we can be proud that when our moment came eight years ago, we were ready.

"Looking forward, we can only hope that future generations will stand ready to take up the flag to preserve the legacy of leadership" left by the VII Corps and other units participating in the Gulf War. "We hope that generations to come will be ever mindful of President Eisenhower's observation that a soldier's path isn't so heavy a burden as a prisoner's chains," he concluded.

Sgt. 1st Class William F. Jackson Jr. and Master Sgt. Clistus B. Moon, both traveling to the reunion from Fort Stewart, Ga., shared the excitement of being singled out. Jackson said it was his first reunion. "I'm considering retirement right now, but I will make others if I get the chance."

It was also Moon's first Desert Storm reunion. He said he found out about it through the chaplains' office at Fort Stewart. "I'd like to see them publicize [the reunions] better," he said.

Jackson served with the 1st Engineer Battalion during Desert Storm. "We were responsible for breaching the Iraqi minefields for the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment," Jackson said. And Moon was in the 2nd ACR.

Before the speech, Bush had spent about 45 minutes socializing and taking pictures with dinner guests. After dinner, he helped present $2,000 scholarships to Jolanda R. Knowlin and Judith P. McCall-Moye, family members of VII Corps Desert Storm veterans.

The dinner was the last of three events honoring Desert Storm veterans in the National Capital Region Sunday. The first was a noon tribute at Arlington National Cemetery to those who died in the Gulf War. Schwarzkopf was the guest speaker. The other was a memorial service at Fort Myer's Memorial Chapel at which Franks was guest speaker.

(Editor's note: Kelly is assistant editor of the Military District of Washington's Pentagram.)