Pulling Punches: 25th Anniversary

Bush announced, “Kuwait is liberated. Iraq’s army is defeated,” before explaining that at midnight, coalition forces would “suspend offensive combat operations.” A ceasefire would take effect, if Saddam Hussein did not violate it.


Read the previous report in the series: Road to Independence: 25th Anniversary

On the evening of Feb. 27, 1991, President George H.W. Bush addressed the American people. The US-led coalition had been fighting Iraq for six weeks: 38 days of an aerial bombing campaign and four days of a ground war. That night, Bush announced, “Kuwait is liberated. Iraq’s army is defeated,” before explaining that at midnight, coalition forces would “suspend offensive combat operations.” A ceasefire would take effect, if Saddam Hussein did not violate it.

But problems soon emerged. Eight hours before Bush spoke, the coalition commander, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, had given “the Mother of All Briefings.” Schwarzkopf explained the coalition’s strategy (in too much detail, some thought.) His briefing included the claim, “The gate is closed,” meaning that coalition troops had cut off the Iraqi forces fleeing Kuwait. They were trapped south of the Euphrates River, and could, at best, walk home. Unfortunately, Schwarzkopf misspoke.

US planning had gone awry. It was based on the assumption that the Iraqi army would stand and fight. A Marine assault from the south on Iraqi-occupied Kuwait was supposed to fix the Iraqis in place, while a massive army flanking maneuver across the western desert was to entrap the Iraqi forces.

But the Iraqis didn’t fight the Marines. The Iraqi forces fled, and their precipitous flight meant that the Army offensive was too slow—particularly, given the war’s early ending. Two-thirds of Republican Guard units escaped, Lt. Gen. Bernard Trainor (Ret.) later explained. (Saddam would use those forces to crush the popular uprisings that erupted among the Shiites in southern Iraq and the Kurds in the north soon after the ceasefire.)

In Washington, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin Powell, had grown concerned about the so-called “highway of death,” as coalition planes pummeled the fleeing Iraqi forces. Those troops were armed combatants and had been brutalizing the Kuwaiti population for the past seven months, so it was not clear, why they were not legitimate targets. And, of course, the coalition air force could simply have stopped attacking them.

Yet Powell had pushed Schwarzkopf about a ceasefire. Schwarzkopf had suggested that five days of a ground war had a “good ring.” Bush and his aides, however, decided to shave that even further, to 100 hours. “The timing [was] more a matter of public relations than anything else,” as Trainor and New York Times reporter Michael Gordon revealed.

The Bush White House was already shifting its focus to getting American troops “swiftly out of Iraq and Kuwait” the New York Times explained. Iraq had been America’s first major war since Vietnam, and many in the Bush administration were keen to avoid a “quagmire.”

Others, however, doubted that Saddam had been so decisively defeated. They included the rank and file among US troops. From Riyadh, the Times reported that soldiers boarding planes home asked the same question as politicians in the region: “Will we have to do it all over again?”

Indeed, America’s Middle Eastern allies were stunned at Bush’s decision, Arabs as well as Israelis. “The Saudis [had] wanted to press on, as did their Egyptian allies,” the Times explained. During the war, Iraq had fired 39 Scud missiles at Israel, which, almost miraculously, suffered just one fatality. Despite Bush’s expectations, Saddam remained defiant, and the following spring, Likud Prime Minister Itzhak Shamir took the highly unusual step of ordering the Israeli army to prepare a plan to assassinate Saddam.

Indeed, it was an Israeli who, perhaps, wrote the most compelling critique of Bush’s decision to halt the war when he did. Uriel Dann, a professor of history, including Iraqi history, at Tel Aviv University, published a brief, but brilliant, piece entitled “Getting Even”:

“Saddam Hussein does not forget and forgive. His foes brought him close to perdition and then let him off, being weak fools as he had always known…He will strive to exact revenge as long as there is life in his body. He will smirk and conciliate and retreat and whine and apply for fairness and generosity. He will also make sure that within his home base it remains understood that he has not changed and will never change...This must never be put out of mind: Saddam Hussein from now on lives for revenge...If this sounds irrational or paranoid, it is no more or less so than he is, and it is he who is the measure.”

Five years later, Bush would acknowledge to the British journalist, David Frost, “I miscalculated. I thought he'd be gone.” However, Bush saw the big missed opportunity not so much the Feb. 28 ceasefire, as the March 3 armistice meeting in Safwan, Iraq, the next topic in K24’s 25th anniversary series.

Laurie Ann Mylroie, Ph.D., taught at Harvard University and the US Naval War College. Most recently, she served as a cultural advisor to the US military in Afghanistan.


Editing by Delovan Barwari and Karzan Sulaivany