Al Gore Gets His History of the Persian Gulf War Wrong

Fact & Fiction

Mr. Shenkman is the editor of HNN.

In his recent speech about U.S. policy toward Iraq (9-23-02), Al Gore contended that President Bush should have postponed a vote on Iraq in Congress until after the mid-term elections. Gore contrasted the approach President Bush is taking with that taken by the president's father."President George H. W. Bush purposely waited until after the mid-term elections of 1990 to push for a vote at the beginning of the new Congress in January of 1991," said Gore."President George W. Bush, by contrast, is pushing for a vote in this Congress immediately before the election."

A few days later the New Republic, disagreeing with Gore, argued in an editorial that"it is far better, in a democracy, for legislators to vote on critical issues before an election--so citizens know where they stand when they go to the polls--than to delay such votes until after an election and thus shield legislators from accountability for their views."

Soon, it can be expected, others will weigh in on the matter. But before they do perhaps it is worthwhile to point out that President Bush (the First) did not in fact choose to take the question of war off the national political agenda in the months leading up to the mid-term elections in 1990. Al Gore has got his history wrong.

Before this myth-in-the-making becomes accepted as settled fact--if it hasn't already--a brief history lesson may be in order.

The controversy involving Iraq began August 2, 1990, when Saddem Hussein invaded Kuwait. That same day the UN Security Council approved Resolution 660, demanding that Iraq withdraw immediately from Kuwait. On August 4 President Bush began calling allies to round up support for sanctions against Iraq. The following day President Bush told the media:"This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait." The next week the Security Council passed a second resolution, number 661, which imposed economic sanctions on Iraq.

Through the fall of 1990 Iraq contested the imposition of sanctions and tried to wiggle out of them. At the end of August Saddam offered to withdraw from Kuwait in exchange for the lifting of sanctions if Iraq was guaranteed access to the Gulf and control of certain oil fields. Meanwhile, President Bush sought to assemble a coalition against Iraq, slowly winning over the support of Russia and the Arab world.

Through the election in November it was understood that the sanctions had to be given time to work. At no point during the fall, therefore, was the question of using force the subject of extended national debate, though the administration was already moving forces into the Gulf in the event diplomacy failed and war was necessary. During that period the Congress was asked to support sanctions and did. On October 1 the House of Representatives passed a non-binding resolution in support of the administration's approach, approving the measure 380 to 29. The Senate shortly followed.

In his memoirs, A World Transformed, President Bush indicates that he began to come to the conclusion in October that force would be necessary to oust Saddam from Kuwait. He had little confidence that sanctions would work. In his diary on October 17 he noted that the media"is saying some members of Congress feel I might use a minor incident to go to war." He added,"they may be right. We must get this over with." But publicly he was not willing to abandon the hope that sanctions would work.

The election was not a factor in the delay in building a case for the use of military force, contrary to the claim advanced by Al Gore. Events simply had not reached the stage when the question of war was ripe for public debate. To reiterate, first the sanctions had to be given a chance, a position the Democrats especially argued with great passion at the time.

After the election, as the build-up of U.S. forces in the region increased, members of Congress began to complain loudly that we seemed to be heading toward war. On November 14 the president met with the bipartisan leaders of Congress."The decision to augment our forces," he recounted in his memoirs,"was not a decision to go to war.""We have not crossed any Rubicon or point of no return," he told the leaders. Sanctions would be given more time."But the passage of time had economic and military costs. Saddam was reinforcing and digging in, as well as doing everything possible to improve his weapons of mass destruction," as Bush explained in his memoirs.

The leaders told the president that opposition to a war with Iraq was growing. Henry Hyde suggested that Congress would be in a more receptive mood if the president first obtained a resolution in support of force from the United Nations. Shaken by the meeting, Scowcroft worried that the odds were against the administration winning approval of a congressional resolution. And that posed great dangers."If we lost, we would be in an inordinately difficult position. A negative vote would dishearten the coalition, encourage Saddam Hussein, and create a domestic firestorm if we were to ignore it." He added that it would be impossible to go to the UN and not go to Congress. On November 29, after intense rounds of American diplomacy, the UN Security Council approved a resolution authorizing the coalition to use force to roll-back the Iraqi invasion. The approval of Resolution 678 left little doubt that war was imminent. Saddam was given a deadline of January 15 to get out of Kuwait or face an attack.

President Bush, like many other presidents, did not believe he needed the approval of Congress to use force in Iraq, despite the terms of the War Powers Resolution, which requires the president to seek the backing of Congress for military interventions that extend past sixty days."We were confident that the Constitution was on our side," Brent Scowcroft insisted,"when it came to the president's discretion to use force if necessary." But President Bush decided to seek the approval of Congress anyway. Scowcroft explained:"If we sought congressional involvement, it would not be authority we were after, but support."

President Bush believed that Harry Truman had made a serious mistake in 1950 in not seeking the support of Congress for the"police action" undertaken in Korea."Early in September," he recalled in his memoirs,

I had asked [White House counsel] Boyden Gray to look into how Lyndon Johnson had handled Congress at the time of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964. Johnson had worked hard to get individual members of Congress, and Congress itself, to go on record in support of what he was doing in Vietnam. He urged joint hearings of the committees on foreign relations and armed services in both Houses, and asked Congress to insist on roll calls so the record would be complete. In the end, he got a unanimous vote out of the House--414 to 0--and a Senate count of 88 to 2. I realized the Vietnam War was different, but his effort made a big impression on me, and I began to think about seeking a similar congressional vote of support.

After the UN vote Saddam tried several gambits to weaken the coalition and encourage the false hope that he would leave Kuwait voluntarily. He freed some 3,000 Russians he'd been holding and encouraged our European allies to go to Baghdad to negotiate a settlement. This put pressure on Bush to appear open to a deal to avoid war. In January Bush agreed to let Secretary of State Baker meet with the Iraqi Foreign Minister Tarik Aziz in Geneva:"I wanted to show that we were going the extra mile for peace."

Predictably, the talks failed. On January 10, the day after Baker and Aziz met, war resolutions were introduced into both houses of Congress. On January 12 the Congress voted to approve war with Iraq. The Senate voted 52 to 47,"the smallest margin ever to vote for war," Bush recalled. The House voted 250 to 183.

On January 15, the"liberation of Kuwait" began.

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More Comments:

Pierre S Troublion - 10/6/2002

"Knew of" is a far cry from "set up". Mr. Gay is on the edge of a slippery slope of confusion that detracts from the real issues.

Lance Gay - 10/6/2002

If you are looking for the evidence that the United States knew of the invasion of Kuwait in advance, you need look no further than the meeting between Iraq's Saddam Hussein and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie eight days before the invasion. In fact, some contend the Glaspie meeting gave the go-ahead for the invasion by stating that the U.S. position was not to get involved in Arab-Arab conflicts, but that is disputed. You can read the transcript Iraq released of the session on the Web.

Pierre S. Troublion - 10/6/2002

Maybe Saddam didn't "up and turn" on Kuwait, maybe he'd been wanting to attack Kuwait his whole life. Who knows what's been going on in that guy's warped mind. Okay, I'm "reading up a little on what happened". Here's what I'm reading, from my home bookshelf:

Information Please 1992, p. 121:

"The Persian Gulf War...

1990: Iraq invades its tiny neighbor, Kuwait, after talks break
down over oil production and debt repayment."

Okay that was written maybe only a few months after Desert Storm.
Maybe the plot by the Bushes hadn't been exposed yet. So I'll look further.

Time Almanac 2002 with Information Please, p. 699:

"The Persian Gulf War...

1990: Iraq invades its tiny neighbor, Kuwait, after talks break
down over oil production and debt repayment."

Ten years later, and no change: The plot to set up Saddam is still unmentioned.

It seems that Tom Kellum knows something Time, Inc., and Houghton Mifflin don't know. Something important to historical discussions of Iraq and pertinent to the current debate in the U.S. Congress. Or else Time and Houghton are part of the plot.

May we have the clarification and the supporting facts and citations please ?

(Remember that part about how to write a High School history essay ?)

There are plenty of solid, historically sound and factually supported reasons for criticizing the current Bush Administration's dubious plans for launching a preemptive war. Some, though by no means all of these reasons can be found in the "mainstream" media and internet, and are being stated by Senators Lugar, Kennedy, Byrd and others, and from less "mainsteam" information sources such as the website of Michael Moore. There is no need, even were such a practice somehow justifiable, for making up crackpot conspiracy theories about the last Gulf War.

If there is solid evidence that George Bush deliberately and effectively enticed Saddam into conquering and occupying Kuwait in 1990, let us hear it now.


Tom Kellum - 10/5/2002

If there is a suggestion that Saddam Hussein just all of a sudden, in a fit of anger, decided entirely all on his own, to go and "invade" Kuwait, I think evidence refuting the facts and cirumstances that suggest otherwise needs to be presented.

Most people with even a surface knowledge of the historical record of events in Iraq, Kuwait, and U.S. influence in the region during that time have a hard time buying into the argument that our "client" Saddam just up and turned on his U.S. friends by invading Kuwait.

Saddam was used by the Poppy Bush administration. If saying that he set up S.H. is too strong for you, then maybe you should go back and read up a little on what happened. I'm not an educator or a prosecutor, but the evidence is there for anyone who wants a deeper understanding about what happened during that time.

Pierre S. Troublion - 10/5/2002

If there is a suggestion that Bush Senior knew of the 1990 attack on Kuwait well in advance and helped foment it, I think evidence needs to be presented. On the other hand, I consider it to be very well established that the U.S. supported Saddam throughout the 1980s. While I am not a military analyst, a very relevant historical counterfactual would appear to be: If the Reagan, Rumsfeld, Cheney, et. al. hadn't helped prop up Saddam, might Khomeini have succeeded twenty years ago in doing what Bush Junior wants to do now ? (One important difference, of course, is that Iran did not start things out with a preemptive attack.)

Tom Kellum - 10/4/2002

Why, indeed?

One revealing clue about Gore-bash thinking in the article is the omission of any discussion about why S.H took the action he did against Kuwait. Plenty of pro-Poppy talk, but no mention of facts which might lead some people to conclude that Poppy set up S.H., and that the U.S. attack on Iraq in 1991 was as foregone a conclusion as it is today. All that is left to be done today, is GWB's "Tonkin" action. Activity designed to induce such may well be underway as this reply is being typed.

Pierre S Troublion - 10/2/2002

This is reasonable and succinct summary of the events leading up to Desert Storm in January, 1991. But nothing therein contradicts Gore's factual claim that Bush senior waited until after the Fall midterm elections to approach Congress formally, nor Gore's broader implication of there being a considerable difference between the patient and careful approach of coalition-building in 1990 and the slipshod and meandering chaos of the current Administration's foreign policy.