Why did the United States fight the Gulf War?footnote What factors entered into George Bush’s decision to avoid a negotiated solution? The timing of that decision goes some way to answering these questions, and two conflicting theories have been offered: first, that Bush wanted war from the beginning, but couldn’t make that clear until after the Congressional elections; second, that he did not come down firmly in favour of war until late October, when he decided to double the number of troops and set the timetable for air and ground attacks.footnote1 Bob Woodward’s new book, The Commanders, provides important new information about this decision from General Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Although Bush publicly declared on 5 August, ‘this will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait’, his efforts to reverse the invasion focused on un sanctions and covert cia operations; it was not until October, according to Woodward, that the president requested a military briefing on ‘how to conduct an offensive operation against Saddam’s forces’. Late in October, before Bush decided to double us ground forces, Woodward writes, Powell tried to persuade the president that ‘containment’ of Iraq through economic and military pressures could force Saddam out of Kuwait without war, but that it would take time. Bush, according to Woodward’s account, answered, ‘I don’t think there’s time politically for that strategy.’footnote2

The Gulf war thus appears a classic case of the domestic political origins of foreign policy. Bush decided on war in part because of a domestic political collapse of historic proportions, made evident by the mid-term Congressional election campaign. War was worth the risk because it promised to draw attention away from problems at home and remake the president in the image of a decisive and victorious leader.

How quickly we forget: ‘Bush is in deep trouble,’ U.S. News reported in the last week of October; ‘his Presidency is in danger.’footnote3 David Gergen, Reagan administration Assistant for Communications, wrote the week of the election that Bush was about to join ‘the string of broken Presidencies in recent years—Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter’.footnote4 That same week, the Washington Post quoted a Republican politico arguing that ‘The White House is booting away the entire legacy of Ronald Reagan.’footnote5 Between August, when he was concentrating on building support for un sanctions, and mid October, when the election campaign was reaching its climax, Bush’s popularity ratings fell twenty points.footnote6 Ed Rollins, who had managed the 1984 Reagan campaign, the greatest Republican victory in history, declared on 20 October that Republicans were facing ‘a historical trend’ in which ‘we could have a real disaster on our hands’. ‘All of a sudden,’ he said, Republicans were ‘looking into an abyss.’ ‘We’ve been waiting for years for realignment,’ an unidentified ‘gop operative’ told the Washington Post at the end of October, ‘unfortunately, George Bush’s realignment means it’s going to be the Democrats in the majority for the next decade.’footnote7 The president had ‘sunk into a quagmire of indecision and ineptitude’ and become ‘a man without a mission heading an administration without a purpose,’ U.S. News declared; ‘his “governing” strategy is fatally flawed.’ The magazine concluded that ‘the Administration needs a complete makeover for Bush’s 1992 re-election bid.’footnote8 This was the point at which the president resolved to double us forces in the Gulf—a decision made on 30 October, according to the New York Times—shifting them from a defensive orientation to an offensive one, setting the country and the world on the road to war.

The big news in the weeks leading up to that decision was that ‘Bush’s popularity is in a nosedive’, as the Washington Post reported on 16 October. Anxieties about the economy and the federal-budget impasse, and second thoughts about the us troop deployment in the Gulf, had pushed public confidence in the condition of the country to its lowest level in nearly two decades. Eight out of ten Americans said the country was ‘pretty seriously off on the wrong track’, the number feeling positive having been halved over the previous month. These findings were ‘the most negative result found in a major poll since 1974’, when the country was in the depths of the Arab oil embargo and the Watergate crisis.footnote9

The future looked no brighter. Consider Bush’s 1992 re-election prospects last October, without a war: the mid-term Congressional election campaign was confirming that no president in memory has entered the last two years of his first term with so few domestic accomplishments, facing so many angry former supporters. He had betrayed his only real promise—‘no new taxes’. He had abandoned his pledges to become ‘the education president’ and ‘the environmental president’. As he faced the year leading up to his re-election campaign, the country faced a major recession—the worst in at least a decade—with its banking and financial system in deep trouble; the disappearance of the ‘peace dividend’, even without a war, to pay for the s&l bail-out; rising conflict over abortion rights and affirmative action; more unemployment, more homelessness, more frustrated and angry voters. What could George Bush claim as a success when he stood for reelection in just two years time?

You don’t need to be politically correct to know that when a president faces bad news at home, when the economy turns sour, when voters are angry and unhappy, he can win support by engaging a foreign enemy. Then his critics can be called unpatriotic; then he can say the people who don’t support him are not supporting ‘our boys’; then he can say we all need to unite behind the president. And he can hope that glorious military victories will erase his domestic failures and earn him not only re-election but also a place in history as a great president. After all, our greatest presidents—Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson and fdr—led us in wartime.

The potential domestic political benefits for Bush and a Gulf war were hardly a secret during that crucial month of October. ‘Some observers in his own party worry that the president will feel forced to initiate combat to prevent further erosion of his support at home’, the Washington Post reported on 28 October.footnote10 John Sununu, the president’s Chief of Staff, was reported to be telling people that ‘a short, successful war would be pure political gold for the President, would guarantee his re-election.’footnote11