The Gulf War's 25th Anniversary: A cautionary tale for candidates and voters

As presidential biographer and historian Jon Meacham recounts in his new biography, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, President George H. W. Bush was seated on the edge of an exam table in the Medical Unit of the White House—in his undershirt—when the news came on the evening of Aug. 1, 1990. He was there to receive a deep-heat treatment for sore shoulders as a result of hitting a bucket of golf balls earlier in the day. It was not long before he saw his two aides—Brent Scrowcroft and Richard Haas—huddled together in the hallway.

The president proceeded to put on and button his dress shirt and walked into the hall to meet with them. He would be told momentous news—news which would have long-lasting consequences not only for himself and his presidency, but also for a volatile region of the world known as the Middle East. The decisions of that time were to reverberate for decades afterwards in ways no one could have predicted or understood. The president would be told that Saddam Hussein of Iraq had decided to move in on the defenseless oil-rich country that was Kuwait, and take it for his own.

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The next day, President Bush would emphatically declare before assembled reporters at the White House that what had happened the day before would, in his memorable words, “not stand”; he then systematically started his administration on the slow and steady course of diplomatic, political and military buildup that would result in a coalition of nations willing to combat the threat that was presented to world order and peace.

The invasion plan would become “Desert Storm” and the war that commenced would afterwards be known as the Gulf War. That war would begin the following January, in 1991, and it would end a little more than a month later, with Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, but still in Iraq, controlling ever more strongly the levers of power.

That was 25 years ago, when the American president chose his course of action and did what he thought was in the best interests of the United States, the Middle East and world peace. He would do so despite the cries of “No blood for oil!” and despite the looming threat of possible impeachment by members of a Congress that believed that diplomacy and sanctions were not given adequate time or support to work in achieving similar results.

At the time of the successful conclusion of the conflict, no one could possibly know what the “endgame” would be. No one could know that the president’s own son—George W. Bush—would, years into the future, become president himself in a disputed election and do what the father—as well as others—could only conceive in their wildest dreams: invade Iraq and actually topple the dictator himself. When “Bush 43” did that, it was against the backdrop of the post-Sept. 11 world, when American security was forever shattered when Twin Towers were destroyed and countless lives lost and many others ruined by a monstrous act on a beautiful fall morning.

And when the son acted as he did, he had the counsel of people who had worked in his father’s administration. But he did not act in the way his father did, creating a systematic plan to achieve an objective. What the son did was the cause of immediate dissension and disagreement, which have not dissipated, even to this day. The presidential decisions of these two men—father and son—had great impact when they were made and continue to do so, influencing the future in ways we cannot grasp.

On Inauguration Day, the person who is elected to the presidential office raises his (or someday, her) right hand to solemnly swear to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Those few words demand very much from the person whom we put in the presidential chair. It is not an easy office to bear; many of its occupants have aged way before their time.

There are many who are candidates, but there can only be one who can get elected to serve. It is akin to the saying that “many are called but few are chosen.” It is daunting work that we task presidents with, the responsibility of strengthening security while simultaneously fostering peace—it is something not to be taken lightly, by either voter or candidate. “There are no ‘finishing schools’ for presidents,” as President Kennedy said after a grueling first year in office. The demands of security and of war are the greatest test that an American president will ever have to face.

In this election year, it would behoove us all—voters as well as candidates—to stop and reflect on this significant anniversary of history, when invasion led to war. With the terrors that beset us in the world today, we need to remember the perils of the loneliest decision that we place on the shoulders of the person who happens to be our president. Presidential candidates are very eager for the chance to live in an historic mansion and hear the strains of “Hail to the Chief.” Before long, though, the strains of the music will fade away and the occupant of that White House will have many occasions for solitary walks through those halls, shouldering a burden that only can be borne alone.  

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