A Family’s Path to War

Kevin Phillips is the author, most recently, of "Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich."

Twelve years ago, the U.S.-led war in the Persian Gulf was named Desert Storm; this time around, the better name seems to be Desert Slowdown. Americans hope it won’t turn into Desert Embarrassment.

But something makes this war entirely different -- and probably not for the better -- from any previous war in U.S. history. This is the first war begun during the administration of a president’s father and resumed during the administration of his son.

This aspect -- think of it as the “footsteps factor” -- is the elephant in the strategic planning room that Washington cannot discuss. Yet, few aspects are more important to the way this second war was hurried into, straining alliances and possibly leaving too little time for adequate military preparation. Things were handled more skillfully the first time around.

To begin with, the chronology is eerily similar. George H.W. Bush, responding to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, began talk of war against Iraq in his second year in office. So did his son, George W. Bush. The 1991 war began in late February; the current one started a month later. In both cases, there was some partisan complaint that the war drums were beaten to distract the public’s attention from economic weakness and domestic issues.


Yet, these parallels would not count for much if they did not reflect a larger pattern that has fascinated Bush biographers -- the way in which the 43rd president, from the time he was a schoolboy, has tried to imitate his father’s mannerisms and follow his career path. He went to his father’s schools, Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and Yale University; played his father’s sport (baseball); and joined his father’s secret society (Skull and Bones) at Yale. Thereafter, he became a military flier like his father and then went into the oil business in Midland, Texas, where he set up his little company in the same office building where his father had his business.

Two biographers, Elizabeth Mitchell and Bill Minutaglio, note that, like his father, George W. wanted to get married, while at Yale, to a girl who had attended his mother’s college. The fiancee, however, broke off the engagement in part because she worried about the psychologies driving the footsteps pattern.

To be sure, the career paths of No. 41 and No. 43 have not been exactly parallel: George W. had no experience as a diplomat and his father none as governor of Texas. However, since the United States is again at war in the Persian Gulf, the footsteps enigma that has fascinated biographers should interest a larger audience, as well.

There is an important difference between George W. Bush and his father that may add another dimension to the son’s sense of being called to office and of having a unique role to play in a global confrontation between good and evil. In contrast to the Episcopalian religion of his parents, George W. is a nominal Methodist. But, in practice, he is closer to evangelical and fundamentalist beliefs and sensibilities, which are increasingly evident in his speeches and his conception of Hussein as a member of an “axis of evil.” There is some disagreement over the extent to which the president believes he is carrying out a mission for God, but this is another serious yardstick. According to a 1999 Newsweek poll, 45% of U.S. Christian adults and 71% of evangelical Christian believe in Armageddon, the biblical battle between Jesus and the antichrist that will end the world, except for believing Christians. No one has ever asked George W. whether he believes in Armageddon, but U.S. troops are now moving along the Euphrates River, the biblical border of the land of Israel.

The president certainly faces a much more complicated set of circumstances in Iraq than his father did, especially because the elder Bush secured the approval of the U.N. Security Council and assembled a wide-ranging coalition that wound up paying for most of the cost of the first Gulf War. Even though Hussein was mistakenly allowed to survive in 1991, effective diplomacy left a stable Mideast structure, solid U.S. relations with allies like France, Turkey and Saudi Arabia and no question of a postwar U.S. occupation in Iraq.

This time, by contrast, the legality of the U.S. invasion is disputed. Our alliances have been rubbed raw not just in Europe but in the Middle East, where Turkey’s Islamic government has threatened to move its own troops into northern Iraq, and Saudi businessmen and intellectuals reportedly chortled over U.S. military setbacks.

Whether the United States will be able to administer an embittered postwar Iraq is also unclear, along with exactly which erstwhile U.S. “ally,” if any, can be expected to bear some of the cost of the war and occupation. Then there is the U.S. war against terrorism, which could be undercut if the war reporting from Iraq by Al Jazeera television and other Arab broadcasters turns into recruiting posters for Al Qaeda.

Exactly what the first President Bush would do in these circumstances is impossible to say. What he did in 1991 was, in essence, sit on his laurels. He figured that the successful expulsion of Hussein from Kuwait ensured his reelection in 1992, and that even if the economy wasn’t too hot it wouldn’t matter. That, as history testifies, was a bad gamble. The economy after the war and throughout 1992 turned out to be reasonably good for Wall Street but largely indifferent for large numbers of voters: Consumer confidence steadily dropped and white-collar joblessness rose. When the results of the three-man presidential election were totaled, Bush was soundly defeated, receiving the lowest share of the vote (about 38%) for a presidential incumbent since William Howard Taft in 1912.


Victoria Clarke, then the first President Bush’s campaign press secretary and now spokeswoman for the Department of Defense, has said the outcome of the 1992 election motivated George W. Bush to avenge his father’s political loss. Two collateral questions are: How much did his father’s defeat motivate George W. to seek revenge against Hussein, who kept his job as Iraq’s dictator; and how much did any such attitude guide the White House shift away from getting Osama bin Laden in favor of targeting Hussein, who, by virtually all accounts, had nothing to do with 9/11?

There is some evidence along these lines. Part of why the United States failed to gain U.N. Security Council approval for the use of force against Iraq was the president’s shift toward preemption aimed at regime change rather than disarmament. Then there was the “decapitation” strike directed at Hussein, his family and close advisors. Hitting this “target of opportunity” was militarily plausible. It was also a nice try at vengeance.

If Hussein believes himself to be the real target of the U.S.-led war -- and he certainly must -- what makes sense for him is to draw U.S. forces into a street fight in Iraq’s major cities. The Iraqi leader might assume that Bush would be unable to resist such a fight, given the president’s hateful scorn of Hussein, and that dying in a street fight would transform him into a martyr in the Arab world.

Vice President Dick Cheney recently took a different tack when he suggested that the war against Iraq actually offers the kind of situation in which Bush’s “cowboy” approach to foreign policy can be most effective. Obviously, the vice president and the Iraqi dictator cannot both be right on this matter, and it is not a little disconcerting to think that Hussein could be the one.


Exactly what forces and psychologies are converging in Iraq -- and with what long-term consequences -- remain unknown. But if George W. Bush is following in his father’s footsteps, looking for revenge against Hussein and assuming a religious role to boot, the significance of this conflict may be a lot larger than we are prepared to imagine.