Excerpt from Fiasco by Thomas E. Ricks, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Fiasco

The American Military Adventure in Iraq

by Thomas E. Ricks

Fiasco
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2006, 496 pages
    Paperback:
    Jul 2007, 512 pages

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The seeds of the second president Bush’s decision to invade were planted by the unfinished nature of the 1991 war, in which the U.S. military expelled Iraq from Kuwait but ended the fighting prematurely and sloppily, without due consideration by the first president Bush and his advisers of what end state they wished to achieve. In February 1991, President Bush gave speeches that encouraged Iraqis “to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein the dictator to step aside.” U.S. Air Force aircraft dropped leaflets on fielded Iraqi units urging them to rebel. On March 1, Iraqi army units in Basra began to do just that.

But when the Shiites of cities in the south rose up, U.S. forces stood by, their guns silent. It was Saddam Hussein who continued to fight. He didn’t feel defeated, and in a sense, really wasn’t. Rather, in the face of the U.S. counterattack into Kuwait, Saddam simply had withdrawn from that front to launch fierce internal offensives against the Shiites in the south of Iraq in early March and then, a few weeks later, against the Kurds in the north when they also rose up. An estimated twenty thousand Shiites died in the aborted uprising. Tens of thousands of Kurds fled their homes and crossed into the mountains of Turkey, where they began to die of exposure.

The U.S. government made three key mistakes in handling the end of the 1991 war. It encouraged the Shiites and Kurds to rebel, but didn’t support them. Gen. H.Norman Schwarzkopf, in the euphoria of the war’s end, approved an exception to the no-fly rule to permit Iraqi helicopter flights—and Iraqi military helicopters were promptly used to shoot up the streets of the southern cities. Army Capt. Brian McNerney commanded an artillery battery during the 1991 war.“When the Iraqi helicopters started coming out, firing on the Iraqis, that’s when we knew it was bullshit,” he recalled fifteen years later, when he was serving as a lieutenant colonel in Balad, Iraq. “It was very painful. I was thinking, ‘Something is really wrong.’We were sitting in a swamp and it began to feel lousy.”

Second, the U.S. government assumed that Saddam’s regime was so damaged that his fall was inevitable. “We were disappointed that Saddam’s defeat did not break his hold on power, as . . . we had come to expect,” the first president Bush and his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft,wrote in their 1998 joint memoir, A World Transformed.

Third, the U.S. military didn’t undercut the core of Saddam Hussein’s power. Much of his army, especially elite Republican Guard units, were allowed to leave Kuwait relatively untouched. Army Col. Douglas Macgregor, who fought in one of the 1991 conflict’s crucial battles, later called the outcome a “hollow” victory. “Despite the overwhelming force President George H.W. Bush provided, Desert Storm’s most important objective, the destruction of the Republican Guard corps, was not accomplished,” he wrote years later. “Instead, perhaps as many as 80,000 Iraqi Republican Guards, along with hundreds of tanks, armored fighting vehicles, and armed helicopters escaped to mercilessly crush uprisings across Iraq with a ruthlessness not seen since Stalin.”

Having incited a rebellion against Saddam Hussein, the U.S. government stood by while the rebels were slaughtered. This failure would haunt the U.S. occupation twelve years later, when U.S. commanders were met not with cordial welcomes in the south but with cold distrust. In retrospect, Macgregor concluded, the 1991 war amounted to a “strategic defeat” for the United States.

Wolfowitz objects

The most senior official in the first Bush administration urging that more be done in the spring of 1991 to help the rebellious Shiites was Paul Wolfowitz, then the under secretary of defense for policy. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, Joint Chiefs chairman Colin Powell, and National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft disagreed—and so thousands of Shiites were killed as U.S. troops sat not many miles away. This is one reason that many neoconservatives would later view Powell not as the moral paragon many Americans do but rather as someone willing to sit on his hands as Iraqis (and later, Bosnians) were killed on his watch.

Excerpted from Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, (c) 2006 by Thomas E. Ricks. Reproduced with permission of the publisher, Penguin Press. All rights reserved.

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