Circle in the Sand (by Christian Alfonsi)

A Tale of Two Bushes

Reviewed by Warren Bass
Sunday, November 26, 2006


Why We Went Back to Iraq

By Christian Alfonsi

Doubleday. 466 pp. $26.95

This isn't the first time Robert Gates has worried about an American occupation of Iraq. In December 1991, with the first Bush administration on the brink of war to expel Iraq from Kuwait, then-Deputy National Security Adviser Gates led the high-ranking committee that unanimously urged President George H.W. Bush not to make regime change one of Operation Desert Storm's war objectives. Toppling the Baathist regime could lead to "the Vietnam scenario," warned the man now nominated to replace Donald Rumsfeld as defense secretary. "Our concern was that if we had been in occupation, having bombed bridges and everything else, we would be expected to fix it all, and we didn't want any part of that."

But the unseen cataclysm looming in September 2001 would unleash a wave of conservative scorn for that decision. In 1990-91, Bush and National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft -- Gates's boss and the president's foreign policy alter ego -- thought that humbling an aggressive Iraq without marching on Baghdad would help create a stable balance of power in the Middle East. But in 2001-03, the president's son and his quite different national security team would conclude that their gimlet-eyed, unsentimental predecessors should have tried not to stabilize the region but to remake it.

That long pivot in Republican foreign policy thinking -- from a power-balancing Bush administration to a power-flexing Bush administration -- is the subject of Christian Alfonsi's Circle in the Sand. The book works best as a retelling of the 1990-91 Gulf crisis with the benefit of new documents and on-the-record interviews with senior officials then and now. Unfortunately, Alfonsi skitters around in the period between Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait and America's 2003 invasion of Iraq. And his take on the early 1990s is shot through with what historians call "presentism" -- seeing the past through contemporary lenses, with the inevitable distorting effects of reading the history of Operation Desert Storm in the light of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Alfonsi, who formerly worked at Young & Rubicam Brands, cherrypicks his data here, harvesting snippets of meetings that help explain the earlier thinking or actions of officials who served in both administrations. That means that Circle in the Sand is in no danger of displacing more methodologically sober classics on the Gulf War, such as Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor's The Generals' War, Rick Atkinson's Crusade or Michael Kelly's dazzling Martyrs' Day. But it does have plenty of juicy tidbits about the once and future Bushies; Senate staffers will no doubt scour its pages before Gates's confirmation hearings.

It's delicious to learn, for instance, that President Bush asked his staff for talking points on Aug. 1, 1990, for "the next world leader on his call list: Saddam Hussein," who would conquer Kuwait on Aug. 2. (Somehow, Alfonsi gets the invasion's date wrong.) That day, at the first National Security Council meeting of the crisis, the biggest hawks came from the State Department, despite its reputation for preferring jaw-jaw over war-war. "You must kick Saddam out of Kuwait and wreck him in the process," Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger urged the president. But Paul Wolfowitz, then undersecretary of defense for policy, sat in stunned silence as the principals argued. He recalls leaving the meeting "deeply disturbed" by the Bush team's early indecision about whether to let Iraq's aggression stand. Surprisingly, it was Scowcroft -- now the neoconservatives' favorite bête noire -- who rode to the hawkish Wolfowitz's rescue. At the next NSC meeting, the national security adviser slammed the door on the idea of leaving Iraq in control of Kuwait, having coordinated his "eruption" with Wolfowitz's boss, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney.

The detail gets even better when it comes to questions of regime change -- which in 1990-91 meant not U.S. nation-building but hammering Baghdad until another mustachioed Baathist strongman took over. "Iraq could fall apart," Scowcroft warned Gen. Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Fascinatingly, Gates and his fellow postwar planners worried both about another Vietnam and another Panama -- a replay of the embarrassingly protracted 1989 hunt for Manuel Noriega. Realism prevailed and, after Iraq surrendered, the battered dictatorship crushed rebellions by its much-abused Kurdish and Shiite subjects, eliciting calls for America to get off the sidelines. "I am not going to involve any American troops in a civil war in Iraq," the president lectured in April 1991. Wolfowitz seethed.

Substance and echoes aside, it's also something of an eye-opener to see the elder Bush's foreign policy team back in action. During the Gulf crisis, the policy apparatus moves decisively, snapping down loose ends with hospital corners. The Scowcroft-led interagency policymaking process hums along; the secretary of state and the secretary of defense work amicably together; and the vice president's staff is almost entirely irrelevant, minus the occasional episode where Vice President Dan Quayle or his chief of staff, William Kristol, wanders off the reservation and needs to be herded back on message. Senior U.S. officials even trust the French. The decisions weren't always right, but the process was impeccably professional.

All of which underscores how dissimilar these two Bush administrations have proven, in both style and strategy. But the seeds of conservative dissatisfaction were already evident under the first President Bush. "I do not think the United States wants to have U.S. military forces accept casualties and accept the responsibility of trying to govern Iraq," Cheney said on "This Week with David Brinkley" on April 7, 1991. "I think it makes no sense at all." That's a nice "gotcha" moment for Alfonsi. But later in the show, the defense secretary added: "If you don't have a clear-cut military objective, if you're not prepared to use overwhelming force to achieve it, then we don't have any business committing U.S. military forces into that civil war." Thanks to Alfonsi's presentism, it's not hard to hear Cheney's hint that he might have seen a massive U.S. invasion of Iraq aimed forthrightly at regime change as a viable option even back in 1991. Cheney's first comment now sounds like a display of loyalty to a realist president; his second now sounds like foreshadowing.

Warren Bass, a senior editor at Book World, was a contributor to "Triumph Without Victory: The History of the Persian Gulf War," by the staff of U.S. News & World Report.

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