THE NEW YORKER ONLINE ONLY
DECEMBER 28, 2012
SCHWARZKOPF, POPPY BUSH, AND A FORGOTTEN PRESIDENCY
POSTED BY JOHN CASSIDY
Time is relentless. Just as an aide to the ailing former President George H. W. Bush was warning his would-be obituarists to hold off, at least for now, news came that one of old Poppy’s comrades in arms, Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf, the irascible general who led Operation Desert Storm, the 1991 military operation that evicted Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait, has died in Tampa.
The tenor of the two announcements reflected the men. From Bush the elder, as he has come to be known in his later years, a Waspish raspberry directed at the Reaper. “Is he sick? Yes,” his chief of staff, Jen Becker, wrote in a note to his family and friends. “Does he plan on going anywhere soon? No. He would ask me to tell you to please put the harps back in the closet.” From the family of Schwarzkopf, a private man, ten years Bush’s junior, confirmation that he had succumbed to complications from pneumonia. “We’re still in a state of shock,” his sister Ruth Barenbaum told the AP. “This was a surprise to us all.”
And to those of us who covered the first Bush Presidency. How quickly memories fade. Twenty years ago today, Bush, who is now eighty-eight, was serving out his final days as President, and Schwarzkopf, despite having retired from the military, was a lionized figure with a recently published and best-selling autobiography, “It Doesn’t Take a Hero,” to his name. Just as George W. Bush would come to eclipse his father in the public memory, Operation Iraqi Freedom, the ill-fated expedition to depose Saddam, would largely erase memories of the much shorter and more successful blitzkrieg that turned Schwarzkopf into a somewhat reluctant celebrity.
That is a pity. If Bush wasn’t a great President, he was a creditable one. Were there any moderate Republicans left on Capitol Hill, his tenure could serve as model for them to aspire to. During his four years in office, from 1988 to 1992, he defied the Cold Warriors, adroitly handling the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a united Germany; he defied the G.O.P. economic fundamentalists, raising taxes in 1990 to reduce the budget deficit; and he defied the Neocons, refusing, in March, 1991, to order Schwarzkopf and his troops to march from Kuwait City to Baghdad. The conservatives never forgave him for his heresies, but subsequent history proved him right.
Schwarzkopf, for his part, was a fearsome general. Hands-on, impassioned, and downright scary in combat, his soldiers called him The Bear, a nickname he much preferred to Stormin’ Norman. But he was also a well-read and thoughtful man, who, upon his retirement, sensibly resisted calls to enter politics and spent much of his time raising money for good causes. While he mixed in some of the same Tampa circles that General David Petraeus would later frequent, no scandal was ever attached to his name.
By family background, the President and the General were very different. One of them grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut, a state which his father, Prescott, a successful Wall Street banker, later represented in the U.S. Senate. The other was born in Newark. His father was a solider who also served as a senior officer in the New Jersey State Police. In other ways, though, Bush and Schwarzkopf had much in common. Two pro-business Republicans—after his retirement, Schwarzkopf served on the board of the gunmaker Remington—they were conservatives in the old sense of the word, realists skeptical of grand theories, their world views shaped by military combat: Bush in World War Two, when, as one of the youngest aviators in the Navy, he flew dozens of combat missions over Japanese territory; Schwarzkopf in Vietnam, where he served two tours of duty.
Operation Desert Shield brought them together. Even in retrospect, it shouldn’t be glamorized or sanitized. A Texas oilman for almost twenty years after the war, Bush, like Saddam, had his eyes firmly on the Kuwait oil fields and their strategic importance. Once they had been liberated, he was content to allow Schwarzkopf’s bombs to slaughter the retreating Iraqi troops, and, a bit later, to allow Saddam to do a similar job on the restive Shia of southern Iraq. Still, the military operation worked as planned, and once it had accomplished its goal—ejecting the Iraqis—Bush and Colin Powell called it off. While some armchair generals fulminated at the White House’s decision to leave Saddam in power, Schwarzkopf never did. Like his bosses, he recognized the limits of military power. An invasion of Iraq wouldn’t have had any international legitimacy, he told an interviewer after the war, adding: “And, oh by the way, I think we’d still be there, we’d be like a dinosaur in a tar pit…we’d still be the occupying power and we’d be paying one hundred percent of all the costs to administer all of Iraq.”
That was another judgement that experience was to uphold, in tragic fashion. After George W. decided that U.S. forces should go to Baghdad, after all, the former general publicly questioned whether he had an exit strategy. As was only to be expected, Bush the elder largely kept his own counsel on the Iraq war, as he did on his son’s reckless tax policies. What he really thought of them—let us not forget that this is the man who popularized the term “voodoo economics”—and what he now thinks of his party’s grim refusal to move beyond them, one can only speculate on. He has never been one to put abstract principle before the national interest. Having pledged not to raise taxes during the 1988 campaign, he agreed two years later, as part of a bipartisan budget agreement, to increase the top rate, and he also raised the levies on fuel and alcohol. Despite howls of protest from Newt Gingrich and others, the world did not end.
Hopefully, the forty-first President will recover the physical capacity and find the inclination to tell us what he thinks. But whatever happens, the lessons of his tenure in the White House, including some that were taught by Stormin’ Norman, bear remembering.
Photograph by Dirck Halstead//Time Life Pictures/Getty.