I don’t have the world’s best memory. In fact, often I find that I forget a lot of details that I really should remember. And sometimes I have crystal-clear memories of things that just didn’t happen the way I thought they did.
But some things I remember so clearly, I am absolutely certain that I have it right. And it amazes me when it seems that I’m the only one who remembers them.
Back in 1991, during the first Iraq war, I remember perfectly how rapidly we utterly crushed and destroyed Saddam’s military. We spent a month pounding them from the air, using every weapon at our disposal, from the tiny Stealth fighters with their one or two bombs to massive carpet-bombing of their front lines by B-52s to streams of cruise missiles. We destroyed their command and control facilties, shredded their supply lines, devastated their vaunted forces until they were crouched, helpless, in their trenches and bunkers, dreading the bombs they knew were coming to destroy them.
And then I remember General Schwarzkopf’s brilliant ground campaign, where he drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait and pushed deep into Iraq proper, defeating them in a scant 100 hours. I remember General Colin Powell describing our intentions towards the feared Republican Guard — “we intend to cut it off, and then kill it.”
I remember the hordes of fleeing Iraqis, laden down with their pillage from Kuwait, racing up the highway, and US forces attacking and bombing them, turning it into the “Highway of Death” until our own pilots, sickened at the carnage, simply refused to continue the attacks. (Which were perfectly legal, by the way — fleeing enemies are legitimate targets; only surrendering enemies are protected.)
I remember the great argument at the time — with Saddam’s forces demoralized, dispersed, and scattered to the four winds, the road to Baghdad was wide open. Should the US press on and depose Saddam?
The far right said “yes.” They said that if Saddam was allowed to retain power, he would simply regroup, rebuild, and once again pose a threat to the region. He had already invaded Iran, invaded and conquered Kuwait, and had invaded Saudi Arabia. He posed a grave threat to the world’s stability and oil supply, and he would do so again.
The left said “no.” They said that we had won a great victory by uniting a large portion of the Arab world with us against one of their own. (The only group not with us was the Palestinians, who apparently feared ruining their record for backing losers, and Iran, who sat back and said “a pox on both your houses” while they scooped up a good chunk of Iraq’s air force.) We could count on them being with us in liberating Kuwait, but they balked at helping a Western nation supplant an Arab ruler.
Further, our mandate from the United Nations stopped short of instituting regime change in Iraq. We were empowered to liberate Kuwait and secure it from further aggression — no more.
President Bush followed the latter course, and I backed him at the time. I thought it was the right decision at the time, and I still think so today.
Let’s fast-forward a few years. In the aftermath of the war, the United Nations imposed harsh sanctions on Iraq for its invasion of Kuwait. The United States took the lead in enforcing them, to the point of using bombs and missiles to remind Iraq that those sanctions were the only thing holding further war in abeyence. But as the years dragged on and Saddam played round after round of “cheat and retreat,” fatigue seemed to settle in. People started calling for an end to the sanctions, saying that Saddam had been “punished enough.” They cited statistic after statistic about how tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of Iraqi babies had died as a consequence of the sanctions. It’s been long enough, Saddam’s done enough, it’s time to let Iraq take a few steps back towards rejoining the community of nations.
Then 9/11 happened, and that whole movement evaporated like the morning mist.
And on the Korean peninsula, I recall that it was in the 1990’s that North Korea started seriously working on nuclear weapons. It was a major concern of President Clinton’s, and he (with the able assistance of former President Carter) ultimately brokered a deal that gave North Korea cash, food, and a nuclear reactor. In fact, in 1998, top Clinton aide Paul Begala testified before Congress that North Korea had abandoned its ballistic-missile program.
But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe my short-term memory issues are starting to cloud my long-term memories. Because whenever I get into debates about the war in Iraq, those who oppose the war seem to recall events differently.
They say that we wouldn’t be in this mess if the first President Bush had simply “finished the job” and toppled Saddam back in 1991. They say that President Clinton had a firm handle on Iraq. They don’t recall that a week after Paul Begala gave Clinton’s reassurances to Congress, North Korea fired a test missile that landed just off Alaska. They say that the sanctions and inspections against Iraq were working, and we should have given them more time instead of invading.
I probably should discuss this with my doctor, because every single one of those statements clashes with how I remember things.