Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power - Rachel Maddow (2012)

Chapter 6. Mylanta, ’Tis of Thee

TWO HUNDRED THOUSAND ADDITIONAL TROOPS MINIMUM, nearly double what the president of the United States had already ordered into the hot desert of Saudi Arabia, was what it would take. According to the presentation his top military adviser made at the White House Situation Room meeting of October 30, 1990, that was the minimum manpower price George Herbert Walker Bush would have to pay to forcibly remove Saddam Hussein and his Iraqi Army from Kuwait. This was decision day. If Bush couldn’t bear the size of that call-up and he stoppered the military spigot pouring our soldiers into the Persian Gulf, he could do no more than sit his army in the desert and wait for the UN sanctions to pressure Saddam out of Kuwait. If he kept the flow open, he’d leave himself the option of launching a punishing offensive attack on Saddam’s army. He’d have the wherewithal to make the biggest war Americans had seen in a generation.

It had been three months since the Iraqi dictator had invaded Kuwait, jettisoned its ruling royal family, and claimed its oil fields, which gave Saddam, the Bush administration claimed, something near to 20 percent of the world’s oil reserves. And worse than that, Saddam was now within arm’s reach of Saudi oil, which might give him close to half of the planet’s most consumed necessity.

In the first days after the invasion, President Bush had made it clear: “This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait.” He said later, “That’s not a threat, not a boast. That’s just the way it’s going to be.” Within a week of the Iraqi Army’s invasion of Kuwait, the president had deployed a large contingent of American soldiers, sailors, and Marines to the Persian Gulf to make sure Saddam knew the United States was serious about defending Saudi Arabia—and to stand by for further orders. And he had convinced the reluctant Saudi king to play host to this huge American army. (The Saudi king, incidentally, had chosen Bush’s offer of military assistance over the offer made by a certain Saudi national who boasted he could defend the kingdom’s oil fields with his army of mujahedeen fighters, who had distinguished themselves in battle against the Soviets in Afghanistan. King Fahd’s decision to go with the American military instead turned Osama bin Laden against the Saudi royal family forever, and it didn’t exactly enhance his feelings toward America, either.)

Bush had been masterful at building international support and a broad coalition of allies. The UN Security Council and almost every nation in the civilized world had agreed to impose strangling economic sanctions meant to bring the Iraqi dictator and his army to heel. And the United States was leading the way. “Recent events have surely proven that there is no substitute for American leadership,” Bush reassured Congress and the country. “In the face of tyranny, let no one doubt American credibility and reliability. Let no one doubt our staying power. We will stand by our friends. One way or another, the leader of Iraq must learn this fundamental truth.” At Bush’s insistent urging, every one of Saddam’s Arab neighbors had signed up on our side. Even the Soviet Union was with us.

But still, three months in, George Herbert Walker Bush was not a happy man.

The day before that fish-or-cut-bait National Security Council meeting, Saddam had appeared on television—US television—having sport with the president. “If an embargo would force the American people to withdraw from the last state that was linked to the United States—say, Hawaii,” Saddam offered, “then the same standards, if they were applied, would probably lead the Iraqis to consider withdrawal from Kuwait.” And then, sticking a thumb in Bush’s eye: “Whoever commits aggression against Iraq will be the party that shall turn out to be the loser.…”

When President Bush met with his national security team the next day, his patience was wearing thin, and he was not, as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin Powell, knew, a patient man to begin with. The president had been agitating the chairman for weeks about launching air strikes on Baghdad; he’d also been confiding in British prime minister Margaret Thatcher as well as his own advisers that he’d really appreciate it if Saddam did something sufficiently provocative—like, say, abusing some of his Western hostages (whom the Iraqi dictator insisted on calling his “guests”)—to justify a US-led attack. The longer this stalemate went on, the more nervous Bush seemed to grow. “Dealing with the president,” Powell said years later, “was like playing Scheherazade, trying to keep the king calm for a thousand and one nights.”

Besides being a man of preternatural impatience—sitting still without a fishing rod in his hand drove him batty—the president had whipped up for himself a furious and frothy head of contempt for Saddam and his invasion of Kuwait. What had started as a strategic national imperative to keep energy prices in check, maintain a balance of power among the oil-producing nations of the Middle East, and show that as the world’s lone remaining superpower after the slow-motion dissolution of the Soviet Union, America would remain an active force in the world, had blossomed for Bush into a bigger idea, a vision thing. “As I look at the countries that are chipping in here now, I think we do have a chance at a new world order,” he’d said at one formal news conference. “And I’d like to think that out of this dreary performance by Saddam Hussein there could be now an opportunity for peace all through the Middle East.” And he got downright poetic in an address to the nation: “A hundred generations have searched for this elusive path to peace while a thousand wars raged across the span of human endeavor. And today, that new world is struggling to be born. A world quite different from the one we’ve known. A world where the rule of law supplants the rule of the jungle. A world in which nations recognize the shared responsibility for freedom and justice. A world where the strong respect the rights of the weak.”

So there was the whole new world order thing. The otherwise grounded and pragmatic George Herbert Walker Bush was nominating himself for a place among the pantheon of politicians and kings who claimed that one, just onemore war would bring world peace. There was also the matter of standing up to a bully, a matter of honor in Bush’s personal code of ethics. Human Rights Watch had reported that Saddam’s soldiers were murdering, raping, and generally brutalizing Kuwaiti citizens. “I mean, people on a dialysis machine cut off, the machine sent to Baghdad,” Bush had exclaimed. “Babies in incubators heaved out of the incubators and the incubators themselves sent to Baghdad.” He was even hearing stories about Kuwaiti children being mowed down and killed on their way to hospitals, or Iraqi soldiers releasing the animals from the Kuwait zoo for target practice. “Their efforts, however, were not completely successful,” a Bush administration official told reporters. “A lion escaped and mauled a young Kuwaiti girl.”

It wasn’t long before Bush, the old World War II fighter pilot, started turning his description of Saddam up to eleven. “Worse than Hitler!” he said. “I began to move from viewing Saddam’s aggression exclusively as a dangerous strategic threat and an injustice to its reversal as a moral crusade,” Bush later wrote. “I became very emotional about the atrocities. They really gave urgency to my desire to do something active in response. At some point it came through to me that this was not a matter of shades of gray, or of trying to see the other side’s point of view. It was good versus evil, right versus wrong. I am sure the change strengthened my determination not to let the invasion stand and encouraged me to contemplate the use of force to reverse it.”

Saddam had rolled into Kuwait on August 2, 1990. Bush had sent troops to wait in Saudi Arabia on August 6. By October 30, 1990, the day he summoned what was effectively his war council to the Situation Room, the president was worried that the air was leaking out of his new world order moral crusade. He was getting edgy; he wasn’t sure how long the international coalition he had personally gathered would hold together. And he wasn’t sure how long the American people would support him in the crisis. He’d had huge backing for his response to Saddam up till then, something near 70 percent of Americans. But he could feel it slipping away.

He’d had a tough month—he’d taken “the damndest pounding I’ve ever seen” from the Democratic-controlled Congress in the budget battle occasioned by the prodigious deficits Reagan had left in his wake, and then another one from his own party when he’d had to back down from his Eastwoodesque “Read My Lips—No New Taxes” pledge. The tax hike was the right thing to do, Bush knew, but that didn’t make it popular with the hard-liners in his party. He was starting to fear the return of that ugly (and he thought unfair) Newsweek headline he’d endured during his presidential campaign, “Fighting the Wimp Factor.” His recent twenty-one-point drop in the polls was “one of the worst slides in public approval of any modern President,” the New York Times noted. “That fall is at least as great, although perhaps not quite as sudden, as the decline in President Gerald R. Ford’s approval rating after he pardoned former President Richard Nixon for his conduct in the Watergate scandal and the tumble that President Ronald Reagan took after disclosure of the Iran-contra affair.”

And now, after pummeling Bush into submission over the budget, Congress was starting to “get in his knickers,” as he sometimes said, about his handling of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Just a few hours before the big October 30 war council meeting, he’d had to endure an hour-and-a-half-long sit-down with congressional leaders—they’d demanded it—so they could lecture him about war powers and public sentiment. The Democratic Speaker of the House had opened the proceedings by formally presenting Bush with a letter signed by eighty-one of his colleagues:

Recent reports and briefings indicate that the United States has shifted from a defensive to an offensive posture and that war may be imminent. We believe that the consequences would be catastrophic—resulting in the massive loss of lives, including 10,000 to 50,000 Americans. This could only be described as war. Under the US Constitution, only the Congress can declare war.

We are emphatically opposed to any offensive military action. We believe that the UN-sponsored embargo must be given every opportunity to work and that all multinational, non-military means of resolving the situation must be pursued. If, after all peaceful means of resolving the conflict are exhausted, and the President believes that military action is warranted, then … he must seek a declaration of war from the Congress.… We firmly believe that consulting with this group in no way replaces the President’s constitutional obligation to seek a declaration of war before undertaking any offensive military action. We demand that the Administration not undertake any offensive military action without the full deliberation and declaration required by the Constitution.

Bush sat and listened. Senate majority leader George Mitchell insisted that the case had not been made that the sanctions had failed. “I want to plead with you personally before you take the country into war,” Speaker Tom Foley implored. “Unless there is gross provocation, you won’t have public support.” Bush listened some more, and then showed them the door. Oh, he’d “consult.” He’d tell them what he was doing—what he’d already done, was more like it. He wouldn’t trust Congress with a decision about China patterns at a state dinner, let alone war and peace. “As long as the people are with us, I’ve got a good chance,” he’d written in his diary. “But once there starts to be erosion, [Congress] is going to do what Lyndon Johnson said: they painted their asses white and ran with the antelopes.”

Bush never bothered to answer that congressional letter. As far as he was concerned, he required no authorization from Congress to make war. In fairness to the president, one has to remember that he had been swimming for eight years in that muddled soup of reasoning that was the Reagan White House, and particularly in Ed Meese’s gooey construct called the “inherent powers of the president.” About his unilateral decision to deploy those troops to Saudi Arabia for more than sixty days, well, he said, they were in “no imminent danger of hostilities,” so the War Powers Act didn’t apply even if he did recognize its reach, which he did not, because it was an unconstitutional check on presidential power. Meese’s lawyers had said so. This was a matter of national security, Bush believed. He was commander in chief. He had all the authority he needed.

And as commander in chief the president made it plain in the Situation Room, a few hours after that congressional invasion of the White House, that he wanted his military—if not the nation—prepared to launch an air-and-ground attack to remove Saddam from Kuwait, and he meant to provide his generals with whatever they needed to do the job.

But what the generals said they needed to do the job functioned as a bit of a check on the move toward war. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell, had not been shy in the ask that afternoon. Powell wanted an overwhelming, decisive use of force to meet American military objectives clearly and quickly. The whole Powell Doctrine of disproportionate force, clear goals, a clear exit strategy, and public support was designed to create a kind of quagmire-free war zone. He was unequivocal—he and his commander on the ground, Norman Schwarzkopf, had agreed: two hundred thousand more troops was what it would take. And they’d already made sure the president understood the numbers would go up if he decided he wanted not only to eject Saddam from Kuwait but to destroy his army, or to depose him. The mission objectives would have to be clearly defined before H-Hour. In any case, Powell and Schwarzkopf wanted five, maybe six, aircraft carrier task forces deployed to the Persian Gulf, which would leave naval power dangerously thin in the rest of the world. By the time the offensive capability was in place, about two months down the road, there would be something in the neighborhood of 500,000 American troops in the Middle East—nearly as many as at the high-water mark in Vietnam. Two-thirds of the combat units in the Marine Corps would be deployed in the Gulf. There would be no more talk of rotating troops home after six months. Soldiers had to understand they were in the Gulf until the job was done, however long that took.

And another thing Powell had long ago made clear: there would have to be a huge reserve contingent. The Department of Defense had already called up a few thousand reservists—mostly pilots and uniformed baggage handlers to get the troops airlifted to the desert. But this new commitment would mean activating tens of thousands of reservists from all over the country. As soon as they announced the call-up, or as soon as word got out, Saddam Hussein would know the United States of America was preparing to commence a war. And so would the American people.

The president insisted the military guys could have what they needed. Not everybody in the room was so cheerfully acquiescent. A lot of the president’s advisers, including Powell’s own boss, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, believed the Joint Chiefs chairman was a carrier of that dread disease, the “Vietnam syndrome.” And while Cheney backed Powell’s request that day, he was among the men in the war council who thought the chairman of the Joint Chiefs had spent too much time in the previous three months focused on political considerations and too little on military planning. He sometimes questioned whether the general was “on the team.”

“Listening to him,” Cheney wrote of Powell, “made me think about how Vietnam had shaped the views of America’s top generals. They had seen loss of public support for the Vietnam War undermine the war effort as well as damage the reputation of the military. There was a view in the Pentagon, for which I had a lot of sympathy, that the civilian leadership had blown it in Vietnam by failing to make the tough decisions that were required to have a chance at prevailing. I understood where Powell was coming from, but I couldn’t accept it. Our responsibility at the Department of Defense was to make sure the president had a full range of options to consider.”

If Cheney believed Powell was dragging his heels all through the early stages of Desert Shield, he was partly right. Throughout the process Powell had agitated for a clear statement from the president of mission objectives, a real effort by the president’s political team to win the support of the American people, and a commitment of all necessary resources. He would admit to overstepping his bounds in pressing the president on these essentially political questions, but he would not apologize for it. He had observed very little internal debate in the White House about whether or not we ought to make this war, and he believed the men and women sent to fight in the Persian Gulf deserved a real and genuine consideration of that question by their civilian leaders. He’d lived through two tours in Vietnam, seen his brother officers demoralized, seen the Army disavowed by the general public and close to broken as an institution. Reluctant warrior? “Guilty,” Powell would write in his autobiography. “War is a deadly game; and I do not believe in spending the lives of Americans lightly.” There would be no repeat of Vietnam while he was in charge, no lives needlessly thrown away. “Perhaps I was the ghost of Vietnam,” he told a television interviewer in 1995. “If it caused me to be the skunk at the picnic,” his compatriots in the George Herbert Walker Bush administration could all “take a deep smell.”

According to Powell’s excellent biographer, Karen DeYoung, the general’s presentation at the October 30 meeting gave the president’s closest confidant on matters of war and peace, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, a snootful of something he didn’t much like. “Scowcroft was taken aback by the size of the attack force Powell was proposing,” DeYoung wrote of that moment. “The military, he believed, had moved from reluctance to undertake an offensive operation at all to a deliberately inflated plan designed to make the president think twice about the effort.”

Scowcroft … he was onto something there.

The thing was, there was no other institutional brake on the war-making machine, at least not one the president acknowledged. One of the last remaining brake lines had been severed by the disintegration of the Soviet Union. In the previous year, since the fall of the Berlin Wall signaled the beginning of the end for the United States’ Cold War foe of more than forty years, the Department of Defense had been fighting a fierce bureaucratic battle to hold on to the lion’s share of its spectacularly large Reagan-inflated budget. It was still a dangerous world out there, and Secretary of Defense Cheney, for one, meant to keep the nation’s military on high idle. He had made it clear that all those hopelessly irenic congressmen and senators like Ted Kennedy who insisted on redirecting resources from the military into programs like job retraining and education and—my God!—universal health care were simply harebrained. “In a speech in Washington before a Princeton University student group,” the Los Angeles Times reported a month after the fall of the Wall, “Cheney excoriated ‘irresponsible’ critics who suggest ‘there is some kind of big peace dividend here to be cashed in and to buy all the goodies everybody on Capitol Hill can think about buying.’ ”

Within six months, the Hill’s most powerful Democrat on the budget had conceded Cheney’s point. The chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee bluntly waved off a gathering of mayors who asked that defense money be reallocated to urban programs. “There’s no money.… The peace dividend is already going to be swallowed.”

The real “peace dividend,” it turned out, in a twist of sad and stunning irony, was that it became much easier to make war in places like the Persian Gulf without worrying about the opportunity cost for our ongoing standoff with the Soviets. “We could be so lavish with resources because the world had changed,” Powell later said. To fight a war in the Gulf, for example, “we could now afford to pull divisions out of Germany that had been there for the past forty years to stop a Soviet offensive that was no longer coming.”

And of course Reagan’s presidential antidote for the nation’s Vietnam syndrome—to simply ignore the Constitution, or go around the Congress, when you want to make war—had proved hugely successful in cutting the constraints on war in all but one particular. The only line still tying down the US war machine was the legacy of Creighton Abrams, the good old Abrams Doctrine—the idea that sending the military into war would mean, by definition, sending the country into war. In 1990, it was not possible to mobilize the military for action of any considerable size (as Lyndon Johnson had tragically done in Vietnam) without calling up the Guard and Reserves. The wrenching actuality of calling all those weekend warriors to active duty—active combat duty, active you-could-be-killed-on-the-field-of-battle duty—would not go unnoticed. Colin Powell had told President Bush, “Sir, call-up means pulling people out of their jobs. It affects businesses. It means disrupting thousands of families. It’s a major political decision.” The Abrams Doctrine made sure that a decision in Washington, DC, to start a war rang clear in every state and every city and just about every one-horse town in America. Colin Powell was counting on it.

Not that Powell was opposed to kicking Saddam’s ass, but he hoped to have public recognition, and public debate, and a real show of popular support, before the bombs started flying. When the president’s pushy little chief of staff, John Sununu, had suggested they could simply leave the Reserves at home and still whip Saddam, Powell insisted. The Reserves needed to be called up, right away, and a lot of them.

The best Sununu and the White House politicals could get was an agreement to hold the official announcement of the call-up for a week or ten days. “The political experts,” wrote Scowcroft, “wanted to delay the announcement until after the congressional elections.” The decision with the war council had been made on October 30, the elections were November 6, and on November 8 the troops were officially called up. By the time Cheney picked up the phone and told congressional leaders that the president’s massive and momentous buildup on the Kuwaiti border was under way … and by the time George Bush stepped up to a White House podium to make the bland statement that “I have today directed the secretary of defense to increase the size of the US forces committed to Desert Shield to ensure that the coalition has an adequate offensive military option should that be necessary to achieve our common goals,” warning bells were already pealing throughout the land. The formal announcement rang clear and rang loud. It was the Abrams Doctrine at work. Not just the president, not just the military, but the country was facing up to the very real possibility of war. “After 14 weeks of proceeding virtually unchallenged at home,” the New York Times lead political reporter wrote within days of Bush’s announcement, “the United States policy in the Persian Gulf has become the focus of a national debate.”

Right!

The debate got tense, and in a hurry. The 101st Congress had come to a close before the elections, and the 102nd wasn’t scheduled to reconvene until the beginning of January, but that just meant there wasn’t much else on the national agenda to crowd out war talk. Big-time Democrats in the Senate ran for the open and available microphones and, as Bush saw it, started playing to the headline writers. Ted Kennedy remonstrated against the president’s reckless “headlong” drive toward war with Saddam. “Silence by Congress,” Massachusetts’s senior senator said, “is an abdication of our constitutional responsibility and an acquiescence in war.” The Senate majority leader George Mitchell was tougher on the president, stating flatly that Bush “has no legal authority, none whatever,” to take the country to war. “The Constitution clearly invests that great responsibility in the Congress and the Congress alone.”

And it wasn’t just Democrats.

Even Dick Lugar, a Republican senator, supposedly a friend to the administration, was promising to stick the congressional nose deep into the White House’s war-making business. He suggested it might be prudent for the president to spend as much energy convincing the American people that a shooting war against the Iraqi Army was the right thing to do as he was spending in convincing the rest of the world. Lugar went so far as to call for a rare special session of a lame-duck Congress to vote on a resolution authorizing a war in the Persian Gulf. Meanwhile, leaders in both the House and the Senate let Bush know they would get going on oversight hearings into the president’s policies in the Gulf tout de suite, before the new Congress convened.

As far as Bush was concerned, this aggression would not stand either.

The president called the congressional leaders into the White House and fired a warning shot. He had bent over backward to “consult” with Congress, he said, but “consultation is a two-way street. I think it is only fair that I get to hear your specific ideas in private about the tough choices we face before people go out and take public stances.” He pulled out press clippings; read them back, verbatim, to his loudest antagonists; and told them that Saddam might just get the message that the United States didn’t have the spine to stay the course. “This is the wrong signal to send at this time.” And about all that talk of Congress having an exclusive power to declare war? Forget it. According to one report out of the meeting, the president had pulled a copy of the Constitution from his suit jacket and waved it in front of the bipartisan congressional delegation. Bush knew what the document said about war powers, he told the group, but “it also says that I’m the commander in chief.”

What’d they think, he was some kind of wimp?

There were some members of Congress on both sides of the aisle who were squarely with Bush. They were with him on the old Reagan line that open public debate was a dangerous thing. Republican Senate leader Bob Dole asked, “How do we have open debate without sending the wrong signal to Saddam?” Republican congressman Henry Hyde went so far as to say that “Congress are supposed to be leaders. We should be carrying the [president’s] message to the people.”

But the point was, the debate in Congress had already begun. The call-up of the Reserves had assured it. There was going to be a public airing of the merits of this war, no matter what the president said.

On November 20, a few days after Bush’s “I’m the commander in chief” performance, a group of forty-five House members led by Rep. Ron Dellums gathered the Capitol Hill press corps to announce that they had filed a lawsuit asking the federal district court in Washington, DC, to demand that the president send to Congress a formal declaration of war to be debated and voted on before American troops were sent into battle. “There is no necessity for quick action here,” said one congressman. “We are not being invaded. There is no reason at all why the Constitution in this case should not be honored. And that’s what this lawsuit is all about.”

This was a more aggressive challenge to the president than that initial warning letter from the Speaker of the House three weeks earlier, before 200,000 more Americans had been pointed east and told to pack. Dellums and company were essentially asking a judge to tie the president’s hands unless and until he got Congress on board. “Some people have said, ‘Well, don’t you believe that this would inconvenience the president?’ ” Dellums said. “The Constitution is designed to inconvenience one person from taking us to war. War is a very solemn and sobering and extraordinary act and it should not be granted to one person.”

“Some people are saying you’re not inconveniencing [the president],” one reporter observed. “You’re undermining his ability to conduct an effective policy in the Persian Gulf.”

“To do anything other than what we’re suggesting here is to undermine the Constitution of the United States,” Dellums countered. “This is not the president’s sole prerogative.”

In the Senate, the Armed Services Committee, chaired by Georgia Democrat Sam Nunn, convened hearings on military readiness and capability in the Gulf, but the hearings quickly turned to questions about the advisability of and the need for a shooting war in Kuwait. And not just whether we ought to fight a war like that, but who would get to say so. Nunn even called as a witness the sharp-eyed Vietnam vet and author James Webb, not long removed from a tour as Reagan’s secretary of the Navy, who argued that Bush needed to get a declaration of war from Congress. Further, if Bush really meant to start a war of this size, his actions ought to live up to the magnitude of that decision. Stop-lossing active-duty troops was one thing, calling up the Guard and Reserves was all well and good, but to knit this into American life even further, the president needed to reinstitute the draft. The entire country needed to feel it, not just the military.

Up till that point, all the president’s steps toward war had been taken unilaterally. But the sheer magnitude of his actions, the number of military personnel he’d had to involve, demanded attention and challenge. The Bush White House seemed to understand that, but to resent and resist it too. “We were confident that the Constitution was on our side when it came to the president’s discretion to use force if necessary,” wrote Brent Scowcroft. “If we sought congressional involvement, it would not be authority we were after, but support.”

Actually, again, not to insist, but the Constitution “with studied care vested the question of war in the Legislature.” But by 1990 the executive branch wasn’t operating as if this was true anymore. Sure, a president going to war would be wise to engage with Congress on the issue. But that engagement was not determinative of whether we would in fact have that war—it was akin to lining up support from some foreign, sometimes-friendly ally: friends with political benefits. Better to have them on board than not, but if they didn’t come along, no biggie.

Not only didn’t the “question of war” vest in the Legislature anymore—it shouldn’t, either. The loudest voice in the Bush White House in favor of steamrolling the national legislature was the secretary of defense, Dick Cheney. Cheney had cut his bureaucratic teeth (and exceedingly sharp they were) as White House chief of staff during the Gerald Ford presidency, back when Congress was first wielding its War Powers Resolution (stupid regulations!) and making unprecedented and unwelcome trips to the White House to stop Ford from taking the country into another war in Vietnam.

“Cheney and I dealt with this congressional backlash in the Ford White House,” Cheney’s mentor, Donald Rumsfeld, wrote in his autobiography. “In the early days of the Ford Administration, Bryce Harlow, the savvy White House Liaison to Congress, former Eisenhower aide, and friend, told me—and I am paraphrasing from memory: ‘The steady pressure by Congress and the courts is to reduce executive authority. It is inexorable, inevitable, and historical. Resolve that when you leave the White House, leave it with the same authorities it had when you came. Do not contribute to the erosion of presidential power on your watch.’ Harlow’s words left an impression on me, and, I suspect, on Cheney.”

Even before the congressional hearings on Saddam and Kuwait had commenced in November 1990, Secretary of Defense Cheney had shipped out to the Sunday talk-show circuit to sound the old Reagan line about the “risky proposition” of leaving national security decisions in the shaky hands of 535 members of Congress. “I take you back to September 1941, when World War II had been under way for two years,” Cheney said on Meet the Press. “Hitler had taken Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, and was halfway to Moscow. And the Congress, in that setting, two months before Pearl Harbor, agreed to extend the draft for twelve more months … by just one vote.” That Saddam Hussein’s misbegotten—and already-stopped-dead-in-its-tracks—adventure in the Middle East was in no way comparable to Hitler’s blitzkrieg through Europe was beside Cheney’s point. Cheney’s point was that Congress was sure to get out that white paint … and run with the antelopes. Wimps.

Secretary Cheney was no more conciliatory when he went to Capitol Hill to testify at Nunn’s hearings; this was not a man coming hat in hand to ask his former colleagues for permission for anything. In an exchange with Sen. Edward Kennedy, Cheney laid down a stunning new marker for executive power.

KENNEDY: Barring an act of provocation, do you agree that the president must obtain the approval of Congress in advance before the United States attacks Iraq?

CHENEY: Senator, I do not believe the president requires any additional authorization from the Congress before committing US forces to achieve our objectives in the Gulf.… There have been some two hundred times, more than two hundred times, in our history, when presidents have committed US forces, and on only five of those occasions was there a prior declaration of war. And so I am not one who would argue, in this instance, that the president’s hands are tied or that he is unable, given his constitutional responsibilities as commander in chief, to carry out his responsibilities.

KENNEDY: Well, Mr. Secretary, we’re not talking about Libya [where Reagan had run a one-shot bombing raid on its leader, Muammar Qaddafi]. We’re not talking about Grenada.… We’re talking about 440,000 American troops who are over there. We’re talking about a major kind of American military involvement if it becomes necessary to do so. And do I understand from your response that you are prepared to tell the American people now that barring provocation by Saddam Hussein, that you believe [the president], and [the president] alone, can bring this country to war?

CHENEY: Senator, I would argue, as has every president to my knowledge, certainly in modern times, that the president, as commander in chief, under Title II [sic], Section 2 of the US Constitution, has the authority to commit US forces.

Despite Kennedy’s disbelieving challenge to Cheney in that hearing room, despite Dellums’s lawsuit, Congress as an institution—and congressional leadership in particular—didn’t exactly get up on their hind legs and make a full-on fight with the president. The truth was, it looked like the leaders stepped back and prayed the crisis would resolve itself before they had to show up again for work in January 1991. By then, they hoped, Saddam would have summoned the sense to get out of Kuwait before the shooting started, relieving them of the need to be counted for war or against it.

With Congress in a state of strategic deferral, the White House’s real political energy was spent convincing the rest of the world. The Bush administration was busy shepherding a new UN resolution giving Saddam a drop-dead date for leaving Kuwait: January 15, 1991. If he was still in Kuwait on that day, according to UN resolution 678, the US-led military coalition was free to use “all necessary means” to remove him.

It was only once that resolution was passed—once that international path to war had been cleared—that the president decided he ought to at least make some gesture in the direction of caring about Congress. They’d be back in session—a new Congress convened—before the January 15 deadline, after all. He couldn’t tell the people that the United Nations had more sway over our military than did the elected representatives of the American people. “The Security Council,” Bush wrote, “had voted to go to war … but the carefully negotiated UN vote also called attention to whether, having asked the United Nations, we were obliged to seek similar authority from Congress. Once again we were faced with weighing the president’s inherent power to use force against the political benefits of explicit support from Congress.”

The political benefits! Had President Ronald Reagan believed that the decision to wage war (or not to) resided solely in the executive branch, and not in Congress—that the legislature’s role was just to cheer a president on and give a little political cover—he would never have waged his Contra adventure in secret. He did do it in secret—in violation of federal statute—and he got caught for it. To defend Reagan once he got caught, his administration cooked up the ad hoc, backfilling defense that no crime had been committed, that the legal constraint the president had taken such great secretive pains to elude didn’t really exist. Congress, their argument went, actually had no power over war making—pro or con; the president could wage any war he wanted, on his own terms. It was an absurd argument. But it spewed enough of a smokescreen to save Reagan from impeachment, and after he was gone, it was convenient enough to successor presidents that it survived. It didn’t have to—but it did.

And by 1990, it was this bizarre political inheritance that allowed old small-c conservative patrician George H. W. Bush—a man with no Fum-Poo flair at all, a man who grew up in a town where the country-club locker room was filled with men railing against the unconstitutional presidential overreach of Franklin Delano Roosevelt—to claim for himself and all presidents “inherent powers to use force” for which Congress’s explicit support was useful only as a “political benefit.” We had come a long way in a short time, and the strain showed on George H. W. Bush.

Ignoring the founders’ loud and explicit warning that we should not allow one person to unilaterally take us to war has been demonstrably bad for this country. Turns out it’s not so great for that one person, either. For all his hard-line “I’m the commander in chief” talk, Bush was tied in knots about the whole war powers business. A bracing little tour of President George H. W. Bush’s private diaries and letters from his months of captivity in the Should-I-Make-War-on-Saddam hall of mirrors is instructive:

I feel tension in the stomach and in the neck. I feel great pressure.… I worry, worry, worry about eroded support.… Some wanted me to deliver fireside chats to explain things, as Franklin Roosevelt had done. I am not good at that.… I think this week has been the most unpleasant, or tension filled of the Presidency.… If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.… Nobody is particularly happy with me.… But some way I have got to convey to the American people that I will try my hardest, and [am] doing my best.

The president was aware of the political risks in going to war without some show of congressional support. His best ally in the Senate, Bob Dole, had publicly said that this was “make or break time” for the Bush presidency. But Dole hadn’t exactly been clamoring for Congress to take any of the burden of decision on themselves. “If we in Congress want to participate, then we owe our boys and the president support for policy.” If we want to participate?There’s a choice? Bush hoped not. “Is there a way for the president to fulfill all his responsibilities to Congress by saying, a few days before any fighting was to begin, ‘hostilities are imminent—period!’ ” Bush asked his White House counsel. “Is there something short of ‘declaring’ war that satisfies Congress yet doesn’t risk tying the president’s hands?… Please hand carry your reply to Brent for ‘Eyes Only’ transmission to me.”

Bush did take the time to write a personal and private letter asking for advice from Sen. Bob Byrd, a Democrat, but a fair one, Bush thought, and a stickler for constitutional correctness. When Byrd told the president he was obligated to ask for a declaration of war, Bush waved it off. The president was in a muddle. He was concerned enough about Congress to ask the counsel of one of the wisest solons of the Senate, then miffed by the idea that the Senate had something to say.

Bush wrote about his war decision in his diary over and over again, in tones halfway between confession and pep talk. “I’m getting older but does that make it easier to send someone’s son to die, or does that make it more difficult? All I know is that it’s right … and I know what will happen if we let the 15th slide by and we look wimpish, or unwilling to do what we must … and I keep thinking of the … Marines and the Army guys—young, young, so very young.… They say I don’t concentrate on domestic affairs, and I expect that charge is true: but how can you when you hold the life and death of a lot of young troops in your hand?”

As Bush psyched himself up for what he had decided was his grave and lone responsibility, he talked himself well beyond a president’s normal resentment of congressional meddling and toward a real emotional rage that the Congress might insinuate themselves into this at all. This was getting personal. Even years later, he could still work himself into a state remembering it. “They had none of the responsibility or the worries that go with a decision to take military action yet they felt free to attack us,” Bush wrote in his 1998 book, A World Transformed. “They did not have to contend with the morale of the forces, the difficulty of holding the coalition together, or the fact that time was running out. Above all, they had no responsibility for the lives of our soldiers, sailors, and airmen.”

No responsibility? Only a president had that responsibility? To the president’s mind, a war was not the country’s or even the government’s, but the president’s alone. And woe be unto that lonely man.

It is my decision. My decision to send these kids into battle, my decision that may affect the lives of innocence [sic]. It is my decision to step back and let sanctions work. Or to move forward. And in my view, help establish the New World Order. It is my decision to stand, and take the heat, or fall back and wait and hope. It is my decision that affects [the] husband, the girlfriend, or the wife that is waiting, or the mother that writes, “Take care of my son.” And yet I know what I have to do.

I have never felt a day like this in my life. I am very tired. I didn’t sleep well and this troubles me because I must go to the nation at 9 o’clock. My lower gut hurts, nothing like when I had the bleeding ulcer. But I am aware of it, and I take a couple of Mylantas. I come over to the house about twenty of four to lie down. Before I make my calls at 5, the old shoulders tighten up. My mind is a thousand miles away. I simply can’t sleep. I think of what other Presidents went through. The agony of war.

In mid-December, at the orders of the president and his secretary of defense, the United States military was conducting an air- and sea-lift operation larger and more costly than the one at the height of the Vietnam War. Nearly two hundred freighters were hauling men and matériel—trucks, jeeps, tanks, and bombs—into the Gulf in preparation for something big. And that was when Federal District Judge Harold H. Greene weighed in with his ruling in the case of Dellums v. Bush.

The judge’s decision is worth framing:

Article I, Section 8, Clause 11, of the Constitution grants to the Congress the power “To declare War.” To the extent that this unambiguous direction requires construction or explanation, it is provided by the framers’ comments that they felt it would be unwise to entrust the momentous power to involve the nation in a war to the President alone; Jefferson explained that he desired “an effectual check to the Dog of war”; James Wilson similarly expressed the expectation that this system would guard against hostilities being initiated by a single man. Even Abraham Lincoln, while a Congressman, said more than half a century later that “no one man should hold the power of bringing” war upon us.

The judge, in his decision, waved off as spurious Bush administration arguments that it was for the president to decide whether or not a military action constituted war.

If the Executive had the sole power to determine that any particular offensive military operation, no matter how vast, does not constitute war-making but only an offensive military attack, the congressional power to declare war will be at the mercy of a semantic decision by the Executive. Such an “interpretation” would evade the plain language of the Constitution, and it cannot stand.…

Here [in the Persian Gulf], the forces involved are of such magnitude and significance as to present no serious claim that war would not ensue if they became engaged in combat, and it is therefore clear that congressional approval is required if Congress desires to become involved.…

The Court has no hesitation in concluding that an offensive entry into Iraq by several hundred thousand United States servicemen under the conditions described above could be described as a “war” within the meaning of Article I, Section 8, Clause 11, of the Constitution. To put it another way: the Court is not prepared to read out of the Constitution the clause granting to the Congress, and to it alone, the authority “to declare war.”

But Judge Greene also refused to issue an injunction preventing the president from taking the country to war in the Persian Gulf. “The majority [of Congress] is the only one competent to declare war, and therefore also the one with the ability to seek an order from the courts to prevent anyone else, i.e., the Executive, from in effect declaring war. In short, unless the Congress as a whole, or by a majority, is heard from, the controversy here cannot be deemed ripe.”

In other words, it was up to Congress to get off its ass and do its job. The court wasn’t going to do it for them. A minority of a few dozen members of Congress bringing a lawsuit made for a splendid legal argument. But to stop a war (or start one) Congress needed to act as a whole, as an institution, by majority vote.

When Congress reconvened the first week in January, the two leaders in the Senate, Democrat George Mitchell and Republican Bob Dole, agreed that it would be best if they didn’t bring up a war resolution until January 23, eight days after the deadline for Saddam to leave—likely after the president had given the orders for our Air Force and Navy to begin bombing Iraq. There were angry floor statements from a handful of senators, such as Tom Harkin, who cautioned patience and sanctions. “The best time to debate this issue is before this country commits itself to war and not after,” said Harkin. “Our constitutional obligations are here and now.”

But this was one hot potato that congressional leaders clearly did not wish to handle. One Republican senator summed it up nicely on that opening day of the 102nd Congress: “A lot of people here want it both ways. If it works, they want to be with the president. If not, they want to be against him.”

The president might have seized the reins from Congress on war making, but Congress wasn’t exactly fighting to seize them back. The country was split and every member of the House and Senate knew it. Polling data showed that about half the country was for a full-out military invasion in the Persian Gulf, and about half against it. Closer inspection showed ambivalence on either side of the ledger. A woman whose husband had already been deployed told a newspaper reporter in the first week of January 1991 that she was torn. “I’m not sure we have negotiated enough,” she said. “I support our troops, and I certainly support my husband. And I keep to myself in my letters and our few phone calls what I really feel.”

“I want to be a good citizen and support our country,” a cleaning lady in Mississippi told the same reporter. “But I keep waiting for somebody to explain to me why we are over there and whether it’s worth it. I still don’t know, and it’s been going on for months. I’m afraid we might be headed for another Vietnam.”

Anecdotal evidence like that, and a mountain of polling data, made clear that calculating the politics of the Gulf War was as complicated as calculating its merits. But that made things simple for much of Congress; they were hoping to stay on the sidelines and pick a side after the fact. They were willing to cede the decision to Bush, and let him take the heat (or the greater share of the glory)—willing, in effect, to allow the country to once again drift into war without the constitutionally required debate and a formal national declaration. “Congress in recent decades has avoided its responsibility,” the Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist and longtime student of the Constitution Anthony Lewis wrote the day after Mitchell and Dole kicked the can down the road. “We have come very far toward the monarchical Presidency that Hamilton and Madison and the others feared. If a President on his own can take us into a war in the gulf, George III will be entitled to smile—wherever he is. The United States has lasted this long, free and strong, by respecting the constraints of law—of the Constitution. For President Bush to disrespect them now in the name of world order would be a disaster, for him and for us.”

Finally, at the eleventh hour, when war was all but inevitable anyway, the president and the Congress did the right thing in spite of themselves. Against the advice of Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, who insisted that asking for any kind of congressional approval for a war in the Persian Gulf would set a “dangerous precedent” and “diminish the power” of the presidency, Bush made the ask … sort of. He didn’t want a formal declaration of war, but a congressional vote supporting the UN resolution to use “all means necessary” to remove Saddam from Kuwait—in other words, to support his war. “Such action would send the clearest possible message to Saddam Hussein that he must withdraw without condition or delay from Kuwait,” Bush wrote in his letter to Congress on January 8, 1991. “I am determined to do whatever is necessary to protect America’s security. I ask Congress to join with me in this task. I can think of no better way than for Congress to express its support for the President at this critical time.”

So in the few days before the UN deadline for Saddam to leave Kuwait (or else), Congress got down to business and formally considered the wisdom of unleashing a massive half-a-million-Americans-on-the-ground war in the Persian Gulf. With the president deriding their work as nothing more than a decision about whether or not to express support for him, our elected representatives nevertheless fought out the decision to go to war on the floor of the House and the floor of the Senate, in the wells of democracy, before the shooting started. And it wasn’t all just preening and posturing and pandering. It was real, and heartfelt, and raucous, and public.

There is broad agreement in the Senate that Iraq must fully and unconditionally withdraw its forces from Kuwait. The issue is how best to achieve that goal.

Without a credible military threat, our alternative is sanctions followed by nothing at all. This is why I cannot vote for sanctions alone. This is why I cannot vote to deprive the president of the credible threat of force.

Saddam Hussein … seeks control over one of the world’s vital resources, and he ultimately seeks to make himself the unchallenged anti-Western dictator of the Middle East.

We are not in an international crisis. Nothing large happened. A nasty little country invaded a littler, but just as nasty, country.

Solidarity, we need it now, not division, but solidarity.

I reject the argument that says Congress must support the president, right or wrong. We have our own responsibility to do what is right, and I believe that war today is wrong. At this historic moment, it may well be that only Congress can stop this senseless march toward war.

I think it’s time for Congress to help rather than hinder the president. I think it’s time for the Congress to join with the president and get behind him and our young men and women over there sitting in the sand and show that we’re willing to back the use of force.

If we do nothing, and Saddam pays no price for swallowing up the country of Kuwait, destroying people’s property, torturing, raping, and killing innocent men and women and children, we are as guilty as he is.

War is about fire and steel and people dying. If the sons and daughters of all of us, of the president, the vice president, the Cabinet were all over there in the Persian Gulf right now, right up on the front line and were going to be part of that first assault wave that would go on into Kuwait, I think we’d be taking more time. I think we’d be working harder on the sanctions policy. I think we’d be trying to squeeze Saddam Hussein in every other way that we could, short of a shooting war.

If we fail to act, there will be inevitably a succession of dictators, of Saddam Husseins—of which around this globe there are an abundance, either in reality or would-be. And those dictators will see a green light, a green light for aggression, a green light for annexation of its weaker neighbors. And, indeed, over time a threat to the stability of this entire globe.

When the talking was over, virtually every member of Congress stood up and was counted as being for a war in the Persian Gulf or against it. It was a narrow margin—the Senate was 52–47—but Congress (which is to say the nation) voted to go to war.

Agree or disagree with the outcome, the system had worked. Our Congress had its clangorous and open debate and then took sides. We decided to go to war, as a country. This in itself was kind of a miracle, given how dismissive the Bush White House was of Congress’s responsibility for such decisions, and congressional leaders’ inclination to shirk those responsibilities. What forced this national debate was not humble respect for the Constitution or the founders’ intent to make any decision to go to war difficult, deliberate, wrenching, and collective. No, what forced us to do the right thing was the last surviving structural barrier to war making—the Abrams Doctrine. The sheer need to call up a huge number of troops to mount any military operation of any significance anywhere in the world. Even in the face of radically reimagined presidential power and the precedent of secret war and congressional irrelevance, the call-up had fixed the country’s eyes on the real possibility of war, had made it all but impossible for the president to conduct any serious war business alone, and had ultimately forced Congress to shoulder its burden. By the time of the George H. W. Bush presidency, the Abrams Doctrine was doing a lot of work in keeping the country from drifting too easily into war.

Which is why we probably should have had a real debate—or at least thought twice—before we got rid of that, too.