As this is written, on the heels of the news that President George H.W. Bush, hospitalized in Houston since Nov. 23 for bronchitis, has been moved into an intensive care unit, comes word of the death of Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, who in 1991 became America’s most popular post-World War II military leader after commanding the U.S.-led coalition forces that smashed Iraq.
How popular was “Stormin’ Norman” back home? He laughed while telling the late Rep. Jack Murtha, D-Pa. — himself, like Schwarzkopf, a decorated combat veteran of Vietnam — about attending the Kentucky Derby a few months after the Iraqi victory. The huge Churchill Downs crowd gave the general a standing ovation when he took his seat. After Schwarzkopf later got up to go to the men’s room, the Derby crowd gave him another ovation, and still more cheers greeted his return to his seat.
He obviously enjoyed the fame and the fortune he received. But to his credit, Schwarzkopf refused being called a hero, with a statement that I urge those in positions of power and influence in Washington — currently beating the war drums on Iran — to heed: “It doesn’t take a hero to order men into battle. It takes a hero to be one of those men who goes into battle.”
Let us remember as well Bush, who — along with his resourceful secretary of state, James Baker — successfully assembled a coalition of some 32 nations, including France, Sweden, Pakistan and Morocco, to drive out of Kuwait the occupying Iraqi forces.
Bush won support, after serious and respectful debates in Congress, for his policy from a House of Representatives and Senate then controlled by Democrats. Earlier, a resolution adopted by the U.N. Security Council had authorized member nations to use “all necessary means” against Iraqi forces if they failed to withdraw from Kuwait by Jan. 15, 1991 (three days after the Senate voted to back Bush).
With the Gulf states, Germany and Japan picking up approximately three-quarters of the cost of the war, Commander-in-Chief Bush won the first clear-cut U.S. military victory since VJ-Day, Aug. 14, 1945.
More than three decades later, Bush 41’s leadership and judgment are recognized even by those who opposed him at the time.
In an exit interview after 32 years in the House with PBS’ NewsHour, the outspoken liberal Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., was asked by interviewer Paul Solman about his “failures, regrets?” Frank’s answer: “I should have voted for the first Iraq War. George Bush did that one very well.”
One mistake Bush did make in pressing his case for the United States going to war was his repeated comparing of Saddam Hussein to Adolf Hitler. The U.N. resolution and the multination coalition had agreed only to drive Saddam out of Kuwait, not out of Baghdad. So when Saddam did eventually regroup and resume his oppression of the Kurds, in particular, Bush was criticized for not having removed from power the man he had equated with the Nazi monster.
After the Gulf War triumph, Bush’s positive job-approval rating soared to 89 percent, which remains the highest ever registered in Gallup Poll history. Bush’s sky-high numbers helped persuade most leading Democratic presidential prospects — such as Sens. Albert Gore of Tennessee, Bill Bradley of New Jersey and Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, as well as Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri and New York Gov. Mario Cuomo — that they individually “want to spend more time with my family” rather than to run in 1992 for the office most of them had semi-openly lusted after.
Those men’s decisions not to run provided an unintended opening for a young, long-shot Southern governor who, barely 20 months after the incumbent chief executive had surpassed even Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan in voter approval polls, would defeat Bush. He, Bill Clinton, would then, in 1996, become the first Democrat since President Franklin D. Roosevelt to win a second White House term.
Unless we remember, a wise man wrote, we cannot understand.
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.