Bush vs. Saddam. Economy in the tank. State of Union. Sound familiar? In his latest Against the Grain commentary, CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer says it's 1991 all over again.
Guess who said this and when:
"Most Americans know instinctively why we are in the gulf. They know we had to stop Saddam now, not later. They know that this brutal dictator will do anything, will use any weapon, will commit any outrage, no matter how many innocents suffer."
You get ten current affairs bonus points if your answer was President George H. W. Bush in his 1991 State of the Union address.
But you're also right to think you heard his son say essentially the same thing in his State of the Union address this year. "Trusting in the sanity and restraint of Saddam Hussein is not a strategy, and it is not an option," Bush the Younger said. "This dictator, who is assembling the world's most dangerous weapons, has already used them on whole villages - leaving thousands of his own citizens dead, blind, or disfigured."
The similarities between the circumstances and speeches father and son Bush delivered at the start of their third years in office are stunning. They might be nothing more than historical trivia or odd coincidences.
But I found it instructive to re-read Bush the Elder's speech, not so much to see patterns in history, but to be reminded how little of what happens in the world of news is foreseen.
The first President Bush launched an air attack on Iraq by an alliance of 28 nations on Jan. 16, 1991. Two weeks into the war, he delivered his address to Congress. Unlike his son, Bush the Elder didn't need to use the speech to sell the public on war. It was more a message of congratulations and "stay the course."
"And tonight we lead the world in facing down a threat to decency and humanity ... The community of nations has resolutely gathered to condemn and repel lawless aggression. Saddam Hussein's unprovoked invasion, his ruthless, systematic rape of a peaceful neighbor, violated everything the community of nations holds dear. The world has said this aggression would not stand, and it will not stand."
Kuwait was retaken four weeks later and Saddam surrendered. But he was still standing. And he still is today, of course.
In his speech to the nation announcing the start of the air war, the first President Bush said, "We are determined to knock out Saddam Hussein's nuclear bomb potential. We will also destroy his chemical weapons facilities." Twelve years later, according to the second President Bush, those threats still stand.
If we go to war this time, the second President Bush will promise to destroy those same threats once and for all. And many of the same players -- Powell, Cheney, Armitage, Wolfowitz – will get a second chance. We'll see. It's hard to predict the future.
That is made strikingly clear when you look back at the second main foreign policy concern Bush the Elder had in 1991 – violence and turmoil in the Soviet Union.
"If it is possible, I want to continue to build a lasting basis for U.S.-Soviet cooperation, for a more peaceful future for all mankind."
By the end of the year, the USSR didn't exist anymore.
The total collapse of the Soviet Union wasn't even vaguely on the radar screen as Bush spoke to Congress in January. America's vast intelligence service never predicted it. Keep that in mind as you hear about secret intelligence reports on Saddam's weapons cache, the make-up of post-Saddam Iraq, and what an American invasion of Iraq will mean for al Qaeda and radical Islamism. It's hard to predict the future.
At home, Bush 41, like Bush 43, faced a recession. The father's answer was a capital gains tax cut; the son's answer is a dividend tax cut.
But in 1991, President Bush was so popular, he seemed invulnerable, a shoo-in for re-election. Guns seemed far more important than butter. Bill Clinton was an unknown southern governor. It's hard to predict the future.
In his 1991 speech, President Bush pronounced, "We will succeed in the gulf. And when we do, the world community will have sent an enduring warning to any dictator or despot, present or future, who contemplates outlaw aggression."
In 2003, another President Bush says Saddam is still contemplating outlaw aggression. So is Osama bin Laden. So is Kim Jong II. Evildoers are not easily deterred.
In 1991, the President was supported by not only by American public opinion, but also by an extraordinary international coalition. And still the ultimate, logical but unarticulated aim of the war -- getting rid of Saddam -- failed.
In 2003, American public opinion is deeply divided about using force against Saddam. The rest of the world isn't so divided, most other countries are against us. These are challenging conditions for a pre-emptive war, at best.
But the American view of the world, and of Saddam, has been altered by a deadly reality check. As President Bush said in this year's State of the Union address, "Before September 11, 2001, many in the world believed that Saddam Hussein could be contained. But chemical agents and lethal viruses and shadowy terrorist networks are not easily contained." In the post-9/11 world, Saddam is not just a potential threat to our oil supply or his neighbors, but to us.
There's no doubt that the warriors could get rid of Saddam this time. But at what cost? What are the certain benefits? What are the risks of inaction? Why must it be done now? What new threats, unforeseen now, will emerge after a war?
My guess is that one person posing these questions to the President Bush is his father. Perhaps it's wishful thinking.
But I did notice that on State of the Union day, Norman Schwarzkopf, the commander of Desert Storm and hunting buddy of 41, gave a long, high-profile interview to The Washington Post. He bucked 43 pretty hard, expressing caution and heavy skepticism about Desert Storm II.
Oddly, the "hero in the gallery" President Bush pointed to in 1991 was Mrs. Norman Schwarzkopf.
Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is Editorial Director of CBSNews.com based in Washington.
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Against the Grain
By Dick Meyer
Copyright 2003 CBS. All rights reserved.