The two most powerful men in the American military sat across from each other in the basement war room deep inside the heavily guarded Saudi Arabian Ministry of Defense compound in Riyadh. Around the 20-by-20 room were maps showing the detailed disposition of the hundreds of thousands of U.S., allied and enemy troops, thousands of tanks and hundreds of aircraft in the region. Key strategic targets--airfields, missile launchers, oil installations, weapons plants, command centers--were highlighted on another set of charts.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, following established protocol, spoke first.
"The President and the Secretary believe that we need additional assets in the region," said Gen. Colin L. Powell, wearing crisp new desert camouflage fatigues with four matte black stars on the lapels. Aides who attended the Oct. 23 meeting said Powell didn't need to explain how President Bush and Defense Secretary Dick Cheney had reached that conclusion. Satellite and aircraft reconnaissance showed that Iraq had tripled its forces in Kuwait and southern Iraq and dug them deep into reinforced earthen bunkers. Kuwait was being picked clean. Kuwaitis and Westerners trapped inside the captive emirate were being rounded up and sent to serve as human shields at critical military sites. The siege of the American Embassy there continued; food and water were running low. The United Nations embargo was having a frustratingly slow impact on Iraqi military capabilities and no apparent effect on Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's intention to keep his rich prize on the Persian Gulf. The President was losing patience.
"What do you need, Norm?" Powell asked.
Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the U.S. commander-in-chief in the Middle East and a blunt instrument of a man, responded quickly: "What's the mission, sir?"
"The President hasn't decided what he is going to do, but he wants the forces in place to pursue all options"--including a full-bore land, sea and air assault on the 430,000-man Iraqi army in and near Kuwait and a drive toward Baghdad, Powell said.
"Then, I'll need more, a lot more," said Schwarzkopf, who already commanded the largest expeditionary force that the United States had assembled since D-Day--240,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. He ran down his wish list: a full armored corps--more than two divisions and 1,000 tanks with all the support elements. Additional armor and artillery and mechanized forces. Four more Marine Corps amphibious brigades, more than 50,000 troops. More naval firepower to pulverize the beaches in advance of Marine landings. More heavy bombers, more assault choppers and troop transports, more naval air support. More fuel, food, spare parts. More guns, more troops, more bullets, more bombs. More hospitals.
"You know and I know, sir, that if we have to push him out of Kuwait it's going to take time and it's going to be bloody. Do they know that back in Washington?" Schwarzkopf said.
"They know," Powell said.
The late October decision to nearly double U.S. forces in the Middle East was the most fateful turning point of the Persian Gulf crisis. It marked a change in the American military posture in the region and signaled a willingness to wage war--offensive war--to enforce the President's demands that Iraq leave Kuwait. Everything up until then was prologue.
The consequences that flow from that decision will be enormous. Bush hopes that the sheer size of the force he is assembling on the Saudi sands--nearly half a million men and women--will intimidate Saddam Hussein into withdrawing. But if it does not, Bush says, the inevitable outcome is war.
Either way, the balance of military power in the Middle East will be changed forever. The United States military, too, will be fundamentally altered in ways that now are difficult to predict.
When the crisis hit, the American armed services were in the midst of the most wrenching period of soul-searching since the Vietnam War. They were under orders to shrink by 25%, to scale back their overseas deployments, curtail training, padlock bases, kill new weapons programs, rethink their missions in a radically changing world. The Soviet Union, for two generations the focus of virtually all U.S. military planning, had almost overnight abandoned its confrontational stance.Pentagon planners sardonically joked that the U.S. military was taking more casualties on Capitol Hill than it ever suffered on Europe's central front.
On Wednesday, Aug. 1, the Pentagon's policy planning staff was wrestling with these questions, putting the final touches on a major speech that Bush was to deliver the next day in Aspen, Colo., laying out a new U.S. military strategy for the coming decade.