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A Family's Path to War

March 30, 2003|Kevin Phillips | Kevin Phillips is the author, most recently, of "Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich."

WASHINGTON — Twelve years ago, the U.S.-led war in the Persian Gulf was named Desert Storm; this time around, the better name seems to be Desert Slowdown. Americans hope it won't turn into Desert Embarrassment.

But something makes this war entirely different -- and probably not for the better -- from any previous war in U.S. history. This is the first war begun during the administration of a president's father and resumed during the administration of his son.

This aspect -- think of it as the "footsteps factor" -- is the elephant in the strategic planning room that Washington cannot discuss. Yet, few aspects are more important to the way this second war was hurried into, straining alliances and possibly leaving too little time for adequate military preparation. Things were handled more skillfully the first time around.

To begin with, the chronology is eerily similar. George H.W. Bush, responding to Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, began talk of war against Iraq in his second year in office. So did his son, George W. Bush. The 1991 war began in late February; the current one started a month later. In both cases, there was some partisan complaint that the war drums were beaten to distract the public's attention from economic weakness and domestic issues.

Yet, these parallels would not count for much if they did not reflect a larger pattern that has fascinated Bush biographers -- the way in which the 43rd president, from the time he was a schoolboy, has tried to imitate his father's mannerisms and follow his career path. He went to his father's schools, Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and Yale University; played his father's sport (baseball); and joined his father's secret society (Skull and Bones) at Yale. Thereafter, he became a military flier like his father and then went into the oil business in Midland, Texas, where he set up his little company in the same office building where his father had his business.

Two biographers, Elizabeth Mitchell and Bill Minutaglio, note that, like his father, George W. wanted to get married, while at Yale, to a girl who had attended his mother's college. The fiancee, however, broke off the engagement in part because she worried about the psychologies driving the footsteps pattern.

To be sure, the career paths of No. 41 and No. 43 have not been exactly parallel: George W. had no experience as a diplomat and his father none as governor of Texas. However, since the United States is again at war in the Persian Gulf, the footsteps enigma that has fascinated biographers should interest a larger audience, as well.

There is an important difference between George W. Bush and his father that may add another dimension to the son's sense of being called to office and of having a unique role to play in a global confrontation between good and evil. In contrast to the Episcopalian religion of his parents, George W. is a nominal Methodist. But, in practice, he is closer to evangelical and fundamentalist beliefs and sensibilities, which are increasingly evident in his speeches and his conception of Hussein as a member of an "axis of evil." There is some disagreement over the extent to which the president believes he is carrying out a mission for God, but this is another serious yardstick. According to a 1999 Newsweek poll, 45% of U.S. Christian adults and 71% of evangelical Christian believe in Armageddon, the biblical battle between Jesus and the antichrist that will end the world, except for believing Christians. No one has ever asked George W. whether he believes in Armageddon, but U.S. troops are now moving along the Euphrates River, the biblical border of the land of Israel.

The president certainly faces a much more complicated set of circumstances in Iraq than his father did, especially because the elder Bush secured the approval of the U.N. Security Council and assembled a wide-ranging coalition that wound up paying for most of the cost of the first Gulf War. Even though Hussein was mistakenly allowed to survive in 1991, effective diplomacy left a stable Mideast structure, solid U.S. relations with allies like France, Turkey and Saudi Arabia and no question of a postwar U.S. occupation in Iraq.

This time, by contrast, the legality of the U.S. invasion is disputed. Our alliances have been rubbed raw not just in Europe but in the Middle East, where Turkey's Islamic government has threatened to move its own troops into northern Iraq, and Saudi businessmen and intellectuals reportedly chortled over U.S. military setbacks.

Whether the United States will be able to administer an embittered postwar Iraq is also unclear, along with exactly which erstwhile U.S. "ally," if any, can be expected to bear some of the cost of the war and occupation. Then there is the U.S. war against terrorism, which could be undercut if the war reporting from Iraq by Al Jazeera television and other Arab broadcasters turns into recruiting posters for Al Qaeda.

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