As 1991 came to a close, the United States was in the grip of an old, somewhat disreputable but distinctly American sentiment: let other countries sort out their own problems; we have enough of our own. This shift in mood followed a familiar pattern. Throughout the twentieth century it has taken wars to engage the United States in the affairs of faraway lands, while peace has tended to bring with it the revival of a national preference for going it alone.

When World War I ended, many Americans and their representatives in Congress turned their backs on the politics of war-torn Europe, thwarting Woodrow Wilson’s dream of American leadership of the League of Nations. After World War II President Truman succeeded in galvanizing support for the Marshall Plan and NATO, but only because Stalin had replaced Hitler as the new foreign dragon to be slain, or at least contained.

It was in the name of that new cause—stopping communist expansionism—that American armies set off to Korea and Vietnam. The first venture ended in an armistice, the second in an American defeat. Against the backdrop of those experiences, 1991 was all the more extraordinary in the annals of U.S. foreign policy. In that year the United States won not one but two wars. The war in the Persian Gulf, which lasted just over 40 days, ended in February with the eviction of the Iraqi army from Kuwait. The Cold War, which had lasted more than 40 years, ended with the disbanding of the Warsaw Pact in July, the suspension of the Soviet Communist Party shortly after the abortive coup d’état in August, and, finally, the abolition of the Soviet Union itself along with the resignation of its last leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, on Christmas Day.

Yet in the wake of these spectacular and nearly simultaneous victories, a variety of opinion-makers and political figures argued that the United States should draw back from many of its international commitments and take the opportunity to deal more energetically with the complex problems afflicting American society. By the fall and early winter of 1991 several leading Democrats were accusing the Republican administration of concentrating its attention and the country’s resources on foreign affairs to the detriment of the domestic agenda.

To be sure, there were equally eloquent and diverse voices maintaining that as the sole surviving superpower, the United States had both an opportunity and an obligation to remain actively and extensively involved abroad. They acknowledged that the strengthening of America’s economy, major improvements in its educational system and a frontal assault on crime, drugs and poverty were necessary to assure American competitiveness and leadership in the world at large. But they also contended that, given American reliance on imports and exports and its stake in a stable, free-trading international system, active participation in the political life and security affairs of other nations was essential.

George Bush was very much of this view. By the end of the year, however, the president and his administration were on the defensive. In a fund-raising speech in Houston, Texas, on October 31—the first official event of his campaign for reelection in 1992—the president complained about what he called "liberal Democratic carping," which he characterized as the belief that "we should retreat into an isolationistic cocoon." In fact the "carping" cut across partisan lines. There were Republicans as well as Democrats—conservatives and centrists as well as liberals—sounding variations on the theme, "Come home, America," a slogan that had first come into use in George McGovern’s anti-Vietnam War campaign for the presidency in 1972.

A more specific exhortation was also in the air: "Stay home, Mr. President!" Certainly that was the message Bush was hearing in the public-opinion polls. After being criticized for his frequent trips abroad, he abruptly postponed a November tour of the Far East. While blaming the press of legislative business in Washington and rescheduling the Asian trip at the beginning of the new year, the president left little doubt that he was yielding to political pressure. The Asian tour had originally been intended to foster trans-Pacific goodwill and permit the president to consult with allies on the geopolitics of the post-Cold War era. But by the time he boarded Air Force One on December 30, Bush was virtually apologizing for leaving home; and, much to the dismay of his foreign hosts, he had converted the trip into a combination campaign swing and trade mission.

By then he faced a challenge within his own party. Patrick Buchanan, a conservative syndicated columnist and former aide to Ronald Reagan, had entered the race for the Republican presidential nomination with an attack on foreign aid and an appeal for a new focus on U.S. interests. Presenting himself as a latter-day "America-Firster," Buchanan argued that with the Soviet menace defeated, the United States should draw back from the rest of the world.

There was considerable irony in this development. Through the first half of 1991, Bush’s reelection had seemed all but certain, largely because of his perceived mastery of foreign policy. Yet as 1992 began, that strength had become a domestic liability.


The president and his advisers did their best to use the Gulf War as part of their defense against the criticism that they were excessively concerned with foreign policy. Earlier in the year administration spokesmen from the president down had cited the Gulf War as proof of the relevance and efficacy of American power. They predicted that the "total victory" of the U.S.-led coalition would ultimately be considered a "defining event" in a new era. By the fall, with his status as a foreign policy president itself a potentially troublesome issue in the 1992 campaign, Bush was clearly counting on his success as the commander in chief of Operation Desert Storm to offset his political vulnerability. During a press conference on November 8 in Rome, where he was attending a meeting of NATO leaders, Bush lashed out at his opponents back in Washington, suggesting that if they had their way the United States would have been deprived of one of its greatest triumphs in decades.

But there was a problem: with the passage of several months, the victory in the gulf no longer seemed total; nor was it clear exactly what guiding principles for future American policy the event had defined. It was even being said that, far from serving as a precedent for the kind of mission the United States could be expected to lead in the future, the dispatch of 500,000 American soldiers to help rescue Kuwait from Iraq marked the end—not the beginning—of an era.

This post-victory malaise came about in part because the gulf crisis brought to the surface two conflicting impulses in the American body politic: a tug-of-war between the forces of isolationism and those of internationalism, and an internal conflict among internationalists themselves. On the one hand was an approach to world affairs based on traditional concerns about the way foreign states behave toward each other—regardless of their internal political systems—and about preserving the balance of power: what might be called American realpolitik, or perhaps "the European approach," since it was in the tradition of the policies and pronouncements of Talleyrand, Palmerston and Bismarck. But on the other hand was a recurring American desire to affect the way other governments behave toward their own people, even at the risk of upsetting the balance of power, agitating allies, provoking adversaries and impinging on those bedrock norms of international relations: the inviolability of sovereignty and the principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of other states.

To some degree this second impulse had always coexisted uneasily with the first in the United States. President Carter, for example, had made the promotion of human rights in other lands a priority of his administration’s foreign policy. But the end of the Cold War created the conditions for a new brand of moralpolitik, or at least a more vigorous and far-reaching one: the United States could now throw its considerable weight around far from its own territory and even near the Soviet Union without risking a global nuclear conflagration. In his prosecution of the Gulf War and particularly in his conduct of U.S. policy afterward, George Bush never resolved these different, largely incompatible concepts of internationalism and therefore gave the forces of isolationism an even greater opening.


Isolationism is rooted in American geography and history. The United States has been protected by two vast oceans from Europe and Asia. The Founding Fathers, having just broken free of the bonds tying the New World to the Old, issued famous injunctions to their successors to avoid foreign entanglements. The very American word "overseas" has often served to put the rest of the world in its place. The principal counterweight to Americans’ natural tendency toward isolationism is their ideology, which is, at its very core, internationalist and even interventionist.

The United States from its earliest days has nurtured a sense of itself as more than just a nation, more than just another piece of real estate with a capital, a flag and an army. American statesmen and citizens alike have seen their country as an embodiment of universal ideals. Accordingly there has been an enduring attraction to the notion that America has higher purposes to pursue than do other countries. The traditional, selfish concept of national interest may have been good enough for nineteenth-century Europe, but not for history’s first non-imperial global power.

When calling their citizenry to arms, U.S. presidents have been careful to present the challenge as more than just a matter of sorting out other nations’ squabbles about lines on a map. When Americans fight, they want to see not just victory but virtue; they care about the kinds of regimes that prevail under American auspices and as a result of American exertions. Sending doughboys across the Atlantic in 1917, Wilson proclaimed, "The world must be made safe for democracy." Joining the alliance against the Axis powers in 1941, President Roosevelt inveighed as much against Nazi tyranny as against German expansionism. Laying the ground for a crusade to thwart the Red menace, Truman spoke repeatedly of the opposing visions of the individual’s relationship to the state as contained in the Bill of Rights and the Communist Manifesto.

Thus, too, Bush led Americans into battle against Iraq by citing an appeal to broad principles. In his State of the Union address on January 29, 1991, he proclaimed:

Halfway around the world, we are engaged in a great struggle in the skies and on the seas and sands. We know why we’re there. We are Americans, part of something larger than ourselves. For two centuries, we’ve done the hard work of freedom. And tonight we lead the world in facing down a threat to decency and humanity. What is at stake is more than one small country; it is a big idea—a new world order where diverse nations are drawn together in common cause to achieve the universal aspirations of mankind: peace and security, freedom and the rule of law.

As notable as the president’s use of words like "decency," "humanity" and "freedom" was his careful avoidance of any reference to such a mundane consideration as "oil." Two months before, on November 13, 1990, Secretary of State James A. Baker had attempted to galvanize public support for the tough U.S. response to the invasion of Kuwait by saying, "To bring it down to the level of the average American citizen, let me say that means jobs; if you want to sum it up in one word, it’s jobs." The reaction had been immediate, noisy and overwhelmingly negative: Baker was widely criticized for debasing what was supposed to be a noble cause. Neither he nor other administration spokesmen ever again resorted to quite such a forthright appeal to Americans’ economic self-interest.

President Bush strengthened the impression of a policy that transcended such interests by the way he personalized the crisis from its earliest days, singling out the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, as "a dictator worse than Hitler." Dictators are the enemies of democracy primarily because of the way they treat their own citizens.

Thus, the president began Operation Desert Storm on a distinctly Wilsonian note of idealistic internationalism. He ended it, however, on a very different one. On February 28, the day after declaring Kuwait liberated, Bush suspended offensive combat operations against Iraq. While the president had reason to hope that Saddam Hussein would be overthrown after such a humiliating defeat, the decision to call off hostilities carried the risk that the Iraqi leader might remain in office. For months afterward Saddam’s smug, often smiling image kept flickering across television screens around the world as he presided over Iraqi cabinet meetings, embraced emissaries and appeared on a balcony to fire his revolver into the air over the heads of cheering crowds.


President Bush had numerous, mutually reinforcing reasons for ending the war as abruptly as he did. Much of the U.S. military wanted to quit while it was ahead. Continuing the military campaign would have meant risking much higher allied casualties and perhaps becoming bogged down in a Vietnam-like quagmire. Curing the United States of the "Vietnam syndrome" was seen as an important benefit of Desert Storm, not to be jeopardized by over-reaching in the flush of victory.

No one in Bush’s inner circle of advisers wanted to test the limits of international and domestic political support for a continuation of the campaign. U.S. war planes had slaughtered Saddam’s soldiers and countless camp followers as they fled Kuwait City at the end of the war, causing a wave of revulsion in the United States and some outrage abroad. Bush did not want to invite more criticism that he was engaging in a "turkey shoot." Virtually all the important allies in the coalition were pressing him to end the war as promptly as possible.

But Saddam was also spared for reasons that went to the heart of the policy behind the military operation. Despite Bush’s rhetoric on the eve of the war, the objective of Desert Storm was, in its essence, the defense of the old, established order, the restoration of the status quo ante, in more respects than just the return of the Sheikh Jabir al-Ahmad al-Jabir al-Sabah as the emir of Kuwait.

While fighting with the most modern weapons imaginable, the allies were united behind a concept of collective security that had changed little in seventy years. The coalition was dedicated, above all, to preserving the sanctity of international boundaries established after World War I and the notion of national sovereignty that went back at least 400 years, when the idea of the modern nation state emerged from the wreckage of the Holy Roman Empire.

What brought the wrath of the world down on Saddam’s head was his proclamation, on August 8, 1990, that Kuwait was the 19th province of Iraq. It was this act that elicited from Bush his most succinct battle cry: "This will not stand!" That was and would continue to be the essence of U.S. policy—the annexation would not stand—and it was also the main explanation offered by officials of other countries for their participation in Desert Storm. If Saddam were allowed to get away with altering by force an internationally accepted boundary, he would be establishing a precedent that could complicate, if not jeopardize, every country’s sovereignty.

For many Europeans Saddam’s challenge awakened the worst memories of the 1930s. Here were the Rhineland, the Anschluss and the Sudetenland all over again. These historical associations were surely in Bush’s mind when he repeatedly compared Saddam to Hitler. To those who were afraid that the Persian Gulf might turn into another Vietnam, he replied, in effect, that he was determined to prevent another Munich: if Saddam was not stopped now, he would have to be stopped later, and probably at greater cost.

For the Arabs it had long been a guiding principle that their leaders could engage in any treachery as long as they were reasonably polite about it, calling one another brother, and as long as they left intact the post-World War I borders. Saddam broke the rules. That violation made it possible for Bush to assemble a diverse coalition that included Arab royals, like the kings of Saudi Arabia and Morocco; moderate, pro-Western if authoritarian leaders like Hosni Mubarak of Egypt; and radical, anti-Western dictators like Hafez al-Assad of Syria.

Assad’s participation was particularly telling. Over the years he had repeatedly violated in different ways the sovereignty of Syria’s own small weak neighbor, Lebanon. But because Assad had not attempted to redraw, much less erase, any borders, he was welcomed into the anti-Saddam coalition.

The three sub-Saharan African nations in the coalition—Niger, Senegal and Sierra Leone—sent troops to the gulf largely because their governments wished to nip in the bud the idea that post-colonial frontiers were subject to adjustment unilaterally and by force. This was an issue potentially even more explosive for Africa than for the Middle East.

Just as a number of Third World countries quickly aligned themselves with United States, so did members of what had been the second, or communist, world—and for reasons similar to those of the African states. Poland, for example, had been subject to invasion and annexation throughout its history, and its government felt it important to have soldiers in the gulf as a way of underscoring its commitment to the principle of inviolability of borders.

Thus there was both logic and irony in the way the Gulf War ended. The coalition sent its warplanes against Iraqi forces on January 16, 1991, to restore the territorial integrity of Kuwait. Then, about six weeks later, the coalition suspended hostilities in a way intended to preserve the territorial integrity of Iraq. The casus belli and the essential condition for a ceasefire came down to the same issue: On which side of the Iraq-Kuwait border were Saddam’s forces? Once they were back on the right side—that is, their own—the war could end.

Much as they would have been delighted at the demise of Saddam himself, few if any of the allies wanted to see Iraq dismembered. Turkey, Syria and Iran were concerned that if the Kurds in northern Iraq succeeded in freeing themselves from Baghdad’s rule, they would stir up the Kurdish minorities in their territories. Furthermore each of Iraq’s neighbors was concerned that one or more of the others might exploit Saddam’s defeat to carve off a piece of his domain—in other words, do to Saddam what he had done to Kuwait: annex territory. The Saudis, Kuwaitis and those in the smaller gulf states were especially worried that if the Shiites in the south of Iraq succeeded in their own rebellion, that region might in some fashion become an appendage of Iran. After the Iraqi strongman seemed to have been cut down to size, the gulf Arabs began to fret anew over the old specter of Iranian hegemony, which had led them to back Saddam against Iran in the 1980s during the earlier gulf war.

The dissolution of Iraq would have been alarming to other members of the coalition as well, countries that had their own restive ethnic minorities. Secessionism was a particularly troublesome issue in Yugoslavia, which was already showing signs of coming apart at the seams; in Czechoslovakia, where Slovaks were pulling away from Czechs; and even in Canada, where the Quebecers were threatening to leave the federation. The Soviet Union, then still a single state, would almost surely have exercised its veto to block any U.N. Security Council resolution that was likely to strengthen centrifugal forces in Iraq and thereby encourage those that were tearing apart the U.S.S.R. Another permanent member of the Security Council, the People’s Republic of China, which had invaded and annexed Tibet in 1951, was sensitive on this point as well.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the Bush administration came under a barrage of appeals from foreign leaders both inside and outside the coalition not to do anything that would precipitate the breakup (or "Lebanonization") of Iraq. Among other things, it was argued, the day might come when the United States, the West and the gulf Arabs would need Iraq once again, as a counterweight to Iran (and to Syria, which had been the principal perpetrator of the Lebanonization of Lebanon).

As it happened, the president needed little convincing on this score. He took pride in calling himself a conservative, and his favorite word was prudence. By instinct and as a result of lessons learned from long experience, he believed it was only prudent to conserve existing structures unless changing them seemed absolutely necessary. Iraq was part of the existing structure. Bush and other American policymakers never supported the Kurds in their campaign for "autonomy," which almost everyone understood to be a euphemism for, or at least a first step toward, independence.

On February 15, 1991, Bush urged the "Iraqi people" to "take matters into their own hands" and "force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside." According to what several of his aides said later, the president was addressing anti-Saddam elements in the ruling Baath Party and the military, who he was hoping would seize power and maintain a strong central government in Baghdad.

But dissident Kurds and Shiites took Bush’s message more literally. They could be forgiven for doing so. A radio station in Saudi Arabia, set up with assistance from the CIA and funding from the Saudi government, broadcast messages of support to the rebels. With the official knowledge and approval of the United States, the governments of Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria sent money, arms and other supplies to the insurgents. However, the objective of these efforts, covert and otherwise, was to put pressure on Saddam and increase the incentive of his subordinates to turn against him—not to split up Iraq.

For the next month the twin rebellions gathered force. Meanwhile, Saddam recovered. Using the forces he had managed to extricate from Kuwait as well as those he had held in reserve, he suppressed the uprisings, massacred civilians and brought devastation to the Shiite holy city of Karbala and the Kurdish center of Kirkuk far worse than anything the allies had done in the air war. The U.S. government had anticipated that there would be uprisings but hoped they would lead dissidents in the Iraqi Baath Party and the military to overthrow Saddam. Instead the Sunni Arabs in those organizations sided with Saddam against the Kurds and the Shiites, allowing Saddam to crush the opposition.

On March 13, during a visit to Ottawa, Bush made a statement suggesting that the Iraqi government’s use of helicopters in these operations was a violation of the agreement that had led to the suspension of hostilities. Subsequently officials of the National Security Council staff, State Department and Pentagon insisted that Bush had never meant to signal that the United States was prepared to shoot down the helicopters or actively intervene on the rebels’ side. In a series of meetings at the White House, Bush made clear, emphatically and repeatedly, that he saw what was happening in Iraq as a "civil war" in which the United States must not under any circumstances become involved. Even from his position on the sidelines, he was hoping that the Kurds would not win, if winning meant achieving independence. On March 26, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater announced that the United States would not interfere with the operations of Iraqi helicopters unless they posed a threat to U.S. or coalition forces. Saddam now had a free hand.

The winners of the war were congratulating themselves for having reestablished the principle that was meant to deter aggression: invade a neighboring state, and you will pay a price. But now the loser in the war was taking advantage of an awkward corollary: stay on your own territory, wrap yourself in the cloak of sovereignty, and you can do anything you want. Having been punished for violating the sanctity of borders, Saddam found protection behind that same principle as he butchered his own citizens. Having withdrawn from Kuwait, Saddam was now playing by accepted rules; his abominations were once again in the category of internal affairs, therefore no longer subject to the intervention of the United States or the world community.

The Iraqi leader seemed on the brink of transforming himself from an international outlaw into the champion of Iraq’s survival as a state, a goal to which Bush and most if not all of the allies were also committed. It was the cruelest twist of the whole affair. Saddam had, in effect, joined the coalition.


If the postwar horrors had remained confined by the boundaries of Iraq, the United States and the international community might well have let them simply play themselves out. Even though President Bush had railed against Saddam as a monster, it was only insofar as Saddam behaved monstrously toward Kuwait that Bush—and most other coalition leaders—felt it was the international community’s business and responsibility to do anything about him.

Given Bush’s repeated comparisons of Saddam to Hitler, a hypothetical question comes to mind: What if British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had stood up to the German dictator at Munich? What if Hitler had contented himself with the territory of Weimar Germany for building the Third Reich, complete with concentration camps, gas chambers and ovens? Would the world have done anything about it?

And half a century later, a similar question arises: What if Saddam had set about mass murder among his own people who had risen up against him? Would the world have done anything about that, had hundreds of thousands not fled to the frontier areas of Turkey and Iran? Even when there was such an exodus, it was only reluctantly, belatedly and under pressure that the Bush administration responded with military force.

The pressure came primarily from four sources: the media, particularly television, which broadcast night after night footage of miserable, starving masses and dead babies; President Turgut Özal of Turkey, whose own territory and sovereignty were now in jeopardy, at least at the periphery, because of the massive influx of Iraqi Kurds; the West European allies, especially Prime Minister John Major of Britain and President Francois Mitterrand of France (who, in turn, was considerably influenced by his wife, an activist in humanitarian causes); and Secretary Baker, who had visited a refugee camp on the Turkish-Iraqi border. The secretary of state was only in the camp for 12 minutes, but it was long enough for him to see that half a million people were living in unspeakable conditions high up in the mountains—and therefore that the United States and the coalition had a huge problem on their hands. Shortly afterward, at his next stop in Tel Aviv, Baker telephoned Bush and urged a dramatic step-up in the effort to deliver supplies to the Kurdish refugees.

The president remained extremely reluctant to take any steps that constituted a reintroduction of U.S. forces to the gulf region. But in the days that followed Baker’s call, a number of allied leaders, especially Özal and Major, convinced him that two looming horrors—massive starvation among the refugees in the border areas and a full-scale massacre of the Kurds by the Iraqi army—could turn the victory in the war into a debacle for the West. The result was, first, a major relief operation and then—in another impressive display of coordination and cooperation among allies—the deployment of U.S. and coalition forces to establish safe havens inside northern Iraq so that the Kurds could come down from the murderously cold and inhospitable mountains. Large numbers of Kurdish and Shiite refugees were also in Iran, but their plight was largely overlooked, since their encampments were far less accessible to Western journalists and TV camera crews—and since the leaders in Tehran were, to put it mildly, not in the habit of telephoning the White House.

U.N. resolution 687, which the Security Council passed on April 3, specified that Iraq must, under international supervision, destroy all its biological and chemical weapons and give up its ballistic missiles with ranges of more than 90 miles. Iraq was banned from developing or acquiring any of those instruments of war in the future as well as from acquiring or developing nuclear bombs or weapons-usable material. These measures were intended to punish Iraq as well as to limit its ability to threaten its neighbors in the future. As such they were welcome additions to international law, but they were also in the spirit of what might be called the old geopolitics. As usual the world community was focusing on the threat of aggression across borders.

However, two days later, on April 5, with the refugee crisis growing worse, the Security Council finally broke new ground. Resolution 688 asserted that humanitarian organizations had the right of immediate access to Iraqi citizens who were victims of repression inside Iraq itself. It was that action that set the scene for U.S. and allied forces to carve out sanctuaries on Iraqi territory.

Thus, only in the aftermath of war did the United Nations take a step—and a very small, uncertain one at that—toward redefining its interests and obligations to take account not just of what happens between and among nations but what happens inside them as well. Similarly, only as an unintended and halfhearted postscript to Desert Storm—and only under goading from his allies and American public opinion—did George Bush finally begin to give meaning to the slogan of a new world order. Just as Saddam Hussein’s seizure of Kuwait had galvanized the coalition into resuscitating the old idea of collective security, his vengeance on the Kurds had, however belatedly and tentatively, stimulated the world toward a genuine sense of collective responsibility for the behavior of governments toward their own people.


George Bush, however, did little to advance these concepts in the months that followed. Quite the contrary, in its handling of several other situations in 1991 his administration operated from the principle that the stability of relations among states was the ultimate international good; and, as a corollary, that change within states, even if fueled by the yearning for democracy, can be dangerous insofar as it threatens stability. Hence his administration’s continuing eagerness to minimize the tensions in U.S.-Chinese relations resulting from the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. Hence, also, its refusal to do much more than protest when a military coup d’état in Haiti overthrew that country’s popularly elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, at the end of September.

Most significant, however, was the Bush administration’s reaction in 1991 to the breakup of two multinational communist states, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Bush and his principal foreign policy aides were initially quite forthright in their support for President Gorbachev’s attempt to preserve the essential structure of the Soviet Union. In practice that meant preserving many of the powers of the central Soviet government against the mounting demands for independence on the part of the republics. During a visit to Kiev in July, Bush publicly warned his Ukrainian hosts about the dangers posed by rampant nationalism and the disintegration of the Soviet state. That speech put the president essentially on Gorbachev’s side in the growing conflict between the Kremlin and the republics.

Likewise, in the early days of the civil war in Yugoslavia (a country that Woodrow Wilson had helped create), Secretary Baker indicated that Washington hoped the forces of federalism would prevail over the forces of secessionism—or, more to the point, over those of self-determination. Only later, when it became inescapably clear that the leadership in Belgrade was using the most brutal means to preserve a Serbian-dominated dictatorship over the other republics, especially Croatia, did Washington modify its policy. Even then, there was no hint that America, as the senior partner in the custodianship of European security, would exert real muscle to end the bloodshed in Yugoslavia or even endorse such a move by the European members of the Atlantic alliance.

To be sure, in his reluctance to engage in—or even raise the possibility of—military intervention in Haiti or Yugoslavia, Bush was in tune with his constituents; there was no ground-swell of public support in the United States to send the 82nd Airborne Division to Port-au-Prince or Dubrovnik. However, in its uncertain response to all of these crises, the administration conveyed a sense of not really knowing what the American role in the world should be, now that communism no longer had to be contained.


Meanwhile the issue of Iraq never entirely receded. By the end of the year Saddam Hussein was resorting to a variety of maneuvers to persuade the outside world to lift the postwar sanctions. To this end, he played on the conscience of the international community by having his propagandists release photographs of Iraqi children who were suffering from malnutrition; in its determination to punish him personally, Saddam was saying, the United States and the others in the coalition were guilty of mass infanticide. Once again television images of starving Iraqi people, along with persistent reminders of the resilience of Saddam’s regime, put the lie to the administration’s claim that it had achieved a great victory in the gulf. With the presidential campaign gathering momentum, the Democrats had all the more incentive—and all the more evidence—to depict Desert Storm as a failure.

Moreover, having been crushed on the battlefield but spared total defeat, Saddam not only remained the scourge of his own people, but seemed to be reemerging as a menace to his neighbors and to world peace as well. As the year unfolded, he played a cat-and-mouse game with U.N. nuclear weapons inspectors, who discovered evidence that Iraqi scientists had made much more progress in their plans to develop an atomic bomb than the outside world had realized, and that Baghdad even had an incipient program to develop a hydrogen bomb.

Important and serious as this issue was, the Bush administration’s response should be seen for what it was: a traditional concern on the part of a traditionalist president with the external threat that Iraq posed to other countries.


By the end of the year George Bush had, for the most part, stopped talking about a new world order. Several of his advisers explained that he had dropped the phrase because he felt it suggested more enthusiasm for the changes sweeping the planet than he actually felt; he wanted, as a kind of antidote to all the uncertainties in the world, to stress the old verities of territorial integrity, national sovereignty and international stability.

When, in November, Bush realized he was on the political defensive, he referred repeatedly to the Gulf War as a necessary and successful case of countering territorial expansionism. At his press conference in Rome early that month, he said, "If I had to listen to advice" from Democrats on Capitol Hill, "we’d have still been sitting there in the United States, fat, dumb and happy," with the Iraqi army "maybe in Saudi Arabia." In a speech given to the U.N. General Assembly in September, the president briefly resurrected the idea of a new world order, but he defined it as "an order in which no nation must surrender one iota of its own sovereignty"—a formulation that should have been music to Saddam’s ears.

In these and similar statements Bush was trying to rally support for his activist approach to foreign policy, but he was also confirming what many Americans had already realized, in many cases to their disappointment: Desert Storm turned out to have been about real estate after all; by drawing a line in the sand and then staying on one side of that line himself, Bush had reaffirmed that U.S. foreign policy was primarily about lines on a map.

In so doing, he was inadvertently asking for trouble from two opposing camps, both of which were already restless because of the end of the Cold War. At one end of the spectrum, the America-Firsters felt that with the defeat of the global communist enemy, there was no longer an ideological justification for the United States to risk its blood, treasure and prestige "overseas." At the other end, advocates of moralpolitik felt that the collapse of the Soviet Union presented the United States with an opportunity—and indeed an obligation—to step up its mission on behalf of democracy and human rights around the world.

Bush was, quite simply, uncomfortable with ideology, liberal or conservative, as the basis for any policy, foreign or domestic. While unquestionably an internationalist, he saw himself as a pragmatist; he never had his heart in the cause, or in the concept, of intervention on behalf of democratic and humanitarian principles.

This left him and the country he was trying to lead with a dilemma: the United States had, in the past, always needed an overarching rationale for its engagement abroad, and it would almost certainly need one in the future. In mobilizing his fellow citizens to go to war against Saddam Hussein, Bush had suggested that what was at stake were standards, championed by the United States but applicable to all humanity, about how governments should govern. But in the way he ended the war, he repudiated that principle. More important, he gave his countrymen no coherent or compelling alternative. He left them in confusion over exactly what they had been fighting for in the Persian Gulf, hence over what America’s role should be in the post-Cold War world. No wonder, therefore, many were all the more susceptible to a resurgence of the view that America should come home.

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  • Strobe Talbott is Editor at Large and the foreign affairs columnist of Time magazine. This article draws from a paper he presented to the Aspen Strategy Group.
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