The president had been pressed by one of his spiritual advisors the presiding bishop of the American Episcopal Church Edmond Browning, to defend the build up and obvious intention to use military force against Saddam Hussein. In the days leading up to the bombing campaign against Bagdad and Hussein’s forces in Kuwait, Bush had consulted advisors, political, diplomatic, and spiritual. Why spiritual? I grappled with that question in God and War, arguing that Bush thought religion mattered.
Michael Barone noted that the president sought the advice of “at least four religious leaders” including perennial presidential favorite Billy Graham. According to Bush confidants, the president and first lady prayed nightly and “aloud for the safety of the American forces and for quick, decisive U.S. victory in the gulf.” Significantly, though, Bush believed he had right on his side—he followed his own “just-war” doctrine. “Those familiar with the president’s thinking say that he hews to the classical doctrine of a ‘just war’ based on a belief that deadly force is sometimes a tragic, but moral, necessity.” Bush combined a view of providential design and unipolarity to create a moral vision. He claimed to be born again, at least by the 1988 campaign, and to believe that God’s will was not a complete mystery; for instance, he thought there was a reason his life had been spared during World War II. Bush grew downright righteous when he read reports of Iraqi atrocities in Kuwait. In his exchange with Browning, Bush’s indignation boiled over: listening to his pastor argue that Saddam should be given more time, the president pointedly asked Browning whether he had read the Amnesty International report on the occupation of Kuwait. America had to do something, Bush demanded, for it was the “only nation strong enough to stand up to evil.”
Browning and many other religious leaders in 1991 remained unconvinced. As were many in Congress at the time. New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan had registered his profound displeasure with Bush’s unilateral build-up of American military forces in the Gulf before asking Congress for its support or defending his decision to the American public. When a group of Senators sent the president a letter asking for clarification of why those forces had clearly shifted to a posture of offense, they made clear that while “the Congress and the nation stand behind our troops in the Gulf,” they also contended that “in face of the troop buildup, the President owes the people of the nation a clear description of our goals in the region, the potential costs of achieving those goals, and the purposes we intend to achieve there.”
Of course lurking behind Bush’s decision to launch attacks against Iraqi forces was the specter of Vietnam. The Vietnam Syndrome–an unfortunate name for the will to be cautious about starting a war–had clearly infected Bush. In an address to the nation on November 22, 1990, Bush took care to describe American intentions in almost humanitarian terms: he understood that Kuwait was not a democracy and that liberation of Kuwait from the Iraqis would not mean freedom for all the people of Kuwait. And while Bush purposefully employed the Munich analogy to make his case in the Gulf, he also knew that he could not avoid the Vietnam analogy. “In our country, I know that there are fears about another Vietnam,” he said. “Let me assure you, should military action be required, this will not be another Vietnam. This will not be a protracted, drawn-out war.” He promised “not to permit our troops to have their hands tied behind their backs.” And he pledged, “There will not be any murky ending.” At the end of the president’s prepared remarks, he made an appeal to Saddam to enter into discussions leading to Iraq’s unconditional exit from Kuwait. Yet after Bush’s presentation of an argument that made the crisis sound like a choice between freedom and appeasement, it grew increasingly difficult to imagine how the United States would not go to war.
We have once again arrived a similar moment–though obviously not exactly the same. And as we watch this latest crisis unfold, I am interested in how we consider and debate American actions in light of the recent past–in Iraq and Afghanistan–a more distant past–Vietnam and it’s “syndrome”–and the idyllic past–the wars that have become righteous in the nation’s mythology. The legal scholar and novelist Stephen Carter wrote a book on just war and teaches a very popular seminar on it at Yale. He makes the point to his students that there are basically a small number of nations that can deliver military power with any precision and skill around the world. The United States stands at the very top of that list. With that ability comes, as President Obama has demonstrated, the necessity to draw “red lines” and hold other nation’s accountability for certain atrocities. The president has suggested that this capability defines the nation as much as the ceremonies just concluded at the Lincoln Memorial in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. As we continue to bask in the heroic moral authority of King, how should we evaluate the deployment of American moral authority in war? In short, how does the American public draw its red lines?