Twenty years ago this month, George H.W. Bush went wobbly.
The Gulf War had ended. Kuwait, brutally occupied by Iraq in August 1990, had been freed by a massive US-led coalition. Saddam Hussein's forces had been routed, and the hated tyrant had suffered a humiliating defeat.
Though the United States had gone to war to liberate the people of Kuwait, President Bush openly championed the liberation of Iraq's people too. Four weeks into the war, he publicly urged Iraqis to overthrow Saddam.
"There's another way for the bloodshed to stop," he said in Washington on Feb. 15, 1991. "That is for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein the dictator to step aside, and to comply with the United Nations resolutions and then rejoin the family of peace-loving nations."
On March 1, Bush repeated his call for a rebellion. "I've always said . . . that the Iraqi people should put him aside," he told reporters at a news conference, "and that would facilitate the resolution of all these problems."
In Iraq, Bush's blunt exhortation -- broadcast on Voice of America, the BBC, and the CIA-sponsored Voice of Free Iraq -- came through loud and clear. Long-suffering Shi'ites in the south and restive Kurds in the north answered the president's call. Heartened by the assurance that America was with them, and knowing that 400,000 coalition troops were nearby, they seized the moment to break free of Saddam's tyranny.
The uprising began in the south. On March 3, a tank gunner in Basra was cheered when he fired a shell into the giant portrait of Saddam hanging in the city's main square. Within days, the Shi'ite heartland was in open revolt; in Karbala, Najaf and other cities, officials of Saddam's Ba'ath Party were overpowered and either killed or forced to flee. Soon the Kurds rose up as well, liberating Sulaimaniyah and other cities in the north, and uncovering horrific evidence of the Ba'ath regime's crimes against the Kurdish people.
The rebels swiftly took 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces. Freedom, and Saddam's end, were within reach.
But help from America never came. Bush had described Saddam as "Hitler revisited" and repeatedly threatened him with Nuremberg-style war crimes trials. But at the decisive moment, Bush denied the Iraqi people the limited American assistance they needed to topple one of the planet's most savage totalitarians. Crucially, he refused to override General Norman Schwarzkopf's decision to exclude helicopters -- even armed helicopters -- from the coalition order grounding Iraq's military aircraft. And so, with US troops looking on, Saddam's forces proceeded to crush the uprising with nightmarish barbarity.
One of the regime's tactics, Iraqi dissident Kanan Makiya recalled in his 1993 book Cruelty and Silence, was to warn residents to leave a city before the army attacked, specifying the evacuation routes that were safe. Then, once those routes were thronged with miles-long columns of civilians desperate to escape the fighting, the helicopter gunships would open fire, strafing the refugees with machine guns.
"One doctor who managed to escape to the American lines reported that the security forces threw his wife, children, and brother out of a helicopter to punish him for treating wounded insurgents," Makiya wrote. Among innumerable other atrocities, "children who would not give their parents' names to soldiers were doused with gasoline and set on fire."
In the weeks that followed, Saddam's forces slaughtered tens of thousands of Iraqis, filling hundreds of mass graves in the process. Bush refused to intervene, insisting that it had never been his goal "to get Saddam Hussein out of there by force." Saddam would rule Iraq for 12 hellish years more. It would take another US-led war to eventually depose him — and a vast toll in blood and treasure, including the lives of more than 4,400 Americans.
Late last week, with Libyan ruler Moammar Khadafy's troops surging toward Benghazi and preparing to annihilate the rebels defending it, President Obama seems to have suddenly grasped the lesson of that 1991 betrayal. For weeks, the president had dithered over a response to the anti-Khadafy uprising. Tough presidential rhetoric -- Obama declared that the dictator "must leave" and promised Libya's people that America "will stand with them in the face of unwarranted violence" -- was unmatched by any action.
Only at the 11th hour did the administration back a UN resolution authorizing "all necessary force" to stop Khadafy's rampage. Had it dawned on Obama that he was on the verge of repeating Bush the Elder's disastrous blunder? On Friday, he warned firmly that all attacks on Libyan civilians "must stop," and that a pullback of Khadafy's troops "will be enforced through military action." Yesterday, US missiles began striking Libyan air-defense systems around Tripoli and the western cities of Misurata and Surt. The president's resolve comes late -- dangerously late. But if he has realized at last that this is no time to go wobbly, perhaps it is not too late to save the Libyan resistance.