WASHINGTON – Not many people foresaw the postwar difficulties the administration has endured in Iraq (search). Of the few who did, two stand out, both lions of the Republican Party.
One was President George H.W. Bush. The other was his secretary of state, James A. Baker.
"Incalculable human and political costs" would have been the result, the senior Bush has said, if his administration had pushed all the way to Baghdad and sought to overthrow Saddam Hussein (search) after the U.S.-led coalition ousted the Iraqi army from Kuwait during the Persian Gulf war (search) in 1991.
"We would have been forced to occupy Baghdad and, in effect rule Iraq," Bush wrote. "The coalition would have instantly collapsed. ... Going in and thus unilaterally exceeding the United Nations mandate would have destroyed the precedent of international response to aggression we hoped to establish.
"Had we gone the invasion route, the United States could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land. It would have been a dramatically different — and perhaps barren — outcome."
The senior Bush's thoughts are outlined in "A World Transformed," published well before his son became president. After Desert Storm, the nation was deeply split over whether Bush was right to bring the troops home while leaving Saddam's regime intact.
Although the political context of the region at the time was different from what the incumbent President Bush faced in 2003, the father's predictions about a post-Iraq war situation were eerily prescient.
Baker had a similar view on the perils of a regime change policy in Iraq after Desert Storm.
In a September 1996 opinion piece, he said, "Iraqi soldiers and civilians could be expected to resist an enemy seizure of their own country with a ferocity not previously demonstrated on the battlefield in Kuwait.
"Even if Hussein were captured and his regime toppled, U.S. forces would still have been confronted with the specter of a military occupation of indefinite duration to pacify the country and sustain a new government in power.
"Removing him from power might well have plunged Iraq into civil war, sucking U.S. forces in to preserve order. Had we elected to march on Baghdad, our forces might still be there."
Seven years after Baker wrote those words, in 2003, the political situation in the region had changed dramatically. As the incumbent administration saw it, Saddam had systematically ignored for 12 years U.N. Security Council (search) demands that he eliminate his weapons of mass destruction.
Also, the administration believed, perhaps wrongly, that Saddam had reconstituted weapons programs that had been uncovered and destroyed since 1991.
So the Iraq war that former President Bush chose not to fight in 1991 was carried out by his son in 2003, and cast by the current President Bush as part of the global war on terrorism that had begun with the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks 18 months earlier.
Saddam was perceived — at least by the current President Bush — as a far greater menace in 2003 than he had been in 1991 when the senior Bush was content with liberating Kuwait and foregoing regime change in Baghdad.
The current President Bush undoubtedly was warned about the possibility of heavy U.S. troop casualties in the 2003 war. But one wonders whether those warnings were as clear-sighted as those of Baker when he wrote about the perils of ousting Saddam militarily.
If that had been the policy in 1991, Baker said, it "would certainly have resulted in substantially greater casualties to American forces than (Desert Storm) itself. For this reason, our military and the president's senior advisers were properly dead-set against it."
Defense Department figures show that, as of Tuesday, 109 U.S. soldiers died during the 2003 Iraq war as a result of hostile action, compared with 611 since Bush declared an end to major combat actions in Iraq on May 1, 2003.