Former White House Officials: Apply Gulf War Lessons to Iran Crisis

President George H.W. Bush addresses a crowd at the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait, Jan. 26, 2001, during a memorial ceremony in honor of American service members who died in the Gulf War. (U.S. Army photo/Bryan Beach)
President George H.W. Bush addresses a crowd at the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait, Jan. 26, 2001, during a memorial ceremony in honor of American service members who died in the Gulf War. (U.S. Army photo/Bryan Beach)

The Trump administration thus far has failed to apply lessons learned from the Gulf War, three former officials who served the late President George H.W. Bush said Tuesday. There is more to be done, they said, on engaging allies and Congress, outlining a clear strategy and rallying the American people in the current Iran crisis.

"There was just no question that [Bush] was going to make an all-out effort to get to Congress" that resulted in a vote to approve action to liberate Kuwait, former White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said of the 1991 Desert Storm campaign.

In addition to seeking Congressional approval, the late president also repeatedly outlined the objectives of the campaign and the exit strategy. That's in contrast to President Donald Trump, who has maintained that he does not need a vote from Congress or an exit strategy to confront Iran, Fitzwater said.

In every speech and comment he made leading up to the use of military force against Iraq, Bush included "a set paragraph -- why we were there, what our objectives were," Fitzwater said.

Consequently, the American people "understood what we were doing and why," even if they didn't agree, Fitzwater said at a National Press Club event to promote the construction of the National Desert Storm Memorial on the National Mall.

The Trump administration faces an entirely different confrontation with Iran, "but some of the things we did back in [1990-91] could have been applied better to deal with the situation today," said Edward "Skip" Gnehm, the former U.S. ambassador to Kuwait.

Bush focused first on building a coalition against Saddam Hussein, Gnehm said.

"There seems to be a tendency today to punch big and then try to bring everybody else along," Gnehm said.

Bush also "recognized that the United Nations was an important institution," and that made recruiting allies easier, Gnehm said. "That's something that tends not to be happening today," he said.

In his response to a question on the "forgotten lessons" of Desert Storm, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, the principal planner for the Desert Storm air campaign, said one of the main differences between former President Bush and the current administration was in communication with the military.

Former President Bush "issued guidance to the military and then let the military execute the guidance," Deptula said. "He did not micromanage every single move along the way. That just complicates operations."

The role of the civilian leaders of the military should be to "issue guidance, objectives, and let the professionals execute," Deptula said.

However, Deptula, in a brief interview later with Military.com, said Trump probably acted wisely in showing "restraint" last week after Iran shot down an RQ-4 Global Hawk drone over the Gulf of Oman.

By not reacting with force, Trump "provided Iran an off-ramp" from conflict with the U.S. and an opportunity for negotiations, Deptula said.

He also said that coming to the brink and then pulling back would not impact military morale.

"They get it," Deptula said of the troops and their understanding that the military is an "instrument of politics."

In a series of tweets and in remarks in the Oval Office Tuesday, Trump said the increased sanctions he imposed on Iran Monday and the overwhelming force the U.S. has built up in the region should lead the Tehran regime to draw back from conflict.

"The wonderful Iranian people are suffering" from the sanctions," Trump said in a tweet, "and for no reason at all. Their leadership spends all of its money on Terror."

He singled out an insult from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, carried by Iranian news outlets, that the White House appeared to be "suffering from intellectual disability" in its dealings with Iran, and warned of reprisals.

"Iran's very ignorant and insulting statement, put out today, only shows that they do not understand reality," Trump said in another tweet. "Any attack by Iran on anything American will be met with great and overwhelming force. In some areas, overwhelming will mean obliteration."

In later remarks to White House reporters carried by C-SPAN, Trump said there wasn't a need for an exit strategy in a conflict with Iran, considering the force the U.S. could bring to bear.

"I don't need exit strategies," he said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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