ONE-YEAR ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL REPORT
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January 26, 2005
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U.S. and Iraq: 2 preludes to war with same enemy
By Jon Frandsen
WASHINGTON - America is facing many of the same deadly weapons wielded by the same dictator of the same country, but the fears that preceded the 1991 Persian Gulf War appear far different from the angst and worry leading up to a likely war with Iraq today.
In late 1990 and in the first weeks of 1991, the United States was preparing for its first full-scale war since retreating from Vietnam in 1975. Americans were bracing for the possibility of a long and difficult desert war that, unlike Vietnam, had an achievable and straightforward aim: to oust Iraq from neighboring Kuwait.
Now, with the relative ease of that 42-day war fresher to most Americans than the nightly carnage seen on television during the 1960s and early '70s, the fear is of a wholly different character. Today's fears of war are also compounded by threats of terrorists striking at home that were never contemplated in 1991.
The dangers of combat now - very real and deadly dangers - are almost cast in the role of afterthought.
Despite the threat of chemical and biological weapons and the potentially enormous casualties they could cause, most military analysts confidently predict the United States could be in control of Iraq in less than a month.
The truly treacherous mission, posing a far different kind of risk, would come afterward as American and allied troops try to bring stability and democracy to a battered nation in a region so torn by multiple political, economic and religious tensions that it could easily tip into chaos.
"To a career diplomat, this is something that is extremely risky. It is social engineering on a massive scale," said David Newton, a U.S. ambassador in Iraq in the 1980s who advised the first Bush administration during the gulf war.
The different quality of fear is only the most palpable difference as America marches toward a second war with Iraq.
The politics abroad, the politics at home, the cause of war and the arguments made to prepare for war are all far different from when the first President George Bush sent more than a quarter million troops to the Persian Gulf.
"The difference that jumps out at you immediately is that there was no real trigger event for this war - no Pearl Harbor, no 'Remember the Maine,' " Newton said in a telephone interview from Prague, where he now heads the U.S.-financed Radio Free Iraq effort.
The rationale for war had to be created by the administration through argument and persuasion, and "they have made a very strong case," he added.
But responding even to such a bald act of aggression as Saddam Hussein's tanks rolling into Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990, required cautious diplomacy and months of case-making, both internationally and at home.
The United States began deploying troops in less than a week, but the stated aim was to defend neighboring Saudi Arabia.
The buildup of troops back then carried the benign, operational name of Desert Shield. The more frightening nom de guerre of Desert Storm was not adopted until Bush announced the beginning of the attack on Jan. 16, 1991.
The threat Saddam posed politically and economically - the annexation of Kuwait would have put one-fifth of the world's oil supply under his control - was so clear-cut that persuading the international community to act was not that difficult.
In fact, a United Nations Security Council vote on Nov. 29, 1990, authorizing use of force if Iraq did not withdraw by Jan. 15, 1991, was a crucial element in winning over a reluctant Congress and American public. Congressional support was an open question until a close vote was cast just three days before the deadline and troops had long been poised for attack.
That was the exact opposite of current circumstances, where congressional support has come relatively easy for President George W. Bush and by fairly wide margins in the House and Senate. Making the global case, however, has been far trickier for the younger Bush.
Even though the younger Bush could still develop a broad and impressive international coalition, analysts see little chance of it rivaling the unity and strength of the one built by his father. The senior Bush amassed a coalition with about 40 countries during the gulf war. Today, the administration claims support of about 20 countries, but Britain is the most influential country among U.N. Security Council members to back the younger Bush so far.
"The alliance now is an alliance of convenience, while the Persian Gulf War alliance was an alliance of conviction," said Jon Wolfsthal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Despite the differences, there is one striking similarity between the two preludes to war - a difficulty in shaping a clear and persuasive sales pitch.
While the United States was mobilizing for war in 1991 with a steady military build-up, the public had persistent doubts about why this was America's war.
"There was a whole string of justifications that were tried," Wolfsthal recalled. "We were going to make Kuwait safe for democracy. Then, (Secretary of State James) Baker said this war is about jobs."
The elder Bush's administration didn't really gain its footing until a poll in November 1990 showed 50 percent of Americans approved of war with Iraq because Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction. In less than a week, then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and national security adviser Brent Scowcroft hit the Sunday talk shows and warned that Iraq could be less than a year away from building a crude nuclear weapon.
Public support did not waver substantially from that point on.
Despite using the arms argument, the United States did not try to disarm Saddam by force and stopped its attack once the primary goal of forcing Iraq out of Kuwait was achieved. Setting the stage for a decade of frustration, Iraq did agree to disarm itself over time.
Now, in a post-Sept. 11 age where the younger Bush has made his top priority protecting the United States from terrorists and weapons of mass destruction, disarming Saddam is the unambiguous goal of the current threat of war with Iraq.
But early talk of "regime change" and a surprise declaration of a terrorism-age doctrine of "pre-emption" complicated efforts to build a case internationally and made it easy to cast doubts on Bush's genuine motivation.
"The administration's unilateralist tendencies have reinforced the skepticism internationally," Wolfsthal said.