Desert Caution
Once 'Stormin' Norman,' Gen. Schwarzkopf Is Skeptical About U.S. Action in Iraq

                                By Thomas E. Ricks,, January 28, 2003

TAMPA--Norman Schwarzkopf wants to give peace a chance.

The general who commanded U.S. forces in the 1991 Gulf War says he hasn't seen enough evidence to convince him that his old comrades Dick Cheney, Colin Powell and Paul Wolfowitz are correct in moving toward a new war now. He thinks U.N. inspections are still the proper course to follow. He's worried about the cockiness of the U.S. war plan, and even more by the potential human and financial costs of occupying Iraq.

And don't get him started on Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

In fact, the hero of the last Gulf War sounds surprisingly like the man on the street when he discusses his ambivalence about the Bush administration's hawkish stance on ousting Saddam Hussein. He worries about the Iraqi leader, but would like to see some persuasive evidence of Iraq's alleged weapons programs.

"The thought of Saddam Hussein with a sophisticated nuclear capability is a frightening thought, okay?" he says. "Now, having said that, I don't know what intelligence the U.S. government has. And before I can just stand up and say, 'Beyond a shadow of a doubt, we need to invade Iraq,' I guess I would like to have better information."

He hasn't seen that yet, and so -- in sharp contrast to the Bush administration -- he supports letting the U.N. weapons inspectors drive the timetable: "I think it is very important for us to wait and see what the inspectors come up with, and hopefully they come up with something conclusive."

This isn't just any retired officer speaking. Schwarzkopf is one of the nation's best-known military officers, with name recognition second only to his former boss, Secretary of State Powell. What's more, he is closely allied with the Bush family. He hunts with the first President Bush. He campaigned for the second, speaking on military issues at the 2000 GOP convention in Philadelphia and later stumping in Florida with Cheney, who was secretary of defense during the 1991 war.

But he sees the world differently from those Gulf War colleagues. "It's obviously not a black-and-white situation over there" in the Mideast, he says. "I would just think that whatever path we take, we have to take it with a bit of prudence."

So has he seen sufficient prudence in the actions of his old friends in the Bush administration? Again, he carefully withholds his endorsement. "I don't think I can give you an honest answer on that."

Now 68, the general seems smaller and more soft-spoken than in his Riyadh heyday 12 years ago when he was "Stormin' Norman," the fatigues-clad martinet who intimidated subordinates and reporters alike. During last week's interview he sat at a small, round table in his skyscraper office, casually clad in slacks and a black polo shirt, the bland banks and hotels of Tampa's financial district spread out beyond him.

His voice seems thinner than during those blustery, globally televised Gulf War briefings. He is limping from a recent knee operation. He sometimes stays home to nurse the swelling with a bag of frozen peas.

He's had time to think. He likes the performance of Colin Powell -- chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Gulf War, now secretary of state. "He's doing a wonderful job, I think," he says. But he is less impressed by Rumsfeld, whose briefings he has watched on television.

"Candidly, I have gotten somewhat nervous at some of the pronouncements Rumsfeld has made," says Schwarzkopf.

He contrasts Cheney's low profile as defense secretary during the Gulf War with Rumsfeld's frequent television appearances since Sept. 11, 2001. "He almost sometimes seems to be enjoying it." That, Schwarzkopf admonishes, is a sensation to be avoided when engaged in war.

The general is a true son of the Army, where he served from 1956 to 1991, and some of his comments reflect the estrangement between that service and the current defense secretary. Some at the top of the Army see Rumsfeld and those around him as overly enamored of air power and high technology and insufficiently attentive to the brutal difficulties of ground combat. Schwarzkopf's comments reflect Pentagon scuttlebutt that Rumsfeld and his aides have brushed aside some of the Army's concerns.

"The Rumsfeld thing . . . that's what comes up," when he calls old Army friends in the Pentagon, he says.

"When he makes his comments, it appears that he disregards the Army," Schwarzkopf says. "He gives the perception when he's on TV that he is the guy driving the train and everybody else better fall in line behind him -- or else."

That dismissive posture bothers Schwarzkopf because he thinks Rumsfeld and the people around him lack the background to make sound military judgments by themselves. He prefers the way Cheney operated during the Gulf War. "He didn't put himself in the position of being the decision-maker as far as tactics were concerned, as far as troop deployments, as far as missions were concerned."

Rumsfeld, by contrast, worries him. "It's scary, okay?" he says. "Let's face it: There are guys at the Pentagon who have been involved in operational planning for their entire lives, okay? . . . And for this wisdom, acquired during many operations, wars, schools, for that just to be ignored, and in its place have somebody who doesn't have any of that training, is of concern."

As a result, Schwarzkopf is skeptical that an invasion of Iraq would be as fast and simple as some seem to think. "I have picked up vibes that . . . you're going to have this massive strike with massed weaponry, and basically that's going to be it, and we just clean up the battlefield after that," he says. But, he adds, he is more comfortable now with what he hears about the war plan than he was several months ago, when there was talk of an assault built around air power and a few thousand Special Operations troops.

He expresses even more concern about the task the U.S. military might face after a victory. "What is postwar Iraq going to look like, with the Kurds and the Sunnis and the Shiites? That's a huge question, to my mind. It really should be part of the overall campaign plan."

(Rumsfeld said last week that post-Saddam planning "is a tough question and we're spending a lot of time on it, let me assure you." But the Pentagon hasn't disclosed how long it expects to have to occupy Iraq, or how many troops might be required to do that.)

The administration may be discussing the issue behind closed doors, Schwarzkopf says, but he thinks it hasn't sufficiently explained its thinking to the world, especially its assessment of the time, people and money needed. "I would hope that we have in place the adequate resources to become an army of occupation," he warns, "because you're going to walk into chaos."

The Result of a Bad Ending?

Just as the Gulf War looks less conclusive in retrospect, so has Schwarzkopf's reputation diminished since the glory days just after the war, when, Rick Atkinson wrote in "Crusade," Schwarzkopf "seemed ubiquitous, appearing at the Kentucky Derby, at the Indianapolis 500, on Capitol Hill, in parades, on bubblegum cards."

Twelve years and two American presidents later, Saddam Hussein is still in power, and the U.S. military is once again mustering to strike Iraq.

Some strategic thinkers, both inside the military and in academia, see Schwarzkopf's past actions as part of the problem. These experts argue that if the 1991 war had been terminated more thoughtfully, the U.S. military wouldn't have to go back again to finish the job.

"Everyone was so busy celebrating the end of the Vietnam syndrome that we forgot how winners win a war," says one Gulf War veteran who asked that his name not be used because he hopes to work in the administration.

Schwarzkopf in particular draws fire for approving a cease-fire that permitted the Iraqi military to fly helicopters after the war. Soon afterward, Iraqi helicopter gunships were used to put down revolts against Hussein in the Shiite south and the Kurdish north of Iraq. Only later were "no-fly zones" established to help protect those minority populations.

"It's quite clear that however brilliant operationally and technologically, the Gulf War cannot be viewed strategically as a complete success," says Michael Vickers, a former Special Forces officer who is now an analyst for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a defense think tank.

Added one Pentagon expert on Iraq, "With benefit of hindsight, the victory was incomplete, and the luster of the entire operation has faded."

When Army colonels study the Gulf War at the Army War College nowadays, notes one professor there, "a big part of the class is discussing war termination."

For all that, few experts contend that Schwarzkopf is really the one to blame for the way the Gulf War ended. "Insofar as Gulf War 1 didn't finish the job, blame is more likely and appropriately laid on Bush 41 and, to a somewhat lesser extent, on Colin Powell," says John Allen Williams, a political scientist who specializes in military affairs at Loyola University Chicago.

Schwarzkopf himself doesn't entirely disagree with the view that the war was ended badly. "You can't help but sit here today and, with 20/20 hindsight, go back and say, 'Look, had we done something different, we probably wouldn't be facing what we are facing today.' "

But, he continues, Washington never instructed him to invade Iraq or oust Saddam Hussein. "My mission, plain and simple, was kick Iraq out of Kuwait. Period. There were never any other orders." Given the information available back then, the decision to stop the war with Saddam Hussein still in power was, he says, "probably was the only decision that could have been made at that time."

'Tell It Like It Is'

Schwarzkopf was never as lionized in military circles as he was by the general public. Like a rock star, he shuns commercial air travel mainly because he can barely walk through an airport without being besieged by autograph seekers and well-wishers. But his reputation inside the Army has "always been a bit different from the outside view," notes retired Army Col. Richard H. Sinnreich, who frequently participates in war games and other military training sessions.

Sinnreich doesn't think that many in the armed forces blame Schwarzkopf for the inconclusive ending of the Gulf War. "I know of no Army officer, active or retired, who holds such a view," he says. "The decision to suspend offensive operations clearly was a political decision that I suspect the relevant principals now profoundly regret, even if they're loath to admit it."

But what did sour some in the Army on Schwarzkopf, says Sinnreich, was his "rather ungracious treatment of his Gulf War subordinates."

Schwarzkopf raised eyebrows across the Army when, in his Gulf War memoir, he denounced one of his generals, Frederick Franks, for allegedly moving his 7th Corps in a "plodding and overly cautious" manner during the attack on the Iraqi military. He elaborated on that criticism in subsequent rounds of interviews. This public disparagement of a former subordinate rankled some in the Army, which even more than the other services likes to keep its internal disputes private.

"I think his attack on Franks was wrong," says Army Maj. Donald Vandergriff, in a typical comment.

"It wasn't meant to be an attack on Fred Franks," Schwarzkopf responds in the interview. Rather, he says, he was trying to provide an honest assessment, in the tradition of the Army's practice of conducting brutally accurate "after-action reviews." "No matter how painful it is, [when] you do your after-action review, tell it like it is."

The other behavior that bothered some was Schwarzkopf's virtual absence from the Army after the Gulf War. Many retired generals make almost a full-time job of working with the Army -- giving speeches at West Point and at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., visiting bases to mentor up-and-coming officers, sitting on Pentagon advisory boards, writing commentaries in military journals.

"The fact that Schwarzkopf . . . did not make himself available to speak to the many, many Army audiences anxious to listen to him won him no friends in the Army," notes retired Army Brig. Gen. John Mountcastle.

Adds Earl H. Tilford Jr., a former director of research at the War College's Strategic Studies Institute: "You never saw him at Carlisle, never."

Likewise, a professor at West Point recalls repeatedly being brushed off by Schwarzkopf's office.

Schwarzkopf says he avoided those circles for good reason. After the Gulf War, he says, he decided to take a low profile within the Army because he didn't want to step on the toes of the service's post-Gulf War leaders. There were sensitivities about overshadowing those generals, he says, especially after word leaked that he had been considered for the post of Army chief of staff but had declined the position.

Seeing that "open wound," he says, "I purposely distanced myself for a reasonable time."

The Army War College's location in rural Pennsylvania makes it difficult to reach from his home in the Tampa area, he says. And he notes that he has done much other work behind the scenes on behalf of the Army, including meeting with presidential candidate Bush to lobby him on military readiness issues.

He also has been busy with nonmilitary charities. After a bout with prostate cancer in 1994, he threw himself into helping cancer research; no fewer than 10 groups that fight cancer or conduct other medical research have given him awards in recent years.

No More Heroes?

Perhaps the real reason that Schwarzkopf's reputation has shrunk has more to do with America and less to do with Schwarzkopf's actions. American wars used to produce heroes such as Washington, Grant and Eisenhower, whose names were known by all schoolchildren, notes Boston University political scientist Andrew Bacevich.

But in recent decades, Bacevich says, "military fame has lost its durability." Sen. John McCain may appear to be an exception, he says, but he is someone noted less for what he did in the military than for what he endured as a prisoner of war.

More representative, Bacevich notes, may be Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the officer who would lead U.S. forces in any new war with Iraq. Franks "has not ignited widespread popular affection," says Bacevich, himself a retired Army colonel.

It may be that American society no longer has an appetite for heroes, military or otherwise, says Ward Carroll, a recently retired naval aviator and author of "Punk's War," a novel about patrolling the no-fly zone over southern Iraq. American society may not be making the kinds of sacrifices that make people look for heroes to celebrate. "You don't have rationing, you don't have gold stars in the window, and the other things that made [war heroes] a part of the fabric of American life" in the past, he says.

Even Schwarzkopf's own Gulf War memoir was titled "It Doesn't Take a Hero."

Or it just may be that America no longer puts anyone up on a pedestal. "Even our sports heroes aren't heroes anymore, in the way that Lou Gehrig and Mickey Mantle were," says Carroll. "The picture is a lot more blurred nowadays."