If war comes to the Persian Gulf, history may well mark Sept. 28 as the date when the United States president and his counselors disclosed that their patience with the economic embargo was wearing thin.
It was on that date that national security adviser Brent Scowcroft said publicly that the Iraqi plundering of Kuwait "affects the timetable" of how long the United States would wait for the embargo to work. He added that it was conceivable that the United States would seek another U.N. Security Council resolution, possibly including an explicit mention of the use of military force.And on that same day, at a breakfast with reporters, Les Aspin, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, asserted that he had observed a new, "hawkish tone" in the president at a mid-September leadership meeting at the White House.
Aspin went on to say that even though the embargo was "quite effective," it simply could not accomplish the stated U.S. and U.N. objective of causing Saddam Hussein to cave in, because "we would not be willing" to starve the Iraqi people.
"There are limits on how far we can go on the food," Aspin said. "And that means you can't rely on the embargo to achieve all of your goals.
"So what do we do?" Aspin asked, rhetorically. "Well, my sense of the rhythm of this thing is that everything I've seen in the last couple of weeks indicates that the administration is looking more and more favorably on the war option.
"Also," Aspin continued, "there's going to be military pressure (toward an early war) because of the timing of this. I think the military is going to be all primed and ready; it will have worked out all the control problems with the other countries; and it will be the old argument: `We're up; we're ready; if we wait now, we are going to lose our edge, sitting here in the desert.' "
And a possible stated provocation for U.S. military action had surfaced. Aspin had this to say:
"There's an intelligence report kicking around that says Saddam Hussein has a biological weapon of some importance and is expected to have a significant biological-weapon program by the end of this year. This is tougher to deal with; the defense against it is much more complicated."
Again, Aspin talked of the timing of what he believes is an impending conflict: "I think it will be some time in late fall or early winter. There is the calendar. Some dates are good for this; others not. A winter war is better than a summer war. You don't want a war when some 3 million people come in to visit Mecca. And you don't want to fight this war in the summer heat."
Aspin gave the chief reason for the administration's new hawkish tone: "The Iraqis have come into Kuwait and stripped the country of all the things they can grab and take back to Iraq. Iraqis are moving into Kuwait, and the people of Kuwait are being kicked out. I think he's trying to set up a fait accompli where he can say to us, `There is no more Kuwait. It's gone.'
"Or he may be seeking to set up a situation where, if push comes to shove, he could move out of there and say, `Let's have a referendum.' Saddam wins that one without even rigging the vote - he'll have enough Iraqis in Kuwait to do that."
That afternoon the president read a statement on the White House lawn, saying, "Iraqi aggression has ransacked and pillaged a once peaceful and secure country, its population assaulted, incarcerated, intimidated and even murdered. Iraq's leaders are trying to wipe an internationally recognized sovereign state, a member of the Arab League and the United Nations, off the face of the map."
Indeed, there was a new, more warlike tone in Bush. And the date, history may well note, was on Sept. 28, 1990.