Twenty years ago, with a resounding victory in a 100-hour ground war against Iraqi troops in Kuwait, the first Bush administration completed the restoration of a powerful public consensus, a renewed national commitment that the United States should act as the world's imperial policeman.
That consensus, which took shape after World War II, had been shattered by the Vietnam War and rebuilding it had become a key (though secret) goal of the Persian Gulf ground war, which President George H.W. Bush ordered on Feb. 23, 1991 and called off on Feb. 28.
Bush knew that the extra killing of Iraqi and American troops wasn't needed to achieve the military objective of getting Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, because Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had long signaled his readiness to withdraw.
But Bush and his top political advisers, including Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, insisted on the ground war as a dramatic climax to a story line designed to thrill the American people -- and get them to embrace warfare again as an exciting part of the national character.
Bush, Cheney and other senior officials judged that the slaughter of tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers, mostly poorly trained conscripts, and the combat deaths of some 147 American soldiers was a small price to pay.
On Feb. 28, 1991, just hours after the fighting stopped, Bush gave the public a fleeting glimpse of his secret agenda when he celebrated the ground war victory by blurting out the seemingly incongruous declaration, "By God, we've kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all."
What Americans didn't know at the time -- and still don't understand today -- is that this first U.S. war with Iraq had become less about liberating Kuwait and more about consolidating domestic public support behind a new phase of the American Empire, one that continues to this day.
After the bitter experience of the Vietnam War, which left some 57,000 U.S. soldiers dead and the country deeply divided, the American people were having second thoughts about the wisdom of maintaining an expensive worldwide empire.
That ambivalence toward foreign military adventures was called the Vietnam Syndrome -- and it became the target of a long-running propaganda campaign mounted by old Cold Warriors and a younger generation of hawkish intellectuals known as the neoconservatives.
As internal documents from the Reagan administration have made clear, the Vietnam Syndrome was regarded as a major obstacle to future military operations deemed necessary to protect U.S. economic and strategic interests around the globe.
It also was an article of faith among Ronald Reagan's foreign policy team that the defeat in Vietnam had been engineered by a combination of communist propaganda that had deceived the American people, a disloyal U.S. press corps that had undermined the war effort, and traitorous American leftists.
To counter these supposed "enemies," the early Reagan administration invested much time and energy in devising what amounted to a massive psychological operation to convince Americans that they faced dangerous adversaries abroad and domestic enemies at home.
This propaganda campaign fell under the rubric of "public diplomacy" though some of its practitioners called their work "perception management," i.e. influencing how Americans saw the world around them.
J. Michael Kelly, a senior Pentagon official, summed up the task thusly: "The most critical special operations mission we have " today is to persuade the American people that the communists are out to get us." [For details, see Robert Parry's Lost History.]
The Reagan administration's chief technique for reprogramming the American people was to scare them about foreign threats -- like pretending the Soviet Union was on the rise and on the march toward world conquest -- when CIA analysts were actually detecting signs of Moscow's rapid decline.