[Forward from AML (ACTIV-L) -- see bottom for more info]
A better title for this article, despite its rhetoric that
"Taking the official at his word, the only possible explanation of the
Bush administration's miscalculations in the days before the invasion
is sheer incompetence on the part of the president and his men."
"Now that we are at war, it can be said that the Bush administration's
actions in those days almost certainly constitute the worst diplomatic
failure by any modern president."
is "The Baiting of Saddam", not "diplomatic bungling"
From dave%ratmandu.csd.sgi.com@SGI.COM Thu Feb 14 02:37:17 1991
Date: Wed, 13 Feb 91 12:31:05 CST
Sender: Activists Mailing List
To: Multiple recipients of list ACTIV-L
the following appeared in the "VILLAGE VOICE," January 22, 1991
Slouching Toward Baghdad: How Diplomatic Bungling Brought Us to the Brink
By Murray Waas
Five days before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, President Bush was
briefed by William H. Webster, the director of the Central
Intelligence Agency. This reporter has learned that Webster warned
that Saddam Hussein was likely to invade Kuwait, predicting that Iraq
would probably seize only a small part and not the whole country
(although, he hedged, that was a possibility). Webster told Bush that
the Iraqis would take the Kuwaiti side of the Rumaila oil fields
straddling the Iraq-Kuwait border and the islands of Bubiyan and
Warba. Iraqi control of the latter would provide Baghdad's first
unrestricted access to the Persian Gulf in its history.
Despite this strong personal warning from Webster, high-level
spokespersons for the Bush administration, including Assistant
Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs John H.
Kelly, continued to state publicly, for the world and Saddam Hussein
to hear, that the U.S. would remain neutral in any Iraq-Kuwait
conflict, asserting that the U.S. had no obligation to come to
Kuwait's aid militarily.
As the possibility of an invasion became clear to midlevel U.S.
intelligence and diplomatic officials, they recommended that the
administration reverse its neutral public stance, and send a strong
message to Saddam that there would be U.S. retribution for any
invasion. But those warnings were ignored by Secretary of State James
Baker and the president.
Since the invasion, highly classified U.S. intelligence assessments
have determined that Saddam took U.S. statements of neutrality in the
Iraq-Kuwait conflict as a green light from the Bush administration for
an invasion. One senior Iraqi military official, who has proved to be
a valuable source of information for the CIA in the past, has told the
agency that Saddam seemed to be sincerely surprised by the subsequent
bellicose reaction of the Bush administration following the August 2
Says one senior diplomatic official: "If Saddam claims to have
been confused and baffled by our signals--before and after the
invasion--we have only ourselves to blame."
In an interview with this reporter, a senior administration insider
bristled at the suggestion made by some intelligence analysts that the
Bush administration would have acquiesced in an Iraqi annexation of
the oil field and the two islands. "Our position then was what it is
now: such a seizure is a violation of international law and
unacceptable to this administration."
Taking the official at his word, the only possible explanation of
the Bush administration's miscalculations in the days before the
invasion is sheer incompetence on the part of the president and his
men. It is impossible to say for sure whether Iraq would have invaded
Kuwait if the administration's rhetoric had been remotely the same
before August 2 as it has been since. Now that we are at war, it can
be said that the Bush administration's actions in those days almost
certainly constitute the worst diplomatic failure by any modern
Sending the First Message: No Sanctions
Why didn't President Bush and his administration send a strong
message to Saddam prior to the invasion in an effort to prevent war?
Iraqi intentions were hardly a closely guarded secret in the weeks
and months prior to the invasion. As early as Feb. 24, 1990, during a
meeting of the Arab Co-operation Council held in Amman, Jordan, Saddam
took Jordan's King Hussein and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak aside
and made an ominous threat: Kuwait and Saudi Arabia must not only
forgive the $30 billion in debt Iraq incurred during its war with Iran
but also provide Iraq with an additional $30 billion in new grants.
If they did not comply, Hussein warned, reprisals would be taken by
Iraq. Hussein's private comments to the two Arab heads of state were
relayed almost immediately to U.S. intelligence officials, sources
As Saddam stepped up the shakedown of his neighbors, the Bush
administration was winking at him. On Apr. 12, 1990, the Iraqi leader
met with a delegation of U.S. senators headed by minority leader
Robert Dole. Saddam harangued his guests about a Voice of America
broadcast critical of his regime as well as efforts in Congress to
impose economic sanctions on Iraq over human rights abuses. Dole,
saying he was speaking on behalf of the president, reassured Saddam
that neither of those actions properly reflected the policy of the
Bush administration, according to a transcript of the meeting that was
made public by the Iraqi government. (Dole and the other U.S.
participants have not denied the accuracy of the transcript.) A low-
level VOA bureaucrat was responsible for the broadcast, Dole
explained. The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, had already
given Saddam a similar explanation of the incident, diplomatic sources
As for economic sanctions, Dole reassured Saddam that the Bush
administration was opposed to them as well. "We believe, as leaders
in the U.S. Congress, that Congress does not represent Bush or the
government," Dole told Saddam. "I assume Bush will object to the
sanctions. He may veto them unless something provocative occurs."
When the Iraqi strongman continued to complain about an alleged
"large-scale campaign" against Iraq by the United States and Europe,
Dole shot back that its impetus "was not from President Bush." To
buttress Dole's remarks, Senate Minority Whip Alan Simpson added that
the U.S. media was to blame for any mischief at Iraq's expense. The
American press, Simpson told the dictator, was "spoiled and
conceited." This he knew, the senator explained, from personal
Dole and Simpson met with President Bush when they returned to
Washington in late April, and counseled forbearance toward Saddam. It
was a message George Bush was ready to hear. When Iraq's war with
Iran ended in August 1988, many in the Reagan administration argued
unsuccessfully that the tilt toward Iraq should end. Deputy Secretary
of State John Whitehead and analysts at the CIA sent memos
recommending that course. But Bush opposed this policy, high-level
administration officials say, arguing that those concerned about Iraqi
human rights abuses and development of chemical and nuclear weapons
were being shortsighted. Once he became president, Bush insisted that
they were refusing to see the long-term, positive role Iraq might
someday play in the Middle East.
Within days of meeting with Dole, according to intelligence
officials, Saddam ordered his top military commanders to secretly
prepare a contingency plan for invading Kuwait. During this same
period, Saddam met with Kuwaiti and Saudi diplomats and once again
demanded help in retiring his war debt, according to Saudi and Kuwaiti
accounts provided almost contemporaneously to the Bush administration.
The two neighboring countries committed sums of money considerably
less than the $60 billion Saddam wanted: the Saudis offered $200
million, the Kuwaitis $40 million. Saddam was incensed.
The Second Message: All's Fair
Secretary Baker, appearing before a Senate appropriations
subcommittee on Apr. 25, was unexpectedly confronted by Frank
Lautenberg (Democrat, New Jersey) about the administration's
"forbearance" on Iraq. "We [have] heard from President Hussein of
Iraq too often, too bellicose," Lautenberg said. "On Apr. 2, he
threatened to scorch half of Israel with a binary chemical weapon . .
. The testimony of numerous arms experts proves that Iraq is
developing or already has nuclear capabilities despite their denials."
In an extraordinary and previously unreported statement (since the
routine hearing on the State Department's budget attracted little
press attention), Baker appeared to give credence to Iraq's rationale
for developing chemical weapons:
"Let me say that, at least, the use of chemical weapons we view
very seriously and it is very disturbing to us. Having said that, I
must tell you what Saddam Hussein told members of the Senate
[referring to the Dole mission] who visited with him last week.
"And I am not vouching for these statements. I am simply reporting
to you what was reported to us. And that is . . . chemical weapons
[would be used only] on the assumption that Iraq would have been
attacked by nuclear weapons. At least that is what he says. `If we
are attacked by nuclear weapons we will respond with the only [similar
weapon] we have, which is chemical weapons.'
"I am not taking sides in that argument. I am just stating that."
Baker's testimony was extraordinary for a number of reasons.
Although the Reagan and Bush administration had done little to
discourage Iraq's use of chemical weapons, at least in public
statements it had always spoken in a unified voice to condemn these
indiscriminate weapons of terror. Though neither administration
really backed up its rhetoric with action--Reagan opposed
congressional attempts to impose economic sanctions on Iraq only one
day after then secretary of state George Shultz denounced Iraq for
using poison gas--at least the United States was on the record as
unequivocally opposed to the use of chemical weapons. Baker's
statement made them seem to be a potentially legitimate part of any
If the American press was too busy to report Baker's remarks, one
important audience was listening: U.S. intelligence sources have told
this reporter that Baker's comments were cabled back to Baghdad from
its Washington embassy and are believed to have been made known to
Saddam Hussein personally.
A History Lesson for the State Department
The same intelligence sources say that the very next day an Iraqi
embassy officer attended a House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on
"U.S.-Iraqi Relations." And once again, the Bush administration was
to send the wrong message to Saddam.
Assistant Secretary of State John Kelly had some of the toughest
words the Reagan and Bush administrations were to have for Iraq prior
to the invasion of Kuwait. Kelly told the subcommittee on Apr. 26
that certain "Iraqi actions have raised questions about Iraqi
intentions in the region." He cited Saddam's criticism of U.S. naval
power in the gulf, the murder of an Iraqi dissident in the U.S. with
the apparent sanction of the Iraqi government, and the execution of a
British newspaper reporter on the charge of spying.
Anyone who construed Kelly's statement to signal a tougher policy
toward Iraq was disappointed to hear the rest of what he had to say
that afternoon. Kelly made clear that the Bush administration
policies remained the same. The White House still opposed economic
sanctions of any kind. Kelly even went on to praise Saddam for
"talking about a new constitution and an expansion of participatory
By the end of the day, it was evident that Kelly was more
comfortable in his familiar role as an apologist for Saddam.
"You drew a dichotomy between words and deeds," Representative Tom
Lantos (D-California) said after Kelly claimed to believe Saddam's
threats against Israel were only rhetorical. "We are not dealing with
words, although the words that Saddam Hussein is spewing forth, I have
not heard since Adolf Hitler. I believe Saddam Hussein. I don't
think he would have the slightest pangs of conscience for killing half
the people living in Israel. He would probably rejoice and have a
banquet at the end of the day.
"At what point will the administration recognize that this is not a
nice guy, and that conceivably sanctions are appropriate?" Lantos
asked. "They were appropriate vis-a-vis Nicaragua in the previous
administration. Did Nicaragua have a worse human rights record? Did
Nicaragua threaten to wipe out its neighbors with poison gas? Did
Nicaragua use poison gas on the contras?"
Kelly insisted Saddam was only engaging in rhetoric: "I remember
hearing Khrushchev saying I will bury you," he retorted.
"You know the context," an angered Lantos responded. "It's related
to economic competition. I don't think it is fair for you to
retroactively reinterpret Khrushchev's comments. Nobody in the
American government took these words to mean a physical annihilation
of the United States. You are the first one to make this
"That may be true," Kelly lamely replied. "I was not in the
government at the time."
"But you were an adult and you heard that statement?" asked Lantos.
"I don't think I had reached voting age."
Just what message that little exchange sent Saddam is anybody's
Go to War for Kuwait? Not This Administration
Continuing to think he had nothing to fear from the Bush
administration, Saddam stepped up his pressure on Kuwait and Saudi
Arabia. On May 28, during the Arab League Summit in Baghdad, Saddam
accused his fellow Arabs of engaging in an "economic war against
Iraq." He said that if things weren't settled soon, he might be
willing to go to war.
Meanwhile, Iraq's intentions for Kuwait were becoming more
apparent. On July 11 at a special meeting of OPEC, Iraq was
unsuccessful in convincing other members of the cartel to raise oil
prices and limit production. Saddam's anger at the Saudis and
Kuwaitis hardened: not only had they refused to help him retire his
war debt, but their refusal to raise oil prices would cause
irreparable harm to the Iraqi economy.
On July 16, Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, attending the Arab
summit in Tunisia, shocked his fellow diplomats by declaring, "We are
sure some Arab states are involved in a conspiracy against us. And we
want you to know, our country will not kneel and our women will not
become prostitutes and our children will not be barred from food."
The very next day, Saddam threatened military action during a
speech to a large crowd in Baghdad. "Countries which hurt Iraq should
remember an old Iraqi saying that cutting a neck is better than
cutting a means of life."
Few high up in the Bush administration took note. But one of those
who had been receiving intelligence reports about Iraqi troops massing
on the Kuwaiti border was Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney. On July
19, Cheney told reporters during a press briefing that the United
States was committed to militarily defend Kuwait if attacked. (Cheney
was only reiterating a longstanding policy: The Reagan administration
had assured Kuwait during the Iran-Iraq war that it would militarily
defend it against attack, although the promise was made, ironically,
because Kuwait, then allied with Iraq, feared an attack from Iran.)
Shortly after Cheney's comments were reported in the press, they
were quickly repudiated by his spokesperson, Pete Williams, who
explained that the secretary had spoken with "some degree of liberty."
According to one senior Defense Department source, "the White House
cut the secretary down to size rather quickly. They said, `You're
committing us to war we might not want to fight.'" Adds the official:
"He was told quite pointedly that from then on, statements on Iraq
would be made by the White House and State Department."
From that date on, the Bush administration did speak with one
voice--a consistent one that assured Saddam the U.S. would look the
other way if Iraq were to attack Kuwait.
On July 24, State Department spokesperson Margaret Tutwiler, asked
during a press briefing about whether the U.S. had any commitment to
militarily defend Kuwait, responded: "We do not have any defense
treaties with Kuwait, and there are no special defense or security
commitments to Kuwait." The very next day, July 25, Saddam was
personally told the same by no less than the U.S. ambassador to Iraq,
April Glaspie. Two days later, on July 27, both the Senate and House
voted to impose limited economic sanctions against Iraq. The proposed
sanctions would have prohibited further agricultural credits to Iraq,
which during the Reagan and Bush administrations had already climbed
to a total of more than $4.5 billion.
Although appearing to be substantive, the sanctions would have been
little more than symbolic. To gain a majority in both houses to
support them, the sanctions were amended to include a provision
granting the president broad powers to simply waive any part or all of
them if he judged they could potentially harm the export
competitiveness of the U.S. Such a provision, considering the
administration's past support for Saddam, would hardly have been
crippling. Still, the Bush administration mounted an aggressive and
ultimately successful campaign to make sure that the sanctions were
Let's Make This Perfectly Clear: What's a Border Dispute?
Early on the morning of July 28, CIA director William Webster and a
small contingent of aides--including Richard Stolz, the deputy
director of operations--arrived at the White House to inform President
Bush that they believed that an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was imminent.
But Webster told the president that the Iraqis were more likely to
only annex the Rumaila oil fields and the two islands. To
substantiate their claims, the CIA officials were armed with satellite
photos showing Iraqi troops massed near the Kuwaiti border. Two CIA
experts on satellite imaging accompanied Webster to the White House,
in case Bush had detailed questions; but the president showed little
(A White House spokesperson refused to confirm or deny that such a
briefing was ever held for the president. A spokesperson for the CIA,
Mark Mansfield, told this reporter he could only say that the CIA
furnished the White House with "very useful and timely information.")
Despite Webster's personal warning, spokespersons for the Bush
administration in the four days remaining before the invasion
continued to insist the U.S. would remain neutral and not come to
Then on July 31, just two days before the invasion, another senior
official of the.Bush administration would leave little doubt with
Saddam that the U.S. would not come to the rescue of Kuwait if it was
attacked. The occasion was yet another appearance by Assistant
Secretary of State John Kelly before House foreign affairs
By this time, analysts at both the CIA and the Defense Intelligence
Agency reportedly had reached a consensus that some type of Iraqi
military action against Kuwait was imminent, although there were
disagreements as to whether Saddam was simply targeting the Rumaila
oil fields and the two islands or the entire country.
Despite this new assessment, Kelly told the congressmen in a
prepared statement: "Historically, the U.S. has taken no position on
the border disputes in the area, not on matters pertaining to internal
The subcommittee chairman, Representative Lee Hamilton (Democrat,
Indiana), who opposed U.S. military intervention at he time, pressed
Kelly more specifically:
"I read a statement . . . in the press [in which] Secretary Cheney
said the United States' commitment was to come to . . . Kuwait's
defense if attacked. And I wondered if . . . I'm not sure that's an
accurate statement, but that's what I read in the press. Perhaps you
could clarify for me just what our commitment is."
Asserting that he had never even heard of Cheney's statement, Kelly
said: "We have no defense treaty relationship with any gulf country.
That is clear. . . . We have not historically taken a position on
Hamilton pressed Kelly further, apparently to make sure the U.S.
was not about to become involved in a war in the Persian Gulf: "If
Iraq . . . charged across the border into Kuwait--what would be our
position with regard to the use of U.S. forces? . . . It is correct to
say, however, that we do not have a treaty commitment which would
obligate us to engage U.S. forces there?"
"That is correct." Kelly responded.
Whatever little doubt, whatever slight ambiguity existed about the
U.S. position on an Iraqi takeover of Kuwait was now gone, thanks to
the public statement of a senior Bush administration policymaker.
Two days later, Iraqi troops crossed the border into Kuwait.
Who Lost Kuwait?
Saddam's understanding that the Bush administration had given him a
green light to invade could not have been any more emphatically
reinforced than it was one week before the invasion, at a July 25
meeting at the Presidential Palace with Ambassador Glaspie. The Iraqi
government gave a transcript of that meeting to ABC News in September.
The Bush administration has not refuted the accuracy of the Iraqi
transcription--knowing with virtual certainty that Saddam had secretly
taped the meeting.
Saddam left little doubt during the two-hour meeting that he was
considering an invasion of Kuwait. He bluntly told Glaspie that he
considered Kuwait to be engaging in acts of war against Iraq by not
assisting with Iraq's war debt or agreeing to limit its production of
oil. If Iraq attacked, Saddam explained, it would be because Kuwait
was already at war with Iraq.
"When planned and deliberate policy forces the price of oil down
without good commercial means, then that means another war against
Iraq," Saddam told Glaspie. "Military war kills people, but economic
war kills their humanity by depriving them of their chance to have a
good standard of living. As you know, we gave rivers of blood in a
war that lasted eight years, but we did not lose our humanity. Iraqis
have a right to live proudly. We do not accept that anyone could
injure Iraqi pride or the Iraqi right to have a high standard of
living. [Kuwait has been] at the forefront of that policy. . . .
"We want others to know that our patience is running out, regarding
their actions [which deny] even the milk our children drink, and the
pensions of the widow who lost her husband during the war. . . . We
are not aggressors, but we do not accept aggression either."
Saddam even went so far as to warn Glaspie he would not fear U.S.
military retaliation after an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. "You can come
to Iraq with aircraft and missiles," he told her, "but do not push us
to the point we cease to care."
Then he exploded, ominously: "And when we feel that you want to
injure our pride and take away the Iraqi's chance of a high standard
of living, then we will cease to care and death will be the choice for
us. Then we would not care if you fired 100 missiles for each missile
we fired because without pride life would have no value."
Later, Saddam warned Glaspie, "Yours is a not society which can
accept 10,000 dead in one battle."
Incredible as it now seems, the American ambassador had no forceful
words to discourage Saddam from invading Kuwait. Instead, the
transcript shows, even as Saddam was making his intentions known,
Glaspie was openly expressing sympathy for his attitude toward Kuwait.
"We studied history at school," Glaspie told him. Then she
compared his plight to that of America's Founding Fathers. "They
taught us to say, `Freedom or death.' I think you know well that we
as a people have our own experience with colonialists."
And then Glaspie went on to tell Saddam that the Bush
administration wanted only closer relations with Iraq, pointing out
that the president himself "had [directed his] administration to
reject the suggestion of implementing trade sanctions." But Saddam
wasn't in a conciliatory mood. Bush had clamped down recently (too
late and still in only a quite limited fashion) on sales of U.S. goods
that could be used for military purposes or enhance Iraq's
capabilities to execute chemical and biological war.
"There is nothing left for us to buy from America," Saddam
complained. "Only wheat. Because every time we want to buy
something, they say it is forbidden. I am afraid that one day you
will say, `You are going to make gunpowder out of wheat.'"
Glaspie could have defended the new efforts to enforce the export
restrictions, pointing to any one of a number of instances in which
Saddam had broken his word and converted "dual use" items for the
military. She could have cited the example of the Bell 214
helicopters sent to Iraq, which the Iraqi government promised would be
restricted to be used only for "recreation" but were converted for
military purposes. U.S. intelligence reports crossing her desk noted
the use of analogue computer systems for missile guidance and forges
that were used to manufacture artillery barrels. Or she could have
cited the 1985 Iraqi request of the Centers for Disease Control for
three shipments of the rare West Nile Fever Virus for "research on
viruses." The viruses ended up as part of Iraq's biological warfare
program, used by the Iraqis to infect Israeli soldiers at two military
Instead, Glaspie was apologetic, letting Saddam know that she was
there to serve him: "I have a direct instruction from the president
to seek better relations with Iraq."
The most extraordinary event of the Saddam-Glaspie meeting,
however, is that Glaspie, without having been solicited to do so,
signaled to Saddam that the U.S. would do nothing if Iraq invaded
"We have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border
disagreements with Kuwait. I was in the American embassy in Kuwait
during the late '60s. The instructions we had during that period were
that we should express no opinion on this issue and that the issue is
not associated with America. James Baker has directed out official
spokesman to emphasize the instruction."
Chivalry Is Dead
After the invasion of Kuwait and after the Iraqis made public a
transcript of the Hussein-Glaspie meeting, the White House attempted
to make the ambassador into a scapegoat of sorts, emphasizing that she
left for a vacation right after her meeting with Saddam--just two days
before the invasion.
"I thought to postpone my trip because of the difficulties we are
facing," she told Saddam at the end of the meeting. Feeling reassured
after speaking to him she changed her mind. "Now I will fly on
After returning to Washington, Glaspie was confined to a desk job
and was told she would not return to Iraq. Soon thereafter, the White
House began to leak stories to favored reporters, in part blaming
miscalculations by Glaspie for the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
Glaspie's defenders in the State Department countered with their
own campaign of leaks, making it known that Glaspie's statements to
Saddam only followed the strict instructions of a cable signed by
James Baker. Baker admitted on a Sunday morning talk show that there
was such a cable signed by him, but said that he shouldn't be held
responsible, claiming that it was only one among "probably 312,000
cables or so that go out under my name."
Glaspie wasn't the only one to be sandbagged with responsibility
for the invasion fiasco. The White House also orchestrated a series
of leaks, according to a U.S. intelligence official, blaming the CIA
for losing Kuwait. "Newsweek," for one, falsely reported that the CIA
told employees to take their vacations in July because nothing much of
importance was happening around the world. A "senior White House
official" falsely told "The New York Times" that "CIA assessments of
Iraqi military aims were `flawed' and that the agency concluded that
Iraq's saber-rattling was bluster, not genuine."
To this day, Glaspie languishes in a dead-end job at Foggy Bottom,
which appears to make her the scapegoat for the whole affair. During
a House foreign affairs subcommittee hearing some two weeks after the
invasion took place, Assistant Secretary of State Kelly was asked who
had made the decision not to send Glaspie back to her post in Baghdad.
"My understanding is [the decision] was made by the president."
Not exactly a gentlemanly act. But then again, the stakes are high
for the president. It appears now that quite possibly a costly bloody
war could have been averted except for the most idiotic diplomatic