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Who lost Kuwait?

When Saddam Hussein was obviously preparing to invade Kuwait, why did the U.S. send signals that it would not interfere?

By Murray Waas

January 30, 1991

FIVE DAYS before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, President Bush was briefed by William H. Webster, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Webster warned that Saddam Hussein was likely to invade Kuwait, predicting that Iraq would probably seize only the Rumaila oil fields and the islands of Bubiyan and Warba, not the whole country (although, he hedged, that was a possibility).

Despite this strong personal warning from Webster, high-level spokespersons for the Bush administration continued to state publicly that the U.S. would remain neutral in any Iraq-Kuwait conflict.

As the possibility of an invasion became clear to mid-level U.S. intelligence and diplomatic officials, they recommended that the administration 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 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 bellicose reaction of the Bush administration following the Aug. 2 invasion.

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 to 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 Aug. 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 president.

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 secret. As early as Feb. 24, 1990, during a meeting of the Arab Cooperation Council in Amman, Jordan, Saddam took Jordan's King Hussein and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak aside and threatened reprisals if Kuwait and Saudi Arabia did not forgive Iraq's $30 billion in war debt and provide Iraq with an additional $30 billion in new grants.

Saddam's warning was relayed almost immediately to U.S. intelligence officials, sources say.

As Saddam stepped up the shakedown of his neighbors, the Bush administration was winking at him. On April 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 (VOA) 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 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. Dole also reassured Saddam that the Bush administration was opposed to economic sanctions.

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.''

Dole met with President Bush when he 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. But Bush opposed this policy, high-level administration officials say. As president, Bush emphasized the long-term, positive role Iraq might someday play in the Middle East.

Within days of the April 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 once again demanded Kuwaiti and Saudi help in retiring his war debt, according to Saudi and Kuwaiti accounts provided almost contemporaneously to the Bush administration. The two neighboring countries committed considerably less than Saddam wanted -- Saddam was incensed.

SECRETARY BAKER, appearing before a Senate appropriations subcommittee on April 25, was unexpectedly confronted by Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) about the administration's ``forbearance'' on Iraq. "We [have] heard from President Hussein of Iraq too often, too bellicose,'' Lautenberg said. "On April 2, he threatened to scorch half of Israel with a chemical weapon.... The testimony of numerous arms experts proves that Iraq is developing or already has nuclear capabilities.''

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 ... the use of chemical weapons ... 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.

"I am not vouching for these statements. I am simply reporting ... 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.''

Baker's testimony was extraordinary for a number of reasons.

Although the Reagan and Bush administrations had done little to discourage Iraq's use of chemical weapons, at least in public statements they had always condemned these weapons. Baker's statement made them seem to be a potentially legitimate part of deterrence.

U.S. intelligence sources have told this reporter that Baker's comments were cabled back to Baghdad from Iraq's Washington embassy and are believed to have been made known to Saddam Hussein personally.

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 Bush administration was to have for Iraq prior to the invasion of Kuwait, but at the same time Kelly made it clear that administration policy remained the same. The White House still opposed economic sanctions. Kelly even went on to praise Saddam for ``talking about a new constitution and an expansion of participatory democracy'' and claimed to believe that Saddam's threats against Israel were only rhetorical.

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, after a July 11 OPEC meeting, Saddam's anger at the Saudis and Kuwaitis hardened: Their refusal to raise oil prices and limit production would cause irreparable harm to the Iraqi economy.

On July l6, 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.''

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: Cutting a neck is better than cutting a means of life.''

Few high up in the Bush administration took note. But on July l9, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney told reporters during a press briefing that the United States was committed to militarily defending Kuwait if it was attacked. (Cheney was only reiterating a long-standing 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 a war we might not want to fight.' 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 United States would look the other way if Iraq were to attack Kuwait.

During a press briefing on July 24, State Department spokesperson Margaret Tutwiler said: "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 the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie.

EARLY ON THE MORNING of July 28, CIA Director William Webster and a small contingent of aides arrived at the White House to inform President Bush that they believed that an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was imminent. Webster told the president that the Iraqis were likely to annex only the Rumaila oil fields and the two islands. The CIA officials were armed with satellite photos showing Iraqi troops massed near the Kuwait border and brought along two CIA experts on satellite imaging, in case Bush had detailed questions, but the president showed little interest.

(A White House spokesperson refused to confirm or deny that such a briefing was held. 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 continued to insist the U.S. would remain neutral.

By July 31, two days before the invasion, 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.

But that day Assistant Secretary of State John Kelly, in a prepared statement to a House foreign affairs subcommittee, said, "Historically, the U.S. has taken no position on the border disputes in the area, not on matters pertaining to internal OPEC deliberations.''

The subcommittee chairman, Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), pressed Kelly, saying: "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. 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 border disputes.''

Hamilton pressed Kelly further: "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.

Two days later, Iraqi troops crossed the border into 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 his July 25 meeting with Ambassador Glaspie. The Iraqi government gave a transcript of that meeting to ABC News in September. The Bush administration has not disputed the accuracy of the transcript.

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.... 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 [citing Kuwait specifically]. 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. retaliation, "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 Iraqis' chance of a high standard of living, then we will cease to care and death will be the choice for us.''

Incredible as it now seems, the American ambassador had no forceful words to discourage Saddam from invading Kuwait. Instead, the transcript shows, Glaspie expressed sympathy for his attitude toward Kuwait, comparing his plight to that of America's founding fathers. "I think you know well that we as a people have our own experience with colonialists.''

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.

"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."

Glaspie was apologetic: "I have a direct instruction from the president to seek better relations with Iraq.''

Then, extraordinarily, without having been solicited to do so, she signaled to Saddam that the U.S. would do nothing if Iraq invaded Kuwait. "We have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreements with Kuwait," she said.

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. Back in Washington, Glaspie was confined to a desk job and told she would not return to Iraq. The White House began to leak stories that in part blamed 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, but said he shouldn't be held responsible, since 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. 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.''

This blame-juggling suggests an awareness even in the administration that a costly and bloody war quite possibly could have been averted except for the most idiotic diplomatic blundering.

A longer version of this piece first appeared in the Village Voice, January 22, 1991.

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