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A Retroactive Analysis of National Security Casus Belli for the Iraq War: Part 5
by Jonathan R

How did the Bush administration react? Beginning the day after Saddam’s last speech, either the State Department or the U.S. embassy in Baghdad presented Iraq, to no avail, with formal demands for clarification every day for a week, except for the Islamic holy day of Friday, when the Iraqi Foreign Ministry is closed. Also on July 18, State spokesman Richard Boucher promulgated language that would soon become routine: the U.S. remained “strongly committed to supporting the individual and collective self-defense of our friends in the gulf with whom we have deep and longstanding ties.”[1] Under questioning, Boucher refused to disclose whether the U.S. would provide military help to its friends in case of an Iraqi attack.

On July 19, State cabled Glaspie both to stress friendship with Iraq and establish that the U.S. was “committed to ensure the free flow of oil from the gulf and to support the sovereignty and integrity of the gulf states.” The cable added, “We will continue to defend our vital interests in the gulf,” and repeated the line about being “strongly committed to supporting” the self-defense of our gulf friends.[2] More pointedly, Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney told journalists that the U.S. commitment, made during the Iran-Iraq War, to defend Kuwait if it were attacked remained valid.[3] So far, so clear (even if Cheney’s spokesman soon added that his boss was quoted with “some degree of liberty”).[4]

By July 20 Saddam had begun deploying forces southeast—though in contrast to Washington’s alertness thus far, a foreign military attaché traveling along the highway from Kuwait City to Baghdad, not U.S. spy satellites, first reported the movement. Within hours, U.S. analysts estimated that Iraq had frontiered two divisions of the Republican Guard, its best troops, equal to 30,000 troops. Kuwait’s entire army was roughly 20,000 men. Iraq made little effort to hide the buildup, and in the following days, as his troops along the Kuwaiti border steadily rose to more than 100,000, passersby, including foreign diplomats, easily observed Iraqi tanks being loaded onto railroad cars in Baghdad. Hence the West’s belief that Saddam was just flexing, trying to intimidate Kuwait to comply with his demands, rather than to preparing to invade it.

By this time the Pentagon had dispatched its Mideast warships to positions closer to the emirate. In an unprecedented request from an Arab country, the U.A.E. also asked the U.S. to supply it with two large KC-135 aerial-refueling tankers, so it could keep patrol planes airborne around the clock to monitor any Iraqi aggression. The White House approved the request on July 23, and on July 24 the Defense Department announced the deployments—the U.S. military’s first notable activity in the region since the Iran-Iraq war’s ceasefire—as a demonstration of support to Kuwait and the U.A.E. “We also remain determined,” the Pentagon statement read, “to insure the free flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz and to defend the principles of freedom of navigation and commerce.”[5] Again, on balance, so far, so clear (even if the statement continued, “Our continuing efforts . . . are not directed against any single country”).[6]

But July 24 was a busy day. In Baghdad and Kuwait, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak tried mediation, one of the series of visits, calls and messages involving senior Arab leaders. After returning to Cairo, Mubarak related that Saddam had assured him he had “no intention” to invade Kuwait.[7] The trouble, according to Mubarak, was only a “summer cloud,” the kind that in Egypt produces no rain.[8] Accordingly, State’s spokeswoman, Margaret Tutwiler, pussyfooted. “There is no place for coercion and intimidation in a civilized world,”[9] she recited. Of course, “We do not have any defense treaties with . . . or security commitments to Kuwait.”[10] Asked whether the U.S. would help Kuwait if Iraqi attacked it, Tutwiler emphasized the “strongly committed” slogan.[11] Secretary Baker was less mealymouthed. Although resolving disputes by coercion was “contrary to U.N. charter principles,” he enjoined American ambassadors in Arab capitals, “the U.S. “take[s] no position on the border delineation raised by Iraq with respect to Kuwait.”[12]

How a reasonable individual would decode these mixed signals is questionable. That is probably why on July 25, eight days before his invasion, Saddam summoned ambassador Glaspie to meet with him personally. Saddam was earnest, stern and shrewd. “[W]hat can it mean,” he riposted in reference to Tutwiler’s remarks and news of the naval exercises, “when America says it will now protect its friends? It can only mean prejudice against Iraq. This stance plus maneuvers and statements which have been made has encouraged the U.A.E. and Kuwait to disregard Iraqi rights.”[13] Evidently, yesterday’s words and deeds had got his attention—and his goat; at the least he suspected the U.S. might intervene.

This was it, then, the extraordinary opportunity to strengthen or to sap that impression, to crystallize all the foregoing bureaucratese, to deter Saddam or to disregard the Sabahs. Glaspie unambiguously choose the latter, “in the spirit of friendship—not in the spirit of confrontation,” she explained.[14] She reminded Saddam that President Bush had rejected imposing trade sanctions on Iraq because the U.S. sought “better and deeper relations” with him.[15] Like Senator Simpson, she rebuked the U.S. media as “cheap and unjust,”[16] and referred to an apology from the American Information Agency. “Your stance is generous,” replied the megalomaniac.[17]

Then came the selling point heard round the world, the Rubicon, the fait accompli. “I know you need funds,” Glaspie avowed. “We understand that and our opinion is that you should have the opportunity to rebuild your country. But we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait. . . . James Baker has directed our official spokesmen to emphasize this instruction” (my italics)[18]

As the conversation concluded, Saddam said that the Kuwaiti crown prince/prime minister had agreed to meet the vice chair of Iraq’s Revolutionary Command Council in Saudi Arabia, and later in Baghdad, to begin defusing the crisis. Saddam said he had given Hosni Mubarak his word that he would not “do anything until we meet with” the Kuwaitis. If “we see that there is hope,” Saddam avowed, “then nothing will happen. But if we are unable to find a solution, then it will be natural that Iraq will not accept death.”[19] Like President Carter, who lamented that Leonid Brezhnev, his Soviet counterpart, had lied to him before invading Afghanistan in 1979,[20] Glaspie and her superiors showed appalling faith in a verbal promise from a rogue.

To be sure, in March 1991, Glaspie testified for two days before the House Foreign Affairs and the Senate Foreign Relations committees. She denied her reputed obsequiousness and maintained that the Iraqi transcript of the meeting, the only one taken, was “maliciously” edited, deleting both her warnings that the U.S. would object to military force against Kuwait and Saddam’s promise not to do so.[21] Indeed, the transcript was officially abridged, prepared in Arabic and, like all documents from a police state, doctored. In whom, therefore, do we place more credibility: a twenty-five-year foreign-service veteran, one of America’s top Arabists and the first woman to head a U.S. Mideast embassy, or Saddam Hussein?

Regrettably, the differences are not that diametric, since in her testimony, Glaspie conceded the transcript “was about eighty percent correct,” and admitted to her fateful no-sides sentence.[22] Likewise, the cable she sent stateside after the meeting so matched the transcript that State officials described the latter as “essentially accurate.”[23] Nor did State explain why, upon receiving Glaspie’s cable, it did not direct her to deliver a tougher message. Instead, the U.S. government refused to correct the transcript, or to release the cable for thirty years. More tellingly, three days after Glaspie’s meeting with Saddam, Secretary Baker (who many believe scapegoated the loyal envoy) whisked her away into silenced obscurity at a desk job in Washington.

Thus was the die cast. Moreover, in case Saddam was obtuse, on July 28 State wired him a three-paragraph message in President Bush’s name, which in part read: “[W]e believe that differences are best resolved by peaceful means and not by threats involving military force. . . . Let me reassure you, as my Ambassador, Senator Dole and others have done, that my administration continues to desire better relations with Iraq. We will also continue to support our other friends in the region with whom we have had longstanding ties. We see no necessary inconsistency between these two objectives. As you know, we still have fundamental concerns about certain Iraqi policies and activities, and we will continue to raise these concerns with you in a spirit of friendship and candor.”[24] As New York Times columnist Leslie Gelb later discerned, the presidential cable contained “[n]othing about vital interests, protection of sovereignty, [or] the 100,000 Iraqi troops hovering over Kuwait.”[25]

With the handwriting on the wall, the next several days saw a flurry of meetings and telephone calls. OPEC oil ministers in Geneva agreed on strict production and export limits to raise oil prices, and Kuwait and the U.A.E. agreed to abide by them. On July 27, following less sweeping action in the House, the Senate voted to cut off all agricultural credits to Iraq and prohibit transfers of militarily useful technology. Jordan’s King Hussein reassured Bush that Saddam would not resort to military force, while Mubarak and King Fahd affirmed that the Arab Nation was and would handle the Arab quarrel, and counseled Bush to refrain from upsetting the diplomatic applecart.

By July 31, Iraq had broken off negotiations with Kuwait, and its troops along the Kuwaiti border now exceeded 100,000, far more than were necessary for mere saber rattling. Pressed what the U.S. would do if Iraq invaded Kuwait, John Kelly told a House subcommittee, “That, Mr. Chairman, is a hypothetical or a contingency question, the kind of which I can’t get into. Suffice it to say we would be extremely concerned, but I cannot get into the realm of ‘what if’ answers.”[26] Two days later, “what if” was “what now?”







[1] As quoted in Caryle Murphy, “Iraq Accuses Kuwait of Plot to Steal Oil, Depresses Prices,” Washington Post, July 19, 1990; as quoted in Don Oberdorfer, “Missed Signals in the Middle East,” Washington Post Magazine, March 17, 1991.


[2] As quoted in Leslie H. Gelb, “Mr. Bush’s Fateful Blunder,” New York Times, July 17, 1991.


[3] As quoted in Caryle Murphy, “Iraqi Leader Gets New Title As Kuwaiti Anxiety Grows,” Washington Post, July 20, 1990.


[4] As quoted in Elaine Sciolino with Michael R. Gordon, “U.S. Gave Iraq Little Reason Not to Mount Kuwait Assault,” New York Times, September 23, 1990.


[5] As quoted in Michael R. Gordon, “U.S. Deploys Air and Sea Forces after Iraq Threatens Two Neighbors,” New York Times, July 25, 1990.


[6] As quoted in Michael R. Gordon, “U.S. Deploys Air and Sea Forces after Iraq Threatens Two Neighbors,” New York Times, July 25, 1990.


[7] As quoted in Don Oberdorfer, “Missed Signals in the Middle East,” Washington Post Magazine, March 17, 1991.


[8] As quoted in Don Oberdorfer, “Missed Signals in the Middle East,” Washington Post Magazine, March 17, 1991.


[9] As quoted in Nora Boustany and Patrick E. Tyler, “U.S. Pursues Diplomatic Solution in Persian Gulf Crisis, Warns Iraq,” Washington Post, July 25, 1990, p. A17.


[10] As quoted in Elaine Sciolino with Michael R. Gordon, “U.S. Gave Iraq Little Reason Not to Mount Kuwait Assault,” New York Times, September 23, 1990; as quoted in Don Oberdorfer, “Missed Signals in the Middle East,” Washington Post Magazine, March 17, 1991.


[11] As quoted in Elaine Sciolino with Michael R. Gordon, “U.S. Gave Iraq Little Reason Not to Mount Kuwait Assault,” New York Times, September 23, 1990.


[12] As quoted in Michael R. Gordon, “Pentagon Objected To Bush’s Message To Iraq,” New York Times, October 25, 1992.


[13] “The Glaspie Transcript: Saddam Meets the U.S. Ambassador,” in Micah L. Sifry and Christopher Cerf, The Iraq War Reader: History, Documents, Opinions (New York: Touchstone, 2003), p. 64.


[14] “The Glaspie Transcript: Saddam Meets the U.S. Ambassador,” in Micah L. Sifry and Christopher Cerf, The Iraq War Reader: History, Documents, Opinions (New York: Touchstone, 2003), p. 69.


[15] “The Glaspie Transcript: Saddam Meets the U.S. Ambassador,” in Micah L. Sifry and Christopher Cerf, The Iraq War Reader: History, Documents, Opinions (New York: Touchstone, 2003), p. 68.


[16] “The Glaspie Transcript: Saddam Meets the U.S. Ambassador,” in Micah L. Sifry and Christopher Cerf, The Iraq War Reader: History, Documents, Opinions (New York: Touchstone, 2003), p. 67.


[17] “The Glaspie Transcript: Saddam Meets the U.S. Ambassador,” in Micah L. Sifry and Christopher Cerf, The Iraq War Reader: History, Documents, Opinions (New York: Touchstone, 2003), p. 67.


[18] “The Glaspie Transcript: Saddam Meets the U.S. Ambassador,” in Micah L. Sifry and Christopher Cerf, The Iraq War Reader: History, Documents, Opinions (New York: Touchstone, 2003), p. 68.


[19] “The Glaspie Transcript: Saddam Meets the U.S. Ambassador,” in Micah L. Sifry and Christopher Cerf, The Iraq War Reader: History, Documents, Opinions (New York: Touchstone, 2003), p. 71.


[20] Pace conventional wisdom, Carter never used the word “lie.” Instead, he said Brezhnev was “not telling the facts accurately,” and added, “My opinion of the Russians has changed most dramatically in the last week than even the previous two and a half years before that. It’s only now dawning on the world the magnitude of the action that the Soviets undertook in invading Afghanistan.” “Transcript of President’s Interview on Soviet Reply,” New York Times, January 1, 1980, p. 4.

In Détente and Confrontation (1985), Raymond Garthoff explains that “[t]his statement was subsequently considered so embarrassing to Carter that it was not included in the official Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents. Nor does he, Brzezinski, or Vance refer to it in their memoirs, although it drew heavy press attention and was cited by political opponents in the next election campaign as evidence of Carter’s naiveté.” Raymond L. Garthoff, Détente and Confrontation: American-Soviet Relations from Nixon To Reagan (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1985), p. 950.

[21] April Glaspie, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Federal News Service, March 20, 1991.


[22]April Glaspie, Hearing of the Europe and the Middle East Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Federal News Service, March 21, 1991.


[23] As quoted in Thomas L. Friedman, “Envoy To Iraq, Faulted in Crisis, Says She Warned Hussein Sternly,” New York Times, March 21, 1991. See also Christopher Ogden, “In from the Cold!,” Time, April 1, 1991; William Safire, “I’ll Remember April,” New York Times, March 25, 1991.


[24] As quoted in Michael R. Gordon, “Pentagon Objected To Bush’s Message To Iraq,” New York Times, October 25, 1992.


[25] Leslie H. Gelb, “Mr. Bush’s Fateful Blunder,” New York Times, July 17, 1991.


[26] John Kelly, Hearing of the Europe and the Middle East Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Federal News Service, July 31, 1990.

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