WASHINGTON -- For the first time since the Persian Gulf crisis erupted last month, congressional Democrats bitterly attacked the Bush administration's conduct yesterday, accusing officials of pursuing a misguided foreign policy that may have contributed to Iraq's seizure of Kuwait.
"The obsequious treatment of [Iraqi President Saddam Hussein] by a large number of high-ranking officials encouraged him to take that action, and there's no escaping that responsibility," Representative Tom Lantos, D-Calif., told Assistant Secretary of State John H. Kelly at a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing.
Iraq was reported by the Pentagon yesterday to have amassed 360,000 troops in and near Kuwait, compared with 265,000 in the area two weeks ago. Although Iraq also has 2,800 tanks in the area, 500 more than the last count, its forces still appear to be in a defensive posture, said Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams.
When Mr. Kelly last appeared before the Subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East -- two days before the Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait -- he had strongly opposed congressional attempts to impose sanctions against Iraq.
Subcommittee Chairman Lee H. Hamilton, D-Ind., scolded the administration for having sought closer ties to Baghdad, ostensibly to change the belligerent behavior of President Hussein. And he asserted that Mr. Kelly and other officials "seriously misread" Iraqi policy that led to the invasion of Kuwait.
"You left the impression that it was the policy of the United States not to come to the defense of Kuwait" in the event of an invasion, said Mr. Hamilton, who recited Mr. Kelly's own testimony from previous hearings this year that the United States had no defense treaty or other formal obligation to defend Kuwait.
"That left the impression that if Kuwait was attacked, we would not respond," he said.
Since the invasion, President Bush has received wide praise for his handling of the crisis, winning bipartisan support.
Mr. Kelly's hostile reception stood in sharp contrast to the overwhelmingly cordial session two weeks ago when the full Foreign Affairs Committee heard from Secretary of State James A. Baker III. Committee members expressed strong support for the administration's work in building a world consensus against Iraq.
What appeared to trigger much of the criticism was the recent release by Iraq of the transcript of a July 25 meeting in Baghdad between Mr. Hussein and U.S. Ambassador April C. Glaspie. In the transcript -- which has not been challenged by the State Department -- Ms. Glaspie stressed that Washington wanted better relations with Iraq even as Mr. Hussein was making aggressive comments and appeared to threaten the United States with guerrilla attacks if it supported Kuwait in Iraq's dispute with it.
Representative Lantos lashed out at the administration for permitting Ms. Glaspie to leave Baghdad shortly before the invasion, apparently convinced that Iraq would not launch an attack. He then upbraided Mr. Kelly, who asserted that President Bush and others wanted her to help manage the crisis from Washington.
"The American people would assume that our ambassador would be there on the spot," Mr. Lantos said.
President Bush told reporters Monday that he regretted maintaining diplomatic and commercial links with Iraq in an effort to moderate its behavior. "There was some reason to believe that perhaps improved relations with the West would modify [Iraq's] behavior," Mr. Bush said. "I think if everybody had the benefit of total hindsight, why, you'd go back and say, hey, this didn't make much sense."
"Administration policy was based on fiction and fantasy," said Representative Mel Levine, D-Calif. "That
policy was an abysmal failure."
Of the few Republicans who came to Mr. Kelly's defense, Representative Christopher H. Smith of New Jersey told colleagues: "It is unhelpful and unfair at this point to blame the administration [for Iraqi aggression] and that somehow our ambassador gave Saddam Hussein the green light [to invade]."
Mr. Kelly, pressed to outline unwritten defense commitments, said the United States has now pledged to defend not only Saudi Arabia but also other gulf states that are supporting the international campaign against Iraq. He agreed when Mr. Hamilton named Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.
In addition, Mr. Williams reported that the first boarding of a Soviet cargo ship by U.S. naval personnel occurred Monday as part of the effort to block trade with Iraq. The guided missile cruiser USS Biddle stopped the Pyotr Masherov in the northern Red Sea, the Soviet skipper gave permission to board his ship and he was allowed to proceed to the Jordanian port of Aqaba, Mr. Williams said.