From 'Tilt' to Desert Storm: Lessons in Diplomacy

January 20, 1991|By Henry L. Trewhitt | Henry L. Trewhitt,Henry Trewhitt, former diplomatic correspondent of The Sun, teaches at the University of New Mexico.

HISTORY IS OFTEN UNFORGIVING of diplomats and diplomacy. It promises to be ruthless when the historians, who sometimes err themselves, begin seriously sorting out the background for the new gulf war.

That U.S. diplomacy failed in the run-up to the war is indisputable. All wars represent failures of diplomacy. Yet there was a reason for every action, taken for what seemed the higher national interest. It remains for diplomats and their leaders to sort out the results as best they can in order to prepare for the next crisis in the region, which will come before the historians have time to deal with the current one.

Was it a mistake to "tilt" -- the vogue word -- toward Iraq in the in Iran-Iraq war?

When Saddam Hussein invaded in 1980, Iran was in turmoil under the Ayatollah Khomeini's domination following the fall of the shah. Mr. Hussein's advisers and exiled Iranian officers told him Iran was a pushover. It seemed a wonderful time to settle old scores, especially the historic conflict over control of the Shatt al Arab waterway between the two countries.

The Americans were equally distraught, with 52 embassy hostages held by so-called student fanatics. After the hostages were released, Washington could focus more directly on its broader geopolitical concern -- that the fall of the shah opened Iran, the gateway to South Asia, the Persian Gulf and its oil, to Soviet expansion. This was before Mikhail Gorbachev acknowledged the Soviet Union as a Third World country with missiles.

By 1983 the war was going badly for Mr. Hussein. The U.S. provided Iraq the first shipments of commodities worth hundreds of millions of dollars and winked at the sale of technology with military applications. Diplomatic relations, broken since the 1967 Mideast war, were restored in 1984.

Shortly after came hope for improvement of relations with Iran at the same time. Robert McFarlane, President Reagan's national security adviser, sneaked to Tehran with Bible and good-will cake in hand. The result was the Iran-Contra scandal, which involved U.S. sale of arms to Iran. For cynics, the lesson may have been simple: When working both sides of the street, don't get caught. For everyone else, it left mixed signals about U.S. diplomacy.

After the shooting stopped between Iran and Iraq in August 1988, essentially a standoff, U.S. diplomacy became even more complex.

American officials were enraged when Mr. Hussein killed thousands of his own Kurdish citizens with poison gas. That did not stop a debate between pragmatists, who argued that Mr. Hussein's behavior could be moderated, and those revolted by his human rights record.

When Mr. Hussein began to make threatening noises toward Kuwait -- his benefactor against Iran -- the pragmatists of the Bush administration were in charge. They regarded his threats to Kuwait as posturing to extort money he desperately needed.

Two incidents underline the flawed signals the administration was sending Hussein.

The first was a visit to Iraq by a U.S. Senate delegation earlier this year. The senators expressed "very deep concerns" about his chemical and bacteriological weapons. But Robert Dole, the minority leader, told him the president probably would veto any sanctions against Iraq. Howard M. Metzenbaum, D-Ohio, assured him that "you are a strong and intelligent man and that you want peace." And Sen. Alan K. Simpson, R-Wyo., suggested that most of Hussein's public relations problem lay in the "very cynical" American media. (At the time the administration was slapping the Voice of America's wrists for including Mr. Hussein among the world's desperadoes).

The more famous signal came from U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie in an interview with Mr. Hussein eight days before the invasion of Kuwait. Mr. Hussein published a transcript later, and no one in Washington has challenged it. As he ranted to the ambassador, veiling only slightly his designs on Kuwait, she assured him, also indirectly, that the U.S. understood his frustration at the borders drawn by Britain long ago. "We have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait," she said.

Highly respected think-tank analysts argue that Mr. Hussein had long since made up his mind to invade, and the U.S. signals amounted to no more than reassurance. One also describes Ambassador Glaspie as a hard-nosed professional who would not fawn on anyone. The latter point may be perfectly correct: But ambassadors obey orders, and Ms Glaspie left no doubt she was speaking under instructions.

The first point, that Mr. Hussein's mind was made up, is of course debatable. The result, in any assessment of diplomacy, is that the cumulative signals from Washington could easily be read by Mr. Hussein as assurance that the U.S. would not use force against an invasion.

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