Glaspie's testimony raises questions without answers On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

March 22, 1991|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON — THE REPUTATION of April C. Glaspie, the United States ambassador to Iraq, is on the way to being rehabilitated. But there are still no answers to the central question about the diplomatic events that led to the war in the Persian Gulf -- whether the policies set by President Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker encouraged Saddam Hussein to draw mistaken inferences that led to the war.

Glaspie appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee after months of apparently being used as a #i designated scapegoat for diplomatic blunders before the war. The veteran arabist's account of her role was convincing enough so that she was rewarded with a quick stamp of approval from the White House after months of being hung out to twist in the wind. "She did great," said press secretary Marlin Fitzwater, "The truth will out."

We'll see about that. The history of post mortems on such inside foreign policy matters is not encouraging. Despite several investigations and criminal trials, for example, no one really knows who was responsible for the Iran-contra affair.

The focus on Glaspie has always been a bit peculiar. She is a career foreign service professional, so the notion that she deliver a message to Saddam Hussein that was either outside of or contrary to her instructions from Washington made no sense. But until her testimony this week Glaspie seemed to be hidden in some closet at the State Department, and the clear implication was that she had committed some egregious blunder.

The onus on Glaspie came from the release by the Iraqis in September of what they represented as a transcript of a conversation July 25 between the diplomat and Saddam Hussein in which she was quoted as saying the U.S. had, "no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border conflict with Kuwait."

Now Glaspie says the "so-called transcript" was an edited piece of "disinformation" and that in fact she warned Saddam Hussein in the bluntest terms that the U.S. would not allow him to invade Kuwait. Moreover, she testified, Saddam "wanted me to inform President Bush that he would not solve his problems with Kuwait by violence, period."

But the notion that Glaspie had blundered was allowed to harden because the State Department simply refused to dispute the Iraqi version of the conversation. Pressed on the question during a televised interview, Baker pointedly passed up the chance to take Glaspie off the hook. On the face of it, this doesn't make any sense. Why would the White House or Baker be reluctant to attack for "disinformation" the Iraqi leader President Bush was willing to describe as another Adolf Hitler?

The use of Glaspie as a scapegoat may have served another purpose for Baker, however, by distancing him -- he has always been a master at covering his tracks -- from a longer record of dealings with Iraq that may have encouraged Saddam to think he could get away with the invasion of Kuwait. And that is the area the Foreign Relations Committee should explore.

The questions are many. Did the acknowledged U.S. tilt toward Iraq, including the supplying of weapons, during its eight years of war with Iran mislead Saddam? If the policy was to deter Saddam with unambiguous warnings, as Glaspie now says it was, why didn't Bush himself or Baker take that step more directly, perhaps even publicly?

The mistake, Glaspie testified, was that the U.S. "did not realize he [Saddam] was stupid" -- so stupid, in fact, that he believed the warnings were not genuine and could safely be ignored. But was Saddam so "stupid" because of the previous relationship?

Chances are we will never get complete answers to these questions. Because the war ended so successfully, there is far less inclination among congressional Democrats to pursue its origins to the very beginning. Surely there is no political motivation for such an inquiry; on the contrary, most of the Democrats have good reason to hope the whole issue is put behind them and the country.

But even if there were a will to pursue the questions, there is probably no way to get final answers. The State Department would argue, as Glaspie indicated to the committee, that disclosing the cable traffic which might provide the answers would violate long-established principles of diplomatic confidentiality.

And what is clearly missing is any long-established tradition of getting to the bottom of questions such as those about why we had to fight a war in the Persian Gulf.

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