Did the U.S. Encourage Iraq to Invade?

March 24, 1991|By FRANK STARR

WASHINGTON — Washington

For nearly eight months the question lingered: Had the United States through its ambassador to Baghdad encouraged Saddam Hussein to believe he could invade Kuwait without noticeable American opposition?

Last week the answer finally came, and in the end it hinged on an unsupported assertion by the ambassador, April Glaspie.

According to her account of a conversation with Mr. Hussein on July 25, eight days before the invasion, she had indeed convinced him for a brief moment that the United States would fight if he invaded Kuwait. But then, she said, he quickly gave up the idea.

This was an entirely new version of events, never even hinted at before. Until her appearance before congressional committees Wednesday and Thursday, the only public account presented in detail came from the Iraqi government -- which released a transcript in which Ms. Glaspie seemed to indicate the United States would not object if Iraq invaded Kuwait.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee generally accepted her account Wednesday without raising many of the unanswered questions. But the next day members of a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee were outraged at her story -- Rep. Tom Lantos, D.-Cal., labelled it "absurd" and Rep. Lee Hamilton, D.,-Ind., found it "confusing."

Though the committees asked for documentation of her story and she promised to pass on their requests to State Department officials, she suggested that diplomatic practice should and probably would prohibit its availability.

So, as was the case with much of the war, the public apparently would have to accept the administration's account of events. It xTC would be her word against Iraq's.

"I hope my credibility is at least as great as Saddam Hussein's," she said, and expressed "astonishment that a document issued by a president [Mr. Hussein] whose credibility is surely not in high repute would be accepted as read."

The document in question was the transcript of her July 25 talk with Mr. Hussein that his government had issued last September and which lent strength to the question of what American policy had been. Until now there had been no competing version with which to compare it.

The Iraqi version portrayed Mr. Hussein as a strong figure, lecturing the ambassador on Iraq's determination to protect its rights against the "economic war" Kuwait was waging against it and even hinting at individual acts of terrorism against the

United States.

And it portrayed the ambassador as obsequiously seeking better relations with Iraq, criticizing the western media's treatment of Mr. Hussein and assuring him that "we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait."

That transcript was "about 80 percent correct," Ms. Glaspie said last week, but was maliciously edited to render it inaccurate by omission.

By her account, the roles were nearly reversed. The United States had understood clearly by a speech he made July 17 that he was threatening Kuwait militarily and had responded publicly in Washington and privately, through her, in Baghdad.

She had warned him in clear and unmistakable terms in that July 25 meeting that the United States "would continue to defend our vital interests in the gulf and we would continue to support the sovereignty and integrity of the gulf states."

Had she ever specified that those "vital interests" included Kuwait? Mr. Hamilton wanted to know. No, she said, but Mr. Hussein knew perfectly well that they did.

She said her assurance on "Arab-Arab conflicts" was only the last half of a sentence which she had begun by saying "We would insist on settlements being made in a non-violent manner, not by threats, not by intimidation, and certainly not by aggression."

In response, she said, Mr. Hussein "was stymied. . . . He was flummoxed." He "surrendered" and assured her that he would not take military action. The United States' only mistake, she said, was "foolishly" to believe those assurances, a mistake, she added, also made by other Arab states including Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, with whom Mr. Hussein spoke by phone during her meeting.

If the explanation were so clear and simple, why had the state department muzzled her until now and refused to explain? It was, she said, because as long as the war was on the business at hand was maintaining the coalition. A "sideshow" over her conversation with Mr. Hussein would not have been useful then.

However, the New York Times reported that some state department officials thought privately that there wasn't enough difference between the Iraqi version and her cable to justify a strong statement supporting her account.

She did not address the assertion made by some members of the House committee that she had been "hung out to dry" by Secretary of State James A. Baker III, taking the heat for a policy failure for which he was responsible. But she insisted her remarks to Mr. Hussein reflected faithfully the instructions she had received from the state department.

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