Pentagon tried to harden pre-invasion note to Iraq Bush's own words were seen as weak

October 25, 1992|By Michael R. Gordon | Michael R. Gordon,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Days before Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, senio Pentagon officials sought to block a message from President Bush to Saddam Hussein that they feared was so weakly worded that it would send a signal that the United States was not likely to stand up to Iraqi aggression.

The previously undisclosed dispute in late July 1990 within the Bush administration about how to deal with the Iraqi leader occurred as Mr. Hussein's troops massed on the Kuwaiti border.

Although the Pentagon's effort to draft a more stern message did not succeed, administration officials later became concerned that their diplomacy had not worked and, on the eve of the invasion, discussed sending a second, stronger presidential statement to Mr. Hussein. Before they could do so, Iraq had launched its Aug. 2 attack.

The disclosures bear on the election-year debate over whether the Bush administration did all it could to deter Iraq from invading Kuwait.

The administration's policy toward Iraq had been based on a directive issued by President Bush in October 1989, to use economic and political incentives to moderate Mr. Hussein's behavior. The extent of the administration's conciliatory approach emerged only after the war, leading to accusations that the war might have been avoided had Mr. Bush pursued a tougher approach.

Mr. Bush, who has portrayed himself as the candidate best capable of dealing with international crises, has vigorously defended his diplomacy, saying his aim was to "bring Saddam Hussein into the family of nations."

But a reconstruction of events in the week before Iraq's invasion, based on interviews with former and current administration officials, shows that some senior administration officials had grave reservations at the time about the White House's diplomatic efforts, believing that they failed to take seriously Mr. Hussein's threats and to respond effectively.

"We were already seeing troops moving," said Henry S. Rowen, who was then assistant defense secretary for international security affairs. "We were getting worried, and we were putting up this piece of pap. It was just very weak. We should have been much more threatening."

Mr. Rowen is now a professor at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Bluntly describing U.S. diplomacy toward Baghdad as "a substantial policy and intelligence failure," Mr. Rowen, a Republican, said that Iraq's invasion of Kuwait might have been averted had Washington taken a tougher line.

A White House official disputed Mr. Rowen's analysis, arguing that Mr. Bush's message followed Iraqi statements that Baghdad was interested in negotiating a settlement of its disputes with Kuwait. The official said the communication was consistent with advice that Washington was receiving from its Arab allies.

"We were being told by [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak and by [Jordan's] King Hussein, 'Hey, don't worry about it,' " the White House official said. He said they advised that "it is a tempest in a teapot, that all Saddam was trying to do was achieve leadership in the Arab world."

But Pentagon officials, including Paul D. Wolfowitz, undersecretary of defense for policy, reportedly shared Mr. Rowen's concerns.

Mr. Rowen told Arthur G. Hughes, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Near East and South Asian affairs, to ask that the transmittal of the presidential message be delayed so the Pentagon could have time to propose a sterner warning, Mr. Rowen said.

Mr. Hughes made the request to a senior aide to John H. Kelly, assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs. The Pentagon believed that it blocked the message, Mr. Rowen said. But the next day, Defense Department officials were informed by the White House that the original message had been sent.

A spokesman for the State Department confirmed that Defense Department officials expressed "reservations" about the presidential communication to the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. But the spokesman asserted that "by the time we learned of their views it was too late."

Leading up to Mr. Bush's message was increasingly bellicose behavior by Iraq, which crossed a threshold in mid-July 1990 with a letter from Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz to the Arab League.

The letter asserted that Kuwait's refusal to yield on disputes over the border, as well as oil production and pricing policy and Iraq's multibillion dollar debt to Kuwait, was tantamount to military aggression. On July 17, Mr. Hussein warned that Baghdad was prepared to use military force to attain its objectives.

The first U.S. complaint about Iraqi threats came not from the president or the secretary of state, but from a mid-level State Department official, David Mack, deputy assistant secretary of state for near east affairs. He used a regularly scheduled luncheon with Iraq's ambassador to Washington to express American concern.

Later that day, Mr. Mack drafted a cable for Secretary of State James A. Baker III to send to U.S. embassies in the Middle East, recounting the exchange. The cable instructed U.S. diplomats in Baghdad to press for a clarification of Iraq's intentions toward Kuwait.

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