Blinkered View of Iraq Diplomats Were Misled by Saddam's 'Cordial' Manner

Saddam Hussein brandishing an AK 47 during a visit to villages in northern Iraq in 1998.
AFP

Saddam Hussein brandishing an AK 47 during a visit to villages in northern Iraq in 1998.

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Part 2: Excellent Collaboration


Toward the end of the Iran-Iraq war in the spring of 1988, the cables from the US embassy spoke of growing optimism within Iraq. The diplomats reported excellent behind-the-scenes collaboration.

When the Iran-Iraq War finally ended after eight years and almost half a million deaths, Glaspie put the word "victory" in quotation marks; but once the celebrations subsided, the reports once again focused on the Iranian threat that formed the primary link between Saddam's regime and the United States -- and overrode all complaints about murder, chemical weapons and human rights violations."We doubt that the Iraqis are naive enough to believe that any clerical regime in Iran, even after Khomeini dies, will renounce the revolution or its integral elements, expansionism and interference in the internal affairs of other countries, principally Iraq's."

But then, in early 1990, "dark clouds" gathered over Iraq's relationship with the United States, in the words of Saddam himself, speaking at a press conference following a visit by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Saddam blamed the supposed interference by a "Zionist lobby" in US policy for the deterioration. Did this worry the US ambassador? Was she concerned by the choice of words by the Iraqi dictator?

No. She merely sent home a report entitled "Saddam explains and defends." In the dispatch, Glaspie spoke about Saddam's "perhaps stemming from his lifelong effort to promote a sense of identity for 'Iraqis'--a sense he often recalls he lacked as a child." Her assessment of the Iraqi president in April 1990 was as follows: "Saddam is not/not posturing. He is genuinely concerned about Israel and Iran."

In May of that year, Arab League heads of state met in Baghdad against the backdrop of ominous threats by Saddam directed at Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. Again, Glaspie praised Saddam's efforts. She said he "took a step forward" and brought Arabs together, albeit at the "lowest common denominator."

"Intellectual Leadership"

Did she really not see the storm clouds gathering on the horizon? In early June Glaspie sent Washington cable headed - apparently without irony -- "intellectual leadership." She said Saddam had recently spent many hours with a group of six men finalizing a new constitution. The ambassador urged the State Department to note the men's names because this project was "important," as if Saddam was seriously thinking about the Iraqi constitution just two months before his troops marched in Kuwait, if indeed this notorious conspirator and spymaster had ever taken any constitution seriously in all his life.

Judging by her memos, the ambassador knew little of the nagging doubts some of Saddam's clique had about his increasingly concrete invasion plans. Rumors that he was under pressure internally were dismissed by Glaspie as mere fabrications on the part of Iran and Iraqi exiles. And she explicitly contradicted a report by the US Embassy in Kuwait that said Saddam's erratic behavior suggested "internal pressures and instability of his regime" - which, with hindsight, seems highly likely. The ambassador in Baghdad insisted Saddam was motivated by many things, but putsch rumors were not one of them.

This was followed by two paragraphs that raise serious doubts about Glaspie's objectivity toward Saddam's regime:"We are not suggesting," she writes, "that there are not occasional 'disciplinary actions' here. For example, the president's long-time Kurdish adc (editor's note: aide-de-camp), Sabah Mirza, undoubtedly blotted his copy book this year. He was arrested and may be dead."

And in any case, she added, Saddam was merely trying to "improve citizens' welfare. The party has no difficulty in turning out thousands of cheering Arab (not kurdish) Iraqis to greet their president."

In June 1990, the US television station ABC broadcast an interview that journalist Diane Sawyer had conducted with Saddam Hussein following mediation by the American Embassy. The Iraqis were furious because the three-hour conversation was edited down to 20 minutes. Again Glaspie called for understanding from both Saddam's personal secretary and from Washington. She said Saddam wasn't "throwing in the towel." He was standing by his "new policy of availability to the western press (le figaro is next) and in his willingness to let the Iraqi public see and hear him uncut, warts and all."

Sawyer's interview also came up in Glaspie's contentious conversation with Saddam on July 25. Glaspie wrote, referring to herself. "The ambassador said she had seen the Diane Sawyer show and thought that it was cheap and unfair. But the American press treats all politicians without kid gloves--that is our way."

Saddam "Cordial, Reasonable and Even Warm"

Whether her comment about American neutrality in Arab border disputes caused Saddam to decide to march into Kuwait is a question that perhaps only Saddam himself could answer with certainty. But the leaked embassy dispatches show that Glaspie and her predecessor painted the regime in an extremely favorable light from the very outset, overlooked Saddam's widely-known crimes, and were so influenced by mutual enmity for Iran as to be negligently uncritical. This attitude certainly influenced Glaspie's fateful meeting with Saddam.

The president's manner was "cordial, reasonable and even warm," her account of the meeting begins. It ends by concluding that he was undoubtedly sincere in seeking "a peaceful settlement" to the conflict with neighboring Kuwait. In between is paragraph after paragraph listing the alleged selfishness of Kuwait and the sacrifices and peaceful intentions of the Iraqis.

Saddam Hussein undoubtedly deceived the US ambassador, albeit also to his own detriment. But she didn't make it particularly difficult for him.

The Embassy cabled four more dispatches to Washington before the outbreak of war. One begins with the mistaken belief that Saddam really was responding to the most recent mediation attempts by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, but ends with the ethnological analysis that says more about the motives for going to war than many a later assessment:

"It is difficult to overstate the depth of anti-Kuwaiti sentiment in Iraq. This is the extremely important backdrop to current tensions. The dislike is old and deep -- not something trumped up by the media for the occasion.

"The Kuwaitis who come to Iraq with pockets full of iraqi dinars (purchased at the black market rate which is less than one-tenth of the official rate) and which they ostentatiously spend, are not the educated middle classes -- they go to Europe. Iraq gets the equivalent of "po white trash", the lower middle classes, who can be seen in Basra in their scores on a Friday, and in the northern summer resorts, often drunk, sometimes disorderly, and often gambling in the otherwise empty casinos. They also come to Baghdad in droves, providing the clientele for cheap nightclubs and call girls.

Iraqis deeply feel that the kuwaitis are immensely stingy shylocks living high while Iraq, which made such terrible sacrifices during the war, it still suffering. "

Four days later after that, Ambassador Glaspie flew to Washington. Seven days later, on August 2, 1990, Iraqi troops marched into Kuwait.

On that day, Glaspie's deputy, Joseph Wilson, who became famous 13 years later as the husband of unmasked CIA spy Valerie Plame, sent the State Department the shortest message the embassy in Baghdad had ever cabled:We have tried repeatedly since 0630 local to reach senior mfa (editor's note: Foreign Ministry) officials, including foreign minister Aziz. Undersecretary Hamdun is apparently not at home since nobody answers his home telephone number … Embassy has set up a crisis management team."

Saddam had struck. And overnight, he went from being an American ally of almost 10 years to being a deadly enemy. Everything that had seemed right before, was suddenly wrong.

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