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

By Bernhard Zand

Did one clumsy statement by the US ambassador in Iraq trigger the first Gulf War? The leaked US cables show diplomats failed to pick up signs that Saddam Hussein was preparing to invade Kuwait, and that they painted his regime in a consistently favorable light in the years leading up to the conflict.

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

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

On the morning of July 25, 1990, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein called in the US Ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie. It was her first meeting with Saddam and it lasted two hours. And will likely go down in history as one of the most controversial incidents in American diplomacy.

That very evening, Glaspie cabled her report about the conversation back to Washington. She summarized it under the headline: " Saddam's message of friendship to president bush ."

Just eight days later, war broke out when Saddam's troops marched into Kuwait. The invasion triggered a conflict that would last for more than 15 years and wouldn't even end with Saddam Hussein's death.

It's every diplomat's nightmare. What, though, transpired exactly at Glaspie's meeting with the Iraqi president?

Saddam was under pressure in the summer of 1990. He complained to the US ambassador that eight years of war with Iran had left his country exhausted and heavily indebted. Worse still, neighboring Kuwait was deliberately keeping oil prices low -- so low, in fact, that his country had been forced to cut the pensions it paid widows and orphans.

"At this point," Glaspie's report stated, "the interpreter and one of the notetakers broke down and wept."

Saddam then moved on to the issue of Iraq's disputed border with Kuwait. The conversation became technical, and he began reciting a list of distances in kilometers. "The ambassador," Glaspie wrote of herself, "said that she had served in Kuwait 20 years before; then, as now, we took no position on these Arab affairs."

A few weeks later, the Iraqis broke all diplomatic protocol by releasing a shortened transcript of the conversation. Never before had America weighed the words of one of its diplomats so carefully. Never before had a single sentence been discussed as heatedly as that of ambassador Glaspie.

Critics say her answer "confused" Saddam Hussein, that she had been ambiguous and far too vague. Saddam may have thought the US would not intervene if he attacked Kuwait. As such, they assert, Glaspie had played a decisive role in triggering the outbreak of the war. Her defenders say this criticism is unwarranted. They point out that Glaspie had told Saddam what any diplomat in her position would have said.

The controversy persists to this day. However new, previously unreleased diplomatic dispatches, made public by WikiLeaks, now reveal what the US ambassadors in Baghdad cabled back to Washington between 1985 and 1990. They show the political environment in which Glaspie was operating, America's position on Saddam Hussein at that time, and what led up to her fateful sentence.

The United States broke off diplomatic ties with Iraq after the 1967 Arab-Israeli Conflict. The US Embassy was reopened in 1984, and right from the start, one topic dominated the reports from US diplomats stationed in Baghdad: Iran.

At the time, Saddam's troops were facing off against those of revolutionary Iran from the mountains of Kurdistan to the Shatt al-Arab River, and it was blatantly obvious where America's sympathies lay: Washington wanted Saddam to win.

Glaspie arrived in Iraq in the winter of 1987. At the time she was 46 years old, and had extensive experience in Arab countries. Washington certainly hadn't sent a beginner to Baghdad.

Blinkered View

One of her first trips saw her travel to meet Christians in the north, whose situation she found satisfactory. Whatever "resettlement" may have occurred had ceased weeks earlier. She described Saddam's governor in Mosul province as "unfailingly pleasant," and his security chief as "helpful and compassionate." In fact wherever she looked she was amazed how much money the Iraqi government was spending on its Christian minority. A monastery had been renovated, and "a number of spanking new villages" -- marked "'Saddam model village'" -- had been built.

That may all have been true, but it presented a deliberately blinkered view of Iraq in early 1988. For while Ambassador Glaspie was visiting Mosul, Saddam's cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majid (who ultimately came to be known as "Chemical Ali"), had Kurds in northern Iraq, just 250 kilometers (150 miles) away, bombed with poison gas. On March 16 and 17, 1988, 10 weeks after her visit, a similar fate befell the city of Halabja. Some 5,000 people there were killed on these two days alone, and hundreds more died painful deaths later from the aftereffects of the chemical weapons used against them.

It's not as if the US embassy in Baghdad knew nothing of these attacks. In mid-February, Abd al-Rahman Qassemlu, an Iranian Kurdish leader who had sided with Saddam against Tehran, came to Baghdad. After meeting with the dictator he also dropped in on the US Embassy. He let it be known that he wanted neither money nor weapons. "Of course one always likes more, but we have plenty," he said, according to an Embassy dispatch.

He then recounted what was taking place in the north. The report said the head of its political department "asked Qassemlu for his reaction to the Iraqi campaign of destroying Kurdish villages. Qassemlu acknowledged that "most" villages have been destroyed but he seemed unemotional on the point," the report noted.

Qassemlu told the Americans precisely whom he blamed for the murderous attacks in the north: "Saddam. He is in charge of everything."

Very early on, the American reports began mentioning Iraqi fears that the US would abandon Iraq for closer ties with Tehran. In a cable to Washington, Glaspie wrote: We have reassurad the Iraqis at a high level and through different channels that we do not contemplate "tilting" in either direction."

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Reaction from the US Government
In a statement, the White House has condemned the publication of "private diplomatic discussions" with foreign governments by SPIEGEL and four other international media on Sunday. Click on the link below to read the statement in full.
White House Statement
We anticipate the release of what are claimed to be several hundred thousand classified State Department cables on Sunday night that detail private diplomatic discussions with foreign governments.

By its very nature, field reporting to Washington is candid and often incomplete information. It is not an expression of policy, nor does it always shape final policy decisions. Nevertheless, these cables could compromise private discussions with foreign governments and opposition leaders, and when the substance of private conversations is printed on the front pages of newspapers across the world, it can deeply impact not only US foreign policy interests, but those of our allies and friends around the world.

To be clear -- such disclosures put at risk our diplomats, intelligence professionals, and people around the world who come to the United States for assistance in promoting democracy and open government. These documents also may include named individuals who in many cases live and work under oppressive regimes and who are trying to create more open and free societies. President Obama supports responsible, accountable, and open government at home and around the world, but this reckless and dangerous action runs counter to that goal.

By releasing stolen and classified documents, Wikileaks has put at risk not only the cause of human rights but also the lives and work of these individuals. We condemn in the strongest terms the unauthorized disclosure of classified documents and sensitive national security information.


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