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

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.

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

Foto: AFP

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."

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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