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
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.
However, when Mr. Baker was asked last fall on NBC's "Meet the Press" whether she was carrying out his policy, he suggested that he was not personally responsible for -- or aware of -- the instructions she said she was following.
"What you want me to do is say that those instructions were sent specifically by me on my specific orders," he said. "There are probably 312,000 or so cables that go out under my name." This week, he was asked directly whether he had left her "hung out to dry" and replied: "I was asked quite a few questions on any number of appearances before the Congress with respect to that; and I answered all those questions, so I would certainly reject your characterization."
Mr. Hamilton bored in hard on Ms. Glaspie Thursday, citing a series of conflicting statements by administration spokesmen in the days leading up to July 25 including one the previous day by Mr. Baker's spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler that "we do not have any defense treaties with Kuwait, and there are no special defense or security commitments."
"Now, this record is not a record of unambiguous clarity with respect to American positions," he said. It had confused him, his subcommittee, "much of the Washington press, and it is not unreasonable for me to think that it might have confused Saddam Hussein as well."
Mr. Lantos was equally skeptical. "You tell us that you were sure Saddam Hussein knew that we would move militarily," he said. "Let me tell you, very few people were sure that we would move militarily on this committee or in this country. And for you to say in retrospect that Saddam Hussein absolutely knew that we would move in a military way is simply absurd."
The Iraqi transcript, which State Department officials had said was largely correct, suggested clearly that Mr. Hussein had made up his mind to invade already by the time Ms. Glaspie spoke with him, a conclusion several senators mentioned and with which she did not disagree.
However, she said that her conversation and subsequent assurances by other officials of the Iraqi government so convinced her that he had changed his mind about attacking that she left five days after her talk on vacation. Two days later the attack came.
Frank Starr is chief of The Sun's Washington bureau.