There is no disguising the fact that the United States failed to convey in unmistakable terms to Saddam Hussein that he would have a war on his hands if he tried to take over Kuwait. For more than a decade, until the Persian Gulf crisis exploded last August 2, three successive administrations tried to placate the Iraqi dictator as a means of striking a blow at the fiercely anti-American fundamentalist regime in Iran. Only when it was too late, did Washington learn the grim truth that the enemy of our enemy was by no means our friend.
April Glaspie, the U.S. ambassador who went on an approved vacation three days before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and five days after her famous face-to-face meeting with Saddam, now says he was "stupid" for failing to perceive the full measure of American resolve to halt any aggression on his part. But was he? Or were Ambassador Glaspie and her superiors at Foggy Bottom dupes for taking the notoriously duplicitous dictator at his word when he allegedly said he would not resort to force?
This newspaper decried attempts in Congress to second-guess and scapegoat while the gulf crisis was unfolding. But now that Saddam has been defeated it is time for some very hard retrospection. U.S. miscalculation and ambiguity in dealing with Iraq should be faced squarely to avoid future mistakes in dealing with rogue regimes.
It is difficult not to sympathize with Ambassador Glaspie, an "Arabist" career foreign service officer. When Baghdad released a transcript of her historic encounter with Mr. Hussein, in which she was quoted as saying that "we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts," the powers that be at Foggy Bottom left her to twist in the wind. Not until she testified on Capitol Hill last week did she have a chance to dispute the impression that she had been too soft, too accommodating with Saddam.
Ambassador Glaspie testified she told Saddam "we would defend our vital interests, we would support our friends in the gulf, we would defend their sovereignty and integrity" -- all statements omitted from the Baghdad transcript. Senators were impressed. Representatives were not. "Did you ever tell Saddam Hussein, 'Mr. President, if you go across that line into Kuwait, we're going to fight?'" asked Rep. Lee Hamilton. "No, I did not," Ms. Glaspie replied, adding, however, that she was sure Mr. Hussein believed the U.S. would take action. Mr. Hamilton disagreed. So did Rep. Tom Lantos, who said "very few people were sure we would move militarily."
Ambassador Glaspie is just part of a larger problem that includes Secretary of State James A. Baker's cliquish management of the State Department and the age-old instincts of diplomats not to make waves with their host governments. Ambassador Glaspie's cable describing her meeting with Saddam Hussein should be released immediately. The U.S. policy record leading up to the gulf crisis will never look good, but this doesn't mean the American people should not have a good look at it.