How to be right and wrong as U.S. ambassador to Iraq

One of the services performed by Ross Perot last week wa to reintroduce the name April Glaspie to the American public.

When Perot mentioned her in the final presidential debate in East Lansing, Mich., no doubt a fair number of citizens scratched their heads and tried to remember just who she was.


They should not blame themselves.

Glaspie was a reasonably obscure diplomat -- except for one brief shining moment when she changed the course of world history.


April Glaspie was our ambassador to Iraq in 1990, though two years had passed without her ever having a private meeting with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

But then on July 25, 1990, Saddam summoned Glaspie to the Presidential Palace in Baghdad.

What followed depends on whom you believe.

If you believe the Bush administration, Glaspie delivered a clear warning to Saddam not to seize Kuwait, as he was threatening to do.

If you believe the Bush critics, including Ross Perot and Al Gore, Glaspie either gave Saddam a green light to invade, or, at the very least, gave him no clear warning against doing so.

When she later testified before Congress, Glaspie claimed she gave Saddam several warnings.

The warnings were so strong in fact that seven days after the meeting, Glaspie, her mother and her dog left Baghdad so Glaspie could attend a week of briefings in Washington.

Stopping off in London, Glaspie turned on a TV and learned that Saddam had just invaded Kuwait, touching off Desert Shield and later Desert Storm.


So much for stern warnings.

But Glaspie's secret cables to Washington, which were obtained by the Washington Post, indicate that Glaspie did not exactly take Saddam to the woodshed in that meeting.

According to those cables, Glaspie took a conciliatory tone with Saddam and emphasized that Bush wanted no confrontation with Iraq.

And then, in one of the great misreadings of character since Neville Chamberlain met Adolf Hitler, Glaspie cabled home: "His [Saddam's] emphasis that he wants peaceful settlement is surely sincere."

Though a diplomat for 25 years, Glaspie was apparently unaware that dictators sometimes lie.

And speaking of lying, that's what Sen. Alan Cranston, D-Calif., thought Glaspie had done to the U.S. Senate when the cables were revealed.


"A stern warning to Saddam Hussein about the likely American response to an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait could have prevented the invasion and all the death and destruction it caused," Cranston said.

"Ambassador Glaspie sought to convince us she issued such a warning. Her own secret cable is evidence that she did not."

Did Glaspie lie to the Senate? And/or is she a scapegoat for the higher-ups in the State Department and Bush administration?

Glaspie says she told the truth, though truth can be flexible when it comes to matters of state.

Take the case of Glaspie vs. Diane Sawyer.

Before the invasion, Glaspie helped Sawyer get an interview with Saddam.


In an Iraqi transcript of Glaspie's meeting with Saddam, Glaspie tells Saddam the Sawyer interview "was cheap and unjust."

In front of Congress, however, Glaspie said what she really told Saddam was that the editing of the Sawyer interview was cheap and unjust.

In Glaspie's secret cable to Washington, however, she says she "had seen the Diane Sawyer show and thought it was cheap and unfair."

To a professional diplomat all versions of the truth can be the truth.

After Perot's claim last week that Glaspie gave Saddam a green light to invade Kuwait, the State Department released a cable sent to all U.S. ambassadors in the Middle East on the day before the Glaspie/Saddam meeting.

That cable said the United States was taking "no position" on Saddam's demand for the northern Kuwaiti oil fields but said that an Iraqi use of force would be "contrary to U.N. charter principles."


So you be the judge: Green light? Stern warning? Or something in between?

Which is really the whole purpose of statecraft: Create a muddle small enough to make you look good if things go right and large enough to hide behind if they go wrong.