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Sand trap; U.S. diplomacy did work: it got us into war.

James Bennet is an editor of the Washington Monthly. Research assistance was provided by Elliott Beard and Deborah Yavelak Sieff.

Historians will no doubt debate for decades the what ifs of the fierce war of signals leading up to January 16, and then again to February 23: What if George Bush and Saddam Hussein hadn't publicly demonized each other from the beginning of the crisis? What if the coalition had given the Soviet peace initiative some time to develop? Perhaps Saddam is such a maniac that he would never have complied peacefully with the United Nations resolutions. One thing is certain: Although we can make some educated guesses, we'll never really know the answers, because the Bush administration never tried to find them out.

Then again, why should anyone care? After the breathtaking success of the American armed forces, trying to examine the missed opportunities to resolve the crisis bloodlessly seems not only futile but slightly nuts, like trying to Monday-morning-quarterback a game of hockey. But Saddam Hussein isn't the only ruler in the world who tortures his people and covets his neighbor; even some of our coalition allies fit that description. And he's certainly not the only one who collects unconventional weapons. It would be inhumane and ultimately self-defeating to try to maintain the new world order by spending billions of dollars, risking hundreds of thousands of troops, and killing tens of thousands of people to rein in every threatening dictator who comes along. To have alternatives to military action available down the road, it would seem useful to try to extract some lessons from the what ifs of the brief, undiplomatic diplomatic history of the Gulf crisis. Contrary to so much that has been written on the crisis, the Gulf war was not "inevitable." The Bush administration merely made it look that way by foreclosing other options besides using force to execute the UN resolutions.

There is a strong prima facie case that both our multilateral diplomacy with our allies and our bilateral diplomacy with Iraq, rather than serving to develop alternatives to war, were merely arms of our military strategy. The contrast between the two tracks of diplomacy alone supports this point: The same administration that skillfully built and manipulated a coalition of antagonistic nations repeatedly bungled its efforts to peacefully reverse the Iraqi invasion. The best example of a missed or ignored opening was the hostage release, which somehow became a minor footnote in the crisis. To uncover some roots of that case, it's helpful to first reexamine the infamous kickoff of the conflict.

Hussein asylum

As we go to press, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie has just offered the first glimpse of the administration's long-awaited version of the prehistory of the crisis. According to her, the gentle message ("We have many Americans who would like to see the price [of oil] go above $25 because they come from oil-producing states") revealed by the transcript had a tougher twin: Glaspie says she told Saddam several times that we would not countenance violence, or in fact threat or intimidation."

That's a strong message, but did Glaspie actually deliver it? On a common-sense level, it doesn't add up that James Baker and his aides have repeatedly distanced themselves from Glaspie, rather than dismissively asserting right away, as she does at last, that there were "many inaccuracies in the so-called transcript." More important, Glaspie's own testimony undercuts the notion that she protested so much: She says there was no difference between what she told Saddam privately and what the administration was saying publicly-and what the administration was saying publicly made it sound like we would countenance a whole lot. The one exception came in mid-July, when Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney overstepped and told reporters that the U.S. would defend Kuwait were it attacked- the White House quickly informed him that it and State would handle comments on Iraq. The word from State, as Margaret Tutwiler put it, was that "there are no special defense or security commitments to Kuwait." Two days before Iraqi tanks rolled into Kuwait City, John Kelly, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs, in testimony before Congress, delivered Glaspie's gentler message -that, in her notorious words, "we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts."

Glaspie's passivity no doubt stemmed partly from her awareness that Iraq did have legitimate grievances against Kuwait. The northern border of Kuwait has never been officially ratified by either government. Kuwait agreed at three different OPEC meetings to decrease its production in order to raise the price of oil to $18 per barrel, but it went back on its promises every time, damaging the Iraqi economy. Adding injury to injury, Kuwait had drawn some of this excess oil from deposits lying beneath both nations, across the disputed boundary. Of course, these grievances didn't justify the invasion, but they do help explain the patience with which Glaspie listened to Saddam's ranting-as does a revealing statement she made to The New York Times: "I didn't think-and nobody else did-that the Iraqis were going to take all of Kuwait."

Even if Glaspie did try to get the tougher message across, it's hard to believe Saddam would have taken her seriously. After all, the U.S. had countenanced Iraqi violence, threat, and intimidation for years. Indeed, we supported all three during the war on Iran. After the war ended, it was no longer the American intent to back Saddam's adventurism, but it was our policy to play nice with him. This internally dissonant approach survived Saddam's 1988 gassing of the Kurds (although within two weeks of the start of the Kuwait crisis, Bush was stridently proclaiming that act, as well as the invasion of Iran, to be evidence of Saddam's inhumanity). Even after the Iraqi leader threatened to destroy half of Israel with chemical weapons, Kelly assured Congress last April that "we believe that there is still a potentiality for positive alterations in Iraqi behavior."

"Napoleon began the war with Russia because he could not resist going to Dresden, could not help his head being turned by the homage he received, could not help donning Polish uniform and yielding to the stimulating influence of a June morning," Leo Tolstoy wrote in War and Peace. "Alexander refused all negotiations because he felt himself personally insulted." Perhaps all the forbearance shown Iraq through the years helps account for the remarkable fury with which George Bush reacted to the invasion of Kuwait. It almost surely accounts for Saddam's gross miscalculation of the American response. After all, he had a longstanding relationship with the American geopoliticians, and he probably believed that State had consented to his proposal. Now, all of a sudden, Bush was screaming "rape." What happened to all the good times?

The rhetoric war escalated quickly after the invasion of Kuwait. Bush went from calling Saddam a liar on the third day of the crisis to comparing him to Hitler on the sixth day, until by August 20 he was calling Saddam "a person whose values-who has no values-when it comes to respecting international law, a man of evil standing against human life itself." Needless to say, Saddam's rhetoric was even more colorful. Bush's accusations may all have been fair, but the effect of his snowballing words was to trap Saddam in Kuwait. As Roger Fisher, director of Harvard's Negotiation Project, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in December, "Much has been said that could convince Iraq that withdrawal from Kuwait would only make it worse off."

It wasn't until December that Baker announced that Saddam would not be attacked if he withdrew from Kuwait. Even given that assurance, according to Fisher's analysis, Saddam could still expect sanctions to continue until he paid reparations and possibly was tried for war crimes; he could expect to receive nothing from the Kuwaitis; he would be humiliated before the world; and he would probably be tossed out at home. If he stayed in Kuwait, the picture was marginally brighter: He still had some bargaining chips, some hope of outlasting sanctions, some hope of permanent gain, and some international respect for his power. He could always try to cut a deal down the road if the outlook turned truly bleak.

In other words, while our stated policy was to get Saddam out of Kuwait by peaceful means if possible, all the signals the administration was sending had the effect of boxing him in until our military was prepared to drive him out by force-and in the process destroy his military infrastructure, which was not a UN objective. All through the past several months, the administration greeted the possibility of a negotiated settlement and a peaceful withdrawal (the "nightmare scenario") with fear, not relief. The administration "deliberately decided that there wasn't going to be a diplomatic role," says James Akins, former ambassador to Saudi Arabia. No moment in the crisis better illustrates this point than the December hostage release.

Child's play

On November 30, Bush, in an effort to head off a special session favored by congressmen worried about the rush to war, declared that he wanted "to go the extra mile for peace" and "exhaust all means for achieving a political and diplomatic solution." He made a surprise offer to Iraq: He said he would invite Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz to meet with him in Washington during the week of December 10, and he offered to send Baker to meet with Saddam "at a mutually convenient time between December 15th and January )5th of next year." He emphasized that he would not compromise on the familiar three objectives: Iraq's complete withdrawal from Kuwait, restoration of Kuwait's legitimate government, and freedom for all the hostages." After downplaying the plight of the hostages in the early days of the crisis, Bush had begun speaking about them regularly during the midterm elections. He again emphasized their mistreatment when he issued the invitation.

"Iraqi officials reacted with surprise and enthusiasm tonight to President Bush's offer to hold direct talks," reported The New York Times. One official called it "the first good news from Washington in months." A week later, after accepting the invitation, Saddam complied fully with Bush's third demand, announcing that he would release all the hostages "to respond to these good, positive changes." In traditional Arab fashion he was making a reciprocal esture of good will. On NBC's "Meet the Press," Iraq's ambassador to the UN said that in calling for talks, "The president had taken a step in the right direction, and we responded positively."

This was perhaps the most hopeful moment between the invasion and January 16. The Los Angeles Times declared that Saddam's "announcement signaled the possibility of the first real movement in the four-month-old Persian Gulf crisis." One "worried Saudi official who deals in foreign affairs" told The New, York Times, "This means the war is over. It's going to be impossible to keep the pressure up if Saddam releases the hostages."

But things quickly fell apart. Saddam invited Baker to come to Baghdad on January 12, within the time frame laid down by Bush. But the U.S. administration declared that date unacceptable, because it was too close to the UN deadline. Saddam Hussein would have to come up with a date between December 20 and January 3. "I wish now," said Bush, "that I had been a little more explicit in my first announcement on what I meant by mutually convenient dates." In Baghdad, this was regarded as a humiliating bait-and-switch, and the Iraqi government resisted setting a new date. "I was in the Mideast at the time," says Akins, and Bush's reneging on the initial dates "was regarded as most peculiar.... They couldn't understand Bush." Fisher expresses the Iraqi reaction more simply: "They thought they were being jerked around."

According to The New York Times, "Senior Iraqi officials characterized the dispute as one involving Iraq's dignity, saying they will not allow the administration to dictate the date on which the Iraqi president is available to receive Mr. Baker." The two governments launched into a long period of negotiating over when to negotiate (or, more accurately, not negotiating over when not to negotiate); the process, rather than the underlying objectives, became the issue. Rep. Pat Schroeder observed during this bewildering period that the United States appeared to be willing to go to war over a difference of nine days: "Talk is very cheap. War is costly. I feel as though I'm listening to an argument between three-year-olds."

But in times of crisis, especially in matters of foreign policy, the executive branch has enormous powers of spin control. High-level officials quickly shifted the focus from the president's moving the goalposts to the intransigence of the Iraqis in refusing to accommodate him. Indeed, the fact that Bush changed the terms seems to have dropped out of the national consciousness. In its rich history of the crisis, "The Road to War," Newsweek reported only that Saddam "sent word that he wouldn't receive Baker in Baghdad until the very eve of the UN deadline. It seemed clear to the administration that he was trying to stall, not to talk." Unmentioned is the fact that Saddam had picked a date that Bush had first offered.

Instead of capitalizing on the opportunity presented by the hostage release, the administration vigorously downplayed its significance. "I don't believe Saddam Hussein deserves any credit for stopping a practice that obviously is abhorrent to the civilized world," said Cheney. To achieve peace in the region, he declared, Saddam would have to "go back to Baghdad with his tail between his legs." Bush said Iraq would get no reward for releasing the hostages. Hell no. Not one thing. You don't reward a kidnapper. You don't reward somebody who has done something that he shouldn't have done in the first place." Deprived of the hostages' plight as a rallying cry, the administration began underscoring Iraq's nuclear threat. It was also in early December that Bush, Baker, and Cheney all began saying publicly that sanctions wouldn't accomplish the UN objectives, torpedoing the possibility of an economic solution at the same time they were downplaying the hopes for a diplomatic one. Soon, there would be only one option left.


The issue needn't have been one of "rewards" (or "conditions"). Instead, Bush could just as easily have declared that the hostage release suggested Saddam Hussein was coming to his senses, that perhaps he wanted to be readmitted to the world community; the coalition would be finn in insisting on its own priorities, but it would be willing to listen to Saddam's grievances. Despite its poisonous rhetoric, the Iraqi government continued to signal that it wanted "deep dialogue" with the United States. On December 17, Iraq released this statement: "We want peace. We want dialogue for peace. We respect legitimacy, and we want international law to be applied to the issues of our nation, but we refuse capitulation." This should have been an American negotiator's dream. The Iraqis appeared to be willing to accept an objective framework-"international law"-to resolve the crisis, a framework that, as Bush repeatedly proclaimed, powerfully favored our position. But we never explored the possibility.

To be consistent within that framework, the U.S. might have had to agree to future talks to encourage Israeli compliance with UN resolutions. Not only were Bush and Baker both on the record in support of such a conference, but it could only have helped American foreign policy in the long term, since the more the U.S. is perceived as being selective in its efforts to apply international law, the harder it will be for it to avail itself of international law's moral sanction in dealing with rogue states like Iraq. Again, maybe the Iraqis were not sincerely interested in a reasonable diplomatic solution. The point here is simply that we never put the possibility that they were to the test.

"I take negotiations as a sign of confidence in our own ideas," says Fisher. [They mean], 'I'm right. My ideas are powerful."' But the Bush administration publicly connected "negotiation" with appeasement, and wouldn't even use the word to describe its contacts with the Iraqi government. Bush refused to show any respect to his opponent whatsoever: "I don't care about face. He doesn't need any face. He needs to get out of Kuwait. . . ." That position was surprising, since it was so inconsistent with the traditional American approach to even more murderous dictators. Why did we limit ourselves to the military option against Iraq?

Probably because, with the Cold War over, we could afford to. The administration believed that, unlike the alternatives of sanctions and diplomacy, the military option guaranteed a decisive outcome, at least in the short term. And it has succeeded, at an enormous cost in men and machines. Those costs are too high for us to use the military to resolve every such crisis in Bush's brave new world order. Of course, the costs of not doing anything are just as high. From a public policy standpoint, the tragedy of the Kuwait crisis is that we don't know if air-tight sanctions, combined with good faith diplomacy, would have peacefully enforced international law.
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Title Annotation:Persian Gulf War
Author:Bennet, James
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Apr 1, 1991
Previous Article:On the home front: all glory, no guts. For most of Americans, freeing Kuwait was just another free ride.
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