Why one U.S. diplomat didn’t cause the Gulf War

Why one U.S. diplomat didn’t cause the Gulf War

On July 25, 1990, Saddam Hussein summoned April Glaspie, the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, to discuss Iraq’s brewing dispute with Kuwait. Their discussion would eventually cost Glaspie her promising career as a diplomat.

One week after the meeting, Saddam’s troops would storm into Kuwait, beginning the chain of events that eventually led to the Gulf War. Now, with WikiLeaks’ release of Glaspie’s cable describing her meeting with Saddam, we have her firsthand perspective on one of the seminal events that preceded the conflict.

The cable is more interesting for what is not discussed than what is. Glaspie doesn’t show any awareness that war is just around the corner; she mainly offers diplomatic pablum that the United States is interested in "friendship" with Iraq. Due to her failure to warn Saddam that the United States would forcefully retaliate in the event of an invasion of Kuwait, the Washington Post described her as "the face of American incompetence in Iraq." Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer piled on in a 2003 article for Foreign Policy, arguing that Glaspie’s remarks unwittingly gave Iraq a green light to invade Kuwait.

That’s an unfair judgment. Glaspie was unable to employ harsher language because George H.W. Bush’s administration hadn’t yet reached a decision on how the United States would respond to an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. "Practically nobody in the U.S. government believed that Saddam was going to opt for military action," Wayne White, who served in the State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) at the time of the Gulf War, told me.

Saddam, after all, had sent two of his highest-ranking deputies to Saudi Arabia to hold negotiations with the Kuwaitis to resolve the crisis. And during the meeting with Glaspie, he received a telephone call from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak where he pledged that "nothing will happen" until after the discussions. Surely the Iraqi dictator wasn’t preparing to invade a U.S. ally, seize a significant share of world oil supplies, and sabotage the diplomatic efforts of the Arab world’s two most powerful countries?

In fact, he was. But the United States had yet to appreciate that fact, leaving Glaspie with instructions only to issue a tepid plea to find a negotiated solution to the dispute.  "There was no way that April could have done anything more than she did without authority going all the way up to the president of the United States," said White. "Because we don’t make idle threats. If you’re going to threaten, you have to really mean it."

Glaspie, who became the first female U.S. ambassador posted to a Middle Eastern country when she was sent to Iraq, became something of a pariah within the State Department after this episode. She served at the U.S. mission to the United Nations after leaving Iraq, and then headed the U.S. consulate in Cape Town, South Africa, before retiring in 2002. For someone who had previously spent her entire career focused on U.S. policy in the Middle East, these were something less than dream assignments.

The WikiLeaks cables do show that Glaspie was not the sharpest observer of Saddam’s regime, and at points made the mistake of trying to handle the Iraqi president with kid gloves. In one cringe-inducing line, she commiserates with Saddam over his unhappiness with how the Diane Sawyer show edited an interview with him, saying that it was "cheap and unfair." Der Spiegel, which apparently has unreleased cables from the period written by Glaspie, reported that the U.S. diplomat also described to the State Department an "important" initiative by Saddam to draft a new Iraqi constitution.

Perhaps that credulousness is the reason why Glaspie’s rise in the State Department stalled. But on the charge that she could have deterred Saddam from invading Kuwait by using sterner language during that much-debated meeting, she is certainly innocent.