Was Ambassador Glaspie Too Gentle With Saddam?

With a different outcome in the Persian Gulf War, April Glaspie could have been the mother of all scapegoats. The U.S. ambassador to Iraq met with Saddam Hussein last July 25, eight days before he invaded Kuwait, and according to a transcript released later by the Iraqis she told him with great deference that Washington had "no opinion" on his border dispute with the threatened emirate. Did Glaspie's mild-mannered behavior help persuade Saddam that he could get away with invading Kuwait? There was no answer from Glaspie, who left Iraq just before the invasion and spent the next seven months in cloistered obscurity at a desk job in Washington. The State Department had nothing to say, declining even to question the accuracy of the transcript. Glaspie was left - as Washington said in the Watergate era - to twist slowly in the wind.

Inside the Beltway, there was speculation that Secretary of State James Baker was covering his hindquarters. He put Glaspie on ice, the suspicion ran, in case he needed someone to blame for a prewar Iraq policy that might look like appeasement. It was only last week that Glaspie finally got a chance to defend herself in public, appearing before two congressional committees. In the warm afterglow of a quick and relatively painless victory in the gulf, the 48-year-old ambassador repaired some of the damage to her reputation, using a classic Washington defense: that she had been quoted out of context.

Glaspie admitted telling Saddam that Washington had "no opinion" about his quarrel with Kuwait; it was longstanding U.S. policy not to take sides on Arab border disputes. But she told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the Iraqi transcript included only "one part of my sentence. The other part of my sentence was, 'but we insist that you settle your disputes with Kuwait nonviolently.' And he told me he would do so." Glaspie said Saddam lied to her, as he did to Arab leaders. Why didn't he heed what she insisted was a stern, clear warning? "We foolishly did not realize that he was stupid," she explained. Saddam, she said, was "impervious to logic and diplomacy."

The committees treated Glaspie gently. "How are you going to beat up on a woman professional on television?" gloated a White House official. But Rep. Lee Hamilton did get to a "smoking gun" question: "Did you ever tell Saddam Hussein, 'Mr. President, if you go across that line into Kuwait, we're going to fight'?" Glaspie replied, "No, I did not." Threatening to fight was not U.S. policy at the time.

Glaspie's testimony failed to answer a key question: why didn't the State Department say in the first place that the Iraqi transcript misrepresented her message? There was no U.S. transcript; Glaspie was not told in advance that she was going to meet Saddam, and she did not bring a notetaker. The only American record was the cable she sent to Washington describing the meeting, in which she thought she had cajoled Saddam into ruling out the use of force. But her own account, sources said, portrayed her as embarrassingly deferential. One policymaker who read the cable called it "appalling." "Believe me, if we had thought at the time that we could defend her with any credibility, we would have," said a senior State Department official. "But there were enough similarities between the transcript and her cable that we had to be guarded. As she described it in her cable, she did not adopt a harsh or tough tone toward him." Though Baker aides say the embassy had been told to adopt a tougher line, some White House staffers blame Baker for not making that crystal clear to Glaspie. "She did the best she could, and she's being sacrificed by Baker," charged one Bush aide.

Congress seemed to accept Glaspie's claim that she dealt firmly with Saddam, and that served both her interests and Baker's. No one in the administration was eager to admit, on the record, that prewar U.S. policy toward Iraq was tinged with appeasement in hopes of making Saddam more cooperative. "We virtually gave him the green light [to attack Kuwait]," said a senior U.S. diplomat in the Middle East. "If I had been sitting where he was sitting and getting the signals he was getting from Washington and elsewhere at the time, I would probably also have gambled on the invasion of Kuwait." So far, the State Department refuses to publish Glaspie's cable. The administration deliberately muzzled her as the gulf crisis unfolded, a Bush aide conceded, in order to cut off discussion of how Washington had handled Saddam. "It would have highlighted how cozy we were trying to be with him," he said.

Could the invasion have been prevented by a stern lecture on July 25? Not from a schoolmarmish ambassador, and probably not from anyone. Even if Glaspie had adopted a tougher tone, it would not have made any difference. Except to her career. Although Glaspie may have salvaged her reputation, she herself is stuck in bureaucratic limbo. Her successor in Baghdad has already been selected, and so far no new job has been announced for her. She is an expert on the Arabs, and speaks their language "like a nightingale," says one of her friends. She was the first American woman to become ambassador to an Arab country and was highly regarded by her professional peers. But Washington's judgments often put style ahead of substance, and April Glaspie is unlikely to win another high-profile Arab embassy.