When Jeb Bush, not long ago, kept mangling his answers after being asked whether, knowing what we know now, he would do what his brother George did when he launched the ruinous Second Gulf War, in March, 2003, he eventually said that he would not, but also that he didn’t want to “get back into hypotheticals.”
Hypothetical questions can be useful, though, and the answers often depend not only upon what you’re asked but when you’re asked. For instance, knowing what we know now, should Jeb’s father, the first President Bush, have launchedhis Gulf War, in 1991? Operation Desert Storm succeeded in its limited goal—to drive the Iraqis out of neighboring Kuwait, which they had invaded, on August 2, 1990—a quarter century ago. But it also embroiled the United States and participating allies in a conflict that might someday be seen as the start of a baffling, destructive regional war that still continues—and that might have been avoided with better communication. You do not have to agree with Senator Rand Paul’s assertion that Republican hawks “created” the Islamic State to see a link between American interventions in the Middle East and the chaos that followed. For that matter, you do not have to agree that the culpable hawks belong only to the Republican Party.
The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler revisited the run-up to the First Gulf War a few years ago, and followed a trail of mixed signals that could be traced, in reverse sequence, from April C. Glaspie, the United States Ambassador to Iraq, to James A. Baker III, the Secretary of State, to George H. W. Bush. Glaspie, a career Foreign Service officer, was in Baghdad when Iraqi forces entered Kuwait. A week earlier, when it looked as if an incursion was imminent, she spent two hours with Saddam Hussein, at the Presidential Palace, where she urged restraint but never quite said that the United States would use military force to stop him. Before the fighting began, the Iraqi government releasedwhat they claimed was a transcript of their conversation, and which Glaspie has always maintained was doctored:
Glaspie: I have direct instructions from President Bush to improve our relations with Iraq. We have considerable sympathy for your quest for higher oil prices, the immediate cause of your confrontation with Kuwait. As you know, I lived here for years and admire your extraordinary efforts to rebuild your country. We know you need funds. We understand that, and our opinion is that you should have the opportunity to rebuild your country. We can see that you have deployed massive numbers of troops in the south. Normally that would be none of our business, but when this happens in the context of your threats against Kuwait, then it would be reasonable for us to be concerned. For this reason, I have received an instruction to ask you, in the spirit of friendship—not confrontation—regarding your intentions: Why are your troops massed so very close to Kuwait’s borders?
Hussein: As you know, for years now I have made every effort to reach a settlement on our dispute with Kuwait. There is to be a meeting in two days; I am prepared to give negotiations only this one more brief chance. When we meet and we see there is hope, then nothing will happen. But if we are unable to find a solution, then it will be natural that Iraq will not accept death.
According to the Iraqi account of the conversation, when Glaspie asked, “What solutions would be acceptable?” Saddam talked about the suicidal 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, during which an estimated half-million people died, and insisted that Iraq, its economy wrecked by the war, had legitimate territorial claims on Kuwait and its oil. When Saddam asked, “What is the United States’ opinion on this?,” Glaspie replied, “We have no opinion on your Arab-Arab conflicts, such as your dispute with Kuwait. Secretary [of State James] Baker has directed me to emphasize the instruction, first given to Iraq in the 1960s, that the Kuwait issue is not associated with America.”
In 1991, in conversations with members of Senate and House foreign-affairs committees, Glaspie said that what she’d actually told Hussein was to “keep your hands off this country,” and 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.” But Representative Lee Hamilton asked a key 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.” Still, the suggestion that the United States may have even unintentionally green-lighted Saddam’s war became an embarrassment for Glaspie, and pretty much ended any chance for another diplomatic posting. (She retired from the Foreign Service a few years later.) Kessler’s story in the Post was prompted by a rare interview that Glaspie gave, in 2008, to Randa Takieddine of the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat. In it, she maintained that parts of the transcript of her meeting with Saddam were “invented by Tarek Aziz,” Iraq’s former Minister of Information, who died this past June.
As Kessler noted, though, a cable sent by Glaspie to the State Department after seeing Saddam suggested that she’d been more conciliatory than she recalled. Her dispatch, declassified after efforts by the National Security Archive at George Washington University (and later published by Wikileaks), described Saddam’s manner as “cordial, reasonable, and even warm,” and said she had told Saddam that President Bush had “instructed her to broaden and deepen our relations with Iraq.” Saddam, she wrote, knew that America could use “planes and rockets and hurt Iraq deeply,” and had asked that the United States “not force Iraq to the point of humiliation”; his “emphasis that he wants peaceful settlement is surely sincere (Iraqis are sick of war), but the terms sound difficult to achieve.”
In the 2008 interview, Glaspie sounded eager to put it all behind her. “It is over,” she said. “Nobody wants to take the blame. I am quite happy to take the blame. Perhaps I was not able to make Saddam believe that we would do what we said we would do, but in all honesty, I don’t think anybody in the world could have persuaded him.” Actually, no one ought to blame Glaspie for what followed. Transcripts and cables tell part of the story, but far from all of it. The roles played by Secretary of State Baker and the President were of considerably more consequence than that of their Ambassador, though neither Baker nor Bush suffered the scrutiny and scorn that was directed toward Glaspie. (When she was asked if “all this blame from Baker and Washington” was unfair, she replied that “President Bush was superb…. He was extremely thoughtful, extremely knowledgeable, extremely worried as he should have been.” The lack of a similar comment about Baker seems notable.)
Glaspie didn’t ask if, knowing what we know now, the nation’s leaders should have given more thought to the idea that the task in the father-and-son Gulf Wars was greater than a massive military operation against a third-rate power. She said as much when she told Al-Hayat that “There has to be from the West [a] really deeper understanding than I have seen of the profundity of the animosities in Iraq.” She added, “Past is past; either we learn from it or we don’t.”
The nuclear deal between Iran and Western powers, for all the questions it’s bound to face, might be viewed in that light: that something was learned from America’s quarter century in the Middle East and that, as President Obama said, it’s “an opportunity to move in a new direction.” Perhaps, a quarter century from now, someone will ask whether another long, corrosive Mideast war was avoided by all the bickering, posturing, and, in the end, essential faith among the negotiators in Vienna that diplomacy is something other than the exchange of empty phrases. With luck, the answer will be that it was.