Mark Danner

New Yorker Comment: Though the rhetoric surrounding the Middle East crisis has softened somewhat since the threats of mid-August…

Though the rhetoric surrounding the Middle East crisis has softened somewhat since the threats of mid-August, the United States and Iraq remain caught in what President Mitterrand has called the "logic of war."

Though the rhetoric surrounding the Middle East crisis has softened somewhat since the threats of mid-August, the United States and Iraq remain caught in what President Mitterrand has called the “logic of war.” However effective the United Nations embargo has been in interrupting Iraqi trade, there is no sign that it will soon achieve what President Bush has said is its major purpose: forcing Saddam Hussein to withdraw his troops unconditionally from Kuwait. Nor does the American buildup of more than a hundred and fifty thousand troops seem likely to intimidate Hussein into such a wholesale retreat. Various unnamed Administration sources have let it be known that this stalemate can continue only so long before, in President Bush’s words, “additional steps” will be taken.

Our policy has thus acquired an inexorable, helpless quality. Our troops are there, and more are arriving every day, and at a certain point, if the Iraqis don’t retreat, those troops must do something. Not for the first time, the exercise of American power has become imbued with a feeling of powerlessness. Present decisions seem to be pushed forward by the weight of past actions, and by the need to retain the “credibility” that those actions have already put at risk. Such is the logic of war.

Until recently, the fateful first link in this chain of logic had seemed to be Hussein’s reckless decision to invade Kuwait, and his apparent failure to anticipate the response of the United States. Set against what we now know of American actions during the weeks before the invasion, however, his decision seems less the irrational act of a power-mad dictator than the bold step of a man who thought he had received a clear signal from the United States — a signal that if he wanted Kuwaiti territory he should go ahead and take it.

Iraq’s claims on Kuwaiti land are long-standing, and have led to periodic crises. Tensions heightened in midJuly, when Iraq began threatening to use force against its neighbor and moved thirty thousand troops to the border. A week later, Hussein summoned April Glaspie, the American Ambassador to Baghdad, and forced her to endure what seems to have been a tirade, during which he made it clear that he felt free to use force not only against Kuwait but against the United States if it intervened. Ambassador Glaspie listened to these remarkably forthright threats (they included a strong hint that terrorism would be used), and she responded with an extraordinary assurance. “We have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait,” she told Hussein, and emphasized that this position would be stated publicly in Washington. (A few days later, Ambassador Glaspie’s boss, Assistant Secretary of State John Kelly, told Congress that the United States was not bound by any treaty to come to Kuwait’s defense.) Ambassador Glaspie also informed Hussein that she would soon be leaving Baghdad for “consultations” in Washington.

It’s easy to see how the Ambassador’s soothing words and her seemingly convenient departure, days before the invasion, together with the initially weak American response to the Iraqi troop movements, must have appeared to Hussein to constitute a “green light.” Such a signal, after all, would amount to just the latest step in a decade-long policy of befriending Iraq — a policy that had begun with the strong American “tilt” toward Hussein’s regime during the Iran-Iraq War and had continued with generous American trade credits to help the country rebuild its economy. It seems clear that, despite the regime’s brutality and repressiveness — and despite its use of chemical weapons, which we now hear so much about-American policyrnakers saw Hussein as a possible replacement for the Shah of Iran as “policeman of the Gulf.” “It was a choice between Hussein and the Ayatollah,” Richard Murphy, the assistant secretary of state for Mideastern affairs under President Reagan, said recently. “It was that simple.”

Unfortunately, it wasn’t that simple. Not only was the aggressive character of Hussein’s regime clear but so was the fact that Iraq’s borders with Iran and with Kuwait were inherently unstable. In drawing up the modern Iraqi and Kuwaiti borders in the early nineteen-twenties, the British deliberately deprived Iraq of a port on the Gulf, creating what has been a chronic cause of conflict in the region ever since; for example, it was largely to secure the Shatt-al-Arab waterway that Iraq attacked Iran in 1980. Now, if Iraq could intimidate Kuwait into relinquishing a small piece of largely uninhabited territory — a strip on the border, together with two islands, which had long been claimed by the Iraqis-then Iraq would be appeased, the conflict with Iran resolved, and the Gulf made more stable. And who would seriously support the Kuwaitis if they protested about surrendering a little bit of desert? This appears to have been the reasoning of American officials. As Ambassador Glaspie later remarked to the Times, “I didn’t think-and nobody else did -that the Iraqis were going to take all of Kuwait.”

American officials in the White House and the State Department continued to misjudge the Iraqis even when, five days before the invasion, the Chairman of the joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency presented what they considered definitive proof that tens of thousands of Iraqi troops and tanks were about to surge over the border. Only when those troops finally invaded did our officials accept the fact that Saddam Hussein had indeed decided to take all of Kuwait.

Apparently startled by the strong American reaction, Hussein said that President Bush had “gone crazy”; it certainly can be argued that he hadn’t changed. In any case, American policyrnakers might have been expected to know by now that brutal proteges are famous for not doing precisely what their sponsors expect or want them to. And certainly they should know that all-powerful dictators, particularly those with claims on the land of rich, weak neighbors, are notoriously unmoved by international law-which President Bush now champions in public, although his diplomat seems to have neglected to mention it when she met with Hussein in private at a moment when a firm lesson, firmly delivered, on the integrity of national boundaries and the importance of the principle to the United States might have made a real difference. Instead, respect for international law was sacrificed to realpolitik. It was then that the logic of war began to unfold-the climax of a decade-long strategy in which we chose to link arms with Saddam Hussein. As a result of that strategy, American policy, and American lives, are today subject to the decisions of a foreign leader, who has pushed not only his back but ours to the wall.