Today marks the 22nd anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. The Iraqi invasion followed months of escalating rhetoric, much of which American diplomats downplayed in the belief that Arab dictators didn’t mean what they said. Meeting with Saddam Hussein eight days before the invasion, Ambassador April Glaspie told the Iraqi dictator, “We have no opinion on your Arab – Arab conflicts, such as your dispute with Kuwait.” Iraqi officials subsequently claimed that Saddam interpreted Glaspie’s remarks as a pledge of non-interference and perhaps even a green light. The press made Glaspie into a scapegoat, but she was only the product of a larger diplomatic culture.
The invasion of Kuwait unleashed a cascade of events which culminated in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The question both politicians and historians should ask is whether they might have headed off the invasion months or years ahead of time as the true nature of Saddam Hussein became clear.
Rather than suppress reports of Saddam’s chemical weapons use against Kurdish civilians, the Reagan administration should have cut Saddam off right then and there. But sophisticated diplomats hoped to rehabilitate Saddam, both as a means of containing Iran and also to peel Saddam away from Soviet influence.
Against a steady stream of reports suggesting Saddam’s cruelty and aggressive intent, Sen. John McCain pushed for military sanctions on Iraq. Sen. Arlen Specter decided to travel to Baghdad to talk with the Iraqi dictator. Like his senate colleagues John Kerry, Joseph Biden, and Dick Lugar, as well as Nancy Pelosi in the House, Specter believed that he had a unique ability to talk dictators back from the brink: He could engage successfully, where all others had failed. Specter met Saddam on January 12, 1990. He believed Saddam’s talk of peace, and effectively became Saddam’s useful idiot. Over the next few months, he persistently undercut McCain’s proposals to extend military sanctions on Iraq.
Saddam may today be gone, but history seems to be repeating with regard to Iran. Iranian leaders issue a steady stream of genocidal rhetoric against Israel, support repression in Syria, and question the sovereignty of Bahrain. Yet, diplomats and many academics dismiss Iranian rhetoric. While senators have largely embraced sanctions against Iran, just as Specter did almost 23 years ago, President Obama and senior administration officials still suggest that there is enough time for diplomacy to work, even as Khamenei, like Saddam before him, pushes full steam ahead with plans to fulfill his regional ambition.
As history repeats itself, the only questions are who will be the next Glaspie and how much ruin will the Obama team’s blind belief in diplomacy bring.