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January 1991 Issue [Capital Letter]

Why We Are Stuck in the Sand

Realpolitik in the Gulf

On the morning before Yom Kippur late this past September, I found myself standing at the western end of the White House, watching as the color guard paraded the flag of the United States (and the republic for which it stands) along with that of the Emirate of Kuwait. The young men of George Bush’s palace guard made a brave showing, but their immaculate uniforms and webbing could do little but summon the discomforting contrasting image—marching across our TV screens nightly—of their hot, thirsty, encumbered brothers and sisters in the Saudi Arabian desert. I looked away and had my attention fixed by a cortege of limousines turning in at the gate. There was a quick flash of dark beard and white teeth, between burnoose and kaffiyeh, as Sheikh Jabir al-Ahrnad Al-Sabah, the exiled Kuwaiti emir, scuttled past a clutch of photographers and through the portals. End of photo op, but not of story.

Let us imagine a photograph of the emir of Kuwait entering the White House, and let us see it as a historian might years from now. What might such a picture disclose under analysis? How did this oleaginous monarch, whose very name was unknown just weeks before to most members of the Bush administration and the Congress, never mind most newspaper editors, reporters, and their readers, become a crucial visitor—perhaps the crucial visitor—on the President’s autumn calendar? How did he emerge as someone on whose behalf the President was preparing to go to war?

We know already, as every historian will, that the President, in having the emir come by, was not concerned with dispelling any impression that he was the one who had “lost Kuwait” to Iraq in early August. The tiny kingdom had never been understood as “ours” to lose, as far as the American people and their representatives knew. Those few citizens who did know Kuwait (human-rights monitors, scholars, foreign correspondents) knew it was held together by a relatively loose yet unmistakably persistent form of feudalism. It could have been “lost” only by its sole owners, the Al-Sabah family, not by the United States or by the “free world.”

What a historian might make of our imaginary photo document of this moment in diplomatic history that most citizens surely would not is that it is, in fact, less a discreet snapshot than a still from an epic movie—a dark and bloody farce, one that chronicles the past two decades of U.S. involvement in the Persian Gulf. Call the film Rules of the Game of Nations or Metternich of Arabia—you get the idea. In this particular scene, the President was meeting at the White House with the emir to send a “signal” to Iraqi president Saddam Hussein that he, Bush, “stood with” Kuwait in wanting Iraq to pull out its troops. After the meeting, Bush emerged to meet the press, not alone but with his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft. This, of course, was a signal, too: Bush meant business, of a potentially military kind. In the game of nations, however, one does not come right out and say one is signaling (that would, by definition, no longer be signaling); one waits for reporters to ask about signals, one denies signaling is going on, and then one trusts that unnamed White House aides and State Department officials will provide the desired “spin” and perceptions of “tilt.”

On ordinary days the trivial and empty language of Washington isn’t especially awful. The drizzle of repetitive key words—”perception,” “agenda,” “address,” “concern,” “process,” “bipartisan”—does its job of masking and dulling reality. But on this rather important day in an altogether unprecedented process—a lengthy and deliberate preparation for a full-scale ground and air war in a faraway region—there was not a word from George Bush—not a word—that matched the occasion. Instead, citizens and soldiers alike would read or hear inane questions from reporters, followed by boilerplate answers from their President and interpretations by his aides, about whether the drop-by of a feudal potentate had or had not signaled this or that intent.

There is a rank offense here to the idea of measure and proportion. Great matters of power and principle are in play, and there does in fact exist a chance to evolve a new standard for international relations rather than persist in the old follies of superpower raisons d’état; and still the official tongue stammers and barks. Behind all the precious, brittle, Beltway in-talk lies the only idea young Americans will die for in the desert: the idea that in matters of foreign policy, even in a democratic republic, the rule is “leave it to us.” Not everybody, after all, can be fitted out with the wildly expensive stealth equipment that the political priesthood requires to relay and decipher the signal flow.

The word concocted in the nineteenth century for this process—the shorthand of Palmerston and Metternich—was “realpolitik.” Maxims of cynicism and realism—to the effect that great states have no permanent friends or permanent principles, but only permanent interests—became common currency in post-Napoleonic Europe. Well, there isn’t a soul today in Washington who doesn’t pride himself on the purity of his realpolitik. And an organization supposedly devoted to the study and promulgation of such nineteenth-century realism—the firm of Henry Kissinger, Associates—has furnished the Bush administration with several of its high officers, including Brent Scowcroft and Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, along with much of its expertise.

Realpolitik, with its tilts and signals, is believed by the faithful to keep nations from war, balancing the powers and interests, as they say. Is what we are witnessing in the Persian Gulf, then, the breakdown and failure of realpolitik? Well, yes and no. Yes, in the sense that American troops have been called upon to restore the balance that existed before August 2, 1990. But that regional status quo has for the past two decades known scarcely a day of peace—in the Persian Gulf, it has been a balance of terror for a long time. Realpolitik, as practiced by Washington, has played no small part in this grim situation.

To even begin to understand this, one must get beyond today’s tilts and signals and attempt to grasp a bit of history—something the realpoliticians are loath for you to do. History is for those clutching values and seeking truths; realpolitik has little time for such sentiment. The world, after all, is a cold place requiring hard calculation, detachment.

Leafing through the history of Washington’s contemporary involvement in the Gulf, one might begin to imagine the cool detachment in 1972 of arch-realpolitician Henry Kissinger, then national security adviser to Richard Nixon. I have before me as I write a copy of the report of the House Select Committee on Intelligence Activities chaired by Congressman Otis Pike, completed in January 1976, partially leaked, and then censored by the White House and the CIA. The committee found that in 1972 Kissinger had met with the Shah of Iran, who solicited his aid in destabilizing the Baathist regime of Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr in Baghdad. Iraq had given refuge to the then-exiled Ayatollah Khomeini and used anti-imperialist rhetoric while coveting Iran’s Arabic-speaking Khuzistan region. The Shah and Kissinger agreed that Iraq was upsetting the balance in the Gulf; a way to restore the balance—or, anyway, to find some new balance—was to send a signal by supporting the landless, luckless Kurds, then in revolt in northern Iraq.

Kissinger put the idea to Nixon, who loved (and loves still) the game of nations and who had already decided to tilt toward Iran and build it into his most powerful regional friend, replete with arms purchased from U.S. manufacturers—not unlike Saudi Arabia today, but more on that later. Nixon authorized a covert-action budget and sent John Connally, his former treasury secretary, to Teheran to cement the deal. (So the practice .of conducting American Middle East policy by way of the freemasonry of the shady oilmen did not originate with James Baker or George Bush. As the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, confided to Saddam Hussein in her now-famous meeting last July 25, almost as though giving a thumbnail profile of her bosses: “We have many Americans who would like to see the price go above $25 because they come from oil-producing states.” Much more later on that tête-è-tête.)

The principal finding of the Pike Commission, in its study of U.S. covert intervention in Iraq and Iran in the early 1970s, is a clue to a good deal of what has happened since. The committee members found, to their evident shock, the following:

Documents in the Committee’s possession clearly show that the President, Dr. Kissinger and the foreign head of state [the Shah] hoped that our clients [the Kurds) would not prevail. They preferred instead that the insurgents simply continue a level of hostilities sufficient to sap the resources of our ally’s neighboring country [Iraq].

Official prose in Washington can possess a horror and immediacy of its own, as is shown by the sentence that follows:

This policy was not imparted to our clients, who were encouraged to continue fighting.

“Not imparted.” “Not imparted” to the desperate Kurdish villagers to whom Kissinger’s envoys came with outstretched hands and practiced grins. “Not imparted,” either, to the American public or to Congress. “Imparted,” though, to the Shah and to Saddam Hussein (then the Baathists’ number-two man), who met and signed a treaty temporarily ending their border dispute in 1975—thus restoring balance in the region. On that very day, all U.S. aid to the Kurds was terminated—a decision that, of course, “imparted” itself to Saddam. On the next day he launched a search-and-destroy operation in Kurdistan that has been going on ever since and that, in the town of Halabja in 1988, made history by marking the first use of chemical weaponry by a state against its own citizens.

By the by, which realpolitician was it who became director of the CIA in the period—January 1976—when the Kurdish operation was being hastily interred, the Kurds themselves were being mopped up by Saddam, and the Pike Commission report was restricted? He happens to be the same man who now wants you to believe Saddam is suddenly “worse than Hitler.” But forget it; everybody else has.

Something of the same application of superpower divide-and-rule principles—no war but no peace, low-intensity violence yielding no clear victor or loser, the United States striving for a policy of Mutual Assured Destabilization—seems to turn up in Persian Gulf history once again four years later. Only now the United States has tilted away from Iran and is signaling Saddam Hussein. Iranians of all factions are convinced that the United States actively encouraged Iraq to attack their country on September 22, 1980. It remains unclear exactly what the U.S. role was in this invasion; but there is ample evidence of the presence of our old friends, wink and nod.

Recently, I raised the matter of September 1980 tilts and signals with Admiral Stansfield Turner, who was CIA director at the time, and with Gary Sick, who then had responsibility for Gulf policy at the National Security Council. Admiral Turner did not, he said, have any evidence that the Iraqis had cleared their invasion of Iran with Washington. He could say, however, that the CIA had known of an impending invasion and had advised President Jimmy Carter accordingly. Sick recalled that Iraq and the United States had broken diplomatic relations in 1967 during the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War, so that no official channels of communication were available.

Such contact as there was, Sick told me, ran through Saudi Arabia and, interestingly enough, Kuwait. This, if anything, gave greater scope to those who like dealing in tilts and signals. Prominent among them was realpol (by way of Trilateralism) Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was then Carter’s national security adviser. As Sick put it: “After the hostages were taken in Teheran [in November 1979], there was a very strong view, especially from Brzezinski, that in effect Iran should be punished from all sides. He made public statements to the effect that he would not mind an Iraqi move against Iran.” A fall 1980 story in London’s Financial Times took things a little further, reporting that U.S. intelligence and satellite data—data purporting to show that Iranian forces would swiftly crack—had been made available to Saddam through third-party Arab governments.

All the available evidence, in other words, points in a single direction. The United States knew that Iraq was planning an assault on a neighboring country and, at the very least, took no steps to prevent it. For purposes of comparison, imagine Washington’s response if Saddam Hussein had launched an attack when the Shah ruled Iran. Or, to bring matters up to date, ask yourself why Iraq’s 1980 assault was not a violation of international law or an act of naked aggression that “would not stand.”

Sick cautioned me not to push the evidence too far because, as he said, the actual scale of the invasion came as a surprise. “We didn’t think he’d take all of Khuzistan in 1980,” he said of Saddam. But nobody is suggesting that anyone expected an outright Iraqi victory. By switching sides, and by supplying arms to both belligerents over the next decade, the U.S. national security establishment may have been acting consistently rather than inconsistently. A market for weaponry, the opening of avenues of influence, the creation of superpower dependency, the development of clientele among the national security forces of other nations, and a veto on the emergence of any rival power—these were the tempting prizes.

How else to explain the simultaneous cosseting of both Iran and Iraq during the 1980s? The backstairs dealing with the Ayatollah is a matter of record. The adoption of Saddam Hussein by the power worshipers and influence peddlers of Washington, D.C., is less well remembered. How many daily readers of the New York Times recall that paper’s 1975 characterization of Iraq as “pragmatic, cooperative,” with credit for this shift going to Saddarn’s “personal strength”? How many lobbyists and arms peddlers spent how many evenings during the Eighties at the Washington dinner table of Iraq’s U.S. ambassador, Nizar Hamdoon? And how often, do you imagine, was Hamdoon asked even the most delicately phrased question about his government’s continued killing of the Kurds, including unarmed women and children; its jailing and routine torturing of political prisoners during the 1980s; its taste for the summary trial and swift execution?

It can be amusing to look up some of Saddam’s former fans. Allow me to open for you the April 27, 1987, issue of The New Republic, where we find an essay engagingly entitled “Back Iraq,” by Daniel Pipes and Laurie Mylroie. These two distinguished Establishment interpreters, under the unavoidable subtitle “It’s time for a U.S. ‘tilt,’” managed to anticipate the recent crisis by more than three years. Sadly, they got the name of the enemy wrong:

The fall of the existing regime in Iraq would enormously enhance Iranian influence, endanger the supply of oil, threaten pro-American regimes throughout the area, and upset the Arab-Israeli balance.

But they always say that, don’t they, when the think tanks start thinking tanks? I could go on, but mercy forbids—though neither mercy nor modesty has inhibited Pipes from now advocating, in stridently similar terms, the prompt obliteration of all works of man in Iraq.

Even as the Iraqi ambassador in Washington was cutting lucrative swaths through “the procurement community,” and our policy intellectuals were convincing one another that Saddam Hussein could be what the Shah had been until he suddenly was not, other forces (nod, wink) were engaged in bribing Iran and irritating Iraq. Take the diary entry for May 15, 1986, made by Oliver North in his later-subpoenaed notebook. The childish scrawl reads:

— Vaughan Forrest
— Gene Wheatin w/Forrest
— SAT flights to
— Rob/Flacko disc. of Remington
— Sarkis/Cunningham/Cline/Secord
— Close to Sen. Hugh Scott
— TF 157, Wilson, Terpil et al blew up Letier
— Cunningham running guns to Baghdad for CIA, then weaps, to Teheran
— Secord running guns to Iran

This tabulation contains the names of almost every senior Middle East gunrunner. The penultimate line is especially interesting, I think, because it so succinctly evokes the “two track” balancing act under way in Iran and Iraq. That tens of thousands of young Arabs and Persians were actually dying on the battlefield . . . but forget that too.

We now understand from sworn testimony that when North and Robert McFarlane, President Reagan’s former national security adviser, went with cake and Bible to Teheran in May 1986, they were pressed by their Iranian hosts to secure the release of militant Shiite prisoners held in Kuwait. Their freedom had been the price demanded by those who held American hostages in Beirut. Speaking with the authority of his president, North agreed with the Iranians, explaining later that “there is a need for a non-hostile regime in Baghdad” and noting that the Iranians knew “we can bring our influence to bear with certain friendly Arab nations” to get rid of Saddam Hussein.

Bringing influence to bear, North entered into a negotiation on the hostage exchange, the disclosure of which, Reagan’s secretary of state George Shultz said later, “made me sick to my stomach.” North met the Kuwaiti foreign minister and later told the Iranians that the Shiite prisoners in Kuwait would be released if Iran dropped its support for groups hostile to the emir. When Saddam learned of the deed, which took place at the height of his war with Iran, he must have been quite fascinated.

It’s at about this point, I suspect, that eyes start to glaze, consciences start to coarsen, and people start to talk about “ropes and sand” and the general impenetrability of the Muslim mind. This reaction is very convenient to those who hope to keep the waters muddy. It is quite clear that Saddam Hussein had by the late 1980s learned, or been taught, two things. The first is that the United States will intrigue against him when he is weak. The second is that it will grovel before him when he is strong. The all-important corollary is: The United States is a country that deals only in furtive signals.

It is against this backdrop—one of signals and nods and tilts and intrigues—and not against that of Bush’s anger at Iraqi aggression (he is angry, but only because realpolitik has failed him) that one must read the now-famous transcript of the Glaspie-Saddam meeting last July. Keep in mind, too, that at this point, just a bit more than a week before Iraqi troops marched into Kuwait, Glaspie is speaking under instructions, and the soon-to-be “Butcher of Baghdad” is still “Mr. President.”

The transcript has seventeen pages. For the first eight and a half of these, Saddam Hussein orates without interruption. He makes his needs and desires very plain in the matter of Kuwait, adding two things that haven’t been noticed in the general dismay over the document. First, he borrows the method of a Coppola godfather to remind Glaspie that the United States has shown sympathy in the near past for his land and oil complaints against Kuwait:

In 1974, I met with Idriss, the son of Mullah Mustafa Barzani [the Kurdish leader]. He sat in the same seat as you are sitting now. He came asking me to postpone implementation of autonomy in Iraqi Kurdistan, which was agreed on March 11, 1970. My reply was: We are determined to fulfill our obligation. You also have to stick to your agreement.

After carrying on in this vein, and making it clear that Kuwait may go the way of Kurdistan, Saddam closes by saying he hopes that President Bush will read the transcript himself, “and will not leave it in the hands of a gang in the State Department. I exclude the secretary of state and [Assistant Secretary of State John] Kelly, because I know him and I exchanged views with him.”

Now, the very first thing that Ambassador Glaspie says, in a recorded discussion that Saddam Hussein has announced he wishes relayed directly to the White House and the non-gang elements at Foggy Bottom, is this:

I clearly understand your message. We studied history at school. They taught us to say freedom or death. I think you know well that we as a people have our experience with the colonialists.

The confused semiotics of American diplomacy seem to have compelled Glaspie to say that she gets his “message” (or signal) rather than that she simply understands him. But the “message” she conveys in that last sentence is surely as intriguing as the message she receives. She is saying that she realizes (as many Americans are finally beginning to) that one large problem with the anomalous borders of the Gulf is the fact that they were drawn to an obsolete British colonial diagram. That fact has been the essence of Iraq’s grudge against Kuwait at least since 1961. For Saddam Hussein, who has been agitating against “the colonialists” for most of his life, the American ambassador’s invocation of Patrick Henry in this context had to be more than he hoped for.

But wait. She goes even further to assure him:

We have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait. I was in the American embassy in Kuwait during the late 60s. The instruction we had during this period was that we should express no opinion on this issue, and that the issue is not associated with America. James Baker has directed our official spokesmen to emphasize this instruction. [Italics mine.]

I used slightly to know Ambassador Glaspie, who is exactly the type of foreign-service idealist and professional that a man like James Baker does not deserve to have in his employ. Like Saddam, Baker obviously felt more comfortable with John Kelly as head of his Middle East department. And why shouldn’t he? Kelly had shown the relevant qualities of sinuous, turncoat adaptability—acting as a “privacy channel” worker for Oliver North while ostensibly U.S. ambassador to Beirut and drawing a public reprimand from George Shultz for double-crossing his department and his undertaking, to say nothing of helping to trade the American hostages in that city. Raw talent of this kind—a man to do business with—evidently does not go unnoticed in either the Bush or Saddam administration.

Baker did not have even the dignity of a Shultz when, appearing on a Sunday morning talk show shortly after the Iraqi invasion, he softly disowned Glaspie by saying that his clear instructions to her in a difficult embassy at a crucial time were among “probably 312,000 cables or so that go out under my name.” Throughout, the secretary has been as gallant as he has been honest.

The significant detail in Ambassador Glaspie’s much more candid post-invasion interview with the New York Times was the disclosure that “we never expected they would take all of Kuwait.” This will, I hope, remind you that Gary Sick and his Carter-team colleagues did not think Iraq would take all of Iran’s Khuzistan region. And those with a medium-term grasp of history might recall as well how General Alexander Haig was disconcerted by General Ariel Sharon’s 1982 dash beyond the agreed-upon southern portion of Lebanon all the way to Beirut. In the world of realpolitik there is always the risk that those signaled will see nothing but green lights.

A revised border with Kuwait was self-evidently part of the price that Washington had agreed to pay in its long-standing effort to make a pet of Saddam Hussein. Yet ever since the fateful day when he too greedily took Washington at its word, and the emir of Kuwait and his extended family were unfeelingly translated from yacht people to boat people, Washington has been waffling about the rights of the Kuwaiti (and now, after all these years, Kurdish) victims. Let the record show, via the Glaspie transcript, that the Bush administration had a chance to consider these rights and these peoples in advance, and coldly abandoned them.

And may George Bush someday understand that a president cannot confect a principled call to war—“hostages,” “Hitler,” “ruthless dictator,” “naked aggression”—when matters of principle have never been the issue for him and his type. On August 2 Saddam Hussein opted out of the game of nations. He’d had enough. As he told Glaspie:

These better [U.S.-Iraqi] relations have suffered from various rifts. The worst of these was in 1986, only two years after establishing relations, with what was known as lrangate, which happened during the year that Iran occupied [Iraq’s] Faa peninsula.

Saddam quit the game—he’d had it with tilt and signal—and the President got so mad he could kill and, with young American men and women as his proxies, be killed.

Today, the tilt is toward Saudi Arabia. A huge net of bases and garrisons has been thrown over the Kingdom of Saud, with a bonanza in military sales and a windfall (for some) in oil prices to accompany it. This tilt, too, has its destabilizing potential. But the tilt also has its compensations, not the least being that the realpoliticians might still get to call the global shots from Washington. Having taken the diplomatic lead, engineered the UN Security Council resolutions, pressured the Saudis to let in foreign troops, committed the bulk of these troops, and established itself as the only credible source of intelligence and interpretation of Iraqi plans and mood, the Bush administration publicly hailed a new multilateralism. Privately, Washington’s realpols gloated: We were the superpower—deutschemarks and yen be damned.

Generally, it must be said that realpolitik has been better at dividing than at ruling. Take it as a whole since Kissinger called on the Shah in 1972, and see what the harvest has been. The Kurds have been further dispossessed, further reduced in population, and made the targets of chemical experiments. Perhaps half a million Iraqi and Iranian lives have been expended to no purpose on and around the Fao peninsula. The Iraqis have ingested (or engulfed) Kuwait. The Syrians, aided by an anti-Iraqi subvention from Washington, have now ingested Lebanon. The Israeli millennialists are bent on ingesting the West Bank and Gaza. In every country mentioned, furthermore, the forces of secularism, democracy, and reform have been dealt appalling blows. And all of these crimes and blunders will necessitate’ future wars.

That is what U.S. policy has done, or helped to do, to the region. What has the same policy done to America? A review of the Pike Commission, the Iran-Contra hearings, even the Tower Report and September’s perfunctory House inquiry into the Baker-Kelly-Glaspie fiasco, will disclose the damage done by official lying, by hostage trading, by covert arms sales, by the culture of secrecy, and by the habit of including foreign despots in meetings and decisions that are kept secret from American citizens. The Gulf buildup had by Election Day brought about the renewal of a moribund consensus on national security, the disappearance of the bruited “peace dividend” (“If you’re looking for it,” one Pentagon official told a reporter this past fall, “it just left for Saudi Arabia”), and the reestablishment of the red alert as the preferred device for communicating between Washington and the people.

The confrontation that opened on the Kuwaiti border in August 1990 was neither the first nor the last battle in a long war, but it was a battle that now directly, overtly involved and engaged the American public and American personnel. The call was to an exercise in peace through strength. But the cause was yet another move in the policy of keeping a region divided and embittered, and therefore accessible to the franchisers of weaponry and the owners of black gold.

An earlier regional player, Benjamin Disraeli, once sarcastically remarked that you could tell a weak government by its eagerness to resort to strong measures. The Bush administration uses strong measures to ensure weak government abroad and has enfeebled democratic government at home. The reasoned objection must be that this is a dangerous and dishonorable pursuit, in which the wealthy gamblers have become much too accustomed to paying their bad debts with the blood of others.

contributed to <em>Harper's Magazine</em> for more than two decades, and was Washington Editor from 1987 to 1992.

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