With all the faces flashing on the television screen during the Gulf crisis, there was one missing: the U.S. ambassador to Iraq.
Finally, on March 21, Ambassador April Glaspie appeared before a Senate committee to report, for the first time publicly, her version of events leading to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. In the process, she cleared her name.
For eight months, Glaspie was the designated scapegoat of an Administration embarrassed by its earlier friendly overtures to Iraq and the initial lack of spine displayed by Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. By leak and innuendo, she was charged with failing to convincingly deliver Washington’s “tough message” to Saddam Hussein. Her accusers were unnamed Administration officials and the Iraqis themselves. Congressional critics on both sides of the aisle concluded she had given Hussein a “green light” to seize Kuwait, and expressed outrage.
At the hearings, Glaspie candidly explained the carrot-and-stick approach to Iraq pursued by Washington, a policy that, she said, appeared right at the time. She had warned Hussein against using force, and he had given his word to President Bush that he would solve the dispute peacefully--"a major deception,” she explained. In seizing Kuwait, Hussein had fatally miscalculated. Our mistake, “shared with the rest of the world,” she said, was that we misread Hussein.
Glaspie’s testimony was credible. The problem lay not with the messenger, but with the message. Preoccupied with the momentous events in Central Europe, Washington decision-makers did not respond vigorously to early warning signals from Hussein. Interagency disagreements on policy in Washington sent mixed messages to Baghdad.
Mysteries remain: Why did the State Department wait until March to come to Glaspie’s defense? Why was she not permitted to set the record straight sooner--despite repeated requests from Congress? Glaspie was first made a non-person, and then “hung out to dry” in what many say was an unsuccessful attempt to rewrite history and erase the record of America’s prewar Gulf policy.
The ambassador’s disappearance from the diplomatic scene was particularly troubling because she is one of the few senior Arab specialists remaining in the State Department. None of the principal decision-makers in the department has extensive experience in the Middle East. Even Assistant Secretary John Kelly, charged with the region, is a relative newcomer. But the inner circle of Secretary of State James A. Baker III is legendary for its failure to use the rich resoures of the career foreign service.
To foreign-affairs veterans, Glaspie’s testimony was credible because she had established a reputation for brilliance and integrity throughout a 25-year career spent almost entirely in Arab affairs.
Glaspie shone in one of the most challenging areas of diplomacy--the Middle East--an area roiled by national, ethnic and religious disputes. Israeli, the Palestine Liberation Organization and Arab interest groups each exert conflicting pressures on the United States. She succeeded despite the conventional wisdom, when she began, that women could not be effective in Muslim societies.
The irony of Glaspie’s fall from grace is that she was, in many respects, the very model of a modern diplomat. She speaks fluent Arabic and French, had easy access to the inner circles of Arab governments and societies, and her timely perceptions and judgment are widely known and respected within the career foreign service. Former Secretary of State George P. Schultz characterized her as a “genuine heroine,” for persuading the Syrians to release the 104 Americans held hostage aboard a TWA plane in Beirut in 1985.
Glaspie also served as a role model for women. Her high professional reputation offered convincing evidence that gender discrimination in foreign-service assignments was not only illegal, but against U.S. national interests.
While pioneering career women officers gained assignments in India, Pakistan and Iran in the 1950s, and in Africa in the 1960s, the Arabian peninsula was tougher to crack. Today, in addition to Glaspie, there are women deputy chiefs of mission--the No. 2 spot--in Yemen, Islamabad, Baghdad, Damascus and Kuwait. They are in the “pipeline” to become ambassadors in the future.
Despite Glaspie’s reputation for being one of the best officers in the system, the Administration did not come to her aid when she was attacked. In September, a State Department spokesman refused to comment on the accuracy of a version of Glaspie’s meeting with Hussein that was released by the Iraqis. Indeed, a high-level Administration source told reporters it was “essentially correct.”
Finally, on March 21, a spokesman said the State Department had known all along that the Iraqi transcript omitted key issues addressed by Glaspie in her Senate testimony the same day. Meanwhile, unnamed officials repeated their earlier misgivings. This lack of consistency suggests internal trench warfare.
Throughout this ordeal, Glaspie has been a good soldier. She was loyal. She refused the advice of friends and colleagues that she try to clear her own name. Speculation is that she thought it would have only opened up internal policy disputes or added to the incredible difficulty of building an effective coalition with substantial Arab participation.
Glaspie’s future with the Foreign Service is problematic. She obviously has enemies within this Administration. Future policy-making or ambassadorial assignments would require Senate confirmation. Such hearings traditionally offer Congress an opportunity to influence foreign policy, and most administrations are wary of giving Congress a means to place them in an unflattering light.
Other accomplished foreign-service professionals have been chewed up and spit out by internal policy disputes or the politics of the system. However, Glaspie is an asset who should not be wasted.
Traditionally, controversial figures are given low-profile assignments to see if the dust settles. Some have been rehabilitated. Glaspie has only a chance to survive the infighting. Even if she fails to surmount this ordeal, she will still succeed: She has made a significant impact on U.S. diplomacy, the career service and women’s equality of opportunity.