WASHINGTON — Secretary of State James A. Baker III on Sunday defended himself and his department from congressional accusations that last July, they had led Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to believe that the United States would adopt a hands-off posture toward an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
"The suggestion that somehow the United States contributed to Saddam Hussein's unprovoked aggression against this small country is ludicrous, absolutely ludicrous," the secretary of state said in an appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press." He branded the congressional accusations "20-20 hindsighting."
However, Baker also seemed to deny any direct personal responsibility for the conduct of the American ambassador to Baghdad, April Glaspie. In a meeting with Saddam Hussein a week before the Iraqi invasion, the U.S. diplomat, saying that she was acting under instructions from Washington, suggested that the United States would take no sides in Iraq's border dispute with Kuwait.
"What you want me to do is to say that those instructions (to Glaspie) were sent specifically by me on my specific orders," Baker said. "I'm not going to deny what the policy was, but I'm going to say to you that there are probably 312,000 or so cables that go out under my name as secretary of state."
Earlier this month, the government of Iraq released to ABC News a transcript of the meeting between Glaspie, a career diplomat, and the Iraqi president. Baker and other State Department officials have refused to verify the transcript, but they have not challenged its contents either.
According to this transcript, the American ambassador told Hussein: "We have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait. . . . James Baker has directed our official spokesman to emphasize this instruction."
On July 24, State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler, who is also one of Baker's closest aides, told reporters: "We do not have any defense treaties with Kuwait and there are no special defense or security commitments to Kuwait." On July 31, two days before the invasion, Assistant Secretary of State John B. Kelly made the same point in testimony to Congress.
Last week, Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.) strongly criticized Kelly and the State Department for failing to take a stronger stand against Iraq in the days before the invasion.
"You left the impression that it was the policy of the United States not to come to the defense of Kuwait," Hamilton declared. "I asked you if there was a U.S. commitment to come to Kuwait's defense if it was attacked. Your response over and over again was (that) we have no defense-treaty relationship with any gulf country."
On Sunday, while seeming to deny any personal responsibility for the State Department's instructions to Glaspie, Baker defended the message that she conveyed to the Iraqi president.
"That had to do with taking sides on a border dispute, not taking sides on the question of unprovoked aggression," the secretary of state explained. ". . .There are border disputes going on all over the world, and we take positions on some and we don't take positions on others."
Baker said the Bush Administration had sent a number of "signals" to Iraq before the invasion that were meant to convey U.S. disapproval of Hussein's increasingly belligerent actions.
"Signal No. 1 was to slap foreign policy export controls on exports to Iraq," he said. "Signal No. 2 was to cancel or suspend the Commodity Credit Corporation program (for food exports to Iraq). . . . Signal No. 3 was to prohibit the export of a number of items that we and some of our allies thought might be useful in terms of missile or nuclear proliferation."
Asked whether Hussein's latest threats to attack oil fields and to bring Israel into the war leave any room for diplomacy to solve the Persian Gulf crisis, Baker replied: "Well, I think there is."
He said there will be "no compromise" on the existing United Nations resolutions, which call for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait and the restoration of Kuwait's government. However, he repeated the U.S. position that after Iraq withdraws from Kuwait, "then you might see some discussions between Kuwait and Iraq of the differences that led to the unprovoked aggression in the first instance."