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Insider : U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Muzzled by Washington : April Glaspie met with Saddam Hussein shortly before his army invaded Kuwait. Now she is a bureaucratic non-person, and--some fear--a scapegoat as the Administration's prewar policy is debated.

February 05, 1991|NORMAN KEMPSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — When April C. Glaspie was named U.S. ambassador to Iraq in 1987, she was, it seemed, a rising diplomatic star. Only 45, and one of a handful of U.S. experts on the Arab world, she was the first woman to head an American embassy in the Middle East.

Today, Glaspie is a bureaucratic non-person. Although the State Department maintains that she is handling important special assignments, Glaspie is effectively being held incommunicado--forbidden to talk either to the press or to Congress.

The ambassador's dramatic slide began last July 27 when, according to an Iraqi transcript that leaked out later, she told Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that the United States would not take a position in the growing border dispute between Iraq and Kuwait.

Less than a week later, Hussein's troops poured across that border and swallowed up Kuwait.

Glaspie's friends in and out of government insist that the transcript was garbled and inaccurate, and it is disputed by a report that Glaspie herself sent to Washington within hours of her meeting with Hussein. But the State Department has refused to set the record straight.

One knowledgeable government official says the main reason the department decided not to put out Glaspie's version of the meeting was that it hoped to avert recriminations about the past and to focus instead on what the allies were prepared to do to end Iraq's aggression.

"She suffered because of that decision," the official says.

But former diplomats generally agree that Glaspie is being made a scapegoat for the failure of the White House and the State Department to understand Saddam Hussein's truculent intentions and then take steps to deter him before Iraqi tanks rolled into Kuwait on Aug. 2.

If Washington's relationship with Iraq smacked of appeasement before the invasion, they argue, the fault should lie with top policy-makers, not the ambassador.

"When things get too uncomfortable for the secretary (of state) or the President, then somebody must be hung out there," one former ambassador says. "When you become an ambassador this can happen to you. No secretary of state (will) protect you. It is a hierarchy."

Indeed, even if the Iraqi transcript proves to be totally accurate, Glaspie's defenders argue, the ambassador would have been merely repeating well-established U.S. government policy.

In the context of the transcript, Glaspie's reported statement was designed to signal only that the United States would not take sides in an inter-Arab dispute over a few square miles of territory.

It could hardly be read to indicate that the United States was giving a green light to an Iraqi plan to seize all of Kuwait, they say.

For Glaspie to have done anything more--say, by threatening a U.S. military response should Iraq use force against Kuwait--would have been unthinkable, they contend. President Bush had not yet decided if he would send troops or, if he had, he had not yet told U.S. diplomats of his decision.

Further, Glaspie's meeting with Hussein followed years in which Washington had sought to improve its relationship with Baghdad despite Hussein's ruthless ambition.

A former high-ranking State Department official says the department received Glaspie's report of her meeting with Hussein about five days before the invasion--leaving the Administration with plenty of time to correct any mistake she might have made.

By now it seems clear that Hussein was so determined to invade Kuwait that the words of a U.S. ambassador--even very forceful words--would not have dissuaded him.

The Iraqi dictator was clearly convinced that the West would not stand up to his aggression--a conviction that all signs indicate was based on years of his own personal observations.

"If Saddam Hussein . . . intended to invade Kuwait thinking that we would not interfere, then nothing she could have said would have made any difference," says Robert G. Neumann, director of Middle East Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"He didn't believe us. He doesn't believe us now. We did not lure him in," Neumann says.

A 1963 graduate of Mills College in Oakland, Glaspie joined the Foreign Service in 1966 after receiving a master's degree from Johns Hopkins University.

Before her appointment as ambassador to Iraq, Glaspie served in a variety of key jobs including a brief stint as a special envoy, during which she helped to fashion the deal that halted Lebanon's bloody civil war.

"April is a thoroughly decent person--well-liked and respected, especially among people who are familiar with the area," an Administration official says. But he concedes that Glaspie's career is on hold.

"Another ambassadorial post would involve congressional testimony," the official notes, and "probably, at least for the time being, there is a desire to keep her away from the Congress. They don't want to get involved in that discussion about what led up to Aug. 2."

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