After postings in Kuwait, Syria and Egypt Glaspie was appointed Ambassador to Iraq in 1989. She was the first woman to be appointed an American Ambassador to an Arab country. She had a reputation as a respected Arabist, and her instructions were to broaden cultural and commercial contacts with the Iraqi regime in hopes of "civilizing" it.
Glaspie's appointment followed a period from 1980 to 1988 during which the United States had given covert support to Iraq during its war with Iran (see Iran-Iraq War. Although the extent of U.S. assistance to Iraq during the period has been exaggerated (the Soviet Union was always Iraq's chief ally and arms supplier, followed by France), it was substantial. Its motivation was the belief that the Islamic revolution in Iran posed a greater threat to Western interests than did Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime.
Saddam seems to have assumed that U.S. support for his regime would continue once the war had ended, and that it would extend to approval for his plans to achieve Iraqi domination over the Arab world, beginning with the annexation of Kuwait. Before 1918 Kuwait had been part of the Ottoman province of Basra, and thus in a sense part of Iraq, but Iraq had recognised its independence in 1961. After the end of the Iran-Iraq War (during the course of which Kuwait lent Iraq US$14 billion), Saddam revived Iraq's claim to Kuwait, and fomented disputes over the exact demarcation of the border, access to waterways, the price at which Kuwaiti oil was being sold, and oil-drilling in border areas, to provide a pretext for military action.
It was in the context of this situation that Glaspie had her first meeting with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz on July 25 1990. What was said at that meeting has been the subject of much speculation. At least two purported transcripts of the meeting have been published, both apparently based on versions released by Iraq. The State Department has not confirmed the accuracy of these transcripts, and they must be treated with caution.
One version of the transcript has Glaspie saying: "We can see that you have deployed massive numbers of troops in the south. Normally that would be none of our business, but when this happens in the context of your threats against Kuwait, then it would be reasonable for us to be concerned. For this reason, I have received an instruction to ask you, in the spirit of friendship - not confrontation - regarding your intentions: Why are your troops massed so very close to Kuwait's borders?"
Later the transcript has Glaspie saying: "We have no opinion on your Arab-Arab conflicts, such as your dispute with Kuwait. Secretary Baker has directed me to emphasize the instruction, first given to Iraq in the 1960s, that the Kuwait issue is not associated with America."
Another version of the transcript (the one published in the New York Times on 23 September 1990) has Glaspie saying: "But 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. We hope you can solve this problem using any suitable methods via Klibi [Chadli Klibi, Secretary General of the Arab League] or via President Mubarak. All that we hope is that these issues are solved quickly."
When these purported transcripts were made public, Glaspie was accused of having given approval for the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, which took place on August 2, 1990. The transcript, however, does not show any explicit statement of approval of, acceptance of, or foreknowledge of the invasion. Indeed Glaspie's opening question ("Why are your troops massed so very close to Kuwait's borders?") would suggest that Glaspie (and presumably therefore also the State Department) did not know the purpose of the troop concentrations and was concerned about them.
The transcript also shows clearly that when Glaspie expressed the hope that the Iraq-Kuwait dispute would be "solved quickly," she meant "solved by diplomatic means." The references to solving this problem "using any suitable methods via Klibi or via Mubarak" make this clear. Nothing Glaspie says in the published versions of the transcript can be fairly interpreted as implying U.S. approval of an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
It is possible to ague, however (and many have done so), that Glaspie's statements that "We have no opinion on your Arab - Arab conflicts" and that "the Kuwait issue is not associated with America" were interpreted by Saddam as giving tacit approval of his annexation of Kuwait. Since it is not now possible to know what was in Saddam's mind, this matter cannot be resolved. Saddam was a dictator who had never visited a western country, and who lived a in a world where disputes were routinely resolved by force. It is therefore quite possible that he wrongly interpreted Glaspie's remarks.
It seems unlikely that Saddam would have invaded Kuwait had he been given an explicit warning that such an invasion would be met with force by the United States, but Glaspie can only be criticised for not giving such a warning if it can be established that she knew that Saddam was planning an invasion. There is nothing in the transcripts to suggest this.
The most that can be argued is that, given the Iraqi troop build-up in the Kuwait border area, she should have been instructed by the State Department to give Saddam an explicit warning. Glaspie later testified that she had given Saddam such a warning, but no mention of this appears in the published transcripts. This is hardly surprising since these transcripts were released to further Iraq's ends.
Edward Mortimer wrote in the New York Review of Books in September 1991: "It seems [likely] that Saddam Hussein went ahead with the invasion because he believed the US would not react with anything more than verbal condemnation. That was an inference he could well have drawn from his meeting with US Ambassador April Glaspie on July 25, and from statements by State Department officials in Washington at the same time publicly disavowing any US security commitments to Kuwait."
Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institute, writing in the New York Times on September 21 2003, disagrees with this analysis: "In fact, all the evidence indicates the opposite: Saddam Hussein believed it was highly likely that the United States would try to liberate Kuwait, but convinced himself that we would send only lightly armed, rapidly deployable forces that would be quickly destroyed by his 120,000-man Republican Guard. After this, he assumed, Washington would acquiesce to his conquest."
James Akins, the American Saudi Ambassador at the time, offered a slightly different perspective, in a 2000 PBS interview: "[Glaspie] took the straight American line, which is we do not take positions on border disputes between friendly countries. That's standard. That's what you always say. You would not have said, "Mr. President, if you really are considering invading Kuwait, by God, we'll bring down the wrath of God on your palaces, and on your country, and you'll all be destroyed." She wouldn't say that, nor would I. Neither would any diplomat."
In April 1991 Glaspie testified before the Foreign Relations Committee of the United States Senate. She said that at the July 25 meeting she had "repeatedly warned Iraqi President Saddam Hussain against using force to settle his dispute with Kuwait." She also said that Saddam had lied to her by denying he would invade Kuwait. Asked to explain how Saddam could have interpreted her comments as implying U.S. approval for the invasion of Kuwait, she replied: "We foolishly did not realize he [Saddam] was stupid."
In July 1991 the State Department's spokesperson Rick Boucher said at a press briefing: "We have faith in Ambassador Glaspie's reporting. She sent us cables on her meetings based on notes that were made after the meeting. She also provided five hours or more of testimony in front of the Committee about the series of meetings that she had, including this meeting with Saddam Hussein." The cables that Glaspie sent from Iraq about her meeting with Saddam are apparently still classified.
Subsequently Glaspie was posted to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York. She was later posted to South Africa as Consul-General in Cape Town - a perfectly respectable posting but one that must be seen as a "sidelining" for a diplomat who had made her career in the Middle East. She held this post until her retirement in 2002.
Glaspie has remained silent on the subject of her actions in Iraq, apparently allowing herself to be made a scapegoat for the failure of the Bush administration to forsee or prevent the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
In August 2002 the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs published a new account of the Glaspie-Saddam meeting. The author, Andrew I. Kilgore (a former U.S. ambassador to Qatar), summarised the meeting as follows:
Kilgore concluded his account: "April [Glaspie] has recently retired from the State Department. She does not know these words are being written. But she needs someone to speak out for her. Her loyalty to the system is notable. She has never spoken a word against the Department of State or against Secretary of States James Baker, who might have said — but did not — "We all misjudged Saddam Hussain, and ‘we’ includes me."