For two weeks, the U.S. intelligence community had monitored the gradual buildup of Iraq's armed forces along its southern border with Kuwait. The prevailing view within the administration of George H.W. Bush was that Iraqi military activity constituted a crude attempt to bludgeon Kuwait—oil rich, loaded with cash, and widely resented for the arrogance often displayed by its leaders—into lowering its oil output and dropping its objection to a higher price for the precious commodity. It was a view that I shared, much to the consternation of Charlie Allen, the crusty, veteran national intelligence officer for warning, who was convinced before anyone else that the Iraqis were not bluffing.
By August 1, 1990, however, it had become clear to all of us working on the issue that what we were seeing unfold was a good deal more than simply another act in the long-running theater of Arab diplomacy. Iraq had amassed too many troops and was doing too many of the things it would have to do if it were actually going to attack Kuwait rather than just threaten it. The Central Intelligence Agency issued an alert that predicted an attack was imminent. A special meeting of the "deputies" (the subcabinet group of senior officials representing the principal departments and agencies most involved in foreign and defense policy) was convened in one of the seventh-floor conference rooms at the State Department to discuss what was known and what the United States might do about it. It being August, many of the most senior people were away, escaping Washington's notorious heat and humidity. Secretary of State James Baker was off meeting in Siberia with his Soviet counterpart and was scheduled to go to Mongolia; Larry Eagleburger, his deputy, was taking the day off. Bob Kimmitt, normally the number three person at State but that day the acting secretary, chaired the session, as Bob Gates, the deputy national security advisor and the normal chair of the deputies, was on vacation. Besides others from various bureaus at State, there were representatives of several of the intelligence agencies and from both the civilian and military sides of the Defense Department. As the senior director for the Near East and South Asia on the staff of the National Security Council (NSC) and special assistant to the president, I was the principal person in attendance from the White House.
The meeting dragged on for most of the day as intelligence reports, ever more alarming, dribbled in. Saddam Hussein was up to something, although what that "something" was no one in the room knew. By late afternoon, a consensus had formed that we ought to make one last effort at dissuading the Iraqis from doing anything military. Given that Iraq was essentially a one-man show and that our ambassador was out of the country, this meant getting President Bush to contact Saddam. I was called upon to persuade the president to do so.
Copyright © 2009 by Richard N. Haass. All rights reserved.