AS the post-mortem on the Gulf war continues, debate is growing over whether the way in which US foreign policy is made contributed to Washington's inability to deter Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait. Until the eve of the invasion, the United States sought to strengthen Iraq as a means of countering Iran. To shore up Saddam Hussein the US bestowed food, intelligence information, and diplomatic recognition on Iraq.
Some State Department insiders now say it was the department's own ponderous bureaucracy that prevented the US from responding in time to the slowly gathering indications of Saddam's aggressive designs in the Gulf.
``The way the bureaucracy works, if there's not a major problem there's not going to be a concerted reexamination of policy,'' says one well-placed department official.
But many critics trace the failure of US policy to a decision-making process at the White House and State Department which is tightly controlled by a small coterie of senior advisers. With a more open process and with the wider participation of Middle East experts, they say, the US might have been able to read and respond to the warning signs more quickly.
``Saddam believed he could get away with the invasion of Kuwait, partly because neither the Reagan nor the Bush administrations stood up to acts of Iraqi lawlessness,'' says Peter Galbraith, a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. ``Despite the warning signs the policy was never changed. This is what can happen when the policy process is closely held and the key players are preoccupied with other issues.''
In congressional testimony this week, US ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie underscored the halting US response to Saddam's increasing belligerence. According to Ms. Glaspie, a high level review of US policy toward Iraq was not scheduled to begin until July 25, barely a week before Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.
The last American president to consult widely before making policy decisions was Dwight Eisenhower, according to Walter Williams, author of a recent book on presidential policymaking entitled ``Mismanaging America.'' Subsequent presidents have usually set policy on the advice of a small circle of high level advisers, usually generalists.
President Bush's circle of confidants during the Gulf crisis has largely been confined to three men, none of whom are Middle East specialists: Secretary of State James Baker III, national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, and Defense Secretary Richard Cheney. That pattern has been duplicated at the State Department, where Arab experts have been excluded from the policymaking loop.
``It's not that the experts are always right,'' says Dr. Williams, a professor of public affairs at the University of Washington. ``But they can provide the background, the context, so that you can intercept bad ideas. The question is not so much who makes the final decision but how much information and argument come into the process.''
Twelve assistant secretaries preside over the State Department's main regional and functional bureaus.
Under George Shultz, President Reagan's secretary of state, the assistant secretaries were an integral part of the policy process.
``There was never a question of accessibility with Shultz; there was access,'' says Richard Murphy, a former assistant secretary for Middle East affairs who met with Shultz at least four times a week.
Under Baker, the assistant secretaries have largely been frozen out. Unlike Mr. Murphy, for example, John Kelly, the current assistant secretary for Middle East affairs, rarely travels to the region and has no role in policymaking.
``When I speak to [assistant secretaries],'' says a congressional source, ``I know I'm speaking to people who are not in the loop.''
Those few who are in the loop - Mr. Baker, Undersecretary of State Robert Kimmitt, and Dennis Ross, head of the Department's policy planning unit - can only concentrate on a few issues at once.
During the run-up to the Gulf crisis, all three were focused on events in Eastern Europe.
``Iraq was neglected,'' says a congressional source. ``There were efforts to have the Iraq policy reviewed, but Baker never got around to it because he was distracted. That's the result of a closed shop.''
Once attention finally did shift to the Gulf, other important issues were neglected.
``You have to have a system in which several problems can be addressed on the highest level on a regular basis,'' Mr. Galbraith says.
According to both congressional and administration sources, a few State Department officials did raise concerns as early as winter 1990 about the wisdom of continuing to support Saddam. For example, the department's terrorism experts grew suspicious when Saddam invited the notorious terrorist Abu Nidal to Baghdad. But with access severely limited, it was difficult to bring such views to Baker's attention.
``You have to delegate major roles to your underlings,'' says the congressional source. ``A more open system in which responsibility is delegated and more people have access to top officials is a system inherently able to address more than one problem at a time.''
Even critics of Baker's close-to-the-vest management style acknowledge that bureaucratic intertia played a role in the slow US response to changes in Iraq. The bureaucracy is unable to respond to the kind of small, incremental changes in Iraqi policy that occurred during the months prior to Aug. 2, notes one department source.
No matter how large the circle of advisers, he adds, there is still a limit to the number of issues policymakers can deal with at one time. ``Since the war, everyone has been too busy and too exhausted to take an activist role in the shaping the peace. It's a problem of time, not of a larger circle of advisers.''