Rethinking Diplomacy

SADDAM HUSSEIN wasn't about to be deterred by warnings from the United States. Even the most straightforward assertions that the US would defend its "vital interests" in the Gulf and support its friends in the region weren't enough to derail his plans. That's one conclusion from last week's testimony by April Glaspie, US ambassador to Iraq, before committees of Congress. Saddam had his agenda, and some combination of ambition, arrogance, or stupidity kept him from recognizing it was a recipe for disaster.

Or was it the American failure to recognize that this dictator could not be reasoned with that paved the way toward war? Some say Ms. Glaspie was just a cog in a foreign-policy "mindset" that insists on "engaging" repugnant regimes, in the hope they will respond to persuasion.

That view slights professionals like Glaspie. She did her job with courage, responding to Saddam's late-night summons and laying out in clear terms the US position. There was no American "green light" for Saddam, though the hue may have been closer to yellow than red. Saddam might have run it regardless.

Glaspie's work as a diplomat rests on the proposition that meaningful dialogue between governments is desirable and can be productive. A power-hungry despot like Saddam may subvert diplomacy, but that's no argument against its practice.

Should administration policy, and thus Glaspie's words during that July 25 meeting with Saddam, have been more forceful about US intentions to defend Iraq's oil-rich neighbors? In fact those neighbors, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, were then leery of appearing to want American military protection - reflecting traditional Arab concerns about intrusions by foreign powers. Its Arab friends were telling Washington to play it cool, Iraq wouldn't invade.

Nearly everyone learned something from the events initiated last summer - and much more remains to be learned about the diplomatic background. It's to be hoped that Glaspie's cables and other communications with Washington will be made public.

Certainly the Gulf states know more about the value of security alliances. And the State Department may know more about dealing with dictators, and, we hope, about supporting its diplomats caught in binds. The department's willingness to let Glaspie take the heat was a mistake.

If similar circumstances arise again, the diplomatic instructions could be much different. But the diplomatic skills needed to carry them out - as personified by people like April Glaspie - will be exactly the same.

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