January 07, 2011
Failure to Communicate
Patrick Cockburn at Counterpunch on how Wikileaks has done April Glaspie, former US ambassador to Iraq, a favour:
Transcripts of varying levels of credibility have been released over the years, but this week WikiLeaks published Glaspie's cable to the US State Department reporting her discussion with Saddam. What comes shining through is that the Iraqi leader never made clear that he was thinking of annexing the emirate as Iraq's 19th province. Notorious though he was for his bloodcurdling and exaggerated threats, for once he was not threatening enough. Everybody suspected he was conducting a heavy-handed diplomatic offensive to squeeze concessions, financial and possibly territorial, out of the Kuwaitis. Almost nobody predicted a full-scale invasion and occupation of Kuwait, in large part because this was an amazingly foolish move by Saddam, bound to provoke a backlash far beyond Iraq's power to resist.Dang. I guess I'll have to finally let go of this little fantasy scene, then.
I have always sympathized with diplomats and intelligence agents unfairly pilloried for failing to foresee that a country, about which they claim expert knowledge, is going to commit some act of stupidity much against its own interests.
History is full of examples of experts being dumbfounded by countries acting contrary to their own best interests. Stalin is often denigrated for disbelieving Soviet spies who told him that the German army was going to invade the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. No doubt his paranoid suspicion that Britain was trying to lure him into a war with Hitler played a role. But another factor was that Stalin simply did not believe that Hitler would commit such a gross error as attacking him before finishing off Britain and thus start a war on two fronts, something that the Nazi regime had previously taken great pains to avoid.
A more recent example of a country's leaders blindly shooting themselves in the foot was the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006. I had been spending a lot of time in Iraq and was in Jordan when it happened. I had seen repeated Israeli incursions into Lebanon fail bloodily in the years since 1978. I could not believe the Israeli military were once again going to try their old discredited tactic of mass bombardment and limited ground assault in a bid to intimidate the world's toughest guerrillas.
Israelis tend to be more cynical about the abilities of their own military commanders than the rest of the world and, looking at the Israeli chief of staff on television, I thought of the old Israeli saying: "He was so stupid that even the other generals noticed." Even so, I could not rid myself of the idea that the Israelis must have something new up their sleeve. I was quite wrong and the war was a humiliating failure for Israel.
In Saddam's case it would be wrong to think of him as a stupid, though he had an exaggerated idea of his own abilities and place in history. He was a cunning, ruthless man who knew everything about Iraqi politics and how to manipulate or eliminate his rivals. Outside Iraq he was far less sure-footed, having spent little time abroad, and disastrously overplayed his hand by invading Iran in 1980 and Kuwait 10 years later.
Saddam: I'm talkin' about friendship. I'm talkin' about character. I'm talkin' about - hell, George, I ain't embarrassed to use the word - I'm talkin' about ethics. You know I'm a drilling man. I like to tap the black gold. And I figure I got a right to expect that I can sip the dinosaur wine under my own patch. But every time I strike a field layin' a part under those sonofabitch Kuwaitis, before I know it the damn thing's dry. The Kuwaitis are draining it from their end. They know where I'm goin' to drill and they get to the field first. The point is, they ain't satisfied with the honest dollar they can make off their share. They ain't satisfied with the business I do with them or with the money I spent kicking the Iranians for 'em. They’re draining my fields, and blockin' my access to the Gulf, and that means part of the payoff that should be ridin' on my hip is ridin' on someone else's. So back we go to these questions - friendship, character, ethics. So it’s clear what I'm sayin'?
George H W Bush: As mud.
Saddam: It's gettin' so a businessman can't expect no return from resource extraction. Now if you can't trust that, what can you trust? For a good return you gotta go with a mixed economy, and then you're back with anarchy. Right back inna jungle. On account of the breakdown of ethics. That's why ethics is important. It's the grease makes us get along, what separates us from the animals, beasts a burden, beasts a prey. Ethics. Whereas the Kuwaitis are a horse of a different color ethics-wise. As in, they ain't got any.
H W: You sure it's them, ripping you off?
Tariq Aziz: It ain't elves.
H W: Nobody else knows about the fields?
Saddam: No one that ain't got ethics.
H W: What about the geologists you pay to sniff 'em out?
Tariq Aziz: We only pick geologists we can put the fear of God in.
H W: So you wanna invade.
Tariq Aziz: For starters.
H W: Sorry, Saddam. Kuwait pays me for protection.
Saddam: Listen, George, I ain't askin' for permission. I'm tellin' you as a courtesy. I need to do this thing, so it's gonna get done.
H W: Then I'm telling you as a courtesy that you'll have trouble. You came here to see if I'd kick if you annexed Kuwait. Well, there's your answer.
Saddam: Listen, George, I pay off to you every month like a greengrocer - a lot more than those playboy princes-
H W: You pay for protection, just like everyone else. Far as I know - and what I don't know in this town ain't worth knowing - the Congress haven't closed down your arms deals and the UN hasn't sanctioned you for gassin' Kurds. You haven't bought any license to conquer medieval statelets and today I ain't selling any. Now take your flunky and dangle.
Saddam: You think I'm some raghead fresh outta the dunes and you think you can kick me! But I'm too big for that now! I'm sick of takin' the strap from you, George! I'm sick a marchin' down to this goddamn office to kiss your scrawny New England ass and I'M SICK A THE HIGH HAT! (At door.) Youse fancypants, all of yer.
H W: Saddam, you're exactly as big as I let you be and no bigger and don't forget it. Ever.
Saddam: 'Ats right, George, you're the big-shot around here and I'm just some schnook likes to get slapped around.