The Persian Gulf crisis keeps Washington's cottage industry of instant revisionism on overtime. At the Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department, lights burn late in the offices of those who embellish or rewrite potentially embarrassing events, putting themselves in a better light before more accurate versions harden into accepted history.
This is a self-defeating reflex. Revisionism creates a protective mythology that will ensure that the problems this crisis brings to the surface won't get fixed before the next one occurs.
The CIA's claim, on "background," to some news organizations that it gave the White House timely warnings that Saddam Hussein was about to swallow Kuwait is a particularly troublesome bit of rearranging history, Washington-style. So is an effort centered in the State Department to create ex post facto a serious debate within the administration about changing policy toward Iraq that had to be subordinated to more urgent business last spring.
Neither those warnings nor that debate existed.
As Iraq made its final preparations to overrun all of Kuwait and capture or eliminate the Arab state's ruling family, the CIA was reporting to the White House that the menacing Iraqi buildup was intended as political intimidation to force the Kuwaitis to raise their oil prices and make territorial concessions to Iraq.
The agency did not suggest 48 hours before the attack began -- as some of its officials apparently later claimed to the media -- that Iraq was about to launch a full invasion. Two officials who have had independent access to the CIA's highly classified pre-invasion analysis tell me that the agency continued to report right up to the Aug. 2 blitzkreig that Iraqi troops were likely to move across the border and then stop, as a way of pressuring the Kuwaitis to cede in negotiations.
This would explain a cryptic public remark by April Glaspie, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, who would have seen the CIA analysis. In an interview with The New York Times last month, Glaspie acknowledged that neither she nor anyone else in the government foresaw that Iraq was about to take all of Kuwait. Such inadvertent honesty has not endeared Glaspie to higher level officials, including Secretary of State James Baker, who have sought to shift blame away from themselves and toward a dutiful civil servant.
Baker says that policy postmortems are dangerous because critics will exercise 20-20 hindsight. But that risk is peanuts compared to the perils of revisionism, which distorts our ability to understand what has happened and what will happen. It is understandable that officials with reputations and jobs on the line would use the media's hunger for revelation and exclusivity to create more heroic versions of a sordid story. But in misleading others, we inevitably mislead ourselves as well.
Like most failures to anticipate unwelcome events, the U.S. surprise at Iraq's invasion was a largely a problem of an existing mindset that shut out any facts and interpretations that contradicted existing policy. There was enough information available in the CIA data to foresee an invasion -- had the Bush White House been willing to believe that Saddam was a rapacious thug capable of anything.
On a smaller scale, the media's temperature-taking of this protracted confrontation on an hourly or daily basis also contributes to public confusion about the Persian Gulf crisis. The most recent broadcast or headline often obscures the underlying rhythm of this confrontation, which despite a flurry of contradictory reports in recent days continues to move inexorably toward military conflict unless Iraq withdraws completely from Kuwait.
Such temperature-taking inevitably produces an impression of policy lurches rather than of a steady policy rhythm. When national security adviser Brent Scowcroft deplores the destruction of Kuwait, the headlines run toward war. Then President Bush extends an olive twig in his United Nations speech, and the word is that peace is on the way.
Both were tactical moves aimed at specific audiences as part of a political-management cycle. Scowcroft and Bush were establishing clearly for world and American opinion that if Bush has to go to war, it will be in sorrow rather than in vengeful anger or enthusiasm for bloodshed. Bush and French President Francois Mitterrand gave dovish U.N. speeches they can point back to after hitting Iraq hard to show that they made peace offers and Saddam did not reciprocate.
Behind the confusing headlines, Bush is saying to Saddam in rather clear and consistent terms: "I have not yet made a final decision to expand the war you started and are still conducting. You can still affect that decision by withdrawing unconditionally and immediately from Kuwait. If you do, the United States will not seek your destruction as a war aim. I will take yes for an answer."
He must persuade Saddam Hussein that George Bush is a man of war facing a pressing deadline while showing American and world opinion that George Bush is a man of peace, willing to go the extra mile. Through the force of circumstances, it is Saddam who will decide which Bush goes into history.