Secretary of State James A. Baker III yesterday dismissed as "absolutely ludicrous" criticism from Congress that signals from the State Department led Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to think the United States would not object to the invasion of Kuwait.
Baker was questioned in a television interview about statements made to Saddam in Baghdad July 25 by U.S. Ambassador April C. Glaspie. According to an Iraqi transcript of the conversation made public recently, the authenticity of which has not been challenged by the U.S. government, Glaspie said President Bush wanted better relations with Saddam and that the United States had no opinion on Saddam's dispute over borders with Kuwait.
At the same time, similar statements were made in Washington by John Kelly, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs. Saddam invaded Kuwait Aug. 2.
Baker said he agreed with a newspaper columnist who called the criticism of these statements "retrospective scapegoating," and "shameful." Baker added, "So we've got some 20-20 hindsight going on that's been highly critical, frankly, of some very fine career public servants."
Responding to questions about his specific directives to the ambassador, Baker suggested he had not sent her explicit instructions. "I'm not going to deny . . . what the policy was," he said. "But I'm going to say to you that there are probably 312,000 cables or so that go out under my name as secretary of state from the Department of State."
Pressed on why the United States refused to take sides in the dispute between Iraq and Kuwait, Baker said, "That had to do with taking sides on a border dispute, not taking sides on the question of unprovoked aggression." He said, "There are border disputes going on all over the world . . . and we take positions on some and we don't take positions on others."
Baker, interviewed on NBC's "Meet the Press," repeated an earlier statement by Bush that "the suggestion that somehow the United States contributed to Saddam Hussein's unprovoked aggression against this small country is ludicrous, absolutely ludicrous." But Baker also said he agreed with Bush that "in hindsight, maybe there were some things we should have done differently."
The secretary cited three "signals" he claimed were "sent to Saddam Hussein before this happened," and he complained that these actions "are not mentioned" in news reports about U.S. policy and actions before the invasion.
The first, he said, was "to slap foreign policy export controls on exports to Iraq." A request to the Commerce Department to begin controls formally was announced by the State Department on July 27, just days before the invasion and hours before the Senate voted stiffer sanctions against Baghdad. The administration said that day, and again the following week, that it opposed the kind of sanctions on Iraq that Congress was considering.
The second signal to Saddam, Baker said, was to suspend Commodity Credit Corp. loan guarantees to Iraq. However, Agriculture Undersecretary Richard T. Crowder announced last April 14 that it was suspending the program because of possible financial irregularities. Kelly reiterated this to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee June 15.
The third signal, Baker said, "was to prohibit the export of a number of items that we and some of our allies thought might be useful in terms of missile or nuclear proliferation." He was not specific but has previously cited the decision to halt export of high-temperature furnaces to Iraq that could be used make nuclear weapons. However, the furnaces were stopped only at the last minute after the sale had been pushed for 18 months by the Commerce Department.
Baker said it would be a "serious mistake" to reward Saddam by compromising on the U.N. Security Council resolutions, and he reiterated the U.S. demand for complete, unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait and restoration of Kuwait's legitimate government. After that, he said, there could be negotiations on Iraq's grievances against Kuwait.
Staff news aide Ben Abramson contributed to this report.