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Media coverage of "Desert Fox" and go-ahead for Kuwait

During the recent bombing offensive I kept a close eye on the media (not
including the tabloids) and thought it might be good to share my
impressions here. I have also included  some facts about US government
messages to Iraq prior to the invasion of Kuwait, some of which overlaps
Colin Rowat's discussion of Ramsey Clark's book.


Through the tide of jargonistic propaganda statements - "degrade"
"threaten his neighbours" "weapons capability" "weapons of mass
destruction" "achieved our military objectives" etc etc, I was
particularly struck by the number of contradictions rooted in official
statements to the press. Occasional small glimpses of the possible
ground reality did pop up quite often, but usually occupying stunted
paragraphs towards the end of lengthy articles.

The Iranian incident was mentioned several times and, while I did not
get the impression that the allies were very keen to dwell on it, I did
not get the impression that there was any sort of distinct 'cover-up'
about that. One of the issues that were (and still are) particularly
badly dealt with is that of civilian casualties. Patalability of
journalistic body-counting aside, this was all very disturbing. The
official figure is still 68 non-military (I guess this was all that the
Brits could be expected to swallow in the season of goodwill to all
men), but that was from Baghdad alone. References to the reality of
civilian deaths have been conspicuous by their absence (compared to the
medium-scenario 10,000 that was admitted at the beginning of the
offensive). The families of the innocent victims of the Lockerbie
atrocity were acknowledged at Christmas, while the families of the
innocent Iraqi victims of "Desert Fox" were not.

What left me really gobsmacked was the stuff being churned out about the
accuracy of the weapons. At one point very early on in the offensive it
was stated that, despite claims to "surgical precision", the accuracy of
the new "smart" weapons is still only in the region of 85% (can't call
to mind where I heard this but I can find it if anyone is interested).
Virtually all the bombs dropped on Iraq this time were "smart", which is
almost a 100% improvement on those dropped in 1991, but this still means
that at least 15% were going to miss their targets. The reality of the
anticipated hit-rate of around 85% was announced in the press soon after
"Desert Fox". What boggled me was hearing the UK's equivalent of General
Henry Shelton (can't remember the name) stating on BBC TV after the end
of the campaign that "none of the missiles had hit civilian targets".
This was an extraordinary statement to make considering that many homes
had evidently been destoyed and that reports were already leaking out
that a grain silo and even civilian institutions such as hospitals were
at least severely damaged. The use of the phrase "civilian targets" was
questionable since international law forbids the use of civilian or
civilian-related "objects" as military targets. (In the case of doubt,
an object will be assumed to be civilian or civillian-related and will
not be used as a military target. So what was the Baghdad natural
history museum, right there on the official list of "targets", if not an
institution with a primarily civilian function?). Downing Street was
very keen to emphasise that any reports coming out of Iraq "ought to
have a health warning" attached.

At the risk of descending into outright cynicism I'll make one more
point about the British media and "Desert Fox". It concerns the
premature leak of news of the attack to the Sun on the first night of
the strikes. A spokesperson for Blair was reported to have said that
during times of crisis the British government believes in "the necessity
of communicating key message to prime audiences" (i.e. the
Blitz-Saddamers). A few days later I read in a book of quotations that
Adolf Hitler once made the point about the power of words to mobilise
the masses. Interesting.


Below are some more objective and worthwhile bits of information (from a
book called "Saddam's War", by John Bulloch and Harvey Morrris) relating
to the so-called 'Green Light' given to Saddam for the invasion of

February/March 1990
After Iraq had launched a formal complaint against Voice of America for
broadcasting on February 15 a statement comparing the Iraqi regime to
the Ceaucescu one - and look what happened to that -April Glaspie wrote
to Tariiq Aziz that: "It is absolutely not United States policy to
question the legitimacy of the government of Iraq nor to interfere in
any way in the domestic concerns of the Iraqi people and government.".

12th April 1990
A US delegation (consisting of Senators Bob Dole, Alan Simpson, Howard
Mitzenbaum and James McClure) visited Saddam Hussein, being concerned
about the threatened imposition of sanctions since their grain states
had quite a large stake in Iraqi imports, to express concern about
Iraq's development of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and about
the recent threats against Israel.... Senator Alan Simpson explained to
Saddam: "Democracy is a difficult thing. I think the troubles you have
are with the Western media, not with the American government. the press
is full of itself..."

25th July 1990
Ambassador Glaspie was summoned to see Saddam Hussein at one o'clock.
This was one week before the invasion. The transcript of the meeting is
incomplete but has not been challenged. In this meeting Saddam makes
very clear that a conflict could result from his invasion of Kuwait and
warns America not to get involved. Glaspie's assurance that Washington
regards the dispute as an inter-Arab affair is totally unambiguous. She
does not express US approval for his aggression, but she does give the
distinct impression that America is unlikely to intervene:
"We have no opinion on Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border
disagreement with Kuwait."

He then spelt out to her the possible consequences of conventional
(non-nuclear) war should America decide to intervene:
"Yours is a society which cannot accept 10,000 dead in one battle... we
know that you can harm us although we do not threaten you. But we can
harm you. Everyone can cause harm according to their ability and their
size.... We cannot come all the way to you in the United States but
individual Arabs may reach you... We know that the United States has
nuclear weapons but we are determined either to live as proud men or we
will die."

Glaspie was concilatory in her responses to Saddam's obsessions with the
western media campaign against him, saying that the administration had
rejected the idea of trade sanctions (this in 1988, after the gassing of
civilians during the Kurdistan offensive, due to serious opposition from
the White House) and saying (with regard to the offending Voice of
America editorial): "I am pleased that you add your voice to the
diplomats who stand up to the media. If the American president had
control of the media, his job would be much easier." She assured Saddam
that Bush wanted better and deeper relations with Iraq and an Iraqi
contribution to peace in the Middle East. She also said: "President Bush
is an intelligent man. He is not going to declare an economic war
against Iraq."

Glaspie went on to express her personal admiration for Saddam's
"extraordinary efforts" to rebuild Iraq, and reaffirmed that the US had
not opinion on the Kuwait border issue: "I was in the American embassy
in Kuwait during the late sixties. The instruction we had during this
period was that we should express no opinion on this issue and that the
issue is not associated with America. James Baker has directed our
official spokesman to emphasise this instruction."

Saddam told her that there was still a chance for peace, having agreed
with Egypt's President Mubarak to hold talks between Iraq and Kuwait in
Saudi Arabia (these failed). Glaspie told Saddam that, in view of the
tension between Iraq and Kuwait, she had been thinking of postponing a
scheduled trip to Washington, but after their discussions (having been
reassured, I suppose) she would now travel on 30 July with the intention
of speaking to Bush. She left Baghdad, and three days later Kuwait was

27 July 1990
US State Department criticised a Senate vote banning US agricultural
loans to Iraq, in response to Iraq's bullying tactics against Kuwait.
Richard Boucher, the State Department deputy spokesman, acknowledged
that Iraq's recent behaviour had "caused us concern" and that the White
House was looking at possible export controls, but that the
administration felt that Congress's actions "would not help us achieve
our goals."

31 July 1990
Two days before the invasion, the Assistant Secretary of State John
Kelly declared at the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee
(when asked what precisely was the US committment to supporting its
friends in the Gulf): "We have no defence treaty relationship with any
Gulf country. That is clear. We support the security and independence of
friendly states in the region... we have historically avoided taking a
position on border disputes or on internal OPEC deliberations, but we
have certainly, as have all administrations, resoundingly called for the
peaceful settlement of disputes and differences in the area."

All of this sounds like a guarantee of non-intervention, but I do not
think that too much emphasis should be placed on the idea that it was
misleading to the Iraqis. Surely Saddam would not have been swayed by
such a 'go-ahead' from a handful of senators and a conciliatory
ambassador, given the obvious US interest in Israel and in Middle
Eastern Affairs in general? E.g. Carter's 1980 warning to the Soviet
Union that: "Any attempt by any outside force to gain control of the
Persian Gulf will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of
the United States of America and such an assault will be repelled by any
means necessary, including force.". Saddam is a great manipulator of
international relations (at least, he aspires to be) but he does not
seem to be especially vulnerable to influence by or sensitive to the
opinions or diplomatic statements of other nations.


Harriet Griffin
Research Assistant
Environmental Change Unit
University of Oxford
5 South Parks Road
Oxford OX1 3UB
United Kingdom

Phone: ++ 44 (0)1865 281210
Fax:  ++ 44 (0) 1865 281202

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