In this collection of 23 essays and lectures, Chas Freeman gives us a feast of insights, information and memorable lines on the activities of the last 20 years. It is impossible to cover the range of topics he presents in one review, so I will single out just three themes: his experiences as U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the build-up to the Gulf War, his advice to the about-to-be-elected President Barack Obama in October 2008, and his aborted appointment to the supremely important task of "appreciating" the world through intelligence analysis.
Ambassador Freeman opens his book with a detailed account of the events leading to the 1991 intervention in Iraq. Writing as an on-the-spot insider, his account is unique, providing information not available elsewhere. I was particularly struck that his account shows that the war was almost accidental on both sides. Saddam Hussein obviously thought that America would not react, and Mr. Freeman shows that the Americans were ill-prepared to do so.
Because we do not, and probably never will, have a full account of Saddam Hussein's thoughts, and because the American actions, pronouncements and inactions were confused, there was much "miscalculation." What happened was probably an unnecessary war, or at least a war into which both sides stumbled. The lesson is important, and, fortunately, the war was not between two more evenly matched and nuclear powers. So it is worth examining in some detail. Mr. Freeman is no admirer of Saddam Hussein. I share his feelings. Saddam was a brutal dictator running an ugly police state. But to understand the events of 1990-91, it is necessary to put alongside Saddam's megalomania the actions and statements that precipitated his actions.
On the American side, Mr. Freeman alludes to the meeting between the American ambassador in Baghdad, April Glaspie, and Saddam, pointing out that she was wrongly blamed for Saddam's miscalculation: she acted on instructions from Washington. Insofar as is now known, she was not authorized to, and did not, threaten American action if he invaded Kuwait. She said that America took no position on the boundaries of Iraq and Kuwait, and he wrongly, as we now know, took that as a "green light." Hers was not the only light he saw. What she told him was also proclaimed in Washington, in public statements by both the State Department spokesman (on the day Saddam had moved his troops to the frontier) and (three days before the Iraqi attack) the assistant secretary for the Near East before Congress: "We do not have any defense treaties with Kuwait, and there are no special defense or security commitments to Kuwait."
In and of themselves, these "signals" would not have caused the invasion. But they may justly be regarded as triggers in a context that did. It appears that those in Washington who should have understood that context did not. It was or should have been, clear that Saddam was desperate. His government was reeling from the costs of the war with Iran. For that war, he owed Kuwait a vast sum of money, and he saw that Kuwait was actively driving down the price of oil. Selling oil was his only means of both keeping afloat and repaying his wartime debt. He also believed, perhaps wrongly, that Kuwait was stealing Iraqi oil by "slant" drilling. And he knew that Kuwait was, as Mr. Freeman says, unloved by the other Arab states. Saudi Arabia also believed Kuwait was cheating on production quotas.
Underlying all these points was the fact that every Iraqi ruler since King Faisal I — and they certainly were a mixed bag — had claimed that the British had stolen Kuwait and made it their puppet state to profit from its oil. The dispute over Kuwait was another of those legacies of the age of imperialism that have so bedeviled our lives. And not alone in the Middle East. Many Iraqis, including some who had much reason to hate Saddam, have pointed out to me that seizing lands lost during the time of imperialism was a marked feature of invasions by India (Goa), China (Tibet) and Indonesia (East Timor). We had either done nothing or just protested with a wink. Saddam apparently expected the same.
Finally, the fact that Saddam had a large, battle-tested and well-equipped army also played a role. There is a pertinent Washington adage: "When armies can, they usually do." Even more pointedly, in what Saddam must have known of Iraq's long sequence of coups, generals driven by patriotism or ambition are unlikely to forgive what they see as weakness. As Mr. Freeman remarks, "I believe that Saddam judged that he could not survive in power if he backed down without substantial gain in the form of money or territory." He is almost certainly right.
In the event, we did not even warn Saddam. Mr. Freeman is too diplomatic to draw the inference, but it is clear that there was no coherent American policy at the critical point and, worse, that there was no accurate reading of Saddam, his goals and his imperatives. When then-Ambassador Freeman tried to raise the issues and ask for a clear line of action, he was answered, he writes, "with deafening silence from Washington." So our government was surprised by what many of us saw coming. (I cannot resist saying that Mr. Freeman quickly learned what others of us had already experienced, that it is not "politically correct" to be right about the Middle East.)
At first, it looked as if Saddam had got away with his seizure of Kuwait. He apparently thought that once he had created "facts on the ground," the Western powers would express public anger but adjust privately to the new reality. That was, after all, what the U.S. government had done just 16 years before in the Ford administration.*
Many Middle Easterners have privately thought that Saddam was close to being right. Or at least that he might have been right if his timing had been better. If he had been smart enough to wait until he had a nuclear weapon, he might have succeeded. But he was also too small a player. India, China and Indonesia were "too big to fail," or rather too big to be made to pay for what they did. Iraq was not. Moreover, predictably, Saddam overplayed his hand. Not content with Kuwait, he allowed his troops, on August 4, 1990, Mr. Freeman reports, to mass along the ill-marked frontier into Saudi territory and seemed ready to push down the Saudi east coast — where all the Saudi oil is — toward and perhaps into the UAE. That "worst- case scenario" finally frightened Washington. Had Saddam been allowed to go all the way, he would have gained control of most of the world's energy. President Bush and his administration were certainly not prepared to allow that.
So American and some other forces were sent to Saudi Arabia. As U.S. ambassador, Freeman worked out the arrangements with the Saudi government, including giving the troops "cover." As he comments, he was for a while the chief of mission of an embassy numbering "some 550,000 heavily armed diplomatic staff.
When Saddam refused to withdraw by January 15, 1991, as mandated by UN Security Council Resolution 678, American and coalition aircraft began more than a month of bombing. On February 24 came a ground campaign that drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait. The coalition then invaded Iraq, and the war ended four days later.
But, as Mr. Freeman reports, there was no plan on what to do then. President Bush had welcomed the war, writing in his memoirs that, when Saddam announced he would comply, "my heart sank." However, he was not willing to allow his army to go all the way to Baghdad or cripple Saddam's regime. Mr. Freeman is diffident about criticizing Bush or his administration, but he forthrightly says that he found this a major mistake. In the lack of a clear decision, he points out, it was "impossible to devise a war-termination strategy." He thought it was necessary to show the Iraqis and the whole world that America had won and that Saddam had been defeated. "[F]ailure to press onward to Baghdad. . . is the main reason Saddam's dictatorship remained in power."
He is certainly right: Saddam at least partially and quickly recovered. But, here I side with George H.W. Bush when he wrote, "Had we gone the invasion route, the United States could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land." As it turned out, his comment was not only a justification for stopping his troops, but a prediction of what was to come. We cannot know, but it seems to me likely that the uprising we faced in 2003 (and, despite frequent assertions of victory, still face) would have occurred in 1991 and after.
While Ambassador Freeman's "insider-at-a-distance" account is the beginning of his book, I found my interest actually grew as the book unfolded. As with so many of us, his attitude changed as events moved toward the American invasion of 2003. Saddam had clearly provoked the first American action, but he gave no justification for our attack in 2003. So the history of "America in the Middle East," rather than just "Middle Eastern history," comes to dominate the rest of the book — as well as the thinking of Mr. Freeman and many of us.
On the eve of the presidential election of 2008, Mr. Freeman, then no longer an insider to government, advised the winner that "More of the Same Won't Do." Sadly, this is advice that President Obama has not heeded. Those of us who are disappointed by what he has chosen not to do, almost more than what he has chosen to do, are restrained in our disappointment only by what we guess a McCain-Palin administration would have meant: far more of the same and in other places.
Mr. Freeman rightly points out that whoever was to become president inherited "a dog's breakfast" from the Bush administration:
Here at home, we've spent ourselves into socialized banking. The incomprehensibly huge operations of our government, including its military operations and those of our vastly expanded public sector, continue to rely on foreign financial-credit rollovers for their sustainment. We've more than doubled our national debt over the past eight years and are driving hard for a debt level equal to our GDP . . . . Long wars cannot be fought on other peoples' money, especially when those who must lend us the money suspect that we see them as eventual targets . . . . Muslims cannot ally with us safely or in good conscience if our policies and our statements feed fears that we are engaged in a crusade against their religion . . . . The $859 billion we have so far committed to the so-called "Global War on Terror" has yet to win us a significant victory anywhere. In Afghanistan and Iraq, too, more of the same is not an option.
Sadly, it was the option the incoming Obama administration has taken. Mr. Freeman believes the major reason is the American commitment to Israel. I agree, but just as understanding Saddam Hussein turned out to be complex, I think the motivations of President Obama are also. In those first few "honeymoon" months after the election, when he was riding the crest of a wave of public support, had both the House and Senate on his side, and did not need either AIPAC money or Jewish votes — each new president has maximum leverage — he still continued in his appointments and actions the policy of the George W. Bush administration in critical areas, including not only Israel but Iraq and Afghanistan. Those who are closer to Washington than I believe it is because he narrowed his sources of information and advice to the military and the leader of Mr. Bush's Pentagon. So, in critical ways, Obama replayed the losing hand of President Lyndon Johnson: more troops, more time, more money. But, unlike Johnson, he proved to be a poor politician, alienating his allies and failing to win over his enemies. Indeed, what Mr. Freeman warned the incoming president not to do is what he has actually done.
Advice is one of Mr. Freeman's long suits. The country was the loser when President Obama failed to support his nomination for the critically important job of chairman of the U.S. National Intelligence Council (NIC). The importance of that organization can hardly be exaggerated. Like many government offices, it had survived more or less intact with changes of name from the early days of the CIA. Its former director from that period, Sherman Kent, was one of the most able men in government in my time. He "wrote the book" on intelligence evaluation in 1953 with the central theme that, to be accurate, intelligence had to be protected from partisan influence. That was precisely what it was losing in the George W. Bush administration. And it was what President Obama's director of national intelligence hoped to reverse by the appointment of Mr. Freeman to head it. He was eminently qualified for the task.
The sorry story of what happened next is partially recounted in Chapter 19. Mr. Freeman was subjected to a vicious attack, charged with incompetence and lack of experience and even accused of accepting bribes from a foreign government. It was particularly ironic that "the leader of the campaign against me," he wrote, "was then under indictment as a spy for Israel . . . . The campaign was quite evidently organized by the right wing of what is commonly known as the Israel lobby." The campaign against Mr. Freeman reminded us older public servants of McCarthyism, when we similarly lost some of our most able government servants in campaigns of ugly slander. The net result was that Mr. Freeman withdrew and declined the nomination. As he wrote in sadness, it had become "apparent that we Americans cannot any longer conduct a serious public discussion or exercise independent judgment about matters of great importance to our country as well to our allies and friends."
Let us hope that in this judgment he will be proved wrong. But, as I write, the auguries are not promising.