Born April 26, 1942
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
U.S. ambassador to Iraq before the 1991 Persian Gulf War
"I hope my credibility is at least as great as Saddam Hussein's."
April Glaspie quoted in New Republic.
April Glaspie served as the U.S. ambassador to Iraq in the years leading up to Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. A week before the invasion occurred, Glaspie was called to a meeting with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein (see entry). They discussed a number of matters, including the increasing tension between Iraq and its smaller neighbor. When the Iraqi government released a transcript (written record) of the meeting following the invasion of Kuwait, it created a huge controversy. Some people claimed that Glaspie's comments had encouraged Hussein to send his military forces into Kuwait. But Glaspie argued that the Iraqis had edited the transcript in a misleading way in order to make her comments sound more supportive than they actually were.
Becomes U.S. ambassador to Iraq
April Catherine Glaspie was born on April 26, 1942, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. She earned a bachelor's degree from Mills College in 1963, and a master's degree from Johns Hopkins University in 1965. The following year she entered the foreign service with the U.S. Department of State. Her job involved maintaining friendly relations and representing American interests with other countries around the world.
Glaspie served as political officer (a deputy ambassador) at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, Egypt, from 1973 to 1977. She received a citation as the State Department's top political reporting officer for her work there in 1975. Glaspie also served at the U.S. Embassies in England, Tunisia, and Syria over the years. From 1985 to 1987 she was director of the Office of Jordan, Lebanon, and Syrian Affairs in Washington, D.C.
As Glaspie's career as a diplomat progressed, she gained a reputation as one of the State Department's leading Arabists (scholars specializing in Arabic language and culture) and an expert in Middle Eastern affairs. In 1987 she was named U.S. ambassador to Iraq. She thus became the first woman to serve as American ambassador to an Arab country.
Tension builds between Iraq and Kuwait
At the time Glaspie arrived in Iraq, the country was just concluding a bitter eight-year war against its neighbor to the east, Iran. During this war, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein purchased weapons from the United States and other countries and developed a tough, battle-hardened military. But the costs of the conflict left the Iraqi economy in ruins. In fact, by the time the war ended Iraq owed $80 billion to other countries. Hussein desperately needed money to help his country recover from the effects of the war.
The Iraqi leader argued that he had fought the war against Iran in order to protect the Arab world from the Islamic fundamentalists (people who strictly adhere to the basic principles of Islam) who had taken over Iran. He felt that his Arab neighbors should forgive Iraq's debts (not require repayment of loans) since Iraq fought to defend all Arab interests in the Persian Gulf region. Some countries did forgive Iraq's war debts, though Kuwait, a small but very wealthy country located to the south of Iraq, refused to do so.
Iraq's financial problems grew worse in 1990 because of a steep decline in world oil prices. Many countries in theMiddle East, including Iraq and Kuwait, contain some of the world's largest underground oil reserves. These countries make money by pumping and exporting oil (selling it to other countries around the world). The Organization of Oil Exporting Countries (OPEC) sets limits, or quotas, on the amount of oil its member countries pump each year in order to ensure stable oil prices in world markets.
Hussein believed that some OPEC countries were involved in a conspiracy to reduce Iraq's power in the Middle East. He argued that these countries, which included Kuwait, pumped more oil than was allowed under OPEC agreements in a deliberate attempt to lower world oil prices and harm Iraq's economy. He considered these actions by his fellow Arab states to be an "economic war" against Iraq.
Iraq and Kuwait also were involved in a longstanding dispute over the border between the two countries and the ownership of offshore islands in the Persian Gulf. Hussein claimed that Kuwait was trying to expand into Iraqi territory and was stealing oil from underground oil fields on the Iraqi side of the border. On July 17, 1990, Hussein made a fiery speech in which he threatened to use force against any country that pumped excess oil. He also began sending military troops south to the Kuwaiti border.
Attends famous meeting with Saddam Hussein
On July 25, Glaspie was called to a meeting with Hussein. Although she had served as the U.S. ambassador to Iraq for three years, she had never before met the Iraqi president. As a result, Glaspie was very surprised to learn that Hussein wanted to speak with her. She had only a few minutes to prepare for the meeting before she was led into the Iraqi president's office.
Glaspie was aware of the growing tension between Iraq and Kuwait, and she knew that Iraq had recently sent military troops to the Kuwaiti border. This situation was the main topic of discussion during her two-hour meeting with Hussein. The Iraqi leader outlined a long list of complaints against Kuwait. He discussed the ongoing border disputes between the two countries, for example, and he also accused Kuwait of pursuing policies that were intended to harm Iraq's economy. Glaspie listened to Hussein's concerns and expressed sympathy for Iraq's financial problems. She also emphasized the U.S. government's wish to maintain friendly relations with Iraq.
Eight days later, on August 2, 1990, Iraq launched a military invasion of Kuwait. Countries around the world condemned the invasion and demanded that Hussein immediately withdraw his troops from Kuwait. Many of these countries then began sending military forces to the Persian Gulf region as part of a U.S.-led coalition against Iraq. The meeting between Glaspie and Hussein had marked the last official high-level contact between the Iraqi and American governments before the invasion. Glaspie had left Iraq a few days later and was vacationing in London, England, when she learned about the invasion. She was not allowed to return to Iraq afterward.
Iraqi transcript of meeting creates controversy
On September 2, a month after the invasion of Kuwait, the Iraqi government released a transcript of the meeting between Glaspie and Hussein to British journalists. The transcript created a huge controversy when it became public. After reviewing it, some people felt that Hussein had informed Glaspie of his intention to attack Kuwait. They also claimed that Glaspie had led the Iraqi leader to believe that the United States would not get involved in his dispute with his neighbor.
According to the transcript, Glaspie expressed U.S. concern about the Iraqi troops gathered near the Kuwaiti border. But she also said that the U.S. government had no official position on border disputes in the Middle East and no special defense commitments with Kuwait. Some people criticized her comments and claimed that she had encouraged Iraq's aggression.
As it turned out, the United States and most other countries around the world objected strongly to Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. In November 1990, the United Nations Security Council established a deadline of January 15, 1991, for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait or face war. When Hussein failed to meet the deadline, the coalition launched a series of punishing air strikes against military targets in Iraq. The Persian Gulf War ended on February 27, when coalition ground forces liberated Kuwait from Iraqi occupation.
Testifies before the U.S. Senate
In March 1991, following the U.S.-led coalition's victory over Iraq, Glaspie was asked to testify before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. She answered a series of questions about her meeting with Hussein. During her testimony, Glaspie pointed out that the transcript of the meeting had been prepared by the Iraqi government. She claimed that the Iraqis edited her comments in a misleading way in order to make her seem supportive of Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. She told the committee members that the transcript did not reflect the true nature of her comments, and argued that she was the victim of "deliberate deception" by the Iraqi government.
Glaspie said that the Iraqis had removed strongly worded warnings she issued to Hussein about the American reaction to an invasion of Kuwait. "I told him orally we would defend our vital interests, we would support our friends in the Gulf, we would defend their sovereignty [independence] and integrity," she told the senators, as quoted in the New Republic. She expressed "astonishment" that anyone would give weight to the Iraqi version of the meeting, and concluded by saying that "I hope my credibility is at least as great as Saddam Hussein's."
Glaspie's appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee helped turn public opinion in her favor. Supporters claimed that she had taken the blame for the Bush administration's failed policies toward Iraq. But the controversy continued when the State Department released a secret cable that Glaspie had sent to Washington containing her account of the meeting with Hussein. Although the cable differed somewhat from the Iraqi transcript, it also did not fully support her testimony before the Senate. The cable only created more questions about what actually took place during Glaspie's meeting with Hussein.
Years later, Glaspie's version of events received some support from Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi foreign minister who had been present at her 1990 meeting with Hussein. In an interview for "Frontline," Aziz said that the meeting with Glaspie had no influence on Hussein's decision to invade Kuwait. According to Aziz:
It was a routine meeting. There was nothing extraordinary in it. She didn't say anything extraordinary beyond what any professional diplomat would say without previous instructions from his government. She did not ask for an audience with the president [Saddam]. She was summoned by the president.... He wanted her to carry a message to George Bush—not to receive a message through her from Washington.
Lingering questions about Glaspie's performance as U.S. ambassador to Iraq had a negative effect on her career. She was never offered another ambassadorship or any other position that required confirmation by the U.S. Congress. Glaspie served in several lower-level diplomatic posts over the next ten years, including as U.S. consul general in Cape Town, South Africa. She retired from the State Department around 2002.
Where to Learn More
"April Catherine Glaspie." The Complete Marquis Who's Who, 2001. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center Online. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group, 2003.
Blumenthal, Sidney. "April's Bluff: The Secrets of Ms. Glaspie's Cable." New Republic, August 5, 1991.
Cipkowski, Peter. Understanding the Crisis in the Persian Gulf. New York: John Wiley, 1992.
Cole, Carlton. "Whatever Happened to U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie?" Christian Science Monitor, May 27, 1999. Available online at http://csmweb2.emcweb.com/durable/1999/05/27/p23s3.htm (accessed on March 26, 2004).
"Excerpts from Iraqi Document on Meeting with U.S. Envoy." New York Times International, September 23, 1990. Available online at http://www.chss.montclair.edu/english/furr/glaspie.html (accessed on March 26, 2004).
"Frontline Interview: Tariq Aziz." PBS. Available online at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/saddam/interviews/aziz.html (accessed on March 26, 2004).
Kilgore, Andrew I. "Tales of the Foreign Service: In Defense of April Glaspie." Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August 2002. Available online at http://www.wrmea.com/archives/august2002/0208049.html (accessed on March 20, 2003).
Ogden, Christopher. "In from the Cold." Time, April 1, 1991.