Commentary

Key personal & political events

1990 Aug 2 Th
Margaret Thatcher

Gulf War: Visiting Aspen [memoirs extract]

Document type: commentary
Document kind: Memoirs
Venue: -
Source: Margaret Thatcher The Downing Street Years , pp.816-20
Journalist: -
Editorial comments: -
Importance ranking: Key
Word count: 1,710 words
Themes: Defence (general), Energy, Foreign policy (Middle East), Foreign policy (USA)

Events at Aspen

On the morning of Wednesday 1st August 1990 the VC10 left Heathrow with me and my party aboard bound for Aspen, Colorado. The President was due to open the Aspen Institute Conference on the Thursday and I was to close it on the Sunday. I had gone out early in order to be present for his speech. At the time I left I already knew that the Iraqis were sending troops down to the border with Kuwait. The negotiations between Iraq and Kuwait which had been taking place in Jeddah had broken for the day but we understood that they were to be resumed. It therefore seemed that the Iraqi military action was a case of sabre rattling. We soon learnt that it was not. At 2am Kuwaiti time on Thursday 2nd August Iraq carried out a full scale military invasion though claiming that it was an internal coup and assumed total control.

An hour later early evening on Wednesday Colorado time Charles Powell telephoned me from his hotel to tell me the news and I decided at once to instruct two ships in Penang and Mombassa, both about a week's sailing time away, to make for the Gulf while the situation developed. We already had one ship of the Armilla patrol in the Gulf HMS York, at Dubai. First thing the following morning I learnt in a note from Charles about the latest situation. Other Arab Governments had evidently been caught off balance. The Arab League of Foreign Ministers meeting in Cairo had failed to agree a statement. King Hussein was trying to excuse the Iraqi action on the grounds that the Kuwaitis had been unnecessarily difficult. The ruling families in the Gulf were alarmed. With strong British support the UN Security Council had passed a resolution condemning Iraq for its action and calling for total withdrawal and immediate negotiations. Back in London, Douglas Hurd competent professional that he was had ordered the freezing of Kuwaiti assets in Britain, the Iraqis unfortunately having only debts. An immediate question now was whether Saddam Hussein would go over the border and seize Saudi Arabia's oil fields. (This was indeed important: but I was convinced from the start that it must not divert us from the need to get Saddam Hussein out of the territory he had already seized by an act of illegal aggression).

I was staying at the guest house to Ambassador Henry Catto's ranch while all this was going on. I read Charles' note, listened to the news and then went for a walk to sort things out in my own mind. By the time I got back Charles and Sir Antony Acland, our Ambassador, were waiting for me. We established from the White House that President Bush was still coming to Aspen and would arrive later that morning. As is my wont, I set about arguing through the whole problem with them and by the end had defined the two main points. By the time I was due to meet him at the main ranch I was quite clear what we must do.

Fortunately, the President began by asking me what I thought. I told him my conclusions in the clearest and most straightforward terms. First, aggressors must never be appeased. We learned that to our cost in the 1930s. Second, if Saddam Hussein were to cross the border into Saudi Arabia he could go right down the Gulf in a matter of days. He would then control 65% of the world's oil reserves and could blackmail us all. Not only did we have to move to stop the aggression, therefore, we had to stop it quickly.

In making these two points I felt that experience as well as instinct enabled me to trust my judgment. There was, of course, the enormously valuable experience of having been Prime Minister through the Falklands War. My visits to the Gulf had also allowed me to establish bonds of trust with the rulers of many of these States, who often had closer links with Britain than with America. I understood their problems and could gauge their reactions.

President Bush listened to what I had to say. He then told me that he had been speaking to President Mubarak and King Hussein. The message he had received was that the United States should stay calm and give an Arab solution a chance. He had said that that was fine but that it must involve Iraqi withdrawal and the restoration of the lawful Government of Kuwait. He had meanwhile authorised a boycott of Iraqi goods, termination of credits and the freezing of Iraqi and Kuwaiti assets. He had also instructed ships of the American fleet to move north from the Indian Ocean into the Gulf, although they were currently being hampered by heavy seas.

We then got down to discussing what must be done next. I said that if Saddam Hussein did not withdraw, the Security Council would need to impose a full trade embargo. That, however, would only be effective if everybody implemented it. It would be necessary to close down the pipelines across both Turkey and Saudi Arabia through which Iraq exported the greater part of its oil. Those would not be easy decisions. So the crucial question was whether the Arab states and Turkey would have the will to do so. Saudi Arabia, especially, might fear that Iraq would use such action as an excuse to attack her. We could send troops to protect Saudi Arabia; but only at the specific request of the King. (In fact, a few days later the US Defence Secretary, Dick Cheney, flew to Saudi Arabia to talk to the King about precisely this).

At this point President Bush was told that the President of Yemen wanted to speak to him on the telephone. Before the President left to take the call, I reminded him that Yemen, a temporary member of the Security Council, had not voted on the Resolution demanding the withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait. It turned out that the President of Yemen too wanted time to come up with an Arab solution. President Bush told him that such a "solution" must involve the withdrawal of Iraqi forces and return of the proper Government of Kuwait if it was to be accepted. The President of Yemen then apparently compared what had happened in Kuwait to US intervention in Grenada at which George Bush rightly bridled. When he returned President Bush and I agreed that all this did not seem very encouraging. We then went out to give a press conference. The President was asked if he ruled out the use of force. He replied that he did not a statement the press took to be a strengthening of his position against Saddam Hussein. But I had never found any weakness in it from the first.

By now I was receiving a flood of telegrams reporting on reactions to the invasion. The Cabinet Office assessment of Iraq's plans noted that an attack against Saudi Arabia did not seem imminent, because it would probably take a week to assemble the required forces. To my mind this reinforced rather than diminished the need for immediate tough action.

Understandably, I now had only half my mind on the programme of events which had been arranged for me. That said, I was fascinated by what I saw. Friday was a day of presentations and discussions about science, environment and defence punctuated by news about what was happening in the crisis which now gripped the international community. I was talking to the young scientists working at the SDI National Test Facility at Falcon when I was called away to speak to President Bush on the telephone. He gave me the good news that President Ozal of Turkey had said he would take action to cut off the Iraqi oil which was going through the Turkish pipeline. I was not surprised. In my two visits to Turkey I had been very impressed with the President's toughness. I had also been struck by the country's strategic significance. As a secular but predominantly Muslim state with a large army, looking westwards to Europe but also on the fringe of the Middle East, Turkey would be a vital bulwark against aggressive Islamic fundamentalism or other brands of revolutionary Arab nationalism like that of Saddam Hussein.

After lunch I went by helicopter to the Strategic Air Defence Monitoring Centre at Cheyenne Mountain which keeps a watch on every satellite launched. Again I felt awed by the sophistication of America's scientific and technological achievement. From within this hollowed out mountain the United States could observe deep into space for military and scientific purposes. Two days later I was told by the general in charge of the operation that they had observed that the Soviets had now put up two satellites over the northern end of the Gulf. It was a useful indication of their concern.

On Saturday morning I spoke with President Mitterrand on the telephone. As over the Falklands, he was taking a robust position: in spite of a misconceived speech at the United Nations which tried to link a solution of the Gulf crisis with other Middle Eastern issues, President Mitterrand and France showed throughout the crisis that the French were the only European country, apart from ourselves, with the stomach for a fight.

I have already described the speech I gave on Sunday morning to the Aspen Institute. Though it addressed broader international issues, I inserted a section on the Gulf. It read:

Iraq's invasion of Kuwait defies every principle for which the United Nations stands. If we let it succeed, no small country can ever feel safe again. The law of the jungle would take over from the rule of law.
The United Nations must assert its authority and apply a total economic embargo unless Iraq withdraws without delay. The United States and Europe both support this. But to be fully effective it will need the collective support of all the United Nations' members. They must stand up and be counted because a vital principle is at stake: an aggressor must never be allowed to get his way.