Commentary

Key personal & political events

1990 Aug 6 Mo
Margaret Thatcher

Gulf War: Bush-Thatcher meeting in Washington [memoirs extract]

Document type: commentary
Document kind: Memoirs
Venue: -
Source: Margaret Thatcher The Downing Street Years , pp.820-22
Journalist: -
Editorial comments: -
Importance ranking: Key
Word count: 1,073 words
Themes: Defence (general), Energy, Foreign policy (Middle East), Foreign policy (USA)

Visiting Washington, 6 August 1990

My mind was now turning to the next practical steps we could take to exert pressure on Iraq. The European Community countries had agreed to support a complete economic and trade embargo of Iraq. But it was the Iraqi oil exports and the willingness of Turkey and Saudi Arabia to block them which would be crucial. The Americans had some lingering doubts about whether Turkey and Saudi Arabia would act. I was more confident. But these doubts increased the importance of enforcing all other measures still more effectively. I instructed the Foreign Office to prepare plans to implement a naval blockade in the north east Mediterranean, the Red Sea and the north of the Gulf to intercept shipments of Iraqi and Kuwaiti oil. I also asked that more thought be given to precise military guarantees for Saudi Arabia and for details of what aircraft we could send to the Gulf area immediately.

I had planned to take a few days holiday with my family after the Aspen speech, but after an invitation from the White House decided instead to fly to Washington and resume my talks with the President. For all the friendship and co operation I had had from President Reagan, I was never taken into the Americans' confidence more than I was during the two hours or so I spent that afternoon at the White House. The meeting began in a very restricted session with just the President, Brent Scowcroft, myself and Charles Powell. Half an hour later we were joined by Dan Quayle, Jim Baker and John Sununu. The last twenty minutes of discussion was attended by the Secretary General of NATO.

The President that day was an altogether more confident George Bush than the man with whom I had had earlier dealings. He was firm, cool, showing the decisive qualities which the Commander in Chief of the greatest world power must possess. Any hesitation fell away. I had always liked George Bush. Now my respect for him soared.

The President began by reporting what was known about the situation and US plans to deal with it. Saddam Hussein had sworn that if American forces moved into Saudi Arabia he would liberate the Kingdom from the Saudi Royal family. There were now clear photographs which the President passed around to us showing that Iraqi tanks had moved right up to the border with Saudi Arabia. I said that it was vital to bolster the Saudis. The main danger was that Iraq would attack Saudi Arabia before the King formally asked the United States for help.

In fact, part of the way through our discussions, Dick Cheney telephoned the President from Saudi Arabia. He reported that King Fahd was fully behind the United States plan to move the 82nd Airborne Division together with 48 F 15 fighters to Saudi Arabia. The King's only condition was that there should be no announcement until the forces were actually in place. This was excellent news. But how would we be able to conceal all this from the world media and the Iraqis who, if they knew about it, might well decide to go into Saudi Arabia at once? In fact, we were helped by the fact that all eyes were on the United Nations which was discussing Security Council Resolution 661, that imposed a ban on trade with Iraq and Kuwait, though making no explicit provision for its enforcement. American aircraft were eight hours into flight by the time the press discovered they had left.

This meeting also saw the beginning of an almost interminable argument between the Americans particularly Jim Baker and me about whether and in what form United Nations authority was needed for measures against Saddam Hussein. I felt that the Security Council Resolution which had already been passed, combined with our ability to invoke Article 51 of the UN Charter on self defence, was sufficient. Although I did not spell this out on the present occasion there were too many other pressing matters to decide my attitude, which had been reinforced as a result of our difficulties with the UN over the Falklands, was based on two considerations. First, there was no certainty that the wording of a Resolution, which was always open to amendment, would finish up by being satisfactory. If not, it might tie our hands unacceptably. Of course, with the end of the Cold War the Soviet Union was likely to be more co operative. Communist China, fearful of isolation, was also disinclined to create too many problems either. But the fact remained that if one could achieve an objective without UN authority there was no point in running the risks attached to seeking it.

Second, although I am a strong believer in international law, I did not like unnecessary resort to the UN, because it suggested that sovereign states lacked the moral authority to act on their own behalf. If it became accepted that force could only be used even in self defence when the United Nations approved, neither Britain's interests nor those of international justice and order would be served. The UN was a useful for some matters vital forum. But it was hardly the nucleus of a new world order. And there was still no substitute for the leadership of the United States.

The discussion between President Bush and myself in Washington continued. I emphasised the importance of preparing to respond to any Iraqi use of chemical weapons. I also stressed that we should fight the propaganda war with vigour. This was a defensive action by the West to preserve Saudi Arabia's integrity and anything which complicated or obscured that must be avoided. So, for example, we had to do everything to keep the Israelis out of the conflict. I also promised to use my contacts with Middle Eastern rulers to try to increase support for American action in defence of Saudi Arabia and to heighten the pressure on Iraq.

I returned to London on the Tuesday. The following day I had an hour's telephone conversation with King Fahd to receive his formal request for our own `planes and (if necessary) armed forces to be stationed in Saudi Arabia. He expressed incredulity that King Hussein should have sided with Saddam Hussein, whose party had murdered King Hussein's relatives. But King Fahd was as robust as ever in his determination to stand up against aggression.