saddam invades kuwait (24 Jul - 2 Aug 1990)
Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait didn't come entirely out of a blue sky, but few read his intentions correctly. Consequently, surprise was almost universal when Iraqi troops crossed the border at 2am Kuwaiti time Thursday 2 August 1990. There were certainly aggressive statements and military movements by Iraq in the month leading up to the invasion, but Saddam also sent a "message of friendship" to President Bush via the US Ambassador, April Glaspie, in a conversation that some have seen as evidence that the US gave the green light to invasion. (This site is the first to publish the full US text of the meeting: the document lends little support to the conspiracy-minded.) It was all too tempting to perceive business proceeding as usual in the rough school of Middle Eastern politics, with Iraq manoeuvring to win large financial concessions from its neighbours. As late as 29 July Glaspie recommended that the US rely on Arab diplomacy to resolve the issue (while warning that "we will have resolutely to swallow our distaste at the Iraqi protection racket"). On 31 July, the day before the invasion, the trusted and well-liked Jordanian leader, King Hussein, rang President Bush to offer an optimistic prognosis for ongoing talks. The other key Arab allies - Egyptian President Mubarak and King Fahd of Saudi Arabia - fully agreed that an Arab solution was to be preferred.
When the US received unmistakeable intelligence that Iraqi moves were serious, the first thought was for the President to call Saddam to urge that he hold back. But it was too late. Iraq had already invaded in force.
bush & mt meet at ASPEN (2 Aug 1990)
US policy in the days immediately following the invasion seemed hesitant, with the President publicly stating on the morning of Thursday 2 August that he was not contemplating intervention. The NSC met immediately after this remark in a session that the President later described as "a bit chaotic". There was some confusion in the meeting as to what was actually happening in the Gulf, but also a deeper problem, namely (in the words of Brent Scowcroft, then National Security Adviser) an "undertone ... of resignation to the invasion and even adaptation to it as a fait accompli" [Bush & Scowcroft A World Transformed (1998), p.317]. Scowcroft himself did not share this approach and it is unlikely George Bush found it attractive either.
Later that day the President flew to Aspen, Colorado, to open a conference and attend a pre-arranged bilateral with MT (who was scheduled as the closing speaker). She has described their meeting in her memoirs. Her response was characteristically emphatic: she reminded the President that appeasement in the 1930s had led to war and that Saddam would have the whole Gulf at his mercy - and 65 per cent of the world's oil supply with it - if his aggression were not quickly checked. She raised also a key question: whether Saudi Arabia would be willing to allow foreign forces on its soil to deter an Iraqi attack? At this stage it seemed doubtful.
Straight after their meeting the two leaders held a press conference at which the President was asked whether he ruled out the use of force? His reply that he did not rule it out was taken as a strengthening of his position, though MT commented in her memoirs: "I had never found any weakness in it from the first".
All the same, MT's remarks at the press conference - her first since the invasion - have been judged more forceful than Bush's and she was widely credited at the time as having strengthened his resolve.
It would be natural to think such an impression must have annoyed the President, but what evidence there is suggests that the two of them left Aspen on the best of terms. Things had not always been good between them. With regard to German reunification the White House had adopted a wholly different policy to hers and there were predictable problems for her adjusting to Ronald Reagan's successor. According to the US Ambassador to the UK, Henry Catto, she had irritated the President at their meeting at Camp David in November 1989 by tending to monopolise the conversation. Aspen stood in clear contrast.
"THIS WILL NOT STAND" (3-5 AUG 1990)
The following day (Friday 3 August), back in Washington, the President held a second NSC meeting, the minutes of which have been released.
Brent Scowcroft recalls of the meeting that "(t)he tone of the NSC discussion was much better than the day before". [Bush & Scowcroft, p324]. But the remark is comparative. The minutes suggest that key policymakers were still unsure how to respond to the invason, not least because the President was still weighing the options. And one significant incident at the meeting is missing from the minutes as released. Colin Powell recalled in his memoirs asking if it was worth going to war to liberate Kuwait? He describes it as a "Clausewitzian question which I posed so that the military would know what preparations it might have to make" [Colin Powell My American Journey (1995), p.464]. It earned him a rebuke, later in the day, from Defense Secretary Cheney who suggested that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs should confine himself to offering military advice.
The President spent the weekend at Camp David, returning late in the afternoon of Sunday 5 August. At this point, quite suddenly, his mind seems to have been made up and he spoke forecefully to the waiting press as her arrived back at the White House: "This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait". Colin Powell describes this as "a giant step" from the previous position, amounting to a new mission altogether for the military, even a declaration of war. Powell attributed some of the new resolve to military briefings over the weekend, but also comments that Bush's meeting with MT at Aspen "no doubt influenced him too". "It also struck me that 'This will not stand' had a Thatcheresque ring". [Powell, p.467] Bush himself comments of this declaration, frankly, "I don't know if I had yet determined that the use of force would be necessary. ... On the other hand, I certainly felt that force could be necessary" [Bush & Scowcroft, p.333].
One reason for the President's hesitation up to this point may have been the fact that the Saudis still seemed ambivalent as to inviting US troops to defend them, without which the liberation of Kuwait would have been unachievable. But this in turn became an argument for a clearer declaration of US commitment to reverse the Iraqi invasion, because contact with the Saudis showed that some of their ambivalence drew on past experience of half-hearted American military commitments in the Middle East. That an Iraqi invasion of Saudi Arabia was still thought possible is clear from the minutes of the NSC meeting on Sunday evening 5 August, held immediately after the President's "this will not stand" declaration. That the Saudis were seen to be tilting towards inviting US troops is also clear from the meeting.
MT in washington (6 AUG 1990)
The following day, Monday 6 August, MT concluded her programme at Aspen and flew to Washington. She has described her meeting with the President in the Oval Office , following which she joined the President in speaking briefly to the press.
It was while she was there that the President received a call from Secretary Cheney in Saudi Arabia, confirming that King Fahd had agreed a large US deployment. This was perhaps the most decisive moment in the history of the first Gulf War. The President explained in detail American military plans, bringing her into his confidence to a degree she had not experienced even during the Reagan Administration. There are White House official photographs of the Oval Office meeting and of the press call immediately after it.
The same day Saddam summoned the highest ranking US diplomat left in Bagdhad and delivered a strange amalgam of threats and promises, none of them particularly credible. Meantime in Washington diplomatic protocol took a holiday when Assistant Secretary Kelly conducted a shouting match with the Iraqi Ambassador. The meeting ended with Kelly instructing the Ambassador to leave his office: "Get out, you thief!". "You invaded Panama", the Iraqi shot back.
That evening the NSC discussed economic aspects of the situation (particularly the impact of the war on oil markets), while the first US forces were secretly en route to Saudi Arabia.
On August 20 the NSC machinery issued National Security Directive 45, a Presidential minute to all relevant departments and agencies stating the broad principles that would govern US policy during the crisis.
"No time to go wobbly" (7-26 AUG 1990)
The Washington meeting on 6 August 1990 saw the beginning of a long-running difference of opionion between MT and the Admininstration (and particulary with the Secretary of State, Jim Baker) as to how far UN authority was required for measures against Saddam. Generally US opinion prevailed within the coalition. But it is notable that Britain was the first state to begin enforcing the UN embargo on trade with Iraq and Kuwait, the Royal Navy intercepting and boarding ships ahead of all other coalition states, the US included.
MT's view was that nothing more was needed from the UN than its initial resolution condemining the invasion, alongside the right of self-defence guaranteed under Article 51 of the UN Charter. Her experience of UN diplomacy during the Falklands War left her strongly aware of the danger that by seeking further resolutions the coalition against Saddam might find itself forced to make concessions, and thereby undercut rather than confirm its power to act. And she stressed always that the right of self-defence was inherent in sovereign states and did not require specific UN authority to be exercised. One can detect her wariness here of notions of a "new world order" in which the UN would play the part denied it during the Cold War by the crippling conflict between veto wielding powers within the Security Council.
Tensions on this subject came to a head on 18 August when five heavily-laden tankers bound for Yemen refused to be boarded. Should force be used to stop them or should a new UN resolution be sought to give explicit powers to enforce earlier ones? On his own account President Bush was sympathetic to MT's view that no new resolution was needed and that the tankers should be stopped. However, in the end he bowed to Jim Baker's strongly held view that without a new resolution the Soviets would abandon their general posture of support for the US line.
A UN Security Council Resolution giving the necessary authority (UNSCR 665) was successfully secured on the morning of Saturday 25 August. It was on the following day that MT - in phone conversation with George Bush - offered her famous advice to the President: "This is no time to go wobbly, George". The President loved the phrase, according to Scowcroft, and the White House staff found a lot of use for it during the crisis.
DIPLOMACY & DEPLOYMENTS (SEP-NOV 1990)
MT continued to worry about the direction of US diplomacy into the autumn as coalition forces deployed to the Gulf. The military and political build-up was slow and offered Saddam numerous opportunities to divide the coalition forming against him. Arab allies were uneasy at Iraqi efforts to link Kuwait to the Palestinian issue, forcing the US to take a tougher line with Israel than was sometimes the case, while the French and the Soviets - long-standing allies of Iraq - were adopting positions somewhat at odds with Britian and the US (though professing strong support).
From the first MT had little doubt that force would be needed to liberate Kuwait. And she was aware that delay favoured the Iraqis militarily, because after early March daytime temperatures in the desert would make military operations difficult or perhaps impossible. When she dined with President Bush in New York on 30 September, she made it clear that she saw no prospect of sanctions securing Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait. US thinking seemed to match hers on this point, though Bush didn't rule out a further return to the UN before initiating force and linked any early military action to some further act of provocation by the Iraqis. While MT wanted to act soon, she did not favour allowing Iraq to choose the time or place.
On 18 October MT exchanged cables and a phone call with the President, again warning of the risks of delay: "My own view is increasingly that once we have the necessary forces in place, we should go sooner rather than later." But as before, they did not resolve the issue of when and on what grounds force would be used. It seems to have been a difficult conversation: "I was probably pretty impatient," Bush later wrote. [Bush & Scowcroft, p.386.]
On 8 November the US announced a large increase in its planned deployment. The following day Jim Baker came to see MT in London, bringing two unwelcome messages. First, the US was firmly decided to seek a further Security Council Resolution authorising the use of force to remove Saddam from Kuwait. Second, he asked for two additional British brigades to be despatched. His top secret minute of the conversation for the President notes MT's hesitation at this point, while Douglas Hurd (also present) "winced visibly". Baker was less demanding when he spoke with Mitterrand the following day, finding him simply "reluctant to discuss force augmentation", but the Secretary of State still professed to think Bush would be "extraordinarily pleased" by the French position, which offerred support to a new UN resolution.
MT's time in office was now drawing short. She told the President of the decision to deploy a full British armoured division (augmenting the existing deployment of a single brigade with a second brigade) at a breakfast meeting at the Paris CSCE Conference on 19 November, the day before the first ballot of the Conservative leadership election. The decision was formally approved by Cabinet during the meeting at which she announced her resignation as Prime Minister, on 22 November.
When MT next visited the White House it was as a private individual. President Bush conferred on her the Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian honour, in the East Wing on 7 March 1991, his speech offering her the warmest of tributes.
end of the story (1990-91)
MT concluded her memoir of the war with the following reflections: "Since the morning of Thursday 2nd August hardly a day had passed without my involvement in diplomatic and military moves to isolate and defeat Iraq. One of my very few abiding regrets is that I was not there to see the issue through. The failure to disarm Saddam Hussein and to follow through the victory so that he was publicly humiliated in the eyes of his subjects and Islamic neighbours was a mistake which stemmed from the excessive emphasis placed right from the start on international consensus. The opinion of the UN counted for too much and the military objective of defeat for too little. And so Saddam Hussein was left with the standing and the means to terrorise his people and foment more trouble. In war there is much to be said for magnanimity in victory. But not before victory."
A mass of other documents relating to the war and its aftermath is available on this site, including notes of conversations between President Bush and John Major, Francois Mitterrand, Yitzhak Shamir and Mikhail Gorbachev.
MT later gave lengthy testimony to the Scott Inquiry into the sale of British arms to Iraq in the years before the first Gulf War.