Chas Freeman was U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm and consulted frequently with General Norman Schwarzkopf and others on the conduct of the war. In this segment, he discusses his frustrations in dealing with Washington, his preoccupation with “visitor management”, his lack of respect for the media which covered the war, and the absence of a war termination strategy, which meant that the war never really ended and nothing was fully resolved.
Searching for Intelligent Life in Washington
Altogether at this time there were fewer than 30,000 Americans in the kingdom, with the largest community in the eastern province, which was the target of Saddam’s possible attack. If those Americans had left in a panic, there would have been no oil with which to fuel aircraft or tanks or to keep ships at sea. There would have been no defense contractors to maintain those weapons systems. And we would have ended up fighting to defend the two holy mosques rather than the world’s oil supplies and doing it under gravely disadvantageous circumstances.
Moreover, other communities regarded the Americans as likely the best informed, and an American departure would have set off a stampede of everybody, down to and including the Filipino bottle washers for the Saudi military and the Bangladeshi street sweepers. Saudi Arabia’s dependence on expat labor therefore rested on the behavior of the American community. So we did not want the American presence to attrit; we wanted the essential personnel to remain.
However, as you might guess from the figure of twenty-seven cables, the Department of State and the interagency process in Washington proved utterly unable to come to grips with this matter. We first got instructions not to worry. Then we got instructions not to brief the American community. Then we got instructions, in response to our request for chemical gear that we could distribute to the American community, not to press that.
Q: You’re talking about chemical suits and things like this.
FREEMAN: Gas masks, ponchos, that sort of thing. We were enjoined from briefing the American community at all. In the absence of briefings, panic began to rise. So I just violated our instructions and we provided over a hundred briefings to the American community.
The idiocy did not stop with this. In December 1990 the Department of State Human Rights Bureau vetoed a sale of chemical gear to the Ministry of Interior in Saudi Arabia, which would have been distributed to the foreign community, including the Americans, gratis, on the grounds that the Ministry of Interior controlled the police and the police in Saudi Arabia are violators of human rights. It proved impossible to overturn this decision.
I attempted in December, when the majority of American families leave Saudi Arabia with their children for Christmas vacations (since Christmas is not congenially celebrated in the kingdom), to issue a voluntary-departure notice before school let out, so that the families would be able to stay abroad (I knew the date and time of the attack, by then; Washington didn’t, apparently, except for a few people), and I was vetoed. So these families returned to Dhahran, and in January, just after their return, the voluntary departure was then approved.
An issue arose about Riyadh. I favored a voluntary departure. Washington suddenly was thinking about a directed departure (meaning involuntary). We were never able to resolve this, and it was the subject of a number of very fiery communications from me, some back-channel, which are frankly obscene and which I will not quote. One front-channel I sent after the missile threat to Riyadh began to eventuate, when I got an instruction from Washington to distribute gas masks and chemical gear to the American community, which, of course, I didn’t have, because Washington had declined to provide them. At that point, I sent a telegram that began, as I recall, “If I were to ask my staff whether to continue the search for intelligent life in Washington, they would all advise against it,” and went on from there.
On this subject, of managing the American community in the face of indifference and efforts at micromanagement…, at one point, I learned that Washington was about to make a decision on directed departure from Riyadh. I informed the Department, back-channel, that if they did that, I intended to go to Dhahran and resign in front of 1,600 American news people, since I felt I was responsible and accountable, and I needed to be consulted. So this was a major issue for me and for the Americans in kingdom.
It was aggravated by the issue of biological warfare, which the American community had not focused on, but which the military were very focused on and which I was very focused on. I have reason to believe that in fact Saddam Hussein did make one attempt to employ biological weapons against Riyadh.
But, in any event, there were insufficient anthrax inoculations available, and it was decided to inoculate the military but not the American ambassador, the embassy, or the American civilian population, still less the allied and coalition forces that were alongside us. So we had a situation in which the civilian population and industrial base, which supposedly the U.S. troops were protecting, was left unprotected, while the troops, quite properly, were given inoculations.
Finally, in the middle of all this, I would say the intelligence community, from my perspective, behaved in an unfortunately quite typical pattern. That is, as the war began in August of 1990, the judgment of the intelligence community was that Iraq did not have chemical warheads for its Scuds or, still less, the longer-range variance of these, which it had manufactured, the al-Hussein and al-Abbas missiles. There was no change in the evidence, but as we began to get closer to conflict, the intelligence community began to cover its bets by steadily escalating, until, on the eve of the war, the intelligence community was asserting that Iraq definitely did have chemical warheads. There was some dispute about whether Iraqi missiles could reach Riyadh or not. As it turned out, of course, they not only could, but did.
I objected to all this, and after the war, I received an apology from Judge Webster, the Director of Central Intelligence. I was right, and he was wrong. Iraq never did successfully mount chemical warheads on missiles, although it certainly stockpiled a vast quantity of artillery shells and other shorter-range munitions with chemicals for use against an infantry and armor attack….
“Stop treating us like a military theme park”
Very soon, however,…we got into visitor overload. The first visitor, who was instructed not to come, was Senator Lautenberg. Steve Solarz, of course, turned up, as he did everywhere. I found myself bouncing around in the kingdom, taking visitors in to see the king and the military and various other people.
Fortunately, quite early on, Norm Schwarzkopf agreed to simply make a jet plane available to me on a twenty-four-hour basis. That was a godsend. I think I went to Jeddah fifty-two times over the course of the war on that aircraft. I remember there was one twenty-four-hour period when, because of congressional and other delegations, primarily, as well as work, I was in Jeddah three times, Dhahran three times, and Riyadh twice, all within twenty-four hours. These are a thousand miles apart.
This again was a nice instance of Schwarzkopf and Freeman cooperating informally. My colleague in Turkey, Mort Abramowitz, was never able to get support from the military, because he approached it in a formal manner. I simply said to Norm, “Look, a lot of what I’m doing is work for you. If you can fly a sergeant around, you can fly me, I think.” And so he never billed the Department of State or whatever. When Abramowitz made his request, the military asked for a fund site, which, of course, was not forthcoming, because the expense of military aircraft is enormous.
So visitor management became a major obsession very early on. As the war proceeded, I began to make requests, in cooperation with Norm Schwarzkopf, that Washington cease treating Saudi Arabia like a military theme park, with an ambassador and a general as the park rangers, and remember that we had things to do. We had preparations to make and issues to deal with and were really less able to do so because we were spending all our time meeting VIPs.
Q: What was the reading at the time, as you saw it, why the other shoe didn’t drop? Why didn’t Iraq come in when they could have? Was it indecisiveness or they didn’t have a plan? How did you feel at the time? What were you getting?
FREEMAN: Clearly, they did have a plan. We suspected that at the time, and later became aware that Saddam Hussein in fact had been using the services of a computer company in Colorado to do war simulations of an invasion of Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates for the past five years, updating this annually. So, clearly, he had a plan. The disposition of his forces led us to what turned out, once we saw the computer simulations, to be a correct interpretation of his intentions.
As to why he sat in Kuwait, neither advancing nor withdrawing, I think no one knows the answer to that. Certainly, in August 1990, as I said, the way to Riyadh, to Dhahran, and onward to the United Arab Emirates was open to him.
A “New World Order”
I believe that he was like a house burglar going down a line of townhouses. His intention was to go into the House of Kuwait and take whatever he could. And then he’d poke his head out and see if the police were anywhere around or not. If they weren’t, he’d move on to the next house. The sudden arrival of the police left him with a situation where he could neither gracefully withdraw, under apparent pressure, nor could he safely attack. I think it led him to hole up in Kuwait. I find no more elegant explanation for his very obtuse decision-making than that….
Early on, in August, I sent a cable to Washington, in both a short and a long version, which appeared to have had some impact. I argued, essentially, that it was likely that we would end up having to go to war with Iraq, and that if this were the case, we needed to bear in mind the requirement to sustain Iraq’s ability after the war to balance Iran, and that therefore our objective vis-à-vis Iraq should be limited.
I may have been the originator of an unfortunate phrase (which got taken out of context and used in a way different than I had intended), “new world order,” because in that same telegram I argued that this was, in the post-Cold-War context, the precedent of the potentially pivotal nature of the Korean War and that it might be the defining event in the end of the old world order and the birth of a new world order. I meant order not in the sense of tidying up things or imposing something, but order in the sense of a classification of an era. At any rate, that phrase was then seized upon within a matter of days by the White House and passed into the folklore in, of course, quite a different sense than I had intended.
But I was not involved in war planning. I kept myself deliberately at some remove from the war-planning conferences, which went on both inside CENTCOM and between Secretary of Defense Cheney and his entourage and General Schwarzkopf, or between General Powell and General Schwarzkopf.
On the other hand, I had a very close, cooperative relationship with General Schwarzkopf, such that he kept me broadly and quite adequately informed of every twist and turn in the planning. So that, by late October, as I argued, again in a series of cables that seem to have had some influence, that we had to make a decision either to increase deployments to the point where we acquired a genuine defensive option against Iraq, or to plan a curtailment of our presence before Ramadan and the heat returned in March and April of 1991. I was already aware of both the nature of the battle plan and the rough timing that General Schwarzkopf had assigned to it.
By December, I was aware of his proposed time and date for the air attack and for the ground attack. The air attack was, I knew at that time, planned for two-forty to three o’clock in the morning on January 17. The reason for that had to do with the phases of the moon, as much as anything else. That is to say that, at that time, the moon would be dim, and the Stealth bombers could be used to maximum effect.
I was also aware of the proposed use of Special Forces to take out radars at that time. And I was aware that the ground attack was planned for February 21. As it happened, it only occurred on the 23rd of February.
But I found, to my amazement, in January, that Jim Baker was not aware of any of this…. I certainly didn’t make any effort to get out in front of him. I thought his forcefulness of presentation was very effective. I also found him to be totally focused on Washington and on relations with Congress, to the exclusion of almost everything else. And that, I think, contributed to his unwillingness to take into account the possible long-range financial impact on Saudi Arabia of the demands that we were making on the Saudis.
After the fighting, he was, of course, immediately focused on the Middle East peace process. And there, I’m afraid, also a combination of Washington focus and the Israeli diplomatic style to which he was subject led to expectations of the Saudis that they never could have possibly fulfilled, and very little willingness to listen to the American ambassador in efforts to propose a different approach. I thought it was always the secretary of state’s job to formulate policy but that the ambassador should be of some assistance in developing a way to make that policy effective on the ground in Saudi Arabia. He wasn’t always too open to those sorts of suggestions….
There was, I must say, also, as January 1991 approached, repeated evidence of concern in the National Security Council that Jim Baker might reach some sort of compromise diplomatic solution with the Iraqis that would in fact have made the entire deployment in a sense moot. And I think there was delight when, at Geneva, in mid-January, just before the UN deadline of January 15, the Iraqi foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, in effect took such an uncompromising position that Baker did not have the opportunity to produce a diplomatic solution and a face-saving way for Iraq to withdraw. By that time, everyone was ready for war and didn’t want compromise and temporizing to get in its way….
The media were poorly prepared for the war
They were antagonists, there’s no question, on several levels.
First, they had a prurient interest in military plans, which, if it had been realized, could have resulted in hundreds, maybe thousands, of unnecessary deaths on the battlefield. So military security had to be protected.
Second, they were looking…for controversies. The net effect of reporting such controversies would have been to exacerbate relations between the foreign members of the coalition and the Saudi civilians and soldiers who supported it.
Third, the press is always looking to sensationalize things. They’re looking for headlines; that’s their business, and one had to be very cautious in dealing with them.
There were 1,600 members of the American press on Saudi territory during this time. I think I did over 700 backgrounders without a single leak, which testifies to the professionalism of the press. I followed a special practice, because I did not want my name in the newspaper or on the television or on the radio. I simply told them that my condition for giving a briefing on background was that there be no attribution at all and that, beyond that, if I saw my name in their publication under any circumstances remotely connected with the interview, they were never going to get back in to see me again.
That had a sufficiently intimidating effect that I stayed out of the public limelight in the U.S., which is what I wanted to do. There is no advantage, to my mind, for an ambassador to appear in the limelight, and I was happy to yield pride of place to those who should have it, like a secretary of state.
The final comment I’d make about the press, however, is that they were extremely poorly prepared for this war, and their performance suffered. This was a press composed of members of the Vietnam-draft-dodging generation, who had had no experience with the military, did not understand the military mentality or the terminology of the military, and continually astonished me in their response to the really quite comprehensive and revealing briefings at CENTCOM by failing to understand and follow up on points that were being made. They were militarily illiterate. Second, they were illiterate about Saudi Arabia. They didn’t speak Arabic….
Finally, we had to contend with the CNN broadcasts from Baghdad, which, inadvertently, in the course of repeating what they had been told by Iraqi officials, amplified and disseminated the Iraqi propaganda messages very effectively. CNN, in particular, through the Baghdad broadcasts and through the recruitment of an entire phalanx of retired generals to anticipate Schwarzkopf’s battle plan, seemed to many of us to be playing a role that could get a lot of people killed.
I take some pleasure in having insisted with CENTCOM that the Baghdad television and radio broadcast tower and a satellite link be taken down in the first wave of attack, little knowing that CNN had a backup portable satellite transmitter that kept them on the air after they initially went down. That, in effect, led to quite a debate about whether we could legally take out that American-owned portable satellite dish on the grounds of a hotel in Baghdad where the press were. And, of course, we concluded we couldn’t, much to our distress.
There were repeated instances where the press, not having access to all of the facts, or having access only to one side (in this case, the enemy’s side), inadvertently aided and abetted Saddam’s very skillful political warfare….
“The war never really ended”
Q: When you go into a war, you usually want to have a war aim. As you were cranking up and the air war was getting ready, what, from your perspective and General Schwarzkopf’s, was the perception? How was this thing going to end?
FREEMAN: This was a major difficulty. There was an enormous amount of discussion between the embassy and General Schwarzkopf, and, I presume, between General Schwarzkopf and other ambassadors in the region, remembering always that Schwarzkopf had a regional role, and I had a country-specific role. Nevertheless, my embassy being co-located with CENTCOM’s headquarters, I lent my officers to study groups at CENTCOM to plan a post-war order.
But there was enormous frustration here, from the beginning. At about the same time as I argued for what became the second deployment, arguing with the president that he had to make a decision whether he was prepared to use force to eject Iraq from Kuwait or not, I also made the point that the first question you should ask yourself before launching a war is not whether your forces can prevail on the battlefield, but how you propose to end the war, on what terms, negotiated by whom, with whom, and why should the other side regard an end to the fighting, or not cheating on a truce, as preferable to fighting on.
And so I pressed, in a series of communications, for a war termination strategy and also for a statement of war aims. I got no response from Washington, for the reasons I’ve mentioned: namely, the potentially lethal consequences of a leak, with the result that there never was a statement of war aims.
The war aims were the lowest common denominator of UN Security Council resolutions, which were the liberation of Kuwait. To that we managed to add the reduction of the Iraqi Republican Guard and Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to a point where Iraq would not pose an intolerable threat to the region, or, in other words, could be balanced by Iran again.
Schwarzkopf and I were so frustrated at this that, on the eve of the counterattack in the air, I sent in a cable saying that, not having heard anything about war objectives, and having discussed it with General Schwarzkopf, unless instructed otherwise, these are the objectives he is going to pursue, which were what I thought the lowest common denominator was. I never had a response, and that document, in effect, was his operative statement of war objectives.
The more ludicrous development was, at the end of the fighting, at Safwan, when he met with the Iraqi generals, he had no instructions. We tried to get him instructions, he tried to get instructions, but Washington was unable to provide instructions, because they had no vision of what sort of peace they wanted to have follow the war.
Of course, after the war, the absence of such a policy framework led to a fumbling and inadequate and greatly delayed response to both the Shi`a uprising in southern Iraq and the Kurdish uprising in the north. The Kurdish uprising in the north led eventually to a huge flow of refugees into Turkey….
This led to an international response in the form of a protected zone for Iraqi Kurds, a repatriation of the refugees, relief supplies, and reconstruction activities, which were thought of as temporary, but which, in 1996, five and a half years after the end of the fighting in the Gulf, continue to be a semi-permanent feature of the Middle Eastern landscape.
So the absence of war aims, the absence of a war termination strategy, in my view, is the reason why the war never really ended. There was no political negotiation, no request for one. In short, Saddam’s military disgrace was never translated into a political humiliation for him.