Duty and Danger: An American Diplomat’s Service in Iraq on the Eve of 1991 Gulf War
American diplomat Stephen Thibeault watched as an airplane departed Iraq in 1990, carrying Rev. Jesse Jackson and American hostages liberated in the tense days following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait — and before the U.S. launched Operation Desert Storm, the United Nations campaign that ultimately routed Saddam Hussein’s forces. Thibeault was tempted to fly away with the hostages, but chose to remain and help other Americans in danger. “It was the equivalent of being in a fire,” Thibeault recalled in his ADST oral history. “You can quit the fire department when the fire is over; you can quit the Foreign Service when the crisis is over.”
On August 2, 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, quickly defeating that country’s military forces. Iraq then annexed Kuwait, claiming that it was a part of Iraq. The United Nations Security Council unanimously condemned Iraq’s actions and demanded an immediate and unconditional withdrawal. The Council also imposed tough sanctions and other measures, prompting Iraq to detain and hold hostage large numbers of U.S. and western citizens working in the country. Officers at the U.S. Embassy struggled to keep pace with unfolding events, helping U.S. citizens and others avoid becoming hostages and find ways out of the country. Stephen Thibeault played an important role in those efforts — and in briefing an international press corps hungry for information.
After Iraq, Stephen Thibeault served as public affairs officer in Thailand and information officer in Jordan. He also worked in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research in the Media Reaction Office.
Stephen Thibeault was interviewed by Daniel F. Whitman on October 8, 2007.
Read Stephen Thibeault’s full oral history HERE.
Drafted by Randy Huang
“This was the most tense I have ever been in my life.”
Helping U.S. Citizens Avoid Iraqi Detention on the Eve of War: I received a call from a man named John Thompson, who was working with some Iraqi ministry. He called and he said, again, the people from the Interior Ministry were there at his job and he was supposed to go with them. And so I got directions to his office and I arrived there and confronted his boss and said, “Has this man violated the law?” and he said, “No, no, no.” I said, “Well, can he go home?” and he said, “No, they want to keep him here. He needs to stay here.” I said, “Well, I’m from the embassy; if he has done anything to violate the law, you need to deal with me, you need to explain it to me.” Again, his boss was in a very tight situation; you could see that he was under pressure. I didn’t see the people from the Interior Ministry, but they were there and they were looking for John Thompson.
…. And then he asked, “Well, why are you doing this?” and I answered, “Because I represent American citizens.” This was the most tense I have ever been in my life. I was kind of browbeating them. I took Thompson to the window and said to him, “The white van, that’s our van. If they let you leave this building, you go to that van and we’ll take you to the ambassador’s residence. And that’s eventually what happened. Eventually we talked them into releasing this guy. We took him to his house; we took his personal possessions. We loaded them up and we took him to the ambassador’s residence.
“It was the equivalent of being in a fire. You can quit the fire department when the fire is over; you can quit the Foreign Service when the crisis is over.”
“So I didn’t get on that plane with Jesse Jackson”: One thing I haven’t said at this point, and it was one thing I could not tell my wife on the phone, was that I could not envision how I was getting out of Iraq. . . . And, with the fact that we were protecting 82 American citizens at the ambassador’s residence, I could not envision how it was we were supposed to leave this country.
. . . Jesse Jackson came to visit during this period. He came to the embassy and he said, “What can I do?” So . . . he was told that we had a list of Americans with serious medical conditions whom we knew were in Iraqi custody and if he could get those people released, then that would be a good achievement, because then we’d know that these people were no longer being held hostage. So, Jackson had his meetings with the Iraqis and, indeed, they offered to let him take a certain number of hostages.
. . . So we go to the airport with Jesse Jackson . . . [W]e go through customs; we go to the gangway down into the plane; and the hostages go, and Jesse Jackson; and I realize I’m on the other side of customs . . . I was so tempted to get on that plane. I knew I couldn’t do it. But I thought, “If I get on this plane, I’m outta here.” . . . At this point, I should tell you . . . I spoke to my wife every day on the phone and she would say, “When are you coming home?” And I would tell her I was due for R&R in February, or something like that. But it was the equivalent of being in a fire. You can quit the fire department when the fire is over; you can quit the Foreign Service when the crisis is over. So I didn’t get on that plane with Jesse Jackson.
“At the very beginning of November, Joe Wilson called me in one day and said, ‘When can you be ready to leave?’ and I said, ‘Tomorrow.’”
Leaving Iraq: At the very beginning of November, [charge d’affaires] Joe Wilson called me in one day and said, “When can you be ready to leave?” and I said, “Tomorrow.” It wasn’t quite possible to leave ‘tomorrow,’ because of the paperwork and stuff, but it was within a couple of days.
There is something that may or may not be a coincidence. There were stories that mentioned me or featured me in The Washington Post and The New York Times that were not too long apart, maybe a week or two weeks or something like that. The journalists who were covering the embassy had a dilemma in that they couldn’t speak to any of the American diplomats, because we were all under the Foreign Service discipline, meaning you don’t speak to the press without clearance from the public affairs officers. So the press couldn’t interview those folks and that left them only the public affairs officer and Joe Wilson. And, so, there were a couple of stories about me in the media and lo and behold I was asked when I could leave the country. So there may be some relation between my getting publicity and getting out of the country. I don’t know about that. We had a party at my house the night before I left. It was just one of those other-worldly events. I mean, it was no different from a million parties with people drinking. But, the fact that the international media and film crews were there. It was what they were doing that night. There were people that we were protecting at the ambassador’s residence. It was just so bizarre to mix with these folks in my house in Baghdad, knowing that I was leaving the next day.
“So my experience in Iraq was very valuable, personally, to me to be able to serve one’s country in a very tight situation.”
Reflections on Duty: In the Foreign Service, you are “worldwide available,” which means that you are willing to serve in any country in the world. There’s another promise you make and that promise is to serve in any capacity, any diplomatic capacity anywhere in the world and as long as I was under that obligation, I don’t think I thought about what my situation had actually been in Iraq . . . My experience in Iraq was a chance for me to be in harm’s way for the sake of my country. So my experience in Iraq was very valuable, personally, to me to be able to serve one’s country in a very tight situation.
TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS
BA in Speech-Theater, Bates College 1969-1972
MA in Investigative Reporting, Boston University School of Publication 1972-1973
Entered the Foreign Service 1985
Cairo, Egypt, U.S. Information Agency Junior Officer 1986-1989
Baghdad, Iraq, Assistant Public Affairs Officer 1989-1990
Chiang Mai, Thailand, Branch Public Affairs Officer 1992-1996
Amman, Jordan, Information Officer 1996-1999