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“The cup of forbearance has been exhausted.”
–President James K. Polk, 1846
“This business about, you know, more time, how much time do we need to see clearly that he’s not disarming? As I said, this looks like a rerun of a bad movie and I’m not interested in watching it.”
–President-Select George W. Bush, 2003
When it comes to running out of patience, Dubya Bush is no K. Polk.
When Polk was elected in 1844, he had every intention of creating a pretext to stir Americans into action against Mexico. One of the issues of the 1844 election was the annexation or Texas-or “reannexation,” as Polk called it. Apparently, no one bothered to remind him that Texas was not part of the original Louisiana Purchase. When Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, the territory of Texas (along with what are now New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, California, and part of Colorado) was Mexican territory. Fifteen years later, Texas claimed its independence as the Lone Star Republic. In Washington, it was viewed as U.S. property. “Even before Polk’s inauguration, Congress adopted a joint resolution on his proposal to annex Texas,” explains historian Kenneth C. Davis. “When Mexico heard of this action in March 1845, it severed diplomatic relations with the United States.” Undeterred, Polk sent an ambassador, James Slidell, to negotiate a purchase of Texas and California. Slidell was rebuffed. Polk took a new tack and ordered General Zachary Taylor to lead his troops all the way to the Rio Grande, thus testing the defined borders. “Mexico claimed that the boundary was the Nueces River, northeast of the Rio Grande, and considered the advance of Taylor’s troops an act of aggression,” says Davis. Colonel Ethan Allen Hitchcock, commander of the 3rd Infantry Regiment, said of this move, “It looks as if the government sent a small force on purpose to bring on a war, so as to have a pretext for taking California and as much of this country as it chooses.” The pretext arrived on cue when Polk ordered Taylor and his 3500-member “Army of observation” to cross the Rio Grande. Taylor’s quartermaster, Colonel Cross went missing, his body found eleven days later with his skull crushed. The day after Cross’ high-profile public funeral, a patrol of Taylor’s soldiers was attacked by Mexicans. Sixteen were killed. Taylor sent a dispatch to Polk: “Hostilities may now be considered as commenced.” Declaring “the cup of forbearance” to have been exhausted, Polk announced to Congress, “War exists.” “An agreeable Democratic majority in the House and Senate quickly voted-with little dissent from the Whig opposition-to expand the army by an additional 50,000 men. America’s most naked war of territorial aggression was under way,” Davis explains.
The peace-loving American nation had been goaded and now had no choice but to grudgingly commence what Ulysses S. Grant later called “one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.”
Speaking of unjust wars waged by the strong on the weak, Saddam Hussein has some experience with diplomatic impatience. On July 25, 1990, Hussein entertained a guest at the Presidential Palace in Baghdad, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie, who told the Iraqi dictator: “I have direct instructions from President Bush to improve our relations with Iraq. We have considerable sympathy for your quest for higher oil prices, the immediate cause of your confrontation with Kuwait.” Glaspie then asked, point blank: “Why are your troops massed so very close to Kuwait’s borders?”
“As you know, for years now I have made every effort to reach a settlement on our dispute with Kuwait,” replied Hussein, deploying his own rendition of U.S. spin. “There is to be a meeting in two days; I am prepared to give negotiations only this one more brief chance.”
Do Ari Fleischer and Saddam Hussein share a speechwriter? On March 10, 2003, when discussing yet another unjust war waged by the strong on the weak, Fleischer told the press: “There is room for diplomacy here. Not much room and not much time.” Back at the Iraqi presidential palace, when asked by Glaspie what solutions would be acceptable,” Hussein was forthright: “If we could keep the whole of the Shatt al Arab-our strategic goal in our war with Iran-we will make concessions. But, if we are forced to choose between keeping half of the Shatt and the whole of Iraq [MZ: Hussein views Kuwait as part of Iraq] then we will give up all of the Shatt to defend our claims on Kuwait to keep the whole of Iraq in the shape we wish it to be. What is the United States’ opinion on this?” “We have no opinion on your Arab-Arab conflicts, such as your dispute with Kuwait,” Glaspie answered. “Secretary [of State James] Baker has directed me to emphasize the instruction, first given to Iraq in the 1960’s that the Kuwait issue is not associated with America.”
Eight days later, Iraq invaded Kuwait and provided President George H.W. Bush with his own cup of forbearance.
When will WE run out of patience with the same re-runs?
MICKEY Z. is the author of The Murdering of My Years: Artists and Activists Making Ends Meet and an editor at Wide Angle. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.