The Forgotten Warnings of Saddam Hussein

Seventeen years ago Saddam Hussein summoned now-infamous U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie to a “cordial, reasonable, and even warm” meeting where he conveyed a “message of friendship” to then-President George H.W. Bush. While this two hour conference is best known for the alleged green light for the Kuwait invasion that Glaspie signaled to Hussein (“But we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait.”), the Iraqi government transcript of that meeting obtained by The New York Times two months later contains warnings that went unheeded by Bush and Clinton administrations alike. [It bears noting that critics of the “green light theory” argue Glaspie’s official account differs from the Iraqi transcript in some respects. However, these differences are limited to Glaspie’s words, not Hussein’s.]

In the section of the transcript labeled “Protecting the Oil Flow,” Hussein essentially predicts the September 11 attacks, stating:

“If you use pressure, we will deploy pressure and force. We know that you can harm us although we do not threaten you. But we too can harm you. Everyone can cause harm according to their ability and their size. We cannot come all the way to you in the United States, but individual Arabs may reach you.”

Strangely enough, a simple Google search of the phrase “individual Arabs may reach you” only returns 51 distinct entries (compare to “you can’t handle the truth” with 805 and “Saddam Insane” with 558), which begs the question why a post-9/11 George W. Bush desperate for a link between 9/11 and Saddam Hussein doesn’t carry a laminated version of the quote around in his wallet like Bob Costas with a Mickey Mantle baseball card.

What distinguishes this Hussein warning from a Hussein threat is the substitution of the word “Arabs” for “Iraqis.” As a Ba’athist Pan-Arabist, Hussein correctly predicted that even if the leaders of Arab countries could not be counted on to challenge U.S. meddling (8 Arab countries joined the Desert Storm coalition) there were bound to be some individual Arabs who would take matters into their own hands.

Besides rightly predicting the level of absurdity to which some in the U.S. would stoop with regards to Iraqi militaristic intent (“I am afraid that one day you will say, ‘You are going to make gunpowder out of wheat.'”), Hussein plainly warned the ambassador what to expect from a shattered Iraq without its former relatively successful standard of living:

“You can come to Iraq with aircraft and missiles but do not push us to the point where we cease to care. And when we feel that you want to injure our pride and take away the Iraqis’ chance of a high standard of living, then we will cease to care and death will be the choice for us. Then we would not care if you fired 100 missiles for each missile we fired. Because without pride life would have no value.”

This statement is clearly different from mother-of-all-battles-style boasting; it is a matter-of-fact warning about what will happen to an Iraqi public devoid of hope. The date was July 25, 1990: George W. Bush was busy picking his nose while watching Texas Ranger Nolan Ryan’s 300th victory (actually on July 30, 1990 but close enough) and few of the toddlers who would someday grow up to patrol Baghdad streets in digital desert camo were old enough to dress themselves. Somehow the grown folks missed the message and the myth of the shower of rose petals was eventually born.

However, Hussein’s most chilling insights were turned toward the American psyche, as he said:

“But you know you are not the ones who protected your friends during the [1980-1988] war with Iran. I assure you, had the Iranians overrun the region, the American troops would not have stopped them, except by the use of nuclear weapons.”

“I do not belittle you. But I hold this view by looking at the geography and nature of American society into account. Yours is a society which cannot accept 10,000 dead in one battle.”

A simple assessment, shared by every U.S. politician who leaves all options “on the table,” and a bleak outlook for those in 2007 who think a pre-emptive nuclear strike might just be a bad idea. Turning the Saddam Husseins and Mahmoud Ahmadinejads of the world into cartoonish supervillains may make for good propaganda, but it comes with a heavy price, as future warnings are similarly likely to be ignored. For example, the open letter from the Iranian President to the American people shortly after the November 2006 elections contains another warning that the “rollaway-bed and pizza” crowd might want to consider:

“But if the approach [to the Iraq occupation] remains the same, it would not be unexpected that the American people would similarly reject the new electoral winners, although the recent elections, rather than reflecting a victory, in reality point to the failure of the current administration’s policies.”

That is one warning we can all agree on.

JAY BARR is an attorney practicing in central Illinois. Email him at