The Toyota Land Cruiser had been meticulously packed and wired with enough plastic explosives to make the Oklahoma City truck bomb look like a firecracker by comparison. In early 1993, this was Saddam Hussein’s ultimate secret weapon.
If detonated, it would kill people 400 yards away. It was a conventional weapon perhaps, but a weapon of mass destruction nonetheless.
On April 10, 1993, agents of the Iraqi Intelligence Service handed the keys of this death mobile to a team of specially recruited operatives. On April 13, under cover of darkness, some of these operatives started up the vehicle and began a secret trek across the southern Iraqi desert toward the Kuwaiti frontier.
Their intended target: George Herbert Walker Bush, just-retired President of the United States.
The day before Saddam’s Land Cruiser started creeping toward Kuwait—probably from somewhere near the southern Iraqi city of Basra—a chartered Kuwaiti Airlines 747 had taken off from Ellington Field in Houston, Tex. Its cargo: former President Bush, former First Lady Barbara Bush, presidential son Neil Bush, his wife Sharon, and future First Lady Laura Bush. The plane was scheduled to stop over in Washington, D.C., to pick up former White House Chief of Staff John Sununu and former Secretary of State James Baker.
But now we need to flash back a few months. For the real start to this story is not in April 1993, but in January of that year, during the transition between the Bush and Clinton administrations.
On Jan. 13, 1993, President-elect Clinton signaled he was ready to change U.S. policy toward Iraq. President Bush had insisted he would never lift UN sanctions on Baghdad until Saddam was removed from power. But in an interview with the New York Times, Clinton said he would not insist on Saddam’s removal as a condition for normalizing relations with Iraq. “I am not obsessed with the man,” said Clinton. “I always tell everybody I am a Baptist. I believe in deathbed conversions. If he wants a different relationship with the United States and the United Nations, all he has to do is change his behavior.”
This led to a classic series of Clintonian flips and flops on Iraq policy.
At a press conference on the day the Times published his interview, Clinton claimed the paper had never asked him about normalizing relations with Saddam and that he was “astonished” it had come to the conclusion that he would consider doing so based on his remarks. “There is no difference between my policy and the policy of the present administration,” Clinton said.
Immediately after the press conference, in the face of transcripts showing the Times had specifically asked him about normalizing relations with Iraq, Clinton reversed himself through spokesman George Stephanopoulos. “He inadvertently forgot that he had been asked that specific question about normalization and he regrets denying that it was asked,” said Stephanopoulos.
Yet, that same day in Senate testimony, Secretary of State-designate Warren Christopher seemed to repeat what Clinton had first told the Times. “I thought that the most that could be said was that Gov. Clinton perhaps wanted to keep the feud [between the U.S. and Iraq] from being personalized,” said Christopher.
Two months later, Clinton unambiguously reversed Bush’s policy. In a March 27, 1993, statement Christopher said the administration intended to “depersonalize” the conflict with Iraq. The Washington Post reported Christopher’s remarks in a story headlined: “U.S. Relents on Removal of Saddam.” “The new position,” the Post reported, “is expected to bring the United States and Britain in line with France and Russia, which have not insisted on Saddam’s removal.”
Saddam got the message loud and clear. But he had no intention of reciprocating by “depersonalizing” his relationship with the U.S. The sweet nothings Warren Christopher whispered in his ear would be met with an explosive response.
Which brings us back to April 1993.
On the morning of April 12, the 747 carrying the Bush family to what was anticipated to be a triumphal tour of liberated Kuwait took off from Ellington Field. Half an hour later it turned back. An ominous tear had opened in the left wing. Bush, a Navy pilot whose plane had been shot down in World War II, took the setback with grace and a little bravado. “Who hasn’t been on a plane without some difficulty?” he said. The Kuwaitis, he added, “handled it beautifully.”
The next day, the Bush party took off in another Kuwaiti Airlines 747. This one arrived in Kuwait City, a day late, on April 14.
It may never be known what impact that one-day delay had, if any, on Saddam’s assassination plan.
As Saddam’s explosive-packed Toyota Land Cruiser penetrated Kuwaiti territory on the night of April 13, Kuwaiti authorities intercepted it. They quickly rounded up 16 conspirators. But the Kuwaitis did not immediately inform President Bush, or the U.S. government. In fact, they kept the assassination attempt secret for the duration of Bush’s trip. When the Bush motorcade traveled from the Kuwait airport to the royal palace on April 14, Carlyle Murphy of the Washington Post—apparently unaware of the full significance of her observation—recorded that “security-conscious police had closed the roads to traffic.”
With Bush on hand, and his would-be assassins in custody, the Kuwaiti leadership launched vehement rhetorical attacks on Saddam. At the Kuwaiti parliament, Speaker Ahmad Al-Saadoun declared Iraq a “threat to the stability of Kuwait and the Gulf region as well as the international community.” Saddam, he said, “still harbors evil intentions and treachery.”
The Clinton Administration later briefly balked at Kuwait’s claim that Saddam had tried to assassinate Bush. But a thorough probe by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency, bolstered by detailed confessions from two key Iraqi operatives, sealed the case.
Four years later, the Justice Department Inspector General’s Office released a report (on its investigation of alleged misconduct at the FBI laboratory) that, along with a speech delivered by Madeleine Albright to the United Nations on June 27, 1993, forms the basis of the account delivered here. The report included much to corroborate the confessions of Saddam’s faithless agents.
The FBI and CIA, it turns out, had compared the bomb intended for Bush with two other Iraqi bombs discovered unexploded in other Middle Eastern countries. Although the chemical composition of the plastic explosives in these bombs differed from the Bush bomb, everything else from the remote-control firing devices, to the blasting caps, to the wiring techniques, to the electrical tape suggested a single architect had designed all three.
Clinton’s rhetorical response to Saddam’s attempt to kill Bush—as well as Bush family members, U.S. dignitaries, and hundreds, or even thousands, of innocent Kuwaitis—was forceful. “[T]he Iraqi attack against President Bush was an attack against our country and against all Americans,” he said. But Clinton’s military response was weak. He ordered U.S. warships in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf to fire 23 cruise missiles at a complex of seven buildings in Baghdad that was the headquarters of the Iraqi Intelligence Service.
The missiles were timed to hit at 2:00 on a Sunday morning—when nobody would be there.
The day after the raid, Defense Secretary Les Aspin reiterated the Clinton policy of not “personalizing” the conflict with Iraq. “Getting rid of Saddam Hussein does not automatically solve the problem,” Aspin told CNN. “What we’re looking at is the behavior, and that’s the main test.”
If behavior is indeed the test, Americans must now weigh what Saddam’s attempt to kill President Bush says about his ability to be deterred. The strongest argument against removing Saddam by force is that he has already been deterred and contained by U.S. military in the region, and that the potential unintended consequences of removing him via war are a greater threat to U.S. security than leaving him, deterred and contained, in power.
What Saddam demonstrated in 1993—with the unwitting collaboration of Bill Clinton—is that when he confronts a U.S. President he sees as weak and inconsistent he is fully capable of reckless and murderous acts that justly can be construed as cause for war.
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