PRESIDENT BUSH says that Saddam Hussein miscalculated American policy. But America's tilt toward Iraq may have left the Iraqi dictator believing he could get away with invading Kuwait. This would not be the first time American ambiguity may have contributed to a miscalculation that changed the course of history. In 1950, North Korea may have been led to believe, by a Truman administration policy statement, that South Korea lay outside the American defense perimeter in the Pacific. In 1982, Israel may have come to believe, from conversations with Secretary of State Alexander Haig, that it had a green light from the Reagan administration to invade Lebanon.
The policy of tilting toward Iraq originated in 1983 during its war with Iran, and was intended to avert an Iranian victory. But the policy continued, without reevaluation, for two years after the Iran-Iraq war had ended, leaving Iraq as the dominant military force in the Gulf area.
Saddam Hussein may have wondered why, despite his record of support of terrorism and use of poison gas, he retained American friendship, enjoying agricultural credits and access to American goods, including high-tech materials that helped his weapons development programs.
The tilt seemed still to be in effect on July 25, five days after the CIA reported to the White House that Iraqi mobilization on Kuwait's frontier looked like preparation for invasion. On that day, Saddam received ambassador April Glaspie, who had developed a cordial relationship with him.
According to an Iraqi summary, not challenged by the State Department, the ambassador heard from the Iraqi dictator a veiled, but clear warning that the United States should stay out of his confrontation with Kuwait or face terrorist and other reprisals.
She responded that Secretary of State Baker had instructed her to say the US had no position in the Kuwait dispute and that she was leaving on vacation in five days.
That was not all. Two days before the invasion, the State Department said the US had no obligation to come to Kuwait's aid if attacked. The Bush administration opposed congressional trade sanctions against Iraq. Recently the president said that, at that time, he was still hoping that the Iraqi leader's behavior could be modified.
On Aug. 2, the day of the invasion, Mr. Bush said that American intervention was not on the agenda of the National Security Council.
It has taken a painfully long time to correct the tilt toward Iraq. And in that time, Saddam may have been led into another of history's great miscalculations.