I have always sympathised with diplomats and intelligence agents unfairly pilloried for failing to foresee that a country, about which they claim expert knowledge, is going to commit some act of stupidity much against its own interests.
Twenty years ago there was a witch-hunt in Washington over why nobody had forecast that Saddam Hussein would invade and occupy Kuwait. A chief casualty of this was April Glaspie, the US ambassador in Baghdad, who had met for two hours with the Iraqi leader on 25 July 1990, a week before the invasion. During this meeting she was alleged to have "given a green light for the invasion" or at least not made clear that the US would use military force to reverse an Iraqi takeover of Kuwait.
Transcripts of varying levels of credibility have been released over the years, but this week WikiLeaks published Glaspie's cable to the US State Department reporting her discussion with Saddam. What comes shining through is that the Iraqi leader never made clear that he was thinking of annexing the emirate as Iraq's 19th province. Notorious though he was for his bloodcurdling and exaggerated threats, for once he was not threatening enough. Everybody suspected he was conducting a heavy-handed diplomatic offensive to squeeze concessions, financial and possibly territorial, out of the Kuwaitis. Almost nobody predicted a full-scale invasion and occupation of Kuwait, in large part because this was an amazingly foolish move by Saddam, bound to provoke a backlash far beyond Iraq's power to resist.
History is full of examples of experts being dumbfounded by countries acting contrary to their own best interests. Stalin is often denigrated for disbelieving Soviet spies who told him that the German army was going to invade the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. No doubt his paranoid suspicion that Britain was trying to lure him into a war with Hitler played a role. But another factor was that Stalin simply did not believe that Hitler would commit such a gross error as attacking him before finishing off Britain and thus start a war on two fronts, something that the Nazi regime had previously taken great pains to avoid.
A more recent example of a country's leaders blindly shooting themselves in the foot was the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006. I had been spending a lot of time in Iraq and was in Jordan when it happened. I had seen repeated Israeli incursions into Lebanon fail bloodily in the years since 1978. I could not believe the Israeli military were once again going to try their old discredited tactic of mass bombardment and limited ground assault in a bid to intimidate the world's toughest guerrillas.
Israelis tend to be more cynical about the abilities of their own military commanders than the rest of the world and, looking at the Israeli chief of staff on television, I thought of the old Israeli saying: "He was so stupid that even the other generals noticed." Even so, I could not rid myself of the idea that the Israelis must have something new up their sleeve. I was quite wrong and the war was a humiliating failure for Israel.
In Saddam's case it would be wrong to think of him as a stupid, though he had an exaggerated idea of his own abilities and place in history. He was a cunning, ruthless man who knew everything about Iraqi politics and how to manipulate or eliminate his rivals. Outside Iraq he was far less sure-footed, having spent little time abroad, and disastrously overplayed his hand by invading Iran in 1980 and Kuwait 10 years later.
He could be advised but only up to a point. A Soviet diplomat who knew him well told me: "The only safe position if you are one of the other Iraqi leaders is to be 10 per cent tougher than the boss." In his discussion with April Glaspie, he comes across as hyper-sensitive to foreign media criticism and prone to see actions contrary to his interests as part of a giant conspiracy against him.
Given that the famous cable reveals nothing very damaging to the US or April Glaspie, why did the State Department keep her and her messages to Washington under wraps for so long? This inevitably generated a widespread belief that such secrecy must mean that the US government had something to hide. The real explanation was probably that, once Saddam and Iraq were being demonised after the invasion of Kuwait, the State Department thought that the publication of a polite and non-committal conversation between the US ambassador in Baghdad and Saddam would look like weak-kneed encouragement to the aggressor.
It is a problem for journalists that states often launch cover-ups even when they have nothing very grisly to conceal. This is partly because the local police chiefs or middle-ranking security men may strongly suspect that their leaders have been up to no good but do not want to find out about it.
In 1999, for instance, I arrived in Moscow just after a series of devastating bomb explosions there and in other cities that had killed 300 civilians. These atrocities led to the second Chechen war and enabled Vladimir Putin to get a grip on power which he has never since relinquished.
It was widely suspected by Russians at all levels that that the Kremlin had a hand in these highly convenient attacks. There were undoubted signs of a cover-up by the police which journalists latched on to as a sign of government involvement. But Russian security men may have been concealing or destroying evidence because no local police chief wanted to risk his job by appearing too eager to investigate his own bosses. The Chechen rebels were quite stupid enough to carry out on the bombings themselves and thereby provide the Kremlin with an excuse to renew the war.
Experts, whether they are assessing the stability of the Soviet Union or the likelihood of Saddam invading Kuwait, are always in danger of being proved wrong because their expertise is based largely on precedent. The way people have behaved before is generally a good guide to how they will behave in future. But what can be foreseen can also be averted, and turning points in history therefore tend to happen by surprise. Diplomats, academics and journalists who had claimed to know what was happening in the Soviet Union or Iraq end up with a humiliating amount of egg on their faces.
The April Glaspie cable reveals little that was not known before. She did not tell Saddam not to invade Kuwait because neither she nor anybody else thought he would be stupid enough to do so.
The criminal error of the US, Britain, the Arab states and much of the rest of the world in dealing with Saddam before the invasion has never in fact been a secret. They were so eager to prevent him being defeated by Iran, which he had invaded, that they helped him become the greatest military power in the Gulf. They allowed him to use poison gas against Iran and winked at his slaughter of 180,000 Kurdish civilians. If he was a monster they created him.