Iron Lady

I saw the Iraqi President Hussein patting the children of his hostages on the head. – President Vaclav Havel at the United Nations World Summit for Children

Twenty years ago today, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher met President George Bush at the UNICEF summit that opened the United Nations General Assembly.  Saddam Hussein’s dangerous escalation of violence in the Middle East, with his invasion of Kuwait during the previous month, was an issue that demanded constant attention, helping to explain the prime minister’s feelings about her visit to the UN. “The only high point was an inspiring speech from President Havel of Czechoslovakia,” said Thatcher.

The problem was deciding how to pressure Saddam in negotiations for him to withdraw from Kuwait. Some thought that it was necessary for Britain and the United States to obtain another resolution from the UN Security Council to justify the possible use of force. Not only did Thatcher believe it necessary to avoid being provoked into a military response on Saddam’s terms. She argued that there was sufficient reason to threaten action in negotiations. “I felt that the Security Council Resolution which had already been passed,” the prime minister said, “combined with our ability to invoke Article 51 of the UN Charter on self-defence, was sufficient.”

Thatcher’s leadership in negotiations helped to ensure a speedy victory over Iraqi forces in the subsequent military campaign. She established conditions for victory first – never telling Saddam what would be done in response to his challenge, nor letting him underestimate her resolve. Her example is in stark contrast to Barack Obama declaring to the world that American troops will go wobbly.


Vaclav Havel, The Art of the Impossible: Politics as Morality in Practice (New York: Knopf, 1997).

Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years (New York: HarperCollins, 1993).

George Bush and Brent Scowcroft, A World Transformed (New York: Knopf, 1998).