There’s a certain irony to British Prime Minister David
Cameron’s decision—dictated by the British Parliament and public—not to join
President Obama’s coalition of the willing.
Though the American President may still order an attack on Syria
in retaliation for the horrific chemical attack last week, Cameron’s surprise move has at least slowed
Obama’s militant momentum.
What’s ironic about this situation is that, 23 years ago, it
was another British Prime Minister—Margaret Thatcher—who played a major role in
the disastrous decision of another American President—George H.W. Bush--to deploy
hundreds of thousands of American troops to the Gulf after Saddam Hussein
Common to both of those fateful events was the failure of
American presidents to establish and maintain a clear policy line. And their ultimate
resolve to maintain the image of U.S. power.
In August 2012, Barack Obama seemed intent on clearly warning
Bashar al-Assad that the U.S. would act if the Syrian dictator unleashed his
chemical weapons. In fact, as I blogged yesterday,
Obama’s warning was far from clear, nor well thought out.
Furthermore, according to the British, since that warning, Assad’s
forces have used chemical weapons several times in smaller doses, with only the
most tepid reaction from Obama. So
what was Obama’s policy?
There was a
similar question of American resolve in1990, as Saddam Hussein grew more belligerent
in negotiations with Kuwait. To ascertain how the U.S. would react if he were
to invade his Gulf neighbor. Saddam called in American Ambassadress April Glaspie,
who told him quite clearly, “We
have no opinion on your Arab-Arab conflicts, such as your dispute with Kuwait.
Secretary [of State James] Baker has directed me to emphasize the instruction,
first given to Iraq in the 1960s, that the Kuwait issue is not associated with
Later, Glaspie would take the fall
for making Saddam think the U.S. had given him the green light. In fact,
though, as I wrote in my history of that period, ‘Web of Deceit”, Glaspie was
only one of several top American officials who declared publicly that the U.S. had
no defense pact with Kuwait and would not react militarily to an invasion.
Indeed, according to a former
top official in Iraq’s foreign ministry, the person most responsible for
giving that benign impression to Saddam was President George H.W. Bush himself,
who had written a letter on July 27th to the Iraqi dictator- a
letter so bland and conciliatory--that Paul Wolfowitz, attempted—unsuccessfully--to
have it cancelled.
Congressman Lee Hamilton, former chairman of the House International
Relations Committee told me in a documentary
I did on the subject, , ‘Saddam Hussein looked on Kuwait as if it were a
province of Iraq. He was looking for an excuse to go in, and I think he did not
understand clearly, unambiguously that the United States would oppose any
effort by Iraq to move into Kuwait. We did not draw a firm line in the sand.
It’s not difficult. What is clear to me is at the highest levels of the U.S.
government we did not convey strongly and clearly to Saddam Hussein that we
would react militarily if he went across that border.”
Incredibly, however, during the same period, General Norman
Schwartzkopf, then American
commander for the Gulf region, was urging Kuwaiti officials not to back down in
their negotiations with Saddam.
The U.S., he said, would support them. As the New Yorker’s Milton Viorst later wrote. “I
was convinced in the spring of 1990, the Kuwaiti government felt itself free to
take a dangerous position in confronting Iraq…the Kuwaitis played their tricks
because Washington, deliberately or not, had conveyed the message to them that
Indeed, Saddam’ August 2 invasion caught President Bush
flat-footed. He scrambled for some kind of response. Though he condemned the
invasion, the president told a reporter “We’re not discussing intervention.”
One of the key leaders who urged Bush to react--convincing him
that military force was required--was British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher,
who met Bush on August 2nd at a conference at Aspen.
According to Bob Woodward’s account, Thatcher took Bush by
the arm, “You must know, George, he’s not going to stop.” She said, referring
to the possibility that Saudi Arabia would be Saddam’s next target.
Saddam, she insisted, had to be expelled from Kuwait, his
threat permanently destroyed.
Bush’s subsequent decision--to deploy hundreds of thousands of
American troops to the Gulf--was probably the most disastrous decision that any
American leader ever took.
It would ultimately lead to the death of hundreds of
thousands of Iraqis, the rise of Osama Bin Laden, the attacks of 9/11, the
invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and, it could be argued, at least partially
continues to fuel the on-going turmoil across the region—including the tragic
situation in Syria.
Along that sorry way, another British Prime Minister, Tony
Blair, was the major foreign cheerleader for the President George W. Bush’s invasion
This time around, however, under the wary eye of Parliament
and the British public, the British Prime Minister is bowing out.