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Messaging

[ 55 ] January 4, 2013 |

My latest at the Diplomat talks up, well, diplomacy:

report emerged over the weekend that the United States may have inadvertently green-lit the 1982 Falklands War by sending overly positive signals to the Argentine junta. These signals (based on U.S. appreciation for Argentine anti-communist efforts) may have led the Argentines to believe that the U.S. would support its invasion, or at least not lend significant assistance to the United Kingdom in the ensuing war.

This incident immediately brought to mind the 1990 conversation between Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and U.S. ambassador April Glaspie. In an ambiguous and confusing conversation, Glaspie suggested that “we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait,” a statement which some have argued Hussein interpreted as a green light for invasion.

In both cases the leadership wanted an invasion, and in both cases it wanted to believe that the United States would stand aside.  By simply making neutral comments about the state of affairs, U.S. policymakers may have inadvertently helped convince the leaders of Argentina and Iraq to pursue war.

 

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  1. ajay says:

    These signals (based on U.S. appreciation for Argentine anti-communist efforts) may have led the Argentines to believe that the U.S. would support its invasion, or at least not lend significant assistance to the United Kingdom in the ensuing war.

    They weren’t far wrong. The US tried to persuade the UK, mid-war, to accept a ceasefire – which would in practice have meant a UK withdrawal; you can’t maintain a task force in the South Atlantic in winter indefinitely.
    It also tried to frighten the UK into withdrawing mid-war by warning (falsely) that the Cubans and the Soviets were on the verge of joining in on the Argentinian side.
    And, before the start of the war, the US planned to warn the Argentinians of the approach of the task force and of its plans to retake South Georgia, and was only dissuaded at the last minute.
    It also refused the UK government access to US satellite imagery of the South Atlantic, in breach of a pre-war agreement.

  2. Leeds man says:

    IIRC, The US Ambassador to the UN, Jeane Kirkpatrick, made no secret of her very pro-junta sentiments in the run up to the Falklands War.

    • pete says:

      Which is part of why I sent all my British relatives in early 1982 a missive announcing my imminent internment in Manzanar under a U.S.–Argentine mutual defense treaty. Alas, what I thought was posturing and handbags turned out to be deadly force and my name was mud; again. (But I was safely thousands of miles away from my more rabidly conservative aunts.)

  3. ajay says:

    Would the Argentinian junta have been justified in holding such a belief, anyway? Could any sane observer really believe that the US would undermine its most important allies in order to keep an extremely unpleasant military dictator in power and save him from the humiliation resulting from a military defeat?

    Well, yes.

  4. c u n d gulag says:

    Did they replicate Hymie The Robot from “Get Smart,” and send the copies out to work in diplomatic offices around the world?

    “Give me a hand, Hymie…”
    “Kill the light, Hymie…”
    Predictable results:
    Hymie takes off his robotic hand, and gives it to Maxwell Smart.
    Hymie pulls out a gun, and shoots the nearest lamp.

    ‘We don’t have a dog in that fight, Ambassador Hymie. Battle it out between yourselves.’

    WHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOPS!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. The thing is, it was completely unreasonable for the Saddam government to take Gilespie’s message as a green light, or for the Argentine junta to take the general American support for their anti-communist efforts that way.

    Since when does “We have no opinion on that dispute,” translate to “Go ahead and start a war over it; we won’t mind?”

    And in the Argentine case, there seems to be even less to go on – just a general impression of American friendliness.

    Maybe we need to start including “None of this is meant to suggest our approval for an invasion” disclaimer on all of our diplomatic cables.

    • Murc says:

      Since when does “We have no opinion on that dispute,” translate to “Go ahead and start a war over it; we won’t mind?”

      Well, when you frame it that way, it doesn’t.

      However, “We have no opinion on that dispute” can in many cases reasonably translate as “We don’t care enough about it to commit blood and treasure to intervening one way or another.”

      Frankly, Saddam was kind of justified in thinking we’d just ignore him. A major regional ally invaded a postage-stamp sized country. That… well, that’s the kind of thing we tend to ignore, you know?

      • However, “We have no opinion on that dispute” can in many cases reasonably translate as “We don’t care enough about it to commit blood and treasure to intervening one way or another.”

        I disagree. Not caring about where a border is drawn is quite a bit different from not caring if there is a big old war going on.

        A major regional ally invaded a postage-stamp sized country. That… well, that’s the kind of thing we tend to ignore, you know?

        I disagree with this, too. Invasions and annexations of other countries are a threat to global order in a way that domestic oppression is not. It sets off all kinds of repercussions. Can you think of any examples of the US looking the other way about such an invasion and annexation?

        • ajay says:

          Can you think of any examples of the US looking the other way about such an invasion and annexation?

          East Timor, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Goa… and it’s not as though the US exactly leaped to the aid of the Falkland Islands, either, as I noted above.

          • J. Otto Pohl says:

            To which could be added Western Sahara where like the West Bank and East Timor the US openly supported the occupying power for decades. East Timor is now independent, but none of the others are despite decades of domestic and international opposition by countries other than the US.

          • None of those were pre-existing sovereign states. East Timor’s declaration of independence a few months before the invasion took place while the dispute over its status was ongoing. The West Bank and Gaza were already under the sovereign control of Israel, while Goa was a Portuguese colony.

            These situations are quite a bit different, in their geopolitical implications and the disorder they threaten to produce, from the blatant rejection of the Westphalian order represented by Iraq deciding that it was going to launch an invasion of its long standing, internationally-recognized neighbor in order to annex it.

            • ajay says:

              But all of those arguments imply that the US could reasonably be expected not to care about Argentinian conquest of the Falklands, which weren’t a sovereign state either.

              • We were talking about the Kuwait situation – scroll up and see. Murc claimed that it was reasonable for Saddam to interpret Gilespie’s statement as a green light, because we didn’t usually care about similar situations.

                Changing the subject to the Faulklands, I suppose it might have been less unreasonable for the Argentine government to read such a statement as a green light, but the linked story doesn’t identify any such statement. The Argentines seemed to have interpreted a more general American attitude of friendliness as a green light.

        • Murc says:

          I disagree. Not caring about where a border is drawn is quite a bit different from not caring if there is a big old war going on.

          That would, in fact, translate to caring about the dispute in question. If that’s the case, maybe diplomats shouldn’t tell other countries that they DON’T care. I realize that many people assume being a diplomat is essentially being a professional liar, but they do tend to be taken at their word when acting as a mouthpiece for their country.

          • That would, in fact, translate to caring about the dispute in question.

            No, it would not. I don’t care about whether my neighbor’s tree shades my other neighbor’s yard too much, but I am absolutely opposed to them settling it by shooting at each other. I really don’t think it’s reasonable for you to claim not to see the difference.

            • Murc says:

              I don’t care about whether my neighbor’s tree shades my other neighbor’s yard too much, but I am absolutely opposed to them settling it by shooting at each other.

              Then you do in fact care about the dispute, do you not?

              ‘I don’t care about your goddamn tree’ and ‘I don’t care how you settle it’ are substantively different positions to take.

              • ‘I don’t care about your goddamn tree’ and ‘I don’t care how you settle it’ are substantively different positions to take.

                This is what I’ve been trying to explain to you.

                Gilespie said she didn’t care about the tree. It is nuts to interpret that to mean “I don’t care if you settle it by shooting him.”

                It was nuts for Saddam to interpret it that way, and it is nuts for anyone today to interpret it that way.

                • Murc says:

                  Hmm, is that the case?

                  My understanding has always been that the US in general and Gilespie in particular communicated the later message (‘We don’t really care how you work this out’) rather than the former (‘We don’t care about this issue, as opposed to the dispute over it.’)

                  I could be wrong there, tho.

                • Copied from Wikipedia:

                  One version of the transcript has Glaspie saying:

                  We can see that you have deployed massive numbers of troops in the south. Normally that would be none of our business, but when this happens in the context of your threats against Kuwait, then it would be reasonable for us to be concerned. For this reason, I have received an instruction to ask you, in the spirit of friendship — not confrontation — regarding your intentions: Why are your troops massed so very close to Kuwait’s borders?

                  Later the transcript has Glaspie saying:

                  We have no opinion on your Arab-Arab conflicts, such as your dispute with Kuwait. Secretary Baker has directed me to emphasize the instruction, first given to Iraq in the 1960s, that the Kuwait issue is not associated with America.
                  Another version of the transcript (the one published in The New York Times on 23 September 1990) has Glaspie saying:
                  But we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait. I was in the American Embassy in Kuwait during the late 1960s. The instruction we had during this period was that we should express no opinion on this issue and that the issue is not associated with America. James Baker has directed our official spokesmen to emphasize this instruction. We hope you can solve this problem using any suitable methods via Klibi (Chedli Klibi, Secretary General of the Arab League) or via President Mubarak. All that we hope is that these issues are solved quickly.

                • Murc says:

                  Good lord, if those aren’t mixed signals I don’t know what are.

                  And these were professional diplomats? Christ.

        • Major Kong says:

          Those silly Iraqis!

          Don’t they know you’re supposed to invade the country and then install a puppet government so you can claim to be liberators?

          Do I have to teach these people everything?

          • Actually, what you’re “supposed to do” (for the purposes of this discussion) is make sure you have enough international backing that you know nobody will make a serious effort to stop you, instead of just assuming everyone who might be a problem is cool with it.

      • ajay says:

        A major regional ally invaded a postage-stamp sized country. That… well, that’s the kind of thing we tend to ignore, you know?

        Heh. PJ O’Rourke, back when he was still funny, wrote about witnessing a protest in late 1990 in the Middle East:

        [The protestor is shouting] “When Israel invaded the West Bank, did the US send troops? When Israel invaded the Gaza Strip, did the US send troops? When Israel invaded Lebanon, did the US send troops?”

        Of course, he was being very unfair. We didn’t send troops, but we did send a very great deal of weapons, financial and diplomatic support.
        Albeit we sent it to Israel.

        • That’s really not an equivalent situation, though. The West Bank and Gaza were never sovereign states, and were in fact already under the sovereignty control of Israel. In terms of the precedents it set and the geopolitical consequences, it’s a different animal from a state annexing another state by military force.

    • Hanspeter says:

      Since when does “We have no opinion on that dispute,” translate to “Go ahead and start a war over it; we won’t mind?”

      When that person wants plausible deniability when TSHTF: “We never told him to invade Kuwait/the Falklands, Everyone/GB.”

      • Nope. Even then, saying you have no opinion on the substantive question behind a dispute is not the same thing as giving someone a green light to invade their neighbor.

        • Hanspeter says:

          The issue isn’t whether or not your’re giving the green light, either explicitly or with deniability in mind. It is whether Argentina or Iraq thought that the US was saying ‘go ahead’. They really wanted the Falklands and Kuwait. When the US said ‘no opinion’, they heard ‘go ahead, [but we might deny we said yes].’

          • Hanspeter says:

            And I see that anonymous below has brought up this same point.

          • The issue isn’t whether or not your’re giving the green light, either explicitly or with deniability in mind. It is whether Argentina or Iraq thought that the US was saying ‘go ahead’.

            Actually, the issue is whether it was reasonable for them to do so, and something we should have expected.

            Nobody is disputing that they did so; they sure did! The issue is, is that a foreseeable outcome?

            The United States is friendly with Turkey, and we appreciate their anti-al Qaeda efforts. It would still be nuts for them to interpret that as a green light to invade Armenia – which would be equivalent to Argentina thinking our cooperation on anti-communist efforts amounts to a green light to seize the Faulklands.

  6. Bitter Scribe says:

    What I mostly remember about the Falklands War is the petulant confusion of the National Review (and, presumably, other wingnuts) who revered both Thatcher and the anti-communist stalwart who ruled Argentina (Garibaldi or something like that–don’t feel like looking it up).

    As for the subject of this post, I think this guy is overestimating the influence of the U.S. on decisions like this.

    • njorl says:

      I think this guy is overestimating the influence of the U.S. on decisions like this.

      Maybe with respect to Argentina, but not Iraq.

      Had the US stated, “If you invade, we will oppose you militarily.”, the invasion would not have taken place.

      The problem is, making such a statement when an invasion is not necessarily about to happen is belligerent, so one avoids making it.

      • Had the US stated, “If you invade, we will oppose you militarily.”, the invasion would not have taken place.

        But was there any reason to think such a statement was necessary?

        There are border disputes all over the world, and countries trying to win our support, or at least forestall our opposition, to their political efforts to settle those disputes in a favorable manner. The vast, vast majority of them do not launch an all-out invasion of their neighbor.

    • Leeds man says:

      Garibaldi or something like that

      That was Babylon 5. You mean Galtieri.

  7. Phoenix_rising says:

    I was taught that the 1990 invasion of Kuwait was caused by the US ambassador’s internal gonads. Are you saying that’s incorrect? Hmmph.

    • Matt McKeon says:

      I’ve heard it argued that the Argentine junta’s decision making was influenced that the fact the British PM had “internal gonads.”

      But they read that one wrong too.

  8. Anonymous says:

    “may have inadvertently helped convince the leaders of Argentina and Iraq to pursue war.”

    I would put it that “we may have inadvertently helped the leaders of Argentina and Iraq _convince themselves_ to pursue war.”

  9. ajay says:

    It seems fairly unarguable that, if the UK had decided not to try to take the Falklands back, the US would have been entirely unconcerned about the Argentinian action.

  10. chip says:

    interestingly, according to reports at the time, the Yugoslav Army thought it had received very similar signals from the US re: use of force to keep Yugoslavia together in 1991. Then-ambassador Zimmerman strenuously denied this when asked about it several years later, but that would be no surprise as it was either a) intentional and of course the US would want to deny this; or b) it was inadvertant/unintended.

  11. Major Kong says:

    Wars tend to happen when countries misread each others intentions.

    I suspect that we believed Iraq had limited aims in Kuwait. We may have thought that they would grab some oilfields and call it a day.

    We probably didn’t realize that they wanted the whole thing.

  12. RAM says:

    The problem here seems to be that we really DID have opinions on both of those situations as subsequent actions showed. Give an absolute dictator an inch and he’ll take a mile as we should have learned with Chamberlain and Hitler and Stalin and Hitler and Poland. Seems to me there’s also a sometimes fatal difference between being diplomatic and telling an outright lie.

  13. herr doktor bimler says:

    Turkey was mentioned upstream as a US ally but no-one has mentioned the Turkish invasion and partial annexation of Cyprus as a precedent. IIRC the US was in favour of a unified Greek-ruled Cyprus in the bridgehead phase of the invasion when Greece was ruled by a fascist junta and therefore a US ally; but when that was replaced by civilians, Kissinger switched to supporting Turkey in the invasion proper and subsequent ethnic cleansing.

  14. Unsympathetic says:

    This seems to be about the willingness of the listener to verify that they understand the American ambassador clearly.

    When an ambassador opens his mouth, those words can be viewed as supporting whatever the person listening to the ambassador wants to hear.. and that’s not the ambassador’s fault.

    If I decide that my evening dinner guest was factually correct that I do, in fact, make the best Thai curry ever to grace the earth — that doesn’t mean Gordon Ramsay has competition. It means that my ego heard what I wanted to hear!

    Similarly, the ambassador could have been commenting that they support Tums in the eternal fight against heartburn — not that bombing the falklands is a good idea.

  15. Bernard says:

    yes amazing to see what happened to Cyprus. how the Turks took over/invaded. history.

  16. A says:

    Even if the US supported [Argentina |Iraq| Israel Indonesia |...] to invade/occupy [Falkland Islands | Kuwait | Gaza, West Bank |East Timor | ...] the U.S. spokesperson would never want to go out and say so, but would rather, diplomatically, say something like “No opinion on your quarrel”. So a listener cannot possibly distinguish hidden encouragement from presumed ‘diplomatic’ speech, as no speaker wants to be seen actually encouraging invasions/occupations.–
    So “We have no opinion on that dispute,” does translate to “Go ahead and start a war over it; we won’t mind,” as the latter never can be openly said. Anything else does need an explicit qualifier, which is “…as long as you resolve it by peaceful means / negotiations, which we support /….” Without this qualifier, support of all means is implied.
    Perhaps some American diplomats are not so well-schooled any more in underhanded statements. You can be diplomatically vague and still clear on what you mean.

    (Another example: The removal from office of the former president of South Viet Nam, Ngo Dinh Diem, e.g. was triggered by a bland statement from the U.S. ambassador saying that the US would support any South Vietnamese government continuing the fight against communism, to generals contemplating a putsch. The US ambassador did know what his statement implied. It would have been impolite to say “Just get rid of him,” and would look bad to other governments supported by the U.S. Then, when Diem was killed, the U.S. government claimed to be shocked and feel sorrow, but indeed it supported the next SVN government. )

    • J. Otto Pohl says:

      This happened in Ghana as well with the overthrow of Nkrumah on 24 February 1966. There is no direct order calling for the CIA to assist the military in his overthrow. But, instead we have lots of references to how it would be desirable that Nkrumah be replaced and how the US should keep political and economic pressure on Nkrumah.

      On 27 May 1957 a memo from Robert W. Komer of NSC to Bundy sums up.

      “FYI, we may have a pro-Western coup in Ghana soon. Certain key military and police figures have been planning one for some time, and Ghana’s deteriorating economic condition may provide the spark.”

      “The plotters are keeping us briefed, and State thinks we’re more on the inside than the British. While we’re not directly involved (I’m told), we and other Western countries (including France) have been helping to set up the situation by ignoring Nkrumah’s pleas for economic aid.”

      Reproduced in Socialist Forum of Ghana, The Great Deception (Accra, 2005), p. 70.

      The US of course immediately gave generous aid which it had been denying to Nkrumah to the new military junta that replaced him. I believe the technique is called “plausible deniability.” Although in the case of Ghana there are so many memos like this that the case seems pretty clear to me.

  17. Henry II, King of England says:

    Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?

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