Yglesias and Atrios briefly discuss the failure of US diplomacy prior to the first Gulf War. Atrios wonders if the war could have been avoided, and Yglesias allows that while this is a sensible question, military action in the context of UN approval still made sense.
The question of whether the United States could have sent a clearer signal to Iraq prior to the invasion of Kuwait has never struck me as being all that interesting in a theoretical sense. Diplomatic discussions never take the following form:
Saddam: I’m planning to attack Kuwait. Will the US do anything?
As far as I understand, Saddam hinted that he might take more aggressive action against Kuwait without saying outright that he meant an invasion. The US ambassador didn’t get the hint, and made the very sensible (in this context) reply that the US wasn’t planning to get involved in the dispute. This led to a cascade of misunderstanding that led to Operation Desert Shield. Misunderstandings like this are extraordinarily common, because a) both parties have incentive to be vague and ambiguous, b) both parties often have incentive to deceive, and c) both parties know that the other party has incentive to deceive and be ambiguous. Incidentally, these problems also apply to an effort to send a message of “resolve”, only more so since the incentive to deceive is much higher.
…in comments, Martin suggests that the dialogue might have been quite similar to what I suggested above, and Jim thinks there’s nothing ambiguous about the US position. Let’s assume that the dialogue between Saddam and the US ambassador went exactly as described above, absurd as that may be. The word “attack” is itself ambiguous, because it includes a range of military options from a brief bombardment of Kuwaiti oil facilities to full scale conquest and invasion. Unless Saddam told Glasbie exactly what he was planning, it was hardly unreasonable to assume that Saddam intended limited military action. Now, it could be argued that the United States should have categorically stated that any Iraqi aggression would have been met with a US response, but that position is an inherently unbelievable bluff. Does anyone think that, if Iraq had seized a sliver of Kuwaiti territory, or had confined itself to bombardment, that the US would have assembled an international coalition and taken aggressive military action? Of course we wouldn’t, and the Iraqis would have known we wouldn’t, which would have made the bluff transparent. If she believed that Saddam intended limited military action (and recall that this is what almost everyone believed in 1990), then she was telling the truth; the US would not respond. Indeed, when we take motivated bias into account (Saddam wanted Kuwait, and therefore would have wanted to believe that the US was bluffing), it’s not clear that a categorical statement against Iraqi aggression would have had any effect.
Now, the alternative to either a) telling Saddam that it was a Kuwaiti-Iraqi dispute, or b) telling them that the US would react forcefully to any attack, would be c) delineating clearly for the Iraqis the US response to specific levels of aggression. As this would, essentially, have meant telling Saddam that he could have this much of Kuwait but not this much, or drop this many bombs and not one more, it would hardly have absolved the US of the allegation of promoting Iraqi adventurism. Essentially, we would have been telling Saddam that he could have his sliver of Kuwait and we would do nothing about it. It also might not solve the problem, since the US would still have an incentive to deceive (we would say that we would react to more than we actually would), and the Iraqis would still know that we had an incentive to deceive, and want to believe that we were, indeed, engaging in deception.
Sorry, folks. There’s just nothing here.