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You’ll all remember the story of hapless April Glaspie, often blamed — unfairly, in my view — for the First Gulf War. She was accused of giving Saddam Hussein the very mistaken impression that the United States would remain neutral should he invade Kuwait. The transcripts of the meeting vary in their particulars, but according to The New York Times, this is what she told him:
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.
When journalists later confronted her with this transcript, she said, “Obviously, I didn’t think, and nobody else did, that the Iraqis were going to take all of Kuwait.” As I said, in my view she’s been unfairly scapegoated. In the transcript, she’s clearly referring to his “border disagreement” and reiterating the message American diplomats had given Iraq about that disagreement since the late 1960s. No sane interlocutor could understand her to mean, “We’d be just fine with it if you moved your border to the other side of Kuwait.”
But if you have the benefit of perfect hindsight, you can see that better signalling might have averted a bloody war, one whose consequences the world is still acutely suffering. Had she known he planned to invade Kuwait and what would ultimately ensue from this, she might have said, “If you invade Kuwait, you will perish and your country will face utter destruction and immiseration for generations.” But she didn’t know.
Nonetheless, this incident is usually used as the textbook example of the principle that in matters of war, signalling counts. Another textbook example — and here, I think, the charge is more fair — is Britain’s failure to signal its commitment to the Falklands prior to Argentina’s invasion. No one invades the sovereign territory of a nuclear power unless he believes that territory just isn’t all that important to them. As I wrote in There is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher matters:
That the low-simmering Falklands dispute became candescent offers a pointed lesson about the importance of unambiguous signalling as a deterrent to war. Prior to the invasion, the British government appeared to be telegraphing a certain indifference to the islands’ fate. In 1981, facing the severe budgetary constraints imposed by Thatcher’s insistence upon reducing public sector spending, Defense Minister John Nott recommended the withdrawal from the area of the Antarctic supply vessel Endurance, the symbol of Britain’s commitment to the Atlantic. Judging a massive conventional naval conflict unlikely in the coming decades, he also proposed — with Thatcher’s approval — to scrap an aircraft carrier as well as two assault ships, and to reduce by one-third the number of British frigates and destroyers. In the same year, Parliament passed the British Nationality Act, which denied the islanders British citizenship. The measure was directed at another set of islanders who would have preferred to stay British, those of Hong Kong. The unintended consequence of the act’s passage, however, was to suggest that Britain was no more willing to go to war with Argentina than with China. It is fair to fault the Thatcher government for giving signals to the Argentinians that hinted of irresolution — although it is also fair to note, as Thatcher does, that no one expected them to do something quite so crazy. “Of course with the benefit of hindsight, we would always like to have acted differently,” she remarks. “So would the Argentinians.”
It is in light of these examples that I’d like you to consider this news item. Obama downplays Brexit impact at NATO summit, reads the headline:
Britain’s shock vote to leave the European Union (EU) dominated Obama’s final NATO summit, which comes at what he called the most critical time for the military alliance since the Cold War.
Obama used the Warsaw summit to issue a clear message to key US allies Brussels and London to resolve their differences amicably.
“No one has an interest in protracted, adversarial negotiations,” he said.
What follows is an exercise in signalling:
“We are not turning our back on NATO,” said Cameron, whose nuclear-armed nation is one of Europe’s biggest contributors to the alliance.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg added that Brexit “will not change UK’s leading position in NATO.”
So far, so good. NATO lives. And the words will be matched with an action or two:
The summit’s centerpiece is a “Readiness Action Plan” to bolster NATO’s nervous eastern flank in the face of a Russia under President Vladimir Putin that the allies now see as more aggressive and unpredictable.
NATO leaders will approve rotating four battalions through Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, up to 4,000 troops in all, as a collective tripwire against fresh Russian adventurism in its old stomping ground.
There are other elements of that plan, but focus on the tripwire. This is necessary because we simply don’t have the conventional military capability to repel a Russian invasion of the Baltics. Russia can now roll into the Baltic capitals within sixty hours. The idea, therefore, is to use our military as human shields. Their job is to die. The presence of our soldiers is meant to suggest that we would have no choice but to escalate to full-blown conflict — and then to the unthinkable — given the public outrage that would ensue if Putin massacred a thousand-odd American servicemen.
So we’re counting on Putin’s rationality. He isn’t so crazy, NATO planners believe, as to attack members of a multinational force that includes two nuclear-armed countries. We believe that we’re signalling, with this gesture, that we’re serious about defending the Baltics.
I don’t know whether our assessment of the deterrent effect this is apt to have on Putin is correct. But as James Kitfeld points out in The Wall Street Journal, Putin has in the past been demonstrably willing to risk direct confrontation between NATO and Russian troops. “In 1999,” he writes, “it was not a small, symbolic tripwire of U.S. troops that Putin was willing to risk confronting, but a NATO peacekeeping force of five brigades and more than 10,000 soldiers.” A convoy of Russian peacekeepers deployed to Kosovo to seize the Slatina airfield. The British general on the ground, Sir Michael Jackson, resisted Wesley Clark’s order to block a runway at Pristina airport against Russian flights into Kosovo with the words, “Sir, I’m not starting World War III for you.” The Russian planes were only prevented from landing after the US persuaded Hungary to deny them permission to overfly the country.
Then, in the summer of 2008, “a small group of NATO forces was in Georgia on an annual training exercise.”
That April, NATO officials announced that Georgia would become a member of the alliance, and Putin had responded by warning that this would force Russia to recognize the independence of the restive Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Tensions increased, and in early August those Western troops awoke to the sounds of explosions as Russian forces seized the breakaway provinces. The NATO training units beat such a hasty retreat that some of their vehicles were captured by the Russians, and alliance officials worried that they might become an inadvertent tripwire should the Russians march on the capitol of Tblisi. Fortunately, the Russians held back, although Putin was successful in blocking Georgia’s NATO membership.
Here are some of the things Putin and his intelligence analysts must be considering as they struggle to figure out how serious we really are. First, whatever we say, Brexit does signal a divided Europe. That Cameron has to say, “We are not turning our back on NATO” indicates that its credibility has already been undermined. François Hollande recently said that Russia was a “not a threat,” but a “partner.” Pro-Putin parties are performing well throughout Europe.
The NATO member with the second-largest military force is clearly in no position to defend anything; Turkish military officers recently turned their guns on their own citizens, and 9,000 Turkish officers are now in detention. Italy’s prime minister recently popped up at the St. Petersburg Forum, a conference convened by Putin that had until then been boycotted by European leaders. The German foreign minister criticized a major NATO exercise in Poland last month as provocative “saber-rattling.” And our Commander-in-Chief is the man who infamously drew a red line in Syria but failed to enforce it.
Russian propaganda outlets are boasting that “cracks are beginning to show” in the NATO alliance. Putin is working assiduously to enlarge those cracks. Our tripwire strategy suggests we’re confident that Putin doesn’t believe his own propaganda. I don’t know whether he does.
And now let’s consider how Putin might be interpreting the fact that our presidential race has come down to the author of the failed “reset” policy and Donald Trump. Trump’s response, when asked whether he’d endorse an Article V resolution to defend Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania if “little green men” or Spetsnaz invaded them, was to ask whether they were caught up on their bills. (They are, by the way. And they have lost soldiers honoring their commitment to Article V when we invoked it after September 11.) That these remarks prompted little outrage in the United States — that some of his supporters even applauded — speaks far more loudly than assurances that we’re not turning our back on NATO.
Look at this from Russia’s point of view. Russian officials and their state propaganda organs have suggested, in language almost identical what they said before invading and annexing Crimea, that Moscow will “protect ethnic Russian minorities in the Baltics.” In 2014, Obama went to Estonia and promised to defend it as if it were sovereign American territory. Within 48 hours, Russia stormed across the border and kidnapped an Estonian state security officer.
It isn’t just what Obama does and what Trump says: It’s that Americans clearly don’t object. Russians read our media — our social media included. When public reaction to Trump’s blatherings about NATO is positive, this says something more compelling than anything he said in the first place. Americans may not immediately recollect the origins of the slogan “America First,” but Russian analysts who study America most certainly will. Exchanges like this haven’t just been broadcast all over America, they’ve been broadcast to the entire world:
“He’s not going into Ukraine, OK, just so you understand. He’s not going to go into Ukraine, all right? You can mark it down. You can put it down. You can take it anywhere you want,” Trump said in an interview on Sunday with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on “This Week.”
“Well, he’s already there, isn’t he?” Stephanopoulos responded, in a reference to Crimea, which Putin took from Ukraine in early 2014.
Trump said: “OK — well, he’s there in a certain way. But I’m not there. You have Obama there. And frankly, that whole part of the world is a mess under Obama with all the strength that you’re talking about and all of the power of NATO and all of this. In the meantime, he’s going away. He takes Crimea.”
Our signalling, to put it mildly, is anything but clear. I’m American; I’m a native English speaker, I’ve studied US policy-making all my life, and I cannot figure out if we’re serious about defending the Baltics. How do we expect Putin to understand we’re serious if even I can’t tell?
We have a lame-duck president who thinks ideas such as “credibility” are part of a stale “Washington playbook.” The GOP, traditionally viewed as the more hawkish party, has been commandeered by a man who obviously knows nothing about the history of the 20th Century, nothing about NATO, nothing about Ukraine or the Baltics, and who has so enthusiastically slobbered over Putin during this campaign — and so completely surrounded himself by Putin allies — that the American media has spent endless hours debating whether he’s some kind of Manchurian candidate.
The problem is that if Russia invades the Baltics or Poland and sets off the tripwire, killing a large number of US military personnel, we will be forced to react dramatically — both because Americans will demand it and because otherwise, every American security guarantee around the globe will immediately be rendered null and void.
And this is exactly how catastrophic wars begin.