Friday, January 4, 2013

Hoarse Whisperer?

A former head of the CIA is said to have believed that U.S. diplomatic signals may have helped kick off the 1982 Falklands War:
"Mr William Casey, the head of the CIA, who was closely concerned in Cabinet discussion on this subject, has implied to us privately that he thinks the Argentinians may well have been led up the wrong path.

'They may have believed that their support for the US in covert operations in Central America was more important to the US than in fact it was, and could be expected to earn them American acquiescence in forward policy elsewhere.'

Sir Nicholas also recalled handing US Secretary of State Alexander Haig a piece of paper detailing British evidence of Argentina's intention to invade on April 2, 1982.

He said: 'Mr Haig's reaction to the information I had given him was electric.'

Sir Nicholas added: 'He wanted us to win and would have been horrified if the Argentinians had got away with it."
Hardly solid evidence, but intriguing nontheless. Particularly when you think of this in the context of the supposed July 1990 meeting between Ambassador Glaspie and Saddam Hussein which may (or may not, or might have have been even more complex effect) have had the result of greenlighting the Kuwait coup in the mind of the Butcher of Baghdad.

Or the recent tragicomedy in Libya. Or all the other examples of international encounters - back to the war of Jenkin's Ear, it seems - where one side, or the other, or both, said one thing and the other, or the one, or both, heard something very different from the intention of the speaker.

Let me say that I'm not sure whether to put a tremendous amount of credence in this report itself; it appears to be the opinion of one man, albeit one that was a very experienced observer of the foreign policies of his time. And the internal politics of the Argentina of 1982 make it fairly clear that the junta was already deeply committed to the idea of using force to claim the "Malvinas".

But what this odd historical footnote does seem to point out is that for all that we often like to think of "foreign policy", "geopolitics", and "strategy", as sciences, as matters that people and nations can make into tools to use for their interests and both study and train on to improve they are often laden with what another U.S. recent foreign policy thinker used to call "unknown unknowns"; complexities and unintended consequences that even the sharpest wit and the most diligent student cannot anticipate.


  1. The problem here is that occasionally (at least during the Cold War) dictators believed that Washington DC (White House), not New York (UN HQ) was the to-go place for the permission to invade other places.

    Some idiot in the Caucasus has made the same mistake. It happened much too often already.

  2. Personally I don't really buy the whole notion that the US is somehow responsible for some country attacking some other country. Although we can't be ignored, we're not the center of the universe.

    As for Saddam, I don't think Gillaspie had much effect. After all, we now know from post-war interviews that Saddam was ready to invade Kuwait again in 1994 and was only deterred when the US rushed forces into the country when his build-up of forces was detected. Hard to argue at that point he didn't know what our reaction would be.

    Besides, it's pretty clear to me he made the decision to invade Kuwait before he even met Gillaspie. He gave the impression he wanted to give - that nothing would happen until after the next conference. Most of the "experts" believed that. The build up of Iraqi forces was, however, monitored by strategic warning offices at CIA and DIA who knew what was happening and gave multiple warnings and accurately predicted the timing of the attack.

    Those warnings were largely ignore, however, because the State department didn't think the build-up of forces was a serious threat. They, and President Bush, chose to ignore their own strategic warning function in favor of the opinions of the other Arab governments (including, ironically, Kuwait) and US diplomats who were convinced Saddam was bluffing. Saddam wasn't some dough-eyed boy looking for a green light - he played Gillespie and convinced here and his neighbors that there would be no war in the short term.

    I can't really say anything about the Falklands - that was before my time and I don't know many details about the conflict.

  3. Most of the people I've read have made the observation that the one thing that would have prevented the Iraqis from moving in '90 was a firm statement from Glaspie that the U.S. would intervene if Saddam's "solution" to his problems was a military one, and that Glaspie's failure was one of omission - she didn't give him that.

    The Wikileaks DID give the lie to the long-repeated urban legend that Glaspie, in effect, okayed the invasion by saying that the U.S. "had no position relative to Iraq's grievances with Kuwait".

    So the situation seems less definitive. And there is no "blame" or "fault" involved. But there is still the reality that a more perceptive series of acts from State had the potential to save the U.S. and its allies a lot of time, trouble, and lives.

    Same-same with the Falklands. At the moment we could have leaned hard on the junta had we had any intimation that they were planning military action in the Falklands. We didn't and, again, at worst sinned by omission. We didn't "start" the war and we aren't responsible for it, but we might have STOPPED it had we been more observant and more prescient about what the Argies were up to...

    And Sven reminds us of the idiotic Russia-Georgia spat that may have been, at least in part, precipitated because the Georgians thought the U.S. had their back.

    Add to that the Hungarian Uprising in '56, and the Kurdish and Shiite rebellions in '91...

    My point here was just to emphasize that a) we know a LOT less than we think we do and would do well to remember that, and b) we also often have more influence that we realize we have and would do well to remember that, too.

    I'm reading a recent work on the Cuban Missile Crisis that points out that almost all of the public posturing was either a flat-out lie or created more danger than it "solved", and that the "problem" with the Crisis was that it perpetuated the myth that "standing up to dictators" is how a nation wins and that making deals and compromising (which is what really solved the Crisis without nuclear war) is "giving in to terrorism"...

    And look where THAT got us.

  4. Chief

    Kinda difficult to compare Faulklands and Kuwait. We didn't and probably wouldn't have directly intervened in the Faulklands, other than grant limited fueling access and flight paths to the Brits, along with relieving the Brits of some NATO air support tasks to free assets to go south.

    BTW, if you haven't read "Vulcan 607", by Rowland White, the story of the British first strike against the Argentinians, I suggest you do. It was the longest-range attack in aviation history,and quite the spur of the moment operation.

  5. Chief: "My point here was just to emphasize that a) we know a LOT less than we think we do and would do well to remember that, and b) we also often have more influence that we realize we have and would do well to remember that, too."

    There are difficulties in sword rattling in response to each and every speed bump in international affairs. a) you have to be prepared to wield that sword b)it can become monotonous to the ears of the rest of the world and lose it's deterrence value c) It can deliver the decision making as to the commitment of our national treasure to others who may not care.

    I offer "c)" only in that ultimatums are rarely, if ever, sage practice. There is great wisdom in the occasional use of the word "may", no less silence.

  6. Al: I agree, unless the silence implies a consent you may not want.

    Again, I think that this article only points how how damn deadly difficult - and how potentially crucial - the business of "diplomacy" is, and how IMO we in the U.S. are being poorly served by slighting it.

    I'd argue that one thing we might compare between the Falklands and Kuwait is how apparently wrong we got both of them because the "dominant" branch(es) of the U.S. government had business to do and were going to do it, regardless of what information they had on hand.

    So the war on the dreaded Communist empire in Nicaragua was more important to the U.S. than some little post-colonial business at the tip of South America and we sort of lost track of what the junta was up to. And the war against the eeeeevil mullahs in Tehran was more important to the U.S. than what some Sunni kleptocrat was up to in Baghdad...

    And, I would add, that later on what that kleptocrat was doing was SO important that we ignored the massive evidence that knocking him off was likely to lead to a disastrous and painful occupation...

    Or that farkling about in Libya was...

    ISTM that we have a great deal of intelligence and strategic information gathering capability here in the Land of the Big PX. But analysis? And the ability to sift through this stuff in a timely manner and USE it in a productive way?

    Not so much.

    Damn, I sound like seydlitz. Not that that's a BAD thing...

  7. Chief-

    Intelligence gathering that results in statesmanship that results in nothing happening (as in preventing hostilities) only makes for good PBS documentaries. And you know what the rating are for PBS vs Faux News.

    Diplomacy is an art that usually requires tact. If the old adage that "Tact is the ability to tell someone to go to hell, make it look like it was their idea to begin with, and have them look forward to the trip", is true, I'm not sure I would be suited for the diplomatic corps.

    No argument with the points you make above. Unfortunately, even if you just have 3 lbs of shit in your 5 lb bag, it's still distasteful to check out the 8 oz at the bottom of the bag. While the errors you cite are indeed errors, in all humility, I can understand how one might be distracted in dealing with multiple issues of the shit nature. Not saying that excuses it. Just saying it might explain it.

  8. I think at heart this was really an intelligence failure. The problem wasn't that the State Department didn't adequately deter Saddam - that is more of a symptom of State's (and the Bush Administration's) incorrect assessment of Saddam's intentions. They believed he was bluffing with the troop buildup and their wrong assessment came from a combination of listening to the wrong people, not listening to the right people (the strategic warning experts), and Saddam's quite successful efforts at deception. That last point is important - Saddam wasn't looking for a green light, he fully intended to invade and lied to Glaspie to hide that fact....

    So, it's one thing to believe Saddam intended to invade and then fail to clearly indicate the consequences of an attack - that would be a clear diplomatic failure. It's quite another thing to believe that Saddam does not intend to invade and then fail to clearly indicate the consequences of...what exactly?

  9. Andy " It's quite another thing to believe that Saddam does not intend to invade and then fail to clearly indicate the consequences of...what exactly?"

    Probably one of the most astute statements I've seen about the matters of diplomacy in general and in this case in specific. However, I trust you mean "think" or "suspect" or "conclude" rather than "believe". If the decision was "belief based", then the entity relying on "belief" was derelict in choice of methodology from the get go.

  10. Al,

    Thanks for the kind words, and you're right that "believe" was not a good choice of words.