The dangerous and far-reaching consequences of ambiguity
Karim Pakravan, associate professor of finance at Chicago’s DePaul University, has compared US behaviour just before Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait with its behaviour just before the recent likely chemical attack by Syrian forces on Idlib. Did the United States on each occasion issue a green light for actions it would later criticise?
On July 25, 1990, April Glaspie, Washington’s ambassador in Baghdad, told Saddam, according to transcripts later released: “We have no opinion on the Arab- Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait.” On August 2, Saddam’s tanks rolled over the border.
On March 30, 2017, Nikki Haley, US ambassador to the United Nations, declared: “Our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting [Syrian President Bashar] Assad out… the way that the previous administration did.” Visiting Turkey, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reiterated that Assad’s “longer-term status” would be “decided by the Syrian people.” A few days later, on April 4, came the apparent sarin attack on Idlib.
Many historians dispute there was a green light in 1990. David Mack, then deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs, subsequently revealed he made clear to Iraq’s ambassador in Washington that the Kuwait border dispute should not be settled by force, a message he also instructed Glaspie to convey in Baghdad.
But Washington made no effective military counter to Iraq’s troop build-up. The rest, as they say, is history. In January and February 1991, the United States pushed the Iraqi Army out of Kuwait. In March and April, Saddam crushed uprisings in the Kurdish north and the Shia south but a Western no-fly zone enabled an autonomous Kurdish region to emerge. Draconian international sanctions led to appalling suffering in Iraq and, in 2003, after the 9-11 attacks, a US-led invasion upended not just what was left of Iraq but arguably the wider region.
Anyone who sees US ambiguity in 1990 as a telling example of the law of unintended consequences might be alarmed by the widespread description of the recent strikes on Syria as a game changer. While firing 59 Tomahawk missiles at Syria’s al-Shayrat airbase was hailed as decisive even by many critics of US President Donald Trump, there is no clarity over the rationale behind it.
Sebastian Gorka, deputy assistant to Trump, has claimed the decision was “unemotional,” which flatly contradicts Trump’s own claim that his approach to Assad had changed “very much” after seeing pictures of “beautiful little babies” killed by “heinous actions.”
Gorka also made great play of ambiguity in Trump’s strategy. “We don’t give our playbook away, so what’s going to happen next, no one outside the president’s closest circle, nobody knows that and we’re not going to tell anyone,” Gorka told conservative radio host Laura Ingraham. “We don’t telegraph in advance, all we know is that when evil happens and you are able to do something about it, you do something about it. This is the message we are sending the world.”
Ambiguity can be a diplomatic weapon and a measure of constructive ambiguity in bilateral agreements can usefully enable both sides to claim victory but it requires skill and experience to use. It can equally be employed by wily operators such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Chinese President Xi Jinping or Assad himself.
More importantly, it upends any notion that the Syrian attacks draw a clear red line. Is the line over the use of chemical weapons, over weapons of mass destruction or, as Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, has suggested three times, also over barrel bombs?
Or is the red line over killing “beautiful little babies” by any means? And if — as both Tillerson and Haley have suggested — the United States is now committed to removing Assad, what choice does Syria’s president have but to fight on? Do similar or different red lines apply to other states: Iran, China, Russia or to Saudi Arabia’s operations in Yemen? And, most dangerously, to North Korea?
Hence the value in recalling the story of Glaspie back in 1990 — even if historians disagree on what she conveyed and what conclusions Saddam drew as he marshalled tanks on Kuwait’s border. Ambiguity can have dangerous, far-reaching and long-term consequences.