Beijing probably believes that the period when Biden is Commander-in-Chief provides them with a window of opportunity to launch a kinetic attack on Taiwan, writes Prof. Madhav Nalapat
Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait on 2 August 1990. Weeks before, he had listened to the statement made by US Ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie. This was that Secretary of State James Baker had instructed her to tell Saddam that the US “had no opinion in the matter of Kuwait”. The conversation took place in the context of the massing of Iraqi troops on the Kuwait border. Saddam believed that he had been given a green signal from the US for his plan to invade Kuwait.
After all, he had been getting assistance from the US for several years after he launched an ultimately stalemated war with Iran in September 1980. The war had ended eight years later, but relations between Washington and Baghdad remained cordial. Glaspie’s “no interest in Kuwait” assurance to Saddam, when he was visibly massing troops to prepare for a conflict, was unaccompanied by any warning to the Iraqi strongman that such a conflict would force the George H.W. Bush administration to enter the war on the side of Kuwait.
Given Saddam’s known desire to seize the small but wealthy sheikhdom, Baker’s instructions were clearly an error so significant that it may have caused the 1990 invasion of Kuwait. In case he was certain that the US would intervene, and after the bruising that his army received because of the war with Iran, there is no way that Saddam would have invaded Kuwait unless he thought the sheikhdom would be abandoned by its allies.
Having been the recipient of US largesse, Saddam was acutely aware of the military arsenal of the US. He was aware that the leader of the USSR,Mikhail Gorbachev, was desperate to cobble together a friendship with the US, and hence that Moscow would not intervene on his side should the US enter the conflict on the side of Kuwait.
Those familiar with Saddam’s coterie of senior officials say that at least three such individuals were punished as a consequence of the US decision to enter the 1990 Gulf war, two of whom were later executed while the third remained in prison for a long period. Their crime? That the three had parroted the Iraqi dictator’s forecast that the US would not intervene, and hence that the invasion of Kuwait would be an easy affair. What, after all, does the phrase “the US has no interest in Kuwait” mean except that? James Baker was known for deflecting blame for any of his errors onto others, and after Ambassador Glaspie’s comments to the Iraqi dictator were made public, made sure that she shouldered the blame and not him, despite the fact that she was merely a postman.
If the PRC initiates a kinetic conflict with Taiwan on or before 2027, the centenary year of the founding of the PLA, among the triggers may be the two phone conversations that US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley had with his PRC counterpart in October 2020 and January 2021. While communication channels remaining open for military-to-military discussions between Washington and Beijing at the senior level is important, the nature of the conversation between Milley and his Chinese counterpart General Li conveyed an impression of an overpowering fear of the US of conflict.
The top brass at the Pentagon reinforced this when they remained silent when President Trump’s surrender to the Taliban at Doha was being negotiated in 2020. This was despite their recent admission that the Doha agreement was a disaster that greatly assisted the return to power of the Taliban. General Milley has now admitted that it was very likely that Daesh, Al Qaeda and the other (often intermingling) groups would once again be given safe haven in Afghanistan, now that the Taliban have seized control of the government in Kabul. This was not unknown to him and other senior commanders when President Trump went ahead with that disastrous deal.
Was it not their duty to resign rather than carry out orders that they were clear were against the security interests of the US, not to mention the government in Afghanistan that had allied with the US? So when the next Commander-in-Chief, Joe Biden, ordered in March that every single soldier should get out of Afghanistan, should not Milley have told the US President that he would quit rather than carry out such harmful orders? Had he done so, President Biden may have hesitated to go forward with a complete withdrawal that he knew would kneecap the Afghan National Army, which had already been severely demoralised by the Doha surrender.
Biden also ordered the full withdrawal from Bagram by July. After that step, those in the Afghan military that were daily giving their lives to protect their country and US troops lost what little shred of hope and morale that had remained after Doha. Without US support, there was no way that the Afghan military could hold back the Taliban. The message from both the Trump as well as the Biden White House was clear: Afghan allies of the US were on their own. The meek way in which the Pentagon obeyed the Taliban’s 31 August deadline for full withdrawal showed fear rather than purpose.
The pullout was done by a force that has more kinetic capabilities than any other. It was taken as another tell-tale sign that under the present Commander-in-Chief and his generals, the US had lost the will to confront even a threat as devoid of capabilities as the Taliban had proved to be when President George W. Bush assisted the Northern Alliance to rout the Taliban in 2001-02. It is the threat of retaliation that deters an aggressor, and when the other side believes that there is no appetite for this in the other camp, it becomes emboldened in its recklessness.
Even greater than was Saddam’s hunger for Kuwait is CCP General Secretary Xi’s desire to extinguish the independence of Taiwan. Lack of resolve was signalled by Biden’s Afghanistan pullout and Defense Secretary Austin stating that he was terrified for the safety of any US troop presence in Afghanistan after the Taliban took over. Before that came the tremulous manner in which Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Milley (with the consent of Trump’s Defense Secretary and Chief of Staff) communicated to his PRC counterpart that the US military had zero appetite for kinetic action.
Shades of Gorbachev surrendering Eastern Europe without a bullet being fired. Those connecting dots in Beijing probably believe that the period when Joe Biden is Commander-in-Chief provides them with a window of opportunity to launch a kinetic attack on Taiwan without the risk of a US response. And that Japan would not enter the fray, were the US to keep out. Thanks to serial missteps under President Biden’s watch, his determination to defend even core allies has become suspect.