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February 1, 2022 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 358

Korea, Iraq, Ukraine – In World Affairs, Words Have Consequences

February 1, 2022 | By Y. Carmon and A. Ungar*
Iraq, Korea, North, Ukraine | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 358

At a White House Press Conference, US President Joe Biden fielded a question about a hypothetical NATO response to a Russian attack on Ukraine. He answered: "I think what you're going to see is that Russia will be held accountable if it invades. And it depends on what it does. It's one thing if it's a minor incursion."[1]

Biden's answer appeared to signal to Putin that an American response to a Russian invasion of Ukraine would be limited or perhaps nonexistent if Russia limited itself to a minor incursion.

A horrified Volodomyr Zelensky, the President of Ukraine, tweeted his pained response: "We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions."[2]

The Biden Administration, realizing its mistake, engaged in damage control by clarifying that if Russia sent its forces across the border, it would encounter “a swift, severe, and united response from the United States and [its] allies.”[3] The U.S. put thousands of troops on alert for dispatch to Europe and belatedly furnished weapons to Ukraine.

Biden's statement is reminiscent of Secretary of State Dean Acheson January 12, 1950 speech at the National Press Club Speech, in which he described which regions in the world the U.S. was duty bound to defend: "[Our] defensive perimeter runs along the Aleutians to Japan and then goes to the Ryukyus [which] we will continue to hold... The defensive perimeter runs from Ryukyus to the Philippine Islands."[4]

Acheson's description omitted South Korea, and the North Korean invasion of the south followed shortly afterwards. By some Soviet accounts, the Acheson speech had been rushed to Stalin and lessened his hesitation in approving the attack. In the end, the U.S. fought for South Korea in a tremendously costly war.

Another similar situation occurred more recently, prior to Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, which triggered the First Gulf War. As Saddam amassed troops on the Kuwaiti border, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq April Glapsie had a conversation with Saddam. She said: "We have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait." She also explained how already in the 1960's, Arab-Arab border disputes were considered to be "not associated with America." She had also said: "I admire your extraordinary efforts to rebuild your country." She then said: "I received an instruction to ask you, in the spirit of friendship -- not in the spirit of confrontation -- regarding your intentions."[5]

Like Acheson, Glaspie was later blamed for essentially greenlighting the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

Even the most perfect wording would not necessarily deter a determined invader, but for leaders who are weighing the potential consequences of an invasion, a stronger expression of opposition may prevent immediate war.

Words do count, particularly when they represent the authoritative position of the United States. The bottom line is that like Acheson and Glaspie did, President Biden has gutted U.S. deterrence and made war with Russia more probable. Time has yet to tell, but Biden's statement damaged America's strategic standing. If Putin ends up not invading the Ukraine, it is because the U.S. corrected this mistake with stronger actions indicating opposition to Russia's aggression.

Biden's gaffe is particularly damaging, because many today see America as a declining power, particularly after the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Before the Korean War and the Gulf War, everybody at least saw the U.S as the strongest superpower in the world.

The power of American statements and actions should be taken seriously not just with regard to Ukraine. Two rogue states, North Korea and Iran, have been recently testing America's resolve against them. In both cases, the American response has been underwhelming.

When North Korea launched a series of missiles in an unprecedented show of force, the U.S. simply went through the motions. The State Department responded: "These tests… are in violation of multiple UN Security Council Resolutions and pose a threat to the DPRK’s neighbors and the international community"[6] In addition, the U.S. imposed targeted sanctions on no more than five North Korean officials, one Russian individual, and one Russian company for abetting the illegal procurement of technology for North Korea's missile program. The U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, also sought tougher UN sanctions against North Korea, but the attempt was expectedly blocked by China and Russia, who have been leading an effort to lift existing UN sanctions on North Korea. America's weak response is not going to impress Kim Jong Un, and we might expect a resumption of nuclear testing by North Korea as a result.

The case of Iran is far more dangerous because over the past few weeks, Iranian-backed militias have been directly targeting U.S. soldiers and military bases.[7]

The only thing America has been showing to Iran and North Korea is that violence pays off.

Clearly, the Biden Administration's goal is to avoid war at all costs, even if that means causing the U.S. to embarrass itself and lose some prestige. If that were an effective approach, then some embarrassment really wouldn't be a big deal. However, as we saw in the cases of the Korean War and the Gulf War, this approach is not effective against dictatorships.

The more likely outcome is both embarrassment and war.

*Yigal Carmon is President and Founder of The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI); Amiel Ungar is an analyst and the editor of the Russian Media Project at MEMRI

 

[1] Whitehouse.gov. January 19, 2022.

[2] Usatoday.com January 20, 2022.

[3] Washingtonpost.com January 20, 2021.

[4] Department of State Bulletin, XXII, No.551 (January 23, 1950), pp.111-118.

[5] New York times International September 23, 1990.

[6] Nationalinterest.org, January 30, 2022

[7] Iranian missiles are also being used by the Houthis, another Iranian proxy, to strike high value targets in the UAE, and the United States' only response is to call these attacks "troublesome." In addition, even though the Houthis openly state that they are targeting civilian and economic targets in the UAE, which constitutes a war crime, the Biden Administration has not restored to the Houthis their designation as a terrorist organization, which it had lifted as a gesture of goodwill to Iran ahead of the JCPOA negotiations.

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