WASHINGTON — Washington. "ON APRIL 1, 1982, after making several overlooked threats, Argentina invaded the British-ruled Falkland Islands. While nobody can be sure of the circumstances in which Argentina might have desisted. . .,'' writes Margaret Thatcher's biographer Hugo Young, ''what is incontestable is that British policy offered no deterrent to her doing so.''
Four days later Mrs. Thatcher's foreign minister, Lord Carrington, resigned along with two deputies. Why? ''Ministerial responsibility. I have been responsible for the policy. I think it is right that I resign.'' Although the Falklands crisis turned out well for Britain, it began with a botch and Mr. Carrington paid for it. Why shouldn't an American official whose botched policies led to the current Gulf crisis pay a similar price?
Our Iraq policy was a double failure: first, in misinterpreting Saddam Hussein's intentions; second, in failing to make clear our own intentions in advance, which might have dissuaded him. The misinterpretation of Mr. Hussein was also twofold. Not only did the U.S. overlook several specific signs that Iraq was going to invade Kuwait. It also utterly misjudged Mr. Hussein's general designs.
Subsequent facile comparisons to Hitler notwithstanding, until the moment of the invasion the Bush administration saw Saddam Hussein as a potential moderate and ally in the Mideast. It overlooked his nuclear program, his chemical weapons,his mass murder of his own people, his coddling of terrorists. It fought against congressional efforts to limit American subsidies. All this was in service of a foolish Realpolitik, a soft-headed hard-headedness, a failed attempt to play geo-chess like Henry Kissinger.
U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie's notorious transcribed audience with Mr. Hussein a week before the invasion, has been widely misinterpreted. It's even worse than you think. Having heard Mr. Hussein's threat to invade, Ms. Glaspie explicitly sympathized with his complaint that Kuwait was driving down oil prices, and went on: ''I know you need funds. We understand that and our opinion is that you should have the opportunity to rebuild your country. But we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, such as your border disagreement with Kuwait.'' In other words, the famous ''no opinion'' remark was merely a qualification of her general endorsement of Iraqi war aims.
The Bush administration could not have given Mr. Hussein a serious warning about the consequences of invading Kuwait, because the administration itself didn't know how strongly it would react. With no underlying values to guide your policy, you lose the practical advantages of consistency and predictability. You also risk going too far on the momentum of shallow enthusiasm -- something Mr. Bush's serial Iraq policies may have done in both directions.
If blame ranges from the president himself to the hapless Ms. Glaspie, why should Secretary of State James Baker resign? In Lord Carrington's words, Mr. Baker was ''responsible for the policy.''
A Baker resignation would establish that there is accountability somewhere for monumental failures of government. It would end the ugly scapegoating of subordinates. And it would protect President Bush, just as the Carrington resignation shielded Mrs. Thatcher. But taking responsibility isn't Jim Baker's style. He has distanced himself from Ms. Glaspie. He also has mounted a damage-control campaign, both contemptible and hilarious, through his favorite medium of self-aggrandizing leaks to the press.
A Newsweek cover story September 17, revealing the inside story of secret diplomacy between ''the superpowers'' over Kuwait, begins:''Secretary of State James Baker brought troubling news.'' It was August 1 and Mr. Baker was telling Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnaze that Iraq was about to invade. Newsweek does not ask why, if Mr. Baker knew the invasion was coming, he didn't try to stop it.
A front-page Wall Street Journal article October 1 reports that as long ago as last April,Mr. Baker and two top aides decided at a secret meeting that Saddam Hussein should be put on notice . . . ''that his menacing behavior would not be tolerated.'' Mr. Baker approved tough sanctions, but -- tragically -- the federal bureaucracy and members of Congress preoccupied with ''defending special interests'' slowed it down. ''Mr. Baker himself was so preoccupied with momentous events elsewhere in the world that he failed to follow up. . . .'' Damn!
A column in the Economist October 13 asks: ''Is there someone, anyone, in Washington who thinks that the same ghastly mistake [as Vietnam] is going to be made all over again?'' The amazing answer: ''If there is, his name is probably James Addison Baker III.''
Of course there are many people in Washington who are not afraid to publicly predict disaster in the Gulf. None of them is named James Addison Baker III. If Washington's greatest self-positioner is now stashing away a little deniability for future use, that is the best sign yet that Mr. Bush's policy may be in trouble.
And if Baker really does disagree with a policy that may yet kill thousands of Americans and others, he ought to resign now for that reason. To pursue a policy you think is wrong, while busily distancing yourself not just from past failures but from future ones as well, is precisely the opposite of ministerial responsibility.