There’s a certain irony to British Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision — dictated by the British Parliament and public — not to join President Obama’s coalition of the willing.

Though the American President may still order an attack on Syria in retaliation for the horrific chemical attack last week,  Cameron’s surprise move has at least slowed Obama’s militant momentum.

What’s ironic about this situation is that, 23 years ago, it was another British Prime Minister — Margaret Thatcher — who played a major role in the disastrous decision of another American President — George H.W. Bush — to deploy hundreds of thousands of American troops to the Gulf after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.

Common to both of those fateful events was the failure of American presidents to establish and maintain a clear policy line. And their ultimate resolve to maintain the image of U.S. power.

In August 2012, Barack Obama seemed intent on clearly warning Bashar al-Assad that the U.S. would act if the Syrian dictator unleashed his chemical weapons. In fact, as I blogged yesterday, Obama’s warning was far from clear, nor well thought out.

Furthermore, according to the British, since that warning, Assad’s forces have used chemical weapons several times in smaller doses, with only the most tepid reaction from Obama. So what was Obama’s policy?

There was a similar question of American resolve in 1990, as Saddam Hussein grew more belligerent in negotiations with Kuwait. To ascertain how the U.S. would react if he were to invade his Gulf neighbor. Saddam called in American Ambassador April Glaspie, who told him quite clearly, “We have no opinion on your Arab-Arab conflicts, such as your dispute with Kuwait. Secretary [of State James] Baker has directed me to emphasize the instruction, first given to Iraq in the 1960s, that the Kuwait issue is not associated with America.”

Later, Glaspie would take the fall for making Saddam think the U.S. had given him the green light. In fact, though, as I wrote in my history of that period, Web of Deceit, Glaspie was only one of several top American officials who declared publicly that the U.S. had no defense pact with Kuwait and would not react militarily to an invasion.

Indeed, according to a former top official in Iraq’s foreign ministry, the person most responsible for giving that benign impression to Saddam was President George H.W. Bush himself, who had written a letter on July 27th to the Iraqi dictator- a letter so bland and conciliatory — that Paul Wolfowitz, attempted — unsuccessfully — to have it cancelled.

As Congressman Lee Hamilton, former chairman of the House International Relations Committee told me in a documentary I did on the subject, ‘Saddam Hussein looked on Kuwait as if it were a province of Iraq. He was looking for an excuse to go in, and I think he did not understand clearly, unambiguously that the United States would oppose any effort by Iraq to move into Kuwait. We did not draw a firm line in the sand. It’s not difficult. What is clear to me is at the highest levels of the U.S. government we did not convey strongly and clearly to Saddam Hussein that we would react militarily if he went across that border.”

Incredibly, however, during the same period, General Norman Schwartzkopf, then American commander for the Gulf region, was urging Kuwaiti officials not to back down in their negotiations with Saddam.

The U.S., he said, would support them. As the New Yorker’s Milton Viorst later wrote:

I was convinced in the spring of 1990, the Kuwaiti government felt itself free to take a dangerous position in confronting Iraq … the Kuwaitis played their tricks because Washington, deliberately or not, had conveyed the message to them that they could.

Indeed, Saddam’s August 2 invasion caught President Bush flat-footed. He scrambled for some kind of response. Though he condemned the invasion, the president told a reporter, “We’re not discussing intervention.”

One of the key leaders who urged Bush to react — convincing him that military force was required — was British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who met Bush on August 2nd at a conference at Aspen.

According to Bob Woodward’s account, Thatcher took Bush by the arm, “You must know, George, he’s not going to stop.” She said, referring to the possibility that Saudi Arabia would be Saddam’s next target.

Saddam, she insisted, had to be expelled from Kuwait, his threat permanently destroyed.

Bush’s subsequent decision–to deploy hundreds of thousands of American troops to the Gulf — was probably the most disastrous decision that any American leader ever took.

It would ultimately lead to the death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, the rise of Osama Bin Laden, the attacks of 9/11, the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and, it could be argued, at least partially continues to fuel the on-going turmoil across the region — including the tragic situation in Syria.

Along that sorry way, another British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, was the major foreign cheerleader for the President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.

This time around, however, under the wary eye of Parliament and the British public, the British Prime Minister is bowing out.

Photo by HonestReporting under Creative Commons license