A strong argument could also be made with regard to Truman's use of the atomic bomb in 1945. While the propaganda of the day lives on into our generation, the truth is that Truman wanted to use the bomb. It was a signal and an important one that he meant to send to Stalin. Consider the context of the Potsdam Conference. Truman in a rather amateurish move tried to impress Stalin by revealing the new US super-weapon, but of course Stalin was already well aware of it. Though Truman thought Stalin was unfazed due to a lack of comprehension, in reality he already knew about the bomb and the Soviets were aggressively working toward developing their own. In truth the Cold War was already underway and would be officially inaugurated in Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. Though conventional histories don't cite the beginning until the Iron Curtain Speech, Kennan's Long Telegram, the Berlin Airlift, NATO or even the Soviet atomic test in 1949... the truth is it was already underway in the summer of 1945 and those in both the US and Soviet Establishments knew it well. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the first move, the opening salvo as it were, and a harsh one at that.
With the fall of the Soviet Union which occurred from November 1989 to December 1991, the US wanted to send another signal to the world. The end of Global bipolarity would not mean a return to multipolarity, the pre-WWII order. No, the world would become Unilateral. The United States would move from being a Superpower to a Hyperpower.
The Panama Invasion was launched in December of 1989, just weeks after the Berlin Wall came down. The US was beginning a process that might be called the Cold War Cleanup, the pivot and shift away from old allies and alliances. It was in the process of breaking relationships and wiping the slate clean. With regard to Panama and in particular Noriega, the US was closing a chapter, even a book and re-asserting the Monroe Doctrine of hemispheric dominance. It was signal meant for Cuba and anyone else who was listening and watching.
In 1990 when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, the US (which it could be argued set him up) took advantage of the situation by using the crisis as a basis for a new world order, a new structure of leadership. The famous 'Coalition' was an important diplomatic statement. The location of the conflict also sent an unmistakable signal that the region is still reeling from some 25 years later. The US was 'claiming' a governing interest or stake in the affairs of the Middle East. It was a signal not only of abiding presence and management, custodial authority one might say. It also signaled an agenda of expansionism, a new round of imperialism.
That Iraq had been a Soviet client was also a point of interest, even though post 1979, Baghdad had slowly moved toward the United States and had even become dependent on it during the Iraq-Iran War. While the Soviets still sold arms to Saddam, the US was actively providing logistical support for Baghdad even while double-dealing and selling arms to Tehran. It was a brilliant if cynical strategic move reminiscent of Stalin's play in the Korean peninsula.
Another statement and perhaps the most important was the clear communication of US military dominance. Americans celebrated the Gulf War as a triumph, the overcoming of the defeatism that had set in during the post-Vietnam era. Grenada and Panama were paltry compared to the US triumphant achievement of 1991.
And yet the American audience (for that is what we were) largely missed the communicative aspect of the largely bogus and unnecessary conflict. The Soviet Union was soon to be gone (and effectively already was) and by the end of 1991 the United States would sit uncontested atop the world.
Look at its military might. It dispensed with one of the largest armies in the world as if it were brushing a fly of its shoulder. Its technological superiority decimated the Iraqi forces. Coalition casualties were negligible. In many cases they were endangered more from friendly fire than from the Iraqis. All moral issues aside, militarily it was a stunning achievement and it can only be described as historic.
Beijing got the message. I have been struck by how often this is referenced. The Chinese leadership was in a state of shock. Their hardware and technology were not any better than what Saddam Hussein possessed. In fact he had utilised a fair bit of their merchandise and it didn't stand up to US systems. Their radar and anti-aircraft systems had failed miserably.
For China the 1991 Gulf War was a turning point. They got the message and they began a process of transformation. The Chinese Army that had stood up to the United States in Korea was long gone. The last serious conflict they had faced was that of Vietnam in 1979 and their army had performed poorly. They knew that with the Soviet Union in a state of collapse, it was inevitable that China would come into conflict with US regional aspirations. Capitalism would bring them together, lead them into competition and eventually drive them apart.
They began to modernise, investing in their military and in updating technology. At this point China has become a serious power even though their military spending remains paltry when compared to the United States. Unlike the global aspirations and commitments of Washington, Beijing remains a regional power and its basic posture (despite the reports of Western media) is basically defensive. They have worked to construct a formidable deterrent, a network that sends a clear message to Washington.... it won't be 21 days to Beijing as it was Baghdad in 2003. If the US wants to tangle with China they will pay dearly.
The Gulf War message was received and the lesson learned.
One must wonder then... why do the guardians and guides of America's imperial apparatus 'send' such messages? Aren't they self-defeating? Don't they just create antagonism and help set the stage of potential and future conflicts?