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" from carrying out its invasion, writes Margaret Thatcher's biographer Hugo Young, "what is incontestable is that British policy offered no deterrent to her doing so."

Four days later 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 Carrington paid for it. Why shouldn't a U.S. 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's intentions; second, in failing to make clear our own intentions in advance, which might have dissuaded him. The misinterpretation of Saddam was also twofold. Not only did the United States overlook several specific signs that Iraq was going to invade Kuwait. It also utterly misjudged Saddam's general designs.

Subsequent facile comparisons to Hitler notwithstanding, until the moment of the invasion the Bush administration saw Saddam 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 U.S. subsidies. All this was in service of a foolish Realpolitik, a softheaded hardheadedness, a failed attempt to play geo-chess like Henry Kissinger.

U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie's notorious transcribed audience with Saddam a week before the invasion has been widely misinterpreted. It's even worse than you think. Having heard Saddam's threat to invade, 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.

In truth, the Bush administration could not have given Saddam 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 Bush's serial Iraq policies may have done in both directions.

If blame ranges from Bush himself to the hapless Glaspie, why should Secretary of State James Baker resign? In Carrington's words, 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 Carrington's resignation shielded Thatcher.

But taking responsibility isn't Jim Baker's style. He has distanced himself from 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 (Sept. 17) revealing the "inside story of secret diplomacy between the superpowers" over Kuwait, begins: "Secretary of State James Baker brought troubling news." It was Aug. 1, and Baker was telling Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnaze that Iraq was about to invade. Newsweek does not ask why, if Baker knew the invasion was coming, he didn't try to stop it.

A front-page Wall Street Journal article Oct. 1 reported that as long ago as last April, 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." Baker approved tough sanctions, but -- tragically -- "the federal bureaucracy and members of Congress preoccupied with defending special interests" slowed it down. Baker himself was "so preoccupied with momentous events elsewhere in the world that he failed to follow up. ... " Damn!

A column in the Economist (Oct. 13) asked: "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 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, is precisely the opposite of ministerial responsibility.