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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Spectacular displays of naïveté in international affairs

Gentlemen do not read each other's mail.

— U.S. Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson, explaining (in later memoirs) his 1929 decision to close down the "Cypher Bureau," which had been the U.S.' first peacetime cryptanalytic organization, just as fascist governments were seizing or consolidating power in the countries which would plunge us into the Second World War.

Despite a plume of smoke around one of Gaddafi’s compounds in Tripoli, U.S. officials said that they were not targeting the Libyan leader. “At this point I can guarantee he is not on the target list,” Gortney said. “We are not targeting his residence.”

— U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, director of the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, as quoted in today's Washington Post, as coalition forces go in harm's way to enforce a U.N. resolution calling for the protection of Libya's civilian population from its mad despot, Kadafi. (Boldface mine.)


The probability that Adm. Gortney decided all on his own to implement this policy, or even to describe it using the word "guarantee" when speaking on the record to the WaPo, is zero. Barack Obama scripted this, unless he's completely abdicated all responsibility and oversight and the Joint Chiefs have mounted a secret coup.

Why would the U.S. Commander-in-Chief direct one of his military commanders to tell the world press to tell Kadafi that he's not being targeted? I'm genuinely baffled.

How does this possibly not encourage Kadafi to continue resisting? How does it possibly serve anyone other than Kadafi's interests?

Are we, and the world, supposed to believe that Barack Obama is willing to fade the heat from coalition forces inflicting collateral casualties that inevitably will include completely innocent women and children — and that he's willing to accept potential casualties among the coalition's own warriors — but that if we had a clean chance to decapitate the entire Kadafi regime without mussing the hair of another Libyan's head, we would ignore it?

In what bizarre parallel universe does Kadafi deserve this kind of deference — a "guarantee" which rules out the possibility of the exact same sort of airstrikes that Dubya ordered for Saddam's hide-outs in 2003, or indeed, that Reagan ordered for this self-same Kadafi in 1986 as part of "Operation El Dorado Canyon"? Killing Kadafi would shorten the dispute and save countless lives and treasure. So the reason we should take care now to guarantee to the world that Kadafi's not a target is ... what, exactly?

The naïveté, the incoherence, the inconsistency, and the obvious duplicity of Barack Obama and his administration as they stumble into this Libyan engagement — all in stark contrast to the awesome, deadly competency of our military as it follows whatever orders it receives — is absolutely unnerving even for those of us who think these military steps ought to have been taken weeks ago.


(Sun Mar 20 @ 9:15pm): More of this nonsense, from a SecDef who I will charitably assume is spouting a party line, not very adroitly, with which he "may or may not" agree:

Speaking from an unspecified U.S. military aircraft, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the coalition would be unwise to target the longtime dictator. “It is unwise to set as specific goals things that you may or may not be able to achieve,” he was quoted as saying.

Seriously? In real life, we're reduced to the kind of question Jack Nicholson (as Col. Jessup) asked Tom Cruise (as Lt. Kaffee) — whether there's any other kind of danger besides the "grave" kind?

Are there any other kind of specific goals, Mr. Secretary, besides the ones you may or may not be able to achieve?

More to the point, with less snark: Giving Kadafi a guarantee that he's not targeted is not at all the same thing as making it a public goal to kill him. I'm not arguing that Obama should be shouting trans-Atlantic death threats. Speak softly, carry the big stick. But don't promise not to do something which, if we could do, we should do. Don't promise something that gives comfort to our enemy and dismays his enemies whom we would have as our friends.

Posted by Beldar at 06:06 PM in Global War on Terror, History, Obama | Permalink


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(1) Gregory Koster made the following comment | Mar 20, 2011 7:36:36 PM | Permalink

Dear Mr. Dyer: I'd like to say that:

a) The One is being a cynic, telling the flyboys to kill Khadafy, but having the flacks claim the opposite to keep on the side of the Important People i.e. the UN i.e. the NEW YORK TIMES editorial page.

b) He's abdicated the C-in-C role completely, and is letting the services run the show, except for this "humanitarian" gesture.

Nope, can't buy either proposition. The One is just a dummy, in over his head, retreating to high life, picking basketball winners, flying to Rio, eating like a hog, and making plans for his next vacation instead of leading. A pure cynic would be laughing heartily, and I have to admit, it is funny enough to snicker, in between groans at what's happening to the country.

As for the naive Stimson quote: The actual words were written by Stimson's collaborator, McGeorge Bundy, in Stimson's memoirs, purporting to quote what Stimson said later. But I've never been able to find that "later" quote. I do not recall Stimson's even mentioning the Bureau in his 1929 diaries. Nor did he actually "close" the Bureau. He stopped paying the Bureau to decipher messages, and the War Department declined to pick up the slack. So the responsibility for closing isn't all Stimson's.

What is clear is that Stimson, the archtypical American gentleman of Victorian times, had no use for Herbert Yardley, who created the Bureau, but wrote a book about in 1931 because he needed the money. My take is that Stimson was irked at Yardley to begin with, and it was Yardley's book that provoked the "Gentlemen" quote.

I also don't think it's quite fair to describe the world situation in 1929 as "...just as fascist governments were seizing or consolidating power in the countries which would plunge us into the Second World War." Only Italy had a fascist government, Germany and Japan were still democracies, fragile it's true, but still democracies. 1929 is also only two years after that British patriot, Winston Churchill, praised Mussolini to the skies as a bulwark against Bolshevism.

Still, this is not Stimson's best moment. Stimson's old mentor, Theodore Roosevelt, would have groaned is dismay. As one who thinks as highly of Stimson as you do of Sam Houston, I say, Gee, look at Stimson's record as Secretary of War, while passing by his record as SecState.

Sincerely yours,
Gregory Koster

(2) Phelps made the following comment | Mar 20, 2011 9:54:57 PM | Permalink

I feel like Walter from The Big Lebowski saying, "it was parked in a handicapped space, perhaps it's been towed," but... perhaps we're just saying this to draw him into a target zone?

(3) Beldar made the following comment | Mar 20, 2011 9:58:11 PM | Permalink

Mr. Koster: On the scale of time on which intelligence and code-breaking agencies ought to be operating, 1929 was indeed just before the period of several years in which fascists seized or consolidated power in Germany, Italy, and Japan. I did not write that it all or even mostly happened in 1929 itself; perhaps I'd have better written "just before" instead of "just as," but given that Mussolini was already in power in Italy then, I don't think so.

Re Churchill praising Mussolini, I'm sure you'll also remember Churchill's better-known comment about his willingness to make a favorable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons if he, like Stalin, would help defeat Hitler.

Perceptive people recognized from the Versailles Treaty onwards that we were only in a long cease-fire, and certainly by 1929 we knew -- and were bargaining at the international naval treaties on the assumption -- that Japan was our chief rival in the Pacific (and vice versa). We badly needed to be "reading other countries' mail" continuously, of course -- as the Brits had demonstrated so dramatically in the affair of the Zimmerman telegram.

As to whether the quote as attributed is accurate, I'll happily defer to your closer study. I've no bone to pick with him in particular, but with the naïveté illustrated by (a) the statement, whoever made it, and (b) the shut-down, whoever may have shared responsibility for it. I also thank you for indirectly pointing out to me the correct spelling of Mr. Stimson's surname, which I've corrected in the original post.

(4) Gregory Koster made the following comment | Mar 20, 2011 11:21:46 PM | Permalink

Dear Mr. Dyer: First, it is a mug's game to expect perfection from any human endeavor. Second, the ideal intelligence agency would ALWAYS be wrong in its predictions. Ideally, it would come to the Prez and say, look here, there's a dam bad situation on the horizon, and you have these x options to head it off. The Prez would choose a course of action and the menace would be avoided or dealt with and the intelligence agency's original prediction would be falsified. In the ideal world, the intelligence agency would be 100% wrong in this way.

But that's not how the agencies have worked. You and I are more or less the same age, and I'm sure your memory will remind you that in the 1960s-70s, the CIA had the Soviet economy surpassing the American economy by 2000. This pessimism led even sharp fellows like Henry Kissinger to yell for detente and dumber ones like Jimmy Bumpkin to lecture the American people that their fears of Communism were exaggerated. These lectures were muted after 1979 with the invasion of Afghanistan, being replaced by variants on appeasement, but the paranoia that the Commies were going to bury us continued to grip much of the foreign policy establishment, leaving it to dumb hicks such as Reagan to say, Stand fast, we will bury THEM. How the TIMES and Council of Foreign Relations jeered such visions, right up to the moment when the Soviet Union dissolved....

It's a rare policymaker who can stand apart from the conventional wisdom (often true) of his times, which is why Reagan was a great President. Stimson, as SecState does not fall into this category. His predecessor, Frank Kellogg, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1928 for the Kellogg-Briand pact, the famous treaty that "outlawed" war. As a matter of pracctical effect all it did was provide a basis for the Nuremberg prosecutions of 1945-46.

Even the exceptional ones can fail. Hecotr C. Bywater was a Daily MAIL (London) reporter with an intelligence career on the side. In 1925, he published THE GREAT PACIFIC WAR an astonishingly accurate fictional forecast of the Pacific side of World War II. (The link provides access to the complete text, which I'd urge on anyone who wants to read a most enjoyable speculation on history.) In 1925 Churchill was Chancellor of the Exchequer, a position generally regarded as the #2 in the British Cabinet. He knew Bywater. How did he act on Bywater's speculations? By writing "There is not the slightest chance of war with Japan in our lifetimes." He was Chancellor of the Exchequer, he did have a budget to balance, and cutting the Admiralty's request for new cruisers seemed a safe way to help balance the budget.

Such a statement is doubtless comforting to Henry Stimson's ghost, and should be a warning to us all. If the past is an different country, the future is an unknown one. Should The One ever read these words, he would doubtless smile smugly, even while elbowing Stimson and Churchill to make room for him on the Boy When I Make A Mistake It's A Beaut But Come On Have A Heart Fellas platform. We won't give him ready access to said platform because to our admittedly outside and limited knowledge, it doesn't appear that he's even trying to peer into the future and try to forestall calamities coming down the path. He seems to have a season commutation ticket on the Line of Least Resistence low speed train, Healthcare's All That Matters Express. Thus your puzzlement, increasingly lined with dismay and worry. Me too.

Sincerely yours,
Gregory Koster

(5) Paul_In_Houston made the following comment | Mar 21, 2011 11:56:10 AM | Permalink

Mr. Koster:

I consider your "Nope, can't buy either proposition. The One is just a dummy, in over his head..." statement to be one of the most succinct (and accurate) uses of "Occam's Razor" I've seen in quite a while.

No 3-D chess being played here.

(6) DRJ made the following comment | Mar 24, 2011 9:11:51 PM | Permalink

There's a reason Obama kept Gates as SecDef and this is a good example. Leaders educated at Ivy League Schools -- whether they are Democrats or Republicans -- worry far more about failure than opportunity/success. That's why Presidents like Bush 41, Clinton, and Obama carefully calibrate every move, while Presidents like Reagan are more willing to take calculated risks. (Bush 43 had qualities of both, and I think his Presidency was characterized by the conflicts between what his gut and his breeding told him to do.)

(7) C. S. P. Schofield made the following comment | Mar 27, 2011 6:14:50 PM | Permalink

Remember; this isn't Obama's idea, this is a standard part of the Progressive playbook. God alone knows why, although I suspect is has something to do with the Liberal Intellectual Radical Progressive tendency to confuse symbolism with reality. As, for that matter, does the attack on Libya in the first place. The attacks we are making have no chance of defeating Q'daffy (or however we are spelling his name this week - I gave up keeping track about a decade back), barring simple random coincidence. But SYMBOLICALLY they show how much Obama and the Progressives (hows THAT for the name of a doo-wop group?) CARE, and that will of course make everything JUST DUCKY.

Oh GOD! I wish the populists would seize control of the Democrat Party! I am SO tired of public policy made by kindergardeners.

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