Blood, Sweat, Toil, and Boredom

The art of wartime oratory, like so much else in the modern world, seems in precipitous decline. One of thinks of such great exhortations to war as Henry V’s St. Crispen’s Day speech to his “band of brothers,” or Patrick Henry’s “The War Inevitable” and its memorable cry of “give me liberty or give me death,” or Winston Churchill’s defiant vow to endure “blood, toil, tears, and sweat,” or even that call to battle that Mel Gibson gave in “Braveheart,” and Tuesday night’s muddled message from President Barack Obama seems quite puny by comparison.
To be fair, Obama’s oration was no doubt hastily re-written to reflect all the recent developments, and there seems to have been little time left for the florid touches he usually favors. Still, even by current standards the speech was a conspicuously unpersuasive call to war.
The president began promisingly enough, laying out the reasons he believes Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad deserves some American military action. He helpfully explained to those just tuning in that “a series of peaceful protests against the repressive regime” has become a civil war which has killed more than 100,000 people without provoking any American response, but when the Syrian government recently used chemical weapons against its citizens “the situation profoundly changed.” In case anyone might wonder why those killed in the recent gas attack are more deserving of American assistance than the much greater number who were killed and are still being killed in Syria by more conventional weapons, Obama offered a gruesome description of the massacre, alluded to some unseen proof of Assad’s culpability, and recited a short history lesson about the international prohibition on chemical weapons.
Upholding that prohibition and other norms of civilized international behavior, Obama argued, is a responsibility that has fallen upon the United States as the world’s sole superpower. He warned that if Assad is not punished for the attack he will continue to use chemical weapons, perhaps in a wider war that would threaten American allies, and similarly insane dictators such as the ones currently running Iran would be emboldened by our inaction. The argument is compelling, especially to bloodthirsty warmongering neo-con cowboys such as ourselves, but then he went and spoiled it all by attempting to reassure the dope-addled peaceniks who comprise his base of political support that he hasn’t gone all George W. Bush on them.

He noted that his planned war is not polling well, which he attributed to the public’s weariness after the long years of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, and insisted that he ran for office he’d much rather devote his energies to such good works as “putting people back to work” and “growing our middle class.” Given the counterproductive results of his efforts on these projects one is tempted to rush into the nearest available war just to keep the president preoccupied, but of course Obama did not advance that very strong argument. Instead he promised that there would be no “boots on the ground,” that he would “not pursue an open-ended action like Afghanistan or Iraq,” and in a rare moment of bipartisan blame-laying he added that it also would not be a “prolonged air campaign like Kosovo or Libya.” While that dead white male Churchill guy would go on about “What is our aim? Victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be,” Obama instead offered assurances that his short and sweet war’s only objective is “deterring the use of chemical weapons, and degrading Assad’s capabilities.”

One might well wonder how such a bootless and brief action as Obama describes could achieve even these limited goals, but he was quick to add that it wouldn’t be the “pinprick” that some congressional critics have charged. He seemed especially offended by the term “pinprick,” and huffed with an uncharacteristic martial pride that “The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks.” So we are assured that the war won’t be a full-blown Bushian affairs or a prick of a pin, rather something in the Goldilocks range of a just-right military action, and that it will be just enough to make Assad regretful.
There was also some quick rebuttal of the more popular arguments against the proposed war. Obama dismissed concerns about retaliation from Syria by noting the country’s lack of military might, although it seems to have enough of it to justify a war, and ally Iran’s world-wide terror network went mentioned, and he seemed quite confident that Israel will be able to respond to any attacks on its people. He also scoffed at the notion that the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamist rebel groups Assad is fighting might benefit from an American military intervention, claiming that the majority of Syrian “just want to live in peace, with dignity and freedom,” which would make them unique among the peoples of the Middle East, and promised that after any military action “We would redouble our efforts to achieve a political solution that strengthens those who reject the forces of tyranny and extremism.”
We are unable to think of anything that has happened during the Obama administration that gives hope for his efforts to achieve such a political solution, but the president also touched on possibility that recent initiatives by Russian President Vladimir Putin might spare him the trouble of even a minor military action. He claimed that Putin’s offer is the result of “the credible threat of U.S. military action” and Obama’s own brilliant diplomacy with the man he has called a “bored schoolboy,” and held out hope that her erstwhile nemesis could prevent the need for war. So hopeful is the president that he has decided to delay a Congressional vote on the authorization for the use of military force, which is fortunate given the likelihood that he would suffer a politically embarrassing defeat if the vote were taken now, and he left us with a nagging suspicion that he even hopes the diplomacy will drag on long enough for people to forget that he ever proposed a war or gave this forgettable speech.

— Bud Norman


No Good Options

War drums are once again beating in the Middle East, this time with Syria as the potential battleground, and as usual it’s all a horrible mess with no happy outcomes seeming likely.
There’s always a chance the Obama administration will opt for a sternly worded speech or a scolding resolution by the United Nations or some similar dithering, which would be more in keeping with both its instincts and its campaign rhetoric, but at this point it appears likely they will soon begin air strikes against the dictator Bashir Assad’s forces as they fight various rebel groups in a bloody civil war. American and British warships are already heading to region, and the big media outlets that administration officials use to signal their intentions are quoting anonymous “senior officials” of the White House as saying they are pretty darned certain that Assad is responsible for a chemical weapons attack that killed recently killed hundreds of people. Such an attack crosses the “red line” which Obama famously declared would change his “calculus,” and although Assad has crossed the line several since then it would seem that Obama has at long last grown weary of the disrespect.
It is uncertain what can be gained by air strikes other than some proof that Obama will eventually get around to making good on his ill-advised threats. Anything American forces strike at can be quickly replaced by the Russians, who have remained Assad’s steadfast allies despite Obama’s best efforts to charm and appease them into submission, or the Iranians, who are making their characteristic threats of holy war as they continue to pursue the nuclear weapons that Obama has declared they will not be allowed to have. American military action could provoke Assad to use his chemical weapons with sufficient ruthlessness to win the war, rouse reluctant Syrians to the nationalist cause, and alienate potential allies reluctant to be seen as working with another crusader war against an Islamic country. Should Assad survive an American military intervention, his power and prestige, as well as Russia’s and Iran’s, will be greatly increased.
Should the American military effort succeed in forcing Assad out of power, there is no reason to believe that whoever takes over will be any friendlier to America. At this point the most effective rebel forces are severely Islamist, and in many cases associated with such avowed enemies of America as al-Qaeda, and of course none of them have any experience or expertise in running a country. Air strikes proved effective in removing the nasty Gadaffi dictatorship from Libya, but the aftermath of that success in Benghazi and elsewhere has not been beneficial to anyone. An occupying force in the aftermath of the air strikes might allow America to dictate a more positive outcome, but America no longer has any stomach for such adventures and it is impossible to imagine any line a foreign power might cross that would prompt Obama to take such an action.
Some smart people have reluctantly concluded that a prolonged and bloody stalemate would best serve American interests, with Russia and Iran and al-Qaeda and an increasingly troublesome Turkey all too busy slaughtering one another to pursue any mischief against the United States, but even if the Nobel Peace Prize-winning president were willing to accept the human costs of this strategy no American action would guarantee this result. Neither would American inaction, and in either case the Muslim would almost certainly revert to its habit of blaming America for the carnage. There was some hope back in ’08 that Obama would be able to solve these problems with some of his silver-tongued oratory and his Arabic nomenclature, but not even Obama seems to believe that now.
Even in the media most friendly to the administration there seems to be a growing consensus that better options were available back when the conflict started, but the Secretary of State back then was hailing Assad as a “reformer” and the president was still offering an “open hand” to Iran and seeking to “reset” relations with Russia instead of backing the moderate forces that were once in the game. This is purely speculative, if quite convincing, and offers little help in choosing the least worst of the options that are now available. All that hindsight can now reveal is that the choice is in the hands of people who don’t inspire confidence.

— Bud Norman

Bad Guys, Worse Guys, and the Middle East

Perhaps there is some coherent reasoning behind America’s recent foreign policy, which now finds the country backing a bunch of al Qaeda-affiliated Islamist nutcases in the bloody Syrian civil war. If so, it would be nice if someone from the Obama administration could provide the explanation.
To be fair to the Obama administration, not backing the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamist nutcases was also a bad option. The Assad regime that the rebels are trying to overthrow is also quite nasty and a threat to American interests, its continued survival would strengthen the position of a troublesome Iranian regime that is rapidly closing in on a nuclear weapons capability, Assad’s use of chemical weapons has exacerbated an already dire humanitarian situation, and after Obama’s declaration of a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons inaction would further erode America’s credibility in a region where it has already been ceding influence. At this point, with no good guys left in the fight, backing a bunch of al Qaeda-affiliated Islamist nutcases is arguably the least-worst option.
Lest one be too fair, though, it should also be noted that it was a series of blunders that led us to this point. The Obama administration spent years that could have been used bolstering a more democratic and pro-western resistance in a futile attempt to flatter Syria into compliance with international standards of behavior, with the past Secretary of State praising Assad as a “reformer,” which was part of an equally futile effort to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions by the force of sheer niceness, and the “red line” declaration was a bit of too-little, too-late bluster that only boxed the administration into its current lousy options. An conspicuously equivocal relationship with Israel, precipitous withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, the betrayal of a friendly regime in favor of a Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, the “lead from behind” toppling of a dictator who had already bowed to American in Libya, the tragic debacle that followed in Benghazi, and a generally apologetic tone all further encouraged defiance from the likes of Assad, and all of the tinpot satraps of the Middle East are probably as a confounded by American foreign policy as we are.
It could get even worse, of course, if American aid to the rebels fails to topple Assad and he and his Iranian allies are able to trumpet their victory over the imperialist crusaders. It could also get worse if the rebels prevail, and they provide yet another model to provoke Islamist uprisings elsewhere and provide state support to terrorism against their former imperialist crusader allies. Things might get better, we suppose, but it’s hard to see how.
There will be the inevitable “wag the dog” theories that Obama is concocting a foreign military adventure to distract attention from the myriad scandals that have suddenly beset his administration, but as much as we are inclined to believe the worst of him it seems implausible. Something is always going on to justify such speculation, which arises with every foreign crisis, and Obama is at least shrewd enough to realize that another war won’t placate a left-wing base smoldering over revelations of an invasive National Security Administration and backing a bunch of al Qaeda-affiliated Islamist nutcases won’t please a right-wing opposition infuriated by the Internal Revenue Service’s harassment. After winning re-election on the argument that al Qaeda has been routed, and telling an audience at the National Defense University that the war on terror is winding down because “That’s what democracy demands,” we suspect that Obama would prefer a juicy celebrity scandal as a distraction rather than another war.
As appealing as the conspiracy theories might be, the more likely explanation is that a combination of bad luck, bad choices, and the inherently dangerous nature of the world have led us to this unpleasant situation. We’ll hope it all works out, somehow, but that’s not how we’ll bet.

— Bud Norman

The Hillary Show

Popularity has always been a most perplexing phenomenon. As far back as our school days we noticed that the most popular boys were often arrogant jerks, the most popular girls often vain flibbertigibbets. Since then we have frequently been confounded by the box office success of silly sci-fi shoot-‘em-ups, the vast viewerships of inane sit-coms, the rock star status of talentless caterwaulers, and of course the presidential preferences of the past two electoral majorities.
Even after so many years of proud membership in the minority of opinion, however, we were downright flummoxed upon reading a Quinnipiac poll showing that Hillary Clinton is “easily the most popular actor on the American political stage.” We could understand on an intellectual level that our well-liked classmates were at least good-looking and possessed of a certain manipulative charm, those insipid sci-fi flicks and television shows had an understandable appeal to people who prefer to stop thinking during their leisure, the hot bands provided a seductively simple beat, and the president had the good fortune to be running against Republicans, but there seems to be no accounting at all for the popularity of Hillary Clinton.
Certainly nothing in Clinton’s recently-completed term as Secretary of State justifies her good standing with the public. A partial list of her acts includes backing a Marxist coup in Honduras, the betrayal of our Czech and Polish allies on a missile defense agreement, an obsequious and inept courtship of our Russian adversary, a similarly supine relationship with our Chinese creditors, praising Syria’s brutal dictator as a “reformer,” hastening the ouster of a generally reliable friend and the installation of a radical Islamist government in Egypt, ineffectual entreaties to Iran about its on-going nuclear weapons program, as well as an ill-conceived war against Libya. There was also the incompetence that led to the deaths of four brave Americans in Libya in the aftermath of that unauthorized Libyan war, as well as the dishonest scapegoating of an obscure American filmmaker that followed. If there is any portion of the world where America’s prestige and strategic position has improved over the past four years, except perhaps the salons of the European intelligentsia, we can not readily identify it.
Nor can we find anything in Clinton’s long career as a public figure that explains her apparent appeal to the public. Her brief time as a Senator was marked by her outspoken support for the subprime lending policies that led to the crash of ’08, some partisan bomb-throwing, and no legislative accomplishments of note. Her earlier role as First Lady is remembered for her mysteriously lost records in the Whitewater scandal, a failed attempt to socialize the American health care system, and her ridiculous claims of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” to explain her husband’s philandering.
As a feminist icon she has been an embarrassment to the sisterhood. Going all the way back to hear earliest days as a lawyer Clinton’s career has been due to her willingness to silently endure the humiliation of her husband’s serial infidelities, and her complete lack of accomplishments in her many posts is the proof of nepotism. The only sexual double-standard that has come into play has been in her favor, as any man whose spouse had so publicly betrayed him would mocked as a cuckold and laughed off the public stage.
One might chalk up Clinton’s enviable poll numbers to an ineffable likeability, but she seems to have none. A dour, self-righteous woman whose only sense of humor is expressed by an occasional sneering cackle, Clinton is clearly a ruthless sort lacking in any warmth. Such a bare knuckle persona might endear her to the hard left, but one shudders to think there might be enough of them to explain her high favorability ratings.
Our best guess is that the Hillary Clinton reality show has had such a long run on television that the public has grown accustomed to her increasingly haggard face, and embraces her for the same strange reason they seem to enjoy the antics of all the other unremarkable people who have attained unearned celebrity. This is only a guess, though, and if we had any real ability to explain such odd popularity we would likely be given a more remunerative job as a network programmer.

— Bud Norman

Resetting the Russian Reset

One shudders to think how Vladimir Putin might become any more openly contemptuous of Barack Obama. The Russian president hasn’t yet publicly called his American counterpart “boy,” but that seems likely to occur any moment.

Putin’s latest expression of contempt is his decision to dispatch a flotilla of seven Russian warships and an unknown number of marines to the Syrian port of Tartus, part of a long effort to thwart western attempts to remove the dictatorial regime of Bashar Assad or at least stop his ongoing slaughter of his countrymen. Russia’s efforts on behalf of its longtime ally have also included vetoing a series of resolutions in the United Nations’ Security Council, supplying arms to Assad’s forces, undermining economic sanctions with continued trade and direct assistance, and providing a fig leaf of international legitimacy.

The Syrian issue hasn’t been Putin’s only opportunity to demonstrate his disregard for America and its allies. Putin has also obstructed American and western efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, threatened to withhold crucial natural gas supplies from Europe, bullied former Soviet client states such as Georgia, and provided diplomatic and economic support to such international troublemakers as Raul Castro and Hugo Chavez. In order to leave no doubt about his disdain for America and its allies, Putin also skipped the recent G-8 economic summit, and during his last direct meeting with Obama he was ostentatiously scornful that even the CBS reporters noticed.

Many commentators have noted that Putin’s anti-American shenanigans have occurred despite Obama’s extraordinary efforts to accommodate the Russian. One of Obama’s first foreign policy efforts was to have Secretary of State Hillary Clinton present the Kremlin’s diplomats with a “reset button” representing his belief that any disagreement between the United States and Russia was surely the result of the hated George W. Bush, and even though the button had an incorrect translation on it the administration’s subsequent decisions have all reflected the same view. Obama broke past promises to Poland and the Czech Republic regarding missile defense, brokered a nuclear arms limitation treaty that was very much to Putin’s liking, and even gave a phone call to congratulate Putin on his widely disputed election. In a particularly embarrassing moment, Obama was even overheard assuring the Russians that he’d be even more “flexible” should he win re-election.

The more likely explanation for Putin’s brazen belligerence is that it occurred because of, rather in spite of, Obama’s accommodating stance. History is replete with thugs such as Putin who have perceived such friendly overtures as a sign of weakness to be exploited, and we can think of no instances where they have responded in kind and abandoned their pursuit of a perceived national interest. Putin has explicitly stated his contempt not only for the weakness of Obama but of the entire western world that has elevated such men to positions of power, most recently in a speech to his diplomatic corps when he stated that “Domestic socio-economic problems that have become worse in industrialized countries as a result of the (economic) crisis are weakening the dominant role of the so-called historical West.”

Hearing such criticisms from the likes of Putin is always infuriating, but especially so when they seem to be right.

— Bud Norman

A World of Trouble

Americans are notoriously indifferent to what’s going on in the rest of the world, and a cursory glance at the stories coming in from around the globe will readily reveal why. There’s a lot of bad news out there, and there seems to be little that America can do about it.

Not only is there is no good news lately from Egypt, the most populous and arguably the most influential country in the Middle East, there’s not even a sure way to describe what would constitute good news in such a dysfunctional state. A candidate backed by the Muslim Brotherhood claims to have won the recent presidential election, which might even be true, but the courts have dissolved the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Parliament and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which had backed the second-place candidate, has declared itself sweeping powers that include writing the new constitution that will define the president’s role. Neither the theocratic rule of the medieval Muslim Brotherhood nor the severe order of a brutal military dictatorship serve the interests of Egypt or the rest of the world, but the social media-savvy young modernists that the media and the administration expected to take over back in the giddy days of the “Arab Spring” are no longer an option. Should the country fall into a civil war between the military and the Islamists, a distinct possibility, the hipsters should fare even worse.

A military dictatorship in Egypt might be the best outcome for the west, at least in the short term, but any overt support from America or Europe will only aggravate the constant anti-western sentiment throughout the Muslim world. Western support for the Islamists, even if couched as a pro-democracy statement, will fuel their ambitions but won’t lessen their hatreds. Saying a few nice things on behalf of the modernists will sound nice, but be futile. None of the options bode well for Israel, which is already seeing an increase of violence on its Egyptian border.

America’s interests are somewhat clearer in regard to Syria, where the vicious regime of Bashir Assad has been slaughtering thousands of rebels and non-combatants in a desperate attempt to retain its power, but the options are no more appealing. In addition to the clear humanitarian objections to the Assad regime, Americans of both parties are eager to see a new government take hold because Syria is one of Iran’s last reliable allies, a constant meddler in the affairs of Lebanon and other countries, a backer of terror groups, and a general annoyance to the world order. Although America joined with France and other European countries to provide weapons and air support for rebels fighting against the odious but less troublesome Gadafi government in Libya, this time around the support has been purely rhetorical.

The newfound caution is understandable, given that there are no assurances the rebels will represent an improvement, as well as the chaos that followed the Libyan revolution, but it might also be motivated by fear of antagonizing the Iranians or even the Russians, who have been supplying weapons to the Syrian government and is now dispatching warships to the region. Such sound reasons offer no solace to the victims of Assad’s atrocities, of course, and a reluctance to antagonize the likes of Iran and Russia does little to deter them.

Just because these crises offer no good choices, however, does not mean that the American government has lately been choosing poorly. In retrospect it was a bad decision to demand that Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak step down, for despite his many faults he was a reliable keeper of the peace with Israel, and America could have used its clout to negotiate a deal that would have kept him or a hand-picked successor around long enough to improve the political chances of the pro-western intellectuals who helped to launch the revolution. While there can be no certainty that sterner policies would have succeeded in cowing our adversaries into compliance, the attempts at “resetting” relations with Russia and offering an “open hand” to Iran have completely failed, as have America’s earlier attempts to work with Assad as a “reformer.” Cuts to the American defense budget probably aren’t sending the right signals, either.

Similarly scary situations can be found in every corner of the world, and in most cases there are also legitimate criticisms of America’s response. It’s enough to keep one focused on the domestic news, as bad as that might be, or maybe even limit one’s reading to the sports pages.

— Bud Norman