Saturday, December 8, 2012

Speaking Loudly and Carrying Nothing

A recent article in the New York Times, encapsulated quite nicely, my personal concern and confusion over the actions of President Obama.  In this article, the press noted the way in which the President's claims in the past had given way in the face of current events.  A previous declaration of that simply 'moving' chemical weapons was grounds for intervention has given way to 'using' chemical weapons as a pretext for intervention.

While the NYT seems to see this changing stance as an isolated incident of changing priorities, I believe that this represents an increasingly apparent flaw in President Obama's foreign policy.  Namely, his administration talks.  A lot.  About a lot of stuff that they have no control over.

His administration has issued a lot of opinions about a lot of things but acted only rarely.  Or rather, they rarely act in a decisive manner that will actually settle a matter.

In some ways, it represents, to me, the opposite of "Speak softly and carry a big stick."

Obama's doctrine, especially in the Middle East, is heavy on lecture, heavy on speaking and light on stick.  For me, this is a lot better than him committing troops to another war, but it worries me in two ways.

Firstly, I don't actually know what Obama is doing for/in the name of our country.  Despite his rhetoric, I cannot seem to understand his moves/methods and he doesn't seem interested in explaining it to us.  I've seen a lot of liberals explaining what he's doing and a lot of conservatives complain about it, but apart from "we're going to focus more on Asia soon" I really don't know what America is planning to do next.  Intervene in Syria?  Who the hell knows?  There is a lot of tea leaf reading going on, but I fail to see how the ambiguity improves American interests or security.  That's on Obama.  If he feels he needs to take the country in certain direction foreign policywise, he should at least have the decency to explain what and why.  There are too many people explaining it for him these days; I don't want an interpretation of an opinion, I'd like to hear from his what the plan is.

I think the closest we got was when he committed the 'surge' to Afghanistan, but that was very heavy on ideals and tactics, and very light on 'what the hell are we doing?'  The President really needs to make it more clear.

Secondly, the more his red lines shift, the less anyone knows what to make of his pronouncements.  Its why you don't talk shit in ambiguous circumstances.  It amounts to a bluff.  And the more you talk about "I don't bluff," the more it can prod people to see if that's the case.  I'm worried that, like everyone else, President Obama does have red lines that will invite retaliation, but his tough talk makes it more and more ambiguous and increases the chance that those lines get crossed.  There is way too much speculation that his tough foreign policy is merely a reflection of a domestic political agenda for him to make legitimate use of force threats.  This is a problem that President Obama's administration has not addressed, and it is actually a very serious one.

So since everyone else seems interested in giving their two cents.  I don't think the President is interested in intervening in the Middle East at all, barring a nuclear explosion.  That's not likely to happen, so stay tuned for more of the same for the next couple of years.  Hopefully, the Syria mess will peter out of its own accord and the damage caused by the revolution there will moderate some of the Arab street so that the revolutions become more reform than actual revolution.

Here's the thing, though.  If things do not get better, but in fact become crazier or far worse, I have no idea what to expect from Obama.  That's bad.  And in my worst case forecasting, neither does he.

PF Khans


  1. PFK,
    We have been rudderless for a long time.
    It didn't start w. Obomba and it won't end with him. We are strong on tactics but short on strategic thought.
    You are cut of a different material since most of us on this site know that tough talk isn't the sign of leadership.

  2. SSDD, PRK. All administrations in the post-WW2 era have done this. As jim points out, this didn't start with this President and won't end with him.

    A LOT of this stuff IMO is the need for U.S. pols to be "seen doing something" but with the understanding that actually DOING something is too risky. So it's fairly safe to talk smack about foreign nations "moving chemical weapons" with the firm understanding that no U.S. troop is going to end up parachuting into Homs to actually, y'know, stop Iran "moving chemical weapons".

    Same-same with Syria. The people at State and DoD who know anything about Syria have informed the executive that both sides in this mess are fairly toxic; there's no "good guys" here, and getting involved would put us in a worse position than the mess left behind in Libya just because Syria is in a more critical location. BUT...lots of folks in the U.S.; rabid neocons on the Right, liberal liberty-huggers on the Left, want the U.S. to "do something". Talk is cheap and makes the various factions fell like they've been heard. So talk is what we get.

    And my thought isn't so much that we're rudderless, jim, as that right now we have what is effectively an oligarchy. But we have to pretend we're still a democracy. The things that the nation could do if it WERE a democracy - that would benefit Joe and Mary Lunchpail American more than the Romneys and the Koches - conflict with the things that benefit the Romneys and Koches. So the result is that the stuff we SAY we want is incompatible with what "we" - the people who actually run stuff - really do want and move our government to support.

    Add to that; if we HAD a Middle East policy, what would it be? The disconnect between having to unconditionally support Israel and wanting the things we need from the ME, which are all possessed by some Arab state or another, forces our policies into utter incoherence.

  3. What Chief said. I would just add that this is primarily strategic messaging - we're just drawing a red line on the use of Chem weapons and it's a line we've drawn regularly over the years. This isn't any big thing, nor is it any kind of departure from past policy.

  4. PfK:

    As President, Teddy Roosevelt never used his big stick either. He just talked about it. Which is fine with me. Talking is always better than beating someone with a stick IMHO.

  5. I guess I should say, I really wish we'd talk less. It makes me nervous. I have zero interest in returning to the military, and I worry that Obama's tough talk and general "Don't you dare take a turn for the worse...or else!" is eventually going to lead to the or else. And so we'll bomb some sites, but God help us if something goes wrong.

    I respect the alleged restraint the President has used to date. By a number of accounts, he has resisted the use of force in circumstances where others recommended going for attacks, but there's also the bin Laden, drone strikey precedent and the surge in Afghanistan precedent that he's used, so I legitimately don't know what he'll do.

    Just as another element of concern, why is Obama calling Morsi and telling him that he wants him to have dialogue with his own countrymen after Morsi had said he wanted dialogue with his countrymen. Who gives a flying flip? He just talks too much about stuff he can't control...sort of like me ranting about him talking too much. :)

    PF Khans

  6. Again; the main reason for all this "talk" is because if the President doesn't "talk" then the various factions in this country that have vested interests in an "active" foreign policy begin pressing for the President to DO something. So the talk is actually a good way to defuse that pressure.

    Look back at all the guff that GWB spewed about his "freedom agenda". Same-same. For all that his krewe fucked the pooch in Iraq and A-stan in general the overall geopolitical posture of the 43 administrations wasn't all that different from his daddy 41 or the Johnson Administration, for that matter; "stability", support for friendly dictators, aid to suppression of foreign populist movements, that sort of thing. But Dubya had to TALK like he was all for the glorious people's liberation in Egypt, etcetera to keep both the idiots like Wolfowitz from pushing to drive on through Iraq to Syria and Lebanon and Turkey (who knew with that fucktard) and to keep the centerist/liberal interventionist Dems on board.

    Re: Obama, my thoughts are that I'm a lot less squiffed about his talk than his under-the-table enthusiasm for the secret drone bombing campaigns in the various unpaved parts of the world. If there's one thing I've learned from reading history is that rolling the iron die is always less of a sure thing than the geopolitical gamblers think it is. So where I see the real fuckups coming from isn't so much his public statements - because given the tenor of the time there's not much he CAN do in terms of serious use of force outside a foreign target stupid enough to give him a casus belli - as much as the private use of force now going on that he says nothing about.

  7. Chief,

    What you said makes a lot of sense to me. Perhaps my concern is the similarities between President Obama's administration and previous ones. While its quite clear, President Obama is not bloodthirsty, he does seem to think he's in control of a great deal. And that seems really very dangerous to me.

    It works great as long as things stay at a low boil or smaller, but that's not the direction things are headed. The Middle East is further out of US control than at any point since the Arab Oil embargo. War was a near thing then too.

    But in the end, I think you're right, I'd be far more comfortable if he just talked and didn't drone strike and cyber war on enemy countries. Too many SOF guys running around, and as much as we won't go to war without a cause belli, we've really already gone to war in the Middle East, its just our enemies are too weak to retaliate in a way that would lead to further escalation. But give it time...who knows?

    PF Khans

  8. A neighbor recently said that a national "leader" needs to have "a good brain, a good heart and a big set of balls". Lacking any one of these three results in poor results.

    The bride and I have discussed Mr Obama at length, and it is the "balls" that he seems to lack. Perhaps he is more reliant on "deliberation" than "executive action"? While the House and Senate are designed to be "deliberative bodies", we seem to have lost the notion that the "Executive Branch" is just that. Of course, our Constitution does not lend itself to a truly "executive" Executive, but that does not excuse a President from thinking and acting fully "executive" in any and every manner allowed. While the Constitution does not allow fully "executive" actions, it does not prohibit "executive thought and policy recommendations. Sadly, we see too much "consensus building" when "balls" are required.

    It's a systemic problem.