Thursday, March 31, 2011

Without self-righteousness

"It is tiresome to harp on this sort of thing, but this is an intervention done in the spirit of Reinhold Niebuhr. It is motivated by a noble sentiment, to combat evil, but it is being done without self-righteousness and with a prudent awareness of the limits and the ironies of history. And it is being done at a moment in history when change in the Arab world really is possible." -- David Brooks, New York Times

Doctrinal contrasts

"In the words of a prominent Israeli -- The Obama Doctrine: He only goes if the entire world, including the Arab League, wants him to go. The Bush Doctrine: He only goes if the entire world, except the British, doesn't want him to go." -- Joe Klein, Time magazine

Obama's 'Gas Stove Gambit'

AS THE NATO coalition ends its second week in Libya, the fog of war is thickening in America. Among pundits, that is. President Obama's strategy is being Folded, Spindled and Mutilated as it runs the gamut of over-analysis. Outright misinterpretations and unrealistic expectations keep sprouting up like Arizona wildflowers. Yes, there are too many cooks in the kitchen, but that is the nature of our democracy. I wouldn't have it any other way.

The always wise Fareed Zakaria noted that in the president's Libya speech "Obama did little to address the central strategic gap in his policy on Libya between its expansive goals — chiefly the ouster of Gaddafi — and its tightly defined military means." That's true, he didn't address it — publicly. Nor should he.

Look, taking out Qaddafi will require some combo of inducements (safe passage, money, etc.), threats (criminal prosecution, covert action), crony buy-offs (see foreign minister defection), military action (broadened airstikes) and rebel assistance (arms, training). To the chagrin of the chest-thumpers, much of this will likely be done indirectly via the allies since America can ill afford to get her hair mussed (if we do, everyone will have a bad hair day). Granted, a presidential PowerPoint presentation detailing "OPERATION GET GADDAFI" would be satisfying. Ditto if FDR had handed over his OPERATION OVERLOAD plans prior to the Normandy landings. But that's a lousy way to fight a war and a perfect one for tying a president's hands. Professor Obama is not conducting a Davos seminar. Lives are at stake.

Zakaria surmises that "there are only two ways to close the gap [between removing Qaddafi and restricting military action] — escalate the means or scale back your goals." That strikes me as a false choice if Zakaria means up the military ante or live with Qaddafi's survival. He further observes: "Washington is now hoping that a bit more military power will dislodge Gaddafi’s regime. My fingers are crossed." So are mine. Yet, Zakaria suggests that this isn't enough. "It would be far more sensible, while hoping for the best, to plan for other likely outcomes," he writes. I'd be stunned if Obama isn't doing just that. It seems likely the rebels will be armed and trained in some fashion depending on how fast Qaddafi regime crumbles (assuming it does). But, more fundamentally, this adventure was never about using the silver bullet that we've always had at our disposal: landing the Marines. What's gotten lost in the debate, I think, is that this was a "Gas Stove Gambit" from the onset. Obama lit the flame under Qaddafi at the simmer setting (i.e., intervention without boots on the ground). Via multiple overt and covert means, Top Chef Obama is now turning up the heat a notch at a time. The question is how long will it take to cook the dictator's goose, assuming it does. Dinner could be ready at any time, but there is neither a recipe nor cookbook for this particular Libyan fowl.

None of this means Mr. Obama's strategies shouldn't be closely scrutinized. By all means, let fly the hounds of inquiry. I, for one, think Obama should unleash Monsieur Sarkozy and let him deploy his French Foreign Legion to arm the rebels, pronto. For the love of God, just do it. But that said, the coalition is only midway through Day 13. To paraphrase a cliché, Tripoli wasn't built in a day. And Top Chef Obama has yet to add all the ingredients to his steaming pot of Qaddafi Stew. Besides - sorry, I can't resist this - a watched pot never boils. So, a little benefit of the doubt and patience might be in order.

Take Vienna, Professor Obama

WHAT is it about conservative political columnists and macho saber rattling? True, there are a few "liberal hawks" who stack their rhetorical rifles in the same bivouac. But only a few. They are a squad to the brigade of conservative hawks. (I nearly wrote "goosestepping" brigade, but that's a bridge too far. These well-meaning, patriotic folks are certainly not Nazis. Only their self-righteous zeal gives me pause.)

Behold "brigade commander" Charles Krauthammer, the Washington Post columnist. For him, the Libyan intervention is the "Ivy League Professor's War." (Note how "Ivy League" is prefixed to Obama like a form of leprosy. Mr. K conveniently fails to mention that he, too, is a product of "Havahd Yahd" like Obama.) Thundering from the "Situation Room" in his plush DC office, General Krauthammer slams Professor Obama for making "military objectives take a back seat to diplomatic appearances." Our weak-sister president is "equally obsessed with handing off the lead role." Why even Bill Clinton "spoke of America as the indispensable nation." Brooding like Othello, Krauthammer simply cannot comprehend that "at a time when the world is hungry for America to lead ... America is led by a man determined that it should not." Just before the closing credits, Krauthammer makes his final, Napoleonic lament: "A man who dithers over parchment. Who starts a war from which he wants out right away. Good God. If you go to take Vienna, take Vienna!"

Clap. Clap. Clap. That was quite a performance, even for the volcanic Krauthammer. (Someone should notify the Academy of Motion Picture Arts. A late Oscar may be owed.) There is little merit, if any, in Krauthammer's twisted assertions. He is attempting to channel the wisdom of Douglas MacArthur without the general's verve, succinctness or poetry: "War's very object is victory, not prolonged indecision." When put that way, one might have a viable critique to use against Obama's Libyan approach. Krauthammer, on the other hand, is simply chest-thumping as a provocateur who, unlike MacArthur, has no understanding of war. "I know war as few other men now living know it, and nothing to me--and nothing to me is more revolting. [...] its very destructiveness on both friend and foe has rendered it useless as a means of settling international disputes," MacArthur said in his famous address to Congress. Obama knows this instinctively and, like any president, acts prudently when exposing our troops to combat. Marshal Krauthammer, alas, doesn't have a clue.

Yes, there is merit in Napoleon Bonaparte's "take Vienna" boldness during war. But Krauthammer's hero also said: "In politics stupidity is not a handicap." That goes double for political column writing.

He's dead to me

BEHOLD the latest tell-all memoir. This time the honors go to billionaire Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

In its book review, Wired magazine writes:
"In an incendiary new book, 'Idea Man,' ... Allen accuses Gates of 'scheming to rip me off' by trying to dilute Allen’s stake in the software pioneer. 'It was mercenary opportunism, plain and simple,' Allen writes. Later, after Gates rebuffed Allen’s request to increase his stake, Allen says that, 'In that moment, something died for me.' "
Concluding, Wired noted that it was "not clear what Allen’s motivations were in writing the new book. With an estimated net worth north of $10 billion, he certainly doesn’t need the money." Not clear? Please. His is the oldest motivation known to man: spite. In Allen's mind, he has finally fed his nemesis the proverbial dish that is best served cold -- revenge. It's rather sad that Allen appears to have carried such an unhealthy grudge for nearly three decades (he left Microsoft in 1982). You'd think that someone with more money than God, thanks in part to Bill Gates, would have moved on long ago. Then again, when is comes to the human condition, English writer Nan Fairbrother is probably right: "We are perverse creatures and never satisfied."

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A class act

The prestigious Man Booker International Prize is awarded every two years to an author for "extraordinary work in fiction body of work." On top of the accolades, the winner is awarded $96,000. John le Carré, the longtime spy novelist, is one of 13 finalists. Le Carré said he is flattered, then promptly added: Thanks, but no thanks. In book circles, that's tantamount to "throwing down the gauntlet" and demanding pistols at dawn "for satisfaction." Literary tongues are atwitter. With apologies to Ian Fleming, a controversy has been both shaken and stirred. The famed espionage writer wants his name withdrawn, at once. At once, you hear! Le Carré, a millionaire many times over, wants to "give less established authors the opportunity to win.” Rather than contemplating "A Murder of Quality," the Booker folks, though pained, still consider Le Carré "Our Kind of Traitor." Even if their spy novelist won't, um, come in from the cold, they plan to shove their prize down his throat anyway (if he wins). "John le Carré's name will, of course, remain on the list," the Booker committee chair sniffed in a statement. "We are ... great admirers of his work." Well, as le Carré himself once observed, "A committee is an animal with four back legs." Quite right, old boy. Still, in an age of abject narcissism, Mr. le Carré's gentlemanly gesture is a classy act. Well played, sir.

The Rumsfeld Doctrine

Excuse the colorful colloquialism, but ex-SecDef Donald Rumsfeld thinks President Obama has it ass-backwards on Libya. He thinks Obama has allowed the coalition to determine the mission, which, as seen through his rose-colored glasses, has led to abject confusion. "THE MISSION should determine the coalition," he said on CNN's "John King USA." And he thinks THE MISSION should be regime change (i.e., eliminating Qaddafi with extreme prejudice). Call it the Rumsfeld Doctrine. He cited Iraq, of all places, as the epitome of THE MISSION done right. No, Rummy wasn't high on crack (presumably) as he made that remark. He’s utterly convinced that Team Bush added a sterling new page to Sun Tzu’s classic “The Art of War.” We know how Rummy's "Charge of the Light Brigade" into Iraq turned out. After Bush gave him the boot, it took the genius of Gen. David Petraeus - today's Ulysses S. Grant - to pull our chestnuts out the fire. As for Libya, it never occurs to Rummy that if THE MISSION was solely to forcibly remove Qaddafi, there would be no coalition -- or a UN mandate. Therefore, under the Rumsfeld doctrine, that would leave us with the unilateral "Charge of the Light Brigade" option -- but this time we'd plunge headlong into the Libyan sandbox. Bugler, sound the charge! To borrow a favorite Rumsfeld-ism, "oh my goodness gracious!" The mind reels.

'Numba Ten' headache

President Obama likely has a "Numba Ten" headache, to use a slang term from the Vietnam War era. Can you imagine conducting war and nuanced diplomacy while being hounded, cross-examined, second-guessed and graded by Talking Heads of every stripe on every news platform, 24/7? And that's on top of the endless "What Obama Should Do" editorials that newspapers lord over him from coast to coast. George W. Bush went through this madness, too, especially after the 2003 Iraq invasion. Don't get me wrong: Vigorous criticism and "advice" is both healthy and necessary. But the sheer volume of chatter (not to mention the degradation of the signal-to-noise ratio) has increased by several orders of magnitude since Bush passed the baton to Obama.

Right now, I'm listening to David Gergen and his knitted-brow brethren express concern that the Libyan rebels are a rabble (News Flash: This condition has bedeviled these would-be revolutionaries since day 1). In this case, the pundit talk is reasonably learned. Still, it is about as useful as discussing the Dow Jones Index midway through the trading day. In isolation, it's kinda meaningless. Daily troop movements during the ebb and flow of combat is discussed like so many stocks or bonds. (OMG! They're retreating! Sell!) The meaning of this advance or that retreat is typically exaggerated or misinterpreted. Half the time, the pundits are merely guessing since few possess insider knowledge or expertise.

The sum total of this relentless chatter ferments relentless (and often irrational) pressure on the White House. Hence, Obama's constant migraine. He can't ignore it entirely. For good or ill, politics is always in the room when he devises or shapes policy. Amazingly, Mr. Spock has not let any of this force his hand. Must be that Vulcan blood. Just keep gulping down the Excedrin Extra Strength, Mr. President.

The cabbie always knows

Time magazine columnist Joe Klein is in Jerusalem this week. After watching Obama's Libya speech, he gauged Palestinian reaction. "Most Palestinians seem entirely pleased that Obama has acted against Gaddafi, who is seen as an Arab embarrassment," he wrote. But his inevitable Jerusalem cabdriver voiced the clearest view: "Thank you, thank you. Qaddafi is a pig. Everyone is happy with Obama about this." That's good enough for me. If you want to know what "the man in street" really thinks, whether in New York, Paris, Cairo or Jerusalem, just ask your cabbie.

Blabber mouths and Congress

ONLY Congress has the power to declare war and raise the armed forces. It should be consulted as full partner when the president places U.S. troops in harm's way, preferably ahead of time. Though he committed no egregious sins, President Obama could have done a better job in this regard with respect to Libya. That said, here's the problem. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) attended a classified briefing on Libya today. Let me repeat: A classified briefing - as in you cannot discuss what was said. Afterward, he picks up a phone and talks to TPM, the big political blog. Other than sharing what was said about the War Powers Act, "the lawmaker said he learned nothing new during the classified briefing by Clinton, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff," wrote the TPM reporter. Hmm. And if he had learned anything new, would Sherman have shared? I wonder. I'll presume the good congressman wouldn't actually divulge secrets, but his actions do not exactly inspire confidence. And people wonder why presidents hesitate to deal with the 535 "secretaries of states" in Congress on matters of war. Just sayin'.

Will Qaddafi use his WMD?

According to the Washington Post, there is a small "garage" in a remote location in the Libyan desert south of Sirte, Qaddafi's hometown. The garage contains about 10 tons of mustard gas in six large canisters. The stockpile was slated to be destroyed no later than May 2011 by the Libyan government. Then the NATO intervention happened. Needless to say, all bets are off on the poison chemicals. The question: Is Qaddafi crazy enough to go all Saddam Hussein on us and unleash his WMD against his own people? Probably not. But not because he has a conscience or a shred of morality. He possesses neither. Qaddafi won't use his WMD because doing so would hand Obama the perfect excuse for landing the Marines and the 82nd Airborne in Libya. Obama would likely get unanimous UN support since the use of chemical weapons would outrage the world. And once American boots are on the ground, Qaddafi is done. So, no, he won't do it. It's not rational. One caveat: Qaddafi is bat-shit crazy. Ergo, no one should dismiss the unthinkable.

Not so fast, Joe Klein

The Washington Monthly begs to differ: "When it comes to the existing GOP field, [Joe] Klein's assessment seems more than fair. Given what we've seen so far -- and it's only going to get worse -- this is a plainly ignominious bunch. ... [But] Klein doesn't explain how a sensible, self-respecting, qualified Republican is going to win primaries without also becoming some ridiculous caricature. Indeed, note that Klein made no mention of Jon Huntsman -- who presumably would qualify as a reasonable GOP candidate unwilling to 'behave like a public clown' -- probably because no one seriously believes the party base will tolerate him."

For mom and apple pie

Time's Joe Klein is traveling overseas. He's been repeated embarrassed by having to explain how two Republican candidates -- men who (theoretically, in a galaxy far, far away) could be president -- can be so, well, stupid.
Newt Gingrich: "I have two grandchildren. I am convinced that if we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America, by the time they're my age they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American."

Herman Cain: "There is this creeping attempt, there is this attempt to gradually ease Sharia law and the Muslim faith into our government."
Islamic radicals? Sharia law? In America? I agree with Joe. Both fellows need to get back on their meds, quick. "This is my 10th presidential campaign, Lord help me. I have never before seen such a bunch of vile, desperate-to-please, shameless, embarrassing losers coagulated under a single party's banner. They are the most compelling argument I've seen against American exceptionalism," writes Klein.

I, like Klein, disagree with the politics of Jeb Bush and Mitch Daniels. But I, like Klein, certainly respect these Republican adults (I would add Jon Huntsman to the line-up). The GOP would be wise to run them in 2012, if only as a warm-up act for 2016. While I am loathe to encourage the opposing team, I put America before partisan politics. A fair fight between rational Republicans and Democrats is good for the nation. So, I'll join Klein in his plea. Jeb, Mitch, Jon: For the love of God, mom, apple pie, "Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt," run. Please.

Decoding the Speech

Irreverent as usual, Esquire decodes President Obama's Libya speech, line-by-line (well, almost).

Some samples:
Obama: "In fact, much of the debate in Washington has put forward a false choice when it comes to Libya..."

Translation: And now to take on my pinhead critics!

Obama: "It is true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs. And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what's right ..."

Translation: I don't buy the slippery slope on this one. Even I — careful diplomat that I am — find this one seriously weak-ass argument.

Obama: "Let me close by addressing what this action says about the use of America's military power, and America's broader leadership in the world, under my presidency ..."

Translation: So let's leave it at this: bad man, easy target, too much possible innocent blood, no U.S. boots on the ground, and no serious responsibility to rebuild afterward. It's what you can stand right now, and it's what I'm comfortable dealing right now. It's as simple as that, people. God bless America.
Clever. It's almost worthy of Jon Stewart. Almost. Read the whole piece here.

Hmm, who leaked that?

Media outlets have all reported that President Obama signed a secret order (or "Presidential Finding") this week authorizing covert aid to the Libyan rebels. I suspect it mostly involves providing the rebels with intelligence, assessing their capabilities (or lack thereof) and formally authorizing our folks to engage in James Bondesque spying (we'd be nuts not to). The White House, of course, issued a classic non-denial denial. "I am not going to comment on intelligence matters," spokesman Jay Carney said. Translation: Yes, we have covert boots on the ground - wink, wink. However, this story almost certainly didn't come from intrepid shoe-leather reporting. Somebody, somewhere leaked it -- likely on purpose to send Qaddafi a message (i.e., we're not backing down, bucko, and watch your back). It's how the real world works.

Explains everything, right?

“Under [Bill] Clinton, the explanations were much better than the policies; under [George W.] Bush, the policies were always much better than the explanations.” -- Henry Kissinger

The constant struggle

An excerpt from George Orwell's famous "In Front of Your Nose" essay, first published on March 22, 1946. For political observers, they are words to live by:
"To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle. One thing that helps toward it is to keep a diary, or, at any rate, to keep some kind of record of one's opinions about important events. Otherwise, when some particularly absurd belief is exploded by events, one may simply forget that one ever held it. Political predictions are usually wrong. But even when one makes a correct one, to discover why one was right can be very illuminating. In general, one is only right when either wish or fear coincides with reality. If one recognizes this, one cannot, of course, get rid of one's subjective feelings, but one can to some extent insulate them from one's thinking and make predictions cold-bloodedly, by the book of arithmetic. In private life most people are fairly realistic. When one is making out one's weekly budget, two and two invariably make four. Politics, on the other hand, is a sort of sub-atomic or non-Euclidean word where it is quite easy for the part to be greater than the whole or for two objects to be in the same place simultaneously. Hence the contradictions and absurdities I have chronicled above, all finally traceable to a secret belief that one's political opinions, unlike the weekly budget, will not have to be tested against solid reality."
Still pertinent after 65 years. Remarkable.

What change looks like

I wasn't expecting this from Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, who in his latest essay wrote:
"I don’t know how Obama’s Libya intervention will end; in his speech, he made it seem tidier than it really is. But the speech had something notably absent from his addresses on Afghanistan: the ring of authenticity. When he said that he refused to sit by and watch Benghazi be raped, he sounded like a man speaking from the gut. Obama does not romanticize the history of American power and yet he is wielding American power. I wouldn’t want it any other way."
Neither would I.

I say again to Mr. Obama detractors, he is not perfect. No president is. He's made his share of mistakes. He'll make more. All presidents do. By all means criticize him. Rhetorically flagellate his politics or demeanor if you must. But the sheer quality and authenticity of this man should be "plain to any dispassionate eye." Granted, it won't deter or even temper denigration born of ignorance, resentment, prejudice or blind partisanship. Though, by all rights, it should.

But shouldn’t it be clear by now that this good man has the best interests of America at heart? I say the same was true of George W. Bush, another good man, politics aside. To paraphrase Orwell, why is it such a constant struggle for some to see what is in front of their nose? The answer to that is rooted in our epic history – a legacy marked by magnificence and, at times, monstrosity – and the ongoing struggle to form the “more perfect union” that Obama singularly embodies. As the president himself put it, “This is what change looks like.” Isn’t it about time that more of us appreciate this truth if not celebrate it?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

OMG! They're losing! - um, Again!

DISPATCH FROM TRIPOLI, LIBYA (Washington Post) — "Rebel fighters fled under fire from a key town in eastern Libya. The rebels’ chaotic retreat from the town of Bin Jawwad, which they had captured from troops loyal to Gaddafi just two days earlier, reversed the momentum they had seized over the weekend and suggested that the ad hoc and lightly armed opposition force may have reached the limits of its capacity." Take a deep breath. Now, slooowly exhale. Very good. Rather than courting whiplash, it's worth pausing to remember we're only 10 days into the war. There will successes and reverses, sometimes in the same day. Maybe the rebels have maxed themselves out militarily. Or maybe not. It's difficult to tell from way out here in the Arizonan desert or, I imagine, from the sundry newsrooms in DC or NYC. The paraphrase Jesse Jackson, give war a chance (sorry, reverend). Oh who am I kidding? Sensationalism sells newspapers, drives up web hits and boost tv ratings. So, HuffPo, take it away: "GADDAFI FORCES HAMMER REBELS!" OMG! OMG! Let the next round of hand-wringing begin.

The Poet Wears Prada

David Orr is AGHAST. In his latest essay, the On Poetry columnist for the New York Times Book Review writes: "The signs of the coming apocalypse are many, but none are starker than this Web headline in the April issue of O: The Oprah Magazine: 'Spring Fashion Modeled by Rising Young Poets.' Yes. Spring fashion. Modeled. By rising young poets. There follows a photomontage of attractive younger women — some of whom are rising poets mostly in the 'I get up in the morning' sense, but all of whom certainly look poetic — in outfits costing from $472 to $5,003." At the end of his piece, Orr simply throws up his arms and says, "Oh, Oprah. Oh, poetry." I sympathize. But nothing surprises me anymore. Nothing. For sanity's sake, it is best to simply bow to the absurd. And yet, even a pretense at poetry is probably better than no poetry at all.

Misery loves cliches

Ah, serendipity. I was searching for something else (a Chou En-lai quote of all things) when I stumbled upon an old article by somebody named "DearSugar." Sweet.

She writes for a pop culture website (or something) called -- what else? -- TresSugar. Anyway, her piece was as enticing as your favorite confection. How could anyone resist reading: "Ten Cliches That Actually Ring True."

Her nominations are: (1) Love is blind. (2) It takes two to tango. (3) Misery loves company. (4) If it ain't broke, don't fix it. (5) Too little, too late. (6) Actions speak louder than words. (7) Two wrongs don't make a right. (8) Never say never. (9) Laughter is the best medicine. (10) People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.

Not bad. DearSugar's readers added: "You get what you pay for"; "Actions speak louder than words," and "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." Personally, I would have nominated: "Stupid is as stupid does." And in honor of President Obama's Libya intervention, one mustn't forget the resurrection of the cliche now being bandied about by our lemming-like chattering class: "Hope is not a strategy."

But, as they say, I disgress. The Portal now returns you to its regularly scheduled programming. (Sorry. I just couldn't resist being trite to the last.)

Yankee imperialist running dogs

WHY HAVE old school communists, loathsome tyrants and bad guys (real and fictional) corned the market on the best quotable putdowns? From simple observations to truisms to insults, they always seem to have the edge.

Like perpetually being on the losing side of a “Yo Mamma” joke contest, us nice folks keep coming up short. It’s embarrassing. Oh, sure, we in the West come up with gems like “The Arsenal of Democracy” or “Remember the Alamo” or “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” or “I have but one life to give for my country.” And we congratulate ourselves for sloganeering profundities like “Hope you can believe in” or “Give peace a chance” or even “Shit happens.”

But none of these sayings hold a candle to Chairman Mao’s “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” KA-POW! Take that you miserable – wait for it – "running dogs of capitalism," yet another saying sourced to Mao. Don’t you hate when a Russian Marxist revolutionary like Vladimir Lenin is on the record – forever – for saying, “A lie told often enough becomes the truth?” He’s right, and there’s no getting around it. And then there is Joseph “Uncle Joe” Stalin, WWII’s version of Darth Vader. Where does an ex-peasant who was drunk on vodka half the time go to learn immortal but bloodcurdling zingers like “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic” or “Gratitude is a sickness suffered by dogs.” Yikes.

Even despotic flunkies have gotten into the act. During China's Boxer Rebellion, a minor Chinese official succinctly expressed his disdain for foreigners: "Take away your missionaries and your opium and you will be welcome." The speechless Britisher on the receiving end of that brief obviously “got served” big-time. Oh, and on your way out, just disregard all of those “Yankee Go Home” placards, another anti-West slogan that has endured the test of time.

And who can forget Saddam Hussein’s timeless pledge to wage “The Mother of all Battles” against us in the first Gulf War. True, we kicked his butt and turned his phrase into a punch line. But Saddam words are hopelessly part of our vernacular now, right? Rhetorically, heads he wins, tails we lose.

Which brings us to our latest tormentor: Muammar Muhammad al-Qaddafi. Now that we’re bombing his desert nation back to the proverbial Stone Age, the “Mad Dog of Libya” has taken to calling us the “Crusader, Colonial Aggressors.” Happily, this doesn’t ring like, say, “Yankee imperialist running dogs.” Maybe we’ll get lucky and Qaddaffi’s words won’t stick to the sands of time like those of his fellow despots.

Let’s face it, when it comes to rhetorical putdowns, tyrants do it better. So, I guess we in the West will just have to live with being despised as the “foreign devils” as the price of our freedom – and our right to “make love, not war” slogans.

The Excellence is Too Damn High

I love this: One Daily Dish reader is "irate" over the number of excellent articles (50-60 per day) the website cranks out. "This is just too much damn volume," he wrote. "Reading your blog has become too damn much work. It is just too much cool stuff. I know this might mean fewer hits on your blog, but ... Please, turn off the fire hose."

This perfectly captures the conundrum for web journalism. Sacrifice quantity, and you drive away visitors, plus the advertisers (your revenue) who want the hits. Sacrifice quality, and you drive away loyal readers. It's a digital "Catch-22." The result is the Huffington Post (a sugary tabloid) at one end, and the Daily Dish (a nourishing meal for the mind) on the other. HuffPo enriched its founder. The Dish barely makes a nickel. For web journalists, the dream is to create lean, quality work at a reasonable profit. But no one (except the Wall Street Journal which serves a narrow, moneyed audience) has done it yet.

In every other market sphere, consumers unhesitatingly pay for quality. Yet most will barely invest a dime in the quality products (serious blogs, newspapers, magazines) that enrich or inform the mind. It speaks volumes about our culture. It wasn't always this way. At America's founding, and for decades following it, erudition was highly prized. Indeed, we felt it was an obligation. As historian Daniel Walker Howe found, "Many an American, rural as well as urban, poor as well as middle-class, embraced the ethos of ... intellectual improvement. The young Abraham Lincoln with his book by the firelight shared this outlook."

Then modernity happened. Since WWII, there's been an intellectual unraveling. Quantum leaps in technology -- from radio to today's web-enabled smart devices -- have only sped the decline. Inventions that have enabled easier access to informal scholarship should have boosted our thirst for it. (Early America would have loved it.) Instead, our brilliant machines have had the opposite effect. We're dumbing down at an astonishing rate. Clearly, something is amiss in our cultural ethos when learning is viewed as "too damn much work." That so many have joined "The Excellence Is Too Damn High" bandwagon should give us all pause.

The 'Alien' from Alaska

THE REPUBLICAN PARTY is afraid of Sarah Palin. In fact, they are scared to death.

They increasingly view their Mama Grizzly as the creature in the movie Alien. The crew of commercial towing spaceship Nostromo was amazed to discover that the alien used steel-eating molecular acid for blood. “It's got a wonderful defense mechanism," remarked one crew member. "You don't dare kill it.” The GOP essentially has the same problem with Palin. They need her political base of crazies to have a shot at winning. But they don’t want McCain's Frankenstein monster at the top of the ticket, a scenario that would guarantee a 50-state landslide for Obama. Yet, they don’t dare diss Palin, either. The political effect would be the same as molecular acid: Her pissed off fan base would simply stay home and cook more meth. (Oh I kid the Palinites.) So, what to do?

Simple. Change reality. The new new spin: the presidency is “beneath her.” Yowzer. How's that for an Altered State? "There's more power in being Oprah Winfrey than in being Barack Obama. It would be my goal for Palin to become Oprah and be the ultimate kingmaker for twenty-odd years. Oprah anointed Barack Obama," conservative Andy Breitbart told GQ. One can only marvel at this a jaw-dropping display of cajones (or delusion, fantasy, naivety - take your pick). Yet, others in Republican officialdom and punditry – the folks who understand Palin’s long-term danger to the party – are beginning the echo similar rationales for countering the Alien from Alaska. For them it’s like, hey, whatever works, dude.

So, can they really pull off this hat trick and change reality? Sure. It worked with Obama’s citizenship, didn’t it? Over half of regular Republicans now believe our president is a Muslim Kenyan foreigner, or something. Frankly, I don’t know which is scarier: The Palin Frankenstein or a party of astoundingly gullible voters.

Libya through Sun Tzu's eyes

VIEWING matters through the ancient but wise lens of Sun Tzu, President Obama surely knows: "The enlightened ruler is heedful, and the good general full of caution." He and his Pentagon have clearly demonstrated this given their reluctance to "go kinetic" in Libya. They were wise to look before leaping.

Given his assertion in last night's speech (Iraq was a costly blunder), Obama also understands that: "There has never been a protracted war from which a country has benefited." It's why he wants out of Afghanistan and will avoid getting bogged down in Qaddafi's Saharan sands.

Since we're not in the room, there's no real way of knowing if Team Obama understands that: "Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat." On the latter, I worry a bit about the tactically-minded Hillary Clinton, a pol who is prone to put tactics before strategy. It is a core reason why she lost to Obama in 2008, and the source of my lingering discomfort with her. It lies in the secretary of state’s purview to devise grand strategy for the president, especially in regard to the volatile Middle East. Obama is rightly criticized for not having one (hence the ongoing kerfuffle over the so-called “Obama Doctrine”). The blame can largely be laid at Hillary’s feet. But I digress.

Since Obama is actively undermining Qaddaffi's critical supports (cutting off his money, crushing his army's will to fight, isolating his apparatchiks and political base), Obama appears to have embraced another crucial Tzu tenet: "What is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy's strategy." Qaddafi's strategy is to stay in power. Time, of course, will tell the true tale of whether these maxims were taken to heart. Success or failure may depend on it.

A guilty pleasure

"Yo mama so stupid she tried to put her M&Ms in alphabetical order." Heh. As kids or in the movies (think Meet the Spartans), we've all heard "Yo Mamma" jokes. They range from offensive to hilarious. In America, the sometimes elaborate insult contests, commonly known as "playing the dozens," originated in the slave quarters of New Orleans, according to Michigan State Univ. researcher Mona Lisa Saloy. But Yo Mamma contests go way back. William Shakespeare used it in "Timon of Athens," Act 1 Scene 1. Painter: "Y'are a dog." Apemantus: "Thy mother's of my generation. What's she, if I be a dog?" Whether or not these lines produced loud guffaws in Ye Olde England's Globe Theatre we'll never know. But somehow, I doubt it could top: "Yo mama so stupid she went to the orthodontist to get a blue tooth." Or my personal favorite: "Yo mama so stupid she got locked in a mattress store and sleep on the floor." Hah!

We. Love. Money.

“As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?” -- Alexis de Tocqueville

Smelling madness in the morning

THERE'S no substitute for art when getting at the sometimes dark heart of a matter. It can better speak to truth than the firsthand observations of people present at a pivotal, historical event. Of war’s futility, reckless bravery and the men who made the famed “Charge of the Light Brigade” in the 1854 Crimean War, French Marshal Pierre Bosquet said, "It is magnificent, but it is not war — it is madness." He walked the bloodied ground in the tragic aftermath of the action. His words were poetic and true. But I think Francis Ford Coppola captured the insanity of war and man’s irrational nature more powerfully in Apocalypse Now when the unhinged Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall) said, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning. The smell, you know that gasoline smell ... Smells like, victory!" These two lines are at once satirical, chilling, profound – and impossible to forget.

The folly of predictions

Asked about the historical effect of the 1789 French Revolution, Chou En-lai, then the Chinese Communist prime minister, wryly declared: "It's too early to tell."

Libya in true context?

“Libya, strafed by British and American planes, may be in the headlines but it is a minor country: it is the destinies of the key three — Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran — that will decide everything.” -- Simon Sebag Montefiore

Wanted: An Arab Mandela

Tom Friedman:
”What was crucial in keeping the low-grade civil war in Iraq from exploding, what was crucial in their writing of their own Constitution for how to live together, and what was crucial in helping Iraqis manage multiple fair elections was that they had a credible neutral arbiter throughout this transition: the U.S.”

“America played that role at a staggering cost, and not always perfectly, but played it we did. In Egypt, the Egyptian Army is playing that arbiter role. Somebody has to play it in all these countries in revolt, so they can successfully lay the foundations of both democracy and liberty. Who will play that role in Libya? In Syria? In Yemen? “

What the old guard never learned

Vladimir Lenin: “Can a nation be free if it oppresses other nations? It cannot.” Considering the author and the iron-fisted, brook-no-dissent Soviet state he established, the irony here is astounding. This is the same man who said, “Give us the child for 8 years and it will be a Bolshevik forever.” The mind reels.

All revolutions are local

A REVOLUTION resembles the death of a fading star, an exhilarating Technicolor explosion that gives way not to an ordered new galaxy but to a nebula, a formless cloud of shifting energy. -- Simon Sebag Montefiore, New York Times, "Every Revolution Is Revolutionary in Its Own Way"

Another inconvenient truth

On the Middle East: "We should always remember that however liberal these Facebooking revolutions may be, the rivalries between Shiite and Sunni are far more potent than Twitter and democracy." -- Simon Sebag Montefiore

Today's deep thought

"To say that war is madness is like saying that sex is madness: true enough, from the standpoint of a stateless eunuch, but merely a provocative epigram for those who must make their arrangements in the world as given." -- John Updike

Implied, not shaken

If I'm reading the tea leaves right, the NATO coalition has come to believe what ex-Air Force chief Gen. John Jumper suspects: “You’re probably dealing with a force that may not be totally motivated to continue this for the long haul.” The strategy now seems to be aimed at breaking their will to fight. In other words, pound the Libyan Army "hard enough to force them to oust Colonel Qaddafi, a result that Mr. Obama has openly encouraged." Which is exactly what the New York Times is reporting. The idea is to avoid stalemate on the ground and perhaps bring things to a head in a matter of days or a few weeks. This goal remains implied, not stated, of course. Yet NATO is serious about stepping up its game in this direction. The Times reports the Pentagon quietly sent "three of its most fearsome weapons" to scene over the weekend: two B-1B bombers, six tank-killing A-10 Warthogs (with laser-guided Maverick missiles or 30mm cannons) and two AC-130 gunships (bristling with 40mm and 105mm cannons). All of these platforms can deliver ordnance with pinpoint accuracy, even inside cities. Put another way, they are perfect morale-killing weapons. Here's hoping it works. Good hunting.

Waiting for Obama's Godot

Art, beauty and political speech is in the eye of the beholder. If you sit ten people down and have them listen to a presidential address together, what do you get?

Unless he's mouthing words on the level of "My Pet Goat," you'll get 10 interpretations of said address. Clearly, Andrew Sullivan and I heard two different speeches tonight. But his reaction to President Obama's address on Libya set my hair on fire.

"Was I persuaded? Not completely. The major objection - what happens now? - was not answered affirmatively by the president."
But Sully, please tell me how Obama could possibly answer that question, you know, "affirmatively." Read my lips: Obama does not know. No one does. Barack Obama is neither a soothsayer nor a savant. He's just the president.
"It wasn't Obama's finest oratory; but it was a very careful threading of a very small needle. That requires steady hands and calmer nerves than I possess."
It wasn't his "finest oratory?" As opposed to ... what? More to the point, why is Obama expected to deliver a Kennedyesque "pay any price, bear any burden" speech every time he bounds to the podium? Please. And why am I getting a whiff of subtle condescension?
"But this president emerges once again as a consolidator and adjuster of the past, not a revolutionary force for the future."
A revolutionary? Says who? I had no idea I was backing "Che" Guevara Obama in 2008. Again, we're back to Obama as the Messiah figure.

Look, my intent here is not to slam or pick on Sullivan. ("Sonny, it's not personal, it's just business.") The hedge rows are thick with similarly opinionated fowl. Consider, for example, National Journal editor Ron Fourier. On Twitter after the speech, he snippily demanded: "How many lives might be lost" in Libya? (OK, Ron, how do you want those KIA estimates - in PowerPoint or will a spreadsheet do?)

But Sully's comments are classically emblematic of those with wholly unrealistic expectations of Obama. So when Obama inevitably doesn't deliver (because he can't) or emote enough (because he won't), they lunge into dark convulsions. The Believers want so desperately for him to be Jesus of Nazareth in a Savile Row suit. They keep hoping that, this time, Obama will finally rush to a phone booth, change into his Superman garb -- and change the world in a single bound. It is as fruitless as waiting for Beckett's Godot. I believe we are extraordinarily lucky to have someone of Obama's intellect, integrity and caliber as president -- just as he is. Any fool not blinded by partisan politics can see that. Even Republicans.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Perspective for Dummies

Perspective (noun): (a) a way of regarding situations or facts, and judging their relative importance. (b) the proper or accurate point of view or the ability to see it; objectivity. That's the definition. I'd only add (c) a word or concept wholly alien to most pundits and much of the mainstream media.

We've heard much jawboning from the right about President Obama's alleged "dithering" on Libya. In his big speech on the coalition action tonight, the Commander in Chief set everybody straight:
"To summarize, then: in just one month, the United States has worked with our international partners to mobilize a broad coalition, secure an international mandate to protect civilians, stop an advancing army, prevent a massacre, and establish a No Fly Zone with our allies and partners. To lend some perspective on how rapidly this military and diplomatic response came together, when people were being brutalized in Bosnia in the 1990s, it took the international community more than a year to intervene with air power to protect civilians."
For the math-challenged, that's 365 days verses 31. Any questions? Thanks for clearing this matter up, Mr. President. Somebody needed to.

Fuzzy by design

On Libya, writer Steve Negus goes all John Stewart on Obama. Here's the speech he says the president should give tonight if he could be totally honest:
"We are there in support of a document produced by a committee, under time constraints, which is consequently rather fuzzily worded, authorizing vaguely-described actions to achieve some very generally defined goals. We are there to prevent a tragedy, the scale of which will remain unknown unless we allow it to happen. We will probably remain committed to some degree until a wide range of Libyan actors, most of whose identities and agendas we do not know, can reach a stable ceasefire agreement, the terms of which we only guess at."
Funny how satire can cut to the heart of the matter. Negus, a smart observer, actually thinks "this is a good mission" and Obama made the right call given the lousy hand he was dealt. It's worth a read.

The Rubik Stratagem

The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, a conservative, is ambivalent about military action in Libya. But it's a fait accompli. So he hopes for the best.

But this observation is astute:
"The Obama Administration is actually engaged in the Strategy-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named, which is to say, regime change. The Administration, which has done the right thing by intervening, will deny this, of course, and for good political reasons. But this is, nonetheless, the road we're on. Better to acknowledge this openly, and prepare for the changes ahead, then make believe that everything is in the hands of an opposition about which we know very little. If we are helping to rip the lid off of Libya, we should be deeply engaged in figuring out what comes next."
Goldberg makes a fair point. But I believe Obama is better off not making "regime change" an outright policy goal. By not calling this spade a spade and remaining ambiguous, the president preserves diplomatic freedom of action (and Arab support) as he solves the Qaddafian Rubik's Cube. Plus, everyone gets it. From the moment Obama said "he must go," the entire world knows this slow-dance is about ousting the strongman. Yes, shouting "regime change" from the rooftops would harden the nipples of conservatives and gratify their alpha-male egos, but that's all it would do. I imagine Qaddafi would just laugh.

Unsurprisingly, Goldberg agrees with George Will's contention that Obama's strategy is: Create a vacuum, and hope that something good fills it. That's silly, of course. The only vacuum I see is the one devoid of nuanced thinking or ability to cope with complexity on the part of Obama's detractors. Complex problems often require complex strategies to solve them. Such strategies rarely lend themselves simple sound bites that can be spoon-fed to pundits. The Libya intervention, a place where Obama is actually breaking brush, is a case in point.

Meet the rebels

The New Yorker's Jon Lee Anderson spent weeks reporting in Benghazi and "along the chaotic, shifting front line" with the Libyan rebels.

He provides an insightful take on who they are:
"The hard core of the fighters has been the shabab — the young people whose protests in mid-February sparked the uprising. They range from street toughs to university students (many in computer science, engineering, or medicine), and have been joined by unemployed hipsters and middle-aged mechanics, merchants, and storekeepers. There is a contingent of workers for foreign companies: oil and maritime engineers, construction supervisors, translators. There are former soldiers, their gunstocks painted red, green, and black—the suddenly ubiquitous colors of the pre-Qaddafi Libyan flag. And there are a few bearded religious men, more disciplined than the others, who appear intent on fighting at the dangerous tip of the advancing lines. It seems unlikely, however, that they represent Al Qaeda."

"People here regard themselves as decent and observant; a bit old-fashioned and parochial, but not Islamist radicals."
Anderson observed that many of the rebels "have rushed into combat as if it were an extension of the street protests, spurred by bravado and defiance but barely able to handle weapons."
"The fighting consists largely of a performance—dancing and singing and firing into the air—and of racing around in improvised gunwagons. The ritual goes on until they are sent scurrying by Qaddafi’s shells. In the early days of Qaddafi’s counterattack, youthful fighters were outraged that the enemy was firing real artillery at them. Many hundreds have died. The reality of combat has frightened the rebels, but it has also strengthened the resolve of those who have lost friends or brothers."

With professional training and leadership (presumably from abroad), the rebels may eventually turn into something like a proper army. But, for now, they have perhaps only a thousand trained fighters, and are woefully outgunned. Last week, a former Army officer told me, 'There is no army. It’s just us — a few volunteers like me and the shabab.'”
The desire for democracy, a free press and a viable private sector echoed strongly among the Libyans, Anderson reported. But he concluded with a cautionary note: "These are honorable aims. But to expect that they will be achieved easily is to deny the cost of decades of insanity, terror, and the deliberate eradication of civil society." That, of course, is the rub. Read Anderson's entire piece here.

Google goes to war

"The only foreign expert we use is Google Earth," said rebel spokesman Col. Ahmed Omar Bani. Clever quip. Post-Qaddafi, the man might have a future on the international speech circuit. A favorite of the Western press, Bani was commenting on NATO's air intervention (which the rebels welcome) and the prospect of foreign ground troops. Bani, who defected from Qaddafi's Air Force, said the rebels (and Libyans generally) remain firmly opposed to the presence of "any foreign troops, including volunteers from the surrounding countries," according to Foreign Policy magazine. Anyway, you're in the army now, Google. And speaking of their service, I grabbed the above image using Google Earth. It shows what appears to be a pair of Sukhoi Su-17 attack aircraft at the big Libyan Air Force base near Surt (Qaddafi's hometown). If you're curious, check it out yourself at 31°02'18.74" N, 16°36'09.72" E.

Binary thinking

New York Times writer John Harwood has long struck me as an empty-suited analyst who bends too easily with the conventional wisdom. He is the classic, stick-figure talking head. Cast as the Serious Expert, there is no escaping his handsome face if you watch the cable talk shows. But other than that, he's a good guy. Which is to say there are worst political observers. Harwood's latest, "Risks for Obama in Speech on Libya," graces the front page this morning, thus guaranteeing him a slot on a post-game talk show that (like schoolmarms) will grade Obama's performance tonight. "Politicians define themselves by choosing enemies, and exemplars. Suddenly, President Obama’s choices on Libya are reshaping his profile in unpredictable ways as he heads into the 2012 election season," wrote Harwood, predictably. The bottom line: Obama is the new Winston Churchill if Libya works, and a one-term president if it doesn't. Got that? Either Obama wins or he's doomed. Boom or bust. For Harwood, it's all binary. But it's funny how the president, like the Terminator, keeps emerging from the burning rubble of latest smash-up. (See healthcare, BP oil spill, the midterms, etc.) Obama's defiance of the odds is fascinating. A nuanced analysis of the reasons behind it would be useful. But, unlike his subject, Hardwood doesn't do nuance. Neither do most of his telegenic compatriots. And that's a shame.

It's binary, my dear Watson

Odds of Colonel Qaddafi remaining in power in binary (or base 2): "0110111001101111011101000010000001100111011011110110111101100100". Decoded: "Not good." (Hat tip: Nick Ciske)

Wither the Libyan Army?

Is there crow dinner with all the trimmings in my future? Will air power alone carry the day in Libya after all? I’m starting to wonder.

Benghazi, a city that nearly fell into Qaddafi’s lap like ripe fruit only a week ago, is now secure. Since Friday, key coastal towns along the road to Tripoli are falling like dominoes into rebel hands. Ajdabiya. Check. Brega, Ras Lanuf and Bin Jawwad. Check, check and check. The rebels are now quickly approaching Surt, Qaddafi’s hometown and site of a major garrison. Their line of march (via a ragtag collection of jerry-rigged buses, cars and taxis) is being preceded by heavy NATO airstrikes, per news accounts. Some observers say if Surt falls, the center of Qaddafi tribal-political base, it’s “game over.”

So, the rebels are winning, right? Yes, apparently, sort of. Forces loyal to Qaddafi have clearly done an about face. The Libyan government is calling it a “tactical pullback.” That’s really a euphemism for headlong retreat. Though there is fighting, the field is largely being left to the rebels. That accounts for the quick victories. Mr. Smart Bomb, courtesy of NATO, is what is actually putting the fear of Allah into Qaddafi’s foot soldiers. And they’re tripping over each other as they run from the possibility of becoming the newest martyrs.

History has proven again and again that airstrikes won’t dislodge determined (and dug-in) ground troops. And I’ll stand by that maxim. But the key word here is “determined.” I’m told that being at or near the receiving end of modern air-to-ground munitions make Hades look like Heaven. It seems unlikely that Qaddafi’s army of half-hearted conscripts will bear up long under this onslaught. A total breakdown of the army’s will to fight – exacerbated by constant retreat and thinning ranks – is a distinct possibility. If this turns out to be the case, then, yes, we could have a new ballgame.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Irony (like Paradise) Lost?

Recently, Google execs found that students using its ubiquitous search engine could find answers to a set questions in 7 minutes flat. Library users took 22 minutes to do the same. Hal Varian, Google's chief economist, exclaimed: "Think about all the time saved! Thirty years ago, getting answers was really expensive, so we asked very few questions. Now getting answers is cheap, so we ask billions of questions a day, like 'what is Jennifer Aniston having for breakfast?' We would have never asked that 30 years ago!" He's right. And yet there isn't a hint of irony when Varian gushes about, of all things, Aniston's eating habits. Google is a wondrous invention. But we've learned nothing in 30 years if "Garbage In, Garbage Out" is all we can boast about. Though none of this rises to the profundity of Milton's "Paradise Lost" and its tale of the Fall of Man, our relentless march toward cultural banality should at least give us pause. (Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan for flagging the Google study.)

The road to Damascus

Though it has not (yet) reached Egyptian proportions, the people of Syria are in open revolt. "There were rumors of cracks within the insular and opaque leadership of the nation, while the government sent out competing messages of compromise and crackdowns," reported the New York Times. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, 45, a British-educated eye doctor, once pompusly said, "When our interests matched, the Americans have been good to us, and when the interests differed, they wanted us to mold ourselves to them, which we refused." It looks like he made the wrong call, and price for it will be steep. The Hitlerian mustache doesn't help, either, Herr Assad.

Article 16

To protect employees of Syria's intelligence and security services, "Article 16" of the Ba'ath Party Constitution reads in part: “It is forbidden to pursuit any members of the administration because of crimes he commits during executing the orders, unless the manager orders for such pursuit.” This chillingly and succinctly helps explains why Damascus is burning.

Another inconvenient truth

"Today Americans are overcome not by the sense of endless possibility but by the banality of the social order they have erected against it." -- Christopher Lasch

9/11's true legacy

"Americans have discovered fear." -- Jose Saramago, Nobel-laureate novelist.

The real 'American way'

"The genius of you Americans is that you never make clear-cut stupid moves, only complicated stupid moves which make the rest of us wonder at the possibility that we might be missing something." -- Gamal Abdel Nasser

Unfortunately, true

"War is God's way of teaching Americans geography." -- Ambrose Bierce

OMG! OMG! They’re winning!

WITHIN DAYS of the intervention, the media wrote off the Libyan rebels as a rabble too discombobulated to exploit coalition airstrikes. Conservative pundits wailed that President “no-strategy” Obama was too busy “dithering” to change the dynamics on the ground. Never mind that the war was only six days old.

Suddenly, on Saturday, it’s OMG! OMG! They’re winning! The New York Times: “Qaddafi Forces Pull Back as Rebels Retake Ajdabiya.The Washington Post: “Libyan rebels take back key town.The Huffington Post: “GADDAFI RETREATS! HUGE REBEL TURNAROUND!

Take about a prescription for whiplash. Judging from the headlines, the rebels have morphed from ragtag Bedouins to Roman Legionnaires overnight.

Yes, the average soldier in Qaddafi’s army – with a moistened finger raised to the wind – knows he’s in deep kimchi if he keeps fighting. Many are actively thinking “AWOL” as a career move. Yes, starting today, the wobbly Libyan Army could rapidly retreat in the face of withering airstrikes, leaving the field to the rebels. Yes, loyalist forces could begin collapsing from Ajdabiya to Tripoli like dominoes, clearing the way for the endgame parade in Martyrs' Square. Yes, Lady Luck might suddenly squeeze us to her ample bosom and hand Obama a quick victory.

But take a deep breath, folks – and keep the champagne corked. Hoping for luck’s embrace makes not a reliable strategy. Rebel gains have come mainly from Qaddafi’s retreat. Competent warrior legions led by a Libyan Spartacus have not arisen from the sands. Moreover, history has repeatedly proven that air power alone will not force an army completely from the field. Most importantly, air power (apart from a lucky bull’s-eye) won’t dislodge Qaddafi, the main problem. Only the prospect of his imminent demise – via incarceration, a firing squad, a garrote or a noose – will do that.

So, like it or not, creating effective leverage against Qaddafi will require arming (and probably training) key rebel units. Short of deploying the 82nd Airborne or Lady Luck’s acquiescence, there’s no other way to create a palatable outcome in Libya. This is why, per the Times, Obama and the allies are still plotting strategy to oust Qaddafi despite today’s welcome albeit exaggerated news of rebel success.

Though banking on fortune is foolish, I don’t discount the ill effects that allied bombing is likely having on Qaddafi’s forces. Retreating (as they appear to be doing) will only compound bad morale and invite something more fatal: panic. And panic, to paraphrase a famous Henry Fonda line from the movie In Harm’s Way, can run through an army like a virus and destroy its will to win. Here’s hoping Lady Luck shows up for a change – and spreads the germ.

We're shocked, shocked!

WE APOLOGISE for the unplanned hiatus in bombing of the Middle East. Normal service has now been resumed."

Someone overseas posted this clever comment on Facebook after America unleashed its cruise missiles in Operation Odyssey Dawn last weekend on the orders of Barack Obama. The Economist writes, "To people all over the world, it has come as a shock that this of all presidents, the man who always opposed George W. Bush’s 'dumb' invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2003, should have plunged the United States into a war of his own against Colonel Muammar Qaddafi of Libya."

I've said this before. It is remarkable how so many people have so little understanding of Barack Hussein Obama (or "Barry" to his closest friends and "Mr. President" to everybody else). Perhaps just as remarkable, few seem interested in trying. The reasons are at once profound and complicated – and could fill a book.

At the heart of it, though, I suspect people prefer a benevolent enigma. As such, folks cling to Obama's obvious promise because, for them, he is a comforting vessel for their hopes, dreams and aspirations for a better world. To many, he is transformational, and yet a continuum of the towering talent and virtue that harkens back to America’s Founders. Acknowledging Obama as he actually is – a cunning, FDR-like pragmatist – means disrupting the idealized version that is held in the popular imagination. Hence, the shock when Obama, the mere mortal, behaves in a fashion that would impress Machiavelli in the pursuit of his real world goals.

To hear his words, spoken or written, is to know him. His intervention in Libya, however reluctant, should come as no shock. To those listening, his war views have been consistent. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Obama said, “We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes.  There will be times when nations – acting individually or in concert -- will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified. [...] I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. [...] To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.”

At the time, Obama was not thinking Libya. But I see no contradiction between Operation Odyssey Dawn and his words. Neither should the world.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Straight outta the ‘West Wing’

Did you notice when yesterday’s Washington Post story about potential administration plans to arm the Libyan rebels appeared? It showed up during Friday's Happy Hours. That's not a coincidence. Any West Wing fan worth his or her salt should know that Friday is “Take out the trash day.” That’s when the White House casually releases a potentially explosive story along with the other innocuous “garbage” in one big data dump. The idea is to “bury the news,” thereby minimizing media chatter and potential public blow back. As fictional presidential aide Josh Lyman (pictured above) put it, “no one reads the paper on Saturday.” That’s true for the Internet, too. Also, releasing news this way allows the White House gauge media reaction and to test the political waters. (Obama is slated to address the nation Monday on Libya. Ergo, there are no coincidences in DC.) Anyway, those paying attention got to see a real life “trash day.” Kinda neat, huh? By the way, the White House tactic worked. I’ve heard nary a word about the Post story today. But that won't last.

Reading the tea leaves

The other day, I postulated that to fuel Libyan rebel momentum the coalition had no choice but to arm them. There are now signs (courtesy of a timely leak to the Washington Post) that this may indeed happen. Here’s what the tea leaves reveal to me.

From the Post: “The United States and its allies are considering whether to supply weapons to the Libyan opposition as coalition airstrikes fail to dislodge government forces from around key contested towns.” TRANSLATION: The allies already know air power alone won’t get the job done. Militarily, that’s a historical given. So, the question is not whether to arm the rebels, but how. That’s what the talks are really about.

“Obama administration believes the United Nations resolution that authorized international intervention in Libya has the ‘flexibility’ to allow such assistance [. . .] Officials were having ‘the full gamut’ of discussions on ‘potential assistance we might offer, both on the non-lethal and the lethal side,’ but that no decisions had been made.” TRANSLATION: Obama has likely green-lighted the “lethal side” already. He and his team are now eyeing how to ramp up arm transfers via cut-outs (Saudi Arabia and/or Egypt), supplemented by our own covert means (via special forces ops).

“France actively supports training and arming the rebels.” TRANSLATION: The French Foreign Legion (or similar special ops unit) will shortly put boots on the ground to train the opposition. Bet on it.

The guts of this Washington Post story are a strategic leak from the White House. It’s a way to gently break the news that we’re likely taking it up a notch or two in Libya. (Also, it likely previews elements of Obama’s planned national address on Libya next week.) Directly arming and training the rebels carries risks. There is the specter of “boots on the ground” even if they belong to trainers. (Hence the coordinated French leak.) Some critics will call arming the rebels “mission creep.” Others will scream, “What took you so long!”

Though the rebels remain a rabble, the news is not all bad. NBC’s Richard Engel - who’s reporting from the front lines - said their performance is improving. Al-Jazeera reported the same. The big news of rebel gains on Saturday confirmed Engel’s observations (he’s one of the few foreign correspondents who know of what he speaks.) Engel said fresh weapons and ammo are also arriving from the Saudis. More importantly, per Engel, AWOL soldiers from the Libyan Army are beginning to join the rebels out of fear of being caught on the wrong side of history. If true (and sufficient numbers join), that could quickly bolster the rebel war-fighting ability.

Enter the Mujaheddin?

We still don't know who the Libyan rebels really are. Team Obama probably has a better picture, but I'd bet it's still fairly murky. The fog of war doesn't help. That said, there are reports that some fighters have al-Qaeda links. Abdel-Hakim al-Hasidi, one Libyan rebel leader, admits as much, per the UK's Telegraph. That should come as no shock. Many Libyan Mujaheddin fought against us in Iraq. The ones who survived the experience are likely back home in Libya now. But bear a few things in mind. First, the Telegraph is notorious for getting stories wrong (though this one looks accurate, as far as it goes). Second, it's easy to exaggerate al-Qaeda's presence and importance, even in Libya. If my limited read of Libya's history is right, tribal concerns trump all others. Also, it's probably safe to presume that the rebel leadership (whoever they are) know the quickest way to kill relations with the U.S./NATO coalition is to go all Taliban on us. It would be suicidal. That said, Mujaheddin activity bears watching. Though I merely speculate, I bet some of these al-Qaeda types are already in the scopes of our special ops snipers now that we've kicked in the door to Libya. But don't count on reading about it the papers.

The man got game

Say what you will about his politics, but President Barack Obama knows college hoops. His NCAA tourney bracket: Top 0.3% of all 5 million ESPN bracket pickers. Yowzer. My picks were blown out in the third round. Naturally, one of Andrew Sullivan readers on the Daily Dish couldn't resist dragging politics into it: "You get the sense that someone like John McCain's bracket would be filled with all upsets, and that Mitch McConnell would choose all the higher seeds. Most people aren't really able to switch back and forth between different mindsets as facilely as Obama." Well, this metaphor is probably a bridge too far. But when it comes to hoops, Mr. O is obviously da man. Heh.

Why (most) comments are worthless

Matthew Yglesias, a Harvard grad, is a Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. His erudite writings have appeared in the New York Times and other publications. He leans left, but not radically so. He has biases, but so do we all. His blog is a must-read for serious political observers. Plus, he's an all-around good guy.

But here's how one cretin reader responded to a recent Yglesias post:
"Matthew spends much energy on trying to excuse Obama's cowardice, incompetence and corruption. Yesterday it was the Fed, today it is the "ruthless" Republican minority -- which on Jan 15, 2009 was deeply despised by the electorate and yet by Jan 15, 2011 was back in power. The Democratic grassroots -- and the American People -- are being stabbed in the back by their own leadership. The moles within. The fifth column. Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. But three times is enemy action, Mr. Bond."
No doubt this poseur congratulated himself for closing his rant with the too clever by half quote from the 1959 movie Goldfinger. (It took me all of 30 seconds to unearth it on Wikipedia.) Dr. Freud would say it speaks volumes about the reader's mindset. The reader is pompous, vitriolic, juvenile, narrow-minded, spiteful and, as always, dead wrong. This is why I pay scant attention to comments on the major blogs. It's why some big-time bloggers (like Andrew Sullivan) ban them entirely. They're good only for producing migraines. Heh. Just thought I'd get that off my chest today. ;-)

Great Political Dame

"You don't have to have fought in a war to love peace." -- Geraldine Ferraro, dead today at 75. (New York Times Obit)

Raid over Libya

Asked about the reality of war in Libya, Capt. Ryan Thulin, a F-16 fighter pilot, told the New York Times: “Being shot at the first time is a surprise." I bet it is. Thulin, 28, and his wing-man dodged intense anti-aircraft fire and dropped 500-pound bombs on Libyan Army forces. A huge fireball lit up the sky, he said. Good hunting, fellas.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Wanted: A Libya prenup?

Tom Ricks says he's been getting notes from military officers "demanding clarity of goals and stated strategic purposes" for the intervention in Libya. That puzzles him.

"The nature of war is ambiguity and uncertainty. I worry that such demands are really a fancy form of shirking," he writes. Gee, Ricks wondered, how would these same complainers and hand-wringers draw up a pre-nuptial with a prospective spouse?

Extrapolating, here's his guess:
(1) How long the marriage is going to last, with a clear exit strategy of how it ends -- divorce, death, or other. (2) Detailed discussions of roles and responsibilities, including how much notice must be given to the spouse if an extramarital affair is to be undertaken. (3) Description of the marriage's integration into the larger community. (4) Statement of how much time and emotion is to be devoted to the enterprise.
Ha! Nicely done.

Terminate, with extreme prejudice

Right. I was wondering when some boob in the chattering class would say it. However, I didn't think Politico's Roger Simon (no boob) would be doing the honors. This morning, he wrote: "Instead of waging a risky and costly war in Libya, why don’t we just take out Muammar Qadhafi? And I don’t mean to dinner."

Yes, Simon is calling for a mob hit on the Colonel, Sopranos-style:
"This war is going to cost us a fortune, it puts our military personnel at risk and innocent civilians are in peril of death or injury through collateral damage. So why don’t we just ice the guy? Grease him, snuff him or, yes, assassinate him?"
Hey, if Jason Bourne can do it so easily and stylishly, why can't we? To buttress this lunacy, Simon walks us through the familiar litany of rationalizations about why we should abandon the executive orders (in effect since 1976 by multiple presidential fiat) that explicitly forbid whacking foreign heads of state. I won't waste time refuting Simon's arguments. Outside of full-scale WWII-type war, the irrationality and immorality of assassination as a foreign policy tool should be self-evident. (But read the Simon piece here if you feel compelled to humor him.)

Remarkably, Simon even drags a Founding Father into his blood-lust. Absurdly subverting the words of Thomas Jefferson of all people, he plays back a quote from our famous third president: "Equal and exact justice to all.” Jefferson of course was referring to America's democratic promise -- not snuffing out people. But Simon treats Jefferson's words like so many gleaming rounds of .50 caliber ammo. Going all Rambo on us with his op-ed Gatling gun, Simon fires away: "With all the innocent blood on Qadhafi’s hands, equal and exact justice is exactly what America would be giving to him." Wow.

Who knew Simon was so taken with the smell of napalm in the morning? In a memorable scene, psychiatrist Jennifer Melfi says to Tony Soprano: "Let's get back to Pie-O-My, it's sad that you lost something you loved. That being said, it is a horse." Long incredulous pause. "What the fuck's the matter with you?" Tony replies. I respectfully pose the same question to Roger "Itchy Fingers" Simon.