The Incredible Elusiveness of Credibility

We were going to war with Iraq anyway, but someone told George Bush that he needed to pretend to be playing by the rules, so he sent Colin Powell to the United Nations for their approval. They didn’t have to join in or anything, just stand aside and concede that removing Saddam Hussein was being done because we had the right to defend ourselves, and removing that thug was probably a good thing anyway. Colon Powell waved around those little vials of what could have been anthrax, and showed satellite shots of what could have been mobile chemical weapons labs, and said we were quite sure of a very real clear and present danger – and the Brits were with us, and they’re no fools. No one else was with us, and the French presented a real problem. The French had sent their foreign minister, Dominique Marie François René Galouzeau de Villepin – the suave and elegant aristocrat who had written books of poetry and a biography of Napoleon and ran marathons – and he raised an eyebrow and smiled slyly, and then systematically demolished all of Powell’s arguments. We felt betrayed by an ally, and this guy’s way of doing that made things even worse. It was the knowing irony. We were the rubes, or the little children. We hated that. It took a full decade for our relationship with the French government, and everything French, to recover. What was really galling was that de Villepin had been right. That’s a bitter pill to swallow.

That still rankles. The guy could have spoken to Powell privately. He and Chirac could have called Bush and said they weren’t joining us, keeping the matter private. No one would have needed to say a word, and then the press could have speculated all it liked about why the French were staying out of this. That would have been harmless. But no – all the world had to see de Villepin schooling Colin Powell on reality. Diplomacy isn’t supposed to work that way.

None of that matters now. We learned our lesson – line up your allies before anyone has a chance to make a public statement, and know, beforehand, who’s not with you. Lawyers know never to ask a question in open court unless they already know the answer. It’s like that. Diplomacy, the working out of who stands where, and why, happens offstage, or it should.

It’s never that easy. We’ve worked things out with the French. It’s quite likely Obama chats quite regularly with François Hollande, privately, so no one will be embarrassed ever again. One assumes there are lots of those calls, to almost every foreign leader – or lots of calls and cable traffic at lower levels – to make sure no one is blindsided. That’s now the norm again, now that Bush is back in Texas painting pretty pictures of kittens and puppies – except the Brits just went all French on us:

President Obama is prepared to move ahead with a limited military strike on Syria, administration officials said Thursday, despite a stinging rejection of such action on Thursday by America’s stalwart ally Britain and mounting questions from Congress.

The negative vote in Britain’s Parliament was a heavy blow to Prime Minister David Cameron, who had pledged his support to Mr. Obama and called on lawmakers to endorse Britain’s involvement in a brief operation to punish the government of President Bashar al-Assad for apparently launching a deadly chemical weapons attack last week that killed hundreds.

The vote was also a setback for Mr. Obama, who, having given up hope of getting United Nations Security Council authorization for the strike, is struggling to assemble a coalition of allies against Syria.

But administration officials made clear that the eroding support would not deter Mr. Obama in deciding to go ahead with a strike. Pentagon officials said that the Navy had now moved a fifth destroyer into the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Each ship carries dozens of Tomahawk cruise missiles that would probably be the centerpiece of any attack on Syria.

Now we have to go it alone. David Cameron asked Britain’s Parliament for approval to join our attack on Syria, but he forgot that you’re never supposed to ask a question when you’re not sure of the answer. Cameron must have assured Obama this was a slam-dunk. It wasn’t. Somewhere, Colin Powell is chuckling. He’s been there. Administration officials are now saying that Obama had not made a final decision, but it’s pretty clear that a strike could happen just as the United Nations investigators leave the country, by the weekend. We didn’t need the French in 2003 and we don’t need the Brits now. It’s all too familiar.

It’s just that Congress is also a problem:

The White House presented its case for military action to Congressional leaders on Thursday evening, trying to head off growing pressure from Democrats and Republicans to provide more information about the administration’s military planning and seek Congressional approval for any action.

In a conference call with Republicans and Democrats, top officials from the State Department, the Pentagon and the nation’s intelligence agencies asserted that the evidence was clear that Mr. Assad’s forces had carried out the attack, according to officials who were briefed.

Well, it was sort of clear:

While the intelligence does not tie Mr. Assad directly to the attack, these officials said, the administration said the United States had both the evidence and legal justification to carry out a strike aimed at deterring the Syrian leader from using such weapons again.

A critical piece of the intelligence, officials said, is an intercepted telephone call between Syrian military officials, one of whom seems to suggest that the chemical weapons attack was more devastating than was intended. “It sounds like he thinks this was a small operation that got out of control,” one intelligence official said.

Yeah, the minor chemical weapons attack seems to have gotten way out of hand, but that changes nothing:

Mr. Obama, officials said, is basing his case for action both on safeguarding international standards against the use of chemical weapons and on the threat to America’s national interest.

That threat, they said, is both to allies in the region, like Turkey, Jordan and Israel, and to the United States itself, if Syria’s weapons were to fall into the wrong hands or if other leaders were to take American inaction as an invitation to use unconventional weapons.

If, if, if that’s the case, which also sounds familiar, but deciding to proceed without Britain makes everything new here:

Even in the Iraq war, Mr. Bush relied on what he called a “coalition of the willing,” led by Britain. Mr. Obama has made clear that this initiative would come from the United States, and that while he welcomed international participation, he was not depending on foreign forces for what would essentially be an operation largely by the United States, from naval vessels off the Syrian coast.

Of course this in not a military intervention aimed at regime change, so maybe it’s not so bad, or maybe it is:

The United States has conducted unilateral bombing campaigns without seeking international endorsement before. But it made a direct case for self-defense.

In 1986, President Ronald Reagan ordered an airstrike on Tripoli after concluding that Libya was behind the bombing of a Berlin disco that killed two American military personnel. In 1998, after deadly bombings of American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, President Bill Clinton authorized cruise missile strikes on Afghanistan and Sudan.

This isn’t like that, but in a delicious twist of irony, the French are with us this time:

France said openly Thursday for the first time that its military is preparing for a possible operation in Syria – but President Francois Hollande stopped short of announcing armed intervention over a suspected chemical weapons attack. …

Hollande does not need French parliamentary approval to launch military action that lasts less than four months. He appears to have a stronger hand than his U.S. and British counterparts, who are facing some resistance at home to a Syrian intervention amid questions over the attack.

Not only that, it seems the French have now learned to be mysteriously silent:

While Hollande has spoken firmly against Assad’s regime, the French military has been quiet about its plans.

On Thursday, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said: “The Armed Forces have been put in position to respond” if the president commits French forces to an international intervention in Syria.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that France and its allies are preparing an “indispensable” response and that it should be “thought-out, proportionate and firm.”

Good luck with that. The Associated Press got a heads-up on the classified intelligence on these matters, and that’s not helpful:

The intelligence linking Syrian President Bashar Assad or his inner circle to an alleged chemical weapons attack is no “slam dunk,” with questions remaining about who actually controls some of Syria’s chemical weapons stores and doubts about whether Assad himself ordered the strike, U.S. intelligence officials say. …

A report by the Office of the Director for National Intelligence outlining that evidence against Syria includes a few key caveats – including acknowledging that the U.S. intelligence community no longer has the certainty it did six months ago of where the regime’s chemical weapons are stored, nor does it have proof Assad ordered chemical weapons use, according to two intelligence officials and two more U.S. officials.

There’s no proof saying Assad personally ordered the attack, but then there was no mention in the report of the possibility that a rogue element inside Assad’s government or his military could have been responsible – so no one knows what happened, really – and they don’t know where the bad stuff is either:

Intelligence officials say they could not pinpoint the exact locations of Assad’s supplies of chemical weapons, and Assad could have moved them in recent days as the U.S. rhetoric increased. But that lack of certainty means a possible series of U.S. cruise missile strikes aimed at crippling Assad’s military infrastructure could hit newly hidden supplies of chemical weapons, accidentally triggering a deadly chemical attack.

Over the past six months, with shifting front lines in the 2 1/2-year-old civil war and sketchy satellite and human intelligence coming out of Syria, U.S. and allied spies have lost track of who controls some of the country’s chemical weapons supplies, according to the two intelligence officials and two other U.S. officials.

We’re in the dark, but Obama will do this anyway, because… well, because that’s what presidents do, and Paul Waldman explains:

It seems obvious at this point that 1) The Obama administration is going to drop some bombs on something or someone in Syria, even if no one is yet sure what or whom; and 2) This is something they’d rather not do.

It is odd, but typical:

Back when George W. Bush was president, he and his team were practically giddy with excitement over the Iraq War, and much was made of the fact that nearly all the top people whose loins were burning to blow stuff up and send other people’s children to fight had themselves worked hard to avoid serving in Vietnam. But the truth is that whether we’re talking about a Republican administration filled with eager armchair warriors, or a Democrat administration filled with peaceniks, every American president eventually scrambles the jets and orders the bomb bays loaded. And when you step back to look at all our military adventures, every invasion and police action and no-fly zone, you can’t help wonder whether we’ll ever see a presidency in which we don’t project our military force over somebody else’s borders. Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton’s secretary of State, once said to Colin Powell, “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”, and the implicit answer seems to be, none at all.

To prove his point, Waldman offers a list of what presidents of both parties have done:

1964 – 1975: Vietnam. You remember that one.

1965-1973: Cambodia. We dropped more bombs on the tiny country than had been used in all of World War II.

1965: Dominican Republic. President Johnson sent 22,000 troops to prevent communists from taking over.

1983: Grenada. In the comically named Operation Urgent Fury, we invaded the tiny island nation to stop the commies.

1986: Libya. After two Americans are among those killed in a terrorist bombing of a disco in Germany, President Reagan ordered the bombing of facilities controlled by Muammar Gaddafi.

1989: Panama. In Operation Just Cause, we invaded the country and deposed its leader, Manuel Noriega.

1991: Kuwait/Iraq. Operation Desert Storm.

1992-1995: Somalia. Operation Restore Hope. Didn’t end well.

1994: Haiti. President Clinton sent 20,000 troops to restore the government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

1995: Bosnia. US and NATO forces intervene in the civil war with a large bombing campaign.

1999: Kosovo. We bomb the Serbians to help the Kosovars.

2001: Afghanistan. Still going!

2003: Iraq.

2011: Libya.

2013: Syria

Waldman admits this is a partial list, as now and then we’ve shot down a jet or sent a few of troops here and there to help an ally with this or that, and he notes there are the proxy wars we’ve waged in places like Nicaragua, and his list doesn’t include all the places we’re now using drones to blow up this suspected terrorist or that, in Pakistan and Yemen these days. We do blow stuff up, and that may not be wise:

Some of these operations worked out very well, others didn’t. And just to be clear, this history doesn’t tell us whether bombing Syria is a good idea or a bad idea. But if you’re wondering why people all over the world view the United States as an arrogant bully, reserving for itself the right to rain down death from above on anyone it pleases whenever it pleases, well there you go. It doesn’t matter whether you think some or even all of those actions were completely justified and morally defensible. From here, we tend to look at each of these engagements in isolation, asking whether there are good reasons to go in and whether we can accomplish important goals for ourselves and others. But when a new American military campaign begins, people in the rest of the world see it in this broader historical context.

By the way, Jimmy Carter is the one exception:

The failed rescue attempt of the hostages in Iran was basically the only time he sent American troops to another country with their safeties off. And he gave a really nice speech yesterday at the March on Washington anniversary, too.

Kevin Drum takes it from there:

This is a perspective that’s sorely missing from most mainstream discourse. Too many Americans have a seriously blinkered view of our interventions overseas, viewing them as one-offs to be evaluated on their individual merits. But when these things happen once every three years, against a backdrop of almost continuous smaller-scale military action (drone attacks, the odd cruise missile here and there, sending “advisors” over to help an ally, etc.), the rest of the world just doesn’t see it that way. They don’t see a peaceful country that struggles mightily with its conscience and only occasionally makes a decision to drop a bunch of bombs. They see a country that views dropping bombs as its primary means of dealing with any country weaker than we are.

They may see that, or they may see other things. It depends on how you see the news. Nadal Hasan was sentenced to death for killing thirteen soldiers in Texas – the Fort Hood thing – just days after Robert Bales was sentenced to life for killing sixteen civilians in Kandahar, and in the New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg wonders how that will be seen in the Muslim world:

Consider: One member of the U.S. Army is an apple-pie American (white, Catholic, high-school football captain, Ohio State student, married father of two) with a slightly shady past (he was implicated in a financial-fraud case when he worked as a broker, before joining the Army, in 2001). He kills 16 unarmed Afghan Muslim civilians, including four women and nine children. He gets life.

The other member of the U.S. Army is a Muslim, the eldest son of Palestinian immigrants, a medical doctor, and an Army officer, unmarried. He kills 13 uniformed American soldiers, unarmed. He gets death.

A third case hovers in the background.

In 2003, in Kuwait, an Army sergeant used hand grenades and a rifle to kill two of his comrades and injure fourteen more. In 2005, a military court sentenced the sergeant to death. Last year - on July 13, 2012 - the Army’s court of appeals affirmed the sentence. While appeals continue, the sergeant remains on death row at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. This third member of the U.S. Army, Sergeant Hasan Karim Akbar, né Mark Fidel Kools, is also Muslim. He is an African-American whose parents changed his name when they converted to Islam. He kills two American soldiers. He gets death.

Hertzberg then has this fantasy where Obama stops the executions:

If he declines to sign a death warrant in one of these cases, he will, of course, be subject to unrestrained demagogic attack from the Republican right. But if he does sign, and if the execution or executions are carried out, he will have essentially confirmed the suspicion that the United States places significantly less value on the lives of Muslims, regardless of nationality, than on the lives of Christians and other non-Muslims, also regardless of nationality. One can only hope that he will have the fortitude to reject that choice - a choice that, besides being morally abhorrent, would be grievously damaging to the national interest.

That’s a fantasy. Obama won’t stay those executions. His credibility as someone who’s not soft in terror is at stake. Sometime you do what maintains your credibility, even if it’s dumb and dangerous, and back in May, in Foreign Affairs, Jonathan Mercer offered a little history lesson on credibility:

Do leaders assume that other leaders who have been irresolute in the past will be irresolute in the future and that therefore, their threats are not credible? No; broad and deep evidence dispels that notion. In studies of the various political crises leading up to World War I and of those before and during the Korean War, I found that leaders did indeed worry about their reputations. But their worries were often mistaken.

For example, when North Korea attacked South Korea in 1950, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson was certain that America’s credibility was on the line. He believed that the United States’ allies in the West were in a state of “near-panic, as they watched to see whether the United States would act.” He was wrong.

When one British cabinet secretary remarked to British Prime Minister Clement Attlee that Korea was “a rather distant obligation,” Attlee responded, “Distant – yes, but nonetheless an obligation.” For their part, the French were indeed worried, but not because they doubted U.S. credibility. Instead, they feared that American resolve would lead to a major war over a strategically inconsequential piece of territory. Later, once the war was underway, Acheson feared that Chinese leaders thought the United States was “too feeble or hesitant to make a genuine stand,” as the CIA put it, and could therefore “be bullied or bluffed into backing down before Communist might.” In fact, Mao thought no such thing. He believed that the Americans intended to destroy his revolution, perhaps with nuclear weapons.

Everyone was working at cross-purposes, and now Obama will launch a few days of missile strikes on Syria, all on his own, probably because he feels his credibility, and America’s credibility, are on the line. That assumes we have any left, and we might not. The alternative is to dismiss the whole notion and say, look, the British aren’t with us, Congress is questioning military action, the facts on the ground are murky, and the American people don’t want this, so let’s just not do it. That would ruin him politically, but he did say he’s made no decision yet. Maybe he means it, and this is his chance to step back and say he’d rather not do anything stupid – he’s seen the light.

That won’t happen. That would be incredible.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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