The Work in the Background

One of the advantages of being old – and not dead quite yet – is that you can talk about the good old days, when they were really good, if anyone will listen. Talk of the sixties can be tiresome, but those of us who left for college at the end of summer in 1965, as the Vietnam War exploded and then America imploded, and stumbled out of college into the real world four years later, after the riots in Chicago and after Woodstock, with the Beatles split up and somehow, improbably, Richard Nixon as president, because someone shot Bobby Kennedy dead, lived through the years that changed America forever. That’s what people say, and being a witness to history is pretty cool, although sometimes those who talk about those amazing years begin to sound like Archie Bunker singing about how the old LaSalle ran great. Those were the days? Memory is selective, and it is self-serving. Those good old days were filled with a lot self-righteous nonsense.

Maybe you had to be there. Most of us wore our hair long, and wore those stupid bellbottoms, and loved the nasal whining of Bob Dylan, and loved the mysteriously overproduced Beatles stuff, which often made no sense at all but we all knew was clever and probably subversive. We were cool, or knew what was cool, or hoped we knew what was cool, but something always seems a bit off. What was flower Power? And our relentlessly activist friends carried those odd signs: What if they gave a war and no one came? War is harmful to children and other living things.

What did they expect those in power to do? Would they say gee, I never thought of that, and stop the war over in Vietnam that afternoon? They weren’t going to be shamed into anything, and it wasn’t that they knew no shame. That’s what the antiwar crowd told each other about those moral monsters, because feeling morally superior feels so damned good, but that missed the point. Those in power thought they were doing the right thing, for the right reasons, geopolitical reasons they would be glad to explain to you. Terrible things had to be done, but they did have to be done – communism, falling dominos – all that sort of thing. Pull up a chair and take notes.

No one on the other side was offering a geopolitical counterargument. By the end of the decade everyone under thirty, except for the newly formed Young Republicans, was linking arms and singing “all we are saying is give peace a chance” – over and over and over again – but that really was all they were saying. Okay, fine, stop the war. Give peace a chance. Then what? What sort of new geopolitical world order follows that, and how will it be managed? John Lennon wasn’t a political scientist.

Of course those who hated those damned hippies, who hated them with every fiber of their being, weren’t political scientists either. They were angry, but no more than that. America, love it or leave it? That was what they yelled at those damned hippies, but that was as lacking in substance as anything shouted on the left. It was an odd time. Think of it in terms of animal behavior, of avian behavior. There were a lot of dominance-displays of elaborate colorful plumage. On the right people waved flags, but on the left people wore flowers in their hair. Everyone would be impressed. Nations would beat their swords into plowshares. That was Flower Power.

That was nonsense. Don’t tell anyone, but the sixties were really irritating. The real work of keeping the country up and running, and managing its relationships with other nations, being careful about our national interests and not getting into stupid wars, only useful ones, went on in the background, and it was dull and tedious work. The flag-waving angry right and the Age of Aquarius left were irrelevant. In 1962, the Soviet Union set up all those nuclear missiles in Cuba, aimed right at us, and we came close to a full nuclear war that would end life on this planet. The resolution of that was worked out in the background – we removed our nuclear missiles from Turkey – and two years later we had good reason to believe a communist takeover of all of Vietnam would lead to all sorts of bad things, so we responded appropriately.

We didn’t know then what we know now, that a communist Vietnam wouldn’t make much of a difference to anyone, but what we did seemed like a good idea at the time. We went to war over there. The resolution of that mess, by the way, was also worked out in the background, in secret negotiations in Paris. That was going to happen anyway, no matter who took to the streets in America for how many years. We had to get out of Vietnam. We came to realize that we couldn’t ever make Vietnam into what we wanted it to be, no matter what we did. When Daniel Ellsberg stole those Pentagon Papers and showed them to the world, we found out that those in power had known this for years – but these things take time. Flower Power didn’t end that war. A cold hard cost-benefit analysis did.

That’s not very satisfying. Our voices should be heard, right? Our leaders should listen and do the right thing, right now. Obama should wipe out ISIS, or ISIL if he likes, right now, but not get us involved in another land war in the Middle East. And he should make sure Iraq stays together as a country, even if it isn’t one any longer, but he shouldn’t send our troops back in to do that. And he should get rid of Assad in Syria, even if Assad is fighting ISIS even harder than we are, or might, if we decide on war against them. And Putin just invaded Ukraine, sort of, and we have to respond to that, and toss them out, but without going to war with Russia of course. Isn’t Obama listening? What’s wrong with the guy?

That’s sixties thinking. Obama decided to tell the American people that things don’t work that way:

President Obama confronted a pair of volatile international crises with restraint on Thursday as he said he was not close to authorizing airstrikes against Islamic extremists in Syria and played down the latest escalation of Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine.

With tensions rising in Europe and the Middle East, Mr. Obama emphasized that a military response would not resolve either situation and pledged to build international coalitions to grapple with them. Despite pressure from within his own government for more assertive action, he tried to avoid inflaming passions as he sought new approaches.

Let’s slow down here, because this is how things work:

Mr. Obama confirmed that he had asked Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel for options for military strikes in Syria to target the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which has established a virtual state straddling the border of those countries. But speaking with reporters before a meeting of his national security team, the president said no action in Syria was imminent because he had not even seen military plans.

“We don’t have a strategy yet,” he said. “I think what I’ve seen in some of the news reports suggest that folks are getting a little further ahead of where we’re at than we currently are.”

We don’t have a strategy yet? He shouldn’t have said that, as Kevin Drum explains:

That’s not going to go over well, is it? Three years after the Syrian civil war started and (at least) half a year after ISIS became a serious threat in Iraq, you’d think the president might be willing to essay a few broad thoughts about how we should respond.

Don’t get me wrong. I think I understand what Obama is doing here. He’s basically trying to avoid saying that we do have a strategy, and the strategy is to do the absolute minimum possible in service of a few very limited objectives. And generally speaking, I happen to agree that this is probably the least-worst option available to us. Still, there’s no question that it’s not very inspiring. You’d think the brain trust in the White House would have given a little more thought to how this could be presented in a tolerably coherent and decisive way.

That might be hard to do. Doing the absolute minimum possible in service of a few very limited objectives is eminently sensible but it doesn’t feel right. Perhaps it really is best not to know what really goes on in the background, even if it’s the right thing, which Drum frames this way:

In the meantime, “We don’t have a strategy yet” is about to become the latest 24/7 cable news loop. Sigh.

It doesn’t matter. Let the people know this is about the best thing to do, not about their fantasies:

Mr. Obama seemed equally intent on managing expectations about what the United States may do in response to reports that Russia has sent forces into Ukraine. Although he said he expected to impose additional sanctions, he declined to call Russia’s latest moves an invasion, as Ukraine and others have, saying they were “not really a shift” but just “a little more overt” form of longstanding Russian violations of Ukrainian sovereignty.

“I consider the actions that we’ve seen in the last week a continuation of what’s been taking place for months now,” Mr. Obama said. “The separatists are backed, trained, armed, and financed by Russia. Throughout this process, we’ve seen deep Russian involvement in everything that they’ve done.”

In other words, don’t get excited. There’s nothing new here, and Obama will leave the dominance-displays of elaborate colorful plumage to others:

In both cases, Mr. Obama took a strikingly different tone than his own advisers. The nation’s top military officer and the president’s deputy national security adviser both talked in sharper terms over the last week about the possibility of striking in Syria, while Mr. Obama’s United Nations ambassador expressed outrage on Thursday at Russia’s latest actions in Ukraine.

In a blistering statement to the United Nations Security Council just hours before the president spoke, the ambassador, Samantha Power, bluntly accused Russia of lying about its intervention. “The mask is coming off” Russia’s denials, Ms. Power said, calling its actions a “threat to all of our peace and security.”

“Russia has come before this Council to say everything except the truth,” she said. “It has manipulated. It has obfuscated. It has outright lied. So we have learned to measure Russia by its actions and not by its words. In the last 48 hours, Russia’s actions have spoken volumes.”

On both Syria and Ukraine, officials are having separate if parallel debates on how aggressive to be, with Mr. Obama seemingly acting as a brake on more robust actions some advisers seek.

In each case this calls for a cold hard cost-benefit analysis. Obama simply took what has always been going on in the background and put it in the foreground. There will be more sanctions or Russia, not war, but we’ll see – these things take time. We may bomb ISIS in Syria, but that also calls for a careful cost-benefit analysis. In the meantime, folks will strut about:

Some officials have urged going beyond such economic measures and intervening more directly to tilt the odds on the battlefield in favor of Ukraine’s new pro-Western government. Not only do some administration officials want to speed up promises of limited aid to Ukraine’s military, but some are also pressing to provide arms and intelligence that would help Ukraine counter the sophisticated equipment that the United States and Europe say Russia is providing to separatists, as well as to its own forces now crossing the border.

Officials are also struggling with how far to go in taking on ISIS in Syria, where Mr. Obama has been deeply reluctant to intervene in a bloody civil war. He has ordered at least one Special Operations raid there, a failed effort to rescue Americans held by ISIS, but it is unclear how willing he would be to authorize more. Officials are debating whether an air campaign would involve manned jets or just drones, and whether it would target massed forces or specific leaders.

Obama would rather wait for some allies on that one:

He used the occasion to chastise allies in the Middle East for playing both sides when it came to ISIS and said he was sending Secretary of State John Kerry to the region to assemble a coalition against the group. He also rejected the notion that attacking ISIS might help President Bashar al-Assad of Syria in the civil war there. “I don’t think this is a situation where we have to choose between Assad and the kinds of people who carry on the incredible violence that we’ve been seeing there,” he said.

There is a solution but these things do take time, and Obama doesn’t seem to care what the excitable public thinks:

“We are not taking military action to solve the Ukrainian problem,” he said. “What we’re doing is to mobilize the international community to apply pressure on Russia. But I think it is very important to recognize that a military solution to this problem is not going to be forthcoming.”

The excitable public will just have to get used to that. These sorts of things are resolved in the background anyway, and as for ISIS, or the Islamic State (IS) to some, bombing them may not be the answer. In the Economist you’ll find this:

IS’ mission is to create its own caliphate, but until now many of its sources of revenue have depended on its host states. … IS has not proven adept at running anything other than the most basic functions of a state in the past – dispensing justice and, in most cases, providing bread, the staple food. In 2013 in Raqqa it attempted to take over the opposition’s civilian-run local council, which had continued to pay road sweepers and keep ambulances on the road. Locals say it soon handed back control after it failed to deliver, angering residents. The IS model of stealing from and feeding off the Syrian and Iraqi states has worked well so far. But it will become much more difficult for IS to rule its territory if the Damascus and Baghdad governments stop being so helpful.

ISIS could easily collapse, because they are brutal incompetents. The locals figure that out quickly enough, and in National Interest, Zalmay Khalilzad has another plan:

The humanitarian catastrophe resulting from the conflicts in Iraq and Syria requires a massive response. This is essential strategically. Friendly countries who host large number of refugees, such as Jordan and the Kurdish region of Iraq are at risk of destabilization. For displaced Sunni Arabs, poor refugee conditions can lead to radicalization and opportunities for ISIS to recruit them. If we allow ISIS to exploit this opportunity, the threat could expand exponentially. Moreover, ISIS is seeking to establish itself as a quasi-state, providing humanitarian aid and services in areas it controls. The international community and its local partners must compete for the hearts and minds among refugees and communities seeking protection from or willing to align against IS. This competition will be waged in part in the provision of humanitarian relief and basic services. It is a competition that we must win.

We don’t get to drop righteous bombs? What fun is that? Even worse, in the Atlantic, Kathy Gilsinan suggests that these bad guys might not even control the territory we think they do:

Crucially, while those control zones don’t amount to 35,000 square miles worth of territory, they do encompass major population centers, which tend to be concentrated along major roads. “The aims of the ‘Caliphate’ explicitly include population control, and ISIS has continued to prioritize the acquisition of populated geography,” [Institute for the Study of War Syria analyst Jennifer] Cafarella writes. So the key elements of the Islamic ‘State’ are its network of population centers, oil resources, and military infrastructure, connected by roads. With its territorial expansion, then, ISIS is something more than an al-Qaeda-like terrorist organization enjoying safe haven in a defined geographic area. Syria and Iraq are not sheltering the group as the Taliban did for al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. In some respects, ISIS bears more of a resemblance to the Taliban, which similarly terrorized civilians but, unlike al-Qaeda, held clear, albeit incomplete, sway over a defined territory.

Forget the maps on CNN and MSNBC and Fox News. Think of strings and nodes. Dealing with this will be tricky. Obama disappointed everyone by offering no forceful and decisive grand plan for any of this. He let the cat out of the bag. It’s always been this way. Take to the streets if you will, but the hard and tedious work goes on the background, figuring all this out.

As for Putin, Jeffrey Tayler suggests the problem is not about the invasion itself, but the about the thinking behind it:

Based on what Russia under Putin has done both before and during the Ukraine crisis, we can expect Russia to continue turning away from the West, away from agreements with Western countries signed when the Soviet Union, or post-Soviet Russia, was at its weakest. We should expect Putin to keep destabilizing Ukraine as long as that country may lurch westward, toward NATO, even if prospects for alliance membership are distant. We should count on Putin never ceding Crimea to Kiev (in Yalta he explicitly called the peninsula’s return to the Russian fold “absolutely legal”). We should not be surprised if Russia, citing as precedents the many questionable, even criminal, American interventions abroad in recent decades, acts unilaterally to defend its interests, which may mean disrupting the post-Cold War status quo. We should, in other words, prepare ourselves for further, and far greater, turmoil on the international arena. …

We face a newly dangerous future, with the threat of a shooting war erupting between Russia and the West – unless we act, and act fast, to reestablish a working relationship with the Kremlin that recognizes legitimate Russian interests. To do so, for starters, we should stop listening to our own declarations about NATO posing no threat to Russia. NATO’s troops, missiles, bases and where they are will be what counts for Russia, not mere verbiage. To Americans, Putin’s position vis-à-vis NATO should be comprehensible; the United States would not tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962, and no doubt, following the Monroe Doctrine, it would permit no similar meddling around its borders today. …

No informed, far-sighted statesman could have expected Putin to acquiesce to Ukraine joining an alliance created to counter his country militarily. The architect of the United States’ successful, Soviet-era containment policy (and thus no dove) George Kennan famously opposed the alliance’s move east, calling it a “tragic mistake” that would likely end in a “hot” war. And so it has turned out to be. The United States and NATO need to publicly disavow any intention to induct Ukraine (and Georgia), which would remain non-bloc and neutral, just as Finland has. Russia in return would have to withdraw its troops from the country and forswear all attempts at destabilizing it. If they do intend to invite Ukraine, they need to explain what good the new members will bring the alliance, and ready themselves and their peoples for a potential nuclear confrontation with Russia.

Sure, we could support Ukraine militarily, or even fight alongside them against Russia, and get NATO to join us, and then make Ukraine part of NATO, just to stick it to Putin, because that would feel so damned good. Back in the late sixties we could have just pulled out of Vietnam one Tuesday afternoon and finally given peace a chance. That too would have felt so very good. In both cases, however, there’s that question. Then what? Few asked that question back then. Few ask it now. Perhaps the sixties did change America forever, but if smugly refusing to think things through is one of those changes, it was a change for the worse. And no one wears bellbottoms anymore.

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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2 Responses to The Work in the Background

  1. Dick Bernard says:

    Effective post, as usual.
    I happened to be in the U.S. Army in 1962-63 and watched, with a few other GI’s, President Kennedy speak on the Cuban Missile Crisis on the Mess Sergeants 9″ TV in our Infantry Company barracks in mid-October, 1962. It was the first we knew of the crisis. A few miles from us, on Cheyenne Mountain near Colorado Springs, was one of the main targeted areas (or so the Rocky Mountain News told us) for the Cuban missiles. It was a few days of “hurry up and wait” for we Infantry folks. But Colorado, then and now a military hub, was clearly a key target for the Russkies.
    Then came the rest of the 60s, most of which I “missed” as I was trying to raise an infant by myself. My young wife had succumbed to kidney disease.
    After 9-11-01 I got involved with the Peace Movement, whose leadership then and still is mostly folks who were (or at least seem to have been) active in the 60s protests, and still think that’s the way to go. Along the way, one of them, an elder, in his later life a friend of mine, a campus minister in California in those protest days, who knew the realities, said that in his recollection the protesters then might have been one or two percent of the college students, most of whom were no different than todays college kids.
    Fast forward, in my opinion, President Obama is working very hard (and effectively) at attempting to change the worn out American conversation about “war” and our “exceptionalism”. His abundant enemies, including those in the old hard left who think he’s useless because he hasn’t ended war, and the punditry, who think their theory is (or should be) the wisdom of the ages, criticize most everything he does.
    I think he knows what he’s dealing with. There are no easy answers, but one of the certain answers is that we cannot live in the past and expect to survive in the future. He knows his task is impossible, and his (alleged) lack of leadership, is, instead, the essence of strong leadership.

  2. Rick says:

    “No one on the other side was offering a geopolitical counterargument.”

    Sure, we were, if you could call it that — but nobody was listening!

    Vietnam wasn’t about the Russians or the Chinese, or even communism; it was just some stupid war for independence! A civil war!

    After all, remember that “containment”, according to George Kennan, the guy who first proposed the policy, wasn’t about containing “communism”, it was about containing “Soviet expansionism”. So we knew Americans were dying in Vietnam, and we knew Vietnamese of various stripes were dying there, but how many Russian bodies did anyone find? How about East Germans? Or Czechs or Hungarians? Or, for that matter, even Chinese? (Which was unlikely, since the North Vietnamese didn’t get along with the Chinese at all — although not that our parents, who were absent-mindedly waging the war, knew that. Nor did they really care.)

    The Viets had tried to win independence from the French, and when the French gave up, we (for some stupid reason) took over. It was all pretty stupid and had nothing to do with us, and it shouldn’t have been that hard for the brain cells running our country at the time to predict that insinuating ourselves into the collapse of colonialism would end up doing nobody, including us, any good whatsoever.

    So maybe that’s not a real “geopolitical counterargument”, in the classical sense, but to know that Vietnam was something we should really have been staying out of, you really didn’t need some big global vision to back you up.


    Kevin Drum:

    “In the meantime, ‘We don’t have a strategy yet’ is about to become the latest 24/7 cable news loop. Sigh.”

    True, that. Knowing the Republicans, I can’t imagine that not happening, unless they’re just too suspicious of such a perfect a weapon being handed them on a silver platter.

    In fact, I expect them to point out that it’s not just because you’d think he should have a strategy by now, it’s also that you’re not supposed to let those Islamic-State-Whatever (ISW) people, not to mention Putin, know that our leadership is so befuddled and off-balance. What’s odd is that Obama is supposed to be a master of words, but when he goofs up on something, it tends to be when he says something he shouldn’t say, such as about drawing that “red line”, and now, about our not having a strategy. And I hate to admit it, but on this I think I agree with the Republicans.

    Although I still think Obama is the smartest guy in the room. He’s signaling, not only to us but also his own top people, that we shouldn’t over-excite ourselves yet, and I suspect he may be right.

    At least I hope he is. If he isn’t, I guess we’ll know it for sure once Russia annexes Ukraine, or maybe once the “Islamic Fucking State” (IFS) takes over Baghdad.


    “…Archie Bunker singing about how the old LaSalle ran great.”

    Back then, I kept asking people what that lyric, “giarola salamander rate” meant, and nobody could tell me. I think it wasn’t until after Google came along that I was able to figure it out.


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