Nothing Doing

The Vietnam War was raging and escalating rapidly and the war protests were beginning – the college kids, and then the clergy, and then “normal” people were taking to the streets – and in August, 1965, there were the Watts Riots out here in Los Angeles. Thirty-four dead, much of the city in ruins – things were not going well in America. The city eventually renamed the Watts area South Central. It didn’t help, but the next year, on Thursday, September 8, 1966, the first episode of Star Trek popped up on national television. That was full of hope. Forget all the racial strife. The crew of the Starship Enterprise was interracial, if not interspecies, and there was even a woman officer, a black woman of all things. Yeah, she was the communications officer, sort of a glorified switchboard operator, but she was competent and treated as an equal. It was a start, and the helmsman was gay – but not really. The guy who played him – George Takei – finally came out a few years ago. The sixties weren’t that tolerant yet. Gene Rodenberry missed an opportunity there.

Tolerance, however, was modeled for America. Everyone got along just fine. This was the future, where tolerance is easy and sensible and a given, and this sort of tolerance is obviously inevitable. Get used to it. It’s a good thing, and Star Trek implied something else too. We were at war in Vietnam, getting in deeper and deeper, soon to be knee deep in the big muddy, and almost every episode of Star Trek was Kirk and the crew stopping another stupid war from starting on this planet or that, or ending a war that had been going on forever, for reasons no one even remembered anymore. Why would anyone go to war? No good ever comes of it. Those episodes always ended with the belligerents dropping their posturing, followed by reconciliation and a new mutual understanding. See, was that so hard?

That was the general idea and this new show did well, running for three seasons until the ratings dropped off. It had finally become silly – each week’s new alien life form couldn’t be like the one from the week before, but it did have to be vaguely humanoid and somewhat sentient too, and they simply ran out of ideas. And the production values had always sucked – too many cardboard walls and toy model spaceships on strings. NBC cancelled the series, in spite of all the petitions from science geeks and those on the left. The last episode aired on June 3, 1969 – but Star Trek wouldn’t die. Paramount, not NBC, owned the Star Trek franchise, and there were spinoff series – The Next Generation, Deep Space 9, Voyager and whatnot – and movie after movie, and the original series went into reruns that are still running now, somewhere. There was something about this preposterous nonsense that Americans loved.

That might have to do with the dynamic that was always in play. There was the Vulcan science officer, Spock, generically and culturally detached from all emotions, if he even has any, but smart as a whip and impeccably decent and absolutely loyal, and highly moral. Spock always does the right thing, and he acts as a counterweight to those who just jump right in, because this or that “feels” like the right thing to do. He suggests they stop and think first. His foil is Captain Kirk, a man of action who makes snap decisions, as any leader in a time-dependent crisis must do, without a whole lot of analysis. Sometimes there’s no time for analysis. We could all die. Something must be done. Do it.

The idea here is that these two complement each other, but also that they can never agree. Spock and Kirk are true friends, but Kirk rolls his eyes when Spock suggests figuring out what’s really going on before firing the photon torpedoes. Spock raises one eyebrow when Kirk say let’s try this or that – I have a hunch it’ll work and what’s the worst thing that might happen? Spock knows, but Spock is second in command.

That’s the set-up. The man of action should be in charge, even if he does stupid things that make matters worse. The thoughtful guy can step in later and fix things up. That’s how things should be. Everyone knows this. Obama will clean up Bush’s mess. That’s why we elected him, twice – as a placeholder until the next man of action comes along – Chris Christie or Ted Cruz or whomever. Maybe it will be a woman of quick brutal action, Hillary Clinton.

The only problem with that is that this leaves Spock in charge for eight years. He may be thoughtful and decent and loyal, with a fine moral sense, but thinking things through and not doing stupid stuff, as policy, takes some getting used to. That leads to things like this:

President Barack Obama tried to get himself a bit more political space Thursday to make a decision about whether to expand the U.S. military campaign against Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria, but in so doing he may have dealt himself a significant political blow by suggesting that his policy on the issue is adrift.

“We don’t have a strategy yet,” Obama said as he took questions from reporters in the White House briefing room.

The president’s aim was clearly to defuse building expectations that U.S. military strikes in Syria were imminent as part of a broadening drive to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. But his awkward choice of words to describe a policymaking process still in midstream seems likely to haunt him for some time.

As Aaron Burke implies, Obama was doing Spock and America expected Kirk:

President Obama’s remark that “we don’t have a strategy yet” has made the rounds. Republicans were quick to pounce on it, as well they should have.

But while the White House went into damage-control mode, emphasizing that it was a reference to the lack of decisions about increasing military action in Iraq and/or Syria and not a lack of a broader strategy there, the damage was already done.

As with all gaffes, the worst ones are the ones that confirm people’s preexisting suspicions or fit into an easy narrative. That’s why “47 percent” stung Mitt Romney so much, and it’s why “don’t have a strategy” hurts Obama today.

Polls have increasingly shown that Americans view Obama as a weak commander in chief without much direction or heft to his foreign policy. The latest is a Pew Research Center survey, released shortly before Obama’s errant statement Thursday, that showed 54 percent of Americans say he’s “not tough enough” when it comes to foreign policy and national security.

That number will jump ten points now, but Matt Steinglass has had enough of this nonsense:

William Kristol, as ever, manages to distill the rot down to its ludicrous essence: “What’s the harm of bombing them at least for a few weeks and seeing what happens? I don’t think there’s much in the way of unanticipated side effects that are going to be bad there. We could kill a lot of very bad guys!” No doubt the Americans could. Drop enough bombs and you are guaranteed to kill some very bad guys, and probably some good guys, as well as a lot of guys who, like most, fit somewhere in between. But simply bombing areas when the emerging powers prove bloodthirsty, and hoping that a better sort of power replaces them, isn’t very promising.

Conor Friedersdorf adds this:

After the decade-long, $6-trillion debacle in Iraq, you’d think Congress and pundits would be pressing the Obama administration for figures:

If the U.S. fights ISIS in Iraq and Syria, what would be the odds of victory? How much would it cost? How many U.S. troops would be killed? How would it effect nearby countries like Iran? And how much of a threat does ISIS actually pose to the U.S. “homeland”? Yet much coverage of Syria is narrowly drawn. Vital questions are studiously ignored, as if they have no bearing on the merits of intervention, while dire warnings are presented with too much hype and too little rigor.

Yeah, yeah – we’re all gonna die – but Steve Chapman doesn’t think so:

We are supposed to be impressed that the Islamic State controls a swath of land, which al-Qaida never did. But Ohio State University political scientist John Mueller says that’s not the advantage it appears to be. “The fact that they want to hold territory and are likely to deeply alienate the people in their territory means that, unlike terrorists, they will present lucrative targets while surrounded by people who are more than willing to help with intelligence about their whereabouts,” he told me. It’s often forgotten that al-Qaida proclaimed its own state in Iraq in 2007, but its brutal ways alienated fellow Sunni insurgent groups so completely that they switched to our side. The Islamic State is equally vulnerable to a backlash. As for the prospect that it could hit the homeland, our usual problem in deterring terrorists is that their bombs have no return address. The Islamic State, by contrast, is adorned with a neon bull’s-eye.

Slow down. Think things through, even about that other matter:

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.”

Still, that doesn’t mean war. There’s no need to fire the photon torpedoes yet, although Slate’s Anne Applebaum does wonder about that:

In the past few days, Russian troops bearing the flag of a previously unknown country, Novorossiya, have marched across the border of southeastern Ukraine. The Russian Academy of Sciences recently announced it will publish a history of Novorossiya this autumn, presumably tracing its origins back to Catherine the Great. Various maps of Novorossiya are said to be circulating in Moscow. Some include Kharkov and Dnipropetrovsk, cities that are still hundreds of miles away from the fighting. Some place Novorossiya along the coast, so that it connects Russia to Crimea and eventually to Transnistria, the Russian-occupied province of Moldova. Even if it starts out as an unrecognized rump state – Abkhazia and South Ossetia, “states” that Russia carved out of Georgia, are the models here – Novorossiya can grow larger over time.

Russian soldiers will have to create this state – how many of them depends upon how hard Ukraine fights, and who helps them – but eventually Russia will need more than soldiers to hold this territory. Novorossiya will not be stable as long as it is inhabited by Ukrainians who want it to stay Ukrainian. There is a familiar solution to this, too. A few days ago, Alexander Dugin, an extreme nationalist whose views have helped shape those of the Russian president, issued an extraordinary statement. “Ukraine must be cleansed of idiots,” he wrote – and then called for the “genocide” of the “race of bastards.”

But Novorossiya will also be hard to sustain if it has opponents in the West. Possible solutions to that problem are also under discussion. Not long ago, Vladimir Zhirinovsky – the Russian member of parliament and court jester, who sometimes says things that those in power cannot – argued on television that Russia should use nuclear weapons to bomb Poland and the Baltic countries – “dwarf states,” he called them – and show the West who really holds power in Europe: “Nothing threatens America, it’s far away. But Eastern European countries will place themselves under the threat of total annihilation,” he declared. Vladimir Putin indulges these comments: Zhirinovsky’s statements are not official policy, the Russian president says, but he always “gets the party going.”

A far more serious person, the dissident Russian analyst Andrei Piontkovsky, has recently published an article arguing, along lines that echo Zhirinovsky’s threats, that Putin really is weighing the possibility of limited nuclear strikes – perhaps against one of the Baltic capitals, perhaps a Polish city – to prove that NATO is a hollow, meaningless entity that won’t dare strike back for fear of a greater catastrophe. Indeed, in military exercises in 2009 and 2013, the Russian army openly “practiced” a nuclear attack on Warsaw.

Perhaps these are a few raving lunatics or this is just scare tactics, or Putin needs this sort of talk to stay in power, but Applebaum is worried:

Mein Kampf also seemed hysterical to Western and German audiences in 1933. Stalin’s orders to “liquidate” whole classes and social groups within the Soviet Union would have seemed equally insane to us at the time, if we had been able to hear them.

But Stalin kept to his word and carried out the threats, not because he was crazy but because he followed his own logic to its ultimate conclusions with such intense dedication – and because nobody stopped him. Right now, nobody is able to stop Putin, either. So is it hysterical to prepare for total war? Or is it naive not to do so?

Max Fisher has an interesting take on this, suggesting that Vladimir Putin probably never wanted to invade Ukraine, but something changed when he was elected to a third term as president with the continuing economic stagnation over there:

Putin expected another boisterously positive reception, but that’s not what he happened. Instead, he got protests in major cities, opposition candidates, and, even according to the highly suspicious official tally, only 63 percent of the vote.

Putin panicked. He saw his legitimacy slipping and feared a popular revolt. So he changed strategies. Rather than basing his political legitimacy on economic growth, he would base it on reviving Russian nationalism: imperial nostalgia, anti-Western paranoia, and conservative Orthodox Christianity.

The Ukraine crisis gave him an out:

In March 2014, Putin indulged his own rhetoric about saving Ukraine’s ethnic Russians – and seized an opportunity to reclaim a former Soviet strategic port – when he launched a stealth invasion of Crimea… This is when the crisis began to slip beyond Putin’s control… The nationalistic rhetoric inside Russia was cranked up to a fever pitch. Putin’s propaganda had built a parallel universe for Russians, in which the stakes in eastern Ukraine were dire not just for Russia but for the world… But the violence in eastern Ukraine was spinning out of control, with Ukrainian military forces looking like they were on the verge of overrunning the rebels.

In a rational world, Putin would have cut his losses and withdrawn support for the rebels. But, thanks to months of propagandistic state media, Russians do not live in a rational world. They live in a world where surrendering in eastern Ukraine would mean surrendering to American-backed Ukrainian Nazis, and they believe everything that Putin has told them about being the only person capable of defeating these forces of darkness. To withdraw would be to admit that it was all a lie and to sacrifice the nationalism that is now his only source of real legitimacy. So Putin did the only thing he could to do to keep up the fiction upon which his political survival hinges: he invaded Ukraine outright.

Fine, but Christopher Dickey isn’t impressed with Obama:

Obama knows invasion is a “fightin’ word,” as they used to say in old Hollywood Westerns. And he knows – and we all know – a shootout in the Ukraine corral against the world’s other great nuclear power would be beyond foolish. But under the circumstances, even such a stalwart of administration policymaking as Ivo Daalder has run out of patience with the vague language coming out of Foggy Bottom and the White House. Daalder doesn’t recommend military action, certainly, but he does recommend NATO members step up their defense spending and deploy their vast military resources throughout the alliance in a way that makes the threat of force more credible. After all, Putin has shown his imperial appetite knows no bounds, and the tactics he’s used to shave off portions of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine could be turned on the NATO-member Baltics. Daalder also calls on Western countries to supply advance weapons and a steady stream of intelligence to Kiev. And finally the US and the EU need to impose full-scale economic sanctions on Moscow.

Noah Rothman adds this:

One never takes a tool off the table during a negotiation without reciprocity from the negotiating partner. To do otherwise is to set a bad precedent, one which a smart negotiating partner will make you repeat. President Obama insisted that the sanctions regime he has imposed on Russia is working, that he will not approve a military solution to the crisis in Ukraine, and that providing lethal aid to Kiev’s forces is not under immediate consideration. What, then, is on the table? Our options are increasingly limited while Moscow’s freedom to escalate or de-escalate as he sees fit remains robust.

Yeah, never leave Spock in charge for long, but Marc Champion is not so sure that arming Ukraine is a good idea:

The U.S. and Europe have made it clear that they will not go to war with Russia – a nuclear superpower – to defend Ukraine’s borders. That may not be fair, but it is rational. And no matter how many weapons the U.S. and European allies supply to Ukraine, Russia will deploy more of them, wielded by better trained troops. The logical progression of a NATO armament program for Ukraine is broader conflict. Putin would proceed, knowing that, in the end, Ukraine’s allies would not have its back. The calculation could change if Putin decides to push his military deeper into Ukraine – realizing fears of a wider conflict while heightening the security concerns of nearby Poland. For now, however, a formal arms program seems unwise.

In short, be Spock, not Kirk, but neither is a good choice here, or in Iraq and Syria with the ISIS crowd. That’s not very helpful, but there may be a misunderstanding about Obama here. In the Atlantic, Peter Beinart argues that Obama is neither a hawk nor a dove, and he does have a strategy and a worldview:

On the one hand, Obama has shown a deep reluctance to use military force to try to solve Middle Eastern problems that don’t directly threaten American lives. He’s proved more open to a diplomatic compromise over Iran’s nuclear program than many on Capitol Hill because he’s more reticent about going to war with Tehran. He’s been reluctant to arm Syria’s rebels or bomb Basher al-Assad because he doesn’t want to get sucked into that country’s civil war. After initially giving David Petraeus and company the yellow light to pursue an expanded counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan, he’s wound down America’s ground war against the Taliban. Even on Libya, he proved more reluctant to intervene than the leaders of Britain and France.

On the other hand, he’s proven ferocious about using military force to kill suspected terrorists. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, he’s basically adopted the policy Joe Biden proposed at the start of his administration: Don’t focus on fighting the Taliban on the ground, since they don’t really threaten the United States. Just bomb the hell out al-Qaeda from the air. Compared with George W. Bush, he’s dramatically expanded drone strikes, even though they’re unilateral, legally dubious, and morally disturbing. And, as promised, he sent Special Forces to kill Osama bin Laden without Pakistan’s permission, even though his vice president and secretary of defense feared the risks were too high.

Beinart comes up with a new term for Obama’s strategy and worldview:

He’s a fierce minimalist. George W. Bush defined the War on Terror so broadly that in anti-terrorism’s name he spent vast quantities of blood and treasure fighting people who had no capacity or desire to attack the United States. Hillary Clinton and John McCain may not use the “War on Terror” framework anymore, but they’re still more willing to sell arms, dispatch troops, and drop bombs to achieve goals that aren’t directly connected to preventing another 9/11. By contrast, Obama’s strategy – whether you like it or not – is more clearly defined. Hundreds of thousands can die in Syria; the Taliban can menace and destabilize Afghanistan; Iran can move closer to getting a bomb. No matter. With rare exceptions, Obama only unsheathes his sword against people he thinks might kill American civilians.

Digby (Heather Parton) thinks this should be America’s default position:

There are threats in the world to be sure. There’s a true sense of global instability right now. But the world’s most powerful military injecting its ultra-violence into the situation is hardly guaranteed to make a positive difference. And the costs are huge. Beinart lays out all the critiques, particularly by liberals who believe that a minimalist approach allows these situations to fester when earlier engagement might prevent them from hurtling out of control. But he also explains why Obama might disagree with that. And again, I agree with Obama (if this is what he thinks.)


Obama would probably respond that when it comes to stopping jihadist terrorism from taking root by ensuring representative government, territorial integrity, and national unity in countries like Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, an ounce of prevention isn’t nearly enough. The effort costs billions of dollars and a whole lot of American troops. Even then, it might fail because given America’s track record analogies that portray Washington as a doctor with a sophisticated and empathetic understanding of its Middle Eastern patients are way too benign. Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan could certainly have used preventative care in the Obama years. But America’s prophylactic efforts might have involved leeches, not aspirin. As Richard Holbrooke learned the hard way during his time as special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, America’s national-security bureaucracy isn’t geared toward diplomacy and economic development. It’s mostly designed to blow things up.


It would be a very good idea to change that. But that’s a very tall order. The American national security establishment (aka our Imperial Bureaucracy) has been in place for over half a century, growing stronger and stronger by the decade to the point at which it is now unassailable. I’m all for changing that. Ideas on how to proceed are welcome.

Beinart’s article goes on to explain how politics enters into this and thinks Obama is reflecting the country’s mood with this approach. He points out that, so far, the GOP presidential hopefuls haven’t gone all Cheney on us, which means that Obama still has his finger on the pulse. Maybe, but I have a sneaking suspicion that we might be emerging from that post-Iraq, recessionary malaise and could be looking for some action. I hope not.

We could want Captain Kirk back – but that’s the narrative we’re used to, and not just in a preposterous science fiction from the sixties. In teen comedies, the wild and handsome hunk has a geek friend who keeps him out of trouble, or jail, but he is the one who gets the girl, not the geek. In chick-flicks there’s always the sensible girlfriend to keep the flighty heroine grounded, but the sensible girlfriend ends up alone. Don Quixote has Sancho Panza, who doesn’t matter much. Don Quixote, who is quite mad, is the hero. Jay Gatsby is the Great Gatsby while Nick Carraway is the sensible one. That’s how it should be. When the wrong character takes the lead we get confused. We feel uncomfortable, even if the calm and sensible one is doing the right things, time and time again. What fun is that?

That may be the real problem here. None of this is supposed to be fun. Watch the old Star Trek episodes for that.

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 Nothing Doing

  1. Dick Bernard says:

    I think your Spock/Kirk analogy is right on.
    In a sense, from the beginning of his first term, I’ve had the sense that this President is working to turn the Titanic that is the U.S. at least enough to only graze the iceberg. This frustrates the full-speed-ahead (and stop-now, Anti-War) constituencies.
    While I don’t actively listen for such, the body politic I see every day, most recently at the Minnesota State Fair, is not much into raging for going to war “over there” against anybody, for any reason.
    As for Russia, Putin is no Stalin, and even if he were, in the present environment he wouldn’t get away with trying to be some kind of Hitler. Stalin didn’t have to deal with voters and the internetwork. It’s a different world.
    As for Drones, I kicked up quite a lot of dust for a small-fry in 2011 when I dared to suggest that there might be a place for Drones in these new days of unconventional warfare. My friends on the left thought I’d lost any semblance of sanity. I was just trying to make an opening for conversation. If you’re interested:
    Of course, now drones of assorted shapes, sizes and uses are near ubiquitous, and we’re just getting started.
    Most recently, in May, 2013, I made note of something I’ve been watching for quite a long while. Obama is trying to goad the Congress into doing its job relating to war: to put up or shut up, rather than relying on continuing resolutions which can be either used to praise or condemn whoever the President happens to be, while leaving the Congress, who has sole responsibility for war, off the hook.

  2. Rick says:

    Point well taken: If Kirk was Bush, breathlessly rushing us into the Iraq shock-and-awe of 2003, then Spock was France, urging that we patiently wait for better information. In retrospect, of course, we’d have been better off being led by Captain Spock.


    “The man of action should be in charge, even if he does stupid things that make matters worse. The thoughtful guy can step in later and fix things up. That’s how things should be. Everyone knows this.”

    Or is it? And do they?

    I suspect this may be a result of the demands of Hollywood storytelling (which doesn’t have to be true to life, which would be boring, but only has to be entertaining, which is a better business model), dictating to the rest of us the way things are supposed to be. It’s just life imitating art.

    Yes, liberals may have their idealistic values confirmed by Hollywood (which may be why conservatives have traditionally been so obsessed with “communist influence” in Hollywood), but conservatives less-consciously take cues about reality from screenwriters, too — as to what sort of qualities define good leadership, for example — especially derived from action movies filled with heavily-armed men, some of them good and some evil, but all talking tough. Right-wingers especially eat that stuff up.

    Maybe conservatives really hate Hollywood the same way an alcoholic hates his whiskey. They’re just overwhelmingly fearful of the awesome power it holds over people, even people such as themselves — as well they should be.


    But while Spock counseled thinking things over, he did occasionally settle, as I recall, on war — just as Obama famously insisted he himself was not against all wars, just dumb ones.

    I think I agree with Peter Beinart’s calling Obama a “fierce minimalist”, which makes him quietly more accomplished at foreign policy than his critics will ever recognize, much less acknowledge. Still, I think there is more Obama could be doing than he is.

    For one thing, I’d like to see a little bit more transparency in his thinking on where he’d like to see all this end up. For example, does he think we could live with Russia taking over all, or even part, of Ukraine? And, if not, what is he willing to do to keep that from happening?

    Or maybe he could warn Putin privately that, no, Russia should not think it can nuke Warsaw and not expect retaliation from the rest of the world. Also, maybe something Obama could do more publicly would be to start getting the UN involved in considering actions against Russia’s invasion of a fellow United Nations member, just as the senior Bush did against Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. I would hate to see the Russians ending up thinking they’re getting away with all this shit they’re pulling.


    But then, there’s this:

    “William Kristol, as ever, manages to distill the rot down to its ludicrous essence: ‘What’s the harm of bombing them at least for a few weeks and seeing what happens? I don’t think there’s much in the way of unanticipated side effects that are going to be bad there.'”

    This — appropriately from the guy who, before we invaded Iraq, couldn’t anticipate Sunnis and Shia ever fighting each other there — comes very close to what I’ve always imagined would be the last words spoken (by some total ignoramus, of course) on the planet Earth:

    “Hey, I wonder what THIS button does!!”


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