Misunderstanding Calculated Delay

Every day the tourists fill the Santa Monica Pier – every day is a summer day out here after all – and the pier is cool. It has an old merry-go-round that has popped up in more than a few movies, and a coaster and rides of all sorts, and views out to Malibu, and one of the few solar-powered Ferris wheels in the world – because we’re all bleeding-heart liberal tree-huggers out here. Yeah, everyone drives a Prius, except for the rich folks who all drive that swoopy Tesla sedan. We’re cool, and responsible citizens, and there are surfers too – but across the street from the pier, one block south and one block inland, on Main, there’s a large and low white building with tiny windows. That’s the Rand Corporation – the think tank that was created in 1946 by “Hap” Arnold, the famous Air Force general, and the Douglas Aircraft Company, to figure out how to fight and win wars with amazing new weapons – missiles and nuclear bombs and satellites and such. In 1948, Douglas Aircraft, that was founded in Santa Monica and built the airplanes that won the Second World War, pulled out – there was an obvious conflict of interest. Those who supply the hardware shouldn’t be doing operations research on war planning, which soon involved geopolitical game theory stuff, and then analysis of effective and non-effective decision-making processes of all sorts. Rand became the place to think big thoughts. The guys down by the pier sort of gave us the doctrine of nuclear deterrence by mutually assured destruction (MAD) – Robert McNamara used Rand’s work with game theory to argue that was a fine thing, even if it was pretty much what was in place anyway. Rand was good at figuring out what was working, and more importantly, precisely why.

McNamara also created the Vietnam Study Task Force on June 17, 1967, to create an “encyclopedic history of the Vietnam War” from 1947 onward – he wanted to leave a written record for historians, to head off policy errors in the future. If you want to learn from your mistakes you do have to know what happened, when, and why. That’s sensible. McNamara neglected to tell Lyndon Johnson and Dean Rusk about this massive study, but they were busy at the time. This effort became known as the Pentagon Papers – and those papers eventually ended up at the Rand Corporation down by the pier.

That’s where they should have been in the first place, with the experts in the analysis of effective and non-effective decision-making processes, and the Rand folks continued and deepened the original analysis of how we got into that Vietnam mess. It wasn’t pretty, and it had to remain secret. If the public ever found out about how decisions on Vietnam had been reached, or avoided, they’d be outraged. We had had secretly enlarged the war early on with bombing Cambodia and Laos, with coastal raids on North Vietnam, and with Marine Corps attacks all over the place, and none of this had been reported in the media. Congress hadn’t known. President after president had been flailing about and none of it had worked, and they knew it, but no one else knew it. They’d better not find out. The Pentagon Papers remained under lock and key in a dark room across the street from the Santa Monica Pier.

That should have worked fine. Everyone at Rand has a top secret or better clearance, except that didn’t account for the guy who thought the American public should know what was really going on. On a fine warm evening in 1971, Daniel Ellsberg left his Rand Corporation office and walked across the street to the Santa Monica Pier, where he met New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan and handed him the Pentagon Papers, the whole big pile of them, which he had grabbed and photocopied. The rest is history. The New York Times started publishing those Pentagon Papers, and then was stopped by an injunction the Nixon administration had won, so the Washington Post published them and forced the matter up to the Supreme Court, and won, getting the injunction lifted. Daniel Ellsberg was charged with conspiracy and espionage and theft of government property, and those charges were dismissed when everyone found out that the Nixon “plumbers” had broken into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, hoping to find something to make Ellsberg look like a pervert or a madman. The government wasn’t playing fair, so Ellsberg was free to go, and the public was outraged at what was in all those pages from the pier. Our leaders don’t know what they’re doing, and they know that they don’t know what they’re doing, and all of them, one after another, have being lying to us. Everything is going fine? No one would ever believe that again.

That’s ancient history now, something that happened forty-three years ago, the year that the Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour debuted, but the Rand Corporation still does what it does, analysis of effective and non-effective decision-making processes, and the issue now is Obama. Does Obama know what he’s doing, or is he just flailing around like all the rest? Brian Michael Jenkins is senior advisor to the president of the Rand Corporation, and in the Los Angeles Times he offers the current thinking on that. Think Hannibal and elephants:

President Obama has been repeatedly accused of delay. Critics say he dragged his feet on sending more troops to Afghanistan, on addressing the dangers in Libya, on providing support to Syria’s rebels and, most recently, on initiating military action against Islamic State.

But is that necessarily such a bad thing? Calculated delay has a long history as an effective military strategy, dating back at least to the Second Punic War in the 3rd century BC.

Jenkins is serious:

At the time, Hannibal’s Carthaginian army, including his war elephants, had successfully made its way from North Africa through Spain and across the Alps to invade Italy from the north. There, Hannibal’s troops inflicted two stunning defeats on Rome’s mighty legions, throwing the country into panic.

During ordinary times, the Roman Republic was governed by a senate and two elected consuls who served together for one-year terms. But in times of national crisis, the senate had the option of appointing a dictator to streamline command. In the face of Hannibal’s advance, the senate appointed Quintus Fabius Maximus, who at that point had served two terms as consul.

Everyone expected Fabius Maximus, an admired leader and experienced general, to quickly march on Hannibal’s forces, but he did not. Instead, he avoided major battles while harassing Hannibal’s army around the edges, preventing the invaders from getting supplies, gradually wearing them down and degrading their capabilities. It was a strategy of containment.

It worked just fine, but folks just hated the whole thing:

Avoiding battle was un-Roman, an affront to the greatness of Rome. People called Fabius Maximus the Cunctator – the delayer. It was intended to be an insult.

Fabius Maximus was replaced by a Roman consul who was determined to engage Hannibal directly. Under the command of the new consul, eight Roman legions marched off to destroy Hannibal’s forces. They met at Cannae, in what turned out to be Rome’s greatest military disaster. Between 50,000 and 70,000 Roman soldiers were slain and 10,000 more were taken prisoner.

Oops, but we’ve been there. In 2003, anyone who thought that rather than going to war in Iraq we ought to wait until the UN weapons inspectors finished up, was un-American, or even French. Delay was stupid, and dangerous. Think of Neville Chamberlain. We sent our eight Roman legions to Iraq. Almost five thousand of our troops came home in body-bags and things are even worse there than before we were bold and awesomely American. We needed a Fabius Maximus. We had George Bush.

The Romans got it:

The disaster at Cannae suddenly made Fabius Maximus look brilliant, and Romans again looked to “the delayer” to save the republic. Cunctator became a title signifying prudence, wisdom and respect.

The disaster in Iraq suddenly made Barack Obama president. He was our Fabius Maximus, but he wasn’t an oddball:

Other military commanders have since followed what became known as a Fabian strategy, among them George Washington, who, in the early years of the American war for independence, avoided head-on battles with the British.

The containment strategy of the Cold War was a Fabian approach in the sense that it made the avoidance of nuclear confrontation its primary objective. But it was also based on the message that, if attacked, the United States would retaliate with massive force. And it was understood by all that all-out nuclear war meant the end of the world.

Okay, that last bit is a plug for the game theory work the Rand Corporation did back in the sixties, but it’s still true in a general way:

Fabian strategies make sense in certain kinds of circumstances: against a stronger adversary, say, or when direct confrontation risks a catastrophic defeat or a larger conflagration. They also make sense in instances when time favors the side that opts to delay. In today’s warfare, there is little risk of a single disastrous battle, but there is still risk of military fiasco and political ruin. Fabian strategies might make sense if there’s a risk of becoming bogged down in a costly and seemingly futile military adventure – or in cases where action carries a high risk of casualties that could turn people against the effort.

That may be the situation in the Middle East now, but it still feels bad:

Even when holding back is the right choice, Fabian strategies are almost never popular at the time they’re employed. People prefer quick victories to extended low-level campaigns. Time may erode morale and sap support for the effort. And a Fabian approach can anger hawks at home and dismay allies abroad. Warfare today is in part about the manipulation of perceptions, and Fabian strategies can look alarmingly like appeasement.

Moreover, there are times when a delay in forcefully confronting enemies can lead to disastrous outcomes. Should the world not have intervened earlier, say, to stop Hitler?

Sure, but when – when he got home from the war in 1918 and started seething about how Germany had been humiliated? That is no more than idle speculation. We didn’t send in a Navy SEAL team to take care of him then. We’ll never know, and it may be a long time before we know of our Fabius Maximus is a jerk or not, but he is the Cunctator, the delayer:

Historians will debate whether Obama’s skeptical approach to entering conflicts reflects prudence or weakness. The evidence so far is ambiguous. The president has said the U.S. war on Islamic State will be “a long-term campaign” with no “quick fixes involved.” He set no deadline for its completion.

The administration has not publicly framed its approach as part of a Fabian strategy – no American administration would ever use the term. Sometimes action – or inaction – speaks louder than words.

Like or not, we have our Delayer, which may be a good thing, even if we hate it, but Josh Green makes the counter argument, that Obama is too cool for crisis management:

By the time President Obama gave in and appointed an Ebola czar on Oct. 17, the White House response to this latest national crisis had already run a familiar course: the initial assurance that everything was under control; the subsequent realization that it wasn’t; the delay as administration officials appeared conflicted about what to do; and the growing frustration with a president who seemed a step or two behind each new development. Meanwhile, public anxiety mounted as cable news hysteria filled the vacuum and shaped the perception of the unfolding crisis.

Obama calmly insisted there was nothing to worry about when the news first broke of Thomas Eric Duncan’s infection. “It’s important for Americans to know the facts,” he said on Oct. 6. “Because of the measures we’ve put in place, as well as our world-class health system and the nature of the Ebola virus itself, which is difficult to transmit, the chance of an Ebola outbreak in the United States is extremely low.” It soon became clear the health system wasn’t prepared; the virus spread, infecting two nurses who had treated Duncan. One of them had called the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to report having a fever, yet was still allowed to board a commercial airliner on Oct. 13. The CDC’s guidelines were declared “absolutely irresponsible and dead wrong” by Sean Kaufman, director for safety training at Emory University Hospital, where two American missionaries from West Africa were treated for Ebola in August. But Obama clung to his position for two more weeks, even after it began to look ridiculous.

Only with public confidence slipping and dozens of congressmen calling for a ban on travel from West Africa did Obama submit to the kind of grand theatrical gesture he abhors: He canceled a campaign trip to hold an emergency cabinet meeting and appointed Ron Klain, a veteran political operative, to coordinate the government’s Ebola response. Then the pageantry of White House crisis response reached its familiar end point, with anonymous aides telling the New York Times that Obama was “seething” at the botched response and the criticism that he’d mishandled the crisis.

The issue is different, but the principle is the same. Obama delays things, and this time he shouldn’t have, but that’s who he is:

The difficulty in formulating a response echoes the fitful efforts to address the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, the chemical weapons attacks in Syria, the advance of Islamic State, the rollout of healthcare.gov, and even the shooting of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Mo.

Administration veterans describe Obama’s crisis-management process as akin to a high-level graduate seminar. “He responds in a very rational way, trying to gather facts, rely on the best expert advice, and mobilize the necessary resources,” says David Axelrod, a former White House senior adviser.

By all accounts, Obama treats a crisis as an intellectual inquiry and develops his response through an intensely rational process. As former CIA Director Leon Panetta said recently in a TV interview, “He approaches things like a law professor in presenting the logic of his position.”

Axelrod meant that as a compliment, Panetta didn’t, and Green is with Panetta:

Six years in, it’s clear that Obama’s presidency is largely about adhering to intellectual rigor – regardless of the public’s emotional needs. The virtues of this approach are often obscured in a crisis, because Obama disdains the performative aspects of his job. “There’s no doubt that there’s a theatrical nature to the presidency that he resists,” Axelrod says. “Sometimes he can be negligent in the symbolism.” Lately, this failing has been especially pronounced. Few things strike terror in people quite like the specter of Ebola. An Oct. 14 Washington Post-ABC News poll found that nearly two-thirds of Americans (65 percent) say they fear a widespread outbreak in the U.S. Cooler heads have noted that more Americans have been married to a Kardashian than have died from Ebola. But that fun fact misses the point: People fear what they can’t control, and when the government can’t control it either, the fear ratchets up to panic.

Axelrod is forced to admit it all comes down to what comes out of Southern California, as Green suggests:

Americans’ views of deadly viruses such as Ebola are shaped by Hollywood movies such as Outbreak and Contagion, and when the prospect of a global pandemic arises, we expect a Hollywood president to take charge. Obama’s Spock-like demeanor and hollow assurances about what experts are telling him feel incongruous.

Obama just doesn’t get it:

It’s hard not to suspect that Obama’s lack of executive experience before becoming president is one reason why he often struggles to strike the right tone. In this way, he’s the opposite of the man who preceded him. “I still remember where I was when Bush took the bullhorn at Ground Zero,” Axelrod says. He was recalling one of the great moments of presidential theater, when George W. Bush climbed atop the rubble of the World Trade Center after the Sept. 11 attacks. “I can hear you,” Bush shouted to the cheering rescue workers. “The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” In a stroke, Bush galvanized the nation.

Obama recoils from this kind of bravado – and bravado didn’t always serve Bush so well. (A certain flight suit comes to mind.) It also deserted him at critical moments like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. But replacing the impulse and emotion that governed Bush with a fealty to experts has led Obama to develop blind spots of his own.

That may be so, but that seems to suggest confusion about what the problem is. If the task is to fix the actual problem – ISIS or Ebola or whatever – Obama is on the case. If the problem is to fix how people feel about the problem at hand, even if you have no idea how to fix it, Obama is a disaster. Bush was far better at that, for all the good it did – the problem was still there and getting worse. Green conflates the two problems:

It’s often said in Washington that the best politics is good policy. That hasn’t been Obama’s experience. Dragged down by Ebola and other headaches, his approval rating has dropped to 40 percent, the lowest yet in his presidency. Democrats are on the verge of losing the Senate partly as a result. This reflects the cost of botching the initial response to so many crises.

Yeah, but then the problems are solved, with quiet calm and careful corrections, and with delay, with not being too hasty. Shallow and simpleminded jingoistic bravado keeps the approval ratings up, and keeps your party in power, but it doesn’t actually solve problems. The Romans hated Quintus Fabius Maximus, then they loved him, and then they probably hated him again – but Hannibal’s elephants died in the Alps and Hannibal slunk away. The problem was solved.

The folks down by the pier in Santa Monica have studied such things, effective and non-effective decision-making processes – they even had the Pentagon Papers for years after all – and we’re all still here. The world didn’t blow up. There’s something to be said 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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1 Response to Misunderstanding Calculated Delay

  1. Rick says:

    First, ramblings on history:

    It’s my understanding that George Washington only came to his “Fabian” strategy very reluctantly, only after his army’s embarrassing retreat across Manhattan from Brooklyn — at one point having to be rescued by aides when he completely lost his cool, screaming and throwing his hat to the ground in rage after he was unable to persuade his army to stand and fight.

    So he called a brain-storming meeting with his generals, and what came out of it (I’m not sure, but I think it was Nathanael Greene’s idea) was the “Fabian” approach — although I think Washington didn’t like to call it that; because the word implied something other than honorable behavior, he preferred to call it the “War of Posts”. (Try as I might, I’ve never figured out what he meant by that.)

    Although he had the first-hand experience of watching how American Indians successfully fought battles — from behind trees — he had a hard time abandoning the British view, which was that anything less than meeting the enemy lined up in ranks on some battlefield, like ducks in a shooting gallery, was mere cowardice. It was just another example of the Americanization of George Washington, a transition fortunately for his country that, had he not gone through it, we would all be speaking English today.

    Although conservatives have not been kind to Neville Chamberlain for seeming to have “appeased” Adolph Hitler in Munich, it should be noted that his Fabian approach, intended to be or not, makes good sense in retrospect, since none of who would later comprise the Allied nations were militarily prepared in September of 1938 to confront the Nazis; a report from the Chiefs of Staff at the time found that Britain couldn’t have forcibly stopped Germany from taking over Czechoslovakia anyway. In any event, they needed that extra year to build up their strength. Sometimes it just doesn’t pay to jump the gun.

    But after reading your column, I suppose I’m just piling on Josh Green for his nonsense in Business Week:

    “By the time President Obama gave in and appointed an Ebola czar on Oct. 17, the White House response to this latest national crisis had already run a familiar course: the initial assurance that everything was under control; the subsequent realization that it wasn’t…”

    Oh, bullshit.

    Despite the so-called “subsequent realization” of various idiots, everything WAS under control, and it still IS under control. President Obama went out on a limb and promised us that there would be no “outbreak” of Ebola in this country. So far, there HASN’T been, and so far, there’s no good indication that this situation will change. Why is it that every little thing Obama does, like naming a czar, has to be construed as a change of course?

    More Green:

    “Six years in, it’s clear that Obama’s presidency is largely about adhering to intellectual rigor – regardless of the public’s emotional needs.”

    Did you really just say the “public’s emotional needs”?

    We don’t need a president to instantly respond to the “public’s emotional needs”, since we have Republicans and their right-wing media to do that for us. And when it comes to someone in government who can’t seem to decide their way out of a paper bag? Aren’t these people confusing Obama with the House of Representatives?

    It must be noted, by the way, that Obama is not the first Democratic president in recent American history to choose to think-smart instead of act-stupid, despite pressure from the right to do otherwise. We can’t forget “Give ’em Hell” Harry Truman, firing Douglas MacArthur rather than following his lead into a war with China; and then John Kennedy, who decided, despite the urging of his generals, not to bomb the crap out of Cuba in 1962. And I may be alone on this one, but there’s also Jimmy Carter, the original “no drama” president, who deserves credit for peacefully negotiating the release of the Iranian hostages, without a shot fired and without giving Iran anything in return. It cost him his job. Stuff happens.

    Which I guess will always be the bane of the Democrats: They just keep delivering all these politically out-of-touch presidents who naively choose to put the well-being of their country before their own political popularity.


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