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Should we Laugh or Cry?

[by Mark Safranski a.k.a “zen“]

Throughout the past half century or so, it became commonplace for high level officials to speak to reporters cloaked in anonymity as “sources in the White House” or who were “close to the Oval Office” in order to pass along slightly harder truths or acidic observations to the public without attribution. Generally, these comments, however troubling the format, were usually smarter and more honest than the ones that could be heard extolling the administration line at official briefings or press conferences.

Well, the Obama administration is working hard to reverse that impression. In a little over a week, we have had these gems from senior officials regarding Syria and Russia:

A second senior official, who has seen the most recent planning, offered this metaphor to describe such a strike: If Assad is eating Cheerios, we’re going to take away his spoon and give him a fork. Will that degrade his ability to eat Cheerios? Yes. Will it deter him? Maybe. But he’ll still be able to eat Cheerios.

This is actually the less disturbing of the two examples. While inane as a choice of metaphor, it did at least correctly indicate the strategic insignificance of doing a “protest bombing” of Assad narrowly targeted to punish for chemical weapons use. That’s something.

This next one is truly amazing:

“Putin is now fully invested in Syria’s CW (chemical weapons) disarmament….

He put this proposal forward and he’s now invested in it. That’s good. That’s the best possible reaction. He’s fully invested in Syria’s CW disarmament and that’s potentially better than a military strike – which would deter and degrade but wouldn’t get rid of all the chemical weapons. He now owns this. He has fully asserted ownership of it and he needs to deliver.”

Yes, I’m certain Putin will put that right at the top of his to-do list now that he has finished submitting his ghost-written op-ed spiking the ball and doing a five minute celebratory dance in the White House end zone.

Let’s hope that was cynical posturing and not an expression of the administration’s operative geopolitical power calculus because it sounds remarkably like a political consultant type trying to import the effects of domestic political spinmeistership into foreign policy making. It is at best an exercise in wishful thinking unhinged from the cold and cruel realities of international relations.

If it represents the quality of thinking on foreign policy surrounding the President of the United States, then we may all be in big trouble.

15 Responses to “Should we Laugh or Cry?”

  1. carl Says:

    It does, and we are.

  2. Madhu Says:

    You should re-post your old Putin and Clinton piece, Zen. You were right on the money.
    That reply to Putin is so amateurish it hurts, I mean it really hurts.
    Own it?
    That’s just want he wanted to do, to own it. How many skeptical Americans or non-Americans on the failures of American intervention nodded along with the points he made even as they remain utterly skeptical of the motives of an old KGB guy?
    They should fire their own speechwriters and hire whoever ghost wrote that piece because that guy/gal/committee can write.
    But the important thing is to secure post government employment in phony baloney patronage jobs, get profiles in Vogue, eat at Cafe Milano, these are all very important, don’t you know?
    From nuclear proliferation to genocide in Darfur, Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice has more than a few balls to juggle. Jonathan Van Meter sees her in action.
    It is a cold, rainy night in mid-April, and hundreds of people have packed a ballroom at the Millennium U.N. Plaza Hotel in New York to meet the new United States ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice. It is the kind of obligatory happy-hour event that most people in the diplomatic community usually dread—cheese cubes and shoptalk. But that is not the mood tonight. First of all, there is a record turnout, with more than 100 ambassadors in attendance. There is also a sprinkling of New York society and the media elite mixed in among the eggheads and policy wonks, a rare occurrence at these things. – Vogue Magazine
    Was it Vogue that did that puff piece on Asma Al-Assad?
    I used to have a Vogue subscription for years. It’s embarrassing now to think  I once took those kinds of articles seriously. 

  3. Madhu Says:

    Read it and weep:

  4. Madhu Says:

    I didn’t even post the most interesting excerpt:
    As everyone waits for the guest of honor to arrive, there is a building sense of excitement; the women are dressed up, drinks are being downed, and there is a loud roar—the sound of people actually enjoying themselves. Perhaps because there is finally something to celebrate: President Obama has only just begun to put into action his sweeping changes in foreign policy, but the shift is already palpable here. This crowd has endured a long drought—eight years of the Bush administration, a group that had no use for diplomacy and viewed the United Nations as, at best, an impediment to their go-it-alone goals.  
    Never takes the power players long to find their own personal go-it-alone bombing campaigns.

  5. carl Says:

    Madhu: Think of it this way, and it gets worse.

    You are heading into a tight, dangerous, uncertain situation. Pick any situation you want, a nocturnal ambush patrol, going after a big cat or buffalo that’s been wounded, driving around a third world city depending upon your driver for safety; anything really. But something where your life depends on your backup. Now figure that your backup are the people Zen quoted, or the people who fit into the scene described in Vouge. Those are people you are going out with. Nice knowin’ ya.

    The nation, the Americans, us, have those people as backup. God help us.

  6. Grurray Says:

    Not Putin’s first op-ed
    “To do so, I ask you to put aside for a moment the dramatic news reports from the Caucasus and imagine something more placid: ordinary New Yorkers or Washingtonians, asleep in their homes. Then, in a flash, hundreds perish in explosions at the Watergate, or at an apartment complex on Manhattan’s West Side. Thousands are injured, some horribly disfigured. Panic engulfs a neighborhood, then a nation.”
    I’m reminded of Lind’s recent piece on JOhn Boyd in The American Conservative:
    Then we’re not even in the game
    and we haven’t been for some time

  7. Lynn C. Rees Says:

    Not so bleak Madhu, those people are the backup but they’re not the failsafe. We have folks like Mark, Scott, Adam Elkus, Charles, Mike Lotus, and others who are the failsafe.

  8. Charles Cameron Says:

    Gawker now has the Vogue piece on Asma al-Assad online. 

  9. Madhu Says:

    Thank you, Charles. The power of imagery is so strong that even though I know she is the wife of a dictator, the photos please until I stop myself and say, “hey, wait a minute, there is more to the story than clothes!”
    To all: I am not so bleak as I sound. I should do a better job expressing that positive feeling.
    Indeed, Lynn, we have amazing folks waiting not so much in the wings as doing good intellectual work that I believe will set the stage for an American 3.0 intellectual recharging.
    “The greatest gift of “America 3.0” is a deep foreign policy suited for our age of sequestration, neither expeditionary, nor isolationist. – Washington Times review of America 3.0
    How grateful I am that I fell into the online world of zen and Chicagoboyz and Abu Muqawama and Small Wars Journal. Such riches, that’s what you have given me. 
    I wrote to the following at SWJ:
    “Our posture in the Mid East, its high profile, and our forever alliance with the Saudi axis (which is partly emotional and personal to our Cafe Milano foreign policy class, civilian and military) is hurting us.

    The US cannot make the necessary adjustments because of it. Well, the American people are in the process of making the mental adjustment. The mandarins and their counterparts in the military world are the ones having the trouble.”
    We shall see. The prediction business is terrible and I may be misinterpreting a moment. But as the saying goes, if it can’t go on forever, it won’t.
    This beautiful experiment, America,  its all just waiting for a turn of the wheel (intellectual hat tip to Lynn ), isn’t it?
    Turn the wheel. The future could be something special, something extraordinary. 

  10. Madhu Says:

    I saw that op-ed posted elsewhere! I used that excerpt in a comment at SWJ. See, I can be positive and I am positive:
    “I always read what you write with great care because your writing is top notch. It is something very special. And I have tremendous respect for your work.
    But I am going to push back a bit on this piece.
    I can’t cut windows into men’s souls but I think Putin has expressed more than once that he is afraid of jihadists returning to Russia and of “blow back” to US sponsored regime change which is viewed as inherently destabilizing by many nations around the world including some of our closest allies.
    The American people likely share the same fears and skepticism of the dizzying pace of American sponsored regime change in the post Cold War period:

    To do so, I ask you to put aside for a moment the dramatic news reports from the Caucasus and imagine something more placid: ordinary New Yorkers or Washingtonians, asleep in their homes. Then, in a flash, hundreds perish in explosions at the Watergate, or at an apartment complex on Manhattan’s West Side. Thousands are injured, some horribly disfigured. Panic engulfs a neighborhood, then a nation.

    – Vladimer Putin NYT, 1999
    I am not naive about Putin or contemporary Russia. But it is 2013, not 1985, and even Reagan (a favorite president despite my unhappiness with 80’s Afghanistan policy and what it did to our foreign policy class in terms of promoting bad emotional habits) imagined a post-NATO world.
    In fact, because he believed–contrary to stylish elite opinion at that time, as you know of course–that the Soviet Union was weak and wouldn’t last, he was the first to understand a thing or two about possible Asia pivots. I am being serious. Look closely. OTOH, it might be a flight of fancy of mine. But Reagan definitely mentioned thinking about a post NATO world.
    On Russia, we actually do have some common interests, while others interests place us in opposition. Where our interests overlap, we should not wish for failure.
    America IS exceptional to my mind. Then again, I have all the mad love of an immigrant for this beautiful experiment.
    Unfortunately and inadvertently, some of the US foreign policy and military intellectual class is conducting a kind of 4GW against itself because it is choosing the wrong battles and failing to adjust.
    Not retreat, not stepping back, but a new beginning is needed. We are American. That used to be our thing, you know? The re-invention. The second or third act.
    The intellectual and emotional (and monetary, the lobbying has some very shady characters) deadwood of the forever-and-ever “get Russia” and “get Iran” crowd in DC must be cleared if this new beginning is to be ‘begun’.
    I’m glad we stood up during the Cold War and have great respect for the Cold Warriors that did their duty.
    But all things change, all things pass, there are no permanent enemies and no permanent allies. Our nation is vast, our nation is vibrant, our nation is strong. The American people are making the adjustment. We’ve had to because the post Cold War period has not been one where the elites have kept their own people back home in mind in all things. If we can do it, if we can adjust, so too can those who focus their gaze eternally outward. ”
    It is a response to a piece by David Maxwell, one of my favorite authors on the site. I really admire his writing and work. 

  11. Madhu Says:

    It’s weird that I am using 4GW because I had a meltdown about that term (I loathe the romanticization of theory and buzzwords while ignoring strategic context based on good understanding of foreign cultures) around here.
    I wasn’t too happy about Lind’s misinterpreting the on-the-ground reality in Afghanistan. He has a piece in The American Conservative where he actually says we should “give” Afghanistan to the Pakistani military, that great regional stabilizing force. Likely, he is confusing Egypt with Pakistan, but, then, I once confused Pakistan with Egypt.
    We already tried that, during the 90’s, after 9-11, and during the so-called Surge. It’s like our relationship with the Saudis which actually makes it very hard for the Pakistanis–and the US– to dig out from under a lot of bad baggage.
    Hmm, dig out? Baggage? Okay, not one of my more successful attempts at explaining but the Lind piece was so far from reality I LOL’ed until tears came into my eyes. 

  12. Grurray Says:

    Madhu,  I agree with most of what you say except for Putin.
    I don’t think he’s so concerned about terrorists or blowback/unintended consequences from US actions. This was the case pre 9-11 when we used a combo policy of carrots with assistance in Chechnya and sticks with pulling their periphery into NATO/EU.
    That editorial came right after Russia was humiliated by Kosovo.
    Since then and more so over the past few years, Putin has turned the game on us.
    You may be right and this could be a basis for cooperation,  but only if we gain some leverage and move to equal footing. With our current leadership filled with amateurs,  charlatans, and raconteurs I believe this would be difficult.
    In the meantime,  he’s defending/ building his sphere of influence. 
    I agree with your sentiment about this blog and the others. I’m regularly amazed by the insightfulness and scholarship and contributions. My question is when is Mahdu.com going live.

  13. larrydunbar Says:

    Should be laugh or cry?

    Apparently, those oriented towards the Zen are all for crying.

    I just don’t see it.

    Putin “owns” CW as much as Obama “owned” the redline, but it seems your guys here in the comment section give Obama more ownership than Putin, but I don’t understand why.


    I mean like that phrase in the Bob Dylan song: “you don’t need a weatherman to tell you which way the wind is blowing” (I hope I got that right), it is not hard to see a front building  inside Syria. A front that has the Christian supporters of Assad on one side and Islam (both Shia and Sunni) on the other.


    I think the McCain Islamists opposition in Syria see it, as does this administration.


    How is it that the people attracted to your blog don’t see it?


    Do you think you may have built a stove-pipe here?  

  14. carl Says:


    Pardon my obtuseness, but what did you just say?

  15. Madhu Says:

    @ Grurray – that’s a good point. One of my biggest intellectual weaknesses is that I tend to see what I want to see so it’s good to hear a different opinion.
    This FA article gets at your point:
    I used to blog at Chicagoboyz and I had a couple different blogs of my own over the years. One is closed up (my old Boston life) and one I can’t get into because I stupidly forgot the password and didn’t save the email that proves it is my blog, which was also in a defunct email account. I know, I know….I may go back go blogging but it is time consuming.
    carl, I’m glad you asked because I didn’t understand either? I think this is all a moving target so who knows? 

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