Streetwise Professor

April 26, 2013

Is Obama Invoking the “Whole Bunch” Clause? Or Will He Finally Take Calculus?

Filed under: Military,Politics — The Professor @ 8:20 am

SecDef Hagel has acknowledged that Assad used Sarin against the rebels in Syria, but the White House is being much more circumspect in its appraisal.  The circumspection undoubtedly traces directly to the fact that Obama declared the use of chemical weapons to be a “red line” in the conflict, but he has zero interest in getting involved.  But remember, Obama qualified what constituted the crossing of the red line: it wasn’t any use of CW, it was the use and or movement of “a whole bunch” of CW.

Did I call this or what?  From last August:

But Obama has avoided even the suggestion of intervention in Syria like the plague.

Until now.  He has drawn a red line, but in so doing, he sows confusion rather than producing clarity:

Seeking re-election in November, Obama noted that he had refrained “at this point” from ordering U.S. military engagement in Syria. But when he was asked at a White House news conference whether he might deploy forces, for example to secure Syrian chemical and biological weapons, he said his view could change.

“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” Obama said. “That would change my calculus.”

“A whole bunch of chemical weapons”?  ”A whole bunch”?  Really?  WTF constitutes “a whole bunch”?  Is he saying to Assad that he can move around and use a few chemical weapons, as long as he doesn’t cross the “whole bunch” line?  Wherever that is.

Excuse me while I go pound my head on the floor.

OK.  Back now.

Look.  There is a principle often invoked in foreign policy, and politics generally, of “constructive ambiguity.”  But this is completely unconstructive ambiguity, that creates the potential for a miscalculation.  Obama gives the impression that Assad can become a little bit pregnant in the use of WMD.  Think a dictator with his back to the wall just might see how pregnant he can become?

No, this is not Machiavellian ambiguity on Obama’s part.  It is an attempt to look all butch and tough while giving himself some maneuvering room down the road if Assad or whoever gets their hands on chem and bio weapons uses them in the coming weeks or months.  Obama can rationalize not responding by invoking the “whole bunch” clause.

And note the unspoken corollary to Obama’s red line: Anything short of the use of chemical or biological weapons will NOT lead Obama to change his calculus.  At least that is very likely to be the corollary that Assad (and his BFFs, the Russians) draws from Obama drawing the red line at WMD.

There are no easy answers in Syria, and non-intervention is a defensible position.  But Obama has wanted to have it both ways, and now his bluff is being called.  As many have pointed out, how he responds will be watched closely by North Korea and Iran, not to mention China and Russia-and Syria. Assad has gotten a little bit pregnant, and nothing has happened.  Given his desperate straits-with most of his shambolic military penned up in bases with little ability to move or take the offensive-he has every incentive to see how much more pregnant he can get.

Lawyerly caviling about what constitutes “a whole bunch” will only convince hard men around the world that Obama’s bluffs can be called, with no consequence.  That bodes ill.

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8 Comments »

  1. Clearly Assad has as many WMDs as Saddam did. Last night I heard on network news that, according to the Pentagon, Assad used a microscopic, undetectable amount of “chemichal weapons” (tear gas) and for the following reason: to test the amount of patience that the USA has before attacking Syria. In other words, encouraged by the great reception and consequences of Powell’s “WMD” speech on Iraq, Pentagon wants the public to believe that Assad used chemical weapons in order to provoke USA to attack him. Pentagon is once again doing things similar what Hitler did when he told the public that Poland had attacked Germany.

    Leaving aside such issues as the fact the the opposition is comprised mostly of extremists and terrorists and intends to exterminate millions of Christians and Shiites, the question is: are we ready to get into another war, costing thousands of lives and $trillions of dollars, especially given that we are already committed to a war with Iran and are busily whipping up koreaphobia.

    What is the plan here? To transfer the entire GDP into the hands of the military-industrial complex, borrowing money from the Chinese, and then to declare bankruptcy? Or print money like there is no tomorrow in order to devalue the dollar currency? If so – where should we put our savings?

    Comment by Vlad Rutenburg — April 26, 2013 @ 4:36 pm

  2. The Putin-mafia is once again doing things similar what Hitler did when he told the public that Georgia had attacked Russia 2008.

    This is costing thousands of lives and $trillions of Rubels, especially given that the Putin-mafia are already committed to a war together with Iran against the people in Syria and are busily whipping up support for the North-Korean Stalinist regime .

    http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2013/04/201342712035191678.html

    “Blowing Up Russia” in either book or celluloid form is banned in Russia, but is available on YouTube. That gives Russian nationals a chance to see their child ombudsman smirk his way through a short interview explaining that these classification laws remain in force for 75 years, which is how long it’ll likely take for his compatriots to learn the truth about Ryazan. (Astakhov appears at 38:04 here:) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9sx2YmSXDy8

    Comment by Oleg Hansson — April 26, 2013 @ 10:24 pm

  3. Clearly Assad has as many WMDs as Saddam did.

    True, and if one considers that 1000 lb cluster bomb >>>>>> 1000 lb sarin bomb any day, the whole WMD thing is a huge con. But this doesn’t change the fact that Syria is not in a stable configuration. A small minority cannot rule a majority indefinitely. Does this justify intervention, given that the insurgents are in all probability even worse than the incumbents?

    P.S.
    NK has already seen the value of appeasing the West. Gaddafi gave up his nuke program, only to end up with a bayonet suppository.

    Comment by So? — April 27, 2013 @ 3:06 am

  4. You think Obama knows what calculus is, never mind how to perform it?

    Comment by Tim Newman — April 27, 2013 @ 6:44 am

  5. @Tim-oh no, I don’t think anything of the sort. He just says it because it sounds weighty and sophisticated to other people who don’t know how to perform it either. I think the only times he has uttered the word is when discussing Syria, which is strange in its own way.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — April 27, 2013 @ 7:56 am

  6. @Tim-maybe I’ll start referring to him as Leibniz.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — April 27, 2013 @ 10:58 am

  7. > You think Obama knows what calculus is, never mind how to perform it?

    Of course, Obama knows what calculus is. In the case of decision making, calculus means:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calculus_%28disambiguation%29
    Battlefield calculus, military calculation of all known factors into the decision-making and action-planning process

    http://www.thefreedictionary.com/calculus
    cal·cu·lus
    4. A system or method of calculation: “[a] dazzling grasp of the nation’s byzantine budget calculus” (David M. Alpern).

    Too bad you guys are too ignorant to understand college-level words and too impudent to blame Obama for your ignorance.

    Comment by Vladislav Rutenburg — April 28, 2013 @ 8:30 pm

  8. Too bad you guys are too ignorant to understand college-level words and too impudent to blame Obama for your ignorance.

    I’ll put that down to my being an engineer who knows how to use and perform calculus and thus is unaware that the term has been adopted by others to refer to mere decision-making. This wouldn’t be the first instance of a technical term being adopted by people trying to lend weight to ordinary actions. Another is the term “strategy”.

    Comment by Tim Newman — April 29, 2013 @ 2:30 am

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