Streetwise Professor

August 28, 2013

“A Shot Across the Bow”, AKA Distilled Strategic Idiocy

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Professor @ 8:30 pm

I surely hope this is the biggest head fake in history.  Because if it isn’t, we are so screwed:

President Obama on Wednesday advocated a “shot across the bow” for Syria in the interest of U.S. national security, despite growing concerns from congressional lawmakers over the possibility of an American military strike.

In an interview with PBS, Obama for the first time said publicly the U.S. has concluded the Syrian government carried out a chemical weapons attack against civilians last week, saying the administration does not believe the country’s opposition has such weapons at their disposal.

Obama said he has not yet made a decision on how to respond, but said “international norms” state the use of chemical weapons should not be tolerated.

“We cannot see a breach of the nonproliferation norm that allows, potentially, chemical weapons to fall into the hands of all kinds of folks,” Obama said, saying U.S. national security could be at risk if that occurred.

“If we are saying in a clear and decisive but very limited way, we send a shot across the bow saying, ‘stop doing this,’ that can have a positive impact on our national security over the long term,” Obama said.

Shot across the bow?  Seriously?

And what if the Syrian ship doesn’t heave to?  What then, Sun Tzu? And why would you expect them to heave to?  Assad is in a struggle for survival, after all.

International “nonproliferation” norms?  Do you think dictators in existential struggles give a flying f*ck about “international norms”?  And, um, this isn’t a proliferation issue.  This isn’t a fall-into-the-hands-of-the-wrong-kind-of-folks issue.  (“Folks”?  Seriously.) This is a use issue. They already are in the wrong hands, for crissakes.

Why should a dictator fighting for his life capitulate to a “very limited” strike?  Won’t the limited nature of the strike tell him that we are not serious?

Those questions are purely rhetorical.

I’m also rather mystified at the fetishization of chemical weapons.  Yes, death by chemical weapons is horrific.  But so is death by artillery, bombing, automatic weapons, and bayonets. 100,00 have perished by “conventional” means in Syria: the death of one percent as many people by “unconventional” means somehow justifies actions that the far more numerous deaths by HE and flying lead don’t?

And I have yet to see Obama or anyone in the administration articulate how any intervention-let alone “very limited” intervention that is guaranteed to be totally ineffectual-will advance US interests.  Not one mention of the implications for the Middle East, specifically the standoff with Iran, stability in Lebanon, Hezbollah, Israel, anything. But I guess that’s because for the “progressive” left, advancing American interests is a bug, not a feature.

This interview is truly a distillation of strategic idiocy.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. “Call me Ishmael…”, which is inspired by your fusion of Sun Tzu and sailing (lol). Obama is completely out to lunch on this GWBush voyage to hunt and kill moby dick (aka Al queda). Obama has Kerry brokering secret meetings in Palestine as though it is the most serious foreign policy issue of the moment, while Iran get ready to strike Israel the moment the USA hits Syria. I am checking my guns, ammo and gold in the basement. Larger wars have started with less kindling.

    Comment by scott — August 29, 2013 @ 5:38 am

  2. +++ Iran get ready to strike Israel the moment the USA hits Syria.+++

    Really? What gives you that idea?

    Comment by LL — August 29, 2013 @ 5:46 am

  3. “Larger wars have started with less kindling.”

    And vice-versa, of course. I was in Moscow when the Yom Kippur War began and I thought I was a dead duck, but the reactions of the Great Powers was being managed by back-door secret diplomacy, so there was really nothing to worry about. It was just my personal melodrama.

    There is a popular meme that insists that this and that war has begin by accident, by neglect, or even because the train timetables made it inevitable.

    I would submit that very few significant wars have begun without careful preparation, quite a lot of notice, and failed diplomacy leading both participants to decide that war is their best next move. The things statesmen hate about war is that it introduces and element of uncertainty, so they mostly don’t go to war without exhausting all the other alternatives. The Austrians decided to declare war on Serbia, and Germany decided to use that as a pretext to get a war started with Russia and France, while the UK decided to treat Belgium as a pretext for a settlement of accounts with Germany. It wasn’t “Oops”.

    I’m not big fan of Obama, but I think that he is currently doing the right thing by talking in public about how far he is or is not prepared to go. Putin’s not going to wake up this week to the news that Obama bombarded Damascus without telling him first. And Putin is also doing the rational thing by warning that war could lead to a bad outcome, and by not threatening to expand the war.

    Intervention in Syria will definitely be a bad outcome for Syria, and it could be a bad outcome for the West, if it inherits yet another failed state and civil war to add to the current list, but I don’t think we are looking at a general war. That’s not in anyone’s interest.

    Comment by jon livesey — August 29, 2013 @ 1:51 pm

  4. Cameron is facing serious questions even in The Torygraph:

    Looks like this might be a war that various Jacksonians will wind up being deprived of.

    It looks like some of The Media have learned to recognize when they’re being sold a war based on lies, so maybe the Iraq war wasn’t a total waste.

    Steep tuition though.

    Comment by Paili — August 29, 2013 @ 3:23 pm

  5. “Cameron is facing serious questions even in The Torygraph”

    And perhaps more importantly, in Parliament, which just voted against British involvement. I guess Cameron does have an IQ because he just announced that he would not use the Royal Prerogative, which would have enabled him to use the Armed Forces even without the approval of Parliament.

    Interestingly, there was a Bill proposed in 1999 to make the exercise of the Royal Prerogative subject to Parliamentary approval, at least in the case of declarations of war, but the Queen – presumably acting on the advice of the then PM, Blair – declined to give her consent for the Bill to be debated, so it was dropped.

    Comment by jon livesey — August 29, 2013 @ 6:33 pm

  6. “We cannot see a breach of the nonproliferation norm that allows, potentially, chemical weapons to fall into the hands of all kinds of folks,” Obama said

    Folks? FOLKS?!! Wasn’t Bush castigated as a dumbass Texan cowboy when he described the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks thusly?

    Comment by Tim Newman — August 29, 2013 @ 6:34 pm

  7. What then, Sun Tzu?

    Lol. That’s a good one.

    Comment by Tim Newman — August 29, 2013 @ 6:35 pm

  8. Isn’t this a bit ambitious for a country that can’t even keep their own ambassador alive. American intelligence leaves much to be desired. I’ll believe Assad way before I’ll believe Obama.

    Comment by Michael — August 29, 2013 @ 8:47 pm

  9. @Tim. Thanks (re Sun Tzu). And yes. Obama’s use of the word “folks” is dismissive, grating, and infuriating.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — August 30, 2013 @ 9:48 am

  10. Our President is a phenomenon: no mater how many howlers he commits, he is not held accountable. In the current fiasco, he has yet to fire across the bow, even though he has shot himself and us in the foot. that would take some real effort for anyone else, but came naturally to the One.

    The use of the words folks is not only dismissive and grating, but is a play to his crowd and a sop to his ego – he revels in his ubermeschlichkeit! Maybe one day he will climb down Mt. Olympus and join we mortals in the sh*t.

    Comment by Sotos — August 30, 2013 @ 12:08 pm

  11. @Sotos-he views his mission as adding to the pile we’re mired in.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — August 30, 2013 @ 1:21 pm

  12. And who’s to say he hasn’t done a GREAT job of that, Perfesser!

    Comment by Sotos — August 30, 2013 @ 1:47 pm

  13. I wish the West could take the time to decide what it really wants in the Middle East. Syria, like several other nations there, is less a nation state and more a collection of whatever Ottoman provinces happened to lie within a border drawn by France and the UK in 1916.

    The “mandate territories” went along with whatever borders they were given because anything was better than remaining in the Ottoman Empire, but that means that today Syria is 75% Sunni, 13% Shia and 10% Christian. That makes a place like Syria less stable than, for example Iran, which is over 90% Shia.

    Do we want Syria to remain nominally a single nation which erupts into civil war ever couple of decades, much like Lebanon, or would we prefer a collection of smaller states that are more religiously coherent? The experience of the Thirties should have taught us the dangers of breaking up a large multi-ethnic empire into smaller states, each of which has its own serious minorities issues that can be exploited by any power that wants to make mischief.

    It seems that we have never seriously considered extending the principle of self-determination to the Middle East, and we are still dealing with the fall-out from the break-up of the Ottoman Empire. Lack of self-determination leads to endless revolts and savage reactions by people like Assad. If we can’t summon the will to give self-determination to each group – including the Kurds, by the way – then maybe we should consider just staying out of the area altogether.

    Certainly, using military force to “send a message” without attempting to solve the underlying problems seems completely pointless.

    Comment by jon livesey — August 30, 2013 @ 4:41 pm

  14. @jon. I couldn’t agree more. The slavish devotion to the path-dependent map of the Middle East is insane. It adds constraints to an already complex program, making the determination of a solution that much harder, and increases the odds that no solution exists at all.

    This seems a classic case of what Eisenhower said (I quote from memory): if a problem appears intractable, enlarge it. Do not try to solve it constrained by the little boxes inherited from the Ottomans and Sykes-Picot, boxes drawn for reasons completely divorced from current realities.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — August 30, 2013 @ 5:24 pm

  15. @Sotos. Certainly not me.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — August 30, 2013 @ 5:27 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress