Streetwise Professor

March 21, 2011

Incoherence All Around

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:29 pm

The Obama administration’s insists that its objective in Libya is limited to protecting civilians against Khaddafy’s predations.  It also insists that it is not targeting Khaddafy.  Obama has said Khaddafy must go, but he argues that financial pressures and sanctions will achieve this result.

A consensus has quickly emerged that taken at face value, this “strategy” is completely incoherent.  A brutal dictator like Khaddafy is unlikely to succumb to financial pressure.  Depending on an internal coup is also hardly realistic.  We hoped for that for years in Iraq, and our hopes were disappointed: hope, of course, is not a strategy.  The only way to protect Libyan civilians is to destroy the regime and its ability to resist.  This requires a more intense air campaign–and even that may be insufficient (see Iraq I and Iraq II).  Killing Khadaffy and most of his command structure is almost certainly a necessary, though not sufficient, condition to achieve the objective Obama and his military commanders have publicly announced.

A half-assed campaign risks a stalemate that will ultimately play to Khaddafy’s advantage.  Time, we have learned more than once, is not on our side in these endeavors.  The initial fervor lapses, especially when there are setbacks and civilian deaths.

But maybe these statements should not be taken at face value.  Perhaps Obama, the French, the British, and others involved are really targeting Khadaffy, but have decided not to acknowledge this objective.  Reports that several of Khaddafy’s bunkers have been hit would suggest that the true objective differs from the publicly announced one.  The Arab League’s volte face suggests that some of its members perceive that the campaign being carried out goes beyond what they had said they would support.

This alternative would perhaps exonerate Obama of accusations of military and strategic incompetence, but call into question his credibility.  This raises the questions: Why would Obama lie?  Who is he trying to deceive?

It is unlikely that Obama is trying to deceive the American people, or Congress.  I presume that a broad majority in both Congress and the electorate would support a more robust campaign, and one that specifically targets Khaddafy.   Even those who are uneasy about getting involved at all (including yours truly, at this late date), would say: if we’re going to do it, do it all the way.  And besides, Khaddafy has deserved it for decades.  So Obama would likely get more support from Americans and from Congress if he forthrightly declared his intention to change the regime in Libya, and implemented a campaign more likely to achieve that objective.

This leaves only one alternative: Obama et al are lying to the UN, and are going beyond the mandate of the UN resolution, but not admitting it.

Under this alternative, Obama is effectively admitting that the UN imposes unnecessary constraints on the actions of the US and its allies, and provides succor to dictators.  That the UN is a problem, not the solution.

I agree.  But admitting this, as Obama would be doing if he is in fact deceiving the UN about his true goals, completely explodes the justification for his habitual deference to that body.  Why the insistence on UN approval when he recognizes that the conditions for said approval are unacceptable and jeopardize the lives of innocent civilians?  Why the genuflection to the UN generally, on this and other matters, if he believes that it is dysfunctional on matters of fundamental importance?

So Obama can’t escape the charge of incoherence by pleading Machiavellian duplicity: if his true goals differ from his stated goals in Libya, and hence he is lying to the UN, his deference to that body on this matter and others is incoherent.

This means that either Obama is being honest about his objectives in Libya, and is pursuing a strategically incoherent course, or he is lying about his objectives in order to circumvent the UN, in which case his broader UN-based, multilateral, deferential foreign policy is incoherent.

And the incoherence is not limited to the US.  Russian policy on Libya is also a complete shambles.  Putin rages about the air campaign:

“This UN Security Council resolution is without doubt defective and harmful,” Putin said on Monday, after calling it a “medieval call to crusade.”

And Medvedev chastised Putin strongly for these remarks:

By Monday evening disagreement between Putin and Medvedev looked even more evident as the Russian president called Putin’s statement “inadmissible.” “Russia did not exercise [the veto power] for one reason,” Medvedev retorted. “I do not consider this resolution to be wrong. Moreover, I believe that this resolution generally reflects our understanding of what is going on in Libya…It is absolutely inexcusable to use expressions that in effect lead to a clash of civilizations – such as ‘crusades,’ and so on. That is unacceptable,” Medvedev said.

Whoa.  When has Medvedev ever said that Putin has uttered something “unacceptable”?  That’s a first, as far as I know.

Evidently the division within the Russian government led to its decision to abstain from a vote on the UN resolution authorizing force in Libya.

Although it’s very risky to attempt to read too much meaning into the growls from beneath the Russian carpet, this breach appears more real, more passionate, and less contrived than those that have occurred before; this seems real, rather than Kabuki theater.  This bears watching to see whether developments in Libya affect the political dynamic in Russia, or whether the intramural disagreements over Libya policy are a harbinger of intensifying conflict between Putin and Medvedev in the run-up to the elections in December (for the Duma) and next year–for the presidency.

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  1. Why is there not a peep about Bahrain in the news? Wrong sort of rebels?

    Comment by So? — March 21, 2011 @ 8:05 pm

  2. @So?–Dunno, but it is a big deal. As long as the unrest stays west of Suez, the economic consequences will be limited. If it goes east . . . . And there’s a major Iranian angle. Definitely worth keeping an eye on.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — March 21, 2011 @ 8:15 pm

  3. BTW, the long-awaited split in the duumvirate actually happened a few weeks ago, when Putin said he liked the Snow Leopard, while Medvedev preferred the Polar Bear.

    Comment by So? — March 21, 2011 @ 8:50 pm

  4. Obama’s speech in Chile today raises hope that he intends to convert Tomahawks to solar power. I think he now realizes that the designation “Tomahwak” is very insensitive to Native Americans.

    Comment by pahoben — March 21, 2011 @ 8:52 pm

  5. @pahoben–LOL. I hear they’re going to rename the “Tomahawk” the “Dreamcatcher.”

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — March 21, 2011 @ 9:21 pm

  6. Will Obama lay a wreath at Pinochet’s tomb while in Chile?

    Nah. Ain’t holding my breath.

    Comment by LL — March 21, 2011 @ 10:09 pm

  7. What is deemed seemly, fit for public consumption, is often “incoherent.” The real reasons may be coherent, but are also unsayable in a nation constrained by polls and the journalistic morals police. You seem sarcastic about a situation I see as ineluctable.

    In my career, I have preferred to give coherent reasons for what I advocate. That has led to a full share of rolled eyes, changing the subject, and even meetings cut short. Success in bureaucratic politics typically accrues to those who keep their cards close the vest.

    Comment by Roger — March 22, 2011 @ 1:52 am

  8. @SO:

    Don’t touch the Bahrain rulers! They are important American allies. It would be horrible for the American foreign policy if democracy prevailed in Bahrain. We better bomb the Libyans to death instead. Gadaffy is our enemy. There is danger that ConocoPhillips may lose the monopoly on Libyan oil to the French, so we better outdo the French in our zeal to wage war on Gadaffy.

    Comment by Ostap Bender — March 22, 2011 @ 4:52 am

  9. “Under this alternative, Obama is effectively admitting that the UN imposes unnecessary constraints on the actions of the US and its allies”

    Ah, but unnecessary to whom? The UN is not there to support US policies, so it must impose *necessary* restraints on US policy if it is functioning correctly.

    Comment by Harold — March 22, 2011 @ 7:57 am

  10. @Roger–Yes, I have considered the possibility that Obama’s true objectives are different from his publicly stated ones. A couple of thoughts.

    First, too large a gap between the publicly articulated and actual objectives is dangerous–operationally, yes, but also politically. Eventually, the truth will out, and there is inevitably a backlash against deceit. That is especially true for a politician like Obama who has sold himself as some sort of moral beacon who will put the country back onto a righteous path from which it has strayed.

    Second, if his true objective is far more aggressive than he admits in public, his means are a disaster. A tentative campaign; we’re already indicating that the pace of attacks will slacken. Complete confusion over command. If you are familiar with the principles of war, you can’t look at this campaign and do anything but blanch. Objective. Offensive. Unity of Command. All MIA.

    Third, even a more coherent strategy that maximizes the likelihood of achieving these tacit objectives has a relatively small probability of success.

    You said in another comment that 30 years post-USNA, I’m still a naval officer to the core. Not quite sure what you mean by that–could be taken many ways. But I must say that one reason–the main reason, probably–that I left relates to something else in your comment, viz., “Success in bureaucratic politics typically accrues to those who keep their cards close the vest.” I realized that early on, and that progression in the military involved sublimating one’s personality and opinions, and parroting those of superiors and the service. I am very bad at that; it could be a matter of ego, laziness (that’s hard work for me), or just plain willfulness–who knows? I often say that I left Navy b/c that’s where I found I had issues with authority. So in that sense, I am *not* a naval officer to the core.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — March 22, 2011 @ 9:19 am

  11. The unrest in Bahrain is being reported in the news, it’s just not getting as much attention. Insofar that both Libya and Khaddafy are better known in the US, and are right inbetween the two big stories of the Arab Awakening (Tunisia where it started, and Egypt which was the big story), it makes sense.

    It’s fairly strange to argue that the US response to these events has the only criteria of whether the country was a US ally. The actual events of the past two months shows that is wrong.

    I do agree with the Professor’s comments that this intervention is a bit too late. Had it, or even just the strong desire to push for a no-fly zone, came weeks earlier right after the rebels seized eastern Libya, it is likely that the mere semblance of support would have convinced those waiting to see what happens to completely abandon Khadaffi. Instead, we let the opportunity past so that the waiters decided Khaddafi would win the in the end and they decided to back the winner. We probably could have bluffed our way to Khaddafy’s overthrow without the use of any force at all.

    But if Obama missed the opportunity, I still think 90% of any other person sitting in the office would have done the same thing. The “safe” bet was to always wait, see what happens, talk in a committee, and then only act after everyone agrees. Machiavelli warned against those kind of tepid, indecisive actions, but it would have taken a very strong personality and perceptive person to get ahead of these events. It speaks of weak leadership, but who really would have done otherwise?

    Also, the Libyan rebels have not handled the situation well either. They could have easily talked with the team the British sent in and handled everything behind the scenes. Instead, they seemed petulant and arrogant in their initial success. Still, it’s easy to forgive them – they did not have much experience or organization to prepare for this. Unfortunately, events are not so forgiving, and now that the initiative has swung the other way, they may regret their earlier high handed approach.

    In any case, at this time I do not think the rebels will succeed in uniting Libya even with a no fly zone. At minimum, they will need support to provide some organization and supply to their ground forces for a long campaign. Possibly, they may need targetted air strikes against the hard units of Khaddfy. The only way “out” of this for the West is if the rebels hold, and to recognize them as the legitimate government of Libya. At that point, more direct intervention becomes possible. So it’s long war, Spanish Civil War style, or Khaddafy just wins.

    Comment by Chris Durnell — March 22, 2011 @ 11:26 am

  12. @Chris:

    In your opinion, should USA wage war to help ALL revolutions throughout the world, or only in oil-rich and/or strategically important countries? Shouldn’t there be a limit on the number of countries that we bomb and/or occupy at any given point in time? How about the taxpayers? Maybe our taxpayer money would be better spent, say, on teachers in Wisconsin than on various tribal chiefs in Libya and Afghanistan?

    Comment by Ostap Bender — March 22, 2011 @ 6:04 pm

  13. Ah yes, Gostapo shows his Russian side, never help anyone unless it is helping them to die.

    Comment by Andrew — March 22, 2011 @ 10:35 pm

  14. Well, looks like we know what organisation Gostapo is part of:

    March 23, 2011
    The existence of China’s 50-cent party is well known. But now it seems Russia is attempting to form its own army of online contributors, who are paid a small sum to comment on articles or in forums critical of the ruling elite.

    Vadim Isakov at Global Voices has a post shedding some light on this new wave of “human bots,” after a number of Russian opposition bloggers noticed numerous critical comments coming from users with accounts created on-the-fly:

    Other bloggers (dolboeb, man_with_dogs, and aiden-ko, to name just few) got to the core of the issue and came up with a research-like posts [ru] on their LiveJournals. They talked about a peculiar posting on, a Russian website with job ads for people working in IT field. The posting has been deleted but man_with_dogs has a saved screenshot [ru] of the original.

    “I need 5 people,” the ad says. “Each of them will leave 70 comments a day from 50 different accounts (the accounts need to be live). Urgently. The job is 5 days a week. The duration of this project is 3 months. The payment is every 10 days (Webmoney, Yandex Money [methods of payment – GV]). Total: 12,000 rubles [around $400-G.V.] a month.”

    The author of this ad, someone named Vladimir Alekseev (probably a fake name since it sounds too conventional) also provided the details of the “job.” The human bots need to target the blog of navalny.

    The task is to create the maximum believable wave of comments to degrade the rating of the journal’s author and to form a negative attitude toward him. You need to comment each new post correctly and persuasively. It is also important to create a positive image of “United Russia” party [the ruling party in Russia – G.V.]. Can you do it?


    The Russian Internet is remarkably free in terms of filtering, with the authorities preferring to shape the narrative instead of banning dissent (for instance by calling for Facebook and other online forums to be regulated during election time or by setting up schools for bloggers and hackers). The Kremlin also like to create the experience, but not the reality, of a democratic process, via the Internet. And if that fails, they help create a climate of impunity where crusading journalists get their legs broken.

    If it plays out, “human bots” are also a pretty typical public-private partnership in Putin-Medvedev’s Russia. In addition to the paid commentators, Russia’s 30-ruble army, there are hoards of volunteers — those Russians who trawl forums and articles because they have an axe to grind and genuinely feel the need to speak up for their motherland. Hard to prove, but the Russian authorities’ approach to cyberwarfare seems to be much of the same. Outsource some of it to professionals and allow nationalist script kiddies to do a lot of the heavy lifting in the DDOS attacks.

    Comment by Andrew — March 24, 2011 @ 1:50 am

  15. @Ostap

    In general, I am much more isolationist than the US foreign policy establishment. I grew up in the Midwest, and I think there is residual sentiment of pre-WWII ideas there. I am Jacksonian though in that if there is war, I believe the knife should be stuck in to the hilt. In terms of Libya, Khaddafy has waged war against the US and our allies in the past and those debts have never really been settled, simply deferred. I also think that war in Iraq was justified because of Saddam’s failure to adhere to the original cease fire protocols back in 1991 (although the terrible execution brings into question whether it should have been done). But if the country has not previously killed American citizens or engaged in other acts of war, I am generally against armed intervention. I did not like the interventions in either Kosovo or Somalia. If the Europeans wanted to stop the violence in Yugoslavia, they should have done it themselves without bringing the US in. For example, Burma is certainly tyrannical, but insofar as the Burmese government has done anything against us, I would be against any armed intervention there. I am also against any half hearted, half assed actions like simply lobbing a few missiles into a country (like Clinton did several times). Such actions don’t actually work, and makes you both look weak and hated which is always a bad combination.

    As for funding, well, wars are expensive and its one reason they should be avoided. Overall, I think the US should draw down our profile and give our allies more responsibility for maintaining the peace in their region. In general, the US spends way too much money on everything. I am not sure about specifics on teacher salary in Wisconsin, but likely education funding is more than enough. It’s just consumed by the administration instead. And if education is to be improved, it has less to do with paying teachers more than in firing incompetent teachers being protected by the unions and getting rid a lot of the social programs/propaganda insituted in schools that have little do preparing students for the real world.

    Comment by Chris Durnell — March 24, 2011 @ 11:09 am

  16. By their deeds you shall know them. Projecting much?

    Comment by So? — March 24, 2011 @ 5:07 pm

  17. @Chris

    While I agree with most of the philosophies that you’ve outlined, I can’t agree with the practical positions.

    For one, you are no “isolationist”. I do not believe that it is appropriate to conduct foreign and military policy based on the idea of “settling” personal “debts”. You settle your personal feud with Gaddafy by killing innocent Arab civilians as “collateral damage” – and 10,000 new Arab youths will join Al Qaeda or some new terrorist organization. Our interventionism in Arab and other Muslim countries not only costs American lives and $hundreds of billions per year, but it feeds anti-American feelings all over the world.

    As far as teachers go, I totally agree that the current system allows for no competition among schools and thus stinks. We need to introduce the free market to our elementary and secondary education. At least, the same kind that we see in our excellent college system. And we badly need a voucher system that allows parents to vote with their feet for good schools. We needed this system 30 years ago when Milton Friedman was alive, we need ti now, and we shall talk about this need in 30 years from now. And indeed, the government educational bureaucracy eats up way too much, and more and more with each year.

    And yes, many teachers are incompetent. What do you expect? How can you attract bright people into teaching when you make them grade papers till late into the night and still pay them only $50K per year? No wonder this profession doesn’t attract enough bright people.

    Given that the US government has, in effect, recently paid $tens of billions in bonuses to Wall Street gangsters who had destroyed our economy, I don’t see how the right wing can now complain about the teachers being “greedy”. Who in their right mind would choose to get $50K per year as a teacher when they can get $500K in a bad year on Wall Street?

    Comment by Ostap Bender — March 25, 2011 @ 3:02 am

  18. Hi Gostapo, when you say Given that the US government has, in effect, recently paid $tens of billions in bonuses to Wall Street gangsters who had destroyed our economy, I don’t see how the right wing can now complain about the teachers being “greedy” were you one of the beneficiaries, considering you claim to be in the top 1% of taxpayers in the US….

    In addition, did you not recently claim to support the US war on terror, or was that another one of your fabrications?

    Comment by Andrew — March 25, 2011 @ 6:32 am

  19. And your support for Russia conducting wars and military operations to “settle personal debts” makes you a bit of a hypocrite Gostapo.

    Comment by Andrew — March 25, 2011 @ 6:43 am

  20. Andrew, you are a kook and a troll. Don’t expect me to reply to your drivel.

    Comment by Ostap Bender — March 25, 2011 @ 3:42 pm

  21. @Ostap.
    You are correct that I am not an isolationist. I said I was more isolationist than the US foreign policy establishment. I think you can understand the difference. I have met and read very few people who are consistently non-interventionist. The same people who are against them when they happen are often the same ones clamoring for it in the context of another issue.

    You are taking my words about Kahaddafy’s past actions very strangely. At no point did I say they were “personal” debts, or that they were actions I disliked to be a feud. Khadaffy was responsible for acts of war, and by doing that he made himself a target for reprisal either immediately or at a future date. Chavez in Venezuela is someone I loathe, but none of his actions have constituted an act of war against the US.

    When thinking about whether intervention, there are multiple things to consider. If the world was as it was several months ago, then all of a sudden imposing a no fly zone and bombing ground assets would not have made sense. But in this case we have the Libyans themselves asking for a no fly zone. Khadaffy is already engaged in killing Libyans. Khadaffy is bringing in foreign mercenaries to do his dirty work because he can’t rely on enough of his own people to do so. If there is justification for intervention, I think it’s here.

    Of course simply because something is justified does not make it wise. SWP has said things in other posts about the potential half assery of this. Since victory has a thousand fathers and defeat is an orphan, the debate about the wisdom of this won’t be known until in the future. That’s why in general I dislike sending troops. Nothing is more prone to chance, error, or fortune than war. So when you commit the country to it, you better be damn sure you know what you are doing. Dubya failed horribly in that respect as he could have avoided much of the trouble in Iraq by a competent plan for the immediate occupation. Obama may be making completely different mistakes. So the future you may prove you right.

    To extricate us from the Middle East in general, we need a radical change to our energy policy. I think we need to shift away from income tax (at least on the lower income end) over to gas/oil and other consumption taxes. A phase in multi-year gas tax (that is revenue neutral by reducing income taxes) that brings the US to European and Japanese standards would encourage development of alternate energy and conservation. It would reduce the excess funds given to those Middle Eastern dictatorships and lazy oil princes that fund people to kill the infidel. Benefits all around, too bad none of the US political leadership will do it.

    Comment by Chris Durnell — March 25, 2011 @ 6:52 pm

  22. Who are these Libyans who asked for a no-fly zone? Round up a bunch of gastarbeiters, and you have your “black mercenaries”.

    Comment by So? — March 25, 2011 @ 7:40 pm

  23. Well, Chris, if you put it THIS way, I don’t see any real reason to argue against your philosophy.

    I happen to be a “mild” pacifist and believe that war is justified only in the compelling case of defending our own borders and security. You gave a bunch of small reasons why we should engage in a war in Libya – making it three wars in the Middle and Near East at the same time! But I am not sure I can trust the government or the media that these reasons are true. We were lied to repeatedly when the government and the media wanted wars in the past. Hearst and others lied to us in order to start the war on Spain. We were lied to by the government about the The Gulf of Tonkin incidents in order to start the disastrous war in Vietnam. We were lied to about the Rakac “massacre” in order to start the rape of Yugoslavia. Powell lied to us and the rest of the world in UN in order to start the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003. Even the invasion of Grenada was on false premises, as was probably that of Panama. Even in Haiti we hardly did much good. And our involvement in Somalia was a disaster. And so was our marines’ involvement in Beirut in the 1980s.

    With all this in mind, I vote for as few wars and military operations as possible. But not always. For example, if Iran were to proceed to building nuclear devises, a military operation may be inevitably needed.

    Comment by Ostap Bender — March 25, 2011 @ 9:58 pm

  24. It is hard to believe in the sincerity of the Republican hate for Qaddafi now, given their love for him just a year and a half ago:

    John McCain Praises Libyan Leader Gaddafi

    Sen. John McCain, visiting Libya this past week, praised Muammar Gaddafi for his peacemaking efforts in Africa. In addition, McCain called for the U.S. Congress to expand ties with Gaddafi’s government, according to Libya’s state news agency.

    McCain had a face-to-face meeting with Gaddafi, which he detailed on his Twitter page with the following message:

    “Late evening with Col. Qadhafi at his “ranch” in Libya — interesting meeting with an interesting man.”

    After once being designated a state sponsor of terrorism in the wake of the Pan Am bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, Libya has seen its diplomatic ties fully restored under the Bush Administration in return for dismantling its nascent nuclear program. Since then, Libya has been instrumental in securing peace deals between warring factions in Africa.,7340,L-3761977,00.html

    Report: McCain praises Gaddafi for peacemaking

    US senator says Congress would support expansion of US-Libya ties

    McCain: Qaddafi Should Stand Trial for War Crimes

    March 21, 2011

    Comment by Ostap Bender — March 25, 2011 @ 11:24 pm

  25. LOL! Gates now claims that Gaddafi’s security forces are killing civilians and leaving their bodies at the sites of recent bombings to tarnish the fine reputation of NATO. Everyone knows that democratic humanitarian pinpoint surgical NATO airstrikes cannot possibly kill civilians.—_3757821

    Comment by So? — March 27, 2011 @ 7:34 pm

  26. More Russian hypocrisy

    While Nato insists it is impartial in the conflict, Russia has renewed its expressions of concern, saying intervention in an internal civil war is not sanctioned by UN Security Council Resolution 1973.

    1. The UN resolution states “all necessary means to protect civilians” and given that Qaddafi is the one responsible for killing large numbers of civilians….

    2. The Russians have repeatedly interfered in the civil wars of their neighbors, always on the side of those committing ethnic cleansing, without any form of UN mandate whatsoever.

    The main reason for Russian support of Qaddafi is that he helped the Russians to train generations of terrorists who caused havoc around the world during the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s.

    Oh and Gostapo, the Republicans (and Democrats) were previously trying to reward Qaddafi for supposedly changing his behavior by stopping and dismantling his WMD programs, his support for terrorism etc. Unfortunately he recently showed his true colors, probably why so many Russians support him, they love a good bloody dictator.

    Those who tried through the carrot approach to influence Qaddafi are now doing the right thing and using the stick, as mandated by the UN.

    Comment by Andrew — March 29, 2011 @ 12:39 am

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