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Belmont Club

Paradigms Lost

August 23rd, 2014 - 2:03 pm

The administration’s abrupt transition from complacency to near panic on the rise of ISIS recalls Donald Rumsfeld’s famous dictum. But before the dictum, first the panic. The New York Times captures the sudden shift in attitude in its opening paragraphs of an article by Mark Mazzetti and Helene Cooper:

Earlier this year, President Obama likened the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to a junior varsity basketball squad, a group that posed little of the threat once presented by Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

But on Thursday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called ISIS an “imminent threat to every interest we have,” adding, “This is beyond anything that we’ve seen.”

Now there was no more talk of amateur opponents. Indeed the media outlets were playing up ISIS threats to the president’s hometown of Chicago.  The rest of the NYT Mazzetti-Cooper article examined the debate over the seriousness of the threat without reaching a conclusion.  Donald Rumsfeld warned there would be days like this: a man must always expect the unexpected.

Reports that say there’s — that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

There are things we do not know and NPR said the failed rescue of James Foley “reveals the challenges faced by US intelligence”. Yet at least it was, to the intelligence community at least, a known unknown.

The U.S. doesn’t really have much in the way of assets on the ground there. The U.S. is allied with the Free Syrian Army. That’s the group that’s fighting the Assad government. But they apparently provide very little in the way of really good intelligence. So instead, and the secretary of defense alluded to this, the intelligence community has to figure out what’s going on by cobbling together information from cell phone calls, Internet traffic and the surveillance from overhead drones.

President Obama’s earlier dismissal of ISIS in January falls into a  much more serious category. In an interview with David Remnick of the New Yorker, he boasted that there were now no significant threats worth considering. Al Qaeda had been “decimated.” When Remnick challenged that claim,  pointing  out that the Black Flag was flying over Fallujah, the president famously waved it off. He characterized ISIS as a “jayvee” or junior varsity team, not even to be taken seriously.

“The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” Obama said, resorting to an uncharacteristically flip analogy. “I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.”

In retrospect it was clear Obama didn’t know the true state of affairs. He didn’t even suspect he had got it wrong; it was an “unknown unknown” to him. And not just in some insignificant detail but an error lurking in the facts which made up the very cornerstone of his strategic thinking. The Remnick article clearly illustrates just how critical the mistakes were. Remnick recounted:

Obama told me that what he needs isn’t any new grand strategy—“I don’t really even need George Kennan right now”—but, rather, the right strategic partners. “There are currents in history and you have to figure out how to move them in one direction or another,” Rhodes said. “You can’t necessarily determine the final destination. . . . The President subscribes less to a great-man theory of history and more to a great-movement theory of history—that change happens when people force it or circumstances do.” (Later, Obama told me, “I’m not sure Ben is right about that. I believe in both.”) …

At the core of Obama’s thinking is that American military involvement cannot be the primary instrument to achieve the new equilibrium that the region so desperately needs. …

Ultimately, he envisages a new geopolitical equilibrium, one less turbulent than the current landscape of civil war, terror, and sectarian battle. “It would be profoundly in the interest of citizens throughout the region if Sunnis and Shias weren’t intent on killing each other,” he told me. “And although it would not solve the entire problem, if we were able to get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion—not funding terrorist organizations, not trying to stir up sectarian discontent in other countries, and not developing a nuclear weapon—you could see an equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran in which there’s competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare.

Now that the Sunni/Shi’a civil war has made a mockery of his “equilibrium” and Homeland Security prepares to defend Chicago, the analytic problem is better presented in the reverse: what didn’t the president get wrong? His foreign policy isn’t in need a tweak or a tuneup; in fact the question now is whether any parts of it can still be salvaged. He can’t drive it to the used car lot and sell it to someone else. The best he can do is tow it to the junkyard.

Top Rated Comments   
Geoffrey Britain - a little while ago: "But it takes a far better man than Obama to admit that he's been fundamentally wrong about nearly everything. To do that, he would have to sacrifice his ideology upon its own altar. It is ever so with men who place dogma above objective factual truth"

Which brings us once again to one of the central questions of our times - fool or knave? evil or incompetent? I believe GB's analysis helps to explain why the instinctive answer of "yes" (or "all of the above" or "why do we have to choose just one") is in fact the correct answer.

Yes this administration is incompetent. The evil comes into play because the incompetence is WILLFUL. If this administration consisted of a bunch of simple minded, uneducated people who were doing their best to get things right, the results would be far better. Mistakes would be noted and policy changes made.

This WILLFUL INCOMPETENCE can be viewed as the application of one or more of the 7 mortal sins to policy decision making:

Pride - "I don't care that the results are bad, I know we are the smart ones who only institute good policies".

Wrath - "All that matters is that we are able to to screw those bitter clingers. The other results of our policies don't really concern us."

Greed - "So long as our Ruling Class prospers under these policies, let the devil take the hindmost."

Lust - (per Orwell) "We seek power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power."


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5 weeks ago
5 weeks ago Link To Comment
Obama doesn't realize it yet, but his destiny is not to be a revered, elder statesman. He thinks he's going to spend his retirement making speeches to adoring crowds, perhaps even becoming UN secretary. He can't imagine that he will become a pariah, disdained by conservatives, an embarrassment to liberals, and hated by progressives for utterly botching their biggest opportunity ever.
5 weeks ago
5 weeks ago Link To Comment
Modern definition of Irony:

The ultimate lightweight "JV" American President dismissing as "JV" an emerging Muslim army that's overtaking much of two countries, nearly unopposed, one of which the USA fought a six year war to liberate.

That joke is just tough to beat.

Obama: What an arrogant, ignorant, narcissistic and pampas ass. He is the PERFECT "progressive" President. He epitomizes everything they are about. The progressives will hate him soon.
5 weeks ago
5 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (181)
All Comments   (181)
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For a start at a strategy how about following something really basic, find trustworthy friends, who are fighting clear enemies, and give them all the help we can fighting those enemies. I see ony 2 groups in that area that are in any way our friends, and both of the are fighting our enemies. They are Israel, and the Kurds. So lets start by supporting each of them all we can against their and our enemies.
5 weeks ago
5 weeks ago Link To Comment
Do people think he Obama should have invaded Syria to take out IS before he knew they would become a much larger threat? What is it that people think he should have done with the information the had a the time? Should we have stayed in Iraq indefinitely? It seems quiet clear that he now thinks they are a large threat and is taking military actions against them.
5 weeks ago
5 weeks ago Link To Comment
Staying in Iraq with a residual force would have probably prevented Maliki from tiurning to Iran, and kept the sunnis from rebelling and joining ISIS, so yes we should have stayed in Iraq.
As for bombing Syria, I always opposed it because between Assad and ISIS there is no faction there who is our friend, so bombing one faction, just allows the other one to become stronger. There is no reason to bomb syria until we have a solid trustworthy faction there (perhaps someday the free syrian army can get its act together if we give them some arms) that is willing to fight both Assad and ISIS.
For now, the only constructive thing I see that we can do is help the Kurds, a definite friend, with direct arms aid, direct air support, and allowing them to sell their oil directly without haviing to go through the Iraqi gov, against ISIS, a definite enemy. If the Iraqi gov stops being an Iranian puppet and gets its act together, maybe we can help both them and the Kurds against ISIS. And if the Sunni Awakening wants to rise again against ISIS, we can also help them.
But my basic standard is clear, only intervene if we can find one definitely good and also definitely efective faction, who has an enemy that is also our enemy.
5 weeks ago
5 weeks ago Link To Comment
Seems like r/K theory would explain both Obama's incompetence and his malevolent intentions. see Anonymous Conservative's blog for details on r/K (if you haven't already).
5 weeks ago
5 weeks ago Link To Comment
"The administration is caught between demoralization and the need to maintain appearances. More broadly, this is true of the left as a whole in this moment of crisis."…
IMHO, that is the whole crux of the problem…the major iniquity of the Left is arrogance(not confined to the Left but much more dominant in this group).
To admit fault or poor judgement is against their basic nature, so they'll go down (and G-d forbid bring down the rest) in their arrogance and pride.
They are as extreme in their "religion" as the enemy is in his.
Really true how the Ferguson situation really offered a distraction and a respite but these guys aren't going away and the old excuses are tired and no one is going to believe them anymore.
5 weeks ago
5 weeks ago Link To Comment
Well, well: Richard made RealClearPolitics Sunday afternoon edition. There goes the neighborhood. :-)

Actually, Richard's insightful blog deserves a bit more circulation.
5 weeks ago
5 weeks ago Link To Comment
The gulf between the reality ISIS daily brings to our attention and the unrelenting adolescent misconstructions of our deer lieder widens apace.

Clearly, there are people in this administration possessed of keen analytic powers. They are wasted on inflexible misapprehensions and perverse logical inversions held so tenaciously as to admit no possibility of re-consideration.

Even in the glare of the latest solar flares of galloping Jihad.

There are so many people who sincerely believe that Islam hates the U.S. because of the despised George W. Bush, and anyone they identify as conservative. The reality of thirteen centuries of Jihadist expansion across North Africa, crossing the Straits of Gibraltar, flooding the Iberian Peninsula only to be checked by Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours… the Eastward expansion into the lands of Persia, India, South Asia, and Northward dominating present Iraq, Syria and Turkey – all those conquests by military assault do not register in the minds of such people.

It is truly a sign of the end of times that in this century when the United States has the most extensive and easily accessible library of the collected wisdom and philosophy of the ages from all nations and all times in history, that such pig-headed, stiff-necked, obdurate ignorance is the defining aspect of the great majority of this country.

Smug, self-righteous, quick to condemn and slow to pardon, the self-identified Liberals of the West have accepted the blinkered view of their mortal adversaries fed them by their "betters."

When the knives of the ISIS Jihadists begin to saw upon their throats, maybe these credulous naifs will have a last flash of awakening.
5 weeks ago
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Don't count on it. Most would die with a curse for GWB on their lips.
5 weeks ago
5 weeks ago Link To Comment
That JV is pretty good wouldn't you say?
5 weeks ago
5 weeks ago Link To Comment
And what do the humanities students do? Sit in the stands with their gothic girlfriends and whine about the jocks.
5 weeks ago
5 weeks ago Link To Comment
The pity with Barack Obama is, upon his election he had so much potential. He talked a good game and those who believed in him had a great deal of hope. The pity is he squandered it all because, in the end, all he knows is politics and everything is based on a political outcome.

I'm really sorry to tell him, there are times when politics has to be put to the rear but this President has made some terrible decisions, because of politics, that have made the country worse off. Obamacare, the Southern border, Ukraine, Iraq, and Afghanistan, are all problems where political considerations outweighed doing the right thing.
5 weeks ago
5 weeks ago Link To Comment
“It would be profoundly in the interest of citizens throughout the region if Sunnis and Shias weren’t intent on killing each other,” he told me. “And although it would not solve the entire problem, if we were able to get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion—not funding terrorist organizations, not trying to stir up sectarian discontent in other countries, and not developing a nuclear weapon—you could see an equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran in which there’s competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare."

If ifs were skiffs, we'd all be sailors; if ifs were fifths, we'd all be drunks. It's one thing to hold such naive views, it's quite another to base a nation's entire foreign policy on them.
5 weeks ago
5 weeks ago Link To Comment
Good point. It is almost like Obama is some kind of child, wishing the world was something totally diferent, like some young girl who imagines she can be a disney princess, or a young boy imagining he will be a baseball star, instead of facing the world as it really is, and then finding a plan to deal with that. Naievate like that is cute in a 4 yr old girl or boy, but disastrous in the leader of the free world.
5 weeks ago
5 weeks ago Link To Comment
America has had a kneejerk policy that changes according to who's President. Iraq and Iran battered each other through the Reagan Presidency and we even gave Iraq money. Half a million soldiers died, half a million civilians. America didn't really care.

Bush comes along and the relationship with Iraq and its crazy leader immediately goes south. 2 years after being buddies we're invading Iraq and that back and forth eventually led to 9/11. We invade again. Suddenly the ruling Sunnis don't even have a country anymore and start fighting our troops from the shadows and killing as many Shia as they can at the same time.

We beat them off and kill a lot and the remnants run to Syria. We leave. The civil war in Syria creates a militia centered around the Iraqi Sunnis we'd helped dispossess of the country they once ruled. Naturally they go back and start murdering everyone in sight who's not a Sunni. So besides creating Al-Queda we created the even worse ISIS and now we're moaning like "How'd that happen?"

But we left, and Obama's saying wouldn't it be nice if the Shia/ Sunni power balance we destroyed would come back and they'd stop killing each other and oh, by the way, not plot to destroy Western civilians in mass murder. In other words wouldn't it be nice if there was a Hussein, cuz only a brutal madman can control those morons. But this time we'll say "No, you can't invade Kuwait but otherwise throw your own people off buildings or whatever."

Waiting for a Thomas Jefferson on the Euphrates, Jordan and Nile Rivers would try the patience of a black hole. What do we do? Hell, I don't know. We've tried blowing them up, not blowing them up, giving them money and supplies, boycotting money and supplies, supporting dictators, supporting democracy.

The truth is the Middle East is a basket case of retarded mental cases with enough money floating around to murder each other for several thousand years but not enough to support people who won't stop having babies in marginal desert areas that won't really support people who won't stop having babies.

It might be time to declare the whole thing a Forbidden Zone like in the Planet of the Apes and check back again in 500 years.
5 weeks ago
5 weeks ago Link To Comment
"The truth is the Middle East is a basket case of retarded mental cases with enough money floating around to murder each other for several thousand years but not enough to support people who won't stop having babies in marginal desert areas that won't really support people who won't stop having babies"

Replace "middle east" with "ghetto", and just drop "desert", and you have the EXACT SAME issues in every American Urban environment...

Thug culture is thug culture. They shoot eachother when not robbing the Bodega, dont they?

Dignifying it with words like "sectarian" is part of the problem
5 weeks ago
5 weeks ago Link To Comment
Welcome to tribal relationships.
5 weeks ago
5 weeks ago Link To Comment
If this post wasn't so bloody correct, it would be ROTFLMAO!
5 weeks ago
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