Never Answer the Phone

Long before Barack Obama made the phrase “a false choice” one of his empty cliches, Winston Churchill memorably illustrated what it meant. Referring to Chamberlain after he returned from meeting with Hitler in Munich, Churchill said: “You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor and you will have war.”


A false choice is thinking there’s a difference. But not everyone is confused. President Karzai of Afghanistan has probably figured out whose side he has to come down on. Bill Roggio and Bill Ardolino report:

President Hamid Karzai has ordered the Ministry of Defense to eject all “US Special Forces” from the key eastern province of Wardak after accusing the American troops or their local Afghan security partners of committing war crimes. Karzai’s order is an ominous development for future US and NATO plans, which are expected to rely heavily on special operations forces to take on a greater role as the bulk of conventional forces are withdrawn from Afghanistan.

For him it’s no false choice. Just a choice that’s now easy to make. One commenter at the Long War Journal site wrote: “There are times when I wonder if Karzai is either actively trying to lose or hoping that his outspoken criticisms of American policy will allow him to escape Najibullah’s fate in the event of a Taliban victory.”

Walter Russell Mead notes that Barack Obama has managed to lose Syria despite holding all the aces. He did this by thinking he was making choices but really choosing to do nothing. Mead ends with a quote that comes from the Economist but which might have been penned by Churchill writing to Chamberlain: “As the Economist notes darkly, ‘Mr Obama wanted to avoid Syria, but Syria will come and get him.'”


President Obama had an opportunity to intervene in Syria before it spiralled so far out of control. Indeed, that was precisely what a number of his top military and political advisors urged the President to do: arm the moderate rebels and work with allies to boot out Assad.

Now, however, Syria is in a much more complex position. And America’s interests are threatened. The best-equipped and most determined fighters who have risen to become Assad’s most dangerous enemies are not America’s friends; moderate rebels are few and weak. Israel has been drawn unwillingly into the war, protecting itself by preventing Hezbollah from seizing powerful weapons.

Dang those false choices. They’re like controls on a play airplane. All the levers seem work and the lights blink, but underneath the control panel the levers are connected to nothing.

Thus the Syrian crisis growswith each passing effort by Obama to contain it. Those efforts are getting increasingly pathetic. Fox News reports that Secretary Kerry, fresh the triumph of getting the Russian Foreign Minister to return his call, is now working on a new project: convincing the Syrian rebel coalition to meet with him.

Secretary of State John Kerry winged his way across the Atlantic on the first leg of his first overseas trip as America’s top diplomat, his aides were scrambling on several continents to salvage one of the trip’s most critical and eagerly-awaited sessions. …

Over the weekend, however, the Syrian Opposition Council — the main umbrella group for the broad array of rebel politicians, clerics and soldiers, many of them Islamists with ties to al-Qaeda and other unsavory networks — announced it was boycotting the session with Kerry in Rome …The Syrians complained that the United States — which has blacklisted al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda-linked group that has emerged as one of the most effective combat brigades in the battle against Assad’s military — has not been even-handed enough in its treatment of the rebels.


Maybe the rebels, like Karzai, have figured out who the Strong Horse is and who the Wrong Horse has become.  So they make a real choice while the administration wrestles with the false ones.

Paul Berman at the New Republic has written perplexedly of the consequences of “leading from behind”. He notes that the “Arab Spring” has taken many twists and turns. It started with a liberal impetus, was captured by the Islamists and has turned against the Islamists in many parts of the region. It’s still evolving. And the administration is always backing the current trend but one.

The Arab Spring’s Phase Three has nonetheless arrived. Phase Three adds up to a series of mass protests and revolts and even wars against Islamists of every stripe—against the mainstream Islamists in Egypt, against the moderates in Tunisia, and against the radicals in Mali. The people want to topple the Islamists!—a significant number of people, anyway. Events have by-passed the experts. Islamism, even in its mainstream and moderate versions, turns out to be less democratic than advertised; and the demos, less Islamist….

The entire development ought to make us wonder about a couple of aspects of American policy. In the years after the Second World War, the United States constructed all kinds of international institutions to cope with the new circumstances, military and otherwise. But here we are nearly a dozen years after 9/11, and the level of military coordination among the anti-terrorist allies is such that, somehow or another, France felt it necessary to venture into Mali alone.


Berman need not worry. Obama may swerve again with the alacrity of a drunk racing on a icy road.  Swerving is a feature because the Administration’s policy is constructed from talking points; from cafe gotchas.

Afghanistan was the “war of necessity” because it was not Iraq. The war in Afghanistan is over because Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive. The Arab Spring was good because CNN was covering it. Syria was good at first because CNN was covering it. Then it became bad when the Libyan consulate was overrun by a mob infuriated by a video produced in LA. Now Kerry is trying to get back in the good graces of the Syrian rebels — long after he has lost leverage to al-Qaeda, who seem to be in Mali reports of their demise notwithstanding.

Smart ad-hocracy.

Who knows but Obama may take the New Republic’s advice to re-engage in Syria. Yet if they do it will not be for any reasons of principle, but because the Berman’s article has made it into the new talking points. The Journo-list is peddling it. And the administration is entirely driven by fashion.  One minute they are warning the Chinese not to steal secrets, the next the justice department is quashing investigations into the Chinese theft of weapons technology from NASA.

The administration is so busy avoiding all kinds of “false choices” that it has completely forgotten what the original question was. They exist in a stream of consciousness ungoverned by strategy, without the awareness of long term interest or even of eventual consequences. It’s just long conversation that goes something like this.


‘What was at stake in Syria again? Oh yeah and about those Iranian nuclear weapons, they still there? Now what should I say about those North Korean warnings? Brennan where is that drone list! Is Hezbollah really getting chemical weapons? Tell Netanyahu I’ll be right back. Mali is so yesterday? Will a speech do? The Saharan region, where is that? Yes I remember now. And what did you say, we have to leave Afghanistan by when? Tell Kerry to call Karzai. What do you mean he’s not returning the call? Ship the men out, get Chris Matthews to jitter on camera. What do you mean we can’t ship out direct by the sea. I thought there was a port in Kabul? Why does nobody tell me these things? Well how much do we have to pay the Pakistanis. Blame it on Boehner. The convoys will pass near where Osama bin Laden was found?  800 yards from the Pakistani Military Academy? That close? They have a military academy? You learn something every day. Hey did you see what Paul Berman wrote? I’ll call you back later, I have a game with Tiger Woods.’

It’s tough when you’ve lost all long term memory.  And by the way, never answer the phone.

The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99

Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99

No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99

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