Desultory Storm

What's there to criticize?

One of the ironies of the Obama era has been the replacement of regular diplomats by secret military emissaries.  The “other diplomatic corps” consists of men with guns. “Special Operations Forces—Army Green Berets, Navy SEALs, and other highly trained units—are lethal, nimble, and seek to build quasi-diplomatic relationships in other countries while keeping a low profile. They carry out missions from manhunts in the Middle East to intelligence-gathering in Mali, to support for raids on gang members in El Salvador. With civil affairs and psychological operations among their chief missions, their purpose is as political as it is military.”


In an era of seeming diplomatic impotence, these “other diplomats” at least have the advantage of being able to do more than deliver a note of protest. In contrast to the regular State Department whose consulate in Libya was burned, these alternative emissaries do the burning.  As Alan Taylor notes in the Atlantic “the United States has now picked a side in Libya’s civil war—the UN-backed, internationally recognized, Government of National Accord (GNA)—and has begun coordinated airstrikes against ISIS positions in Libya.” The operation, named Odyssey Lightning, began without fanfare at the beginning of August and has been extended into September, which you would know if you were a regular reader of “Inside Defense” and “Digital Journal”.

The US has launched more than one hundred missions against the Islamic State in Sirte since the operation began. An AFRICOM spokesperson, Lt. Cmdr. Anthony Falvo, said: “U.S. precision airstrikes have enabled GNA-aligned forces to advance and take key areas of the city from the grasp of the Islamic State.”

Their effectiveness crucially depends on their invisibility, most of all to the pacifist wing of the Democratic Party.  To a large extent Obama has succeeded in concealing the whole trend of diplomacy by Special Forces.  The Lawfare Blog also believes Libya is invisible because the Obama administration has crafted it to fly under the the meme du jour using actual manned sorties from the amphibious carrier USS Wasp to carry out the bombing. “Are you paying attention to Operation Odyssey Lightning, the U.S. air campaign underway for a full month now in Libya? Not many people are, which is interesting considering that we are approaching 100 airstrikes there in four weeks, writes” Robert Chesney of Brookings.


I wonder if part of the neglect also stems from the fact that we are using manned aircraft and helicopters rather than drones; it’s hard to fit the Libya story into the familiar drone-mania framing, after all. …

At any rate, here’s a brief primer on the US air campaign in Libya (which began on August 1st): The 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit is aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp, off Libyan shores. The Marines are using Harriers and Super Cobras–yes, with actual Marines in the cockpit–to carry out airstrikes against targets of opportunity around the ISIL stronghold at Sirte, in support of the US-backed local forces attempting to drive ISIL out.

The real secret to the invisibility of Obama’s interventions and deals may lie in their random, drive-by nature.  None of its actions form a pattern which can be detected. Dominic Tierney in the Atlantic  who objects that Obama doesn’t believe in planning for “the day after” doesn’t appreciate that this is a feature not a bug.

Based on the conduct of the Libya operation so far, however, the sin of short-termism is still very much evident. Indeed, the Obama Doctrine has encouraged an improvisational view of war based on putting out fires rather than pursuing a coherent long-term strategy. …

At its heart, the Obama Doctrine seeks to use force to protect U.S. interests and values—for example, containing and degrading ISIS—without undermining the president’s grander objective of extrication from wars in the Middle East, or risking a repeat of the Iraq War. The current air campaign in Libya exhibits all the hallmarks of Obama’s way of war: the careful and calibrated use of force, the reliance on air power rather than ground troops, the coordination with local allies—in this case, the GNA, which requested the anti-ISIS strikes….

But the Obama Doctrine also encourages a short-term, stop-gap view of war, one that focuses on tactical operations rather than on a clear endgame. It’s something of an open secret among top U.S. defense officials. As former Defense Secretary Robert Gates put it in 2015, in the Middle East “[w]e’re basically sort of playing this day to day.” In June, during his Senate confirmation hearing to become head of U.S. Africa Command, U.S. Marine Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser was asked about the administration’s overarching strategy in Libya. His pointed reply: “I am not aware of any overall grand strategy at this point.”

It’s a confounding problem. The White House doesn’t want to think too far ahead in Libya, because a credible plan to stabilize the country could draw the United States into a greater commitment than Obama wants, while raising the dreaded specter of nation-building. All this is reinforced by the fact that Obama is entering his last six months in office, and therefore thinking about his own endgame. By avoiding grand schemes and focusing instead on the here and now, Obama can keep his options open, and hand the Libya conundrum off to his successor. …

Overall, the Libyan intervention reveals a fundamental dilemma, one that cuts to the heart of the Obama Doctrine. How can the administration successfully navigate its final months and avoid another major Middle East commitment without improvising or playing an international version of whack-a-mole? Short-term thinking in wartime can sow the seeds of failure, and ensure that the United States is forced to return later on.


Tierney fails to fully appreciate that you can’t pin down a president who commits himself to nothing but staying uncommitted. Obama’s like a man who, faced with a slow drip faucet — which you can take as a metaphor for longstanding problems —  has opted to tighten the handle ever harder rather than replace the washer.

Hand me that extension bar. There, fixed.

If even if forcing the handle completely wrecks the washer seat he doesn’t care, because that will soon be the next tenant’s problem. Whether the subject is Obamacare or the Baltics, North Korea or China, Venezuela or Cuba he will soon be quit of it.

Concerns over the efficacy of washerless plumbing were expressed by two retired US commanders who understand someone’s going to have to clean up the mess.  The “other diplomacy” may be more forceful but it is just as directionless as the State Department variety and potentially just as disastrous.

Two retired U.S. commanders say President Obama still does not have a winning strategy for defeating the Islamic State group after three years and billions of dollars invested in the cause.

Retired Gens. James “Mad Dog” Mattis and Anthony Zinni were asked by Time magazine Tuesday to assess the U.S.-led coalition’s efforts against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. Neither man was convinced the president had a winning long-term strategy.

Mr. Mattis, who led U.S. Central Command from 2010 to 2013, told the publication that Mr. Obama’s efforts are “unguided by a sustained policy or sound strategy [and] replete with half-measures.”

Mr. Zinni, who held the position from 1997 to 2000, was even more blunt.

“It’s a bad strategy, it’s the wrong strategy, and maybe I would tell the president that he would be better served to find somebody who believes in it, whoever that idiot may be,” the former four-star general told the magazine.


That will be dismissed as grousing when Obama explains how his magnificent legacy was ruined by his incompetent successors from retirement in Hawaii.  Probably the press will believe him. The president’s failures, as Domnic Tierney noted, are invisible because his actions form no discernible pattern.  They are as close to being public policy by random number generator as can be.  Desert Storm was a political target. The administration’s Operation Desultory Storm cannot even be described let alone criticized. Come January president Obama is going to hand the whole thing over to whoever wins the presidential election.

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