Through the Looking Glass

Steven Metz at the New Republic has an interesting interpretation of President Obama's Libya strategy.  He argues that the apparently disjointed actions of the administration makes sense looked at a certain way. He endeavors to find it. Examining the President's actions he distills some of the concepts he perceives. First: you can't lose a war if you never define it as such. And if you always keep your options open the door will never close behind you. And if everybody else loses, you win, if you define "you" narrowly enough. Finally, if you don't care about anything it doesn't matter. Metz knows it sounds funny as doctrine, but he lays it out anyway.

Put simply, Obama’s Libya strategy is designed to avoid the most undesirable outcomes rather than optimize the chances of a desired outcome, to do something without “owning” the conflict, ... President Obama appears determined to avoid two particularly bad things: an outright Qaddafi victory—which might chill reform underway in the Arab world and unleash a new spate of support for terrorism—and Al Qaeda influence within the rebel movement.

Here was a way to fight a war -- though part of the strategy was not to call it that any more -- outside of the traditional definitions of winning and losing. Get out as soon as you were in. And indeed, no sooner had the Libyan operation begun before the administration was passing it to someone else. In that way whatever happens responsibility will never wend its way back to the White House door.

While seeking to avoid the most adverse outcomes, the Obama strategy also rejects American ownership of the conflict. The administration is actively seeking to have someone else take it off of America’s hands, particularly the provision of direct support to the rebels.

Back in the day this was called "letting someone hold the bag", but this is more sophisticated.  And there's more.

In the past everyone took "war" and "peace" too seriously. They got hung up on signing fancy declarations and complex surrender ceremonies on the decks of battleships.  The key to avoiding the nettlesome problems of those complex events lay in redefining and transcending everything.  All the baggage formerly imposed by military science, logistics, history and the Constitution could be disposed of at a stroke simply by redefining the terms. Metz writes, "in a broader sense, President Obama is struggling to transcend American history. For two centuries, Americans have believed that any use of military power is war, and the objective in war is victory over the enemy."

So that problem can be solved by defining kinetic military events that do not fall under the category of "war" and creating acceptable end states which bear no reference to any former conceptions of "victory" or "defeat". That way nobody loses and everybody wins. Or else everybody loses and you win. Brilliant.

Then there's the matter of leadership. Under the new doctrine, America doesn't have to lead coalitions in which it provides the preponderance of force. It's one more step along the ladder of complete deniability. Just hand the whole mess to NATO, even if most of NATO is you.

As a piece of wordsmithing, it is superlative. In that strategic world, no matter the galaxy it inhabits, neither victory nor defeat exist.  It's gone. Poof. Finished. Kaput. America can tag along on expeditions which it pays for, but cares not where it leads. Best of all, it isn't war, repeat: it isn't war. Therefore the President doesn't have to ask Congress for permission to make it.

The Obama strategy represents a step away from the Weinberger-Powell principles and the notion that the United States must dominate any operation where its military is involved. Whether it works will be determined by the unpredictable whims of Muammar Qaddafi, the willingness of other states to take some or all of the burden off of America’s hands, and the president’s ability to sell the American public and its elected leaders on a strategy that runs counter to their tradition and inclinations.

Yet despite the outward brilliance of such a conception, such a strategy, if accurately described by Metz may really represent the ultimate triumph of lawfare over common sense. Of fantasy over reality. Of the cartoon network over the news channel. Strategy becomes ultimately an affair of words, perceptions and formulations. There is no objective correlative between these fancy concepts and physical events like death, the occupation of cities, looting, curfews, the forced movement of persons or things of that sort.,

You may tell a man that if he feels a boot in his face or a bayonet in his gut to imagine it isn't there. Unfortunately he still feels it, but so long as all the gunpowder and blood remain overseas, and only ink and talking points are shed domestically, then a boot isn't a boot and a bayonet isn't a bayonet. It sounds mind-bending at first, but Metz warned us at the outset that the old categories were about to be transcended. Personally I think this new strategy, if it exists apart from Metz trying to make sense of what doesn't seem to make it, is nonsense. Reality has a quality all its own. Or it used to anyhow.