Belmont Club

The Triumph of Self-Deception

Despite newly revealed news that a drone strike killed four al-Qaeda militants in Yemen, the UK and U.S. are still evacuating their non-essential personnel from that country. The strike has apparently not stopped the threat. But Jay Carney is unperturbed; he argues that while the situation in the Middle East may appear to be deteriorating, that is not the case. The “core” of al-Qaeda remains dead. The snake’s head in Pakistan/Afghanistan has been crushed, even though its distant tail may be twitching in post-mortem spasms:

As al-Qaeda’s core has been diminished through the efforts of the United States and our allies, affiliate organizations, including in particular, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, have strengthened. We have here in Washington have identified AQAP in particular as the dangerous threat.

Carney’s hairsplitting may be a distinction without a difference — other sources say the affiliates are in fact the core of al-Qaeda.

Thomas Joscelyn and Bill Roggio at Long War Journal write that Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the emir of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), is really al-Qaeda’s general manager, the man orchestrating the threat which has occasioned the closure of about 20 diplomatic facilities:

Al-Wuhayshi is thought to be at the center of the latest al-Qaeda plot. The U.S. has intercepted communications between Zawahiri and al-Wuhayshi in which the al-Qaeda emir orders his general manager to execute an attack, McClatchy reported. … The appointment of al-Wuhayshi as general manager discredits the widespread claim that al-Qaeda’s “core” is based solely in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area.

It’s a de facto “core” even if the administration doesn’t want to call it that, just as there’s a de facto U.S. retreat in progress even if the administration doesn’t want to call it that. After all, the evacuation of personnel and the closure of diplomatic missions are physical acts involving actual people being transported thousands of miles. They are actions in which real concrete and steel buildings are being shuttered, at least temporarily. Set against these tangible events are Carney’s word games about the core and the periphery.

A Washington Post editorial simply calls it “wishful thinking on the war on terror”:

The State Department has shuttered 19 embassies for a week, fearing terrorist attacks. Hundreds of prisoners, including senior al-Qaeda operatives, have busted loose in prison breaks in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan. … Meanwhile President Obama says he wants to “refine and ultimately repeal” the mandate Congress has given him to fight the war on terror. What’s going on here?

What’s going on here? Why, an untutored person would be tempted to say: “A surrender is in progress.”

But that would be wrong, because as the Washington Post continues, nothing is what it seems in Washington, D.C. What looks like surrender is really evidence the president is too noble to fight. The Washington Post explains that Obama was opposed from the beginning to any violation of human rights. Moreover, he was unalterably determined never to engage in military action in other countries, and that kindliness misled him into certain well-meant mistakes. The Post describes the fire of idealism:

From the beginning of his tenure, the president has been reluctant to build a legal framework that would assume that the fight against al-Qaeda and like-minded groups might go on for a long time. He not only proposed closing the prison at Guantanamo, rightly given its poisonous effect on the United States’ image, but he also opposed options to hold prisoners taken in future operations. … The president also has sought to minimize U.S. involvement in dangerous countries as much and as quickly as possible.

Then, it segues to the ashes of miscalculation:

He failed to negotiate a follow-on force in Iraq, where violence is again spiraling out of control. He has resisted engagement in Syria, where vicious brigades associated with al-Qaeda are establishing beachheads. He has provided little assistance to Tunisia or Libya, where emerging democracies are struggling to contain Islamist militias. He surged troops to Afghanistan but simultaneously announced a timetable for their withdrawal, which is underway.

They forgot to mention his order to the NASA mission to lift self-esteem in the Middle East.

The point, as the Post says, is it’s not working:

His hope of fighting the bad guys as antiseptically as possible, with drone strikes and a minimal presence, may prove as forlorn as President Clinton’s similar effort in the 1990s, when the equivalent weapon at his disposal was cruise missiles.

Of course, none of this could be foreseen. Who could have anticipated it? How could any human agency have a prevision of this turn of events?

Ultimately, the Washington Post gives us more words. And perhaps tomorrow or the day afterward the president will stride to the podium and offer up even more words. Yet words are ultimately not as good as actions and real policy. Strategy and tactics count. How does this differ with shouting at a T. rex to stop, and letting yourself get eaten by him? Is it really doing something when you’re not doing anything worth a damn?

At what point does incompetence and headlong withdrawal become indistinguishable from surrender? When does Jay Carney raise his head from the script and start looking at the things falling down around him?

The physical state, especially in war, matters. The name one gives catastrophe is immaterial. You may call it victory, or you may term it a moral triumph; Baghdad Bob called every withdrawal of Saddam’s army an advance. None of this mattered a bit, certainly not when they put the noose around Saddam’s neck.

When a nation once regarded as the hegemon of the Middle East cannot rely on host country protection or even on its own armed forces to keep open its diplomatic missions, it doesn’t matter what Jay Carney calls it. The embassies are there for a tangible purpose — to support the gathering of intelligence and the maintenance of contacts with host nations. When they’re closed they can’t do that. When the personnel that manned them are on the run, they can’t do that.

The longer they stay shut, the more uninformed America becomes. The longer they remain closed, the weaker America seems — and actually is. The shutdown of U.S. facilities and the withdrawal of personnel, carried on for long enough, will be indistinguishable from a real defeat. Maybe reality has stopped mattering in Jay Carney’s book, but it still matters.


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