A Decline in Competence

Imagine it’s 1989 and the Berlin Wall is coming down. The clown Reagan has somehow pulled something off. Everyone is confused but delighted. Fast forward to 2014 and the peace everyone had thought would last is breaking down. Where is Obama? Everyone is confused but not so delighted.


It is as if some general catastrophe impends; we cringe not even knowing from whence the blow will come. Graham Allison writing in the National Interest asks “Could the Ukraine Crisis Spark a World War?”

He knows its a silly question but as Allison reminds us in the article, World War 1 began over a silly thing too. “Mark Twain observed that while history never repeats itself, it does sometimes rhyme. In the combination of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the collapse of authority that is destabilizing Ukraine, can we hear echoes from a century earlier when the murder of an Austrian Archduke sparked a great European war?”

If those making fateful choices in Washington, Berlin, and Moscow today were to pause to reflect on what was done—and not done—in 1914, they would recognize that the current crisis poses much greater danger than they now imagine. This would stir them to think well beyond their current conceptions of events and to stretch to much bolder, preventative initiatives than we have seen thus far.

Allison, who made his academic reputation writing the Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis may be worried that today’s leaders cannot manage what on the face of it, seems a much lesser crisis.  Otherwise why write the article? But if today’s crisis is smaller than formerly, so are the minds that must grapple with it. This little thing may somehow spin out of control.  The danger of war is founded not  so much in the challenges of the moment as in doubts over our ability to meet that challenge; it is a concern over the competence of today’s leadership, perhaps that of Washington’s most of all.

Angelo de Codevilla, writing for the Hoover Institute is troubled by the same nagging worries. Like Allison, he looks back at history for clues. In an article called America: Founded for Peace, Codevilla argues that the Founders tried to write America out of the world’s conflicts but their successors found themselves dragged back time and again.


America’s settlers had not crossed the Atlantic to fight battles of their own, much less the king’s. The New England colonies took enthusiastic part in war against France’s Quebec primarily to secure their frontier against the horrific Indian raids that the French were sponsoring. But by the mid-eighteenth century the British habit of trying to command colonial militias for imperial priorities rather than for domestic peacekeeping had worn thin the colonists’ loyalties. After the French and Indian War of 1763 had ended these raids, participation in the British Empire became synonymous to Americans with domestic oppression.

Thenceforth, the Americans’ supreme request of British authorities was to be left in peace. In 1774 Thomas Jefferson, echoing countless preachers and local authorities, described the “rights of British America” in terms of the people’s natural right to have, to hold, and to dispose of lives and property, a right that comes from God and hard work (cf. John Locke) rather than from any potentate. The Americans of 1776–83 fought to be equals among the nations of the earth, from which they hoped only mutual forbearance.

But the unavoidable happened. As America grew great it inevitably became a deciding factor in the great quarrels of the world. In the terrible words of Leon Trotsky “you might not be interested in war but war is interested in you.” Codevilla notes that time and again, America’s attempts to withdraw from the world only condemned it to unpreparedness when finally dragged in — such as World War 2.

The sixteen years of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison’s presidencies were plagued and well-nigh defined by inability to deal with foreign war’s powerfully divisive influence at home. Both presidents tried to keep out of the Napoleonic wars by balancing increasingly warring factions at home, and by mere economic sanctions abroad. But, they ended up having to fight the War of 1812—a war as disastrous at home as it was abroad—because they had stopped building the navy that Washington and Adams had started, and unarmed diplomacy proved impotent to diminish British and French pressure on America. New England almost seceded from the Union, the British Army burned Washington, DC, and Britain’s Indian allies massacred the first settlement of Chicago.


If America could not leave the world to its quarrels it could at least deal with them wisely.  The Founders left posterity one final safeguard against war in the federal structure of the United States.  It was their belief that by leaving the power of the purse and authority to declare war in the House of Representatives that with the help of States represented in the Senate then War, if embarked upon, would not be chosen lightly.  It could certainly not be started by a capricious American executive.

But the Founders had not reckoned with the emergence of imperial presidency whose national security decisions would be made by characters like van drivers and authors of romantic novels in the Mills and Boons tradition. They had not foreseen the emergence of an unaccountable Washington, a closed circle, driven by fads and fantastic ideas, whose leading members redefined War as “kinetic military action” deployed at the instance of a “responsibility to protect”.

But now, as Allison reminds us, the hard choices are upon us. Or rather it is upon the van drivers and novelists and Chicago Messiahs upon whom it has devolved. Allison writes, “at this point in the Ukrainian tragedy, the danger of a violent outcome that will dismember Ukraine is rising rapidly.”  Surely he jests. Isn’t Global Warming the real danger of the hour?

Unless U.S. and European leaders act in the week ahead, before Ukrainians vote for a new President on May 25, they will, de facto, have been partitioned. And even if the United States and Europe respond by imposing biting sanctions on sectors of the Russian economy—a big “if”, given the interpenetration of the Russian and German economies—facts on the ground will be no more reversible than Russia’s annexation of Crimea….

the combination of Putin’s actions and Western reactions will poison relations between Putin and Obama for the remainder of his two-and-a-half years in office … if an isolated Russian spoiler undermines the sanctions regime that has motivated Iranian interest in a negotiated solution, and Iran resumes or accelerates the nuclear program it was pursuing before the current pause, the United States and Israel will rapidly come to a crossroad. They will be forced to choose between seeing Iran acquire a nuclear bomb or bombing it to prevent that happening, igniting what is likely to become a wider war in the Middle East.

Second, think about the Baltics. Imagine a scenario in which we see a replay of Crimea or Donetsk in Latvia where one quarter of the population are ethnic Russians or Russian speakers … The brute fact that Latvia is a member of the NATO alliance is hard to ignore. The United States and other members have solemnly pledged themselves to regard “an attack upon one as an attack upon all.” But will German troops come to Latvia’s rescue? And if they did, would a majority of Germans support that action? Would the French, or British? Would Americans?


Would Obama?  If Allison were confident that Washington was pondering these weighty issues, that someone were ready for the 3 AM phone then there could be less of an impulse for he and countless others to proffer advice.  And so the advice is proffered but to what end? The sort of administration that would heed this advice is would need to understand it, and that is not a given.

It is at this point that the “terrible if’s” accumulate.  The most disturbing thing about Barack Obama’s presidency has been his inclination to lie. One might think the president’s real foreign policy competent or incompetent. But one cannot argue that it is what he says it is. The Benghazi attack was not about a video. Nor were his sanctions going to do much to stop Russia. If he actually believed what he said we would be in bigger trouble than if he were lying to us.

There are none so blind as they who will not see. The Daily Beast writes, “The State Department under Hillary Clinton fought hard against placing the al Qaeda-linked militant group Boko Haram on its official list of foreign terrorist organizations for two years. And now, lawmakers and former U.S. officials are saying that the decision may have hampered the American government’s ability to confront the Nigerian group that shocked the world by abducting hundreds of innocent girls.”

And remember Benghazi’s attackers? Time Magazine writes:

“The individuals related in the Benghazi attack, those that we believe were either participants or leadership of it, are not authorized use of military force,” Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a top-secret hearing of the House Armed Services Committee Oct. 10.

Dempsey said the U.S. military could do little more than act like a sheriff’s posse, sent out to round up suspects.


The most disturbing thing about Benghazi isn’t whether the president game is deep or shallow. It’s that he’s not telling the People what the game is. “This is my last election,” he told Putin’s emissary. “After my election I have more flexibility”. Flexibility to do what? Mr. President?

The reason the Founders left that the ultimate decisions of peace and war be left to the most representative level of government was to force the executive to explain to the public what things like “flexibility” were about.  They wanted to compel the president to think things through, to make the case before the public ear. Before we can answer the question ‘what shall we do?’ it is first of all necessary to answer ‘what have we done?’.

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Fragile by Design: The Political Origins of Banking Crises and Scarce Credit (The Princeton Economic History of the Western World)

1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed (Turning Points in Ancient History)

Knots Untied

A Treatise On Earthly-Mindedness (Vintage Puritan)

The Olivet Discourse Made Easy (Made Easy Series)

Totally Sufficient: The Bible and Christian Counseling

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