Winning By Losing Is A Bad Idea

A brace of news links capture the fabulous nature of recent Western statecraft.  This Feb 11 transcript from the State Department shows spokesman Jen Psaki vainly spinning the eviction of the US embassy from Yemen as some sort of victory for the Obama administration.  Psaki gamely starts the briefing by talking about Singapore, ignoring the biggest news item of the day, the loss of the US embassy in Yemen, until she is brought up short by questioners.


QUESTION: Got it. So you didn’t begin with the suspension of operations of the Embassy in Yemen because you figured it wasn’t that big a deal?

MS. PSAKI: Well, we put out a statement last night —


MS. PSAKI: — to all of you, and I’m happy to certainly discuss in more detail.

QUESTION: Can you – okay. Can you? What can you tell us about it? Is everyone who is leaving gone? Where do they go? What’s the status of the Embassy and its property? And what is your understanding of the actual situation on the ground with the Houthis and – who is in charge?

Psaki tries to make the loss of the embassy appear as if it were some routine administrative move.

MS. PSAKI: Sure. Let me try to address all of your questions here. So let me just reiterate for all of you who may not have seen it or didn’t – were not clicking refresh on your email last evening. We put out a travel warning and a statement last night announcing our decision to suspend our Embassy operations and the fact that our Embassy staff have been temporarily relocated out of Sana’a. We remain strongly committed to supporting the Yemeni people and will explore options for a return to Sana’a as soon as the situation on the ground improves. We also are grateful for the role the Government of Oman played and the Sultan’s leadership in our efforts to secure a swift departure and safe passage for our U.S. Embassy personnel. We deeply appreciate His Majesty’s concern for the safety of our personnel and unwavering friendship. We also thank the UN Special Envoy for his diplomatic engagement and the Government of Qatar for their willingness to facilitate our safe departure from Yemen.

Recent – as this was noted in here, I’m just reiterating it for all of you – or noted in our statement, I should say – recent unilateral military and political actions taken by the Houthis disrupted the political transition in Yemen, as all of you know and have been watching closely, creating the risk that renewed violence would threaten Yemenis and the diplomatic community in Sana’a. As you know, the safety and security of our men and women serving is one of our top priorities, and we’ve been constantly evaluating.

In terms of how they departed, we worked – as you know, we’ve been working to reduce Embassy staff for some time now. Yesterday the remaining staff departed on an Omani private jet to Muscat. Our Embassy staff have since departed en route to Washington. In terms of where they will be – excuse me. That was a tongue-twister for some reason – where they will be based, that is – we’re still determining some of those details and I expect we’ll have more in the coming days on that.


But the questioning was relentless. Step by step Psaki was forced to own up to the fact that like Libya,  the loss of America’s embassy in Yemen was a humiliating event.

QUESTION: All right. Is it possible that they could stay – much as what you did in Libya, where some of the people went to – I think it was Malta, correct?

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: And I believe are still there, right?


QUESTION: Is there a thought about basing them somewhere close to Yemen?

MS. PSAKI: That is possible.

QUESTION: And the extent of the Qatari and Omani assistance was the flight, the plane?

MS. PSAKI: Well, the flight, obviously – I don’t have more specifics than this, but allowing through certain stops en route back to Washington, and I mentioned, obviously, the role of the UN engagement on this effort.

QUESTION: All right. And then you have seen reports that the rebels seized all of the vehicles, the Embassy vehicles that had gone to the airport along with some weapons. One, what’s the status of that? And two, are you confident that the people who left and the local staff completed whatever kind of document destruction, whatever kind of things you’re supposed to do before they – when you’re closing an embassy before they left?

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm. Well, on the first piece, upon our departure, our vehicles and equipment were seized, reportedly by the Houthis. We are looking into this. Clearly, it is unacceptable and we would reiterate that in order to return to Sana’a, respect for property, respect for our facilities is an essential component of that. So we certainly are requesting they be returned.

One has to read the whole thing to get the full Alice in Wonderland nature of the exchange.  One almost hopes that Psaki doesn’t actually believe in the upbeat view she articulates, since that would imply they are actually drinking their own Kool Aid. The New York Times gamely tries to continue the farce by arguing it is the Iranian-backed Houthi militants who have “isolated themselves” by triumphing over the American backed government. “The Houthi militiamen who effectively rule Yemen were increasingly isolated Wednesday as several Western countries joined the United States in closing their embassies here, despite few signs of deteriorating security in the streets.”


The metaphorical inversion recalls a line from a British newspaper which lamented that a fog in the English channel had isolated the continent of Europe rather than the other way round.  Or maybe the NYT is trying to evoke the famous line of the comic book character Rorschach who tells the inmates in a penitentiary, “none of you seem to understand. I’m not locked in here with you… you’re locked in here with me! ”  The NYT story almost seems to imply:  you militants didn’t get rid of us, you isolated yourselves.

But Andrew Higgins, also of the New York Times, seems to have fewer illusions about the EU’s attempt to renegotiate the Minsk Agreement, which Vladimir Putin has already torn up, by offering to with the ceasefire line further West.  He seems to understand that it is Putin, not Obama, who is the tough guy Rorschach. Higgins writes, In Ukraine, It’s Putin’s Game:

BRUSSELS — His country’s oil export revenues and currency have slumped. Its economy is shrinking, and some of his own allies in Moscow have questioned where he is leading them. Yet when President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia sat down Wednesday in the Belarussian capital of Minsk with the leaders of Ukraine, Germany and France to discuss the conflict in eastern Ukraine, he still held the decisive cards.

For months now, Europe’s often fractious leaders have spoken with one voice on Ukraine, ruling out a military solution and pleading with all parties to find a way to resolve the dispute diplomatically. But in Minsk, they confronted the reality that Mr. Putin retains the upper hand precisely because he is prepared to use military force to get what he wants in diplomacy. …

However, in Minsk, Europe’s faith in a “political solution” — a mantra repeated over the past year at every meeting in Brussels of leaders and foreign ministers — confronted the hard reality created by Mr. Putin, whose support for separatist rebels gutted the last Minsk agreement, empowered their quest for a clear military solution and amplified voices in Washington calling for military aid to Ukraine….

“Putin has got everyone spun up over what he is up to in Minsk, but he is playing a long game,” said Fiona Hill, the United States’ top intelligence officer on Russia from 2006 to 2009. “He plays on multiple fronts. We start talking about a military response, and he starts talking about diplomacy.”

Ms. Hill, now director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution and co-author of “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin,” predicted that any new cease-fire accord would “only be temporary like the last one” because Mr. Putin constantly shifts between diplomatic and military options, depending on which he sees as giving Russia the most advantage.


No rational American leader would risk war with Russia over the Ukraine. By the same token no Russian leader would risk war with a vastly more powerful America over the Ukraine either. The same restraints which Obama cites to excuse inaction should paralyze the Russian strongman as well.  Why has it not? Because Putin understands he is risking nothing by advancing on Obama.  The Higgins article grasps this:

“Putin can outmaneuver us because he knows what our limits are. He knows we will not deploy troops. He knows that even if the United States decides to send some arms, Russia is still strong enough to defeat Ukraine,” she added. “But we have no idea what Putin’s limits are. He does not show his cards. The West does. Maybe there is not a military solution, but we should keep Russia guessing.”

Obama pre-emptively announced was going to fold at the first sign of trouble.  He got on his high horse and stayed there. In the meantime Putin, from a much weaker position, but with a far stronger will, has beaten him up. Vladimir has got his number, just as the Houthis have done and is ringing his bell. This cannot go on indefinitely. Eventually Obama will be forced into a corner from which he must strike back — because even a worm must turn — though by that time he will have forfeited all his starting advantages.

“Strategic patience” only works when you are winning;  like waiting for an oak tree to grow.  There’s no point waiting for the oak tree if the squirrel has already eaten the acorn. Unfortunately, the Obama administration has confused “strategic patience” with the belief that losing for a long enough eventually turns you into a winner. That is like thinking that a pinhole leak in a gas tank will eventually fill it.

Why would anyone believe this? Conrad Black argues in the National Review that the biggest weakness of the media-political-academic elite is the acquired conviction that if you repeat a falsehood for long enough it eventually becomes the truth.  This ruse has worked so long it has become second nature. Like Brian Williams, they think you can just make things up.  But in so doing “they betrayed their viewers and listeners, and not with harmless piffle like Williams’s invented derring-do” but with fatal falsehoods.  And they are betraying them still.  What the elites may soon discover is that they are betraying themselves also, and boy will they be surprised.


As of this writing a ceasefire deal has been announced between the EU, Russia and Ukraine.  The details of the agreement are still hazy. The Telegraph summarizes what is known so far.  Ukraine has been offered $40 billion, to smooth out any objections.

Although there is no English-language version of these remarks yet, the French press has Merkel talking down expectations. “Mais “je ne me fais aucune illusion, nous ne nous faisons aucune illusion. Il va encore y avoir de gros obstacles devant nous (…) il y a toutefois une vraie chance de faire évoluer les choses vers le meilleur”. This basically translates to ‘there are many obstacles still remaining.’

The Guardian appears to confirm the shakiness of the arrangements. It appears to be an attempt to buy time in the hope that something more lasting may evolve from the contraption.

The German and French leaders will brief the EU later Thursday on what they have achieved – and, presumably, the Americans, too. They are likely to be deeply sceptical. In the short term, the Franco-German duo appears to have stopped the fighting – for now, at least – prevented further escalation, headed off US pressure to supply arms to Kiev, and dragged the recalcitrant Putin back on board. For now, Europe can breathe a brief sigh of relief.

But the Minsk achievement looks fragile in the extreme. It is still very much in the making, the second beginning of a long, fraught process. Unseen calamities could suddenly unravel all the leaders’ work. Merkel was candid. The deal provided a “glimmer of hope”, and no more, she said. When Hollande stressed there was still much work to do, he never spoke a truer word.

What is undeniable is that the EU, which only two years ago was confident, even smug and complacent about its future, finds itself in a situation where uncertain hope has to be purchased to the tune of $40 billion. We have gone from Ode to Joy to Boy Oh Boy. How did it come to this?

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