Belmont Club

Malice vs Incompetence

One of today’s man-bites-dog stories is that America cannot evacuate its nationals from war torn Yemen. Rather it hopes countries like India can do it for them. A State Department official said the U.S. government, which is providing logistical support for the Saudi campaign, believes it is too dangerous to risk a military operation to rescue Americans. “There are no current U.S. government-sponsored plans to evacuate private U.S. citizens from Yemen,” the official said. “We encourage all U.S. citizens to shelter in a secure location until they are able to depart safely.”

Fortunately New Delhi will ride to the rescue of Uncle Sam. “India has won many friends by evacuating nearly 1,000 nationals of 41 countries from warring Yemen. … Along with some 4,600 Indians, Singh’s mission rescued citizens of Britain, France and the United States.”  The days of “exceptionalism” are over.  Americans being left on the beach alongside wretched 3rd World nationals is part of the march toward making it a normal country occupying a status considerably below India and perhaps above Nepal.

There was a time of course when claiming American citizenship carried the same weight as the ancient civis romanus sum.  “I am a Roman citizen.” It conjured images of  grey warships offshore and grim faced Marines poised behind the ramps of landing craft. It implied diplomats who could pound the table as the local warlords quivered.  And even if it didn’t always quiver they sometimes did, for the despots could never be sure the Navy was not actually there.

But today even diplomats have no expectation of being saved from the tender mercies of knife-clattering Jihadis. If local secret agents who risked their lives for America can be left to their grueseome fates then ordinary citizens will have to make their own arrangements. At a State Department press briefing  one journalist actually asked Marie Harf if Americans should swim out of the country.

Swimming might be a better idea than taking the land route, given that Saudi Arabia has bombed refugee camps.  CNN reports that “Bab al-Mandab is one of the busiest waterways in the world, a thoroughfare for oil tankers and cargo ships. It’s now being crossed by desperate Yemenis in rickety fishing boats seeking refuge from the conflict threatening to engulf their country.”

For the other surprise story of the day is that Pakistan is not riding to the rescue of the Kingdom. In a rather shocking vote, Pakistan has refused to send troops to Saudi Arabia’s aid. “ADEN (Reuters) – Pakistan’s parliament voted on Friday not to join the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, dashing Riyadh’s hopes for powerful support from outside of the region in its fight to halt Iranian-allied Houthi rebels.”

The Washington Post asks in story redolent with mixed metaphors whether Yemen going to become Saudi Arabia’s Vietnam.  Or — perhaps we can coin the phrase now —  Iraq going to become Iran’s South Korea. Perhaps the phrase the Washington Post was looking for to express its geopolitical perplexity can’t be found in Apocalypse Now but in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy tells Toto “we’re not in Kansas any more”.

We’re in world where Indians rescue Americans. The Saudis may be in a fight for their lives.  The landscape has turned upside down. One person whose world view changed from black and white to technicolor in an instant is Times of Israel military correspondent Mitch Ginsburg who charts his journey from being an admirer of Barack Obama to being absolutely terrified of what new catastrophe he will cause now.

It makes fascinating reading. At first he put aside his nagging doubts, but by the time of the Cairo address some of his dormant suspicions had been rekindled. “Rahm Emmanuel, David Axelrod and the rest, I figured, had given him bad advice.” Inch by inch, Ginsburg reluctantly opened his eyes until the shocking Technicolor scene assailed him.

in June 2009, came the Green Movement in Iran. All of my Israeli friends mocked Obama and his detachment. I said it was best — American support was the last thing the students on the streets needed. Iran — one of the four true nation states of the Middle East — was scarred by the CIA-orchestrated overthrow of Mohammad Mussadeq in 1953; the revolution against the Ayatollahs had to come from the people, for the people. Staying on the sidelines, I told my friends, was a painful but astute piece of policy. …

The Arab uprisings began in December 2010. … The Obama administration released a statement hailing “Egypt’s role as a pillar of regional peace, security and stability,” and said that the US “will stand with the Egyptian people as they pursue their aspirations for democracy, dignity, and opportunity, and fulfill the promise of their revolution.”

This was the first crack in my devotion. Still, though, I told myself, the president of the United States of America could not possibly believe that political Islam, as practiced by the Brotherhood, was a necessary stage on the path to true democracy.

In November, with no fanfare and no letters, with dwindling conviction, I voted for him again. I believed Obama when he told Goldberg that, insofar as the military option against Iran in concerned, “as president of the United States, I don’t bluff.” …

And then, within the span of a few months, a flurry of events turned my waning and rather lonely support of the president into a clammy and bewildering sense of betrayal.

We are indisputably in the Land of Oz. The question many people are asking, in this age of topsy-turvy news stories, is whether we were propelled here by the tornado of Obama’s incompetence or the subtle scheming of the Wicked Witch of the West. Hugh Hewitt put the question of malice versus stupudity directly to former vice president Dick Cheney.

HEWITT: Is he naive, Mr. Vice President? Or does he have a far reaching vision that only he entertains of a realigned Middle East. That somehow it all works out in the end.

CHENEY: I don’t know Hugh. I vacillate between the various theories I’ve heard. If you had somebody who, as president — who wanted to take America down. Who wanted to fundamentally weaken our position in the world, reduce our capacity to influence events. Turn our back on our allies and encourage our enemies, it would look exactly like what Barack Obama is doing. I think his actions are constituted in my mind are those of the worst president we’ve ever had.

Cheney declined to make a judgment. The case for malice is strong because of the apparent duality to the president’s skills. On the one hand the president seems awfully good at coercing domestic opponents, intimidating Republicans and fooling the general public. This argues competence. But on the other hand he is laughably outmaneuvered by men like Putin, Castro, the Iranians or the Saudis. The Chinese run rings around him. This suggests he is throwing the match. The existence of the duality fuels the hypothesis that he is ‘taking America down’.

But incompetence cannot wholly be discounted. Consider that the skills required for being an American president and those useful for being a conspiratorial despot are opposites. America operates, to a larger extent than most countries anyway, on trust, public assent and the rule of law. By contrast, despotism calls for dishonesty, ruthlessness and a kind of megalomania.  Anyone who makes a good despot will make a bad president.  Anyone who makes a good president will be a bad despot.

Now consider the case of an ambitious mediocrity in the Oval Office who is enamored of himself.  In trying to be the Lee Kuan Yew of Chicago such a man would be blindside American polity because where people expect a president to be forthcoming, he would lie. Where his political opponents relied on the protections of the law and custom, they would encounter small minded and vindictive persecution.  He would succeed for a time by breaking all the rules and congratulate himself on his cleverness, even deluding himself into thinking that his Occupy Wall Street thugs are a street fighting force on par with the thugs of other strongmen.

But once this mediocre authoritarian was pitted against the real thing he would be overmatched by the pros. They would see through his amateurish plots in an instant.  To his lies they would reply one better. Lawfare and the race card would bounce off Rouhani or Putin like peas off the frontal armor of a King Tiger Tank. He would no more succeed at the Game of Rogues than Occupy Wall Street would make headway against Ernst Rohm’s Brownshirts or the Hezbollah. They would not even get to first base.

Most of Obama’s predecessors were smart enough to know that an American president fights asymmetrically against foreign despots. President do not out-despot or out-conspire them.  To win they just let America do its thing. And America typically responds to challenges by smothering its foes in a burst of productivity and creativity. That’s what happened to the USSR: Ronald Reagan was not smarter than the Soviet Politburo. He was only smart enough to let America be America.

Barack Obama on the other hand is not smart enough to let America be America. But he is dumb enough to try and outwit Putin or the Iranians. While America will almost always beat Russia, Obama will almost always lose to Putin. Change the game from America versus Iran to Obama versus the Ayatollahs and the dynamic changes. Once you play the authoritarian game, you will lose. Consequently Obama is getting his ass handed to him on a platter.

Obama’s mistake was to doubt the greatness of his country and instead trust in the greatness of himself. Man bites dog and the president backs the wrong horse. Now all you boys in Yemen, swim.

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