Our Thermian elites

In the 1999 sci-fi comedy Galaxy Quest, Tim Allen stars as Jason Nesmith, a washed-up egotistical actor from a long-defunct television series in the vein of Star Trek. The show was cancelled 18 years ago, so Nesmith and his fellow co-stars make a living doing skits for advertisers using their old characters, going to fan conventions and signing autographs for $15 a piece.

Unbeknownst to them, broadcasts of Galaxy Quest reached the Thermians, an alien race locked in a genocidal struggle with the evil General Sarris. Interpreting the television show to be actual historical documents, the Thermians model their entire civilization after the heroic adventures of Commander Peter Taggart and his loyal crew. Eventually they travel to earth and recruit the unwitting Nesmith and his co-stars to lead them in battle against Sarris.

The Thermians are incomprehensibly naïve, leading to this exchange as the actors try to explain that they’re not really astronauts and can’t help them in their war with Sarris:

Life imitates farce.

In recent months I have been repeatedly reminded on the hapless Thermians by the comments of Western elites concerning the unraveling world order. No matter the issue – Russian aggression in eastern Europe, the Assad’s regime’s unwillingness to make peace with rebels, Iranian adventurism throughout the Middle East, China’s territorial ambitions, etc. – American and European policymakers seem completely unable to understand, let alone respond to, events. Comments in press conferences and media interviews haven acquired notes of despair. It is not simply that Western elites are disappointed by the failure of liberal internationalism and consensus-based foreign policy to secure peace; they seem bewildered…occasionally petulant. This indicates a deeper failing, as if more realist schools of thought are not even known to exist, and therefore no contingencies were made in accordance with their proscriptions. We are witnessing the complete intellectual failure of Western institutions, at least vis-à-vis foreign policy, akin to that which occurred in the years before World War II.

Edward Hallett Carr described those years in a way that could be seamlessly transposed to the present:

The statement that it is in the interest of the world as a whole that the conclusion eventually reached, whether maintenance or change, should be reached by peaceful means, would command general assent, but seems a rather meaningless platitude. The utopian assumption that there is a world interest in peace which is identifiable with the interest of each individual nation helped politicians and political writers everywhere to evade the unpalatable fact of a fundamental divergence of interests between nations desirous of maintaining the status quo and nations desirous of changing it. A peculiar combination of platitude and falseness thus became endemic in the pronouncements of statesmen about international affairs.

Listed below is a small sampling of illustrative quotes drawn from recent newspaper articles. I encounter similar comments with such frequency that this may become a recurring feature on the blog:

Worst possible city in which to host cease-fire talks.

Russian Intervention in Syrian War Has Sharply Reduced U.S. Options

MUNICH — For months now the United States has insisted there can be no military solution to the Syrian civil war, only a political accord between President Bashar al-Assad and the fractured, divided opposition groups that have been trying to topple him.

But after days of intense bombing that could soon put the critical city of Aleppo back into the hands of Mr. Assad’s forces, the Russians may be proving the United States wrong. There may be a military solution, one senior American official conceded Wednesday, “just not our solution,” but that of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

Confusion Reigns Over Syria Cease-Fire Deal

“There’s this concern that the Russians have a broad definition of terrorists and are going to essentially continue striking what they consider to be terrorist targets,” said a senior U.S. official who took part in the Munich talks.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice…

Russia Plays Familiar Hand in Syria 

Western officials say they are losing patience with Mr. Putin, accusing Russia of in effect pushing more moderate Syrian opposition into the arms of the extremist Islamic State…the Kremlin’s pattern of obfuscation – for instance, sending troops in unmarked uniforms to occupy Crimea while maintaining deniability – have left many skeptical of the latest diplomacy.

Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

Hospitals in Syria Bombed as Fighting Escalates

State Department spokesman John Kirby said the bombing of civilian targets “casts doubt on Russia’s willingness and/or ability to help bring to a stop the continued brutality of the Assad regime against its own people.”

Susan Rice, President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, also condemned the continued bombing. “We think it runs counter, frankly, to the commitment made in Munich on Friday,” she said.

Break out the big guns…

U.S. to have ‘very serious conversation’ with China over suspected South China Sea missile deployment

The United States is very concerned about China’s growing militarization of the South China Sea and intends to have a “very serious conversation” with Beijing after reports emerged that it had deployed suspected ­surface-to-air missile batteries on a disputed island, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Wednesday.

“There is every evidence, every day that there has been an increase of militarization of one kind or another,” Kerry told reporters when asked about the reported deployment, agencies reported. “It’s of serious concern.”

“We have had these conversations with the Chinese, and I am confident that over the next days we will have further very serious conversation on this,” Kerry said.

U.S.-Beijing Spat Escalates Over South China Sea

The Obama administration sharply criticized Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday after charging that China’s military had deployed batteries of advanced missiles on a disputed South China Sea island.

Secretary of State John Kerry said the missile deployment was at odds with a pledge made by Mr. Xi while visiting the White House last year to refrain from militarizing clusters of disputed islands throughout the South China Sea.

“When President Xi was here in Washington, he stood in the Rose Garden with President Obama and said China will not militarize in the South China Sea,” Mr. Kerry said on Wednesday. “But there is every evidence, every day that there has been an increase of militarization of one kind or another. It’s of serious concern.”

China Positions Missiles on Disputed South China Sea Island

Adm. Harry Harris Jr., the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, told reporters in Tokyo on Wednesday that he didn’t have confirmation of the missile deployment but that if true “it could be an indication of militarization of the South China Sea in ways that the president of China, President Xi [Jinping], said he would not do.”

 

 

 

 

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Another one bites the dust

"Don't let the door hit you on the way out..."

“Don’t let the door hit you on the way out…”

President Obama has now lost his third Secretary of Defense in a six-year period, the latest in a series of unusually short-tenured leaders at the Pentagon. There are widespread reports that Chuck Hagel was frustrated by interference and micromanagement from the White House – a pathology of the Obama administration that was described in detail by Robert Gates. It appears that Hagel has been essentially marginalized in the Administration due to disagreements with President over US policy toward ISIS, Russia and China (in other words: all major policy issues). It seems as if President Obama considers the National Security Advisor to have responsibility for the country’s defense and military portfolios, while the Secretary of Defense is a bureaucratic functionary to execute orders and keep the Pentagon in line. It was recently revealed that Hagel authored a letter detailing his criticisms of the Administration’s Syria policy; the recipient was not his boss, President Obama, but Susan Rice, the National Security Advisor. Apart from any actual strategic disagreement between the Pentagon and the President, this dysfunctional command and control arrangement can be largely understood in light of the President’s background in academia. It is difficult to overstate the extent to which the military is an obsessive topic in the political science and constitutional law departments of America’s universities, where Eisenhower’s warnings about the “military-industrial complex” are repeated ad nauseam as a form of secular prophesy. Naturally, these discussions do not concern strategic issues such as the military’s proper structure or employment, but rather how a democratic society is to maintain control over a massive, professionalized, all-volunteer force. At one extreme are dark and outlandish fears about a coup led by a reactionary and anachronistic military. Most attention goes to the more prosaic issues of bureaucratic insubordination and the growing disconnect between the military and the society it defends. But for a professor on his way the White House, the lesson is clear: the military is going to be a political problem. Thus, when the President receives strategic pushback from the Pentagon, he does not engage with it on a policy level, but rather interprets it as the runaway insubordination he was warned of so many times back in the academy. From the Wall Street Journal:

“The White House fears what the Pentagon is going to say and do. The Pentagon fears how the White House will react. Both sides are nervous of the other,” said a longtime Pentagon official. “It has persisted through three secretaries now – Gates, Panetta and Hagel – and it will probably persist through a fourth secretary.”

This paranoia extends to the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Even if he was a personal confidant of the President – as Hagel was – the first disagreement between them is considered symptomatic of the dreaded bureaucratic capture, and from that point on the Secretary will be marginalized (if political considerations forbid his outright dismissal) while the more politically reliable – but strategically incompetent – commissars on the National Security Council staff intrude directly into the management of the DoD. I am very sympathetic to the President’s inclination to avoid becoming further entangled in the Syrian quagmire. But he needs to articulate his policy more clearly than just “I’m the President. I’m in charge. You’re not.” He also needs to realize that policy tussles over policy and strategy do not constitute insubordination or rogue bureaucracy. Civilian control of the military is a foundational plank of the Republic. Without it, America ceases to be. But a paranoid overzealousness in its enforcement has contributed to the dysfunctional strategy of this Administration.