Friday, July 1, 2016

Oh Canada! Part 1 - Capital is the Window to the Soul

As my followers on Twitter/Facebook/Instagram know, I was just in Ottawa. It was an absolutely delightful city and I had a terrific time. But I also learned something about Canada, a magnificent and interesting country. It just so happens to be Canada Day, so as good a time as any to kick off a series of posts.

There are three facts about Ottawa that are useful to know (particularly for an American):

  1. This friendly, modern, low-key city, when it was established was a rough town of lumberjacks, slowing hewing a life out of a vast difficult wilderness.
  2. The city's development took off with the building of the Rideau Canal which linked the Ottawa and Rideau Rivers. This impressive feat of engineering was undertaken to create a secure line of communication between Upper and Lower Canada that couldn't be cut by the Americans.
  3. The dominant official architecture is effectively neo-medieval.
I'll take on one and two in later posts. But the third item fascinates me. Readers of this blog know my interest in Canada stems from several sources, including Canadian bravery on the world stage and the fact that it is a liberal democracy that doesn't systematically abuse its citizens. I also really like Canadian literature and my favorite novelist, Robertson Davies, is Canadian and - heavily influenced by Jung - was fascinated by the middle ages.

I live in the Washington, DC area and Washington DC is the greatest accumulation of neo-classical architecture in the world. I love all the white marble and pillars. Every other building looks like a Greek temple. Rooted in symmetry, the buildings reflect the Enlightenment values the Founding Fathers revered. The core of these values is reason.

Canada went another way. Here's a picture of the Ottawa skyline from the river. My phone doesn't do it justice, but there is a line of neo-medieval buildings. The neo-Gothic parliament and its buildings and then the French chateau inspired Supreme Court. With this line of stone (granite and sandstone mostly) buildings sitting on a high bluff, it really made me think of Edinburgh, Scotland. (Beyond it of course are the glass and steel offices of any big city.) If you want more pics, they are on my twitter feed (from some angles, Canada's gorgeous Parliament Hill looks like Hogwarts.)

Sorry I didn't do justice to this magnificent view!
There are two obvious explanations for these architectural decisions. The first is simply fashion, neo-Gothic is what they were building in England when Ottawa was growing into its role as Canada's capital in the late 1800s. Or Canada specifically chose neo-Gothic to contrast with the U.S. neoclassical style (but I don't think so - everything doesn't have to be about us!)
Entrance into Canada's House of Commons

Davies, a good Jungian, recognized the limits of reason. It has its place of course, but it is not the only way of understanding the world. He felt that in an era that revered reason, feeling was lost. One of his main characters, Dunstan Ramsey - a sort of personification of Canada - is a flinty Scottish schoolmaster. On the side he writes about Saints and believes he has witnessed miracles.

This is perhaps the central theme of his work, that all things (people, institutions, eras) contain their opposite. That opposite or shadow or devil needs to be met. Not fought, not defeated, but understood. We cannot exist without it and are the better when we know it.

Chateau Laurier, a renown hotel, next to Parliament looks like a fairy-tale!
The neo-Gothic revival was part of the broader Romantic movement which arose as a response to neo-classicism. The steady rationalisation of society (including the industrial revolution) brought progress, but also pain. Conservatives worried about a loss in human spirit as well as the suffering. In contrast to the Enlightenment's reason, there was a need for feeling. As the scripture reminds us, "Man cannot live by bread alone."
Parliament Hill really looks like a castle


In the Middle Ages, a great Empire had just collapsed and Europe was only just recovering. There was still an echo of the Dark Ages, the vast frightening disorder that dominated after Rome fell. For all the soaring architecture, there was a humility to the Middle Ages and that too needed a re-awakening after Enlightenment confidence. For a nation carved from an incomparably vast land, that caution and humility - with a hint of spirituality seems just right.

Coda
I don't want to overdo it with this mysticism and talk of the Middle Ages. Ottawa is a pleasant lovely city, dominated by civil servants, with an air of earnestness and particularly Canadian politeness. When the weather was nice, EVERYONE, was on their bike. They were not the wizened sages of Robertson Davies, just people going through their lives. But perhaps that is part of the point. In Washington, much seems portentous (even if it doesn't) as technocrats and legislative aides imagine they are shaping the world to come - the American extraversion Davies criticized. Strip that away, that is all surface - politics is not what really feeds the soul - this according to a top political scientist.

And that is the point, getting the stuff we need - material and spiritual - to get through and make something of our lives. Everyone faces that same quest.

With all the Jung and Davies rattling around in my head, I thought I was encountering my shadow when I saw this piece of public art on the Alexandra Bridge between Ottawa and Gatineau. Entitled Zoom! V2 by Randall Anderson, who is interested in the impact when a body collides with the unknown. So, maybe...



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Thursday, June 30, 2016

Thin Red Line at Normandy

Every summer brings a host of military anniversaries. Tomorrow is the centenary of the Somme, that vast, tragic battle in which modern machinery devoured Romantic chivalry by the tens of thousands.

But there is a smaller engagement I remember in late June. Operation Epsom (or the First Battle of the Odon), in which my favorite Scottish unit (the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders) went head to head with some of the toughest formations of the Wehrmacht.

Background: or why I even have a favorite Scottish regiment
I’ve written that I have a certain fondness for the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders. They are a storied unit that has fought around the world with bravery and distinction. They faced the Americans under Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans and were the famed “Thin Red Line” holding off the Russians at Balaclava.

Why I like the Argylls is a bit more complicated, and starts about a quarter-century ago. I'd had a fondness for things Scottish. On a family trip to the UK I absorbed a Holiday History of Scotland. This inspired me to write a short story about MacBeth in which he was a reforming liberal and practical politician.  I interspersed it with quotations from Machiavelli's The Prince and cleverly titled it The Scottish Prince.

I was taking a class in college on the history of the Bible, taught by a wonderful curmudgeon who insisted we learn actual dates. I went to a school filled with very creative people who found this almost as overwhelming as algebra. I, on the other hand loved history and had been through Hebrew school, so this material was not unfamiliar.  I didn't really need to study for the exam, and when I took it, I finished in about 10 minutes and blew the curve.  (This was unique, I am generally a terrible student.) But I helped organize and lead a study group (there might have been a young woman I was enamored with, I really don’t remember).

We stayed up all night studying, I had everyone make timelines. It was around Passover/Easter – The Ten Commandments was on TV in the background. Heading home through Brookline, someone had left a painting of redcoats with kilts out for the trash. I liked it. It stayed with me, through several moves and getting married. I always found a place for it on my wall.

Fast forward about fifteen years. I was at a conference in Edinburgh, Scotland. My wife was with me and we were doing some sightseeing. (I could happily tour every castle and battlefield in Scotland, followed by fish and chips at a pub. Is heaven like Scotland on a sunny day? I hope so.)

At Stirling Castle, we had done the tour and I was wandering around when I heard my wife calling for me. There it was, my painting. The castle is the home of the regimental museum of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. The painting is The Thin Red Line (from the regiment’s stand at Balaclava.)

Operation Epsom: The Argylls at Normandy
So, as I was listening to Keegan’s Six Armies at Normandy, there was a little added thrill that the Argylls were present with the Scottish Division.

Of course, these weren’t really the Argylls. The regular regiment had been captured when Singapore fell. The Argylls of D-Day were originally a Territorial unit, which virtually overnight inherited the weighty traditions and history of their namesake unit.

They were, Keegan writes, “innocents to war inasmuch as Scots can ever be.”

Hearing this, as I drove to and from work, I was worried about their fate and became even more worried as they were deployed in Operation Epsom.

The German plan was to use its Panzer divisions to split the allied forces and crush them. The large force being assembled included Panzer Lehr, the most formidable armored division of the Wehrmacht. If Darth Vader were working for Hitler (an entirely imaginable scenario) Panzer Lehr sounds like his personal strike force. It is a unique quality of the German language to take utterly innocent words and make them sound frightening. Lehr means teaching, Panzer Lehr was the teaching division - which is why they had to be the best, they set the example. So they were pretty bad-ass.

Meanwhile, the British were planning their own offensive to seize strategic ground in preparation for liberating the city of Caen. The Scottish Division led the way, attempting to establish a corridor through which allied troops could move into the critical territory. The Argylls had a lead position and, fighting through German defenses had moved across the Odon River when they Germans counter-attacked. Five Panzer divisions struck the Scottish Division, with the Argylls most exposed and without tanks of their own to counter the Germans. 

Over the next five days, Panzer divisions savaged the Scottish division. It paid a high price, 2500 casualties, but was not dislodged. Operation Epsom did not achieve its objective, but in absorbing the counter-attack it had blunted Hitler's strategic reserve and foiled his plan of using his armor to split the allied forces.

In the past, I wrote about a unit’s colors representing its soul - that a military unit has a certain, ineffable quality. In Operation Epsom, the Argylls lived up to their history. Keegan writes:
Unspectacular, muddied, wearisome and intermittently terrifying, it had blunted the assault of one of the most formidable fighting formations in the German army and stood fit to rank with those other small epics of Argyll and Scottish stubbornness, the destruction of the 93rd at the battle of New Orleans and the stand of the 'thin red line' at Balaclava.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Bureaucratic Politics of Pesach

The paradigm I am most capable of applying to a situation is bureaucratic politics - it was my dissertation after all and has also been a focus of my more recent work.

It is fundamentally about how policy is shaped by the push and pull of actors (heavily shaped by their institutional affiliations). It has only limited explanatory power, but it is not negligible. From a personal standpoint it is appealing because so much political science focuses on big structural forces while bureaucratic politics is, fundamentally about people. Studying it has helped imbue me with critical empathy - a healthy respect for the man in the arena.

Graham Allison, who wrote one of the sacred texts of bureaucratic politics, began with this quotation from the great Alexis de Tocqueville:
I have come across men of letters who have written history without taking part in public affairs, and politicians who have concerned themselves with producing events without thinking about them. I have observed that the first are always inclined to find general causes, whereas the second, living in the midst of disconnected daily facts, are prone to imagine that everything is attributable to particular incidents, and that the wires they pull are the same as those that move the world. It is to be presumed that both are equally deceived.

As I sat through Seder and heard the story of Passover, of the Jewish people's redemption from slavery, my mind drifted to bureaucratic politics. Certainly the story lends itself to theology and philosophy (the redemption from Egypt and the later revelation of the Torah, the great human quest for freedom and self-government and the balance between liberty and responsibility.) It also lends itself to more traditional IR power political analyses. But, when you have a hammer, every problem is a nail...

Notes on Reading the Bible
In thinking about bureaucratic politics and the story of Exodus we must wrestle with the question of how true is the Bible? Did everything happen exactly literally as it was described? Or is it based on true stories that over time have become myth. It is also entirely possible that the Bible is entirely fantastic and untrue. This does not diminish it, false stories can reveal deep truths. Nonetheless, I am inclined to take the middle path, that something extraordinary happened. I don't believe in miracles, but I believe in the miraculous. I don't believe in lighting coming from heaven, but rather that incredibly unlikely things occur. I view the founding of Israel in this light. There was nothing supernatural. It was merely very unlikely, yet it happened and - who knows - in 300 years Ben-Gurion will be seen as a wizard and miracle-worker. Maybe he was...

Marc Chagall: Moses and Aaron Before Pharaoh from the Jewish Museum
So in that vein, something incredible happened in Egypt a few thousand years ago. But let's dispense with outright magic. Did Moses part the Red Sea, perhaps not. But he knew a place where the waters were low and a band of refugees could safely cross. Perhaps an advance guard of the pursuing army was trapped in the mud and massacred and drowned.

Putting aside the fundamental theological argument that Exodus is a precise, literal transcription of what occurred, this view reduces the fundamental wonder of it all. People crave wonder, religion is based in wonder. Personally, I think there is an astounding amount of wonder in the world as it is. But a realist version of the Exodus story has some advantages for making the text make sense.

The "negotiation" between Hashem/Moses and Pharaoh always seemed problematic. A plague occurs, Pharaoh relents, and then Hashem "hardens" his heart and another terrible plague occurs. It seems cruel, and why ten times? Why at all? All powerful Hashem could have brought the Jews from Egypt without effort.

The general answer to the endless plagues, rather than a single overwhelming miracle, is that Hashem needed to demonstrate his great power to the world. But the bureaucratic politics interpretation, in which Moses - using asymmetries of information and maybe some clever early biological warfare - in attempting to leverage a weak position to his advantage, actually makes the story more compelling.

The story of Pesach is the beginning of humanity's quest for freedom and effort to come to terms with that freedom. If Moses is a bureaucratic politics David, outwitting Pharaoh's Goliath (an anachronism) it puts humanity front and center in the story - which only strengthens the story of how we obtain the freedom Hashem grants us.

I won't tell the entire bureaucratic politics version of the story here. But, like the story of Joseph, I think it would make an amazing novel. But let's at least take a look at the players.

Moses as Policy Entrepreneur
Could anyone have had a better resume for liberating the Jewish people than Moses? First, he was born into a leading Jewish family. His brother (Aaron!!!) was the High Priest. So he had credibility within his community. But he was raised in Pharaoh's house. He knew the ins and outs of the place. He had, as do most policy entrepreneurs, blended knowledge that included substantial expertise and tacit knowledge of process.

But, Moses was exiled to the desert - where he married into a leading clan. While he was off tending flocks he was learning the ways of the desert and making contacts among the tribes - gaining critical information needed for his people to survive their Sinai sojourn. Was there manna from heaven? Or was Moses calling in favors from Jethro's kinfolk? How did he know just where to cross the Red Sea when the water would be low?

By the end of The Ten Commandmants (if not from the beginning) Moses is kind of a handsome dull Dudley DoRight. No doubt, no initiative, just faith, stoicism, and tenacity. But in this light he is clever, adaptable, and creative. It makes Moses a much more compelling figure who brings real agency to the story.

Pharoah: Standing Where He Sits
The expression "hardened Pharaoh's heart" has always troubled me. But with the bureaucratic politics paradigm, it makes more sense, he was being pulled in a lot directions. He was a tyrant, but a weak one, who (as the weak often do) feared appearing weak. When the Hebrew slaves agitate he is prepared to set them free. Moses (and Aaron!!!) make a good case and the slaves are proving to be more trouble than they are worth. But then his security advisors warn that the release of the slaves makes him look weak. Moneyed interests remind him of the value of this free labor. Pharoah goes back and forth.

Pharoah too, becomes more human, although no less monstrous for it. He is not the austere tyrant who imagines himself a god. Rather he is a man, limited, overwhelmed, and outplayed. He has, like most tyrants, been riding a tiger and knows only that when he stops riding he will be devoured.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Skybolt: A Historic Case Study of Pressuring an Ally

There has been some discussion about how the United States is carrying its allies and needs them to step up to the plate. I won't mention any specific presidential candidates so as not to violate a certain self-imposed rule. But our relationships with our allies are a complex web of dependencies. Nothing is simple and there are no easy gains. The recent discussion has inspired to me write about...

Skybolt!
It was an air-launched ballistic missile that the United States started developing with the United Kingdom in the 1950s. Under JFK, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara determined Skybolt was a boondoggle that was much too expensive. The sensible thing to do was kill it.

But for the British it was very important. It was their only path to maintaining an independent nuclear deterrent. There was an alternative, the Polaris submarine launched ballistic missile, but the U.S. didn't want the U.K. to have it (for various reasons that were very important at the time.) The issue was playing out up and down the U.S. and British national security bureaucracies until, at a summit at Nassau in the Bahamas, JFK was blindsided on this issue.

He was not happy and had the distinguished scholar of the presidency Professor Richard Neustadt, write a report in April 1963 and it was handed in on November 15. Kennedy read it over the weekend and handed the report to the First Lady and said, "If you want to know what my life is like, read this."

Sadly, that was the only feedback Neustadt received. The President travelled to Dallas on November 22, the rest of the story is well-known.

The Report
Having survived the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, Kennedy looked forward to his meeting with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. Then, as now, British Prime Ministers and U.S. Presidents were often friends - as much as two politicians can be friends.

But the British delegation was not in good humour, and they demanded a resolution on Skybolt. The discussion continued, the Americans were unwilling to continue the program and sought formulae in which the British would be part of a joint NATO nuclear force. But this was unacceptable for a proud nation. There must be Skybolt or the British must have Polaris.

Finally, Macmillan hit Kennedy right between the eyes. Neustadt quotes extensively from the notes National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy took of Macmillan's appeal and so will I:

Churchill had told him in 1940 that in logic it was impossible to win the war, but they had gone on. There were lots of people in Britain would would like to chuck it, which would enable them to have better pensions and a more satisfactory life. The....alternative [to a POLARIS agreement] was to say this is a complicated system - The Americans won't give it to us - we will go and make it eventually and be free. This would be better than putting a British sailor aboard a ship to have tea with the Portuguese. To give up would mean that Britain was not the nation that had gone through its previous history. We should consider that if the people who wanted to give up in Britain came to power, who would make the better ally? Those were the ones we were supporting in Britain by our policies....
Either Britain must stay in the nuclear club or he would resign and we would have a permanent series of Gaitskells [British Labour leader]
He would not engage in anything petty. We could stay at Holy Loch [nuclear submarine base]....Britain could make submarines - not nuclear ones - to carry missiles. This could be accomplished...but costs would have to be compensated elsewhere....They would have to tax their people more as well. Such a course would lead to a deep rift with the United States. He said he would not accuse America....
After that, Kennedy relented and agreed to share the Polaris with the U.K. It led a great expansion of the special friendship.

I could analyze this. Macmillan made his appeal and smart combination of emotional and hard political points. U.K. too had its history and values, which could not simply be ignored. At the same time, there would be an impact on British domestic politics which would not be favorable to the United States. It is not just about getting a deal. There is a relationship that continues on in time and space.

But perhaps I should just let the words speak for themselves. Allow me to quote another eloquent Englishman who pre-dated Macmillan by a few centuries.
For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.
When you push countries around, expect to be pushed back.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Plan Colombia: Success & Ambiguity in Foreign Affairs

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos was in DC recently, to discuss how U.S. aid to his country will shift as the government negotiates with the FARC and Plan Colombia winds down. It should studied carefully, because it is that seemingly rare thing, U.S. foreign policy success on a security issue. When Plan Colombia started under President Clinton, the terrorist FARC was an existential threat to the state, as well as one of the world's largest drug trafficking organizations. Colombia faced a real risk of becoming a failed state.

Now, a decade and a half later the FARC has been dramatically reduced having suffered innumerable reverses, from the dramatic rescue of its most famous hostage to the violent deaths of many of its top leaders. All of these failures reflect massive penetration into FARC's communications and decision-making networks. They are engaged in peace negotiations and it appears likely that the conflict is finally, thankfully, winding down.

Unfortunately Colombia has not been transformed into a developed first world country. Nor has it stopped exporting drugs on a massive scale, with the attendant violence and corruption. Colombia, despite strong economic growth, continues to be mired in poverty, the justice system is imperfect, the security forces undoubtedly did terrible things - directly or by proxy - in the process of fighting the insurgency. Colombia will be wrestling with massive internal refugee crises for a long time to come.

Still, defeating the FARC was well worth doing. A vicious ideological group undermining a state is worse than huge criminal cartels. Their ability and willingness to extend disorder is greater.

The United States provided extensive financial and technical support to the Colombian government. The full spectrum of U.S. policy options were used. A full alphabet soup of intelligence and law enforcement agencies were engaged. The U.S. military provided training and operated closely - but was not supposed to be engaged in combat. The U.S. did engage in institution-building, helping Colombian courts develop the capacity to manage complex cases. There was even an economic component, in the ultimately established Free Trade Agreement with Colombia. But the reality of the success was due to the election of a highly capable president who was able to rally the nation. Whether the Colombian government could have prevailed without U.S support is an open question. Perhaps it was U.S. assistance that put them over the top. But most of the heavy lifting was done by the Colombians themselves.

In short, when there is a country in a dangerous place, but still with the resources to rally, the U.S. can help and contribute to a success. But if the country can't rally, there is little the U.S. can do. Despite conspiracy theories, the United States is not the Almighty, but in foreign policy the U.S. and those seeking its aid should adapt and adopt the old adage: the U.S. helps those who help themselves.

At the same time, we need realistic expectation of what is possible and what is necessary. Colombia is a more peaceful and prosperous country. Hopefully, with open civil war ended, it can continue to grow and develop. But rapid transformations do not happen and, specifically in the case of Colombia, drugs will continue to play an outsized role in their economy as long as there is a market for them in the developed world.

Still, a win is a win and should be studied carefully.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Phaedrus & Presentism Perspective

The first book I read when I started at St. John's College was Plato's Phaedrus. It is a dialogue between Socrates and Phaedrus in which - among many, many other things - Phaedrus is deeply concerned about this new things the kids are doing - reading books. Would people remember things if they could just write it down? Would people really understand ideas if they couldn't query the speaker? Written stuff seemed only fit to translate lightweight stuff, amusements.

There is nothing new under the sun.

It is an argument that has replayed itself so many times since, particularly in our own time. I remember a film in which the same argument was made regarding films vs. television. But in the Victorian era some worried about the deleterious effect of novels. Now some version of the Phaedrus is replayed almost weekly about some new technology or social media tool. I had my own little bout of it with GPS.

What we are afraid of is that somehow we are losing our essence, that we will stop being human. I grant that, superficially, being human seems to be under threat by modernity. But we are a bit more robust than that, we have something ineffable (literally that which cannot be f'd.)

Presentism & Policy
I may toy with philosophy, but politics and public policy are my bread and butter. I see the same phenomenon in politics as presentism. Some of this is journalists looking for a story, some version of "this changes everything." Howard Dean's online fundraising has fundamentally changed how politics works and indicates massive coming realignments. Sure, maybe. It is mostly choosing a choice detail, making some massive assumptions and extrapolating wildly. It is chasing the shadows on the walls of the cave (another fine Platonic dialogue.)

Presentism: In the midst of a dip, it can seem like the world is coming to an end
Wages for unskilled labor have collapsed in the past few decades. This is bad and is making lots of people miserable. Multi-pronged efforts are needed to address this. But it does not mean our system has failed. 150 years ago these unskilled workers would probably have been doing backbreaking labor at subsistence agriculture. While there were virtues to that life, let's not romanticize it. Around that time, these laborers were moving into factory work - hard, dirty, impoverishing. Over the next several decades factory work improved, but at first it was derided, scorned as lesser compared to the honest decent life of farming. The gains in productivity and living standards in the past century have been nothing short of astounding. The fact that we are in a dip (and that dip feels pretty huge) doesn't mean our system is broken.

On another, completely different front, the same issue applies to political polarization. We often hear how Washington is broken and things are more partisan than they've ever been. But, compared to what? Our political history has featured some pretty nasty rhetoric, periods of remarkable divisiveness and gridlock - oh, and a huge continent-spanning civil war. Maybe our perspective is skewed because of the post-World War II period was one of relative comity.

This phenomenon applies to many, many issues. In foreign policy when I hear how dangerous the world is, I smirk - not compared to the height of the Cold War - to say nothing of WWII.

Limits of Presentism
Presentism is useful, it helps put things in perspective. It has its limits. First, sometimes there is a big change. It becomes all too easy to miss when there is a vast trend, a major shift. Generally, the safe bet is the t+1 will look a whole lot like t, which looked like t-1...

But that isn't the biggest problem.

Saying that progress in living standards over the past 150 years has been tremendous is small comfort to the laid-off worker with few prospects. For Syrians the world IS a more dangerous place than it was in World War II or during the Cold War. Telling African-Americans that the civil rights situation has improved dramatically in the last several decades is no comfort (and appears false) in the wake of seeming police impunity.

The way someone feels about their situation and the world cannot be argued away. It has to be acknowledged. That sounds easy. But it isn't.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Serious About Syria?

With the anniversary last month of Pearl Harbor and the horrible attacks in Paris and San Bernadino, the comparisons between this generation and the generation that fought World War II (my grandfather's generation) have been made - they have not been flattering to the young people of today. And there is the broader question of national purpose - how effectively the United States mobilized to defeat the twin threats of Nazism and Imperial Japan in comparison to our muddled response to ISIS. 

And in the past few weeks the GOP candidates have been promising to take ISIS seriously and defeat them, as opposed to our current feckless president who won't even say "radical Islam." 

The comparisons to World War 2 are not fair. The threats and the times are different. Germany and Japan were modern, sophisticated nation-states that - quite simply - went mad and threw their entire vast national resources and capabilities into conquest. They had to be stopped and it required national mobilization to do so. Criticism of the president has some merit, however but must be tempered by fundamental realities.

ISIS, in their black eschatological heart of hearts, is just as murderous as the foes we faced in World War 2. There is no significant moral difference, but that doesn't mean the response should be the same. They are not in command of a modern sophisticated nation-state. They are more akin to the Mahdi who over-ran Khartoum and but was ultimately destroyed by Lord Kitchener. Modernity, particularly the rapidity of communications along with the relative ease of moving goods and people, augments the capabilities of these local bandits. Ideology empowers them further, giving them both a medium and a message.

ISIS has shown that it can reach deep into the West to carry out mass murder. Nonetheless, is it truly an existential threat? Are multiple Paris attacks in the works?

Should we treat ISIS like the Nazis? Draft young men between the ages of 18-24 and, with a 10 million man army invade and conquer Syria and Iraq? We kind of tried that. It didn't go so well and was hugely expensive. Several people have made the argument that we just didn't kill enough and if we were serious we would ignore the constraining rules of engagement and laws of war. If we were truly facing a deadly nation-state adversary those rules might need to be bent - particularly if we were on the verge of an existential defeat.

There are innumerable old Soviet hands/Kremlinologists bemoaning the end of the Cold War when geopolitics was simple. It was of course nice to have an organizing principle. But the serious risk of civilization ending nuclear war, and a super-power with global reach stirring up trouble and promoting a dehumanizing ideology are not pasts to romanticize.

Islamism is NOT the Axis powers or the Soviet Union. They may be able to raid us and certainly there is a world-spanning global identity and some ambitious ideologies. But even the strongest Muslim powers are quite often the weaker parties seeking support from Russia, China, or us.

During the Cold War, whatever happened, the key question was where are the Soviets what would be good for us vis-a-vis them. Now, even the questions (to say nothing of the answers) are much less clear.

A full on assault on ISIS would almost certainly strengthen the position of Assad, which is good for Iran. If we decide Iran is the lesser evil and we need to defacto ally with them to destroy ISIS so be it. We aligned with Stalin to defeat Hitler. But is that actually the case? Obviously the ideal solution would be for a moderate third option to support that could defeat Assad and lead Syria to a not awful future. Unfortunately looking at Libya and Iraq gives less than overwhelming confidence that these options exist.

So what are we doing? We are doing the things we can do - supplying, training, intelligence-sharing, bombing, special operations. This stuff will hurt ISIS over time, while keeping us from making a major (and expensive) commitment. It will also buy us time for better options and resolutions in Syria (granted, this is a very low bar and yet still might be impossible to achieve.)

All the President's Mistakes
That being said, there are places where we were not serious. How did DoD spend $500 million to train a proxy force that ended up graduating 5 trainees. Bureaucracies, left to their own devices do some things very well but need to be nudged along if they are tasked with something new. Every President finds this to be the case and, if they are effective at all, figures out how to push and prod the various arms of the U.S. Government. Time and again, this president has not been terribly effective at this (which hasn't prevented him from a pair of diplomatic coups in the Cuba and Iran deals.)

There have been analytic failures on Syria, most notably at the beginning in not recognizing the regime wouldn't fall quickly. The administration was besot with the romance of the Arab Spring and, first believed there would be a better Middle East and second that the Baathists of Syria would fold. Unfortunately the Middle East has a bottomless capacity to disappoint. As for Syria, even a cursory knowledge of that regime, in which a despised minority rules, cruelly, over a restive majority, should have indicated that the Baathists and the Alawites on whom their rule is based, would fight like hell to hold on to power. Their alternative was to be massacred.

This was followed by a long period of paralysis. Syria presented few good options. There is the possibility that an early intervention on behalf of the rebels, before the humanitarian crisis exploded and rebel factions metastasized into vicious radicals, might have resulted in a better Syria. But, given what happened in Libya, it was still a long-shot. Good options are rare and this is a region where a Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddhafi is the least bad option.

Then there was the famous "red line" over using chemical weapons. There are intimations that the administration was quietly working out an arrangement to remove them, in which case the President's reticence makes sense - although even then, better contingency planning should have been in place. The potential that Syria might have used its chemical weapons was another obvious potential that needed to be discussed.

There have also been failures in rhetoric. When ISIS first emerged as something more than just another faction, first the administration derided it as terrorism's JV team. Later, the president admitted he didn't have a strategy to defeat ISIS.  A week later he announced air support, intelligence-sharing, and training local forces. That took a week to come up with? He could have said that off the top of his head and been on pretty safe ground.

Obama has a weakness for incrementalism, trying to protect his decision-making space with limited decisions. Problem is that this is as likely to get you sucked into a conflict as keep you out of it. 

Finally, after the San Bernadino attack, the President did not reassure the American people. Analytically I can respect his view point that in a diverse and open nation of over 300 million, preventing every single act of terrorism is not possible. It would require compromises on our civil liberties that are not in accord with our commitment to individual liberty and freedom of expression. (I am still surprised that such attacks do not happen more often considering the relative ease of carrying them out and persistent Islamist calls for them.) But at that moment, the American people sought to be reassured. The President did not deliver that message effectively.

There are analytical failures, there are management failures, but there are also communication failures. I read once that Bill Clinton's idea of leadership was, when he saw a parade forming, to jump in front of it. That can be cynical, but it is also part of leadership. As is talking up a modest initiative as a big deal. Much of what Obama is doing on Syria is about what would realistically be done. But he has presented it weakly. The president needs to look like he knows what he is doing.

War of No Ideas
Also, another area where we clearly aren't serious is public diplomacy/strategic communications. Public diplomacy is not easy, nor is it a panacea. Every think tank talk includes a call for "winning the war of ideas" but no one seems to have a clue how to do this. Nonetheless, after 15 years one would hope that at least the institutions would be established and funding be in place. Unfortunately that is not the case.

So, are we serious about ISIS? In some ways, very much so. The President is trying to keep the threat in perspective. While they are grabbing headlines they are not the only or even the most serious problem in the world. A resurgent Russia, the rise of China, Iran, and Pakistan - to say nothing of hard transnational issues. Syria isn't even the only civil war in the region (how about Libya and Yemen.) Serious people do not fly off the handle and go full bore at every single problem that faces them. That approach will win battles, but it may lose the war. We are applying force as appropriate, generating options - but preserving our capabilities in other areas as well. That is quite serious.