An Affair To Remember

Gadhafi Appearances

Image by شبكة برق | B.R.Q via Flickr

The Libyan Affair continues to evolve.  I believe it to be an historic precedent in warfare, but whether for good or bad is yet unclear.  But whatever the outcome I am resigned that here in the continuing nuclear age some kind of limited warfare like this is inevitable.  It’s just a matter of who does it and how.

By suspending judgement on the administration’s actions so far some may think I am being partisan on the matter of the Powell Doctrine.  But from my view I am not.  I am simply waiting until all the facts are known.  I assure you, gentle reader, that my belief in the Powell Doctrine is unwavering.

Mideast Libya

Image by شبكة برق | B.R.Q via Flickr

I see by today’s headlines that the US has indeed transitioned control of the “no-fly zone” to NATO as promised.  The fact that ground functions are still up in the air bothers me.  The concept of “limited war” bothers me greatly.  It is a repulsive term in itself because it violates all that I feel and all that I was taught about how to do “war”.  As Powell himself said, you only do war as a last result and then you pull out all the stops and do it right, and that includes clear lines of command and control.  I believe in that and it appears that president Obama has compromised that principle to some degree in order to gain the international respectability of a coalition.  On the other hand, I must admit that the United States took charge of the whole mess pretty darned effectively at the outset, wiping out Gadhafi’s entire air force and air defenses without losing a single man. That’s not exactly military incompetence.

EAB 2006 USAF F-15 Eagle

Image by TMWolf via Flickr

Now, the plan appears to be to make the EU and the Arab League responsible in the court of world opinion for the eventual outcome of the affair. I don’t recall any US president achieving such a thing before.  In Vietnam we took full charge and full responsibility (with only token support) and look where that got us.  If Obama pulls this off, it will be an interesting first, to say the least.

So far as I can tell the vital national interest of the US here is stability of the Middle East and hence, the oil supply.  If you don’t believe that, bring up the subject of gasoline prices anywhere in the country.  (The humanitarian part of the mission is, IMO, a fig leaf.  If we were inclined to go to war simply for that, we would now be mired in Somalia as well.) The other big driver was, and is, politics.  It is apparent that the GOP was taking big and effective swipes at the administration for NOT taking action, making Obama appear indecisive and ineffective.  As soon as we entered the fray the sniping took the other direction, criticizing the weakness and unpredictability of the Coalition.  Now, GOP partisan Dick Morris, on the outside looking in, has been emboldened to chastise the administration on failing the Powell Doctrine.

Bob Woodward

Bob Woodward, via Wikipedia

Knowing what I know, and admitting that I don’t yet know all that Obama knew, I would have held off despite the sniping and let the Libyan situation play itself out. But I have to admit of the possibility that Obama might have known more than I do.  (I hope the CIA has improved but I suspect it is even worse now, with 5,000 additional bureaucrats in charge.  Shall we have a meeting?  What’s for lunch?)  Maybe Morris is right, but I think that one week into the thing is a tad early to be drawing firm conclusions.

I hope they let Bob Woodward in to interview.  I’ve got my pencil and my check-list ready.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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11 Responses to An Affair To Remember

  1. ansonburlingame says:


    You have long advocated compliance with the Powell Doctrine (or criticized the lack thereof). I see no difference whether it is a Republican or Democrat administration if that doctrine is not met in committing to or continuing to use military force, except of course in the event of a dire national emergency.

    I agree the Libya is important, but a dire national emergency, no way. When the “revolution” first came up three weeks ago I would hope that some war planner some where would break out contingency plans (with which the Pentagon if filled to overflowing with or should be) to verify compliance or quickly develop such compliance. You or I could do so in a day perhaps, or less. Just answer 8 questions for any”what-if” that might be imagined.

    That was obviously not the case, three weeks ago. Why not? And for now with all the confusion in Washington right now, I doubt that ANY LtCol or above is developing such rational right now. I also doubt that any in leadership positions are directing any LtCol or above to perform that simple task. Why not?

    I DO NOT criticize the choice to engage in Libya. But I have very strong criticism for how that choice was made. And I don’t care what the politics are surrounding the making of that choice. And I sure expect some quick answers for the future now that the fat is in the fire so to speak. More than Libyan lives are now at stake. American lives are on the line and we deserve to figure out what the hell we are trying to do NOW.

    For any senior leader of any administration to say “we don’t know the outcome” and nothing else the day we start dropping bombs is inexcusable in my view. At least he/she should be able to say this is the outcome we expect to see as a result of the initiation of “kinetic action” (for Christ’s sake).

    To me you seem to be dithering in your determination to apply the Powell Doctrine and I am not sure why. And to “put off” trying to see how that doctrine might or should fit NOW until events on the ground or in the air become more “clear” is…….?

    You and I both know that recent events over the last two months in the MidEast has caught America with it’s “pants down” or at least the administration. Why for example did we not scramble two months ago to get a carrier in the Med? I wonder how many cruise missile carrying submarines were order to the Med two months ago.

    It seems to me that at best we are being reactive vice proactive in all the current MidEast turmoil. Apolitically, I call for doing better, much better in that regard.

    And for the President and SecDef to leave the country together after ordering combat operations is just NOT RIGHT in my view. Is diplomacy in Chile and Russia more impartant right now than American lives in Libya?? Forget the Powell Doctrine for the moment.

    Where in the hell is our national leadership in this time of “kinetic action”? Out of the country as best I can tell. Now what message does THAT send to anyone?



    • Jim Wheeler says:


      Caught with our pants down? Show me someone with a crystal ball and I’ll show you the Wizard of Oz. That said, you saw what I wrote about the CIA.

      Wrong of the president and the SecDef to leave the country? Actually it might be pretty clever. I can easily picture FDR pulling the same thing. Obama would have been up to his ass in divided-Congressional soup by staying in DC, just as he is now that he has returned. That’s a significant distraction just after the missiles start flying. And I don’t think anyone doubts the competence of Air Force 1’s communication capabilities. Don’t forget, good politicians leave the tactics to the experts – I thought we agreed on that.

      The possibilities for answering the PD that I see are:

      1. Vital National Interest? Oil, a.k.a. Middle East security, qualifies.
      2. Clear attainable objective? Establish the no-fly zone, neutralize Kadhaffi’s armor, and minimize civilian casualties. (If this drags on two years, Obama can forget about 2012, IMHO.)
      3. Risks and costs? Depends on NSC minutes, which haven’t publicly aired. Obama deserves criticism, IMO, for not airing these with Congress and asking for a declaration of war.
      4. All non-violent alternatives exhausted? Yes. Full, unbalanced combat was under way.
      5. Plausible exit strategy? No fly zone transition to NATO effected today. Ground-action involvement and eventual disposition are TBD. Same as no. 3 above relative to Congress.
      6. Consequences fully considered? As said in my post, only time and a look at NSC memoirs and notes will tell, but so far the situation looks more good than bad to me.
      7. Supported by the American people? I perceived positive sentiment for intervention in both Congress and public opinion. As I said though, I wouldn’t have done it.
      8. Broad international support? Yes, on paper. But that started crumbling with the first missile launches. Makes me think number 8 isn’t worth as much as the other 7, but again, time will tell.



  2. ansonburlingame says:


    OK, just for the sake of debate I will provide MY answers to each point.

    1. NO. We don’t use Libyan oil to any extent. Remember it is a NATIONAL interest and escalating prices in Europe is NOT our national concern to a “vital” degree. May certainly be for them however.

    2. Absolutely NOT. NO clear objective has been defined. OK, a no-fly zone, but for what purpose (save lives???) and what metrics to use to see if objective has been met. And THEN of course HOW LONG must the no-fly zone prevail. It was 12 years in Iraq, recall.

    3.Absolutely NOT. See two above. How can cost and risk be evaluated if we have no definitive goals.

    4. Non-violent alternatives relate to OUR actions, not theirs. Was a naval blockade considered? How about banning any and all commerical flights into or out of Libya? Did we “reach out” to Libyan geographical neighbors to close the borders into and out of Libya? Want some more? So I give this one a NO based on public discussion. I will retract it if classified answers were or are available.

    5. Exit strategy? I’m not sure. What does “turn it over to NATO” really mean as we are a big part of NATO. So “how long oh Lord”, as Job used to say.

    6.Consequences considered? Which ones and what were the answers to the considerations? Should that be public knowledge, briefed in classified sessions to Congress, or what? But I have not heard a word from the administration about such considerations other than Hillary’s “we can’t know the outcome….”.

    7. Polls show about 51% support for now. Bush had about 80% going in to Iraq. ???? I think the American people are too confused for now to be able to give serious consideration to support or not. So I give this one a very tenative MAYBE.

    8, Define “international”. If you mean our allies, the answer is a very strong YES. If Arab League is included a MAYBE. Other folks with the clout to thwart our goals (once established) MAYBE. So on balance I suppose a YES for now but still would like to know how to sustain it over the long haul, however long that may be.

    As for leaving the country. OMG. I agree it MIGHT be smart as a political move to avoid the argument. But as LEADER, absolutely NOT. Here is what I decided, this is why I made the decision and this is what my next steps will be in general terms. Why not AT LEAST an Oval Office address to the American people before leaving town??

    As for leaving the tactics to the troops in the field, great idea. But how can tactics be developed and executed without a strategy and how can a strategy be developed and excuted without clear national objectives? And who pray tell is suppose to articulate the national objectives and when should they be articulated and to whom?

    After all we as a country have been through in the last 10 years is not that approach just self evident even to the man on the street?

    ANY PRESIDENT that pulled a stunt((s) like these would or will receive at least my skepticism if not outright disdain. Right now I am only being skeptical, if you can believe that .



  3. Jim Wheeler says:

    To Anson and others, also for the sake of debate,

    I will repeat, I am a great fan of the need to answer Colin Powell’s 8 questions, but determining the correct answers is no simple matter and, unfortunately, I don’t see any way for either of us to be sure of those answers “on the fly”. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try though.

    The 8 questions need to be asked and answered not only by the electorate and the Congress, but also by the experts in the administration and the armed forces. Ultimately, it is history which will judge whether president Obama, president George W. Bush, any president, or any war-declaring Congress got the answers right.

    To illustrate, and kind of off the top of my head, consider how some of us citizens might have answered the 8 questions in August, 1940, relative to the takeover of Europe and Asia by the Axis Powers of Germany, Japan and Italy:

    1. Vital National Interest? No. The US is self-sufficient and needs to observe Washington’s admonition to avoid foreign entanglements. While we are peaceful with Great Britain, we do not share their monarchial style of government, and we don’t get any essential materials from them. In fact, they are nearly bankrupt, and London is in rubble. We on the other hand have two great oceans provide an effective buffer to foreign threats.

    2. Clear attainable objective? No. Both Germany and Japan are on a romp across Europe and Asia and are likely to win. To defeat them would mean American boys dying like sheaves of wheat before a scythe again, just like in WWI. There would be no attainable objective short of complete victory and German forces, having practiced in the Spanish Civil War, have been unstoppable by Poland, Denmark, Finland and France. Our army and navy are puny in comparison with the Nazi machine.

    3. Risks and costs? They would be enormous and we are still trying to dig ourselves out of the Great Depression. We can’t afford it. Furthermore, young American men want no part of being told what to do all the time.

    4. All non-violent alternatives exhausted? No. Adolph Hitler has often expressed admiration for America and even Charles Lindbergh says that there is much to admire about the new, strong Germany. We should be able to co-exist in peace across the ocean. As a precaution we should continue to build our Navy up.
5. Plausible exit strategy? No. There would be no turning back once combat began.

    6. Consequences fully considered? Yes, and both Germany and Japan, now an axis of strength would be almost impossible to defeat. Japan alone has more heavy ships than we do.

    7. Supported by the American people? Absolutely not. Nobody wants to revisit the horrors of WWI.

    8. Broad international support? No. Europe, except for Great Britain, is now under the hegemony of the Axis powers, and Japan is rapidly consolidating its gains in China. Only the USSR, just attacked by Germany, has any sizable army to face the steel of the Wehrmacht. Stalin’s forces are second-rate clod-hoppers in comparison and are likely doomed to defeat. Who are we going to call, Argentina?

    Therefore I submit, mark down your answers, write your Congress person, write to the editor, write a blog post. But before condemning the president for how he puts it all together in a package for history, how about a little slack for a difficult job that is still under way? Criticism now, OK, but let’s wait a while for the condemnation. History takes at least a couple of years.


  4. ansonburlingame says:

    To all,

    And thus the great weakness of the Powell Doctrine is clearly shown by Jim. It is a tool to be used but not a cure for going to war without sound reasons.

    Now I believe that the 8 points are good questions to ask BEFORE, repeat, BEFORE committing to the use of American military power. Answers will vary across the board and I would NEVER expect definitive and “true” answers to each and every question posed. It worked in the First Gulf War, particularly the overall point of “war is a last resort and when it is decided to “go in”, go in with all the “stops” removed” or words to that effect. Short of nuclear weapons, that is exactly what we did in Kuwait and we won the “battle” or war hands down, much to the credit of Colin Powell, Dick Cheney and the first President Bush. Never before or since has that happened.

    Actually, maybe Grenanda would fit that format, thought we only had Weinberger’s Six Points for that conflict. Certainly Kosovo did not use the Powell Doctrine, either.

    More in a blog later.



    • Jim Wheeler says:


      Right, but I must take issue with saying that the Powell Doctrine has a “great weakness”. And I think it’s more of a process, a necessary process, than a tool. When it comes to war, the ultimate political decision, I would like to think that a president would consider answering the 8 questions a requirement of procedure and of history. But if you mean that it doesn’t stand alone, apart from all the other subtleties of economics and world affairs, including personalities of daffy dictators, then I agree. After all, if these decisions were easy, even Dennis Kucinich or Sarah Palin could make them.



  5. ansonburlingame says:


    there can never be a “checklist” to go to war. But guidelines to consider, absolutely yes in my view, including a helluva lot of history. That of course doesn’t work with a nuclear strike on the way, but…….

    My concern is that I see NO EVIDENCE of guidelines that were used, including but not limited to the PD, as the administration decided to engage in Libya. An address from the Oval Office may well have quieted my concern. But such did not happen. And “leaving town” immediately after strikes were launched, well you already know how I feel on that count.

    President Obama is a very smart man, a great politician and in no way do I consider him “reckless” in deciding to commit American military power. But inexperienced and NOT surrounded by very experienced advisors in his immediate “circle”, THOSE factors give me GREAT concern. And in the final analysis I remain deeply skeptical about his LEADERSHIP however ill defined that characteristic might be.

    It is too early for historical comparisons now but I can tell you I see him moving into the Jimmy Carter category in MY book. Not there yet, but headed there unless things change rather dramatically in the coming months. And Libya is only part of that sentiment on my part.



  6. I’ll just make a tangential observation. Let me say that Carter losing to Reagan in 1980 was I think generally a good thing, but …

    Carter is I think underrated today. He did after all facilitate the Israel – Egyptian peace. I think that Panama Canal treaty was also the right thing to do, though not popular at the time. His economic policy was terrible, and he was not an inspiring leader, but I think he’s underrated.


    • Jim Wheeler says:


      Carter is an idealist. Worse yet, he is a religious idealist. I was intrigued with him when he ran and he is the only Democrat I ever voted for. I view it as the absolute worst vote I ever cast.

      I suppose you could make a case that the people of Panama deserved to be given the Panama Canal because it was their country. They live there, therefore it’s theirs. The argument doesn’t hold water for me. The digging of the Panama Canal was hands-down the greatest engineering achievement ever accomplished by man at the time and it was accomplished by American money, grit, ingenuity, diplomatic ingenuity, risk, and determination, all that after an abject French failure. Relinquishing it served nothing but feelings of nationalism by Panamanian natives who had benefitted from the massive construction effort. Indeed, the U.S. construction transformed their country into a first-rate economy. The continuation of the Panama Canal Zone as a U.S. territory would have been quite practical and, in my opinion, fair. The people of Panama benefitted from the Canal’s construction and were benefitting from its operation.

      What would happen in today’s global economic climate if the Canal were threatened? Who would come to its defense? You know who, and it wouldn’t be the army of Panama. If peace ever comes to the world it will be through the benign influence of a superpower, like the U.S.A., wielding pragmatic power. Panama is a big success story only because of the United States. They could do worse than apply for statehood.

      Poor Jimmy. I know he meant well. He’s the best ex-president we ever had. My vote for number one? Teddy.



  7. ansonburlingame says:

    To both,

    I’ll stick with Lincoln for my number one. But so what?

    As for canals, Suez, Panama, etc. I don’t think the world would grind to a halt if all of them were “shutdown”. With a two ocean Navy (Atlantic and Pacific) our movement of goods on the earth’s surface would have little impact from a closure of Panama canal. Asia to the west coast and Europe and Mid East to the Gulf and Atlantic coasts and we remain in pretty good shape today. Same with Suez canal, at least for us. But again, so what? It is in no one’s best interests to close and keep closed such arterys of commerce.

    Now for Carter vs. Obama. I suppose a blog, perhaps several blogs to even scratch THAT surface would be needed. A book might serve some purpose as well.

    I do wonder if the Iranian fiasco by Carter could possibly be a similar fiasco for Obama in Libya, however. One for sure was a “quick and easy attempt at a fix”. The only “good” that came out of it was a drastic improvement in our special forces military posture.

    Not sure what we will learn as well out of Libya, yet. but I am worried that such learning will only be through negative reinforcement, aka the Iranian rescue “attempt”. But in Libya it is not even American lives, it is lives of unknown “rebels” that we are trying to save.



    • Jim Wheeler says:


      I will quibble with you on the importance of the Panama Canal. Mollie and I were privileged a couple of years ago to take a cruise into it – it is thriving. I submit that it is economically important to us because it is still the primary sea route from Asia (S. Korea, Japan, Indonesia) to our East and Gulf coasts. In 2008, 14,702 ships transited the canal. And they are putting in another set of locks to accommodate supertankers at a cost of over $5 Billion – set to open in 2015. One more example of our dependence on global trade.



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