July 06, 2009

Robert Strange McNamara

It was Henry Ford II who reportedly said of Robert McNamara: "In our business, we are lucky if we make the right decision 51% of the time. What I have noticed about Bob McNamara is that he makes an awful lot of right decisions." And yet, of course, he also made some profoundly wrong ones too, most notably, with the gross misadventure of Vietnam. The below video captures some of the spirit of the man, both the good and the bad, if still a stubborn doggedness and recalcitrance, also greater appreciation of historical nuance and moral ambiguity, certainly at least in his older, more reflective years.

Regardless of history's verdict of him, which doubtless will be almost wholly about Vietnam, and thus mostly negative, this was nonethless a sharply penetrating, urbane man, and importantly one who could admit a mistake, unlike say, the unreflective (and far less elegant) Donald Rumsfeld, the two having not infrequently been compared to each other.

As McNamara said in Errol Morris's excellent documentary "The Fog of War" (from which I believe the above video is excerpted):

We are the strongest nation in the world today. I do not believe that we should ever apply that economic, political, and military power unilaterally. If we had followed that rule in Vietnam, we wouldn’t have been there. None of our allies supported us. Not Japan, not Germany, not Britain or France. If we can’t persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause, we’d better re-examine our reasoning.”

"War is so complex it’s beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend. Our judgment, our understanding, are not adequate. And we kill people unnecessarily.”

This last is probably what haunted him the most to his dying day.

NB: McNamara actually misquotes T.S. Eliot at the end of the excerpted YouTube. The relevant portion is from Little Gidding (No. 4 of 'Four Quartets'), namely:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time

McNamara mixes the placement of "exploration" and "exploring" (and has the second line erroneously as "and at the end of our exploration"), while also substituting "we will return to" for the original "will be to arrive". The meaning is essentially the same, if McNamara's erroneously tweaked third line impacts the emphasis some, as "we will return to" evokes a sense of volitional action (a tad too certain, even cocksure?), while "will be to arrive" speaks more to preordained fate exerting its will (more deferential?). Arguably too, there is a slightly more pessimistic bent to 'returning' to the same place, rather than a sense of 'arriving' anew. Given the arc of his life, perhaps neither variation is surprising, albeit somewhat incongruous, if nonetheless helpfully evocative of the man's contradictions.

Posted by Gregory at 11:01 PM | Comments (2)

July 05, 2009

Biden on Israel/Iran

Via the NYT this Sunday:

Plunging squarely into one of the most sensitive issues in the Middle East, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. suggested on Sunday that the United States would not stand in the way of Israeli military action aimed at the Iranian nuclear program.

The United States, Mr. Biden said in an interview broadcast on ABC’s “This Week,” “cannot dictate to another sovereign nation what they can and cannot do.”

"Israel can determine for itself — it’s a sovereign nation — what’s in their interest and what they decide to do relative to Iran and anyone else," he said, in an interview taped in Baghdad at the end of a visit there.

The remarks went beyond at least the spirit of any public utterances by President Barack Obama, who has said that diplomatic efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear program should be given to the end of the year. But the president has also said that he is “not reconciled” to the possibility of Iran possessing a nuclear weapon — a goal Tehran denies.

Mr. Biden’s comments came at a particularly sensitive time, amid the continuing tumult over the disputed Iranian elections, and seemed to risk handing a besieged President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a new tool with which to fan nationalist sentiments in Iran.

What was not immediately clear was whether Mr. Biden, who has a long-standing reputation for speaking volubly — and sometimes going too far in the heat of the moment — was sending an officially sanctioned message.

Brian Knowlton's somewhat amusing description of Mr. Biden apart, what do readers make of the Vice-President's comments, in particular, whether they were deliberative and pre-vetted, or instead, non-coached and instinctive, perhaps cause for some wincing inside the Beltway today? Meantime, a related and not uninteresting piece in Haaretz.

Permit me a brief personal vignette. On a flight a year or so back, I bumped into a former Cabinet member from a previous Administration (he will remain nameless, and I won't even mention his exact post or what Administration he served, suffice it to say a prominent man quite well known still). Discussing Iran briefly, he looked at me with his shrewd eyes and said (relying on memory and so probably slighly paraphrasing): "Perhaps we'll let the Israelis do it". The comment was revealing I thought for a couple reasons: 1) the notion that somehow we would 'authorize' the Israelis, as if they were our proxy to so delegate out the mission; and 2) perhaps less surprising, the fact he thought an extensive bombing campaign of Iran not a bad idea, essentially apparently just a dusting off of the Osirak precedent, I thought without sufficiently appreciating that this operation would be materially more challenging several times over, for many reasons, to include two hot wars on both sides of Iran with hundreds of thousands of American soldiers in the neighborhood.

This little anecdote leads me to a further thought, I think Biden was essentially just trying to refute "1" above, e.g. the sense that it's up to us, thus stressing Israel is a sovereign state that makes up her own mind about such things, so that perhaps he was purposefully distancing the U.S. some from a possible Israeli action, whether in scripted or unscripted manner I'm not sure (I'd probably guess the latter). Of course, how the region and world interpret his comments could be as more of a flashing greenish light, even if that wasn't the intent. Of course too, no one in the region would believe--even were it true (which would be highly unlikely)--that an Israeli action didn't enjoy tacit American support/approval, a variable that we should keep uppermost in our minds (among others) when dealing with the Israelis on this issue/dossier going forward.

MORE: See Aluf Benn on this too, who sees this as more of a purposeful warning to the Iranians.

Posted by Gregory at 08:29 PM | Comments (2)

Mea Culpa (Part II)

Apropos of my last post issuing something of a mea culpa given some of the purportedly overly tiresome neo-con bashing (meaning really too, I guess, all the incessant intellectual squabbling from those removed from the conflict generally, particularly when mostly descending into mere sloganeering, rather than as accompanied by constructive policy criticisms), I thought I'd provide two links from people who have either been on the ground (in Ramadi, Iraq), or have suffered tremendously as a result of a close relative being in theater. The latter piece is particularly compelling, indeed profoundly heart-wrenching, really. And reminds us that were it not for medical advances, the number of dead American soldiers resulting from the Iraq imbroglio would doubtless number well in excess of 10,000-15,000, and counting (the massive Iraqi toll is, of course, unconscionable, if less discussed). To be sure, the phrase 'traumatic brain injury' (or "TBI") deserves to be more widely known as one of the 'signature' wounds of this conflict.

I am not excerpting either article, as both should be read in full. John Renehan's serves as good counter-point to the constant intellectual battling and haranguing here, tacitly admonishing us that whatever one might make of the conflict, some are actually there having to deal with its moral ambiguities day in, day out regardless; while Bethany Vaccaro's piece likely served as something of an exegesis as she grappled with the horribly debilitating injury her brother suffered, and continues to daily, to include the attendant toll on her entire family.

(For some reason, the linked pieces made me think of Ezra Pound's short poem, "An Immorality". Anyway, I recommend both pieces be read in their entirety, particularly, as I said, Vaccaro's).

Posted by Gregory at 07:50 PM | Comments (3)

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Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.

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