War as office politics

Sam Smith

Watching Wolf Blitzer shortly before Obama launched his Libyan Whatever It Is, it occurred to me that two of the most profound commentaries on American politics these days are The Office and Parks & Recreation. Someone was trying to explain to Blitzer how there was going to be a bifurcated military operation, with one loyal to the rules of the UN and NATO and the other apparently serving whatever the White House wanted on a particular day. The headquarters for these two operations would be separate and the question politely implied was: how are we going to prevent these two operations from killing each other?

I tried to remember another time when anyone had even suggested such a masochistic military maze, but then I realized these are no ordinary times. These are times when thought is merely a choice of trendy abstractions, where purpose is just a slogan, and all policy must be filtered, twisted and often disappeared into an institutional swamp that no one really understands.

To a Washington operative these days, having two poorly coordinated and potentially conflicting military operations is no different that having an energy secretary and an energy czar. After all, you need one for the Constitution and the other for the White House.

Or in the Parks & Recreation version:

Leslie: Please remember, this is a government project. So, we need to refrain from corporate promotion and religious items. Who’d like to start?

Man: I think we should put in the Bible.

Leslie: Great.

But then Leslie, most White House czars and cabinet secretaries aren’t as well equipped with deadly weapons as the military, where directive confusion can not only prove controversial but fatal.

A few days ago, Charles Krauthhammer attempted an update:

“Let’s see how that paper multilateralism is doing. The Arab League is already reversing itself, criticizing the use of force it had just authorized. . . Russia’s Vladimir Putin is already calling the Libya operation a medieval crusade. China is calling for a cease-fire in place. . . As of this writing, Britain wanted the operation to be led by NATO. France adamantly disagreed, citing Arab sensibilities. Germany wanted no part of anything, going so far as to pull four of its ships from NATO command in the Mediterranean. France and Germany walked out of a NATO meeting on Monday, while Norway had planes in Crete ready to go but refused to let them fly until it had some idea who is running the operation. And Turkey, whose prime minister four months ago proudly accepted the Gadhafi International Prize for Human Rights, has been particularly resistant to the Libya operation from the beginning. And as for the United States, who knows what American policy is? Administration officials insist we are not trying to bring down Gadhafi, even as the president insists that he must go. Although on Tuesday Obama did add “unless he changes his approach.”

We keep trying to describe these things in terms of politics, policy and grand intellectual schemes. And it drives us away from a simpler but uglier truth: we are all trapped in a gigantic Parks & Recreation Department and all politics has become office politics.

Which is why one of the more profound analyses of the Libyan situation was this from the British Guardian:

“One observer of Anglo-American military adventures over the last 20 years tried to make light of the impasse. “It’s a bit like a barn dance,” the source said of the efforts to decide whether and how NATO would run the operation. “Half of the people can’t dance, a couple are drunk and then there’s always the characters at the back with their hands up various skirts.”

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