The State Department: Who’s Running the Show?

I hate to complain, but, seriously, who’s running American foreign policy these days?  Scooby Doo?  It’s common knowledge that Hillary is going home in January to run for president, but as lame ducks go, she’s lamer than most.  And where is the heir apparent?  Nobody’s going to convince me that Susan Rice’s duties at the UN are keeping her from voicing an opinion now and then.  I know she prefers a low profile, but how much time does it take to sit there and get insulted?  It’s becoming obvious to everybody from Beijing to Benghazi that the ship of state down at the State Department doesn’t have a captain — or a first mate, for that matter.

There was a time when American foreign policy was so successful it was universally hated, kinda like the New York Yankees.  It fought a World War, a Cold War, several itty bitty hot ones, managed to keep its friends from killing each other and kept its enemies at bay.  Even in the dark days of Henry the K and Barbara Walters, American diplomacy had a purpose and, like it or not, Pax Americana worked.  Better hurry, boys, ‘cause that boat’s about to sail.

I realize that there’s a new reality in the world.  Omnipotence is not all it’s cracked up to be, and gargantuan power is useless unless you can fake the other guy into thinking you’ll use it.  The problem is nobody’s even worried about the bluff anymore.  To continue the analogy, America is still sitting there with Aces over Kings, but every penny ante wannabe with Jack high is rushing the table to go “All In.”  The rationale is somebody’s going to get an easy pot when the boys and girls from Foggy Bottom fold.

Objectively, I don’t blame the folks from Katphoodistan for challenging American power.  After all, what have they got to lose?  The only thing Obama’s going to launch these days is his teleprompter.  My problem is America is giving away the diplomatic farm.  That’s not a good idea.  As the United States’ most cautious neighbour, I really don’t want a bunch of international adventurers thinking that Barak isn’t keeping his bayonets sharp.  Frankly, anti-Americanism is a low-impact parlour game for the people who believe that without the Great Satan, everybody on earth would suddenly get a rainbow.  Me?  I’m a little bit less Pollyanna than that.  There are bad people in this world, and when push comes to shove, I don’t want to have to prove I can defend myself.  I find it quite a bit more to my taste (as most people west of the Vistula do) to sit on the sidelines and rely on the kids from Kansas and Nebraska to stand up and take the hit.  And that’s the bigger problem.

Power, real power, is not based on what you do; it’s based on what you’re willing to do.  As more and more people think the United States is not willing to do anything to … Oh, I don’t know … make sure a bunch of fascist fundamentalists from the 8th century don’t develop nuclear weapons and turn Tel Aviv into a glow-in-the-dark Mediterranean night light — the more likely it is that somebody’s going to get hurt.  America’s indecision and inability to figure out where its national interest lies is inadvertently telling the world it’s in retreat from the international stage.  More than a few folks out there are willing to take the risk to fill the void. In fact, every time America steps away from its allies (Britain, Israel, South Korea, Japan — and the list goes on) every time American diplomats fear for their safety; every time some pumped-up potentate gets a mixed message about American intentions; those emboldened few lurch us a little closer to somebody doing something stupid.  And I’m not even necessarily talking about the bad guys!  When that happens, as history has shown us, a whole lot of people are going to have to clean up the mess.

America needs to remember that deterrent is not action.  (That’s after the fact.)  Deterrent is reputation and without a reputation, there is no deterrent.

George Custer Is Not Politically Correct!

Today is the 136th anniversary of the Battle of the Little Big Horn; alternatively called Custer’s Last Stand or the Battle of Greasy Grass (depending on which side of the bowstring you’re on.)  Just in case you were raised by wolves, the Little Big Horn is a river in Montana.  In June 1876, it was the home of several thousand pissed-off Native Americans (Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho) who were fed up with being pushed around.  On June 25th, General George Custer showed up — with five companies of the 7th Cavalry — to do some major pushing.  It wasn’t the best time to pick a fight; by the end of the day, George and all his soldiers were dead.

The Little Big Horn is a pivotal event in US history.  It almost exactly bisects the timeline of the American expansion west of the Mississippi.  (Mythology aside, the Old West, as it’s called, lasted barely thirty years.)  It also marked a change in the American attitude towards the indigenous populations of the West.  After Custer, the US military was turned loose to settle some scores.  By 1890, the frontier was officially closed, and America, the modern nation, was moving on to bigger and better things.

I realize that writing about Custer and the Little Big Horn is like running with Politically Correct buffalo.  Like buffalo, the politically correct are short-sighted and ill-tempered.  Chances are good that I’m going to get either trampled or gored.  However, I think I speak for all of us when I say Custer is one of the villains of history.  He wasn’t always that way.  For more than half of the last 136 years, he was a hero.  His picture was admired on literally thousands of walls across America, courtesy of Anheuser-Busch’s famous but woefully inaccurate painting of Custer’s Last Stand.  It’s only in my lifetime that the painting was taken down and Custer grew fangs and started spitting green saliva.  That’s the nature of interpretive history, though.  As Mort Sahl once said, “If you keep a consistent political position, you’ll eventually get tried for treason.”  That’s kinda what happened to Custer.  When the political winds began to change, he was too dead to change with them.  You see, history doesn’t change; historians do.

In the last 50 years, Custer has been called everything but nice.  He has been portrayed as a megalomaniac; a glory hound, building his political career on the bodies of dead Cheyenne babies; a walking insane asylum; and everything in between – including a nepotist and an unfaithful husband.  It’s now universally accepted that hell itself couldn’t hold half his nastiness.  He is the poster boy for America’s racist, money-grubbing theft of the continent it now occupies.  Unfortunately, these charges could be directed against any 19th century American who took Horace Greeley’s (John Soule’s, actually) advice to “Go West, young man.”  (The insane asylum crack, however, is just Hollywood’s way of making amends for Errol Flynn’s They Died with Their Boots On.)  Actually, calling Custer a racist is redundant; they all were, including his boss President Ulysses S. Grant — the guy who led the charge when his boss, at the time, Abraham Lincoln, wanted to free the slaves.

I’m not trying to start an “I Love Custer” club, but regurgitating, history half digested, in order to support a moral judgement is how we lose sight of our historical legacy.  In fact, representing Custer as a man with character flaws large enough to drive a stagecoach through is actually postulating that it’s no wonder he got everybody killed at Little Big Horn; the guy was a mess.  This is the soft prejudice that usually accompanies politically correct.  In the end it’s always about us, and everybody else is just a reflection.  The last thing these nouveau historians are willing to admit is that a brilliant military leader named George Custer got out generalled by a guy who didn’t wear pants.

The truth is Custer wasn’t drunk, crazy or incompetent, nor was he morally bankrupt and he didn’t torture kittens on his day off.  He was just a man of his times.  On June 25th, 1876, he planned a classic enveloping maneuver to trap the Sioux and was beaten when Crazy Horse out manoeuvred and outfought him.  Like it or not, Custer was good at what he did.  It just so happened that Crazy Horse was better.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  There don’t have to be mitigating circumstances or moral turpitude to explain the Sioux victory.  The truth is General Custer (like Captain Fetterman* ten years before him) ran into a 19th century military genius named Crazy Horse, who used his limited resources, the terrain and his opponent’s arrogance to win overwhelming victories.  It’s that simple.

Contemporary historians would lead us to believe that, after the Civil War, swarms of snarling swindlers headed west, armed with Winchester rifles and the single evil purpose of destroying everything in their path.  The robbed, raped and pillaged their way to the Pacific because the indigenous peoples were too pastorally ignorant to stop them or even figure out what was going on.  This makes for good reading in sophomore textbooks, but in actual fact, it’s nothing more than another Anheuser-Busch painting with an academic bibliography.

When we bother to look, history tells us that in the second half of the 19th century, two nations — the United States and the Lakota Sioux — fought it out for supremacy on the northern plains.  Both were a dynamic people.  The outcome was never in doubt: the United States had overwhelming advantages, yet the Lakota Sioux and their allies managed to keep them at bay for a generation.  In the middle of that conflict, on a sunny day in June, the United States 7th cavalry went looking for a fight and got their ass kicked.  That’s what happened 136 years ago; I don’t care how you paint the picture.


*Captain William Fetterman may or may not have boasted, “Give me eighty men and I’ll ride through the whole Sioux nation,” but when he did get a crack at it, he got less than 500 yards.  On December 21st, 1866, Fetterman, 79 soldiers and two curious civilians marched out of Fort Phil Kearny to relieve a work party that was under attack.  Taunted by Crazy Horse and a few of his Oglala buddies, they crossed Lodge Trail Ridge and walked into an elaborate ambush.  He and his entire command were killed.

Food for Nukes: Another Bad Idea

There comes a time in every person’s life when they just want to get back into bed, turn the heating pad up to 9 and stay there for a week or two.  It’s that terrible time when you realize everything sucks and nobody’s even trying anymore.  Last week was one of those weeks; the only thing that saved it was St. Patrick’s Day.  It’s amazing how much stupid can be crammed into seven 24 hour days.

When the headlines catch you under the chin, the only thing you can do is roll with the punch.  In a not-so-surprising move, North Korea announced that it was going to test a long-range missile.  Big deal!  The North Koreans have been rattling their sabres ever since Joe Stalin sent the Red Army south of the Yalu River in 1945.  In 1950, the Asian Cold War caught fire when North Korea invaded South Korea and President Truman sent Twenty-Star-General Douglas MacArthur to slap some sense into Kim il-Sung — this current guy’s grandpa.  After three years of back and forth fighting (encapsulated for most Americans by 251 episodes of M*A*S*H) everybody was pretty much back where they started.  The two Koreas then settled in and have spent the last six decades picking at each other like two kids in the back seat of a cross country mini-van vacation.  In other words, this current Kim isn’t exactly breaking new ground in the dictator department.

North Korean long range-missiles are a problem, but they’re not the problem.  Buried inside the news item is America’s response.  Apparently, if North Korea tries to test this long-range missile, America will stop shipping food to the northern Hermit Kingdom.  Whoa!  Let me get this straight!  America’s been shipping food to North Korea???  Which Brainiac in the State Department thought that up?  And when did this diplomatic sleight-of-hand become accepted foreign policy?  I cannot believe this.  It’s so astounding I’ve run out of rhetorical questions.

Check it out!  North Korea, a nation notorious for internationally jerking people around, is sitting on a pile of plutonium (Where did they get that from?  West Edmonton Mall?) and America is shipping them tonnes of food every month so their people don’t starve.  I am not opposed to feeding hungry people, really I’m not, but it strikes me as counterproductive to be sending food to a nation that has been spending billions on a nuclear weapons program.  Hold it right there, Kim Whatever-Your-Name-Is!  How about ponying up some bucks for a couple of orders of Kimchi and rice for the general population?  Not only that, but the nuclear weapons program North Korea’s been building — on the starving peasant plan — is pointed directly at two of America’s most important allies in the region: Japan and South Korea.  This doesn’t scan — not even in Cloud Cuckooland.   But wait!  There’s more!  There’s firm evidence that the North Koreans have been exporting their nuclear technology to such world class malcontents as Ahmadinejad in Tehran and everybody’s favorite bad guy, Bashar al-Assad in Damascus.  I’m sure somebody in the State Department must have heard of these boys.  They’re the ones who want to make Tel Aviv glow in the dark.  The logic here escapes me.  It’s like picking up the tab for lunch so the guy you’re sitting with can buy a gun to mug your best friend.

I don’t know what went off the rails in the talks between America and North Korea last month in Beijing.  American statesmanship isn’t always the brightest light on the diplomatic Christmas tree.  However, it’s a good thing nobody told the American people what their State department was up to.  There might not be that many folks in New Orleans or Detroit etc. who have ever heard of Danegeld*, but they know a protection racket when they see it.  There can’t be a lot of Americans — who are about to pay their taxes in less than a month — very pleased to hear that they’ve been buying dessert for North Korean nuclear technicians.

The problem with extortion is it gets easy.  It’s easier to throw money at the problem than do the hard work to fix it.  Unfortunately, the problem remains.  As Rudyard Kipling once wrote:
“That if once you have paid him the Danegeld,
You never get rid of the Dane.”

Sending food to North Korea is one of the Top Ten stupidest things I’ve ever heard of.  Benjamin Franklins are not going to get rid of North Korea’s nuclear capability.  However, what they are doing is propping up a repressive regime and giving Kim and his military buddies time and space to go nuclear adventuring around the world.  It makes me wonder is there’s anybody even driving the bus anymore.

*For those unfamiliar with 10th century Nordic history, Danegeld was a special tax levied on the people of England and France.  It was collected and paid directly to the Vikings so they would play nice and take their rape and pillage somewhere else.  It went on for generations.