Remember those happy days in 2008 when we all thought we had elected a rational, sane president? No more George W. Bush, uttering his bumbling if not idiotic Bushisms, lying to the country about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, trumpeting his Mission Accomplished by co-piloting a jet onto an aircraft carrier, smirking when someone reminded him that over 100,000 Iraqis and 4,000 Americans died in his grand military adventure. A cottage industry had grown up trying to psychoanalyze George W. Bush, with psychiatrists investigating his childhood spent torturing cats, which not surprisingly turned into an adulthood laughing at death-row prisoners pleading for a pardon from him when he was Governor of Texas.
We thought we were beyond all that when No Drama Obama was elected on a platform to eliminate military adventurism and unfounded, unjust and unnecessary wars. He disappointed a lot of his followers almost immediately after the election when he gave a de facto universal pardon to anyone in the Bush administration involved in war crimes or torture (“we have to look forward, not backward”). Then he surrounded himself with Clinton administration cronies, many of whom like Larry Summers and Tim Geithner were manifest failures in the private sector, and others of whom like Eric Holder were beholden entirely to monied interests.
Nothing has changed in his nearly six years as president. He still has a fondness for failures, and he’s willing to invest substantial political capital getting some of these buffoons through Congressional approval hearings. You get the impression Obama was not quite ready for the presidency, and unlike Clinton, hasn’t learned on the job, especially when it comes to economic, financial, and military matters. It’s as if he constantly has to consult something called the Presidential Playbook, and the recent “crisis” in Syria is a perfect example of our Textbook President playing by the textbook rules.
A crisis is found to exist in some far-off country. Something Has to be Done! That “Something” is inevitably, military action, just because that’s what the U.S. always does in response to such crises, and just because the U.S. more than any other country has the means to undertake military action. The military action is always going to be painless for the United States, like airstrikes from 30,000 feet up that are intended to “degrade” the enemy’s offensive and defensive strength. Once this is accomplished, the U.S. will waltz away without itself suffering any negative consequences, thinking it has done the world at large a good turn, because that is what American exceptionalism does.
The hypocrisy and ludicrousness behind the Syrian adventure is so obvious that even the American media have noticed. The chemical weapons attack in Syria is supposedly the work of Bashar Assad’s government, but no firm proof, such as an intercepted cable from within the government ordering the attack, has been offered to the public. There isn’t even any firm evidence that sarin was used in the attack; similar chemicals such as those used in pesticides and fertilizer might have been involved, and a plant explosion could have been the cause of the dispersal of these agents, not artillery shells. Even if the artillery shells spotted by the U.S. were the source of the chemicals, Russia is asserting that they came from rebel troops, not from the Syrian government (in other words, Putin is saying John Kerry is a liar).
The American public, and the world public for that matter, is used to the U.S. government lying. Everyone knows the consequences of the lies told by Bush and Cheney to drag the U.S. into the war in Iraq. We now know some of the lies the Obama administration has been using to hide the true nature of their surveillance activities through the National Security Administration. Obama stands on the weakest ground possible for a president wanting to bomb a far-away country that poses no immediate or long-term threat to America. He has no credibility, including among his liberal base, and even if he did, the U.S. government lacks credibility. All he has is a red line he drew in the Syrian sand nearly a year ago, which implies he feels compelled to bomb Syria for purposes of salvaging his own credibility.
We are, unfortunately, back to the days when only professional psychiatrists can explain the motivation for any president to persist in an action that is among the most serious he can take, that is strongly opposed by the American public, that is illegal according to international law, that is entirely against everything he has stood for as a politician, and that is taken page by page from the failed Bush-Cheney playbook for the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Only a mentally unbalanced person would continue on a path of guaranteed failure, and the trouble psychiatrists are going to have in analyzing this situation is that Barack Obama does not display any other signs of being mentally unbalanced. Out of his depth – yes. But mentally deficient, either in the past or now, no. Something else in Washington must be unbalanced if we assume Barack Obama is sane, and it is time therefore to take a serious look at the organizational and administrative structures that surround the President of the United States.
The place to start is the Situation Room, the communication and decision command center that is lodged in the basement of the White House, and that compels the presence of the president whenever a Situation arises. The problem is that the president doesn’t always, or probably never, decides when a Situation exists. This is the province of the National Security Advisor and his team of experts. There are at least thirty top intelligence and military experts who stand watch 24 hours a day in the Situation Room, seeking out Situations and bringing them to the attention of the National Security Advisor and the National Security Council. The president is brought down to the Situation Room as necessary for briefings and decisions, the obvious assumption being that something “serious” must be afoot to demand the attention of the president.
The fact is, anything discussed in the Situation Room must be serious, because the Situation Room is a very serious place. It is the repository of the very highest and most secure communications abilities any government can muster. It is the place presidents go to talk to other world leaders on secure channels. Under President Clinton, it was occasionally used to talk about the threat of Osama bin Laden, but once a new president came into office, that anti-terrorist program was mothballed (merely because the Bushies wanted nothing to do with anything done by the Clinton administration). The Situation Room wound up serving no useful purpose whatever in preventing the 9/11 attacks. Possibly to make up for that lapse, George W. Bush found it a useful place to hang out during the opening days of the Iraq invasion, and to talk on sensitive matters with his generals and with Paul Bremer. As a denouement to the 9/11 disaster, one of the most sensitive government missions, the assassination of Osama bin Laden, was televised in the Situation Room. It has become synonymous with national security decision-making.
One of the first things a president-elect does is appoint a National Security Advisor, a position at the same level of importance as Department of Defense or State Department head. You know a president-elect is going to be serious about his job by whether or not he appoints an NSA who is viewed by professional Washington as a serious person – someone trained in high-level military and intelligence matters, who can keep secrets and make vital decisions quickly and calmly. Notice, however, that by making this appointment, the president-elect instantly buys into the Situation Room mystique and ethos. He accepts the fact that this is probably the most important part of his job as president – to travel to the basement when the Situation requires it. He understands the Joint Chiefs of Staff may be there, the head of the CIA, the head of the NSA, and the head of Homeland Security, to give him advice on the momentous decisions he will make in the Situation Room.
It is a room, and an organizational structure, looking for a Situation to happen to justify its existence. And so, not unexpectedly, Situations arise, in Kuwait and Iraq during Gulf War I, in Iraq for Gulf War II, in Grenada, in Lebanon during the embassy attack, in Libya during the embassy attack, and now in Syria. It is a place where presidents go to act as, or pretend to act as, Commander in Chief, a job the Constitution intended to serve only in the sense as general head of the armed services, not as minute-to-minute crisis manager. Theoretically, the Situation Room might be necessary if the U.S. were ever truly in a minute-to-minute crisis involving the imminent danger of a nuclear attack, but it has never been used for that purpose, not even during the Cuban Missile Crisis, which was managed largely through diplomatic channels.
In fact, it was John F. Kennedy who established the Situation Room, not in response to the Cuban Missile Crisis, but in response to the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, when he discovered he did not have real-time information available to him as president. The problem with the Bay of Pigs invasion was not that the president lacked real-time information, it was that the invasion was a bit of military adventurism that turned out to be a disaster. It was, on the other hand, entirely fitting that the Situation Room was created in response to military adventurism, because that has been its principal function ever since. It is fair to say that the Situation Room has enabled the president and the U.S. government to persist in military adventurism, to the point where now any president-elect must buy into its existence and the whole infrastructure of the National Security Council, the Department of Defense, the CIA, the NSA, and now Homeland Security created to support its use in crises that turn into Situations.
Somehow, miraculously, the United States had survived in the past without a Situation Room. Franklin Roosevelt was able to provide political management for the war effort during World War II without a Situation Room, and he also managed to have encrypted and secure communications with Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin without a Situation Room. Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower managed the Korean War and then the Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union without a Situation Room. Only since then have presidents been required to work within the confines and structure of the Situation Room, and when you have a textbook president like Barack Obama with no leadership skills, the Situation Room commands them, not the other way around.
Sometime on the morning of August 21 Barack Obama was summoned to the Situation Room to discuss the Situation in Syria. From that has followed this entire escapade, which is based on the conviction that Barack Obama, John Kerry and others have that a Situation exists. It exists because anything discussed in the Situation Room must be serious and of national security importance. Why would all those National Security staff be working there otherwise?
The Situation Room is an invitation to permanent war, and it is one of the reasons the United States has been in a state of permanent war with the world since the 1960s. It is not needed for a nuclear threat to the United States; if a nuclear attack was imminent, the president has secure bunkers he can retreat to immediately that will allow him to continue to communicate and make decisions on behalf of the military. The Situation Room’s real purpose has evolved to enable the national security apparatus, cutting across military and intelligence lines, to continue to find something to do that would justify its existence.
What the United States needs to do, in order to back away from its state of perpetual war with the world, is dismantle the Situation Room as a first step. This would liberate the president from the illusion that he must make important geopolitical and military decisions for the good of the country. After that, the U.S. can begin dismantling the National Security Council and the entire advisory apparatus, which exist only to goad the president and Congress to continue in their self-appointed role as Policemen of the World.
It is time to recognize that “Situations” don’t exist which threaten the security of the United States. The country doesn’t need a Situation Room. Ideally, whoever is elected president in 2016 would have the strength of character and leadership skills to recognize they do not need a Situation Room, and that its existence, as well as that of a National Security Advisor, is counterproductive. We are very unlikely to get such a president. The vetting process for presidents, which includes reviews and comments from the media, absolutely requires that all candidates be “serious” about national security.
The American people are going to have to get rid of the Situation Room, as a first step toward dismantling the national security apparatus and the tendency to think that every “situation” overseas must be converted into a “Situation” for the United States. The effort starts with conversation, and then consensus, and finally the election of representatives who pressure the government to give up on its obsession to always “Do Something!” whenever a “Situation” arises.