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November 12, 2012

The Continuation of Politics (By Insufficient and Ineffective Means)

Kind-hearted people might of course think there was some ingenious way to disarm or defeat the enemy without too much bloodshed, and might imagine this is the true goal of the art of war. Pleasant as it sounds, it is a fallacy that must be exposed: war is such a dangerous business that the mistakes which come from kindness are the very worst.

- Carl von Clausewitz

In today's Washington Post, Jackson Diehl offers this must read analysis:

Contrary to the usual Republican narrative, Obama did not lead a U.S. retreat from the world. Instead he sought to pursue the same interests without the same means. He has tried to preserve America’s place as the “indispensable nation” while withdrawing ground troops from war zones, cutting the defense budget, scaling back “nation-building” projects and forswearing U.S.-led interventions.

Is “leading from behind” an unfair monicker for this? Then call it the light footprint doctrine. It’s a strategy that supposes that patient multilateral diplomacy can solve problems like Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability; that drone strikes can do as well at preventing another terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland as do ground forces in Afghanistan; that crises like that of Syria can be left to the U.N. Security Council.

For the last couple of years, the light footprint worked well enough to allow Obama to turn foreign policy into a talking point for his reelection. But the terrorist attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11 should have been a red flag to all who believe this president has invented a successful new model for U.S. leadership. Far from being an aberration, Benghazi was a toxic byproduct of the light footprint approach — and very likely the first in a series of boomerangs.

...Why were Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans murdered by Libyan jihadists? The preliminary round of official investigations may focus on decisions by mid-level officials at the State Department that deprived the Benghazi mission of adequate security, and a failure by the large CIA team in the city to detect the imminent threat from extremist groups.

But ultimately the disaster in Libya derived from Obama’s doctrine. Having been reluctantly dragged by France and Britain into intervening in Libya’s revolution, Obama withdrew U.S. planes from the fight as quickly as possible; when the war ended, the White House insisted that no U.S. forces stay behind. Requests by Libya’s fragile transition government for NATO’s security assistance were answered with an ill-conceived and ultimately failed program to train a few people in Jordan.

A new report by the Rand Corporation concludes that “this lighter-footprint approach has made Libya a test case for a new post-Iraq and Afghanistan model of nation-building.” But the result is that, a year after the death of dictator Moammar Gaddafi, Libya is policed by what amounts to a mess of militias. Its newly elected government has little authority over most of the country’s armed men — much less the capacity to take on the jidhadist forces gathering in and around Benghazi.

The Rand study concludes that stabilizing Libya will require disarming and demobilizing the militias and rebuilding the security forces “from the bottom up.” This, it says, probably can’t happen without help from “those countries that participated in the military intervention” — i.e. the United States, Britain and France. Can the Obama administration duplicate the security-force-building done in Iraq and Afghanistan in Libya while sticking to the light footprint? It’s hard to see how.

Mr. Diehl's essay is the best and clearest distillation of the deficiencies of "smart power" I've seen. Reading it, I was reminded of a conversation I had with my husband in 2008. At the time, he had just finished a year long deployment in Iraq and although we did not know it at the time, would soon be leaving for another year in Afghanistan. He was enrolled in a series of seminars designed for senior military officers, senior level civilian DoD, State Department, national security, and intelligence personnel and had attended one of their sessions the night before.

The topic was the use of drones, and he had been stunned almost to the point of utter disbelief at the naively expressed solution proposed by some members of the group that evening. Apparently, the signal lesson-learned after the invasion of Iraq was to be ignored. Boots on the ground, a scourge the Bush administration's many critics used repeatedly to great effect, morphed in an instant from an insight so obvious it should never have had to be explained to a quaint example of antiquated thinking: the intellectual equivalent of using Stone Age hand axes to fillet a blue whale and serve it a la tartare in wafer thin slices over Melba toast. Such things simply aren't done these days, at least by those in the know.

Thanks to the wonder of modern technology, war could be prosecuted safely, remotely - and above all, antiseptically! - by unmanned drones guided with surgical precision from a safe (and deniable) distance. The adherents of smart power would never have to get their hands dirty again.

My husband's disgusted reaction made quite an impression on me then. He was right to be disgusted. War is an ugly thing, and no one understands this better than the men and women who devote their lives to defending America. The notion that there is some newfangled, antiseptic, cost free method of dealing with the human capacity for violence is a willfully blind one that should appall us to our very core. Technology empowers us, but it also distances us - if only temporarily - from consequences, from morality, from an honest accounting of the nature of the decisions we make. It allows a President to blithely assert at his inauguration that there is no conflict between our ideals and our national security.

This is an assertion so patently false - so stunningly dishonest - that it should have been greeted with the universal derision it so justly deserved. That's not what happened, though.

So it should surprise no one that a man who promised to restore our moral legitimacy in the eyes of the world now openly brags of personally selecting - without a trace of review or oversight - assassination targets from secret kill lists. That this is a not a deal killer for progressives is one of the things this Marine wife will never understand.

Not to worry, though. Under Obama, we have clean hands:

Armed Liberal wrote about the problem of those who 'keep their hands clean,' never hunting, buying meat prepackaged and without an awareness of the moral cost. I disagree: there is no moral cost. We are monsters who butcher though it creates mounds of gore: who sever heads, and find it moves us though we know not why.

But it isn't killing that makes us monsters. We are exactly that same kind of creature, whether we have ever killed or not.

The moral problem of 'the clean hands' is that it is an illusion. It makes people believe they are better than they are, and therefore that others can also be better than they can be. It creates a class of people who feel clean, because they have never felt blood on their hands.

Yet all these things arise from things buried deep in the genetic code. You cannot walk away from them. The failure to experience these things does not mean you would not react to them in just the same way as everyone else: it only means that you cannot understand how you would react, and how others do.

The man with clean hands is just the same as the hunter. It is only that he does not know it. He does not understand that part of his soul, as it lurks beyond his experience. He comes to believe that there is a kind of human that is and can be clean: perhaps that sweet, aged lady on the corner, who in her youth broke necks every night before dinner.

Failing to understand what Man really is, he opens himself more than is wise, and defends himself less. The man with the clean hands believes in diplomacy but not the force that makes diplomacy viable. He believes in staying clean, because he believes it makes him better than you. He does not understand that it only makes him blind.

This is not a call to amoralism, but precisely the opposite. It is a call for true morality, which can only begin with awareness of sin. It can only come from a recognition of how deep-set, how permanent, how personal sin is in each of us.

It is only in that way that we can begin to put real chains on sin: by recognizing the truth about it. We must learn to face the truth about ourselves, so that we can better ourselves: we must learn to face the truth about others, so we will recognize when murder is in their hearts.

I disagree with my old friend Grim thus far: there is a moral cost to everthing we do because the capacity for moral reckoning and accountability is the thing that distinguishes human beings from animals. The only real question is, are we willing to face the cost squarely?

Posted by Cassandra at November 12, 2012 08:52 AM

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To speak to the issue of disagreement, I agree that many actions have a moral price (which may be in your favor: some actions are noble and good, so that you benefit from having chosen them). However, the economy is very rough: is it better for me to spend an hour in prayer, or to spend the time to clean the kitchen so that my wife doesn't have to do it when she gets home? Is it better to write a poem, or to play chess with my son? Is it worse to kill a man who deserves it, or to leave him alive to hurt more people?

We wrestle with these things, and that is good. There aren't clear answers.

Where I think there is no moral cost is when we are dealing with things that aren't chosen. The man who kills his own meat isn't paying a moral cost that the man who buys pre-packaged meat is avoiding. Both of them were made into the kind of creatures who eat meat; and even if they gave up meat, still by eating anything they are taking other life to sustain their own life.

That fact strikes me as one of the core horrors of the universe we live in. Beautiful birds spend their whole lives in organized murder against the lovely snails by the shore. I don't understand why the world was made that way. The moral cost of it though, if it is right to speak of one, belongs to the creator.

Posted by: Grim at November 12, 2012 10:42 AM

Remember that the one indisputable difference between man and animal is not oppose-able 'thumbs', but that man developed killing from a distance.

Posted by: Grumpy at November 12, 2012 10:54 AM

But we do have a moral choice wrt to eating, Grim.

We can be vegetarians.

That there are tradeoffs and opportunity costs associated with each and every choice we make in life is not news. This is one reason I took such offense from an argument you made earlier in this election season - that somehow opposing abortion required a balls-to-the-wall, full on opposition.

But this is very obviously NOT how the vast majority of American opponents of abortion behave. They do not, for instance, stand out in front of abortion clinics preventing people from entering. Nor do they spend their own money fighting legal battles over abortion. Nor do they devote their lives to ending the practice.

They may well consider the defense of life something "worth dying for" (and I believe them), but only in the abstract.

I say this, not to condemn them, but to point out that this really is the way most of us live and decide things every day. It is not the strength of our convictions alone that guides our decisions, but also the perceived likelihood of success, the costs to ourselves and our loved ones, and a million other considerations (not the least being the other moral absolutes we believe in).

I didn't want to say this on the other threat because I know how fraught a topic it is, and it seemed too "in your face" but I honestly believe it's an incredibly important point. And so I am making it here, though I do very much fear causing offense or hurt where I never intended to. Still, any such hurt or offense pales in comparison to the millions of lives snuffed out by abortion. We can't really discuss one without discussing the other.

The real irony of vegetarianism or veganism is that some scientists are convinced that plants share some sort of consciousness/sentience, too :p

Posted by: Cassandra at November 12, 2012 11:10 AM

Remember that the one indisputable difference between man and animal is not oppose-able 'thumbs', but that man developed killing from a distance.

This is a great point. What amazes me is that so many progressives can easily see the moral problem posed by using technology to kill from a safe distance, but only when this killing occurs under a Republican administration.

Posted by: Cassandra at November 12, 2012 11:13 AM

A further note on Grim's point here:

The man who kills his own meat isn't paying a moral cost that the man who buys pre-packaged meat is avoiding. Both of them were made into the kind of creatures who eat meat; and even if they gave up meat, still by eating anything they are taking other life to sustain their own life.

As a child, I was rather taken by a literary convention that may or may not be grounded in fact: that Indians, before eating game they hunted or trapped, would first stop to thank the animal for having given its life to nourish and sustain the hunter.

It's a beautiful thought and I've never been able to stop hoping it was true. The year before I met my husband, I dated a young man who came from a family of hunters and trappers.

For the first 6 months or so of our relationship, we used to discuss the morality of hunting. I could not understand how he could be so "mean" (though of course I did not say this directly to him), nor could I understand why he would risk hurting ducks or doves by wounding them or trap animals when we could go to the supermarket and easily obtain meat from animals killed more (I thought) "humanely".

These were good discussions in which we both learned a lot, I think. I eventually came to understand him, even going so far as to go duck hunting with him (though I could not bring myself to shoot a duck). Still, I learned. And he told me that I had made him think about what he was doing from a different perspective.

It's that kind of conversation I alluded to in my post about learning to talk to the other side. As I have related many times, my husband's oldest and dearest friend is a Democrat and so is my oldest and dearest friend.

And we absolutely DO talk about politics - not with the expectation that either will change their mind, but with the hope that we will better understand each other's respective reasoning and values.

Posted by: Cassandra at November 12, 2012 11:16 AM

It's not clear to me what being a vegetarian solves. It could just be another false attempt to soothe ourselves that we have clean hands.

We don't know very much about what the life of plants is like, but they are sensitive to the sun; they also move, and live, and have a reason for being that is independent of us. They don't react to pain the way that we do -- we typically assume pain in nonhumans if we observe movement away from its source, but free movement is a quality of animals, not plants. At least some plants clearly have a way of recognizing damage and responding to it.

How much of this is conscious, and in what way? There's actually no way to know.

The one thing we can be sure of is that life means killing: the only foods that will sustain life are other forms of life. That's a strange fact about the world we inhabit, and one that often occupies my attention.

If you are a Christian or a Jew, the Bible answers the problem by saying that it was all made for us to eat: although we have a duty to helping it flourish, we are right to eat it and rule over it. But again, birds eat snails: snails eat algae. Only the forms of life we tend to call "lowest" really make food, asking for nothing but the sun.

I don't know if the Indians apologized or thanked the animals they killed, but I always do.

This is one reason I took such offense from an argument you made earlier in this election season - that somehow opposing abortion required a balls-to-the-wall, full on opposition.

As I recall that conversation, it wasn't framed around a general principle of this type: I wouldn't support such an argument.

What I think I was arguing is that you have to judge a politician's words against his or her deeds, and that if a given politician who proclaimed X had behaved in ways that suggested that he was equally open to not-X. That leads me to doubt that X is really a principle he or she might hold.

Now, I can see how you might derive from that argument that the only politician who can really be said to fully believe X is the one who does everything possible to support X and oppose not-X. However, I wasn't intending such an absolutist argument. Obviously we make tradeoffs in life; even now I am considering how far I will take opposition to the health care law, and how much sacrifice -- not to myself, which is easy to bear, but to my family -- I can morally afford to oppose it.

It is clear that all the resources of the state will eventually be brought to bear against opponents: the IRS will monitor your adherence, then make demands for money, which if not paid will result in demands for your property, which if not yielded will result in demands for your liberty or your life. We have to decide how much we are ready to give here, because they will kill us or throw us in prison if we do not submit. And we have to decide if we are either willing to pay that, or build the kind of organizations that could effectively resist it.

Posted by: Grim at November 12, 2012 11:32 AM

By the way, a good example of the 'look at their deeds, not their words' principle is available today at BLACKFIVE.

Words: (President Obama at Veteran's Day ceremony):

“Today, a proud nation expresses our gratitude, but we do so mindful that no ceremony or parade, no hug or handshake is enough to truly honor that service,” Obama said during the Veterans Day observance. “We must commit, this day and every day, to serving you as well as you served us.”

171,000 Retirees Likely To Lose TRICARE Prime Option.

With the presidential election over, Defense officials are expected to announce soon that military retirees and their dependents living more than 40 miles from a military treatment facility or base closure site will lose access to TRICARE Prime, the military's managed care option.

Now, it's possible to argue that the President really believes X even though his administration is pursuing not-X. You could argue that he isn't obligated to undertake every possible means of X -- in this case, "We must commit... every day... to serving you as you have served us" -- but only some means, balanced with other things.

Maybe that's true, to a degree: that's what Kant would call "an imperfect duty," something like helping the poor, which you morally have to do, but not every time in every way that it comes up.

On the other hand, maybe this is evidence that "serving you as you have served us" is not really his core value.

Posted by: Grim at November 12, 2012 11:41 AM

Vegetables are what food eats. All else is sophistry and illusion.

Posted by: CAPT Mongo at November 12, 2012 01:59 PM

Diehl's point is the same point I have been making ad nauseum in observation of Obama's foreign policy: Obama retained Bush's ends, but reconfigured and ultimately deprived the means to achieve those ends. Obama's failure in Iraq is the most egregious example. Bush's maligned efforts were merely the logical matching of the necessary means to our foreign policy ends. Bush's foreign policy, while rough and overexpensive, was just leaving behind the start-up phase on a normal developmental curve. Except, after Bush left office, the foreign policy was cut short from maturing by the complicity of opponents on the right and left.

The thing is, Bush's foreign policy in reaction to 9/11 was squarely in line with the interventionist liberalism of Wilson, FDR, Truman, and JFK. As a liberal myself, I expected that right-wing Cold Warriors, libertarians, and America-First isolationists would oppose Bush's foreign policy. As a pre-9/11 Army veteran who served during the Powell Doctrine era, I expected many military leaders would oppose the expansion of the military's role from restricted in-and-out war fighter to stay-behind peace builder.

(Side-note: We saw the cost of the Powell Doctrine in our military's self-inflicted difficulty in transitioning from the war to post-war phase in Iraq. The self-made gap in our doctrine cost us our hard-earned initiative in Iraq, and a grateful enemy exploited it ruthlessly. What if COIN had been available as Army Doctrine in 2003? Well, it should have been but wasn't. That wasn't Bush's fault; neglecting to develop a comprehensive post-war doctrine was a deliberate passive-aggressive decision by the post-Vietnam, Vietnam-phobic military leadership.)

So, I knew from the start that Bush's post-9/11 foreign policy would NEED the support of self-defined liberals in American politics - ie, the Democrats - to withstand opposition from the right and from within the military. But instead of standing up with their own self-professed principles, the Democrats instead saw an opportunity to attack Bush in order to seize parochial partisan politic ground at home. Democratic leaders turned purposely amnestic about their Clinton-era stance on Iraq in order to feed a vicious anti-Bush attack. The tipping point came when Bill Clinton, whose precedents Bush followed into Iraq, turned on Bush after a year of supporting Bush on Iraq based less on Bush's case than on Clinton's own highly developed and implemented case for war with Iraq.

The Democrats' thorough distortion of Bush's liberal foreign policy in concert with the right-wing opposition to Bush won Obama the presidency in 2008. But there was a price to pay for the nation. As liberals, the Democrats naturally retained Bush's liberal foreign ends. But their need to differentiate from Bush compelled them to overhaul the foreign policy means implemented by Bush. However, since Bush's means were merely the logically necessary means to achieve those foreign policy ends, Obama's foreign policy has been handicapped.

In short, the Democrats made a simple trade: they sold out America's international strategic position and their own foreign policy principles in order to seize political ground at home from the Republicans. They got what they paid for.

Also, the silencing of Petraeus, whose signature achievement was developing a peace-building military doctrine that could be matched to a liberal foreign policy, is being secretly hailed by the right-wing Cold Warrior 'realists' (who Bush had explicitly repudiated) and anti-COIN Powell Doctrineers within the military.

Posted by: Eric at November 12, 2012 05:38 PM

Add: I just read Diehl's piece. He's part of the problem.

He recognizes the flaws in Obama's deliberately anti-Bush choices, yet is unwilling to take the next step of acknowledging that the anti-anti-Bush alternate choice only takes us back to Bush's choices. The only logical alternate choice left is to abandon the liberal foreign policy altogether, a choice which Diehl isn't willing to acknowledge either. So, while staying within the Obama/Bush foreign policy ends, Diehl pines for an undefined 3rd choice that probably doesn't exist. Diehl wants the choices that Bush made, but upholding Bush would be beyond the pale for him.

In Iraq, we got the legal justifications and the war right, and we got COIN right. We got the immediate post-war and post-Surge wrong. Obama, instead of focusing on what we got right in Iraq (although Obama tacitly admitted COIN got it right in Iraq by trying to implement it in Afghanistan, but as Bush recognized and Obama learned, Afghanistan is not Iraq), decided to focus on our failures and write off Iraq, when he should have been building on our post-Surge gains in Iraq.

Iraq could have been our key to winning the whole thing.

Posted by: Eric at November 12, 2012 06:09 PM

Aye, so many of us thought.

Posted by: Grim at November 12, 2012 06:44 PM

Eric, you make many fine points:

1) The Democrats (carefully not Liberals) attacked Bush and his policies for domestic power

2) The Army in particular was split in what we should or should not have been doing. I have discerned this indirectly from things that past and present officers and NCO's have told me, while sharing "their own opinions".

3) In short, while "winning" in Iraq was a hard road,it could have indeed made a big difference. There were too many factions in politics and the Army that wanted to "not win" in Iraq.

4) Afghanistan is not Iraq. No more profound thing could be said.

These things were indeed in a system of "moral choices". There wasn't one overarching choice, was there? Like Al Davis used to say, "Just win, baby!" ?

The long term cost of "losing" in Iraq, or "not winning" will be costly to us in the long term. More death, more destruction, more ugliness.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at November 12, 2012 06:46 PM


Three episodes of my Army stint gave me foresight (or insight - both work) on the Army's weakness in the post-war.

1. In Basic Training, the lesson after 'We're all green' was that today's Army is not the Vietnam War Army. My (silent) reaction was, what does Vietnam have to do with today's Army? It struck me because both the drill sergeant and I were both too young to have experienced the Vietnam War. Yet the institutional psychic trauma to the Army was so deep and vivid that this Gen-X drill sergeant spoke about the Vietnam War like he had been personally scarred by it. It told me the Army was making institutional decisions based on a PTSD phobic reaction to the Vietnam War. While the drill sergeant was speaking more about the all-volunteer professional make-up of the post-Vietnam Army, the Powell Doctrine was in line with the same phobia about the Vietnam boogey man.

2. In AIT at Fort Huachuca, right before we graduated, our Commandant, a CW5 who had served in Vietnam, gave us a personal, non-tested bloc of instruction on 'operations other the war' - essentially tasks that the Army assigned low/no priority as non-war-fighting skills. In the late 90s, we were still being taught how to fight large-scale Soviet maneuvers, including tactical nukes, in the Fulda Gap. But the commandant told us that in his educated opinion, the 'OOTW' skills deliberately neglected by the Army were precisely the skills we would be called on to use in the 21st century. He specifically spotlighted terrorism and narcotics as the likeliest reasons for Army deployment. He wanted to make sure we were at least aware of OOTW skills, even though the Army didn't want to teach them to us. He was proved right.

Finally, 3. When I served in Korea, I had access to our go-to-war plans. After reading through our expectedly detailed defensive and counter-offensive plans, I was struck by the short shrift given to post-war planning. There was a mention of handing off to an exogenous Civil Affairs unit that would come in to handle coordinainge with other agencies, and that was it. There was no mention of any role our unit would play in the transition to the post-war. Plus, our training exercises always ended with a battlefield defeat of the enemy, again without any action based on post-war transition.

As a soldier, the lack of post-war focus appealed to me because I thought of myself - and was trained to think of myself - as a War Fighter. The concept of Civil Affairs even struck me as somehow unsoldierly. But as an intel troop, it troubled me that our war plans left out the post-war. I discussed it with my officer in charge, and he assured me the post-war - in the unlikely chance that he and I would survive to see it - would be taken care of by someone else. Implied message from Captain to Private: We're war fighters and the post-war is not our concern.

The Army that invaded Iraq in 2003 was still my Army. Every concern I had about our lack of post-war prep in Korea came into being in Iraq. The afterthought Civil Affairs was overwhelmed, while our victorious soldiers stood back and waited to be relieved by a follow-on post-war force - as they had been trained to expect to come - only to discover the hard way that there was no follow-on relief force. They were it for the post-war, too.

Our soldiers in Iraq adjusted to a critical task they were ill-trained to do and, worse, the Army was intellectually opposed and culturally resistant to doing. A lot of folks blamed Bush for the Army's failures in immediate post-war Iraq. But it wasn't his fault. The fault was a deeply embedded institutional flaw in the military that long pre-dated Bush's presidency and 9/11.

Posted by: Eric at November 12, 2012 08:03 PM

Iraq could have been our key to winning the whole thing.


I just read Diehl's piece. He's part of the problem.

He recognizes the flaws in Obama's deliberately anti-Bush choices, yet is unwilling to take the next step of acknowledging that the anti-anti-Bush alternate choice only takes us back to Bush's choices. The only logical alternate choice left is to abandon the liberal foreign policy altogether, a choice which Diehl isn't willing to acknowledge either. So, while staying within the Obama/Bush foreign policy ends, Diehl pines for an undefined 3rd choice that probably doesn't exist. Diehl wants the choices that Bush made, but upholding Bush would be beyond the pale for him.

Ah, but what you're not taking into account Eric is Obama's False Choice Doctrine, in which any tradeoff or opportunity cost he doesn't want to face up to is framed as a "false choice" between two mutually exclusive choices.

Smart power lies in choosing the Third Way, and if you have to ask, "What Third Way can there be?" then clearly you don't understand the ineffable smartitude of smart power :p

As Don said, you make many excellent points.

Posted by: Cassandra at November 12, 2012 09:23 PM


AKA 'The Easy Answer Doctrine'. Well, it worked. Even when ostensible fellow travelling principled leftists like Ralph Nader try to call attention to real-world effects, Democrats don't want to hear it if it casts their guy in a bad light.

A thought has been troubling me of late regarding Obama's failure in Iraq. Why the heck did Obama place Biden in charge of the negotiation with the Iraq government, and not Clinton? Clinton seems like the more appropriate President's representative to Iraq given her job, particular Senate background, and her close connection to the Clinton administration that wrestled with the Iraq problem for 8 years. Of the Obama executives who used Iraq to slander Bush, we could expect at least Clinton retained the truth about Iraq's importance to the US. In contrast, Biden seemed like an especially poor choice to represent the President to Iraq. Did Obama remove himself and purposely assign Biden to Iraq with the expectation that Biden would fail? Or was it just poor judgement on Obama's part?

Posted by: Eric at November 13, 2012 10:36 AM

I can't believe we're facing four more years of speculation over whether Obama's miserable failures are deliberate sabotage or just incompetence.

Posted by: Texan99 at November 13, 2012 12:17 PM