Benghazi and the Bay of Pigs

In 1961, following a series of strategies and plans developed under President Eisenhower and Vice-president Nixon, CIA officials presented to President-elect Kennedy a scheme to undermine the communist regime in Cuba.

The idea was very simple. A force of US-trained Cuban 'exiles', equipped with light arms, would land on the island, and, without American air and sea cover, would engage Cuban forces. Simultaneously, an insurgency by anticommunist forces would deliver a wave of rebellion, which would then result in regime change. Naively, President Kennedy approved the plan.

It turned out to be a disaster. Part of the reason it became a disaster was that Allen Dulles and Richard Bissell of the CIA were simply not telling the truth to the president. They had no indication of any insurgency, had not developed a scheme for leadership change--which, after Suez just four years before, one would have thought essential--and, moreover, they believed that the USA would have to back the exiles with air and sea cover.

President Kennedy refused to do this. Even as the forces were dying and being captured on their landing ground, he adamantly refused to engage US power, as Eisenhower would have done or Khruschev, in altered circumstances, would have done. In doing so, Kennedy set the scene for potential future crisis, but was rewarded by avoiding the loss of credibility, options, and advantage, as well as world opinion, which would have resulted from an invasion of Cuba. I bear no torch whatsoever for Fidel Castro and his murderous rule, but Kennedy made the right call.

Fast forward fifty years, and we are now seeing calls on the Republican right, and from retired members of the armed forces, which amount to one thing; the US should have deployed aircraft, attack and transport helicopters, and special forces at the Benghazi diplomatic mission. This deployment, they argue, should have been geared towards the rescue of four named Americans, and as yet un-named and unacknowledged 'CIA personnel', and possibly also at elements in the crowd who were being directed by terrorist elements. Failure to do so, they claim, resulted in American deaths and loss of credibility.

The deaths are impossible to gainsay. However, I find myself wondering whether people who follow this line, admittedly in the superheated atmosphere of a presidential election campaign, have actually bothered to think about what they are demanding. There are any number of examples, from Bloody Sunday in Derry to Algeria of how troops cannot be used for riot control without allowing for the deaths of innocents. Those innocents then become martyrs, and world and regional opinion then swings against the putative defenders. In such a divided city as Benghazi was in September 11, the push given to an all-out civil war would have been irresistible. Even allowing for that, an official US strike, within the territory of an ally and on the borders of another, where public opinion was febrile and where potentially pro-western forces were weak, to get four people out would on its own have been disastrous even if successful.

The combination of air forces with helicopter and special forces strikes me as loading folly onto folly. We expect so much; yet even in the Bin laden 'kill' raid, which had one objective and for which personnel had trained for months, one helicopter seems to have gone down. Helicopters are vulnerable and unreliable aircraft. How would forces have been landed and picked up, how would they have been protected from small arms fire and rockets, how would they have gotten the four out of the embassy, what would have been their route home, and what would have happened as the organisers on the Libyan or Al-Qaeda side realised that they only had to transfer to an Egyptian embassy to create disaster?

The disconnection of the Republican party's noisier supporters from reality is precisely what got the USA into the grotesque debacles of the past twelve years. Readers should not jump to conclusions about my attitudes upon reading that; go far enough back in this blog, and you'll see me arguing that a military quarantine and a trade-and-culture based attempt to undermine the wrong people and elevate the right people within a Dar-al-Islam which could only be healed by itself was the job of the next fifty years. That's not a weak position, and nor am I automatically against the tactical deployment of power, such that my pointless vote matters. So many people, however, are self-appointed experts, without any concern for what a ballistic missile could do to an aircraft carrier, or what the capabilities of helicopters, special forces and cruise technology actually are, that I sometimes feel like the worst sort of peacenik. 'It's easy' they shout from armchairs, 'kill here, bomb there, use this, deploy that, and to hell with the consequences'.

The consequences, one might point out, are not cowardice or retreat. Systematic, law-based investigation and punishment of criminals and terrorists is possible; indeed, given how much terrorists over the years have profited from the intelligence services, training, and equipment of the states they eventually turn on, it would seem to be the only viable option. I have also noticed, since the Gulf War (though the sickness has probably been emergent since world war two) how little people are supposed to care for 'collateral damage' these days. We now face the regular spectacle of grown men and women, often commenting anonymously, muttering whatever the secular equivalent of "Caedite eos! Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius" and turning their faces from the murder of children. People need to rediscover their consciences. This sort of thing, even in a world where presidents of the United States now check off a 'kill list' every Tuesday bar election day, is disgusting. It sickens us and demeans a culture already in freefall, and institutionalising it means that arresting our decline becomes even more difficult. If president Obama, for once, did decide to say no, then I salute him for it.

We are drowning in sentiment. Prizing our reason, we fail to see its limits, or its seduction by the trained responses we have to the more superficial of our emotional states; so, because we don't like to see suffering, we would kill the disabled and the old; because we don't like oppression, we would torture, and because we fear we lash out. What we have forgotten is that it is not weak to avoid these emotions; not weak if our leaders hold back, and not bad for us in the long run, however agonising the decision, if we do not sentimentalise the fate of those in our service who know what they are in for, right now. The thrill of the Imperial state leads directly to the fall and the rubble.

But, well, you try telling the modern GOP crowd, especially those who hide behind internet names, that. They've driven out any notion of moderation and the oligarchy that stands behind them simply rubs its hands in glee. My worry is that, like the isolationists who are their paradoxical forebears, they won't be quiet until circumstances horrible enough make them realise what they are doing and have done. I certainly wouldn't count on the Democrat establishment, or General Petraeus (perhaps candidate-general Petraeus should Obama win the elections) to get that done.

Despair is a sin. There are times, however, when I just wish that the world would go away.