Obama, the coup de main commander in chief

Something struck me over the weekend about POTUS.

We know he’s not much of one for committing conventional forces. He’s no Rommel or Patton; you’ll never see major armored formations maneuvering in large land battles if he can help it. And trench warfare is about 180 degrees from anything this commander in chief would engage in.

He’s even hesitant about the use of air power in any sustained way. He went along in Libya, but on the condition that we were just what Nick Adams in “No Time for Sergeants” called the whole danged Air Force: the helpers. Leading from behind, and all that.

On the other hand…

He’s more willing than any president in my lifetime to launch one-time, deus ex machina attacks from the sky, with devastating and deadly effect. I refer here to the drones, which he has used more extensively by far than any predecessor.

Also, let’s not forget the killing of Osama bin Laden. Or the snatching from Libyan soil of one of the ringleaders of the Benghazi attack, just last week, the success of which the president was happy to tout:

“It’s important for us to send a message to the world that when Americans are attacked, no matter how long it takes, we will find those responsible and we will bring them to justice,” the president said Tuesday at an event in Pittsburgh. “That’s a message I sent the day after it happened, and regardless of how long it takes, we will find you. I want to make sure everyone around the world hears that message very clearly.”…

No, he’s not one for the long-haul slog. But if he can pounce down on you and kill or capture you out of a clear blue sky, leaving behind nothing but a puff of dust in his wake, he will get your a__.

Over the weekend, it finally hit me: He’s the coup de main president. For those not up on military theory, a coup de main is “An offensive operation that capitalizes on surprise and simultaneous execution of supporting operations to achieve success in one swift stroke.

It’s like, if this generation of leaders had been in charge of the Normandy invasion, you’d want Colin Powell in charge of the beach landings — he’s all about putting massive, irresistible force on the objective and overwhelming the enemy’s defenses. But you’d put Obama in charge of something like the Pegasus Bridge operation — a swift, sudden attack by glider-borne troops on a small target of strategic importance to the overall operation.

Except he wouldn’t have gone in for that “hold until relieved” part. He would have wanted to go in, kill all the Germans defending the target, then get out. Which wouldn’t have been helpful in that case, since we needed the bridge to advance inland. So, bad example.

But you know what I mean — don’t you?

14 thoughts on “Obama, the coup de main commander in chief

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    Oh, come on, y’all! I thought this was an interesting observation. I’ve just been sitting here, patting myself on the back for it. 🙂

    Seriously, I haven’t seen anyone describe POTUS this way, and I think it fits pretty well…

  2. bud

    Speaking of Germans, the USA is facing off against Germany in the World Cup Thursday. Folks are getting very excited about this game. The two teams have met in 9 previous games with the Germans holding a 6-3 edge. Interesting that there were no draws. It’s good to see Americans getting so invested in a sport that the rest of the world has always captivated the rest of the world. I think this new found interest must have something to do with the explosion of youth soccer over the last couple of decades.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I might want to watch that one. Although it would mean ceding ground in the fierce competition I have with Bryan to see who can NOT watch the most World Cup action.

      I’ve had an almost perfect record so far. I did watch one or two highlights of the win over Ghana. Actually, it was just one highlight — the winning header off the corner kick — but I saw that two or three times…

      1. Silence

        I am certain to win the NOT watching the World Cup contest. I have some cyanide pills I keep with me in case I am forced to watch soccer on TV…

      2. Bart

        My wife come into my office to tell me about the player on one team who bites players on the other team. I asked her to leave my office at once if she was going to relay anything concerning soccer. Of course, I did it in a nice way, I didn’t want to be bitten or have a yellow flag handed to me for unsportsmanlike behavior.

        Our son played soccer and that was the extent of my involvement with the game. If a gang of rabid soccer fans break into my home and attempt to force me to watch the World Cup, Silence has provided me with one of his cyanide pills and I will use it.

  3. Bryan Caskey

    I’m not sure that I agree that Obama is a coup de main President. A coup de main is a surprise attack that overwhelms the enemy due to its surprise and speed. I think of Pearl Harbor, or the German blitzkrieg through Poland, the German Ardennes offensive, Washington’s crossing of the Delaware to Trenton, and maybe the Greeks at Troy.

    In all of these, the object of the attack was usually the enemy’s “center of gravity” as Von Clausewitz describes it.

    Are our drone strikes analogous? To me, not really. They’re attacks that have low-risk, medium to low-reward value. We risk no actual loss of life, and we could maybe take out a few individuals – maybe high ranking, maybe not. To be fair, the nature of Al-Qaeda is that they don’t present us with a normal enemy center of gravity in the conventional sense. FIghting such a dispersed group is like trying to nail jello to the wall. I don’t think anyone could have a coup de main against Al-Qaeda, as there is nowhere central to strike in a killing blow. Maybe you could argue that killing UBL was that, but the developments in Iraq would belie that point.

    The true test for whether Obama is a coup de main President or not is whether he would execute a conventional attack like any of the examples I set up above. I don’t think he would. In almost all cases a coup de main attack is a highly aggressive tactic. Obama isn’t highly aggressive in his use of force. He’s the opposite. He’s judicious, perhaps to a fault. And he’s not agressive, he’s reactive in military situations. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s nothing wrong with being a peace first guy. As much as Obama probably doesn’t like Churchill, Obama would probably have to agree that “to jaw-jaw is better than to war-war”.

    Are the drone strikes effective? To a degree. But when it comes down to it, you have to be willing to commit military resources to fight an enemy military arrayed against you. Drone strikes, or even full air superiority won’t stop ISIS in Iraq today. To do that, you have to be willing to risk casualties – especially in a coup de main. All of the examples I cited are the opposite of low-risk, low to medium. They’re high-risk. They had the potential to be catastrophes, where as drone strikes don’t.

    Now, you are on to something. Obama likes low-risk operations. He’s a low-risk guy when it comes to military force. He doesn’t even like to use the military words about war. Remember “kinetic action”? He’s not a bold commander in chief. Now, to some that’s a virtue. With boldness and audacity come risk. Gamblers don’t always win. Obama isn’t a gambler. He likes the sure things. Drone strikes are pretty sure things. We know where Mr. Bad Guy is, we send a machine to kill him. Worst case scenario is that Mr. Bad Guy isn’t home, and/or the machine breaks. Obama takes what he can get. Remember his comment about “singles and doubles” in foreign policy? I think he would say the same thing in regards to military force, which is why he wouldn’t be my choice for a field commander.

    I’m trying to come up with an analogy from military history, and all I can think of is Meade. And I know that’s not perfect, but Meade was marked by deliberate action. Perhaps he had too much deliberation in him when faced with Lee. Meade was careful, like Obama, perhaps to a fault.

    P.S. This IS an interesting observation/post topic, and I meant to comment earlier, but work intruded. I could talk about military history all day.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Thanks so much for engaging, Bryan!

      I’m going by that Defense Department definition: “An offensive operation that capitalizes on surprise and simultaneous execution of supporting operations to achieve success in one swift stroke.”

      That really doesn’t say anything about risk, although of course, historically they have tended to be risky operations.

      I tend to think of them also as small, contained operations — although that’s not mentioned in the definition I cite. The textbook case in my mind is Pegasus Bridge. Perhaps because I learned the term “coup de main” from reading Ambrose’s book about it.

      I don’t think Pearl Harbor or the Ardennes offensive qualify because they were both strategic failures. The Japanese scored a tactical victory, but they missed the carriers and our fuel tanks, so Pearl Harbor was a gamble Japan lost. And the Ardennes achieved surprise on a grand scale, but utterly failed to achieve the German goal, which was to force a stalemate in the West. Within a few days, it was evident that the Ardennes gamble had failed. And the failure of the Japanese strategy was evident at Midway.

      You need a clear success — what Jack Aubrey would have called “the completest thing,” like his cutting out of the Diane and several other vessels with her, or maybe Cochrane’s taking of the Gamo with the Speedy — to qualify for the term.

      It needs to be something like the Israelis’ raid on Entebbe — a stunningly successful attack by a small (again, my requirement, not the definition’s) force with excellent coordination of assets, achieving complete effective surprise.

      Finally, your observation that Obama is risk-averse may carry weight when speaking of the drone attacks, but the raid that killed bin Laden was extremely high-risk, on many levels. It was THE most high-risk approach, but it was the one that offered the greatest possible success if it worked.

      Admittedly I may be stretching the definition wrapping in the drone strikes (the Abbottabad and Libya raids completely fit within the definition) — certainly they lack the dash and relentless initiative required of the humans carrying out such an action historically — but I include them because I see them as a sort of new wrinkle on the coup de main concept. I think they fit because of the “suddenly, out of nowhere” aspect of them — the deus ex machina aspect — and the fact that they tend to be devastatingly successful…

      1. Mark Stewart

        For every Entebbe there is often more than one Dieppe.

        Coup de Main is overrated as a concept. The Allies thought that’s what the Armistice was – look how that turned out. Winning means sapping your opponent of their will to continue to fight. It doesn’t have to be quick, or even violent. Not even aggressive.

      2. Bryan Caskey

        I would certainly agree that Pearl Harbor was not a completely successful mission, as the Japanese missed our strategic carriers, and similarly, the Ardennes offensive didn’t achieve the objective of Antwerp, which would have cut the Allied forces in two. These were certainly failed attempts at a coup de main, but I think it’s fair to classify them as an example of coup de main had they been successful.

        The UBL mission is probably the closest thing to a coup de main that Obama has done. So maybe I’ll concede that. I just have a hard time putting drone strikes into that same category, because there’s so little risk involved and the scale is so small. It costs nothing to execute a drone strike. To me, it’s the updated equivalent of guerrilla warfare. It’s hit and run, small-scale stuff. It’s high tech Francis Marion. It harasses the enemy, never lets him rest, never lets him get comfortable. However, drone strikes aren’t a decisive killing blow. To me, that sounds like the opposite of a coup de main.

        If the Japanese had been fortunate enough to have sunk the Enterprise and/or Lexington, the US would have been in a tight spot. Maybe it wouldn’t have been a decisive killing blow, but it would have been pretty darn close to it. (At Midway, we achieved what they failed to achieve at Pearl – we took out the Japanese carriers.)

        Same with the Germans in the Ardennes. If Patton doesn’t make that big swinging hook up north and relieve Bastogne, the Germans would have been sitting pretty even if they hadn’t made it all the way to Antwerp. (Yeah, I know the 101st Airborne says they didn’t need to be rescued, but they weren’t in the greatest position to hold Bastonge for much longer.)

        Both Pearl Harbor and the Ardennes offensive had the potential to be decisive blows. That’s why I included them. On the contrary, I don’t think drone attacks have that potential. The scale isn’t big enough. It’s hit and run. I’m not sure you can have a coup de main against such a dispersed enemy like Al-Qeada.

        Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that drone attacks are a bad tactic. I think they’re great. They have the ability to degrade the enemy at zero cost to our troops in terms of loss of life. What’s not to like? But let’s be realistic about what they are.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          The 101st didn’t say they “didn’t need to be rescued.” They said they “didn’t f___ing need to be rescued.”

          OK, then can you agree with THIS observation: Obama is a quick-strike guy, not a long-haul guy. (Because, you know, in the long haul, the people can turn against what you’re doing.)

          That’s SORT OF what I was getting at, I just wanted to get a little fancier than that…

          1. Bryan Caskey

            I would certainly agree with that. Obama is a quick-strike guy. He’s not comfortable with long-haul stuff. Which is probably why the Iraq’s PM just repudiated Obama’s call for a reformed governmentt and essentially said, We’ll take our chances with Iran.

            And I don’t really blame him in the objective sense. It’s the smart thing from his perspective. Iran by virtue of nothing else, if not geography, is a player in Iraq for the long term. Obama has made it clear that he’s not interested in playing a long game. He’s good for a quick drone strike, but not much else.

            So…Iraq and Iran are now moving closer together. Russia has ties to Iran. Our influence in the middle-east is moving close to zero. Doesn’t a Tom Clancy book start this way?

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