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Obama’s Road to War

In the comments of my early morning piece looking at our apparent decision to go to war in Libya (qualified only because Muammar Gaddafi’s announcement of a cease-fire calls into question what comes next ), Michael Reynolds argues that, whatever the merits of the intervention, President Obama pulled off a diplomatic masterstroke such that “in a matter of a week or ten days, the Arab League and the UNSC and presumably the neighbors all lined up to support an open-ended, ‘Do whatever you want’ resolution” and did so “in such a subtle, no-fingerprints way that the US appears to have been almost a sideline cheerleader.” He adds, “How many months did it take George HW Bush to pull off something similar and we all rightly hailed that as statesmanship and high-order diplomacy.”

I responded with my guess that “Gaddafi forced his hand here and, as with Bill Clinton in Kosovo, he let the European Allies shame him into doing something his heart wanted and his head told him wasn’t the right policy. Further, this is classic Obama community organizer tactics: Let everyone exhaust themselves getting their arguments out there and then step in and let them think they’ve reached a decision point.”

Foreign Policy‘s Josh Rogin now has a very detailed accounting of “How Obama turned on a dime toward war.”

The key decision was made by President Barack Obama himself at a Tuesday evening senior-level meeting at the White House, which was described by two administration officials as “extremely contentious.” Inside that meeting, officials presented arguments both for and against attacking Libya. Obama ultimately sided with the interventionists. His overall thinking was described to a group of experts who had been called to the White House to discuss the crisis in Libya only days earlier.

“This is the greatest opportunity to realign our interests and our values,” a senior administration official said at the meeting, telling the experts this sentence came from Obama himself. The president was referring to the broader change going on in the Middle East and the need to rebalance U.S. foreign policy toward a greater focus on democracy and human rights.

So, why Libya and not Egypt or Tunisia?

“In the case of Libya, they just threw out their playbook,” said Steve Clemons, the foreign policy chief at the New America Foundation. “The fact that Obama pivoted on a dime shows that the White House is flying without a strategy and that we have a reactive presidency right now and not a strategic one.”

Inside the Tuesday evening meeting, senior officials were lined up on both sides. Pushing for military intervention was a group of NSC staffers including Samantha Power, NSC senior director for multilateral engagement; Gayle Smith, NSC senior director for global development; and Mike McFaul, NSC senior director for Russia, who has 30-plus-years of experience advocating for democracy and human rights. Vice President Joe Biden also was a supporter of imposing a no-fly zone over Libya, an administration official said.

On the other side of the ledger were some Obama administration officials who were reportedly wary of the second- and third-degree effects of committing to a lengthy military mission in Libya. These officials included National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was also opposed to attacking Libya and had said as much in several public statements.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called into the meeting over the phone, a State Department official confirmed. She was traveling in the region to get a first-hand look at how the new U.S. Middle East strategy is being received across the Arab world. Denied a visit with Egyptian youth leaders on the same day she strolled through Tahir Square, Clinton may have been concerned that the United States was losing the battle for the hearts and minds of the Arab youth at the heart of the revolution.

When Clinton met with the G8 foreign ministers on Monday, she didn’t lay out whether the United States had a favored response to the unfolding crisis in Libya, leaving her European counterparts completely puzzled. She met Libyan opposition leader Mahmoud Jibril in Paris but declined to respond positively to his request for assistance. This all gave the impression that Clinton was resisting intervention. In fact, she supported intervention, State Department official said, but had to wait until the Tuesday night meeting so that she didn’t get out ahead of U.S. policy.

At the end of the Tuesday night meeting, Obama gave U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice instructions to go the U.N. Security Council and push for a resolution that would give the international community authority to use force. Her instructions were to get a resolution that would give the international community broad authority to achieve Qaddafi’s removal, including the use of force beyond the imposition of a no-fly zone.

[...]

“Gates is clearly not on board with what’s going on and now the Defense Department may have an entirely another war on its hands that he’s not into,” said Clemons. “Clinton won the bureaucratic battle to use DOD resources to achieve what’s essentially the State Department’s objective… and Obama let it happen.”

I agree with my friend Steve Clemons’ assessment except for one not insignificant detail: being reactive doesn’t preclude being strategic. Since the demise of the Soviet Union, foreign policy types have been looking for a new grand strategy to replace the Cold War era Containment policy. We’ve had various attempts, including the New World Order of Bush the Elder, the liberal interventionism of Bill Clinton, and the democracy promotion of Bush the Younger. But none proved cohesive or sustainable.

I happen to think the case for intervention in Libya is even weaker than it was in Egypt, in that we at least have strategic interests in the latter. But it’s not a completely silly notion to believe that our broader strategic goals are best served by standing up for the values we claim to promote. And it’s defensible to draw the line at the slaughter of civilians from the air while merely tut-tutting the beating of protesters with sticks.

Again, my preference would be to keep our involvement here at the level of diplomacy and sanctions. My threshold for going to war is political objectives that rise to the level of vital national interest which are attainable through the application of force. I’m rather sure the first part of that threshold hasn’t been met and am dubious of the utility of military tools even at achieving the lesser interests at stake here. But we’ve had four consecutive presidents now who’ve seen it differently.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. john personna says:

    The necessary data will be opaque to civilians. How far are the British, the French, and the Arab League willing to go? How do their commitments map to the vulnerabilities (if any) that Qaddafi has? If there is a gap the US has to fill, how wide is it?

    What I don’t like James, and your post and all your excerpts repeat it, is the way people shoe-horn this problem into something they are familiar with (unilateral intervention by the US) rather than deal with the complexity of what it is (some crazy UN thing).

    No, the US should not do another Afghanistan/Iraq. That’s what is on everybody’s mind. Unfortunately, that’s not what’s in play.

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  2. john personna says:

    “Beyond that, the diplomat said that officials in Britain, France and the United States were all adamant that Arab League forces take part in the military actions and help pay for the operations, and that it not be led by NATO, to avoid the appearance that the West was attacking another Muslim country.”

    So how do we interpret that “not be led by NATO?”

    I don’t think it means “led by Obama.”

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  3. tom p says:

    Just exactly what is the level of commitment by the US to this endeavor? I read earlier (somewhere) that it may be just logistical with the French and English taking the lead and them insisting that Arab League nations being right there with them.

    Regardless, I would just as soon we stayed out of it altogether.

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  4. ponce says:

    Assuming this action freezes things on the ground in Libya, how did its oil resources split between Gaddafi and the rebels?

    OT: Gallup has Obama’s approval rating at 51% today.

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  5. Steven Plunk says:

    It appears to me this is another 3:00 Am moment and Hillary picked up the phone. Thank goodness someone understands the place if the United States in the world.

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  6. PD Shaw says:

    I think this is about European interests and diplomacy, particularly France. America doesn’t have substantial interests in Libya. France does. Getting the BRICs to not object to something happening outside of their purported spheres of influence is not that difficult, particularly if it’s in the near-abroad of a permanent member.

    The only way this makes sense to me is if it’s primarily a French/U.K. engagement with minimal U.S. logistic support. I see U.S. diplomacy as remaining equivocal.

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  7. The thing about community organizing is its all tactics with very little strategery.

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  8. ratufa says:

    I really don’t understand the “Why Libya and not Egypt?” question. For one thing, Libya has a population of around 6.5 million, Egypt has 82 million people, and Libya has much less population density. A US military intervention in Libya is much easier and less likely to to kill many civilians.

    Plus, we had much more leverage with the government and military of Egypt, given our relationship with that country and the aid we’ve given them. And my recollection is that there was never any obvious moment with the Egyptian uprising where it was clear that if somebody didn’t do something there would be a massive slaughter.

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  9. hey norm says:

    I guess I don’t understand how “…a greater focus on democracy and human rights…” is not strategic? As much as I think Bush 43 messed up he actually got this right – his strategy of promoting democracy in the MIddle East was spot-on. It was his tactic of invading and occupying another sovereign nation that was fatally flawed.
    Was it skill or luck on Obama’s part? Like most things in life it was probably both. But look – he has drawn down from Iraq on schedule, gotten China and Russia together on sanctions for Iran, and I think he handled Egypt appropriately. There is a pattern here folks. I’m willing to give him some more time in Afghanistan – and given the sea-change in the Republican party we may see positive actions there soon.
    So…the next few days and weeks will tell us more about Libya…and what passes for leadership on the so-called conservative side can keep crying about NCAA picks…while the adults get it done.

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  10. PD Shaw says:

    Why Libya and not [fill in the blank]? Gaddafi is a crazed attention-seeking loon, with sporadic ambitions of making Libya the HQ for anti-Western radicals and terrorists, to hopefully be enforced by WMDs, oil embargoes and disturbing the Mediterranean shipping lanes. I can see why Europe sees him as a security threat unlike the other autocratic regimes to its South.

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  11. [...] And on another subject, some interesting information on how the decision was made within the Obama administration. [...]

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  12. michael reynolds says:

    Plunk:

    Jesus H. Christ, anything to avoid admitting that you are wrong about Obama. Hillary picked up the phone. And what? Obama said nothing? Hillary went off on a toot to North Africa and talked the Chinese and Russians into abstaining?

    Get your head out of your ideology, open your eyes and see what’s right in front of you.

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  13. James Joyner says:

    @hey norm

    I agree that democracy promotion is potentially strategic. And ad hoc-ery is the only way it can work.

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  14. … anything to avoid admitting that you are wrong about Obama.

    nm

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  15. michael reynolds says:

    The question of strategy is usually an illusion. People look back at a series of events and say, “Wow, it made sense all along!”

    Sometimes that’s the way it works. But usually not. Usually things happen and people react. How did the Japanese quake fit into “strategy?” How about Egypt?

    How about a comet hits the earth tomorrow?

    Stuff happens, people react, and success or failure is judged on how well they react, not whether it fits into some long-hatched strategy. Is there some universe in which anyone could possibly have formulated a strategy 18 months ago that covered a simultaneous uprising in multiple ME and NA states, plus Japanese devastation? The world is not run by super-villains hatching grand strategies and laughing while rubbing their hands in glee, it’s run by people thinking, “Holy crap, what do we do?”

    By the way, the “Why not X?” question is the kind of thing that, like the strategy question, sounds profound and isn’t. Life is choice. To argue that since we can’t make a clear case for Wendy’s over In-N-Out we should go neither place is silly.

    Why spend money curing cancer? Why not spend money curing AIIDS? Well, screw it, let’s not do either.

    We make judgment calls. When we’re right we feel very clever and call it a grand strategy. When we’re wrong we find someone else to blame. Thus always.

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  16. anjin-san says:

    I think plunk is.still pissed because Obama took down Iran’s centrifuges without killing anyone.

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  17. tom p says:

    I think plunk is.still pissed because Obama took down Iran’s centrifuges without killing anyone.

    No, he’s pissed because we let the Israeli’s do it. And he is pissed now because we are letting the French (the French of all people!!) take the lead here.

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  18. wr says:

    Michael Reynolds — You are getting perilously close to Tolstoy’s conundrum at the heart of War and Peace, the question of whether Great Men make history or history makes Great Men…

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  19. Anderson says:

    I’m curious what Gates’s reasons were for opposing intervention.

    DOD is supposed to advise on means, not ends. So I want to know whether Gates found the means lacking, or was just overstepping his brief.

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  20. michael reynolds says:

    wr:

    Well, sure, me and Tolstoy, we’re like this: (holding up intertwined fingers.)

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  21. James Joyner says:

    @Anderson

    I’m curious what Gates’s reasons were for opposing intervention.

    DOD is supposed to advise on means, not ends. So I want to know whether Gates found the means lacking, or was just overstepping his brief.

    No, no, no: The SECDEF is every but as much a policymaker as any other member of the cabinet. On matters of national security policy, he’s arguably the key voice, although the National Security Advisor, Secretary of State, and Director of National Intelligence are also key institutional players. Don’t confuse him with the uniformed service chiefs, who are there to render advise and then do what they’re bloody well told.

    Gates’ advice, as I understand it from the press, was in fact based on means. Mostly, just trying to make crystal clear that a no-fly zone isn’t some video game but an act of war in which people will almost surely die.

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  22. michael reynolds says:

    I’m curious what Gates’s reasons were for opposing intervention.

    I imagine he thought two wars was enough.

    Personally, I’m glad he’s able to express his opinions freely. I’ve never believed an administration needs to be a wall of conformity. He’s a real public servant.

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  23. sam says:

    “It appears to me this is another 3:00 Am moment and Hillary picked up the phone. Thank goodness someone understands the place of the United States in the world.”

    Otto von Plunk und die Realpolitikwissenschaft.

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  24. anjin-san says:

    So I guess plunk is giving Obama the credit he deserves for being a good executive – hiring strong people for key positions and then letting them do their jobs

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  25. G.A. Phillips says:

    I think plunk is.still pissed because Obama took down Iran’s centrifuges without killing anyone.

    I will give Obama credit when It’s due, lol…..I must have missed this story, got a link…

    oh, and I am glad someone is finally doing something. To bad we don’t have a way for everyone to get together and stop all crap like this when it is going on….

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  26. DavidL says:

    Excuse me, but did I nod off and slseep through the Congress’ Declaration of War or autthorization for the use of military force; or Obama invvking the War Powers Act? If Obama wants to wage war on Libya, he either needs permssion of Congresss or to invoke the WPA. He has done neither.

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  27. Tlaloc says:

    And he is pissed now because we are letting the French (the French of all people!!) take the lead here.

    Because if we let the french do something then it’ll be hard to get our “american exceptionalism” boners! That’s like viagra for neocons, damn it.

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  28. PD Shaw says:

    The public comments I recall from Gates centered on the time and expense it would take for the U.S. to set up the no-fly zones. Since the French can apparently start flying and bombing from home territory in a matter of hours, and the British in a matter of days, U.S. support of such missions would not have those problems.

    I speculate Gates believes (a) a Libyan offensive runs counter to reducing the Defense budget; (b) it will harm winding up Afghanistan and Iraq due either to allocation of resources or bad p.r. in the Muslim world, and (c) there is a risk of escalation no matter the current intentions.

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  29. john personna says:

    DavidL, what war?

    All we have so far is a promise to support France, Brittain, and the Arab League. Obama has put force on the table, but there are a lot of steps short of war.

    We’ve shot down Libyan planes before.

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  30. James Joyner says:

    @PD Shaw

    Gates argued that you can’t simply do no-fly zones by patrolling; you have to first take out their air defense capabilities.

    @john personna

    Shooting down Libyan planes over their territory is war. And effectively protecting Libyan civilians will likely require more than flyovers.

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  31. john personna says:

    So should Ronald Regan have been impeached?

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  32. john personna says:

    Again, it amazes me that the commutariat have gotten so far ahead of this issue, and in a direction that isn’t supported by facts as we now understand them.

    Barrack Obama is not leading a unilateral (as in “one side,” its a geometrical term) attack on Libya. In fact, as of now there has been no attack. All we have is a largely vague UN agreement about action, “and that it not be led by NATO, to avoid the appearance that the West was attacking another Muslim country.”

    Do you Doug and James have some info that I don’t? Was that “not be led by NATO” thing just a smokescreen for a unilateral invasion of Libya by the United States?

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  33. James Joyner says:

    @john personna

    War Powers Act pretty clearly gives president the right to take unilateral action for imminent situations. Pursuing the Aquili Lauro hijackers and punishing the Berlin bombing were cleanly within those parameters.

    I’m less sanguine about longer-term commitments like open-ended no-fly zones against those who haven’t attacked. But there’s plenty of precedent for it and the American public largely accepts that the president gets to make those calls.

    So: No. And neither should Obama.

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  34. James Joyner says:

    @john personna

    I don’t see how it can be other than a NATO operation, with the US, UK, and France doing the actual heavy lifting. The Arabs might be nominally in charge, as they were in Desert Storm, but they don’t have the capability to actually run the op.

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  35. Steven Plunk says:

    Michael, Take your pompous attitude and sit in the corner you adolescent malcontent. You think you’re right about everything, all the time, and in triplicate. If you weren’t so full of yourself you would take a minute to read and think. The tiresome know it all nonsense you peddle is just the sound of an arrogant beast braying against all who dare trespass.

    If you want to talk substance, which is rare, the fact is Hillary took the lead because this president lacks the ability to lead. It’s not just me that thinks so.

    Quit your temper tantrums and start acting like a mature adult instead of a petulant child stamping your feet at all who disagree with you.

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  36. Steven Plunk says:

    tom p, In a way you are right. We should have been able to lead on this rather than further the impression of weakness. Obama took the lead in rhetoric when he said Gaddafi must go. In the eyes of other nations that means something yet nothing happened.

    The biting wit of anjin and Tlaloc serves as evidence the Left would rather bicker and make crude jokes than debate issues. It’s the same nonsense from them. Children on a playground are more sophisticated. As for giving credit to Obama for making Hillary Sec. of State I believe that was a payoff to her for support in the general election. So no credit unless duly deserved.

    JJ makes points that offer a counter argument to this but so far we don’t even know what this is. We may shoot or we may not but at least now we are doing something.

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  37. john personna says:

    “If you want to talk substance, which is rare, the fact is Hillary took the lead because this president lacks the ability to lead. It’s not just me that thinks so.”

    Funny “argument” there. “Hillary took the lead.” Proof? “It’s not just me that thinks so.”

    Tell me, got a link to any non-wingnut who thinks so?

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  38. john personna says:

    “We should have been able to lead on this rather than further the impression of weakness.”

    What? You WANT unilateral intervention?

    (In the best of all possible worlds we’d get what we want, with France as our sock-puppet.)

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  39. sam says:

    A modest defense of Michael’s claim that Plunk has his head always up his ideology:

    Above:

    It appears to me this is another 3:00 Am moment and Hillary picked up the phone. Thank goodness someone understands the place if the United States in the world.

    Earlier:

    History will look upon this episode and judge it a complete foreign policy failure. We were warned about amateurs in the White House. [Plunk, commenting on U.S. Pushing U.N. Security Council To Authorize Direct Intervention In Libya]

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  40. michael reynolds says:

    Plunk:

    You just don’t know what you’re talking about.

    Take a moment and explain to me how the Secretary of State seized power and forced the President to support this. Just give me the blow by blow.

    Do you think Hillary got on the phone to the Russians and the Chinese and they said, “Okay, well, we know the President is against this, but hey, Hillary, what the hell, why not do what you ask?”

    You don’t get it. You don’t get much, because you can’t see anything through the thick fog of your own prejudices and ideology. That’s not how the world works.

    The SecState has ZERO leverage unless everyone, everywhere, knows she speaks for the POTUS. It always been that way. It always will be that way. Absolutely NO ONE on this earth will do ANYTHING for a Secretary of State except insofar as she speaks with confidence FOR HER BOSS.

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  41. michael reynolds says:

    And while we’re at it, Mr. Plunk, the reason I’m often right is precisely because I admit when I’m wrong, learn from it, and try to make progress. I don’t double down on stupid by continuing to assert that I was right all along.

    We learn through error. Or at least we do if our goal is to acquire greater understanding rather than just echo the prejudices we have stuck in our heads.

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  42. Neil Hudelson says:

    Steven,

    You don’t really give evidence that Michael is actually acting immature. I mean, not as immature as say:

    Instead of responding to an argument, simply calling your opponent a malcontent, followed by a string of other personal insults, then telling him to sit in the corner.

    Not that type of immature, right? Only a complete child would think that’s a proper way to win an argument…

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  43. steve says:

    “tom p, In a way you are right. We should have been able to lead on this rather than further the impression of weakness. Obama took the lead in rhetoric when he said Gaddafi must go. In the eyes of other nations that means something yet nothing happened.”

    I dont really understand this obsession. We are the only military superpower left. The rest of the world knows that. There are some issues that just are not that vital to us, but are of importance to other countries. Why wouldnt they take the initiative in those areas.

    Steve

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  44. anjin-san says:

    > As for giving credit to Obama for making Hillary Sec. of State I believe that was a payoff to her for support in the general election. So no credit unless duly deserved.

    Plunk you should really just stick to name calling. As an analyst, you are rather lacking. What was Obama’s favorite book right about the time he became President? “A team of rivals”. And what did Lincoln do with his rivals after he became President? Do you even know who William H. Seward was? Google away pal.

    A little more time reading history and a little less on memorizing right wing boilerplate really would benefit you dude. Especially if you are going to talk about lack of sophistication in others. The lack of substance in your comments is remarkable, and it is very consistent.

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  45. anjin-san says:

    Here you go GA, not surprised you missed the Stuxnet story, the right has been pretty quite about it, for obvious reasons.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/19/world/middleeast/19stuxnet.html?pagewanted=all

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