Rarely has the fog of war settled so quickly or as thickly as it has around President Obama's Libyan adventure. Remember how the president promised military operations would last "days, not weeks?" That was nearly a month ago — and now Obama's advisors are being coy about whether the White House intends to comply with the 1973 War Powers Resolution, which sets a 60-day limit on military actions without congressional approval. That sure sounds like Obama is working from a different calendar than the one on my desk.
Equally confusing is Obama’s insistence that 1) he wants Moammar Gadhafi out of power, and 2) is firing missiles at him, but 3) these things are unconnected. “Broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake,” Obama says. Instead, we’re just going to “deny the regime arms, cut off its supply of cash, assist the opposition, and work with other nations to hasten the day when Ghadhafi leaves power.”
So all that bombing, I guess, is sort of like the heavy-metal music the U.S. Army played two decades ago to coax Panama’s Manuel Noriega out of the embassy where he was holed up — except now it’s with shrapnel.
Sadly, Obama is not the first American president to think there’s such a thing as being a little bit militarily pregnant. He might want to give some careful consideration to this weekend’s 50th anniversary of one of the most disastrous examples of what can happen when U.S. military missions are framed in ambiguous gobbledygook. The CIA-backed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs is practically a textbook statement of the sort of operation soldiers call FUBAR, Fouled Up Beyond All Recognition, though they substitute a more colorful word for “fouled.”
What became the Bay of Pigs was originally conceived in the waning days of the Eisenhower administration as the low-key spark of an insurgency against Fidel Castro’s communist regime. The CIA would train five dozen or so Cuban exiles as guerrillas, drop them into the island and back them with an offshore propaganda radio station. With some luck, the guerrillas might develop popular support and flower into a full-scale popular insurrection.
As reports of popular discontent with Castro increased, CIA strategists grew bolder: They would land a small army of 1,400 men on a beach in central Cuba. The shock of an invasion might trigger an immediate uprising in Cuba’s cities; if not, the troops could melt away into the nearby Escambray mountains and follow the original plans for guerrilla warfare.
But with John F. Kennedy’s arrival in the White House in January 1961, the plan’s military sinews were replaced with camouflage frills intended to provide political cover. The first thing to go was the landing site, which was changed to the swampy, remote Bay of Pigs. That was disadvantageous fighting terrain, and it offered no place for the invaders to retreat if they didn’t deliver a knockout punch. No matter, wrote one of Kennedy’s advisors in a laudatory memo: “The CIA has done a remarkable job of reframing the landing plan so as to make it unspectacular and quiet.”
That didn’t satisfy Kennedy, who wouldn’t relinquish the idea of striking a military blow against communism but didn’t want to face the political consequences, either. As the invasion date approached, every day brought a new restriction on the invasion force: Air support was reduced. A U.S. Navy escort for the exile troop ships was eliminated and destroyers were ordered not to get within 20 miles of the Cuban coast. Just 72 hours before H-hour, air support was slashed again, from 16 planes to eight. Air strikes intended to cover the landing vessels on the morning of the invasion were canceled altogether.
Whether the original plan could have succeeded is certainly debatable; the Bay of Pigs invasion force was vastly outnumbered, and the CIA was extremely optimistic about the prospects for a popular uprising against a communist police state. But what is certain is that Kennedy’s attempt to stage a tip-toe invasion had no chance at all. Cuban MiGs and T-33s slaughtered the invaders on the beach, blew up one of their supply ships (“God almighty, what was that? Fidel got the A-bomb?” radioed an awestruck CIA man from ashore) and drove the rest so far away they couldn’t help. The wonder is that it took Castro three days to defeat a force so disarmed.
Cuba is not Libya, of course, and the differences in this not-exactly-a-war and that one are many and enormous. What’s disturbingly similar, though, is the lack of clarity from a president who seems to think he can play soldier without anyone getting hurt. Another recent anniversary President Obama might consider: the 191st birthday of William T. Sherman. He was the Civil War general who warned: “Every attempt to make war easy and safe will result in humiliation and disaster.”