Center for Strategic Communication

[by Lynn C. Rees]

Warren Edward Buffet says:

The first rule of investing is never lose money; the second rule is don’t forget Rule No.1.

Marcus Tullius Cicero agrees:

…there is an opinion in some quarters, that someone intends to propose to decree Antoniusfarther Gaul…What else is that but supplying an enemy with all the arms necessary for civil war…with the sinews of war, money in abundance, of which he is at present destitute…Will you furnish a wicked and desperate citizen with an army of Gauls and Germans, with money, and infantry, and cavalry, and all sorts of resources?


But when I have explained what is the real object aimed at, it will be easy for you to decide which opinion you ought to agree with and adopt. The matter at issue is:

  1. whether power is to be given to Marcus Antonius of oppressing the republic, of massacring the virtuous citizens, of plundering the city, of distributing the lands among his robbers, of overwhelming the Roman people in slavery; or, 
  2. whether he is not to be allowed to do all this.

Marcus Atilius Regulus agrees:

  1. Regulus, perceiving that the Carthaginians were utterly worsted both by land and sea and expecting to capture the city in a very short time, was yet apprehensive lest his successor in the Consulate should arrive from Rome before Carthage fell and receive the credit of the success, and he therefore invited the enemy to enter into negotiations.
  2. The Carthaginians gave a ready ear to these advances, and sent out an embassy of their leading citizens. On meeting Regulus, however, the envoys were so far from being inclined to yield to the conditions he proposed that they could not even bear listening to the severity of his demands.
  3. For, imagining himself to be complete master of the situation, he considered they ought to regard any concessions on his part as gifts and acts of grace.
  4. As it was evident to the Carthaginians that even if they became subject to the Romans, they could be in no worse case than if they yielded to the present demands, they returned not only dissatisfied with the conditions proposed but offended by Regulus’s harshness.
  5. The attitude of the Carthaginian Senate on hearing the Roman general’s proposals was, although they had almost abandoned all hope of safety, yet one of such manly dignity that rather than submit to anything ignoble or unworthy of their past they were willing to suffer anything and to face every exertion and every extremity.

Barack Hussein Obama agrees:

Chuck Todd:

Mr. President, could you update us on your latest thinking of where you think things are in Syria, and in particular, whether you envision using U.S. military, if simply for nothing else, the safe keeping of the chemical weapons, and if you’re confident that the chemical weapons are safe?

I also want to follow up on an answer you just gave to Nancy. You said that one of the reasons you wanted to see Mitt Romney’s tax returns was you want to see if everybody is playing by the same set of rules. That actually goes to the question she asked, which is this implication, do you think there’s something Mitt Romney is not telling us in his tax returns that indicates he’s not playing by the same set of rules?

President Obama:

No. There’s a difference between playing by the same sets of rules and doing something illegal. And in no way have we suggested the latter. But the first disclosure, the one year of tax returns that he disclosed indicated that he used Swiss bank accounts, for example. Well, that may be perfectly legal, but I suspect if you ask the average American, do you have one and is that part of how you manage your tax obligations, they would say no. They would find that relevant information, particularly when we’re going into a time where we know we’re going to have to make tough choices both about spending and about taxes.

So I think the idea that this is somehow exceptional, that there should be a rationale or a justification for doing more than the very bare minimum has it backwards. I mean, the assumption should be you do what previous presidential candidates did, dating back for decades. And Governor Romney’s own dad says, well, the reason I put out 10 or 12 years is because any single year might not tell you the whole story. And everybody has, I think, followed that custom ever since. 

The American people have assumed that if you want to be President of the United States, that your life is an open book when it comes to things like your finances. I’m not asking him to disclose every detail of his medical records — although we normally do that as well — (laughter.) You know? I mean, this isn’t sort of overly personal here, guys. This is pretty standard stuff. I don’t think we’re being mean by asking him to do what every other presidential candidate has done — right? It’s what the American people expect. 

On Syria, obviously this is a very tough issue. I have indicated repeatedly that President al-Assad has lost legitimacy, that he needs to step down. So far, he hasn’t gotten the message, and instead has double downed in violence on his own people. The international community has sent a clear message that rather than drag his country into civil war he should move in the direction of a political transition. But at this point, the likelihood of a soft landing seems pretty distant.

What we’ve said is, number one, we want to make sure we’re providing humanitarian assistance, and we’ve done that to the tune of $82 million, I believe, so far. And we’ll probably end up doing a little more because we want to make sure that the hundreds of thousands of refugees that are fleeing the mayhem, that they don’t end up creating — or being in a terrible situation, or also destabilizing some of Syria’s neighbors.

The second thing we’ve done is we said that we would provide, in consultation with the international community, some assistance to the opposition in thinking about how would a political transition take place, and what are the principles that should be upheld in terms of looking out for minority rights and human rights. And that consultation is taking place.

I have, at this point, not ordered military engagement in the situation. But the point that you made about chemical and biological weapons is critical. That’s an issue that doesn’t just concern Syria; it concerns our close allies in the region, including Israel. It concerns us. We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people.

We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.

Chuck Todd:

So you’re confident it’s somehow under— it’s safe?

President Obama:

In a situation this volatile, I wouldn’t say that I am absolutely confident. What I’m saying is we’re monitoring that situation very carefully. We have put together a range of contingency plans. We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that’s a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons. That would change my calculations significantly.

Dan Carlin takes listeners back to the original scene of Barack Obama’s red line.

It’s summer 2012. Noise from Obama challenger Willard Mitt Romney claims Obama isn’t assertive enough on Syria. Obama’s political research team quickly calculates that red lines contain just enough measured assertion to warn Romney and Dr. Bashar al-Assad to keep out of Obama’s equations.

Lines get drawn. Elections get won. Legacy modes kick in. Then movement and utilization are seen. The American people suddenly come under attack from the elective trauma they only suffer when elected officials try to keep campaign promises.

Dan Carlin speculates that even if he went to August 19, 2012 and demonstrated to the Obama regime that lines, whatever the color, would vex Obama’s August a year on, they’d still break out the whole bunch of red crayons. And they’d be right to do so. Though Obama’s long-term political calculus is focused on burying persistent post-Vietnam War-era images of a Democratic Party soft on war under dead Pathans and packet sniffing, ambition must be made of sterner stuff. Obama’s calculations changed significantly when movement on the Willard Mitt Romney front was seen. As Obama’s backer Warren Buffet might say if he followed his dad Howard (R-Nebraska) into politics as well as stock-jobbery:

The first rule of politics is never lose power; the second rule is don’t forget Rule No.1.

The red line was a “brilliant stroke” (in Carlin’s telling) that remembered Rule No. 2 by obeying Rule No. 1

It there a gulf here, an actual curtain between back and forth over domestic politics and to and fro on diplomacy and war? It may seem so. But, as Carlin notes, any gulf is illusion: one is a continuation of the other, with a nominal line at the water’s edge as the means of demarcation.


Wikiquote’s attempt at Cicero’s nervos belli, pecuniam infinitam is unhelpful:

Endless money forms the sinews of war.

The quote’s time and place suggests a more accurate gloss: uninterrupted cash flow keeps the war effort together.

The time: 43 BC. The place: Rome. Marcus Antonius, chief henchman of late lamented Gaius Julius Caesar the Dictator, lacks uninterrupted cash flow. His war effort is unravelling. Antonius’ friends in the Roman Senate want him to have the governorship of Transalpine Gaul (in southeast France). Then Antonius will have uninterrupted cash flow to keep his war effort together. Antonius’ enemies, led by Cicero, want to hamstring Antonius’s cash flow. Then Antonius’ war effort will finish its unravelling.

Cicero wins the debate. Antonius loses. This emboldens the Roman Senate into one last spasm of independent political initiative: Antonius is declared an enemy of the Republic. To give the Senate declaration bite, Cicero talks his new Padawan, the properly deferential 19-year old Gaius Julius Caesar, into lending the army Caesar inherited from his mom’s uncle to Gaius Vibius Pansa Caetronianus and Aulus Hirtius, consuls for the year.

Pansa and Hirtius lead Caesar’s army against Antonius. Antonius ambushes and kills Pansa but is driven off by a Hirtius ambush. Six days pass. Hirtius beats Antonius again but is killed in the fighting. Young Caesar whistles nonchalantly, looks slowly to one side, looks slowly to the other, sees no consuls in sight, and takes back his army. Then the turn to the Dark Side: Caesar cuts a deal with cornered Antonius. Part of the deal: Caesar betrays Master Cicero to Antonius. Cicero delivered too many Pyrrhic Phillipics against Antonius and Antonius lacks a forgiving heart. Cicero loses his head. The old Republic dies.

Buffett’s saying fits what Cicero’s nervos belli, pecuniam infinitam became after passing into cliche: money is the sinews of war. Even without the immediacy of Cicero’s original, the cliche form is true, reinforced by another Cicero observation that never made it to cliche stage:

Vectigalia nervos esse rei publico. [Revenues are the sinews of the state.]

What is true for war and finance is true for all related species of power:

Rule No.1: Never lose power.

Rule No.2: Never forget rule No.1.

Eating one species of power lets a second form of power be turned into a third form of power. Some cultures prove adept at keeping different species of power walled off, first from violence and then from each other. But the walls culture builds between different species of power bleed. With time, this bleeding pulls all species of power toward the power of final appeal: the species of violence.

Culture needs power to live. All power must be won through politics, the division of power, and this gives it power over culture. Culture is upstream from politics: its mix and velocity ultimately decide what form politics takes downstream. But culture without power is dead. So culture is inescapably political just as politics is inextricably cultural.

Political actors have culturally meditated goals. To reach those goals, they need to  power. To get power, they must first keep what they have. Second, they must get more power. If they

Cliche: War is a continuation of politics with the addition of other means. To many Clausewitzians, this means an abstraction carried on by some other abstraction with another abstraction mixed in as aesthetics suggest. As a ghetto Clausewitzian, I see the intentional catastrophe of war as an organic outgrowth of the unintentional catastrophe of politics, with violence thrown in as the catastrophe provider. As such, our farcical, inconclusive, and muddled wars are an inevitable outcome of our farcical, inconclusive, and muddled politics.

By politics I mean politics of the grubbiest, drabbest, and most banal sort: the first goal of those in power is to stay in power. Only then can they pursue any other goals. Those that lose sight of that first goal are consumed by those who don’t.

American wars are hostages of our two and four year electoral cycles. As such, the purpose and timing of American military operations is guided by one primary consideration: how does this help me and my homeys get through the next two years in one piece. The tempo of things is goosed up or toned down create a perception of good times. This is a structural feature (defect?) of systems of government with fixed electoral terms: Rome suffered several catastrophic defeats when a consul whose term was nearly up rashly attacked to boost his future political ambitions and was crushed for his troubles.

Like the Romans of the republic, more often than not, we sacrifice our young to the gods of the electoral cycle. It is a cruel thing but then politics is cruelty and cannot be refined, only whitewashed. “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”, a young hippie once diplomatically asked. As we witnessed at the tail end of August, the hippie still hasn’t discovered how, a real problem as he was now doing the asking. The cruel logic of politics is often thus: you often find yourself voting for war after you voted against it.

Viewed as military tactics, should come labelled FOR ENTERTAINMENT PURPOSES ONLY. Viewed as domestic political theater with a maximum two-year shelf life,  was a spectacular success. It got politicians and supporters through two years

[1] no relation to Jimmy Buffet