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British historian Andrew Roberts notes lack of grand strategy by Obama in Libya

Sunday, March 27, 2011
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HH: I’m joined now by historian Andrew Roberts, who has authored, well, any number of really wonderful books of history, including one of my favorites, Salisbury: Victorian Titan. But I asked Andrew to join me today because of another book that he wrote called Masters And Commanders: How Four Titans Won The War In The West – 1941-’45. I had begun it last week, completely independent of the Libyan adventure, Andrew Roberts. But then I realized it’s the same issue. What is the strategy and who decides it? And so I thought I’d ask you to come on and just begin by defining for people what is strategy in wartime?

AR: Well, there’s a difference, really, between strategy and grand strategy. And what we’re really talking about now is grand strategy. The argument between the British and the Americans between 1941 and 1945 do have curious echoes and parallels with the modern day, especially, of course, with regard to the Libyan situation.

HH: Expand on that, because I don’t even think most of our audience will realize that Libya was one of the focal points of the war in 1941, and Northern Africa was part of the dispute between Britain and America 70 years ago.

AR: Well, absolutely. And the fall of Tobruk in June of 1942, of course, a place which is back in the news now because of the Gaddafi situation, was a crucial moment in Anglo-American military relations. In June, 1942, it was the time, really, that the agreement had been made that Germany was going to be the country that America concentrated on first, even though, of course, she had been attacked in the Pacific by Japan.

HH: There is this grand strategy cabinet in World War II, these four leaders that you profile. And in Masters And Commanders, you walk the reader through how the British really had control of grand strategy until the United States got into the war, and then the United States got more control, and then the United States eclipsed Great Britain until finally it was gone. Tell people a little bit about how it worked, so we can compare and contrast it with what is not working right now.

AR: Well of course, you here in America had the joint chiefs of staff from 1942 onwards. We in Britain have the British chiefs of staff. And together, they formed a unit, the combined chiefs of staff, which had overall complete control over war planning – where we were going to attack, when we were going to attack, how we were going to attack. And Roosevelt in America, and Churchill in Britain, had an over fight over these, this major committee that combined chiefs of staff. But they didn’t overrule it at any stage. They actually went along with its view of grand strategy. And so strategy was decided, really, by the generals working within the overall understanding of what the politicians wanted.

HH: And Andrew Roberts, can you review for some people some of the critical junctures where grand strategy was debated, and a definite decision came down, and as a result, the Allies did or did not do something?

AR: Well, it happened in ten great conferences. You’ll remember that names of most of them – Tehran and Casablanca and Yalta and places like that where the masters and commanders, the political masters and the military commanders came together and really haggled it out. There was extreme ill temper on occasion. There would be people slamming their hands down and shouting at one another. They would break pencils in half in front of each other’s faces. It was a pretty tough, there was one moment where the Anglophobe American General, Albert Wedemeyer said that he wanted to lean across and sock the chief of the imperial general’s staff in the jaw. So these were very hard-fought battles. And of course they were, because men’s lives were at stake. You asked for an example. A classic would be at the Quebec Conference in 1943, when they had to decide the date of the D-Day invasion, when were we going to land. And of course, it was a vital question, and one that the British wanted to put off further, the Americans wanted to have early. And they agreed, in the end, on the first of May, 1944. It had to be put back five weeks because of the landing class situation.

HH: And what comes again and again and again in Masters And Commanders is all the differences were on the table, and decisions had to be made – were they going to advance up the Po Valley in Italy, were they going to go into Sicily, were they going to go to Vienna, all these different issues that you review in Masters And Commanders, they had to be decided. Do you get the sense, Andrew Roberts, that right now, the Allies have hashed out what they’re doing in Libya?

AR: I think possibly the British and the French have. It seems to me that your president hasn’t quite got his mind around the whole issue, and that he seems rather reluctantly to be drawn into this conflict, rather than something that he actually wants. I think it’s quite unprecedented, for example, for the chief of staff, your American chief of staff, to go on television and say that he was not looking to the overthrow of the enemy commander, Col. Gaddafi. This seems extraordinary to go into a conflict and not have as your final goal the overthrow of a man, of a lunatic dictator quite as evil as him.

HH: I also am struck in reading Masters And Commanders’ parallel with the Libyans is that Churchill never overruled his military commanders, even though he quite often hectored them at great length, that vivid tale of Alan Brooke being told to stand and deliver in France, and saying no, we’re not going to get destroyed. But he never overruled them. Do you think that that is the same deference that’s being shown right now?

AR: Well, he certainly didn’t overrule them, partly because 25 years before, he had been involved in the Gallipoli campaign in the First World War. They campaigned to try and capture the Dardanelles. And it had been a disaster, many men had died, Churchill was personally blamed, it was the lowest point of his career. One doesn’t get the sense at all that somebody as, well, really, politically as well as militarily inexperienced as your President Obama, has any of this kind of long-term background. He can’t look back 25 years and see mistakes that had been made, really because he wasn’t around at that time.

HH: Do you get the sense that he is cooperating or consulting his military men as much as either FDR or Churchill did in the middle of their wars, or even more recently, Bush did with Petraeus, and before him, Abizaid, and before him, Tommy Franks?

AR: I don’t get that impression at all, no. And he strikes me as somebody who wishes it would all go away, frankly, whereas both President Roosevelt in his relationship with George Marshall, and certainly Winston Churchill in his relationship with Alan Brooke, were, they were men who were steeped in the whole concept of grand strategy. They had read about it. They were interested in it. Many of them, of course, fought themselves in earlier conflicts. They were people who understood the horror of warfare, but also the way in which it could be used to bend an enemy to one’s will. And that, I think, is singularly lacking in President Obama.

HH: Andrew Roberts, a minute to the break and we have another segment. The sense I also get is that Libya is not being considered as part of the entire Middle Eastern engulfing right now. Today, there’s a story in the New York Times that the Muslim Brotherhood is the rising force in Egypt. There’s a story in the Telegraph that al Qaeda’s on the front lines in Libya and the opposition. And I don’t see any of our people talking about how those dots might connect very badly for America. What do you think?

AR: Well, I agree, and this is another thing. In the Second World War, they looked at grand strategy in the whole. They looked at the entire global situation before they decided where they were going to attack. I mean, Iran is, let’s face it, a much more serious and substantial threat to world peace than ever Libya is.

HH: I’ll be right back with Andrew Roberts.

– – – –

HH: Andrew, The Storm Of War is coming out in what, six weeks or eight weeks as well?

AR: Yes, yes it is. It’s a single volume history of the Second World War, which attempts to be a comprehensive story of, really, from the first day in September, 1939, all the way through to the surrender of Japan six years later.

HH: Now the thing I learned in reading Masters And Commanders is that George Marshall became chief of staff of the Army on the day that Hitler invaded Poland. I had not known that, but one of the coincidences of the war. Did you spend much time on Libya and the North African campaign when you were writing Storm Of War, Andrew Roberts?

AR: I did, yes. It’s a very important campaign. The North African littoral was fought over backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, no fewer than five times in the course of the war. And of course with men like Erwin Rommel, one of the greatest of the German generals, facing off against men like Bradley and Patton, and of course Montgomery from Britain, it was always going to be a vital part of the war. And when, in May, 1943, the Axis powers surrendered in Tunisia, no fewer than a quarter of a million Axis troops fell into Allied captivity.

HH: Now Italy had tried to take Libya and blew it, and that’s when Hitler sent Rommel there in the first instance. But what is it about Libya that the modern audience ought to know as they watch these events unfold? What’s top of your mind, Andrew Roberts, as you look at these events?

AR: Top of my mind is the danger of al Qaeda actually establishing a foothold on the Mediterranean coast. To have al Qaeda on the south coast of the Mediterranean would be an utter disaster for the West, and for every nation that’s trying to fight the war against terror. Much later on from that, I think about the oil, obviously, which is tremendously important as well. But I see this as a struggle to ensure that Gaddafi is overthrown as soon as possible. And I feel it’s very nerve wracking to think that your president doesn’t have that even as one of his war aims.

HH: Now before the break, we were saying that in World War II, grand strategy required that every piece on the board be assessed against every other piece of the board. But it doesn’t seem that with regards to the Middle East right now, there is a grand strategy. At least I always thought there was one when George W. Bush was in the White House. And it may not have been one that I agreed with at all times, but I thought it was there. Do you sense there is a grand strategy right now for the Middle East among the Allies?

AR: No, I absolutely don’t. And I agree with you. I think this is a very serious problem. The reason is that George W. Bush believed implicitly that it was a war, which I don’t believe that President Obama necessarily does, and that it was a war that needs to be fought through to the victorious conclusion. It wasn’t necessarily going to happen, of course, in his own presidency, but it had to happen at some stage. And I’m not sure that President Obama feels either of those things. He, of course, opposed it himself in 2003, and that was his right to do so. But he has inherited it, and he doesn’t seem to be pursuing it in the way that one would do if one believed that it was a proper global struggle against Islamo-Fascism.

HH: How long can the British and the French fill in for an absentee landlord of grand strategy that is the United States, Andrew Roberts?

AR: Well, it depends. If there is a proper vacuum in grand strategy creation, then I think it’s a rather nerve wracking moment for America as well. America has always led in NATO. It has always provided, of course, the lion’s share of the men and the equipment, but also the leadership. And that’s what you’re not seeing at the moment.

HH: How would that, what would you look for? The President says he’s going to speak on Libya fairly soon. What do you want him to say in the way that FDR or Churchill would have said at a similar juncture?

AR: I think both FDR and Churchill would have said that it is quite unacceptable to have a dictator as vicious and evil ad Col. Gaddafi. They both fought against an even more horrific force in Adolf Hitler. And they called for his extirpation. Everybody in the Allied nations during the Second World War supported that end. And it seems to me astonishing that you’re going to be committing a certain amount of, certainly vast amounts of money, but also time and effort, and possibly even men’s lives, and certainly enormous munitions without having the end in sight being the overthrow of Gaddafi.

HH: That is remarkable. Andrew Roberts, I look forward to an extended conversation about the Storm Of War when it appears in May, and thank you for spending some time with us tonight to talk about Masters And Commanders. I always appreciate it. Andrews Roberts, British historian, his book, Masters And Commanders is linked at Hughhewitt.com. His website, just Google Andrew Roberts and you will find it. The Storm Of War is also available now at Amazon.com.

End of interview.

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