As tortured as domestic doings in wildly dysfunctional Washington have been around the shutdown debacle, some things have settled down on the geopolitical agenda. The suddenly spun-up Syria crisis, which bizarrely reached almost Cuban Missile Crisis dynamics amidst the hysteria before being dominated by the Russian president, is now on the verge of being a relative success. Though for controlling chemical weapons, though not for opponents of the Assad regime. And while the government shutdown crew did real damage at a key moment in America's Asia-Pacific Pivot, keeping Obama away from long planned summitry and allowing the Chinese president to counter where Obama had hoped to close, the overall dynamics and opportunities for the US remain the same.
For one example, even with President Barack Obama missing the East Asia Summit, a more assertive India -- recipient of the first Obama White House state dinner back in 2009, which only got media attention around the gate-crashers -- rebuked China for its extraordinarily expansive claim of sovereignty over virtually the entire South China Sea, one of the world's most strategic bodies of water.
But the danger of distraction, and of backlash, inherent in recent episodes has been all too dramatically on display over the past week with the recent special ops raids on Libya and Somalia and consequent harsh responses.
The Somalia op, carried out by the Navy's famed Seal Team Six, failed.
And the Libya op, which at first seemed a brilliant success with the bloodless snatch of a notorious Al Qaeda figure, turned into a backfire a few days ago when the prime minister of Libya was pointedly abducted (and released several hours later) in retaliation for our actions.
Last weekend, in the midst of all the tumult over the debacle that is the federal government shutdown, came word of these two dramatic US special operations forces raids against jihadist leaders in Libya and Somalia.
The first, carried out by Army Delta Force operators in conjunction with CIA and FBI agents, at first seemed a dramatic success, resulting in the bloodless snatching of a longtime Al Qaeda leader from the streets outside his home in Tripoli. The second, a raid by the Navy's famed SEAL Team Six against the seaside villa of an Al-Shabaab leader in Somalia not long after the group's bloody siege of a Western-style shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, was not a success. The SEALs failed to capture or kill their target and withdrew after encountering heavy resistance. Word has been put out that there was also the unexpected presence of small children in the villa.
All this is giving rise to some questions and pointed commentary.
Were these moves undertaken to assert President Barack Obama's leadership after the shutdown forced the cancelation of his big Asia-Pacific trip, a cancelation that Chinese President Xi Jinping took full advantage of in visiting most of the countries Obama had planned to as Xi seized an opportunity to counter the Asia-Pacific Pivot?
Did that make the Somalia mission an undercooked venture?
Or was there some other failure of intelligence or preparation?
And do these high-profile raids signify that Africa is the coming new front in the anti-jihadist struggle?
If so, how are we defining the enemy we're going after? Will it be based on a direct threat to the US? Or will it be a more amorphous circumstance in which many struggles are embraced so long as it yields jihadist targets?
I don't have the answers to these questions yet, but am taking a look at it all.
One thing that occurs is that, if Africa is the new front in the global war on terror, these two countries aren't really examples of that.
Libya has figured as a major problem/adversary of the US for my entire adult life.
And Somalia is a failed/semi-failed state from way back. The notorious "Black Hawk Down" incident, later turned into the exceptional Ridley Scott film Black Hawk Down, took place a full 20 years ago.
Still, if Africa is to be a new front, and arguably a new distraction from the Pivot and other core concerns, we had better be very clear what our objectives are. So far, I see no discussion of this in the media.
Meanwhile, on the Pacific Pivot front, the Philippines is building a new base for joint operations by US and Filipino Navy and Marine forces on Palawan Island at a place called Oyster Bay. By coincidence or not, Oyster Bay in New York was the frequent home base/constant touchstone for Theodore Roosevelt, whose ideas and actions did so much to thrust America into being as a Pacific power.
But that's the future as prefigured in the past.
The abduction of the Libyan prime minister was a very ominous sign, reminding that things have gotten very much out of control since we helped the French and British and Libyan rebels topple decades-long dictator Moammar Gaddafi after he arrogantly threatened to wipe out dissenters in the midst of UN Security Council deliberations on his bloody put-down of Arab Spring protests.
Another bad sign came Saturday with a fire at the Libyan foreign ministry, also in the capital Tripoli.
There had already been a major backlash in Libya.
The rickety Libyan government, which had done nothing about the Al Qaeda figure openly operating in its capital, protested the raid and said it didn't know of the raid. But Secretary of State John Kerry says they did know.
Helpful of Kerry and others to say that, since the statements were used as a rationale for the hours-long abduction of Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan on Thursday early in the morning.
What this points up is that we are still struggling with moves in territory we've been involved with for a long time. That's something to think hard about, especially when some are saying much of the rest of Africa will be the big new front on the war on terror.
Which is not to say there is not terror there. But which is to say that the terror isn't really our concern until it affects us.
That was always the big precipitating problem with our frequently disastrous post-9/11 adventures. We ended up charging forth in the name of retribution for 9/11 by going after a great many folks who had nothing to do with attacking us on 9/11 or had little interest in doing so in the future.
A big new Africa front might well turn out to be more of the same.
I also wonder if we can try do too much in general with special ops. Most longer standing readers won't be at all surprised that I'm all for further developing our special operations forces.
Looking at things US Special Operations Command chief Admiral Bill McRaven has been saying over the past year, he has a very expansive view of the future of special ops in the post-9/11 military, even as he acknowledges his people are already "deployed in over 75 countries on a daily basis." McRaven is a very thoughtful officer. He majored in journalism at the University of Texas in Austin, which he attended on a track scholarship, and wrote a very fine guide to special operations -- Spec Ops: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice, which I've read and recommend -- while doing work at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.
But just as too indiscriminate drone strikes can build a powerful backlash, so might more special operations raids, especially when all the factors are not clear. As we are probably seeing now with the highly embarrassing situation with the Libyan prime minister.
We went and got a bad guy, a good thing to do. But we ended up with more than we bargained for, in the form of a very dramatic and embarrassing illustration that the government we helped bring into being in enabling the overthrow of Gaddafi is about as stable as a sapling in a wind storm.
In Somalia, we went after another bad guy and we didn't get him. There a unit of Navy SEALs from SEAL Team Six, whose members, among many other things, got bin Laden, assaulted a seaside villa in Barawe belonging to a top leader of al-Shabab, the group that carried out last month's bloody shopping mall siege in Nairobi, Kenya. The SEALs were forced to withdraw by countering forces before achieving their mission.
In fact, the raid reportedly turned into a sustained firefight, with US helicopter gunships called in for covering fire for the team on the ground.
This really is not how such things are supposed to go. If it's at all a fair fight then something has gone wrong with the scenario. The concept is to bring overwhelming force to bear with such rapidity that resistance is futile, leading to either no effective resistance or none whatsoever. That's not what happened here.
I wonder how much time was taken to prep the mission.
Bottom line, one of most legendary combat outfits withdrew from the field of battle without either capturing or killing the target. While we say we "withdrew," America's many enemies say we were "driven off."
Whether it's because there were children on-site we didn't know about in advance, or because there were more defenders than we knew about in advance, or whether the target wasn't there and we didn't know it matters from an internal assessment standpoint but doesn't matter much when it comes to public perception. Adversaries are heartened, allies are a bit unnerved.
And that's just with respect to these two tactical missions. That's before we come to the overall of more special ops in future, and the where and the why of it.
Since there are many crosscuts, all this stuff needs to be figured out not in isolation or an ad hoc, perhaps even spur of the moment basis, but in a consistent and coherent effort.
Unfortunately, consistency and coherency are much in question these days in Washington.
You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.