“In for a dime,” runs the old adage, “in for a dollar.”  If a good poker hand is worth a small bet, it’s worth a raise.   It’s an idea that has all too often led the U.S. to disaster in foreign affairs—a principle, to cite another familiar phrase, “more honored in the breach than in the observance.”

Where we’ve followed “In for a dime” in our foreign policy, we have expended lives and money, made bad situations even worse, inflicted psychological wounds on our armed forces and ruptured our civil society.  Where we’ve ignored it—or been forced to ignore it–we have arguably made bad situations at least somewhat better, at wildly varying costs.

Which will it be in Libya?

Will we play a limited part in a tightly focused operation and then know when to go home?  Or, will we allow our power and capability to catapult us into leadership, with the leader’s natural responsibility for success and accountability for failure.

There’s something about the “in for a dime” mentality that resonates with the American ethos.  The U.S. has never been defeated in a war.  We have been rocked: We lost more battles than we won in the Revolutionary War, for example, but made victory too costly for a vastly more powerful Britain.  We lost early battle after early battle in the Civil War, but persevered to win.  We lost most of Asia and the Pacific to Japan before and after Pearl Harbor, but over almost four years and two atomic bombs, we achieved an unconditional surrender.

Vietnam represented the ultimate folly of “In for a dime, in for a dollar.”  Our original investment, a few hundred military advisors, was proportional to our stake and the possible return.  But when a few hundred advisors turned out not to be enough, advisors became troops, and a few hundred became hundreds of thousands. 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam.  And as the American people began to see that the cost of victory far outweighed the value, two presidents tried to camouflage the costs.  And when that failed, the blow-back that drove them both from office—remember that Watergate originated in Nixon’s attempts to plug Vietnam policy leaks—undermined the military’s confidence in its own capabilities and created a sinkhole in public trust in the government.  And Vietnam still fell under Communist government.

Only rarely have we willingly settled for limited success.  President George H.W. Bush put the brakes on the coalition forces that drove Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in 1991 and back into Iraq.  Bush could have gone with the momentum and chased Iraqi forces back to and then out of Baghdad.  But he pulled up at the Iraq border because he thought that the coalition that was willing to preserve Kuwait’s independence would balk at displacing a sovereign nation.  Bush’s son’s experience in Iraq lends some credence to 41’s hesitancy.

Sometimes we’ve settled for half a loaf out of circumstance or necessity.  Our willingness in 1995 to bomb—but not to deploy ground troops–in Bosnia drove Serbia out and, ultimately, drove Slobodan Milosevic to the Dayton bargaining table, out of office, and into a war crimes trial.  We were fortunate: bombing without boots on the ground won a limited victory.  Would we have raised the stakes if bombing alone hadn’t worked?  The other side folded, so we didn’t have to show our hole card.

We spent three years and more than 50,000 lives in Korea from 1950-53 before bailing out of a stalemate.  But we left Korea half-democratic and on a path to economic strength, a far different fate, based on what has happened in North Korea, than would have befallen the entire peninsula had the Communists been allowed to occupy and hold all of Korea.  Was the return worth the investment?  It’s debatable.  But, in our first war after winning World War II, Dwight Eisenhower recognized that the costs and risks of total victory in Korea were too high and settled for half a peninsula.

The story arcs that describe our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan are yet to be completed.  Iraq started badly, in delusion, mendacity and incompetence.  Countless billions of American dollars have been spent, thousands of American lives have been lost, and tens of thousands of American lives have been shattered.   Is Iraq better off than it was before we intervened?  Almost certainly.  Are we in sight of the outcome we hoped for, a friendly, stable, economically healthy democracy?  Not close.

So, too, with Afghanistan.  It began promisingly, helping allies quickly drive the Taliban from power and Al Qaeda out of Afghanistan.  A potentially friendly figure, Hamid Karzai, was installed at the head of a potentially proto-democratic government—before we lost focus.  Is Afghanistan better off today than we found it?  Probably.  Has denying it to Al Qaeda increased our security?  Perhaps marginally.

Will we disentangle ourselves from these two countries short of (probably unattainable) complete victory, however that might be defined?  Will we limit our commitment, accept whatever improvement we are able to accomplish, and bring the troops home?  That is the direction in which we seem to be heading, but we’ll see.

Now in Libya:  Muammar Gaddafi’s military and hold on power may crumble under the limited assault.  He may cede power, immediately or over time, as Milosevic did.  The countries of Europe and the Arab League may do what needs to be done, with only limited U.S. support

But what happens if the limited intervention President Obama has pledged fails to protect the rebel stronghold in Benghazi?  What happens if Benghazi holds but the rebels are isolated there, with Gaddafi still in power?  What happens if Gaddafi falls but, in a country which has known only his rule for forty years, no semblance of a civil society rises up to take his place?

Will the U.S. cap its investment at a level proportional to our stake there?  If European and Arab League countries seem to be at risk of letting Gaddafi win, will we keep discipline and refuse to be drawn further into a potential Big Muddy?

Or will President Obama, to avoid being labeled as the president who pulled the U.S. military out of not one, not two, but three countries short of victory in a single term, double down on his original bet in the hope that slightly increased pressure may push Gaddafi over?  Or that with U.S.-provided breathing room, Libya can pull together a replacement government?

My money’s on Obama to go in for a dime but to balk at raising the stakes.  This president has established a pattern of pre-compromising: calculating what he deems to be the probable end point of a political process, and offering it as his starting point, rather than asking for his Christmas-list as a prelude to bargaining to the middle.  He never really led even a rhetorical charge for health care single-payer or even a public option.  He put his money on the exchanges and kept it there till the end.  He has made it plain that he believes Israeli settlements have to stop for there to be any hope of a Palestinian accord, and faced with Israeli obduracy, has frozen the process in place rather than bargain down from that position.  It’s his version of no-haggle pricing.

Obama inched into Libya by much the same road.  He was slow to support the rebels, slow to call for Gaddafi to go, slow to threaten the use of force and slow to commit it.  And having committed it, he sawed off the limb he was out on—not behind him, to prevent his going back, but ahead, to guard against going any further out.

He’s not a betting man, our president.  He’s anted up his dime.  Don’t look for him to raise.


  1. Jay
    March 23rd, 2011 | 9:45 am

    Remembering the China Shop adage, ‘if you break it – you buy it’. That seems to be our course in both Iraq & Afganhistan.

    I fear we will be there through our lifetime, we’re still in Japan & Korea.

    Is a bad exit strategy better than NO exit strategy?

  2. Linda Christenson
    March 24th, 2011 | 8:07 am

    Wonderful, Louis! Thanks for a thoughtful and most helpful analysis. I’m going to share it with friends.

Leave a reply