Obama’s Mangled Quotation

by Craig S. Karpel

The president gets his source, and his solution to the Iranian threat, wrong.

President Obama met recently with a group of Jewish leaders about his trip to Israel that begins today. The Washington Post reported that Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, “expressed concern that Obama might be softening his pledge to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, based on recent reports of frustrated international diplomatic efforts,” and then asked Obama what he intends to do to stop Tehran from having nuclear weapons.

The president’s reply, as quoted in the Post: “I’m not going to beat my chest to prove my toughness on this.”

“Obama continued,” the story said, “by citing a quote attributed by some to the Chinese military tactician Sun Tzu, who suggested that a ‘golden bridge’ must be built to give what Obama described as a ‘proud people’ a face-saving retreat to a diplomatic solution.”

According to individuals present at the meeting, the president referred to the quote’s author as “a Chinese philosopher.”

The ancient treatise The Art of War, ascribed to Sun Tzu, contains no reference to a bridge, golden or otherwise. The only passage that resembles Obama’s reference is this dictum, as translated in 1910 by Lionel Giles, head of the British Museum’s Oriental Manuscripts and Printed Books department: “When you surround an army, leave an outlet free.”

Giles noted, “This does not mean that the enemy is to be allowed to escape. The object, as Tu Mu [a.d. 803–52] puts it, is ‘to make him believe that there is a road to safety, and thus prevent his fighting with the courage of despair.’ Tu Mu adds pleasantly: ‘After that, you may crush him.’”

The 1963 translation by Samuel B. Griffith, a Marine general who served in China before and after World War II and then earned a doctorate from Oxford in Chinese military history, renders the aphorism as “To a surrounded enemy you must leave a way of escape.” Griffith parsed the commentary by Tu Mu more tersely than did Giles: “Show him there is a road to safety, and so create in his mind the idea that there is an alternative to death. Then strike.”

So for Sun Tzu, the purpose of providing a path for retreat isn’t to avoid hurting the feelings of a “proud people” so that engagement can work its magic. It’s to fool the enemy into believing there’s a way he can avoid a fight to the death — and then to strike and crush him.

The only way to enable Tehran to climb off the limb it’s out on is to implement sanctions so devastatingly crippling that Iranians will be relieved if their rulers stand down. For such measures to bite, they must be backed by a military threat that the author of The Art of War would find credible. For a superpower to, in effect, outsource such a threat to a small client state is a shameful evasion.

Obama, by asserting with condescending orientalism that Iranians are a “proud people” and therefore in special need of a “golden bridge” to wondrously enable them to act in their own interest, implies that Iran’s kleptocracy, which is unpopular and rules by hanging troublemakers from construction cranes and rigging elections, truly represents the people of Iran.

Iran has one of the lowest rates of mosque attendance of any Muslim country. Few pray daily. Most think the fact that they’re ruled by an oligarchy of Islamic clerics is grotesque.

Iranians are indeed proud — of the sweep of their civilization, not the thuggery of their theocrats. And while they’d like to have nuclear weapons, they’d prefer to have them under the auspices of a non-authoritarian government.

When Ayatollah Khamenei sees that redeployment of the USS Harry S. Truman to the Persian Gulf has been canceled, he doesn’t take seriously the notion that Obama’s decision to maintain only a single carrier in the Gulf is the result of a phantasm known as “the sequester.” He thinks: Iran notifies the International Atomic Energy Agency that it will be installing 3,000 new-generation centrifuges, whereupon the U.S. retreats across a bridge of the purest gold.

The first record of the golden-bridge metaphor Obama cited to impress the delegation of Jewish leaders with his erudition and their rashness is contained in a compendium of “memorable sayings” printed in Paris in 1557 and attributed to one Count Pitillan. Napoleon is said to have augmented it: “When an enemy army is in flight, you must either build a golden bridge for it or stop it with a wall of steel.”

But Iran isn’t fleeing — it’s advancing. And it’s questionable whether this president intends to erect either a golden bridge or a wall of steel. Perhaps he thinks a wall of words will do the trick.

Craig S. Karpel is the author of The 12-Step Guide for the Recovering Obama Voter.