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Streetwise Professor

August 24, 2014

With Friends Like Merkel, Ukraine Doesn’t Need Enemies

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Professor @ 9:30 pm

Merkel visited Ukraine yesterday, on the 75th anniversary of the Nazi-Soviet pact. She did not quite play the role of Frau Ribbentrop, but she, and the German government, are greatly assisting Putin.

Yes, she said that Germany cannot accept Russian control over Crimea. But this is cheap posturing, because, in fact, it does. Germany refuses to accept the seizure de jure, but it does accept it, through its deeds, de facto.

Beyond those words, Merkel and the German government say things that Putin finds very congenial. She called for an unconditional cease-fire in eastern Ukraine. So has Putin. He wants this to give his battered forces in Ukraine relief so that he can regroup, reinforce, and adjust his tactics. Merkel wants to oblige him, even though her ostensible subjective reasons are different: but objectively, she is pro-Putin. Then, her Vice Chancellor (of the SPD) Sigmar Gabriel said that the only solution to the conflict in Ukraine was federalization. That’s the Russian line. (Merkel quickly said he had misspoke, and meant “decentralization”, but it is clear that he committed a Kinseyesque gaffe: he had spoken the truth.)

So the top two officials in the German government have endorsed the measures called for by the Russian government, and opposed by the Ukrainian government.

Merkel also said no more sanctions for now.

Further, Reuters reports that Germany/Merkel are now focusing on pressuring Ukraine to cease its military offensive in the Donbas, lest Putin suffer a loss of face that would compel him to invade.

After months of ratcheting up pressure on Vladimir Putin, concern is mounting in Berlin and other European capitals that an emboldened Ukraine’s military successes in the east are reducing the chances of a face-saving way out of the crisis for the Russian leader.

As a result, the focus of German-led diplomatic efforts has shifted, according to senior officials, towards urging restraint from Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and averting a humiliating defeat for pro-Russian rebels, a development that Berlin fears could elicit a strong response from Putin.

If followed, this advice will create another frozen conflict that Putin will use to eat away at Ukraine, to continue to bleed it and prevent it from reforming, and growing, and most importantly (from Putin’s perspective) keep it from moving closer to Europe. A persistent conflict in the region will also result in mounting civilian casualties and misery, things that Merkel claims to want to stop.

Frau Merkel gives the impression of someone who is willing to consign Ukraine to purgatory, to avoid dealing with Putin today. This is foolish, because it’s not as if Putin is going to go away satisfied. He will continue to pressure Ukraine, perhaps attempting to expand his covert and ambiguous military operations to other parts of the country. He will turn his attention to the Baltics. Merkel is just delaying the inevitable, and there is little certainty that the west will be in better shape to confront Putin later than now.

Merkel went to Ukraine proclaiming friendship. With friends like her, Ukraine-and the rest of Eastern Europe-don’t have to go looking for enemies.

 

 

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June 26, 2014

Understand This: Germany Won’t Sanction Russian Companies, But Will Sanction American Ones

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia,Uncategorized — The Professor @ 3:13 pm

Both the US and Germany are making noise about ratcheting up sanctions on Russia. Kerry told the Russians to disarm separatists “within hours” or else. That was hours ago, and nothing has happened.

Germany’s Merkel has also toughened “sanctions talk.”

Angela Merkel, German chancellor, has raised the prospect of broader economic sanctions against Russia, just two days before an EU summit at which her hardening stance against Moscow is expected to steer the diplomatic agenda.

One theory is that Merkel and Steinmeier are playing good cop, bad cop, with Angela in the role of the heavy. If Merkel is the bad cop, Putin and his clique have absolutely nothing to worry about.

Merkel has talked (relatively) tough before, but has always found some reason to back off. This time, no doubt Putin’s transparently phony call for his senate (and it is his, in the same sense that his dog is his) to repeal the authorization to invade Ukraine will give Merkel the excuse she needs to keep her finger off the sanctions trigger. That plus Putin’s typically convoluted (and contradictory) support for a ceasefire. Meanwhile, the war of subversion in Donbas goes on, transparently supported by Russia. Only those who will not see don’t understand this.

But Angela has found someone to sanction: the US, or more specifically, US telecom Verizon. German outrage over the Snowden revelations was a major reason for the decision.

Yes, there is reason for outrage here–outrage directed at Germany. Here is a nation that bends over backwards to find reasons not to sanction any Russian company. Even the pathetic sanctions  it has meted out (as part of the EU) are directed primarily at individuals, most of whom are nobodies. Talk of sanctioning Russian companies elicits howls of anger and pain from the German business community. There is constant talk of the need to “understand” the Russians, with the result being described by the French proverb “to understand all is to forgive all.” All including the anschluss in Crimea and the ongoing subversion in Ukraine. There is even a German phrase to describe this lot: Putin Verstehers. Putin understanders. Germans-and Merkel in particular-look for the slightest sign of compromise by Putin, and when they see it, they back off doing anything to penalize him, Russia, or any Russian company. Russia/Putin get the benefit of every German doubt.

But evidently the US does not get the benefit of any German doubt. So they sanction Verizon (not my favorite company, by the way) in their very narcissistic pique and outrage over US surveillance of Germany. No attempt to understand the US whatsoever, let alone an attempt to be as understanding as the Germans are with the corrupt autocrat and oligarchic thugs and espionage-crazy security service in the nation to their east.

But oh, there is a lot that the Germans need to understand about why they are a surveillance target, and not given the same deference as the Five Eyes nations. (I will let pass in silence the fact that Germany’s intelligence service the BND has long cooperated with the US.) One thing to understand: the fact that 911 hijackers made themselves at home in Germany. Another thing to understand: German politics and government has long been penetrated by Soviet, and then Russian, agents and collaborators. And yet another thing to understand: the fact that the German business community and government have clearly been suborned by Russian money. German companies (notably Siemens) have been deeply involved in corrupt dealings in Russia. And yet another thing: although it has cleaned up its act some lately, for a long time German businesses assisted Iran in its efforts to develop nuclear weapons.

In brief: Germany has earned the scrutiny that it has received from the NSA. Indeed, its continued enabling of Putin’s behavior just provides further evidence that it is an unreliable partner and uncertain ally that needs watching.

Germany only has the luxury to engage in its moral preening and biting American ankles and corrupt canoodling with the Russians because the US kept out the Russians for 45 years. And I thought the French were ingrates.

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June 5, 2014

You Got Some ‘Splainin’ to Do, Barry

Filed under: China,History,Military,Politics,Russia,Uncategorized — The Professor @ 10:50 am

Looking back at Obama’s West Point speech helps one comprehend the otherwise incomprehensible Bergdahl-Taliban imbroglio. You can see his mind, such as it is, at work. He is too clever by half, too convinced of his own brilliance and righteousness, and possessed of some acute blind spots, particularly regarding the military, and especially those serving in the ranks whom he does not have any experience with whatsoever.

In the speech, Obama effectively declared victory in Afghanistan. The Al Qaeda “leadership” had been decimated. The Afghan security forces were able to step up. The Taliban were not even mentioned.

So time to declare victory and end the war and go home. And one of the signifiers of the end of a war is the exchange of POWs. Hence, the negotiation of a trade of Bergdahl for five Taliban hardliners. (“Dead-enders”, as Rumsfeld would have called them.) Moreover, once five really bad actors are released from Gitmo, what is the basis for keeping the rest? Thus, the next stage would have been additional releases.

But then things spun out of Obama’s control, and the contradictions in the policy, its ham-fisted implementation, and inane justifications exploded into view-and in Obama’s face.

First there was the strong skepticism about the prudence-or sanity-of releasing Taliban hardliners. Then there was Bergdahl himself, and Bergdahl’s father. Because of Obama’s blindspot about the military-one shared by most of his administration-he did not expect the furious reaction from the ranks, especially from those who had served with Bergdahl or served in the same area at the same time and therefore bore the brunt of the fallout from his apparent desertion. No doubt the perfumed Pentagon princes assured Obama that everyone would be pleased to have a comrade come home. But this was to misjudge the widespread belief in the ranks that Bergdahl had broken the code with his comrades, and that soldiers died as a result.

This was compounded by Obama’s very public-and literal-embrace of Bergdahl’s father, an avowed Taliban supporter who has called on God to avenge the deaths of Afghan children. Deaths he clearly blames on the US, not on the Taliban. Meaning that avenging the deaths of Afghan children would involve the deaths of US servicemen and women.

Blindsided by the furious onslaught, the administration responded in typical fashion. It trotted out Susan “Say Anything” Rice to claim that Bergdahl had been “captured on the field of battle” (almost certainly false) and had served with “honor” (again, almost certainly false). When this just re-vectored the blowback onto Rice’s sorry backside, Jay Carney interrupted his way out the door to support her, claiming that Bergdahl did serve with distinction because he had volunteered and put on the uniform.

Um, Jay, that may be a necessary condition for honorable service, but it isn’t a sufficient one. Indeed, if just putting on the uniform is all that matters, why are there distinctions made when one takes it off? Most are discharged honorably, but some depart the service with dishonorable or less-than-honorable discharges. Implying that one’s conduct while in uniform matters. Some people dishonor the uniform through their conduct while in service. The issue here is whether Bergdahl did that.

But perhaps Jay Carney isn’t aware of the concept of dishonorable discharges. Though he should be. John Kerry’s discharge status was an issue in 2004.

Which brings us to the next administration response: slime the soldiers who have accused Bergdahl of desertion in the face of the enemy. Yesterday it was reported that people in the administration were accusing these veterans of “Swift Boating” Bergdahl. A lot of fire is being delivered in the direction of these guys. You see, Bergdahl is honorable. They stayed and fought, but they are psychos (as one Obama administration staffer put it). How lovely.

But we’re not done yet. There is also the issue of the process and the timeline of the deal with the Taliban. The administration claimed that it had to act in haste, without giving Congress the legally-mandated 30 days notice of the release of Gitmo detainees, because of its grave concern about Bergdahl’s physical and mental condition. But these concerns were allegedly based on a video taken in December and received, via the Qataris, in January. The five month lag belies any serious alarm about the imminence of Bergdahl’s medical peril.

Belatedly the administration allowed several Senators to view the tape, to mixed reviews. Some, like the awful Dick (and I do mean Dick) Durbin toed the administration line. Others were less impressed. And not all of the unimpressed were Republicans. Manchin and Feinstein did not see evidence of imminent danger.

The health justification is especially dubious given the fact that this deal has been in the works for years. Years. At least since 2011. Moreover, there are indications that the motivation for the deal had a large political component:

President Obama [has] announced that the United States will now pursue “a negotiated peace” with the Taliban. That peace is likely to include a prisoner swap – or a “confidence-building measure,” as U.S. officials working on the negotiations call it – that could finally end the longest war in America’s history. Bowe is the one prisoner the Taliban have to trade. “It could be a huge win if Obama could bring him home,” says a senior administration official familiar with the negotiations. “Especially in an election year, if it’s handled properly.”

I would bet you dimes to donuts that the “senior administration official” is Susan Rice, especially in light of her history of viewing geopolitical issues through a domestic political filter:

At an interagency teleconference in late April, Susan Rice, a rising star on the NSC who worked under Richard Clarke, stunned a few of the officials present when she asked, “If we use the word ‘genocide’ and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November [congressional] election?” Lieutenant Colonel Tony Marley remembers the incredulity of his colleagues at the State Department. “We could believe that people would wonder that,” he says, “but not that they would actually voice it.” Rice does not recall the incident but concedes, “If I said it, it was completely inappropriate, as well as irrelevant.”

Previous attempts to do the deal had been derailed by serious people, like Leon Panetta, Robert Gates, and yes, Hillary. People who take national security seriously. Obama has succeeded in getting rid of serious people, replacing Panetta with the pathetic Chuck Hagel, for example. What’s more, he deliberately set up the process to review the deal to exclude any possibility of a veto this time. The military was expected to “suck it up and salute.” Which the perfumed princes apparently did, whereas the rank and file did not.

In sum, Obama had been trying to close the deal that was done last week for years, as part of a broader diplomatic and political agenda. He had been stymied by fierce opposition within his own administration. He short circuited that opposition through key appointments (Hagel, Rice) and the creation of an ad hoc process that gave no opportunity for serious opposition to assert itself. Thus, the “health concerns” justification is completely at odds with the history of this situation: it is an ex post defense of a policy that Obama can’t defend on its merits.

Obama is clearly desperate-desperate-for a deal. No doubt as a part of his ongoing Legacy Project. How desperate? This desperate:

Clinching it was a phone call Obama made two days later, on May 27, with the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, who said Qatari officials had agreed to measures to prevent at least an immediate return to the battlefield of the five Taliban prisoners, the officials said.

“Prevent at least an immediate return.” These guys have to go on time out for a while, to have a somewhat decent interval before returning to the fight. And even then, Obama admits that it’s “absolutely” possible these guys will kill again.

We’ve seen this movie before. You give Obama a fig leaf, and he will grab it and give you everything you want. (The Syrian chemical weapons deal is the classic example of that.)

For their part, once the deal was done, the Taliban punked Obama by releasing a video of the handover, along with much more extensive coverage of the joyous reception given the five released terrorists in Qatar.

And speaking of Qatar, which obviously played a huge role in all this, that could be the worst part of this sorry episode. Again in his desperation to deal, Obama has gone all in with the Qataris, who are truly malign actors whose interests are definitely not aligned with the US. Qatar has deep ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and was pushing its efforts in Egypt. Qatar is engaged in a struggle with Saudi Arabia to exert influence, and even achieve dominance, throughout the Middle East. Farming out key roles to these people is a dangerous game. (Interestingly, Obama met with the former emir of Qatar at West Point.)

So Obama has some serious explaining to do to justify this fiasco. So far his explanations have done worse than fallen flat: they’ve unleashed a firestorm of criticism. So you know what will happen: dismissing this as a manufactured DC controversy (which has already happened), attacks on the messenger (already well underway), and spin, spin, spin. Indeed, many of the media dervishes are whirling away as we sit here.

But not to worry. It’s not like anybody is noticing that Obama is feckless and incompetent, and taking advantage of that. Well, other than Putin, of course. And the Iranians. And the Chinese:

On the surface, this may look reckless. But one theory gaining traction among senior officials and policy analysts around Asia and in Washington is that the timing is well calculated. It reflects Mr. Xi’s belief that he is dealing with a weak U.S. president who won’t push back, despite his strong rhetorical support for Asian allies.

Mr. Xi’s perception, say these analysts, has been heightened by U.S. President Barack Obama’s failures to intervene militarily in Syria and Ukraine. And it’s led him to conclude that he has a window of opportunity to aggressively assert China’s territorial claims around the region.

I’ve often said that I hope Bismarck (“There is a special providence for fools, drunkards, and the USA”) and Adam Smith (“there is a lot of ruin in a nation”) are right. Obama is putting both aphorisms to the test.

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June 2, 2014

The Families of Six Servicemen Deserve the Truth About and the Accountability of Bowe Bergdahl

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Uncategorized — The Professor @ 3:16 pm

I noted yesterday that the upper brass and the grunts had a very different take on Bergdahl. That has become even more clear. The national security establishment, including both the civilian and military sides of the Pentagon, seems quite pleased with developments, and is more than willing to gloss over the circumstances by which Berghdahl fell into Taliban hands. Some are even willing to engage in a wholesale whitewash, most notably the execrable Susan Rice (no shock there), who says flat out that Bergdahl “served with honor and distinction” and was “captured on the battlefield”. She should really join the band Say Anything.

Many US soldiers currently in Afghanistan are more ambivalent. The circumstances of his capture sit uneasily with them.

Then there are those who who served with Bergdahl, or who were involved in the frantic operations mounted to find him after his disappearance. Very little ambivalence there. The consensus is that he is a deserter.

What’s more, there is considerable anger among those who were engaged in the search because people died as a direct result of Bergdahl’s disappearance. That people died searching for him is not in dispute. Six soldiers were killed on operations to try to find him. Moreover, it is possible that his disappearance indirectly killed Americans because resources (air support, drones, etc.) were diverted to the mission to find him, making other bases that were attacked more vulnerable. Then there is the issue of whether Bergdahl provided information or other support to the Taliban that cost American lives (though this is more speculative.) (Or maybe not so speculative.)

This is why it is imperative that there be a formal proceeding, along the lines of what is set out in the Code of Conduct, to determine just how Bergdahl wound up in enemy hands, and what he did while a captive. Yes, Bergdahl is home. Yes, his parents can rejoice in his return. But there are mothers, fathers, wives, and children of at least six American servicemen who will never experience such a reunion. Because of what Bergdahl did: there is no way to escape that fundamental fact. They deserve the truth about what he did. And they deserve the knowledge that if Bergdahl deliberately abandoned his unit, thereby setting in train the events that resulted in the deaths of their loved ones, that he has been held accountable.

In other words, this isn’t about Bob Bergdahl. It is about Clayton Bowden, Kurt Curtiss, Darynn Andrews, Michael Murprhey, Matthew Martinek, and Morris Walker.

There are stories circulating that he did not desert, e.g., that he was captured while at the latrine. I consider this unlikely: note that not one other US soldier was captured in Afghanistan (a remarkable feat), meaning that if Bergdahl was indeed captured without his intending to fall into enemy hands  he was truly the very unlucky and unique exception that proves the rule. (There are other reasons to disbelieve the latrine story, which originated in Taliban radio chatter.) Again, let’s assemble the evidence, including his testimony, and decide accordingly.

I am not prejudging the results of any such inquiry, or the appropriate punishment. What I am saying is that there must be a formal fact finding procedure with legal consequences based on these findings. (I note that the Army had previously determined that Bergdahl walked away. But it did not have his testimony, obviously. Now we can get it.) The results could range from a commendation (in the unlikely event that the story as we know it is all wrong), to dishonorable discharge, to something more severe. The torments he might have suffered over the past five years may be grounds to ameliorate  punishment, but not to avoid assembling the facts and reaching a verdict.

One of the most well-established facts about men in combat is that they fight first and foremost for their buddies. The guys in their squad or platoon. There is a formal Code of Conduct in the US military, but there is a timeless code that binds soldiers: I will die for you because I know you will die for me.

People died for Bowe Bergdahl. That is incontrovertible fact. What remains unclear is whether they died because he violated the trust, the code, that should have bound him to his comrades.

The facts of his disappearance support that. But so too does the fact that it appears that Bergdahl didn’t have any buddies. He expressed scorn for his comrades, and was always an outsider who was independent, and likely to be reading when those in his unit were partying together. He was a man apart, at first figuratively, and then it seems quite literally.

If you want to be individualist, and follow your own lights and desires, that’s fine. But the military isn’t the place for that: go be an individualist somewhere else, and believe me, you’ll be much happier. And once you commit to the military, at times lives depend on you, and you have to put your wants aside, and choke down any disillusionment (a common excuse made for Bergdahl) and do your duty. Do it for your comrades, who may be disillusioned or lonely or unhappy or miserable or pissed off too: in fact, in combat generally, and Afghanistan particularly, it’s pretty much a lock that they all would rather be someplace else.

It’s cliche but it’s true: you surrender much of your individuality when you put on a uniform. The surrender is consensual in a volunteer military.

Much that we have been told implies that Bergdahl did not do that. He indulged himself, with no regard for the consequences his actions would have for those he left behind. (Bergdahl has more than a little in common with Snowden, by the way.)

Finding the facts and holding Bergdahl accountable for his actions is important for the good of the service, and for the memories of those who died trying to find him. But I fear that petty political considerations will trump such serious concerns. Trading hardcore Taliban for a GI is controversial enough. Trading hardcore Taliban for a deserter who cost the lives of good soldiers who sucked it up and endured the hardship that Bowe Bergdahl apparently felt he did not deserve is infinitely more so. Which means that the truth, and even the effort to find the truth, is likely to be the last casualty of this sorry affair because the truth could be extremely inconvenient for Barack Obama. If Susan Rice’s encore performance is anything to go by, the whitewash is well underway.

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May 10, 2014

SWP’s Law of Airlines

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Professor @ 7:05 am

All airlines suck. Corollary: the one that sucks worst is the last one you were on.

I travel a lot. So I am familiar with the various forms of abuse that airlines dish out. The best thing that can be said of this experience is that it does give one an understanding of how to manage the pain.

Case in point. Flying to Charlotte direct from Houston on United yesterday afternoon. Well, supposed to be flying from IAH to CLT. Actual flying, not so much. Boarded the plane on time. Sat down. “Sorry, folks. We have to de-board. There’s a maintenance issue they didn’t tell us about.” Two hours of sitting around later, United cancels the flight. It rebooks me on the “next available flight.” Get this, this flight is an 0600 flight to Charlotte–via Chicago. Seriously? That only adds about 6 hours onto the trip.

This is the fourth cancellation on United I’ve experienced in the past 8 months. Two of those international.

But like I said I do have some experience in handling this, so I looked and saw that US Air had a direct 0830 flight. So I booked that. Then I called United and, um, persuaded them to cancel my outbound leg and refund half the fare. This took 3 phone calls until I found the accommodating agent. Before that it was “United policy is that we book you on the next flight. You can cancel the entire trip for a refund.”

Persistence pays.

So as of yesterday, United sucked worst. But they’ve been supplanted. Woke up this morning to an email that the US Air flight was delayed 2 hours for “crew rest.” A couple of weeks ago I had a 3 hour delay on US Air: another maintenance issue.

Maybe as a public service I should announce my travel plans so you all can avoid being on the flights that theoretically are supposed to take me where I want to go.

United will have its chance to reclaim the crown on Wednesday. After that Lufthansa.

I hate them all.*

* Actually, my one experience on Brussels Airways wasn’t bad. Beginner’s luck, maybe.

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April 14, 2014

Men Without Chests: The Pusillanimity Riot

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia,Uncategorized — The Professor @ 8:33 pm

The egregious pusillanimity, fecklessness, and cravenness in the US, Europe, and Ukraine, metastasizes day by day.

Today Obama, at Putin’s request, spoke with the Russian president.

That’s problem one. Obama should have said: we have nothing to talk about until you call off your dogs in eastern Ukraine, move your troops away from the border, and cease all economic pressure on Ukraine.

And yeah, all the previous five talks made such a big freaking difference. Hasn’t Obama heard about Einstein’s definition of insanity? Or maybe he is a glutton for punishment, and gets some perverse pleasure out of being Putin’s bitch.

Why do you think Putin asked for the call? The most likely explanation is that he gets off on having Obama being his supplicant, and then telling him to sod off.

Obama expressed “grave concern.” Judas Priest, if I hear “grave concern” or “deep concern” or “great concern” one more time I am  going to have a stroke. The most vacuous phrase in the English language, because this airy “concern” is never transformed into action.

It gets worse, if you can believe that’s possible:

[Obama] urged President Putin to use his influence with these armed, pro-Russian groups to convince them to depart the buildings they have seized.

“Use his influence”? Seriously? Barry-they are under Putin’s orders, as anyone with two eyes and a room temperature IQ can understand.

But it gets even worse!

Obama to reassure Putin: Won’t provide lethal aid to Ukraine

The White House on Monday said President Barack Obama would speak to Russian President Vladimir Putin soon, perhaps later in the day, and made clear the United States was not considering lethal aid for Ukraine.

“We are looking at a variety of ways to demonstrate our strong support for Ukraine including diplomatically and economically,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.

“We’re not actively considering lethal aid but we are reviewing the kinds of assistance we can provide,” he said

Reassure Putin? Huh? So he can, after being suitably reassured, proceed to gobble up Ukraine with no fear of humiliating defeat, or even breaking a nail?

Here’s a thought: “Hey, Vlad. Remember those Kornet ATGMs that wound up in Hezbollah hands and caused the Israelis huge problems in Lebanon in 2006? Good times, good times. Well, anyways, since one good turn deserves another, we’re supplying  Javelins and TOWs out the wazoo to Ukraine. And we have all these Dragons that we’ve phased out laying around, but they were designed specifically to take out T-72s, and it would be a shame to have them sit around going to waste.  The C-130s and C-5s are winging their way as we speak. We’re nothing if not generous, and I hope you appreciate the spirit in which these are given. Have a nice day!”

If you can handle more, there’s this:

The President noted Russia’s growing political and economic isolation as a result of its actions in Ukraine and made clear that the costs Russia already has incurred will increase if those actions persist.

Obviously our genius president hasn’t figured out that Putin wants to isolate Russia: isolation is a feature, not a bug. He has made it quite clear that he views the west as a malign force, and fears that western ideas and influence threaten his control over Russia. But Obama so believes that everyone views the world the same way as he and the Harvard faculty and the Euros do, and would  just die! at the thought of being cut off from their wine and cheese parties. Mirror imaging will be the death of us.

And insofar as costs are concerned, even the seriously mentally challenged will have concluded that the “costs” that have been imposed heretofore have not checked Putin in the slightest. This implies that if Obama is serious about deterring Putin, he must dramatically ratchet up the pressure. Dramatically: the costs must be increased by orders of magnitude. The additional sanctions announced last week just convinced Putin of Obama’s lack of seriousness: yeah, like Putin could give a damn about the Crimean oil and gas company. Rosneft and Gazprom, and Sberbank and VTB: maybe that would get his attention.  But instead of stabbing brutally at the jugular, Obama gingerly pricks the capillaries.

Sadly, Obama has plenty of company in his pusillanimity riot.

The Euros have announced that they might have a meeting in a week or so to discuss the “emergency” in Ukraine. If it can wait a week, it ain’t an emergency. Disgusting. The Euros give every impression of someone who hopes that Putin will prevail in the next couple of days, so they can throw up their hands and say “Too bad! There’s nothing we can do now!”

But the Ukrainian “leadership” gives Obama and the Euros a run for their money for the Craven Cup. It is obviously paralyzed at the thought of exercising control over its own territory, and this paralysis just spurs on Putin. Acting President Turchynov declared that the military would undertake an “anti-terrorist” operation against those who have seized government buildings and facilities (including air bases) throughout eastern Ukraine. But as of yet, nothing serious has happened. This is stoking popular anger at the new government: Maidan may very well reconstitute itself to demand ouster of this government out of outrage at the abject failure to defend Ukraine from invasion by Russia.

If the World War II cohort was “the greatest generation,” we are its antithesis. We are the living personification of what C.S. Lewis called “men without chests.” Denatured humans, enervated by a smug rationalism that is profoundly irrational because it fails to take the world as it is, populated by people who see things much, much differently, and who act accordingly.

“We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.”

That is where we are now.

 

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April 12, 2014

Yes, Brad, It’s Just You (And Others Who Oversimplify and Ignore Salient Facts)

Filed under: Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,HFT,Politics,Regulation,Uncategorized — The Professor @ 2:48 pm

Brad DeLong takes issue with my Predator/Prey HFT post. He criticizes me for not taking a stand on HFT, and for not concluding that HFT should be banned because it is a parasitic. Color me unpersuaded. De Long’s analysis is seriously incomplete, and some of his conclusions are incorrect.

At root, this is a dispute about the social benefits of informed trading. De Long takes the view that there is too little informed trading:

In a “rational” financial market without noise traders in which liquidity, rebalancing, and control/incentive traders can tag their trades, it is impossible to make money via (4). Counterparties to (4) will ask the American question: If this is a good trade for you, how can it be a good trade for me? The answer: it cannot be. And so the economy underestimates in fundamental information, and markets will be inefficient–prices will be away from fundamentals, and so bad real economic decisions will be made based on prices that are not in fact the appropriate Lagrangian-multiplier shadow values–because of free riding on the information contained in informed order flow and visible market prices. [Note to Brad: I quote completely, without extensive ellipses. Pixels are free.]

Free riding on the information in prices leading to underinvestment in information is indeed a potential problem. And I am quite familiar with this issue, thank you very much. I used similar logic in my ’94 JLE paper on self-regulation by exchanges to argue that exchanges may exert too little effort to deter manipulation because they didn’t internalize the benefits of reducing the price distortions caused by corners. My ’92 JLS paper applied this reasoning to an evaluation of exchange rules regarding the disclosure of information about the quantity and quality of grain in store. It’s a legitimate argument.

But it’s not the only argument relating to the incentives to collect information, and the social benefits and costs and private benefits and costs of trading on that information. My post focused on something that De Long ignores altogether, and certainly did not respond to: the possibility that privately informed trading can be rent seeking activity that dissipates resources.

This is not a new idea either. Jack Hirshleifer wrote a famous paper about it over 40 years ago. Hirsleifer emphasizes that trading on information has distributive effects, and that people have an incentive to invest real resources in order to distribute wealth in their direction. The term rent seeking wasn’t even coined then (Ann Kreuger first used it in 1974) but that is exactly what Hirshleifer described.

The example I have in my post is related to such rent seeking behavior. Collecting information that allows a superior forecast of corporate earnings shortly before an announcement can permit profitable trading, but (as in one of Hirshleifer’s examples) does not affect decisions on any margin. The cost of collecting this information is therefore a social waste.

De Long says that the idea that there is too little informed trading “does not seem to me to scan.” If it doesn’t it is because he has ignored important strands of the literature dating back to the early-1970s.

Both the free riding effects and the rent seeking effects of informed trading certainly exist in the real world. Too little of some information is collected, and too much of other types is collected. And that was basically my point: due to the nature of information, true costs and benefits aren’t internalized, and as a result, evaluating the welfare effects of informed trading and things that affect the amount of informed trading is impossible.

One of the things that affects the incentives to engage in informed trading is market microstructure, and in particular the strategies followed by market makers and how those strategies depend on technology, market rules, and regulation. Since many HFT are engaging in market making, HFT affects the incentives surrounding informed trading. My post focused on how HFT reduced adverse selection costs-losses to informed traders-by ferreting out informed order flow. This reduces the losses to informed traders, which is the same as saying it reduces the gains to informed traders. Thus there is less informed trading of all varieties: good, bad, and ugly.

Again the effects of this are equivocal, precisely because the effects of informed trading are equivocal. To the extent that rent seeking informed trading is reduced, any reduction in adverse selection cost is an unmitigated gain. However, even if collection of some decision improving information is eliminated, reducing adverse selection costs has some offsetting benefits. De Long even mentions the sources of the benefits, but doesn’t trace through the logic to the appropriate conclusion.

Specifically, De Long notes that by trading people can improve the allocation of risk and mitigate agency costs. These trades are not undertaken to profit on information, and they are generally welfare-enhancing. By creating adverse selection, informed trading-even trading that improves price informativeness in ways that leads to better real investment decisions-raises the cost of these welfare-improving risk shifting trades. Just as adverse selection in insurance markets leads to under provision of insurance (relative to the first best), adverse selection in equity or derivatives markets leads to a sub optimally small amount of hedging, diversification, etc.

So again, things are complicated. Reducing adverse selection costs through more efficient market making may involve a trade-off between improved risk sharing and better decisions involving investment, etc., because prices are more informative. Contrary to De Long, who denies the existence of such a trade off.

And this was the entire point of my post. That evaluating the welfare effects of market making innovations that mitigate adverse selection is extremely difficult. This shouldn’t be news to a good economist: it has long been known that asymmetric information bedevils welfare analysis in myriad ways.

De Long can reach his anti-HFT conclusion only by concluding that the net social benefits of privately informed trading are positive, and by ignoring the fact that any kind of privately informed trading serves as a tax on beneficial risk sharing transactions. To play turnabout (which is fair!): there is “insufficient proof” for the first proposition. And he is flatly wrong to ignore the second consideration. Indeed, it is rather shocking that he does so.*

Although De Long concludes an HFT ban would be welfare-improving, his arguments are not logically limited to HFT alone. They basically apply to any market making activity. Market makers employ real resources to do things to mitigate adverse selection costs. This reduces the amount of informed trading. In De Long’s world, this is an unmitigated bad.

So, if he is logical De Long should also want to ban all exchanges in which intermediaries make markets. He should also want to ban OTC market making. Locals were bad. Specialists were bad. Dealers were bad. Off with their heads!

Which raises the question: why has every set of institutions for trading financial instruments that has existed everywhere and always had specialized intermediaries who make markets? The burden of proof would seem to be on De Long to demonstrate that such a ubiquitous practice has been able to survive despite its allegedly obvious inefficiencies.

This relates to a point I’ve made time and again. HFT is NOT unique. It is just the manifestation, in a particular technological environment, of economic forces that have expressed/manifested themselves in different ways under different technologies. Everything that HFT firms do-market making, arbitrage activities, and even some predatory actions (e.g., momentum ignition)-have direct analogs in every financial trading system known to mankind. HFT market makers basically put into code what resides in the grey matter of locals on the floor. Arbitrage is arbitrage. Gunning the stops is gunning the stops, regardless of whether it is done on the floor or on a computer.

One implication of this is that even if HFT is banned, it is inevitable-inevitable-that some alternative way of performing the same functions would arise. And this alternative would pose all of the same conundrums and complexities and ambiguities as HFT.

In sum, Brad De Long reaches strong conclusions because he vastly oversimplifies. He ignores that some informed trading is rent seeking, and that there can be a trade-off between more informative prices (and higher adverse selection costs) and risk sharing.

The complexities and trade-offs are exactly why debates over speculation and market structure have been so fierce, and so protracted. There are no easy answers. This isn’t like a debate over tariffs, where answers are much more clean-cut. Welfare analyses are always devilish hard when there is asymmetric information.

Although a free-market guy, I acknowledge such difficulties, even though that means that implies that I know the outcome is not first best. Brad De Long, not a free market guy, well, not so much. So yes, Brad, it is just you-and other people who oversimplify and ignore salient considerations that are present in any set of mechanisms for trading financial instruments, regardless of the technology.

* De Long incorrectly asserts that informed trading cannot occur in the absence of “noise trading,” where from the context De Long defines noise traders as randomizing idiots: “In a ‘rational’ financial market without noise traders in which liquidity, rebalancing, and control/incentive traders can tag their trades, it is impossible to make money via [informed trading].” Noise trading (e.g., in a Kyle model) is a modeling artifice that treats “liquidity, rebalancing and control/incentive” trades-trades that are not information-driven-in a reduced form fashion.  Randomizing idiots don’t trade on information. But neither do rational portfolio diversifiers subject to endowment shocks.

It is possible-and has been done many, many times-to produce a structural model with, say, rebalancing traders subject to random endowment shocks who trade even though they lose systematically to informed traders. (De Long qualifies his statement by referring to traders who can “tag their trades.” No idea what this means. Regardless, completely rational individuals who benefit from trading because it improves their risk exposure (e.g., by permitting diversification) will trade even though they are subject to adverse selection.) They will trade less, however, which is the crucial point, and which is a cost of informed trading, regardless of whether that informed trading improves other decisions, or is purely rent-seeking.

 

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April 2, 2014

Michael Lewis’s HFT Book: More of a Dark Market Than a Lit One

Filed under: Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,HFT,Politics,Regulation,Uncategorized — The Professor @ 2:35 pm

Michael Lewis’s new book on HFT, Flash Boys, has been released, and has unleashed a huge controversy. Or put more accurately, it has added fuel to a controversy that has been burning for some time.

I have bought the book, but haven’t had time to read it. But I read a variety of accounts of what is in the book, so I can make a few comments based on that.

First, as many have pointed out, although this has been framed as evil computer geniuses taking money from small investors, this isn’t at all the case. If anyone benefits from the tightening of spreads, especially for small trade sizes, it is small investors. Many of them (most, in fact) trade at the bid-ask midpoint via internalization programs with their brokers or through payment-for-order-flow arrangements. (Those raise other issues for another day, but have been around for years and don’t relate directly to HFT.)

Instead, the battle is mainly part of the struggle between large institutional investors and HFT. Large traders want to conceal their trading intentions to avoid price impact. Other traders from time immemorial have attempted to determine those trading intentions, and profit by trading before and against the institutional traders.  Nowadays, some HFT traders attempt to sniff out institutional orders, and profit from that information.  Information about order flow is the lifeblood of those who make markets.

This relates to the second issue. This has been characterized as “front running.” This terminology is problematic in this context. Front running is usually used to describe a broker in an agency relationship with a customer trading in advance of the customer’s order, or disclosing the order to another trader who then trades on that information. This is a violation of the agency relationship between the client and the broker.

In contrast, HFT firms use a variety of means-pinging dark pools, accessing trading and quoting information that is more extensive and obtained more quickly than via the public data feeds-to detect the presence of institutional orders. They are not in an agency relationship with the institution, and have no legal obligation to it.

And this is nothing new. Traders on the floor were always trying to figure out when big orders were coming, and who was submitting them. Sometimes they obtained this information when they shouldn’t have, because a broker violated his obligation. But usually it was from watching what brokers were trading, knowing what brokers served what customers, looking at how anxious the broker appeared, etc.  To throw the floor of the track, big traders would use many brokers. Indeed, one argument for dual trading was that it made it harder for the floor to know the origin of an order if the executing broker dual traded, and might be active because he was trading on his own account rather than for a customer.

This relates too to the third issue: reports that the FBI is investigating for possible criminal violations. Seriously? I remember how the FBI covered itself in glory during the sting on the floors in Chicago in ’89. Not really. The press reports say that the the FBI is investigating whether HFT trades on “non-public information.”  Well, “non-public information” is not necessarily “inside information” which is illegal to trade on:  inside information typically relates to that obtained from someone with a fiduciary duty to shareholders. Indeed, ferreting out non-public information contributes to price discovery: raising the risk of prosecution for trading on information obtained through research or other means, but which is not obtained from someone with a fiduciary relationship to a company, is a dangerous slippery slope that could severely interfere with the operation of the market.

Moreover, it’s not so clear that order flow information is “non-public”.  No, not everyone has it: HFT has to expend resources to get it, but anybody could in theory do that. Anybody can make the investment necessary to ping a dark pool. Anybody can pay to get a faster data feed that allows them to get information that everyone has access to more quickly. Anybody can pay to get quicker access to the data, either through co-location, or the purchase of a private data feed. There is no theft or misappropriation involved. If firms trade on the basis of such information that can be obtained for a price that not everyone is willing to pay, and that is deemed illegal, how would trading on the basis of what’s on a Bloomberg terminal be any different?

Fourth, one reason for the development of dark pools, and the rules that dark pools establish, are to protect order flow information, or to make it less profitable to trade on that information. The heroes of Lewis’s book, the IEX team, specifically designed their system (which is now a dark pool, but which will transition to an ECN and then an exchange in the future) to protect institutional traders against opportunistic HFT. (Note: not all HFT is opportunistic, even if some is.)

That’s great. An example of how technological and institutional innovation can address an economic problem. I would emphasize again that this is not a new issue: just a new institutional response. Once upon a time institutional investors relied on block trading in the upstairs market to prevent information leakage and mitigate price impact. Now they use dark pools. And dark pools are competing to find technologies and rules and protocols that help institutional investors do the same thing.

I also find it very, very ironic that a dark pool is now the big hero in a trading morality tale. Just weeks ago, dark pools were criticized heavily in a Congressional hearing.  They are routinely demonized, especially by the exchanges. The Europeans have slapped very restrictive rules on them in an attempt to constrain the share of trading done in the dark. Which almost certainly will increase institutional trading costs: if institutions could trade more cheaply in the light, they would do so. It will also almost certainly make them more vulnerable to predatory HFT because they will be deprived of the (imperfect) protections that dark pools provide.

Fifth, and perhaps most importantly from a policy perspective, as I’ve written often, much of the problem with HFT in equities is directly the result of the fragmented market structure, which in turn is directly the result of RegNMS. For instance, latency arbitrage based on the slowness of the SIP results from the fact that there is a SIP, and there is a SIP because it is necessary to connect the multiple execution venues. The ability to use trades or quotes on one market to make inferences about institutional trades that might be directed to other markets is also a consequence of fragmentation. As I’ve discussed before, much of the proliferation of order types that Lewis (and others) argue advantage HFT is directly attributable to fragmentation, and rules relating to locked and crossed markets that are also a consequence of RegNMS-driven fragmentation.

Though HFT has spurred some controversy in futures markets, these controversies are quite different, and much less intense. This is due to the fact that many of the problematic features of HFT in equities are the direct consequence of RegNMS and the SEC’s decision (and Congress’s before that) to encourage competition between multiple execution venues.

And as I’ve also said repeatedly, these problems inhere in the nature of financial trading. You have to pick your poison. The old way of doing business, in which order flow was not socialized as in the aftermath of RegNMS, resulted in the domination of a single major execution venue (e.g., the NYSE). And for those with a limited historical memory, please know that these execution venues were owned by their members who adopted rules-rigged the game if you will-that benefited them. They profited accordingly.

Other news from today brings this point home. Goldman is about to sell its NYSE specialist unit, the former Spear, Leeds, which it bought for $6.5 billion (with a B) only 14 years ago.  It is selling it for $30 million (with an M).  That’s a 99.5 decline in market value, folks. Why was the price so high back in 2000? Because under the rules of the time, a monopoly specialist franchise on a near monopoly exchange generated substantial economic rents. Rents that came out of the pockets of investors, including small investors.  Electronic trading, and the socialization of order flow and the resultant competition between execution venues, ruthlessly destroyed those rents.

So it’s not like the markets have moved from a pre-electronic golden age into a technological dystopia where investors are the prey of computerized super-raptors. And although sorting out cause and effect is complicated, the decline in trading costs strongly suggests that the new system, for all its flaws, has been a boon for investors. Until regulators or legislators find the Goldilocks “just right” set of regulations that facilitates competition without the pernicious effects of fragmentation (and in many ways, “fragmentation” is just a synonym for “competition”), we have to choose one or the other. My view is that messy competition is usually preferable to tidy monopoly.

The catch phrase from Lewis’s book is that the markets are rigged. As I tweeted after the 60 Minutes segment on the book, by his definition of rigging, all markets have always been rigged. A group of specialized intermediaries has always exercised substantial influence over the rules and practices of the markets, and has earned rents at the expense of investors. And I daresay it would be foolish to believe this will ever change. My view is that the competition that prevails in current markets has dissipated a lot of those rents (although some of that dissipation has been inefficient, due to arms race effects).

In sum, there doesn’t appear to be a lot new in Lewis’s book. Moreover, the morality tale doesn’t capture the true complexity of the markets generally, or HFT specifically. It has certainly resulted in the release of a lot of heat, but I don’t see a lot of light. Which is kind of fitting for a book in which a dark pool is the hero.

 

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March 3, 2014

It Gives Me No Joy, But Yes: I Will Say I Told You So. Seven Damn Years Ago.

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia,Uncategorized — The Professor @ 4:45 pm

In 2007, in my 60th post on SWP, I wrote a post about Putin and the Euros, titled “A Man in a Hurry.”  If you look at Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, and the utterly pusillanimous European response to this aggression, that post from more than 7 years ago is quite clearly prophetic, to the last jot and tittle.

The closing paragraph:

I think that most Europeans, and those few Americans who seem to pay much attention to these issues, are nonplussed by Putin’s audacity in large part because they are projecting their attitudes onto him. They cannot envision why someone would engage in such seemingly short sighted actions. As a recent Newsweek story puts it, they wonder why Putin is risking severe “blowback.” However, their attitudes have evolved and developed in a completely different institutional, economic, and political environment than Russia’s. The Euro-American environment is much more conducive to taking the longer view that the unsettled (and unsettling) environment that characterizes Russia today. So, the Europeans–and Americans–should be ready for more “surprises” from Putin–which shouldn’t be surprises at all.

My main question is why a blogger, and amateur student of Russian politics, could figure this out, but the State Department, the intelligence agencies, the national security community, the vast bulk of think tanks, and the editorial pages of every major US paper couldn’t.  And why they haven’t been able to do so despite all that has happened since.  Georgia.  The castling move whereby Putin resumed the presidency.  The unrelenting crackdown on civil society.  It’s one thing to ignore reality when it’s lying around.  It’s another to ignore it when it is hitting you in the goddam face.

I’m not claiming genius.  Quite the contrary. This shouldn’t have been that hard.  I’m claiming common sense and a willingness to look objectively at reality.

But maybe that’s the problem.  All the king’s horses and all the king’s men were unable to do that for the reason I mentioned in that old post: a dominant mindset in which the bien pensants projected their own self-image onto Putin.  A failure of a navel gazing elite.  (We would be better served by a naval gazing elite, but since history ended that’s apparently so passé.)

This, frankly, is why we are where we are today.  Which is totally f*cked, by the way.

While I’m in this mood, I will also take credit for being among the first to advocate what is now becoming recognized as the only real way to hit Putin and the Russian elite where it hurts: an aggressive investigation of all the dirty money these bastards have squirreled away around the world.

Sadly, although this is widely recommended, the Germans and the British are going to fight this tooth and nail.  More on that later.

Postscript. Speaking of Putin as a Man in a Hurry, imagine my surprise to read Matthew Kaminski’s WSJ piece last night in which he said that Crimea was Putin’s appetizer, and characterized Putin as “a man in a hurry.”  Perhaps it is just coincidence, but more than 24 hours before I had written a post in which I had said that Crimea was Putin’s appetizer, and  that I had long said that Putin was a man in a hurry.  Surely a coincidence, except for the fact that the only references I can find to Putin being a man in a hurry are things I wrote.  Also probably a coincidence that 24 hours after I wrote a post saying that the EU had “midwifed” a deal with Yanukovych and that the ultimate outcome would probably be him ruling over a “rump state” in eastern Ukraine, Andrew Peek in the Fiscal Times uses the exact same words to express the exact same ideas.   It’s not like “midwifed” and “rump state” are everyday expressions.

Sorry.  Perhaps this is self-indulgent.  But this happens with some frequency.  Too often to be purely coincidence.  Citation/acknowledgement is the coin of the realm in academia, and as a result, using without attribution is tantamount to grand theft, which is why it gets under my skin.  But I guess journalism and academia are quite different.  In fact, I don’t guess: I know.  Journalists (and many bloggers) are the biggest lifters of the work of others that I know of.

 

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January 4, 2014

The Wages of Fecklessness

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Uncategorized — The Professor @ 10:32 pm

The Wall Street Journal reports that the Obama administration has put any additions to the Magnitsky List on hold.  The administration has always disliked the list, because it didn’t want it to interfere with its fabulous Reset.  It resisted the list for as long as it could, and then grudgingly implemented Congress’s directive.

The desire to appease Russia is disturbing.  But I could see a realpolitik justification for slow walking it now.  Putin and the Russian elite hate the list.  Hate, hate, hate.  We could presumably extract something tangible, something highly advantageous to US interests.

The sad thing is that the administration thinks it has:

Why veto the expanded Magnitsky list? Russia’s human-rights record hasn’t miraculously improved. In his interview with Itar-Tass, Mr. Rhodes suggested the answer. He praised Moscow’s role in striking a deal with Syria’s Bashar Assad to give up his chemical weapons stockpile in return for removing any Western threat to attack his military forces, who are now liberated to try to finish off the rebels. Mr. Rhodes also noted Russian support for nuclear talks with Iran.

For crying out loud.  Seriously.  It got nothing from Putin.  Putin has played us like a drum on Syria, and is content to watch us give away the store to Iran.

Obama was desperate to avoid having to cash the check his big mouth wrote (“redline”) in Syria.  Putin bailed out Obama, and has achieved all of his objectives in Syria.  The chemical weapons deal leaves Assad in power, and effectively makes the United States his partner.  So Syrians won’t be killed by chemical weapons.  Yay! They are just continuing to die, at a rate of about 150 a day, felled by barrel bombs, bullets, artillery bombardments and the blades of ISIS head choppers.  The country has descended into a hell of warlordism akin to China in the ’20s and ’30s, with the government holding sway in a rump state near the coast and a horrifying collection of Islamist groups (with ISIS being the most horrific) controlling patches of territory in the north and east.  The war is spreading into Lebanon, which is seeing a major car bombing a week.  The country is a running sore, and will continue to be for years to come.  No one has the strength to prevail, so things will be stalemated for the foreseeable future.

And Putin doesn’t care.  Every Chechen that goes to Syria on jihad is one less that he has to deal with in the Caucasus.  And every one that is killed is just a bonus.  His client survives.  The United States looks pitiful.

All in all, a big win for Putin, and a loss for the US.  We didn’t get anything on Syria for forbearing on Magnitsky: we gave Putin everything he wanted.

And on Iran, Obama doesn’t need Putin’s help.  Obama is evidently willing to make any concession to get a deal with the mullahs.

In sum: Obama got bupkus for caving on the Magnitsky List.

Back to Syria.  The WSJ ran a long story detailing the sorry, sorry tale of American policy.  Read the whole thing, but it is readily summarized.  The administration wanted nothing to do with Syria, but didn’t have the stones to says publicly.  It gave out aid to the rebels in penny packets to appease frantic allies appealing for American support.  The result: the aforementioned stalemate in which the most radical and bloodthirsty survive. I cannot think of a comparable example of American fecklessness in the 226 years of the history of the Republic.

Obama’s reluctance to get involved in Syria is understandable.  There was no easy choice.  But the administration made the worst choice of the lousy ones available.  A robust intervention on behalf of the rebels would have probably resulted in their victory, with an outcome similar to the final scenes of Lawrence of Arabia, with squabbling rebels and tribes making a hash of things in Damascus.  But that would have been better than the current and future situation, with Islamist warlords ranging from the psychotic to the extremely psychotic face off against one another and the remnants of a blood-soaked Baathist regime.

By trying not to choose, Obama made a choice.  Millions of Syrians-and Lebanese-are paying the price.  Such are the wages of fecklessness.

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