Streetwise Professor

February 16, 2015

ISIS’s Eschatology Is Its Greatest Vulnerability, Not a Reason to Shrink From Confronting It

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Uncategorized — The Professor @ 11:09 pm

I am a distant relative of William Tecumseh Sherman: we share a common ancestor (a Puritan who settled in Connecticut n the 1630s). I like to think that my red beard and slightly crazed look is a reflection of that genetic connection. Be that as it may, I do share something of a philosophic affinity for him. Ruthlessly practical and unromantic (even though he lived in a decidedly Romantic era). Nothing demonstrated this better than his views on war, including in particular this quote:

War is the remedy that our enemies have chosen, and I say let us give them all they want.

@libertylynx reminded me of this quote when she was debating a wannabe wonk on Twitter. Said wonk claimed that ISIS should not be confronted militarily, because that is what they want. He therefore condemned the Egyptian bombing raids on ISIS in response to its latest atrocity, the slaughter of 21 innocent Copts for the crime of being Christian “crusaders.” (Copts have been in the Middle East since hundreds of years before Mohammed. Just who are the invading holy warriors here? Continuing its craven refusal to acknowledge the reality of ISIS’s religiously inspired rampage, the White House condemned the murder of “21 Egyptian citizens.” The words “Copt” and “Christian” were absent.)

It is becoming a idée fixe on the Left that confronting ISIS militarily is futile. There will be civilian casualties! Yes, those are inevitable: but how many civilian casualties will there be while such monsters are on the loose? Attacking them will rally recruits to their standard! Apparently the killing ISIS fighters is akin to sowing dragon’s teeth: it will just make more enemies. So we might as well just give up, until their blood lust is sated. Or something.

This meme reached the levels of absurdity in the hands of State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf, who apparently strives daily to make a box of rocks look like John von Neumann by comparison to her, and largely succeeds in her mission:

HARF: We’re killing a lot of them and we’re going to keep killing more of them. So are the Egyptians, so are the Jordanians. They’re in this fight with us. But we cannot win this war by killing them. We cannot kill our way out of this war. We need in the medium to longer term to go after the root causes that leads people to join these groups, whether it’s lack of opportunity for jobs, whether —

MATTHEWS: We’re not going to be able to stop that in our lifetime or fifty lifetimes. There’s always going to be poor people. There’s always going to be poor muslims, and as long as there are poor Muslims, the trumpet’s blowing and they’ll join. We can’t stop that, can we?

HARF: We can work with countries around the world to help improve their governance. We can help them build their economies so they can have job opportunities for these people…

Memo to Marie: when Chris Matthews makes a lot more sense than you do, it’s time to give up.

And yeah. It’s all about jobs and governance.

It’s not really, as this excellent article from the Atlantic demonstrates. ISIS is not of this age, or even of this world. Materialistic concerns projected by western leftists are completely irrelevant to it. Obama’s and other western leaders’ denials to the contrary, it is a fanatical religious movement imbued with a fervor totally alien to comfortable western minds, and progressive minds in particular, who believe that such forces were left behind several turns of the dialectical wheel ago.

In particular, as the Atlantic piece brings out, ISIS has an apocalyptic vision, and crucially, its adherents fervently believe in an imminent eschatology, culminating in a climactic battle against the “Romans” on the Plains of Dabiq in Syria. (Note that the latest ISIS snuff film documenting the beheading of the innocent Copts included a warning that they were coming to Rome.)

So yes, they want a battle. In the worst way.

So why not give it to them? Now usually, one tries to avoid doing what the enemy wants. But when the enemy’s firmest desire is based on delusion, that rule no longer applies. ISIS has no real conception of how militarily mismatched it is. Yes, Kobane gave them something of an inkling, but even there the US deployed and displayed only a fraction its capabilities. Nothing like an Arc Light raid of the Vietnam War, or the kind of power unleashed in Desert Storm.

This does not mean rushing in to fight on their terms. It means forcing or maneuvering them into a position where they have to stand and fight in a way that makes them vulnerable to a pounding. To use their eagerness to fight a climactic battle to lure them into a fight they cannot win.

The closest historical analog to ISIS is the Mahdist War of 1881-1899. This conflict culminated in the Battle of Omdurman, in which a massive Islamist army was lured into attacking a much smaller British-Egyptian army equipped with the latest in small arms, machine guns, and artillery, which resulted in the Mahdists’ utter destruction: they lost over 50 percent casualties. The very fanaticism that had carried the Mahdists to victory after victory was the cause of their utter ruin. That could be a model for the war on ISIS.

We only defeated the fanatical Japanese and the fanatical Nazis in WWII by killing them in vast numbers. That is the only way to defeat the current breed of fanatic. And fortunately, ISIS is neither so numerous, nor militarily capable, as either such foe, and current American capability makes the forces of the 1940s look like toys by comparison.

So rather than being a reason to shrink from fighting it, ISIS’s eschatological vision and mad thirst for battle against the New Romans is its greatest vulnerability. The smart thing for them to do would be hit and run: but we can use their fanaticism to get them to stand and fight. American strategy should be focused on making their dearest wishes come true. As Sherman said, War is the remedy ISIS has chosen, and I say let us give them all they want, but on our terms, exploiting our advantages.

ISIS needs to be introduced to the America of Billy Sherman and Andy Jackson. But we have Barry Obama.

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February 2, 2015

Arms and the Man

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia,Uncategorized — The Professor @ 9:26 pm

The Obama administration is apparently reconsidering its refusal to provide lethal military assistance to Ukraine, although reading between the lines I suspect Obama is reprising his star turn as Hamlet. The security establishment seems solidly behind the idea, but Obama frets about getting into a proxy war with Russia.

Merkel came out steadfastly against the idea:

“Germany will not support Ukraine with guns and weapons,” said Merkel, speaking in Budapest. “We are putting all our bets on sanctions and doing our best to find a diplomatic solution.”

Telegram from Mr. Trotsky to Barack and Angela: you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.* Nattering on about diplomacy is pathetic given where things stand now, with the collapse of the Minsk accords and the dramatic escalation of conflict all along the contact line, but especially in the Debaltseve pocket. Merkel is engaged in wishful, not to say magical, thinking. Diplomacy and force are complements, and Putin will be uninterested in talk, except as a diversionary or delaying tactic, as long as the military option is viable.

One of the weapons the US is supposedly considering supplying to Ukraine is the Javelin anti-tank guided missile (ATGM). This could be a decisive weapon, and some wicked turnaround for Putin. Hezbollah inflicted great losses on Israel using Russian-made Kornet ATGMs in 2006.  If supplied in quantity, Javelins could neutralize Russia’s substantial advantage in armor, and dramatically raise the cost to the Russians and their proxies in blood, treasure, and equipment in any attempt to expand military operations in Ukraine.

How would this affect Putin? We don’t know what he is willing to pay for various outcomes in Ukraine, but making Ukrainian defenses substantially more effective could make the price for an outright conquest of part or all of Ukraine greater than Putin is willing to pay.

Putin has been able to get by so far by having his proxies bear the brunt of the casualties, and by suppressing news about Russian casualties. But even he would be unable to keep a lid on a large spike in losses. What’s more, his manpower and material resources are in fact quite constrained. Substantial losses could render his forces largely combat ineffective and incapable of a decisive victory.

The main risk is that it may be too late. The arms won’t magically appear in Ukraine overnight, and it would take some time to train the Ukrainians in their use after they arrive. If arms start to flow, Putin may conclude that he has a time window in which to advance, and therefore decide to move now, whereas he might be inclined to wait and rely on other means to dominate Ukraine if he believed that he could invade later if need be. Ironically, the more effective the arms we provide (or more accurately, the more effective Putin and his generals believe those weapons will be) the greater the incentive he has to move before those weapons arrive. Thus, the interval between the decision to arm and the time that the weapons are in Ukrainian hands will be quite fraught, and the US would need to be prepared to deter Putin in other ways during that interval.

There are widespread concerns that Putin would react to the arming of Ukraine by escalating elsewhere, such as the Baltics. He is clearly trying to signal his truculence, as with a provocative flight of nuclear armed Bear bombers through the English Channel. Thus, the issue becomes whether he can be deterred from challenging Nato directly in Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania, or Poland for that matter. If he can’t be, Ukraine is the least of our problems. Or put differently, we need to revitalize our deterrent regardless of what we do in Ukraine, because Nato countries would be at risk.

If Putin’s madman strategy-real or feigned-is potentially effective in intimidating the West into acquiescing to his subjugation of Ukraine, magical thinking and Hamlet-like fretting are certainly effective at egging him on. People like him sense weakness as a predatory beast can. Arguably the strongest argument for arming Ukraine in the face of Putin’s threats is that it could get him to reassess the strength of American resolve. Obama’s record of temporizing-on Syria, on Isis, on Ukraine-has given Putin considerable reason to believe that when pushed, Obama will back down. It will take something rather dramatic, such as arming Ukraine in a big way, to convince Putin otherwise: even that is merely necessary, rather than sufficient. But if it’s done, it must be done lavishly, and not in a token fashion. But given how stingily we are with arms to the Syrian opposition and even the Kurds (who are actually accomplishing something against Isis), I find it hard to believe that Obama will do that.

The conundrum is that Putin will view American (and European) passivity as an invitation to keep pressing forward. Those who oppose doing something more robust, such as arming the Ukrainians, argue that this action will goad him forward as well: they are deluding themselves if they think he can be appeased. So it seems that regardless of what course is taken, Putin will keep trying.

At least Bloomberg is somewhat consistent. It says that we’re not going to seriously oppose Putin anyways, why give the Ukrainians any false hopes by giving them weapons? Just tell them to get used to living under Russian domination again and don’t encourage them to wage a futile war on their own.

But if you don’t want to acquiesce to Putin dominating the entire Warsaw Pact space, you have to make a stand somewhere. If the Ukrainians are willing to make that stand, give them the means to do it.

* This phrase is widely attributed to Trotsky, but the closest anyone can find written by him is “you may not be interested in the dialectic, but the dialectic is interested in you.”

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December 21, 2014

The End of the World As We Know It?*

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Professor @ 8:04 pm

I have been named to the CFTC’s Energy and Environmental Markets Advisory Committee, at the invitation of Commissioner Christopher Giancarlo. Given how I was viewed during the Gensler years, this is a sign that the winds have shifted at 1155 21st St. NW. Or maybe it’s a harbinger of the impending apocalypse. It is particularly ironic, given that Frankendodd specifically mandated that the Commission create the EEMAC: there’s a mandate I can get behind!

Kidding aside, I very much appreciate the opportunity to contribute to the debate in a forum that has policymakers’ ears. The position limits issue is still very much on the table: the hedging definitions are particularly challenging, as is how to determine when speculation is causing unwarranted fluctuations in prices. I definitely have things to say about these matters, and will take the opportunity to say them.

* This is the title of the only REM song that doesn’t have me hitting skip or switching channels.

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December 20, 2014

Can a Money Launderer Truly Come Clean?

Filed under: Energy,History,Politics,Russia,Uncategorized — The Professor @ 8:07 pm

During his press conference, Putin made a very arch reply to a question about Khodorkovsky’s ambition to be president: “Of what country?”

Well, Khodorkovsky is making it clear that the answer to that question is “Russia.” He gives voice to his ambitions in an extended interview in the FT, and repeats his forecast that Putin’s main danger comes from within his “entourage”.

In some respects, Khodorkovsky’s re-emergence and frank statements of his political ambitions and his vision of himself as savior of Russia are a favor to Putin. Especially in times that bring back uncomfortable memories of the 90s collapse, the most notorious oligarch from that era makes a perfect foil for Putin. Breaking the oligarchs was one of the primary foundations of Putin’s reputation and popularity (with the war in Chechnya being another). What better way for Putin to remind Russians of why he is needed than the reemergence of Khodorkovsky?

And Khodorkovsky is definitely a very flawed vessel. Even if his prosecution and imprisonment was a travesty of justice, that’s not to say that he couldn’t have been convicted in a fair trial. For contemporary reporting, both Russian and non-Russian, makes it clear that Khordorkovsky was a ruthless operator who used every trick in the book to avoid taxation, and expropriate minority shareholders and creditors. This article from April, 2000 provides the chapter and verse.

Most of these tricks involved offshore shell companies that he owned. For instance, Khordorkovsky would engage in asset stripping, whereby assets of his Russian enterprises were transferred to the shell companies he owned. Another trick was stock watering, whereby his entities would issue large numbers of new shares of stock that were sold to his shell companies, thereby diluting the ownership of outside investors. He used these devices to great effect in the immediate aftermath of the  financial crisis. Non-Russian banks who had made loans to Khodorkovsky’s Menatep Bank collateralized by Yukos shares saw the values of these shares plummet when he stripped Yukos assets and watered the stock in a way that would have made Daniel Drew and Jay Gould blush.

Khodorkovsky was also the past-master at transfer pricing schemes, whereby output of his Russian companies would be sold to offshore entities at a fraction of the world price; the offshore entities would then sell at the world price. According to the Foreign Affairs article, during the first nine months of 1999, Yukos sold 240mm barrels of oil at about 10 percent of the world price to offshore entities, pocketing $800 million.

And of course, there is the way that he acquired Yukos, via the Loans for Shares deal, and the rigged auction that followed the (inevitable) government default on the loans.

Khodorkovsky was definitely not the hero of western investors back then. In fact, he was a villain.

For all this, Khodorkovsky exhibits little remorse. Arguably none:

I ask about the “loans-for-shares” auctions in 1995 when a handful of businessmen — the oligarchs — lent money to the near-bankrupt Russian state and received stakes in state businesses as collateral. When the state failed to repay the loans, the oligarchs sold the stakes to themselves at knockdown prices. Today the auctions are seen, I remark, as a kind of “original sin” hanging over Russian business.

“I wouldn’t entirely agree,” Khodork­ovsky says. At the time it looked, he continues, as if a Communist candidate would beat President Boris Yeltsin in the elections, which would have spelt the end of private business. Given the risks, no foreign investor was interested. So the shares were worth only what Russian investors would pay — in Khodorkovsky’s case, about $300m, for just under 80 per cent of Yukos.

. . . .

The tax “minimisation” schemes — selling oil through onshore tax havens — at Yukos that were the heart of the trials against him were known to the authorities and even senior ministers, he insists. “In tax law, it’s a crime in most countries if you’ve hidden something. But we didn’t hide anything.” [This remark is particularly disingenuous.]

Note that his justification of the loans for shares fails altogether to address the issue of the rigged auctions. If no other investors were interested, why were the auctions rigged in order to ensure that none could possibly win?

The unapologetic attitude towards not paying taxes is not new:

Khodorkovsky was robustly unapologetic. ‘ As long as the tax regime is unjust, I will try to find a way round it.’

What complicates the Khodorkovsky story is his apparent conversion in around 2000, when Yukos adopted GAAP accounting and western governance standards, and began hiring American managers, including Bruce Misamore as CFO. Was this a Road to Damascus conversion, or a calculated strategy to make the company attractive to western supermajors? Certainly this was the effect: at the time of his arrest, he was on the brink of selling a large stake in Yukos to either Exxon Mobil or Chevron.

His late-in-the-day embrace of western business practices and his persecution are relevant in evaluating his character and motives today, but his history cannot be overlooked. I for one am very skeptical that he has undergone a fundamental change. The failure to repudiate some of his more outrageous actions certainly raises doubts. Someone should address them.

There’s a possible candidate. One of the initiatives that Khodorkovsky funds in order to advance his agenda is Interpreter Magazine, edited by Michael Weiss. This is beyond passing strange, because Weiss has crusaded against Russian money laundering through the use of shell companies and transfer pricing schemes-the very techniques that his paymaster refined into an art 20 years ago. Interestingly, I can find no evidence that Weiss has subjected his patron to similar scrutiny. Not even an acknowledgment that the denizens of Londonograd that he excoriates are pikers compared to his pioneering patron, let alone an inquiry that could attempt to determine whether the man who emerged from prison a year ago is different from the man who went into prison in 2003, and who did the things that put him there.

This would be a truly valuable investigation, far more important than anything Weiss or Interpreter has done. This is particularly true given Khodorkovsky’s return to political life.

There is another strange twist here. Khodorkovsky has come out in opposition to sanctions, and in support of Russia’s annexation of Crimea: he claims that returning it would be undemocraticthe act of a dictator. Given that Putin also claims to be carrying out the public will, this raises questions about how differently Khodorkovsky would act if he were in Putin’s place. It also raises questions about his commitment to the rule of law, which he claims to support.

In sum, Khodorkovsky is playing a political role. Indeed, he is holding himself out as the man who can put Russia on the path away from autocracy towards the rule of law and respect for civil society. He has a past. A very disreputable one, though one perhaps redeemed by reform and punishment. But one can never be sure that the past is truly gone. Given that the most scurrilous acts in the past involved money laundering and shell companies, you’d think that a journalist who has crusaded against those things would be the man to find out.

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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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