Streetwise Professor

November 29, 2015

Erdogan Actually Does What Putin’s Enemies Implausibly Accuse Him of Doing: Exploiting the Syrian Refugee Crisis

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:56 pm

One theme pushed very hard by Putin oppositions, including people like Garry Kasparov and numerous Ukrainian bloggers and tweeters, is that Putin is deliberately creating the refugee crisis in the EU. There is no doubt that he is benefitting, but there is no evidence that he is doing anything to create it. He gets it without having to lift a finger.

The refugee crisis is indeed creating huge political stresses in the EU that are benefiting rightist opposition parties (e.g., the National Front in France) that are sympathetic to (and in some cases, partially funded by) Russia. This redounds to Putin’s benefit, but he didn’t create the problem. The problem is largely due to the Syrian civil war, but not completely: only about one-half of the migrants swarming into Europe are Syrian. The other major contributor is European policy, notably Merkel’s grandiose humanitarian gesture, which served to open the flood gates.

No doubt Putin is pleased, but I cannot identify anything that he has done, that he wouldn’t have done anyways: for him, the refugee fallout is a happy unintended consequence. He has been all in for the Syrian government from the get go, and has supported its ruthless campaign. This has contributed to the refugee flow, but Putin would have done the same regardless.

One country that has definitely leveraged the refugee issue to its advantage is Turkey. Today, with great fanfare, Turkey and the EU announced a grand bargain whereby the EU would pay Turkey €3 billion, grant it visa free travel, and reopen Turkish accession talks. The €3 billion is to be used to improve conditions for Syrian refugees in Turkey. In return, Turkey will slow the flow of refugees to Europe.

In other words, Erdogan successfully blackmailed Europe. Unlike Putin, Erdogan can exercise considerable control over the flow of Syrians to Europe. He has basically exercised no control heretofore, and Europe has been overwhelmed. They have now agreed to pay Turkey to keep them, and also given Turkey other very important concessions to make it worth Erdo’s while.

This is bad news for Putin. Putin has been trying to leverage his role in Syria to get concessions from Europe on other issues, but as I have written before, he really doesn’t have that much leverage. Erdogan has leverage, and has just demonstrated that he can and will use it. He can also use it to make the Europeans think twice about making any concessions to Putin that would compromise Turkish interests in Syria. And since Turkish interests and Russian interests are close to zero sum there, this means that he wins, and Putin loses when he uses that leverage. Erdogan has therefore proved to Putin who has the whip hand in dealing with the Euroweenies.

When it comes to Syria, Erdogan’s policy is deeply problematic, to put it mildly. His policy towards ISIS can most charitably be described as ambivalent. He is certainly not an ardent foe, and is arguably an enabler–or worse. He is far more interested in crushing the Kurds, who happen to be the most reliable anti-ISIS force in the region. In that respect, Erdogan is objectively pro-ISIS. There is a colorable case that he is subjectively pro-ISIS as well. Furthermore, Turkey has been the main supporter of the Islamist forces–including al Qaeda-forces–fighting Assad. Once upon a time, supporting groups like this would have earned a star turn in the Axis of Evil.

Domestically, Erdogan is doing his best Putin imitation of crushing domestic opposition, including the arrest of journalists. Some antigovernment figures have been murdered (e.g., the Kurdish lawyer killed over the weekend), another similarity to Russia.

Thus, there is little to choose from between Erdogan and Putin in Syria. Indeed, as bad as Assad is, the Islamists fighting him are worse, so the nod goes to Putin here.

Unfortunately, the Kasparovs and Ukrainians who are so obsessed with Putin are completely in the grips of the enemy-of-my-enemy mindset that they are going all in for Erdogan and the Islamists for Syria. They are fighting Putin, so they must be great, right?

Wrong. They are dangerous and despicable, and Erdogan does a pretty good Putin doppelgänger impression.

It is possible to oppose Putin and Russia in Ukraine and elsewhere in Europe, without embracing his enemies in Syria. It is not only possible, it is necessary. Putin’s actions in Ukraine challenge the entire post-War order in Europe, and are deeply destabilizing. Indeed, they deeply challenge the Westphalian system that Putin and Russia claim to defend in Syria, Libya, the Balkans, and elsewhere, and constantly lecture the world about in the UN and elsewhere. So those actions should be opposed, and Europe and Nato in particular have to raise their games.

But that issue is completely separable from what is going on in Syria. And those whose hatred of Putin leads them to whitewash (and worse) Erdogan and the murderous Islamist anti-Assad forces in Syria are wrong as a matter of policy. This also deeply compromises their moral authority and undercuts their opposition to Putin in Russia and Ukraine.

Enemy-of-my-enemy logic almost always leads to a dead end, or worse. It prevents critical thinking, the ability to discriminate between threats, and between degrees of evil. All of that is particularly true in Syria, because siding with Putin’s enemies means siding with murderous Islamists, and a megalomaniacal would be emperor who is actually doing what Putin is only accused (rather implausibly) of doing: exploiting the refugee crisis in Syria in order to obtain political benefits from Europe.


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November 25, 2015

Let’s You and Him Fight

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 11:28 am

There should be no shock or surprise at Turkey’s destruction of a Russian Su-24. Russia and Turkey have been in a state of undeclared war for a long time. Turkey has long supported rebels, most notably Islamist rebels, fighting to topple Assad. Russia intervened to prop up a tottering Assad, and has directed the bulk of its operations against the rebels Turkey supports. Many of these airstrikes have occurred close to the border, and are directed specifically at rebel ratlines running back into Turkey and at the front lines of the fighters Turkey supports.

This has made Erdogan furious. The shootdown was, as Lavrov said, clearly deliberate. Just as Putin’s intervention was a clear signal that Assad was losing, this incident is a clear signal that Erdogan believes that his forces are now losing. This is his way of hitting back and trying to get Putin to back off.

Russia says that it is striking ISIS. This is largely, though not completely, a lie. But Russia is striking Islamists. Today Putin pointedly criticized Erdogan, saying that he is Islamizing Turkey. Putin is correct.

To see the kind of people Erdogan is supporting, consider the fact that the rebels shot at the Russian air crew as they were parachuting after bailing out, killing one of them. They then gloated over the corpse.

All of this makes it beyond strange that so many on the right in the US are apoplectic about Russian intervention in Syria, and that this apoplexy has only intensified with the destruction of the Su-24. Senator Tom Cotton (and others) claim that we are in a proxy war in Syria, and that Russia has intervened against our “allies” in this war.

Why are we in a proxy war? What compelling US interests exist in Syria? And why are we allying ourselves with Salafists who are just branded affiliates of either Al Qaeda or the Muslim Brotherhood, and who are striving to kill us everywhere else in the world? If “our side” “wins”, what do we get? A Salafist stronghold and safe haven from which to attack us? If “our side” “loses”, what does it cost us? We’ve lived with the Assads  for almost 50 years. They are not going to be much of a threat to anyone, given the wreck the country has become (not that it was ever anything but a typically shambolic Arab dictatorship).

People like Cotton also speak in concerned tones about Turkey as a Nato ally under threat from Russia. This should be turned on its head: we need to reconsider quite seriously whether an Islamist country that provides material support to Islamist groups (including Hamas), and which is led by an increasingly erratic autocrat, is a suitable member of Nato.

This is particularly true given that Erdogan does not have clean hands, by any means, in the fight against ISIS. Erdogan has unleashed his air force against the Kurds, but not against ISIS. ISIS supply lines stretch into Turkey. ISIS members use Turkey as a safe area and a transit zone (including to Europe). He fought mightily to deny aid to the Kurds in Kobani when they were fighting for their lives. Furthermore, there is considerable reason to believe that Erdogan’s family facilitates the sale of ISIS oil. (This last detail raises questions about the US forbearance in attacking ISIS oil convoys, despite the fact that oil revenues are vital to ISIS’s financing. We have given excuses like protecting innocent truck drivers’ lives, or even “environmental concerns“, FFS, to explain the lack of attacks on the oil rat line. The Erdogan connection quite plausibly is a more important reason.)

The main issue for the United States is that this greatly complicates the US air campaign against ISIS, especially in Syria. In response to the downing of its jet, Russia has announced that it is deploying long range S-400 surface-to-air missiles to Syria to protect its aircraft. (Russia denied earlier reports that it had already deployed the missiles. There was some photographic evidence–of the distinctive radars–that they had, so perhaps they are using this as an excuse to announce something they had done before but denied.) Russia does not want to shoot down US planes, but accidents will happen, and the greater the envelope of the missiles, the more scope for accidents, especially given that US aircraft are operating out of Turkish bases.

There are reasons to be concerned about Putin and Russia. But Syria is not among them. Better to devote our efforts to proving a bulwark and deterrent against Putin where it matters to us, than tangling with him in a place where it doesn’t. As I’ve said, if anything, it’s better to have him stuck in Syria than running amok in eastern Europe.

There’s an old joke about “let’s you and him fight.” That seems about right here. Let Putin and Erdogan fight, if that’s what they want. We should want no part of it.

Further thoughts: There has been much blather post-Sharm al Sheik and post-Paris about a “grand alliance” between Russia and the West to fight ISIS. This was always a chimerical hope. First, Russia’s priority has never been ISIS, and even though it did intensify strikes on ISIS post-Metrojet, its efforts were still focused on the non-ISIS groups fighting Assad.

Second, what was the basis for  a bargain? What really can Russia contribute to an anti-ISIS campaign that the US (aided by France and maybe the UK) could not do without its help? The lame Western effort has not been due to lack of capability: it has been due to a lack of will. And if Russia rally desires to strike ISIS (because is it is allegedly in its own interest), why would the West feel obliged to offer it any inducement?  In particular, why would they offer what Putin really wants (concession on Assad, and in particular, elimination of sanctions and a free hand in Ukraine) when Putin really can’t offer anything material in return, especially since these concessions would be humiliating for Obama and the Europeans, and completely undermine Western credibility?

Third, differences over Assad’s fate appear reconcilable. The West–including Hollande, who has been most insistent (and pathetic) importuning Russia for help–has continued its insistence that Assad must go. Russia has been most insistent that he must stay. That gap cannot be bridged.

The downing of the Su-24 and the subsequent escalation (Putin has intensified the bombing of the groups Turkey supports, including the Turkmen) make any deal even less likely. This would involve throwing a Nato member over the side, and although Nato should be looking for ways to reduce commitments to Turkey, to do so under the current circumstances would be disastrous to the alliance, and would likely goad Erdogan (who doesn’t need much goading) into taking more provocative actions in Syria, and against Europe and the US. (For instance, if Europe thinks it is overwhelmed by refugees now, just think of what could happen if Erdogan put his mind to pushing Syrians into Europe.)

This may well be part of Erdogan’s thinking. If his action makes an already unlikely deal impossible, he wins.

Hollande is in Moscow today, looking awkward as Putin blasts Turkey. Putin also blamed the US for providing the intelligence about the aircraft that the Turkish F16s shot down. Especially with accusations like that, there is no way that there is going to be any deal. There may be words and promises, but nothing of substance, and Putin will certainly not be able to leverage the situation to his advantage.

If anything, he is in a weak position. Most of the non-military retaliatory actions he can take (e.g., cutting off food imports from Turkey, and shutting down tourism) are very damaging to an already economically isolated Russia. Cutting off gas sales would hurt Turkey, but at a large cost to Russia and Gazprom, which is already in bad shape. (The cancellation of Turkish Stream would be a potential benefit, as it would prevent Gazprom from wasting $10 billion.)

Militarily, Putin can intensify action against Turkish creatures in Syria, but Turkey can respond by escalating against the Syrian regime. What’s more, Turkey has a trump card: control of the Bosporus and Dardanelles. In the event of conflict between Russia and Turkey, Erdogan could close the Straits and leave Russian forces in Syria high and dry. Putin’s only escalatory option after that would be the unthinkable one.

In sum, I didn’t see much possibility for Putin to leverage Paris into a deal that would give him sanction relief or Western acquiescence on Assad before, and see even less now. Moreover, Putin’s position in the struggle with Turkey is relatively weak. In particular, he does not possess escalation dominance. Within the range of the thinkable, Erdogan does.

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November 20, 2015

Islam in Black and White: A Vicious Cycle of Counterproductive Debate

Filed under: History,Politics — The Professor @ 10:15 pm

In addition to promulgating her vacuous “strategy” for vanquishing ISIS, Hillary has been making other foreign policy news. In part to push back on a potential source of criticism, she has defended her part, and the administration’s part in pushing the “Arab Spring”, and the uprising in Libya in particular:

Well, he has a very short-term view of history, because it is not at all clear what the final outcome will be in the places that you named. As I mentioned in the speech, I spoke about the foundations of the region sinking into the sand just as the Arab Spring was breaking. And I did so not knowing about the Arab Spring coming to full bloom, but because it was so clear that what was being done by dictatorships, by the denial of opportunity, by the repression, by the sectarian divide just could not stand. It was going to explode at some point or another.

And with the developments in Libya, for example, the Libyan people have voted twice in free and fair elections for the kind of leadership they want. They have not been able to figure out how to prevent the disruptions that they are confronted with because of internal divides and because of some of the external pressures that are coming from terrorist groups and others. So it’s — I think it’s too soon to tell and I think it’s something that we have to be, you know, looking at very closely.

She’s right, actually. We don’t know what kind of hell it will end up being, or which terrorist group(s) will end up in charge of which part of the “country.” We don’t know how many people will be slaughtered.

Apropos Nancy Pelosi’s defense of Obamacare, we’ll just have to wait to see what’s in it! Oh joy.

Hillary is basically saying we can only judge on the basis of what happens in the long run. This brings to mind Keynes’s quip “in the long run, we’re all dead.” In some places, that long run arrives sooner than others. Libya being one prominent example.

The administration played Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Libya, and in the Arab Spring generally, and brought chaos and destruction in its vain attempts to control the forces it unleashed.

Hillary also made news because her doubling down on her refusal at the Democratic debate to condemn radical Islam:

The bottom line is that we are in a contest of ideas against an ideology of hate, and we have to win. Let’s be clear, though, Islam is not our adversary. Muslims are peaceful and tolerant people, and have nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism. The obsession in some quarters with a clash of civilization, or repeating the specific words radical Islamic terrorism isn’t just a distraction, it gives these criminals, these murderers more standing than they deserve. It actually plays into their hands by alienating partners we need by our side.

It is quite remarkable how progressives, who adamantly support the idea that someone with a Y-chromosome can self-identify as a woman deny ISIS, etc. can self-identify as Muslim. As Orwell said, there are some ideas so stupid only an intellectual can believe. Or, in Hillary’s case, an intellectual poseur.

Not that the Republican presidential candidates, and many Congressional Republicans, are better, for they’ve veered to the opposite extreme, with Trump calling for registration of Muslims in a national database, Carson comparing refugees to rabid dogs, and indiscriminate condemnations of Muslims by many on the right.

Clinton is wrong: our adversaries–enemies, really–are avowed and chauvinistic Muslims. Those on the right are wrong: not all Muslims are a threat.

The problem is with Salafism, and in particular the virulent supremacists and eliminationist creed of Wahhabism. The wellspring of Salafism is the Gulf countries, notably Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE. From the time of the first oil shock in 1973, oil money (or gas money, in the case of Qatar) has flooded the world, and supported the spread of this uncompromising and violent creed.

The United States is by no means immune. Many mosques (not all, but too many) have been created and supported with Saudi money, and have served as outlets for Salafist proselytizing–and worse. This deserves to be the focus of criticism and pushback. (To her credit, Hillary did so the other day, even though the Clinton Foundation has accepted about $40 million in Gulf government money.)

Focused on Iran and Assad, many on the right (notably McCain, who exercises great influence over Rubio) have made common cause with Iran’s enemies in the Gulf. They have also forgotten-or chosen to ignore-the fact that the attack on the USS Cole, 911 and the vast bulk of terrorism directed against the United States had originated on the Arabian Peninsula.

Perversely, by attacking Muslims indiscriminately, too many on the right are alienating non-Salafist Muslims, and moderate non-Muslims, and driving them into the embrace of the insidious and subversive public face of the Muslim Brotherhood in the US, CAIR. Reprising its post-911 role, CAIR is again claiming to be the voice of oppressed American Muslims. This is extremely disturbing, because CAIR is very much part of the problem, but because of overreaction on the right, it can successfully pose as the victim, and represent itself as the voice of all American Muslims. The right is therefore empowering the very elements of Islam that they should be fighting.

Left and right are locked in a sick dynamic right now. Denial on the left that terrorism generally, and ISIS and Al Qaeda in particular, are an Islamic phenomenon, and that there is a civilizational clash between parts of Islam and the West is driving the right to be indiscriminate in its criticism of Islam. The right’s intemperate criticism gets the left to double down on its indiscriminate defense. And the cycle goes on and on.

In some respects I get it. Political rhetoric tends towards the black-and-white, especially when a message has to be delivered in a short time to an audience with divided attention. I also get that a lot of this rhetoric is signaling and affiliation. It is hard to articulate to a (rationally) uninformed electorate the distinctions within a religion that is almost completely alien to most Americans.

But until we do, we are going to be trapped in this vicious and unproductive cycle. And the biggest winners will be the retrograde and violent parts of Islam who do not get the focused attention-and opposition-that they richly deserve.



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November 15, 2015

Terrorist Fish Swimming in a Refugee Tide

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 10:43 pm

One of the most revealing, and bizarre, aspects of the Paris aftermath is the frenzied attempt to explain away the reports that a Syrian passport had been found near the pieces of one of the suicide bombers. This would raise the possibility that terrorists were infiltrating Europe under the cover of the flood of refugees. This would pose a serious challenge to those invested in the grandiose humanitarian gesture of opening Europe’s borders.

The straw that most of the rationalizers grasped was that the passport was evidently forged, and not well.

How this somehow undercuts the possibility that a terrorist made his way from Syria is beyond me. All that matters is whether the passport was used to secure entry into Europe. And apparently it was. Greek officials verify that the passport was so used. Indeed, the Greeks now report that it is likely that a second attacker passed through Greece.

If a terrorist used a (bad) forgery to obtain entry to Europe, that would make things worse, not better. It would mean that European borders can be breached by amateur counterfeiters.

One of the most risible attempts to deny the possibility that a Syrian cell infiltrated Paris was made by the appalling Anne Applebaum. Applebaum argues-in all seriousness, apparently-that terrorists couldn’t have come from outside, because they knew Paris too well.

Um, it’s known that hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of French Muslims have traveled to Syria, many to fight with the Islamic State. Many of these would be from Paris, and know the city quite well, thank you. Francophone fighters familiar with Paris trained in the heart of darkness of Syria would be the perfect perpetrators of mass terror in the City of Light.

And how the hell were they supposed to get back to France? Flying Air France on their French passports (likely known to French authorities)? No, obviously. But submerging themselves in the tide of migrants and traveling on false documents would be the perfect way to move from Syria to France.

What’s more, having a core team move from Syria would reduce the amount of communication needed to carry out the operation. All the planning could be done in the security of Raqqa, and those coming from Syria could confer face-to-face with their collaborators in France once they arrived. Much reduced need to send orders or plans over communication channels that could be monitored by the DGSE or NSA or GCHQ.

There have been warnings for months about the risks posed by returning jihadis. Those risks have apparently been realized, and it is just disgusting that those invested with accommodating the refugee flood refuse to accept that reality, because their unicorn dreams are so much more important.

This is not to say that all of the attackers came from abroad. Several were apparently French and Belgian. The irony that the Arab neighborhoods of Brussels are out of control of the authorities is too rich (though sick). As if on cue, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said (presumably between drinks), that EU immigration policy would not change as a result of Paris.

So Brussels, the capital of the nanny superstate that claims competence over the most minute aspects of human existence is incapable of performing the most basic function of a state: securing the physical security of its residents. And it is unwilling to admit its failures, and indeed, is committed to compounding them.

Merkel is doubling down too, despite a swelling rebellion in her own party, and Germany at large. Yet another example of the complete disconnect between the European “elites” and the hoi polloi they deign to rule.

Yes. There is a humanitarian catastrophe in Syria. But there are well known ways of addressing it that do not involve throwing open Europe to all comers, terrorists included. Refugee camps could be expanded in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. They could be funded much more liberally.

And here’s a wild idea. Why not force the Gulf state oil ticks, the Saudis, Emiratis, Kuwaitis, and Qataris, to (a) pay to support refugees, and (b) actually take in refugees, something they have adamantly refused to do?

They are pouring money into Syria to arm fighters. They should spend even more money to deal with the fallout of their actions.

And it is not just Europe that is willing to take on huge numbers of refugees. The US is as well. Speaking through the appalling incompetent throne-sniffer and toady Ben Rhodes, the administration says it is not reconsidering plans to admit 10,000 refugees from Syria.

“We have very robust vetting procedures for those refugees. It involves our intelligence community, our national counter-terrorism center, extensive interviews, vetting them against all information.”

“What we need to be able to do, frankly, is sort out that foreign fighter flow, those who have gone into Syria and come out and want to launch attacks or those who have connections with ISIL in Syria,” Rhodes said. “We need to be able to have the intelligence base to identify and target those people.”

Why should we have the slightest confidence that the US government will have the ability to do this? It only takes a few errors by the magical intelligence sorting hat to create a Paris-like disaster here in the US.

Europe (and the US) can deal with the way things are, or the way they wish they could be. Grasping at straws about forged passports would mean they are doing the latter. Keep that up, and there will be many more Parises to come.




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Reaping What Obama & Europe Have Sown: The Price of Military Idiocy and Political Fantasies

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 2:52 pm

The Paris attack is obviously dominating the news. It has been claimed by ISIS and the French have formally blamed ISIS.

It of course cannot be determined definitively whether the desultory US campaign against ISIS contributed to the onslaught (to which must be added the downing of the Russian jet, in all likelihood), but it cannot have helped. The first principle of war is The Offensive. Maintain the initiative. Dictate to your enemy, not the other way around.

But for some reason that altogether escapes me, this administration and the Pentagon think it is a virtue to forego the initiative, and implement a “slow burn” strategy. Slowness–a cardinal military sin, according to Napoleon (“The reason I beat the Austrians is, they did not known the value of five minutes”), is somehow part of the Obama plan:

Administration officials described the battlefield additions as incremental boosts to a strategy that remains focused on slowly degrading the Islamic State in its heartland and continuing the slow process of building up local forces that can ultimately defeat the group.

Slowly twice in one paragraph. Incremental. ISIS has seized the initiative. The consequences are predictable.

That is a military abomination.

But let the boss speak for himself. Mere hours before the Paris attack, Obama said that the campaign is working, and that ISIS is contained:

President Barack Obama said that the U.S. strategy against ISIS has “contained them,” but not yet succeeded in its effort to “decapitate” ISIS leadership.

This is his idiocy in a nutshell. Containment has obviously not worked. They have broken out from their sanctuaries in Iraq and Syria to Egypt and Libya and to the heart of Europe.

Further, note the focus on “decapitation.” This is his measure of success.

Decapitation of the ISIS leadership is not a sufficient condition for its defeat. It is also unlikely to be a necessary one. Leaders can be replaced. Decapitation can be part of an operational plan if  an attack takes advantage of the disruption of leadership. But just killing one guy, then killing his replacement, then killing his replacement, accomplishes squat.

Truth be told, our options were highly limited once ISIS rolled into cities. During May-June 2014, they were vulnerable, but Obama, dismissing them as the JV with no extra-regional ambitions, stayed our air power.

Now, since a major ground commitment is not a realistic or desirable option, only an intensified air campaign that will result in substantially more civilian casualties, combined with Kurdish forces, is the only real option to expedite the process of the war. And even that will be unlikely to wrest the initiative away from ISIS.

The West is reaping what it–and most importantly, Obama–have sown.

The Europeans are also confronted with a consequence that many warned against: the possibility that a few terrorist fish would swim in with the sea of refugees. Initial reports imply those fears were realized. But many Europeans are so invested in the refugee narrative that they are unwilling to admit that opening the borders was an insane idea. They cling to the fantasy that humanitarian good motives produce desirable results.

And so they too are reaping what they have sown.



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November 3, 2015

Dogs Fighting Under the Carpet in Iran

Filed under: History,Politics — The Professor @ 9:41 pm

“Supreme Leader” Ayatollah Khamenei has been on the warpath since the signing of the Iran nuclear deal. He has ramped up the vitriolic anti-US rhetoric. He is demanding that all sanctions be lifted before Iran will comply with the terms of the Iran deal. Several Americans-including notably a strong supporter of the Iran deal-have been arrested. He has announced a blockade against US imports. Perhaps most importantly, he is apparently mounting an offensive against President Rouhani, and Foreign Minister Zarif, who were the point men in negotiating the nuclear deal. Khamenei and the mullahs have rejected many pro-Rouhani candidates for the legislature, and made it plain that the Guardian Council has an executive role, rather than merely an advisory one, as Rouhani stated.

So much for Obama’s and Kerry’s publicly stated hope that the nuclear deal would be the first step to moderating Iran’s revolutionary fervor and transforming it from a revisionist power to a responsible one.

But (as @libertylynx has suggested) that may be exactly what is driving Khamenei’s stridency and aggressiveness. Obama and Kerry have clearly placed their bets on Rouhani and other alleged moderates in Iran. Rouhani and the alleged moderates may be indeed making a play for power.

To someone like Khamenei, a dedicated Islamist revolutionary who hates the United States and everything it stands for, this is an anathema and a mortal threat. Furthermore, the US’s role in fomenting the uprisings in Egypt (with some temporary success followed by a Thermidor that still rankles Obama) and Libya and Syria (with catastrophic results) would immediately lead Khamenei and his ilk to conclude that the United States is up to the same thing in Iran. Indeed, a paranoid revolutionary steeped in a belief that the United States controlled Iran prior to the 1979 revolution (and was behind the anti-Mossedegh coup in 1953) likely views an American plot lurking behind every bush.

And he may well have grounds for these beliefs. Obama has repeatedly played the the role of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice in the Middle East, and even though (like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice’s efforts), Obama’s machinations have turned out disastrously, Obama is not known for admitting failure and changing course.   (To Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Egypt, one could also add Turkey, though with a twist: there, Erdogan, with whom Obama claimed to share a bond, is descending into Islamist fascism.) One last grandiose, world-changing scheme may be his last, best hope for a legacy.

But Khamenei’s Iran is not Mubarak’s Egypt. Khamenei, the ayatollahs, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps are hardened totalitarians and revolutionaries, not corrupt autocrats. They know that the first rule of the dictator is crush the opposition, and that hesitation and weakness are usually fatal. In these circumstances, bet on the hard men with the guns and money (no lawyers necessary) to prevail. And that would be Khamenei, the ayatollahs, and the IRGC.

Churchill is quoted as saying that following Russian politics was like watching dogs fight under the carpet. Churchill may not have actually said that, but even if he didn’t, it is a good description of what seems to be going on now in Iran. I know which dog to bet on, and his name ain’t Moderate.

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October 17, 2015

An Innocent Abroad: Fred Hof and the Intellectual Failure of American Foreign Policy

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 10:05 am

Fred Hof, former “special advisor for transition in Syria at the U.S. Department of State,” has written a self-flaggelating flagellating piece about his-and the United States’-failure in Syria. It is part damning indictment of himself and the State Department, and part damning indictment of Obama.

A recurrent theme-implicit, not explicit-is Hof’s incredible naiveté. He was repeatedly fooled by the man he was supposedly working with-Bashir al-Assad-and the man he was working for-Barack Obama. He was fooled because he romantically projected his own beliefs on them, and because he engaged in wishful thinking, when he would have been better served to live by Lily Tomlin’s credo: “We try to be cynical, but it’s hard to keep up.”

Hof was-and remains-genuinely shocked that Assad reacted brutally to the first outbreak of opposition to his regime:

I did not think it inevitable that Assad—a computer-savvy individual who knew mass murder could not remain hidden from view in the 21st century—would react to peaceful protest as violently as he did, with no accompanying political outreach.

. . . .

By firing on peaceful demonstrators protesting police brutality in the southern Syrian city of Deraa, gunmen of the Syrian security services shredded any claim Assad had to governing legitimately. Indeed, Assad himself—as president of the Syrian Arab Republic and commander in chief of the armed forces—was fully responsible for the shoot-to-kill atrocities.

Hof actually believed that computer savviness was some marker for civilized values? He believed that Assad would actually care if his crimes were witnessed by the world? Cringemaking.

Look. Dictum 1 of the Dictator’s Handbook says, in bold, italicized type: “Every dictator who has attempted ‘political outreach’ to opponents has ended up at the end of a rope or bleeding in the dirt. Crush all dissent mercilessly.”

Furthermore, Hof’s optimistic view was completely oblivious to Syria’s history. In the 1970s and early-1980s, Assad’s father faced an extreme threat from the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood came close to assassinating him, and he responded by extirpating the organization in Syria, most infamously by attacking Hama with armor, artillery, and air power, resulting in the deaths of thousands (which Brotherhood propaganda has succeeded in inflating to 40-50,000). Assad no doubt had intelligence about the resurgence of the MB within Syria, and throughout the Middle East generally. He no doubt understood that the “Arab Spring” was largely the Muslim Brotherhood Spring-something that those in the West generally and the US in particular still fail to grasp. Even if he didn’t know these things, he certainly feared them, and was not going to take any chances that the protests in Deraa were fronting for, or would be exploited by, the Brotherhood.

In other words, the chances he would not have responded to any protest with extreme force were somewhere between zero and none.

But the US, and this administration in particular, not only seems oblivious to the Muslim Brotherhood’s malignity, it actually thinks that it is a progressive force in the Middle East.

Hof also took at face value Assad’s representation that he would sever all ties with Hezbollah in exchange for a return of the Golan heights. This was wishful thinking in the extreme. Just how far did Hof think that the Iranians would let Assad proceed down this path? Iran’s interest in Syria is primarily because it is their vital bridge to Hezbollah. Iran is dedicated to Israel’s destruction. If he had tried to sell out Hezbollah to achieve a deal with Israel, the Iranians would have been in a race with the Brotherhood to kill him.

Indeed, Hof understood this at some level, but chose to ignore it:

Fully complicit in the Assad regime’s impressive portfolio of war crimes and crimes against humanity, Iran relies on its client to secure its overland reach into Lebanon.

As for the man he worked for, Hof reminds me of Flounder in Animal House: “You fucked up! You trusted us!“:

My failure to predict the extent of Syria’s fall was, in large measure, a failure to understand the home team. In August 2011, Barack Obama said Assad should step aside. Believing the president’s words guaranteed decisive follow-up, I told a congressional committee in December 2011 that the regime was a dead man walking. When the president issued his red-line warning, I fearlessly predicted (as a newly private citizen) that crossing the line would bring the Assad regime a debilitating body blow. I still do not understand how such a gap between word and deed could have been permitted. It is an error that transcends Syria.

“Such a gap between word and deed” is the essence of the Obama way. And please. Obama ran in 2008 on disengaging militarily from the Middle East. He ran on the view that US military intervention was inevitably counterproductive. He ran in 2012 bragging about ending the war in Iraq, and took the opportunity to remind the world yet again of his belief of the futility of American military engagement in the Middle East.

You see, there are some words that Obama utters that conform to his deeds almost exactly. The key is understanding which words he means, and which ones he doesn’t. Hof again let his magical thinking delude him into believing that Obama meant the things he said that Hof agreed with, instead of realizing that these words contradicted Obama’s core beliefs, and were uttered for the sole purpose of meeting “a communications challenge: getting Obama on “the right side of history” in terms of his public pronouncements.”

Hof deserves credit for admitting his failures so openly, and I can sympathize on a human level. What is disturbing is that his failure is symptomatic of deeper institutional failures in the United States foreign policy establishment. The examples are many, but Syria alone provides some particularly damning ones. How long has the US been chasing the Assad chimera? Remember Warren Christopher panting after Assad père during the Clinton administration? Nancy Pelosi meeting with and gushing over the Chinless Ophthalmologist in 2007? John Kerry chasing after Assad for years, finally dining with him and his wife in Damascus, then saying this?:

“I have been a believer for some period of time that we could make progress in that relationship,” he said. “And I’m going to continue to work for it and push it.”

In the same year, when he once again wanted to go to Syria, his visit was blocked by the Obama administration.

“President Assad has been very generous with me in terms of the discussions we have had,” he said after his March speech. “And when I last went to – the last several trips to Syria – I asked President Assad to do certain things to build the relationship with the United States and sort of show the good faith that would help us to move the process forward.”

He mentioned some of the requests, including the purchase of land for the US Embassy in Damascus, the opening of an American cultural centre, non-interference in Lebanon’s election and the improvement of ties with Iraq and Bahrain, and said Mr Assad had met each one.

“So my judgment is that Syria will move; Syria will change, as it embraces a legitimate relationship with the United States and the West and economic opportunity that comes with it and the participation that comes with it.”

A few years later, of course, Kerry was comparing Assad to Hitler and pressing for air strikes- a call that Obama spurned. A perfect demonstration of Kerry’s lack of judgment, discernment, and just plain seriousness.

No. Fred Hof is not the problem. Fred Hof is a symptom of a bigger problem: the intellectual failings of American foreign policy.

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October 12, 2015

From the Ridiculous to the Absurd Is But A Single Step: A New Rebel Group Magically Appears in Syria

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 6:23 pm

If there’s been a bigger debacle for the US military since St. Clair’s Defeat in 1791 than the fiasco of arming the “moderate” Syrian resistance, I would be hard pressed to name it.

First, there was the fact that the pitifully small number of recruits that we managed to scrape together were either killed or captures no sooner than they had set foot into Syrian territory. Then, other groups turned over arms and equipment to al Nusra to secure safe passage. Then the Russians bombed the snot out of our (CIA-trained) forces while Kerry mewled in protest.

So it was announced that the Pentagon-run train and equip program was being terminated. But check that! The mission has not been ended. Train no: equip yes. We will just give arms to “leaders” we’ve vetted and let them hand them out to . . . whomever.

Meanwhile, in a 60 Minutes interview Obama said that he had been skeptical of arming the opposition from the get-go. (This is no doubt true: remember his dismissive remarks from last year about the futility of arming pharmacists and farmers and expecting them to beat an organized army?)

This immediately raises the questions: (a) then why did you, as commander of chief, permit the program to proceed? (b) if you were going to let it proceed, why didn’t you demand changes to give it a reasonable chance of achieving some success?

What’s more, despite Obama’s alleged skepticism, he is permitting yet another effort. This one would make Rube Goldberg proud. This is so bizarre that you might think I’m playing some sort of joke on you, but I swear, I’m just passing along what’s been reported.

Lo and behold, last night, almost at the exact same time Obama was heaping scorn on the idea of supporting armed opposition groups, a new Syrian resistance group magically appeared: The Democratic Forces of Syria.

It’s sort of the Rainbow Coalition of Syria. Kurds. Arabs. Assyrian Christians. So you should feel all warm and fuzzy about the inclusiveness of the new group.

If you believe the formation this group, and its allegedly ecumenical nature, was spontaneous and indigenous, I have some oceanfront property in Wyoming to sell you.

Bolstered by American arms, the mission of the new group is to advance on Raqqa, and drive ISIS from its Syrian capital. The Kurdish YPG has gained some success against ISIS, and would obviously be the core of any new force.

But we aren’t arming the Kurds! Because that would infuriate Erdogan and Turkey, and he could very well back out of his agreement to allow the US access to Incirlik, and do other nefarious things to kneecap the American efforts (such as they are) against ISIS. So we’re doing this instead:

Officials emphasized that U.S. military aid will go directly to the Arabs, not the Kurds, but the Kurdish fighters stand to benefit from the decision. To date, Washington has hesitated to hand equipment directly to the Kurds. Instead, they send materiel through the central government of Iraq. The new aid will be transported directly to Syria, where Arab groups are expected to launch a new offensive in and around Raqqa, the de facto Islamic State capital, while the Kurds continue to hold border areas where together they have succeeded in routing the militants.

The Kurds are the most effective military force in the region, and the Arabs have been completely unheard from in this sector, so we arm the latter and let the former cool their heels.

From the ridiculous to the absurd is but a single step.

To quote Casey Stengel: Can’t anybody here play this game?

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October 7, 2015

We Need to Choose Our Battles, and Syria Isn’t It

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 11:04 pm

The hysteria over Russian actions in Syria continues. The Russians are making token strikes-at most-against ISIS, and are focusing their firepower on other anti-regime forces in the west of the country.

Well, of course they are. Putin’s objective is to save Assad’s regime. Its core area in the west. The greatest threat is in the west. So that’s where the bulk of the blows will fall.

Today’s cruise missile attack, launched from the Caspian is partly showing off (especially showing off the fact that Iran and Iraq had to concur), but it also makes military sense as part of a preparatory bombardment supporting a counterattack by regime forces, which is apparently in progress. This demonstrates that the Russian air campaign is part of a coherent military operation which integrates air and ground elements. This presents a stark contrast to the air-only US campaign against ISIS, which cannot achieve any decisive result whatsoever. (It remains to be seen whether Russian air support is sufficient to overcome the extreme shakiness of the Syrian army, which wasn’t much to start with and which has been relentlessly ground down by four years of brutal war.) (In contrast to the coherent Russian effort, the US attacks in Syria yesterday involved destroying two “crude oil collection facilities.” Really. No excavators were available?)

There is also hysteria about Russian lying about what they are doing.  This is like attacking a cobra for striking. It’s what they do.

Most of the frenzy focuses on the Russians’ targeting of “our” rebels in the Free Syrian Army. Yes, this is quite deliberate, and a strike at the US for having the temerity of supporting the anti-Assad effort. Putin views this as a part of a broader struggle against the US.

So should the US respond to the challenge frontally, in Syria?  No. And it’s not even a close call.

First, what is the strategic objective to be gained? I find it hard to see an important security interest in Syria. And overthrowing Assad because he’s a monster could be justified, except that monsters-and arguably worse monsters than Assad-will take over. An Assad rout would likely result in a bacchanal of sectarian violence which would result in the extirpation of non-Sunni communities in Syria. There has not been one Middle East war that has ended in anything closely resembling peace, and the circumstances in Syria are even less favorable to such an outcome than in Iraq and Libya.

Second, the idea that the there is a serious “moderate” opposition in Syria is not true today, and arguably never was true. The FSA’s day passed years ago, and our track record of identifying moderate, secular forces in this region is appallingly bad.

Those that are pushing this fantasy include John McCain, who is detached from reality on this issue. Others include journalists Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan, who have been flogging this narrative for four years, and are frantically doing so now: the more implausible the narrative becomes, the more frenzied they become. One should note that Hassan is tightly connected with UAE, which has been the main supporter of the anti-Assad opposition from the beginning, and Weiss’s connections are murky, and his pom-pomming for a Syrian opposition that is lousy with Islamists raises questions.

(And by the way: I thought the CIA program to arm the opposition was supposed to be covert. Why are we blabbing about it?)

Third, what can be done? The idée du jour supported by left (Hillary Clinton) and right (several GOP candidates, including Rubio, Fiorina, and Christie), is a no fly zone. This is superficially appealing because it relies purely on American airpower, and thus does not require a ground commitment. This virtue is in fact a measure of the non-seriousness of the idea.  It would not have been militarily decisive before the Russians arrived because Assad’s air force played only a marginal role in the conflict. Now it would require a confrontation with the Russians, because it is the Russians that are flying. Why engage in a confrontation that could lead to unpredictable developments elsewhere, and which (per the above) would not result in any material strategic gainer the US?

Rubio goes further, plumping for a “safe zone” that somehow will magically be radical Islamist-free. How this would work outside of some Harry Potter-esque fantasy is beyond me. Further, note the “safe zone” idea is a favorite of Erdogan. Who has been a major supporter of the Islamist groups in Syria. It appears for all the world that Rubio has bought a bill of goods from the GCC and the Turks about the Syrian opposition.

If you look at the correlation of forces (as the Soviets put it), and the strategic stakes, deeper US involvement in Syria makes no sense. The odds of prevailing are low, and the gains from winning are trivial, and likely non-existent.

Russia’s aggressiveness is indeed a concern, and someone with Putin’s mindset will be emboldened if he believes that he will meet no resistance. But an asymmetric response, an indirect approach, is more advisable. Russia’s vulnerabilities are economic and financial, and its greatest sensitivities are on in the Baltics, Poland, and Ukraine.

One last thing. The sputtering denunciations of Putin, notably again by McCain and others, are profoundly counterproductive. They only contribute to Putin’s image as some sort of colossus, which only encourages more aggressiveness and more admiration for him. At the other extreme, the administration’s mewling protests that the Syrian intervention is a testament to Putin’s weakness is just plain pathetic, especially since it is not accompanied by any countermoves anywhere.

Unfortunately, this administration is has neither the intestinal fortitude nor the strategic dexterity to respond effectively, or even coherently. We will have to wait another 15 months at least for a reach change. Unfortunately, there’s not much to look forward to on that front, as none of the Republican candidates have impressed in the least. Rubio particularly disappointed not just because of the safe zone inanity, but because of his clueless remark that Syria is a battle for the future of Sunni Islam: (a) this is not our battle, and (b) it it mimics Saudi and Qatar Sunni chauvinism, and their interests are not ours, in the slightest. (How often has our anger at Iran blinded us to the fact that the Saudis are a deeply malign force too? I actually have a grudging respect for the Iranians. At least they are quite open about their hatred for us.)

We need to pick our battles, and Syria isn’t it. The obsession with it is distracting from the true objective, which should be to construct a coherent strategic response to Putin that exploits our comparative advantages, rather than confronting him where he can exploit his.


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October 3, 2015

People. Get. A. Grip: Glencore Is Not the Next Lehman

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Financial crisis,History,Regulation — The Professor @ 6:53 pm

There is a lot of hysterical chatter out there about Glencore being the next Lehman, and its failure being the next Lehman Moment that plunges the financial system into chaos. Please. Get. A. Grip.

Comparing the firms shows there’s no comparison.

Let’s first talk size, since this is often framed as an issue of “too big to fail.” In November, 2007, Lehman’s total assets were $691 billion. As of August, Glencore’s were $148 billion. Lehman was about 4.5 times bigger. Moreover, Glencore’s assets include a lot of short term assets (inventories and the like) that are relatively liquid. Looking at Glencore as a $100 billion firm is more realistic. Lehman was much bigger.

Then let’s talk leverage. Lehman had 3 percent equity, 97 percent debt. Glencore about one third-two thirds. Stripping out the short term debt and short term assets, it’s about 50-50.

Then let’s talk off-balance sheet. Lehman was a derivatives dealer with huge OTC derivatives exposures both long and short. Glencore’s derivatives book is much smaller, more directional, and much in listed derivatives.

Lehman had derivatives liabilities of about $30 billion after netting and collateral were taken into account, and $66 billion if not (which matters if netting is not honored in bankruptcy). Glencore has $2 billion and $20 billion, respectively.

Lets talk about funding. Lehman was funding long term assets with short term debt (e.g., overnight repos, corporate paper). It had a fragile capital structure. Glencore’s short term debt is funding short term assets, and its longer term assets are funded by longer term debt. A much less fragile capital structure.  Lower leverage and less fragile capital means that Glencore is much less susceptible to a run that can ruin a company that is actually solvent. That also means less likelihood that creditors are going to take a big loss due to a run (as was the case with Lehman).

As a major dealer, Lehman was also more interconnected with every major systemically important financial institution. That made contagion more likely.

But I don’t think these firm-specific characteristics are the most important factors. Market conditions today are significantly different, and that makes a huge difference.

It wasn’t the case that Lehman failed out of a clear blue sky and this brought down the entire financial system through a counterparty or informational channel. Lehman was one of a series of casualties of a financial crisis that had been underway for more than a year. The crisis began in earnest in August, 2007. Every market indicator was flashing red for the next 12 months. The OIS-Libor spread blew out. The TED spread blew out. Financial institution CDS spreads widened dramatically. Asset backed security prices were plummeting. Auction rate securities were failing. SPVs holding structured products were having difficulty issuing corporate paper to fund them. Bear Sterns failed. Fannie and Freddie were put into receivership. Everyone knew AIG was coughing up blood.

Lehman’s failure was the culmination of this process: it was more a symptom of the failure of the financial system, than a major cause. It is still an open question why its failure catalyzed an intensified panic and near collapse of the world system. One explanation is that people inferred that the failure of the Fed to bail it out meant that it wouldn’t be bailing out anyone else, and this set off the panic as people ran on firms that they had thought were working with a net, the existence of which they now doubted. Another explanation is that there was information contagion: people inferred that other institutions with similar portfolios to Lehman’s might be in worse shape than previously believed and hence ran on them (e.g., Goldman, Morgan Stanley, Citi) when Lehman went down. The counterparty contagion channel has not received widespread support.

In contrast, Glencore’s problems are occurring at a time of relative quiescence in the financial markets. Yes commodity markets are down hard, and equities have had spasms of volatility lately, but the warning signs of liquidity problems or massive credit problems in the banking sector are notably absent. TED and OIS-Libor spreads have ticked up mildly in recent months, but are still at low levels. A lot of energy debt is distressed, but that does not appear to have impaired financial institutions’ balance sheets the same way that the distress in the mortgage market did in 2007-2008.

Furthermore, there is not even a remote possibility of an implicit bailout put for Glencore, whereas it was plausible for Lehman (and hence the failure of the put to materialize plausibly caused such havoc). There are few signs of information contagion. Other mining firms stocks have fallen, but that reflects fundamentals: Glencore has fallen more because it is more leveraged.

Put differently, the financial system was more fragile then, and Lehman was clearly more systemically important, because of its interconnections and the information it conveyed about the health of other financial institutions and government/central bank policy towards them. The system is more able to handle a big failure now, and a smaller Glencore is not nearly as salient as Lehman was.

In sum, Glencore vs. Lehman: Smaller. Less leveraged. Less fragile balance sheet. Less interconnected. And crucially, running into difficulties largely by itself, due to its own idiosyncratic issues, in a time of relative health in the financial system, as opposed to being representative of an entire financial system that was acutely distressed.

With so many profound differences, it’s hard to imagine Glencore’s failure would lead to the same consequences as Lehman. It wouldn’t be fun for its creditors, but they would survive, and the damage would largely be contained to them.

So if you need something to keep you up at night, unless you are a Glencore creditor or shareholder, you’ll need to find something else. It ain’t gonna be Lehman, Part Deux. But I guess financial journos need something to write about.

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