Streetwise Professor

January 25, 2016

The Wages of Incoherence: The Policy Feedback Loop From Hell

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 11:12 pm

Policies can be misguided, but coherent: that characterizes the Bush II Middle East policy for the most part. Then there are policies that are so bizarre and contradictory so as to be utterly incoherent. That’s the Obama Middle East policy.

On the one hand, for the past several years the administration has bent over backwards to make deals with Iran. In the months since the deal was sealed, it has made concession after concession to the mullahs, including obsequiously thanking the Iranians for releasing sailors whom they illegally seized and mistreated, and arguably paying $1.7 billion in ransom to secure the release of Americans held by Iran. The obsequious attitude to Iran is driving the Saudis into paroxysms of paranoia, which stokes proxy wars throughout the region, most notably in Yemen, Iraq . . . and Syria.

But in Syria, the US is on the side of the Saudis fighting Iran’s allies. Indeed, in Syria the Saudis pay for US covert support of anti-Assad forces fighting Iran’s puppet, the Assad regime. Just today John Kerry–who always has one more cheek to turn to the next Iranian insult–said: “The position of the United States is and hasn’t changed; that we are still supporting the [Syrian] opposition politically, financially and militarily.” You know, the opposition that is fighting Iranian forces on the ground in Syria.

But the US being on the side of the opposition may be old news. Now the rumors are rife that the US has backed away from its previous stance that Assad must step aside during the transition to a new government. This is setting off yet even more paroxysms of paranoia among the Gulf Sunni oil tick states. He said this, by the way, in the context of trying to arrange peace talks between the warring sides. How can you be a peace broker when you are “supporting the opposition politically, financially, and militarily”? That’s incoherence!

So maybe in its dying days the administration is groping for coherence, by going the full Monty on Iran. But I’m betting on continued incoherence.

More incoherence. Obama has been adamant about “no boots on the ground” (a phrases that triggers severe teeth-gnashing by yours truly) in the anti-ISIS campaign. Yet in the past few weeks Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has been going around saying yes, there will be American boots on the ground in Syria and Iraq to fight ISIS. Which is it? (Annoyingly, as of yet I have not heard anyone demand an explanation from Obama for this glaring contradiction. Is Carter off the reservation? Or is Obama merely dodging responsibility, and the press is eagerly enabling? Don’t bother answering. Rhetorical question.)

Then there’s US policy towards the Kurds, where Biden simultaneously supports the Turks in their war against the PKK and supports the PKK’s Syrian offshoot, the YPG, which the Turks hate as much as the PKK.

Yet more incoherence. We frantically support peace efforts in the region (most of them futile) but attempt to appease Saudi and Qatari anger at our concessions to Iran by showering them with weapons . . . which the Saudis turn around and use to bomb the crap out of Iranian proxies in Yemen, which angers the Iranians. And around and around it goes.

In the region, this playing both sides is viewed with deep suspicion. Paranoia is part of the Middle Eastern DNA, and the slightest inconsistency is perceived as double dealing and backstabbing. As a result, we undo our attempts to mollify one element (e.g., the Iranians) by doing something to mollify their enemies (e.g., the Saudis) who are angry at our attempts to mollify the first element.

It’s a policy feedback loop from hell.

Print Friendly

January 13, 2016

Breaking the Code: A Dark Day for the US Navy

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 9:20 pm

Somewhat to my surprise, the Iranians released the 10 American sailors whose boats they had seized yesterday. This immediately set of a coordinated spasm of self-congratulation in the administration, and among its media enablers. The party line was laid down by Kerry, who gushed with gratitude for Iran’s gesture and generosity, and with self-praise, stating that the quick end to the situation was proof positive of the benefits of the Iran deal which he and Obama had so brilliantly brought to fruition. Without the deal, it wouldn’t have ended so quickly or smoothly, according to Kerry.

Excuse me, but if the Iran deal was so great, this incident would not have happened in the first place. If the Iran deal was so great, it would not have happened the way it did, with the US personnel being held at gunpoint, and photographed kneeling with their hands behind their heads while the IRGC went pawing through their equipment. If the Iran deal had been so great, they would not have been taken prisoner by the Iranians, and at one time held blindfolded (and again photographed): even if they were in Iranian waters, they would have been warned away and left to proceed. If the Iran deal was so great, the photographs of the humiliation of the American crews would not have been plastered all over the Internet and Iranian television.

But Kerry did not utter one peep of protest about the seizure of the vessels. He did not question whether the seizure was justified, or necessary. He did not slam the releasing of photographs and videos of American servicemen in submissive positions, a direct contravention of international law (of which Kerry claims to be so fond).

If anything Joe Biden (yeah, the guy Obama has tasked to cure cancer–wrap your head around that one) was even worse, saying that it is “standard nautical practice” to help boats in distress at sea.

I can tell you this: it is not standard nautical practice to assist distressed vessels by forcing their crews to kneel like drug runners on a cigarette boat chased down by the USCG.

And about that distress thing. I called BS on it yesterday, and today the Pentagon sidled away from that: they kinda had to, given that both boats motored away under their own power.

The entire episode remains cloaked in mystery, but I find the Pentagon’s claims of ignorance to be incredible. They continue to say they lost contact, and don’t know how that could have happened. I am pretty sure that the crews would have radioed the situation in as it was unfolding the only way I can conceive that their messages weren’t heard is if the Iranians jammed their communications, which would put a whole different  spin on things, wouldn’t it?

The Iranians have also claimed that US ships (including the USS Harry S. Truman) and helicopters made “unprofessional moves” for 40 minutes after the boats were captured. This suggests that the US was aware of the capture and made attempts to interfere. That would blow the entire Gilligan’s Island and “lost contact” narrative.

The US should have had more than enough situational awareness to realize something was up immediately. If they didn’t, some people have some explaining to do. If they did, they have some other kinds of explaining to do.

But it is clear that there will be a concerted effort to draw a curtain over the initiation of the incident in order to celebrate its end, so that little, if any ‘splaining will be going on.

Not. Good. Enough. There are serious issues here, and a full and public accounting of the episode is necessary.

It is particularly serious precisely because it raises grave issues about the Iran deal that Obama and his long-faced Sancho Panza are desperate to defend in spite of–or is it because of?–repeated Iranian provocations.

It is also serious because it raises issues about whether the military is being compromised in order to protect the deal at all costs.

Obviously a tick-tock detailing the exact sequence of events is imperative. But there are other questions (which a supine press has apparently not thought of, or has refused to ask).

For instance, what were the Rules of Engagement? Were the crews given the option of fight or flee, or were they expected to capitulate if confronted by the Iranians?

Did US units in the area find out about the seizure? How? How did they respond? Were they ordered to stand down?

I have to believe there is fury throughout the Navy at this episode. The sight of American sailors kneeling as prisoners on their own combatant vessel must rankle deeply.

Those feelings must be even worse because one of the sailors was shown on Iranian TV apologizing to, and thanking, his captors:

“It was a mistake that was our fault and we apologize for our mistake,” said the U.S sailor, who was identified by Iran’s Press TV as the commander. “It was a misunderstanding. We did not mean to go into Iranian territorial water. The Iranian behavior was fantastic while we were here. We thank you very much for your hospitality and your assistance.”

Not acceptable. At all.

I had the Code of Conduct of the United States Armed Forces drilled into my skull plebe year at Navy, and it has remained embedded ever since. And I can tell you that this behavior is clearly contrary to the Code.

One part of the Code is that you will not do anything that gives aid and comfort to the enemy in exchange for better treatment. It is clear that this statement benefited the Iranians: they are using this entire episode for propaganda value, but more importantly, to demonstrate their mastery over Obama: don’t believe for a moment that this isn’t having major repercussions throughout the region. Further, the only reasonable inference is that making such a statement was a precondition for release.

The sailor should not have made this statement. His only possible excuse is that he had been ordered to in order to seal the deal for the release, a possibility which I cannot discount. If anything, that possibility would be even worse, for it would mean that command authority would be ordering the violation of the Code, which was adopted to solve very serious problems with collaboration by POWs during the Korean War that (a) sapped morale, and (b) was used to wage a propaganda war against the US around the world.

This entire episode is disgraceful. A full and searching inquiry is necessary. But that is unlikely to happen: this event is destined for consignment to the memory hole. And that may be the biggest disgrace of all, not least because it will require the complicity of the military. In the past months have noted with dismay repeated examples of military dissembling and outright lying in order to protect Obama. This is contagious, and corrosive. It is also inimical to the effectiveness of the armed forces. This could be one of Obama’s most malign legacies, and that is saying something.

Print Friendly

January 12, 2016

Lily Tomlin Didn’t Know the Half of It: In the Age of Obama, It’s Impossible to Keep Up on Your Cynicism

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 7:18 pm

Lily Tomlin once said “We try to be cynical, but it’s hard to keep up.” She didn’t know the half of it, because she said this before the age of Obama.

Tonight Obama gives his last (thank God!) State of the Union Address. To guilt us all about the widespread reluctance to admit tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, Obama is trotting out a poor boy who lost his family–and his arms–to an bomb strike in Syria.

This is the most rank emotional manipulation I have ever seen in politics, and that is saying a lot. It is cynical beyond belief.

For one thing, as tragic as his story is, this boy is not representative of the refugees that will attempt to get in the US. It is well known that the refugees in Europe are disproportionately young adult males, not women and young wounded waifs.

You could get a more representative example of would-be refugees in front of the Cologne Cathedral on New Year’s Eve.

For another, Obama’s policies in Syria have been cynical beyond belief, and have dramatically worsened the humanitarian crisis in the country. As is his wont in such matters, he chose the worst option. He did not intervene decisively early in the crisis, thereby allowing it to spin out of control. That is defensible. But he also has supported the arming (via the CIA) of opposition groups in Syria, including Islamist groups. This has increased the intensity of, and extended, the war.

Don’t take my word for it. Walter Russell Mead, a very middle-of-the-road guy who started with high hopes for Obama, wrote a scathing article about Obama’s Syria cynicism back in November.

It hasn’t gotten better. Indeed, tonight’s farce shows that it’s gotten even worse.

All of this takes place against the background of the Iranian seizure of two US riverine patrol craft, two Swedish-built CB90 boats.

There is zero doubt-zero-that the Iranians did this to troll Obama’s SOTU. But the show must go on! So rather than make an issue out of this that might detract attention from Obama’s swan song star turn, the administration, with the appalling assistance of the Pentagon, is saying “no big deal! Just an accident!”

Here is one story puked up by the Pentagon:

Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook told The Associated Press that the boats were moving between Kuwait and Bahrain when the U.S. lost contact with them.

“We have been in contact with Iran and have received assurances that the crew and the vessels will be returned promptly,” Cook said.

U.S. officials said that the incident happened near Farsi Island, situated in the middle of the Persian Gulf. They say it stemmed from some type of mechanical trouble with one of the boats, causing them to run aground. The troops were picked up by Iran.

I have only two words in reply. Bull. Shit.

First, there is no way both boats had mechanical issues. If only one had problems, the other could tow it.

Second–and more outrageously–these are bleeping riverine boats intended to operate in very shallow waters. They draw .8 meters. That’s less than 3 feet, boys and girls. They wouldn’t go aground in your back yard after a heavy rain.

Third, in these days of GPS, a navigation error can be ruled out.

My conclusion: they were seized. Without a fight. Which tells you something about the Rules of Engagement vis a vis Iran that we operate under in the Gulf.

Josh Earnest actually had the audacity to say that it is incidents like this that make the Iran deal worthwhile.

I’d explain what he means, but I’m hopelessly trapped by archaic Western concepts like “logic,” so I can’t.

How many cheeks does Obama have to turn to domestic critics? Zero. How many to Iran? I can’t count that high.

Of course this will only stoke the Sunni freaks in the Gulf into even greater frenzies of paranoia about Obama’s Shia sympathies, thereby intensifying an already fraught situation.

So what’s the State of the Union? I’ll let you know when I get caught up on my cynicism. This may take a while.

Print Friendly

January 7, 2016

Be Ready For Praying Mantis II: Other Than That, Stay the Hell Out

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:35 pm

There is no good guy and no bad guy in the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia (and its GCC allies). In its essentials, it is a struggle for regional dominance between two benighted and malign powers.

The theater of the conflict is Iraq and Syria. Iran has some advantages, most notably, it is allied with the government of Syria (now supported by Russia), and for sectarian and geographical reasons has advantages in Iraq. In Syria, Saudi Arabia and its allies must resort to funding and arming the opposition. Its options in Iraq are more limited, but it is likely objectively pro-ISIS.

Neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia can pose a conventional military threat to the other. Iran’s air force is a collection of museum pieces (F-4s, F-14s and F-5s!) seized from the Shah and kept together with bubble gum an duct tape, and some Russian aircraft gifted to them by a desperate Saddam 25 years ago. Iran’s ground forces have no power projection capability. Its units have struggled in Syria and Iraq, and were noted during the Iran-Iraq war mainly for their ability to absorb appalling casualties. Iran’s navy also lacks any power projection capability. Logistics would also render impossible any Iranian attack on KSA.

Saudi Arabia has a very well-equipped air force, with 70 F-15E strike aircraft, 86 F-15C and D air superiority fighters, 72 Eurofighter Typhoon multirole aircraft, and 80 Tornado ground attack planes. This is more than adequate to defend KSA against anything that Iran could throw against it on air, sea, and land. But KSA’s ground forces are, like most Arab armies, woefully ineffective, and mainly intended for regime protection. The Saudis are bogged down in neighboring Yemen, and could not hope to project any force into Iraq, let alone Iran.

Even if Iran develops a nuclear weapon, it will have little effect on the balance of power. The Saudis will almost certainly obtain one as well, and a nuclear weapon is more of a regime protection weapon than an instrument of power projection.

Iran’s main weapon is subversion, but this is difficult to employ against a police state like KSA. Indeed, the execution of Nimr Nimr that precipitated the latest crisis was no doubt a signal to Iran that the Saudis were willing to use extreme measures to crush any uprising in the Shia population in the eastern provinces. Also look at the brutal crackdown in Bahrain to see how the KSA and its allies deal with Iran-fomented Shia internal dissent.

So there will be an intensified shadow war between KSA and Iran, fought mainly in Syria and Iraq. Things have intensified now because the Iran deal and the Russian intervention in Syria disturbed the previous equilibrium in the region: this was one of the main reasons the Iran deal, and the administration’s subsequently fecklessness in responding to Iranian provocations, was so ill-advised. The most likely outcome is an intensified struggle resulting in a renewed stalemate.

In terms of oil, the most likely outcome is that the Saudis will figure that Iran suffers from lower oil prices more than they do, so they will not cut output. The Iranians have every incentive to produce as much as they can.

There are loud calls from some quarters that we intervene on behalf of our Saudi “allies.” With allies like this, we need no enemies, given lavish Saudi support for Islamism (and terrorist groups) around the world: indeed, I consider the Iranians’ in-your-face chants of “Death to America” more palatable than the Saudis’ two-faced duplicity. The relationship between the US and KSA is transactional, at best, and is unfortunately suborned by Saudi money which greases far too many palms in DC and Europe.

Stalemate is probably a good outcome from the US perspective. Getting in the middle means we will get it from both sides.

Our main interest is continued flow of oil through the Persian/Arab Gulf. A policy similar to that adopted by the Reagan Administration during the Iran-Iraq War, which largely took a hands-off approach to the conflict on the ground, and focused on assuring the free navigation of the Gulf, is a prudent one. If either side tries to escalate by attacking shipping or laying mines, like during the Tanker War, the US can intervene and smack them down as it did in Operation Praying Mantis.

We have no interest in a civilizational and sectarian war, and probably couldn’t intervene effectively even if we decided to. Neither country is capable of achieving a decisive victory over the other. The main stakes are who gets to rule (albeit indirectly) over a ruined Syria and a dysfunctional Iraq. So limit our involvement to keeping the oil flowing and deterring and preventing terrorist spillover. And definitely don’t take the side of Wahhabi freaks, or think that they are allies worthy of the name.

Print Friendly

January 2, 2016

Fools Rush in Where Angels Fear to Tread: Avoiding the Islamic Civil War Is Prudence, Not Isolationism

Filed under: History,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:43 pm

The combination dumpster fire, shit show, and clusterfuck AKA the Middle East got even more disastrous today when the Saudis beheaded a prominent Shia cleric (along with 46 Sunni radicals). The reaction from Iran was immediate: the Saudi embassy was sacked by outraged Shia.

And the reaction from certain quarters in the US was almost as swift: the usual (neocon) suspects in the US (e.g., Max Boot) immediately swung into action, shrieking loudly about the Iranian violation of the sanctity of the Saudi embassy (I wonder what really goes on there, besides, you know, slavery and stuff) but saying nary a word about the morals or justice or reasonableness of going medieval on Nimr al Nimr.

It is beyond bizarre that certain quarters of the right are so obsessed with Iran that they are willing to go all in with the Saudis and the other oil ticks of the GCC. How can they be blind to the facts that (a) the most direct terrorist threats that we face are all Sunni, and specifically Wahhabi-influenced, (b) these threats receive material and ideological support from Saudi Arabia, and (c) the Saudis have spent billions propagating their hateful creed, including supporting the very mosques in the US and Europe where terrorists are radicalized and recruit?

I stipulate that Iran under the Mullahs is dangerous. I further stipulate that Assad is evil. I further stipulate that Putin is a malign force.

It does not follow, however, that their enemies–the Wahhabi Sunni extremists–are good guys, or that following the enemy-of-my-enemy strategy is even remotely wise.

This is particularly true in the case of Syria, which is a proxy war between the Saudis and the other oil ticks (and the Sunni Turks) and the Iranians. Opposing Assad means throwing in on the side of the very same types of jihadis that are trying to kill us in Paris, Brussels, and San Bernardino. Empowering them today is a recipe for disaster tomorrow.

Just how far the anti-Iran cabal is willing to go is illustrated by their deification of Zarhan Alloush, whose extreme Sunni-sectarian background (he openly advocated a genocide of the Alawites in Syria) has been whitewashed in order to transform him into some martyred potential interlocutor of peace.

Insane.

There is a civil war in Islam. Indeed, there are multiple civil wars. Sunni vs. Shia. But even within the Islamist Sunni “community” there are deep divisions and vicious, brutal fights.

Intervening in a civil war, especially one between extreme sectarians with mindsets completely alien to our own–and indeed, actively hostile to our own–is a recipe for disaster.

But those who counsel staying out–such as Ted Cruz–are pilloried as “isolationists.” Rushing in where angels fear to tread is not isolationism. It’s prudence.

Cruz in fact was-and is-an ardent foe of the Iran deal. So he’s not dew-eyed about the mullahs, or an isolationist. But he’s smart enough to realize that you have to pick your battles, and even if you don’t like Iran (which he doesn’t), that doesn’t mean you have to fight their proxy in Syria.

Indeed, one of the reasons that the Iran deal was a disaster was precisely that it stoked the conflict between Iran and the Saudis. This was predictable, and predicted: well over a year ago I argued that one of the reasons the deal was a bad idea is that it would intensify the conflict in the Gulf specifically, and the Muslim civil war generally, because the Saudis would feel the need to take matters into their own hands and fight Iran before Iran became too strong. We are seeing that happen right before our eyes.

What’s particularly maddening about the interventionist crowd is that they have no specific strategy. This is epitomized by this Garry Kasparov article. Kasparov waxes eloquent about American exceptionalism, and our need to do something:

But the Iraq War was a rebuke to bad planning and lousy implementation, not a refutation of the idea that America can be an essential force for good in the world. America must do better, not do nothing.

OK. I’ll stipulate that doing nothing is not good. But it’s a long way from saying “do something!” to specifying just what that something is, and showing that it will make things better, not worse. After all, in this very paragraph Kasparov admits that we are capable of “bad planning and lousy implementation”: what’s to say we won’t have a repeat? Vacuous generalities about spreading democracy and freedom are exactly what gets us into trouble.

It is particularly irritating that Kasparov invokes Reagan’s name (as many neocons do, though he didn’t care for them, and the feeling was quite mutual). Reagan indeed engaged in soaring rhetoric about freedom and democracy. But he had a concrete strategy that he developed over years and implemented methodically when in office. The new interventionists have the rhetoric. The strategy, not so much.

Further, the situation Reagan faced–a Cold War with a military peer and ideological rival–is completely different than the one we currently face in the Middle East. There are no one size fits all solutions, and anyone who claims to know how Reagan would respond to these completely different circumstances is just full of it. That’s unknown and unknowable.

Perhaps as a chess player, Kasparov is used to there being  black pieces, and white pieces. But in the Middle East, there is no such clean divide. It is just different shades of anti-western and anti-modern sectarians looking to extirpate their enemies–who include us, by the way. Democracy and freedom are on no one’s agenda there, and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise. We made that mistake in Iraq: why repeat it again.

I am not a huge fan of Kissinger, James Baker, and Brent Scowcroft, but on these issues they have a more measured understanding of the realities. They recognize the importance of idealistic goals, but temper that with a recognition that realistic means are needed to achieve them.

Scowcroft:

Scowcroft does not believe that the promotion of American-style democracy abroad is a sufficiently good reason to use force. “I thought we ought to make it our duty to help make the world friendlier for the growth of liberal regimes,” he said. “You encourage democracy over time, with assistance, and aid, the traditional way. Not how the neocons do it.”

(The whole piece is worth reading.)

Kissinger and Baker:

Like most Americans, we believe that the United States should always support democracy and human rights politically, economically and diplomatically, just as we championed freedom for the captive peoples of the Soviet empire during the Cold War. Our values impel us to alleviate human suffering. But as a general principle, our country should do so militarily only when a national interest is also at stake. Such an approach could properly be labeled “pragmatic idealism.”

. . .

Sixth, and most important, the United States must develop a firm and differentiated understanding of its vital national interests. Not every upheaval in the region has the same origin or remedy. The Arab Spring has the potential to become a great opportunity for the people of the region and the world. Over time, fostering democracy may provide an alternative to Islamic extremism; it may also, in the short term, empower some of its supporters. We need to develop a realistic concept of what is achievable and in what time frame.

The last point is a jab at the End of History strain of neoconservatism, which is universalist and believes that everyone wants to be like us, and that the world is inevitably destined to be like us, as the result of some progressive, Hegelian process.

No and no.

Insofar as Syria in particular is concerned. Our national interest there is limited, and the cost of doing anything is prohibitive. Putin’s intervention there is not a bug, but a feature: if he is a fool who rushes in, we should take grim satisfaction, not engage in hysterical reactions like Kasparov (and Max Boot and Michael Weiss). (Relatedly, Boot slandered Cruz, tweeting that he has affection for Assad. This is scurrilous: not wanting to fight him does not imply affection, especially since those whom Assad is fighting are Islamic extremists.)

In sum, the isolationism charge is a canard when hurled at people who don’t want to get deeper into Syria, and who don’t want to take sides between medieval combatants in a sectarian civil war. Saying that the Iranians are bad is not sufficient to justify intervening on the side of their Wahhabi foes–who are just as bad, and are in fact more directly involved in attacking the US and the West than are the Iranians.

To paraphrase Kissinger again (specifically, his remarks about the Iran-Iraq War): we should hope that they both lose. In the meantime, we should look for ways of shielding ourself from the fallout. Jumping into the fray is not the way to do that.

 

Print Friendly

December 29, 2015

Helluva Way to Run a War: The Pentagon & Obama Go to the Mattresses

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 1:24 pm

I have long hypothesized that an intense war between the White House and the Pentagon has been raging for years.

Exhibit 1 in support of this hypothesis is the simple fact that Obama is on his fourth defense secretary, whereas no other major department has had more than two. The most recently defenestrated SecDef, Chuck “Hapless” Hagel, recently blasted the administration, savaging it for micromanaging, and entrusting the micromanaging to certifiable idiots like Susan Rice, whose major qualification, of course, is her willingness to say anything–anything–in defense of the administration, no matter how ludicrous.

Hagel’s complaints about micromanagement merely echo those of his predecessors, Bob Gates and Leon Panetta. And of course, there are many other stories (some discussed here) that provide further support.

Hagel also claims that the White House tried to “destroy” him with a slanderous leak campaign. The White House no doubt did this pour encourager les autres: no independent thought will be tolerated! This apparently had the desired effect. One candidate,  Michele Flournoy, withdrew her name from consideration precisely because of her concerns about micromanagement by The Incompetent One.

All of this of course should make you look askance at anyone who would take the job.

Today brought another story of the Pentagon-White House War: Reuters reports that the Defense Department has been doing everything in its power, and pulling every bureaucratic trick imaginable, to impede Obama’s obsession with emptying Gitmo.

The most lurid war story came out some days ago, when Seymour Hersh wrote a long piece in the London Review of Books claiming that the Defense Department actively opposed administration policy in Syria. One must always take Hersh stories with a large grain of salt, but this one has a high degree of verisimilitude. The Pentagon was aghast at Obama’s support for jihadi groups fighting Assad, and for its deference to Turkey which was supporting every jihadist in sight–including ISIS.

The strongest piece of evidence in favor of the Hersh claims is the failed Pentagon program to arm allegedly moderate opposition groups. The Pentagon knows how to arm, equip, and train insurgent forces: indeed, this was the original purpose of Special Forces. The only possible reason that the Pentagon could have fucked it up as badly as it did in Syria is that it wanted to fuck it up.

Another piece of evidence in favor of Hersh is that he writes that ex-DIA head Michael Flynn was the most aggressive opponent of Obama’s Syria policy (with Dempsey playing a more devious Yes Minister role). Flynn has been very outspoken recently, including this recent interview.

So there you have it folks. The Defense Department and Obama and his thugs have gone to the mattresses. Helluva way to run a war. Or wars.

Print Friendly

December 25, 2015

Four Corners Offense: The Social History of Commodity Corners

I’ve been spending something of a busman’s holiday, reading this and that about commodity market corners in days long past. I started out looking into some of the big cotton corners at the beginning of the last century, namely the Brown-Hayne corner of 1903 and the Patten corner of 1910. These are the subject of a new book, The Cotton Kings: Capitalism and Corruption in Turn-of-the-Century New York and New Orleans. The book is entertaining history, but could use some more economics. It is journalistic in style, rather than analytical.

Reading about Patten’s cotton corner led me to read about his wheat corner of 1909, his corn corner of 1908, and his oats corner of 1902. Mr. Patten was a busy man.

And a reviled one. He was known as “The Wheat King,” whom the The Literary Review accused of  “The Crime of Making Bread Dear.” He was the model for the villain in the very influential D. W. Griffith short film, “A Corner in Wheat.”

This early short was one of the first films, if not the first, to address a serious social subject. Its theme would be very familiar today: the two Americas, rich and poorSergei Eisenstein admired Griffith, and employed his “parallel editing” technique (which he referred to as Griffith’s “montage of collision”): some film historians consider Griffith’s technique more subtle and less heavy-handed than Eisenstein’s.

(Unbeknownst to me when I was growing up in Evanston, Illinois, Patten was a longtime resident of the city, and its former mayor. He built a mansion there, and funded the Patten Gymnasium, where I swam in the summers.)

Patten was a nationally known figure. The Justice Department indicted him under the Sherman Act for his cotton corner, and the case attracted front page attention in national newspapers, including the New York Times, when it went to the Supreme Court. (Patten was fined $4000, or less than .1 percent of what he allegedly made in his corner. Not much deterrence effect there, eh?)

Patten was not alone in being a figure of national renown–and infamy. Commodity speculators were the banksters of their day. The Matt Taibbi of the 1880s, Henry Demarest Lloyd, wrote about cornerers at the Chicago Board of Trade in a famous essay. Frank Norris wrote a famous roman à clef, The Pit, based on the Leiter wheat corner of 1898.

In sum, in the last third of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th, commodity markets generally, and commodity market corners in particular, were the subject of intense interest. In some respects, it is not surprising that commodity corners were the subject of close journalistic coverage, serious fiction, social critical literature, and film during this era. Agricultural commodities were much more central to Americans as both consumers and producers. In 1900, 41 percent of the American workforce was employed in agriculture: now it is under 2 percent, and agriculture represents less than .7 of GDP. Half of American consumption spending went to food and textiles in 1900: a century later, that figure was down to 20 percent. Relatively speaking, the commodity derivatives markets (the Chicago Board of Trade, the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce, Kansas City Board of Trade, the New York and New Orleans cotton exchanges, etc.) were more important and more developed that the capital markets, including the New York Stock Exchange, than is the case today: by the 1990s, when I was researching commodity exchanges and doing work with some, the commodity traders lamented that the explosion of financial futures had led the managements of exchanges to lose touch with the realities of commodities.

That said, one can see many echoes of the distant debates about and social criticism of commodity trading and corners in current controversies over financial markets. Just as outrage over the alleged excesses of the 2000s gave birth to the spate of post-Crisis financial regulation, fury over the Leiters and Pattens and Browns led to the first major regulations of financial markets in the United States: the Cotton Futures Act of 1914, and the Grain Futures Act of 1922 (which morphed into the Commodity Exchange Act, which is still with us, and which was amended by Frankendodd). Both Acts followed major government studies, the Commissioner of Corporations’ Report on Cotton Exchanges, and the Federal Trade Commission’s Report on the Grain Trade. Both of these are very well done, and provide very detailed descriptions of both the cash and futures markets. They are priceless resources. In some respects, because of them, we know more about the operation of commodity markets in the first decades of the 20th century than we do of their operation in the first decades of the 21st.

Maybe someday I’ll write a book about all of this, one that integrates the economics, history, and political economy. It’s of great personal interest, but not highly valued in the economics or finance professions today. I was amused when I came upon the link to an AER article about the Cotton Futures Act: it is beyond imagining that something similar would appear there today. But as I hope the foregoing shows, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Issues of the relationship between financial markets and the real economy, the political economy of financial markets, and the influence of financial titans on political and judicial institutions, are still with us. In 1909, a film like A Corner in Wheat grappled with the social impact of finance in a very provocative and arguably simplistic way: in 2009-2015 movies like Too Big to Fail, Margin Call, and The Big Short do the same.

Don’t hold your breath, but maybe someday you’ll read about this in depth in print, rather than superficially in pixels.

Print Friendly

December 21, 2015

Adam Smith Goes to Syria: How Bad Government Policies Turned Drought Into Famine

Filed under: Climate Change,Commodities,Economics,Energy,History,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 7:39 pm

The myth that global warming caused a drought which caused the civil war in Syria has been flogged repeatedly by the left, especially in the lead-up to the Paris farce: another example of the “elites” letting no good crisis go to (political) waste. As I discussed in March, there was indeed a drought in Syria, but no credible scientific evidence links the drought to climate change.

Droughts happen. What turned the drought into catastrophe in Syria was the depletion of groundwater by previous government-driven efforts to spur production:

Syria was such a successful producer that it became a net exporter of wheat for the better part of two decades — almost unheard-of in a region where most governments imported cheap wheat from abroad. According to ICARDA Director General Mahmoud Solh, the increased productivity netted the Syrian government more than $350 million a year . The country also kept a strategic reserve of wheat — usually about 3 million metric tons, enough to get it through a lean year or a price spike. In this most stable of dictatorships, nobody dreamed of a war.

But all that productivity came at a price. To produce these remarkable gains, Syria’s agricultural sector “mined” groundwater to irrigate farms. Experts predicted that this would lead to severe water Shortages. When a four-year drought struck in 2006, devastating 60 percent of Syria’s agricultural lands, the country’s groundwater was already depleted.

(This sounds a lot like Soviet agricultural malpractice.)

This brings to mind Adam Smith’s argument that bad government policy turns “dearths” caused by nature into famines:

The seasons most unfavourable to the crop are those of excessive drought or excessive rain. But as corn grows equally upon high and low lands, upon grounds that are disposed to be too wet, and upon those that are disposed to be too dry, either the drought or the rain which is hurtful to one part of the country is favourable to another; and though both in the wet and in the dry season the crop is a good deal less than in one more properly tempered, yet in both what is lost in one part of the country is in some measure compensated by what is gained in the other. In rice countries, where the crop not only requires a very moist soil, but where in a certain period of its growing it must be laid under water, the effects of a drought are much more dismal. Even in such countries, however, the drought is, perhaps, scarce ever so universal as necessarily to occasion a famine, if the government would allow a free trade.

It as not just the  Syrian government that contributed to spiraling food prices which created popular unrest in the Middle East that culminated in 2010-2011 (which the Muslim Brotherhood exploited in Egypt and Syria in particularly): US government policy contributed to the problem. In particular, US biofuels mandates that stimulated the production of ethanol drove up the price of corn by an estimated 30 percent, and as Brian Wright has shown, drove up all other grain prices as well (because corn is a substitute for other grains in both consumption and production). (I strongly recommend reading at least the introduction of the Wright paper: I’d quote in detail, but the online versions embed some devious feature that makes it impossible to copy-and-paste.)

It is sickly ironic that policies intended to reduce global warming pushed by the same crowd that falsely blame the Syrian drought and subsequent civil war on global warming (a) do nothing to reduce global warming, and (b) have done far more to exacerbate poverty and create social unrest  in the Middle East than global warming ever has or ever will.  Ethanol is an unmitigated disaster environmentally, economically, and socially. Yet the people Thomas Sowell trenchantly calls “the anointed” colluded with agricultural lobbies in the United States (encompassing both growers and processors) to inflict this monstrosity on the world.

How dare they–how fucking dare they–presume to lecture anyone on their obligations to “save the planet” and help the poor? Through biofuels policies alone they have inflicted huge misery and privation, and yet they have the audacity to try to exploit one of the consequences of these policies in order to ram more of their brilliant ideas down our throats.

Haven’t they done enough? Can they please now just go away?

Alas, we won’t be so lucky. These are our elites, after all, and we are stuck with them, like a case of malaria. And they are actually proud of stupid policies like biofuel mandates. There is no stupid that can equal the stupid of not just not learning from mistakes, but reveling in them.

Do you still wonder why the Trump phenomenon exists? The global reaction against the elites, of which Trump is just the most prominent example, is yet another baleful consequence of the failure of these so called elites. The reaction may be as bad as the disease, but let the blame fall where it should: squarely on the shoulders of those condescending fools whose allegedly good intentions have paved a superhighway to hell.

Print Friendly

December 20, 2015

Russia v. Ukraine: Will the Concept of Odious Debt Have Its Day in Court?

Filed under: Economics,History,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 4:39 pm

Ukraine has announced that it will default on the $3 billion debt to Russia incurred in the waning days of the Yanukovych government–or is it regime? For that distinction could prove to be important.

It is somewhat surprising to me that as of yet Ukraine has not formally invoked the concept of “odious debt,” even though it seems apposite. Although there were earlier legal precedents (notably, US repudiation of Cuban debts incurred by the Spanish government prior to 1898), the concept was formalized in the 1920s by (ironically) a Russian emigre, Alexander Nahum Sack. Sack wrote:

When a despotic regime contracts a debt, not for the needs or in the interests of the state, but rather to strengthen itself, to suppress a popular insurrection, etc, this debt is odious for the people of the entire state. This debt does not bind the nation; it is a debt of the regime, a personal debt contracted by the ruler, and consequently it falls with the demise of the regime. The reason why these odious debts cannot attach to the territory of the state is that they do not fulfil one of the conditions determining the lawfulness of State debts, namely that State debts must be incurred, and the proceeds used, for the needs and in the interests of the State. Odious debts, contracted and utilised for purposes which, to the lenders’ knowledge, are contrary to the needs and the interests of the nation, are not binding on the nation – when it succeeds in overthrowing the government that contracted them – unless the debt is within the limits of real advantages that these debts might have afforded. The lenders have committed a hostile act against the people, they cannot expect a nation which has freed itself of a despotic regime to assume these odious debts, which are the personal debts of the ruler.

The key criteria established by Sack fit in the Ukraine-Russia case quite well. Yanukovych’s regime quite clearly utilized the debt to “strengthen itself” and “to suppress a popular insurrection.” If anything, the debt was used contrary to the interests of the nation. Putin provided the debt in order to make it financially feasible for Yanukovych to reject an EU association agreement, even though this agreement was widely popular in Ukraine. Furthermore, it is quite clear that the lender–Russia/Putin–were knowledgeable of the purposes for which the debts were “contracted and utilised.” Indeed, Putin offered the loan precisely in order to achieve these purposes, which suited Russia.

Russia, of course, argues that Yanukovych’s government was legitimate, and the current government is an illegitimate regime. Given the history, the facts seem to be on Ukraine’s side.

If the case proceeds, I anticipate that Ukraine will eventually invoke this doctrine. At the very least, it would strengthen its negotiating position.

Putin evidently has given up on a wholesale invasion of Ukraine, or even the eastern Ukrainian regions that he once (but no longer) referred to as Novorossiya. Militarily it was likely to be too difficult, and it would likely lead to further western measures that crush the already weakened Russian economy.

Instead, Putin is resorting to measures to prevent the consolidation of the Ukrainian state. The conflict in Donbas is kept on simmer. There is evidence of Russian active measures in the parts of Ukraine under government control. To these military and paramilitary means, Putin is adding economic conflict. Last week he announced that Russia was suspending a free trade agreement with Ukraine. Russia’s rigid negotiating stance on the $3 billion loan is another way of weakening Ukraine, and also creating strains between the Ukrainian government and the west (in the form of the IMF). Rather than striking a death blow, Putin is inflicting multiple ulcers on its recalcitrant neighbor.

Unfortunately, Ukraine is adding self-inflicted wounds to those dealt them by Putin. In particular, it has failed signally in its attempts to get corruption under control. Oligarchs still control the country. Struggles between oligarchic factions are reflected in bitter conflict in the Rada, culminating in the farcical events of last week, when a legislator lifted up Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk (grabbing him in a very delicate place in the process) while Yatsenyuk was addressing the parliament. Ukraine keeps copious quantities of inflammables piled up, making Vlad the Arsonist’s job very easy. Old Sovok habits die hard, and Putin is exploiting that.

Realpolitik, geopolitics, and western exhaustion and frustration with Ukrainian dysfunction are leaving Ukraine increasingly isolated. This is why Putin is pushing on many fronts, including on the matter of the $3 billion of debt. Ukraine’s best legal option is to declare the debt odious, and fight it out in court. It will at least buy time, and it has a reasonable chance of success given the, well, rather odious history of this loan.

Print Friendly

December 16, 2015

Barack “The Bourbon” Obama: Learning Nothing, Forgetting Nothing

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 9:53 am

The linchpin of Obama’s recalibration of his anti-ISIS campaign (for it is little more than that) is the deployment of US special operations forces in direct actions targeted on ISIS leadership. This represents further proof of Obama’s intellectual rigidity, and his utter inability to learn from experience–or to admit error.

For this is exactly what Obama did in Afghanistan starting in 2009:

Each year during the Afghan “surge” that President Barack Obama initiated in 2009, one declassified document shows, the manhunting task force ran many more missions than the year before–about two per night countrywide in August 2009; six per night a year later, when the Norgrove mission went south; and eleven per night a year after that, at the time of the “Extortion 17” tragedy. By 2011, the JSOC task force numbered more than 3,800 personnel — huge in special operations terms, but still just 2.4 percent of the overall U.S.-led force in Afghanistan, as one briefing slide notes.

Accompanying the overall surge was a “Ranger surge” that put more and more platoons of the elite light infantry regiment into the field alongside the SEALs, allowing more targets to be struck. Operators from the Army’s Delta Force were present as well, some of them providing what a JSOC staff officer calls a “very special capability”: the ability to track a moving convoy of cars or trucks by helicopter and raid it on the go, as depicted in the movie “Black Hawk Down” and numerous YouTube videos. The documents describe one joint Delta-Ranger team specializing in this task as an “expeditionary targeting force”—the same term defense secretary Carter used this week to describe the new JSOC raid force deploying to Iraq.

 

And this has accomplished what, exactly? The Afghanistan hamster wheel spins and spins and spins, regardless of how many SEAL and Ranger raids are mounted, and how many “high value targets” are killed. The main result of these operations–if “successful”–is to provide promotion opportunities for aspiring guerrillas and terrorists. It certainly has not changed things on the ground.

Actually, the operations have accomplished something: getting highly trained and difficult to replace special operators killed and maimed and just worn out. The details of the operations were only discovered because they were included in FOIA’d reports about two raids that went horribly wrong.

But faced with another difficult situation, this time in Syria and Iraq, rather than contemplating soberly the all pain, no gain lessons of the “Expeditionary Targeting Force” model in Afghanistan, Obama goes to it again.

What Talleyrand said of the Bourbons applies with even greater force to Obama: He has learned nothing, and forgotten nothing.

Print Friendly

Next Page »

Powered by WordPress