Streetwise Professor

March 2, 2015

True Genius, or Sputtering Incoherence?

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 6:06 pm

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “[t]he test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” By this standard, Obama and his foreign policy team must be far into the right tail of the MENSA distribution, because they are able to hold about 10 opposed ideas in mind.

For instance, the operation against Tikrit is a vital step in the campaign against Isis, but the US is not involved. In part it is not involved because Iran and Shia militias are taking the lead in the offensive there, and the US has grave, grave concerns about growing Iranian influence-control, really-in Iraq and elsewhere in the region (e.g., Yemen). We are so concerned about Iran, in fact, that we are negotiating-I use the term loosely, because it usually involves both give and take, and we are just giving-a deal that would give Iran a clear path to becoming a nuclear power. Once it becomes a nuclear power, of course, it will have dramatically enhanced capability to exert its power in the entire Middle East. Even before it gets the bomb, sanctions will be ended, giving Iran the economic wherewithal to support terrorism and extend its influence the region. (Kerry is in Geneva with his buddy, the Iranian foreign minister Javad. They’re on a first name basis, you see. I wonder if they’re reminiscing about the old days. You know, the American Embassy; the Marine Barracks; Khobar Towers; supplying Iraqi terrorists with shaped charge IEDs to kill Americans. Good times. Good times. The list of topics is endless.)

Meanwhile, Obama has long said that he wants to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Not only is he negotiating a deal that will create a new nuclear power, Iran’s acquisition of the bomb will set off a race by the Saudis, Turks, Egyptians, etc., to get it too.

Further, Obama wants to get the Sunnis in Iraq, and Sunni nations in the Middle East, on board to fight Isis. All the while he is standing aside while Iran and Shia militias, whom the Sunnis hate with the heat of 1000 suns, operate pretty much at will in Iraq.

But I’m not done!  The administration also has a soft spot for the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood (witness its continued hostility to Sisi in Egypt, who tossed out the MB), despite the fact that the Brotherhood views Shia as subhuman.

Another part of the administration policy-supposedly-is to support “moderate” Syrian opposition fighters. Who is the opposition opposed to? Iran’s biggest ally: Assad. What’s more, the first group of fighters that we were supporting were rolled over by an Al Qaeda-linked group, and switched allegiances. In response, Obama’s “Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL” (how does he fit that on his business card?) Gen. John Allen (ret.), says that the US will protect moderate Syrian opposition fighters “when the time comes.” I’ll bet that’s a real enticement to enlist. Somehow, I get the vision that the protection that will be offered is an honor guard at a mass burial, because when the time comes it will be too late.

Of course, this is not genius. It is drooling incoherence. The administration has more foreign policy personalities than Sybil. Simultaneously attempting to pursue wildly contradictory, and indeed mutually exclusive, policies, which will inevitably result in a train wreck of historic proportions.

At the root of this is Obama’s Ahab-like pursuit of a deal with Iran. That is the primary source of incoherence. Why he harbors this obsession, I do not know. I cannot think of a good reason. I can think of many bad ones, including some very, very bad ones.

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February 24, 2015

Omar the Storyteller Edits His Tale Yet Again

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 3:02 pm

Omar the storyteller is back at it, with another eager scribe, this time from the Guardian. The basic contours of his tale remain the same, but a crucial detail has shifted yet again, and the story has gotten yet more elaborate. Most annoyingly, he still escapes any serious questioning about the problematic features of his narrative.

The crucial detail that changes relates to Kayla Mueller’s denial that she was his wife:

After being interrogated, beaten and released, Alkhani returned to Aleppo – not Raqqa, as previously reported – to try win Mueller’s release, claiming she was his wife for more leverage. When allowed to see her briefly, she appeared unhurt and a little plumper. She cried. Apparently unaware of his ruse, she denied being his wife, foiling the plot.

In previous tellings, al Khani and Mueller had planned the marriage ruse for the very purpose of using in the event that they were taken captive. So she forgot? That would be pretty remarkable. In another telling, Omar hypothesized that she denied being his wife to save him. In another telling, he didn’t know why she denied it. The many versions of this crucial detail in the story raise some serious questions about Omar’s veracity. Not that anyone from he steno pool has bothered to point out these inconsistencies to him.

The story of the reason for their trip to Aleppo has become more elaborate. Versions 1.0-3.0 (I work from memory: the story has more versions than Windows) had him going to repair the broken WiFi at the Medicins sans Frontiers hospital in Aleppo. This time is is not going to fix it, he’s installing the whole damn thing:

Instead of taking photographs, Alkhani says his mission was to bring and install internet equipment at a hospital run by aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), using IT skills he learned while working with foreign journalists in Damascus several years earlier, he said.

Funny that he never mentioned that before. It’s not like “bringing and installing internet equipment” is a small detail, and it certainly entails much more effort and planning that a quick trip to fix a connection. I also wonder whether he enhanced the magnitude of the task and dropped in the the stuff about his IT skilz  because of questions that some people (cough, cough) had raised about why MSF would have relied on him, and why he would have run such huge risks to be a repair guy.

Another key change in detail. In previous versions, he ventured to the center of the Isis snake pit-al Raqqa. In this version, he went to Aleppo. Something of a difference, and not the kind of detail one would forget. Why the change? Has someone expressed incredulity that he could waltz into Raqqa-which Isis runs with a  crazed, bloody grip-so he is backing off from that claim?

Further elaborations include Mueller venturing into Aleppo in a hijab to conceal her identity, which she discarded in the hospital because she felt so at ease there. Funny he left that out before.

Curiouser and curiouser.

Of course, like all of the other reporters hanging on Omar’s every word, the Guardian’s Rory Carroll apparently did not ask one serious question along the lines of what I posted earlier. Nor did he point out the inconsistencies and progressive growth in the tale, even though such increasing vividness is often a major tell of a fabrication.

Most importantly, Carroll did not ask how it was possible that al Khani emerged unscathed from the Isis snake pit not once, but twice, despite his high profile in the Syrian resistance and extensive contact with western journalists. Hell, Isis can’t even get along with Al Qaeda, let alone the other disparate branches of the Syrian resistance, and is deeply suspicious of westerners and contacts with them. What magic words did Omar utter to convince them that he wasn’t a spy? Must have been pretty powerful words, given the paranoia and hatred that characterizes Isis.

In other words, another story, and no sense of being closer to the actual truth. The reverse, actually.

One more word about the Mueller murder. Her family blames the Obama administration’s ransoming Beau Bergdahl for making Isis more obdurate in its negotiations for Kayla’s release. Not that you’ll see this get much attention, given how it makes Obama look bad in multiple ways.

And speaking about Bergdahl, a few weeks ago there were reports that the Army had reached a decision regarding a court martial. The Pentagon threw a fit, and since then there has been radio silence. The Army has more than enough time to decide how to proceed. The lack of action reeks of command influence and the subversion of military justice for political reasons.

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February 18, 2015

Obama Delivers Another Speech From the Banks of Denial

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 8:00 pm

Very early in his first term, Obama stood near the banks of the Nile and delivered a speech on the relationship between the west and Islam that was praised effusively. It was widely predicted that this speech would heal the civilizational rift that had long existed, and had been cracked wide open by the evil Bush and his tribe of neocons.

That’s surely worked out well, hasn’t it?

If you read the speech, it is full of banalities, bromides, false history, criticism of the west, and condescending portrayals of Muslims as victims of outside forces. And we are witnessing the consequences of that vision put into presidential action.

Not to be deterred by reality, Obama spoke at his Summit on Violent Extremism, and basically expounded the same vision, tweaked slightly to address the current situation. That is, it was yet another speech delivered on the banks of denial.

There’s no transcript yet, but you can get the idea from this LA Times oped that ran under his name. It’s what Marie Harf said, only longer, basically.

Obama’s diagnosis of the causes of “violent extremism” is fundamentally flawed, and predictably progressive and materialist. In his view, it is caused by economic deprivation, corruption, and poor governance. Economic development, the eradication of corruptionm and reforming government to allow the disaffected to “address legitimate grievances through the democratic process” are essential in combating terrorism.

A few comments.

First, this is a very dubious prediction as an empirical matter. Corruption, poverty, and undemocratic governments are the rule, rather than the exception, throughout a good portion of the globe. Most of these benighted areas are not afflicted by “violent extremism” of the kind that is threatening the Middle East, parts of Africa, and even Europe (although they may be violent places, e.g., Venezuela or South Africa). Thus, these variables have little explanatory power.

What does? The very thing Obama is at great pains to deny: Salafist strains of Islam tracing their origins to Ibn Taymiyyah.

Intra-country comparisons make this plain. Take Nigeria, a notoriously corrupt, wretchedly governed, poor country. These conditions prevail throughout the entire country, but although violence is ubiquitous, extremist movements are found almost exclusively in the Muslim north, and are Islamist. They are not found in the non-Muslim south, even though it is also poor, corrupt, undemocratic and abysmally governed.

Similarly, Thailand’s and the Philippine’s insurrectionary movements are concentrated in Muslim regions, and are Muslim supremacist in nature.

These intra-country comparisons show that holding governance, corruption, and poverty roughly constant, the variation in the prevalence of extremist political movements across regions is explained by variations in the religious makeup of these regions.

Second, it is beyond rich to claim that democratic reforms will tamp down violent political movements. Islamist movements detest democracy with a passion. In their minds, it is an un-Islamic “innovation” (in the formulation of Taymiyyah). It is something that they are fighting to destroy, not fighting to create. Attempts to democratize, or to impose democracy, would only spur these people to greater violence.

Islamists use democracy mainly as an instrument to destroy it, and to obtain power. The “Freedom and Justice Party” (aka the Muslim Brotherhood) in Egypt is an excellent example. As soon as Morsi had been voted in, he and the Brotherhood began a systematic campaign to make sure they could not be voted out. Ditto with Hamas in Gaza. Democracy was purely a means to power, and something to be destroyed after power had been achieved.

Third, even if Obama’s diagnosis was correct, if success against terrorism requires making Middle Eastern nations democratic, uncorrupt, tolerant, and governed by the rule of law, we might as well give up now. It’s more likely that I will ride a unicorn to Mars than that these things will happen.

Fourth, Obama’s prescription is neocon to the core. Bring democracy and freedom to the Middle East, and peace and prosperity will flourish. How bizarre is that?

Obama hit all of his usual notes. All religions are violent: Islam is not unique in this regard. He even managed to bring Timothy McVeigh into it. Muslims have been “woven in the fabric of America since the founding.” Fun fact that I bet you didn’t know: Muslims helped build our railroads! And you just thought it was Irishmen and Chinese, you bigot you.

He also inveighed against Islamophobia, capped with a treacly story about getting a Valentine from an 11 year old Muslim girl who expressed fear that people hated all Muslims. (He didn’t mention that if the girl attempted to celebrate Valentine’s Day in ISIS territory, she risked a flogging or a stoning.) This is incredibly condescending, and insults hundreds of millions of Americans who are more than capable of judging people on individual behavior, and who do not lump all Muslims together.

He reprised his role as the determinant of what is and what isn’t legitimate Islam, effectively declaring ISIS and al Qaeda et al takfiri. Kind of presumptuous for a kafir, especially since takfir is reserved for Mohammed or the caliph.

In making this declaration he used his usual argument that most Muslims reject Salafism (though he did not use that word).  This is another of his straw men. Even if true, it does not change the fact that ISIS, the Muslim Brotherhood, and all the other Islamist groups ardently believe themselves to be extremely faithful adherents to the truth revealed by Mohammed. They are fundamentalists in the truest sense of the word, and view those Muslims who reject their vision as blasphemers and apostates: anything that is not in the Koran, or which post-dates Mohammed and his companions, is un-Islamic. In their eyes, they are the true followers of Mohammed, and nothing Barack Obama says is going to convince them otherwise.  Put differently, Obama’s opinion on the legitimacy of their claims to be Muslims means exactly squat.

In practical terms, Obama endorsed restrictions on government surveillance of Muslims, thereby buying into an agenda being pushed hard by CAIR, which just happens to be a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot. In so doing, he knocked down another of his straw men, and in the process, slurred law enforcement: “Nobody should be profiled or put under a cloud of suspicion simply because of their faith.” Of course not. Who said otherwise? Is he suggesting that has happened? It sure sounds like it.

All in all, just what you should have expected. An exegesis on “violent extremism” that denies the fundamental nature of the threat, and denies the undeniable roots of movements that are ripping apart vast swathes of the Middle East and Africa in one specific religion, which posits causes that are present where the alleged effects are not, and which denies the cause that is as plain as the nose on your face. Such a fundamental-and willful-misunderstanding of the nature of the threat and its causes will inevitably undermine efforts to fight it. Indeed, it is already doing so.

As Mark Twain said, “denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.” No, it ain’t. It is the foundation of Obama’s beliefs about terrorism and how to combat it.

 

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February 17, 2015

Questions no journalists (like those at Daily Beast) are asking

Filed under: History,Politics — The Professor @ 8:32 pm

The Daily Beast has added to the Omar-Kayla story, with an interview with Omar. So has the AP. These pieces cannot be called journalism, really. They are just stenography. When journalists decide to go beyond being merely transcribers, and ask some serious questions, here are some that need answering. I am skeptical this will happen, because many journalists obviously know al Khani, and seem to be intent on protecting him.

I will update as ideas come to mind. And you all can feel free to play at home, and submit questions via the comments.

Someone purporting to be Omar al Khani dropped a comment saying that he would answer questions. Here’s your chance: some proof of identity is necessary to make answers credible.

  1. How many ISIS prisoners have been released just once, let alone twice?
  2. Did ISIS know Omar’s identity and previous activities? When he was initially captured? If not, did they learn during his period of captivity (perhaps through torture)? Was he questioned about his activities in Syria? What identification did he have in his possession?
  3. Is it really credible to believe that ISIS did not know his identity and activities, or would release him before they did? After all, al Khani was an extremely well-known and connected (not to say self-promoting) presence in Syrian opposition circles, and on social media in particular: Google searches turn up considerable information about him. (We know of ISIS’s intense interest in exploiting social media.) As a photographer he spent considerable time in Syria. Surely he attracted attention. He was not just some guy.
  4. ISIS is notorious for the ferocity with which it deals with any other group in Syria, be they secular (by Syrian standards) oppositionists, rival Salafist groups, or the Muslim Brotherhood. They are noted for takfir. They are also notoriously paranoid, and al Khani’s activities were certain to excite that paranoia. How was al Khani able to persuade them, not once, but twice, that he was not a spy, or a threat, or merely an apostate?
  5. During his work in Syria, did al Khani have any dealings with ISIS? With whom? What was the nature of these dealings?
  6. Who funded al Khani’s operations in Syria 2011-2013? He made an allusion to assistance from individual members of the Muslim Brotherhood but seemed at pains to deny an MB connection. He also referred to help from Turkey. Was ISIS interested in how he was funded?
  7. Were there other prisoners that were held with al Khani who were (a) released, and (b) could corroborate his story?
  8. The various articles (other than the AP) state he was held two months on each occasion. Yet he had Facebook posts less than one month after his capture in August of 2013. The AP article says he was held “about 20 days.” What explains the discrepancies?
  9. In some versions of the story, al Khani says he does not know why Mueller did not follow their pre-arranged plan to claim she was his wife. In another version, he says she denied she was his wife in order to save him. Why the different versions?
  10. Why would it have made a difference if they were married, or just engaged? If she wasn’t Muslim, wouldn’t claiming that he was married to her have put Omar into jeopardy with ISIS? Or had she converted?
  11. Omar claims that Kayla Mueller was the love of his life. But he alluded to her only once on Facebook prior to his recent statement, even though he was actively posting about his photographs and his film. Why the silence? Did he make any statements about her at his public appearances? Was he continuing to attempt to secure her release? What was he doing?
  12. In the recent articles, al Khani claims that he believed that it was too dangerous for Mueller to go to Syria but that she persisted and he relented. The most obvious inference to draw from these accounts is that she had not been to Syria before. But she had posted two photographs from “Souria” on Facebook. How can this discrepancy be explained?
  13. The various articles contain chronologies of Omar’s life from 2010-2014 that are not consistent. Exactly when did he go to Sudan? When did he leave Sudan for Cairo? Where did he go when after leaving Cairo? Where/when was he with Mueller? Did he participate in, organize, or assist in the Tahrir Square protests?
  14. Why would he, of all people, be recruited to fix an internet connection in Aleppo? Aleppo was one of the most dangerous cities on earth at the time. Why would someone run such a huge risk to perform such a trivial task? Why would someone endanger their girlfriend in the bargain? Or was there another reason to go to Aleppo?
  15. Is al Khani in discussions with anyone for a book or movie deal?
  16. Ruth Sherlock of the Telegraph says she knew Kayla Mueller. Moreover, she quoted Omar frequently.  Does she know his real name? Why conceal it? Rebel groups must know. Did she attempt to verify any of his claims, about the periods of captivity, the attempted rescue, or his biography more generally? Sherlock included al Khani in a book, which she states is “a collaboration with a BBC journo & a theatre director for a play. Not all is literal.” Is there anything in the book about al Khani that is fictionalized (i.e., not “literal”)? If so, what? Is it really a good idea for a journalist to include people she interviewed frequently in a semi-fictional book?

Like a say, just a start. But it’s necessary to start somewhere.

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February 16, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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February 9, 2015

Obama: On a Roll. Us: Getting Rolled

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:19 pm

Obama is on a roll. A roll. It’s hard to keep up!

Last night he delivered an anti-sexual assault bit at the Grammys. Is anybody pro-sexual assault?

Then, in a Vox (!) interview released today, he continued his Terrorism: It Ain’t No Thang tour:

“It is entirely legitimate for the American people to be deeply concerned when you’ve got a bunch of violent, vicious zealots who behead people or randomly shoot a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris,” Obama said. “We devote enormous resources to that, and it is right and appropriate for us to be vigilant and aggressive in trying to deal with that — the same way a big city mayor’s got to cut the crime rate down if he wants that city to thrive.”

But, he added, “we also have to attend to a lot of other issues, and we’ve got to make sure we’re right-sizing our approach so that what we do isn’t counterproductive.”

Um, the people shot in the “deli” in Paris weren’t randomly selected. Well, randomly selected Jews, maybe, which means it wasn’t random. And that is about the most extreme statement of terrorism is a law enforcement issue I’ve ever seen. Let’s get Mayor Quimby on it!

Then there was today’s Merkel-Obama presser. Where to begin?

When asked about arming Ukraine, he said he hadn’t quite made up his mind:

“It is true that if, in fact, diplomacy fails, what I’ve asked my team to do is to look at all options,” Obama said. “But I have not made a decision about that yet.”

Sure! Take your time. It’s not like this situation hasn’t been metastasizing since the Minsk accords were signed in September. Why haven’t the options been explored long ago, and contingent decisions been made?

And about that diplomacy thing and contingent decisions. First, negotiation and diplomacy depend on threat points. Bolstering-or even threatening to bolster-Ukraine’s military capacity affects the outcome of negotiations by changing substantially the threat point. This idea that diplomacy floats in a world of its own is just cracked, and in fact dooms diplomacy to failure.

Second, Merkel and Hollande scurried to Moscow because Putin had flagrantly violated the Minsk accords. So now they are going to  . . . Minsk, to negotiate new accords. With the guy who broke the last ones. Have I got that right? Am I missing anything?

Obama emphasized the unity of the allies on the Ukraine issue. Recall that earlier he has said he did not want to get ahead of the Europeans. Translation re unity: leading from behind, and deferring to the least common denominator, which in Europe is very low indeed. Germany is bad enough, let alone France, Hungary, Austria, or Greece.

(Sorry. “Leading From Behind” has been rebranded: It’s now called “Strategic Patience.” Same dog food, different label.)

He praised Russia for its constructive role on talks with Iran, and said he looked forward to their future cooperation. As if Putin has the slightest inclination to help out the US. Well, since the deal Obama is panting for will likely harm US interests, maybe Putin will pitch in on that one.

He said that the Ukrainian people knew that America stood behind them. Really. He said that. He didn’t say how far behind. All Obama is providing is warm blankets and hot air, and I am sure that Ukrainians can muster only a bitter laugh at his claim of support.

Obama reiterated his view that Russia’s isolation would bring Putin to heel:

“Even as we continue to work for a diplomatic solution we are making it clear again today that if Russia continues on its current course, which is ruining the Russia economy and hurting the Russian people, as well as having such a terrible effect on Ukraine, Russia’s isolation will only worsen both politically and economically,” he told a joint news conference after meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Yes, Putin is so, so isolated. He’s a hero on the European right. Several nations in the EU are far more sympathetic to Russia than the US. And he was welcomed like a conquering hero in Cairo today: check out the photo here (h/t @libertylynx). Sisi greeted him at the airport-a first. The Egyptians did everything but treat Putin like Pharaoh, complete with a procession down the Nile on a royal barge.

By giving such a lavish reception for Putin, Sisi was also giving Obama the middle finger. Or two middle fingers. If Obama were to visit, Sisi would probably have him picked up in a cab and driven to the nearest Cairo slum.

Obama’s obvious affinity for Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood is going over very badly in Egypt, and not just among the military and the government. Sisi and many Egyptians believe themselves to be in an existential struggle with the Brotherhood, and Obama’s meddling and continued support for it angers them deeply. (What, mayors can’t handle them?)

So glad he made that Cairo speech. It surely changed the world didn’t it? Really built a bridge between the US and the Muslim world, and healed all those wounds dating from the Crusades down to the evil Bush.

And speaking of the Muslim Brotherhood. Remember that supersecret meeting with Muslim “leaders” I wrote about last week? So yeah, among the “leaders” were ranking members of Muslim Brotherhood-linked organizations, including one that was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in a terrorism case. (But I forget: terrorism ain’t no thang.) No wonder he wanted to keep the guest listees and the subject matter secret.

What a week. The man is on a roll. On. A. Roll. And we’re the ones getting rolled.

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February 7, 2015

Obama Bigfoots Net Neutrality: Wasn’t Screwing Up Health Care Enough of a Legacy?

Filed under: Economics,History,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 8:38 pm

Last week the Chairman of the Federal Communications System announced that the FCC will pursue net neutrality regulation by subjecting the Internet to Title II of the Federal Cable and Telecommunications Act. This will essentially treat the Internet as a utility, rather than as an information service as has been the case since 1996. Like telecoms, Internet Service Providers would effectively become common carriers subject to a panopoly of restrictions on the prices they can charge and their ability to control access to their infrastructures.

The issue is an extremely complex one, and moreover, one that has been subjected to a barrage of simplistic, propagandistic, rhetoric. To cut through the rhetoric to see the economics, I recommend this article by Gary Becker, Dennis Carlton, and Hal Sider.

Becker, Carlton, and Hal characterize the goals of net neutrality as follows:

In the FCC’s view,

its proposed net neutrality rules would “prohibit a broadband Internet access provider from discriminating against, or in favor of, any content, application or service.” Broadband access providers would be prohibited from: (1) prioritizing traffic and charging differential prices based on the priority status; (2) imposing congestion-related charges; (3) adopting business models that offer exclusive content or that establish exclu- sive relationships with particular content providers; and (4) charging content providers to access the Internet based on factors other than the bandwidth supplied. [References omitted.]

In a nutshell, NN rules and Title II would limit the pricing policies of ISPs, limit their ability to regulate access to their networks, and limit their ability to vertically integrate upstream or downstream (e.g., by purchasing content providers).

The motivation for all of this is a belief that the broadband industry is not competitive, and that price discrimination, access limitations, and vertical integration are means of exercising market power to the detriment of consumers downstream and suppliers of content upstream.

As Becker et al point out, however, evidence that competition is weak is lacking. Most consumers have choices of broadband providers, and the development of wireless services such as 4G is increasing consumer choice.  (Personally, I would estimate that I have gone from relying 100 percent on wired access to 50 percent wired-50 percent wireless. The focus of Facebook and other social media and content suppliers on mobile indicates how important wireless is becoming.) Moreover, there is considerable switching of suppliers, which is further indication of competition.

Further, as a general matter, price discrimination is often-one might say usually-welfare enhancing when there products are differentiated and the costs of these products differ. Different forms of content utilize different amounts of bandwidth. Services vary in their need for speed (e.g., streaming vs. ordinary web-browsing vs. email). It is more costly to deliver bandwidth-intensive services. Limiting the ability to charge prices that reflect differences in cost and value lead to misallocations in the use of existing bandwidth capacity, and tend to reduce incentives to invest in capacity. Moreover, the “two-sided” nature of the Internet tends to make price discrimination welfare-improving. (This paper by Weismen and Kulick makes the very useful distinction between “differential pricing” and “price discrimination.” The former is based on differences in cost, the latter on differences in demand elasticity across customers.) In addition, when there are strong economies of scale, price discrimination (e.g., Ramsey pricing) can be a first-best or second-best way of allowing producers to cover fixed costs.

Put differently, net neutrality/common carrier access treats the internet as a commons which limits the use of prices to allocate scarce resources. Yes there can be cases in which this is beneficial (as in a textbook natural monopoly, but sometimes not even then), but suppressing the price system and price signals is usually a horrible idea. The rebuttable presumption should be that we rely more, not less, on prices to allocate scarce resources and provide incentives to consume, produce, and invest. Net neutrality betrays a strong animus to the price system and the use of prices to allocate resources.

Vertical arrangements are also frequently looked on with deep suspicion. I wrote about this a lot in the context of exchange ownership of clearing some years ago. But usually vertical arrangements, including restrictive contracts and vertical integration, are contractual means to address inefficiencies in price competition. They are typically ways of internalizing externalities or constraining opportunistic behavior. Moreover, they are often particularly important in information-intensive goods, because of the difficulties of enforcing property rights in information and the pervasiveness of free riding on information goods.

Some of the horror stories NN advocates tell involve an ISP denying access to a service or content downstream consumers value high: usually the story involves a small startup proving a bandwidth intensive service that can’t afford to pay premium access charges. But in a world where venture capital and other forms of funding is constantly on the lookout for the next big thing, these concerns seem vastly overblown. Moreover, permitting ISPs to own content providers is one way of addressing this issue. The demand for ISP services is derived from the value customers get from the content and services an ISP delivers. It is self-defeating for them to exclude truly valuable content because it reduces demand, and they have incentives to structure pricing and terms of access and vertical arrangements with content providers to maximize value. If there are gains from trade, in a reasonably competitive market there are strong forces pushing entities at all segments of the value chain to reap those gains.

Suppressing price signals and limiting the ability to craft creative arrangements to capture gains from trade are bad ideas, except under exceptional circumstances. So color me deeply skeptical on NN. Other features inherent in intrusive regulatory systems like Title II due to public choice considerations only deepen that skepticism. Such systems are extremely conducive to rent seeking. Though usually sold as ways to enhance competition, in practice they are typically exploited by incumbents to restrict competition. They tend to be strongly biased against innovation-precisely because much innovation of the creative destruction variety is intensely threatening to incumbents who have an advantage in influencing regulators. Classical Peltzman-Becker models of regulation show that regulators have an incentive to suppress cost-justified price differentials in order to redistribute rents, thereby creating distortions.

Other than that, NN and Title II are great.

If the substance isn’t bad enough, the process is even worse. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler was originally leaning towards a less intrusive approach to net neutrality that would avoid dropping the Title II bomb. But Obama orchestrated a campaign behind the scenes to pressure an ostensibly independent agency to go all medieval (or at least all New Deal) on the Internet. Obama added to the backstage pressure with a very public call for intrusive regulation that put Wheeler and the other two Democrats on the Commission in an impossible position. (Another illustration of the consequences of Presidential elections: it’s not just the commander that matters, but the anonymous foot soldiers and the camp followers too.)

Yes, part of Obama’s insistence reflected his beliefs: after all, he is a big government control freak. And yes, part reflects the fact that some of his biggest supporters and donors are rabid NN supporters-primarily because they will benefit if they don’t have to pay the full cost that they impose.

But what convinced Obama to make this a priority was his personal vanity and his determination to engage in political warfare by pursuing initiatives that he can implement unilaterally without Congressional involvement. Read this and weep:

While Obama administration officials were warming to the idea of calling for tougher rules, it took the November elections to sway Mr. Obama into action.

After Republicans gained their Senate majority, Mr. Obama took a number of actions to go around Congress, including a unilateral move to ease immigration rules. Senior aides also began looking for issues that would help define the president’s legacy. Net neutrality seemed like a good fit.

Soon, Mr. Zients paid his visit to the FCC to let Mr. Wheeler know the president would make a statement on high-speed Internet regulation. Messrs. Zients and Wheeler didn’t discuss the details, according to Mr. Wheeler.

Mr. Obama made them clear in a 1,062-word statement and two-minute video. He told the FCC to regulate mobile and fixed broadband providers more strictly and enact strong rules to prevent those providers from altering download speeds for specific websites or services.

In the video, Mr. Obama said his stance was confirmation of a long-standing commitment to net neutrality. The statement boxed in Mr. Wheeler by giving the FCC’s two other Democratic commissioners cover to vote against anything falling short of Mr. Obama’s position.

That essentially killed the compromise proposed by Mr. Wheeler, leaving him no choice but to follow the path outlined by the president.

Read this again: “Senior aides also began looking for issues that would help define the president’s legacy. Net neutrality seemed like a good fit.” So to achieve a legacy, the Narcissist in Chief decides to interfere with the most successful, innovative industry of the past half-century, and perhaps ever.

What, screwing up the health care industry isn’t enough of a legacy?

I guess not. No price is to high to pay to stick it to the evil Republicans. And if you get stuck too, well, omelet, eggs, and all that. You are expendable when there’s a legacy at stake.

What comes out of the FCC as a result of Obama’s arm-twisting will be a beginning, not an end. It will no doubt set off a flurry of legal challenges.(Among lawyers and lobbyists, as always in such things, there is much rejoicing.)  Congress may get involved, and although Obama can block anything for the next two years, it  may take longer than that to finalize the rules (look at how long it is taking to get a simple-by-comparison position limit rule through the CFTC), and a new president in 2017 might not be so enamored with burnishing Barry’s legacy. Well, one can hope, can’t one? Looking for silver linings here.

I had thought that old school Progressive and New Deal style regulation had been largely discredited in the 70s and 80s. Indeed, Democrats (including Carter and Ted Kennedy) played vital roles in dismantling regulations in transportation in particular. But Obama is going all back to the future, and attempting to impose a regulatory paradigm that was all the rage when men all wore fedoras to what is arguably the most dynamic and innovative industry ever. Because, legacy.

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February 6, 2015

Get Off Your High Horse! Whatabout the Crusades?

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 1:10 pm

On Wednesday, 4 February, 2015, ISIS released a film that ended with the immolation of a Jordanian pilot, Muath al-Kaseasbeh, whom it had captured after he bailed out from his malfunctioning F-16 in December. The production is a bizarre and disturbing mix of snuff porn and slick, special-effects laden filmmaking. It is beyond vile. The product of twisted minds inflamed by a monstrous ideology.

There are likely multiple audiences for this depravity. The first, and probably most important, is young Muslims especially in Europe whom ISIS wants to recruit. ISIS is being attrited at a rather rapid pace, and needs new bodies to feed into the meat grinder. The sense of power and control that the these depraved videos convey is no doubt intoxicating to aimless youths seeking to fill empty lives and to transcend their tedious existence. But such people get bored easily. Beheadings had no doubt have become routine. Something new was needed to rejuvenate excitement. ISIS had to outdo itself: burning a man alive certainly did that.

But then of course there will have to be a succession of new and more horrible ways of killing people. I shudder to think at what their sick imaginations will turn to next.

The other audience was the outside world. Outraging the world is a way of demonstrating power, and sadly, since the world appeared to becoming inured to beheadings, something novel was necessary. Moreover, ISIS actually wants to provoke a confrontation with the world. Note that its slick online publication is named Dabiq, a city in Syria that will supposedly be the scene of an apocalyptic confrontation between the “Romans” (i.e., the West) and the Muslims, that will result in the triumph of the latter (who will be aided by the Mahdi). In their twisted minds, such vile acts serve a higher purpose.

This is what the world has come to.

Disturbing in a different way has been Obama’s reaction to this. Jordan’s King Abdullah happened to be in DC when the video was released. He met with Congressional leaders and vowed revenge. He had not been scheduled to meet with Obama, but a meeting was hastily arranged. Obama’s remarks after the meeting were perfunctory, diffident and oddly detached.

Obama also met with a group of 15 Muslim-American “leaders”, who are actually better described as activists. The main topic of discussion was not the crime committed in Syria, or the threat posed by Islamism, but an entirely fictitious, or at least heavily exaggerated, wave of Islamaphobia:

My next comment echoed the sentiment we heard often in the meeting. In fact, it was clearly the No. 1 issue raised: The alarming rise in anti-Muslim bigotry in America.

If you want to find bigotry in a country of 316 million people, you can find it. Against any identifiable group you can think of. But this is hardly issue No. 1. Indeed, it should hardly make the top 100.

But Obama outdid himself at a prayer breakfast attended by the Dalai Lama. He said some of the right things about ISIS, and about the depraved killing of the Jordanian pilot: specifically he referred to ISIS as a “death cult”, which it is. But then he completely undermined this with a bizarre turn of whataboutism that insinuated that Americans must temper their criticism of Islamist barbarism because of the sins of our forefathers. Our forefathers going way, way back. Like to the Crusades:

And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.  In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.  Michelle and I returned from India — an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity — but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs — acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhiji, the person who helped to liberate that nation.

So this is not unique to one group or one religion.

The  invocation of the Crusades is a pitch perfect imitation of the narrative spun by Islamists and their enablers, notably the Muslim Brotherhood, who bring it up any time Westerners criticize anything in the Arab world, no matter how depraved: like all whataboutism, it is intended to silence critics. What’s more, the invocation of Jim Crow in this context is almost a parody of the classic Soviet whataboutism: “And in America you are lynching Negroes.” (And although there were definitely appalling religious justifications of slavery in the South, I’m hard pressed to recall it being even a minor theme in the justification of Jim Crow.)

Obama’s exegesis is profoundly ahistorical. But even overlooking that unsurprising fact, of what relevance are Godfrey of Bouillon or Richard Plantagenet or Louis VII or Gregory IX or Bull Conner to a serious discussion of or response to the mass slaughter that is plaguing Syria and Iraq today? Of what relevance are these people and events to the thoughts or actions of any living American? About as relevant as the Trojan War. So religion-inspired violence isn’t historically unique. So what? How does that matter when trying to confront a particular outbreak religion-inspired violence that is raging today? The fact that it isn’t reveals Obama’s true motivation: he is trying to avoid confronting it.

Further, the apparent need to reach back centuries, and almost a millennium, to find reasons to knock “us” off our “high horse” actually cuts the other way. For it demonstrates that the Christian West has transcended bloody religious struggles and religiously justified violations of human freedom: indeed, the very fact that Christianity is hardly the West’s distinguishing characteristic in 2015 makes these historic comparisons utterly irrelevant straw men.

The contrast with Islam could not be more stark, as the rampages of warriors clinging to their guns (and knives and torches) and religion from the Philippines to Syria to Nigeria attests. Even slavery (of the most brutal and demeaning kind) can be filed under current events in parts of the Muslim world, including notably in the areas controlled by ISIS, and its practice is vehemently defended by Islamists who cite Koranic authority. The problem is not that religion motivated war and conquest in the West in the historical past: it is that it does today in the Middle East, Africa, the Subcontinent, and Asia. The problem in the Muslim world today is that the past isn’t even past: in the present it is still mired in its medieval pathologies. Dealing with the orgy of violence of which the immolation of Lt.  al-Kaseasbeh is only the most recent lurid example requires facing that reality head on.

But the “high horse” slur, and the stubborn refusal to acknowledge the undeniable religious roots of ISIS , Boko Haram, Al Qaeda and numerous other groups and movements wreaking havoc from Tripoli to Thailand (a denial repeated in the prayer breakfast remarks), demonstrate that Obama is dead set against such an honest reckoning. In fact, he wants to stifle any such discussion because, you know, Crusades.

The tragic irony of this is that by so doing, Obama empowers the most retrograde forces in Islam, and that the primary victims of their ascendance are Muslims. Obama’s moral equivalence kills Muslims. Pace Orwell, that is an objective reality, regardless of Obama’s subjective motivations. His exquisite sensitivity to Muslim feelings costs Muslim lives.

Obama’s remarks provide yet another example of his superciliousness towards his fellow citizens whom he believes need to be knocked off their high horse, because of misguided belief in their exceptionalism makes them unfit to judge others. They spring from the same place as the slap about bitter clingers and their guns and religion. In a weird way, this actually contributes to the rather disturbing tendency of those who belong to that maligned demographic to admire Putin: at least he praises his folk, rather than disdains them.

In sum, Obama’s behavior and words in the days after one of the most horrific and obscene acts in an era of them reveal a great deal about his beliefs and thinking. And what they reveal is disturbing indeed.

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February 4, 2015

Turn Out the Lights, The Party’s Over

Filed under: Clearing,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,History — The Professor @ 8:12 pm

What party, you ask? The one with the mosh pit at LaSalle and Jackson in Chicago.  The one held in the building that’s in the background image of this page.

That’s right. Today the CME Group announced it was ending floor trading of futures (with the exception of the S&P 500) in Chicago and New York. Floor trading of options will continue.

As a Chicagoan who knew the floor in its glory days, this is a sad day. The floor was an amazing place. (Even though the floors will remain open until July, the past tense is appropriate in that sentence.)  A seemingly chaotic place full of shouting and gesticulating men (and yes, it was an overwhelmingly male place). Despite the chaos, it was an extraordinarily efficient way to buy and sell futures. In the bond pit in the 80s and 90s, $100,000,000 notional could be bought in sold with a shout and a wave. Over and over and over.

The economics of the pits were fascinating, but the sociology was as well. They were truly little societies. There were the exchange rules that were in the book, and there were the rules not written in any book that you adhered to, or else. Face-to-face interactions day after day over periods of years created a unique dynamic and a unique culture with its own norms and hierarchies and rituals. And soon it will be but a memory.

Even though I am wistful at the passing of this remarkable institution, I was ahead of the curve in predicting its eventual demise. I worked at an FCM in 1986, when the CME, CBT, and Reuters announced the initial Globex initiative. This got me interested in electronic trading, and when I became an academic a few years later, I researched the subject. In 1994 I wrote one of the early papers documenting that electronic markets could be as liquid and deep as floor-based markets, and I conjectured that parity in liquidity and superiority in speed and cost of access would result in the ultimate victory of computers over the floor. The collective response in the industry was scorn: everyone knew the floor was more liquid, and always would be. The information environment on the floor could never be duplicated on the screen, they said. This view was epitomized by the CEO of LIFFE, Daniel Hodgson, who ridiculed me in the FT as an ivory tower academic.

The first sign that the floor’s days were numbered occurred in 1998, when computerized Eurex wrested the Bund futures contract from LIFFE. (Eurex used my research as part of its marketing push.) LIFFE suffered a near death experience, barely surviving by shutting the floor and going fully electronic. (Mr. Hodgson was shown the door, and I resisted the temptation of sending him a certain FT clipping.)

Computerized trading was only slowly making inroads in the US at the time, in part because the incumbent exchanges resisted its operation during regular floor trading hours. But the fear of the machines was palpable by the mid-1990s. The CBT built its massive trading floor in 1997 in part because the members believed that if it spent so much on a new building the exchange couldn’t afford to render it useless by going electronic. Ironic that a group of traders who lived and breathed real world economics would fall victim to the sunk cost fallacy, and be blind to the gales of competition and creative destruction.

The floor continued to thrive, but inexorably the machines gained on it. By the early-2000s electronic volumes exceeded floor volumes for most contracts, especially in the financials. By the end of the first decade of the millennium, the floors were almost vacant. I remember going to the crude oil pit in NY in early-2009, and where once well over 100 traders stood, engaged in frenzied buying and selling, now a handful of guys sat on the steps of the pit, reading the Post and the Daily News.

When the CME demutualized, and when it acquired CBT and NYMEX, it made commitments to keep the floors open for some period of time. But the commitments were not in perpetuity, and declining floor volumes made it evident that eventually the day would come that the CME would shut down the floors.

Today was that day.

This was inevitable, but in the 80s and 90s the floor trading community, and the futures business generally, couldn’t possibly imagine that machines could ever do what they did. But the technology of the floor was essentially static. Yes, the technology of getting orders to the pit evolved along with telecommunications, but once the orders got there, they were executed in the same way that they had been since 1864 or so.* That execution technology was highly evolved and efficient, but static. In the meantime, Moore’s Law and innovation in hardware, software, and communications technology made electronic trading faster and smarter. Electronic trading lacked some of the information that could be gleaned looking in the eyes of the guy standing across the pit, or knowing who was bidding or offering, but it made accessible to traders vast sources of disparate information that was impossible to absorb on the floor. By the late-00s, HFT essentially computerized what was in locals’ heads, and did it faster with more information and fewer errors and less emotion. Guys that were all about competition were displaced by the competition of a more efficient technology.

Floor trading will live on for a while, in the options pits. Combination trades in options are complex in ways that there are efficiencies in doing them on the floor. But eventually machines will master that too. ICE closed its options pits a couple of years ago (four years after it closed its futures pits), and one day the CME will do so too.

The news of the CME announcement reminded me of something that happened almost exactly 10 years ago, 21 February 2005. Around that time, the management of  the International Petroleum Exchange was discussing the closure of the floor. (It decided to do so on 7 March.) Floor traders were very anxious about their future. Totally oblivious to this, Greenpeace decided to mount a protest on the IPE floor to commemorate the Kyoto Protocol. Bad decision. Bad timing. The barrow boys of the London floors, already in a sour mood, didn’t take kindly to this invasion, and mayhem ensued. Punches were thrown. Bones were broken. Furniture was thrown. There was much comedy:

“The violence was instant,” reported one aggrieved recipient of a rain of blows to the head. “I’ve never seen anyone less amenable to listening to our point of view.”

You can’t make that up.

From what I understand, the response was much more subdued in Chicago and New York today. But then again, Occupy or GMO protesters didn’t attempt to sally onto the floor to flog their causes. If they had, they just might have caught a flogging like the enviros did in London a decade back.

Being of a historical bent, I will look back on the floors with fascination. I am grateful to have known them personally, and to have known many who trod the boards in the pit in their colorful jackets, shouting themselves hoarse and at constant risk of being stabbed in the neck with a pencil wielded by a hyperactive peer.

Today is a good day to watch Floored or The Pit. Or even play a game of Pit. The films will give you something of a feel, but just a bit.

2015. The year Chicago lost Ernie Banks and the floor. But life moves on. Machines do not have the color of the floor, but they perform the markets’ vital functions more efficiently now. And not everything has changed in Chicago. The Cubs are still horrible.

*The exact beginning of floor trading on the CBT is unknown. The Board of Trade of the City of Chicago was formed in 1848, but futures trading proper probably did not begin until the Civil War. Sometime in the 1862-1864 period floor trading as we know it today-or should I say knew it?-developed. The first formal trading rules were promulgated in 1867. If you look at pictures from the 19th century or early-20th century, other than the clothes things don’t look much different than they did in the 1980s or 1990s. Electronic boards replaced chalk boards, but other than that, things look very similar.

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February 2, 2015

Arms and the Man

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

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

Merkel came out steadfastly against the idea:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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