Streetwise Professor

October 7, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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October 3, 2015

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

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

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

Comparing the firms shows there’s no comparison.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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September 21, 2015

The Wicked Witch of the West Wing Brings on an SWP Acid Flashback Moment

Filed under: Economics,History,Politics — The Professor @ 2:23 pm

I had an acid flashback moment when I read this:

Biotechnology stocks took a sharp dive Monday after Hillary Clinton said she would propose a plan to counteract “price gouging” by drug makers.

Ms. Clinton, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for president, was responding to New York Times article published Sunday that told of a price increase for a drug used to treat a life-threatening parasitic infection. The cost of the drug was recently increase from $13.50 a tablet to $750, the story said.

Why? Because Hillary wreaked havoc on pharmaceutical stock prices 23 years ago, when Bill was running for President. Indeed, this is more than a matter of academic interest to me, because I played a role in the fallout from that. In 1993, I wrote a study, titled “Political Rhetoric and Stock Price Volatility,” that contributed to one of the early Clinton scandals. For you see, while blasting pharma companies, Hillary was also invested in a hedge fund that shorted health care stocks, and I documented using standard event study methodology that her speeches led to economically and statistically significant declines in pharmaceutical company stock prices.

In large part as a result of the study, Hillary was subjected to an official ethics inquiry. Her friend-and arguably more-Vince Foster was working on this and other nascent Hillary scandals when he put a bullet in his brain on the ramparts of Fort Marcy. On a more personal note, the study was the direct cause of the end of my employment at the University of Michigan Business School.

For details about the official fallout of this long-ago and long-forgotten study, see footnote 3 and the associated text in the Senate Whitewater Report. For how this played out for me, see this old SWP post. (As an aside, Sara Ellison and Wally Mullin expanded on my study in an article that was published in the JLE.)

As for Hillary, I think an inquiry into her investment holdings is warranted. Given the sleaze of the Clinton Foundation, and her disdain for the rules that little people follow as illustrated by the Home Brew Server, I would not be in the least surprised if the (once, and hopefully not future) Wicked Witch of the West Wing has been less than punctilious in the separation of her financial and political interests.

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September 19, 2015

Putin Has Made His Sandbox. Let Him Play In It.

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 3:04 pm

In my humble opinion, too many people are way overthinking what Putin is doing in Syria. It seems pretty straightforward. A long-time Soviet and Russian client was on the verge of collapse: the loss of Idlib earlier this month, after a long battle which ground inexorably against Assad, represented a major blow. Syria is Russia’s only outpost in the Middle East, and is also important to Iran, with which Russia cooperates because they share a common enemy: the US. Absent Russian intervention, Assad’s destruction appeared imminent.

Meaning that this is more of a rearguard action, defending the rump of the Syrian state, than an offensive thrust. And it is a reaction to events, not a part of some grand geopolitical strategy.

Some get this.

Donbas is a precedent. Direct Russian military intervention only occurred last August when it seemed that the Ukrainian army was on the verge of crushing the rebels. Once the situation stabilized, Putin seemed-and still seems-to be willing to accept a stalemate.

As for the military effect, the major resources committed appear to be aircraft, and ground units to protect them and their bases. The US campaign against ISIS shows that air power alone is unlikely to be decisive. The Russians have Assad’s army to work with, but it is battered and demoralized after four years of war, and even with air support is unlikely to be capable of sustained offensive action. It is probably on a par with the Iraqi army in terms of combat effectiveness (and may be worse), and past months have shown that even with US (and some Iraqi) air support, the Iraqi army can’t wage offensive warfare. I seriously doubt the Syrian army can either, even with additional Russian air support. Thus, the most likely outcome of the Russian intervention is to stave off Assad’s defeat and perpetuate the stalemate.

There is much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments in Washington and Europe, but since they haven’t done anything in the past four years and had no plans of doing anything serious going forward, this reaction is decidedly overwrought.

The administration persists in its pathetic insistence that Assad must go. Today Kerry repeated this demand, but said Assad’s departure doesn’t have to happen on day one or month one. What about century one? That seems feasible.

The US wants to negotiate Assad’s departure, and somehow thinks it can enlist Russia in this effort. That is utterly delusional, especially now that Russia has upped its commitment to Assad. It is also delusional because by making it clear that the US will not do anything serious to combat Assad (especially since that would anger its new BFF, Iran). Our negotiation leverage is therefore bupkis. Therefore, it is better for Kerry and Obama to keep quiet, and let the world think that they are neutered losers, rather than speak up and remove all doubt.

The biggest loser in this is Israel. Iran cares about Syria primarily because it is its bridge to Hezbollah. Israel has periodically launched air attacks in Syria to prevent the movement of advanced weapons (especially anti-aircraft missiles) to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Russian presence complicates Israel’s problem greatly. But of course, this is probably a feature not a bug from Obama’s perspective.

The puzzle is Turkey. Turkey wants to see Assad’s destruction, and is perfectly fine with replacing him with Islamist radicals. Russian intervention reduces the odds of Assad’s defeat, and this is a defeat for Turkey. I have no idea how someone as erratic  as Erdogan will respond. One response will likely be greater covert support for the jihadists fighting Assad.

In sum, Putin’s actions in Syria will perpetuate a grim status quo, rather than cause a dramatic change in the strategic situation in the Middle East.  What happens going forward depends in large part on developments on the ground. If the current level of intervention is insufficient to slow the crumbling of the Assad regime, how much further will Putin be willing to go? His resources are constrained. As I wrote earlier, he faces daunting logistic difficulties in mounting a bigger intervention.

Regardless, we (in the US) are cast in the role of spectators: as Anthony Cordesman notes (perhaps stating the obvious), at present the US has no realistic military options in Syria. Obama made that choice four years ago, and reiterated his choice in 2013. Putin is now making his choice, and will have to live with the consequences: his options are no more palatable that the US’s (though he does have a coherent objective, which the US does not have and never had). We should leave him to it.

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September 14, 2015

You May Not Be Interested In a Clash of Civilizations, But A Clash of Civilizations Is Interested In You

Filed under: China,History,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 6:25 pm

Cast your eyes around the world, and they are likely to land on a scene of conflict and chaos. In the Middle East, obviously, from pillar (Libya) to post (the Persian Gulf). In the center of Eurasia (Ukraine). In the South China Sea and the DMZ. The world situation has not been this fraught since the 1930s.

If you are like me, you crave an explanation. You could do far worse than start with Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. Huntington’s article and subsequent book of the same title unleashed a storm of furious criticism when it came out in 1993. But standing 22 years later, Huntington looks prescient, and many of his critics look like utter fools.

The best evidence of this is to look at the antagonists in the most important cockpits of conflicts.

Start with Ukraine. Putin has explicitly invoked the idea of “a Russian world” and has justified his actions in Ukraine and elsewhere as a legitimate defense of Russian people, language, and culture from the assaults of his enemies, especially in the West. Putin and other Russians tirelessly invoke contrasts between Russian civilization and European civilization in particular.

Putin and Russians generally think they are in a Clash of Civilizations.

Next consider China. China’s leadership too views China as a great civilization that was oppressed by others (Westerners, Japanese), and which is now assuming its proper place in the world. They express a clear cultural-civilizational-chauvinism. If anything, the Chinese people are even more aggressively chauvinistic than their leaders.

The Chinese leadership and people think they are in a Clash of Civilizations.

And of course, there is Islam. That Islam believes that it is in a civilizational war with just about everybody, but in particular the West, needs no explication. Yes, there is an intramural civil war within Islam, between Sunnis and Shia, but (a) this is complicated by a civilizational clash between Arab and Persian, and (b) this conflict is in no small part a battle over who will lead the clash of Islam with the infidels.

The jihadis and the mullahs and vast numbers of Muslims generally believe they are in a Clash of Civilizations.

Who doesn’t believe it? The skeptics and doubters reside mainly in one civilization: the Western.

Indeed, Huntington’s harshest critics resided (and reside) in the West. They are, in the main, progressives, which, like top quarks, come in left-handed (mainly those who self-identify as progressives) and right-handed (e.g., neocons as epitomized by Francis Fukuyama) varieties. Despite their differences in specific policies, they share a dialectical view that history progresses in one direction, and that it is relentlessly moving to a final state, and that in the end, humanity as a whole will converge to this state. The left progs’ final state is socialist/statist: the right progs’ final state is liberal and democratic.

Obama is clearly a progressive, so understood. His most consistent trope in responding to conflict, with Putin or the Islamists, is to say that history will leave them behind; that they are swimming against the tide of history. Obama said this to Putin about Ukraine: he just said it about Syria: he has said it about Isis. His policy towards Iran is predicated on the belief that once Iran is readmitted in into the community of nations, it will become a Normal Country, and discard its Islamist civilizational mission.

So part of the failure of many of those in the West to believe in the Clash of Civilizations is rooted in a worldview that such conflicts are an atavism that will disappear as the world converges to-progresses to-some homogenous end state in which all existing differences are dissolved.

But that’s not the only part. Another part is a paradox of Western civilization. The West’s distinguishing characteristics include skepticism, criticism and doubt. That very skepticism, criticism and doubt have led many (especially on the left, but also many on the right) to conclude that Western civilization is flawed, corrupt, defective, and certainly not superior to any other civilization, and hence not worth fighting for. Thus, the self-criticism that defines Western civilization prevents many in it from fighting for it. In this respect too, Obama is an exemplar.

A big part of the reason the past few years have seen a waxing of the Clash is precisely that the leader of the leader of Western civilization has declined to fight for it, due to a rather strange combination of fatalism (history will progress and nations will converge due to fundamental historical forces) and a belief that its civilization has no right to assert itself, because of its inherent flaws. This is in contrast to the American role post-1945, which self-confidently (on the whole, with exceptions like post-Vietnam) believed in the superiority of Western (and specifically American) civilization, and exerted its power (economic, social, cultural, and often military) to create and maintain a rough order even at the fault lines of civilizational conflict (notably the Middle East, but also between Europe and Russia, and between China and the rest of Asia).

So one way to understand the mess that the world is in now is to take Huntington’s idea of enduring antagonisms and frictions between competing and incompatible civilizations, and add the retreat of the one power that largely kept those antagonisms and frictions under control.

We are arguably in the midst of a new world war, though one that is fortunately, for now anyways, not as cataclysmic as the two that preceded it. But it is a different type of world war not only because of its lower intensity, but because it is not a war between two dominant blocs. Instead, it is a multipolar war with at least four major civilizations jostling at various points around the globe. This multipolarity makes the struggle less predictable, and far more confusing. It will only become more so unless the West, and in particular the US, realizes the nature of the ongoing conflict, and reengages accordingly.

A phrase often attributed to Trotsky (probably wrongly) seems apt here: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” Rephrased: you may not be interested in a Clash of Civilizations, but a Clash of Civilizations is interested in you. If we don’t awaken to that reality, we are destined to be the losers in that clash.

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September 12, 2015

Let Vlad Have His Victory, and Hope He Pays Dearly For It

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:07 pm

The last few days have seen a frenzy of outrage at Russia’s reinforcement of Assad in Syria, including the deployment of naval infantry at some bases in the country. As someone with a solid nine years of writing to establish my anti-Putin cred, I can still say that I don’t see what the fuss is about.

Russia has long propped up Assad. This latest activity is a continuation of that policy, and is driven by Assad’s deteriorating position. Since Assad is going down, Putin feels compelled to step up.

The intervention is limited. The very fact that naval infantry is involved indicates its limited nature. Dismissing Michael Weiss’s hyperventilating about these being Putin’s “Dirty War Forces”, and focusing on military realities, Russian naval infantry has little combat power, and very little offensive capability. It can seize and defend ports and airfields, and carry out some commando-type direct action operations. And that’s about it. A low-endurance, low-firepower, light force not suited for grinding ground combat in a large theater like Syria. It is there to defend ports and airfields that will be used for resupply and perhaps to intensify the air campaign against the anti-Assad forces.

The targets will in the main not be Isis. Other jihadi groups pose a more serious threat to Assad, and that is who he (and the Russians) will focus on. Indeed, by complicating air operations, Russian presence will impede the US campaign (such as it is) against Isis.

The main reason for the outrage at the Russian action is that it aids Assad, and Assad is a very bad man.

Yes, he is. And the time to do something about him is long past. Four years past. Three years at the low end. But Obama and the rest of the west harrumphed and said that Assad must go, but did nothing. Red lines were drawn, and trespassed, with no consequence. Since then, the war in Syria has descended into an apocalyptic battle between Assad and a mind-numbing array of psychotic, murderous jihadi groups: Assad’s enemies are very, very bad men too. (Even if Assad’s overthrow had been engineered in 2011 or early 2012, it is doubtful that any good would have come with it, given Obama’s and Europe’s neuralgia to securing the peace in the aftermath of the toppling of a dictator. See, for instance, Libya.)

Now it is too late to do anything to stem the holocaust. Regardless of who “wins”, the aftermath will be a bacchanal of sectarian slaughter.  And since stalemate is the most likely outcome, no one will win, and a bacchanal of grinding slaughter will occur anyways.

When questioned about Russia’s intervention, Obama recycled one of his tiresome memes, this one in the Putin-is-swimming-against-the-tide-of-history vein. He said the Russian effort is doomed to failure. This meme is quite convenient in that it relieves him of  any responsibility to do anything: history will take care of it! Given that at this time there is nothing that can really be done to prevent Syria’s descent into the abyss, and based on form, whatever Obama does is likely to make it worse, this is probably a good thing.

That aside, the issue becomes how do you define failure? With sufficient commitment of resources, Putin can likely ensure that Assad can maintain a rump state on the Syrian coast, and provide Putin a foothold in the Middle East. That’s enough for Putin.

As for vanquishing jihadi groups, let alone Isis, Putin couldn’t care less. Putin can realistically achieve his ambitions, and if he does, it is unlikely to have any material impact on US interests.  The effort is not doomed to failure, understood from Putin’s perspective, and the US should be rather indifferent to whether it succeeds or not.

Indeed, since Russian involvement is unlikely to have any effect on the magnitude of the Syrian catastrophe, but will be a drain on already strained Russian resources, it could well be a plus for the US. Why should we care if Putin perpetuates his Syrian ulcer? Indeed, a cynical realpolitik type would probably conclude that we should stand aside and let an already struggling Putin throw his scarce resources into a battle where stalemate is the best that can be achieved. As Napoleon said: “Don’t interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.” A Putin stuck in a Syrian quagmire is less able to make mischief elsewhere.

Seriously, if perpetuating Assad’s rule over a wrecked Syria is victory, what would defeat look like? If that’s how Putin wants to fritter away his limited capabilities, so be it. It won’t make the carnage in Syria any worse, and doesn’t injure US interests. Let Vlad have his victory, and hope he pays dearly for it.


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August 22, 2015

Political Correctness and Building Social Strife in Europe–and America

Filed under: History,Politics — The Professor @ 7:13 pm

About a month back I wrote about my experiences in Sweden. As if to illustrate my point about the Swedes’ attempt to flee from their historic identity and current cultural realities, horrific events occurred on 10 August. An Eritrean refugee who had just been denied asylum in Sweden went into an Ikea, grabbed two knives from the shelf, and proceeded to butcher two shoppers, a woman and her son. Some reports indicate that one of the victims had been beheaded.

Swedish officialdom immediately shrouded the events and the perpetrator in a veil of secrecy. Tellingly, the name of the assailant has not been released. There is only one reason to have done this: to prevent revelation that the assailant was not just an immigrant, but a Muslim one. But, of course, this attempt was futile because any sentient being can infer immediately the reality from the very fact that the Swedish authorities attempted to suppress the reality. Meaning that the authorities did not succeed in their object, and in the bargain proved themselves to be craven and afraid to recognize that their immigrant community harbors a terrorist threat. As if everyday Swedes are blind to this reality. Further meaning that the authorities insult the intelligence of the citizenry, increasing the alienation of large segments of the population from the elite.

Swedish officials compounded the insult by ostentatiously rushing police to protect refugee centers, insinuating that native Swedes were prone to indiscriminate violence against immigrants.

This behavior is precisely why, to the shock of the Swedish establishment, that a far right nativist party now leads the polls in the country. The suppression by the elite of frank discussion of matters such as the integration of immigrants into society, the failure to deal with potential terrorist threats emanating from the immigrant population, and the creation of protected classes inevitably pushes people towards the fringes, and strengthens  those whom the elite despises most. This problem is particularly acute in Europe, where mechanisms of conformity and social control are more pronounced than in the US. But the US is not immune. Indeed, the appalling success of Donald Trump here is the result of the same dynamic.

As if another illustration were needed, consider the events on the Amsterdam-Paris train yesterday. A Moroccan with terrorist connections who was known to authorities in three European countries, and who had been to Syria, boarded the train in Brussels, armed with an AK-47, an automatic pistol, and boxcutters. As he emerged from the bathroom intent on mayhem, three Americans, including two enlisted servicemen on vacation, rushed him, forced him to the floor, and disarmed him. When he was down, a 62 year old Brit jumped on to keep him down.

But for the actions of three brave Americans, there would be dozens of dead Euros.

The train crew, if you have to know, took cover, barricading themselves in a safe room on the train. One French actor did suffer injuries while breaking the glass on the alarm.

Consider the reaction of French officialdom:

The motives behind the attack were not immediately known, although a spokesman for the interior minister said: ‘It is too early to speak of a terrorist link’

As the Swedes show, it is always too early. No doubt the French will attempt to put this issue behind them quickly, so they can get back to truly pressing matters. Such as the existential threat from Uber.

And the strains are about to get worse, as a metastasizing refugee crisis in southern Europe is about to spill over into rich Europe, most notably Germany, which is already experiencing a backlash.

Suppressing discussion of uncomfortable and thorny issues can buy social peace. For a while. But shutting off all outlets for civil discussion of controversial matters just causes the buildup of latent pressures that eventually cannot be contained, leading to a potentially calamitous disruption of social harmony. Allowing a little strife now can avoid a lot of strife in the future. But the Euros (and increasingly the US) have chosen the opposite course.

As long as the Euros keep denying they have an Islamist terrorism problem, they will have an Islamist terrorism problem. And their denial is creating another problem: a rise of the reactionary right.


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August 6, 2015

70 Years Ago, A Violent Ideology Was Destroyed By A Better Idea: Nuclear Fission

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 10:48 am

Today is the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. In commemoration, we are being bombarded with moralizing criticisms of the US’s actions. Japan is playing the victim card for all it is worth, and it is getting considerable support in the predictable quarters of the US and Europe.

These criticisms only survive in a vacuum in which history begins on 6 August, 1945.  Put into proper historical context, Truman’s decision to drop the bomb is readily understood and easily defended.  Real decisions require an understanding of the choices at hand, and Truman’s choices were grim.

The alternative to the bomb was a continued relentless air assault on Japan with conventional weapons, likely culminating with a series of invasions of the home islands, combined with a Soviet assault in Manchuria and then into China. The human toll of this alternative would have far exceeded that of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, especially in Japanese lives.  Curtis LeMay’s firebombing campaign inflicted horrific casualties: the firebombing of Tokyo on 8/9 March, 1945 alone killed over 100,000 Japanese civilians. The collective toll of the conventional bombing campaign was over 300,000 from November 1944-August 1945, and its continuation would have killed more Japanese than the atomic bombs did.

Then there is the invasion itself, for which the Japanese had prepared a last ditch defense that would have put every civilian in the front lines with bamboo spears, grenades and old rifles. On Okinawa, April-June 1945, an estimated one-third of the civilian population died, many by suicide.  The civilian toll on Saipan a year earlier was also large.

Then add in the horrific military casualties the Japanese would have suffered. In  most previous island battles, Japanese death rates were above 90 percent due to the fanaticism with which they fought. The same fanaticism would have been inevitable in a defense of the home islands, with similar results.

And I haven’t even gotten to the American (and British) casualties, which were rightly Truman’s first responsibility. On Okinawa, the US lost 20,000 KIA, approximately 8 percent of the peak US force.

To this add the massive Chinese civilian casualties that would have resulted from an extended Soviet attack.

Many critics of the dropping of the bomb counter that these horrors would have been avoided, because the Japanese were on the brink of surrender. This is the most ahistorical claim of all. Any leader contemplating the recent experience on Okinawa and Iwo Jima would have thought the idea of an impending Japanese surrender utterly delusional. Further, the most fanatical elements of the Japanese military were violently opposed to the idea of surrender even after the bombs were dropped. Officers mounted a last ditch coup in an attempt to prevent the playing of the recording of the Emperor’s surrender statement. There was a large hardcore element in Japan that would have resisted to the last had not the Emperor ordered them to lay down their arms.

In sum, by any reasonable calculus, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as horrific as they were, saved lives.

Japanese claims of victimhood ring particularly hollow. The fire in the sky was not a bolt from the blue. It was the climax of an orgy of destruction and death brought on by the Japanese, and carried out by them with a ruthlessness perhaps rivaled only the the Nazis in eastern Europe and the USSR. Indeed, Japanese atrocities pre-dated Nazi ones: millions of Chinese died at Japanese hands, often in the most brutal and inhumane ways, starting in 1931 (in Manchuria) and 1937 (in China proper).  Babies on bayonets were not a figment of wartime propaganda. They were a reality. Indeed, the Japanese reveled in such conduct, in large part because of a belief in their racial superiority. And don’t forget that Japan: (a) had its own nuclear program, (b) had an extensive chemical and biological warfare program which involved testing on POWs and civilians, and (c) waged chemical and biological warfare in China.

Further, while the Japanese make a moral claim against the US, they are adamant in their refusal to admit the validity of any such claim against them. Unlike the Germans, who have for the most part come to grips with their past and acknowledge and have paid reparations for the actions of the Hitler government, the Japanese have largely obfuscated and denied what their forebears did with no justification even approaching Truman’s.

Japan sowed the wind, and it reaped the whirlwind. That should be the focus of Japan’s commemoration of Hiroshima.

Some weeks ago, Obama said “ideologies are not defeated with guns but better ideas.” There is at least one instance where that is true. In August, 1945, the violent ideology of Bushido was defeated by an idea. The better idea was nuclear fission.

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August 5, 2015

Five Guys Isn’t a Burger Joint: It’s What’s Left of the US Trained “Force” in Syria

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 8:19 pm

With considerable embarrassment, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter admitted to Congress that the US had trained a grand total of 60 fighters in Syria after the expenditure of tens of millions. But his numbers are out of date. For in an arguably criminal move, no sooner had Carter reported to Congress that the US sent this platoon, grandeloquently  named “30 Division” into Syria, in the naive hope that Syria’s Al Qaeda group Al Nusra and other Islamist groups would treat them as allies not enemies. Since when was Al Qaeda fond of American lackeys?

The US was soon disabused of its fantastical notion. Almost as soon as they set foot in Syria, Al Nusra captured many of the 30 division, including its leader. Several of those have thrown over to Al Nusra. Yesterday, Al Nusra attacked the American-trained troops, killing and wounding several.

I have seen various counts of the casualties, one of which states that there are 13 left. So Five Guys isn’t that far off.

In other news of the wretched US policy in Syria, the US and Turkey have reached an agreement on US use of the Incirlik air base. But the Turks consider it a “red line” to use Incrilik-Bcsed aircraft to support Kurds fighting ISIS even though the YPG is the only effective ground force currently fighting the head choppers. And of course, even though Obama ignores his own red lines, he scrupulously adheres to Erdogan’s. Since the US cannot bomb from Incirlik in support of the Kurds, it will either (a) bomb in support of no ground force, meaning that the airpower will be ineffectual, or (b) it will bomb in support of non-Kurdish units in the “safe zone” on the Turkish border west of the Euphrates, most of which are Islamists of one sort or another.

This all makes the Bay of Pigs look like the height of military genius and moral courage.

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August 2, 2015

They Are Spinning in Valhalla

Filed under: History — The Professor @ 3:56 pm

In June I visited Stockholm, and was able to fit in a trip to the Swedish history museum. I was quite interested in viewing the Viking exhibit, but was rather aghast when I did. First, the signage disclaimed any Swedish responsibility for the Vikings: “Vikings were not Swedes.” Whatever. Second, another sign claimed  “the Vikings were peaceful.” I’m sure the monks at Lindisfarme and myriad other English monastaries, the inhabitants of any navigable river from the Baltic to the Mediterranean, etc., would beg to differ. And those Sagas. So peaceful! But the best was what a tourguide said: “The Vikings were inclusive people who treated everyone equally.” Sure they were! Talk about anachronism. Who knew the Vikings (who weren’t Swedes!) personified postmodern Swedish values. (But if they did, why the haste to deny that Vikings were Swedes? A little cognitive dissonance?)

To put an exclamation point on how far the people who reside in the country now called Sweden have changed since the 8th century, consider this: “Nine ways to become a truly Swedish man.” At least those 9 ways don’t involve peeing while sitting, which is a subject of raging debate in Germany. So there’s that.

Thank God-or would it be Odin?-that my ancestors got on the boat in the mid-19th century. And if the Swedes are denying they are Vikings, I’m pretty sure the residents of Valhalla are now willing to agree.

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