Streetwise Professor

March 25, 2015

What Do You Get When You Cross Nero With Ahab?

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:02 pm

Obama.

The world spins into chaos, and Obama is so detached and indifferent, fiddling while it all burns. But maybe the comparison with Nero is unfair. To Nero. After all, Nero allegedly had a purpose in mind when burning Rome: it allowed him to bypass the Senate and rebuild Rome to his grandiose plans. (Bypassing the Senate . . . maybe there are more parallels than I thought!) Obama just appears to not want to be bothered. Or perhaps he is like Major Major Major Major, promoted well above his competence and knowing it, and retreating to the confines of his office and quarters in order to avoid confronting things he is incapable of solving.

Exhibit 1. Yemen is exploding, with Iranian-backed Houthis seizing power and the desperate Saudis striking back with air strikes. This obviously raises the possibility of conflict between the Saudis (and the rest of the GCC) and Iran. But the administration still defends the “Yemen model” as a success. No. Really. Spokesman “Josh Earnest” (that has to be a made up name, right?) says the concept of relying on foreign governments to fight terrorism is right, even though the government we relied on in this case has utterly collapsed.

Exhibit 2. Even though the tension between Russia and Nato is at Cold War levels; even though Russia is making nuclear threats against Nato members; even though the easternmost nations in Nato are increasingly anxious that Putin has them in his sights; even though there are doubts about the credibility of Section V of the Nato treaty; and even though Nato is struggling to find a way to respond to hybrid war, Obama is refusing to find time in his busy schedule to see the new head of Nato, Jens Stoltenberg. No doubt because Nato (through Stoltenberg, his predecessor Rasmussen, and military head Breedlove) have been the most hawkish on the need to confront Putin. This is something Obama has zero appetite for.  Don’t think for a moment that Putin doesn’t notice this obvious signal of Obama’s indifference to what is transpiring on Nato’s eastern flank, and will escalate there soon.

But perhaps I am being harsh in saying that Obama doesn’t care about defeat after defeat. After all, there is a collapse that makes him distraught. . . that of his NCAA bracket.

But while he remains utterly detached from crises that threaten the world order, he persists in his Ahab-like pursuit of a deal with Iran. Empowering the mullahs (as a deal would do) will only further contribute to the already perilous situation in the Middle East, as a combination of national self-interest and religious hatred will force Gulf Sunnis (and arguably Egypt too) to confront a resurgent Iran freed from the shackles of sanctions, and progressing towards nuclear weapons.

And how does Obama rationalize negotiating a nuclear deal with a country that is openly supporting the overthrow of a government that he repeatedly identified as a major ally against Al Qaeda, and upon which the US has lavished billions of dollars in aid (much of which is in the hands of the Houthis, not to mention a major cache of US intelligence documents, which the Houthis obligingly turned over to Iran)? These are the people he trusts?

As I read somewhere: if he wanted to undermine America’s national interests, what would he do differently?

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March 13, 2015

Obama’s Telling Shift on the Legislative Role in Diplomacy

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 8:03 pm

@libertylynx points out a very interesting contrast. The awful developments in Iraq over the last several years, most notably the rampage of Isis and the dramatic expansion of Iranian influence in the country, are directly attributable to Obama’s decision to withdraw all US military forces.  He did so after failing to negotiate a Status of Forces agreement with the Maliki government. This occurred primarily because of a particular demand that Obama made of Maliki: namely, that the Iraqi premier get his parliament’s approval of any agreement. Obama stated that such approval was necessary to make the deal credible and viable. He said legislative buy in was essential. Of course, this did not happen, and almost certainly Obama knew it would not happen. This gave him the pretext to bug out.

Fast forward 3-4 years. Whereas Obama had insisted on Iraqi legislative approval of a deal with the US, now Obama is dead set against letting the American legislative branch have any say whatsoever in a deal with Iran. So much for the need for legislative approval to give a deal credibility.

Obama obviously has no principled view of the role of the legislature in foreign policy. He didn’t want a Status of Forces agreement, so he insisted on Iraqi legislative approval because he knew it would not be forthcoming. He desperately wants a deal with Iran, so he adamantly opposes American legislative approval because he knows it is not likely to happen. His views on legislative involvement in diplomacy are not principled, but merely instrumental and change with the circumstances.

Indeed, not only is Obama not shutting out Congress, he is actively demonizing it in the most demagogic fashion for having the temerity to insist on having a voice. When he said that Senate Republicans were making common cause with “hardliners” in Iran, he was basically dog whistling, and his attack dogs responded with alacrity, accusing the Republicans-including the leader of the effort, Tom Cotton, a Marine combat veteran-of treason. The new  cry, advanced by another of the administration’s transparent social media manipulation campaigns is #GOPWantsWar.

A typical Obama false choice. His claim is that the only alternative to the specific deal he is “negotiating” is war. Think about that for a moment. It presumes that (a) absent any deal, Iran will proceed hell bent for a nuclear weapon, and (b) a nuclear Iran is such a dangerous regime that it must be prevented from acquiring the bomb, by war if necessary.

But apparently such a regime is a suitable negotiating partner, will adhere to any deal, and will eschew its nuclear ambitions even though a deal will effectively take both economic and military coercive measures off the table. Moreover, Iran clearly has hegemonic ambitions in the region, and a deal will give them greater resources to achieve them.

It is therefore by no means clear that a deal will reduce the likelihood of war. In my view, it is likely that the reverse is true. Moreover, those opposing a deal-who include many Democrats, as well as most Republicans-are advocating measures other than war, notably an increase in economic pressure, to force the Iranian government to forego its nuclear ambitions, and to limit its ability to achieve that capability. #GOPWantsWar is therefore a slur of the most scurrilous sort.

It gets worse, actually. Obama, claiming to be embarrassed for the Republicans, lies shamelessly about what the letter the 47 Republicans wrote. The Republicans never suggested that Obama was untrustworthy.

Further, catch this: “For them to address a letter to the Ayatollah who, they claim, is our mortal enemy . . . .” That is, Obama asserts that it is merely a Republican claim that Iran is an enemy of the US. The implication is clearly that Obama believes that it is not. That explains a lot.

I don’t believe Obama wants war, though I do believe that a soft deal with Iran like the one that is apparently imminent makes it more likely. I don’t believe in the slightest that he wanted Isis to run amok in Iraq, but his misjudgments and Machiavellian maneuvers made this outcome possible.

It is necessary to turn away from questioning motives, and to focus on substance. And I will close by noting that those who are most aggressive in questioning the motives of their opponents are the ones who believe they cannot prevail on the merits.

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March 10, 2015

Resource Rents, Russian Aggression, and the Nature of Putinism

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,History,Military,Russia — The Professor @ 9:00 pm

This nice piece from the WaPo points out the link between oil prices and Russian aggressiveness:

From this perspective, Russia is not so much an insecure superpower as it is a typical petrostate with a short-term horizon that gets aggressive and ambitious once it accumulates substantive oil revenues. Back in the early 2000s when the price of oil was $25 a barrel, Putin was a friend of the United States and didn’t mind NATO enlargement in 2004. According to Hendrix’s research, this is exactly how petrostates behave when the oil prices are low: In fact, at oil prices below $33 a barrel, oil exporters become much more peaceful than even non-petrostates. Back in 2002 when the Urals price was around $20, in his Address to the Federal Assembly Putin enumerated multiple steps to European integration and active collaboration aimed at creating a single economic space with the European Union among Russia’s top priorities. In 2014 – with the price of oil price around $110 – Putin invaded Ukraine to punish it for the attempts to create that same single economic space with the E.U.

I made these basic points eight years ago, in a post titled “Cocaine Blues.”

The graph depicts Gaddy’s estimates of the energy rents accruing to the Soviet–and Russian–economy. Each of the two spikes in the graph corresponds to a period of Soviet/Russian adventurism. The first shot of oil/cocaine during the 1970s oil shock fueled Soviet aggressiveness around the world. The second oil/cocaine shot–the post-2003 runup in oil prices–is powering Putin’s recent revanchism.

There were some follow up posts on the same theme.

This post from Window on Eurasia quotes a Russian social scientist who disputes the importance of oil prices in explaining Russian behavior in the Putin era. Instead, Vladislav Inozemtsev identifies the lack of formal institutions as the characteristic feature of Putinism.

But these things are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, another SWP theme from about this same time period (2007-2008) is that Russia is a natural state in which Putin uses control over resource rents to maintain a political equilibrium. Resource rents permit personalized rule and impede the development of formal, impersonal institutions.

In other words, in Russia, resource rents, and especially oil/energy rents matter, both for its political structure and evolution, and its behavior as an international actor.

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March 9, 2015

Obama Channels Woodrow Wilson in His League of Nations Phase

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 8:09 pm

I have compared Obama to a previous progressive president enamored of executive power and impatient with checks and balances: namely, Woodrow Wilson. Obama is now moving into the League of Nations phase of Wilson’s presidency, intent on ramming through a foreign policy deal in defiance of intense Senate opposition.

Actually, this comparison is unfair. To Wilson. At least he submitted the treaty to the Senate for ratification. It failed because he refused to compromise on Article X. Obama in contrast, refuses to involve Congress in any way, least of all by submitting any agreement for ratification. He scorns the very idea.

Today Obama stooped to a new low. In response to a letter from 47 Republican senators warning him that without ratification, Obama’s deal with the mullahs would not bind a future president or Congress, Obama responded by questioning their loyalty: “It’s somewhat ironic to see some members of Congress wanting to make common cause with the hardliners in Iran.”

Really. The hardliners oppose a deal because it might put a speed bump in the way of their race to develop an atomic weapon and the means to deliver it. The Republicans oppose the deal because they believe that the deal would not go nearly far enough to prevent, or even seriously delay Iran’s building of the bomb.

See the difference? I knew you could. That people with radically opposed objectives both attack a proposed agreement doesn’t mean it is just right. Indeed, the hardliners’ opposition validates the Republicans’ fear that the mullahs are hell-bent on getting the bomb as soon as possible.

Obama would be wise to heed the lesson of Wilson, whose obstinacy and refusal to compromise prevented him from achieving his the legacy-building agreement he craves so intensely. But we know that is not in his nature. It is not in the prog nature.

On the subject of Iran, I’ve been pondering the last couple of days what Putin wants to see here. My sense is that he would actually prefer that Obama fail. Another nuclear power on Russia’s borders cannot be a comforting thought. What’s more, Russia has long harbored imperial ambitions in Iran: the more insane nationalist elements in Russian (e.g., Zhirinovsky) are quite open in their ambitions to move south into Iran. A nuclear Iran would make those ambitions even less realistic than they already are.

But the main factor, at least in the short to medium term, is oil and gas. A deal that would expedite the elimination of sanctions that have limited Iran’s oil sales, and which have kept its gas almost completely out of reach, would be adverse to Russia’s economic interests. A substantial increase in Iranian oil output would put considerable downward pressrun prices. The elimination of sanctions would open Iran’s vast gas reserves. In not too long, this gas could flow to Europe, where it would compete with Gazprom’s.

It’s hard to see an upside to Russia in a deal. Meaning that Putin will be trying to find a way to scupper it. Which will give Obama an opportunity to accuse the Republicans of being in league with Putin as well as the mullahs.

 

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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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