Streetwise Professor

December 4, 2016

A Mad Dog, Not a Caesar

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

Ever since Gen. James Mattis (USMC Ret.) had been suggested as a possible candidate for Trump’s Secretary of Defense, I was fervently hoping that he would be chosen, and that hope was realized. Mattis has a long and storied career as a warrior–a true warrior–and is widely acknowledged as a thoughtful, scholarly man who thinks deeply on strategic issues. He also has a long history of blunt outspokenness, which is sorely needed in these PC times–and in particular, is sorely needed in a Pentagon in which PC rot spread deeply during the Obama administration.

Mattis is a throwback in many ways, not least in that he has the kind of background and biography more typical of 19th or early-20th century figures. No over-credentialed Ivy Leaguer he. He grew up in the wheat fields of Washington state, enlisted in the Marines at 19, and attended Central Washington University. He then worked his way up through the Marine Corps, earning promotion to four star rank on the basis of performance.

Mattis’ appointment has drawn almost universal praise in DC and the media centers, including from the New York Times. Truth be told, this is the only thing that makes me temper my enthusiasm for him.

The one possible objection that has been raised by the usual array of chin-pullers is that he only retired from the USMC a little over three years ago, thereby requiring Congress to pass a waiver to circumvent a 1947 law that requires seven years between the time an officer retires and he (or she) can become SecDef. Mattis’ appointment, the chin-pullers intone, threatens to undermine civilian control of the military.

Really? Dwight Eisenhower retired from the Army on May 31, 1952, and assumed the presidency in January, 1953. Ulysses S. Grant remained as Commanding General of the US Army while running for president in 1868, and only resigned shortly before assuming office in 1869. Neither turned into Caesars. (By the way, did you know that in 1789 Congress passed a law that prevented those who had been engaged in commerce from becoming Secretary of the Treasury?)

Further, I would note that the principle of civilian control of the military is drilled into US military officers from day one of their service–as I experienced personally at the Naval Academy. What’s more, any officer whose commitment to that principle comes into question is never going to make it to flag rank. Nor would Donald “You’re Fired!” Trump–of all people–brook mutiny at the Pentagon.

But it is best to hear Mattis out on this in person. In this 2015 interview–recorded before his appointment was even a remote possibility, and indeed, would have been reckoned to be a zero probability event, not least of all by him–his commitment to the principle comes through loud and clear. He states forthrightly that an officer’s duty is to give his civilian superiors his honest opinion, but that it is also his duty to defer to the authority of those civilian superiors. This was clearly not a calculated statement intended to help secure an appointment (which was hardly imaginable, let alone on offer), but a reflection of his beliefs.

In sum, the thought that James Mattis is a threat to civilian control of the military is inane.

The entire interview is worth watching, because it shows Mattis to be an articulate and thoughtful man who speaks frankly, with an almost world-weary mien. He speaks with authority on a variety of strategic, military and geopolitical issues, is persuasive, and has Trump’s respect and ear. He gave evidence of this even before being nominated, when he convinced Trump to backtrack on the torture issue. This is exactly the kind of man we need in office. The fact that he will be an articulate advocate and explainer of administration policy is also invaluable. (Mattis is far more articulate than General Flynn, in particular.)

Some have also questioned Mattis’ ability to handle the challenges of managing the vast Pentagon bureaucracy. Here the interview is also instructive, because it shows that Mattis has observed the closely managerial and process dysfunction in Defense, and in particular how the mega-contractors have warped the system. No babe in the woods he. Fixing the Pentagon is a Herculean task, and I doubt that Mattis can do it, but he can probably make more progress than anyone with a more conventional resume for the job could.

As commenter aaa noted, one blot on Mattis’ record is his role as a director at Theranos, which has proved to be a colossal con. In his defense it can be said that he was hardly alone: the list of directors and big money investors who were taken by Elizabeth Holmes’ shtick is a who’s who of American business and politics (e.g., George Schultz). This endeavor was outside of Mattis’ expertise, and the main criticism he deserves is for taking a position for which his training and experience did not particular suit him. That’s not the issue at Secretary of Defense.

In sum, “Mad Dog” Mattis is exactly the kind of figure the US needs at the Pentagon right now, and poses no threat to the institutions of the Republic. To the contrary, he is uniquely qualified to serve as an intermediary between the citizenry and the uniformed military, particularly given that he knows the uniformed military, and those in the military know and respect him. The country will be stronger with him serving in a civilian role so close in time to the end of his 44 years of active service.

 

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December 3, 2016

The Trumpharrumphers’ Latest Freakout

Filed under: China,Economics,History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 2:30 pm

In the nearly 4 weeks since Trump’s election, we’ve seen a daily freakout on this issue or that. Every day, we hear about another statement or appointment or Tweet that is apparently going to result in the impending arrival of the end times. For those thinking about career moves, becoming a Pfizer manufacturer’s rep in a blue state is a sure winner, because Xanax sales are certain to skyrocket.

Yesterday’s Freak Out by the Trumpharrumphers–which is spilling over into today–is that their bête noire took a phone call from the president of Taiwan. How this call came about is somewhat obscure. CNN reported that a former Cheney advisor now working the Trump transition, Stephen Yates, arranged it. Yates denies it.

That’s really neither here nor there. The issue is whether this is some grave blunder on Trump’s part. The immediate reaction by many is that this was thoughtless and rash, but I wouldn’t be so sure. It could very well be calculated to send a message to China that Trump does not accept the status quo that has developed over the past decades. China has challenged this status quo, particularly through its construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea. This could be Trump’s way of pushing back. Sending a message to the revisionist power that revisions can be a two way street.

It is a low cost way of sending that message. Unlike some alternatives, it is not latent with potential for an immediate confrontation. China would have to make an aggressive countermove. Consider an alternative way of sending a signal: sending US ships or aircraft to challenge Chinese claims in the South China Sea. That presents the potential of immediate conflict, due either to the decision of the leadership in Beijing, or a hotheaded commander on the spot. Recall that soon after Bush II took over that the Chinese forced down a US EP-3 aircraft off Hainan.

Not to say that Trump will not order freedom of navigation missions after becoming Commander in Chief. Just pointing out that taking the phone call certainly gets China’s attention, and gets it to think about what the new administration’s posture will be, without putting US and Chinese military forces in close contact in a way that could result in a disastrous incident.

One thing that is very striking about the hysterical reaction to The Call is that many of those responding most hysterically that it raises the risk of World War III have also favored a much more confrontational approach with Russia, especially in Syria. Gee, you’d think that declaring a no fly zone over Syria would create a far greater risk of an armed confrontation between nuclear superpowers than taking a phone call from the Taiwanese president.

This asymmetric approach to Russia and China makes no sense. Yes, Putin has a zero sum view of the world; wants to revise the post-Cold War settlement; nurses historical grievances; and believes that the United States is hell-bent on denying Russia its proper place in the world (or worse yet, overthrowing its government). But the Chinese have a zero sum view of the world; want to revise the balance of power in Asia; nurse historical grievances; and believe that the United States is hell-bent on denying China its proper place in the world. Russia hacks. China hacks. Indeed, if anything, Chinese hacks have been far more threatening to US national security than the alleged Russian hacks that have generated the greatest outrage, namely the DNC and Podesta email lacks. For instance, the Chinese hack of the Office of Personnel Management database likely caused grievous harm to US security: the DNC and Podesta hacks only embarrassed, well, political hacks. (Which probably explains the intensity of the outrage.) Insofar as Russian propaganda is concerned, if RT (which does not even register on the Nielsen ratings) and fringe internet sites gravely threaten US democracy, we have bigger problems to worry about: we will have met the enemy, and he is us.

The key issue is capability. With the exception of nuclear weapons, Russian capabilities are declining and limited, whereas Chinese capabilities are increasingly robust. The Soviets were big on “the correlation of forces.” The correlation of forces is strongly against the Russians at present. They have limited ability to project power beyond their immediate borders, and then only (in a persistent way) against ramshackle places like the Donbas and Abkhazia. The Russian Navy is a shambles: its current deployment off Syria would make Potemkin blush. The Navy faces the same problem that it has faced since the time of Peter I: it is split between inhospitable ports located at vast distances from one another. The submarine force has made something of a comeback, but its surface units are old and decrepit, and fielded in insufficient numbers. The potential for expansion is sharply constrained by the near collapse of Russian shipbuilding: even frigate construction is hamstrung because of the loss of Ukrainian gas turbine engines.

Russia is also in an acute demographic situation: during his recent speech, Putin crowed that fertility had increased from 1.70 live births/woman to 1.78–still well below replacement. This problem manifests itself in the form of increasing difficulties of manning the Russian military. It still relies on conscription for about 1/2 of its troops, and those serve for an absurd 12 months. After 8 years of reform efforts, 50 percent of the personnel are now kontraktniki, but the Defense Ministry’s refusal to release information on the number of contract soldiers who leave each year (while touting the number of new volunteers) suggests that there is considerable turnover in these forces as well. There is still no long-term cadre of non-commissioned officers, and the force structure is still very top heavy.

Moreover, this military rests on a very shaky economic foundation. In particular, Russian military manufacturing is a shadow of what it once was, and the fiscal capacity of the state is sharply limited by a moribund economy. This makes a dramatic expansion in Russian military capability impossibly expensive: even the modest rearmament that has occurred in the past several years has forced the government to make many hard tradeoffs.

In contrast, Chinese military power is increasing dramatically. This is perhaps most evident at sea, where the Chinese navy has increased in size, sophistication, and operational expertise. Submarines are still a weak spot, but increasing numbers of more capable ships, combined with a strong geographic position (a long coastline with many good ports, now augmented by the man-made islands in the South China Sea) and dramatically improved air forces, long range surface-to-surface missiles, and an improving air defense system make the Chinese a formidable force in the Asian littoral. They certainly pose an anti-access/area denial threat that makes the US military deeply uneasy.

In contrast to Russia, China is actually in the position of having a surfeit of military manpower, and is looking to cut force numbers while increasing the skill and training of the smaller number of troops that will be in the ranks after the reforms are completed.

Policy should emphasize capability over intentions. Intentions are hard to divine, especially where the Russians and Chinese are involved: further, the United States’ record in analyzing intentions has been abysmal (another argument for gutting the CIA and starting over). Moreover, intentions change. It must also be recognized that capabilities shape intentions: a nation with greater power will entertain actions that a weaker power would never consider.

Taking all this into consideration, I would rate Russia as a pain in the ass, but a pain that can be managed, and far less of a challenge to US interests than China. Putin has played a very weak hand very well. Indeed, as I have written several times, we have actually fed his vanity and encouraged his truculence by overreacting to some of his ventures (Syria most notably). But the fact remains that his is a weak hand, whereas China’s power is greater, and increasing.

I am not advocating a Cold War: East Asia Edition. But when evaluating and responding to capabilities of potential adversaries, China should receive far greater attention than Russia. Certainly there is no reason to risk a confrontation over Syria, and pique over embarrassing disclosures of corrupt chicanery that the perpetrators should damn well be embarrassed about is no reason for a confrontation either. A longer term focus on China, and managing its ambitions, are far more important. That is a relationship that truly needs a revision–a Reset, if you will. And methinks that Trump’s taking the phone call from the Taiwanese president was carefully arranged to tell the Chinese that a Reset was coming. A little chin music to send a message, if you will.

A more provocative thought to close. Realpolitik would suggest trying to find ways to split China and Russia, rather than engage in policies like those which currently are driving them together. A reverse Nixon, if you will. I am by no means clear on how that would look, or how to get there. But it seems a far more promising approach than perpetuating and escalating a confrontation with a declining power.

PS. This is fitting in many ways:

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November 22, 2016

In Like Flynn

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 12:54 pm

Retired General Michael Flynn, fired as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency by President Obama, has become a lightning rod for criticism. This was true during the campaign, where he was an early and outspoken Trump supporter, and it has become doubly true since the election and his appointment as National Security Advisor designate. This criticism is largely unfair, and relies on the typical distortions and dishonest tactics that have become the norm for the “elite,” and the “elite” media.

For instance, Flynn has been excoriated for his alleged sympathies for Putin and Russia. These allegations rest on (a) his appearances on RT, and (b) the fact he sat at Putin’s table during an RT dinner. They also ignore the truculently anti-Russia, anti-Putin statements that Flynn made in his book. In a Politico piece that at least lets the man speak for himself, at length (although it also includes a typical dose of MSM snark), Flynn gives his opinions on these subjects:

Yet at times Flynn still struggles to reconcile his views with some of Trump’s most extreme positions, including his persistent praise of Putin.

“Putin is a totalitarian dictator and a thug who does not have our interests in mind. So I think Trump calling him a strong leader has been overstated, I’ll give you that,” Flynn said. “But Putin is smart and savvy, and he has taken actions in Ukraine and elsewhere that have limited our options, and the U.S. and NATO response has been timid. I think Trump’s strength lies in being a master negotiator, and he wants as many options as possible in dealing with Russia.” (Still, Flynn himself may have image problems here, since he appeared with Putin last year at an anniversary party for the Kremlin-controlled RT television network in Moscow.)

Yeah. A real Putin lover, that dude. This echoes what Flynn says in his book (co-authored by Michael Ledeen). This was out there for anyone interested in a fair portrayal of the man’s views to read, but no. Instead all we heard about was Flynn being pro-Putin because he sat with him once in Moscow.

Flynn has also drawn fire for his blunt statements about Islam. Well, get this. They are based on an up-close-and-personal view of our Islamist enemies. A view, it should not need mentioning, but does, that absolutely no one in the media and no one in the Obama administration and pretty much no one outside the US intelligence community has. Here again the Politico piece is informative:

As JSOC’s director of intelligence, Flynn interrogated the senior Al Qaeda commanders at length. Sitting across from them at the detainee screening facility at Balad Air Base, Iraq, Flynn wondered why such obviously educated and intelligent people were devoting themselves to tearing their country apart, regardless of the horrendous toll in innocent lives. Some of the men had electrical engineering and other advanced degrees, but instead of building a bridge or helping establish a functioning government, they applied their talents to attacking vulnerable governing institutions in order to terrorize and intimidate civilians. He could understand their hatred of American interlopers, but the vast majority of their tens of thousands of victims were fellow Iraqis.

During the course of those interrogations and hundreds of others in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Flynn concluded that what united the terrorist warlords was a common ideology, specifically the extremely conservative and fundamentalist Salafi strain of Islam. Salafis believe the only true Islam is that version practiced by the Prophet Muhammad and his followers in the seventh and eighth centuries. They reject any separation of church and state in favor of puritanical interpretation of Islamic Sharia law. They are intolerant of other religions or sects, and at least in terms of Salafi Jihadists, their ideology is violent and expansionist by its very nature. The terrorist leaders he interrogated on a regular basis—whether they marched under the banner of Al Qaeda, the Taliban or ISIS—were true believers, every bit as committed to their ideology and skewed moral universe as Flynn was to his own.

“Over the course of all those interrogations, I concluded that ‘core Al Qaeda’ wasn’t actually comprised of human beings, but rather it was an ideology with a particular version of Islam at its center,” Flynn said in the recent interview. “More than a religion, this ideology encompasses a political belief system, because its adherents want to rule things—whether it’s a village, a city, a region or an entire ‘caliphate.’ And to achieve that goal, they are willing to use extreme violence. The religious nature of that threat makes it very hard for Americans to come to grips with.”

He has looked the enemy in the face. Literally looked them in the face. Hundreds of times. He has interrogated them at length. You think perhaps he just might–just!–have a better understanding of what drives ISIS and Al Qaeda than 99.99999 of the people venting about his unacceptable, radical–and politically incorrect–views about the nature of Islamic terrorism?

The Politico article also details what led to Flynn’s disillusionment with the Obama administration and his criticism of its policies while he was head of DIA. In a nutshell: Flynn thought, based on his deep, personal knowledge of the Islamist enemy both in Iraq and Afghanistan, that Obama’s declaration of victory after Osama’s death was wildly premature. He was dismayed at the administration’s firing of Stanley McChrystal for having the temerity to push back on Obama’s Afghanistan policy. He was also furious at the sanitizing of intelligence about Islamist terrorism:

Worst of all from Flynn’s bird’s-eye perch at the DIA, intelligence reports of a growing threat from radical Islamist terrorism were often expunged as the intelligence stream worked its way up to the president’s desk. Flynn suspected part of the problem was National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who chaired many of the NSC deputies meetings and seemed uninterested in reports out of Iraq. But other intelligence bottlenecks have also come to light. After more than 50 intelligence analysts at U.S. Central Command complained to the Pentagon inspector general that their intelligence reports on the war against ISIS were consistently watered down, a recent House Republican task force report—written by members of the House Armed Services and Intelligence committees—concluded that intelligence on the ISIS threat was systematically altered by senior U.S. Central Command officials to give it a more positive spin.

I can say with metaphysical certainty, that if Flynn had been fired for blasting the distortion of intelligence in the Bush administration, he would have been the toast of all the best parties in DC and New York, and lionized on the pages of the NYT and WaPo. But this telling truth to power thing is a one way street in DC.

Tell truth to the Bush administration: Righteous! Hero!

Tell truth to the Obama administration: Renegade! Loose cannon! Dangerous bigoted wacko!

I wrote about DIA’s truth telling about what became ISIS circa-2012. Another example of no truth goes unpunished.

There is currently a lot of tut-tutting about Flynn’s outspokenness and political advocacy from ex-military types, such as Admiral Mullen. Let’s just say that one should always be somewhat skeptical of those who achieve positions like Mullen did, especially in an administration like Obama’s (or Clinton’s), but Bush’s too. They are usually chosen for their biddability and political reliability, especially in times of (relative) peace.

Some of the things Flynn has said are puzzling, his apparent flip-flop on the coup in Turkey, for instance. But I would not leap (as many have) to the conclusion that he did so for mercenary reasons.

Flynn is obviously a strong willed individual unafraid to speak his mind. He also has deep knowledge of certain issues that none–yes 0.0000 percent–of his media or political critics have. So is it too much to ask to judge him on the substance of his views, and the basis for them, rather than on issues that are less than trivialities?

That question was purely rhetorical. The Lie Swarm gonna swarm.

I fear that a similar fate awaits General James Mattis, in the event that Trump nominates him for SecDef. (This would be a livin’ the dream moment for me, because Mattis is someone whom I deeply admire. But the fact that he would have to get a waiver to serve in this post tempers my hopes.) Mattis was another man who called out the intellectual flyweights in the Obama administration foreign poliicy apparatus, and who was unceremoniously defenestrated for his temerity. (Even Tom Ricks, an Obama-friendly voice, found this episode incredibly shabby and disturbing.)

Flynn’s appointment–and Mattis’, in the happy event–reveals something about Trump. He is willing to have outspoken subordinates. This represents a stark contrast with Obama, who surrounded himself with unimpressive toadies and political partisans (Ben Rhodes–are you effing kidding me? Susan Rice?), and who refused to tolerate any internal dissent (as the fates of Flynn, Mattis, and McChrystal demonstrate). Whether Trump endures internal opposition remains to be seen: the fact that he is at least willing to risk it is admirable, and deserves some praise, rather than the ankle biting of people like Flynn by the apparatchiks and careerists who dominate what passes for America’s political and media culture.

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November 19, 2016

I’ve Learned My Lesson, But Far Too Many Have Not

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 8:40 pm

Tim Newman has written numerous excellent posts of late, but the one that resonated most with me was this one from about a month ago, which in response to a reader’s question about what he admitted changing his mind about, he admitted to having misjudged the outcome in Iraq:

I supported the Iraq War for several reasons, one of which was I thought the Iraqis deserved the chance to be free of Saddam Hussein and run their country without him.  I genuinely thought they would seize the opportunity to demonstrate to the world that Arabic people are not incompatible with democracy and, so thankful that Saddam Hussein is gone, they would make a pretty decent effort to make things work.

Instead they tore each other apart and did everything they could to demonstrate that those who dismissed them as savages that needed a strongman to keep them in line were right all along.  I think this was probably the most depressing aspect of the whole shambolic affair.

. . . .

But the one issue I changed my mind on was that the US (or British) military should no longer be brought to bear for altruistic or humanitarian reasons.  It is rather depressing, but I am now a firm believer in the premise that a population generally deserves the government it gets.  No longer would I support a war that is not prosecuted for clear strategic reasons that are indisputably in the national interest.  So all those suffering under the jackboot of oppression?  Sorry, you’re on your own.  We tried our best and look where it got us.

I couldn’t agree more, for I have undergone a similar conversion. I too succumbed to Western universalism, and believed that freed from the oppressions of a sadistic dictator, Iraq had the potential to become a passably free, democratic country that could become a role model for a benighted region. I believed that the problem was misrule from the top, rather than dysfunction at the bottom.

I was wrong.

What Iraq has taught me–reminded me, actually, in a rather forceful way–that although political and economic freedom are highly desirable, the preconditions that make this possible are the exception, rather than the rule. Further, the preconditions are highly culturally and historically contingent. The experience brought home forcefully the relevance of civilization (as Huntington emphasized): not everyone yearns to be like Americans; in fact, to many Western/American beliefs and mores are an anathema; Western institutions and behaviors can’t be grafted onto fundamentally different civilizations and cultures, and they certainly won’t arise spontaneously in the aftermath of the overthrow of a repressive regime, especially one that has deliberately crushed civil society for decades (and I could say something similar of the FSU); the tragic view of history has much more predictive power than the progressive view.

I should have remembered the experience of the Reconstruction in the United States, or Napoleon’s experience in Spain, or myriad other historical examples of the futility of attempting to impose a social and political revolution on a hostile alien culture.

Iraq, and subsequently Libya, pushed me back to my Jacksonian roots. Reforming foreigners isn’t our business. What they do amongst themselves is up to them, as long as they don’t harm Americans or American interests in a serious way. If they do that, deal with them forcefully and quickly, with no dreamy ideas of “nation building” in the aftermath. A view summarized by one of my heroes, USMC General James Mattis, who while in Iraq said: “I come in peace. I did not bring artillery. But I’m pleading with you, with tears in my eyes, if you fuck with me, I will kill you all.” Translated: we’ll leave you alone, unless you don’t leave us alone. In which case, watch out.

It’s one thing to make a mistake, to misjudge. It’s another thing to make a mistake and then learn nothing from it. We are seeing that right now, in regards to Syria. To judge by the words of many on both sides of the current political divide, Iraq (and Libya) never happened. Why do I say that? Because figures on both the right and left are advocating direct American involvement in the Syrian civil war, even though it makes Iraq look like Sunday school.

The catalyst for this waving of the bloody shirt is the carnage in Aleppo. John McCain in particular is beating the war drum, claiming that the US is now complicit in genocide in Syria. From the left, Samantha Power (she of Responsibility to Protect, which went so swell in Libya) obsesses about Syrian and Russian atrocities there.

Then there are the journalist/wonk pilot fish like Charles Lister and the execrable Michael Weiss, who churn out war propaganda in the best yellow journalism tradition, all the while doing their best to hide their connections with malign medieval regimes in the Gulf.

I will stipulate that what is occurring in Aleppo is horrific (although I would also note that the opposition is waging a transparent propaganda campaign  in an attempt to manipulate the US into intervening–a campaign in which Weiss, Lister, and their ilk are avid participants).

That said, what can the United States do about it? Would intervention lead to a less horrific result? What would be the likely outcome? Would the US be able to achieve its intended outcomes? What would the unintended consequences be?

Anyone who thinks about these questions without considering the sobering lessons of Iraq is a menace. But it’s worse than that, I don’t think that McCain, Power, Weiss, Lister, et al, think about these questions at all. It’s like Iraq never happened. The amnesia is rather astounding.

Here are my answers. There are no good guys in Syria, and even if with US assistance Assad was overthrown, it would not end the civil war, which would just devolve even further into a multi-sided hell that makes Libya and Iraq look like a picnic; it would empower jihadists who will slaughter as many or more as Assad has; the flow of refugees will not stop, although the composition of the refugees might change (with Alawites and Christians replacing Sunnis); if the opposition gets control of Syria, it will be the jihadists who control the opposition, and Syria will become a base for anti-American and anti-Western terrorism.

Syria is even more broken, complex, divided and fissiparous than Iraq was/is. It is rooted in the same political and religious culture, and the same civilization. Minority-based Baathism has had 13+ more years of power in Syria. So what has happened in Iraq in the last 13+ years is probably the best scenario in Syria. And I would consider even that happy prospect to be among the least likely.

And one more thing. An American intervention in Syria would risk a superpower confrontation. Even a unicorns and rainbows outcome in Syria would not make such a risk worthwhile, and as noted above unicorns and rainbows would not be the result–a dystopian, sectarian war of all against all would be. And the US should be in the middle of that why, exactly?

Some, notably Weiss and even more respectable journalists like Edward Lucas, link Syria to a broader conflict with Putin’s Russia. Syria, Lucas tells us, is Putin’s first step in rebuilding the USSR.

Seriously? That sounds like the ravings of someone playing Risk on LSD.

Pray tell, where does Putin go from Syria? The road to the Elbe runs through Aleppo? Who knew?!? Even if Putin succeeds in propping up His Man in a shattered country that has no natural or human resources to speak of, what then? Does that change Putin’s calculus of exercising power or force in the Baltic, or the European plain? Does that change Russia’s fundamental strategic weakness (most notably a decrepit economy that is utterly incapable of supporting an extended confrontation with the US)? No to all. Hell no, actually. Syria is a diversion of Russian effort and strength in one of the least consequential countries in the Middle East.

Yes. Syria is a humanitarian catastrophe. But as Tim Newman said, the US (or British) military should not be dispatched to intervene in such places for humanitarian or altruistic reasons. Because regardless of how altruistic the intentions, the outcome will be grim, and policy should be based on what is possible not what is desirable. If the desirable isn’t possible, leave it be.

I would go further. Even if you believe–especially if you believe–that Russia and China pose grave threats to US interests, Syria is not the place to fight. It will be another ulcer that will drain American morale, produce debilitating internecine political conflict, kill and maim American service men and women, and sap its military. Better to devote resources to recapitalizing the American military than to pour them into a lost cause like Syria–or pretty much anywhere else in the Middle East.

One of the most encouraging outcomes of the election is that the likelihood of American intervention in Syria has gone down as a result: Hillary was clearly much more favorably disposed to intervention (e.g., she spoke favorably of the idiotic idea of no fly zones, a McCain hobby horse) than Trump. If Trump truly is Jacksonian, or defers to his Jacksonian base, he will not get involved. Indeed, methinks this is exactly why McCain has become particularly unhinged in the past days. He realizes the prospects for intervention have plunged, and in his impotence he is raging.

Obama’s instincts were actually sounder than Hillary’s here. Would that he had the courage of his convictions and eschewed any involvement whatsoever. Instead, he gave mixed signals (“Assad must go”, the “red line”), and authorized a CIA effort to support the (jihadist-dominated) opposition–an effort that succeeded in getting 3 Green Berets killed a few weeks ago. (The CIA is an institution that I have also had a serious change of views about.)

Historical parallels are never exact. But it is difficult to find one as close as between Iraq and Syria–temporally, culturally, or civilizationally. Given the historical precedent, it is beyond reckless even to contemplate seriously US involvement in the Syrian civil war. But too much of our political class are latter-day Bourbons, having forgotten nothing and learned nothing. One of the benefits of the rejection of the political class on November 8th is that there is a very good prospect that we will also reject some of their worst ideas, of which intervention in Syria on humanitarian or geopolitical grounds is probably the worst of all.

 

 

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November 13, 2016

Let Them Use Canvas! A Vignette on the Dangers of Majoritarianism & the Benefits of the Electoral College

Filed under: Economics,History,Politics — The Professor @ 12:55 pm

In the aftermath of the stunning election result, we are witnessing much wailing and gnashing of teeth and rending of garments. One common whinge is that the result is illegitimate because Hillary apparently won (barely) the national popular vote, but was trounced in the Electoral College vote. I will pass over some of the issues this raises (e.g., that campaign strategies would have been different had the election been a national referendum/plebiscite) to focus on the benefits of the Electoral College.

The Electoral College is a departure from majoritarianism, one of many that the Founders deliberately incorporated into the Constitution. Meaning that the real debate is not over this particular deviation from national majoritarianism, but whether there should be any such deviations at all.

Put me down as a deviant, because I strongly believe that pure majoritarianism is a disaster. The tyranny of the majority is a real concern. To get all geeky about it, the core is empty in pure majoritarian games: no stable coalitions can form, and the outcome is chaos and shifting alliances of Peters conspiring to rob Pauls. The dangers of this are particularly great when there are few checks on the power of the state to transfer property and power from one group to another. There is also much greater potential for conflict and a greater incentive to spend resources to win the popular vote because small changes in the popular vote lead to discontinuously large changes in the distribution of power–including the power to expropriate. The stakes are much bigger, especially in closely divided polities.

If you want to see an example of what happens when there are fewer checks on the majority, look at California. It is no accident that California is Whinge Central post 11/8/16. The state voted strongly for Clinton: I may exaggerate only slightly that the net-wits called California for Clinton within 30 seconds of the polls closing.

But as Victor Davis Hanson has movingly shown, there are two Californias. (Joel Kotkin has written in a similar vein.) The coastal region, with Silicone Valley and Silicon Valley. Urban, expensive, and wealthy–with large pockets of plutocratic wealth. It draws its wealth disproportionately from high rent industries–entertainment and software tech. But there is another California, the interior. It is far poorer, and far grittier. It is heavily agricultural, and agrarian. It wrests what wealth it has from the earth, with sweat and toil. The only rents are to the land.

This is reflected in the electoral map, which is a microcosm of the US. There is a blue California on the coasts, and a red California in the interior. Even some places with large numbers of Mexican immigrants (e.g., Kern County) went for Trump. But the coast was solid Clinton.

In terms of population as well as wealth, Coastal California dominates. This means that in terms of state legislation and government, the interior of California is largely disenfranchised, and the governing elites have little reason to take the interests of the interior into account. This problem is exacerbated by the heavy use of referendums in California. Referenda are a strongly majoritarian institution, which do have a purpose, namely, placing a check on minorities that can use government to advance their interests. But this comes at a cost of allowing majorities to run roughshod over minorities.

There were several referenda on the ballot in California on Tuesday. Most were advanced by the coastal majority and involved issues that can and should be decided on a local basis, but which a highly ideological majority wanted to force on everyone. One example is the gun control measures that passed. But the example that is most telling to me is the referendum which banned the use of plastic grocery bags.

This is an issue that is virtue signaling par excellence. Around the world (e.g., France) liberals have made the banning of plastic bags a major environmental issue, despite the fact that the environmental benefits of the ban are far more asserted than proven. In California in particular, most major coastal metropolises have banned plastic bags. Bully for them. But that was not enough for the coastal denizens: they had to force their preferences on the entire state.

As Tim Newman wrote several months ago in several excellent posts, the plastic bag ban imposes substantial inconvenience on many normal people, hits lower income people the hardest, and is basically yet another effort by the better thans to instruct the benighted proles:

And that was my point about the Soviet Union: the privileged imposing artificial material restrictions on society which hit those at the bottom hardest, all the while saying it is for their own good.

In summary, I’m not necessarily saying the ban on carrier bags is a bad thing.  I just take objection to people making the assumption that plastic use is in itself bad, alternatives better, and the ban good as if it these were self-evident truths; and the lifestyle preferences of the wealthy middle-classes being imposed on everyone else with nothing but condescending dismissal of the costs and inconvenience to those not so fortunate.

Exactly right.

In California, the coastal majority succeeded in imposing its will on a less wealthy minority. It did so with plastic bags (and bullets) by referendum: it does so on myriad other matters via the state legislature which it dominates. These elites are throwing a post-Trump temper tantrum–which has gone so far as for many to advocate California’s secession–precisely because the Electoral College has thwarted their ability to do the same in the US as a whole.

If you look at what California does to the political minority in the interior, you will see that the tyranny of the majority is a real thing. The majority doesn’t have to pay any heed to the rubes in the Central Valley–let them use canvas! The genius of the Electoral College is that it forces the popular majority to temper its ambitions and moderate its program in order to attract at least some support from–or at least, diminish the opposition from–other constituencies. The urban must make some accommodations to the rural and suburban. The coastal must make some concessions to flyover country.

This serves to reduce conflict between constituencies, and mitigates centrifugal and fissile forces in a large and extremely diverse nation. These are very good things. If you think that politics in the US is contentious and divisive now, you have no idea what it would be like without the Electoral College.

One of the left’s arguments against the Electoral College is that it was adopted in large part as an accommodation to the slave states. There is an element to truth in that, although it should be noted that small non-slave states (e.g., Connecticut) also supported it because they feared being ground under the heel of large states like New York and Virginia. But the role of slavery actually illustrates the politically and socially beneficial role of the institution.

Absent departures from majoritarianism like the Electoral College, it is unlikely that highly disparate regions like the North and the South could have come together to form a nation in the first place, or would have long avoided secession and armed conflict if they had. The Civil War occurred precisely when demographic and economic changes threatened to permit the majority North from imposing its will on the minority South. Anti-majoritarian institutions (not just the Electoral College, but the Senate) permitted a nation to be formed in the first place, and prevented secession and military conflict for over 70 years.

In the instance of slavery, the anti-majoritarian provisions of the Constitution protected an evil institution for decades.* But that fact does not mean that anti-majoritarian features are inherently bad. To the contrary. Pure majoritarianism can be oppressive, and that increases the potential for political division and conflict. The Electoral College requires a party to moderate its appetites and broaden its appeal. It does not eliminate conflict, but it does temper it. And it does so precisely because it constrains the ability of arrogant majorities to impose their will on diverse minorities. The Electoral College gives greater voice to minorities: without voice, the minorities are more likely to resort to exit or combat.

Which is exactly why the left in the US is currently freaking out about the Electoral College. Their hysteria is the best advertisement for this institution that I could possibly imagine.

* As a practical matter, a purely majoritarian Constitution, or a Constitution with fewer anti-majoritarian features, would not have shortened the life of slavery, and likely would have extended it. One possible result would have been that there was no United States, and the Southern states would have been free to perpetuate their institutions without interference. The Northern states would have had little or no incentive to interfere. (One strong economic motive for the North to fight secession was that the tariff system redistributed income from the South to the North, and secession undermined that. That provided an economic incentive for Massachusetts and New York to cohabit with South Carolina and Alabama, and to oppose their moving out.)

If through some miracle a nation embracing North and South had formed under a more majoritarian Constitution, it is highly likely that a more purely majoritarian system would have resulted in secession at a far earlier date, when the economic (especially industrial) and population balance was much closer, and the North probably would have been powerless to prevail over the South militarily. The Civil War came in a non-purely majoritarian system only when the economic imbalance between the sections became so pronounced that military advantage rested with the North, and even given that preponderance, it was barely able to prevail, and then only after epic bloodshed.

Thus, adopting the William Lloyd Garrison position that the Constitution was a bargain with the devil and the North would be morally purified by a separation with the South might have salved his conscience and those of other (primarily evangelical) abolitionists, it would not have freed one person from bondage, and may indeed have cursed many more to suffer from it for much longer.

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October 27, 2016

Michael Morrel, One of Hillary’s Camp Followers Slouching Towards Washington

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

Back in the 1970s there was an entire genre in popular fiction, film, and television in which the CIA was the arch-villain, engaged in vast conspiracies to subvert free government at home or abroad. The stock personal villain in these works was invariably a tightly wrapped, bloodless, controlling, manipulative and often psychopathic CIA official.

At the time, I was not a big fan of these dramas. They were formulaic and seemed overwrought. But I am reconsidering that after the recent rise to public prominence of one Michael Morrel, the ex-deputy director of the CIA. Morrel is straight out of 1970s central casting–tightly wrapped, bloodless, controlling, manipulative and arguably psychopathic.

Morrel is hell-bent on getting the US involved neck-deep into the wars in Syria and Yemen, including doing things that would run the risk of a war with Russia. In August, he advocated killing Russians and Iranians in Syria, “to make them pay a price”:

“The Iranians were making us pay a price. We need to make the Iranians pay a price in Syria. We need to make the Russians pay a price.”

He went on to explain making them “pay the price” would mean killing Russians and Iranians, and said he wants to make Syrian president Bashar al-Assad uncomfortable.

“I want to go after those things that Assad sees as his personal power base. I want to scare Assad.”

This is all but an open call for the US to engage in assassinations of Russians, Iranians, and Syrians in Syria. Perhaps Mr. Morrel missed the part about this being illegal since the 1970s.

Today he advocated intervening on the Saudi side in the war with the Houthis in Yemen, including boarding Iranian vessels. So apparently Mr. Morrel is totally on board with the US being Saudi mercenaries.

This is what America has come to. From fighting against Hessian hirelings to achieve independence, to advocating serving as hirelings for terror funding oil ticks engaged in a pointless war that does not involve American interests in the slightest–and which also risks bringing the US into a broader regional conflict that could easily escalate.

Morrel has also been out front of the attack on Trump’s national security credentials, including making the allegation (based on his ipse dixit alone, of course) that Putin recruited Trump as an “unwitting agent” of Russia.

Just like the stock 70s CIA villain, Morrel obviously burns with ambition. He clearly wants to be Hillary’s CIA director and is willing to say anything to achieve that ambition. Of course, she already owes him, for Morrel was deeply involved in altering the Benghazi talking points in order to support her false version of events.

The thought of someone like Morrel as head of CIA is deeply disturbing. The thought that he likely reflects Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy instincts is doubly so. For getting involved deeply in Syria to overthrow Assad (and confronting the Russians to do so) and in Yemen to advance the Saudi proxy war against Iran are decidedly not in American interests, and would likely result in the waste of great amounts of American blood and treasure, for no strategic purpose whatsoever.

I have long said that you don’t have to worry just about the candidate that is elected to the presidency: you have to pay close attention to her or his camp followers who upon her/his election would be ensconced throughout the vast government bureaucracy, where they can do untold damage with little prospect of being held to account. Michael Morrel epitomizes these dangers. He is a soulless, power-obsessed little man who cavalierly muses about embroiling America in pointless wars, and risking superpower confrontation to do so. He is one of Hillary’s most prominent camp followers. Think of what other ones are currently slouching their way towards Jerusalem on the Potomac in her train.

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October 23, 2016

They Did It, Dad

Filed under: History,Sports — The Professor @ 8:59 am

Last night the Chicago Cubs beat the LA Dodgers 5-0, to win the National League Pennant. It is literally true that I have been waiting for this all my life.

Baseball generally, and the Cubs in particular, were one of the most important things to my dad, as indicated by the fact that my first crib toys were a baseball bat rattle and a plush baseball. My dad lived and died by the Cubs, which meant dying, mainly.

There was a glimmer of hope in 1969. I attended opening day at Wrigley Field that year. I was there with my mom, because my dad couldn’t get off work. I waited patiently before the game and got Ernie Banks’ autograph–on a comic book, because my mom was too cheap to buy a program. (I was visible in a picture on the front page of the Tribune the next day, along with Banks and others waiting for his autograph.) Though Don Money hit 2 homers for the Phillies, Ernie Banks answered with 2 for the Cubs. The game went into extra innings when Willie Smith ended it with a pinch-hit homer. That seemed to be an omen, and the Cubs started off great, eventually building an 8.5 game lead. Yes, there were stumbles, like Don Young dropping two fly balls in a game against the Mets, but it looked like this was the year that would end a mere 24 years(!) of futility.

Then it all went wrong. An old team with thin and overworked starting pitching collapsed. My most vivid memory is Randy Hundley (my favorite player) jumping up-and-down protesting a close play at the plate involving Tommy Agee. (Would things have been different with replay?)

hundley_agee

Eliot wrote that “April is the cruelest month.” In 1969, April was the most joyous month for Cubs fans. It was September that was cruel beyond words. (Not that April hasn’t been cruel to the Cubs. April 1997 being a particularly acute example.)

The 1970s were miserable–I mean, if Dave Kingman is the most memorable thing about an entire decade of baseball, even “miserable” seems an inadequate description. The aging players of the 1969 team faded rapidly, and the skinflint ownership of the Wrigleys stinted on the farm system, meaning the team’s player development was abysmal.

The 1980s brought a glimmer of hope after a bad beginning. Dallas Green built a very good 1984 team, only to watch it all go for naught when an easy grounder went between Leon Durham’s legs in San Diego. (Ironically, the man Durham replaced, Bill Buckner, was the goat the same year when he infamously let a grounder go between his legs to give the Mets a victory. This was the living proof of the “ex-Cub factor.”)

In the Pirrong households there was much anguish.

The 1990s–another largely lost decade.

Things looked bright again in 2003. But again, the season ended in failure. It is hard to describe the gloom in the motel room in Franklin, Tennessee when my dad and I watched the Cubs lose game 7 to the Marlins the night after the infamous Bartman game. (We were in Franklin on our annual Civil War battlefield trip.)

2003 pretty much snapped it for me. I’d invested a lot emotionally with the Cubs since I could remember, only to experience repeated frustration and disappointment. Family, work, and other things pressed, and I paid only glancing attention to the Cubs until a couple of years ago, when there were glimmers of hope. Even then, I will admit that my commitment was somewhat tentative. Too many Charlie Brown moments had left their mark.

Not my dad, though. He soldiered on, loyally. (Loyalty being one of his many admirable traits, even though that loyalty had often been unrewarded–worse, actually–in his professional life.)

Here, in baseball as in work, his loyalty did not receive its reward. He passed away at the very beginning of the Cubs renaissance. Almost literally at the beginning. We put on the Cubs game in the room of the hospice where he lay dying. He passed away almost exactly at the first pitch of opening day of the 2014 season.

My dad was a second-generation Cubs fan. His father had been an intense fan too, and could claim (reasonably) to have seen the Cubs win a World Series game in a year when they won the World Series–1908. My grandfather grew up in the neighborhood near the old West Side Grounds at Polk and Wood where the Cubs played in the first decade of the 20th century. When my grandfather was an invalid, watching the Cubs on Channel 9 was one of the few joys in his life, even though that was during the nadir of post-War Cub fortunes (he died in September, 1968).

To give an idea of how big baseball was in the Pirrong family, my grandfather would routinely take my dad to see Negro League games in Comiskey Park. In my father’s memory, they were the only white people in sight, and my dad–a North Sider–grew up thinking there were no white people south of Madison Street. My dad was so obsessed with baseball that his ambition was to go into management. After getting his MBA at Northwestern, he left my pregnant mother to attend the Baseball Management Academy in Florida. It was money well spent: he realized that in that era, only family members of ownership had a shot at real responsibility. As he put it, an outsider would be lucky to be put in charge of the peanut concession. So he put his baseball dreams aside and became the picture of a 1960s-1970s middle manager in corporate America.

When my grandfather was failing, my dad would say “I hope the Cubs win a pennant before dad dies.” Then for years he would say about himself “I hope the Cubs win a pennant before I die.” He skipped over me altogether. When my girls were young he told them “I hope the Cubs win a pennant before you die.”

Sadly, his hopes for himself were not realized. He–we–reveled in the Bulls championships of the 1990s, and especially in the Blackhawks wins in 2010 and 2013. But those things would have paled in comparison to a Cubs pennant, if they had been able to achieve it. (He always said “pennant” rather than “World Series.” I’ve been pondering why in recent days.)

But alas, that was not to be. I am trying to share it with him, vicariously, through memory. I remember the first time we went to a game together–Cubs-Reds, 1967 (the Cubs won.) I remember his uncanny ability to turn on the car radio at the very second that the pitcher was winding up for the first pitch. (Even when we watched on TV, we listened to the radio because my father detested Jack Brickhouse. Not that the radio duo of Jack Lloyd and Lou Boudreau were much better: dad called them “fumbles and mumbles.”) I remember his intimate knowledge of the game–pitch selection, pitch location, positioning, calling hit-and-run plays, etc. And yes, I remember him waving his hand and yelling “BULLSHIT” at the TV in response to a bad call or a bad play or a bad managerial move. Because he was into it. (And no, the apple did not fall far from the tree.)

I know there are many Chicagoans who can tell similar stories right now. Because, after all, there have literally been generations of futility. It’s only a game, and it’s only a team, but a particular team playing a particular game have had a profound impact on many people. And the most profound impact has been to forge memories of shared experiences between parents and children–fathers and sons, especially (though they have contributed to shared experiences between me and my girls, too). So last night, being in the moment actually meant scrolling through myriad moments past.

In a few weeks, the 2016 season will fade from most people’s minds, regardless of what happens in the World Series. Life presses. New seasons begin. But it will leave behind the residue of memories, and some future event will bring those memories flooding forth. It would be a blessing to the rememberers if the recollections that do come are as intense and poignant as the memories of my dad that I experienced last night.

 

 

 

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September 12, 2016

The New Deal With Chinese Characteristics

Filed under: China,Commodities,Economics,History,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 1:03 pm

When I was in Singapore last week I spoke at the FT Asia Commodities Summit. Regardless of whether the subject was ags or energy or metals, China played an outsized role in the discussion. In particular, participants focused on China’s newish “supply side” policy.

There is little doubt that the policy–which focuses on reducing capacity, or at least output in steel, coal, and other primary industries–has had an impact on prices. Consider coking coal:

Coking coal, the material used by steelmakers to fire their blast furnaces, has become the best performing commodity of 2016 after surging more than 80 per cent over the past month on the back of production curbs and flooding in China.

Premium hard Australian coking coal delivered to China hit $180.9 a tonne on Friday, this highest level since price reporting agency Steel Index began publishing assessments in 2013. It has risen 131 per cent since the start of the year, outpacing gold, silver, iron ore and zinc — other top performing commodities.

The main driver of the rally — which has also roiled thermal coal — is Beijing’s decision to restrict the number of working days at domestic mines to 276 days per year from 330 previously.

This policy is aimed at the improving the profitability of producers so they can repay loans to local banks. But it has reduced output and forced traders and steel mills to buy imported material from what is known as the seaborne market.

80 percent. In a month.

Or thermal coal:

Newcastle thermal coal is heading for the first annual gain in six years as China seeks to cut overcapacity and curb pollution. While the timing of the output adjustment is unavailable, it may start in September or October after recent price gains, Citigroup said in the report dated Sept. 8. Bohai-Rim is 26 percent higher from a year ago, when it was 409 yuan, while Newcastle has climbed as much as 40 percent this year.

The phrase “supply side reform” actually fits rather awkwardly here, at least to a Western ear. That phrase connotes the reduction of regulatory and tax burdens as a means of promoting economic growth. But Supply Side Reform With Chinese Characteristics means increasing the government’s role in managing the economy.

A better description would be that this is The New Deal With Chinese Characteristics. FDR’s New Deal was largely a set of measures to cartelize major US industries, in an effort to raise prices. The economic “thinking” behind this was completely wrongheaded, and motivated by the idea that there was “ruinous competition” in product and labor markets that required government intervention to fix. Apparently the higher prices and wages were supposed to increase aggregate demand. Or something. But although the New Deal foundered on Constitutional shoals only a few years after its passage, in its brief existence it had proven to be an economic nightmare rent by contradictions. For instance, if you increase prices in an upstream industry, that is detrimental to the downstream sector for which the upstream industry’s outputs are inputs. According to scholarship dating back to Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz, and continuing through recent work by Cole and Ohanian,  interference in the price mechanism and forced cartelization slowed the US’s recovery from the monetary shock that caused the Great Depression.

The motivation for the Chinese policy is apparently not so much to facilitate the rationalization of capacity in sectors with too much of it, but to increase revenue of firms in these sectors in order to permit them to pay back debt to banks and the holders of wealth management products (which often turn out to be banks too). Further, the policy is also driven by a need to sustain employment in these industries. Thus, the policies are intended to prop up the financially weakest and least efficient companies, rather than cull them.

So step back for a minute and contemplate what this means. Through a variety of policies, including most notably financial repression (that made capital artificially cheap) and credit stimulus, China encouraged massive investment in the commodities and primary goods sectors. These policies succeeded too well: they encouraged massive over-investment. So to offset that, and to mitigate the financial consequences for lenders, local governments, and workers, China is intervening to restrict output to raise prices. Rather than encouraging the correction of past errors, the new policy is perpetuating them, and creating new ones.

Remind me again how China’s government got the reputation as master economic managers, because I’m not seeing it. This is an example of a wasteful response to wasteful over-investment: waste coming and going. Further, it involves an increase in government intervention, which obviously has those in favor a more liberal (in the Smithian sense) free market policy rather distraught, and which foreshadows even more waste in the future.

The policy is also obviously fraught with tensions, because it pits those consuming primary and intermediate goods against those producing them–and against the banks who are now more likely to get their money back. That is, it is a backdoor bank (and WMP) bailout, the costs of which will be borne by the consumers of the goods produced by industries that were supersized by past government profligacy.

Ironically, the policy also stokes something that the government purports to hate: speculation. Policy volatility encourages speculation on the goods and industries affected by these policies. The large movements in prices in the coal and iron-steel sectors in response to policy changes provide a strong incentive to speculate on future policy changes.

Further, it creates the potential for moral hazard in the future. Future lenders (and purchasers of WMP) will look back on this policy and conclude that the government may well undertake backdoor bailouts if the companies they have lent to run into difficulties. This is hardly conducive to prudent lending and investment.

This is not foresighted policy. It is extemporizing to fix near-term problems, most of which were created by past measures to fix near-term problems. There is a Three Stooges aspect to the entire endeavor.

Of course, it’s an ill wind that blows no one any good. Glencore is no doubt very grateful for Chairman Xi’s heavy-handed policy intervention. It has probably played a larger role in bringing the company back from the brink than did the company’s prudent efforts to cut debt. But it is probably too late, alas, for Peabody Coal, and Arch Coal, and all those “coal people” whom former empathizer in chief Bill Clinton mocked last week. The ingrates!

The bottom line is that China is the 800 pound gorilla of the commodity markets, and shifts in its policies can lead to huge moves in commodity prices. Given that these policy shifts are driven by the crisis du jour (e.g., commodity producer shakiness threatening to make banks and local governments shaky) rather than good economics, and that these policy shifts are difficult to predict given the opacity and centralization of Chinese decision making, they add to substantial additional volatility in commodity prices and commodity markets: who can read the gorilla’s mind (which he changes often)?, and woe to those who read it wrong.

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August 17, 2016

Michael Weiss Makes the Case for the Importance of the DIA Document

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 7:23 pm

Michael Weiss essayed a lame (but I repeat myself) attempt of a rebuttal of the DIA document I wrote about over the weekend: Weiss’s response was apparently sparked by the fact that Sputnik (and not me!) gave the document attention. (It came out in June 2015, not last May as I had thought.)

Weiss’ piece is classic in the annals of farcical reasoning and logical fallacies. His complete failure to address the document and its implications betrays just how damning it is to his cause. If this is the best e’s got . . .

Weiss started out his attempted rebuttal with one of his specialities, an ad hominem attack:

At the time, this document was taken up with similar if paradoxical enthusiasm by far-left anti-imperialists (such as the Guardian’s Seumas Milne, now Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s spin-doctor) and anti-Muslim reactionaries (such as Pamela Gellar) as proof of a nefarious conspiracy led by Washington to encourage a takfiri takeover of the Levant.

None of which has anything to do with the substance of the document.

Weiss then quotes the report:

“If the situation unravels there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in Eastern Syria (Hasaka and Der Zor), and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime, which is considered the strategic depth of the Shia expansion (Iraq and Iran).”

He fails to mention that this prediction was made in 2012, and it came to pass, almost exactly. That does speak to its credibility, no?

Weiss scorns the idea that the document was “secret”–putting that word in scare quotes. Well, it was classified as . . . SECRET/NOFORN. I guess that kinda makes it officially secret, eh? He also notes the heavy redactions. So what? Does he have any reason to believe the redactions contradict the opinions that are not redacted–which are not qualified in any way? It is far more likely that the redactions include classified information that supports the conclusions that are expressed in the underrated portions.

Weiss then tries to dismiss the report as just one of many reports turned out by the Washington paper machine:

As The Daily Beast’s Jacob Siegel reported when the document was published, appraisals such as these are too numerous count at the Pentagon, much less be read by senior military or policy planners. And few ever rise to the level of adopted policy prescription.

Nor did this one, as anyone who has watched events unfold in Syria over the last four years can easily determine for himself.

This is an inversion of the importance of the document. The reason that the document is damning is precisely that it was ignored by the administration. The DIA writes a hair on fire warning to the security establishment, and the warning is utterly ignored, with the result being that the dire predictions it made came to pass. Whereas Weiss attempts to claim that the fact that the document was ignored means that it is irrelevant, this is precisely what makes it relevant, and damning to the administration. It either ignored its predictions that were borne out in blood, or it was actually complicit in the Salafist-supporting policy that the document describes.

Weiss then plays a shell game with the chronology:

If the United States had sought to rob Iranian clients and proxies of strategic depth in Syria, then it would plainly not be “de-conflicting” at present with the Syrian and Russian air forces, both of which are providing close air support to those same clients and proxies on the ground.

The document was written in 2012. The “de-conflicting” with Syrian and Russian air forces began in 2015. Much water has passed under the bridge in that time, including Obama’s classic walkback from the “redline” on Assad in 2013, the Iran nuclear deal in 2015 (and the negotiations leading up to it in 2014), the farcical collapse of expensive US efforts to train Syrian rebels, and most importantly the spectacular rise of ISIS in 2014-2015 that the DIA document so presciently predicted. The situation is so different now that current administration policy in no way implies that it was not allying with Salafists in 2011-2012 in an attempt to bring down Assad. At that time, the administration was also crowing about its “success” in Libya, and looked to repeat it in Syria. Now it wants to be completely shed of the situation. Four years of failure will do that.

Weiss finishes with another bait-and-switch:

Moreover, given the president’s well-known reluctance—criticized by his ISIS “co-founder” Hillary Clinton—to substantively aid and arm nationalist Free Syrian Army rebels in 2012 (when the document was drafted), one could argue his policy has been the very opposite of what’s in this document.

The bait-and-switch is that the DIA document doesn’t talk about US support for Weiss’ beloved and allegedly moderate, non-sectarian FSA: it talks about the “supporting powers” favoring Salafists, including AQI, the predecessor of ISIS: the FSA is not mentioned. It is well known that the Gulf states pumped large resources into these groups. Turkey is also clearly implicated (as another leaked report, this one from German intelligence, asserts). The US was clearly aligned with these nations in the objective of “Assad must go”, and indeed, the lukewarm support for the FSA actually supports the DIA’s claim that the “supporting powers” (including the US) had put their money on the Salafists, instead of the FSA.

Further, who knows what covert support the CIA was providing, and to whom? Rumors continue to swirl about a weapons pipeline from Libya to Syrian rebels. I have always have found it more credible that the US mission in Benghazi was attempting to intercept weapons on the loose in Libya to prevent them from flowing to Syria, but I am becoming more open to the possibility that the CIA was indeed running weapons from Libya to Syria. The complete silence about what was going on at the CIA Annex there–a silence in which Republicans on the Intelligence Committee like McCain and Graham and Rubio join in–even in the aftermath of September 11, 2012 makes me suspect that the CIA was doing something much more than a gun buyback program intended to help improve the ‘hood.

I also note that Weiss makes no effort to disprove the assertions in the DIA document that Salafists dominated the Syrian opposition from the beginning. This is important because Weiss made a name for himself by playing war tourist in Aleppo, claiming that he was visiting moderate rebels, and because ever since he has been spinning the tale of a moderate opposition that was abandoned by a feckless US. If the revolution was Salafist from the get go, Weiss comes off as a fool and useful idiot at best, and a collaborator with Islamists at worst. His silence on this point in the DIA document speaks volumes.

In short, Michael Weiss makes a great case for the importance of the DIA document by failing so miserably in his lame attempt to make a case against it.

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August 14, 2016

Obama & Hillary Enabled ISIS. Trump? Putin? No–the Defense Intelligence Agency

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 11:26 am

Although it is hyperbole to say that Obama and Hillary Clinton “founded” ISIS, there is little doubt that they certainly enabled its dramatic expansion. Obama’s mishandling of the American withdrawal from Iraq (scathingly documented in “Losing Iraq“, a production of the notoriously right-wing PBS Frontline) and his passivity as ISIS mounted its major drives in late-2013 and early-to-mid-2014 were necessary to ISIS’s dramatic expansion.

A declassified Defense Intelligence Agency document, made public by Judicial Watch in May, makes clear that DIA was aware of what was going on, and predicted what transpired with uncanny accuracy. More disturbingly, the document can be read to suggest that the administration willingly supported jihadist elements in Syria–including ISIS–as part of its “strategy” to oust Assad.

Insofar as predictions are concerned, these excerpts from the document (which is heavily redacted) speak for themselves:

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That’s pretty much exactly what happened.

The timing is rather awkward for the administration.

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This is exactly the time, mind you, that Joe Biden was strutting around claiming that Iraq was the administration’s greatest foreign policy achievement.

Please spare us any more such successes. A few more like them and we’ll be ruined.

Note too in particular the arrow of causality here. Supporting the insurgency in Syria blew back into Iraq, and advanced the Sunni uprising that has convulsed the country in the past four years. Meaning that the administration supported actions in Syria that destabilized Iraq precisely when it was cutting US forces there that had been essential to maintaining the country’s tenuous stability.

What is more disturbing about the document is its statements about the relation between the rise of ISIS and US policy regarding the Syrian revolution. First, the memorandum forthrightly documents that from the very beginning, the Syrian revolution was predominately jihadist in nature:

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It is not possible, therefore, to argue that once-upon-a-time there was a non-jihadist, secular, and moderate opposition in Syria that was supplanted by extremist elements only because the West did not push out Assad.

What is even more disturbing is the DIA’s statement that it was US policy, in conjunction with its “allies” in the region like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, to support these jihadist elements. For the very next point states:

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Read “C.” above carefully. “[T]here is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in eastern Syria. . . . this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime, which is consider the strategic depth of the Shia expansion (Iraq and Iran).”

Recall that the memo specifically identifies “the West” as a supporting power. Further recall that this is the time when “Assad must go” was Obama’s mantra.

This puts an entirely different gloss on Obama’s insouciance towards ISIS during this period. It is clear that the Gulf States and Turkey were all in with Salafist elements. DIA makes the US firmly complicit in this, at the very least via an act of omission (failing to oppose the actions of the regional Sunni powers), and more plausibly as an act of commission.

Understanding the necessity of reading between the lines in an official intergovernmental communication like this, it is clear that DIA is essentially telling the administration (this Secret document was distributed to Hillary and Obama, among others) that it is engaged in a dangerous policy. This is the DIA’s demarche protesting administration Syria policy. One can only imagine what is in the redacted bits.

At the very least, even if you do not believe that the public portions of the document adequately support the charge that Obama and Clinton deliberately supported the rise of ISIS as a matter of policy, it does show that they were forewarned of what was happening and did nothing to stop it. This implies either complicity in the machinations of the policy of the Gulf states and Turkey, or analytical incompetence.

Remember, this is a document prepared by a part of the US intelligence establishment, not the Russians. But it strongly echoes many things that Lavrov and Putin said at the time, and have said since.

There are other interesting aspects of the document that are illuminating. In particular, it gives the lie to claims by Michael Weiss and other anti-Assad, Salafist-supporting Neocons that Assad created ISIS to divide the opposition.

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Paragraph “B.” is of particular relevance. Please take this into account when reading future deep thoughts by Weiss et al about the nature and origins of the anti-Assad opposition, and the necessity of taking down Assad.

This internal US intelligence document clearly lays great responsibility for the rise of ISIS at Obama’s feet. This document is not hindsight brilliance and ass-covering: it is foresight and forewarning.

The document also reveals the utter incoherence of US policy in the region. The ostensible rationale for trying to topple Assad (and this was certainly the motivation of the Gulf states) was that his regime was a supporter of Shia infidels, notably Iran and Hezbollah. And there is a realpolitik logic in attacking Syria as part of a campaign against Iran. But during this time the administration was also working on a rapprochement with Iran. Square that circle for me.

One other thing. This document came out in May. Have you heard of it? Almost certainly not. I hadn’t, until an ex-intel guy on Twitter made me aware of it.

If something analogous had been about the Bush administration circa 2005, and had been released while he was still in office, it would have been the subject of non-stop frenzied–nay, hysterical–coverage. But even while the war on ISIS goes on, and ISIS and ISIS sympathizers launch terror attacks in the US and Europe, and the sectarian war in Syria drags on, this document that places considerable responsibility for ISIS’s rise on the shoulders of the current president, and the Democratic nominee to replace him, gets no coverage whatsoever. This utterly damning document speaks directly to Hillary’s mindset and competence, yet it has been consigned to the memory hole by a media that is intent on ensuring her election.

 

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