Streetwise Professor

February 12, 2017

The Yemen Raid: Inherent Risk, Not Failure.

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 1:43 pm

There has been a lot of controversy about the first (that we know of) major special operations raid carried out post-inauguration. The raid–in Yemen–did not go according to plan. A member of Seal Team 6 was killed. Two other Americans were seriously injured. A V-22 Osprey was damaged in a hard landing and had to be destroyed. Civilians were killed, including (allegedly) the 8 year old daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki, and several other women (who may, or may not, have been firing weapons).*

Immediately the raid was politicized. An ex-Obama administration official, one Colin Kahl, immediately took to Twitter to claim that, contrary to Trump administration statements, the raid had not been considered or planned under the Obama administration. Instead, Kahl claims, only a “broad package” of operations was discussed prior to the departure of the Obama administration, and this “information was shared” with the incoming administration.

I call bullshit. This kind of operation requires detailed planning and extensive intelligence collection, both of which take time. It takes more time for this to work its way up through the chain of command, including I might add a review by the lawyers to evaluate the risk of civilian casualties. There is no bleeping way in hell this went from a “broad package” to lead flying in a week. It would have been reasonable for the lame ducks to leave the decision to the new team, but it is risible to claim that this was an impromptu rush job undertaken by a rash Trump administration. (For one thing, there is no way Mattis would have signed off on any such thing.)

So what went wrong? Murphys Law. Shit happens. That is the nature of special operations raids. They are inherently risky, tightly coupled operations where pretty much everything has to go right in precise sequence. When they go wrong they tend to go horribly wrong, because they involve small elements who are usually outgunned, relatively immobile, and isolated if they lose the element of surprise or run into an obstacle that delays their quick ingress or egress.

These operations rely on surprise, speed, and sometimes brutal shock action.  All the planning and training and experience in the world cannot guarantee these things will work. The “for the want of a nail” phenomenon is baked into special operations.

Apparently the SEALs operating in Yemen in late-January lost the element of surprise, and rather than abort they relied on aggression to attempt to complete the mission. In so doing, they suffered casualties and inflicted a lot of them, including some on civilians.

This is nothing new. Almost exactly two years earlier, a raid to rescue western hostages in Yemen was compromised by a barking dog. A week before the election, a Special Forces team was shot up in Afghanistan because it ran into an unexpected gate: two very experienced SF men were killed and several others were wounded.

The Obama administration obviously owns that last one, and arguably is was more of a clusterfuck than what happened in Yemen last month. But you haven’t heard much about it, have you? Go figure.

As for the Osprey, they are prone to “brownouts” (i.e., the pilot losing his bearings when the huge rotors blow up a cloud of dust while landing), as occurred in Hawaii in 2015. They can also lose lift because they enter a vortex ring state. (This is the leading theory of the crash of the stealth helo during the bin Laden raid.) Again, this is another roll of the dice with this kind of operation with this kind of aircraft.

I could go on and on. The success rate of US (and also UK and Australian) special operators is amazing, but periodic disasters are part of the package.

As for the civilian casualties, that to is inherent in the nature of these operations, and the enemy against whom they are directed. These terrorists, be they in Afghanistan or Yemen or wherever, are typically embedded in the civilian population. In Afghanistan in particular, they are just part of the ordinary menfolk. Such is guerrilla warfare. Even if civilians are not targeted, they will be killed.

What happened in Yemen a couple of weeks back is not extraordinary, given the nature of the operation, and most importantly, the extent and intensity of these kinds of operations that the US is conducting in Southwest Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Indeed, it is a testament to the skill of US special operators that these things don’t happen more often.

It is therefore incredibly disgusting to see this politicized. Yes, ex-Obama admin people and their water carriers in the media are primarily culpable in this incident, but they have help, notably from John McCain who really needs to STFU: his hatred of Trump leads him to make opportunistic statements (e.g., calling this mission a failure) that convey a very misleading picture of realities. This politicization does not help the US military, or enhance the effectiveness of its operations. Most of the politicized criticisms also tend to be blissfully ignorant of military realities.  There is a justification for having a debate about whether the current anti-terror strategy that relies heavily on high tempo special operations is worth the risk. But that discussion has to be predicated on the understanding that things like those that transpired in Yemen in January (and in December, 2014) are inherent to that strategy, and do not necessarily imply failure or incompetence.

*The only basis for the claim that Awlaki’s daughter was killed is a statement by her grandfather.

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January 28, 2017

Trump’s Finger Is On the Button!

Filed under: History,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 12:43 pm

Fearing Trump, the Union of Concerned Scientists has advanced the Doomsday Clock, indicating their belief that the risk of nuclear war has increased. This is actually quite confusing. After all, the Clock has historically waxed and waned based on the perceived (by the pointy heads at the UCS, anyways) threat of a nuclear exchange between the US and the USSR, and since its demise, Russia. So wouldn’t Trump’s supposed softness on Russia and the prospect of a rapprochement between Trump and Putin (which elicits shrieks of horror from the Democrats) reduce the risk of such an event? Shouldn’t the clock have moved backwards, not forwards?

But that’s not the button I refer to in the title. Actually, I should have written buttons, plural, because what I am thinking of is Trump’s pushing of the progressive left’s buttons. We’re only a week into his administration, and already he has pushed so many of their buttons that they are on the brink of psychological collapse–many past the brink, actually.

I could mention several examples, but one stands out even though it is the most symbolic and least substantive of the things he’s done since January 20: the announcement that he will return a portrait of Andrew Jackson to the Oval Office.

Trump’s core constituency is Jacksonian America (as Walter Russell Mead and then I pointed out in 2015), but truth be told, most Jacksonians don’t know a lot about him. Pace Willie Dixon, he’s just one of those Dead Presidents they’d like to get their hands on: “Jackson on a 20 is really great.” But the left does know Jackson, and hates him with a passion: he is one of their bêtes noires. Slaveholder. Ferocious Indian fighter. Author of the Indian Removal Act (a/k/a Trail of Tears). Unabashed American nationalist (heaven forfend!). Further, the left also hates his political heirs: they are the kind of people that an execrable candidate for DNC chair said it would be her job to shut down.

So Trump’s announcement regarding the portrait probably didn’t really make a ripple in his Jacksonian constituency, and that’s not why he did it. But it did unleash an uproar among the progressives–and that’s exactly why he did it. A very deliberate push of a prog button.

Personally, I have considerable ambivalence about Jackson. Much of the criticism is presentism that ignores the historical context: of course men of the 19th century frontier thought and decided differently than those on the Upper West Side for whom Harlem is the frontier. Jackson’s greatest modern biographer, Robert Remini, argues that Jackson believed that removal was the only way to prevent the annihilation of the eastern tribes at the hands of rapacious whites. Others clearly disagree, and believe that Jackson was motivated by bigotry and hatred. The point is that the story is much more complicated than the morality play presented by the left.

Jackson’s economic policy was a very mixed bag. He was in favor of small government, and was the last president to leave the US with no government debt. But his banking policy was disastrous, and was directly responsible for the Panic of 1837.

Politically, of course, he was the avatar of populism and popular democracy. This is is also a mixed bag, but the pluses are bigger and the minuses smaller when the government is small than when it is large.

He was a slaveholder, but an ardent foe of secession, as his actions during the Nullification Crisis showed.

He was also one of the most consistently successful military commanders in US history, beating both Red Coats and . . . Indians (and Spaniards too) in both conventional and unconventional warfare.

But the progressive left is anything but ambivalent about Jackson. To them he is a devil figure, which Trump surely knows–and which is why his portrait will hang in the Oval Office.

As men, Jackson and Trump have myriad differences. Their biographies are obviously utterly different. Where Trump only mused about shooting people in the street, Jackson actually did it. But they have some great similarities, and these will loom large during Trump’s presidency. Both are outsiders who express their disdain for the system and the supposed elite–and the disdain is returned with interest. Neither is constrained by elite convention, and indeed, each takes great glee at sneering at convention and brutally trampling the political establishment. Both rely on advisers who are outside the establishment. Both easily take offense, hold grudges–and take revenge.

It is therefore deeply symbolic that one of Trump’s first acts was to restore Jackson to a place of prominence in the White House. It is pushing the left’s buttons, yes. But he is also signaling how he will act as president. Aggressive–indeed, truculent. In your face. Defiant of the political establishment. Totally unafraid of confrontation and driven to prevail–utterly.

I fully expect that Trump will share other similarities with Jackson. I think that it is likely that his economic policy will be a mixed bag with extremely varied effects: protectionist insanity will sit juxtaposed with a sensible rollback of regulation and the administrative state. Trump will face international issues as president that dwarf anything Jackson had to, but his American nationalism will also lead to very varied effects, as did Jackson’s various foreign engagements (most as a general, rather than president, as in Florida).

And along the way he will push many buttons. But not the nuclear one.

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January 20, 2017

Who is the Reactionary on Nato and the EU? Not Trump

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:31 pm

So it’s official. Donald John Trump is now president of the United States. Buckle in. It will be a wild ride.

One reason it will be wild is that Trump has much contempt for the status quo, and shows no hesitation in saying so. He gave a taste of things to come in an interview last week. He questioned the viability of the EU, saying that it disproportionately benefited German at the expense of other countries. He also called Nato obsolete.

The reaction was immediate and hysterical. Was this warranted?

Not in my view.

Take Germany. Trump was making an observation. It is an opinion shared by large numbers of Europeans, especially in the south. It is a reasonable observation. And that’s probably why the Europhiles are freaking out: they know that the EU is under great strain and that its popular support is thin and wavering, and would prefer that everybody Believe! Believe! so Euro-Tinker Bell lives.

But what about dissing Germany, our stalwart ally? First, anti-American sentiment is very strong in Germany, and is often expressed by government officials. Second, the German government has often made unfavorable comments about American policy.  If you can’t take it, don’t dish it out.

Given all the frenzy about Trump’s alleged affinity for Russia and threat it poses to the west and western solidarity, let’s remember that there are very strong pro-Russian elements in Germany. Especially in the business community. Germany, don’t forget, is the country of “Putin Verstehers”–Putin understanders. It’s ex-chancellor is on the board of a Gazprom subsidiary, and Germany has actively supported Nord Stream against the objections of neighboring EU countries. Putin can only dream that Trump will be as accommodating to Russia as Germany has been. So don’t put the onus on Trump for compromising western interests in dealing with Russia. Merkel’s worries about that are far closer to home, as in her coalition partners, notably her Foreign Minister.

Insofar as Nato is concerned, it is obsolete, in the sense that it has not updated its mission, strategy, or capabilities in response to dramatic changes that have occurred in the last 25 years, let alone the nearly 70 years since its founding. Indeed, it is arguable that Nato is not just obsolete, but dysfunctional.

Nato countries spend piteously small amounts on defense, and the capability that they get is not worth what little they do spend. Germany spends around 1 percent of GDP on defense. There have been times recently that German troops had to train with broomsticks. Recently 2/3s of its combat aircraft were inoperable. It has zero capability to deploy anything overseas. The Dutch have no tanks. I could go on. Suffice it to say that Europe does not put its money where its mouth is when it comes to Nato. They pay lip service, rather than for troops and weapons. I would take their pieties about Nato more seriously if they actually sacrificed anything for it.

(By the way, this is why Russian hyperventilating about the Nato threat is absurd. It poses no military threat, beyond that which the US poses unilaterally. Indeed, for reasons that I discuss below, the European Nato Lilliputians tie down the American Gulliver.)

Another example of dysfunction is Montenegro’s impending bid to join Nato. Just what is the rationale for this? There is none: Montenegro brings no military capability, but just adds an additional obligation.

But it’s worse than than. Nato’s biggest weakness is its governance structure, which requires unanimity and consensus in major decisions. This is flagrantly at odds with one of the principles of war–unity of command–and makes Nato decision making cumbersome and driven by the least common denominator. Nato’s governance, in other words, makes it all too easy for an adversary to get inside its decision loop.

Coalitions are always militarily problematic: Napoleon allegedly rejoiced at the news that another nation had joined one of the coalitions against him. Nato’s everybody gets a vote and a trophy philosophy aggravates the inherent problems in military coalitions.

Put differently, decision making power in Nato bears no relationship to contribution and capability. This is a recipe for dysfunction.

So what is the point of adding yet another non-contributor (population 620K!) whose consent is required to undertake anything of importance? This is madness.

It is especially insane when one considers that Montenegro is a Slavic country with longstanding ties to Russia, and in which Russia has a paternalistic interest. Parliamentary elections last year were extremely contentious, with the pro-western incumbents barely hanging on. Post-election, there were allegations of an attempted coup engineered by the Russians. The country is extraordinarily corrupt. All of which means that if you are concerned about Russia undermining Nato, Montenegro is the last country you would want to admit. It is vulnerable to being suborned by Russia. Outside of Nato-who cares what Russia does there? Inside of Nato-that is a serious concern, especially given the nature of Nato governance.

But apparently current Nato members believe that it would be really cool to collect the entire set of European countries: frankly, I can think of no other justification. There is no better illustration of how Nato has lost its way, its strategic purpose, and its ability to think critically.

So yes, Trump is more than justified in raising doubts about Nato, and if questioning the relevance of the organization is what is needed for people to get serious about it and to reform it to meet current realities, then he’s done a service.

Following the shrieking and moaning on Twitter today during the inauguration, it struck me that the most prevalent theme was that Trump is turning his back on X years of US policy in this, that, and the other thing. The reaction shows that the real conservatives–in the literal, traditional sense of the word meaning unflinching defenders of the old order and status quo–are on the leftist/statist side of the political spectrum. They are petrified at the thought of disturbing in the least way the existing order. To them, it is apostasy even to question this order. Trump is challenging all their verities, and it drives them to apoplexy.

The EU and Nato are two examples of institutions that are supposedly sacrosanct, but which Trump has had the temerity to question. The defense by the real conservatives–the real reactionaries, actually–on the left and left-center has been unthinking and reflexive. They refuse to acknowledge the rot and decay that exists, and which threatens the viability of the things they claim to admire. Rather than neurotically projecting their fears on Trump, they should thank him for giving them the opportunity to reform dysfunctional bodies, and join in the work of reforming them. Not that I expect that they will, because this is not in the nature of conservatives and reactionaries.

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January 6, 2017

Send in the Clowns: The “Intelligence Community’s” Wikipedia Page on Russian Attempts to Influence the 2016 Election

Filed under: History,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:30 pm

The “intelligence community’s” serial effort to beclown and degrade itself reached a new low today with the release of the much touted report that we were breathlessly told would prove that Russia (a) hacked the DNC and Podesta, (b) provided this information to Wikileaks, and (c) did so with the specific intent of securing a Trump victory (or, a Hillary defeat). It did none of these things. If anything, this report was less substantive than the one that was previously released.

As an indication that even the IC is hardly proud of this effort, the report was released exactly at the time you would do so with the intent of burying it: late in the afternoon of a Friday. Apparently even the FBI, CIA, DNI, etc., are ashamed for prostituting themselves to Hillary, the DNC, and the lame duck administration.

One thing that had been promised–by leaks, of course–that the report did not deliver was the identity of the party who delivered the DNC and Podesta emails to Wikileaks:

US intelligence has identified the go-betweens the Russians used to provide stolen emails to WikiLeaks, according to US officials familiar with the classified intelligence report that was presented to President Barack Obama on Thursday.

So why didn’t the public report name names? And don’t tell me that the IC is loath to disclose such information for fear that it would compromise precious methods and sources. In the past, the government has determined that a hacking offense was so egregious that naming and shaming–and indeed indicting–was necessary. In 2014, the government indicted Chinese military personnel that it alleged had hacked private US corporations. It took this measure precisely because it believed that this was necessary to deter future such acts:

“This is a case alleging economic espionage by members of the Chinese military and represents the first ever charges against a state actor for this type of hacking,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said.  “The range of trade secrets and other sensitive business information stolen in this case is significant and demands an aggressive response.  Success in the global market place should be based solely on a company’s ability to innovate and compete, not on a sponsor government’s ability to spy and steal business secrets.  This Administration will not tolerate actions by any nation that seeks to illegally sabotage American companies and undermine the integrity of fair competition in the operation of the free market.”

“For too long, the Chinese government has blatantly sought to use cyber espionage to obtain economic advantage for its state-owned industries,” said FBI Director James B. Comey.  “The indictment announced today is an important step.  But there are many more victims, and there is much more to be done.  With our unique criminal and national security authorities, we will continue to use all legal tools at our disposal to counter cyber espionage from all sources.”

“State actors engaged in cyber espionage for economic advantage are not immune from the law just because they hack under the shadow of their country’s flag,” said John Carlin, Assistant Attorney General for National Security.  “Cyber theft is real theft and we will hold state sponsored cyber thieves accountable as we would any other transnational criminal organization that steals our goods and breaks our laws.”

“This 21st century burglary has to stop,” said David Hickton, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania.  “This prosecution vindicates hard working men and women in Western Pennsylvania and around the world who play by the rules and deserve a fair shot and a level playing field.”

The administration has represented that what transpired in 2016 was far worse than what the Chinese did. So why no indictment? Why no names? The double standard here is flagrant.

It gets better. Earlier this year the US indicted two Russians, and the FBI admitted it had reverse hacked into Russian computers. Or better yet, it indicted seven Iranians allegedly members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in March. At the time, Reuters characterized this as part of an administration policy to confront publicly foreign state hackers. And check out what our soon-to-be-erstwhile Attorney General said at the time:

“An important part of our cyber security practice is to identify the actors and to attribute them publicly when we can,” Lynch said Thursday. “We do this so that they know they cannot hide.”

“An important part of your cyber security practice is to identify the actors and to attribute them publicly when we can.” That was then, this is now, apparently.

As for what is in the report, well, there is nothing, really. There are five pages of ex cathedra assertions of “assessments” that Russia intervened in the election with the intent of aiding Trump/hurting Hillary. These are mere appeals to authority, with zero–literally no–supporting factual evidence. (And even these appeals to authority are hedged with caveats that intelligence judgments can be wrong. Believe us. We know.)

At times the report descends to farce. It cites the fact that Russian information/propaganda outlets attacked Hillary and appealed to the Trump constituency as evidence of Russian intent to sway the election. But it also states that Russian reticence in explicitly supporting Trump is also evidence of the very same intent:

  • Beginning in June, Putin’s public comments about the US presidential race avoided directly praising President-elect Trump, probably because Kremlin officials thought that any praise from Putin personally would backfire in the United States.

When diametrically opposed facts are used to support the same conclusion, you know you are not dealing with an intellectually serious, and intellectually honest, attempt to find the truth. You are dealing a hack job intended to reach a pre-determined conclusion.

Astoundingly, the report’s discussion of the events of 2016 consumes an entire five pages (and even that is padded), but its analysis of RT runs for seven. Apparently Captain Obvious obtained his commission in the intelligence services, and was seconded to write this report, because reading it you’ll learn that RT is a Russian propaganda outlet that has taken an anti-US line for years. Who knew? Did you know that? I surely didn’t!

I did, actually. In fact, I should sue the IC for plagiarism, because to support its case of Russian attempts to influence US politics it notes that RT was an early mouthpiece for the Occupy movement, precisely because of a desire to sow dissension in the US. Which I pointed out in November, 2011.

For this the CIA needs a black budget of tens of billions of dollars?

And citing Zhirinovsky as some representative of official Russian policy? Are you kidding me.?The man is a buffoon who provides Putin with a useful foil, and as an outlet for the whackier nationalist fringe.

There is no secret that Putin views the US as an adversary, and arguably an enemy. He likely does so because he actually believes it. He also likely does so because it is useful for domestic political reasons. Regardless, this is not news.

And it provides only the sketchiest circumstantial case in support of the allegation of a hack of emails, released via Wikileaks, undertaken at Putin’s direct order to interfere with the 2016 election.

I have an open mind. I am perfectly willing to evaluate fairly a serious case, backed by evidence. This is what I do for a living. I obviously have no illusions about Putin, or RT, or Zhirinovsky, so I am clearly not predisposed to take their side. But this report provides no evidence to support its sweeping “assessments.” It is little more than a Wikipedia page. It is, quite frankly, an insult to the intelligence of the American people.

Furthermore, it is being used to call into question the results of the election, and thereby undermine the legitimacy of the incoming president. This is a very serious–even grave–action that should only be undertaken with great caution. It is imperative to provide real evidence. Indeed, given the serious implications of these assertions, it would be defensible, and even necessary, to disclose some of the classified information supporting the “assessments” laid out in the report.

The failure even to pretend to present a serious case is an affront to the American people which actually trivializes the very serious allegations that have been made. It is quite befitting a low, dishonest administration unable to depart with grace, dignity, and honor, and respect for the electorate.

 

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December 30, 2016

For Whom the (Trading) Bell Tolls

Filed under: Clearing,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Exchanges,History — The Professor @ 7:40 pm

It tolls for the NYMEX floor, which went dark for the final time with the close of trading today. It follows all the other New York futures exchange floors which ICE closed in 2012. This leaves the CME and CBOE floors in Chicago, and the NYSE floor, all of which are shadows of shadows of their former selves.

Next week I will participate in a conference in Chicago. I’ll be talking about clearing, but one of the other speakers will discuss regulating latency arbitrage in the electronic markets that displaced the floors. In some ways, all the hyperventilating over latency arbitrages due to speed advantages measured in microseconds and milliseconds in computerized markets is amusing, because the floors were all about latency arbitrage. Latency arbitrage basically means that some traders have a time and space advantage, and that’s what the floors provided to those who traded there. Why else would traders pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy a membership? Because that price capitalized the rent that the marginal trader obtained by being on the floor, and seeing prices and order flow before anybody off the floor did. That was the price of the time and space advantage of being on the floor.  It’s no different than co-location. Not in the least. It’s just meatware co-lo, rather than hardware co-lo.

In a paper written around 2001 or 2002, “Upstairs, Downstairs”, I presented a model predicting that electronic trading would largely annihilate time and space advantages, and that liquidity would improve as a result because it would reduce the cost of off-floor traders to offer liquidity. The latter implication has certainly been borne out. And although time and space differences still exist, I would argue that they pale in comparison to those that existed in the floor era. Ironically, however, complaints about fairness seem more heated and pronounced now than they did during the heyday of the floors.  Perhaps that’s because machines and quant geeks are less sympathetic figures than colorful floor traders. Perhaps it’s because being beaten by a sliver of a second is more infuriating than being pipped by many seconds by some guy screaming and waving on the CBT or NYMEX. Dunno for sure, but I do find the obsessing over HFT time and space advantages today to be somewhat amusing, given the differences that existed in the “good old days” of floor trading.

This is not to say that no one complained about the advantages of floor traders, and how they exploited them. I vividly recall a very famous trader (one of the most famous, actually) telling me that he welcomed electronic trading because he was “tired of being fucked by the floor.” (He had made his reputation, and his first many millions on the floor, by the way.) A few years later he bemoaned how unfair the electronic markets were, because HFT firms could react faster than he could.

It will always be so, regardless of the technology.

All that said, the passing of the floors does deserve a moment of silence–another irony, given their cacophony.

I first saw the NYMEX floor in 1992, when it was still at the World Trade Center, along with the floors of the other NY exchanges (COMEX; Coffee, Sugar & Cocoa; Cotton). That space was the location for the climax of the plot of the iconic futures market movie, Trading Places. Serendipitously, that was the movie that Izabella Kaminska of FT Alphaville featured in the most recent Alphachat movie review episode. I was a guest on the show, and discussed the economic, sociological, and anthropological aspects of the floor, as well as some of the broader social issues lurking behind the film’s comedy. You can listen here.

 

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December 29, 2016

Thank God for the 20th Amendment

Filed under: History,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 8:36 pm

The 20th Amendment to the US Constitution, adopted in 1933, moved inauguration day from March 4 to January 20. And thank God for that, for imagine what Obama could do in those extra six weeks.

He’s already done enough, believe me. The most egregious was the failure to veto a UN resolution targeting Israeli settlements. Indeed, it has been plausibly pled that the administration was instrumental in pushing forward the resolution, though it has implausibly denied this.

There is a colorable case against the settlements. Be that as it may, Obama’s actions were low and destructive, rather than constructive. This is in part because Obama failed to make the case when there was political risk of doing so, waiting until he could no longer be held accountable. This is a serious matter that represented a sea change in American policy, and as such it deserved public debate. If Obama is so persuasive, he should have been able to make the case right? (More on his persuasiveness below.) Thus, the process was terribly flawed.

Moreover, it is clear that Obama was driven more by personal peevishness and dislike for Benjamin Netanyahu, rather than higher motives.

Insofar as the substance is concerned, the move will not increase the likelihood of a peaceful resolution between the Israelis and Palestinians. Indeed, it will likely make such an outcome less likely, because it will encourage Palestinian intransigence by encouraging their belief that they can achieve through the UN what they cannot achieve at the bargaining table. Trump will no doubt attempt to disabuse them of these notions, but much of the damage has already been done. This is a mess that Trump will have to clean up, at the cost of diverting attention from other pressing matters. It is, in other words, an unnecessary complication driven mainly by malice.

Another 11th hour Obama move was putting millions of acres of offshore areas off-limits for oil and gas drilling. In the short run, this is unlikely to be a major impediment to US energy production, especially in the expensive-to-drill Arctic, because exploration and development in these regions is currently uneconomic at prevailing prices. But Obama specifically intended to make his action difficult to reverse, so it may bind in the future. Again, the process here was high-handed and autocratic, resembling a ukase more than a considered executive action subject to legislative or legal check.

Which brings us to today’s action, the sanctioning of senior members of Russian intelligence agencies (notably the GRU), the expulsion of 32 diplomats for spying, and the restriction of their use of some consular properties, in retaliation for alleged hacking of the election. To justify the action, the FBI and Homeland Security released a lame report, befitting of a lame duck administration. The report discloses that–I hope you are sitting down–government agencies and employees are routinely subject to hacking attempts, most notably phishing attacks.

This is news? Um, no. FFS, who isn’t routinely subject to phishing attempts? Nobody. The main difference is that most people (unlike Podesta) have the good sense not to be a real big phish.

What is rather shocking is the administration’s going to Code Red on this, after its rather blasé response to far more serious hacks, notably the OPM disaster, and hacks of the White House and State Department and various defense contractors. Back then, they were all Alfred E. Neuman “what, me worry?” Suddenly it’s a grave threat, because there is a desperate need to explain away a stunning defeat of the candidate that Obama expected to protect his legacy, rather than dismantle it. Even if the allegations regarding Russian interference are correct, the damage is far less than these other cyberattacks, but the public response is inversely proportional to the harm inflicted.

Notably missing from the document is any specific mention of the DNC or Podesta emails, or of Wikileaks: it is a generic description of a virtually continuous stream of activity carried out by numerous state and non-state actors. Most bizarrely, as for attributing the attacks to Russia, we are merely given this ipse dixit, with no supporting evidence: “However, public attribution of these activities to RIS [Russian Intelligence Services] is supported by technical indicators from the U.S. Intelligence Community, DHS, FBI, the private sector, and other entities.” Maybe they figure if they told us more, they’d have to kill us all. So they’re doing us a favor by keeping us in the dark.

This “trust me” attribution is undermined by a header on the document:

screen-shot-2016-12-29-at-7-34-50-pm

In other words, this is classified “Don’t Quote Me on This! But it’s totally legit!”

Pathetic.

Although ostensibly aimed at Russia, this move is more targeted at Trump. It leaves him with the unpalatable choice of sustaining a decision unsupported by any real publicly disclosed evidence, or reversing it and thereby triggering the “Trump is Putin’s Boy/Manchurian Candidate” shrieks. Russian (and Chinese, and Iranian, and Nork and . . . ) cyberattacks are an issue which the incoming administration will have to consider and address, and a less peevish president would have let it done so without interference.

I told a friend that this was aimed at Trump as soon as I heard of it. Then later I found out that I wasn’t alone in advancing this hypothesis:

“We think that such steps by a U.S. administration that has three weeks left to work are aimed at two things: to further harm Russian-American ties, which are at a low point as it is, as well as, obviously, to deal a blow to the foreign policy plans of the incoming administration of the president-elect,” Peskov said.

Obama puts me on the same side as Dmitry Fricking Peskov. This is what we’ve come to.

Russia reacted with some amusing snark. The best of which was this tweet. Hapless, indeed. Hapless, narcissistic and peevish.

One last amusing note. The administration also announced that it would engage in covert retaliation. (Limited time offer! Only good for three weeks!) What’s next in the oxymoron follies? The administration’s highly classified transparency initiative?

(The juxtaposition of Obama’s high dudgeon at alleged Russian interference with the 2016 elections–which, if it occurred, involved the disclosure of embarrassing facts–with his smack at Israel is particularly choice, given that Obama clearly attempted to influence Israel’s 2015 Knesset elections.)

I could go on, but I’ll leave it at these three Greatest Hits.

In between leaving behind manure piles for Trump to clean up, Obama has been giving interviews. These can best be summarized as: “I am wonderful. My only failing was I did a horrible job of telling everyone how wonderful I am, thereby allowing Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and the NRA to shape public perceptions of me”:

OBAMA: The — the problem is, is that we’re not there on the ground communicating not only the dry policy aspects of this, but that we care about these communities, that we’re bleeding for these communities…
AXELROD: Right.
OBAMA: … that we understand why they’re frustrated. There’s a — there’s a…
AXELROD: And the values behind these things.
OBAMA: And the values. And there’s an emotional connection, and part of what we have to do to rebuild is to be there and — and that means organizing, that means caring about state parties, it means caring about local races, state boards or school boards and city councils and state legislative races and not thinking that somehow, just a great set of progressive policies that we present to the New York Times editorial board will win the day. And — and part of…
AXELROD: But some of that would fall on us. I mean, I — take you and me because maybe we didn’t spend as much time on that project while you were here. I mean, we’re trying to save the economy and doing these other things.
OBAMA: Well, yeah. No, you know, I mean…
AXELROD: Our campaigns did it, but…
OBAMA: It’s interesting. You and I both, I think, would acknowledge that when we were campaigning, we could connect. Once you got to the White House and you were busy governing, then…
AXELROD: Right.
OBAMA: … partly, you’re just constrained by time, right? You are then more subject to the filter. And this is — you know, I brought up Fox News, but it was Rush Limbaugh and the NRA and there are all these mediators who are interpreting what we do, and if we’re not actually out there like we are during campaigns, then folks in — in a lot of these communities, what they’re hearing is Obama wants to take away my guns…
OBAMA: Obamacare’s about transgender bathrooms and not my job, Obama is disrespecting my culture and is primarily concerned with coastal elites and minorities. And so — so part of what I’ve struggled with during my presidency and part of what I think I’ll be thinking a lot about after my presidency is how do we work around all these filters?
And it becomes more complicated now that you’ve got social media, where people are getting news that reinforces their biases and — and separates people out instead of bringing them together. It is going to be a challenge, but look, you look at what we did in rural communities, for example…

Apparently not realizing that the 2016 election (not just for president, but for the House, the Senate, and state offices) was largely a repudiation of him and his presidency, Obama stated presumptuously that he would have been able to defeat Trump and win a third term.

Obama says he will take some time to “be quiet for a while” to “still myself” and “find my center.” Take your time! As much time as you like!

Looking at the bright side, Obama says he is going to dedicate himself to rebuilding the Democratic Party. Given that he’s the one that singlehandedly led it to the brink of catastrophe, this is great news. Sort of like having someone you don’t really like hire the Three Stooges to fix his plumbing.

The 20th Amendment was adopted because a lame duck Hoover administration was unable to respond decisively to the economic crisis that gripped the country in early-1933. The amendment was intended to prevent the government being hamstrung for months in a future crisis occurring during a transition to a new administration. But in retrospect, the real virtue of the 20th is not that it accelerates the ability of an incoming president to deal with crisis: it is that it limits the time that a departing president has to wreak havoc. This is especially important when the departing president is preternaturally vain and narcissistic (even by comparison with other politicians, who are only naturally vain and narcissistic), when he is unconstrained by accepted norms and traditions, and when there is no political cost to be paid for indulging his peeves and pursuing his vendettas. One shudders to think what Obama would have done with an extra six weeks to act with no means of holding him to account.

Cromwell’s parting words to the Rump Parliament are apposite here: “You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go.” Fortunately, the 20th Amendment ensures that Obama will go sooner than he would have without it. And thank God for that.

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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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