Streetwise Professor

April 9, 2017

Down the Syrian Rabbit Hole

Filed under: China,History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 12:15 pm

The Syria story has many threads. I’ll address a few of them here.

First, to follow on Ex-Regulator’s comment: Trump’s initial public justification for the strike–the humanitarian impulse stirred by pictures of dying children–is deeply troubling. Sentimentality is a poor basis for policy. In particular, it has no limiting principle. If you take a tragic view of humanity–if you view mankind as fallen and flawed–you know that there is a virtually unending supply of sad, heartbreaking, stories. So how does a president choose which appeal to answer? And how do people know which appeals he will answer? Truth is, we have no idea. The line will be arbitrary, which leads to unpredictable, inconsistent policy.

Further, as Ex-Reg notes, by emphasizing his susceptibility to sentimentality, Trump makes himself a target for manipulation. These manipulations are likely to include false flags whereby those attempting to get the US to intervene on their side create an outrage to pin on their opponents: it cannot be precluded that this occurred in Syria last week.

Second, in subsequent remarks by others than Trump, the administration has downplayed the humanitarian aspect, and emphasized the signaling motivation. Moreover, it has explicitly stated that the signal was not directed at Assad alone, or even Putin and Assad, but also at Kim Jung Un and the Chinese.

My concern here is the Rolling Thunder problem: the signal that you think you are sending through a limited use of force is not necessarily the signal that your intended audience hears. What happened in Vietnam during the Johnson years was that graduated escalation was interpreted by Ho Chi Minh et al as weakness, and as an unwillingness to take decisive action. Assad or Kim Jung Rolly Poly may conclude that they can easily absorb a strike like the one launched Thursday night, and that Trump may not be willing to go much further. Or, they may conclude that (a) this strike was so modest, (b) Trump is likely to engage in graduated escalation if he escalates at all, and (c) they can absorb much heavier blows. Either way, they could be encouraged, rather than deterred.

Lesson from Vietnam (pun intended): if you want to achieve a decisive outcome, Linebacker trumps Rolling Thunder.

Of course, one reason for Johnson’s reticence in Vietnam was the risk of drawing in the USSR or China. That’s obviously an issue in Syria and North Korea. But if that is the real concern, don’t even start down the road with a limited strike. If you do, eventually you will pull up short and look feckless.

Third, the administration is sending extremely mixed signals. Last week, Tillerson said point blank that regime change was not on the administration’s agenda. This morning, Nikki Haley intimated that it is. Given that no matter how horrid the Assad regime any successor is likely to be as bad or worse, that regime change is even on the table is highly disturbing.

Fourth, assessing whether the chemical attack was a false flag or a regime attack requires an evaluation of the plausibility that Assad would do such a thing. As Dearieme and Ex-Reg note, and as I noted initially, it does not seem rational for Assad to have taken this action. It certainly was not a military necessity. But people like Assad think differently, and there may be some Machiavellian reason for him to take this action.

One is that he, like everyone else, is trying to fathom Trump’s policy, and Trump himself. Therefore, Assad ran a calculated risk to see how Trump would respond to a pretty extreme provocation. As suggested above, he might be pleased with the answer (contrary to DC conventional wisdom).

Another is that he needed to bind Russia and Iran closer to him. Again running a calculated risk that they would stand with him rather than abandon him (for that would call into question their previous policy of support), he launched this attack and forced them to be complicit in a very inflammatory war crime.

Relatedly, one of Assad’s big fears has to be a rapprochement between Russia and the US that would make him expendable. The Russians had guaranteed that he had eliminated chemical weapons. That guarantee is now shown to be inoperative, either due to (as Tillerson said) deliberate deception or incompetence. Regardless, now no deal with the Russians regarding Assad can be considered credible. This reduces the risk that the Russians will be able to cut a deal with Trump that makes Assad expendable.

I have no idea whether these possibilities are realities. I just put them out there to highlight that there can be twisted motives that cause people like Assad to take actions that seem to be against their interest–just as there can be twisted motives for jihadis to kill their own in horrible ways.

Fifth, Occam’s Razor would say that Trump’s attack completely undercuts the narrative that he is Putin’s bitch. But Occam’s Razor is an alien concept in the fever swamps of the left. The certifiably insane (Louise Mensch) and the hyper partisan but supposedly sane (Lawrence O’Donnell, Chris Matthews) certain have never shaved with it. They are claiming that this proves Trump is Putin’s bitch! The “reasoning”? He is doing it because the most likely interpretation is that it shows that Trump isn’t Putin’s bitch, so that means that he is! Or something.

In other words, this lot interprets everything that Trump does as evidence of his collusion with the Russians. This means that the hypothesis that he is in collusion with Putin is unfalsifiable, and hence is junk reasoning. It should therefore be rejected, as should anything that those who espouse this theory say.

Lastly, the attack is a complete embarrassment to the Obama administration, which preened and bragged that it had rid the Assad regime of chemical weapons. All of the administration weasels–Susan Rice, Ben Rhodes, Colin Kahl among them–have been quick to defend the administration. Although Obama remains silent, their voices were joined by the next most authoritative one–John Kerry–who ranted against the airstrike. He claimed that the Obama administration had accomplished MUCH more without firing so much as a shot, and that Trump’s attack will undermine all of the great progress that had been achieved.

But watch the weasels’ weasel words. They all say that the 2013 agreement eliminated all of Assad’s declared chemical weapons. Um, the criticism of the deal all along was that Assad might have undeclared stocks, and hence might retain a chemical capability despite the deal. It is beyond embarrassing that these people would protest so stridently that their deal was great in the face of an event which most likely shows that it was a complete, and completely predictable, sham.

So is Kerry’s outraged response to the Tomahawk Chop delusional? Chutzpah? I’m going with delusional chutzpah.

It’s almost tax time. So I suggest that you implement the following strategy, and cite the authority of John Kerry as justification. Report 50 percent of your actual income on your 2016 1040. When the IRS comes after you, tell them–in high dudgeon: How dare you! I paid all I owed on my DECLARED income! Good luck! I’ll write you in jail!

The alternative explanation for the chemical attack–a false flag–hardly provides any cover for Obama and the Obamaites because that would mean that the chemical attack was launched by opposition forces that the administration supported. So, either the administration entered into a farcical deal, and was played the fool by Assad, or it was played the fool by anti-Assad forces whom it had supported.

People with any decency would don sackcloth and ashes and plead forgiveness. But we are talking about the Obama administration, so  . . .

Perhaps there will be more clarity on all these issues in coming days and weeks. But I kind of doubt it. Any venture into understanding Syria is a trip down the rabbit hole. And given the depravity of all the actors involved, that’s yet further reason to stay as far away from this mess as is humanly possible.

Print Friendly

April 7, 2017

Trump, Putin, and the Tomahawk Chop

Filed under: China,History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:14 pm

President Trump ordered a cruise missile strike on a Syrian air base that was allegedly the launching point of a sarin attack on a town in the Idlib  Governate. My initial take is like Tim Newman’s: although the inhumanity in Syria beggars description, getting involved there is foolish and will not end well.

The Syrian conflict is terrible, but Syria makes the snake pit in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom look hospitable.

Further, the politics of Syria (both internally, and in the region) make the intrigues of Game of Thrones seem like child’s play by comparison. So I agree with Tim:

Every course of action I can think of other than “fuck ’em” has an almost zero chance of succeeding in its aims and a very high chance of making things worse.

. . . .

It’s not through moral principle that I am saying this, it is from practicality based on fourteen years of recent, bloody experience: Assad is a monster, the Russian government is showing the world exactly what they are like by backing him, and the Syrian people are suffering terribly, but there is nothing – nothing – we can do about it. It is a terrible indictment on the state of the world, but a policy of “fuck the lot of ’em” is the only workable one on the table right now. It’s high time our leaders started taking it seriously.

To put it slightly differently. Good intentions mean nothing. Results and consequences do. I am at a loss to think of any policy with results and consequences that accord with good intentions. Indeed, it almost inevitable that any major military intervention would not save Syrian lives but would cost American ones.

Truth be told, given the devastation wreaked on children, women, and men in Syria by bombs, shells, small arms and even throat-slashing blades, chemical weapons do not represent a quantum shift in the horribleness of the Syrian war. Dead is dead, and periodic use of chemical weapons does not materially affect the amount of dying that is going on. Assad–and the Islamists he is fighting–have killed and maimed far more innocent civilians with conventional weapons than with chemical ones.  The use of chemical weapons does not represent a fundamental shift in the nature of the war, which was already a total war waged without restraint against civilians by all sides (would that there were only two sides in Syria).

Insofar as Trump’s action is concerned, it is best characterized as a punitive strike. And as punitive strikes go, it is modest. It bears more similarity to Clinton strikes in Iraq (e.g., Desert Fox) than Reagan’s Operation El Dorado Canyon in 1986, which put the fear of god into Gaddafi: a 2000 pound bomb dropped near one’s tent has a tendency to do that. In contrast, Thursday’s Tomahawk detonations wouldn’t have disturbed Assad’s sleep in the slightest, let alone put him in mortal danger.

The record of such punitive actions in curbing the misbehavior of bad actors like Saddam or even Gaddafi is hardly encouraging, but at least the downside (to the US) of such indulgences of the Jupiter Complex is rather limited. The concern is that the raid turns out to be ineffectual in moderating Assad’s behavior and leads to Trump to escalate, and to make regime change–rather than a change of regime behavior–the objective. The neocons are celebrating and baying for more: that should be a cause for serious concern.

And I don’t think that this was exclusively about Syria, or even primarily so. The Tomahawks might have landed in Syria, but in a very real sense they were aimed at North Korea.  It is significant that Trump launched the attack while Chinese premier Xi was still digesting the steak he had eaten with the president.

Russia is clearly processing the message. The Russians are obviously angered. One would think that this puts paid to the Trump is Putin’s bitch narrative. But that would assume sanity on the part of the left and the Never Trumpers, who are anything but sane.

The prospects for some rapprochement between the US and Russia were already on life support, now they appear to be dead and buried. This reinforces a point I’ve made for months: that if Putin really did think that a Trump presidency would be better for him than a Clinton one, he made a grave miscalculation. This event proves that Trump is predictably unpredictable, and that he is completely capable of a volte face at a moment’s notice. The word I used was “protean”, and the decision to fire off a barrage of cruise missiles after months-years, in fact-of criticizing the idea of American intervention in Syria is about as protean as you get.

This points to a broader message. For all his alleged tactical acumen, Putin has stumbled from one strategic blunder to another. It is highly unlikely that Russian involvement, whatever it was, materially impacted the US election: its impact has been exaggerated for purely partisan and psychological reasons. It is also highly unlikely that any Russian meddling in European elections will sway them in favor of pro-Putin candidates.

But Russia has paid a steep price for these equivocal gains: Russian actions have created political firestorms not just in the US but in Europe that have actually increased Russian isolation. Hysteria in America about Russian meddling in US politics is vastly overblown, and has been ginned up for partisan reasons, but that is irrelevant as a practical matter: it has made the US-Russia relationship more adversarial than it has been since the height of the Cold War, and that works to Russia’s detriment.

His support for Assad in Syria has had similar effects. Yes, Putin achieved his immediate objective: Assad has survived, and looks likely to prevail. But Russia has only cemented its pariah status. The chemical attack makes it even more than a pariah. For what? Syria’s strategic value is minimal.

Indeed, the chemical attack is not just a crime, but a blunder, and puts Putin and Russia in an even worse spot. The action appears so militarily unnecessary and politically counterproductive that like Scott Adams, it raises doubts in my mind as to whether Assad actually ordered it. (The alternative explanations include a rogue general or a false flag carried out by the opposition.) But this is largely irrelevant: Assad is almost universally blamed, and as his stalwart defender, Putin and Russia have been deemed guilty of being accessories to and enablers of what is just as universally considered a war crime. By going all in for Assad, Putin made himself vulnerable to this. (That might provide a Machiavellian motive for Assad’s action: maybe he thought that the chemical attack would bind Putin even more closely to him.)

So by intervening in Syria, and defending Assad even in the aftermath of a widely reviled chemical attack, what has Putin gained? Yes, he had the satisfaction of showing Obama (and in his mind, the US as a whole) to be feckless, all grandiose talk and no action. He could claim to have reversed Russia’s retreat from the Middle East. He could assert that Russia is back and must be reckoned with in world affairs. He apparently experienced great personal satisfaction as a result of these accomplishments.

But viewed more soberly, these gains are more than offset by losses on the other side of the ledger. Russia is isolated, distrusted, feared, and reviled. It’s not entirely fair, but it should have been predictable. Moreover, nothing that Putin has done has improved what the Soviets called the correlation of forces. Indeed, although Russia has rejuvenated its military to some degree, other elements of national power (relative to the US) have slipped since 2008, and a Trump presidency will almost certainly erase the relative change in military power that occurred during Russian rearmament and the American sequester.

The simple fact is that other than in nuclear weapons, Russia cannot compete with the US, let alone the entire west. By achieving limited victories in strategic backwaters like Syria, all Putin has succeeded in doing is goading the US and the west into viewing him as a threat and sparking a competition that he can’t win.

But Putin has staked a great deal on Syria, in terms of both national and personal prestige. He is not the kind of man to back down and lose face after putting down such a stake. For his part, after claiming benign indifference to who rules Syria, the protean Trump has reversed course, and in so doing has put his own reputation on the line over who rules there, or at least how the man who rules there behaves. That is a combustible mix, and I have no idea how it will turn out.

But I am sure of how things will not turn out. Sore election losers’ dystopian fantasy of Trump selling out to Putin will never become reality. In fact, the reverse is more likely. Indeed, this could develop into a reversal of Reagan-Gorbachev. Then, two bitter antagonists found enough common ground to come to an understanding and ratchet down Cold War tensions. Now, two alleged members of a mutual admiration society are likely to find themselves in an increasingly antagonistic relationship, in yet further proof of my axiom that if you want to find the truth, you could do far worse than to invert elite conventional wisdom.

 

 

Print Friendly

April 4, 2017

Big Brother Revealed!

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:22 am

Some 200 theaters around the world are screening 1984 to warn about the dark descending night of fascism under Donald Trump. The timing of this could not be more ironic, given that all the news of late makes it abundantly clear that the former administration, not the current one, deserves to be known as Big Brother.

In particular, after a steady trickle of news about surveillance and unmasking of Trump campaign and transition personnel by the US intelligence community, yesterday the story broke that ex-National Security Advisor and noted f-bomber* Susan Rice–yes, that paragon of honesty, Madam Benghazi Talking Points–had requested the unmasking of numerous Trump personnel picked up in reports of surveillance on foreigners (incidentally, of course! Trust them on this!).

Last month, Ms. Rice played dumb (not a stretch!) by claiming that she had no idea what Devin Nunes was on about. Yesterday, Susie F was unavailable for comment, although one of the Obama creatures working for CNN (but I repeat myself) tweeted: “Just in: ‘The idea that Ambassador Rice improperly sought the identities of Americans is false.’ – person close to Rice tells me.”

Note the presence of the weasel modifier “improperly.” Not a categorical denial of unmasking. I therefore consider this an admission that unmasking did occur.

Within minutes of Rice’s unmasking, the left and the egregious never Trumpers (led by Jennifer Rubin, David Frum, and Evan McMuffin), had their narrative response ready to go: It’s a good thing that Rice was keeping tabs on the evil Trump’s canoodling with the Russkies! Just doing her job and saving the Republic!

Which overlooks one crucial detail: Nunes claims that the unmasked communications he saw had nothing to do with Russia. And let’s get real here. It is almost certain that Nunes saw a sample of what the White House has learned. NSC staffer Evan Cohen-Watnick (who played a role in discovering the information, though his exact part is hazy, like most details in this story) was apparently told to stop collecting material by the White House counsel’s office. Presumably they have continued the effort given its political and legal sensitivities. We know that US intelligence systematically collects intelligence on foreigners, meaning that any contacts by the Trump campaign and the Trump administration with anyone in countries ranging from Albania to Zanzibar would have been collected (incidentally! pinkie swear!) and available for unmasking. If Rice was asking for material on contacts with one non-Russian country, it is likely she was asking for it all.

So just who is Big Brother now?

The defense of Rice overlooks another crucial detail. Despite the huffing and puffing of the likes of Andy Kaufman lookalike Adam Schiff and every talking shill on CNN/MSNBC/ABC/NBC/CBS and writing shill on the NYT/WaPoo, etc., all of the allegations of collusion have produced bupkis in terms of actual, you know, evidence. We are treated to stories about peripheral figures like Carter Page and Paul Manafort dating from about the time of the Trojan War (in political time), but nothing of substance. Even the Flynn “bombshell” is something of a dud: what he actually said to the Russian ambassador has not been revealed, strongly suggesting that nothing explosive transpired–if it had, you can be sure we would have heard of it by now. My colleague and eminent scholar of Russia Paul Gregory, no shill for Putin, believe me, writes persuasively of the emptiness of the allegations, and their baleful impact on our politics. It even appears that Obama is trying to end this line of attack. There is little doubt that the linked article originated from the Obama camp, and its timing is particularly interesting now that it looks like the issue is boomeranging on him and his closest aides.

I would also point out some other 1984 echoes in the Obama tenure. Consider this nauseating piece on how different official photography of the White House is under Trump as compared to Obama:

Many of the most iconic photos of Barack Obama’s presidency came from Pete Souza, the official White House photographer. Granted extensive access to Obama, he shot the Osama Bin Laden war room photo, moments the president shared with Michelle Obama, the many famous images of the president interacting with kids, and countless more. These carefully composed photos so defined the public image of Obama that it nearly made Souza a household name.

In its visual representation, as in so many other respects, the Trump administration has made a break with the past. Most of what we see of Trump comes from either the traveling pool of press photographers or the smartphones of his staff. On the one hand there are Getty Images or Reuters shots of Trump standing at podiums (or pretending to drive a truck). And on the other, we get unusually informal images of him posing with world leaders or appearing to be caught off guard. In the meantime, the White House’s Flickr account was purged, and the “Photos” section was removed from the official website.

In other words, Obama deliberately created a cult of personality, using “carefully composed” “iconic” (there’s a tell!) photos to “define the public image of Obama.” Yes, Trump is a narcissist, but he could learn something about narcissism from Obama, who from long before he became president obsessed about creating a public image–a personality cult, in all but name.

And the U-turn to the late-Obama administration and current Democratic hysteria over Russia, the Monopoly of Evil (none of this wimpy multi-country axis stuff) from the previous Reset/”tell Vladimir that after my election I have more flexibility”/”the 1980s called and want their foreign policy back” policies bears more than a little similarity to 1984’s Oceania Has Always Been at War With Eastasia. Alas, whereas in 1984 there was only Hate Week, we are now well into Hate Year.

So those tramping to a revival of 1984 to protest Trump are way, way late to the game. They should have expressed their outrage years ago. But that’s when they were all part of Big Brother’s personality cult, wasn’t it?

*I’ve got nothing against f-bombers! There was a time when I could be the B-52 of f-bombers 😉

Print Friendly

March 27, 2017

No, I Haven’t Gone Soft on Putin: It’s That I Understand Who the Real Menace Is

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:09 pm

I spoke to my uncle over the weekend. He asked me, in all seriousness: “You haven’t written anything about Vlad lately. You going soft?”

My answer: “No–not going soft. But there are so many know-nothing lunatics shrieking about Putin that I don’t want to run the risk of being lumped in with them or confused with them or giving them any credence.” (If you think “know-nothing lunatic” is too strong, check out the Twitter timelines of Louise Mensch or John Schindler. You’ll see I’m actually being overly generous.)

And here’s the truly perverse thing about the hysteria. The lunatics are Putin’s most useful allies. If he really desired to create havoc in the American political system–which I would have no problem believing–in his wildest dreams he couldn’t have done the amount of damage that is now being wreaked by the Democrats and the media (I repeat myself, I know). They are using Putin and Russia as the pretext to carry out their own political vendettas, and to express their rage at losing a race that they just knew was in their pocket.  By massively overreacting to rather pitiful allegations (Podesta’s emails–really?) for purely partisan reasons they are doing far worse harm to the US than Putin could have ever hoped of doing.

I know Putin has an obsession with the US, and would love nothing more to undermine it. But his best sappers are unwitting ones, and Americans to boot. And bizarrely, they are doing their sabotage in the name of fighting Putin. I have never seen anything so demented and destructive in all my living days: it is so twisted it is difficult to explain it. Given that, it is far more important that I go after them, and leave Putin out of it. They are the immediate menace, and fighting them is not only justified in its own right, it is also the most direct way of depriving Putin of a chance to weaken the US.

Print Friendly

March 26, 2017

Counting the Days Until Jerry Brown Raises the Confederate Flag Over Sacramento

Filed under: History,Politics — The Professor @ 8:44 pm

For more than a century, progressives have tried to read the 9th and 10th Amendments out of the Constitution. Some conservatives and libertarians periodically attempted to argue that the amendments could be used as a check on federal power: whenever they did so, the left assailed them as extremist cranks–that is when they did not accuse them of racism and other reprobate tendencies:

[Senator Mike] Lee is a “Tenther,” part of a new extremist movement that seeks to brand all major federal legislation — not only labor regulation, but environmental laws, gun control laws, and Social Security and Medicare — as violations of the “rights” of states as supposedly spelled out in the Tenth Amendment.

But that view is soooo pre-Trump. Post-20 January, 2017, the progressive left is enamored with these amendments, and is seizing upon them as a talisman to ward off the evil Trump spirits. Want proof? Look no further than Governor Moonbeam himself, Jerry Brown:

Despite some recent threats from the president to use federal funding as a “weapon” against the state if it voted to become a sanctuary state, the Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown gave a tough rebuttal in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” this week from the nation’s capital.

“We do have something called the ninth and the 10th amendment,” Brown said.

“The federal government just can’t arbitrarily for political reasons punish the State of California, that’s number one,” he said.

Jerry Brown, Tenther. I wait with bated breath for The Atlantic to label him an extremist fellow traveler of Mike Lee.

Under Brown’s leadership, California is moving to become a “sanctuary state”. As such, it would not be able to prevent the operation of federal law enforcement of immigration laws, but it would bar local and state cooperation with such efforts. In response, Trump has threatened to pull federal funding, and it is this that Brown considers a violation of the amendments that his ilk previously considered Constitutional dead letters appealed to only by right wing freaks.

The sanctuary state movement (which includes Maryland as well) edges very close to advocating nullification of federal immigration laws: it is interesting to note that nullifiers on the right routinely appeal to the 10th Amendment. To do so in defiance of a Jacksonian president is quite risky, in light of how it worked out for South Carolina in the 1830s in its conflict with the original Jacksonian. Like Jackson, Trump may well take up the challenge. Because of his personality. Because immigration is one of his signature issues. Because he is on firm legal ground, since courts have been decidedly hostile to 10th Amendment based claims (although I would not be surprised if leftist judges followed the example of Brown and find a strange new respect for the 10th). And since politically it should cost little: California (and Maryland and other states likely to pursue sanctuary legislation) aren’t going to vote for Trump  anyways. This is the kind of fight someone like Trump relishes.

But regardless of whether Brown and Trump come to legal blows over sanctuary status, it is beyond amusing to see progressives man the 10th Amendment barricades. I expect any day now that Jerry Brown will take up the states rights banner, and raise the Confederate flag over Sacramento. Even if he doesn’t go quite that far, the mere fact that he cites amendments that the left once scorned and which the hardcore right embraced demonstrates just how thoroughly Trump has scrambled American politics.

Print Friendly

March 11, 2017

One Degree of Idiocy: Michael Weiss Expounds on Trump-Putin Connections

Filed under: Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:59 pm

Some years ago, “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” was somewhat popular. The object of the game was to connect any randomly chosen actor to Kevin Bacon in six movies or less.

Today, the game that is all the range in DC and the media is Six Degrees of Donald Trump. The main difference is that the starting point is not any randomly chosen individual, but one very specific individual: Vladimir Putin.

Not surprisingly, the most  demented and absurd entry in this game was submitted by Michael Weiss of the Daily Beast. Here’s how it goes. Putin is connected to Gazprom. Gazprom was a participant in a consortium (which also included European energy giants Shell, ENGIE, Winterhall, OMV, and Uniper) to build the Nordstream 2 pipeline. This consortium hired McClarty Associates as a lobbyist. McClarty employs ex-US diplomat Richard Burt. Burt made suggestions about Russia policy that a third party passed on to Trump. As a bonus connection, Burt attended two dinners hosted by Jeff Sessions, and wrote white papers for him.

Burt has never met Trump. Like many in the foreign policy establishment, Burt advocates a pragmatic approach to Russia. He was engaged in diplomacy with the USSR while in the Reagan administration (hardly a hotbed of commsymps and Russophiles), and shockingly, has continued to do business in Russia in the past 30 years. But apparently under the Oceania Has Always Been at War With Eastasia mindset that dominates DC at present, this is tantamount to Burt being a Russian puppet (a view that requires the consignment of most of the history of that period, not least of all that of the Obama administration 2009-2014, to the Memory Hole).

As far as connections are concerned, this is about as tenuous as one can get. The headline (“The Kremlin’s Gas Company Has a Man in Trumpland”) is a vast overstatement. For one thing, Burt is barely in Trumpland. Indeed, although the article says that the connection offers “Republican bona fides,” it is almost certain that was not the reason for hiring McClarty. Astoundingly, the article fails to note that said McClarty himself is a Clintonoid: Mack McClarty is from an old-time Arkansas political family, was closely connected to Bill Clinton in Arkansas, and was Clinton’s first chief of staff. Weiss ominously starts his piece with a recounting of the importance of having a krysha (“roof”, i.e., political protection) and insinuates that hiring Burt was intended to obtain a roof in the Trump administration. But if anything, it would have been an entree into a Clinton administration–which, of course, everybody figured was an inevitability.

Furthermore, perhaps Weiss hasn’t noticed, but “Republican bona fides” are hardly a ticket into Trumpland. Trump’s relationship with the party establishment varies between the hostile and the transactional.

And the timing is all wrong: the contract was signed before Trump was even the Republican nominee, and at a time when no one figured he would be the party’s candidate, let alone president. Talk about a deep out-of-the-money option.

It’s also rather bizarre that the connection between Burt and Gazprom also involves several very large European companies, and a purely European issue. There is nary an American company involved, and the matter is an intramural European spat pitting eastern vs. western EU countries. Wouldn’t you think that if you are trying to buy influence in the United States, you’d engage McClarty/Burt on an issue that would allow them to interact with US officials and politicians?

Further, if you are going to buy a krysha in the Trump administration, dontcha think you’d want to hire somebody who, you know, actually knows Trump?

But our Mikey is not deterred by such pesky details. He has a connection between Putin and Trump, and he is going to flog it for all it’s worth. Which isn’t much.

Of course the details of the Burt-Trump (non-) connection alone wouldn’t make for much of an article, especially for Weiss, who typically drones on paragraph after endless paragraph. So he adds gratuitous ad hominem attacks on Burt, such as comparing him to the late Russian UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin (career diplomats are a type–who knew?), and trotting out Bill Browder, who snarked about how gauche the Russian influence efforts were back in the bad old days (you know, when he was on the make in Russia) and yet again drags out the corpse of his lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, in order to score political points.

Weiss also notes that McClarty has been retained by a Mikhail Fridman company in the UK, but fails to point out that Fridman is hardly a Putin pet. Indeed, Fridman took on Sechin, and came out the winner. But in Weiss’ worldview–which makes that of a 1950s John Bircher look nuanced by comparison–all them Russkies are Putin pawns.

And the anti-Trump establishment should at least get its story straight. On the same day that Weiss’ article appeared, Foreign Policy ran a piece claiming that Tillerson is a weak Secretary of State (the weakest ever, in fact!) because he doesn’t have Trump’s ear. So Trump ignores his own Secretary of State but somehow a guy whom he has never met and who has no position in the administration exerts some great influence over him? And weren’t we told a month ago that Tillerson was going to be Putin’s cat’s paw in the Trump administration because of his extensive dealings there (including with Gazprom in Sakhalin I)? But now he’s a nobody? Damn, that Memory Hole is getting a helluva workout.

Indeed, if the Burt connection (such as it is) and the like are the best that these people can come up with, they are doing a great job of showing how limited and tenuous Trump’s ties to Russia are. And remember the whole point of the Kevin Bacon game: it was a cutesy way of illustrating the “six degrees of association” theory, which posits that any two people in the world are separated by no more than six acquaintances. Any two people, no matter how obscure. Play Six Degrees of Vladimir Putin using yourself as the terminal connection: I bet you could connect with Vlad in six steps or less. I know I can. And does make me some sort of Putinoid? Hardly, as anyone who has read this blog knows.

When major international figures are involved, moreover, there are inevitably multiple such connections, often involving less than six steps. So finding a connection is about as earth shattering as finding sand on a beach. Furthermore, when considering a figure like Trump, he has myriad connections to other figures, many of whom may have interests and views contrary to Putin’s/Russia’s, or orthogonal thereto. Ignoring all these other contrary connections and focusing monomaniacally on ties to Putin and Russia when attempting to predict or explain Trump’s motivations is beyond asinine. In econometrics, this is called omitted variable bias–if you omit relevant variables, you get a very biased estimate of the influence of the ones you include.

But this is what passes for journalism in the United States right now: parlor games posing as deep analysis, latent with dark meanings.

Print Friendly

March 10, 2017

US Shale Puts the Saudis and OPEC in Zugzwang

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Politics — The Professor @ 2:55 pm

This was CERA Week in Houston, and the Saudis and OPEC provided the comedic entertainment for the assembled oil industry luminaries.

It is quite evident that the speed and intensity of the U-turn in US oil production has unsettled the Saudis, and they don’t know quite what to do about it. So they were left with making empty threats.

My favorite was when Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said there would be no “free rides” for US shale producers (and non-OPEC producers generally). Further, he said OPEC “will not bear the burden of free riders,” and “[w]e can’t do what we did in the ’80s and ’90s by swinging millions of barrels in response to market condition.”

Um, what is OPEC going to do about US free riders? Bomb the Permian? If it cuts output, and prices rise as a result, US E&P activity will pick up, and damn quick. The resulting replacement of a good deal of the OPEC output cut will limit the price impact thereof. The best place to be is outside a cartel that cuts output: you can get the benefit of the higher prices, and produce to the max. That’s what is happening in the US right now. OPEC has no credible way of showing off, or threatening to show off, free riders.

As for not doing what they did in the ’80s, well that’s exactly OPEC’s problem. It’s not the ’80s anymore. Now if it tries to “swing millions of barrels” to raise price, there is a fairly elastic and rapidly responding source of supply that can replace a large fraction of those barrels, thereby limiting the price impact of the OPEC swingers, baby.

Falih’s advisers were also trying to scare the US producers. Or something:

“One of the advisors said that OPEC would not take the hit for the rise in U.S. shale production,” a U.S. executive who was at the meeting told Reuters. “He said we and other shale producers should not automatically assume OPEC will extend the cuts.”

Presumably they are threatening a return to their predatory pricing strategy (euphemistically referred to as “defending market share”) that worked out so well for them the last time. Or perhaps it is just a concession that US supply is so elastic that it makes the demand for OPEC oil so elastic that output cuts are a losing proposition and will not endure. Either way, it means that OPEC is coming to the realization that continuing output cuts are unlikely to work. Meaning they won’t happen.

OPEC also floated cooperation with US producers on output. Mr. al-Falih, meet Senator Sherman! And if the antitrust laws didn’t make US participation in an agreement a non-starter, it would be almost impossible to cartelize the US industry given the largely free entry into E&P and the fungibility of technology, human capital, land, services, and labor. Maybe OPEC should hold talks with the Texas Railroad Commission instead.

Finally, in another laugh riot, OPEC canoodled with hedge funds. Apparently under the delusion that financial players play a material role in setting the price of physical barrels, rather than the price of risk. Disabling speculation could materially help OPEC only by raising the cost of hedging, which would tend to raise the costs of E&P firms, especially the more financially stretched ones. (Along these lines, I would argue that the big increase in net long speculative positions in recent months is not due to speculators pushing themselves into the market, but instead they have been pulled into the market by increased hedging activity that has occurred due to the increase in drilling activity in the US.)

Oil prices were down hard this week, from a $53 handle to a (at the time of this writing) $49.50 price. The first down-leg was due to the surprise spike in US inventories, but the continued weakness could well reflect the OPEC and Saudi messaging at CERA Week. The pathetic performance signaled deep strategic weakness, and suggests that the Saudis et al realize they are in zugzwang: regardless of what they do with regards to output, they are going to regret doing it.

My heart bleeds. Bleeds, I tells ya!

 

Print Friendly

March 4, 2017

Obama v. Trump: Strictly Correct & Misleading v. Not Strictly Correct But Fundamentally True

Filed under: Politics — The Professor @ 8:45 pm

I won’t comment in detail on the substance of today’s latest outbreak of our fevered politics: Trump’s accusation that Obama ordered wiretapping of Trump Tower and the Trump campaign. I will just mention one fact that strongly supports the veracity of Trump’s allegation: namely, the very narrow–and lawyerly–“denials” emanating from the Obama camp.

Obama and his surrogates–notably the slug (or is he a cockroach?) Ben Rhodes–harrumph that Obama could not unilaterally order electronic surveillance. Well, yes, it is the case that Obama did not personally issue the order: the FISA court did so. But even if that is literally correct, it is also true that the FISA court would not unilaterally issue such an order: it would only do so in response to a request from the executive branch. Thus, Obama is clearly implicated even if he did not issue the order. He could have ordered his subordinates to make the request to the court, or could have approved a subordinate’s request to seek an order. Maybe he merely hinted, a la Henry II–“will no one rid me of this turbulent candidate?” (And “turbulent” is a good adjective to apply to Trump.) But regardless, there is no way that such a request to the court in such a fraught and weighty matter would have proceeded without Obama’s acquiescence.

I therefore consider that the substance of Trump’s charge–that he was surveilled at behest of Obama has been admitted by the principals.

This episode illustrates a broader point that is definitely useful to keep in mind. What Obama and his minions (and the Democrats and many in the media) say is likely to be correct, strictly speaking, but fundamentally misleading. In contrast, what Trump says is often incorrect, strictly speaking, but captures the fundamental truth. I would wager that is the case here.

The lawyer word games are not limited to this episode. The entire Sessions imbroglio smacks of scumbag lawyer tactics. The Unfunny Clown, Senator Al Franken, asked (in a convoluted way) a very narrow question (which was related to an even narrower written question in a set of interrogatories) about Session’s interactions with the Russians. Sessions answered the question–which was not an unconditional query about contacts with the Russians, but which related to very specific types of contacts and discussions. Franken and the Democrats then accused Sessions of perjury because the Senator (and then-Attorney General designate) had met with the Russian ambassador to the US on two occasions. Asking a narrow question, and then claiming the answer was a false response to a broader question (that was not asked) is a sleazy lawyer trick (and one that has been tried on me, BTW).

One last thing. Why did Trump push this button today? I can think of offensive and defensive reasons. Offensively, he might want to gain the initiative in the war against Obama and the intelligence community. Defensively, this could be an excellent way of derailing the Russia hysteria, and the calls for an investigation. If it turns out that there was an FBI investigation, and it turned up nothing, then there is no justification for further investigation, whether by Congress or law enforcement. So it could actually help Trump if the FBI and the intelligence community were forced to acknowledge that they had investigated, to no avail. By raising the issue, Trump is pressuring the FBI to put up or shut up.

Figuring out Trump’s reasoning is always hard, but it is worth remembering that he is often at his most clever when he appears to be at his most unhinged and outrageous. So stay tuned. This isn’t over. By a long shot. And given that Trump has emerged triumphant whenever his foes have declared him to be dead meat, I would be very nervous right now if I were Barry or Ben or anyone in the IC.

Print Friendly

March 2, 2017

The Politicization of the Death of CPO Ryan Owens

Filed under: Military,Politics — The Professor @ 4:00 pm

Today the WaPoo serves as ventriloquist dummy for ex-Obama NSC staffer Colin (with an “i”) Kahl. Kahl continues his criticism of Trump’s handling of the planning and approval process for the mission in Yemen that resulted in the death of SEAL Ryan Owen. The gravamen of Kahl’s criticism is that the Obama administration engaged in much more internal debate at high levels, including at the presidential level, before approving such a mission. Kahl insinuates that the (allegedly) perfunctory process was a cause of the deadly outcome of the mission.

However, as I noted in my first post on the Yemen raid, there were multiple special operations mission in the Obama era that resulted in casualties and deaths among American special operators. Thus, more extensive internal debate is obviously not a sufficient condition for avoiding casualties. The fact is that these sorts of operations are inherently dangerous, and go wrong with some regularity. By failing to point out that reality, and the reality that a more “hands-on, deliberative process used by the previous administration” did not suffice to avoid American casualties in multiple cases, Kahl is lying by omission, and the WaPoo is facilitating that lie.

Further, Kahl and his WaPoo mouthpieces fail to point out that extensive internal debate, and senior involvement in the planning and approval process to the point of micromanagement, has its costs too. It must be pointed out that while Obama and his senior aides fretted about what to do about ISIS in 2014, the group ran amok and conquered much of Iraq and Syria. There was a clear case where Hamlet-like indecisiveness resulted in a result that was far more catastrophic than the failure of a particular special operations raid to go according to plan. Indeed, some of the raids resulting in American casualties undertaken by the Obama administration wouldn’t have been needed if the Obama administration had checked ISIS in the summer of 2014, instead of deciding that it was the JV and letting it go on a rampage.

The micromanagement continued throughout the Obama administration. This inevitably reduced the effectiveness of the war on ISIS, the cost of which is written in blood. Pace Bastiat, one has to consider the unseen in war as well as in economics.

The issue of the Yemen raid and the death of Ryan Owen required the WaPoo’s emergency intervention because it is widely recognized (even by Van Jones, for crissakes) that Trump’s recognition of his widow at his speech before Congress on Tuesday was a powerful moment that resonated with Americans. The left, and assorted non-left Trump haters (e.g., bloated, drunken, unemployed flashers who pontificate on security matters on Twitter), have worked themselves into a frenzy in an attempt to discredit this moment.

This has taken two tacks. One is the Kahl tack–to claim that Trump is responsible for Owens’ death through shoddy planning. The other is to claim that Trump somehow used Mrs. Owens, or even forced her to appear. Kahl’s tack is fundamentally dishonest (as discussed above) and the other tack is just disgusting. Carryn Owens was obviously deeply moved and appreciative. She wanted to be there, and wanted her husband’s sacrifice to be recognized. As to how she could have been forced to appear (as alleged by aforementioned bloated flasher), I have no clue. Insofar as using is concerned, Trump invited scrutiny of the events leading up to Owens’ death, and obviously believes he has nothing to hide, and that recognizing Owens’ sacrifice was more important: recall that Trump met Owen’s body when it was returned to the US.

If there is politicization of the death of CPO, that is coming primarily from the left in its unrelenting war on Trump, in which all is fair.

Print Friendly

February 25, 2017

Should Social Media Be Regulated as Common Carriers?

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 6:43 pm

Major social media, notably Twitter and Facebook, are gradually moving to censor what is communicated on them. In Twitter’s case, the primary stated rationale is to “protect its users from abuse and harassment.” It has also taken upon itself to  “[identify] and [collapse] potentially abusive and low-quality replies so the most relevant conversations are brought forward.” There are widespread reports that Twitter engages in “shadowbanning”, i.e., hiding the Tweets of those users it identifies as objectionable, and making these Tweets inaccessible in searches.

Further, there are suspicions that there is a political and ideological component to the filters that Twitter applies, with conservative (and especially alt-right) content and users being more likely to fall afoul of these restrictions: the relentlessly leftist tilt of CEO Jack Dorsey (and most of its employees) gives considerable credence to these suspicions.

For its part, Facebook is pursuing ways to constrain users from posting what it deems as “misinformation” (aka “fake news”). This includes various measures such as cooperating with “third party fact-checking organizations“. Given the clear leftist tilt of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook’s workforce, and the almost laughably leftist slant of the “fact-checkers”, there is also considerable reason for concern that the restrictions will not be imposed in a politically neutral way.

The off-the-top classical liberal/libertarian response to this is likely to be “well, this is unfortunate, but these are private corporations, and they can do what they want with their property.” But however superficially plausible this position appears to be, in fact there is a principled classical liberal/libertarian response that arrives at a very different conclusion. In particular, as arch-libertarian Richard Epstein (who styles himself as The Libertarian in his Hoover Institute podcast) has consistently pointed out, even during the heyday of small government, classical liberal government and law, the common law recognized that restrictions on the autonomy of certain entities was not only justifiable, but desirable. In particular, natural monopolies and near-monopolies were deemed to be “common carriers” upon whom the law imposed a duty of providing access on a non-discriminatory basis. The (classically liberal) common law of that era recognized that such entities could exercise market power, or engage in discriminatory conduct without fear of competitive check. Thus, the obligation to serve all on a non-discriminatory basis in order to constrain the exercise of market power, or invidious discrimination based on the preferences of the owner of the common carrier.

Major social media (and Google as well–perhaps most of all) clearly have market power, and the ability to discriminate without fear of losing business to competitors. The network nature of social media (and search engines) leads to the dominance of a small number of platforms, or even one platform. Yes, there are competitors to Facebook, Twitter, and Google, but these companies are clearly dominant in their spaces, and network effects make them largely immune to competitive entry. Imposition of a common carrier-inspired obligation to provide non-discriminatory access is therefore quite reasonable, and has a substantial economic and legal foundation. Thus, libertarians and classical liberals and conservatives and even fringe voices should not resign themselves to being second or third class citizens on social media, merely because these are private entities, rather than government ones. (Indeed, the analogy should go the other direction. A major reason for limiting the ability of the government to control speech is because of its monopoly of legal violence. It is monopoly power, regardless of whether in a market or political setting, that needs to be constrained through things like rights to free speech, or non-discriminatory access to common carriers.)

Further, insofar as leftists (including the managements of the major social media companies) are concerned, it is utterly incoherent for them to assert that as private entities they are perfectly free to restrict access according to their whims, given that leftists also adamantly (indeed, obnoxiously) insist that anti-discrimination laws should be imposed on small entities operating in highly competitive environments. Specifically, leftists believe that bakers or caterers or pizzarias with zero market power should be required to serve all, even if they have religious (or other) objections to doing so. But a baker refusing to sell a wedding cake to a gay couple does not meaningfully deprive said couple of the opportunity to get a cake: there are many other bakeries, and given the trivial costs of entry even if most incumbent bakers don’t want to serve gays, this only provides a commercial opportunity for entrant bakers to cater to the excluded clientele. Thus, discrimination by Baker A does not impose large costs on those s/he would prefer not to serve (even though forcing A to serve them might impose high costs on A, due to his/her sincere religious beliefs).

The same cannot be said of Twitter or Facebook. Given the nature of networks, social and otherwise, entrants or existing competitors are very poor substitutes for the dominant firms, which gives them the power to exclude, and which makes their exercise of this power extremely costly to the excluded.  In other words, if one believes that firms in highly competitive markets should be obligated to provide service/access to all on a non-discriminatory basis, one must concede that the Twitters, Facebooks, and Googles of the world should be similarly obligated, and that given their market power their conduct should be subject to a substantially higher degree of scrutiny than a small firm in a competitive market.

Of course, it is one thing to impose de jure an obligation on Twitter et al to provide equal access and equal treatment to all, regardless of political beliefs, and quite another to enforce it de facto. Of course Jack and Mark or Sergey don’t say “we discriminate against those holding contrary political opinions.” No, they couch their actions in terms of “protecting against abusive behavior and hate speech” or “stamping out disinformation.” But they retain the discretion to interpret what is abusive, hateful, and false–and it is clear that they consider much mainstream non-leftist belief as beyond the pale. Hence, enforcement of an open non-discriminatory access obligation would be difficult, and would inevitably involve estimation of discriminatory outcomes using statistical measures, a fraught exercise (as employment discrimination law demonstrates). Given the very deep pockets that these firms have, moreover, prevailing in a legal battle would be very difficult.

But this is a practical obstacle to treating social media like common carriers with a duty to provide non-discriminatory access. It is not a reason for classical liberals and libertarians to concede to dominant social network operators that they have an unrestricted right to restrict access as a matter of principle. In fact, the classical liberal/libertarian principle cuts quite the other way. And at the very least, imposing a common carrier-like obligation would substantially raise the cost that social network operators would pay to indulge in discrimination based on politics, beliefs, or ideology, and this could go a long way to make these places safe for the expression of political opinions that drive Jack, Mark, et al, nuts.

 

Print Friendly

« Previous PageNext Page »

Powered by WordPress