Streetwise Professor

August 21, 2014

Don’t Worry About ISIS. The Progressive Dialectic Will Consign It to Oblivion

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 6:23 pm

Obama’s formulaic remarks, dispassionately delivered,  on the death of James Foley were both disturbing and revealing. Disturbing precisely because they were revealing.

Thus Spake Obama:

So ISIL speaks for no religion. Their victims are overwhelmingly Muslim, and no faith teaches people to massacre innocents. No just god would stand for what they did yesterday and what they do every single day. ISIL has no ideology of any value to human beings. Their ideology is bankrupt. They may claim out of expediency that they are at war with the United States or the West, but the fact is they terrorize their neighbors and offer them nothing but an endless slavery to their empty vision and the collapse of any definition of civilized behavior.

People like this ultimately fail. They fail because the future is won by those who build and not destroy. The world is shaped by people like Jim Foley and the overwhelming majority of humanity who are appalled by those who killed him. The United States of America will continue to do what we must do to protect our people. We will be vigilant and we will be relentless. When people harm Americans anywhere, we do what’s necessary to see that justice is done and we act against ISIL, standing alongside others. The people of Iraq, who with our support are taking the fight to ISIL must continue coming together to expel these terrorists from their community. The people of Syria, whose story Jim Foley told, do not deserve to live under the shadow of a tyrant or terrorists. They have our support in their pursuit of a future rooted in dignity.

From governments and peoples across the Middle East, there has to be a common effort to extract this cancer so that it does not spread. There has to be a clear rejection of this kind of nihilistic ideologies. One thing we can all agree on is that a group like ISIL has no place in the 21st century. Friends and allies around the world, we share a common security and a common set of values that are rooted in the opposite of what we saw yesterday. And we will continue to confront this hateful terrorism and replace it with a sense of hope and civility.

A few quick comments.

  • Obama’s progressivism, in many senses of the word, shines through here. According to Obama, ISIS is an atavism that is destined for extinction, because it does not fit into the 21st century. Through some sort of (unstated) dialectical process, such people “ultimately fail.” Humanitarians prevail, as the world progresses to higher and higher states of development and consciousness. This is profoundly ahistorical. Atavistic forces have repeatedly toppled far superior civilizations. The barbarian invasions of Rome. The Mongols in China and the Middle East (Tamerlane, anyone?) The Arab/Muslim onslaught in the Middle East and North Africa. I could go on. The very single-minded primitiveness of these peoples allows them to triumph over far more civilized and productive cultures that have lost the will to defend themselves, or whose societies are suffering from internal division and political disarray. Dark Ages have occurred throughout history precisely because of the triumphs of nihilistic but highly motivated peoples. The bankruptcy of ISIS’s ideology is rather beside the point: eye-rolling in the faculty lounge won’t defeat it. If it is sufficiently motivational to lead people to overthrow more constructive and creative ideologies, it can do incredible harm. Yes, such peoples “fail” in the sense that they are incapable of creating anything. But the problem is that their failure occurs only after they’ve destroyed societies that can create. Their ultimate barrenness is cold comfort to the lives and societies that they destroy. Which is why they must be confronted and defeated.
  • Note that this atavism trope is one of Obama’s favorites. He says the same about Putin and Russia. The message implicit in this trope is that since these atavistic forces are doomed to extinction, we don’t need to do anything. Again, given the profound damage that these people can do before they collapse, this is a dangerous, destructive illusion.
  • Whether it is Tony Blair, George Bush, or Barack Obama, few things are more grating than western leaders presuming to say what is, and what isn’t Islam. There isn’t an Islamic Pope, and if there was, his name wouldn’t be Tony, George, or even Barack Hussein, born in Hawaii. Islam isn’t any one thing, any more than Christianity is. There is no official scorecard. People energized by their visions of the teachings of Mohammed are wreaking havoc, especially in the Middle East. I can only imagine the snorts of derision among the adherents of ISIS, or other Salafists, at the presumption of kaffirs like Tony, George, or Barry to pontificate on what “true” Islam is. One can imagine them saying: tell it to the knife.
  • The insistence on collective action (“standing alongside others”-note the passivity of “standing alongside”).  The implied deference to others-in Obama’s remarks here, as elsewhere-suggests that if others don’t rally to the cause, the US will not act unilaterally. This betrays a complete ignorance of the frailties of collective action-notably, the incentive to free ride. The failure of others to pull their weight provides a justification for American inaction.
  • The return of the law enforcement model: “ When people harm Americans anywhere, we do what’s necessary to see that justice is done.” ISIS is a military organization that poses a military threat to American interests. Confronting ISIS is not a matter of serving a warrant and putting those who hacked off Foley’s head on trial. It is a matter of destroying its military capacity with military means.

All in all, there is an odd passivity: ISIS will fall either due to the Progress of History, or the collective disapproval of outraged humanity. The only American action even suggested is a law enforcement action, or at most a punitive expedition mounted against a few brigands. At most something along the lines of “Pedicaris alive, or Rasuli dead.”

In this vein, consider related news: that the US attempted a rescue operation by Special Forces that overpowered the ISIS forces at the target, but which failed because Foley had been moved before the raid.* Yes, it is good that Obama is not entirely allergic to the use of military force, but the type of military force he is willing to use (evidently after some hesitation) is also disturbing for what it reveals. One-off Special Forces raids of this type are inherently limited in their objective and duration. They are totally tactical, with no strategic purpose or effect. Yet this raid was mounted at a time when it had become evident beyond cavil that ISIS was a serious threat to strategic American interests, and when Obama stubbornly refused to acknowledge, let alone address, that threat. The most charitable thing that could be said is that by freeing Foley Obama would have eliminated an obstacle that limited American freedom of action. But this too would be disturbing, as it would imply that taking a single hostage can forestall American action. We may not pay cash ransom (most of the time anyways, with Bergdahl and Iran-Contra being prominent counterexamples), but such knowledge is priceless to a terrorist-and very ominous for any American in their reach.

Obama’s cramped and bloodless remarks are all the more striking, when contrasted with the alarms his own administration is raising. Today, Hagel-Chuck Hagel!-stated that ISIS is “beyond anything we’ve ever seen” and is “imminent threat to every interest we have, whether it’s in Iraq or anywhere else.” That would seem to call for something more than waiting for history, or the collective disapproval of civilized humanity, to consign ISIS to oblivion.

What’s more, it’s not like this should be news. It should have been known in June, when ISIS irrupted into central Iraq and advanced to the gates of Baghdad. It should have been known in January and February, when it conquered Fallujah and Ramadi-precisely when Obama dismissed it as the junior varsity. It should have been known earlier, when ISIS was battering other opposition forces in Syria (though perhaps I should not say “other” because it is not clear that ISIS was in opposition to Assad: more likely, he facilitated its growth).

Even if the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a necessary condition for the emergence of ISIS, this was not a sufficient condition. ISIS’s predecessor had been thoroughly beaten down, but for a variety of reasons, Obama created the conditions in which it metastasized to the threat it has become, a threat his own military and diplomatic officials recognize. Yet he still resists doing anything beyond the most limited air strikes.

Obama’s post-statement rush to the links, complete with big smiles and fist-bumps with his buds was also very disturbing. Given all the criticism of his golfing-while-the-world-burns, he had to have known that this would attract attention. But he did it anyways. I get the impression that this was a big FU: “Yeah, I know my golf gets criticism. Well, you know what, I don’t give a damn what you think. And just to show you, I’ll pivot from giving a statement about the slaughter of an American to yukking it up on the links.”

*Such a failure is not unprecedented. In 1970, the US mounted a raid to free prisoners at the Son Tay prison in North Viet Nam. The special forces troops succeeded in securing the camp, and killing 200 NVA, all the while suffering a single casualty: a helo pilot who suffered a broken ankle. But the prisoners had been moved prior to the raid, so it failed in its object. Intelligence is extremely hard to come by in these circumstances, and hence it is very difficult to know that the would-be rescue-es are at the target.

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August 19, 2014

A Couple of Quick Russia Hits: Putin’s Natural State & Selling E. Europe Down the (Don) River

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

Back when I started to blog about Russia in 2006-2007, I often pointed out that Russia under Putin was an archaic “natural state” rather than a modern one. The idea of the natural state was set out in work by North, Wallis and Weingast. In essence, it is a state with a distributed and diffuse potential for violence that is prone to break down into internecine conflict between armed factions. The only way this is avoided is to bribe the various factions with rents and privileges granted by the state (to give them a stake in maintaining the status quo rather than grasping for total control), and to keep them in an unsteady equipoise by pitting each against the other.

An article in the Moscow Times provides a very good description that brings home that point. This description of Putin’s version of the natural state cannot be bettered:

Putin’s staffing policies are based on the principle of ”loyalty in return for corruption.” Bureaucrats in the government, law enforcement and military are practically granted the right to steal and forbidden just one thing: criticism of the president.

The greatest enabler of Putin’s natural state is Germany, and most notably its appalling foreign minister, Steinmeier.

This piece by Dustin Duhez lays out in detail the intellectual underpinnings of Steinmeir’s beliefs and strategy. It is a very disturbing, but worthwhile read. In a nutshell: Steinmeier’s overriding objective is to maintain strong relations (especially commercial relations) with Russia, and is willing to sacrifice everyone between the Oder and the Don to do so. In other words, he is willing to sell eastern Europe down the river: the Don River, specifically.

Keep this in mind when watching Merkel’s visit to Kiev. At best she is equivocal and conflicted. At worst she is objectively pro-Putin.

Neither of these articles should be missed. One gives a good analysis of what makes Putinism tick. The other shows how the most powerful state in Europe works overtime to keep it oiled and wound.

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Heckuva JV There, Barry: The Consequences of an Alfred E. Neuman Foreign Policy

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 7:50 pm

Back in January, on a TV interview, naturally, Obama denigrated ISIS as the junior varsity. Even after ISIS ran amok in Iraq and Syria in June, the administration (or I should say Obama, because we know from many sources that he often completely disregards the recommendations of the Pentagon, intelligence community, and State Department) decided to abjure from taking action against the terrorist group, apparently out of pique at Maliki and the dysfunctions of the Iraqi government. That’ll learn ‘em, Barry apparently believed.

So here we are. ISIS has secured a foothold over an area the size of Jordan. What’s more, although its brutality (more on this below) is extreme, it has apparently enough sense and state building capacity to “combine the fighting capabilities of al Qaeda with the administrative capabilities of Hezbollah.” Thus, the hopes that its extreme brutality would lead to its overthrow are likely to be just another self-delusion by the Smart People in High Places.

Great. I hope they keep the varsity on the bench. Otherwise we’d really be screwed. (Or more accurately, everyone in Iraq, Syria, and bordering states would be truly screwed.)

Recall that the administration mulishly held to the position that it had correctly prioritized Islamist groups, and in particular held out Al Qaeda on the Arab Peninsula as far more of a threat to the US than ISIS. And actions spoke louder than words. Obama has been droning the crap out of AQAP for years, while he has held aloof from doing anything against ISIS.

Well wouldn’t you know, AQAP has come out and declared its solidarity with ISIS, and it seems the they are coordinating to a considerable degree.  Key quote:

Many observers note that AQAP and ISIL are using similar tactics and are exchanging strategy and advice.

Which would seem to totally smash to pieces Obama’s justification for drawing a distinction between the two groups.

As if to emphasize its bestiality and opposition to the US, today ISIS slaughtered an American reporter, James Foley. Per usual jihadi fashion, they filmed the heinous act, and distributed via social media along with a declaration that this was revenge for the US attacks on the group in Iraq.

This is the kind of evil bastards we are dealing with. The kind of evil bastards that our inattention permitted to flourish. Which makes it our responsibility to extirpate them.

Note that the voice on the video of Foley’s ritual killing has been identified as a Londoner. There are clearly many others in the group that hail from England and other western countries, including almost certainly Americans. The most serious fear since 9/12/2001 has been terrorists with western passports who can commit terrorism more readily than Middle Eastern natives.

But I am sure this is just the JV. So what, me worry?

To give some credit, Obama has loosened the leash on American airpower against ISIS. I deliberately didn’t say “unleashed”, because the air strikes have been extremely limited.

But even given the limited nature of the attacks, they have had an effect on the battlefield. So why not crank it up to 11? Moderation in war is idiocy, especially when fighting the extreme of the extreme, like ISIS. They have demonstrated that their ambitions are anything but regional, and that it is foolish (not to mention callous and amoral) to rely on their self-destruction and being thrown back by those whom they oppress.

The butchering of Foley should only demonstrate the folly of exquisitely calibrated (in Obama’s mind, anyways) use of force. They’ll kill for a ha’penny, never mind a pound. The price (in life, anyways) that Americans pay is unlikely to depend, in the slightest on the number of bombs we drop: nothing short of abject surrender will satisfy ISIS (and even that is unlikely to sate their blood lust). So since they’ve decided to go all medieval on us, and anyone less extreme than they, let’s go all modern on them and see how that works out for them.

ISIS is already whining about the unfairness of our air campaign. We should show them what unfair is really all about. Hit hard, hit fast, hit often (to quote Halsey), and get it over with quickly. I really cannot fathom why Obama would, at this juncture, consider any other alternative.

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August 18, 2014

Wage Asymmetric Warfare: Unleash the SPR!

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 3:25 pm

The decline in the price of oil-Brent is down almost to $100/bbl, and Urals-Med is below that level-puts pressure on an already stressed Russian economy. And it especially puts pressure on a stressed Russian government budget, which balances at about $110+. What’s more, Russia is looking to replace private western funding with state support for its banks, and some corporations: recall my post yesterday which described how Sechin is panting after tens of billions of government money to replace western creditors. Further, Putin has made all sorts of promises, including lavish spending on the military and on infrastructure (e.g., a hugely expensive bridge over the Kerch Strait to Crimea). All of these add to the strains on the Russian budget.

Some of this is due to a weakening of the Russian economy for independent factors. Some of it is due to the sanctions.

The effectiveness of the sanctions could be enhanced by putting even further pressures on the Russian government. The most direct means of doing so would be through the price of oil, and short of persuading the Saudis to do a reprise of their 1986 act of flooding the market with oil, the best way to do that would be to release oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

Especially given the burst in US domestic oil production, the already weak case for maintaining a large reserve is even weaker. Moreover, since much of the oil in the SPR is Brent, and thus could presumably be exported, this would be a way of mitigating the distortions associated with the existing crude export ban.

The number of barrels that would actually flow to the market would presumably be somewhat lower than the amount released from the SPR, because some of the public storage would be replaced by private storage. (As I argued in 2011, this effect depends on market expectations regarding how the SPR would be used.) But the direction of the price effect is clear, and the price impact would not be trivial.

Putin is waging asymmetric war in Ukraine. (Though it is becoming less asymmetric, and more conventional, by the day.) Sanctions are an asymmetric form of warfare. A release of the SPR would be another asymmetric move that would impact Russia directly, and indirectly by enhancing the financial strains produced by the sanctions. There’s no substantive economic case for retaining the SPR at its current levels. Seems like an obvious move. Will Obama make it?

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August 16, 2014

Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way. That’s the Problem.

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 12:37 pm

There is a lot of chin pulling going on about ISIS. Most of this seems to be an attempt to rationalize doing nothing, or very little.

One conclusion of the deep thinkers is that ISIS does not pose a threat to the US because it only has “regional ambitions.” This is the administration’s main theme. When asked about Obama’s JV remark, new flack Josh Earnest yammered on and on about other groups that posed a direct threat, such as Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula. This organization launches underwear bombers, and is working on body cavity bombers, from the caves of Back of Buggery, Yemen. Obama has been droning them for virtually his entire administration. The administration apparently believes this is a more serious threat than ISIS.

This is all beyond stupid.

First, ISIS has made threats against the US, and the White House in particular.

But that’s not the main thing. ISIS has declared itself to be a caliphate, which demands the allegiance of over a billion Muslims from around the world. This demonstrates that its ambitions are far from regional: they are global, and they will use a regional victory as a launching point for campaigns elsewhere. Of course it has to start somewhere, and taking advantage of the carnage in Syria and the vacuum in Iraq (from which Obama assiduously pumped out air) it has established itself across large areas in each country.

If it solidifies its control, it will have a base (will they call it Al Qaeda?) from which they can launch attacks elsewhere. Since it has attracted recruits from around the world, it will have large cadres that it can dispatch to wreak havoc in Europe, Asia (especially Malaysia and Indonesia), and yes, the United States. (Departing Defense Information Agency head General Michael Flynn warned about this threat in his rather heated on-his-way-out-the-door speeches and interviews.)  You have to focus on capability, not intent, and ISIS has demonstrated substantial capability that is quite worrisome. This group, more radical than Al Qaeda and ensconced in a region that is far more centrally located than Afghanistan, possesses capabilities that put Al Qaeda’s in the shade.

And we need to bet on form. Radical Islamists have repeatedly identified the US as the main enemy of Islam. Islam is a universalist religion, and its most extreme adherents aim at subjugating the entire world. It divides the world into the House of Peace and the House of War (dar al Harb). The US is leader of the latter. An organization and a leader ambitious enough to declare a caliphate-something that even Bin Laden declined to do-will almost inevitably attack the US.

Another rationale for inaction was mouthed by the administration’s foreign policy Charlie McCarthy, the WaPo’s David Ignatius. In this telling, ISIS is so insanely violent and brutal that it will inevitably wear out its welcome in the regions it has conquered. The resulting backlash will result in the group being defeated and thrown back. Or something. How many people have to die, be beheaded, crucified, enslaved, and raped before this happily ever after ending transpires at some unknown time goes unremarked.

And what happens if it doesn’t work out this way?

The sad reality is that US inattention allowed a bacteria that had been largely defeated but not totally eliminated come back in a far more virulent form. ISIS is the supergerm of Islamic radicalism. This strain will be all the more difficult to eliminate than the old one, which was hard enough as it was to tame. But doing nothing because it only attacks other hosts or because eventually the immune systems of enough people will be strong enough to fight it off (after it has killed many others without this resistance) is not a realistic option. But that’s the option that Obama and his courtiers inside and outside the administration are desperate to rationalize.

So far, US airstrikes against ISIS have been limited and reactive, and not part of any discernible strategic or operational plan. Moreover, air power alone will not be sufficient: it must be used in conjunction with Kurdish, and maybe eventually, Iraqi ground forces.

The best path forward at this time is to provide the Kurds with heavy weapons, training, and embedded American personnel to assist collecting and disseminating intelligence, planning, and coordination with American air power. The Kurds (and maybe eventually Iraqi regular forces) can provide the necessary ground forces, and the US can provide the aerial artillery to support the indigenous forces on the ground.

In his papers, Patton recorded two instances in which French General Koechlin-Schwartz told him: “The poorer the infantry, the more artillery it needs.” (Koechlin-Schwartz added the criticism: “American infantry needs all it can get.”*) The indigenous infantry the US will have to rely on is pretty poor. They need all the air support they can get. But ISIS infantry is not all that great either (its victories being due mainly to facing worse, and much less motivated, opposition). American planning, logistical, intelligence and air support, combined with superiority of numbers, should be sufficient to reverse ISIS’s gains.

In other words, where there’s a will, there’s a way. And that’s the problem. Obama does not have the will, for numerous reasons ideological and psychological. He is looking for reasons to justify that lack of will. The reasons that have been heaved up are very bad ones, but will probably suffice for Obama’s purpose. Meaning that his successor is likely to have to deal with a much more virulent foe infecting vast swathes of the Middle East, and spreading the infection far and wide.

* Patton was critical of the lack of aggressiveness of US riflemen.

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August 15, 2014

Putin Takes An Off-Ramp. Just One Problem: It’s the Donbas/Novorossiya Exit

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 2:56 pm

The mystery of the convoy deepens. This morning (ET), it was widely reported that many of the white Russian trucks were virtually empty. So apparently the humanitarian aid was to consist of stale air.

Last night (ET-morning in Ukraine), several journalists witnessed a column of Russian armor entering Ukraine.  Nato and some western governments confirmed that this had in fact taken place. Around 11 ET, Ukraine released a synopsis of a call between Poroshenko and UK PM Cameron, in which the Ukrainian president claimed that Ukrainian artillery had destroyed most of the invading column. Russia vociferously denied this. Russia also claimed that Ukrainians were attacking  the route of the convoy. But it did not claim that the convoy itself was attacked. So what were the Ukrainians shelling on this route if the convoy and the armor weren’t there? And how would the Russians know about this shelling inside Ukrainian territory.

The murk just keeps getting murkier.

The most plausible hypothesis  is that the the convoy is part of an elaborate deception operation to distract attention, create a potential incident that would create a pretext for a Russian invasion, and/or to provide cover behind which a Russian force could assemble and then mount an attack into Ukraine.

Western leaders have desperately been offering Putin “off-ramps.” Putin only concludes from this that Western nations will do nothing to stop him. It is the West that wants the way out, not Putin.

Or, to put it another way, Putin has indeed taken an off-ramp. The problem is that it is the Donbas/Novorossiya Exit, and he isn’t going for a pit stop.

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August 14, 2014

10-4, хороший товарищ

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 6:59 pm

Russia is known for remaking American TV shows, notably Married, With Children. Now it is doing a very bad remake of the 1978 Sam Peckinpah movie, Convoy. This time as a reality show.

An alleged “humanitarian” convoy of 270-odd white semis has been bouncing around southwestern Russia, bound for Luhansk and Donetsk. Cargo? Unknown, for certain. Route? Unknown, for certain: so far it has been serpentine, and interrupted by numerous stops. Ukraine demanded that it travel through Karkiv, via border posts it controls, but the convoy has apparently now split with one part headed for a border post controlled by Russians. The drivers and other personnel? Unknown; they claim to be “volunteers”, but some suspect they are Russian paratroopers.

The Russians confidently announced that this has all been done in coordination with the International Committee of the Red Cross, but the ICRC just says that it has been in discussions with Ukraine and Russia about it, and that it is ignorant of crucial details. Ukraine demands that the trucks be unloaded at the border, the cargo loaded into Red Cross vehicles driven by Red Cross. Russia refuses. It demands its way on the highway.

No one has a clue as to what Putin’s game is here. There is only one thing for certain: it is not what it purports to be, a legitimate relief effort. If it were, Putin would have let the Red Cross handle it from the get go, and limited Russian participation to the provision of supplies and perhaps vehicles and fuel. But although Russia has claimed Red Cross approval, it is pretty clear that it has grossly exaggerated this. Sadly, in classic useful idiot fashion, the ICRC has not called bullshit on Putin, limiting its response to mewling tweets like:

We have made initial contact with the #Russia-led aid convoy, Rostov region, #Ukraine. Many practical details are still to be clarified.

Respect for the #RedCross emblem is essential for us to assist and protect those worst affected by the armed conflict in eastern #Ukraine.

Amid the media storm, we stress that aid delivery into east #Ukraine should not be politicized. Our priority remains helping people in need.

So what is the game? So many possibilities. A propaganda exercise, and one that would actually be enhanced if Ukraine stopped the entry of the convoy into the Donbas: however, given the way Putin is viewed throughout the world, the only people that the propaganda would fool would be Russians and Putin’s fellow travelers on the fringe left and fringe right in the US and Europe. Along the same lines, but more sinisterly, a setup for a false flag operation in which the convoy would be attacked by Russian or rebel forces, masquerading as Ukrainians, to provide a pretext for an invasion. A way of smuggling weapons, ammunition, and reinforcements to the beleaguered rebels. All of the above.

To add to the chaos, three reporters observed a column of Russian APVs moving into Ukraine.

The whole episode reminds me of a Three Card Monte game. A lot of jabber, a lot of motion, a lot of misdirection, all intended to hide the real object. Which raises the question: where is the Black Queen?

All of this is very ominous. Adding to the sense of peril is Putin’s benign speech in Yalta, Crimea today. It is being interpreted as an attempt at conciliation, a step back. That interpretation works to Putin’s benefit, by getting those in Europe and the US, who are desperately hoping to avoid a confrontation and who are looking for any sign of hope, to drop their guard. At which time he will pounce. (A classic judo ploy, btw.)

Convoy was atypical of Peckinpah’s oeuvre. He specialized in graphic violence, heavily spattered with technicolor blood. Many of his characters were psychopathic antiheroes. Sadly, I think that only Peckinpah could do justice with what is likely to unfold in the Donbas, and the psychopath who will be responsible for it.

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August 10, 2014

The Obama Fram Oil Filter Foreign Policy: We’re Paying Later, and a Lot More

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 5:02 pm

Confronted by a looming humanitarian catastrophe at Mt. Sinjar, Obama finally ordered airstrikes against ISIS/ISIL, and also mounted a campaign to provide desperately needed supplies to the Yazidis who fled to the mountain before the ISIS onslaught.

This initial set of strikes seems to have a very limited objective: they can best be described as a limited tank plinking campaign intended to halt the ISIS attack on the Kurds around Erbil. The US is using F/A-18s from the  George Bush (CVN77), deployed in ones-eys and twos-eys to take out an artillery piece here, and a vehicle there. It will give the Kurds some breathing room, and permit them to make limited counterattacks.  But as of yet, it appears that the airstrikes are not intended to deliver a body blow to ISIS. The objectives appear to be narrowly tactical, rather than operational.

Given the nature of ISIS, the humanitarian crisis was inevitable, and eminently predictable. Indeed, ISIS is a rolling bacchanal of head chopping, crucifixion, mass execution, and rape. Wherever this scourge lands, a humanitarian crisis follows.

Obama infamously labeled ISIS the “junior varsity” in a January interview. I wonder if he still considers that description operative, or regrets that he made it. I note that in contrast to Obama’s disparaging remark, only Friday a “senior administration official” said that in its recent attacks, ISIS has demonstrated “tremendous military proficiency.” Either ISIS has navigated a very steep learning curve, or Obama was spewing garbage  7 months ago. Not hard to figure out which is true, especially if you were paying attention to ISIS in Syria and Iraq last year and early this year.

Obama’s attitude, and his preternatural predisposition to avoid any involvement in Iraq, led him to stand aloof when ISIS scored major breakthroughs in Iraq two months ago, and threatened to capture Baghdad. The inaction then, and in the interim, laid the foundation for what is transpiring outside Erbil today. Obama’s consistent Fram Oil Filter foreign policy procrastination (“you can pay me now, or you can pay me later”) only deferred the necessity of military action, and allowed ISIS to become stronger in the meantime.

Obama’s rationale for letting ISIS run amok is a pedantic one. He is (in some ways understandably) frustrated at the inability of Iraq to form a more inclusive government, and at the dysfunctional Maliki government, and refuses to be “Maliki’s artillery”. That is, he is withholding US military action against ISIS in order to force a change of government in Baghdad. Apparently only when Sunnis and Shiites and Kurds hold hands and sing Kumbaya will Obama relent.

In the meantime, vast swathes of Iraq are getting a new government. An ISIS government that rules by terror and very credibly threatens genocide. Obama’s pickiness about what he considers to be acceptable Iraqi government has given ISIS an open field to consolidate its hold over the regions that it has conquered, and to push for further conquests.

To the surprise of the administration, that push has been directed at the Kurds instead of Baghdad. The Kurdish Peshmerga, though possessing a reputation for being far more stalwart fighters than the Iraqi Army rabble that disintegrated on contact with ISIS, was sent reeling. It is uncertain whether this indicates that the Peshmerga was overrated, or underarmed. It is certainly the case that it is outgunned by ISIS, so the latter is a reasonable inference.

The outgunning of the Kurds is also the result of a conscious administration decision. The Kurds have been pleading for arms and ammunition, but the administration has demurred. The reason is rather astounding, especially in light of Obama’s stated refusal to aid the Iraqi central government. In refusing to help the Kurds, Obama has deferred to the sensitivities of the very Maliki government that he despises: he does not want to appear to be advancing Kurdish independence, which would outrage Baghdad.

So on the one hand, Obama doesn’t want to help the Iraqi central government fight ISIS because he thinks that government is dysfunctional and must change fundamentally, and in particular must become more inclusive, before it deserve US backing. On the other hand, Obama doesn’t want to help the Kurds fight ISIS because he thinks that would enable the Kurds to break free of the said same dysfunctional central government.

The only way to square these decisions is to conclude that Obama didn’t want to help to fight ISIS, period.

But now his hand has been forced by the prospect of the slaughter of 50,000 Yazidis. I suspect that Obama will only exert enough force to prevent that, and stabilize the situation in the north of Iraq. He will not deal ISIS a blow sufficiently stunning to permit the Iraqi Army, or the Kurds, or both, to defeat the head chopping lunatics. This will provide yet another illustration of the adage (attributed to Macauley and James Arbothnot Fisher) that moderation in war is imbecility.

Obama has repeatedly refused to pay anything now in Iraq. As a result, many have paid a big price later. A price measured in severed heads, mass graves, and systematic rape.

The most realistic alternative right now is to be the Kurds’ artillery, and pound ISIS from the air in a serious way, while providing the arms, intelligence, and logistic support that will permit the Kurds to attack them on the ground. In so doing, Obama will be rebuking himself for his past words and actions (or, more accurately, inactions) in Iraq. And that may be the biggest obstacle to his doing the right thing.

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August 7, 2014

The Great Patriotic Diet

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:49 pm

In retaliation for US and EU sanctions, Russia is banning the importation of large categories of food products from each: food imports from the US are pretty much banned altogether.

These sanctions are aimed at an industry that is politically powerful far beyond its numbers. Chicken farmers in the US will squawk at the loss of about 1 percent of their revenues, and European dairy producers will bellow in anger. But the economic impact on the affected countries will be trivial. The US exports about $300 million in chicken to Russia (down substantially from a few years ago), which is essentially rounding error in US GDP. European net food exports to Russia are about 12 billion euros, or less than .1 percent of the EU’s 13 trillion Euro economy.

The impact on Russia’s people will be substantially greater. Russia imports about 35 percent of its food, about half of that from Europe and the US. Higher value, non-staples are disproportionately affected. This will lead to an appreciable increase in the cost of food, which represents a very large fraction of Russian household budgets. Whereas US consumers spend about 6.5 percent of their total expenditures on food, in Russia the figure is about 32 percent. A rise in food prices hits hard. A 10 percent increase, which is not unrealistic, cuts Russian living standards about 3 percent.

Putin ordered the government to find ways to increase food production, because, you know, that ukases always work as the Tsar intends. Russian food output will no doubt rise in response to higher prices, but in the short run the elasticity of supply is likely to be very low, especially for vegetables and dairy. Anyways, this increased output will only mitigate the price increases. If Russian firms/farms could produce more at current prices, they’d be doing so.

I predict that since increased Russian domestic production will have little effect on prices, Putin will soon resort to the tried-and-false nostrum of price controls, just like Russia did when food price inflation spiked in 2007. This will lead to lines and empty shelves, so Russians can party like it’s 1989: to those nostalgic for the USSR, be careful what you ask for. I note that Russia also adopted price controls, to disastrous effect, in WWI. Putin is idealizing Russia’s role in that war of late, and employs WWI reenactors to lead subversion campaigns in Ukraine, so maybe he’ll think it’s a great idea to reenact the price controls too.

Some have suggested that the higher food prices (or shortages that result from attempts to control prices) will dent Putin’s popularity. However, it is sufficiently high (approaching 90 percent) that it can take a few dents. Moreover, you know that there will be a propaganda campaign to stymie any discontent. No doubt this campaign will blame the west, and the US in particular, proclaiming that the import ban is necessary to show that Russia cannot be dictated to by its enemies: Russian attitudes towards the west have hardened substantially post-Crimea, and such a message will resonate.

The campaign is likely to idealize Russian capacity for sacrifice, particularly for the Motherland. There will be allusions to the Great Patriotic War, when Russians sacrificed to battle evil invaders from the west who were intent on subjugating Russia.

Putin will call for the Great Patriotic Diet, in other words. And sad to say, this will probably work.

No matter how successful the propaganda campaign is, the import ban will be just another burden on the already sputtering Russian economy. It was sputtering before Crimea and sanctions, but the post-Crimea sanctions have made it wheeze all that much more.

One symptom of this is the government’s announcement that it was diverting contributions to private pension plans in 2015 to plug holes in the state pension system: it had already done so for 2014. One state official took to Facebook to decry the move. He was promptly fired.

Oil prices have bailed out Putin before, but oil prices have weakened a bit lately, so that is putting additional pressure on Russia, and particularly on the budget. One of Putin’s old gambits is to stir up trouble in the ME to keep up oil prices. Maybe he’ll try that now, but it’s hard to imagine how much more trouble there can be there (the place is in chaos from Libya to Israel/Gaza to Syria to Iraq).

There is widespread speculation on what Putin will do next in Ukraine. The Ukrainian army is slowly but surely grinding down the Russian proxies in Donbas, pushing them into pockets in Donetsk and Lugansk, where they will be cut off from supplies and reinforcements if the circles are closed. Thus, the reasoning goes, Putin has a choice between humiliating defeat there, or going all in with an invasion.

I have my doubts that he will invade. The troops massed at the border, 20,000 or so, are probably sufficient to deal with the still shambolic Ukrainian forces in Donbas, but logistical difficulties would make a further penetration difficult, and an occupation would likely turn into the Donbas Ulcer. Further, an outright invasion would likely trigger truly punitive sanctions.

In short, although outright defeat of his proxies would be humiliating, an invasion of Ukraine, even if capped by a victory in Donbas, would be a disaster that could not be justified on any cost-benefit basis. Pace Pyrrhus: “One more such victory, and we shall be undone.” Or pace Dryden: “Even victors by victories are undone.”

But humiliation and invasion are not the only two alternatives open to Putin. He could attempt to turn Donbas into a bleeding ulcer for Ukraine, by mounting a guerrilla campaign/low intensity insurgency, dressed up as a people’s revolt against the oppressive fascists. This will be sufficient to maintain a (frozen) conflict that would distract Ukraine, impede the formation of a stable state and government, make it unacceptable as a candidate for Nato, and cause the EU to treat it at arms length. Such a campaign would exploit Putin’s best military asset, spetsnaz units, that specialize at this kind of warfare. It would be less provocative to the west: if the US and EU can largely acquiesce to what Putin is doing in Donbas now, it would put up with a low intensity guerrilla campaign

Meaning that the standoff between the west and Russia is likely to persist for some time. Meaning further that Russians better get used to the Great Patriotic Diet, because they’ll be on it for a while.

Update. It’s rather amusing that Medvedev made the announcement of the food import ban. If it turns out to be unpopular despite the likely propaganda campaign, it will be blamed on sorry old Medvedev. That’s his job: scapegoat in waiting.

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August 4, 2014

I Try To Catalog His Inanities, But It’s Hard to Keep Up

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 8:47 pm

In his press conference last week, Obama responded to a question about whether the US would provide lethal assistance for Ukraine:

Well, keep in mind, the issue at this point is not the Ukrainian capacity to outfight separatists. They are better armed than the separatists. The issue is how do we prevent bloodshed in eastern Ukraine. We’re trying to avoid that. And the main tool that we have to influence Russian behavior at this point is the impact that it’s having on its economy.

Where to begin?

First, the “separatists” are pretty well-armed, so it’s not so clear that the Ukrainian military has a decisive advantage. A stalemate produced by conflict between two roughly matched forces would lead to a greater effusion of blood.

Second, a major reason to bolster the Ukrainian military is to deter Russia from invading, or from increasing the strength of the “separatist” forces. Bolstering the Ukrainian military would realistically achieve these outcomes. And both, by the way, would reduce and prevent bloodshed in Ukraine.

Third, giving the Ukrainian military a more decisive advantage over the separatists would speed its victory, which would be perhaps the best way to reduce and prevent bloodshed in Ukraine.

Fourth, why rely on a single “tool” to “influence Russian behavior” (i.e., economic sanctions) when other tools are available? Multiple tools, especially complementary ones like military, diplomatic, and economic measures, are usually far more effective when used in combination, rather than one at a time.

Fifth, it’s a little late in the day to “avoid” bloodshed in eastern Ukraine. The war is well and truly underway.

There might be good reasons for not providing lethal assistance to Ukraine (and intelligence as well). As is his wont, however, Obama didn’t provide them. His justification for this policy-which is part of a pattern, as witnessed by the refusal to provide ammunition and arms to the Kurds desperately fighting ISIS-is beyond inane.

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