Streetwise Professor

August 14, 2015

Obama & Kerry: (a) Chump, (b) Patsy, (c) Mark, (d) Sucker, (e) All of the Above?

Filed under: Military,Politics — The Professor @ 6:07 pm

Apparently the administration is shocked! Shocked! that Turkey took advantage of its deal with the US to hammer its real enemy (the Kurds) while leaving its frenemy (ISIS) virtually untouched:

Turkey has launched a series of aggressive airstrikes against Kurdish militants but has yet to turn its firepower on Islamic State in Syria as expected, increasing concerns in Washington about the Ankara government’s intentions.

. . . .

But some U.S. officials suspect Turkey is using its recent agreement with the U.S. to fight Islamic State as cover for a new offensive against Kurdish separatist group PKK.

A senior U.S. official said Turkey gave American officials assurances last week that it planned to wrap up attacks on the Kurds in short order, but it has kept up the bombardments focused on the group’s bases in northern Iraq near the Turkish border.

“It’s clear that ISIL was a hook,” said a senior U.S. military official, referring to Islamic State. “Turkey wanted to move against the PKK, but it needed a hook.”

Who knew? This was evident within minutes of the deal being announced, and should have been eminently foreseeable. The US got conned. Played. Pantsed. Obama and Kerry were chumps. Suckers. Patsies. Marks. So yes, the answer is (e)!

But by all means, after seeing them getting totally taken by a duplicitous Middle Eastern autocrat, we should totally trust their assurances that they have this Iran thing completely under control. With such an abysmal record of diplomatic failures, of which this is just the latest, Obama’s superciliousness towards the numerous critics of the Iran deal (supercilious, when he isn’t accusing them of warmongering and treason) is an amazing thing to behold.

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August 6, 2015

70 Years Ago, A Violent Ideology Was Destroyed By A Better Idea: Nuclear Fission

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 10:48 am

Today is the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. In commemoration, we are being bombarded with moralizing criticisms of the US’s actions. Japan is playing the victim card for all it is worth, and it is getting considerable support in the predictable quarters of the US and Europe.

These criticisms only survive in a vacuum in which history begins on 6 August, 1945.  Put into proper historical context, Truman’s decision to drop the bomb is readily understood and easily defended.  Real decisions require an understanding of the choices at hand, and Truman’s choices were grim.

The alternative to the bomb was a continued relentless air assault on Japan with conventional weapons, likely culminating with a series of invasions of the home islands, combined with a Soviet assault in Manchuria and then into China. The human toll of this alternative would have far exceeded that of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, especially in Japanese lives.  Curtis LeMay’s firebombing campaign inflicted horrific casualties: the firebombing of Tokyo on 8/9 March, 1945 alone killed over 100,000 Japanese civilians. The collective toll of the conventional bombing campaign was over 300,000 from November 1944-August 1945, and its continuation would have killed more Japanese than the atomic bombs did.

Then there is the invasion itself, for which the Japanese had prepared a last ditch defense that would have put every civilian in the front lines with bamboo spears, grenades and old rifles. On Okinawa, April-June 1945, an estimated one-third of the civilian population died, many by suicide.  The civilian toll on Saipan a year earlier was also large.

Then add in the horrific military casualties the Japanese would have suffered. In  most previous island battles, Japanese death rates were above 90 percent due to the fanaticism with which they fought. The same fanaticism would have been inevitable in a defense of the home islands, with similar results.

And I haven’t even gotten to the American (and British) casualties, which were rightly Truman’s first responsibility. On Okinawa, the US lost 20,000 KIA, approximately 8 percent of the peak US force.

To this add the massive Chinese civilian casualties that would have resulted from an extended Soviet attack.

Many critics of the dropping of the bomb counter that these horrors would have been avoided, because the Japanese were on the brink of surrender. This is the most ahistorical claim of all. Any leader contemplating the recent experience on Okinawa and Iwo Jima would have thought the idea of an impending Japanese surrender utterly delusional. Further, the most fanatical elements of the Japanese military were violently opposed to the idea of surrender even after the bombs were dropped. Officers mounted a last ditch coup in an attempt to prevent the playing of the recording of the Emperor’s surrender statement. There was a large hardcore element in Japan that would have resisted to the last had not the Emperor ordered them to lay down their arms.

In sum, by any reasonable calculus, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as horrific as they were, saved lives.

Japanese claims of victimhood ring particularly hollow. The fire in the sky was not a bolt from the blue. It was the climax of an orgy of destruction and death brought on by the Japanese, and carried out by them with a ruthlessness perhaps rivaled only the the Nazis in eastern Europe and the USSR. Indeed, Japanese atrocities pre-dated Nazi ones: millions of Chinese died at Japanese hands, often in the most brutal and inhumane ways, starting in 1931 (in Manchuria) and 1937 (in China proper).  Babies on bayonets were not a figment of wartime propaganda. They were a reality. Indeed, the Japanese reveled in such conduct, in large part because of a belief in their racial superiority. And don’t forget that Japan: (a) had its own nuclear program, (b) had an extensive chemical and biological warfare program which involved testing on POWs and civilians, and (c) waged chemical and biological warfare in China.

Further, while the Japanese make a moral claim against the US, they are adamant in their refusal to admit the validity of any such claim against them. Unlike the Germans, who have for the most part come to grips with their past and acknowledge and have paid reparations for the actions of the Hitler government, the Japanese have largely obfuscated and denied what their forebears did with no justification even approaching Truman’s.

Japan sowed the wind, and it reaped the whirlwind. That should be the focus of Japan’s commemoration of Hiroshima.

Some weeks ago, Obama said “ideologies are not defeated with guns but better ideas.” There is at least one instance where that is true. In August, 1945, the violent ideology of Bushido was defeated by an idea. The better idea was nuclear fission.

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August 5, 2015

Five Guys Isn’t a Burger Joint: It’s What’s Left of the US Trained “Force” in Syria

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

With considerable embarrassment, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter admitted to Congress that the US had trained a grand total of 60 fighters in Syria after the expenditure of tens of millions. But his numbers are out of date. For in an arguably criminal move, no sooner had Carter reported to Congress that the US sent this platoon, grandeloquently  named “30 Division” into Syria, in the naive hope that Syria’s Al Qaeda group Al Nusra and other Islamist groups would treat them as allies not enemies. Since when was Al Qaeda fond of American lackeys?

The US was soon disabused of its fantastical notion. Almost as soon as they set foot in Syria, Al Nusra captured many of the 30 division, including its leader. Several of those have thrown over to Al Nusra. Yesterday, Al Nusra attacked the American-trained troops, killing and wounding several.

I have seen various counts of the casualties, one of which states that there are 13 left. So Five Guys isn’t that far off.

In other news of the wretched US policy in Syria, the US and Turkey have reached an agreement on US use of the Incirlik air base. But the Turks consider it a “red line” to use Incrilik-Bcsed aircraft to support Kurds fighting ISIS even though the YPG is the only effective ground force currently fighting the head choppers. And of course, even though Obama ignores his own red lines, he scrupulously adheres to Erdogan’s. Since the US cannot bomb from Incirlik in support of the Kurds, it will either (a) bomb in support of no ground force, meaning that the airpower will be ineffectual, or (b) it will bomb in support of non-Kurdish units in the “safe zone” on the Turkish border west of the Euphrates, most of which are Islamists of one sort or another.

This all makes the Bay of Pigs look like the height of military genius and moral courage.

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July 30, 2015

Perfidious America: The Allegedly Anti-ISIS Turkish Campaign is Objectively Pro-ISIS.

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 1:42 pm

Last week the administration breathlessly announced that it had secured Turkey’s participation in the anti-ISIS campaign. This would entail Turkish airstrikes against ISIS positions, and Turkey granting the US use of Incirlik and other airbases for strike and drone aircraft. The straw that supposedly broke the camel’s back was an ISIS suicide bombing of a Kurdish protest on the Turkey-Syria border (by people wanting to cross to Kobane to help in reconstruction) and the subsequent killing of two Turkish policemen by Kurds who blamed Turkey for the bombing.

With great fanfare, Turkey launched an airstrike against ISIS. And then it has spent the last week bombing the snot out of Kurdish PKK positions in Iraq. If Turkey has engaged in further attacks against ISIS, I haven’t seen it reported, whereas there Turkey has attacked Kurdish positions on a daily basis. Nor do I believe that an extensive campaign would be possible without close coordination between the US and Turkey to avoid fratricide, mid-air collisions, etc., if their forces are operating in the same airspace against the same targets. And as I discuss below, it is unlikely such coordination is occurring.

In sum, under the pretext of attacking ISIS Turkey is attacking its real enemy, the Kurds, who happen to be the only effective ground force against ISIS, and who in addition to pushing them out of Kobane have been taking territory from ISIS and pushing it back towards Raqqa. Indeed, the Kurds have pushed ISIS away from virtually all of the Syria-Turkey border. But in addition to inflicting damage on the Kurds, the Turkish attacks will also no doubt divert Kurdish resources into a renewed war against Turkey, thereby further diminishing pressure on ISIS.

Put differently, the allegedly anti-ISIS Turkish campaign is objectively pro-ISIS.

This is not surprising, because Turkey has always perceived the Kurds-especially the PKK-as a true enemy, and has hardly been stalwart anti-ISIS. Indeed, there is much circumstantial evidence that elements in Turkey support ISIS. Turkey did precious little to seal the border with Syria, thereby allowing ISIS to move men from Turkey into Syria. Furthermore, most of ISIS’s oil is sold in Turkey. Turkey says that the PKK are atheist Marxists, but it is more accurate to say that the real beef is that they are not Sunni Islamists like Erdogan, which means that he has more affinity on sectarian grounds for ISIS than he does the Kurds.

Today Egypt went even further, explicitly accusing Turkey of supporting ISIS fighters in the Sinai.

But it gets better! The supposed deal between the US and Turkey for the use of airbases is only a verbal understanding. And we know about the reliability of verbal understandings in that part of the world, don’t we?  (This is why I doubt there is any serious coordination between US and Turkish air forces, and why I believe that there is no serious Turkish action against ISIS.)

Further, no formal deal is expected for weeks:

But the Pentagon said it will take “weeks” before U.S. airstrikes are launched from Turkish soil, as officials are still working out final arrangements. Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis told reporters Monday that several bases were being looked at to house U.S. aircraft for missions against the Islamic State.

My guess is that “weeks” will turn into “never.” Erdogan, engaged in an intense domestic political battle following his bruising electoral defeat (to which a Kurdish party greatly contributed) is waging war on the PKK both because he hates them and because it plays well domestically, thereby boosting his position in coalition negotiations or a snap election. He will string out negotiations with the US until he accomplishes his political objectives, and then his enthusiasm for letting the US use Turkish bases will evaporate. Erdogan dangled supporting the US against ISIS to get a US (and NATO) green light to attack the Kurds: he will take the latter and renege on the former.

Even if, against my strong expectation, Turkey does permit US use of its bases, this will matter militarily only if the airpower supports and is coordinated with a strong ground force. At present, the only real ground force is Kurdish, and (a) Turkey is attacking the Kurds and (b) do you really think Erdogan is going to permit the use of the bases in a way that strengthens the Kurds? This is all so farcical.

This is not the first time the US has betrayed the Kurds: it has been a habit for going on 30 years. But this most recent action, betraying them again in the name of fighting ISIS, when in fact this betrayal will undermine the anti-ISIS campaign, is the most shameful of all.

Turkey has been opposed to US interests since Erdogan’s assumption of power. It has thwarted us at every turn. Only a fool would believe Erdogan (one of the leaders whom Obama said he got on best with-ha!) has changed his tune. I will certainly not discount the possibility that Obama and Kerry are fools of the first order, but I think it is more likely that this is a truly cynical ploy, with Obama pretending to have achieved a great diplomatic victory that advances the campaign against ISIS, when in fact it does nothing of the sort (and indeed is likely to do the exact opposite).

Idiocy or perfidy. Hell of a choice.

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July 22, 2015

Glimpses of Military Discontent

Filed under: Military,Politics — The Professor @ 7:58 pm

I have long been certain that there is seething discontent within the Pentagon, directed squarely at Obama. The past several days have made this abundantly clear.

The most brutal takedown was by retiring Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno. This certified warrior squarely blames Obama’s Iraq bugout for the rise of Isis. Further, he pointed out Iran’s malign role in the Middle East. He agreed that Iran, and the truly evil Qasem Soleimani in particular (who was un-sanctioned as a result of the Iran deal), were responsible for the bulk of American deaths in Iraq in 2007-2009.

Further, two generals (including the nominee to be Odierno’s replacement) and the Secretary of the Air Force gave testimony before the Senate which squarely undercuts Obama policy. Each identified Russia as the US’s primary threat: one referred to it as an “existential” threat. As if to emphasize that this was off-message, spokesnimrod Josh Earnest said that no one on Obama’s national security staff believes this. This is no doubt true. So much the worse for them.

One of the generals (Milley, I believe) supported arming Ukraine. The testimony also indicated that deploying tactical air controllers to Iraq was advisable. Also not on the Obama agenda.

And note: these are the people that Obama has selected for the top positions in the military. Just think of what those who couldn’t make it through the political filter are saying and thinking.

I am not saying that there is a crisis in civil-military relations under Obama, but it is pretty clear that these relations are in the worst shape in modern memory. What Odierno and the others are saying is likely just a pale shadow of the extreme discontent in the military at their commander in chief.

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July 21, 2015

Perhaps There is an Alternate Universe Where This All Makes Sense

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 6:45 pm

The US has entered into  deal with Iran that will unfreeze $100 to $15o billion in assets, and which will also unleash an investment bonanza in the country going forward. (With unseemly haste, the German vice chancellor has already run to Tehran to rekindle economic ties.) Iran is a longtime supporter of Hezbollah and the Syrian government, and all sentient beings (and by saying this I understand I exclude John Kerry and Barack Obama) realize that Iran will spend some of this windfall on Hezbollah, Syria, and other equally charming organizations and countries. Indeed, Iran has made plain that it will do so:

In relevant remarks on Monday, renowned political analyst Dr. Mohammad Marandi said that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told him in Vienna last week that Iran would continue to supply arms to the regional nations even under a final nuclear deal.

“When we were in Vienna, the Arab reporters asked me if Iran would continue arms aids to its regional allies under the final deal, and when I asked Mr. Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, the question, he told me that Iran would continue the arms supply policy,” Marandi, a Tehran University Professor, said.

“Mr. Zarif told me that Iran would continue its arms aid to the regional nations and he told me that it would be in violation of the UN Security Council resolution (that was adopted earlier today), but it would not be in opposition to the agreement (also known as the Comprehensive Joint Plan of Action),” he reiterated adding that Zarif had not asked him to remain unnamed when reflecting the answer to the reporters.

Simultaneously, however, the US is sanctioning Hezbollah officials for their involvement in the Syrian bloodbath:

The U.S. government on Tuesday imposed sanctions on three leaders of the militant group Hezbollah and a businessman in Lebanon, saying they were key players in the group’s military operations in Syria.

The sanctions were imposed by the U.S. Treasury Department.

“The United States will continue to aggressively target (Hezbollah) for its terrorist activities worldwide as well as its ongoing support to (Syrian President Bashar al-) Assad’s ruthless military campaign in Syria,” said Adam Szubin, the Treasury Department’s acting under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.

Jesus H. Christ: Who is the biggest supporter of “Assad’s ruthless military campaign in Syria”? Iran! So we are freeing billions to a country that will use it to support Assad’s butchery but we are sanctioning Hezbollah (which is pretty much a wholly-owned Iranian subsidiary) because it supports Assad’s butchery.

You cannot make up this stuff. It is impossible.

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July 2, 2015

Though I’ve Been Away, I Keep a Weather Eye on Putinsanity

Filed under: Economics,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 6:50 pm

Apologies for the light posting. Some travel (to Sweden, Denmark and London), work, and a need to decompress for a bit account for the absence.

I have kept a watch on things, though, and some Putinsanity has caught my eye.

For instance, VVP has accused cursed furriners of luring, Pied Piper-like, talented Russian youth away from the glorious Motherland:

A network of [foreign] organizations has ‘rummaged’ through the schools in the Russian Federation for many years under the guise of supporting talented young people. In reality, they simply hoover everything up like a vacuum

Note to Vlad: the reason that “talented young people” want to leave in droves is less that “foreign organizations” attract them, but that the state and society that you have constructed repel them.

Note the rampant insecurity here. I think that Putin knows that Russia has little to offer. But he can’t admit that, so he rages agains the West.

Item two: Surprise, surprise, surprise. The Russia-Turkey gas pipeline project is stalled because of a failure to communicate on price. Don’t say I didn’t tell you so:

Russia’s plan to build a new $15 billion pipeline to Turkey is at risk of delay because of a fight over gas prices, according to people with knowledge of the matter.

State-run OAO Gazprom and its Turkish counterpart Botas had a six-month period to agree on prices for gas supplies between the two countries, which expired on Monday. The Ankara-based company now has the right to take the matter to international arbitration, three of the people said, asking not to be named because the information is private.

The dispute over prices means there’s no immediate prospect of signing a binding pact for the new pipeline, the second between Russia and Turkey. An agreement could now be delayed until at least October, two more people said, also asking not to be identified.

The Russians think that you are stupid enough to believe that this is due to Erdogan’s defeat in the recent parliamentary elections, but that’s just a face saving cover story. Truth be told, the Russians are masters of vapor agreements. By my rough estimate, two of the last 100 announced gas deals have come to completion. And I’m being generous.

Anyone who believes anything Russia/Gazprom say about any pipeline project, deal, contract, etc., please contact me! Have I got a deal for you!

(As an aside, Erdogan and Putin are doppelgängers in a competition for the coveted titled of Most Insane Wannabe Autocrat Obsessed With Restoring Lost Imperial Greatness. May the best nut win!)

Next comedic moment: the Russia-Greece pipeline vapor deal, which is effectively contingent on a (non-existent) Russia-Turkey pipeline vapor deal. (BTW: Why is everybody freaking out about Russia courting Greece? Let Putin have them! Just what he needs. Another economic basket case, to join Abkhazia, Transnistria, South Ossetia, Donetsk, Luhansk. May the Orthodox nations enjoy every happiness! They deserve one another!)

Item three: Russia blasts the new US defense doctrine, which (realistically) identifies Russia as a threat to the sovereignty of its neighbors due to its willingness to use force as “confrontational.”

This is a perfect illustration of Pirrong’s Principle of Putinist Psychological Projection. Whatever the Russians say about the US is a pitch-perfect description of what the Russians are doing. They are the masters of projection.

This leads to my last observation: what will Putin do in Ukraine? He can’t go back: that would be a humiliating climbdown which he is psychologically incapable of, and which could actually threaten his power. Maintaining the status quo is the lowest risk, but offers the least potential for gain, and creates the real potential for a creeping collapse as the economic drain of sanctions and militarization saps the economy. Going forward and attacking Ukraine presents serious risks. Ukraine might be able to deny him a quick victory and impose serious losses. Even if he prevails operationally, the costs of occupation will be steep. These include the direct costs, which will be especially high if Ukrainians resort to historical precedent and wage a grueling guerrilla war (remember the Greens?). They also include the indirect costs of almost certainly escalated sanctions.

He’s in a fine mess, and I don’t know how he will react. Time is running out for a summer offensive, but time is not on his side generally. My fear is that he will follow Eisenhower’s dictum: “If a problem cannot be solved, enlarge it.” The question is: where? The Baltic-Finland, Sweden, Denmark, as well as the Baltic States-is a real possibility. Putinsanity is hard to predict, but nothing is beyond the realm of possibility.

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June 23, 2015

Alexander the Great: Why Hamilton Deserves His Spot-Alone-on the Ten Spot

Filed under: Economics,History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 7:20 pm

Last week the Treasury Department announced that in a redesign of the $10 bill, Alexander Hamilton would be replaced, joined, or supplemented by a Historical American Woman to be Named Later. Considering that Jackson, Grant, McKinley, and Cleveland also grace US Federal Reserve Notes, the decision to replace Hamilton of all people is lamentable in the extreme. Even overlooking his, to put mildly, controversial career, as a hater of paper money, assassin (and proud of it!) of the predecessor to the Fed, and an economic imbecile, Jackson in particular is a dubious choice to grace a greenback.

Hamilton, in contrast, merits sole possession of a widely circulated bill because it is hard to identify any figure, of any sex, president or no, who made a greater contribution to American history, and to its economic success. Off the top of my head:

  • A successful and brave staff and line officer during the Revolution. After long service on Washington’s staff (which led some to conclude, wrongly, that he was Washington’s brain), he took command of the Continental light infantry at Yorktown, and led the successful assault on Redoubt Number 10 which, along with the fall of adjoining Redoubt Number 9 to the French, sealed the fate of the besieged town.
  • The moving force (along with Madison) of the Annapolis Convention, which played a role in the convocation of the Constitutional Convention the next year.
  • Played a major role in the Convention.
  • Along with Madison, as the author of the Federalist Papers, provided the intellectual case for the passage of the Constitution. Worked assiduously to secure ratification of the Constitution.
  • First, and most important, Secretary of the Treasury. He righted the nation’s fraught fiscal situation, and made the nation creditworthy. He crafted a comprehensive fiscal and financial framework, including taxation, debt, and a national bank. (Even as the descendent of some Whiskey Rebels who objected to the whiskey taxes that were part of Hamilton’s system, I even understand his role as commander of the US forces sent to disperse the Rebels.) His Reports on Manufactures and Public Credit were incredibly economically sophisticated, and eminently practical. (I remember Robert Lucas in Econ 331 or 332 expressing his awe at Hamilton’s Reports.) It is not an exaggeration to say that the United States could not possibly have developed the way it did and as rapidly it did without his farsighted fiscal and economic stewardship
  • Founder of the Bank of New York, which exists to this day.
  • A man of liberal (in the Adam Smith/David Hume sense of the word) views, i.e., a lover of liberty. For all races. He was one of the few Founders who was not only a frank opponent of slavery and advocate of emancipation, but who also viewed those of African heritage equal as humans to whites.
  • A man who rose from extremely poor beginnings to become a colossus. Proof that birth is not fate, and that America has long been a land of opportunity for the able, ambitious, and hard working. (At Cal-Berkeley those sentences would be considered a “microaggression.” 1. I don’t do microaggressions. I move straight onto macroaggressions. Or maybe I pool and tranche my microaggressions to create MBS: Microaggression Backed Securities. 2. Cal-Berkeley can sod off.)

In sum: Military hero. Political giant. Political scientist. Economist. Practical manager. Entrepreneur. I defy you to find anyone with as diversified a portfolio as Alexander Hamilton. He truly was Alexander the Great.

The fact that the Treasury is even countenancing removing Hamilton is proof of the historical idiocy of supposedly educated Americans. The excuse that the $10 bill was next in line for a redesign doesn’t cut it. That sounds like typical bureaucratic cowardice, hiding behind procedure and routine to avoid defending a position that is indefensible on the merits.

So by all means put a woman on a bill. Just not the $10. And use this as an opportunity to teach Americans who know far too little about their past about one of the most remarkable figures in American history.

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June 5, 2015

Is the NSA Spying on Foreign Government Hackers? I Sure As Hell Hope So

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia,Snowden — The Professor @ 7:08 pm

The latest expose from Putin’s little monkey, Edward Snowden, desperate to maintain his relevance, is that the NSA monitors addresses and cybersignatures linked to foreign hackers, and specifically, foreign government-connected hackers:

In mid-2012, Justice Department lawyers wrote two secret memos permitting the spy agency to begin hunting on Internet cables, without a warrant and on American soil, for data linked to computer intrusions originating abroad — including traffic that flows to suspicious Internet addresses or contains malware, the documents show.

The Justice Department allowed the agency to monitor only addresses and “cybersignatures” — patterns associated with computer intrusions — that it could tie to foreign governments. But the documents also note that the NSA sought permission to target hackers even when it could not establish any links to foreign powers.

To which I say: I sure as hell hope so.

It is more than a little ironic that this article appeared almost simultaneously with the revelation that some foreign organization or government hacked into US government computers, and stole the personal information of millions of government employees. It’s hard to imagine a more telling, vivid contrast between the highly abstract and limited treat to American’s personal privacy posed by the measures described in the NYT article, and the very real threat to that privacy posed by the target of those measures.

This all points out the utter asininity of the Snowden fanatics (who, alas, include some members of Congress and at least one presidential candidate), who appear completely unwilling or unable to think of trade-offs and real world choices, but instead focus monomaniacally on the threat to their personal privacy posed by the US government, while ignoring other more serious threats that (unlike the NSA) operate subject to no legal constraint or oversight whatsoever. Yes, the USG can be abusive, at times to the point of being tyrannical. But we need to speak of specific cases.

Tell me. Whom do you believe is a bigger threat to your privacy? The NSA or hackers, foreign hackers in particular?

There is a pronounced whiff of narcissism from those who think that the NSA really gives a damn about them and their precious online secrets. Sorry to break it to you, but it doesn’t, unless perhaps you have had a bad breakup with an NSA employee. It hoovers up vast amounts of information, but is focused on filtering out the noise to get at intelligence-relevant signals. And believe it or not, the hours you spend on Tinder are nothing but noise.

Hackers, on the other hand, find your information quite fascinating, precisely because they can monetize that information. They can turn ethereal bytes into solid gold.

So there is a real trade off, and when you conceive of it as a trade off the choice becomes pretty obvious. At the cost of allowing the NSA to touch a highly limited sliver of your personal data, you can increase the odds of detecting or deterring a truly malign hack. Or, you can protect your address and cybersignature from the prying eyes of the NSA, and dramatically increase the odds of having your most valuable personal information fall victim to hackers. That’s the trade-off. That’s your choice. Deal with that reality. Those who choose to let the hackers run riot rather than have a few limited pieces of information reside on an NSA-controlled server deserve to have Died of a Theory as their financial epitaph.

(Regarding the hack of the US Office of Personnel Management, the administration pointed the finger at China with unseemly haste. Perhaps. But this seems more like a Russian MO than a Chinese. The Russians are interested in information they can monetize, the Chinese less so. Perhaps China is the culprit, but I wouldn’t rush to judgment.)

The NYT/PP article makes it clear that the DOJ only asked the FISA court for authority to collect the data from intruders connected to foreign governments. The NSA wanted a broader mandate,  including the ability to collect from foreign intruders not reliably tied to a government, but DOJ didn’t ask for it.

That’s too bad. Non-Government hackers, mainly operating from Russia, other FSU countries, and China, are arguably a bigger threat to personal privacy than governments. The non-government hackers have mercenary motives, and your data is particularly attractive to them. Most of the major hacks of valuable personal information have been executed by foreign criminal organizations with no demonstrable connections to foreign governments (though in the case of Russia, they likely operate under Russian government protection) So again looking at the trade-off, I’d prefer that the NSA have the broader authority. That would give me more privacy, and more information security.

With regards to Snowden, isn’t it interesting that Snowden’s organ grinder-Putin-would be one of the main beneficiaries of a restriction on the NSA’s authority to track foreign government hackers? Surely just a coincidence, right, because little monkeys never dance to their master’s tunes, do they?

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May 26, 2015

Contrary to What Obama Says, the Ayatollahs Don’t Believe That It’s the Economy, Stupid

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 12:48 pm

Obama gave an interview with his Boswell (on Middle East matters, anyways), Jeffrey Goldberg. In it, Goldberg asked how Obama could be confident in making a deal with a virulently anti-Semitic state. (Goldberg omitted  that it is also a state that has “death to America” as its rallying cry, which is as or more important to Americans.) Respondeth the (self-identified) sage:

“Well the fact that you are anti-Semitic, or racist, doesn’t preclude you from being interested in survival. It doesn’t preclude you from being rational about the need to keep your economy afloat; it doesn’t preclude you from making strategic decisions about how you stay in power; and so the fact that the supreme leader is anti-Semitic doesn’t mean that this overrides all of his other considerations. You know, if you look at the history of anti-Semitism, Jeff, there were a whole lot of European leaders—and there were deep strains of anti-Semitism in this country—” [Of course, Obama can’t resist slagging Americans by comparing them to “Death to Israel” ayatollahs and “European leaders”, e.g., Hitler.]

I interjected by suggesting that anti-Semitic European leaders made irrational decisions, to which Obama responded, “They may make irrational decisions with respect to discrimination, with respect to trying to use anti-Semitic rhetoric as an organizing tool. [Does Obama believe that anti-Semitic rhetoric was an “organizing tool” for the Nazis? If he is excluding them from this, then he is dodging Goldberg’s question.] At the margins, where the costs are low, they may pursue policies based on hatred as opposed to self-interest. But the costs here are not low, and what we’ve been very clear [about] to the Iranian regime over the past six years is that we will continue to ratchet up the costs, not simply for their anti-Semitism, but also for whatever expansionist ambitions they may have. That’s what the sanctions represent. That’s what the military option I’ve made clear I preserve represents. And so I think it is not at all contradictory to say that there are deep strains of anti-Semitism in the core regime, but that they also are interested in maintaining power, having some semblance of legitimacy inside their own country, which requires that they get themselves out of what is a deep economic rut that we’ve put them in, and on that basis they are then willing and prepared potentially to strike an agreement on their nuclear program.”

That all sounds coolly analytical and everything (“organizing tool”, “at the margins where the costs are low”) but it is poppycock dressed up in academic jargon grounded in a category error. Specifically, Obama profoundly misunderstands rationality, and projects his own views of what is rational on others, specifically the Iranians (though he projects on others, including Putin, in other contexts).

Obama argues that “being rational” involves things like “staying in power” and “keeping your economy afloat.” Conversely, he believes that except as an instrument to achieve these ends, anti-Semitism, expansionism, and presumably anti-Americanism and Islamic fundamentalism and Islamic exceptionalism, are irrational. Obama further believes, apparently, that rational imperatives (e.g., a stronger economy, better living standards for Iranians), will trump these irrational urges.

This fundamentally misunderstands what Hayek pointed out long ago: rationality relates to the application of the means best calculated to achieved desired ends. It does not relate to the desired ends themselves, which are inherently subjective and effectively beyond objective reason or logic. In economic terms, if the Iranian leadership gets subjective utility out of killing Jews and Americans and Sunnis, and extending the reach of the Islamic revolution, “rationality” involves the effectiveness of the means chosen to kill Jews, Americans, and Sunnis, and extend the reach of the Islamic revolution, not these objectives themselves. Again, the Nazi example is instructive. Given the costs of pursuing the Holocaust, it may seem irrational. But the Nazis pursued it with a purpose despite these costs. This was rational because they got intense satisfaction out of killing Jews. The huge cost of exterminating the Jews is a testament to its importance to them, not an indication of their irrationality.

In other words, Obama is engaged in the worst kind of mirror imaging, defining his preferences and world view to be “rational”, and projecting them onto the Iranians. In the near term, the main implication Obama and the administration draw from this is that “rational” economic imperatives will drive the Iranians to moderate their aggressiveness and imperial ambitions. The administration is basically the ventriloquist for this article from Reuters.

This is flatly at odds with their current behavior. A severely economically constrained Iranian regime is bending every fiber and digging deep into its limited resources to prop up Assad, foment revolt in Yemen, and fight Isis in Iraq. This indicates what its strong preferences are, and if it receives tens of billions of additional resources, it will inevitably indulge these preferences by increasing its spending on them. Expand their opportunity set, and Iran will engage in more anti-Semitism, more anti-Americanism, more Islamism, and more Persian imperialism. Further, it will respond to domestic discontent not by appeasing it through focusing like a laser on the economy, but by focusing like a laser on crushing the opposition, as it did in 2009 (when Obama stood aside, clearly signaling that he had chosen the ayatollahs over the Iranian people). And all that will be perfectly rational.

Narcissist that he is, mirror imaging comes naturally to Obama. And this very mirror imaging explains why Obama has been surprised so frequently by world events, most notably in the Middle East, but not limited to there by any means. People don’t do what he expects because he expects them to do what he would even though they inhabit different universes. These surprises have translated into failures and fiascos, and the most dramatic decline in America’s strategic position since at least Vietnam, and perhaps even including Vietnam. John Kerry says to give him and Obama the benefit of the doubt. Sorry, but sad experience tells us that would be truly, well, irrational.

Mirror imaging was bad enough when the Soviets were the object of it, but it is beyond insane with the Iranians, who inhabit an entirely different mental, moral, cultural, and religious universe than most Americans do, and certainly different than the one that transnational progressives like Obama inhabit. Ayatollahs don’t believe that it’s the economy, stupid. They believe it’s Islam and Shia Persian superiority, stupid. Given their very different values and preferences, they will make very different choices than Obama projects on them, meaning that he will be surprised, yet again.

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