Streetwise Professor

June 5, 2014

You Got Some ‘Splainin’ to Do, Barry

Filed under: China,History,Military,Politics,Russia,Uncategorized — The Professor @ 10:50 am

Looking back at Obama’s West Point speech helps one comprehend the otherwise incomprehensible Bergdahl-Taliban imbroglio. You can see his mind, such as it is, at work. He is too clever by half, too convinced of his own brilliance and righteousness, and possessed of some acute blind spots, particularly regarding the military, and especially those serving in the ranks whom he does not have any experience with whatsoever.

In the speech, Obama effectively declared victory in Afghanistan. The Al Qaeda “leadership” had been decimated. The Afghan security forces were able to step up. The Taliban were not even mentioned.

So time to declare victory and end the war and go home. And one of the signifiers of the end of a war is the exchange of POWs. Hence, the negotiation of a trade of Bergdahl for five Taliban hardliners. (“Dead-enders”, as Rumsfeld would have called them.) Moreover, once five really bad actors are released from Gitmo, what is the basis for keeping the rest? Thus, the next stage would have been additional releases.

But then things spun out of Obama’s control, and the contradictions in the policy, its ham-fisted implementation, and inane justifications exploded into view-and in Obama’s face.

First there was the strong skepticism about the prudence-or sanity-of releasing Taliban hardliners. Then there was Bergdahl himself, and Bergdahl’s father. Because of Obama’s blindspot about the military-one shared by most of his administration-he did not expect the furious reaction from the ranks, especially from those who had served with Bergdahl or served in the same area at the same time and therefore bore the brunt of the fallout from his apparent desertion. No doubt the perfumed Pentagon princes assured Obama that everyone would be pleased to have a comrade come home. But this was to misjudge the widespread belief in the ranks that Bergdahl had broken the code with his comrades, and that soldiers died as a result.

This was compounded by Obama’s very public-and literal-embrace of Bergdahl’s father, an avowed Taliban supporter who has called on God to avenge the deaths of Afghan children. Deaths he clearly blames on the US, not on the Taliban. Meaning that avenging the deaths of Afghan children would involve the deaths of US servicemen and women.

Blindsided by the furious onslaught, the administration responded in typical fashion. It trotted out Susan “Say Anything” Rice to claim that Bergdahl had been “captured on the field of battle” (almost certainly false) and had served with “honor” (again, almost certainly false). When this just re-vectored the blowback onto Rice’s sorry backside, Jay Carney interrupted his way out the door to support her, claiming that Bergdahl did serve with distinction because he had volunteered and put on the uniform.

Um, Jay, that may be a necessary condition for honorable service, but it isn’t a sufficient one. Indeed, if just putting on the uniform is all that matters, why are there distinctions made when one takes it off? Most are discharged honorably, but some depart the service with dishonorable or less-than-honorable discharges. Implying that one’s conduct while in uniform matters. Some people dishonor the uniform through their conduct while in service. The issue here is whether Bergdahl did that.

But perhaps Jay Carney isn’t aware of the concept of dishonorable discharges. Though he should be. John Kerry’s discharge status was an issue in 2004.

Which brings us to the next administration response: slime the soldiers who have accused Bergdahl of desertion in the face of the enemy. Yesterday it was reported that people in the administration were accusing these veterans of “Swift Boating” Bergdahl. A lot of fire is being delivered in the direction of these guys. You see, Bergdahl is honorable. They stayed and fought, but they are psychos (as one Obama administration staffer put it). How lovely.

But we’re not done yet. There is also the issue of the process and the timeline of the deal with the Taliban. The administration claimed that it had to act in haste, without giving Congress the legally-mandated 30 days notice of the release of Gitmo detainees, because of its grave concern about Bergdahl’s physical and mental condition. But these concerns were allegedly based on a video taken in December and received, via the Qataris, in January. The five month lag belies any serious alarm about the imminence of Bergdahl’s medical peril.

Belatedly the administration allowed several Senators to view the tape, to mixed reviews. Some, like the awful Dick (and I do mean Dick) Durbin toed the administration line. Others were less impressed. And not all of the unimpressed were Republicans. Manchin and Feinstein did not see evidence of imminent danger.

The health justification is especially dubious given the fact that this deal has been in the works for years. Years. At least since 2011. Moreover, there are indications that the motivation for the deal had a large political component:

President Obama [has] announced that the United States will now pursue “a negotiated peace” with the Taliban. That peace is likely to include a prisoner swap – or a “confidence-building measure,” as U.S. officials working on the negotiations call it – that could finally end the longest war in America’s history. Bowe is the one prisoner the Taliban have to trade. “It could be a huge win if Obama could bring him home,” says a senior administration official familiar with the negotiations. “Especially in an election year, if it’s handled properly.”

I would bet you dimes to donuts that the “senior administration official” is Susan Rice, especially in light of her history of viewing geopolitical issues through a domestic political filter:

At an interagency teleconference in late April, Susan Rice, a rising star on the NSC who worked under Richard Clarke, stunned a few of the officials present when she asked, “If we use the word ‘genocide’ and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November [congressional] election?” Lieutenant Colonel Tony Marley remembers the incredulity of his colleagues at the State Department. “We could believe that people would wonder that,” he says, “but not that they would actually voice it.” Rice does not recall the incident but concedes, “If I said it, it was completely inappropriate, as well as irrelevant.”

Previous attempts to do the deal had been derailed by serious people, like Leon Panetta, Robert Gates, and yes, Hillary. People who take national security seriously. Obama has succeeded in getting rid of serious people, replacing Panetta with the pathetic Chuck Hagel, for example. What’s more, he deliberately set up the process to review the deal to exclude any possibility of a veto this time. The military was expected to “suck it up and salute.” Which the perfumed princes apparently did, whereas the rank and file did not.

In sum, Obama had been trying to close the deal that was done last week for years, as part of a broader diplomatic and political agenda. He had been stymied by fierce opposition within his own administration. He short circuited that opposition through key appointments (Hagel, Rice) and the creation of an ad hoc process that gave no opportunity for serious opposition to assert itself. Thus, the “health concerns” justification is completely at odds with the history of this situation: it is an ex post defense of a policy that Obama can’t defend on its merits.

Obama is clearly desperate-desperate-for a deal. No doubt as a part of his ongoing Legacy Project. How desperate? This desperate:

Clinching it was a phone call Obama made two days later, on May 27, with the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, who said Qatari officials had agreed to measures to prevent at least an immediate return to the battlefield of the five Taliban prisoners, the officials said.

“Prevent at least an immediate return.” These guys have to go on time out for a while, to have a somewhat decent interval before returning to the fight. And even then, Obama admits that it’s “absolutely” possible these guys will kill again.

We’ve seen this movie before. You give Obama a fig leaf, and he will grab it and give you everything you want. (The Syrian chemical weapons deal is the classic example of that.)

For their part, once the deal was done, the Taliban punked Obama by releasing a video of the handover, along with much more extensive coverage of the joyous reception given the five released terrorists in Qatar.

And speaking of Qatar, which obviously played a huge role in all this, that could be the worst part of this sorry episode. Again in his desperation to deal, Obama has gone all in with the Qataris, who are truly malign actors whose interests are definitely not aligned with the US. Qatar has deep ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and was pushing its efforts in Egypt. Qatar is engaged in a struggle with Saudi Arabia to exert influence, and even achieve dominance, throughout the Middle East. Farming out key roles to these people is a dangerous game. (Interestingly, Obama met with the former emir of Qatar at West Point.)

So Obama has some serious explaining to do to justify this fiasco. So far his explanations have done worse than fallen flat: they’ve unleashed a firestorm of criticism. So you know what will happen: dismissing this as a manufactured DC controversy (which has already happened), attacks on the messenger (already well underway), and spin, spin, spin. Indeed, many of the media dervishes are whirling away as we sit here.

But not to worry. It’s not like anybody is noticing that Obama is feckless and incompetent, and taking advantage of that. Well, other than Putin, of course. And the Iranians. And the Chinese:

On the surface, this may look reckless. But one theory gaining traction among senior officials and policy analysts around Asia and in Washington is that the timing is well calculated. It reflects Mr. Xi’s belief that he is dealing with a weak U.S. president who won’t push back, despite his strong rhetorical support for Asian allies.

Mr. Xi’s perception, say these analysts, has been heightened by U.S. President Barack Obama’s failures to intervene militarily in Syria and Ukraine. And it’s led him to conclude that he has a window of opportunity to aggressively assert China’s territorial claims around the region.

I’ve often said that I hope Bismarck (“There is a special providence for fools, drunkards, and the USA”) and Adam Smith (“there is a lot of ruin in a nation”) are right. Obama is putting both aphorisms to the test.

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June 3, 2014

The Bergdahl Leak Campaign Reveals a Deep Divide in the Administration

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 1:54 pm

The Bergdahl story has escaped into the wild, despite the administration’s desperate attempts to keep it tamed and caged.

The military is leaking like a  sieve that’s been used for shotgun practice. The upshot: it was established very early on that Bergdahl deserted. Furthermore, this information makes it plain that he lied when he said he had been captured while on patrol. Other stories include one that the US knew where he was, and consciously decided not to use special forces to retake him because they were not about to sacrifice operators for a deserter. Further detail: there is an intel file on him a mile deep, and widespread suspicion that he provided material assistance to the Taliban. Including instructing them on bomb making and ambush techniques. And the latest leak is that his farewell note including a renunciation of his American citizenship.

All leaked, yes, so therefore unverifiable. Precisely why a full inquiry is warranted. But the leaking itself is informative: it is the bureaucracy’s way of waging war against administration policy that they detest but cannot oppose openly. The military has been ordered to shut up publicly, so it wages asymmetric warfare by leak.

But  the situation regarding further inquiry is very murky. Some leaks say that Bergdahl is “too fragile” to stand a thorough investigation. How convenient. But the WSJ just reported that a new investigation is underway.  Relatedly, Hagel and Rice said that grave concerns about Bergdahl’s health required the hurried negotiation. But US military doctors said that he was “in good shape.”

These conflicting stories about investigations suggest a battle within the military on how to proceed.

One thing is not murky: there was no way that the record available to the administration supported Susan Rice’s claim that Bergdahl served honorably and was captured on the field of battle. Just as there is no way that the record supported her statements about Benghazi. Proving that she is the go-to-gal when there’s bull to be slung: hell, even Carney apparently has his limits.

She is a good little courtier, who will say anything to defend her liege lord. And if you examine this whole affair, and other recent events, you will see that the best model for understanding DC generally, and the Obama administration in particular, is that of a European royal court. This, sadly, includes the military, where courtiers in epaulets obfuscate the truth in order to serve the king.

This started from day one, when the military required those in Bergdahl’s unit to sign an NDA stating they would not discuss him, his disappearance, or the efforts to retrieve him.

But far below the rarified atmosphere that the perfumed princes inhabit, the rank-and-file are seething. And the parents of some of those who died because of Bergdahl want answers, and claim that the military has deceived them.

There are also inklings that there has been a political battle within the administration over the prisoner swap for a long time. Hillary and Panetta supposedly refused to sign off on a deal. But they are gone: ciphers (Hagel most notably) are in their place, and are willing to comply. This is all part of Obama’s efforts to end wars, not win them. And there is a political component to this, and always has been. From 2012:

“It could be a huge win if Obama could bring him home,” says a senior administration official familiar with the negotiations. “Especially in an election year, if it’s handled properly.”

This is all why a clearing of the air is needed. The whole thing smells. But don’t expect the most transparent administration ever to do that.

The Bergdahl story is just the tip of an iceberg. Or perhaps more accurately: the top of a very putrid pile. Which is precisely why the administration is going to go to DefCon 1 in its attempt to control the damage. Meaning Susan Rice will probably be collecting overtime.

The Bergdahl story is deeply interconnected with Obama’s efforts to negotiate with the Taliban. This has apparently been divisive within the administration: just wait until it becomes a full-blown partisan battle. Bergdahl is important in his own right, but to the extent that it shows just how far Obama is willing to go, and how much he is willing to obfuscate, in order to bug out of Afghanistan, he has become a matter of national and international importance.

This is not going away. It is going to get bigger.

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June 2, 2014

The Families of Six Servicemen Deserve the Truth About and the Accountability of Bowe Bergdahl

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Uncategorized — The Professor @ 3:16 pm

I noted yesterday that the upper brass and the grunts had a very different take on Bergdahl. That has become even more clear. The national security establishment, including both the civilian and military sides of the Pentagon, seems quite pleased with developments, and is more than willing to gloss over the circumstances by which Berghdahl fell into Taliban hands. Some are even willing to engage in a wholesale whitewash, most notably the execrable Susan Rice (no shock there), who says flat out that Bergdahl “served with honor and distinction” and was “captured on the battlefield”. She should really join the band Say Anything.

Many US soldiers currently in Afghanistan are more ambivalent. The circumstances of his capture sit uneasily with them.

Then there are those who who served with Bergdahl, or who were involved in the frantic operations mounted to find him after his disappearance. Very little ambivalence there. The consensus is that he is a deserter.

What’s more, there is considerable anger among those who were engaged in the search because people died as a direct result of Bergdahl’s disappearance. That people died searching for him is not in dispute. Six soldiers were killed on operations to try to find him. Moreover, it is possible that his disappearance indirectly killed Americans because resources (air support, drones, etc.) were diverted to the mission to find him, making other bases that were attacked more vulnerable. Then there is the issue of whether Bergdahl provided information or other support to the Taliban that cost American lives (though this is more speculative.) (Or maybe not so speculative.)

This is why it is imperative that there be a formal proceeding, along the lines of what is set out in the Code of Conduct, to determine just how Bergdahl wound up in enemy hands, and what he did while a captive. Yes, Bergdahl is home. Yes, his parents can rejoice in his return. But there are mothers, fathers, wives, and children of at least six American servicemen who will never experience such a reunion. Because of what Bergdahl did: there is no way to escape that fundamental fact. They deserve the truth about what he did. And they deserve the knowledge that if Bergdahl deliberately abandoned his unit, thereby setting in train the events that resulted in the deaths of their loved ones, that he has been held accountable.

In other words, this isn’t about Bob Bergdahl. It is about Clayton Bowden, Kurt Curtiss, Darynn Andrews, Michael Murprhey, Matthew Martinek, and Morris Walker.

There are stories circulating that he did not desert, e.g., that he was captured while at the latrine. I consider this unlikely: note that not one other US soldier was captured in Afghanistan (a remarkable feat), meaning that if Bergdahl was indeed captured without his intending to fall into enemy hands  he was truly the very unlucky and unique exception that proves the rule. (There are other reasons to disbelieve the latrine story, which originated in Taliban radio chatter.) Again, let’s assemble the evidence, including his testimony, and decide accordingly.

I am not prejudging the results of any such inquiry, or the appropriate punishment. What I am saying is that there must be a formal fact finding procedure with legal consequences based on these findings. (I note that the Army had previously determined that Bergdahl walked away. But it did not have his testimony, obviously. Now we can get it.) The results could range from a commendation (in the unlikely event that the story as we know it is all wrong), to dishonorable discharge, to something more severe. The torments he might have suffered over the past five years may be grounds to ameliorate  punishment, but not to avoid assembling the facts and reaching a verdict.

One of the most well-established facts about men in combat is that they fight first and foremost for their buddies. The guys in their squad or platoon. There is a formal Code of Conduct in the US military, but there is a timeless code that binds soldiers: I will die for you because I know you will die for me.

People died for Bowe Bergdahl. That is incontrovertible fact. What remains unclear is whether they died because he violated the trust, the code, that should have bound him to his comrades.

The facts of his disappearance support that. But so too does the fact that it appears that Bergdahl didn’t have any buddies. He expressed scorn for his comrades, and was always an outsider who was independent, and likely to be reading when those in his unit were partying together. He was a man apart, at first figuratively, and then it seems quite literally.

If you want to be individualist, and follow your own lights and desires, that’s fine. But the military isn’t the place for that: go be an individualist somewhere else, and believe me, you’ll be much happier. And once you commit to the military, at times lives depend on you, and you have to put your wants aside, and choke down any disillusionment (a common excuse made for Bergdahl) and do your duty. Do it for your comrades, who may be disillusioned or lonely or unhappy or miserable or pissed off too: in fact, in combat generally, and Afghanistan particularly, it’s pretty much a lock that they all would rather be someplace else.

It’s cliche but it’s true: you surrender much of your individuality when you put on a uniform. The surrender is consensual in a volunteer military.

Much that we have been told implies that Bergdahl did not do that. He indulged himself, with no regard for the consequences his actions would have for those he left behind. (Bergdahl has more than a little in common with Snowden, by the way.)

Finding the facts and holding Bergdahl accountable for his actions is important for the good of the service, and for the memories of those who died trying to find him. But I fear that petty political considerations will trump such serious concerns. Trading hardcore Taliban for a GI is controversial enough. Trading hardcore Taliban for a deserter who cost the lives of good soldiers who sucked it up and endured the hardship that Bowe Bergdahl apparently felt he did not deserve is infinitely more so. Which means that the truth, and even the effort to find the truth, is likely to be the last casualty of this sorry affair because the truth could be extremely inconvenient for Barack Obama. If Susan Rice’s encore performance is anything to go by, the whitewash is well underway.

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June 1, 2014

Enforce the Code: “I am an American fighting in the forces which guard my country and our way of life.”

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 2:40 pm

You might consider this quaint, but the Bergdahl case brought to mind The Code of Conduct for the United States Fighting Forces. This was adopted in 1954 (the year my dad entered the Army as a draftee) due to the serious breakdowns of discipline by US POWs held by the NoKos and ChiComs in the Korean War.

This code was drilled into me and my classmates at Navy. (Back then, I think it was called The Code of Conduct for the United States Fighting Man.) It was one of the first things we were taught in Plebe Summer, and was the subject of numerous discussions throughout those eight weeks.

The facts as we know them strongly suggest that Bowe Bergdahl violated every article.

Here’s an important part (Article VI.d) that speaks directly to one of my points:

Upon repatriation, POWs can expect their actions to be reviewed, both as to circumstances of capture and conduct during detention. The purpose of such review is to recognize meritorious performance as well as to investigate possible misconduct. Each review will be conducted with due regard for the rights of the individual and consideration for the conditions of captivity; captivity of itself is not a condition of culpability.

It is imperative that such a review take place in Bergdahl’s case, and take place free of any command influence.

This article from the WSJ raises concerns in that regard. It states that the military brass is “ecstatic” at Bergdahl’s return. That hardly suggests that they are committed to investigate possible misconduct.

Interestingly, the article states that troopers, as opposed to the brass, are ambivalent at best. This is understandable, for many reasons. First, Obama has incentivized our enemies to take them prisoner for the purpose of using them as bargaining leverage, thereby increasing the risks they face. Second, the circumstances surrounding his capture are highly suspicious, and colorably dishonorable: you know that there is a lot of gouge that has gone around about Bergdahl, which no doubts informs the ambivalence in the ranks. Third, and perhaps most importantly, Bergdahl slandered his comrades in arms. That is pretty much indisputable. He called them losers and babykillers. Not exactly calculated to make him best loved among those still in the line of Taliban fire.

The Code was adopted for a reason. It has to be enforced for a reason.

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How Bad is the Bergdahl Deal? Let Me Count the Ways

Filed under: Military,Politics — The Professor @ 12:50 pm

Obama has exchanged five hard-core Taliban held in Gitmo for Bowe Bergdahl, a US soldier who went missing in 2009, and who was captured by the Taliban and subsequently held by the Haqqani Network. (The circumstances of his going  walkabout are important, as I discuss in more detail below.)

There are many, many things wrong with this. In fact, pretty much everything is wrong with this.

  • Negotiating exchanges with terrorists, especially at such an exchange rate, is a bad idea. It just incentivizes the capture and ransoming of US military personnel, and US citizens. I understand that presidents are under a lot of pressure to renege on pledges not to negotiate with hostage takers, but the frequent reneging perpetuates the bad equilibrium. Many have pointed out that previous administrations, including for instance Reagan’s, have engaged in such exchanges or negotiations for such exchanges. The simple fact is that because it has been done before doesn’t mean we should be doing it now: N wrongs don’t make a right. The appalling outcomes of the previous negotiations (and not just in the US-Israel too) should be proof of the futility and indeed perversity of such a course.
  • The fact that the five people exchanged are truly very, very bad guys only puts an exclamation point to the previous conclusion. The fact that the Qataris will allegedly hold these people so they cannot fight against the US means nothing: they will be living large, with their families, a long way from Gitmo. It is the precedent and the incentive for future hostage taking that is the problem.
  • This is apparently part of some grand Obama scheme to negotiate a settlement in Afghanistan with the Taliban. I cannot think of anything more delusional. Even negotiating with Iran looks sane by comparison. Ever heard of Taqiya, Obama? And pray tell how would any deal with the Taliban be enforced? Or is this just another grab for a fig leaf, a la the farcical deal to eliminate Assad’s chemical weapons?
  • Obama also broke the law which requires informing Congress 30 days prior to releasing Gitmo detainees. This is part of a pattern with him, and not a good pattern: the law should not be optional, to be followed or not at the president’s discretion, unless the law grants that discretion. Ironically, Obama’s signing statement attached to the bill said that he would not be constrained by the law if it undermined his authority as commander and chief. I say ironically, because Obama blasted Bush for making similar assertions in signing statements. Obama haughtily referred to his experience as a teacher of Constitutional law to support his claim that such statements are extra-Constitutional. That was then, this is now. What’s sauce for the Bush isn’t sauce for the Bamster, apparently.
  • The involvement of the Qataris is also disturbing. They are malign and completely untrustworthy. They are the main supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and have been the source of much mischief.
  • Obama appeared in the Rose Garden with Bergdahl’s parents. This is incredibly disturbing because Bowe’s father Bob Bergdahl is a Taliban fellow traveler who routinely criticizes the United States and embraces the Taliban cause. Check out his Twitter timeline, of which this (deleted) tweet is representative. Bergdahl also grew a Talibanesque beard and learned Pashto. The most charitable interpretation to put on his actions is that he suffers from Stockholm Syndrome by Proxy. Regardless of the genesis of Bergdahl’s allegiances, those allegiances are there for all to see: it is extraordinarily troubling for a US president to appear publicly with a man who supports quite publicly the cause of those killing US military personnel and who wish to make Afghanistan safe for Al Qaeda again.
  • Bowe Bergdahl himself is a troubling figure. This 2012 Rolling Stone profile based on extensive interviews with those who knew him, and on emails he sent to his parents, makes him out to be a combination of Holden Caulfield and Walter Mitty. He joined the Army only after being turned down by the French Foreign Legion (!). He was a wannabe mercenary and survivalist. This Caulfield-esque rant suggests that he was a self-absorbed Jonah: ”The US army is the biggest joke the world has to laugh at. It is the army of liars, backstabbers, fools, and bullies. The few good SGTs are getting out as soon as they can, and they are telling us privates to do the same.”
  • The most plausible explanation for Bergdahl’s capture is that he deserted because of his hatred of the Army and his sympathy for the Taliban: the Rolling Stone article strongly supports that conclusion, and provides zero support for any benign alternative. This raises an important question: will the US Army investigate his conduct? Will it inquire whether he provided aid and comfort to an enemy killing US troops? For instance, did Bergdahl provide information about US security procedures? Did he help translate US communications for Afghanis fighting the US?
  • It is imperative for the good order and discipline of the service that Bowe be investigated thoroughly, and if he is found to have deserted, and/or provided aid-and-comfort, that he be disciplined accordingly. But is it really likely that the Army will proceed with a thorough investigation, and bring charges against Bergdahl, after Obama personally negotiated his release? I would be shocked if the Army does in fact undertake an investigation that would call into question Obama’s actions. If the Army does not, this will be yet another example of Obama’s corrosive effect on US institutions.
  • Speaking of translation, and investigations, Bowe Bergdahl’s father claims that Bowe has difficulty understanding English after his captivity. I am deeply dubious. This sounds for all the world like a ploy to impede interrogation.

I don’t like to see US service personnel in the hands of the likes of the Taliban or the Haqqani Network. But I also don’t like to see the president of the US making deals with terrorists (precisely because that increases the odds of US troops being held hostage), especially to free soldiers who most likely willingly defected to the enemy, and especially as part of a delusional scheme to negotiate with sworn enemies who will under no circumstances live up to any agreement we reach with them. I do not see the upside for the US here, but do see numerous downsides.

Obama is a national security and diplomatic disaster. What a mess he will be leaving for his successors to clean up.

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May 30, 2014

So Where Are the Emails, Ed?

Filed under: Military,Russia,Snowden — The Professor @ 10:23 am

Snowden gets more farcical-and more tiresome-by the day. In his interview with Brian Williams (who should really reconsider his life choices), Snowden asserted that he had made numerous complaints about violations of the law to his superiors, including the NSA’s General Counsel.

The GC responded by releasing a single, and predictably pedantic, email from Snowden that inquired about the precedence of executive orders over statutes. The GC claims that this is the only email in which Snowden raises any questions about NSA programs. It claims that it has searched not just its own records, but other NSA departments’ records as well, and found nothing.

Predictably Snowden has responded that the GC’s release was incomplete.

Well, this is easily solved, you’d think. After all, it stands to reason that someone who vacuumed up a reported 1.7 million highly classified NSA documents and shared many of them with the world would have kept a complete archive of his (alleged) whistle blowing correspondence with the NSA, and would have no problems releasing it. This is Ed’s perfect opportunity for a Gotcha!

So where are the emails? A few of those would be far more persuasive than the interminable, droning retort that Snowden wrote. (I should say “allegedly wrote”: one never knows given his current circumstances as an FSB houseguest.) (And really, Ed, wouldn’t “The NSA is lying. It has more emails than it released” have been sufficient? Did you really need to go on and on and on?)

And if for some unfathomable reason Snowden didn’t keep the emails, he always has another option: a FOIA request. Easily done. And Ed has a lot of time on his hands to do the necessary paperwork. So why hasn’t he?

In addition to the lack of the release of any damning (to the NSA) emails, there are also a couple of statements in Ed’s Epistle to the World that really strike a jarring chord:

Ultimately, whether my disclosures were justified does not depend on whether I raised these concerns previously. That’s because the system is designed to ensure that even the most valid concerns are suppressed and ignored, not acted upon.

That sounds like a weaseling. An escape hatch. It sounds like an admission that he can’t prove he blew the whistle, so he’s trying to dismiss the importance of that. “Even if I had blown the whistle internally, it was irrelevant. My concerns would have been rejected anyways. So it doesn’t matter that I didn’t. Let’s not discuss that subject again.”

But it is very important. Because if Snowden did not exhaust all opportunities to make the competent authorities aware of violations of the law, his decision to take matters into his own hands and release documents without authorization looks all the more suspicious. All the more the actions of a grandiose, self-appointed savior -or traitor-than of a genuinely public spirited individual with legitimate concerns.

The word “previously” also jumps out. Previously to what? His stealing the documents?

Note the date on the email that NSA released: April, 2013. Well after Snowden had contacted Greenwald and Poitras. Well after he had started to steal documents. Mere weeks before he fled to Hong Kong, and then Russia. It suggests that he raised concerns-and then only obliquely-after his operation was well advanced, and almost complete, as a sort of cover story or ex post rationalization. But in Snowden’s telling, that he did it after he set his scraper to work doesn’t matter, because his complaints would have been rejected anyways. The insertion of the word “previously” in a prepared, written document (rather than an extemporaneous answer to a question) suggests that Snowden is being Clintonesque here: strictly correct, but deliberately creating a misleading impression.

One other interesting thing. The email that Snowden wrote that the NSA released refers to mandatory USSID 18 training that Snowden took. The subject matter referred to is very basic, almost Schoolhouse Rock-level material about the legal framework in which the NSA operates. Would a trained spy who had previously operated undercover (as Snowden claims he had) have been required to take such training after going to work for an NSA contractor? Trained spies would presumably have to take such training. Why would he have to take it again? Maybe he did: maybe this is just Mickey Mouse bureaucracy at work. But it does strike me as odd that someone who claims to have held an extremely sensitive position would be taking such a basic course again.

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Merkel Remembers the Past, But Seems Intent on Repeating It

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:38 am

Frau Merkel claims that she has taken a firm stand on Russia and Crimea, based on her fears of history repeating itself:

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Wednesday she had taken a firm stance against Russia’s annexation of Crimea in part due to the lessons of two world wars, but added it was vital to keep talking with Moscow.

Speaking to students at the opening of an exhibition on World War One, Merkel said her insistence that Russian President Vladimir Putin join her and other Western leaders in Normandy, France on June 6 for ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings was to avoid past mistakes.

“There are times where you have no desire to talk any more, such as with Russia now,” said Merkel, who speaks Russian and regularly talks to Putin on the phone. “I force myself to talk. I’m surprised every time to see the other side’s point of view.”

Merkel said Russia’s annexation of the Crimea was an unacceptable move because it upset Europe’s postwar order – even though a 54-percent majority of Germans expressed understanding, in a March opinion poll, for the annexation.

“That’s why I’m so strict when it comes to the Crimea issue,” she said.

“Territorial integrity is the foundation pillar of our postwar European order. If you start saying things like ‘it’s my right’ and then just take something, you’ll end up with an incredible calamity. That doesn’t work.”

The sad thing is that Merkel probably truly believes she’s been strict on Crimea. The sadder thing is that by German standards that’s definitely true: Siemens and Adidas and BASF and RWE and numerous smaller companies have been importuning her to accommodate Putin, as has a vast swathe of the German political elite, including her own foreign minister, the execrable Steinmeier. Sadder still is that Merkel’s simulacrum of strictness gives Obama the multilateralist cover to avoid taking real action against Russia. But the saddest thing is that for all her self-perceived strictness, Crimea remains in Putin’s hands, and there is no move to force him to disgorge it.

Merkel says the right things, but doesn’t follow them up with action. Meaning that her invocation of the lessons of the World Wars is so much cheap talk, more likely to be fulfilled through the repetition of these experiences, than their prevention. She gets the first part of Satayana: she remembers the past. But despite this, she seems intent on fulfilling the second part: repeating it.

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May 29, 2014

Obama Gives a Speech, Meaning That No Straw Man is Safe

Filed under: China,History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 5:07 am

Reading about Obama’s commencement speech at West Point took me back years, to 1978 when Jimmy Carter spoke at the USNA graduation.

Not that I remember anything that Carter droned on about. Not a word. And that’s part of the reason Obama’s speech brought me back to Annapolis, 36 years ago: I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the case of those in attendance at USMA yesterday.

Some things have stuck in my mind. Like my classmates getting booted from their room at 0600 by a man wearing sunglasses and carrying a long black case who proceeded to lock himself in: their room overlooked the field where Marine 1 was going to land. I remember the march over to Memorial Stadium. I remember my classmates and I heckling Sam Donaldson before he did a standup in advance of Carter’s speech.

But as for what Carter said, in one ear and out the other, if it made it in the one ear at all. And the assembled WooPoos (sorry-as an ex-Squid I couldn’t resist) will probably have similar non-memories of Obama’s banal, vacuous, and totally predictable foreign policy speech.

I knew what he was going to say and how he was going to say it before he said it because the man is utterly incapable of originality, and stubbornly clings to both his rigid and narrow perspective on policy (a view apparently invulnerable to the reality of repeated failures) and his mental and rhetorical tics. I knew that he would justify his own positions by reference to those of his opponents, and do so by outrageously mischaracterizing them. For the most notable of his tics are the false choice and the mass murder of straw men. And I was not disappointed. In these expectations, anyways.

Obama portrayed himself as the realist and the peacemaker, and his opponents as troglodyte warmongers who advocate a military solution to every foreign policy challenge. He said that because the US has the world’s premier military hammer, his political foes see every problem as a nail to be driven by it. Yes. He said every.

He was at his most outrageous in his discussion of Syria, where he peevishly and pridefully congratulated himself for his calm wisdom in not committing US ground troops to the country. Which absolutely no one was calling for in the first place, or ever. Well, maybe the chief oped writer and head of classified advertising for the Back of Buggery Bugle was shouting Geronimo and calling for the deployment of the 82d Airborne, but no major politician or policy figure, or A, B, C, or even D-list conservative opinion leader was advocating any such thing.

In point of fact, in Syria Republicans and even people in his own administration presented a variety of different policy alternatives, including arming the rebels to airstrikes. None advocated insertion of ground forces, and indeed almost all who even mentioned it did so only to disclaim that intent. Pretty much the entire security establishment in his own administration pressed for arming the rebels, but Obama demurred. Obama and Kerry themselves threatened air strikes before backing down.

And here we are, years after the war began, and the carnage and misery drags on day after day. But Obama is giving himself bursitis patting himself on the back for a job well done in fending off those baying for battle in Damascus.

200,000 dead Syrians could not be reached for comment.

Insofar as Ukraine is concerned, Obama said it brought back memories of Soviet tanks rolling into eastern Europe after WWII. I said to myself: yeah, we didn’t do anything about it then, and we sure ain’t going to do anything about it now. Obama has gone full auto-Yalta.

And again, no one except the chemtrail set and Russian propaganda shills (there is a large overlap between the two) even suggest the possibility of US military action. Many advocate far more robust financial measures against Russia, but (a) Obama has shied away from those despite Russia’s attempt to disrupt the election (which Obama said was a trigger for more sanctions, but what’s another red line anyways?), and (b) Obama pretends as if his critics never mention measures short of war to confront Putin.

There was stiff competition, but these were the dumbest bits:

“We can’t call on others to make commitments to combat climate change if so many of our political leaders deny that it is taking place,” Obama said. “It’s a lot harder to call on China to resolve its maritime disputes under the Law of the Sea Convention when the United States Senate has refused to ratify it. – despite the repeated insistence of our top military leaders that the treaty advances our national security. That’s not leadership; that’s retreat.”

Translation: How can I ram idiotic policies down your throats if some uppity people insist on pointing out that they’re idiotic? The LOST part is particularly outrageous. What China is doing violates maritime rights and laws and obligations that far pre-date LOST. Moreover, even putting the legalisms aside, China is engaged in aggressive acts that greatly raise the risk of serious confrontation or even conflict.

Obama did throw in a few stock lines. If the US doesn’t lead, who will. I believe in American exceptionalism to the last fiber of my being. Cheerleader media outlets, notably Bloomberg, dutifully led with this boob bait in their headlines. But every substantive part of the speech contradicted those assertions.


This was billed as a major foreign policy speech and a ringing defense of his policies. The scary thing is that Obama and his minions probably believe that. But given the tiresome predictability of the speech, you have to wonder what they are thinking. Any slightly self-aware speechwriters, not to mention a slightly self-aware president reading what’s going on the teleprompter, should have realized that critics would be ready to pounce on the resort to Obama’s standard rhetorical tricks, and that this would greatly diminish the impact of the speech. And diminish it has. The impact is pretty much zero, from what I can tell from reading a rather wide range of sources.

Reading through the transcript, it struck me that Talleyrand’s characterization of the Bourbons fits Obama well too. He has learned nothing, and he has forgotten nothing. In his mind, despite the wreckage of policies in the Middle East, Asia, and Russia/FSU strewn all around him, it’s still Berlin 2008 or Cairo 2009. He rationalizes the criticism by mischaracterizing the critics and their arguments, in a profoundly unfair way.

With a never forgetting, never learning Bourbon in charge, we are condemned to 2.5 more years of foreign policy fiascos. Get used to it, if you haven’t already.


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May 27, 2014

La Plus Ca Change, German Sellout/See No Evil Edition

Filed under: Economics,History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 1:02 am

Re-reading Pipes’s account of the Russian Revolution. I’m at the part where he is discussing Brest-Litovsk, and the relations between Germany and the Bolshevik regime.  The more things change, the more they stay the same. Large German firms succeeded in pressuring the government then, as they do now, to turn a blind eye to the true nature of the regime in Russia, all in order to facilitate German business with that regime.

Soviet ambassador to Imperial Germany Ioffe had three missions, one of which was to cultivate German business by holding out “dazzling prospects of profits in Soviet Russia.” Despite the fact that Ioffe was also fomenting unrest among German workers, German businesses fell for the transparent lie that this was the work of the “private” Communist Party, rather than the Soviet government. According to Pipes:

Hard-headed businessmen fell for this ploy in part because they wanted to believe it and in part because they could not conceive that anyone in his right mind could take Bolshevik slogans seriously. The Krupps, the Thyssens and the Stinneses, all future supporters of Hitler, pressured their government to maintain good relations with the new rulers of Russia in order to secure German hegemony over the country. The coalition of diplomats, industrialists, and bankers managed to neutralize the military.

Later Pipes discusses post-War relations between the German government and the USSR. Again, very much a see-no-evil, go along to get along, cynical and amoral approach.

Fast forward to the present. The entire German elite is now bending over backwards in order to appease Putin. Merkel makes some scolding noises now and again, but (a) never takes action, and (b) completely undercuts those messages with conciliatory remarks about needing to extend an “open hand” with Putin. Even normally sensible figures like Schaeubel counsel cooperation at all costs. The German business community is pulling out all the stops to make sure that Germany derails any attempt to impose costs on Putin.

But as Pipes shows, such attitudes have a long pedigree. The Germans like to claim that they are different. In very crucial ways, and in very unattractive ways, they are not.

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May 19, 2014

If Russian Troops Do Withdraw, It Will Be a Concession to Military & Demographic Reality, Not A Change in Putin’s Black Heart

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 6:04 pm

Before heading off to China, Putin announced that Russian troops currently deployed at the Ukraine border would return to their bases after spring training exercises.

Funny that, given that a couple of weeks ago he said that they had already withdrawn.

But never mind that little detail. Even after suppressing guffaws at the “training exercises” crock, you must recognize that Putin is not making any concession to the international community, or responding to international pressure, or having some deep change of heart over the prudence and justice of invading Ukraine. He is just bowing to a reality that readers of SWP should know well: the Russian military’s software/meatware problem.

The Russian military is still highly dependent on conscripts, despite efforts to increase the percentage of professional kontraktniki in the ranks. Due to demographic problems, and the scourge of dedovshchina, a few years back the Russians cut the term of conscript service from two years to one. These terms ended on 31 March, and new conscripts began to enter service on 1 April.

The terms of conscripts can be extended, but doing so for more than a couple of months is impractical. Draftees already pissed off at having to serve a one year sentence (and it is effectively a sentence to hard labor and corporal punishment, on the best of days) would likely become downright mutinous at the prospect of an extended term. (Inquiring minds want to know: has any genius journalist thought to try to determine if many of the 2013 class has indeed been held over?) Thus, it has been known for some time that after mid-May virtually all Russian units (with a few limited exceptions) would be unavailable for operations, let alone for offensive operations that might last some time. The deployed units would have to be pulled back,  the old conscripts mustered out, and the new conscripts mustered in and integrated with their units, a process that would take several months. (And it’s not like the newbies would be more of a danger to the Ukrainians than themselves after even a few months.)

And lo and behold. It’s mid-May, and Putin announces that the units will return to their bases.

This is not a coincidence, comrades. This is a military necessity. Therefore, read nothing into this about Putin’s intentions. Nothing. He is bowing to the fundamental fact that despite all the rubles he’s blown on hardware, the Russian military is severely hobbled by its archaic conscription-dependent mobilization model, the lack of warm bodies to fill the ranks, and the consequences of dysfunction in the barracks.

He has no  choice in this matter whatsoever. He is making lemonade out of lemons. Don’t be fooled. (But alas, many-including many in the markets, apparently-are being fooled. And badly.)

Some units, notably the VDV (airborne units), GRU spetznas, and air force units are less dependent on the conscription cycle. So watch to see whether these units also withdraw. I note that the Russians have deployed additional air force units to Belarus, and have announced a major air force exercise that just so happens to be scheduled for the date of the Ukrainian elections next Sunday. If airborne, GRU, and air force units remain deployed near the border, you can be doubly sure that Vlad is just biding his time while rotation process proceeds. I predict he will use the air force to maintain the pressure on Ukraine. The big exercise next week is part of that.

One moral of this story. Most commentary on Putin’s withdrawal order is tripe because it betrays not the slightest understanding of the realities of the Russian military. Anyone who does understand the constraints under which Putin is operating discounts the possibility that the withdrawal signals anything about Putin’s intentions or his assessment of the situation on the ground in Ukraine.

To be sure, that situation is not great, from the Russian perspective. There has been no great upswell of popular sentiment for secession or annexation even in the Donbas. (Who could have expected such from typically apathetic Sovoks?) Even the “commander” of the forces in the “People’s Republic of Donetsk”, the simultaneously sinister and comical Strelkov, was reduced to ranting about the failure of the locals to rally to the cause, and to call for women to take up arms. A motley collection of Sovok psychopaths, stiffened by some GRU cadres, is holding onto limited gains in places like Slovyansk. But although Donbas is not under Ukrainian control, it is not under Russian control either.

But if anything, that would provide an impetus for Putin to substitute Russian military intervention for a failed insurrection. I always discounted the possibility of an invasion, because even if the invasion succeeded the occupation would soon turn into a nightmarish quagmire. But Putin has used the threat of invasion (which can’t be discounted entirely despite its military insanity because one can’t discount that Putin is insane) to keep the pressure on Ukraine. If he is easing off on that pressure, it is not because he wants to. It’s because he has to.

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