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Streetwise Professor

October 9, 2014

To See How We’re Doing It Wrong, Consider When We Did It Right: Eastertide, 1972

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 10:17 pm

Watching the desultory air campaign in Syria and Iraq, and in particular the minimal strikes in defense of Kobani, brought to mind an example of what air power can do to rescue a beleaguered, poorly-led, and demoralized ground force: the crushing US air strikes against the North Vietnamese Eastertide Offensive in 1972.

This paper provides a very thorough history and analysis.

Particularly devastating were massive B-52 strikes, delivered in 3 ship “Arc Light” packages. Flying too high to be heard or seen, the first indication that the NVA soldiers on the ground had that they were Arc Light targets was the world exploding around them. Many of the dead were found without a mark, killed by the concussive force of the explosions. Gunships, initially AC-47s and eventually AC-130s, were also very effective in night-time raids. (The USAF also used B-52s with devastating effectiveness against Iraqi Republican Guard and regular infantry units during Desert Storm.)

For a Kobani comparison, look at the Battle of An Loc, where outnumbered and shaky PAVN units were saved by wave after wave of US air strikes.

Two things stand out. The first, to be decisive, the attacks were massed and unrelenting. Second, and this is particularly relevant in the Iraq-Syria context, was the vital role played by Tactical Air Controllers. You know, boots on the ground (gag) calling in the strikes.* Without them the NVA would have prevailed. They were the difference between success and failure.

The effort in 1972 was massive. But that’s because the NVA attack was massive, well over 200,000 strong, heavily supported by armor and artillery. The losses inflicted by the air campaign were also massive: the NVA lost over 100,000 casualties, perhaps half of those KIA.

The ISIS forces are much smaller, so such a massive effort would not be needed. Moreover, the advent of precision guided weapons allows the delivery of decisive fires with fewer sorties and fewer bombs dropped. The terrain is also more favorable, desert in which concealment is difficult vs. dense jungle.

Unlike the NVA, ISIS is unlikely to stand still and be pounded into dust. But that’s fine. They can’t advance, and they can’t win, if they are hunkered down.

Air power works best if it works hand-in-glove with ground forces. But the events of 1972 show that  air power can be decisive if employed in overwhelming force and is guided by expert soldiers and airmen on the ground.

At present the US is doing neither. Hence we will fail, and we will have chosen failure.

*I hate, hate, hate the expression “boots on the ground” by the way. It was annoying when first used years ago, by Colin Powell I think. It has only become more annoying through overuse by people who know less about the military than you could learn by watching Gomer Pyle reruns. I use it sarcastically here  because it has been used ad nauseum in this context.

 

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Not an Intellectual, and Not a Leader

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 7:24 pm

This Reuters article about Obama’s Syria policy, such as it is, is brutal, but at the same time overly charitable.

The charitable part is about him being “analyst in chief.” Yes, the article makes it clear that this is not intended to be a compliment, and that the administration is a classic case of paralysis by analysis. But I think it’s unduly charitable to credit Obama with any real analytical prowess. I’ve yet to see evidence of it. He is the master of logical fallacies and rhetorical tricks (the straw man, the false choice). He can regurgitate progressive tropes in a stentorian voice. But original thought? Incisive intellect? Those are certainly not on public display. His intellectual gifts are vastly overhyped.

A related criticism is that Obama is too professorial to be president. As Richard Epstein (who truly is an analytical genius with a penetrating intellect) has noted, Obama wasn’t a professor (he was a senior lecturer) who never produced one piece of independent research, and what’s more, he assiduously avoided the intellectual give and take at Chicago. He did not participate in the amazing and unique lunch and seminar culture.

This is offensive to me, actually. As a Chicago alum (three times over) I realize how special that culture is. It borders on the criminal to have the opportunity to be a part of it, and spurn it. No real intellectual would do that. So spare me the he’s-too-cerebral bunk. He’s not a professor. He’s a poser.

Other parts of the piece suggest a man who is rigidly wedded to his preconceptions, and cannot adjust when reality does not conform to them:

The president’s supporters say his approach is based on principle, not bias. He ran on a platform of winding down the Iraq War and made his views crystal-clear on military action in the Middle East. Obama believed that the human and financial costs of large-scale interventions weren’t worth the limited outcomes they produced. He held that U.S. force could not change the internal dynamics of countries in the region.

The problem is that those beliefs  and principles appear to have been immune to contradictory evidence, as revealed by how tightly he clung to them as things spun out of control.

The most damning part of the Reuters piece is not the analyst-in-chief stuff. It relates to his control freakery, inability to delegate,  reliance on a small group of staff, and failure to engage seriously people who might actually know something and who have independent heft:

In some ways, Obama’s closer control and the frequent marginalization of the State and Defense departments continues a trend begun under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

But under Obama, the centralization has gone further. It was the White House, not the Pentagon, that decided to send two additional Special Operations troops to Yemen. The White House, not the State Department, now oversees many details of U.S. embassy security – a reaction to Republican attacks over the lethal 2012 assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. A decision to extend $10 million in nonlethal aid to Ukraine also required White House vetting and approval.

On weightier issues, major decisions sometimes catch senior Cabinet officers unawares. One former senior U.S. official said Obama’s 2011 decision to abandon difficult troop negotiations with Baghdad and remove the last U.S. soldiers from Iraq surprised the Pentagon and was known only by the president and a small circle of aides.

. . . .

Some aides complained that alternative views on some subjects, such as Syria, had little impact on the thinking of the president and his inner circle. Despite the open debate, meetings involving even Cabinet secretaries were little more than “formal formalities,” with decisions made by Obama and a handful of White House aides [can you say Valerie Jarrett? I knew you could!], one former senior U.S. official said.

Obsession with control, inability and unwillingness to confront conflicting views, and a refusal to delegate are classic management/leadership fails, especially in a vast organization like the USG. A former NSC staffer hits the nail on the head:

“The instinct is to centralize decision-making with the hope of exerting more control,” she said. “But that often limits the U.S. government’s agility and effectiveness at a time when those two traits are most needed.”

The conventional explanation of these tendencies is that Obama is excessively arrogant, as epitomized by this quote:

“I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m gonna think I’m a better political director than my political director.”

But I wonder whether the condescension and arrogance are a narcissistic mask for deep insecurity. A truly confident man would wade into the rough-and-tumble Chicago workshop culture with a relish, rather than avoid it. A truly confident man would have no problems surrounding himself with women and men of independent stature, rather than toadies and non-entities totally reliant on him for their position: his Lilliputian second term cabinet speaks volumes (and it’s not as if his first term cabinet was a collection of giants). A confident man would be able to delegate in the belief that subordinates would be willing and able to act on his instructions in accordance to the circumstances that they encounter. Fearful men are obsessed with control.

There are other indications of narcissism, notably the injured and self-pitying response to criticism:

Six years of grinding partisan warfare over foreign policy (and much else) have left Obama increasingly fatalistic about his critics. [Note the attribution of partisanship to others exclusively, and no recognition of his own contribution to partisan rancor.]

While on vacation in Martha’s Vineyard in late August, he was widely criticized for golfing after making a condolence call to the family of murdered American journalist James Foley. Minutes after declaring Foley’s murderer – Islamic State – a “cancer” that had “no place in the 21st century,” Obama teed off with a campaign contributor, an old friend and a former NBA star.

Obama later told aides the criticism was inevitable. No matter what I do, he said, my enemies will attack me.

That is, rather than acknowledging that some criticism might be accurate, and trying to learn from it, he uses the fact that some criticism is partisan (from “enemies”-Nixon much?) to dismiss all of it, so he can rationalize doing just what he wants to do (e.g., playing golf at a time of tragedy).

I guess the intellectual and psychological roots of Obama’s failure as a leader don’t really matter (and if Jimmy Carter slags you for foreign policy fecklessness, you are a failure). What does matter is that the world is in flames, America’s standing is at its lowest ebb in living memory, dictators and authoritarians are on the march, and we have two more years to endure this before there is a possibility of an improvement. For Obama isn’t going to change. Regardless of why he is who he is, he is who he is. And who he is is not constitutionally equipped to lead during times of strife, especially strife that is largely the result of his own failures to lead.

 

 

 

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October 6, 2014

Stop the Non-War-Without-A-Name “Led” by the Community Organizer in Chief

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 1:50 pm

In my earlier posts on the non-war-without-a-name in Iraq and Syria, I said the following:

As I wrote the other day, I do not support a vigorous military operation in Syria. But if we are going to get involved, it must be done the right way, in a militarily sensible way. What Obama is hell-bent on doing is the exact wrong thing. He is repeating the LBJ mistakes, and adding some of his very own making. This is why, even overlooking the meager security stakes and the daunting obstacles involved in Syria and the Middle East generally, I blanch at the idea of a military campaign conducted by Obama, especially when he stubbornly insists on maintaining tight control over it.

And:

But more sober reflection (figuratively and literally!) leads me to conclude that a full-blooded response to ISIS is unwise, especially in Syria. For many reasons, the commitment that would be required to fully extirpate the organization is not worth the cost, and it’s better not to fight at all than to fight a half-assed or quarter-assed battle.

. . . .

I also shudder at the prospect of the Anti-Jackson commander in chief leading a campaign. An extended military action of the type the Pentagon would consider necessary is antithetical to every fiber in his being. It is obvious that he has no appetite for the fight, and has a predilection for limited measures (drone strikes aimed at killing terrorist leaders, the odd special forces raid) that have no strategic purpose or effect. War under such unwilling and uncertain leadership would be a pointless expenditure of American lives and treasure.

These warnings have been borne out fully by the actual execution of the campaign, such as it is.

The utter futility and failure and frankly the immorality of this pitiful effort is epitomized by events in Kobani (or Kobane) a Kurdish town on the Syrian-Turkish border. Lightly armed YPG Kurds have been fighting desperately to hold off an armored attack by ISIS. But they are being overwhelmed, and reports today indicate that at least parts of the town have fallen.

If you look at pictures of the area, you will note that it is perfect for the deployment of US airpower against vehicles and artillery. No cover whatsoever. Wide open desert. PGMs or a few passes by A-10s (which have been deployed to the region) would devastate any ISIS mechanized forces and artillery. But such robust force has not been deployed. ISIS is so confident that they are planting their flags in broad daylight on high points, a la Suribachi. You don’t do that unless you have no fear that death will come from the skies.

The writing was on the wall a few days ago, when Pentagon spokesman Admiral Kirby uttered this:

Kirby said the U.S. operation in Syria targets areas Islamic State can use as a “sanctuary and a safe haven,” compared with strikes in Iraq that are being conducted to back local forces. That doesn’t mean “we are going to turn a blind eye to what’s going on at Kobani or anywhere else,” Kirby said

Er, what is the point of going after “safe havens” and “sanctuaries” if not to prevent them from being used as launching pads for offensive operations? So then why not go after the offensive operations themselves? Aren’t we making Kobane a safe haven? Does this make any sense? Any?

We obviously washed our hands of Kobane and the Kurds last week. And Kirby is right. We haven’t turned a blind eye. We stood by and watched it happen, eyes wide open (and probably beamed back to DC from a Predator via video uplink).

I can usually reverse engineer the military logic behind decisions. Here I am at a total loss. The only think I can think of is that the Turks have waved us off, hating the Kurds as they do. As if we should be deferring to them, for all they’ve done for us in recent years. Or, as @libertylynx suggests, because we didn’t get permission from Assad, and from the Russians and Iranians.

It gets worse, actually. There are now leaks that the US will bomb the environs of Kobane. A day late and a bomb short. Reinforcing failure. Adding insult to injury.

Again: this is Obama’s choice. Remember that he has taken personal control of the selection of bombing targets. I say again: “I blanch at the idea of a military campaign conducted by Obama, especially when he stubbornly insists on maintaining tight control over it. ”

So much for Responsibility to Protect, eh? That’s so like 2011, dude.

We either need to stop bombing, or do it seriously: to paraphrase Napoleon, if you are going to bomb ISIS, bomb ISIS! This half-assed approach is a disaster: it’s more like 10th-assed. It is the worst of all worlds. It has no military effect. This in turn makes ISIS look like they are beating the US which makes them stronger by making them seem to be the “strong horse” that is defying the Crusaders. It also is turning locals against us, in part because of civilian casualties but more because it shows we are not really serious and we are not going after their real enemy.

I doubt Obama could do any worse if he were trying to screw things up. (Don’t go there.)

But never fear! The USG is on the case. The State Department has created a Global Coalition to Counter ISIL (sic) website!

This is clearly an escalation. First hashtags. Now a website. I am sure ISIS is shuddering at the thought of what horrors are to come.

Look at the list of countries:

Albania
Arab League
Australia
Austria
Bahrain
Belgium
Bulgaria
Canada
Croatia
Cyprus
Czech Republic
Denmark
Egypt
Estonia
European Union
Finland
France
Georgia
Germany
Greece
Hungary
Iraq
Ireland
Italy
Japan
Jordan
Kosovo
Kuwait
Latvia
Lebanon
Lithuania
Luxembourg
Macedonia
Moldova
Montenegro
Morocco
NATO
The Netherlands
New Zealand
Norway
Oman
Poland
Portugal
Qatar
Republic of Korea
Romania
Saudi Arabia
Serbia
Slovakia
Slovenia
Spain
Sweden
Taiwan
Turkey
Ukraine
United Arab Emirates
United Kingdom
United States

Every one doing nothing, in equal measure.

I remember that Napoleon once rejoiced when he learned another country had joined a coalition against him. He would have been positively giddy to have been “confronted” by this one.

The US military is allegedly calling this “campaign” Operation Shock and Yawn. It should actually be Operation Avert the Eyes. It is the most incoherent and strategically barren military operation in US history. Please make it stop.

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September 29, 2014

There’s Nothing New Under the Sun, Tumblehome Hull Edition

Filed under: Civil War,History,Military — The Professor @ 6:32 am

The US Navy’s most advanced destroyer, the USS Elmo Zumwalt, will begin sea trials next month:

The ship is plainly visible from Front Street, across the Route 1 bridge in downtown Bath. Nothing like this angular, almost hulking giant has ever been seen here, even after well over a century of shipbuilding at Bath Iron Works.

Here’s a picture of the EZ:

uss_zumwalt

But I wouldn’t be so hasty as to say that the ship’s shape is unprecedented. Here’s an image of the CSS Stonewall, a ram built for the Confederacy in France (and which almost caused a major diplomatic incident between the US and Napoleon III’s France):
css_stonewall_anacostia

The Stonewall had the same basic “tumblehome” hull design as the Zumwalt does today: Who knew the French were building stealth ships in the 1860s?

A Yankee ironclad, the USS Dunderberg, also had a bit of a Zumwalt look about her:

uss_dunderberg_plan_600

The Dunderberg’s superstructure is more Zumwalt-like than the Stonewall’s.

Of course the purposes of the hull designs were different in the 1860s and the 2010s. The Stonewall and the Dunderberg (I can’t get over that name, by the way) were built as rams, hence their sharply angled prows. But it is interesting to see the echoes and rhymes in designs a century and a half apart.

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Obama Throws the Intelligence Community Under the Bus: Let the Leaks Begin!

Filed under: Military,Politics — The Professor @ 3:32 am

Yesterday on 60 Minutes, Obama blamed the intelligence community for underestimating ISIS. That’s leadership for you. I guess the principle of presidential infallibility is now official doctrine even without the issuance of a bull. The daily bullshit proves it, though.

Let’s overlook the fact that at the time Obama made the “JV” remark, you didn’t need to be in intelligence analyst to evaluate ISIS’s growing threat. You just had to read the effing paper or follow Twitter. By that time, ISIS had irrupted into Fallujah and Ramadi, and had for months been in the news for its battles in Syria. You might recall that in late-2013 and early-2014, the rest of the Syrian opposition united in a failed attempt to throw back ISIS.

Obama’s channeling of Chuck Berry’s “It wasn’t me!” followed by a few days Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s admission that US intelligence had underestimated ISIS. I wonder what Obama threatened Clapper with to get him to throw himself under the bus a few days before Obama’s 60 Minutes appearance.

Other presidents have paid a price for attempting to dump blame onto the intel community. Such attempts  typically  result in a deluge of damaging leaks: the IC fights back, and fights back hard and dirty, usually.

I wonder if that typical script will play out this time. I suspect it will, because what’s already in the public domain makes Obama’s statement risible. One early example, from an ex-Pentagon official: “Either the president doesn’t read the intelligence he’s getting or he’s bullshitting.”

I disagree with that assessment. The “either/or” is misplaced, most likely. I’m putting my money on “both”, i.e., “the president doesn’t read the intelligence and he’s bullshitting.” Because that’s what he does.

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September 18, 2014

Note to BHO: LBJ Is Not A Role Model for Commander in Chief

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 1:33 pm

At the outset of intense American involvement in the Viet Nam War, the US military devised a robust bombing campaign to be deployed against the North. The campaign focused on petroleum, oil and lubricants (“POL”) facilities and ports. The objective was to deal a decisive blow to Hanoi’s war making capability. It was a military plan focused on military objectives.

President Lyndon Baines Johnson rejected the military’s plan. He viewed bombing as a political instrument to be calibrated to achieve negotiated outcomes:

I saw our bombs as my political resources for negotiating a peace. On the one hand, our planes and our bombs could be used as carrots for the South, strengthening the morale of the South Vietnamese and pushing them to clean up their corrupt house, by demonstrating the depth of our commitment to the war. On the other hand, our bombs could be used as sticks against the North, pressuring North Vietnam to stop its aggression against the South. By keeping a lid on all the designated targets, I knew I could keep the control of the war in my own hands. If China reacted to our slow escalation by threatening to retaliate, we’d have plenty of time to ease off the bombing. But this control—so essential for preventing World War III—would be lost the moment we unleashed a total assault on the North—for that would be rape rather than seduction—and then there would be no turning back. The Chinese reaction would be instant and total.

LBJ micromanaged the bombing campaign. Often hunching over maps, he chose individual targets, mainly at a lunch every Tuesday with his national security team. He famously said that the military couldn’t bomb an outhouse without his permission.

It is almost universally recognized that LBJ’s micromanagement was an unmitigated disaster. The North Vietnamese interpreted the relatively diffident bombing campaign as an indicator of LBJ’s lack of commitment and resolve: they weren’t deterred, but were encouraged. The campaign inflicted little military damage on the North, and the NVA used the respite to bolster their air defenses.

In brief, the LBJ “Rolling Thunder” campaign, and his meddlesome control over it, is widely held up as an example of how not to wage a military campaign, and especially an air campaign.

Fast forward exactly 50 years, from 1964 to 2014. Then read this, and weep:

The U.S. military campaign against Islamist militants in Syria is being designed to allow President Barack Obama to exert a high degree of personal control, going so far as to require that the military obtain presidential signoff for strikes in Syrian territory, officials said.

The requirements for strikes in Syria against the extremist group Islamic State will be far more stringent than those targeting it in Iraq, at least at first. U.S. officials say it is an attempt to limit the threat the U.S. could be dragged more deeply into the Syrian civil war.

. . . .

Through tight control over airstrikes in Syria and limits on U.S. action in Iraq, Mr. Obama is closely managing the new war in the Middle East in a way he hasn’t done with previous conflicts, such as the troop surge in Afghanistan announced in 2009 or the last years of the Iraq war before the 2011 U.S. pullout.

LBJ redux, to the last jot and tittle. Repeating the exact same errors. It will not end up any better. Probably worse, given that the situation in Syria is worse (as bad as it was in SVN in 1964). Talk about forgetting the past and being condemned to repeat it.

Just what during a career of community organizing and voting “present” in the (notoriously corrupt) Illinois Senate qualified Barack Obama to be generalissimo, making tactical (and operational) decisions in a military campaign waged in an extremely complex environment? There is no greater testament to his overweening (and almost totally unjustified) sense of superiority than this decision to run a bombing campaign out of the Oval Office.

The WSJ article says that Obama is hellbent on making sure operations in Syria and Iraq are a glorified counterterrorism (not even counterinsurgency) operation at best. His model is the <sarcasm> wildly successful </sarcasm> operations in Yemen and Somalia.

Anybody read about Yemen and Somalia lately? Yeah. If those are successes, I’d hate to see what failure will look like. But I’m pretty sure we’re going to find out.

The military is already off the reservation, with Joint Chiefs Chairman Dempsey and the retired Marine general assigned to coordinate operations with the Iraqi and Syrian forces, James Mattis, openly (though implicitly) criticizing Obama’s steadfast refusal even to countenance the use of ground forces. Usually it takes a military disaster to spark such open questioning of presidential policy by military commanders. Here we have it before the operation has even fairly started. That speaks volumes, and bodes very ill for the future.

Obama is a control freak with no military competence or background or experience, and is also terminally afflicted with the Jupiter Complex. He is beyond loath to get involved in the bloody, dirty business of combat on the ground, but feels obliged to do something: he is therefore tremendously attracted to the idea that he can be, in the words of historian Paul Johnson, a Jupiter, a “righteous god, raining retributive thunderbolts on his wicked enemies.” It seems clean and detached and bloodless. So it may seem from the delivering, rather than the receiving, end of the thunderbolts. But it is also strategically vacuous and ultimately tactically and operationally indecisive. It also tends to breed resentment and hostility among those it is intended to help.

(As an aside, I consider it beyond ironic to remember that during Viet Nam, and the years after, the left routinely criticized the morality of the US air war, pointing out that war looked so sanitized from the cockpit of a B-52 at 30,000 feet. Now that they command the B-52s-and F-15s, F/A-18s, F-16s, B-1s, etc.-they are entranced by the allure of waging war at such distance from the blood and chaos on the ground.)

As I wrote the other day, I do not support a vigorous military operation in Syria. But if we are going to get involved, it must be done the right way, in a militarily sensible way. What Obama is hell-bent on doing is the exact wrong thing. He is repeating the LBJ mistakes, and adding some of his very own making. This is why, even overlooking the meager security stakes and the daunting obstacles involved in Syria and the Middle East generally, I blanche at the idea of a military campaign conducted by Obama, especially when he stubbornly insists on maintaining tight control over it.

Not too long after LBJ got involved in Viet Nam, and bungled it royally, he was routinely taunted by a chant: “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” It is probably one of the things most strongly associated with Johnson’s sad legacy. I am not by nature a protest poet, so I can’t fill in the rest, but I know someone will: “Ho, Ho, BHO . . . ” The jingle will not end well for Obama, but the real tragedy is that what is about to unfold will not end well for the US, or the world.

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September 15, 2014

Even Jacksonians Pick Their Battles

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

I am, if you haven’t noticed, an instinctual Jacksonian (in the sense of Walter Russell Mead’s quadripartite characterization of American foreign policy types). My first reaction is to hit hard at those who confront the US or threaten American interests. ISIS is therefore a natural candidate for a good drubbing.

But more sober reflection (figuratively and literally!) leads me to conclude that a full-blooded response to ISIS is unwise, especially in Syria. For many reasons, the commitment that would be required to fully extirpate the organization is not worth the cost, and it’s better not to fight at all than to fight a half-assed or quarter-assed battle.

Our options now are extremely limited due to past choices, by  Bush yes but primarily by Obama. ISIS was contained in Iraq before Obama declared victory and withdrew prematurely from any presence in Iraq. An early intervention in Syria might have achieved some result before Islamists came to dominate the opposition, which occurred in part as the result of Assad’s decision to unleash Islamists, including ISIS, to create an N-way war in Syria: it is not really correct to call most of the Islamists oppositionists, because they effectively served as Assad’s allies in the battle against the FSA and other opposition groups. (I suspect that Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq, which basically left the place an Iranian satellite, and his demurring from attacking Assad, already an Iranian satellite, were driven in part by his pipe dream of a grand bargain with the ayatollahs.) Since 2011 we have suffered years of the locust, and last time I checked God isn’t promising to repay.

Now ISIS and other Islamist forces are well entrenched in Syria in Iraq. Rooting them out would require a robust ground campaign. We have no reliable allies in the region, and those who would have an interest in fighting ISIS-namely, the Iranians and Assad (who is in effect Iran’s main Arab ally/proxy) and Hezbollah-are really our foes in virtually every other way. Empowering them does not advance American interests,  and would actually inflame the already fraught Sunni-Shia conflict. Obama’s statement that healing the Sunni-Shia rift is part of his strategy is utterly delusional. By comparison, perfecting cold fusion and inventing a practical warp drive are child’s play.

All this means that, with some local exceptions, we cannot depend on local proxies to provide the necessary ground forces.  An American commitment would be expensive, extensive, and logistically challenging, especially given the unwillingness of Turkey to throw in. We would also face a tremendous challenge of knowing exactly who to fight, and we would no doubt be fighting not just ISIS and other Islamist groups, but Iran and Iranian proxies who would find this a great opportunity to take a few whacks at the Great Satan (just as happened in Iraq) and tie him down in a grueling war of attrition.

Which all means that perhaps the best that can be hoped for is a reversal of ISIS’s gains in 2014 in Iraq. This is probably achievable using a combination of American airpower and special forces in combination with Kurdish forces and Iraqi regulars, although rooting them out of Fallujah, Tikrit, and Ramadi and maybe Mosul is probably beyond the capability of the Iraqis. Air power can offset myriad weaknesses, but it can’t work miracles.

Once that is accomplished, a reduced but persistent presence can contain ISIS in Iraq, while Syria remains embroiled in an N-way standoff. (I say N-way because the non-Assad forces are fissiparous, to say the least. There are literally hundreds of groups.) A defeat of Assad would lead to something like Libya, most likely. Syria, in other words, is beyond human help: it’s fate is a choice among horrors.

From a purely geopolitical perspective, this would serve American interests. Iraq would not fall under the thrall of Sunni head choppers. Iran would not be further empowered. The Gulf states would be less threatened, though they will continue their duplicitous, perfidious ways (Qatar especially). The ISIS terror threat to the US and the West more broadly can be addressed through the same means we have used to combat Al Qaeda for the past 13 years.

Not a they lived happily ever after outcome, by any means, but better than some of the choices on the menu.

I also shudder at the prospect of the Anti-Jackson commander in chief leading a campaign. An extended military action of the type the Pentagon would consider necessary is antithetical to every fiber in his being. It is obvious that he has no appetite for the fight, and has a predilection for limited measures (drone strikes aimed at killing terrorist leaders, the odd special forces raid) that have no strategic purpose or effect. War under such unwilling and uncertain leadership would be a pointless expenditure of American lives and treasure.

Partial rollback and containment of ISIS is good enough, and does not tie down the US in a costly and divisive struggle that is peripheral to its core interests. Russia and China are far more pressing long-term problems, and another war of attrition in the Arabian snake pit is a distraction from dealing with those problems.

Alas, Obama is disinterested in those issues as well. He basically threw the Ukrainians to the Russian wolves  last week:

Expressing confidence that the United States was on “the right side of history” in this battle, Mr. Obama said the nation would also resist Russia’s incursions in Ukraine, even though he noted that the United States has very little trade with Ukraine and “geopolitically, what happens in Ukraine doesn’t pose a great threat to us.”

Again with the hands-off reliance on some impersonal historical force to make things right. Mentioning trade first is rather bizarre, and the cluelessness of the last statement is mind boggling. You’d think that a challenge to both the entire post-Cold War settlement in Europe and to the principles of the post-WWII settlement (not to mention the entire post-Westphalian principles) like that which Putin is posing in Ukraine would be a matter of some geopolitical importance. It has implications far beyond Donbas-the Chinese are watching with great interest, for example. But the return of the 1930s doesn’t bother our Barry.

The Poles and Balts and Nordics are probably losing their water right now after having read Obama’s “what, me worry” approach to Ukraine and Putin, especially given the jarring contrast with Obama’s remarks in Tallinn before the Nato summit in Wales: Obama’s credibility is already shot, and the contrast between his indifference to the broader implications of Putin’s actions in Ukraine and his pledge to defend all Nato countries will only pump in another couple of bullets. Putin will no doubt take this as an invitation to push things even more.

Obama has company in selling out Ukraine. Explicitly deferring to Putin’s anger about its effects on the Russian economy,  EU put the Association Agreement with Ukraine on hold. Don’t want to provoke the old boy, you know.

But as is always the case, immediately after the capitulation, fighting swelled in Donetsk in spite of the cease-fire. Putin pockets every concession, then escalates. He doesn’t need external provocations. He is self-provoking, especially when he sees that his actions will meet no serious resistance.

The anti-Jacksonian approach of Obama and the Europeans, which eschews force and bleats about “no military solutions” and the need to rely on diplomacy alone is responsible for the myriad messes that now confront us. But bullheaded Jacksonian pugnacity isn’t warranted either. A prudent choice of battles, and the means to fight those battles, is needed. Use enough force to beat back and contain ISIS in Iraq. Turn attention to the true strategic challenges in eastern Europe and Asia, starting with arming Ukraine and supporting it economically and politically, deploying more robust Nato forces east of the Elbe, and committing to long-term undermining of Russian military capabilities through sanctions and other economic measures (e.g., releases from the SPR) that weaken the economic props for its ambitious rearmament program. And for God’s sake don’t advertise weakness and appeasement to people like Putin.

Is that too much to ask? Alas, the answer is probably yes. So things will likely get worse  before they get better, and even when they get better they won’t be as good as they were in 2013.

Update: The Kagans bravely try to craft a strategy to deal with ISIS, in Syria as well as Iraq. It seems like a poker strategy based on repeatedly drawing inside straights. Not impossible, but not bloody likely. I think the diagnosis of the current situation is pretty on target, and aligns with my years of the locust take. But getting Sunnis who don’t trust us to bear the brunt of fighting other Sunnis which necessitates simultaneously sidelining Shias (which is required to get the Sunnis to work with us) seems beyond the ability of any American administration, especially this one, due to its demonstrated lack of competence, the fact that Sunnis in Iraq believe it betrayed them after their previous efforts in the Anbar Awakening by abandoning them to a Shia government in Baghdad, and the fact that it is widely suspected, with considerable justice, of harboring an intense desire of doing a deal with Iran.

The Underwear Gnome business strategy has a better chance of working than this.

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September 5, 2014

Obama The Chess Playing Pigeon Struts Around the Board & Claims Victory Over Putin

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:28 pm

Obama’s cultists often compare him to a chess master, playing the long game. There is another chess metaphor that is far more apt, however. Specifically, there is a story that has gained wide currency in which Vladimir Putin compares Obama to a chess playing pigeon. Putin supposedly said: ”Negotiating with Obama is like playing chess with a pigeon. The pigeon knocks over all the pieces, shits on the board and then struts around like it won the game.”

This story is almost certainly false. The chess playing pigeon meme dates to far before Obama’s time. But there is no person that the story fits better. The story has resonated precisely because it is so right. If Putin didn’t say it, he should have, and he would have been dead on.

For proof, one need go no further than Obama’s claim that he, and he alone, is responsible for the cease fire agreement (such as it is) in Ukraine:

“I want to point out, the only reason that we’re seeing the ceasefire at this moment is because of both the sanctions that have already been applied and the threat of further sanctions,” Obama saidfrom Wales where a NATO summit is taking place. [Emphasis added.]

The Reason article linked above points out several of the problems with Obama’s statement, but it misses the biggest one. The colossal one.

Obama effectively asserts that the ceasefire is a setback for Putin that he was forced to accept due to the pain of sanctions and the prospect of worse sanctions to come.

This is a total inversion of  reality. The reality is that this is a major victory for Putin. For crissakes, Putin and Lavrov have been demanding a ceasefire for weeks. Months even. Demanding. It’s what they’ve wanted all along, and has led their list of demands. It saves the Russian rebel puppets from defeat, and allows them to cement their position in Donbas. It forces Poroshenko to acknowledge the Russian puppet states as legitimate interlocutors. It creates a frozen conflict that makes Ukraine toxic for Europe and Nato. It creates a bleeding ulcer inside Ukraine that will sap the poor country of its vitality, and keep it on the precipice of becoming a failed state.

From Putin’s perspective, what’s not to like? To love, even, given his obsessive hatred for an independent Ukraine.

The timing is also telling. When did the ceasefire happen? In the immediate aftermath of a dramatic Russian escalation that inflicted a bloody, devastating defeat on Ukraine and turned the tide of battle. This forced Poroshenko to negotiate from a position of weakness, and allowed Putin to negotiate from a position of strength. This is exactly contrary to the impression that Obama attempts to convey, which is that Putin was forced into concessions.

There are two, and only two, possibilities here. It is hard to decide which one is more frightening.

The first one is that Obama is so clueless that he does not know that Putin has been demanding a ceasefire, and that a ceasefire achieves his main strategic objectives. So clueless that he does not know that this is exactly what Putin wants. Hell, he’s not even B’rer Rabbit, who had to use reverse psychology to get thrown into the b’rer patch where he was born and bred. Putin said that’s exactly where he wanted to go, and Obama doesn’t even understand.

The second is that Obama knows, but is so intent on shunting the Ukrainian crisis to the bottom of the pile that he shamelessly goes all Orwell, and declares down to be up, war to be peace, and defeat to be victory. That Obama wants to put the “Problem Managed” stamp on Ukraine, and walk away, perhaps to sneak a peek at his Nobel Peace Prize, and say “I’ve  earned it!-or at least I can pretend I did!”

Clueless or mendacious. Pick one. There is no third choice.

Ukraine: you’re on your own. Which, methinks, is precisely why you entered into such a humiliating deal.

But don’t think Putin will rest on his laurels. To the contrary, he smells weakness. How else to explain that a mere two days after Obama stood in Tallinn, Estonia and delivered in stentorian tones a solemn promise to defend Estonia and other allies to the last, that the FSB launched an operation inside Estonia, and kidnapped a member of the country’s counterintelligence service?

This isn’t over, people. Not by a long shot. The fecklessness on display daily, including notably at today’s Nato summit in Wales, acts on Putin like an aphrodisiac. The escalations have just begun, and either President Pigeon doesn’t understand, or understands but doesn’t care enough to do anything about it.

 

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September 4, 2014

Three Dubious Pieces on Russia

Filed under: Economics,History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:36 pm

The Ukraine situation continues to churn away. The situation on the ground is difficult to follow, but there is a consensus coalescing about Putin’s strategy. In a nutshell, the view is that he is aiming at a frozen conflict. He is telling Ukraine: “If I can’t have you, no one will.” He is pressuring Ukraine in the hope of forcing it to forego any connections, especially defense/security connections, with the West, and to give Russia de facto control over Ukraine’s foreign policy. And since this involves trade and energy policies, it also gives Russia de facto control over a considerable portion of Ukraine’s economy.

I’ve been of the view for some time that this is Putin’s goal.

Even though a consensus is coalescing, there is a raft of bad commentary out there. Among the worst is this piece by Simon Shuster. He argues that it is unwise for the West to provide weapons to Ukraine, because this would embolden Poroshenko to continue his attack on the separatists, rather than enter into negotiations.

Where to begin? The first major problem is the implicit assumption that it is appropriate for Ukraine to negotiate with rebels who are puppets of a foreign power over the control and governance of sovereign Ukrainian territory, especially given the precedent this would set for Putin. If this works in Donets, why not Kharkiv? Why not Odessa? And beyond Ukraine too: the Baltics most notably.

The “we need to get Ukraine to negotiate the terms of its surrender” is basically the Putin position.

The second major problem is Shuster’s claim that the weapons that the West would provide would be used to complete an offensive operation against the rebel puppets. But the arms that have been discussed include almost exclusively defensive weapons, notably anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, along with training that could be focused on executing defensive operations. Such weapons would dramatically raise the cost the Russians would incur to invade more deeply into Ukraine. This could deter Putin from continuing and expanding his offensive.

Expanding Ukraine’s offensive capabilities would require supplying them with tanks, artillery, helicopters, and combat aircraft. Even if they had more such equipment, it is doubtful that Ukraine has adequate manpower to increase substantially its offensive capability. Defense requires less manpower and less training than offense.

From both Ukraine’s and the West’s perspective, permitting Ukraine to defend its sovereignty unconditionally, rather than negotiate it away, is paramount. Providing defensive weaponry would advance this goal.

Another dubious piece of commentary, this one from a normally reliable writer, relates to France’s decision finally to do the right thing, and suspend (though not cancel) the sales of the Mistral class helo carriers to Russia. Bloomberg’s Leonid Bershidsky opposes the suspension, because Kremlin hawks (and hawkish buffoons, like Rogzin) have opposed the purchase of foreign vessels from the get go.

This argument is based on the premise that the purpose of canceling the sale is to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. But that’s not the real reason to oppose the sale. The real reason is that the Mistrals would dramatically increase Russia’s power projection capabilities, and pose a severe threat to Ukraine, Georgia, and the Baltics.

Although one role of sanctions is to punish, another is to diminish capabilities. This second reason is the real reason why it is imperative to stop the sale. Russia with Mistrals is more dangerous than it is without them.

And don’t think that the Russian military doesn’t realize this. This gives me serious reason to doubt Bershidsky’s reasoning.

A third example doesn’t relate to Ukraine, but to the hack on JP Morgan computers. The hack has been traced back to Russia, but there is no definitive evidence of Russian government involvement. This Bloomberg piece notes the hesitancy to pin the hack on the Russian government:

JPMorgan’s security team continues to investigate the possibility that the hackers may have been aided or at least condoned by the Russian government, possibly as retaliation for U.S.-imposed sanctions, said a second person involved in the probe.

Others trying to piece together what happened, including outside specialists hired by the bank, say they have seen nothing to suggest the Russian government directed or aided the JPMorgan attack. Instead, they said that the hackers may have been opportunistic, expecting to be shielded because of the tensions between Russia and the U.S.

Some investigators speculated the cybercriminals were hired by the Russian government in the past and may have used malware and other tactics also shared with Russian government agents.

We live in the era of Little Green Men with no identifiable connection with the Russian government carrying out operations that advance the Russian government’s interests. The entire Russian operation in Ukraine, starting with Crimea, has been based on maskirovka and plausible deniability and using cutouts and proxies, or Russian personnel disguised as cutouts and proxies. Why should things be any different in the JPM hack? It’s not like the Russian government is going to advertise its involvement in such an activity. But the parallels are so close that the prudent inference is that this s a Russian government operation.

The exact purpose of this operation cannot be discerned. Warning? Reconnaissance? An attack discovered before it could be fully executed? But especially in the current environment, it would be foolish in the extreme to conclude that it is anything but a hostile act directed by the Russian security forces, even if it was carried out through by shadowy figures not operating in an official capacity. That’s what the Russians do.

 

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September 1, 2014

Merkel: No Military Solution in Ukraine. Putin: Really? It’s Working for Me!

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 10:57 am

As surely as day follows night, Putin followed the most recent EU meeting with an escalation in Donbas. As is their wont, the Euros expressed outrage at Russian actions in Ukraine and threatened increased sanctions, but their body English/German/French/Dutch, etc., screamed  a desire to avoid a confrontation at all costs. The delay of seven days in announcing sanctions was only the most visible manifestation of Europussilanimity. So Putin took his cue, and ratcheted up both the military tempo and his rhetoric.

Per usual, Merkel was the leader of the poodle pack. Even though Germany has agreed to send weapons to the pesh merga fighting ISIS (though Germany is unwilling to, and probably incapable of, assisting in military action in Iraq), Merkel stubbornly doubled down in her refusal to do the same for Ukraine (h/t Ivan):

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, speaking early Sunday after the meeting broke up, said that Germany “will certainly not deliver weapons, as this would give the impression that this is a conflict that can be solved militarily.” But she said further sanctions were needed, as “the situation has deteriorated considerably in the last few days,” and would be imposed “if this situation continues.”

Apparently Putin didn’t understand Merkel’s pronouncement, despite his fluency in German, because he is clearly under the impression that the conflict in Donbas can be solved militarily.

Compare and contrast her stony refusal to arm the Ukrainians to her plaint on the need to arm the Kurds. With respect to the Kurds she said, ”the immense suffering of many people cries out and our own security interests are threatened.” First: there is immense suffering in Ukraine, even if it hasn’t devolved to head chopping quite yet. Second: Germany’s own security interests are far more threatened by Putin’s actions in Ukraine than ISIS’s actions in Iraq, as ominous as the latter are. I would say that Merkel is willing to arm the Kurds precisely because ISIS’s threat to Germany is far more distant than Putin’s is.

Merkel’s idiocy is beyond measure. The point of supplying weapons to Ukraine is to deter Russian aggression. The prospect of facing Ukrainian forces amply armed with anti-tank weapons could be just the ticket to get Putin to un-deteriorate the situation in Ukraine. Given Russia’s weak manpower situation, he cannot mount an even slightly extended campaign. His army is still highly dependent on conscripts, and with the one-year conscription cycle, units are deployable for only 4 to 6 months. Moreover, although some losses can be hidden from the Russian public for a period of time, large losses over an extended period cannot. Nations with very small cohorts of young men are especially sensitive to losing them.

Hence, it would not take much of a leap in Ukrainian military capacity to give Putin grave reservations about escalating the military confrontation even further. A liberal supply of selected weapons (as well as intelligence and communications and logistics support) would provide that capacity. But Germany-and the US administration-steadfastly withhold it. It borders on the criminal.

And here’s a puzzler. Germany now ranks as the second largest arms exporter in the world. Since heaven forfend Germany would sell weapons to countries that would use them for aggressive purposes, it must be that the German weapons are being sold to countries that want to be able to defend themselves against aggressors, and by purchasing arms they can deter such aggression. So by making large weapons sales, Germany must be relying on the argument that the deterrence effect of these arms reduces the likelihood that countries will try to solve disputes militarily. But it is unwilling to apply that argument to Ukraine.

Or maybe it’s just that Ukraine can’t pay, so screw ‘em.

Back in 2008-2009, I asked whether the situation was more like the 70s (the optimistic view, such as it was) or the 30s (the pessimistic one). I think the answer is now clear. We are in 30s mode, with a craven West cringing before emboldened autocrats in both Europe and Asia.

This provides a demonstration of why history cycles. The politicians who are elected in a time of (relative) peace and prosperity are usually the least fit to keep the peace and stability. They are focused on domestic issues, and take international tranquility for granted. They point to the absence of an imminent threat, and argue that militaries can be slashed. They are masters of projection, assuming that everyone is as pacific as they, and share their desire to focus on economic issues and domestic programs and spending.

But they fail to realize that threats are endogenous. When everyone is a lamb, there is an opportunity for wolves. Predators like Putin can succeed only because stronger nations and groups of nations become soft, let slip their vigilance, drop their guard. They are full of rationales for doing so, but in the end these  are just manifestations of their denial of the reality that not all people, politicians, and leaders think the same way and pursue the same ends.

So after a period of conflict, strife-weary countries turn to softer leaders who sing siren songs, who are temperamentally and constitutionally averse to conflict, who despise martial matters (and who are hence ignorant of them), and who are strategic naifs who think that every dispute can be negotiated. Appeasement is their first instinct, and their second, and their third. They believe in win-win, in give-and-take.

This creates a main chance for aggressive opportunists, especially those of a zero sum mindset. Opportunists who interpret every concession made to them as an invitation to demand more. These wolves upset the peaceful (apparent) equilibrium, ushering in a period of conflict and disorder that the lambs are utterly incapable of addressing. Populations are interrupted from their reveries, and turn to more steely leaders, and the cycle begins again.

In the meantime, however, there is much trouble, suffering, and too often, bloodshed. Ukraine is the first to suffer from this phase of the cycle. It is almost certainly not the last.

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