Streetwise Professor

April 11, 2015

The Obama Doctrine: Incompetence or Intent (Bordering on Malice)?

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 4:27 pm

There have been several attempts lately to discern some sort of “Obama Doctrine” in foreign policy. This piece from the FT is just the latest example.

Actually, the doctrine has been apparent from the first, to those paying attention. To put it crudely, but oh-so-accurately, it is “F*ck our allies, let our enemies f*ck us.”

The roots of this doctrine have also been quite obvious. There are two main ones.

The first is his very progressive view that the United States has been a malign force in the world. This is best encapsulated in his Cairo speech, with its criticism of American arrogance. It is also demonstrated in word and deed, in his insistence that American presence in foreign places creates disorder rather than reduces it, and his concerted effort to withdraw from the world and to defer to others (to “lead from behind”, if you will).

In his younger days, he was a supporter of the nuclear freeze movement, which was animated at the very least by morally relativistic beliefs, but that moral relativism was usually merely a fig leaf to disguise deep-seated anti-Americanism (and anti-Westernism). He is a product of romanticism about the Third World that flourished in the 70s and 80s, and he came by it honestly, from both parents, inveterate leftists both.

It shows.

Indeed, Obama’s views on these matters are quite aligned with Ayatollah Khamanei’s, as set out in this fawning (but revealing) piece in Foreign Affairs. Khamenei’s constant invocation of American arrogance is an eerie echo of Obama’s: or is it the other way around? Either way, it is easy to understand Obama’s benign attitude towards the most strident rhetoric coming out of the Iranian regime, e.g., the motto of “Death to America.” (One of Obama’s spokesman said that this rhetoric should be ignored, even when uttered by the Supreme Leader, because it is just “background noise” intended for domestic consumption.) He views it as an understandable, if somewhat overwrought, expression of a legitimate critique of the United States.

This helps explain his willingness to treat with Iran, and to make concession after concession. From the “closed fist/open hand” rhetoric of his first campaign and first term, to his recent statements that Iran would moderate its behavior and become a responsible nation when it achieves a rapprochement with the US and the West, it is clear that he believes that Iranian actions are an understandable response to American and Western hostility, rather than a dangerous brew of Persian chauvinism and imperialism on the one hand, and fanatical Islamist ideology on the other.

This can lead him to deny some very basic and obvious realities about the Iranian regime. For instance, he pushed back against Arab criticism of his quest for a deal with Iran by saying that they needed to pay less attention to an Iranian threat, and realize that their greatest risk was “dissatisfaction inside their own countries”.

Truly, there is much to criticize about the Saudis and Qataris and Egyptians: I find the oil ticks particularly loathsome. But Obama’s criticism of the Arabs is not matched by a similar criticism of Iran, even though by every measure (e.g., public executions of gays, oppressive lifestyle police, totalitarian control of civil life), Iran is as bad or worse than the Saudis et al. But Obama is silent about Iranian repressions and internal dissatisfaction even as he criticizes the Saudis and Egyptians.

Indeed, in 2009 Obama notoriously spurned a broad-based expression of popular dissatisfaction in Iran during the “Green Revolution,” yet disastrously embraced the Arab Spring: the fervent support for Morsi and  the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was particularly disastrous.

Looking at this history, it is clear that the best predictor of whom Obama will support (or at least not criticize) and home he will oppose (and criticize) is not the political system, or the repressiveness of the government, but whether it is allied with the US, or not.

Cuba is the latest example. The spectacle that is occurring in Panama is sick-making in the extreme. The Cuban regime has not reformed, in the least. It remains oppressive, and inveterately anti-American. Yet Obama strives to normalize relations without demanding the slightest moderation of Cuba’s domestic oppression or anti-American foreign policy.

Obama’s progressive blaming of the US is implicit in these actions. His words also betray the second taproot of his “doctrine”: his overweening arrogance. I have mentioned several times that I was going to start dating things “BO” for “Before Obama” and “AO” for “After Obama”, because he quite evidently believes that things that happened before his birth are irrelevant, and that his arrival makes a new world possible. Whoops, he did it again!:

“The Cold War has been over for a long time,” Obama said. “And I’m not interested in having battles frankly that started before I was born.”

As if the date of his birth has any relevance whatsoever to the historical, political, economic, and social forces that drive the relations between nations. (BTW, Raul Castro obviously knows how to play Obama: with obsequious praise for his genius.)

This statement about the Cold War is particularly amazing, given recent developments, including developments involving Cuba. I recalled just the other day Obama’s sneer at Romney’s warning about Russia, saying that the 80s wanted their foreign policy back, because the Cold War is over, and noted that this statement was risibly clueless because Putin clearly wants to refight it: a war ain’t over if one guy is still fighting it. (This is another principle that Obama seems to ignore because of his narcissism: in Iraq and Afghanistan, he declares peace simply because he has stopped fighting. But there is no peace.) If you’ve been paying attention (and Obama clearly hasn’t been, or worse, has been and doesn’t care) you will have noticed that one Cold War strategy that Putin is resurrecting is extensive military and intelligence cooperation in the Caribbean, in particular with Nicaragua, Venezuela . . . and Cuba.

That’s all right out of the Cold War. And believe it or not, some of it happened after Obama was born!

So while Putin is busy trying to reignite superpower competition, Obama acts as if it’s a thing of the past, to be ignored. Which explains why Obama does not condition dealing with Cuba on its agreement to forego military ties with a revanchist and revisionist Russia.

This all demonstrates another symptom of Obama’s narcissism: his mental rigidity and inability to admit a mistake, or that conditions have changed in a way that invalidate his original judgments. He has believed that the Cold War is over, and nothing will budge him from that view.

My conclusion is based on observation from a distance. Someone who observed him up close for many years, Richard Epstein, has noted the same thing. His criticism of the Iran “deal” is withering, and it culminates with this conclusion (at about the 14:35 mark):

I see no sign that he will change his mind. He is always the smartest man in the room. That’s true when there’s one person there.

In other words, Obama believes that he is incapable of error; that facts cannot change in ways that make it necessary to change his mind; and that he can ignore criticism because no one is capable of achieving his Olympian insights.

I am not alone now in trying to determine whether Obama’s actions are the results of incompetence or intent: this question is debated with some regularity, and this is not limited to the right anymore (though of course it is predominant there). I do not discount that he is incompetent and over his head, but I think he is intentionally pursuing these various courses out of a firm set of beliefs rooted in a progressive, fundamentally anti-US and anti-Western worldview, and in a belief in his transcendent superiority. Isis and other disasters are unintended consequences, but by and large he ignores them because he is convinced that these are irrelevant to his ultimate quest to remake the world and redeem America’s sins, original and derivative.

Hanlon’s Razor says never attribute to malice what can be explained by incompetence. What Obama is doing cannot be explained by mere incompetence alone. It has to be intentional, and is arguably malicious.

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April 9, 2015

Rashomon Meets Rouhani, or Oh, Obama You’ve Done It Again!

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 8:50 pm

The days after the alleged consummation of the nuclear “deal” between Iran and the the US and other P5+1 nations bears a strong resemblance to the famous Kurosawa film Rashomon: the participants have totally different accounts of what happened, and what was agreed to.

In the US version, Iran agreed to many terms that will make it impossible for it to “break out” to build a bomb in less than a year during the 10 year term of the deal. Centrifuges will not process uranium. Stockpiles of processed uranium will be neutralized. There will be intrusive inspections. Sanctions will not be eliminated immediately.

In the Iranian version, none of these things are true. Indeed, the Iranians characterize them as “lies”. In particular, sanctions will be lifted immediately, and there will be no inspections of military sites.

So which version is true? Who knows? All we have to go on is the accounts of the participants. No document detailing the understandings reached has been released. Instead, each side has released “fact sheets” which are wildly contradictory. At least in Rashomon the basic contours of every story were the same, even if key details differed. Here, one wonders if these people were even in the same room.

Astoundingly, even if the American account is accurate, the US has made major concessions on every key issue. Obama had originally said Fordow (the hardened uranium processing facility) and Arak (the heavy water reactor) would be closed. Both will remain open, although allegedly they will be repurposed. For a while, anyways. There will be no accounting of past Iranian violations, making it impossible to establish a baseline against which to evaluate future actions. There will be no snap inspections. And on and on. All of these reflect dramatic concessions from the original American negotiating position. Iran made no similar concessions.

Remarkably, the CIA director John Brennan claimed the Iranians finally agreed to a deal because the Iranian economy was “about to go down” due to the existing sanctions regime. If that’s true, why didn’t our crack negotiating team present Iran with a take it or leave it offer that forced Iranian concessions on every matter, rather than fold on issue after issue? Why did the allegedly stronger party make all the concessions? Why didn’t Obama play good cop to the Republican bad cop, and tell the Iranians “unless you take give up your nuclear program, these crazy Republicans will impose even more sanctions”, instead of fighting the Republicans tooth and nail? Either (a) Brennan is wrong, (b) Obama is the world’s worst negotiator, or (c) Obama really had no desire to force Iran to give up its program.

Given the utterly ineffectual, inept and/or feckless American negotiating strategy, it is hardly surprising that the Iranians are now demanding yet even more concessions. In particular, they are saying that immediate elimination of sanctions is a red line: no lifting, no deal. They are also saying that there will be no inspections of Iranian military facilities. Another red line.

Obama apparently operates under the delusion that a revisionist, revanchist, and messianic power that is involved deeply in conflict throughout the Middle East, and which has made “Death to America” words to live by for the last 37 years will somehow become a normal, non-aggressive nation when sanctions are eased, the money flows, and it is on its way to getting the bomb, in 10 years even if Obama is accurate in his description of the deal and his belief that Iran will adhere to it, or even sooner if he isn’t. This is delusional. Iran didn’t become an aggressive, revanchist, terrorism-supporting nation because it was isolated from the international community: it was isolated from the international community because it has been aggressive, revanchist, and terror-supporting. Now it will be able to pursue its messianic and imperialist goals under far less constraint. Yes, this will work out well.

Outside of Obama’s amen corner, virtually everyone in the foreign policy establishment is aghast. Eminences grise Henry Kissinger and George Schultz wrote a long and devastating oped in the WSJ that eviscerated virtually every aspect of the deal. The administration’s response? State Department interim spokesidiot Marie Harf (whom I would say is right out of a dumb blonde joke, except that would be insulting to the subjects of dumb blonde jokes) said that the Kissinger-Schultz piece was “sort of” full “a lot big words and big thoughts.” Wow. What a telling riposte to the two most experienced diplomats of the post-WWII US.  The only more inane response would have been “Is NOT!”

And then there’s Obama himself, dishing out his usual sneering disdain at critics. For instance, he said that those who opposed the deal were taking “a foolish approach” and needed to “bone up on foreign policy.”

Maybe what he meant to say is that they need to be boneheads on foreign policy, and therefore more like him. This is a guy who has lurched from one foreign policy misjudgment (or disaster) to another. The examples are endless. Calling ISIS the JV is one. The recent FUBAR with the Chinese International Development Bank is another. But my favorite, because it illustrates Obama’s unique (and toxic) mixture of warped judgment and narcissistic belief in his own Olympian discernment, was his response to Romney’s statement that Russia is the US’s greatest geopolitical threat: “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”

Hahahahaha. Touche! What a zinger! Silly Romney, living in the past, not like the progressive, hip, future-focused Obama.

Well, the problem with that is that Putin is living in the past too, and is itching to refight the Cold War. But our Barry knows better.

So yeah. Based on his stellar track record of being wrong 99.8 percent of the time we should totally trust his judgment that his “deal” with the Iranians will tame them and thereby usher in an era of peace and tranquility to the Middle East. In fact, the opposite is true, and we see more evidence of that daily, as Arabs gear up for a civilizational and sectarian war with Persians (with Yemen being only the first theater in this conflict).

Obama is the Mr. Magoo of foreign policy. He blindly and happily tools along in his jalopy, thinking he is accomplishing great things, totally oblivious to the chaos and destruction that he is leaving in his wake, proudly proclaiming “Oh, Obama! You’ve done it again.”

Yes. Yes he has. And every time he does it, the nation-and the world-moves one step closer to the abyss.

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March 27, 2015

Political Narratives Don’t Win Wars: Armies With Accountable Soldiers Do

Filed under: Military,Politics — The Professor @ 9:02 pm

The Bergdahl case is similar to American Sniper: it is a Rorschach Test that reliably separates the progressive from the non-progressive.

After months of investigation, the Army bucked the pressure from the White House, and charged Bergdahl with desertion, and misbehavior in the face of the enemy. The sentiment in the military, and in particular among the soldiers in Bergdahl’s unit, is strongly supportive of the court martial. The right by and large shares this sentiment. The left, not so much.

The New York Times presented the case for the defense:

Sergeant Bergdahl, who joined the Army in 2008, was among the legion of recruits who were granted eligibility waivers to join the military during a period when it was struggling to attract applicants because of the multiple lengthy deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan that were common. His attempt in 2006 to join the Coast Guard was short-lived; he was discharged 26 days into basic training because of concerns about his psychological state. Before Sergeant Bergdahl walked out of his base in Paktika Province on June 30, 2009, it was clear to some of his family members back home, and some of his comrades in Afghanistan, that he was emotionally distressed and at times delusional. Citing an Army investigative report, his lawyer, in a letter to the military, describes his client as “naïve and at times unrealistic.”

. . . .

But trying him for desertion and misbehaving before the enemy — for allegedly engaging in misconduct that endangered his unit — stands to accomplish little at this point. A conviction would most likely deprive a traumatized veteran of benefits, including medical care, which he will probably need for years. A dishonorable discharge would make it harder to rebuild his life as a civilian.

In fact, one of the things that angers veterans most about Bergdahl is the possibility that he would get the same benefits as they do for dedicated service. They embraced the suck, and didn’t run. Giving the same benefits to a man they consider a deserter-and whom they blame for resulting in the deaths of those that served honorably-devalues them in their eyes.

If Bergdahl has a defense-including an insanity defense-he can make it at a court martial. If there are extenuating circumstances, those can be taken into consideration when determining punishment (if he is found guilty). But the good order and discipline of the service require that he face judgment. The Code of Conduct should matter. Accountability should matter.

But the NYT is not the real problem. The problem is from within the administration. It continues to push the view, expressed by Susan Rice immediately after the deal that secured Bergdahl’s release, that Bergdahl served honorably and that we always get our soldiers back, whatever the price. Most notably, the nauseating Jen Psaki said this:

“Was it worth it? Absolutely,” Jen Psaki told Megyn Kelly on Fox News’ “The Kelly File.” “We have a commitment to our men and women serving in the military, defending our national security every day, that we’re going to do everything to bring them home if we can, and that’s what we did in this case.”

Yes. She really said that. You can watch the video. Remarkable, isn’t it?

If the charges are correct, Bergdahl did not defend our national security. Quite to the contrary: he abandoned his duty to defend national security. Desertion is the antithesis of defending, making Psaki’s statement quite Orwellian. Slavery is freedom. Deserting is defending.

There is also the issue of what damage was done to national security by trading away five truly dangerous Taliban for Bergdahl. That we should attempt to secure soldiers that have fallen into enemy hands does not mean that we should pay any price. That can endanger more soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines than it saves.

This is yet another example of the administration’s government by narrative. They construct some story, some narrative, that is at complete variance with the facts but which serves a political purpose. Then they relentlessly repeat this narrative, even in the face of incredulous questions. (Yemen is another example: more on that over the weekend.)

Even worse, there are apparently “senior officials” within the Pentagon who are defending Bergdahl via a leak campaign:

 But the three tweets from CNN’s National Security desk reference two defense officials who say Bergdahl walked off his post to “report what he believed to be problems with ‘order and discipline’ in his unit.” The direct quote from the “second official” reinforces the impression that he and his colleague are speaking to Starr on background, and that rather than merely reporting what Bergdahl “says,” they are endorsing a version of events that is in Bergdahl’s legal favor.

The Army officers charged with investigating this have reached the exact opposite conclusion. They have determined, after a long-and indeed, overlong-investigation that the facts support a charge of desertion. They no doubt weighed, and rejected, the arguments the “senior officials” are raising. Meaning that said “senior officials” should STFU and let the duly constituted authorities carry out their duty.

If these individuals are indeed “senior”, their leaks can be viewed as an attempt to exert command influence, and thereby subvert justice. The administration’s public statements also smack of command influence, as do the White House’s efforts to pressure the military into not prosecuting Bergdahl.

This should have been a military matter first, last, and always. But after politicizing the release with the egregious deal that secured it, and the equally egregious Rose Garden ceremony with Bergdahl’s parents, Obama and his creatures are so invested in this flawed man that they cannot let the proper authorities perform their duty without interference.

This defense of Bergdahl for political reasons is a profound insult to those who served honorably. If anyone should value a “commitment . . . to do everything to bring them home”, it is these men and women. But they obviously believe a distinction should be made between those who are captured while performing their duty, and someone who deliberately runs into the enemy’s camp. The deserter abandons his comrades, and has no claim on his comrades-or his country-to rescue him. And if his freedom is secured somehow, that should not immunize him from accountability for his actions.

Trying to short-circuit formal proceedings also casts a slur on the military. It suggests that the Army is incapable of judging fairly, and taking extenuating circumstances into account when passing sentence in the even that judgment is guilty.

There is clearly a colorable case that Bergdahl deserted his comrades. Let a court martial determine that. Political expediency should not subvert accountability: the military cannot operate without it. Political narratives don’t win wars. Armies with accountable soldiers do. Bowe Bergdahl should be held accountable, Obama’s tender ego be damned.

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March 25, 2015

What Do You Get When You Cross Nero With Ahab?

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:02 pm

Obama.

The world spins into chaos, and Obama is so detached and indifferent, fiddling while it all burns. But maybe the comparison with Nero is unfair. To Nero. After all, Nero allegedly had a purpose in mind when burning Rome: it allowed him to bypass the Senate and rebuild Rome to his grandiose plans. (Bypassing the Senate . . . maybe there are more parallels than I thought!) Obama just appears to not want to be bothered. Or perhaps he is like Major Major Major Major, promoted well above his competence and knowing it, and retreating to the confines of his office and quarters in order to avoid confronting things he is incapable of solving.

Exhibit 1. Yemen is exploding, with Iranian-backed Houthis seizing power and the desperate Saudis striking back with air strikes. This obviously raises the possibility of conflict between the Saudis (and the rest of the GCC) and Iran. But the administration still defends the “Yemen model” as a success. No. Really. Spokesman “Josh Earnest” (that has to be a made up name, right?) says the concept of relying on foreign governments to fight terrorism is right, even though the government we relied on in this case has utterly collapsed.

Exhibit 2. Even though the tension between Russia and Nato is at Cold War levels; even though Russia is making nuclear threats against Nato members; even though the easternmost nations in Nato are increasingly anxious that Putin has them in his sights; even though there are doubts about the credibility of Section V of the Nato treaty; and even though Nato is struggling to find a way to respond to hybrid war, Obama is refusing to find time in his busy schedule to see the new head of Nato, Jens Stoltenberg. No doubt because Nato (through Stoltenberg, his predecessor Rasmussen, and military head Breedlove) have been the most hawkish on the need to confront Putin. This is something Obama has zero appetite for.  Don’t think for a moment that Putin doesn’t notice this obvious signal of Obama’s indifference to what is transpiring on Nato’s eastern flank, and will escalate there soon.

But perhaps I am being harsh in saying that Obama doesn’t care about defeat after defeat. After all, there is a collapse that makes him distraught. . . that of his NCAA bracket.

But while he remains utterly detached from crises that threaten the world order, he persists in his Ahab-like pursuit of a deal with Iran. Empowering the mullahs (as a deal would do) will only further contribute to the already perilous situation in the Middle East, as a combination of national self-interest and religious hatred will force Gulf Sunnis (and arguably Egypt too) to confront a resurgent Iran freed from the shackles of sanctions, and progressing towards nuclear weapons.

And how does Obama rationalize negotiating a nuclear deal with a country that is openly supporting the overthrow of a government that he repeatedly identified as a major ally against Al Qaeda, and upon which the US has lavished billions of dollars in aid (much of which is in the hands of the Houthis, not to mention a major cache of US intelligence documents, which the Houthis obligingly turned over to Iran)? These are the people he trusts?

As I read somewhere: if he wanted to undermine America’s national interests, what would he do differently?

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March 22, 2015

Russia: The Travis Bickle of Nations

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 4:02 pm

It’s been quite a week for Russia. In a documentary about Crimea, Putin said he would have put Russian nuclear forces on alert had the west contested his anschluss. Further, the Russian military deployed nuclear capable Tu-22M3 Backfire bombers to Crimea, and Iskander nuclear capable missiles to Kaliningrad. They launched massive maneuvers in the Northern and Western Military Districts, and threw another hissy fit over very small, largely symbolic US operations in the Baltics and Poland. Latvia accused its gentle giant neighbor of sending submarines to probe its waters, and Sweden claimed that one-third of Russian “diplomatic” personnel were intelligence agents engaged in preparations for Russian military action against its western neighbor. (Remember the Great Northern War and Charles XII!) Quite a week!

But they weren’t done! They saved the best (by which I mean worst) for last, when the ambassador to Denmark threatened the tiny Scandinavian nation’s navy with nuclear annihilation for having the temerity to incorporate its air defense frigates (of which it has a grand total of 3) into the Nato anti-missile defense network. Talk about overkill: nuclear weapons to target 6500 ton frigates? Really? What, does Russia doubt the accuracy of its conventional weapons, so it has to go with the close-counts-in-horseshoes-and-nukes theory?

Actually, you know that’s not it. It is just another example of Russia channeling its inner Travis Bickle. You know, the title character from Taxi Driver, played by Robert De Niro. “You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? Then who the hell else are you talking… you talking to me? Well I’m the only one here. Who the fuck do you think you’re talkin’ to?” [whips out nuclear weapon concealed inside sleeve].

The only question before the house is whether this is all an act intended to intimidate the neighbors into acceding to Russian demands, or they are descending into madness under the stress of events, just like Travis. I honestly don’t know, but don’t discount the second possibility altogether.

Regardless, it is apropos that this occurred right around the time of the death of Singapore’s  Lee Kwan Yew, who said “Russia has an enormous nuclear arsenal, but what else?”

One particularly disturbing aspect of this is that Vanin is not one of the real mouth breathers. He is a career foreign service man, who was once closely associated with the Yeltsin “family” and Roman Abramovich while serving as Chairman of the State Customs Committee. He was deeply involved in the Three Whales scandal. Three Whales was a FSB-connected furniture shopping center that was running a smuggling operation. The State Customs Service launched an investigation, which set off a war between Vanin’s people and the siloviki. Vanin was one of the casualties, losing his job when Putin reshuffled the organization of various ministries in 2004.

So the guy rattling the nuclear saber against a nation of 5.6 million people that was last a military power in the 10th and 11th centuries is not one of Russia’s real siloviki thugs. Comforting thought, eh?

The Pentagon, Nato and the Europeans are fretting about how to deal with Russia’s hybrid warfare. (Note I omit Obama from that list: I doubt he gives a damn.) They need to give more thought to the real reason why hybrid warfare can work: it is conducted under a nuclear shield wielded by madmen, or those who are content to give a portrayal  of one that de Niro could appreciate.

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March 14, 2015

Где Влад? High Temperature? Room Temperature? Coup-ed Up?

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 6:38 pm

As of this moment, Vladimir Putin has not been seen in public for more than 9 days: you can keep up to the minute track here. Of course this has set off a flurry of speculation about his condition-or his fate. I obviously have no better idea than anyone else, but I’ll just lay out some possibilities.

  • He’s ill, with a condition ranging in severity from a bad cold to a coma, or in the limiting case, he’s dead.
  • There is an attempt to oust him. (Of course, illness and ouster are not mutually exclusive: a physically weakened Putin is a tempting target, and a dead one obviously requires a replacement with multiple contenders making a play.) Anders Aslund hypothesizes that Putin and Sechin, backed by the interior ministry and its forces, are locked in a death struggle with Sergei Ivanov, Russian nationalists, and the FSB. Andrei Illarionov claims that the generals are out to oust Putin. The Nemtsov murder is seen as a catalyst or symptom of these events. One theory is that the FSB is furious with Putin giving Kadyrov a free rein, and is trying to pin the murder on Chechens in order to strike at Kadyrov. It is worth noting that Sechin has been subject to public criticism lately, including by Putin. That could signal some attempt to reallocate power and property that could lead all of the various contending clans to take to the mattresses. Who knows?
  • Putin is playing possum, feigning incapacitation in order to see whether anyone thinks this is an opportunity to seize power. That would be a good way for a paranoid man to smoke out threats.

The Kremlin’s ham fisted handling of the publicity (reporting on meetings that have yet to occur, and releasing photos and video from a meeting that likely occurred before Putin submerged) is only fueling the speculation.

As for illness, it would have to be pretty bad to induce him to go incommunicado for so long, given the angst this is creating. Julia Ioffe argues that Putin cannot even admit to having a cold, as this would puncture the aura of invincibility that he needs to rule successfully. Given the choice between admitting to a cold, and doing something that leads to wild speculation that he’s lying on a cold slab (speculation that can be destabilizing), I would think he’d load up on the DayQuil, make a few public appearances, and bluff his way through. So if it is illness, it would likely be severe.

And if it isn’t, and Ioffe is correct, just think of what that means about Russia’s political system, and its future. A system whose stability depends on the illusion of an invulnerable leader is doomed to collapse with probability one, because the illusion is just that-a chimera. Putin isn’t getting any younger, and Russian men are not noted for their longevity: for most, their old age begins in the early-to-mid-60s, if they are lucky enough to make it that long. So before too long, Putin will suffer a serious health problem, with all the uncertainty that entails in a personalized system with no tried and stable succession mechanism and which has a vast security apparatus that just might be tempted to seize power.

A power struggle in the Kremlin is a possibility, but the dogs are always fighting under the carpet. It’s hard to determine whether anything out of the ordinary is going on now. Isn’t it interesting how Kremlinology is making a comeback?

As for a coup, I’m skeptical. If that was occurring, or had happened, you would expect to see a noticeable increase in military and OMON activity in the capital. A big increase. Either as a defensive measure by Putin, or as a movement by the plotters, or both. No such movement has been reported.

In the absence of information, people are putting dark interpretations on unremarkable events: minds seem to need to fill in blanks.  For instance, last night Twitter was ablaze with speculation about what was going on in Red Square. Semis were seen driving to the square, and there were pictures of bleachers and some sort of construction work. Theories trying to connect this to Putin’s disappearance ran rampant. But the explanation was simple: the outdoor ice rink near GUM was being taken down. (Is there rampant speculation when the Rink at Rockefeller Center is taken down?)

Another kerfuffle: the flag that normally flies over the Kremlin was absent. A sign! An omen! Whatever. If there’s a coup you’ll know soon enough.

This is just Russia living up to Churchill’s aphorism: a riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. This makes it extremely susceptible to bouts of severe unpredictability, which is a sobering prospect given its aggressive tendencies and massive arsenal (especially its nuclear arsenal). Given the lilliputians in the US and Europe who are responsible for reacting to such a spasm this is not comforting. Meaning all I have to say is: Vlad! Get well soon!

That’s especially true because anyone who replaces Putin is likely to be as bad, or worse. That’s especially true if he’s ousted by a coup, because that’s a process of the survival of the baddest.

In other words, we don’t have a Putin problem. We have a Russia problem. Putin is a symptom of a political system that will survive him, and will evolve, but likely into something worse.

 

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March 13, 2015

Obama’s Telling Shift on the Legislative Role in Diplomacy

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 8:03 pm

@libertylynx points out a very interesting contrast. The awful developments in Iraq over the last several years, most notably the rampage of Isis and the dramatic expansion of Iranian influence in the country, are directly attributable to Obama’s decision to withdraw all US military forces.  He did so after failing to negotiate a Status of Forces agreement with the Maliki government. This occurred primarily because of a particular demand that Obama made of Maliki: namely, that the Iraqi premier get his parliament’s approval of any agreement. Obama stated that such approval was necessary to make the deal credible and viable. He said legislative buy in was essential. Of course, this did not happen, and almost certainly Obama knew it would not happen. This gave him the pretext to bug out.

Fast forward 3-4 years. Whereas Obama had insisted on Iraqi legislative approval of a deal with the US, now Obama is dead set against letting the American legislative branch have any say whatsoever in a deal with Iran. So much for the need for legislative approval to give a deal credibility.

Obama obviously has no principled view of the role of the legislature in foreign policy. He didn’t want a Status of Forces agreement, so he insisted on Iraqi legislative approval because he knew it would not be forthcoming. He desperately wants a deal with Iran, so he adamantly opposes American legislative approval because he knows it is not likely to happen. His views on legislative involvement in diplomacy are not principled, but merely instrumental and change with the circumstances.

Indeed, not only is Obama not shutting out Congress, he is actively demonizing it in the most demagogic fashion for having the temerity to insist on having a voice. When he said that Senate Republicans were making common cause with “hardliners” in Iran, he was basically dog whistling, and his attack dogs responded with alacrity, accusing the Republicans-including the leader of the effort, Tom Cotton, a Marine combat veteran-of treason. The new  cry, advanced by another of the administration’s transparent social media manipulation campaigns is #GOPWantsWar.

A typical Obama false choice. His claim is that the only alternative to the specific deal he is “negotiating” is war. Think about that for a moment. It presumes that (a) absent any deal, Iran will proceed hell bent for a nuclear weapon, and (b) a nuclear Iran is such a dangerous regime that it must be prevented from acquiring the bomb, by war if necessary.

But apparently such a regime is a suitable negotiating partner, will adhere to any deal, and will eschew its nuclear ambitions even though a deal will effectively take both economic and military coercive measures off the table. Moreover, Iran clearly has hegemonic ambitions in the region, and a deal will give them greater resources to achieve them.

It is therefore by no means clear that a deal will reduce the likelihood of war. In my view, it is likely that the reverse is true. Moreover, those opposing a deal-who include many Democrats, as well as most Republicans-are advocating measures other than war, notably an increase in economic pressure, to force the Iranian government to forego its nuclear ambitions, and to limit its ability to achieve that capability. #GOPWantsWar is therefore a slur of the most scurrilous sort.

It gets worse, actually. Obama, claiming to be embarrassed for the Republicans, lies shamelessly about what the letter the 47 Republicans wrote. The Republicans never suggested that Obama was untrustworthy.

Further, catch this: “For them to address a letter to the Ayatollah who, they claim, is our mortal enemy . . . .” That is, Obama asserts that it is merely a Republican claim that Iran is an enemy of the US. The implication is clearly that Obama believes that it is not. That explains a lot.

I don’t believe Obama wants war, though I do believe that a soft deal with Iran like the one that is apparently imminent makes it more likely. I don’t believe in the slightest that he wanted Isis to run amok in Iraq, but his misjudgments and Machiavellian maneuvers made this outcome possible.

It is necessary to turn away from questioning motives, and to focus on substance. And I will close by noting that those who are most aggressive in questioning the motives of their opponents are the ones who believe they cannot prevail on the merits.

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March 10, 2015

Resource Rents, Russian Aggression, and the Nature of Putinism

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,History,Military,Russia — The Professor @ 9:00 pm

This nice piece from the WaPo points out the link between oil prices and Russian aggressiveness:

From this perspective, Russia is not so much an insecure superpower as it is a typical petrostate with a short-term horizon that gets aggressive and ambitious once it accumulates substantive oil revenues. Back in the early 2000s when the price of oil was $25 a barrel, Putin was a friend of the United States and didn’t mind NATO enlargement in 2004. According to Hendrix’s research, this is exactly how petrostates behave when the oil prices are low: In fact, at oil prices below $33 a barrel, oil exporters become much more peaceful than even non-petrostates. Back in 2002 when the Urals price was around $20, in his Address to the Federal Assembly Putin enumerated multiple steps to European integration and active collaboration aimed at creating a single economic space with the European Union among Russia’s top priorities. In 2014 – with the price of oil price around $110 – Putin invaded Ukraine to punish it for the attempts to create that same single economic space with the E.U.

I made these basic points eight years ago, in a post titled “Cocaine Blues.”

The graph depicts Gaddy’s estimates of the energy rents accruing to the Soviet–and Russian–economy. Each of the two spikes in the graph corresponds to a period of Soviet/Russian adventurism. The first shot of oil/cocaine during the 1970s oil shock fueled Soviet aggressiveness around the world. The second oil/cocaine shot–the post-2003 runup in oil prices–is powering Putin’s recent revanchism.

There were some follow up posts on the same theme.

This post from Window on Eurasia quotes a Russian social scientist who disputes the importance of oil prices in explaining Russian behavior in the Putin era. Instead, Vladislav Inozemtsev identifies the lack of formal institutions as the characteristic feature of Putinism.

But these things are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, another SWP theme from about this same time period (2007-2008) is that Russia is a natural state in which Putin uses control over resource rents to maintain a political equilibrium. Resource rents permit personalized rule and impede the development of formal, impersonal institutions.

In other words, in Russia, resource rents, and especially oil/energy rents matter, both for its political structure and evolution, and its behavior as an international actor.

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March 9, 2015

Obama Channels Woodrow Wilson in His League of Nations Phase

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

I have compared Obama to a previous progressive president enamored of executive power and impatient with checks and balances: namely, Woodrow Wilson. Obama is now moving into the League of Nations phase of Wilson’s presidency, intent on ramming through a foreign policy deal in defiance of intense Senate opposition.

Actually, this comparison is unfair. To Wilson. At least he submitted the treaty to the Senate for ratification. It failed because he refused to compromise on Article X. Obama in contrast, refuses to involve Congress in any way, least of all by submitting any agreement for ratification. He scorns the very idea.

Today Obama stooped to a new low. In response to a letter from 47 Republican senators warning him that without ratification, Obama’s deal with the mullahs would not bind a future president or Congress, Obama responded by questioning their loyalty: “It’s somewhat ironic to see some members of Congress wanting to make common cause with the hardliners in Iran.”

Really. The hardliners oppose a deal because it might put a speed bump in the way of their race to develop an atomic weapon and the means to deliver it. The Republicans oppose the deal because they believe that the deal would not go nearly far enough to prevent, or even seriously delay Iran’s building of the bomb.

See the difference? I knew you could. That people with radically opposed objectives both attack a proposed agreement doesn’t mean it is just right. Indeed, the hardliners’ opposition validates the Republicans’ fear that the mullahs are hell-bent on getting the bomb as soon as possible.

Obama would be wise to heed the lesson of Wilson, whose obstinacy and refusal to compromise prevented him from achieving his the legacy-building agreement he craves so intensely. But we know that is not in his nature. It is not in the prog nature.

On the subject of Iran, I’ve been pondering the last couple of days what Putin wants to see here. My sense is that he would actually prefer that Obama fail. Another nuclear power on Russia’s borders cannot be a comforting thought. What’s more, Russia has long harbored imperial ambitions in Iran: the more insane nationalist elements in Russian (e.g., Zhirinovsky) are quite open in their ambitions to move south into Iran. A nuclear Iran would make those ambitions even less realistic than they already are.

But the main factor, at least in the short to medium term, is oil and gas. A deal that would expedite the elimination of sanctions that have limited Iran’s oil sales, and which have kept its gas almost completely out of reach, would be adverse to Russia’s economic interests. A substantial increase in Iranian oil output would put considerable downward pressrun prices. The elimination of sanctions would open Iran’s vast gas reserves. In not too long, this gas could flow to Europe, where it would compete with Gazprom’s.

It’s hard to see an upside to Russia in a deal. Meaning that Putin will be trying to find a way to scupper it. Which will give Obama an opportunity to accuse the Republicans of being in league with Putin as well as the mullahs.

 

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March 2, 2015

True Genius, or Sputtering Incoherence?

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 6:06 pm

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “[t]he test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” By this standard, Obama and his foreign policy team must be far into the right tail of the MENSA distribution, because they are able to hold about 10 opposed ideas in mind.

For instance, the operation against Tikrit is a vital step in the campaign against Isis, but the US is not involved. In part it is not involved because Iran and Shia militias are taking the lead in the offensive there, and the US has grave, grave concerns about growing Iranian influence-control, really-in Iraq and elsewhere in the region (e.g., Yemen). We are so concerned about Iran, in fact, that we are negotiating-I use the term loosely, because it usually involves both give and take, and we are just giving-a deal that would give Iran a clear path to becoming a nuclear power. Once it becomes a nuclear power, of course, it will have dramatically enhanced capability to exert its power in the entire Middle East. Even before it gets the bomb, sanctions will be ended, giving Iran the economic wherewithal to support terrorism and extend its influence the region. (Kerry is in Geneva with his buddy, the Iranian foreign minister Javad. They’re on a first name basis, you see. I wonder if they’re reminiscing about the old days. You know, the American Embassy; the Marine Barracks; Khobar Towers; supplying Iraqi terrorists with shaped charge IEDs to kill Americans. Good times. Good times. The list of topics is endless.)

Meanwhile, Obama has long said that he wants to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Not only is he negotiating a deal that will create a new nuclear power, Iran’s acquisition of the bomb will set off a race by the Saudis, Turks, Egyptians, etc., to get it too.

Further, Obama wants to get the Sunnis in Iraq, and Sunni nations in the Middle East, on board to fight Isis. All the while he is standing aside while Iran and Shia militias, whom the Sunnis hate with the heat of 1000 suns, operate pretty much at will in Iraq.

But I’m not done!  The administration also has a soft spot for the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood (witness its continued hostility to Sisi in Egypt, who tossed out the MB), despite the fact that the Brotherhood views Shia as subhuman.

Another part of the administration policy-supposedly-is to support “moderate” Syrian opposition fighters. Who is the opposition opposed to? Iran’s biggest ally: Assad. What’s more, the first group of fighters that we were supporting were rolled over by an Al Qaeda-linked group, and switched allegiances. In response, Obama’s “Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL” (how does he fit that on his business card?) Gen. John Allen (ret.), says that the US will protect moderate Syrian opposition fighters “when the time comes.” I’ll bet that’s a real enticement to enlist. Somehow, I get the vision that the protection that will be offered is an honor guard at a mass burial, because when the time comes it will be too late.

Of course, this is not genius. It is drooling incoherence. The administration has more foreign policy personalities than Sybil. Simultaneously attempting to pursue wildly contradictory, and indeed mutually exclusive, policies, which will inevitably result in a train wreck of historic proportions.

At the root of this is Obama’s Ahab-like pursuit of a deal with Iran. That is the primary source of incoherence. Why he harbors this obsession, I do not know. I cannot think of a good reason. I can think of many bad ones, including some very, very bad ones.

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