Streetwise Professor

May 28, 2017

Calling Out the Free Riding Euroweenies

Filed under: Economics,History,Military,Russia — The Professor @ 4:26 pm

Trump’s continued insistence that Europe pony up to pay for its own defense–by living up to its commitment to spend 2 pct of GDP on the military–sent the Euros into a tizzy during the recent Nato and G-7 meetings. Ironically, given that the UK is leaving Europe, the FT has been particularly obnoxious in its defense of the decided lack of Euro defense spending. Two opeds from last week are perfect cases in point.

In this one, Ivo Daalder, former US permanent representative to Nato, and diehard foreign policy establishmentarian, opines that defense expenditures are not the measure of a defense alliance. Instead, “[t]he heart of the alliance lies in the commitment of each member to defend the others.”

That this is retarded is self-evident. What, pray tell, is the commitment to defend worth if those making the “commitment” do not have the means to live up to it?

It is worth exactly nothing. If, for instance, the Russians invaded the Baltics or Poland: what could the Europeans do? They could no doubt issue stirring statements expressing solidarity with their eastern brethren. But as for actually doing something–fat chance.

Belgium has committed to defend other Nato members. Belgium has zero main battle tanks. The Netherlands has committed to defend other Nato members. The Netherlands has 18 MBTs. Germany has committed to defend other Nato members. Germany–an economic colossus–has a grand total of 250 MBTs.

Furthermore, not only do these nations have little actual combat power, they have virtually no strategic mobility. God only knows how the 18 Dutch MBTs would actually make it to Nato’s eastern marches.

When the Europeans intervened in Libya, they depended almost exclusively on the US for reconnaissance, intelligence, and aerial refueling.

In brief, non-US Nato countries have little combat power, and no ability to sustain what little power they have outside of their own countries.

Meaning that the hallowed commitment is worth exactly squat.

The second oped, by a Princeton poli sci prof, claims that Europe pays its fair share because measuring contributions to security by looking at military expenditure alone “rests on an outdated notion of global power.”

Pray tell, Professor Moravcsik, how is that “civilian power” is working out in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Ukraine, etc.? Besides, I thought that the reason that Putin was such a grave threat is precisely that he clings to “outdated notions of global power”, for which the Europeans have no answer.

Moravcsik and others who make the same argument also present a false choice: “civilian power” and military power are not mutually exclusive. In fact they are highly complementary. As the Al Capone line goes, you can get much farther with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word alone. That’s especially true when those you are dealing with do not embrace the same post-modern conceits as you.

This last point is of particular importance. “Civilian power” may work in a world where there are only sheep: it is not a feasible strategy when there are wolves, too. Moreover, playing the sheep strategy makes it quite advantageous for others to adopt the wolf strategy. If you declare force to be an “outmoded measure of global power,” and disarm yourself accordingly, as sure as night follows day, a nation or nations will find such “outmoded” notions work quite fine, thank you. Indeed, by disarming you make it quite affordable for economic basket cases that could not compete otherwise (e.g., Russia) to obtain a relative advantage in conventional military power–and a relative advantage is all that they need.  By disdaining “outmoded measures of global power” you make it eminently affordable for less edified nations to achieve an advantage.

Today Angela Merkel said that Europe can no longer rely on the US. That’s projection, Angie baby: the US has not been able to rely on Germany for decades. Well, we can rely on them for pretentious preening, carping, and ankle biting. But for actual contributions to mutual defense, not so much.

Trump is right to continue to pound of the Euros about this. If it hurts their tender little feelings, oh well. Free riders need to be called out.

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May 25, 2017

Maxine Waters Plays Six Degrees of Donald Trump, With Hilarious Results

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

The Six Degrees of Donald Trump/Russia game has reached new peaks of hilarity. Let by noted genius Maxine Waters (when the stupid stick hit Maxine, the stick got stupider), a group of Congressional Democrats are demanding release of Deutsche Bank records relating to Trump loans because . . . Deutsche Bank has been implicated in a money laundering scheme in which billions were tunneled out of Russia. QED!

For the record, Deutsche Bank has about 100,000 employees, and operations all over the world. The people handling commercial banking transactions in the US for Donald Trump were definitely not also manning the DB equities desk in Moscow, or the Russia equities operations in New York and London–which is where the money laundering scheme was executed. And what is the connection between the beneficiaries of the money laundering scheme and the Kremlin?

Deutsche Bank is a sprawling operation with loose controls, as its involvement in virtually every financial scandal in recent years (gold and silver fixings; IBOR manipulation; sanctions violations; mortgage violations; tax evasion) attests. The scheme bouncing around in the void of Maxine’s skull would require centralized coordination and control and oversight across completely unrelated lines of business that Deutsche Bank has conspicuously lacked for a very long time.

Also, Deutsche Bank does business in every major country of the world–and some not so major ones. Its lending and trading operations touch myriad corporations, governments, and individuals. Some of those touches are of dubious legality (as witnessed by the sanctions violations). To connect two dots of the millions in the Deutsche Bank orbit, and ignore the rest, is beyond absurd.

The ostensible plot took place in 2012-2015. Um, in 2012-2014, Trump was not a candidate: he was not part of the political conversation at all then. Even when he declared in 2015, it was considered something of a joke. Actually, strike “something of.” A 2012-2014 Trump trade would have been about a .01 delta call. If that. Deep, deep out of the money.

Maxine suggests that the Russian government may have guaranteed Trump loans. Hilarious! For a big part of this period, Russia was facing a financial crisis and deep recession, and was having to worry about its own companies, rather than cultivate Trump. In 2014 sanctions were followed by an oil price collapse. I remember the joke that 62 was the magic number for Russia: Putin would turn 62, the ruble would hit 62, and oil would trade at 62. That was wildly optimistic. Yes, Putin turned 62 but the ruble hit 80 and oil went under $30. All major Russian companies were feeling the strain, and Putin was only showing love to his buddies like Timchenko and the Rotenbergs, who were hit by sanctions.

These are not serious people, Maxine et al. Using the fact that they gargantuan financial institution like DB dealt with Trump and dirty Russians to claim a nexus between Putin and Trump shows how completely unserious they are.

 

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May 8, 2017

Whatever Igor Wants, Igor Gets: Primitive Capital Accumulation, a la Sechin

Filed under: Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:34 pm

Apparently winning the “auction” for Bashneft (after it was widely claimed by Putin, and others, that a sale of the company to Rosneft would be a sham privatization) wasn’t enough for Igor Sechin. Igor is now after MOAR, and is using the “legal” process to get it. Rosneft has filed suit against the former owner of Bashneft, Vladimir Evtushenkov’s holding company Sistema, and is asking for a cool $1.9 billion. News of the suit knocked almost 40 percent off of Sistema’s stock price.

The grounds of the lawsuit are unclear.

In the past Sechin has complained about a sale of a Bashneft asset, oil services company Targin, to Sistema at an allegedly knock-down price. He has also criticized contracts between Targin and Bashneft entered into after the sale as unduly favorable to Sistema.

Both of these allegations are plausible. This is Russia, after all, and related-party transactions and Credit Mobilier-like contracting scams are classic ways of tunneling assets.

Recently Rosneft has had to spend $100 million to address safety problems at Bashneft refineries. Rosneft claims that it has found “irregularities.”

If commercial and legal logic mattered (a big if, I know), the alleged shenanigans involving Targin would not be grounds for a suit, and it would be hard to imagine how Rosneft would have standing. Recall that Bashneft was seized by the state in 2014, and Rosneft bought it from the government. So any uneconomic transactions in 2014 or earlier would not harm Rosneft: it would have known that Targin was not included, and what the contracts were. So Rosneft was not harmed by what happened before the company was nationalized.

Failure to detect “irregularities” at the refineries would suggest a lack of due diligence if these were not discovered prior to buying from the state, or if they were known, they would have been reflected in the price. Again, it is hard to see how Rosneft could have been defrauded. Further, there’s a big difference between a $100 million repair bill and a $1.9 billion legal claim.

But does it matter, really? Any legal claim is almost surely a pretext to expropriate a politically vulnerable oligarch who is, shall we say, Без крыши. And this strategy is in Rosneft’s DNA. After all, the company was built primarily on the assets seized from Yukos, and another big asset–TNK-BP–was obtained only after a campaign of pressure against BP (although the Russian AAR consortium held their own and were paid in cash). Put differently, Rosneft was built by  what Marxists called primitive capital accumulation–force and fraud, sometimes operating under the color of legal authority.

But there is a price to be paid for this. It shows that Russia remains a fraught place for investors with assets that come under the covetous eyes of Sechin, or others like him. This depresses valuations for Russian companies, and is a serious drag on investment. No wonder year in and year out Russia is notable for the small share of investment, which runs about 18 percent of GDP, very low for a country in its stage of development. (The world rate is about 24 percent.)

But whatever Igor wants, Igor gets, evidently. Even though what’s good for Igor isn’t good for Russia.

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April 29, 2017

Carter Page Doesn’t Prove the Existence of a Trump-Putin Nexus: He Proves Its Non-Existence

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 2:48 pm

The linchpin of the supposed Trump-Russia connection is one Carter Page. Rather than demonstrating the existence of some deep, dark conspiracy, this fact demonstrates just how farcical the entire idea of such a conspiracy is.

Carter Page was a fringe figure on the make in Russia. He tried assiduously to cultivate business contacts there, with vague–if any–success. He also tried to forge political connections in the US, which apparently brought him to the attention of some Tea Party guy from Iowa named Sam Clovis. Clovis worked on the Trump campaign (and has since been rewarded with the august position of White House representative to the USDA). Clovis put Page’s name on a list of potential policy advisers, and when Trump was asked about his foreign policy advisers in March, 2016, Trump apparently pulled that name off the list.

Working from the other direction, as a guy trying to make connections in Russia, Page obviously came to the attention of the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service. In 2013 he met with Russian diplomats & a businessman, who were subsequently identified as Russian agents. Page was lecturing about energy policy at NYU (in the kind of position that one sometimes obtains by advertising “will teach for food”) at the time, and claims he gave his Russian interlocutors some teaching notes. Page later gave a speech at the New Economics School in Moscow. After the election he met with Sechin.

And that’s about it.

In brief: Page came to Trump’s attention precisely because he had no advisors with connections to Russia, and was under continuous attack for the thinness of his foreign policy expertise and the absence of any eminent foreign policy advisers. Page’s connections were gossamer thin–he was a wannabe playa in Russia, not a real one. But he’s the best Trump could come up with on the spur of the moment. Similarly, if the SVR (or FSB or GRU) had strong connections with anyone actually close to Trump, they wouldn’t have needed Carter Page.

Thus, the fact that everything rests on Page shows just how tenuous the Trump-Russia connections were. Trump had nobody with real ties to Russia, so he reached out for a nobody who at least had some involvement there; The Russians had nobody, so they courted the same nobody (e.g., rewarding him with a meeting with Sechin in December). If there was a strong Trump-Russia nexus, Carter Page wouldn’t have warranted the time of day by either Trump or the Russians.

The lecture Page gave at the New Economics School is often raised to illustrate Page’s Russian connections. Pardon my French, but what a fucking joke, and one that illustrates that the people who opine on the Trump-Russia connection don’t know squat. The New School was originally, and remains to some degree, aligned with the liberal elements in Russia. It is hardly a siloviki front, and was established with the specific intent of becoming a western-style academic institution favorable to liberal, western ideas. Many of the faculty had degrees from western (mainly US and UK) universities. One of its initial supporters was George Soros, for crissakes.

One salient story says it all. The New School’s former rector, my friend Sergei Guriev, criticized the Russian government’s prosecution of Khodorkovsky, and the loss of freedom in Russia generally, and soon came under such pressure that he was forced to go into exile in France. If anything, a connection with the New School is likely to raise suspicions among the FSB et al, and hardly indicates influence among the Putinists.

Page’s academic connections also illustrate his irrelevance. The people around Putin aren’t known for their scholarly depth, or their commitment to rigorous academic research. Indeed, the deepest connection of them to academia is to get fraudulent academic credentials–including PhDs–to burnish their résumés. Serious academics exert very little real influence in Putin’s Russia.

But Carter Page was very, very useful–to the FBI. They used his connections with Trump and Russia, tentative as they were, (along with the ridiculous dossier, in which Page was mentioned) as a pretext to get a FISA warrant to put him under surveillance. This, in turn, potentially gave them some justification and legal authority to intercept other communications involving Trump people, presumably on the knee-bone-connected-to-the-thigh-bone theory: Page talked to X, X talked to Y, Y talked to Z who talked to Trump, so investigate X, Y, and Z and maybe Trump. Give the FBI a micrometer, they’ll take a million miles.

This also means that Page’s importance has to be hyped by leakers and those in politics and the media intent on creating Russiagate. But viewed more objectively, the fact that that the story apparently begins and ends with first-class nobody Carter Page shows that Trump had no real connections in Russia–especially with the siloviki or Putinists–and the Russians had no influential connections in the Trump camp.

This is a self-inflicted wound for Trump, and an inevitable consequence of his untraditional, helter-skelter, and extemporized insurgent campaign. A more traditional and organized campaign wouldn’t have had to pull a nobody’s name off a list prepared by a nobody. This created a vulnerability that his enemies are flogging for all they are worth.

That said, it is also very telling that the FBI seized on this sad sack to justify an investigation. It is pretty clear that they were desperate to a pretext to investigate the Trump campaign, quite likely due to political pressure emanating from the Obama administration, and as a way of compensating for the damage that the email investigation (and Comey’s to-ing and fro-ing about it) was doing to the Clinton campaign. The centrality of Page in this investigation also reveals that the FBI has nothing substantive, and never really did. But it soldiered on nonetheless. Appalling, but again, the FBI seized on an opportunity that Trump gave them.

So as with most of the Acela Corridor conventional wisdom, the obsession with Carter Page inverts reality. Rather than indicating the existence of a deep connection between Putin and Trump, Carter Page shows that such connections were completely non-existent.

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April 21, 2017

The Left Loses Its Mind (Again!) Over Citgo and Trump

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 5:23 pm

Donald Trump is the left’s Theory of Everything. To be more precise, it is the left’s Theory of Everything Bad.

Latest (nut) case in point: Rachel Maddow is blaming Trump for the riots in Venezuela. No-really!

The theory: the Federal Election Commission revealed that Citgo, a US subsidiary of Venezuela’s national oil company/basketcase PDVSA had donated $500,000 to Trump’s inauguration. According to Maddow, this sent Venezuela’s citizenry, which is reeling under an economic catastrophe wrought by Chavez, Maduro, and “Bolivarian Socialism”–a cause that the left from Bernie Sanders to Danny Glover to many others has swooned over for years–into paroxysms of rage at the thought that their national patrimony was paying to honor the evil Trump.

To start with, there have been violent protests in Venezuela for years. The country is facing economic collapse. PDVSA has been looted by the Chavistas for going on 15 years now, and is a complete wreck. $500K is chump change compared to what the leftist darlings have stolen from the company, or destroyed through their grotesque mismanagement–would that the left shown equal concern over THAT. The country is on the verge of hyperinflation. There are food lines. There is no toilet paper–unless you count the currency the Venezuelan central bank is cranking out like nobody’s business. I could go on and on.

So no, Rachel. The Citgo contribution to the inaugural fund–which represents less than .5 percent of the total raised–is not even a piece of dust on the straw on the camels back: the camel’s back was broken long ago, by the vanguard of socialism that Rachel Maddow and her crowd lionized for years. The rage of the Venezuelan people is directed precisely where it should be: at Maduro, the Bolivarian revolution, and the dirt-napping Chavez.

Maddow’s attempt to lay Venezuela’s social explosion at Trump’s feet is very revealing. She and her ilk think that everything is about us–the US that is. Everything. And now in the minds of her and her ilk, everything in the US is all about Trump. So everything everywhere is all about Trump, and supposedly everyone in the world is as obsessed with Trump as they are, and blame him for all that is bad in the world, like they do.

This is clinical solipsism, broadcast live on MSNBC and CNN daily.

And in fact, Rachel should be ecstatic at Citgo’s donation. The company wasn’t spending the money of the Venezuelan people–it was spending Igor Sechin’s money! Rosneft brilliantly–brilliantly I say!–lent PDVSA $5 billion, and negotiated a 50 percent stake in Citgo as partial security. (Rosneft’s brilliance is only surpassed by the Chinese, who lent Venezuela $55 billion. Hahahaha. Good luck collecting on that one Xi! Well played.) Given PDVSA’s parlous condition, it is highly likely that Rosneft will get control of Citgo, meaning that every dollar it spends now is a dollar less in Igor’s pocket.

So the left should be happy! Trump has picked Russia’s pocket!

But no, they are also obsessing about the possibility that Rosneft will get control of Citgo’s US refineries (which represent a whopping ~2.5 percent of US refining capacity) and its gas stations (who cares?). The refineries ain’t going anywhere, so the impact on the US market will be nil. Anything Rosneft would do in operating these refineries that could hurt the US would hurt Rosneft even more. So don’t count on it happening, and if it does, it would be another own goal that weakens Russia.

Again, the left should be experiencing schadenfreude, not panic. Rosneft lent large money to a deadbeat. It’s not going to get paid back so it is seizing assets, and will end up losing money. Playing repo man is hardly the road to riches. It just mitigates the losses from making a bad loan, and it is the bad loan that is the real story here.

But to figure that out would require actual thinking, which is not exactly the strong point of Rachel, et al. Because they have everything figured out. Trump did it! And if Trump is connected, it’s bad!

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April 9, 2017

Down the Syrian Rabbit Hole

Filed under: China,History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 12:15 pm

The Syria story has many threads. I’ll address a few of them here.

First, to follow on Ex-Regulator’s comment: Trump’s initial public justification for the strike–the humanitarian impulse stirred by pictures of dying children–is deeply troubling. Sentimentality is a poor basis for policy. In particular, it has no limiting principle. If you take a tragic view of humanity–if you view mankind as fallen and flawed–you know that there is a virtually unending supply of sad, heartbreaking, stories. So how does a president choose which appeal to answer? And how do people know which appeals he will answer? Truth is, we have no idea. The line will be arbitrary, which leads to unpredictable, inconsistent policy.

Further, as Ex-Reg notes, by emphasizing his susceptibility to sentimentality, Trump makes himself a target for manipulation. These manipulations are likely to include false flags whereby those attempting to get the US to intervene on their side create an outrage to pin on their opponents: it cannot be precluded that this occurred in Syria last week.

Second, in subsequent remarks by others than Trump, the administration has downplayed the humanitarian aspect, and emphasized the signaling motivation. Moreover, it has explicitly stated that the signal was not directed at Assad alone, or even Putin and Assad, but also at Kim Jung Un and the Chinese.

My concern here is the Rolling Thunder problem: the signal that you think you are sending through a limited use of force is not necessarily the signal that your intended audience hears. What happened in Vietnam during the Johnson years was that graduated escalation was interpreted by Ho Chi Minh et al as weakness, and as an unwillingness to take decisive action. Assad or Kim Jung Rolly Poly may conclude that they can easily absorb a strike like the one launched Thursday night, and that Trump may not be willing to go much further. Or, they may conclude that (a) this strike was so modest, (b) Trump is likely to engage in graduated escalation if he escalates at all, and (c) they can absorb much heavier blows. Either way, they could be encouraged, rather than deterred.

Lesson from Vietnam (pun intended): if you want to achieve a decisive outcome, Linebacker trumps Rolling Thunder.

Of course, one reason for Johnson’s reticence in Vietnam was the risk of drawing in the USSR or China. That’s obviously an issue in Syria and North Korea. But if that is the real concern, don’t even start down the road with a limited strike. If you do, eventually you will pull up short and look feckless.

Third, the administration is sending extremely mixed signals. Last week, Tillerson said point blank that regime change was not on the administration’s agenda. This morning, Nikki Haley intimated that it is. Given that no matter how horrid the Assad regime any successor is likely to be as bad or worse, that regime change is even on the table is highly disturbing.

Fourth, assessing whether the chemical attack was a false flag or a regime attack requires an evaluation of the plausibility that Assad would do such a thing. As Dearieme and Ex-Reg note, and as I noted initially, it does not seem rational for Assad to have taken this action. It certainly was not a military necessity. But people like Assad think differently, and there may be some Machiavellian reason for him to take this action.

One is that he, like everyone else, is trying to fathom Trump’s policy, and Trump himself. Therefore, Assad ran a calculated risk to see how Trump would respond to a pretty extreme provocation. As suggested above, he might be pleased with the answer (contrary to DC conventional wisdom).

Another is that he needed to bind Russia and Iran closer to him. Again running a calculated risk that they would stand with him rather than abandon him (for that would call into question their previous policy of support), he launched this attack and forced them to be complicit in a very inflammatory war crime.

Relatedly, one of Assad’s big fears has to be a rapprochement between Russia and the US that would make him expendable. The Russians had guaranteed that he had eliminated chemical weapons. That guarantee is now shown to be inoperative, either due to (as Tillerson said) deliberate deception or incompetence. Regardless, now no deal with the Russians regarding Assad can be considered credible. This reduces the risk that the Russians will be able to cut a deal with Trump that makes Assad expendable.

I have no idea whether these possibilities are realities. I just put them out there to highlight that there can be twisted motives that cause people like Assad to take actions that seem to be against their interest–just as there can be twisted motives for jihadis to kill their own in horrible ways.

Fifth, Occam’s Razor would say that Trump’s attack completely undercuts the narrative that he is Putin’s bitch. But Occam’s Razor is an alien concept in the fever swamps of the left. The certifiably insane (Louise Mensch) and the hyper partisan but supposedly sane (Lawrence O’Donnell, Chris Matthews) certain have never shaved with it. They are claiming that this proves Trump is Putin’s bitch! The “reasoning”? He is doing it because the most likely interpretation is that it shows that Trump isn’t Putin’s bitch, so that means that he is! Or something.

In other words, this lot interprets everything that Trump does as evidence of his collusion with the Russians. This means that the hypothesis that he is in collusion with Putin is unfalsifiable, and hence is junk reasoning. It should therefore be rejected, as should anything that those who espouse this theory say.

Lastly, the attack is a complete embarrassment to the Obama administration, which preened and bragged that it had rid the Assad regime of chemical weapons. All of the administration weasels–Susan Rice, Ben Rhodes, Colin Kahl among them–have been quick to defend the administration. Although Obama remains silent, their voices were joined by the next most authoritative one–John Kerry–who ranted against the airstrike. He claimed that the Obama administration had accomplished MUCH more without firing so much as a shot, and that Trump’s attack will undermine all of the great progress that had been achieved.

But watch the weasels’ weasel words. They all say that the 2013 agreement eliminated all of Assad’s declared chemical weapons. Um, the criticism of the deal all along was that Assad might have undeclared stocks, and hence might retain a chemical capability despite the deal. It is beyond embarrassing that these people would protest so stridently that their deal was great in the face of an event which most likely shows that it was a complete, and completely predictable, sham.

So is Kerry’s outraged response to the Tomahawk Chop delusional? Chutzpah? I’m going with delusional chutzpah.

It’s almost tax time. So I suggest that you implement the following strategy, and cite the authority of John Kerry as justification. Report 50 percent of your actual income on your 2016 1040. When the IRS comes after you, tell them–in high dudgeon: How dare you! I paid all I owed on my DECLARED income! Good luck! I’ll write you in jail!

The alternative explanation for the chemical attack–a false flag–hardly provides any cover for Obama and the Obamaites because that would mean that the chemical attack was launched by opposition forces that the administration supported. So, either the administration entered into a farcical deal, and was played the fool by Assad, or it was played the fool by anti-Assad forces whom it had supported.

People with any decency would don sackcloth and ashes and plead forgiveness. But we are talking about the Obama administration, so  . . .

Perhaps there will be more clarity on all these issues in coming days and weeks. But I kind of doubt it. Any venture into understanding Syria is a trip down the rabbit hole. And given the depravity of all the actors involved, that’s yet further reason to stay as far away from this mess as is humanly possible.

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April 7, 2017

Trump, Putin, and the Tomahawk Chop

Filed under: China,History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:14 pm

President Trump ordered a cruise missile strike on a Syrian air base that was allegedly the launching point of a sarin attack on a town in the Idlib  Governate. My initial take is like Tim Newman’s: although the inhumanity in Syria beggars description, getting involved there is foolish and will not end well.

The Syrian conflict is terrible, but Syria makes the snake pit in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom look hospitable.

Further, the politics of Syria (both internally, and in the region) make the intrigues of Game of Thrones seem like child’s play by comparison. So I agree with Tim:

Every course of action I can think of other than “fuck ’em” has an almost zero chance of succeeding in its aims and a very high chance of making things worse.

. . . .

It’s not through moral principle that I am saying this, it is from practicality based on fourteen years of recent, bloody experience: Assad is a monster, the Russian government is showing the world exactly what they are like by backing him, and the Syrian people are suffering terribly, but there is nothing – nothing – we can do about it. It is a terrible indictment on the state of the world, but a policy of “fuck the lot of ’em” is the only workable one on the table right now. It’s high time our leaders started taking it seriously.

To put it slightly differently. Good intentions mean nothing. Results and consequences do. I am at a loss to think of any policy with results and consequences that accord with good intentions. Indeed, it almost inevitable that any major military intervention would not save Syrian lives but would cost American ones.

Truth be told, given the devastation wreaked on children, women, and men in Syria by bombs, shells, small arms and even throat-slashing blades, chemical weapons do not represent a quantum shift in the horribleness of the Syrian war. Dead is dead, and periodic use of chemical weapons does not materially affect the amount of dying that is going on. Assad–and the Islamists he is fighting–have killed and maimed far more innocent civilians with conventional weapons than with chemical ones.  The use of chemical weapons does not represent a fundamental shift in the nature of the war, which was already a total war waged without restraint against civilians by all sides (would that there were only two sides in Syria).

Insofar as Trump’s action is concerned, it is best characterized as a punitive strike. And as punitive strikes go, it is modest. It bears more similarity to Clinton strikes in Iraq (e.g., Desert Fox) than Reagan’s Operation El Dorado Canyon in 1986, which put the fear of god into Gaddafi: a 2000 pound bomb dropped near one’s tent has a tendency to do that. In contrast, Thursday’s Tomahawk detonations wouldn’t have disturbed Assad’s sleep in the slightest, let alone put him in mortal danger.

The record of such punitive actions in curbing the misbehavior of bad actors like Saddam or even Gaddafi is hardly encouraging, but at least the downside (to the US) of such indulgences of the Jupiter Complex is rather limited. The concern is that the raid turns out to be ineffectual in moderating Assad’s behavior and leads to Trump to escalate, and to make regime change–rather than a change of regime behavior–the objective. The neocons are celebrating and baying for more: that should be a cause for serious concern.

And I don’t think that this was exclusively about Syria, or even primarily so. The Tomahawks might have landed in Syria, but in a very real sense they were aimed at North Korea.  It is significant that Trump launched the attack while Chinese premier Xi was still digesting the steak he had eaten with the president.

Russia is clearly processing the message. The Russians are obviously angered. One would think that this puts paid to the Trump is Putin’s bitch narrative. But that would assume sanity on the part of the left and the Never Trumpers, who are anything but sane.

The prospects for some rapprochement between the US and Russia were already on life support, now they appear to be dead and buried. This reinforces a point I’ve made for months: that if Putin really did think that a Trump presidency would be better for him than a Clinton one, he made a grave miscalculation. This event proves that Trump is predictably unpredictable, and that he is completely capable of a volte face at a moment’s notice. The word I used was “protean”, and the decision to fire off a barrage of cruise missiles after months-years, in fact-of criticizing the idea of American intervention in Syria is about as protean as you get.

This points to a broader message. For all his alleged tactical acumen, Putin has stumbled from one strategic blunder to another. It is highly unlikely that Russian involvement, whatever it was, materially impacted the US election: its impact has been exaggerated for purely partisan and psychological reasons. It is also highly unlikely that any Russian meddling in European elections will sway them in favor of pro-Putin candidates.

But Russia has paid a steep price for these equivocal gains: Russian actions have created political firestorms not just in the US but in Europe that have actually increased Russian isolation. Hysteria in America about Russian meddling in US politics is vastly overblown, and has been ginned up for partisan reasons, but that is irrelevant as a practical matter: it has made the US-Russia relationship more adversarial than it has been since the height of the Cold War, and that works to Russia’s detriment.

His support for Assad in Syria has had similar effects. Yes, Putin achieved his immediate objective: Assad has survived, and looks likely to prevail. But Russia has only cemented its pariah status. The chemical attack makes it even more than a pariah. For what? Syria’s strategic value is minimal.

Indeed, the chemical attack is not just a crime, but a blunder, and puts Putin and Russia in an even worse spot. The action appears so militarily unnecessary and politically counterproductive that like Scott Adams, it raises doubts in my mind as to whether Assad actually ordered it. (The alternative explanations include a rogue general or a false flag carried out by the opposition.) But this is largely irrelevant: Assad is almost universally blamed, and as his stalwart defender, Putin and Russia have been deemed guilty of being accessories to and enablers of what is just as universally considered a war crime. By going all in for Assad, Putin made himself vulnerable to this. (That might provide a Machiavellian motive for Assad’s action: maybe he thought that the chemical attack would bind Putin even more closely to him.)

So by intervening in Syria, and defending Assad even in the aftermath of a widely reviled chemical attack, what has Putin gained? Yes, he had the satisfaction of showing Obama (and in his mind, the US as a whole) to be feckless, all grandiose talk and no action. He could claim to have reversed Russia’s retreat from the Middle East. He could assert that Russia is back and must be reckoned with in world affairs. He apparently experienced great personal satisfaction as a result of these accomplishments.

But viewed more soberly, these gains are more than offset by losses on the other side of the ledger. Russia is isolated, distrusted, feared, and reviled. It’s not entirely fair, but it should have been predictable. Moreover, nothing that Putin has done has improved what the Soviets called the correlation of forces. Indeed, although Russia has rejuvenated its military to some degree, other elements of national power (relative to the US) have slipped since 2008, and a Trump presidency will almost certainly erase the relative change in military power that occurred during Russian rearmament and the American sequester.

The simple fact is that other than in nuclear weapons, Russia cannot compete with the US, let alone the entire west. By achieving limited victories in strategic backwaters like Syria, all Putin has succeeded in doing is goading the US and the west into viewing him as a threat and sparking a competition that he can’t win.

But Putin has staked a great deal on Syria, in terms of both national and personal prestige. He is not the kind of man to back down and lose face after putting down such a stake. For his part, after claiming benign indifference to who rules Syria, the protean Trump has reversed course, and in so doing has put his own reputation on the line over who rules there, or at least how the man who rules there behaves. That is a combustible mix, and I have no idea how it will turn out.

But I am sure of how things will not turn out. Sore election losers’ dystopian fantasy of Trump selling out to Putin will never become reality. In fact, the reverse is more likely. Indeed, this could develop into a reversal of Reagan-Gorbachev. Then, two bitter antagonists found enough common ground to come to an understanding and ratchet down Cold War tensions. Now, two alleged members of a mutual admiration society are likely to find themselves in an increasingly antagonistic relationship, in yet further proof of my axiom that if you want to find the truth, you could do far worse than to invert elite conventional wisdom.

 

 

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April 4, 2017

Big Brother Revealed!

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:22 am

Some 200 theaters around the world are screening 1984 to warn about the dark descending night of fascism under Donald Trump. The timing of this could not be more ironic, given that all the news of late makes it abundantly clear that the former administration, not the current one, deserves to be known as Big Brother.

In particular, after a steady trickle of news about surveillance and unmasking of Trump campaign and transition personnel by the US intelligence community, yesterday the story broke that ex-National Security Advisor and noted f-bomber* Susan Rice–yes, that paragon of honesty, Madam Benghazi Talking Points–had requested the unmasking of numerous Trump personnel picked up in reports of surveillance on foreigners (incidentally, of course! Trust them on this!).

Last month, Ms. Rice played dumb (not a stretch!) by claiming that she had no idea what Devin Nunes was on about. Yesterday, Susie F was unavailable for comment, although one of the Obama creatures working for CNN (but I repeat myself) tweeted: “Just in: ‘The idea that Ambassador Rice improperly sought the identities of Americans is false.’ – person close to Rice tells me.”

Note the presence of the weasel modifier “improperly.” Not a categorical denial of unmasking. I therefore consider this an admission that unmasking did occur.

Within minutes of Rice’s unmasking, the left and the egregious never Trumpers (led by Jennifer Rubin, David Frum, and Evan McMuffin), had their narrative response ready to go: It’s a good thing that Rice was keeping tabs on the evil Trump’s canoodling with the Russkies! Just doing her job and saving the Republic!

Which overlooks one crucial detail: Nunes claims that the unmasked communications he saw had nothing to do with Russia. And let’s get real here. It is almost certain that Nunes saw a sample of what the White House has learned. NSC staffer Evan Cohen-Watnick (who played a role in discovering the information, though his exact part is hazy, like most details in this story) was apparently told to stop collecting material by the White House counsel’s office. Presumably they have continued the effort given its political and legal sensitivities. We know that US intelligence systematically collects intelligence on foreigners, meaning that any contacts by the Trump campaign and the Trump administration with anyone in countries ranging from Albania to Zanzibar would have been collected (incidentally! pinkie swear!) and available for unmasking. If Rice was asking for material on contacts with one non-Russian country, it is likely she was asking for it all.

So just who is Big Brother now?

The defense of Rice overlooks another crucial detail. Despite the huffing and puffing of the likes of Andy Kaufman lookalike Adam Schiff and every talking shill on CNN/MSNBC/ABC/NBC/CBS and writing shill on the NYT/WaPoo, etc., all of the allegations of collusion have produced bupkis in terms of actual, you know, evidence. We are treated to stories about peripheral figures like Carter Page and Paul Manafort dating from about the time of the Trojan War (in political time), but nothing of substance. Even the Flynn “bombshell” is something of a dud: what he actually said to the Russian ambassador has not been revealed, strongly suggesting that nothing explosive transpired–if it had, you can be sure we would have heard of it by now. My colleague and eminent scholar of Russia Paul Gregory, no shill for Putin, believe me, writes persuasively of the emptiness of the allegations, and their baleful impact on our politics. It even appears that Obama is trying to end this line of attack. There is little doubt that the linked article originated from the Obama camp, and its timing is particularly interesting now that it looks like the issue is boomeranging on him and his closest aides.

I would also point out some other 1984 echoes in the Obama tenure. Consider this nauseating piece on how different official photography of the White House is under Trump as compared to Obama:

Many of the most iconic photos of Barack Obama’s presidency came from Pete Souza, the official White House photographer. Granted extensive access to Obama, he shot the Osama Bin Laden war room photo, moments the president shared with Michelle Obama, the many famous images of the president interacting with kids, and countless more. These carefully composed photos so defined the public image of Obama that it nearly made Souza a household name.

In its visual representation, as in so many other respects, the Trump administration has made a break with the past. Most of what we see of Trump comes from either the traveling pool of press photographers or the smartphones of his staff. On the one hand there are Getty Images or Reuters shots of Trump standing at podiums (or pretending to drive a truck). And on the other, we get unusually informal images of him posing with world leaders or appearing to be caught off guard. In the meantime, the White House’s Flickr account was purged, and the “Photos” section was removed from the official website.

In other words, Obama deliberately created a cult of personality, using “carefully composed” “iconic” (there’s a tell!) photos to “define the public image of Obama.” Yes, Trump is a narcissist, but he could learn something about narcissism from Obama, who from long before he became president obsessed about creating a public image–a personality cult, in all but name.

And the U-turn to the late-Obama administration and current Democratic hysteria over Russia, the Monopoly of Evil (none of this wimpy multi-country axis stuff) from the previous Reset/”tell Vladimir that after my election I have more flexibility”/”the 1980s called and want their foreign policy back” policies bears more than a little similarity to 1984’s Oceania Has Always Been at War With Eastasia. Alas, whereas in 1984 there was only Hate Week, we are now well into Hate Year.

So those tramping to a revival of 1984 to protest Trump are way, way late to the game. They should have expressed their outrage years ago. But that’s when they were all part of Big Brother’s personality cult, wasn’t it?

*I’ve got nothing against f-bombers! There was a time when I could be the B-52 of f-bombers 😉

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March 27, 2017

No, I Haven’t Gone Soft on Putin: It’s That I Understand Who the Real Menace Is

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:09 pm

I spoke to my uncle over the weekend. He asked me, in all seriousness: “You haven’t written anything about Vlad lately. You going soft?”

My answer: “No–not going soft. But there are so many know-nothing lunatics shrieking about Putin that I don’t want to run the risk of being lumped in with them or confused with them or giving them any credence.” (If you think “know-nothing lunatic” is too strong, check out the Twitter timelines of Louise Mensch or John Schindler. You’ll see I’m actually being overly generous.)

And here’s the truly perverse thing about the hysteria. The lunatics are Putin’s most useful allies. If he really desired to create havoc in the American political system–which I would have no problem believing–in his wildest dreams he couldn’t have done the amount of damage that is now being wreaked by the Democrats and the media (I repeat myself, I know). They are using Putin and Russia as the pretext to carry out their own political vendettas, and to express their rage at losing a race that they just knew was in their pocket.  By massively overreacting to rather pitiful allegations (Podesta’s emails–really?) for purely partisan reasons they are doing far worse harm to the US than Putin could have ever hoped of doing.

I know Putin has an obsession with the US, and would love nothing more to undermine it. But his best sappers are unwitting ones, and Americans to boot. And bizarrely, they are doing their sabotage in the name of fighting Putin. I have never seen anything so demented and destructive in all my living days: it is so twisted it is difficult to explain it. Given that, it is far more important that I go after them, and leave Putin out of it. They are the immediate menace, and fighting them is not only justified in its own right, it is also the most direct way of depriving Putin of a chance to weaken the US.

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March 11, 2017

One Degree of Idiocy: Michael Weiss Expounds on Trump-Putin Connections

Filed under: Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:59 pm

Some years ago, “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” was somewhat popular. The object of the game was to connect any randomly chosen actor to Kevin Bacon in six movies or less.

Today, the game that is all the range in DC and the media is Six Degrees of Donald Trump. The main difference is that the starting point is not any randomly chosen individual, but one very specific individual: Vladimir Putin.

Not surprisingly, the most  demented and absurd entry in this game was submitted by Michael Weiss of the Daily Beast. Here’s how it goes. Putin is connected to Gazprom. Gazprom was a participant in a consortium (which also included European energy giants Shell, ENGIE, Winterhall, OMV, and Uniper) to build the Nordstream 2 pipeline. This consortium hired McClarty Associates as a lobbyist. McClarty employs ex-US diplomat Richard Burt. Burt made suggestions about Russia policy that a third party passed on to Trump. As a bonus connection, Burt attended two dinners hosted by Jeff Sessions, and wrote white papers for him.

Burt has never met Trump. Like many in the foreign policy establishment, Burt advocates a pragmatic approach to Russia. He was engaged in diplomacy with the USSR while in the Reagan administration (hardly a hotbed of commsymps and Russophiles), and shockingly, has continued to do business in Russia in the past 30 years. But apparently under the Oceania Has Always Been at War With Eastasia mindset that dominates DC at present, this is tantamount to Burt being a Russian puppet (a view that requires the consignment of most of the history of that period, not least of all that of the Obama administration 2009-2014, to the Memory Hole).

As far as connections are concerned, this is about as tenuous as one can get. The headline (“The Kremlin’s Gas Company Has a Man in Trumpland”) is a vast overstatement. For one thing, Burt is barely in Trumpland. Indeed, although the article says that the connection offers “Republican bona fides,” it is almost certain that was not the reason for hiring McClarty. Astoundingly, the article fails to note that said McClarty himself is a Clintonoid: Mack McClarty is from an old-time Arkansas political family, was closely connected to Bill Clinton in Arkansas, and was Clinton’s first chief of staff. Weiss ominously starts his piece with a recounting of the importance of having a krysha (“roof”, i.e., political protection) and insinuates that hiring Burt was intended to obtain a roof in the Trump administration. But if anything, it would have been an entree into a Clinton administration–which, of course, everybody figured was an inevitability.

Furthermore, perhaps Weiss hasn’t noticed, but “Republican bona fides” are hardly a ticket into Trumpland. Trump’s relationship with the party establishment varies between the hostile and the transactional.

And the timing is all wrong: the contract was signed before Trump was even the Republican nominee, and at a time when no one figured he would be the party’s candidate, let alone president. Talk about a deep out-of-the-money option.

It’s also rather bizarre that the connection between Burt and Gazprom also involves several very large European companies, and a purely European issue. There is nary an American company involved, and the matter is an intramural European spat pitting eastern vs. western EU countries. Wouldn’t you think that if you are trying to buy influence in the United States, you’d engage McClarty/Burt on an issue that would allow them to interact with US officials and politicians?

Further, if you are going to buy a krysha in the Trump administration, dontcha think you’d want to hire somebody who, you know, actually knows Trump?

But our Mikey is not deterred by such pesky details. He has a connection between Putin and Trump, and he is going to flog it for all it’s worth. Which isn’t much.

Of course the details of the Burt-Trump (non-) connection alone wouldn’t make for much of an article, especially for Weiss, who typically drones on paragraph after endless paragraph. So he adds gratuitous ad hominem attacks on Burt, such as comparing him to the late Russian UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin (career diplomats are a type–who knew?), and trotting out Bill Browder, who snarked about how gauche the Russian influence efforts were back in the bad old days (you know, when he was on the make in Russia) and yet again drags out the corpse of his lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, in order to score political points.

Weiss also notes that McClarty has been retained by a Mikhail Fridman company in the UK, but fails to point out that Fridman is hardly a Putin pet. Indeed, Fridman took on Sechin, and came out the winner. But in Weiss’ worldview–which makes that of a 1950s John Bircher look nuanced by comparison–all them Russkies are Putin pawns.

And the anti-Trump establishment should at least get its story straight. On the same day that Weiss’ article appeared, Foreign Policy ran a piece claiming that Tillerson is a weak Secretary of State (the weakest ever, in fact!) because he doesn’t have Trump’s ear. So Trump ignores his own Secretary of State but somehow a guy whom he has never met and who has no position in the administration exerts some great influence over him? And weren’t we told a month ago that Tillerson was going to be Putin’s cat’s paw in the Trump administration because of his extensive dealings there (including with Gazprom in Sakhalin I)? But now he’s a nobody? Damn, that Memory Hole is getting a helluva workout.

Indeed, if the Burt connection (such as it is) and the like are the best that these people can come up with, they are doing a great job of showing how limited and tenuous Trump’s ties to Russia are. And remember the whole point of the Kevin Bacon game: it was a cutesy way of illustrating the “six degrees of association” theory, which posits that any two people in the world are separated by no more than six acquaintances. Any two people, no matter how obscure. Play Six Degrees of Vladimir Putin using yourself as the terminal connection: I bet you could connect with Vlad in six steps or less. I know I can. And does make me some sort of Putinoid? Hardly, as anyone who has read this blog knows.

When major international figures are involved, moreover, there are inevitably multiple such connections, often involving less than six steps. So finding a connection is about as earth shattering as finding sand on a beach. Furthermore, when considering a figure like Trump, he has myriad connections to other figures, many of whom may have interests and views contrary to Putin’s/Russia’s, or orthogonal thereto. Ignoring all these other contrary connections and focusing monomaniacally on ties to Putin and Russia when attempting to predict or explain Trump’s motivations is beyond asinine. In econometrics, this is called omitted variable bias–if you omit relevant variables, you get a very biased estimate of the influence of the ones you include.

But this is what passes for journalism in the United States right now: parlor games posing as deep analysis, latent with dark meanings.

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