Streetwise Professor

September 4, 2014

Three Dubious Pieces on Russia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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September 1, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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August 29, 2014

Obama Channels My Great-Grandfather

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:47 pm

My grandfather told a story about his step-father, Bill Wilcox. Wilcox “shot” oil wells (the fracking of its day) in West Virginia and southeastern Ohio. He lived in very rough coal mining country, and newspapers were something of a rarity.

My grandfather related how one day in what would have been around 1910-1915, Wilcox brought a newspaper from the general store in Glouster, OH to his home in Burr Oak (now submerged under Burr Oak Lake). The headline was about a massive flood in China which killed many and threatened millions with starvation. Wilcox put down the paper, and said: “There’s too much damn information in the world. Now I have to worry about 5o million starving Chinese.”

Fast forward a century or more. At a fundraiser in New York, Obama blamed his current travails on too much information:

The world has always been messy. . . . We’re  just noticing now in part due to social media.” ”Second reason people are feeling anxious is that if you watch the nightly news, it feels like the world is falling apart.”

No, actually. Obama is apparently trying to rebut claims that he bears some responsibility for the fraught state of the world, and to resist pressures that he needs to act more decisively against Putin, and ISIS, and Assad, and . . . by claiming that the current world isn’t really that much different than it’s ever been. It’s just that we notice it more because of Twitter and the nightly news. (Aside: who under age 70 watches the nightly news?)

Hardly. At least for the last century, and perhaps more, people even in remote rural areas have had access to world news, and could understand what was going on. Even though if-it-bleeds-it-leads has always been the motto of the media, people could distinguish between the normal mayhem, and truly exceptional times.

Obama is under attack because current circumstances are far more dire than in recent memory-including during the Twitter era; because Obama bears considerable responsibility for some of the chaos (especially ISIS); and because he seems totally overmatched in dealing with the situation (and indeed seems rather disinterested). It is not a matter of perceptions distorted because people are aware of things they wouldn’t have known about before because of new information technology. The perceptions are well-grounded.

Would that Obama deal forthrightly with the reality, rather than suggest that people are overreacting due to information overload. But this is a man who can’t even tolerate criticism of his choice in suits.

One other note about the fundraiser. Obama threw red meat about Republicans to the partisan-and very, very .1 percent-crowd. As described by Mark Knoller of CBS: “Pres again slammed GOP as ‘captured by an ideological, rigid, uncompromising core that won’t compromise & always wants its own way.’” His attacks on Republicans are far more pointed, and far more strident, than his criticism of Putin. He delivers his domestic partisan attacks with zeal and real intensity. His disparaging remarks about Putin are perfunctory and delivered without any passion whatsoever. Attacking Republicans, he speaks from his core: criticizing Putin, he reads from the Teleprompter. In contrast, Putin vents about the US with an intensity similar to Obama’s when he goes after Republicans.

It’s clear what rouses Obama’s passion. And it ain’t world affairs, even when the world is careening towards disaster. This isn’t a Twitter-driven perception. It’s a reality.

 

 

 

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August 28, 2014

Obama Wore a Tan Suit Because He Much Prefers You Obsess Over Its Color, and Ignore the Fact That It’s Empty

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 5:53 pm

Today Obama shared with the world his deep insights on ISIS and Ukraine.

The gobsmacking revelation: “We don’t have a strategy yet” on ISIS. (Precisely because he calls it ISIL, I will refer to it by ISIS.)

This brings to mind the old Lone Ranger joke, with the punchline: “What do you mean we, paleface?” (Don’t go there.)

I am sure that the Pentagon presented Obama with multiple strategies, and that he found none of them to his liking.

No doubt none of the options were all that palatable. Primarily because his previous decisions have left the United States with a set of choices that range between bad and terrible. But there are certainly several that would be better than nothing, which is what he is choosing to do. I would surmise that part of the reason that Obama is refusing to choose any of them, which would involve getting more deeply involved in Iraq and bombing Syria, is that by choosing them, he would be drawing attention to his own blunders.

So it’s not that “we” don’t have a strategy: it’s that Obama doesn’t. I am sure that people in the DoD are simply beside themselves.

Obama did indicate that whatever his strategy ends up being, it will start with John Kerry going to the Middle East to build a coalition. You know, the John Kerry that is a laughingstock in the region. The John Kerry who is pretty much despised by everyone that matters: I am sure that even the nations he has sucked up to, namely Qatar and Turkey, have zero respect for him. The John Kerry that hasn’t negotiated anything lasting and serious. The John Kerry who routinely travels to Geneva to be humiliated by Lavrov and the Iranians.

Kerry’s one-one-claim to accomplishment as Secretary of State is negotiating a deal among the Afghan presidential candidates for an audit of the country’s disputed election. No sooner did he get on the plane than the principals to the agreement started arguing. The audit has not taken place, and is not likely to take place anytime soon.

But Kerry will put that robust coalition together, have no fear.

On Ukraine, Obama couldn’t utter the “I” word–invasion. He said, in effect, move along, there’s nothing new to see here:

“I consider the actions that we’ve seen in the last week a continuation of what’s been taking place for months now,” Obama said, noting Russian President Vladimir Putin has ignored opportunities to find a diplomatic end to the dispute.

This is true. Russia has been invading for months, so its reinforcement of the invasion is just a continuation. Obama’s bloodless indifference and inaction are also just a continuation. He is just waving Putin on, and Putin will just step on the accelerator.

For his part, Putin delivered a truculent statement that can be viewed as a victory speech, and as a signal of his intention to expand the conflict. He praised the rebels in Donbas for “intercepting Kiev’s military operation,” and called on them to mercifully let surrounded Ukrainian forces to retreat to avoid a “needless loss of life.” He demanded Ukraine cease military actions, declare a cease fire, and negotiate with the rebels.

The title of the talk was ominous: “An address to the militia of Novorossiya.” You know, of course, that Novorossiya encompasses far more than the Donbas.

Facing no real resistance from Merkel and Obama, Putin is going to push forward.

Back to Obama. Other than the “I don’t need no steenkin’ strategy” line, what drew the most comment was his tan suit.

His sartorial choice is easily explained. He would much rather have people obsessing about the color of his suit, than noticing the fact that it is empty.

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August 27, 2014

Merkel Channels Ricky Ricardo. Somehow Putin Doesn’t Strike Me as the Lucy Type.

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

This would be hilarious, if it weren’t so sick.

Today there were numerous detailed reports of Russian troops invading southeastern Ukraine, with the attacks focusing on the town of Novoazovsk, on the road to Mariupul. This strikes Ukraine to the rear of its main effort to the north in Donetsk, and threatens to uncover Crimea, providing Russian troops with another axis of advance into Ukraine.

Note that this has occurred after Merkel pressured Poroshenko to give Putin a face-saving out, and the very day after Putin and Poroshenko met. A meeting during which Putin said that the conflict was purely an internal Ukrainian matter to be worked out between the Kiev government and the rebels.

So what did Merkel do in response to this very serious escalation? She channeled Ricky Ricardo, and called Putin to tell him he had some ‘splainin’ to do:

Angela Merkel told President Vladimir Putin by phone on Wednesday that reports of a new Russian military incursion into Ukrainian territory had to be cleared up, a spokesman for the chancellor said in a statement.

“The latest reports of the presence of Russian soldiers on Ukrainian territory must be explained,” said Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert. “She emphasised Russia’s major responsibility for de-escalation and watching over its own frontiers.”

Yeah. Tell Putin to de-escalate right after he’s escalated. That’s telling him.

Explain the reports? Clear things up? The level of unseriousness here is off the charts.

So what is this, the 35th Merkel to Putin call? These calls have accomplished what, exactly?

The most plausible hypothesis is that what they’ve accomplished is to convince Putin that he can do as he wills, without fearing any German response worth mentioning. (As for Obama, start printing the milk cartons with his picture. He’s been missing on this for weeks. The US response has been limited to unleashing the #hashtagteam of Psaki and Harf. Gawd. Speaking of the fearsome hashtags, has Nigeria gotten its girls back yet? No? So how come nobody’s hash tagging it any more?)

But this call to “explain” is a new low. Is Merkel a slow learner? Has she considered the possibility that the explanation for “reports” of Russian tanks in Novoazovsk is that there are Russian tanks in Novoazovsk?  Does she expect Putin will all of a sudden cop to this after denying Russian involvement for  six months (going back to Crimea)?

I see that the Germans do not say what Putin’s explanation was. Presumably because it was impossible to hear through the guffaws.

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August 26, 2014

Merkel to Ukraine: Here’s Your Hat. What’s Your Hurry?

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Regulation,Russia — The Professor @ 8:50 pm

To compound Merkel’s obsequiousness to Putin, and her pushing Ukraine into his embrace, she broadly hinted that Ukraine should join Putin’s pet project, The Eurasian Union. Since Putin has made it clear that membership in the Eurasian Union and the Real EU are mutually exclusive, this is tantamount to turning Europe’s back on Ukraine and leaving it to Putin’s tender mercies.

Merkel’s remarks make it clear that her primary motive for abandoning Ukraine to Putin is to keep good relations with Russia, and to avoid riling Vlad:

“And if Ukraine says we are going to the Eurasian Union now, the European Union would never make a big conflict out of it, but would insist on a voluntary decision,” Merkel added.

“I want to find a way, as many others do, which does not damage Russia. We [Germany] want to have good trade relations with Russia as well. We want reasonable relations with Russia. We are depending on one another and there are so many other conflicts in the world where we should work together, so I hope we can make progress”

Nauseating. Like my grandfather said about a hostess trying to hint to  a guest who had overstayed his welcome that he leave: “Here’s your hat, Bob. Why are you in such a hurry to leave?”

For his part, during the Eurasian Union summit in Minsk, Putin made it clear that Ukraine had to choose between one EU or the other, and if it chose wrong, Russia would punish it. This is the fate that Merkel is willing to consign Ukraine to, so that Siemens can continue to sell to Russia, and Adidas can provide all the track suits that the gopniks desire:

In his public comments, Mr. Putin highlighted the dangers he said Russia faces if Ukraine pursues closer ties to the West. Since the onset of the crisis, Mr. Putin has accused the West of meddling in Ukraine’s internal affairs and trying to spoil its relations with Moscow.

Mr. Putin said that a trade agreement between Kiev and Europe will flood the Ukrainian market with European goods, which may then find their way into Russia. “In this situation Russia cannot stand idle. And we will be prompted…to take retaliatory measures, to protect our market,” Mr. Putin said.

The interesting thing about this is just what it betrays about what Putin thinks about Russian competitiveness. Yes, Russia is so great. Russia is so strong. Russia is a beacon to the world. But it can’t produce things its own people and businesses want.

Note the phrase: “take retaliatory measures, to protect our market.” Remind me again: didn’t Russia join the WTO? Apparently Putin is unclear on the concept.

Further note whom Putin is protecting Russian markets against: Europe. Apparently Angela is unclear on some concepts too.

Putin and many (most?) other Russians inveigh about Russophobia. When he says things like that, it’s hard to think of a bigger Russophobe than Putin. He evidently does believe that Russians are inferior, and in need of protection.

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August 25, 2014

Merkel Tells Poroshenko to Save Putin’s Face. In Return, Putin Moons Merkel

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:54 pm

If you just fell off the cabbage truck, you might be stunned to learn that a couple of days after Merkel visited Ukraine to deliver Poroshenko the message that Ukraine needed to back down from its attack on Russian forces in Donbas in order to save Putin’s face, that Putin opened a new front in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Time and again, the hand-wringers in the west, Obama, Cameron, and especially Merkel, have desperately offered Putin ways out of Donbas. And time and again, Putin has taken these offers as a sign of weakness, and an invitation to escalate. The more aggressive he is, the more assiduously the hand-wringers try to appease him. The equilibrium in this game isn’t hard to figure out.

Merkel’s appeasing stance is overdetermined, but one of the contributing causes is her economic anxiety, and the wails of pain from German business. Today Merkel whinged about the economic costs of the Ukrainian crisis: the German economy contracted by .2 percent! Oh! The humanity!

Tell it to the Ukrainians, who are looking at a decline of about 50 times as big.

Merkel just wants the Ukraine crisis to go away. She knows that just washing her hands, Pilot-like, would look bad. So she mouths a few platitudes, and goes through the motion of playing bad cop with Putin, but does nothing serious to aid Ukraine (a piddling 500 mm Euros to support reconstruction of Donbas is a joke, especially when unaccompanied by military support), and through word and deed undermines Poroshenko and gives aid and comfort to Putin.

Putin knows this, which is why he continues to escalate, especially right after Merkel weighs in on Ukraine. She makes it clear to him that he will pay no real price.

Anybody heard anything about MH17 lately? No? Huh.

I’ve said this before. Ukraine, you are on your own, and your ostensible friends are no friends at all.

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A Temperamentally Unfit Commander in Chief

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 7:25 pm

A year ago I wrote this:

Although I could, on a very narrow margin, rationalize using force aggressively against Assad to achieve strategic and humanitarian objectives, I cannot abide any military operation in Syria undertaken by this administration.  Its painfully obvious lack of any strategic sense and utter incomprehension of the way that people like Assad and the mullahs think means that any military action that this administration devises will be entirely counterproductive.

I am by nature a pugnacious person. (Who knew?) It takes quite something to turn me into a pacifist.  But Obama has turned the trick.  Quite an achievement.

The need for military action against ISIS is compelling, but I still have grave reservations about any military operations under this commander in chief. In my opinion, he is unsuited for command by his ideology, his lack of any grounding in military or strategic subjects, but most importantly, his temperament.

He is ideologically opposed to the use of force, for any strategic purpose, anyways. He is somewhat comfortable with limited, but strategically barren, military operations such as drone strikes and one-off commando raids.

But the temperament is the problem. He is incredibly risk averse. It was widely reported that he scrubbed the Obama mission three times, on advice from the shadow president, Valerie Jarrett. Now comes news that he waffled on the Foley rescue mission for thirty full days. Thirty days. A month. A moon.

For President Barack Obama the decision to send in the Night Stalkers was an agonising one. The audacious bin Laden raid in Pakistan had been a success but also preying on his mind was the failed 1980 Delta Force operation to rescue American hostages in Tehran.

Sandstorms and mechanical troubles led the mission to be abandoned and eight American troops were killed when two aircraft collided. The debacle cast a shadow over Jimmy Carter’s presidency.

Pentagon sources said Foley and the others might well have been rescued but Obama, concerned about the ramifications of US troops being killed or captured in Syria, took too long to authorise the mission.

Anthony Shaffer, a former lieutenant-colonel in US military intelligence who worked on covert operations, said: “I’m told it was almost a 30-day delay from when they said they wanted to go to when he finally gave the green light. They were ready to go in June to grab the guy [Foley] and they weren’t permitted.”

Another US defence source said: “The White House constantly goes back and forth on these things. These people are a bunch of academics who endlessly analyse stuff and ordering up another deep-thinking paper but can’t decide what to order for lunch.”

Touche re the academics jibe.

Military operations are inherently risky. Things go wrong. But nothing risked, nothing gained.

No doubt Obama was also wanting better intelligence. Who doesn’t? But someone who is fit for command realizes that intelligence will never be perfect, and waiting for perfect intelligence will often result in the loss of an opportunity. Which was evidently the case here.

So Obama chose the worst option. He could have taken the risk when the intelligence was fresh, and when there was therefore a decent chance of succeeding in snatching Foley away from the head choppers. But he waited, thereby increasing the odds that ISIS would get wise to the operation, or move Foley as an ordinary operational precaution; the risks were as great, and likely greater, as a result of the wait. So by playing General Hamlet, but eventually saying “Go” he reduced the odds of success, without reducing and likely increasing the risks.

Someone fit for command must evaluate risks, but cannot take counsel of his fears, let alone become consumed like them as Obama quite clearly is predisposed to do.

Put differently, Obama says that his foreign policy credo is “don’t do stupid shit.” Sometimes not doing something is the stupidest shit of all.

Here’s an interesting lesson learned by someone who learned that war involves risks, but a commander cannot be paralyzed by them:

From the Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant -

…I received orders to move against Colonel Thomas Harris, who was said to be encamped at the little town of Florida, some twenty-five miles south of where we then were.

…Harris had been encamped in a creek bottom for the sake of being near water. The hills on either side of the creek extend to a considerable height, possibly more than a hundred feet. As we approached the brow of the hill from which it was expected we could see Harris’ camp, and possibly find his men ready formed to meet us, my heart kept getting higher and higher until it felt to me as though it was in my throat. I would have given anything then to have been back in Illinois, but I had not the moral courage to halt and consider what to do; I kept right on. When we reached a point from which the valley below was in full view I halted. The place where Harris had been encamped a few days before was visible, but the troops were gone. My heart resumed its place. It occurred to me at once that Harris had been as much afraid of me as I had been of him. This was a view of the question I had never taken before; but it was one I never forgot afterwards. From that event to the close of the war, I never experienced trepidation upon confronting an enemy, though I always felt more or less anxiety. I never forgot that he had as much reason to fear my forces as I had his. The lesson was valuable.

A man with Obama’s extremely risk averse temperament is extremely ill-suited to be commander-in-chief. This is extremely distressing, as the threat of ISIS requires a robust, sustained, strategically sensible response. All the leaks, as well as the public statements from the Pentagon, indicate that the military is rather frantic to act. But Obama continues to equivocate. He will continue to do so, because of his character and his ideology.

The administration is less focused on the mission than the messaging.

The White House is struggling to deliver a clear message on the threat posed by radical Islamist group ISIS and what the administration might do to counteract it.

Here’s a thought. Get a f*cking strategy, and the message will be self-evident.

But it gets better! And by better, I mean worse, of course. So desperate is it to downplay the risk of ISIS, it just makes stuff up:

The U.S. government has no evidence of a current plot by fighters for the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, or ISIS, to attack the U.S. homeland, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Monday.

Not to go all Rumsfeld on you (and believe me, I have deeply personal reasons not to do anything that would give credit to the man), but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. We don’t know what we don’t know. Given ISIS’s capabilities (“a plane ticket  away from the US” and a large roster of individuals with European and likely US passports) and obviously malign intent, the prudent thing to do is to take precautions, and certainly not say stupid things (or would that be stupid shit?) like “there currently is not an active plot underway.”

You’d think that after the “ISIS is the JV” fiasco they’d know better. You’d think wrong.

Obama and his toadies are obsessed with the message and the next news cycle, rather than operational and intelligence imperatives, and designing and implementing an effective strategy.

Talk about cognitive dissonance. I am convinced of the need for military action, but totally distrustful of the competence of the man to carry it out. Very difficult choice. In the end, I guess I have confidence in the ability of the armed military to overcome the grave handicaps imposed by an intellectually, temperamentally, and ideologically unsuitable commander in chief. The strategic threat is great enough that doing something far less effective than would be possible under different leadership is better than doing nothing at all.

How depressing is that?

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August 24, 2014

With Friends Like Merkel, Ukraine Doesn’t Need Enemies

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Professor @ 9:30 pm

Merkel visited Ukraine yesterday, on the 75th anniversary of the Nazi-Soviet pact. She did not quite play the role of Frau Ribbentrop, but she, and the German government, are greatly assisting Putin.

Yes, she said that Germany cannot accept Russian control over Crimea. But this is cheap posturing, because, in fact, it does. Germany refuses to accept the seizure de jure, but it does accept it, through its deeds, de facto.

Beyond those words, Merkel and the German government say things that Putin finds very congenial. She called for an unconditional cease-fire in eastern Ukraine. So has Putin. He wants this to give his battered forces in Ukraine relief so that he can regroup, reinforce, and adjust his tactics. Merkel wants to oblige him, even though her ostensible subjective reasons are different: but objectively, she is pro-Putin. Then, her Vice Chancellor (of the SPD) Sigmar Gabriel said that the only solution to the conflict in Ukraine was federalization. That’s the Russian line. (Merkel quickly said he had misspoke, and meant “decentralization”, but it is clear that he committed a Kinseyesque gaffe: he had spoken the truth.)

So the top two officials in the German government have endorsed the measures called for by the Russian government, and opposed by the Ukrainian government.

Merkel also said no more sanctions for now.

Further, Reuters reports that Germany/Merkel are now focusing on pressuring Ukraine to cease its military offensive in the Donbas, lest Putin suffer a loss of face that would compel him to invade.

After months of ratcheting up pressure on Vladimir Putin, concern is mounting in Berlin and other European capitals that an emboldened Ukraine’s military successes in the east are reducing the chances of a face-saving way out of the crisis for the Russian leader.

As a result, the focus of German-led diplomatic efforts has shifted, according to senior officials, towards urging restraint from Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and averting a humiliating defeat for pro-Russian rebels, a development that Berlin fears could elicit a strong response from Putin.

If followed, this advice will create another frozen conflict that Putin will use to eat away at Ukraine, to continue to bleed it and prevent it from reforming, and growing, and most importantly (from Putin’s perspective) keep it from moving closer to Europe. A persistent conflict in the region will also result in mounting civilian casualties and misery, things that Merkel claims to want to stop.

Frau Merkel gives the impression of someone who is willing to consign Ukraine to purgatory, to avoid dealing with Putin today. This is foolish, because it’s not as if Putin is going to go away satisfied. He will continue to pressure Ukraine, perhaps attempting to expand his covert and ambiguous military operations to other parts of the country. He will turn his attention to the Baltics. Merkel is just delaying the inevitable, and there is little certainty that the west will be in better shape to confront Putin later than now.

Merkel went to Ukraine proclaiming friendship. With friends like her, Ukraine-and the rest of Eastern Europe-don’t have to go looking for enemies.

 

 

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August 21, 2014

Don’t Worry About ISIS. The Progressive Dialectic Will Consign It to Oblivion

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 6:23 pm

Obama’s formulaic remarks, dispassionately delivered,  on the death of James Foley were both disturbing and revealing. Disturbing precisely because they were revealing.

Thus Spake Obama:

So ISIL speaks for no religion. Their victims are overwhelmingly Muslim, and no faith teaches people to massacre innocents. No just god would stand for what they did yesterday and what they do every single day. ISIL has no ideology of any value to human beings. Their ideology is bankrupt. They may claim out of expediency that they are at war with the United States or the West, but the fact is they terrorize their neighbors and offer them nothing but an endless slavery to their empty vision and the collapse of any definition of civilized behavior.

People like this ultimately fail. They fail because the future is won by those who build and not destroy. The world is shaped by people like Jim Foley and the overwhelming majority of humanity who are appalled by those who killed him. The United States of America will continue to do what we must do to protect our people. We will be vigilant and we will be relentless. When people harm Americans anywhere, we do what’s necessary to see that justice is done and we act against ISIL, standing alongside others. The people of Iraq, who with our support are taking the fight to ISIL must continue coming together to expel these terrorists from their community. The people of Syria, whose story Jim Foley told, do not deserve to live under the shadow of a tyrant or terrorists. They have our support in their pursuit of a future rooted in dignity.

From governments and peoples across the Middle East, there has to be a common effort to extract this cancer so that it does not spread. There has to be a clear rejection of this kind of nihilistic ideologies. One thing we can all agree on is that a group like ISIL has no place in the 21st century. Friends and allies around the world, we share a common security and a common set of values that are rooted in the opposite of what we saw yesterday. And we will continue to confront this hateful terrorism and replace it with a sense of hope and civility.

A few quick comments.

  • Obama’s progressivism, in many senses of the word, shines through here. According to Obama, ISIS is an atavism that is destined for extinction, because it does not fit into the 21st century. Through some sort of (unstated) dialectical process, such people “ultimately fail.” Humanitarians prevail, as the world progresses to higher and higher states of development and consciousness. This is profoundly ahistorical. Atavistic forces have repeatedly toppled far superior civilizations. The barbarian invasions of Rome. The Mongols in China and the Middle East (Tamerlane, anyone?) The Arab/Muslim onslaught in the Middle East and North Africa. I could go on. The very single-minded primitiveness of these peoples allows them to triumph over far more civilized and productive cultures that have lost the will to defend themselves, or whose societies are suffering from internal division and political disarray. Dark Ages have occurred throughout history precisely because of the triumphs of nihilistic but highly motivated peoples. The bankruptcy of ISIS’s ideology is rather beside the point: eye-rolling in the faculty lounge won’t defeat it. If it is sufficiently motivational to lead people to overthrow more constructive and creative ideologies, it can do incredible harm. Yes, such peoples “fail” in the sense that they are incapable of creating anything. But the problem is that their failure occurs only after they’ve destroyed societies that can create. Their ultimate barrenness is cold comfort to the lives and societies that they destroy. Which is why they must be confronted and defeated.
  • Note that this atavism trope is one of Obama’s favorites. He says the same about Putin and Russia. The message implicit in this trope is that since these atavistic forces are doomed to extinction, we don’t need to do anything. Again, given the profound damage that these people can do before they collapse, this is a dangerous, destructive illusion.
  • Whether it is Tony Blair, George Bush, or Barack Obama, few things are more grating than western leaders presuming to say what is, and what isn’t Islam. There isn’t an Islamic Pope, and if there was, his name wouldn’t be Tony, George, or even Barack Hussein, born in Hawaii. Islam isn’t any one thing, any more than Christianity is. There is no official scorecard. People energized by their visions of the teachings of Mohammed are wreaking havoc, especially in the Middle East. I can only imagine the snorts of derision among the adherents of ISIS, or other Salafists, at the presumption of kaffirs like Tony, George, or Barry to pontificate on what “true” Islam is. One can imagine them saying: tell it to the knife.
  • The insistence on collective action (“standing alongside others”-note the passivity of “standing alongside”).  The implied deference to others-in Obama’s remarks here, as elsewhere-suggests that if others don’t rally to the cause, the US will not act unilaterally. This betrays a complete ignorance of the frailties of collective action-notably, the incentive to free ride. The failure of others to pull their weight provides a justification for American inaction.
  • The return of the law enforcement model: “ When people harm Americans anywhere, we do what’s necessary to see that justice is done.” ISIS is a military organization that poses a military threat to American interests. Confronting ISIS is not a matter of serving a warrant and putting those who hacked off Foley’s head on trial. It is a matter of destroying its military capacity with military means.

All in all, there is an odd passivity: ISIS will fall either due to the Progress of History, or the collective disapproval of outraged humanity. The only American action even suggested is a law enforcement action, or at most a punitive expedition mounted against a few brigands. At most something along the lines of “Pedicaris alive, or Rasuli dead.”

In this vein, consider related news: that the US attempted a rescue operation by Special Forces that overpowered the ISIS forces at the target, but which failed because Foley had been moved before the raid.* Yes, it is good that Obama is not entirely allergic to the use of military force, but the type of military force he is willing to use (evidently after some hesitation) is also disturbing for what it reveals. One-off Special Forces raids of this type are inherently limited in their objective and duration. They are totally tactical, with no strategic purpose or effect. Yet this raid was mounted at a time when it had become evident beyond cavil that ISIS was a serious threat to strategic American interests, and when Obama stubbornly refused to acknowledge, let alone address, that threat. The most charitable thing that could be said is that by freeing Foley Obama would have eliminated an obstacle that limited American freedom of action. But this too would be disturbing, as it would imply that taking a single hostage can forestall American action. We may not pay cash ransom (most of the time anyways, with Bergdahl and Iran-Contra being prominent counterexamples), but such knowledge is priceless to a terrorist-and very ominous for any American in their reach.

Obama’s cramped and bloodless remarks are all the more striking, when contrasted with the alarms his own administration is raising. Today, Hagel-Chuck Hagel!-stated that ISIS is “beyond anything we’ve ever seen” and is “imminent threat to every interest we have, whether it’s in Iraq or anywhere else.” That would seem to call for something more than waiting for history, or the collective disapproval of civilized humanity, to consign ISIS to oblivion.

What’s more, it’s not like this should be news. It should have been known in June, when ISIS irrupted into central Iraq and advanced to the gates of Baghdad. It should have been known in January and February, when it conquered Fallujah and Ramadi-precisely when Obama dismissed it as the junior varsity. It should have been known earlier, when ISIS was battering other opposition forces in Syria (though perhaps I should not say “other” because it is not clear that ISIS was in opposition to Assad: more likely, he facilitated its growth).

Even if the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a necessary condition for the emergence of ISIS, this was not a sufficient condition. ISIS’s predecessor had been thoroughly beaten down, but for a variety of reasons, Obama created the conditions in which it metastasized to the threat it has become, a threat his own military and diplomatic officials recognize. Yet he still resists doing anything beyond the most limited air strikes.

Obama’s post-statement rush to the links, complete with big smiles and fist-bumps with his buds was also very disturbing. Given all the criticism of his golfing-while-the-world-burns, he had to have known that this would attract attention. But he did it anyways. I get the impression that this was a big FU: “Yeah, I know my golf gets criticism. Well, you know what, I don’t give a damn what you think. And just to show you, I’ll pivot from giving a statement about the slaughter of an American to yukking it up on the links.”

*Such a failure is not unprecedented. In 1970, the US mounted a raid to free prisoners at the Son Tay prison in North Viet Nam. The special forces troops succeeded in securing the camp, and killing 200 NVA, all the while suffering a single casualty: a helo pilot who suffered a broken ankle. But the prisoners had been moved prior to the raid, so it failed in its object. Intelligence is extremely hard to come by in these circumstances, and hence it is very difficult to know that the would-be rescue-es are at the target.

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