Streetwise Professor

June 5, 2015

Is the NSA Spying on Foreign Government Hackers? I Sure As Hell Hope So

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia,Snowden — The Professor @ 7:08 pm

The latest expose from Putin’s little monkey, Edward Snowden, desperate to maintain his relevance, is that the NSA monitors addresses and cybersignatures linked to foreign hackers, and specifically, foreign government-connected hackers:

In mid-2012, Justice Department lawyers wrote two secret memos permitting the spy agency to begin hunting on Internet cables, without a warrant and on American soil, for data linked to computer intrusions originating abroad — including traffic that flows to suspicious Internet addresses or contains malware, the documents show.

The Justice Department allowed the agency to monitor only addresses and “cybersignatures” — patterns associated with computer intrusions — that it could tie to foreign governments. But the documents also note that the NSA sought permission to target hackers even when it could not establish any links to foreign powers.

To which I say: I sure as hell hope so.

It is more than a little ironic that this article appeared almost simultaneously with the revelation that some foreign organization or government hacked into US government computers, and stole the personal information of millions of government employees. It’s hard to imagine a more telling, vivid contrast between the highly abstract and limited treat to American’s personal privacy posed by the measures described in the NYT article, and the very real threat to that privacy posed by the target of those measures.

This all points out the utter asininity of the Snowden fanatics (who, alas, include some members of Congress and at least one presidential candidate), who appear completely unwilling or unable to think of trade-offs and real world choices, but instead focus monomaniacally on the threat to their personal privacy posed by the US government, while ignoring other more serious threats that (unlike the NSA) operate subject to no legal constraint or oversight whatsoever. Yes, the USG can be abusive, at times to the point of being tyrannical. But we need to speak of specific cases.

Tell me. Whom do you believe is a bigger threat to your privacy? The NSA or hackers, foreign hackers in particular?

There is a pronounced whiff of narcissism from those who think that the NSA really gives a damn about them and their precious online secrets. Sorry to break it to you, but it doesn’t, unless perhaps you have had a bad breakup with an NSA employee. It hoovers up vast amounts of information, but is focused on filtering out the noise to get at intelligence-relevant signals. And believe it or not, the hours you spend on Tinder are nothing but noise.

Hackers, on the other hand, find your information quite fascinating, precisely because they can monetize that information. They can turn ethereal bytes into solid gold.

So there is a real trade off, and when you conceive of it as a trade off the choice becomes pretty obvious. At the cost of allowing the NSA to touch a highly limited sliver of your personal data, you can increase the odds of detecting or deterring a truly malign hack. Or, you can protect your address and cybersignature from the prying eyes of the NSA, and dramatically increase the odds of having your most valuable personal information fall victim to hackers. That’s the trade-off. That’s your choice. Deal with that reality. Those who choose to let the hackers run riot rather than have a few limited pieces of information reside on an NSA-controlled server deserve to have Died of a Theory as their financial epitaph.

(Regarding the hack of the US Office of Personnel Management, the administration pointed the finger at China with unseemly haste. Perhaps. But this seems more like a Russian MO than a Chinese. The Russians are interested in information they can monetize, the Chinese less so. Perhaps China is the culprit, but I wouldn’t rush to judgment.)

The NYT/PP article makes it clear that the DOJ only asked the FISA court for authority to collect the data from intruders connected to foreign governments. The NSA wanted a broader mandate,  including the ability to collect from foreign intruders not reliably tied to a government, but DOJ didn’t ask for it.

That’s too bad. Non-Government hackers, mainly operating from Russia, other FSU countries, and China, are arguably a bigger threat to personal privacy than governments. The non-government hackers have mercenary motives, and your data is particularly attractive to them. Most of the major hacks of valuable personal information have been executed by foreign criminal organizations with no demonstrable connections to foreign governments (though in the case of Russia, they likely operate under Russian government protection) So again looking at the trade-off, I’d prefer that the NSA have the broader authority. That would give me more privacy, and more information security.

With regards to Snowden, isn’t it interesting that Snowden’s organ grinder-Putin-would be one of the main beneficiaries of a restriction on the NSA’s authority to track foreign government hackers? Surely just a coincidence, right, because little monkeys never dance to their master’s tunes, do they?

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June 2, 2015

Hey Elon-Put *OUR* Money Where Your Big Fat Mouth Is

Filed under: Climate Change,Economics,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 7:12 pm

In one of my periodic Quixotic moments, I tilted at the Cult of Elon Musk. First, I argued that he or someone manipulated the prices of Tesla and Solar City stocks: I stand by that analysis. Second, I argued that the supposed visionary’s true genius was for feeding lustily at the taxpayer teat.

It is a testament to my great influence that the Cult of Musk has grown only larger in the two years since I made a run at him. But maybe the spell is breaking. For the LA Times just ran a long article detailing just how much his fortune was picked from our pockets. According to the LAT, Musk companies have raked in $4.9 billion in various subsidies and tax breaks, give or take.

That’s 10 figures, people.

That’s bad enough. What’s worse is Musk’s “defense.” It is a farrago of intellectual dishonesty, logical fallacies, condescension, and arrogance.

Musk only replied to the LAT after repeated inquiries, but it is good that the paper persisted. Musk’s rationalizations have to be seen to be believed.

For one thing, he says he doesn’t really need the subsidies:

“If I cared about subsidies, I would have entered the oil and gas industry,” said Musk.

. . . .

“Tesla could be profitable right now if we went into low-growth mode and we just served premium buyers,” he said. “The reason we are not profitable is because we are making massive investments to create an affordable long-range electric car.”

We are making massive investments? What do you mean by “we”, paleface?

So fine. You don’t care about subsidies. You don’t need them.

Then put your money-excuse me, our money-where your big fat mouth is and don’t cash the checks.

The rest of Musk’s defense consists of various incarnations of N wrongs make a right (or, put differently, other people suck at the government teat, why shouldn’t I?):

Musk said the subsidies for Tesla and SolarCity are “a pittance” compared with government support of the oil and gas industry.

“What is remarkable about my companies is that they have been successful despite having such a tiny incentive from the government relative to our competitors,” Musk told The Times.

. . . .

Tesla, Musk said, competes with a mature auto industry that has seen massive federal bailouts for General Motors and Chrysler.

“Tesla and Ford are the only American auto companies not to have gone bankrupt,” Musk said.

SolarCity, he said, is in a nascent industry that must fight entrenched oil and gas interests that have myriad subsidies.

Throwing good money after bad is not good public policy.

Musk cites numerous junk studies to support his case. Some of these are studies of the alleged economic benefits arising from investments in his battery plants, etc. I guarantee, all such studies are garbage based on mythical multipliers and crypto-Keynesian mumbo jumbo. Others are studies of the alleged subsidies of other industries, notably the energy industry. Even taking the numbers at face value, the subsidies of fossil fuels are a pittance on a per BTU or megawatt basis compared to those for renewables. Further, fossil fuels are also heavily taxed directly and indirectly, including by substantial geopolitical and expropriation risks. The study that cites the environmental costs of fossil fuels is particularly susceptible to abuse. And to quote Sonicharm, of the blog Rhymes With Cars and Girls-also not a Musk fan!-all large calculations are wrong.

Elon Musk is a rent seeker masquerading as a visionary. If he is one-tenth the innovator and genius his fawning fans believe him to be he wouldn’t need any subsidies. We should give him the chance to prove it.

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May 29, 2015

I Think I Read These Predictions About the Impending Revolution in LNG Trading Somewhere Before

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy — The Professor @ 2:42 pm

The FT, Goldman, Jonathan Stern at the Oxford Institute of Energy Research, Vitol, and others are now predicting that the emergence of the US as an LNG exporter, and the looming surplus driven by that plus supplies from Australia, PNG, and elsewhere, are inexorably pushing this commodity away from traditional oil-based long term contracts towards spot trading.

Huh. I remember reading something along those lines last September. Oh, yeah. Here it is. (Also available in Spanish!) I guess it’s more accurate to say I remember writing something exactly along those lines in September.

The opening of the Cheniere* and later the Freeport and Cameron LNG trains in the Gulf will be particularly important. The US is likely to be at the margin in Asia, Latin America and perhaps Europe. Prices are set at the margin, meaning that the LNG pricing mechanism can be integrated into the already robust US/Henry Hub pricing mechanism. Giving the tipping effects discussed in my paper, the transition in the pricing mechanism and the development of a robust spot market is likely to take place relatively rapidly.

I know there is skepticism in the industry about this, but I am pretty confident in my prediction. Experiences in other markets, notably iron ore and to some degree coal, indicate how rapid these transitions can be.

Funny story (to me anyways). I gave the keynote speech at LNG World Asia in Singapore in September, and I laid out my views on this subject. I gave the talk in front of the giant shark tank at the Singapore Aquarium, and I could help but think of Team America, Kim Jung Il, and Hans Blix. I’m sure there were a few people in the audience who would have liked to feed me to the sharks for calling oil-linked pricing “a barbarous relic” and encouraging them to embrace the brave new world of LNG trading.

But whether they like it or not, it’s coming. The inflection point is nigh.

*Full disclosure. Number One Daughter works for Cheniere.

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Big Trouble in Big China?

Filed under: China,Economics,Politics — The Professor @ 2:16 pm

The Chinese stock market and the Chinese economy are perplexing. The latter seems to be slowing rather dramatically, and there is widespread belief that the growth rate is, or soon will be, far below the 7 percent level the government is touting. Nonetheless, the stock market has been skyrocketing, with some periodic selloffs as occurred yesterday.

The government is allegedly intent on transitioning from the investment- and export-driven growth model towards a more consumption-oriented one: Fixed investment as a fraction of GDP is at stratospheric levels, and consumption as a fraction of GDP is extremely low. Its ability to navigate this transition, due to the inherent difficulties of trying to manage a huge economy as well as the political economy factors that tend  to impede change, is open to serious doubt. There is always the possibility that the government will respond to any growth slowdown the way it has in the past, through massive stimulus.

Further, the strength of the Chinese banking sector is always open to question. If the government (and the central bank) are concerned about it, that would also tend to bias them towards loosening credit.

Local governments are connected to all these issues. Local governments, through so-called Local Government Funding Vehicles, fund a substantial fraction (about 20 percent) of Chinese investment. These entities have exhibited signs of financial distress, as indicted by high yields. This reflects the dodgy quality of many of the investments these vehicles funded. This is a problem for Chinese banks, which have a large exposure the LTFVs.

The Chinese government recently provided a very strong indication that it is indeed deeply concerned. It announced a set of measures that look for all the  world to be a financial shell game intended to move local government risk onto the balance sheet of the People’s Bank of China and simultaneously create credit.

As originally announced, the banks were expected to swap LGFV debt for municipal bonds carrying a lower interest rate. The banks were obviously unenthusiastic about this, and the takeup was minimal. So the PBOC made it plain that this was not voluntary: banks were expected to buy the lower interest munis. To induce them to do so, the PBOC said that it would permit the banks to post these securities as collateral at the central bank, and use the proceeds of the collateralized borrowing to extend new loans.

The exact nature of the collateralized borrowing from the PBOC is about as clear as a Beijing sunset, but it is evident that this mechanism can serve as a way of passing the muni credit risk onto the PBOC. If the munis become distressed, and the loans are de jure or de facto non-recourse, the banks default on the loans, leaving the PBOC with the bad local government debt.

It is clear that this is a bailout of the local governments. They are now borrowing at below market rates: it wouldn’t have been necessary to coerce and induce the banks to buy the local government debt if they were sold at rates reflecting the credit risk. Since the banks now appear willing to lend, they must believe that the central bank is wearing the risk, and hence paying the subsidy. In other words, the pea is under the shell labeled “PBOC.”

The command that that banks lend the proceeds from the loans from the PBOC means that the overall effect of the program will be to expand bank balance sheets and increase credit. It is both bailout and stimulus.

Putting this all together, this suggests that the Chinese authorities are deeply concerned about the financial condition of local governments and the banks, and is also deeply concerned about growth prospects. It could also indicate hesitation about transitioning away from the investment/export-driven model. All of which makes the booming Chinese stock market all the more puzzling. Unless, that is, the betting is that the government will respond to weak growth by resuming the credit stimulus and blowing asset bubbles.

None of this are signs of a healthy economy, or healthy markets. It is instead symptomatic of massive distortions and imbalances produced by years of heavy-handed policies. The imbalances must correct eventually, but the Chinese are saying not yet, lord, not yet.

But they cannot defer the reckoning forever, and the longer it is delayed, the more brutal the correction will be. But like politicians everywhere, the current Chinese government no doubt is content that the blow up occur on the next guy’s watch.

 

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The US Nails Fifa, But It’s Putin Who Howls

Filed under: Politics,Sports — The Professor @ 5:56 am

Wednesday’s indictments of Fifa board members and others generates a great deal of schadenfreude. Fifa is a corrupt and loathsome institution, and it’s about time for its comeuppance. Hopefully the IOC will get its soon as well.

There is much comic gold to mine here. One nugget is Fifa president Sepp Blatter’s statement that it was he would lead the effort to restore Fifa’s reputation:

“We, or I, cannot monitor everyone all of the time,” Mr. Blatter said. “If people want to do wrong, they will also try to hide it. But it must also fall to me to be responsible for the reputation of our entire organization, and to find a way to fix things. [Note to Sepp: We know very well you are a fixer, but not in the way you use the term.]

We cannot allow the reputation of FIFA to be dragged through the mud any longer. It has to stop here and now.

Yeah. That we police ourselves thing worked so well with the Garcia Report.

Another hilarious aspect of this is that the decidedly un-athletic American who became an informant, the improbably named Chuck Blazer, who motors between huge meals on a scooter, looks like Mr. Creosote in the flesh. Don’t give him a mint!

But by far the best part of this is watching Vladimir Putin totally lose his sh*t over the arrests, and the parallel Swiss investigation of the awarding of the 2018 World Cup to Russia (as well as the 2022 WC to Qatar):

President Vladimir V. Putin sought to transform the burgeoning scandal over corruption in soccer’s international governing body into an extension of the confrontation between Russia and the West on Thursday, accusing the United States of global overreach while invoking the fates of Edward J. Snowden and Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder.

Most world leaders remained mum, apparently waiting for more details to emerge, but Mr. Putin went on the offensive immediately.

He used the moment to again portray Russia as under siege — in this case threatened with the humiliating loss of the right to host the 2018 World Cup, a move considered unlikely.

Mr. Putin called the arrests of top FIFA officials in Zurich on Wednesday “another blatant attempt by the United States to extend its jurisdiction to other states,” according to a transcript of an overnight news conference posted on the Kremlin website. Mr. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked classified information about global surveillance programs, and Mr. Assange, whose website published United States military and diplomatic documents, have both eluded American prosecution by taking refuge in other countries.

Note to VVP: idiots who use American banks to launder money and arrange corrupt transactions on American soil are most decidedly in the jurisdiction of the US.

But come to think of it, it’s precisely the fact that Putin knows that all too well which explains his howling like a scalded cat. It hits very close to home. It demonstrates a  vulnerability of which he is all too aware of, and neuralgic about.

Putin also conveniently overlooks the fact that it is the Swiss who have announced that they are examining specifically the awarding of the World Cup to Russia. The US said nothing about that, and indeed, the US embassy in Moscow said the indictments have nothing to do with Russia, so cool your jets, Vlad. Though, of course, Attorney General Lynch’s statement that the investigation is not over clearly looms over Putin and Russia. But the fact that the Swiss are involved makes it harder to make this a purely evil American plot.

It’s also hilarious to see that Gazprom assured Fifa that it would not terminate its sponsorship. So good to know that Fifa still lives up to Gazprom’s high standards for corruption.

Putin’s raising the issue of the “persecution” of Snowden and Julian Assange is also beyond parody. For Putin to credit Snowden as a hero for revealing secrets nearly simultaneously with Russia’s passing a law that makes information regarding the deaths of Russian servicemen on “special operations” during peacetime a state secret is particularly outlandish. To defend  the Pale One at anytime is bizarre. (Perhaps Vlad sees his fate when he looks at Assange-hiding out in a friendly embassy, dependent on a sun lamp for his Vitamin D.)

The statements of the Russian sport minister are also amusing. “We have nothing to hide.” (Who said you did? And if you have nothing to hide, why did you destroy the rented computers on which contained all of the Russian bidding committee’s correspondence and work product?)

The best: “I see no threat to Russia.”

If this is no threat, why is Putin freaking out? His over the top reaction betrays a deep fear that Russia and everyone involved in the WC bid, including Roman Abramovich and Putin himself) will be implicated. So many people arrested have an incentive to sing like birds. So many computers to search (including Fifa’s, which the Swiss are doing presently).

I am actually somewhat surprised at Putin’s reaction. He has been rather relaxed lately. The old cockiness has returned. The insecurity and paranoia of late-2014 and early-2015 had apparently vanished. He would have been much better off had he played this cool, and ignored the issue altogether. By making such a big deal out of it he looks guilty as hell. Which he doubtless is, but he could have fooled a lot more people had he just blown this off. A public fit screams a deep concern that he indeed very much has something-or somethings-to hide.

The next weeks and months should be rather enjoyable, watching  Blatter and Putin rant and squirm. And maybe, in the end, the world’s football-I mean soccer!-fanatics will be spared the torture of visiting Russia in 2018.

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May 26, 2015

Contrary to What Obama Says, the Ayatollahs Don’t Believe That It’s the Economy, Stupid

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 12:48 pm

Obama gave an interview with his Boswell (on Middle East matters, anyways), Jeffrey Goldberg. In it, Goldberg asked how Obama could be confident in making a deal with a virulently anti-Semitic state. (Goldberg omitted  that it is also a state that has “death to America” as its rallying cry, which is as or more important to Americans.) Respondeth the (self-identified) sage:

“Well the fact that you are anti-Semitic, or racist, doesn’t preclude you from being interested in survival. It doesn’t preclude you from being rational about the need to keep your economy afloat; it doesn’t preclude you from making strategic decisions about how you stay in power; and so the fact that the supreme leader is anti-Semitic doesn’t mean that this overrides all of his other considerations. You know, if you look at the history of anti-Semitism, Jeff, there were a whole lot of European leaders—and there were deep strains of anti-Semitism in this country—” [Of course, Obama can’t resist slagging Americans by comparing them to “Death to Israel” ayatollahs and “European leaders”, e.g., Hitler.]

I interjected by suggesting that anti-Semitic European leaders made irrational decisions, to which Obama responded, “They may make irrational decisions with respect to discrimination, with respect to trying to use anti-Semitic rhetoric as an organizing tool. [Does Obama believe that anti-Semitic rhetoric was an “organizing tool” for the Nazis? If he is excluding them from this, then he is dodging Goldberg’s question.] At the margins, where the costs are low, they may pursue policies based on hatred as opposed to self-interest. But the costs here are not low, and what we’ve been very clear [about] to the Iranian regime over the past six years is that we will continue to ratchet up the costs, not simply for their anti-Semitism, but also for whatever expansionist ambitions they may have. That’s what the sanctions represent. That’s what the military option I’ve made clear I preserve represents. And so I think it is not at all contradictory to say that there are deep strains of anti-Semitism in the core regime, but that they also are interested in maintaining power, having some semblance of legitimacy inside their own country, which requires that they get themselves out of what is a deep economic rut that we’ve put them in, and on that basis they are then willing and prepared potentially to strike an agreement on their nuclear program.”

That all sounds coolly analytical and everything (“organizing tool”, “at the margins where the costs are low”) but it is poppycock dressed up in academic jargon grounded in a category error. Specifically, Obama profoundly misunderstands rationality, and projects his own views of what is rational on others, specifically the Iranians (though he projects on others, including Putin, in other contexts).

Obama argues that “being rational” involves things like “staying in power” and “keeping your economy afloat.” Conversely, he believes that except as an instrument to achieve these ends, anti-Semitism, expansionism, and presumably anti-Americanism and Islamic fundamentalism and Islamic exceptionalism, are irrational. Obama further believes, apparently, that rational imperatives (e.g., a stronger economy, better living standards for Iranians), will trump these irrational urges.

This fundamentally misunderstands what Hayek pointed out long ago: rationality relates to the application of the means best calculated to achieved desired ends. It does not relate to the desired ends themselves, which are inherently subjective and effectively beyond objective reason or logic. In economic terms, if the Iranian leadership gets subjective utility out of killing Jews and Americans and Sunnis, and extending the reach of the Islamic revolution, “rationality” involves the effectiveness of the means chosen to kill Jews, Americans, and Sunnis, and extend the reach of the Islamic revolution, not these objectives themselves. Again, the Nazi example is instructive. Given the costs of pursuing the Holocaust, it may seem irrational. But the Nazis pursued it with a purpose despite these costs. This was rational because they got intense satisfaction out of killing Jews. The huge cost of exterminating the Jews is a testament to its importance to them, not an indication of their irrationality.

In other words, Obama is engaged in the worst kind of mirror imaging, defining his preferences and world view to be “rational”, and projecting them onto the Iranians. In the near term, the main implication Obama and the administration draw from this is that “rational” economic imperatives will drive the Iranians to moderate their aggressiveness and imperial ambitions. The administration is basically the ventriloquist for this article from Reuters.

This is flatly at odds with their current behavior. A severely economically constrained Iranian regime is bending every fiber and digging deep into its limited resources to prop up Assad, foment revolt in Yemen, and fight Isis in Iraq. This indicates what its strong preferences are, and if it receives tens of billions of additional resources, it will inevitably indulge these preferences by increasing its spending on them. Expand their opportunity set, and Iran will engage in more anti-Semitism, more anti-Americanism, more Islamism, and more Persian imperialism. Further, it will respond to domestic discontent not by appeasing it through focusing like a laser on the economy, but by focusing like a laser on crushing the opposition, as it did in 2009 (when Obama stood aside, clearly signaling that he had chosen the ayatollahs over the Iranian people). And all that will be perfectly rational.

Narcissist that he is, mirror imaging comes naturally to Obama. And this very mirror imaging explains why Obama has been surprised so frequently by world events, most notably in the Middle East, but not limited to there by any means. People don’t do what he expects because he expects them to do what he would even though they inhabit different universes. These surprises have translated into failures and fiascos, and the most dramatic decline in America’s strategic position since at least Vietnam, and perhaps even including Vietnam. John Kerry says to give him and Obama the benefit of the doubt. Sorry, but sad experience tells us that would be truly, well, irrational.

Mirror imaging was bad enough when the Soviets were the object of it, but it is beyond insane with the Iranians, who inhabit an entirely different mental, moral, cultural, and religious universe than most Americans do, and certainly different than the one that transnational progressives like Obama inhabit. Ayatollahs don’t believe that it’s the economy, stupid. They believe it’s Islam and Shia Persian superiority, stupid. Given their very different values and preferences, they will make very different choices than Obama projects on them, meaning that he will be surprised, yet again.

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May 23, 2015

Don’t Sh*t the Troops

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 7:31 pm

I have been scathing in my criticism of the administration’s and the Pentagon’s dishonest spin about the ongoing fiasco in Iraq. Just when I think they’ve pegged the BS meter at 10, they crank it to 11, as in this statement by the appalling Chairman of the JCS, Martin Dempsey, who shamelessly covers for Obama  and his failures:

 Iraqi security forces weren’t “driven from” Ramadi, they “drove out of Ramadi,” the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said here Wednesday.

. . . .

“This group of [Iraqi security forces] had been forward-deployed in al Anbar [province] – arguably the most dangerous part of Iraq,” he said. “They believed they were less well-supported. The tribes had begun to come together, but had not … allied themselves with the [security forces].”

The sandstorm precluded U.S. air support against ISIL, and the Iraqi commander on the ground made “what appears to be a unilateral decision to move to what he perceived to be a more defensible position,” the general said.

A more exquisite job of sh*t-house lawyering (or sea lawyering, as they call it in the Navy) would be hard to imagine. Excuse me, General, but they drove out because they were driven out. They drove out because they bugged out. They bugged out because they were outmanned, outgunned, unsupported, and suffering from the typical failures of leadership and morale that beset Iraqi formations. It is impossible to put a favorable gloss on this, but Dempsey did his level best to do so, and in the process brings shame and discredit onto the US and its military.

When he heard a statement that was transparently intended to cover up an unpleasant truth, my dad would say: “Don’t sh*t the troops.” Well, the senior uniformed officer in the US military establishment is shamelessly attempting to sh*t the troops, and the American people.

What’s almost as astounding is that both www.centcom.mil and www.pentagon.gov are leading their anti-ISIS war coverage with Dempsey’s remarks, meaning that the establishment is complicit in sh*tting the troops. This wasn’t a gaffe. It is official writ.

Dempsey is a repeat offender. Not long ago he said Ramadi was not important militarily or symbolically, thereby giving great offense to thousands of soldiers, sailors, and Marines (and their families) who fought and bled for Ramadi, and wrested a hard won victory from the predecessors of ISIS. Dempsey then compounded the offense by giving the typical celebrity non-apology-apology that included an “if” (“if I’ve added to your grief”) and a “but.” Real apologies are unconditional and unqualified. The man cannot leave soon enough.

What would someone telling it straight, and not sh*ting the troops, say? He wouldn’t say what Dempsey said:

“At the start I said three years,” he said. “That still might be the case, we may be able to achieve our objectives in three years. But I said then, and I reiterate now, that there may be tactical exchanges – some of which go the way of Iraqi security forces and others which go the way of ISIL. But the coalition has all the strategic advantages over time.”

He would say the current planned is doomed to failure, and that major changes are needed.

One change being considered is deploying American tactical air controllers/targeters. I wrote posts about this some months ago (like this one), and I definitely agree that this is necessary to make the air campaign more effective.* But in the absence of an even marginally credible ground force in Iraq, even a serious air campaign cannot defeat ISIS. A full-blooded American ground intervention would be required-either that, or turning the place into radioactive glass (which wouldn’t require TACs!). But the cost in lives and treasure is unlikely to be worth the gain. I therefore tend to agree with commenter Chris, and Bob Baer, that Iraq and Syria are doomed to devolve in to bloody statelets run by warlords, divided on sectarian and ethnic lines, and we should learn to live with that. Secure our economic interests, and let the locals party like it’s 699. Focus our attention on China and Russia, both of which have been particularly truculent lately.

In retrospect, it is clear that once Obama pulled out of Iraq in 2011, catastrophe was foreordained. The Iraqi state and military were too dysfunctional to combat effectively a relentless enemy.

Perhaps the situation could have been retrieved, at least partially, if the US had aggressively employed air power when Isis was on its rampage about a year ago, but Obama demurred. That allowed Isis to take Mosul, and expand in Anbar. It is now well-entrenched, and has sufficient human and material resources to withstand whatever the militarily feeble Iraqi and Syrian governments have to throw at it.

It’s about time to admit that. But from Obama through Dempsey to Pentagon press flacks we don’t get such honesty. Instead, we get a constant litany of troop-sh*tting. Enough already. All the spin in the world can’t conceal the obvious.

* I find it interesting that Anthony Cordesman, whom I admire greatly, says that TACs are “critical” because his first analysis of the air campaign mentioned their role only in passing. I wrote him about this, provided several historical references (e.g., some material about Arc Light raids in Vietnam and the role of controllers in aiding the XIX Tactical Air Force in NW Europe in WWII). He said he would put is research assistants to work on the subject, and I guess he has become convinced.

 

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May 19, 2015

Fiasco on the Euphrates

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

The situation in Ramadi (and Anbar generally) is an utter fiasco, with the Iraqi forces reprising the rout that occurred in Mosul almost exactly a year ago, thereby helping re-equip Isis with brand new American equipment. To paraphrase Wellington: Isis came on in the same old way, and the Iraqi army ran away in the same old way.

The Shia Hashd militia are claiming that they will retake Ramadi. As if. In Patton’s felicitous phrase, they couldn’t fight their way out of a piss soaked paper bag, especially in the offensive: “militia” means “militarily ineffective amateurs”. Oh they will no doubt die in large numbers, but in another Patton phrase: “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.” (Or sect, as is the case here.) Their reputation alone will drive those few Anbari Sunnis who haven’t thrown over to Isis out of self-preservation into arms of the caliphate.

The only thing that can redeem the situation is a major commitment of American ground forces. But that is not in the cards. The most Obama could muster today was a milquetoast statement that he was “weighing” “accelerating” training of Iraqi troops. That is so wildly inadequate to the emergency of the moment that one doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Obama has no one to blame but himself for the appalling choices that face him: he is entirely responsible for this dilemma because of an earlier choice that he made eagerly, indeed, triumphantly. When a preening and supercilious Obama decided to declare victory in Iraq, and withdraw every American soldier, Marine, and airman from the country, he opened the door for Isis. And once Isis barged through, he was left with two, and only two, alternatives: go back in heavy with a major commitment of American combat forces, or turn the mess over to Iran to sort out.

He is constitutionally unable to make the former choice, so by default, he is left with the latter. This helps to explain (but is not the entire explanation) for his deference to Iran on everything. But this will prove unavailing as well, because for all of its blood curdling rhetoric, Iran does not have the military capacity to achieve anything except get a lot of people killed.

So absent a road to Jerusalem conversion by Obama, Isis will consolidate, and likely expand, its hold in Anbar and other parts of Iraq.

Adding insult to injury are statements from the administration and the Pentagon that are so divorced from reality that they would make Baghdad Bob blush. Baghdad Brett McGurk is probably the worst offender, but he has much company.

As I’ve written before, you know that most people in the military must be beside themselves watching this. As I’ve also written, this is being enabled, rather than opposed, by the senior military leadership, especially the outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. They should all be reading Dereliction of Duty, and thinking very, very hard about how its lessons apply to them, today.

The situation is arguably beyond recovery, at least at any affordable cost. And even were Obama to go against ever instinct in his body and decide to intervene with American combat troops, I shudder to think of going to war under such an uncertain and inept commander.

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May 17, 2015

One Does Not Win Wars By Special Operations Alone

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 1:42 pm

The administration is hyping an allegedly successful Delta Force attack on an Isis target in Syria. I say “allegedly successful” because even though it appears that at least one high value target was killed, and some intelligence was seized, there are doubts that the raid killed the original target. But even if the raid was successful in that it achieved its objective, it testifies to the broader strategic failure of the American campaign to “counter Isis.”

One does not win wars by special operations alone. As their name implies, special operations are special, exceptional. They can be an important and very specialized component of a military campaign that uses all elements of combat power to destroy a conventional or semi-conventional enemy force that holds territory: they cannot be the entire campaign, or even the main element of that campaign. Special operations support the main operations. They are not a substitute for infantry, armor, artillery, and airpower: they are a complement.

One important function that special operations can perform is reconnaissance and intelligence collection. The information provided by special operators can be used to identify enemy weaknesses and strengths, anticipate enemy movements, and plan main force attacks to destroy enemy units and wrest territory from them.

Even if the Delta operators seized considerable intelligence in the raid, this information will be largely useless in operations against Isis combat power because there is no American or coalition combat force that can use it to devise an effective attack against that power.

Another important task special operation forces can perform is direct action against enemy command, control, and logistics. Such actions can sow confusion in the enemy’s ranks and the minds of its commanders; disrupt communications; impede coordination, command and control, thereby reducing the enemy’s operational effectiveness; and divert forces that otherwise could be used to attack or defend against one’s main forces. But a main force is required to exploit these benefits.

Special operations were employed in these ways during the Iraq War, and in particular in Anbar during the Surge. SEALs and Delta conducted almost daily raids on insurgents and collected significant intelligence that was used by conventional infantry, armor, and air forces in near real time to mount attacks against insurgent targets, and to repel insurgent attacks. The pressure from special operations direct actions attrited the enemy and forced its leadership to devote considerable resources on self-defense. Snipers provided by special operations forces were particularly effective at killing and demoralizing the insurgents.

That is, special operations were a major force multiplier in Iraq, especially in 2007-2008. But that was because there was a force to multiply. Special operations were a key component of a full-spectrum campaign involving conventional American forces and local Sunni tribal auxiliaries. This campaign eventually resulted in a hard-won victory that Obama frittered away in 2011. Today’s news that Ramadi, and with it virtually all of Anbar, are in Isis hands shows that the reversal of fortune is all but complete.

But if you multiply nothing by something, even a big something, you still end up with nothing. And it is abundantly clear that in Iraq and Syria, we got nothin’ for special forces to multiply. Meaning that the ultimate effect of yesterday’s Delta raid, and any other raids to come, will be effectively zero.

Given the grave risks of these raids, the limited number of operators, and the very high cost of training and retaining these unique personnel, they should not be employed in operationally and strategically barren operations. It is almost certain that the recent raid in Syria will be operationally and strategically barren. It should not have been mounted, and similar operations should not be mounted in the future, except as part of a sound operational plan that utilizes conventional forces to achieve a strategically meaningful objective.

Obama is categorically opposed to using conventional forces in Iraq and Syria, but feels that he has to do something, and drones and special forces raids are something, even if they accomplish little or nothing of strategic importance. It is pointless to rely  on these instruments of national power, which are only truly useful if joined up with other elements of that power, as the backbone of a campaign against Isis. If there is a more telling testament to the strategic vacuity of Obama’s “slow burn” campaign than the daring raid in Syria, I would be hard pressed to name it. So much professional expertise and courage put at grave risk to achieve a glittering tactical victory that will have no effect on the ultimate outcome in Syria and Iraq. One cannot win wars by special operations alone, and it borders on the criminal even to try.

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May 16, 2015

Spinning Like Dervishes on Iran, Syria, and Iraq

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 8:22 pm

Obama held his stop-worrying-and-learn-how-to-love-the-Iranian-bomb “summit” with the GCC at Camp David. Well,”summit” is something of an overstatement, because four of the most important GCC leaders (most notably Saudi Arabia’s King Salman) took a pass and sent deputies instead. The world saw this as a snub, but the administration spun it as no big deal.

Speaking of deputies and spin, afterwards Ben Rhodes, “deputy national security adviser for strategic communication”, came out spinning like a dervish. One statement was more ridiculous than the next. The Iranians would use the 11 (or is it 12) figure windfall to rebuild their sanction-stricken economy rather than to arm themselves or sow discord abroad. (If they are so anxious to address domestic issues, why endure sanctions for so long?) Further, Ben intoned, the the Iranians are indeed acting aggressively in the Middle East, but their preferred methods are inexpensive, so they have no need to spend the added billions on further aggressive measures. (That’s supposed to inspire confidence? Ever think that its current choice of methods is a concession to their financial straits, and with more money Iran just might adopt new, more expensive-and effective-methods? Further, I’m pretty sure they will pour a lot more into Syria once they get more to pour.) The administration also opined that there is no reason for an arms race in the aftermath of the deal. (Easy for them to say.)

My favorite, though, was Rhodes opining that the deal was “transactional” and not “transformational”, and was focused on the nuclear issue alone. Sorry, Ben, but you don’t get to limit the effects to the ones you intend. Unintended consequences are inevitable. And unintended does not mean unpredictable. The predictable implications-an arms race, including a nuclear arms race, increased Iranian aggressiveness, and higher likelihood of a confrontation that results in a war-are pretty transformational.

Later, Obama strode out to deliver his own spin. More unpersuasive, not to say delusional, bilge. The only real memorial moment was when he was asked about alleged Syrian use of chlorine bombs, and whether this breached his notorious “red line” (ha!) An obviously peeved Obama (he snarkily said he didn’t know why the Al Jazeera America reporter who asked the question was there) gave a lesson in alternative history. He said that “Chlorine, chlorine, itself, historically has not been listed as a chemical weapon, but when it is used in this fashion, can be considered a prohibited use of that particular chemical.” (Obviously, there was no teleprompter.)

Er, the first major chemical weapons attack, almost exactly 100 years ago at the Battle of Ypres (22 April, 1915), involved chlorine. Chlorine was widely used in WWI, and has been used subsequently. Try telling the French, Algerians, and Canadians gassed at Ypres that “historically” chlorine isn’t considered a CW. As Powerline put it, Obama’s epistemology is narcissistic. He believes (or says to believe) things because they are convenient and useful, rather than because they are true. Another Assad violation of the (already risible) chemical weapons red line is inconvenient, so Obama believes that chlorine is not a chemical weapon.

But the spinning didn’t end with the Iran deal or red lines. The administration has been spinning events in Iraq with particular fury, in large part because things there are spinning out of control.

Just yesterday, the chief of staff of Operation Inherent Resolve claimed that the US strategy against ISIS is working:

The coalition and Iraqi security forces strategy to defeat and dismantle the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant extremist group is clear and on track, the chief of staff of Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve said today.

As he was saying this, ISIS was mounting a furious assault at Ramadi, and was capturing most of the government buildings. If you look at a situation map, you’ll see that ISIS controls the central position in the city, and that Iraqi units are in isolated pockets strung out around its perimeter, vulnerable to being assaulted and taken one at a time.

The official take on the battle is a barrage of euphemisms. “Contested.” “Fluid.” “Dynamic.” Well, maybe, but the best interpretation to put on that is that the battle has yet to be decided. One certainly cannot spin that into “our strategy is working.”

The execrable Brett “Slow Burn” McGurk, “Deputy Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter-ISIL” (doesn’t that strike fear?!), took the spin to Twitter, claiming that the coalition was mounting intense air attacks in Ramadi. Intense, as in four, which is a joke. Perhaps we are not able to hit more because we don’t have the necessary targeting assets on the ground. But if that’s true, it tells you that the campaign is doomed to be ineffective. (I asked McGurk to please point me to the military text which espoused the “slow burn” strategy. Curiously, he didn’t respond. He was probably too busy reading Clausewitz or something.)

The yawning divide between what appears to be happening on the ground in Ramadi, Baiji, and elsewhere and the Pentagon’s and administration’s Winning! narrative is bringing back unpleasant memories of a similar disconnect that cratered the military’s and government’s credibility in Vietnam. This is not good.

Iran, the Persian Gulf, Syria, Iraq. Everything is going pear shaped, but everything emanating from the administration is a mix of magical thinking and transparently ridiculous spin. Observing this, people in the region are going to figure that at least for the next 20 months, American policy will be adrift, and the administration will be content to watch the region spin out of control. And it will proceed to do so. But you can be sure that all the while, the administration will insist, Kevin Bacon like, that all is well, when anyone with eyes will know it isn’t.

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