Streetwise Professor

March 2, 2015

Tales of Obama Administration Competence and Honesty

Filed under: Politics — The Professor @ 10:06 pm

John Kerry actually said this:”[Kerry] insisted the Obama administration’s diplomatic record with Iran entitles the U.S. to ‘the benefit of the doubt.'” Seriously? The administration that is synonymous with foreign policy failure-the Reset, Libya (including but not limited to Benghazi), Syria, Iraq/Isis, Yemen, to name just the most egregious examples-deserves the benefit of the doubt? Why exactly? Do we look that stupid? It’s like Hoover asking Dean Woermer to give Delta House one last chance at the end of Animal House, while chaos is rampant on the streets of Faber. Or the Apprentice asking the Sorcerer for just one more try with the brooms. He’ll nail it this time! Promise!

I wrote several posts eviscerating Obama’s risible, not to say mendacious, claim that oil transported via Keystone would be exported. Apparently the odor emanating from Obama’s full-of-it-iveness was so obvious that even reliable lefty “fact checker” Glenn Kessler couldn’t ignore it. So he awarded Obama’s Keystone claim a cherished Four Pinnochios. This was pretty good:

When Obama first started making the claim that the crude oil in the Keystone pipeline would bypass the United States, we wavered between Three and Four Pinocchios — and strongly suggested he take the time to review the State Department report.

Clearly, the report remains unread.

Of course it does! It’s not like the truth could trump politics, or anything.

Tonight we learned that while Secretary of State, Hillary was using private email exclusively to conduct professional business. (What was her email? Hillary47@aol.com?)  Hillary trying to avoid scrutiny of her dealings? How could you suggest such a thing? I’m sure that every message was read and stored for posterity-by the Russians, Chinese, North Koreans, Iranians, and assorted Islamist hackers.

I could go on. But you get the idea.

Print Friendly

True Genius, or Sputtering Incoherence?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Print Friendly

March 1, 2015

The Clayton Rule on Speed

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,HFT,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 1:12 pm

I have written often of the Clayton Rule of Manipulation, named after a cotton broker who, in testimony before Congress, uttered these wise words:

“The word ‘manipulation’ . . . in its use is so broad as to include any operation of the cotton market that does not suit the gentleman who is speaking at the moment.”

High Frequency Trading has created the possibility of the promiscuous application of the Clayton Rule, because there is a lot of things about HFT that do not suit a lot of gentlemen at this moment, and a lot of ladies for that matter. The CFTC’s Frankendodd-based Disruptive Practices Rule, plus the fraud based manipulation Rule 180.1 (also a product of Dodd-Frank) provide the agency’s enforcement staff with the tools to pursue a pretty much anything that does not suit them at any particular moment.

At present, the thing that least suits government enforcers-including not just CFTC but the Department of Justice as well-is spoofing. As I discussed late last year, the DOJ has filed criminal charges in a spoofing case.

Here’s my description of spoofing:

What is spoofing? It’s the futures market equivalent of Lucy and the football. A trader submits buy (sell) orders above (below) the inside market in the hope that this convinces other market participants that there is strong demand (supply) for (of) the futures contract. If others are so fooled, they will raise their bids (lower their offers). Right before they do this, the spoofer pulls his orders just like Lucy pulls the football away from Charlie Brown, and then hits (lifts) the higher (lower) bids (offers). If the pre-spoof prices are “right”, the post-spoof bids (offers) are too high (too low), which means the spoofer sells high and buys low.

Order cancellation is a crucial component of the spoofing strategy, and this has created widespread suspicion about the legitimacy of order cancellation generally. Whatever you think about spoofing, if such futures market rule enforcers (exchanges, the CFTC, or the dreaded DOJ) begin to believe that traders who cancel orders at a high rate are doing something nefarious, and begin applying the Clayton Rule to such traders, the potential for mischief-and far worse-is great.

Many legitimate strategies involve high rates of order cancellation. In particular, market making strategies, including market making strategies pursued by HFT firms, typically involve high cancellation rates, especially in markets with small ticks, narrow spreads, and high volatility. Market makers can quote tighter spreads if they can adjust their quotes rapidly in response to new information. High volatility essentially means a high rate of information flow, and a need to adjust quotes frequently. Moreover, HFT traders can condition their quotes in a given market based on information (e.g., trades or quote changes) in other markets. Thus, to be able to quote tight markets in these conditions, market makers need to be able to adjust quotes frequently, and this in turn requires frequent order cancellations.

Order cancellation is also a means of protecting market making HFTs from being picked off by traders with better information. HFTs attempt to identify when order flow becomes “toxic” (i.e., is characterized by a large proportion of better-informed traders) and rationally cancel orders when this occurs. This reduces the cost of making markets.

This creates a considerable tension if order cancellation rates are used as a metric to detect potential manipulative conduct. Tweaking strategies to reduce cancellation rates to reduce the probability of getting caught in an enforcement dragnet increases the frequency that a trader is picked off and thereby raises trading costs: the rational response is to quote less aggressively, which reduces market liquidity. But not doing so raises the risk of a torturous investigation, or worse.

What’s more, the complexity of HFT strategies will make ex post forensic analyses of traders’ activities fraught with potential error. There is likely to be a high rate of false positives-the identification of legitimate strategies as manipulative. This is particularly true for firms that trade intensively in multiple markets. With some frequency, such firms will quote one side of the market, cancel, and then take liquidity from the other side of the market (the pattern that is symptomatic of spoofing). They will do that because that can be the rational response to some patterns of information arrival. But try explaining that to a suspicious regulator.

The problem here inheres in large part in the inductive nature of legal reasoning, which generalizes from specific cases and relies heavily on analogy. With such reasoning there is always a danger that a necessary condition (“all spoofing strategies involve high rates of order cancellation”) morphs into a sufficient condition (“high rates of order cancellation indicate manipulation”). This danger is particularly acute in complex environments in which subtle differences in strategies that are difficult for laymen to grasp (and may even be difficult for the strategist or experts to explain) can lead to very different conclusions about their legitimacy.

The potential for a regulatory dragnet directed against spoofing catching legitimate strategies by mistake is probably the greatest near-term concern that traders should have, because such a dragnet is underway. But the widespread misunderstanding and suspicion of HFT more generally means that over the medium to long term, the scope of the Clayton Rule may expand dramatically.

This is particularly worrisome given that suspected offenders are at risk to criminal charges. This dramatic escalation in the stakes raises compliance costs because every inquiry, even from an exchange, demands a fully-lawyered response. Moreover, it will make firms avoid some perfectly rational strategies that reduce the costs of making markets, thereby reducing liquidity and inflating trading costs for everyone.

The vagueness of the statute and the regulations that derive from it pose a huge risk to HFT firms. The only saving grace is that this vagueness may result in the law being declared unconstitutional and preventing it from being used in criminal prosecutions.

Although he wrote in a non-official capacity, an article by CFTC attorney Gregory Scopino illustrates how expansive regulators may become in their criminalization of HFT strategies. In a Connecticut Law Review article, Scopino questions the legality of “high-speed ‘pinging’ and ‘front running’ in futures markets.” It’s frightening to watch him stretch the concepts of fraud and “deceptive contrivance or device” to cover a variety of defensible practices which he seems not to understand.

In particular, he is very exercised by “pinging”, that is, the submission of small orders in an attempt to detect large orders. As remarkable as it might sound, his understanding of this seems to be even more limited than Michael Lewis’s: see Peter Kovac’s demolition of Lewis in his Not so Fast.

When there is hidden liquidity (due to non-displayed orders or iceberg orders), it makes perfect sense for traders to attempt to learn about market depth. This can be valuable information for liquidity providers, who get to know about competitive conditions in the market and can gauge better the potential profitability of supply ing liquidity. It can also be valuable to informed strategic traders, whose optimal trading strategy depends on market depth (as Pete Kyle showed more than 30 years ago): see a nice paper by Clark-Joseph on such “exploratory trading”, which sadly has been misrepresented by many (including Lewis and Scopino) to mean that HFT firms front run, a conclusion that Clark-Joseph explicitly denies. To call either of these strategies front running, or deem them deceptive or fraudulent is disturbing, to say the least.

Scopino and other critics of HFT also criticize the alleged practice of order anticipation, whereby a trader infers the existence of a large order being executed in pieces as soon as the first pieces trade. I say alleged, because as Kovac points out, the noisiness of order flow sharply limits the ability to detect a large latent order on the basis of a few trades.

What’s more, as I wrote in some posts on HFT just about a year ago, and in a piece in the Journal of Applied Corporate Finance, it’s by no means clear that order anticipation is inefficient, due to the equivocal nature of informed trading. Informed trading reduces liquidity, making it particularly perverse that Scopino wants to treat order anticipation as a form of insider trading (i.e., trading on non-public information). Talk about getting things totally backwards: this would criminalize a type of trading that actually impedes liquidity-reducing informed trading. Maybe there’s a planet on which that makes sense, but its sky ain’t blue.

Fortunately, these are now just gleams in an ambitious attorney’s eye. But from such gleams often come regulatory progeny. Indeed, since there is a strong and vocal constituency to impede HFT, the political economy of regulation tends to favor such an outcome. Regulators gonna regulate, especially when importuned by interested parties. Look no further than the net neutrality debacle.

In sum, the Clayton Rule has been around for the good part of a century, but I fear we ain’t seen nothing yet. HFT doesn’t suit a lot of people, often because of ignorance or self-interest, and as Mr. Clayton observed so long ago, it’s a short step from that to an accusation of manipulation. Regulators armed with broad, vague, and elastic authority (and things don’t get much broader, vaguer, or more elastic than “deceptive contrivance or device”) pose a great danger of running amok and impairing market performance in the name of improving it.

Print Friendly

February 28, 2015

Vladimir Putin: Cynical Prophet

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 12:22 pm

In 2012, Putin said this:

In 2012, Nemtsov spoke to Foreign Policy, calling for sanctions against officials in Putin’s government for human rights violations.

That year, Putin warned during a speech that a leader of the opposition might be targeted for assassination. “They are looking for a so-called sacrificial victim among some prominent figures,” Putin said. “They will knock him off, I beg your pardon, and then blame the authorities for that.”

This was the line Putin’s creature Peskov was peddling immediately after Nemtsov was murdered, and of course it will be the primary argument made to defend Putin, attack critics, and to justify the mass targeting of the opposition. A very flexible weapon, that: useful in both defense and offense.

So interesting to know that it had been prepared in advance, ready to be whipped out at the appropriate moment.

Print Friendly

February 27, 2015

Is Nato a Threat to Russia? If Only.

Filed under: Economics,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 8:53 pm

Putin and Lavrov and the Russian leadership  routinely rant about Nato and the threat it poses to Russia. They demand that Ukraine pledge not to join Nato as a condition for a resolution of the Russian invasion of the country. Sadly, numerous “realists” in the West just as routinely repeat and rationalize the Russian fears, and blame the current parlous state of Russo-Western relations on the post-1991 eastward expansion of Nato. (Yeah. I’m looking at you Stephen Walt and Ian Bremmer.)

This raises the question: Are the Russians and their Western apologists serious? If so, it calls into question their mental state.

The idea that Nato qua Nato poses a threat to invade Russia is risible. Hell, Nato’s ability to defend its eastern marches is quite uncertain.

Even if one ignores the fact that Nato has no intent to engage in a land war against Russia, on the basis of military capability Russia would have nothing to fear from Nato even if it was hard on Russia’s borders. Virtually all of Nato’s ground combat power is embodied in American units, which have almost totally withdrawn from Europe to CONUS. They pose no threat to Russia from Fort Hood or Fort Stewart or Fort Riley or Fort Bliss, and even if they moved into Poland-and hell, into Ukraine-they would not threaten Russia. Their numbers are insufficient, and the logistic obstacles of attacking Russia  are beyond daunting.

As for the rest of Nato, it as become a mockery of a military alliance. Only France spends more than 2 percent of GDP on defense. The Germans have stinted on defense: its military expenditures are closer to 1 percent of GDP than the Nato “standard” (honored more in the breach than the promise) of 2 percent. They have sold off a large portion of their modern armor. Recent reports state that a large fraction of its aircraft are inoperable. A particularly shocking story states that a supposedly elite unit attached to Nato’s rapid reaction force had to train with broomsticks at a recent exercise, due to the lack of machine guns. As for the Dutch, Belgians, and other assorted Lilliputians, they couldn’t threaten anybody.

Out of area operations are unthinkable. Even modest efforts in Libya (carried out almost entirely by airpower) and Africa (e.g., Mali) were dependent on US airlift, refueling, and reconnaissance assets.

European navies are similarly shrunken and incapable of projecting power.

Yes, the US has the capability of inflicting huge damage on Russia, but other Nato countries enhance that capability not by one whit. And virtually all of that capability is based in the United States proper.

So why are the Russians always on about Nato? Do Putin and the military realize that the alliance presents no danger, but just hype the threat because it gulls the domestic hoi polloi and credulous Westerners? Or are they so paranoid that they see threats where none exist?

I think it may well be some of both, but more of the former. By claiming Nato is a military threat, Russia gets to play the victim, an act which many at home and abroad fall for, and which provides a cover for the real reasons for Russia’s hostility. Putin et al fear the West, but more because they know that Russia cannot compete against it economically, politically, and culturally. They want to exploit, in a colonialist way, the ex-Soviet space. Ukraine was a classic example. Corrupt ties between Russia and Ukraine enriched Russian and Ukrainian thugs alike. Maidan threatened all that.

Note that what precipitated the crisis with Russia was not a Ukrainian move towards Nato-that was not on the table, and the very idea did not garner majority support in the country last year. Rather, it was Ukraine’s move towards greater economic integration with Europe that sparked Putin’s ferocious reaction. In addition to threatening the loss of markets for Russia’s non-competitive products, greater integration with Europe would have helped nudge the country down the path towards better governance and less corruption. This threatened the interests of Russia’s kleptocracy (over which Putin reigns) as as much as it did Ukraine’s. To that must be added an indirect threat that the example of an ex-Sovok republic moving towards political and economic modernity would  pose to a retrograde Russia.

At least that’s what I think is the most likely explanation for Russia’s unrelenting drumbeat against Nato. But I cannot rule out rampant paranoia. The Nemtsov murder also betrays considerable paranoia, as the opposition poses no real political threat to Putin.

What I can rule out metaphysically is that Nato is an actual military threat to Russia. To quote Patton, European forces in Nato couldn’t fight their way out of a piss-soaked paper bag even if attacked, let alone pose an offensive threat to a vast continental nation like Russia. And the Americans are very, very far away. Which means that Russian ranting about Nato is either camouflage for their well-grounded insecurity about their ability to compete economically, socially, and politically with the West, or the product of colossal paranoia, or both.

Regardless, it means that the only way that Russia can conceive of co-existing with the West is along the lines of the Yalta model, with the only question being where the lines are drawn. The sooner the West recognizes this, and moves beyond its romantic notion of a “special”, or even non-adversarial, relationship with Russia, the better. But the persistence of these romantic ideas even in the face of Russian aggression in Ukraine and the threat of more in the Baltics and elsewhere suggests that this won’t happen soon enough.

Print Friendly

Putin Reenacts the Kirov Assassination

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 6:15 pm

Russian opposition figure Boris Nemtsov has been gunned down literally in the dark shadows of the Kremlin’s spires.

Just when you thought that Russia could not become more twisted and disturbing, something like this happens.

With a chutzpah that puts  OJ Simpson’s pledge to track down the real killers to shame, Putin announced that he is putting his Chekist skilz to work and taking personal charge of the investigation. This is to ensure that no mistakes are made that could result in the identification of the real executioners. There are frames to be fitted.

Through his creature Peskov, Putin denounced the crime as a “provocation,” fulfilling a prediction I had made on Twitter only moments before that he would use this killing to eliminate many enemies, not just one. This assassination will not be a two-fer. It will be an N-fer. Nemtsov will not be the only enemy eliminated: his death will be the pretext for eliminating many more, on the model of “for my friends, everything: for my enemies, the law!”

The narrative will be that this was part of a plot to blacken Putin’s name, and every-and I mean every-perceived enemy foreign and domestic will be implicated. Numerous, mutually contradictory conspiracy theories will be advanced and pursued simultaneously. These will permit the investigation, arrest, and prosecution of myriad Putin enemies, and the intimidation of many more.

In other words, we are going to see a reprise of the Kirov murder, which Stalin exploited to justify the purges that began soon thereafter. Note the similarity:

“Comrade Stalin personally directed the investigation of Kirov’s assassination. He questioned Nikolayev at length. The leaders of the Opposition placed the gun in Nikolayev’s hand!” (Barmine, Alexander, One Who Survived, New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1945.)

Why Nemtsov? He had long been a thorn in Putin’s side, authoring (along with Vladimir Milov) several white papers accusing Putin of gargantuan corruption. Recently, he had been an outspoken opponent of the war in Ukraine. He was organizing a peace rally to take place Sunday, and was allegedly on the verge of releasing another white paper documenting Russian participation in the Ukraine war.

Perhaps the anti-war activities and revelations about Putin’s lies about Ukraine were the proximate cause of Nemtsov’s killing. But I think that the murder serves a far larger purpose for Putin. It eliminates a gadfly, yes, but Nemtsov was hardly a threat. But a la Stalin and Kirov, the murder gives Putin a pretext to unleash a full-scale repression.

Will Obama, Merkel, and the other assorted cringers finally be forced to face up to the reality of what they are dealing with in the Kremlin? Call me a cynic, but I seriously doubt it.

Do not underestimate how bad things can get in Russia. And consider this happy thought. Stalin wasn’t embroiled in an international confrontation, and didn’t have nukes, when Kirov was killed (likely on his orders). Putin is, and does.

Print Friendly

Anna Chapman’s Bank Says: “I Don’t Want to Go on the Cart!”

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 10:37 am

The past months have been chock full of episodes of Russian absurdity. Some of them are quite disturbing. Some are rather amusing. This story involving the Central Bank of Russia’s seizure of Russian lender FundServisBank is a particularly good example. The absurdity begins-but only begins-with the fact that it counts Anna Chapman as one of its “top executives.” What better signal of top notch leadership could you ask for?

The linked article includes a photograph of Anna delivering deep thoughts on “entreprenurship” (complete with diagrams!): apparently spelling was not something that Anna quite nailed during her soiree in the US.

But that’s only the beginning. The bank apparently is furious at the CBR for depriving it of its option to gamble for resurrection:

FundServisBank claimed Wednesday that it had no financial problems.

“From a purely economic point of view the bank has no problems … you start to wonder who is behind this,” FundServisBank spokesman Grigory Belkin told The Moscow Times.

“Novikombank is taking the place of FundServisBank,” Belkin said.

“It’s like there is an experienced doctor who appears and says you are ill, fatally ill. You say ‘I am alive,’ but he says ‘no, no, no!'”

This brings to mind the classic bit from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, with FundServisBank doing a turn in the role of Dead Person, Novikombank playing Customer, and the CBR playing Mortician:

MORTICIAN: Bring out your dead!
CUSTOMER: Here’s one — nine pence.
DEAD PERSON: I’m not dead!
MORTICIAN: What?
CUSTOMER: Nothing — here’s your nine pence.
DEAD PERSON: I’m not dead!
MORTICIAN: Here — he says he’s not dead!
CUSTOMER: Yes, he is.
DEAD PERSON: I’m not!
MORTICIAN: He isn’t.
CUSTOMER: Well, he will be soon, he’s very ill.
DEAD PERSON: I’m getting better!
CUSTOMER: No, you’re not — you’ll be stone dead in a moment.
MORTICIAN: Oh, I can’t take him like that — it’s against regulations.
DEAD PERSON: I don’t want to go in the cart!
CUSTOMER: Oh, don’t be such a baby.
MORTICIAN: I can’t take him…
DEAD PERSON: I feel fine!
CUSTOMER: Oh, do us a favor…
MORTICIAN: I can’t.
CUSTOMER: Well, can you hang around a couple of minutes? He won’t
be long.
MORTICIAN: Naaah, I got to go on to Robinson’s — they’ve lost nine
today.
CUSTOMER: Well, when is your next round?
MORTICIAN: Thursday.
DEAD PERSON: I think I’ll go for a walk.
CUSTOMER: You’re not fooling anyone y’know. Look, isn’t there
something you can do?
DEAD PERSON: I feel happy… I feel happy.
[whop]
CUSTOMER: Ah, thanks very much.

First the Bruce Willis Bank. Now the Anna Chapman Bank. Is there nothing sacred that Russia’s creeping financial crisis will spare?

Print Friendly

February 24, 2015

Incoherence on Display: The FSB Head Transformed From Interlocutor to Persona Non Grata in a Week

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 3:22 pm

John Kerry has criticized Russian actions in and lies about Ukraine. He hinted that further sanctions could be forthcoming, and that the head of the FSB could be targeted.

Wait a minute. Just last week the head of the FSB was considered a worthy participant in the debate on the subject of terrorism: he headed the Russian delegation to the Countering Violent Extremism Summit. How ludicrous, and schizo, is that? The guy goes from interlocutor to persona non grata in a period of mere days. To quote Casey Stengel: can’t anybody here play this game?

Any sanctions forthcoming will likely have the opposite of the intended effect. Putin will interpret them as demonstrating a lack of seriousness, a token response meant to keep up appearances, rather than as a serious challenge. He will view such actions as a green light, not a yellow let alone a flashing red. He will understand that he faces an irresolute, incoherent, and timorous opposition, and will act accordingly.

Print Friendly

Omar the Storyteller Edits His Tale Yet Again

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 3:02 pm

Omar the storyteller is back at it, with another eager scribe, this time from the Guardian. The basic contours of his tale remain the same, but a crucial detail has shifted yet again, and the story has gotten yet more elaborate. Most annoyingly, he still escapes any serious questioning about the problematic features of his narrative.

The crucial detail that changes relates to Kayla Mueller’s denial that she was his wife:

After being interrogated, beaten and released, Alkhani returned to Aleppo – not Raqqa, as previously reported – to try win Mueller’s release, claiming she was his wife for more leverage. When allowed to see her briefly, she appeared unhurt and a little plumper. She cried. Apparently unaware of his ruse, she denied being his wife, foiling the plot.

In previous tellings, al Khani and Mueller had planned the marriage ruse for the very purpose of using in the event that they were taken captive. So she forgot? That would be pretty remarkable. In another telling, Omar hypothesized that she denied being his wife to save him. In another telling, he didn’t know why she denied it. The many versions of this crucial detail in the story raise some serious questions about Omar’s veracity. Not that anyone from he steno pool has bothered to point out these inconsistencies to him.

The story of the reason for their trip to Aleppo has become more elaborate. Versions 1.0-3.0 (I work from memory: the story has more versions than Windows) had him going to repair the broken WiFi at the Medicins sans Frontiers hospital in Aleppo. This time is is not going to fix it, he’s installing the whole damn thing:

Instead of taking photographs, Alkhani says his mission was to bring and install internet equipment at a hospital run by aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), using IT skills he learned while working with foreign journalists in Damascus several years earlier, he said.

Funny that he never mentioned that before. It’s not like “bringing and installing internet equipment” is a small detail, and it certainly entails much more effort and planning that a quick trip to fix a connection. I also wonder whether he enhanced the magnitude of the task and dropped in the the stuff about his IT skilz  because of questions that some people (cough, cough) had raised about why MSF would have relied on him, and why he would have run such huge risks to be a repair guy.

Another key change in detail. In previous versions, he ventured to the center of the Isis snake pit-al Raqqa. In this version, he went to Aleppo. Something of a difference, and not the kind of detail one would forget. Why the change? Has someone expressed incredulity that he could waltz into Raqqa-which Isis runs with a  crazed, bloody grip-so he is backing off from that claim?

Further elaborations include Mueller venturing into Aleppo in a hijab to conceal her identity, which she discarded in the hospital because she felt so at ease there. Funny he left that out before.

Curiouser and curiouser.

Of course, like all of the other reporters hanging on Omar’s every word, the Guardian’s Rory Carroll apparently did not ask one serious question along the lines of what I posted earlier. Nor did he point out the inconsistencies and progressive growth in the tale, even though such increasing vividness is often a major tell of a fabrication.

Most importantly, Carroll did not ask how it was possible that al Khani emerged unscathed from the Isis snake pit not once, but twice, despite his high profile in the Syrian resistance and extensive contact with western journalists. Hell, Isis can’t even get along with Al Qaeda, let alone the other disparate branches of the Syrian resistance, and is deeply suspicious of westerners and contacts with them. What magic words did Omar utter to convince them that he wasn’t a spy? Must have been pretty powerful words, given the paranoia and hatred that characterizes Isis.

In other words, another story, and no sense of being closer to the actual truth. The reverse, actually.

One more word about the Mueller murder. Her family blames the Obama administration’s ransoming Beau Bergdahl for making Isis more obdurate in its negotiations for Kayla’s release. Not that you’ll see this get much attention, given how it makes Obama look bad in multiple ways.

And speaking about Bergdahl, a few weeks ago there were reports that the Army had reached a decision regarding a court martial. The Pentagon threw a fit, and since then there has been radio silence. The Army has more than enough time to decide how to proceed. The lack of action reeks of command influence and the subversion of military justice for political reasons.

Print Friendly

February 18, 2015

Ukraine Grieves: Putin Gloats

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:55 pm

Ukraine bowed to military reality and hastily withdrew its remaining forces from Debaltsevo. There are only so many Alamos that one country can survive. It was unwise in the extreme to have attempted to defend that salient for so long.

Yes, an earlier withdrawal would have damaged Ukrainian morale, but the flight under the current circumstances has harmed morale far more than would have been the case earlier. Not least because it has given Putin the opportunity to gloat. Twisted little man that he is, he seized upon it:

“Of course, it’s always bad to lose,” Putin told reporters. “Of course it’s always a hardship when you lose to yesterday’s miners or yesterday’s tractor drivers. But life is life. It’ll surely go on.”

Not only is this an unchivalrous swipe at Ukraine (which he despises as much as he covets), it is a gratuitous insult directed at Merkel and Obama and the West generally. The reference to “miners and . . . tractor drivers” implies that Russian forces had nothing to do with Ukraine’s humiliation at Debaltsevo, when he knows, and knows that everyone else knows, that they had everything to do with it. Putin is saying, in essence: “Yeah. I’m shamelessly lying about Russian troops and equipment being in Donbas. What are you going to do about it? I know exactly what you are going to do about it: nothing.”

And in that, he’s correct. Today “Germany said it was too early to call the broader Minsk peace plan dead or ratchet up sanctions against Moscow.” It’s not dead. It’s resting. It’s stunned. It’s pining for the steppes. Extend and pretend is the European response to Russian depredations, just as it has been to fiscal profligacy in the south.

One can only hope that these words come back to haunt him. That his hubris calls forth nemesis.

No eulogist will say of Putin: “He was magnanimous in victory.” Well, given that the eulogist will be Russian, and perfectly capable of saying up is down with the straightest of faces, he probably will.

Print Friendly

Next Page »

Powered by WordPress