Streetwise Professor

November 7, 2019

Like I Said: It’s the Chase that Matters

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 3:45 pm

In my post on the reasons to target terrorist leaders like al-Baghdadi, I said it wasn’t the killing, it was the chase. A leadership focused on avoiding catching a JDAM or taking a 556 to the noggin isn’t able to take the initiative. I specifically mentioned paranoia, fear of traitors, stress, and the disruptions of communications from constant moves and the need to reduce the possibility of detection.

An AP story from yesterday says, yeah, all that happened:

In his last months on the run, Islamic State group leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was agitated, fearful of traitors, sometimes disguised as a shepherd, sometimes hiding underground, always dependent on a shrinking circle of confidants.

Associates paint a picture of a man obsessed with his security and well-being and trying to find safety in towns and deserts in eastern Syria near the Iraqi border as the extremists’ domains crumbled. In the end, the brutal leader once hailed as “caliph” left former IS areas completely, slipping into hostile territory in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province run by the radical group’s al-Qaida-linked rivals. There, he blew himself up during an Oct. 26 raid by U.S. special forces on his heavily fortified safe house.

. . . .

During that time, al-Baghdadi was a “nervous wreck,” pacing up and down and complaining of treason and infiltrations among his “walis,” or governors of the group’s self-declared provinces, his brother-in-law, Mohamad Ali Sajit, said in an interview with Al-Arabiya TV aired last week.
“This is all treason,” Sajit recalled al-Baghdadi shouting.

. . . .

At times, al-Baghdadi was disguised as a shepherd, he said. When al-Baghdadi’s security chief, Abu Sabah, got wind of a possible raid on the desert Syrian-Iraqi border area where they were hiding they took down their tents and hid al-Baghdadi and al-Muhajer inside a pit covered with dirt, Sajit said. They let sheep roam around on top of the pit to further disguise it. Once the threat of the raid was over, they returned and put the tents back up, he said.
Al-Baghdadi moved with a circle of five to seven people, including al-Muhajer, al-Zubaie and Abu Sabah; and the group’s former governor for Iraq, known as Tayseer or Abu al-Hakim. Al-Muhajer was killed on the same day as al-Baghdadi, in a separate U.S.-led military operation, following a Syrian Kurdish tip, in Jarablus, also in northwestern Syria; al-Zubaie was killed in a raid in March. On Monday, Turkish officials said they arrested al-Baghdadi’s older sister in northwestern Syria’s Azaz region. All are areas outside of government control.

Now Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi is in the cross hairs. Enjoy, dude!

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November 2, 2019

Ain’t No Pay Grade High Enough

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 6:37 pm

In a post last week, I wrote that LTC Alexander Vindman arrogated authority beyond his pay grade. I was wrong, to the extent that statement implied that there is a pay grade in the uniformed military that does have the authority that Vindman claimed for himself. There isn’t.

Here’s the Washington Post’s description of Vindman’s thinking and motivation: “he was deeply troubled by what he interpreted as an attempt by the president to subvert U.S. foreign policy.”

Hello! U.S. foreign policy is always set by the president. This is a Constitutional fact and a practical reality. As of 20 January, 2017, U.S. foreign policy has been set–to the accompaniment of wails, rending of garments, and gnashing teeth–by President Donald Trump. Full stop.

It is the job of everyone in the U.S. military, from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs to some recruit getting screamed at in boot camp (if they do still scream at them) to implement that policy. It is also their job not to substitute their own view of what that policy should be, and act contrary to the policies of the lawful Commander-in-Chief.

Vindman’s view is an oxymoron. It is self-contradictory. The president cannot subvert what he sets. QED.

It is also incredibly dangerous to the military as an institution, and to the stability of the United States. The US military has been almost unparalleled in subordination to civilian authority. Having O-5s (or even retired O-9s, like McRaven) openly challenge that is the road to perdition. (I note that most coups are led by field and company grade officers, for a variety of reasons. Vindman’s middling rank is actually makes his actions more of a concern.)

Maintaining this subordination is of far greater importance than any passing policy matter, let alone Ukraine, a Sovok basketcase. (I am reminded of the line from A Man For All Seasons:  “Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world [Matt. 16:26]. But for Wales?” (Substitute “but for Ukraine?” and the meaning remains the same.)

Now we hear that Vindman is whining that he was told not to discuss the phone call with anyone. Well, obviously for good reason, given his evident agenda, not that it made any difference.

Was this a direct order? Is there even a colorable case that it was an unlawful order? If it was lawful, he acted in disobedience of that order.

Further, if the phone call was classified–as it apparently was, which is another gripe of Schiff and his fellow grifters–to discuss it with anyone without a need to know would also be a violation of the UCMJ.

And what about the guy with whom it appears that Vindman did discuss the call, in violation of his duties? It is evidently Eric Ciaramella. Does he look like the soyboy from central casting, or what? Who elected him to anything?

Just where the hell do these people get off?

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Nobody Ever Went Broke Underestimating the Intelligence and Integrity of the American Political Class

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 5:50 pm

The conventional wisdom spouted by the political class in the US is almost always wrong, and often laughably so. The only question on any particular issue is the exact mixture of stupidity, ignorance, and manipulative malignity behind the conventional wisdom on that subject.

The political class’s narrative regarding the Kurds in Syria is a perfect example. According to this narrative, the Kurds are a veritable band of Gunga Dins, selflessly fighting alongside the United States in its war against ISIS. Hence, we owe them. We owe them so much, in fact, that we should risk conflict with Turkey and support their dream of an independent Kurdistan.

As I’ve argued several times, however, this is close to an inversion of reality. The Kurds were fighting ISIS out of necessity because ISIS wanted to destroy them, and American intervention on behalf of the Kurds saved them from mass slaughter, even though this was not a necessity for the US. This fascinating account of a raid in which a Delta Force soldier was killed provides a great illustration of just who was sacrificing for whom:

A number of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) sources with intimate knowledge of the operation spoke to SOFREP about that fateful night.  What they described is a story of leadership and bravery under fire.
Intelligence indicated that the prisoners were facing imminent execution after freshly dug mass graves were spotted in the compound’s perimeter.  Discovering this, the Kurds were adamant to go in even without American forces (the U.S. didn’t have a real stake in assaulting the compound). They thus took the mission lead. The plan that the Kurds came up with, however, was below average and would have resulted in a catastrophe if it hadn’t been for the tactful recommendations of their Delta partners.
The Unit agreed to accompany the Kurd assault force, and the 160
th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (160th SOAR) chipped in the air transport. But once on target, the Delta operators were supposed to stay back and let the Kurds breach and clear the target. The compound was surrounded by a wall. Behind the wall, there were a number of buildings. One of those buildings contained the hostages.
Once on target, the assault force was divided in to two parts: The Kurds took the lead and assaulted the compound while the Delta operators stayed behind and provided support. The Kurds breached the wall and flooded into the compound. Identifying the correct building, they ran toward it and breached it. At that moment, however, they began receiving accurate fire from the other structures, which were occupied by ISIS fighters. The Kurds began suffering casualties, and the attack lost momentum at the most critical point.
The Delta operators could see and hear everything from their vantage point. And they understood that if they didn’t do something then the Kurdish assault would turn in to a bloodbath.  The imposing figure of MSG Wheeler was in the front of the Delta group. He turned around, locked eyes with the nearest operator, and shouted: “On me!”
These were his last words.
The two shooters run through the wall, into the compound, and past the pinned down Kurds. MSG Wheeler led the way into the target building. As he stormed into the breach, a random bullet went through his throat. He died almost instantaneously. His fellow operator neutralized the enemy fighters in the room. The rest of the Delta shooters came in and cleared the rest of the building.
This would have been a disaster hadn’t Wheels been there,” said one Delta operator. [Emphasis added.]

And that is the reality of the Kurdish-American relationship. The Kurds needed to assault a compound to save Kurds. It wasn’t in the direct interest of the US to participate in the assault, but they did, selflessly assisting an ally. When the Kurds ran into a buzzsaw, a few brave American GIs ran into it with them, snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, and saved dozens of Kurdish lives.

Who? Whom? Read that story, and you get an idea of how the political class in the US as the answers to those questions backwards.

Maybe the inversion is the result of mere ignorance or stupidity. But read this piece and one gets the sense that it’s more malign than that. The gravamen of the article is that elements within the State Department, the CIA, and the military had a far bigger agenda in Syria than defeating ISIS. These elements were actually scheming to affect the broader outcome of the Syrian war, presumably desiring to overthrow the Assad regime.

And replace it with what, pray tell? What has happened in the last 20 years that could lead any sentient being to conclude that the outcome would be any better in Syria than in Libya or Yemen or Iraq? (Maybe I should go back 30, and add Somalia to the list.) The probability of “success”?–close to zero. And what would “success” even look like? A failed state with warring factions like Libya or Yemen or Somalia? A state in the hands of Islamist fanatics? As horrible as Assad is, it is necessary to compare him to the real-world alternatives, which include exactly zero good outcomes. In the battle of the bads, Assad may well be the least bad. And the State Department, CIA and Pentagon types who claim otherwise have no record that they can point to to argue otherwise. Theirs is a sorry litany of failure.

Viewed from this perspective, the attention being lavished on the Kurds appears manipulative in the extreme, and the tears being shed for them of the crocodile variety. The permanent bureaucracy wants to use the Kurds as a pawn in their wider–and delusional–game. They wanted to use them in Syria to achieve their broader aims. They are using them now to attack a president who is thwarting their attempt to achieve these broader aims.

Trump has upset their game–although he continues to vacillate after making categorical declarations, meaning that he has not escaped the pull of the blob altogether–and hence the players need to turn on him. Turning the Kurds into betrayed selfless allies, rather than a people that survives in Syria by the grace of the United States (and its Sergeant Wheelers and JDAMs), is merely part of the scheme.

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October 28, 2019

Trump Releases the Dogs of War (Literally!) Against Al Baghdadi, and the Media Has a Stroke

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 2:22 pm

Yesterday President Trump announced that ISIS leader Bakr al Baghdadi had blown (himself) up real good. His death was the culmination of a Delta Force raid, and al Baghdadi self-detonated when he was cornered by running American dogs. No, not “American running dogs” in the way that old Chicom and Nork propaganda used the term, but actual German shepherds. Trump (and Delta) literally released the hounds, and let slip the dogs of war on Baghdadi.

Beyond the satisfaction of a seeing a bad man come to a bad end, what is the benefit of such actions? Are they worth the risks they entail?

On one level, this just presents a promotion opportunity with the ISIS organization. (Although the heir apparent, ISIS propaganda chief–Baghdadi Bob?–also apparently met his doom yesterday.) If the dispatched leader is some sort of exceptional genius, his demise may degrade the organization as he would replaced by someone less capable. But you never know . . . maybe this could result in the terrorist equivalent of Lou Gehrig replacing Wally Pipp.

At a more substantive level, the role of such decapitation strikes is not so much the killing itself, or the capability of the target, but the chase. Threatening the leadership of a terrorist organization can deprive it of the initiative, and creates Clauswitzian frictions that reduce its lethality. The leadership spends disproportionate time and resources playing defense instead of playing offense. It has to utilize less effective means of communication, command, and control to avoid being detected. The constant threat of betrayal ramps paranoia to 11, which also limits communication, and can lead to paralyzing internal strife. All of these things degrade operational effectiveness.

In order for these things to happen, the terrorists’ opponents must make the threat credible. This requires them to devote the resources necessary to track down the leadership, and to execute strikes with sufficient frequency pour encourager les autres.

Since hardcore types like ISIS are unlikely to give up altogether, one cannot execute a raid like this and ride off into the sunset. The Lone Ranger’s job is never done here. It must be repeated over and over in order to keep the threat real, and thereby impair the effectiveness of its terrorist opponent.

Not willing to give Trump a single accolade, the media has utterly beclowned itself in the aftermath. I’m sure you’re surprised, right?

The first two clowns out of the car were the WaPo and Bloomberg, whose obituaries of Baghdadi portrayed him as an “austere cleric,” and student and teacher of the Koran.

Careful there folks, because pushing that line demolishes another one of your narratives: a clear implication is that deep study of the Koran encourages sectarian mass murder.

These dead-on-arrival obituaries unleashed a torrent of hilarity on Twitter, with mock obituary headlines containing benign descriptions of historical monsters from Hitler to Jeffrey Dahmer.

Most of the post-‘splosion coverage was a carnival of mass murder of straw men. A repeated theme has been that Baghdadi’s death will not be the end of ISIS, let alone terrorism.

Of course not.

Most “analysts” at best gave grudging compliments to Trump, but then unleashed a barrage of cavils and caveats. I have a dare for the media: write a column about the raid, and Trump’s role in it, without using the word “but.” Go ahead. I dare you.

And those who chided the media for not giving Trump even one day of credit–like lefty Nate Silver–were assailed relentlessly for their heresy. Die, Deviationist! Die!

Then there are jewels like this:

ISIS could attack the US as revenge for Baghdadi’s death, security experts say

Security analysts are idiots, people with actual brains say. We went after ISIS and Baghdadi because they were already attacking us. This cause and effect thing is apparently quite confusing to some people.

The Derp State weighed in too. A former ambassador to Qatar hacked up this hairball:

Yeah. As if ISIS people weren’t already panting to kill Americans. A far more important message in Trump’s very Jacksonian statement was that we will hunt you down–literally with haram dogs–in whatever hole you crawl into. Attempting to instill terror into terrorists is far more important than any infinitesimal increment to their desire to kill Americans.

Bloomberg panted to give credit to some mysterious international coalition:

What military coalition would that be? The early airstrikes on ISIS included a few UAE and Jordanian planes (one of which was shot down, resulting in the gruesome immolation of the pilot). The Europeans contributed their usual window dressing. But this was a US-Kurdish (and Iraqi) show.

Speaking of the Kurds, they provided vital intelligence that contributed to tracking down Baghdadi, and did so after Trump announced that the US would not oppose the Turkish border clearing operation.

This reinforces a point I made in an earlier post. The Kurds have a very strong incentive to fight ISIS, because ISIS wants to slaughter them. They aren’t so stupid as to withhold cooperation with the US in the fight against ISIS, because they would be cutting their own throats–literally. An autonomous zone in Syria and cooperating in fighting ISIS are not linked, at least not as inextricably as the Dunning-Kruger commentariat apparently thinks.

In sum, killing Baghdadi is a good thing, even though it is only another battle in a long war against Islamic terrorism. It has also given another demonstration of the utter stupidity and ill-will of America’s alleged elite, which has shown yet again that it is mean spirited, obsessed with Trump, and incapable of rising above banalities and trite analyses.

The media dogs bark, but the Trump caravan moves on. American dogs of war barked, and an evil man moved on to hell.

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October 22, 2019

The Kurds, the US, and Syria: Who Owes Whom a Debt of Gratitude?

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 5:48 pm

I linked on Twitter to this StrategyPage article on Syria a few weeks back. It is well-done, and quite detailed, so it’s worth linking here.

I repeat my Twitter challenge: I dare anyone to read that article, and identify a plausible strategy for the US to bring about a positive outcome in Syria (either for Syrians, or for US interests). Especially in light of serial US failures in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.

One thing of particular interest is that at one time or another, the US has supported virtually every anti-Assad group in Syria, including people who are indistinguishable from those we have been killing for decades in Afghanistan and Iraq (and Yemen and the Philippines and . . . ). What’s more, at times American-supported groups have fought one another. So it’s hardly as if (a) we’ve shown good taste in allies, and (b) we can actually get those allies to do what we want.

Yet the shrieks about the impending disaster that will attend getting out of Syria get louder by the day. Perhaps someone could tell me how the impending disaster would be at all distinguishable from the disaster that has been ongoing for 8 years.

Day after day we are bombarded by opeds and talking heads decrying Trump’s policy. (It is his policy, not his administration’s, for most of his administration has been trying to undermine it 24/7.) Just what record of achievement can these people point to that warrants paying attention to them for a nanosecond? They appear to be convinced of their own strategic genius, evidently based on the fact that they were awesome at Risk while doing tequila shots in their college dorms, rather than by any accomplishment in the real world (especially the Middle East).

They tell us that the truly horrible aspect of Trump’s policy is betraying the Kurds, whom fought alongside the US in defeating ISIS. This allegedly gives them some moral claim on the US.

Not to gainsay the Kurd’s contribution, or their bravery, but here’s the reality. Fighting ISIS in Syria was a war of choice for the US: for the Kurds in Syria and Iraq, it was an not. It was an existential clash. The US saved the Kurds, primarily through airpower. This video of a US smart bomb ruining an ISIS flag bearer’s day in Kobani (where the Kurds were fighting a vicious battle against ISIS) is emblematic:

So who has a moral claim upon whom?

As vital and courageous as it was, the Kurds’ fighting against ISIS clearly does NOT obligate the United States to advance their ambitions to carve out an independent state in Syria (let alone in Turkey, or Iraq). Especially inasmuch as this would complicate an already fraught relationship with a difficult ally, but one which is far more important to American interests than the Kurds. It was perfectly reasonable for the US to say to the Kurds: “We appreciate your contribution to the war against ISIS. But without us, you would have been massacred. You have to back off the border with Turkey, and not expect us to protect you if you decide to do otherwise.”

The Kurds decided to do otherwise. So be it. Instead of saying “how with good conscience can we repay the Kurds for what they have done for us in such a fashion?” with justice the US can say “how with good conscience can the Kurds repay the US for what we have done for them in such a fashion?”

The Kurds are reputedly the largest ethnic group in the world without their own state. Their actions in Syria provide a pretty good explanation of why that’s so.

The Syrian Kurds made their choice. Defending their choice would not advance the interests of the US, and the balance of obligations is hardly as one sided as the Syria-obsessed portray. Indeed, the balance quite plausibly goes quite the opposite direction.

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Mom! Vova’s Been Playing With Nukes Again!

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 5:14 pm

So my original hypothesis that the mysterious nuclear incident in Russia last summer was due to a malfunction in the nuclear-powered cruise missile has been confirmed, at least to the satisfaction of the US government. I was wrong in surmising, however, that the failure occurred at launch.

Instead, apparently the missile made an unplanned hole in the ocean during a test flight over a year ago, and has been killing time (and probably fish!) sitting on the bottom since. When the Russians attempted to raise it, the reactor went critical, and kablooie!

Sounds like they have a few bugs to work out.

Actually, it sounds like the entire idea is harebrained, and extremely dangerous to boot. It doesn’t work, and when it doesn’t work there is the risk of a nuclear incident.

Putin’s fascination with wacko weapons like this is a far, far greater concern than hobgoblins like Russian bots and Facebook ads that haunt Hillary’s dreams–and those of most of the left and the mainstream media. But the reporting on this has been scant, while we hear non-stop about fantastical theories of Russian election influence.

It’s seriously concerning that Vova is playing with crackpot nukes. But our establishment is utterly lacking in serious people to address these concerns. Instead, they are too preoccupied with riding their hobby horses and foaming at the mouth over Trump.

I’m sure it will all turn out swell, don’t you?

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October 20, 2019

Howdy Doody Dilanian Reports All the “News” the Intelligence Community Wants You to Believe

Filed under: Military,Politics,Turkey — cpirrong @ 4:11 pm

The conventional wisdom in the US is that Turkey’s president Erdogan totally pwned Trump over Syria. The most extreme example of this is a Tweet by NBC’s Ken Dalanian, aka the Howdy Doody to the CIA’s Buffalo Bob Smith:

You wouldn’t know it from the US media, especially from reporters like Dilanian who are nothing but conduits for what the anti-Trump elements in the intelligence community (i.e., pretty much the entire intelligence community) wants you to hear, but the view from Turkey is somewhat different.

A Turkish friend tells me that the boastful Erdogan’s mien changed notably after Vice President Pence’s visit last weak. Whereas Erdo was at his chest thumping best (or worst) prior to that, he has been restrained and sheepish since. Moreover, there are many in Turkey who claim that Erodgan is (in the words of my friend) “Trump’s dog” and that Trump is the actual president of Turkey.

Now, there may be some sample selection bias here. My friend’s father was a leader of the May 27, 1960 coup against the proto-Erodgan (Menderes) and was on the tribunal that sentenced Menderes to hang. My friend is an ardent Kemalist and has a social network that is rooted in Rumelian Turkey and in the CHP. So what he sees (on Facebook, for instance) or hears (from friends and colleagues) is not necessarily representative of Turkish opinion.

It is interesting to note, however, that things look very different to many Turks than they do to American journalists. So don’t take the vaporings of the likes of Ken Dilanian at face value, and keep in mind that he (and most of the rest of the media claiming to report on views of those in the defense and intelligence communities) is essentially the ventriloquist’s dummy–and the ventriloquists are carrying out guerilla warfare against Trump.

Another Howdy Doody report illustrates how intense this war is:

A review launched by Attorney General William Barr into the origins of the Russia investigation has expanded significantly amid concerns about whether the probe has any legal or factual basis, multiple current and former officials told NBC News.

. . . .

Durham has also requested to talk to CIA analysts involved in the intelligence assessment of Russia’s activities, prompting some of them to hire lawyers, according to three former CIA officials familiar with the matter. And there is tension between the CIA and the Justice Department over what classified documents Durham can examine, two people familiar with the matter said.

In other words, Barr and Durham have many in the intelligence community shitting themselves.

Well it’s about ‘effing time.

“Concerns about whether the probe has any legal or factual basis.” LOL. Just who is concerned, Howdy? Your IC buddies? Good!

How many times during the Mueller probe did we hear “if Trump has nothing to hide, why should he fear an investigation?”

What’s the expression? Oh yeah. Turnabout is fair play. And payback is a bitch.

As if Barr or Durham (amazing isn’t it how their like are characterized as “career federal prosecutors” when investigating Trump or other Republicans, but not when they are investigating Democrats or deep staters?) would engage in baseless probes.

So things are heating up. And this means that the stream of leaks to the likes of Ken Howdy Doody Dilanian will build into a torrent in the coming weeks. Ignore their content, and take them as a positive signal that some people are afraid, very afraid.

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October 14, 2019

Syria: To the Victor Goes the Spoiled

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 3:00 pm

The shrieking and rending of garments du jour emanates from Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from the path of a Turkish-backed invasion of northeastern Syria.

What, pray tell, is the US supposed to do? Resist a vastly superior force armed with heavy weapons, artillery, and air support with 1,000 light infantry and support troops? Did these people attend the George Armstrong Custer School of Warfare?

Oh, I forgot. Custer didn’t have air support at Little Bighorn. The US has the most powerful air force in the world. Maybe if we ask really nice the Turks will allow us to use the Incirlik airbase to launch bombing strikes against them.

Or is the US supposed to go large, and bulk up its forces sufficiently to fight Turkey in northern Syria? Riddle me this, military geniuses: just how would they get there?

Putting aside their tactical and logistical inanity for now, the critics of Trump’s move focus on two issues: the betrayal of the Kurds who fought ISIS in Syria, and the supposed surrender of American strategic interests in Syria.

As for the first issue, with respect to ISIS, the interests of the US and the Kurds of the YPG were aligned: both were enemies of ISIS. Yes, the YPG assisted in the US in its fight against ISIS, but it is equally fair to say that the US assisted the Kurds in their fight against ISIS. It was an alliance of convenience, and completely transactional.

That alignment of interests does not extend to supporting the Kurds in their conflict with Turkey. Yes, Erdogan’s Turkey is a colossal pain in the ass, and is at best a frenemy to the US, but it is not in US interests to engage in an outright war with Turkey, either directly, or by proxy, to advance the interests of the Kurds in their generations-long conflict with Turkey.

Along these lines, the key thing to keep in mind in the Middle East generally, and Syria in particular is: everyone sucks. Everyone. Everyone is awful. Sometimes the interests of awful group X align with the US, and we work with them (often to our regret). But that doesn’t change the fact that they are awful. This dew-eyed romanticism about the Kurds ignores this cardinal rule.

With respect to the second issue, I read drivel like: “Now that Trump made the US a bystander in Syria, Turkey and Russia are in the driver’s seat.” Or “US allied Kurds strike deal to bring Assad’s troops into Kurdish areas, dimming prospect for further US presence in Syria.”

They say this like these are bad things! Bystander sounds good to me, given the alternative of wading in. Syria is a dystopian hellhole that makes Westeros (after Daenerys’ flyover!) look like Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. I want to stand as far away from that as possible. Who in their right mind thinks otherwise?

Seriously: I want someone to make a coherent case that lays out the American national interest in Syria, and what is the price of achieving it. The first principle of war is “the objective.” So, just what is the American objective in Syria?

Destroying ISIS was arguably a legitimate interest. The current chaos may work to ISIS’s advantage, but is addressing that issue even possible given the potential for force-on-force conflict between Turkey and Syria, and thus potentially between Turkey and Syria’s patron, Russia? Who are we going to fight? Turkey? Russia? Syria? All of the above?

Are you people using a single brain cell?

This crowd is also freaking out that Putin and Erdogan may benefit from the US withdrawal. I seriously find it hard to imagine how both would benefit, precisely because they are on the opposite side of what is going on at this moment, with Syrian army forces moving to confront Turkish-backed forces. If they succeed, what will Erdogan do? Most likely, by reinforcing his proxy forces with Turkish formations. If they fail, what will Putin do? Probably reinforce Syrian forces with Russian ones, and provide heavy air support. Which will certainly kill Turks. Thus, the most likely outcome will be conflict between Russia and Turkey.

So how are Erdogan and Putin both going to come out on top? How are both going to be in the driver’s seat?

Apropos Henry Kissinger and the Iran-Iraq War: it’s a shame they both can’t lose. But maybe Kissinger is wrong, and they both will!

And we really shouldn’t care who “wins.” For here, to the victors will go the spoiled. Syria is a wrecked country with few prospects of seeing peace, let alone prosperity, in the foreseeable future. Or forever.

I laughed out loud when I read some idiot write that Putin desires eastern Syria’s oil riches. Some riches. Before the recent unpleasantness, in 2010, Syria produced a grand total of 385,000 barrels per day. Compared to Russia’s ~10 million. Syria has always been an oil pygmy. And the meager resources it had before the civil war have been wrecked, and will take billions of dollars to restore.

Yet it is this kind of “analysis” that we hear repeatedly.

If Putin and Erdogan and Assad want to fight over this rotted corpse, why should we care?

Let’s say the US magically vanquishes Assad, Russia, and Turkey. Then what?

Anybody taken a look at Iraq lately? Yeah, that’s gone and is going so great we can surely magically heal Syria. There is no upside for the US in Syria. It is a distraction, and a potentially costly one, from the potential for peer conflicts with China, and yes, Russia. We’ve already pissed away trillions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and wasted tens of thousands of American lives in those places. The last thing we should do is add to the butcher’s bill and the financial cost.

The problem with Trump’s critics on this–and other things, especially in foreign policy–is that they don’t evaluate the real choices, the real trade offs. They engage in nothing but magical thinking that bears no relationship to the ugly reality on the ground. They apparently have some ideal outcome in mind (the US vanquishes Putin and Assad and makes Syria a beacon of hope in the Middle East) but have no clue on how to achieve that outcome.

The fact is that Syria is a place where angels fear to tread. But we surely have a surfeit of fools who are willing to rush in regardless.

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September 15, 2019

The Attack on Abqaiq: Iran Burns Its Boats

Filed under: Energy,History,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 6:07 pm

There is an apocryphal story about Moshe Dayan, in which when asked what was the secret of his success, he answered “fighting Arabs.” True or not, there is a certain veracity to the judgment. It’s not for no reason that there are articles with titles like “Why Arabs Lose Wars” and books with titles like “Armies of Sand: The Past, Present, and Future of Arab Military Effectiveness.” Yes, there have been exceptions, like the Jordanian Legion, but for the most part when Arab armies fight non-Arabs, the former get by far the worst of it.

The Saudi armed forces are arguably the worst of the lot, despite the billions in advanced arms that have been lavished on them over the years. It is a force designed primarily for regime protection, or more accurately, designed so that it does not pose a threat to the regime. Fighting the KSA’s external enemies is a secondary–or tertiary–consideration. In their minds, that’s what they pay the US for.

The appalling performance of the Saudi army in wars in Yemen, whether it be decades ago or today, provides ample testimony to this rather harsh judgment.

With this sorry history in mind, I consider it highly likely that Saudi military ineptitude contributed to, and was arguably the primary cause of, the devastating attack on the Abqaiq oil processing plant. This has resulted in the disabling, for an indeterminate period, of 50 percent of Saudi oil production.

Especially in light of past Houthi (and Shiite Iraqi militia) attacks on Saudi facilities, this was an obvious target. For it to be hit so effectively, with not even the Saudis claiming to have downed any of the attacking aircraft (drones? rockets? missiles?) is a military failure of the first order.

So what now? The US has come out and directly blamed Iran. Whether Iran used one of its myriad cutouts, or pushed the button itself, is immaterial. It is almost certain that it is responsible.

So how to respond?

Even by Trump’s standards, his initial tweet in response was cringeworthy:

It’s one thing to await information from the KSA, and to coordinate with them. It’s quite another to delegate–as Trump appears to do–the decision on the American response to the militarily inept oil ticks that rule Saudi Arabia who are not our friends.

Trump has shown forebearance with Iran before. But shooting down a drone (albeit an expensive one) and attacking what is arguably the singlemost important oil installation in the world are on totally different levels. And Trump no doubt is thinking “if this is what forebearance gets me, screw it.”

Ironically, moreover, this occurred after Trump unceremoniously defenestrated the most conspicuous Iran hawk in his administration, and made noises about negotiating with Iran, and backing the French credit line initiative.

Want to bet that John Bolton is laughing his ass off now?

And what say you, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel?

Iran’s escalation at a time of American efforts to defuse tensions is akin to burning its boats. It makes clear that negotiation is off the table. It is either capitulation by the US (and Europe, as if it counts) or conflict. And how the US responds to this extremely provocative act is not something that should be left to the House of Saud.

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August 31, 2019

Americans’ Realistic Response to a Fight For Freedom in Hong Kong

Filed under: China,History,Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 6:22 pm

Hong Kong has been convulsed by anti-government protests for weeks. Protestors have numbered in the hundreds of thousands, and are facing increasing violence from Chinese authorities. The atmosphere is heavy with fears of a fierce crackdown by Beijing, along the lines of Tiananmen Square, a little more than 30 years ago.

Hong Kong protestors are literally wrapping themselves in American flags (redolent of the replica of the Statue of Liberty in Tiananmen). Some are even donning MAGA hats and pleading for the US to come to their aid.

But Americans’ responses to all this are decidedly muted, and many appear to be paying little attention to the truly historic events in Hong Kong. This has led many to wonder why. Tyler Cowen hypothesizes that Americans are too obsessed with their own inter-tribal political wars to pay attention:

Sadly, the most likely hypothesis is that Americans and many others around the world simply do not care so much anymore about international struggles for liberty. It is no longer the 18th or 19th century, when one democratic revolution provided the impetus for another, and such struggles were self-consciously viewed in international terms (a tradition that was also adopted by communism). The 1960s, which saw the spread of left-wing movements around the world, embodied that spirit. So did the anti-Communist movements of the 1980s, such as Solidarity, which overcame apparently insuperable odds to help liberate Poland and indeed many other parts of Eastern Europe.
In contrast, I hear no talk today about how the Hong Kong protesters might inspire broader movements for liberty.
Instead, Americans are preoccupied with fighting each other over political correctness, gun violence, Trump and the Democratic candidates for president. To be sure, those issues deserve plenty of attention. But they are soaking up far too much emotional energy, distracting attention from the all-important struggles for liberty around the world.
It’s 2019, and the land of the American Revolution, a country whose presidents gave stirring speeches about liberty and freedom in Berlin during the Cold War, remains in a complacent slumber. It really is time to Make America Great Again — if only we could remember what that means.

With all due respect to Tyler, I think the answer is far different: Americans are far more realistic than he is.

This realism is the bitter fruit of the idealism of the post-Cold War world, and in particular, attempts to advance liberty around the world.

Let’s look at the record. And a dismal record it is.

Start with the collapse of the Soviet Union, which led to a burst of euphoria and a belief that this would cause liberty to spread to the lands behind the Iron Curtain. The result was far more gloomy.

There were a few successes. The Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary. Not coincidentally, the successes and quasi-successes occurred in places that had been part of the Catholic and Protestant west. Outside of that, the states of the FSU and other Warsaw Pact states lapsed back into authoritarianism, usually after a spasm of chaos. (Ukraine went from authoritarianism to chaos to authoritarianism and then to a rather corrupt semi-chaos.)

In particular, the bright hopes for Russia faded rapidly, and after a decade of chaotic kleptocracy that country has settled into nearly two decades of authoritarian kleptocracy. Moreover, Americans (and westerners generally) soon wore out their welcome, in part because of their condescension in dealing with a reeling and demoralized yet proud society, in part because of their complicity in corruption (and yes, I’m looking at you, Harvard), and in part because their advice is firmly associated in Russian minds with the calamity of the 1998 economic collapse. Yes, you can quibble over whether that blame is justified, but that’s irrelevant: it is a reality.

Countries where Color Revolutions occurred (e.g., Georgia) also spurred western and American optimism and support. But hopes were soon dashed as these countries too slipped back into the mire, rather than emerging as beacons of liberty.

I could go on, but you get the point.

Let’s move forward a decade, to Afghanistan and Iraq. In both places, there was another burst of euphoria after brutal regimes were toppled. Remember purple fingers? They were a thing, once, what seems a lifetime ago.

Again, hopes that freedom would bloom were soon dashed, and both countries descended into horrific violence that vast amounts of American treasure and manpower were barely able to subdue. And again, especially in Iraq, the liberators were soon widely hated.

The lesson of Iraq is particularly instructive. The overthrown government was based on a party organization with a cell structure that was able to organize a fierce and bloody resistance against the Americans and their allies. The attitudes of the population meant far less than the determination and bloody-mindedness of a few hard, ruthless men.

Let’s move forward another decade, to the Arab Spring. The best outcome is probably Egypt, which went from an authoritarian government rooted in the military to a militant Muslim Brotherhood government and back to military authoritarianism. In other words, the best was a return to the status quo ante. The road back was not a happy one, and the country would have been better without the post-Spring detour into Islamism.

Elsewhere? Humanitarian catastrophes, like Libya and Syria, that make Game of Thrones and Mad Max look like frolics. Enough said.

Given this litany of gloomy failures, who can blame Americans for extreme reluctance to engage mentally or emotionally with what is transpiring in Hong Kong? They are only being realistic in concluding it is unlikely to end well, and that the US has little power to engineer a happy ending.

And what is the US supposed to do, exactly? The country is already employing myriad non-military instruments of national power in a strategic contest with China. Again, the “trade war” is not a war about trade: trade is a weapon in a far broader contest.

Military means are obviously out of the question. And let’s say that, by some miracle, the Chinese Communist Party collapses, and the US military, government agencies, and NGOs did indeed attempt to help secure the country. How would that work out? Badly, I’m sure.

The country is less culturally intelligible to Americans than Russia, or even the Middle East, and not just because of the language barrier, but because of vastly different worldviews. China is physically immense and has the largest population in the world. Chinese are extraordinarily nationalist, and it is not hyperbole to say that the Han in particular are racial supremacists. Years of CCP propaganda have instilled a deep hostility towards the US in particular, and many (and arguably a large majority of) Chinese blame the west and latterly the US of inflicting centuries of humiliation on China. A collapsed CCP would not disappear: it would almost certainly call on its revolutionary tradition and launch a fierce and bloody resistance. People in Hong Kong may be flying American flags now, but I guarantee that in a post-Communist China, there would be tremendous animosity towards Americans.

When you can’t do anything, the best thing to do is nothing. Some of the greatest fiascos in history have been the result of demands to do something, when nothing constructive could be done.

The American diffidence that Tyler Cowen laments reflects an intuitive grasp of that, where the intuition was formed by bitter experience.

I despise the CCP. It is, without a doubt, the greatest threat to liberty in the world today. It is murderous, and led by thugs. I completely understand the desire of those with at least some comprehension of a different kind of government, and a different way of life, to be rid of it. I am deeply touched by their admiration for American freedom–something that has become increasingly rare, and increasingly besieged, in America itself.

But there ain’t a damn thing I, or even the entire US, can do to make that happen.

Ironically, I guarantee any American involvement in a putative post-CCP China would only contribute to internecine political warfare in the US.

The situation is analogous to that in 1946, when George Kennan wrote the Long Telegram. Confronting (prudently) and containing China is the only realistic policy. After years of delusional policies that mirror imaged China, the Trump administration is finally moving in that direction, and has achieved considerable success in creating a consensus around that policy (the deranged Democratic presidential candidates and those corrupted by Chinese money excepted, both of whom are siding with China at present, because Bad Orange Man and moolah).

But even there we have to be realistic. For even after containment achieved its strategic objective, and the USSR collapsed, it did not result in a new birth of liberty east of the Niemen and the Dneiper. Nor should we expect that to happen on the Yangtze or the Yellow if containment consigns the CCP to the dustbin of history.

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