Streetwise Professor

January 16, 2019

Don’t Bother Me With the Facts! I Have a Narrative I Need to Flog!

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 7:20 pm

US ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell recently tweeted that the Trump administration had been tougher on Russia than any of its predecessors. The reflexive anti-Trumpers wouldn’t stand for this. Not for a second.

NYT columnist Bret Stephens leaped into the lists to tilt at Ambassador Grenell:

And let’s play no word games about the difference between USSR and “Russia.” Putin’s Russia is the USSR reborn under the exact same management.

That’s what’s called “projection”, Bret, for you are playing word games by transmogrifying Putin’s Russia into the USSR.

Today’s Russia “is the USSR reborn” only in Putin’s wildest dreams. By any objective measure, Russia today pales in comparison to the USSR as a threat to the US (or the West generally). From 1945 through 1991, the Soviets had millions of men and thousands of tanks poised on the borders of western Europe. Today the men do not exist and the tanks are rusting away in storage–and all are hundreds of miles to the east of the Elbe. The Soviet Union had a very credible navy: Russia’s navy is back from the utter decrepitude of the 1990s and early 2000s, but is still a pale shadow of what it was under Admiral Gorshkov. Whereas the Soviet Union posed an extreme conventional threat to the US and the west, Russia poses no threat at all.

Oh, by the way Bret–where is Putin’s Warsaw Pact? Oh, that’s right–they are all Nato members.

The USSR was also a formidable ideological adversary, and its ideology was aggressive and expansionist. Especially prior to the 1980s, the Soviet ideology had substantial international appeal, especially in the Third World. The Cold War was as much intellectual and ideological, as it was military and economic.

Putin tries on new ideologies like a teenage girl tries on new clothes. But his ideological fashion choices are primarily for domestic political effect, and have no appeal outside Russia’s borders. Zero. Zip. This is in large part because most of Putin’s ideologies are nationalist and insular. His embrace of Russian Orthodoxy is a particularly telling in this regard. It only has very limited appeal even within Russia, and none whatsoever outside it.

Russia is not an ideological nation. It is a kleptocratic regime.

Yes, Putin laments the demise of the USSR. But his efforts to rebuild it are pathetic in the extreme. In his nearly 20 years in power, his efforts to reconstitute the USSR have succeeded in reclaiming–wait for it–Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and some rather decrepit bits of Ukraine. These are the offal of the USSR. He is now putting the squeeze on Belarus–but Lukashenko has no desire to go back to the Soviet Union.

And even these “accomplishments” have succeeded primarily in isolating Russia, with one of the consequences being economic stagnation that leaves Russia even further behind the US in the wellsprings of military power. After a brief splurge in defense spending, the realities of Russia’s parlous economic condition have forced Putin to cut back again, and announce new weapons with great fanfare–but not to produce them in meaningful numbers. Potemkin revisited.

In sum, Putin’s Russia is at best a pitiful simulacrum of the USSR. To equate the two, as Stephens does, is beyond farcical.

So after dispensing with Stephens’ sleight-of-hand turning 2019 Russia into 1979 USSR, let’s evaluate Ambassador Grenell’s statement on the merits, administration by administration post-USSR.

The Clinton administration was all in propping up Yeltsin. When Yeltsin shelled the Duma in 1993, Clinton said: “I guess we’ve just got to pull up our socks and back Ol’ Boris again.” When Yeltsin was in grave peril of losing the 1996 election, Clinton said: “I know that means we’ve got to stop short of giving a nominating speech for the guy. But we’ve got to go all the way in helping in every other respect.” (Can anyone say “interfering in an election”? I knew you could.) The Clinton administration also supported Russian policy in Chechnya.

Bush II famously gazed into Putin’s eyes, and his administration got on rather well with Russia. Even the 2008 invasion of Georgia did not trigger a vigorous response.

And Obama. Where to begin? Of course there’s the Reset, complete with Hillary grinning like a buffoon standing next to Lavrov, holding an idiotic button (mislabeled in Russian, no less). Then there was Obama paling around with Medvedev–they were burger buddies, remember? Oh–can’t forget the hot mike statement that Medvedev should tell Vladimir to be patient, as Obama would have more flexibility after the 2012 election. In the 2012 campaign, Obama mocked Romney saying that Russia was a threat.

Given this, it’s not surprising that Putin smelled weakness, and that his peak aggressive phase occurred during the Obama administration.

Obama’s response was 90 percent petulance and condescension about Putin not following the arc of historical progress, and 10 percent rather ineffectual measures.

It is against this standard–not that of Cold Warriors facing an existential threat–that the Trump administration should be measured. And as Grenell said, by this standard Trump has indeed been far more robust. He has provided Ukraine with weapons (which Obama steadfastly refused to do). He has embarked on rebuilding the US military. He has implemented more vigorous sanctions than the Obama administration. And the US military smoked 200+ Russians who tried to throw their weight around against US forces in Syria.

Further, look at other news involving Grenell. The Germans are in apoplexy over Grenell’s threat to sanction any company that cooperated with the Nordstream II pipeline that will bring Russian gas to Europe. Merkel’s party spokeswoman huffed: “The American ambassador operates in a, shall I say, somewhat unusual diplomatic manner. He’s shown that not only through this letter [on Nord Stream 2 sanctions] but also from when he took office.”

And this is not a new thing. Trump has been bashing Nordstream since he took office–and the Germans have been reacting with outrage every time.

Trump’s notorious criticism of Nato is also hardly pro-Russian. His main criticism is that Nato countries–especially Germany–don’t do enough to counter Russia, but expect the US to do it for them.

This is not a hard call. The Trump administration has objectively been far harder on Russia than its predecessors–including most notably its immediate predecessor, whom people like Bret Stephens now lavish praise on. It isn’t even close. To claim that US policy towards the USSR is the appropriate yardstick by with to measure US policy towards the decrepit, dissolute successor state of Russia requires breathtaking intellectual dishonesty. But Bret Stephens is obviously up to the task

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January 7, 2019

Lost in Space? Some Musings on the Economics of an Independent Space Force

Filed under: Economics,History,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 8:30 pm

One of the Trump administration’s (and really, Trump is the one pushing it) more interesting ideas is the creation of an independent military “space force” as a separate service branch, co-equal with the Army, Air Force, Marines, and Navy. Given that this proposal gores many, many political oxen inside the military and without, it’s hard to get an objective viewpoint. Everyone’s opinion is colored by their vested interest.

I have no answer as to whether it’s a good idea or not. But I do have some thoughts on the appropriate framework that could contribute to a more objective evaluation. Specifically, transactions cost economics and property rights economics (and organizational economics, which has some overlap with these) address issues of how formal organizational structure, and the ownership and control of assets, can affect the allocation of resources, for better or worse. And that is the issue here: can a reorganization involving the creation of a new entity that has control rights over assets heretofore controlled by other entities improve the allocation of defense resources?

I mused on this topic long ago, but have never really pursued it in a serious way. But I’ll muse some more given the newfound topicality.

It’s useful to divide the analysis into two parts. First, how does organizational structure, and in particular the assignment of rights of control over existing assets (e.g., artillery pieces, aircraft), affect military effectiveness and combat power? Second, how does organizational structure affect the choices regarding which assets to invest in?

With respect to the first issue, over the centuries militaries have devoted considerable effort and thought to organizational charts, and the allocation of control rights over military hardware and military units. Some simple examples: should each division have its own artillery, with all guns being under division control, or should some guns be assigned to battalions subject to control at a higher level (e.g., corps, army)?; should all tanks be concentrated in armored divisions, or should infantry divisions also have organic tank units?; should submarines be employed in support of fleets, or operate independently?

As with all resource allocation decisions, there are trade-offs, and militaries have struggled with these. There has been experimentation. There has been success and failure. Changes in technology have necessitated changes in organization, because the nature of specific weapons systems may affect the trade-offs. These are arguments that never end, as the incessant reorganizations of militaries (e.g., the U.S. Army’s recent shift to a brigade-based structure) demonstrate.

A couple of transactions cost economics insights. First, most decisions regarding the use of military assets are made subject to severe temporal specificity. If I am under attack, I need fire support NOW. Moreover, it may be the case that even in a large military only a few resources are available to provide that support. Temporal specificity creates transactions costs that can impede the allocation of resources to their highest value use.

Second, trade is unlikely to be a viable option, especially given temporal specificity. “Hey. I need some artillery support on my position right now. Can you give me an offer on what that will cost me?” Yeah–that works. The prospects for spot exchange are almost non-existent, and intertemporal exchange is unlikely because (a) timelines are short (for a variety of reasons), making end game problems acute, and (b) potential parties to an exchange are unlikely to be interacting repeatedly over time with reciprocal needs.

Since voluntary exchange is out (except in very unusual circumstances) resources need to be allocated by authority. Which makes issues of organization and the allocation of authority (control rights) paramount.

With respect to space assets, the case for a space force relates to the fact that many space assets (a) offer value to air, naval, and ground forces, and (b) there are economies of scale and scope. Having each service invest in its own space assets likely sacrifices scale and scope economies, but eliminates the need for inter-service bargaining over access to these assets, and reallocation of these assets in response to shifting military needs.

Allocating space assets to one existing branch (e.g., the Air Force) would facilitate exploitation of scale and scope economies, but would require inter-service bargaining to permit the non-controlling service to get access. A specialized space force permits exploitation of scale and scope economies, but also necessitates inter-service bargaining. The key question here is whether a specialized force would have better incentives than an operational force. For example, the Air Force might favor itself over other services when deciding how to utilize space assets, whereas a separate space force would not be as parochial.

With respect to the second issue–which assets are procured–the impact of organization on the Congressional procurement process is paramount.

The services are highly politicized organizations, and certain specializations within a service may exercise disproportionate influence. For example, the “fighter mafia” in the Air Force is legendary. As another example, in the pre-WWII U.S. Navy, battleship admirals held sway. These factions within a service may warp and stifle the development of new technologies, new doctrines, or investment decisions: the stultifying effect of the dominant infantry branch within the pre-WWII U.S. Army on the development of armored forces (both hardware and doctrine) is an example.

Creation of a separate force that invests in assets provided by the other branches would tend to undermine the power that any faction in a particular branch could exercise. The branches would have to form coalitions to influence Congressional funding decisions. But the creation of a new entity with its own vested service interest and its own ability to influence Congress could prove problematic as well.

For example, in the immediate aftermath of the formation of the Air Force, beliefs that nuclear weapons made most conventional forces–including conventional air arms–obsolete, led the Air Force to try to persuade Congress to slash spending on conventional forces in order to focus on strategic forces, especially bombers. This led to the “Revolt of the Admirals.” It also led the Navy and even the Army to invest in nuclear capabilities in order to claim strategic relevance and maintain their share of the budget. These investments were almost certainly wasteful, and would not have been made but for the independent Air Force’s influence.

Perhaps the most important historical example that could shed some light on the desirability of an independent space force is the creation of a separate Air Force in 1947, and the Johnson-McConnell agreement of 1966, in which the Army ceded to the Air Force control over all fixed wing aircraft.

The effects of this reorganization were probably beneficial overall, but there certainly were problematic effects. In particular, it almost certainly attenuated the Air Force’s incentives to provide ground support, and resulted in the Army investing excessively in rotary wing aircraft (i.e., attack helicopters) to provide it.

Perhaps a better idea would have been to create a separate strategic air wing (first including strategic bombers, then strategic bombers and ICBMs, as well as air superiority fighters), and permit the Army to operate tactical aircraft for ground support. This was essentially what was done in in the immediate aftermath of WWII, with the creation within the Army Air Force of a Strategic Air Command, a Tactical Air Command, and an Air Defense Command.

The Marine Corps, and to some degree the Navy, provide a model. Each operate their own fixed wing air services, specialized to provide the kinds of air power each needs. Marine air is relentlessly focused on providing close air support. The Marine operational commander has control over these assets, and does not have to haggle with another service to get them. Moreover, the Marines’ acquisition decisions (notably the division between fixed and rotary wing aircraft) are oriented towards getting the optimal mix for the specific mission.

I have only touched upon some of the relevant considerations–there are no doubt others I have missed. Moreover, I have given only superficial attention even to the issues I raise. But this should be sufficient to show just how complicated this issue is. Organizational decisions, such as the creation of a separate space force, will have profound implications for how military resources are allocated, and what resources will be invested in in the first place. Crucially, the assets in question cannot be allocated by markets or the price system, so it is not a question of organization v. market, but the form of the organization(s). Further, military assets are complex, long-lived (and becoming more so–note that B-52s may be operational for more than a century), and can be extraordinarily specialized and hence specific (in the TCE meaning of that term). Technology is incredibly dynamic, and needs shift dramatically over time as new threats emerge. This all means that organization and the allocation of control rights matter. A lot.

And perhaps most importantly, organizational choices will be made in a politicized environment, and will affect political bargaining in the future. This will inevitably distort current choices (e.g., whether a space force will be created in the first place, what assets it will control) and future choices as well. It also makes it very difficult to sort through the debate on the topic, because everybody involved is a political player with its own political interests.

That makes it all the more important to establish a relatively objective and rigorous intellectual framework in which to analyze these questions. I think that transactions costs economics and property rights economics hold out great promise as the basis for such a framework.

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January 5, 2019

Vox Populi v. Vox Domini Super Eos Electos

Filed under: Economics,History,Politics — cpirrong @ 7:27 pm

For weeks France has been wracked by the “gilets jaunes” protests directed at President Emmanuel Macron. The protests had slackened recently, but today they flared up again, perhaps due to the arrest of a gilets janues leader. (Was this just stupidity, or does Macron want to stoke the protest? Dunno.)

The French protests represent yet another battle in the global war between the hoi polloi and the elite. The catalyst for the French protests was a quintessentially elitist policy initiative: a tax on motor fuel, with the stated purpose of combating climate change.

Even on its own terms the tax is stupid. Even assuming a very high temperature sensitivity to CO2, the reduction in emissions resulting from the tax would have a vanishingly small effect on global temperature. Furthermore, like most of Europe, French gas taxes are extremely high, and almost certainly far above the level that would efficiently address externalities arising from motor fuel consumption.

The protestors may understand that the tax does not make sense as a way of addressing climate change. But their interests are far more down-to-earth. This is another tax imposed on the most heavily taxed country in the OECD. Further, it falls most heavily on the rural population, and the working population, and has little impact on the metropolitan elites. It is, in a sense, the straw that broke the camel’s back.

With consummate tone-deafness, Macron galvanized the protestors with remarks that would make the fictional Marie Antoinette (“let them eat cake”) blush. Hey, if driving costs too much, just carpool! Or take the bus! Yeah. He actually said that (unlike Marie and the bit about the cake).

After the initial shock, Macron caved, and shelved the tax. But the protests continued, with varying degrees of violence around the country (e.g., torching toll booths). This is because the tax’s significance was more symbolic, relating to the excessive taxation in France, and the sneering indifference of the elite to the fate of non-elite France, which Macron has personified all too well. So, as is often the case in coordination games, once people became aware of each others’ dissatisfaction, the protests took on a life of their own even after the initial catalyst was removed.

Today the protestors gathered in front of the Paris Bourse, demanding Macron’s resignation. Surely, he won’t, but his evident unpopularity will hamstring his ability to govern for the remainder of his term.

The government response has been somewhat amusing. One tack was that police resources were inadequate to deal with both the protests and terrorism. “France Doesn’t Have Enough Cops.” That is, the government of the most heavily taxed advanced economy in the world cannot perform the primary duty of the state: to secure the safety and property of its citizens. So don’t protest, because that make it impossible to combat terrorists.

But of course they should be given more money and power.

In the United States, there is also an outcry against the president, but it is the inversion of the one in France. Whereas in France it is the ordinary people taking to the streets in opposition to the governing elite, in the US the governing elite is taking to the media and the bowels of the state to oppose Trump.

There are no widespread protests on the streets of the US (Antifa freaking out in Portland doesn’t count), and especially lacking are protests by ordinary citizens against Trump. And why should there be? For most Americans, the last two years have been pretty good insofar as bread-and-butter issues are concerned (as epitomized by yesterday’s job report, both on the number of jobs and wage growth). No, the frenzy in the US has focused on issues that ordinary Americans don’t give a rat’s ass about, but which drive the governing class into paroxysms of fury–e.g., alleged (but completely unproven) allegations of “collusion” between Trump and Putin/the Russians.

These allegations are merely useful cudgels with which to beat Trump. The fury of the governing class really stems from his running roughshod over their presumptions and privileges. He’s just not one of them. He insults them. He tramples their amour-propre. He does not worship their idols. Indeed, he trashes them. Icky people like him.

So whereas the ordinary French have taken to the streets, the governing class has taken to pulling the levers of its power–the FBI (even before the election), the American star chamber (aka the Mueller Investigation), incessant and hopelessly biased media coverage, and now, threats of impeaching “the motherfucker.” (To which I say–be my guest. Look at how well that worked out in 1998-99.) There are even those who have advocated a coup.

I daresay that the governing class in the US sees what is going on in Paris and other places in France, and shudders. It shows how deeply loathed the governing class is, and how a seemingly small spark can ignite a political firestorm against them. They have certainly questioned the protests’ legitimacy, at times in their desperation succumbing to the last refuge of the idiot–blaming it on the Russians. Case in point, the pathetically hilarious Max Boot (hey, Max, can you do a pushup?) who at one time pined for an American Macron, only to be subjected to ruthless–but completely warranted–ridicule when the French protests erupted. In a nauseating attempt to rationalize the complete popular repudiation of his man crush on Macron, Max insinuated that although the Russkies may not have caused the protests, they fanned the flames through their diabolically clever exploitation of social media.

The condescension here is palpable, and reflects a pattern that I’ve pointed out going back to 2015. Rather than acknowledging that widespread popular dissatisfaction with the elites–as epitomized by Brexit, the Trump election, various European elections, and now the protests in France–were due to repeated elite failure unsullied by any success, they add insult to injury by accusing their opponents of being stupid, unwitting pawns of their current bête noire.

It is indeed amazing to see that an incessant barrage of attacks from the governing classes have not moved the needle on Trump in the slightest. If anything, they have bound him and his supporters more tightly, because the latter recognize that an attack on Trump is just as much an attack on them.

The most common divide in polities around the developed world right now is between the governing and the governed. The self-conceived and self-congratulatory elite vs. the ordinary. France is just the most recent battleground. It wasn’t the first, and it won’t be the last. The battle is becoming more intense because the objects of popular disdain refuse to acknowledge any responsibility for creating the conditions that have spurred popular discontent.

The same thing happened in France, 230 years ago. The nobility in the ancien regime stubbornly and righteously clung to their privileges, and their conviction in their own superiority. Worked out swell for them, right? But some people never learn.

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December 29, 2018

Is the Withdrawal From Syria a Bitter Pill for Jacksonians to Swallow? I Think Not

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 8:02 pm

I admire the work of Walter Russell Mead a great deal. I especially admire his identification of Jacksonians as a uniquely American political community, and his respectful and understanding treatment thereof, which is in stark contrast to the treatment given them by the sneering classes. I was therefore surprised by his recent column, which in my view completely misreads how Jacksonian America will respond to Trump’s decision to leave Syria and (perhaps–there are conflicting accounts) draw down forces in Afghanistan.

It’s fair to say that I was among the first (along with Mead) to identify Jacksonians as Trump’s core constituency, so I think I have some insight as to how they will react to his decision. And I think that Mead is off-base here:

That harmony may soon sour. Mr. Trump’s decisions on Syria and Afghanistan risk a rift between the president and his Jacksonian supporters and provide a way for some in the GOP to break with the president without losing their own populist credentials. The betrayal of the Kurds, the benefits to Iran of American withdrawal, the tilt toward an Islamist and anti-Israel Turkey, and the purrs of satisfaction emanating from the Kremlin are all bitter pills for Jacksonians to swallow.

Of the two wings of the GOP populist movement, the Jacksonians are the stronger and, from a political standpoint, the more essential. The GOP base is more hawkish than isolationist, and from jihadist terrorism to Russian and Chinese revisionism, today’s world is full of threats that alarm Jacksonian populists and lead them to support a strong military and a forward-leaning foreign policy.


Neoconservatives tried and failed to rally GOP foreign-policy hawks against Donald Trump. Should Jacksonians turn against him, they are likely to pose a much more formidable threat.

Where does Mead go wrong? Well, in part by forgetting some of the key attributes of Jacksonians that he identified about 25 years ago. One is the Jacksonian way of war. He noted that Jacksonians are reluctant to engage in foreign wars, but when they do they favor the massive application of brutal force to achieve rapid and total victory. Kill a lot of people, destroy a lot of stuff, and go home.

The wars in Syria and Afghanistan are the antithesis of this. Jacksonians were on board for the initial action in Afghanistan, oh so long ago. The US went in hard, employed all elements of its national power (except nuclear), and achieved what appeared to be a decisive and rapid victory. Then came 17 years of grinding, inconclusive combat. There is no prospect of a decisive outcome there. Similarly in Syria, the Jacksonian objective–destroying ISIS–has been largely achieved, and it is decidedly un-Jacksonian to get involved in a protracted Game of Thrones where there are no obvious good guys, and indeed, pretty much everybody is a bad guy by Jacksonian lights.

Insofar as allies are concerned, there is absolutely no cultural affinity between American allies in Syria or Afghanistan and Jacksonians, and as Mead noted, Jacksonianism is a peculiarly cultural, as opposed to intellectual, mindset. Further, as Mead also noted, Jacksonians despise corruption, and it is hard to imagine more corrupt societies and polities than Afghanistan and the Middle East. The tendency of our allies in both regions to turn their guns on American soldiers in “green on blue” attacks only confirms deep misgivings that our ostensible allies are not honorable people–and honor is a preeminent value among Jacksonians.

Jacksonians support wars that smite American enemies, and redeem American honor. Wars to build up nations with profoundly alien cultures that appear incapable of becoming stable polities, let alone ones that are grateful for American sacrifice on their behalf–not so much.

The Kurds may be something of an exception, but Jacksonian America has never shown much interest in them, despite the US’s long involvement with the Kurds in Iraq in particular. It is sad, but nonetheless true, that the US has sacrificed Kurdish interests on many occasions in the last 30 years. All without eliciting a peep from Jacksonian America. Why should now be any different?

Further, if they learn more about the Kurds, Jacksonians will realize that it is hardly a black-and-white picture. Yes, the Kurds have fought against ISIS, and fought well (as is their wont), but this is a matter of survival. But the long-running Kurdish fight with Turkey, led as it is by hard-core communists and socialists, and using as it does terrorist methods, will not garner sympathy from Jacksonians. They are not likely to be enamored with Erdogan’s Turkey either, but given the lack of a clear good guy that appeals to Jacksonian sympathies and sentiments, the likely response is to be to hell with them all, that’s not our fight.

Insofar as Iran is concerned, Trump has been sufficiently aggressive in going after the mullahs to counter any concern that he is soft on those who shout “death to America.” There are hardly purrs of satisfaction emanating from Tehran.

Similarly, Trump has been far more aggressive with respect to China, and even Russia, than his predecessors. Russian crowing about Syria stands in sharp contrast with their incessant bitching about everything else Trump has done, so despite the media’s and the Democrat’s and the anti-Trumpers’ insane claims that Trump is Putin’s pawn Jacksonians will not be fooled.

If anything, Jacksonians will conclude that Trump is focusing on the big adversaries where it matters, rather than frittering away American lives and treasure where it doesn’t. That is, they realize that Trump is hawkish where it counts, is not isolationist, and is working to rebuild the military. Against these big things, Syria is a trifling matter.

So, pace Dr. Mead, I don’t think that Trump need to have any concern that his most important constituency will find his recent decisions on Syria and (perhaps) Afghanistan a “bitter pill to swallow.” They are more likely to conclude that he has his priorities right. Furthermore, they are sure to notice that the people who are screaming the loudest about Trump’s decision are people they despise and who despise them in return. The louder that the Bill Kristols and Max Boots squeal, the more Jacksonians will conclude that Trump is doing the right thing.

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December 22, 2018

Given the Realm at Stake, Why Play This Game of Thrones?

Filed under: China,History,Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 2:57 pm

The most recent shrieking emanating from DC and its various satrapies is the result of Trump’s decision to exit Syria and draw down forces in Afghanistan, with the clear implication that the US will leave there too in due course. The conventional wisdom is almost universally against him, and as usual, the conventional wisdom is flat wrong.

In evaluating any policy or operation, the first question to answer is: what is the objective? In Syria, is it a limited one–the defeat of the rump of ISIS? Or is it a more grandiose, geopolitical one–to control the outcome of the Syrian civil war and determine who rules there?

Trump has made it clear that his objective is limited and tactical. He has apparently decided that although ISIS has not been extirpated in Syria, it has been so attrited that its remaining enemies can contain it, or finish it off. And there is a Machiavellian aspect to that: why not let American adversaries, Russia and Iran, spend their blood and treasure dealing with the dead enders that remain? You wanted Syria, Vlad–have at it!

The conventional wisdom embraces the more grandiose objective. Perhaps this is purely self-aggrandizement, and lets them resume their college dorm games of Risk for real. Issues of motive aside, it is beyond cavil that those who want the US to remain in Syria, and indeed, to become more heavily involved there want to commit the country to being a player in a Game of Thrones that puts the fictional version to shame.

And that is why the conventional wisdom is wrong. For what does the survivor who sits on the throne rule over? A country that was a largely irrelevant shithole even before seven years of internecine warfare that utterly wrecked and largely depopulated a nation that was already pitifully poor and weak before the war began.

Congratulations Bashar! Congratulations Vladimir! Congratulations Ali! Behold the spoils of your victory! And indeed, spoiled is the right word for it.

And again, from a Machiavellian perspective, tell me why it isn’t smart for the US to let Russia and Iran plow resources into rebuilding a devastated nation? If they do so, these are resources they can’t use against the US elsewhere. Furthermore, even if Russia gains a presence in the country over the longer term, it is an isolated and completely unsupportable outpost that (a) could not provide a base for power projection in the event of a real great power struggle, and (b) could be cut off and destroyed in a trice by the US. Let the Russians put their very limited resources into a strategic dead end.

As for the Iranians, yes, their presence in Syria poses a challenge to Israel. But (a) I am highly confident that the Israelis can handle it, and (b) it’s far cheaper for the US to support their efforts to do so with material support for the Israeli military. And just as is the case for Russia, for Iran Syria would be utterly unsupportable in the event of a real confrontation between Iran and Israel.

The principle of economy of force–something that the policy “elite” in DC appears never to have heard of–applies here. One implication of the principle is that you should concentrate your resources in decisive sectors, and not fritter them away in peripheral ones. For the US, Syria is on the periphery of the periphery. In any geopolitical contest with Russia and Iran, our resources are far better deployed elsewhere.

What’s more, despite the obsession of the foreign policy elite with Russia and Iran, they are secondary challengers to the US. China is far more important, and poses a far more serious challenge. Throwing military resources into Syria is to waste them in a peripheral theater of a secondary conflict.

When I first read of Trump’s decision, I turned to a friend and said: “I wonder what this means for Afghanistan.” And indeed, hard on the heels of the Syria announcement the administration stated that it would draw down forces in Afghanistan, with the clear implication that US involvement there would wind down fairly quickly.

All of the considerations that make Syria a strategic backwater for the US apply with greater force in Afghanistan. The country has spent over 17 years, the lives and bodies of thousands of soldiers, sailors, and Marines, and trillions of dollars on a country that is the poster child for shitholes. Yes, it was the refuge of a particular terrorist threat 17+ years ago. And yes, if we leave it will likely continue to be the cockpit of vicious civil war. Just like it has for the past two plus millennia. It was barely tractable for Alexander, and the British and Russia found it utterly intractable in their 19th and 20th century wars there. We’ve arguably done better, but not much. And again: what’s “winning,” and since the demise of the Silk Road, what in Afghanistan has been worth winning?

The war in Afghanistan has proved a sisyphean task. Sisyphus didn’t have a choice: the gods condemned him to roll the rock up the hill, only to watch it roll down again. The US has been engaged in that futile task by choice, and Trump has evidently decided that he doesn’t want to be Sisyphus anymore. (My skepticism about US involvement in Afghanistan also dates to years ago–as indicated by this post from almost exactly 9 years ago.)

One of the administration’s most important, and largely ignored, decisions has been to reorient US efforts away from conflicts against terrorism in isolated, poor, and peripheral places towards recapitalizing the military for peer conflict against China and Russia. This is the right choice, and long, long overdue. (I wrote a post in 2007 that expressed concerns about prioritizing anti-terror over conventional warfare capability.)

Alas, God will not restore the years the locusts have eaten in the Hindu Kush or on the Euphrates. But sunk costs are sunk. Looking to the future, the right strategic choice is to continue the pivot away from peripheral conflicts to focus on central ones.

And these costs are not purely monetary. Last night, due to a travel nightmare, I ended up returning to Houston on a flight that landed at 0230. On the plane were a half dozen young Marines heading home for the holidays. There were also two men, in their late-20s or early-30s, with prosthetic legs. They almost certainly lost them to IEDs in some godforsaken corner of the Middle East or Central Asia. With Trump’s decision in mind, I thought: what is the point of turning more young men like the fit and hearty 19 or 20 year old Marines into mutilated 30 year olds in places like Afghanistan and Syria? I certainly can’t see one.

I’m not a peacenick or a pacifist, by any means. But I understand the horrible cost of war, and fervently believe that it should only be spend on good causes that advance American interests. I cannot say with any conviction that this is the case in Syria, or in Afghanistan, 17 years after 911. Indeed, I can say the opposite with very strong conviction.

At the risk of stooping to ad hominem argument, I would make one more point. Look at the “elite” who is damning Trump’s decision in Syria. What great accomplishment–let alone accomplishments plural–can they take responsibility for? The last 27 years–at least–of American foreign policy has been an unbroken litany of bipartisan failure. The people who scream the loudest now were the architects of these failures. Not only have they not been held accountable, they do not even have the grace or maturity to admit their failures. Instead, they choose to damn someone who refuses to double down on them.

The biggest downside of Trump’s decision is that it apparently caused Secretary of Defense Mattis to resign. I hold General Mattis in the highest esteem, and believe that if he could no longer serve the president in good conscience, he did the right thing by resigning. But if he decided that Syria and Afghanistan were (metaphorically) the hills to die on, for the reasons outlined above I respectfully but strongly disagree.

My major regret at Mattis’ departure is again completely different than the conventional wisdom spouting elite’s. They lament the loss of an opposition voice within the administration. I cringe for reasons closely related to my reason for supporting a major pivot in US policy: I think that Mattis was the best person to oversee the reorientation of the Pentagon from counterinsurgency to main force conflict. We desperately need to improve the procurement process. We desperately need to focus on improving the quality and number of high end systems, and raising the availability of those systems we have: the operational availability of aircraft and combat units is shockingly low, and Mattis has prioritized increasing them. He has made progress, and I fear that a change at the Pentagon will put this progress, and the prospect for further progress, at risk.

Listening with dismay at the cacophony of criticism from the same old, failed, and tired “elite” reminds me of Einstein’s (alleged) definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results. The “elite” is invested in the same thing, and changing the same thing is a not so implicit rebuke for their failures. Until they can explain–which I know they cannot–why doing the same thing has led to such wonderful outcomes in the past quarter century, they should STFU and let somebody else try something different.

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December 3, 2018

Robert Mueller Deals More Collusion Crack to the Desperate Media Addicts

Filed under: Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 7:35 pm
Last Friday, the Russia collusion crack addicts took another hit, supplied by their main source, Robert Mueller.  The Special Counsel announced a plea deal with Michael Cohen, in which the disgraced Trump fixer admitted that he had lied to Congress about his contacts with Russia regarding a potential Trump business deal.  According to the plea, Cohen was reaching out to the Russians well into 2016, after the time when Trump’s nomination appeared likely.

OMG!!!! THIS IS IT! TRUMP IS DONE! COLLUSION HAS BEEN PROVED! HE WILL HAVE TO LEAVE OFFICE! TOP OF THE WORLD! THERE IS A GOD! I CAN SEE HIS FACE!

Dudes, put down the pipe and check into rehab. Though to be honest, there’s nothing that can fix your addiction.  You don’t have a monkey on your backs: you have Bushman.

As is almost always the case with these pipe dreams, the media hot take is 180 degrees from reality.  Rather than showing Trump’s deep connections with Russia, and his obligation to Putin, it shows the exact opposite. Namely, it demonstrates that even as late as 2016 Trump had absolutely NOTHING going on in Russia, but was still begging for the opportunity to talk about business opportunities. (Or at least, his flunkies were.)

Indeed, to indicate just how  how much nothing he had going on, Cohen sent an email with an offer to Putin’s PR flack, Dmitri Peskov.  But wait! It gets better!  Cohen didn’t even have Peskov’s private email address, so he sent it to the address used for general press inquiries.  And to add insult to injury Peskov didn’t respond.  In fact, nobody responded, not even an intern saying “Thank you for your inquiry.”

In other words, Cohen rated the same response as Peskov probably gave to Nigerian princes offering the opportunity to make a vast fortune, in exchange for a little help.  That being no response at all.  He might have even given offers from Nigerian princes more thought.

Just as the Trump Tower meeting demonstrate beyond cavil that Trump had no deep connections in Russia, this farce demonstrates that Trump was not even remotely a player.  To use a Rumsfeld category, this represents evidence of absence.  Overwhelming evidence. If Trump was in deep with Putin prior to January, 2016, one of his flunkies wouldn’t have been sending plaintive pleas to a public email address.  And if Putin was hot to collude, there would have been an answer.

It’s not that complicated.  But then again, I’m not on crack.

Further, to the extent that Trump encouraged the outreach: (a) it’s kind of embarrassing, and (b) it’s hardly the actions of a man who thought he had the remotest chance of becoming president.  In fact, it screams the opposite.

If Cohen and the other person involved in attempting to gin up Trump business in Russia were acting on their own hooks, it would suggest they didn’t rate The Boss’ prospects too highly either.

The worst thing about this entire affair is that Trump relied on low-lifes like Cohen and Sater.  This hardly speaks highly of him.

So yet again, Mueller has delivered the collusion junkies a short term high in the form of a guilty plea to a process crime that does not get him any closer to proving that Trump colluded with Putin (or anyone else in Russia), let alone proving that he committed a crime (collusion per se not being illegal).  Indeed, this latest  “bombshell” merely proves yet again that when it comes to Donald Trump and Russia, there’s no there there.

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November 29, 2018

The Incident in the Kerch Strait: Validating Existing Lines of Conflict, Rather Than Portending a Forcible Shift in Those Lines

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 7:45 pm
The big news over the weekend was the Russian firing on, ramming of, and seizure of several Ukrainian naval vessels attempting to transit the Kerch Strait.  Most of the news coverage has been hopelessly inept, especially with regards to the background and legalities.  This piece from Defense News is the most coherent and thorough that I’ve read.

My quick take is that given international maritime law and the 2003 Russia-Ukraine agreement on the Sea of Azov, Ukraine is right de jure–especially in light of the fact that no major nation acknowledges Russia’s seizure of Crimea.  But Russia has the upper hand de facto.  As the expression goes, possession is nine-tenths of the law.  Russia has seized possession of both sides of the Strait, and has the military force to enforce that possession.  And it did.

Russian justifications for their actions are risible.  But their explanations of so many actions are risible.  That may be the point: “we say this bullshit that you know is bullshit and we know is bullshit to let you know we don’t give a shit what you think.”

As the Defense News article states, Ukrainian naval vessels had transited the Kerch Strait in late-September without Russian reaction.  But this time it was different.

Why?

Presumably in part because the September foray embarrassed the Russians, who have been ratcheting up interference with civilian vessels since that happened.  Moreover, as many have suggested, Putin may be looking to bolster his patriotic bona fides.  He certainly can’t be doing it to attract international favor, because the opposite has happened.

This raises an interesting thought: if Putin really thinks he needs a domestic political boost so badly that he is willing to draw international opprobrium (note that Trump canceled a meeting with him at the G-20 over this) to get it, what does that say about his domestic political position? Or at least his concerns about it.  A tsar confident in his domestic standing wouldn’t feel it necessary to incur the cost of such a provocation.

Not that the cost is likely to be that high.  The Germans, in typical fashion, harrumphed about how horrible this is, but in the same breath said “Nordstream 2 is a go!”  But the episode probably makes any sanctions relief even less likely.

Revealed preference suggests two alternatives: (a) Putin figured that sanctions relief was extremely remote in any event, so the cost wasn’t that high, or (b) Putin actually doesn’t mind sanctions despite their evident toll on the Russian economy.  With regards to (b), note that sanctions often work to the advantage of those in power (e.g., Saddam, the Mullahs).  Pieces like this suggest that might be a real possibility.

What was Ukrainian president Poroshenko’s rationale?  He was likely appealing to his domestic audience, although a humiliating capture of a part of Ukraine’s pitiful remnant of a fleet hardly seems calculated to boost his re-election prospects.  Perhaps he was hoping for this very outcome, in the expectation that it would lead western countries to rally to Ukraine’s defense.  If so, he’s rather clueless.  It’s not as if the US and EU are unaware of Russia’s continuing predation against Ukraine: they’ve clearly acquiesced to the current status quo of frozen conflict, and the events in the Kerch Strait will not change that.  Poroshenko likely threw away a few ships and a couple of dozen sailors for nothing.

But in some respects, this is not surprising.  The Ukrainians are the Sovok Palestinians: they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity, and routinely self-inflict gaping wounds.

His declaration of martial law in parts of the country in the aftermath is highly weird, and raises questions about his real motives.

Does the incident portend a renewed Russian military assault on Ukraine?  I doubt it: it is more of an enforcement of existing redlines, rather than drawing new borders.  If the cost of bashing around a tugboat and a few minor combatants is bearable, the cost of a major move on the ground is a different matter altogether.

So the upshot is something like this.  The incident will not result in substantial increases in help for Ukraine.  It deepens and cements Russia’s isolation.  It is unlikely to portend a major escalation in the conflict.  In other words, it confirms and reinforces the status quo of a frozen conflict, rather than representing a new phase in the war.

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News for Barry: You Didn’t Build That

Filed under: Economics,Energy,Politics — cpirrong @ 9:59 am
Hard as it is to believe, it appears that Obama has become even more supercilious since his departure from the Oval Office.  All of his sneering grandiosity was on display during a visit to Houston.  (I hope you are sitting down for this: I didn’t attend!)

Being in Texas, Obama felt that he should be thanked for the dramatic growth in US oil production: “You wouldn’t always know it, but it went up every year I as president. That whole, suddenly America’s like the biggest oil producer and the biggest gas—that was me, people.”

I’m wracking my brain here, trying to recall something he said some years ago.  Oh yeah, I remember now: “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.”

Barry: you definitely didn’t build that.  Yet you claim credit anyways.  You remind me of the rooster that believes the sun rises because he crows.

Long-time commenter Howard Roark noted to me on Twitter that the “you didn’t build it” remark was arguably the worst of his many execrable utterances.  That’s probably true, and he makes it all the worse by claiming credit for building something which he had less than bupkis to do with.

Obama also claimed credit for the economy’s recent performance.   He noted, in essence, that the first derivative in GDP was positive during his term, so that he is responsible for the first derivative being positive now.  Apparently the man who is so smart that he can apply the theory of relativity to constitutional law doesn’t understand second derivatives.  Economic growth has accelerated markedly under the Trump administration, and has achieved 3.5 percent growth, something that Obama dismissed as an impossibility when he was criticized for the anemic 1-2 percent growth rate in the aftermath of the Financial Crisis (when one would have expected growth at a rate above long term trend, not below). (I love the title of the linked paper, by the way.  Hilarious!)

But Obama was done.  After claiming credit for building everything, he shared his deep thoughts on identity politics:

“Which is why, by the way, when I hear people say they don’t like identity politics, I think it’s important to remember that identity politics doesn’t just apply when it’s black people or gay people or women,” Obama said. “The folks who really originated identity politics were the folks who said Three-Fifths Clause and all that stuff. That was identity politics … Jim Crow was identity politics. That’s where it started.”

He’s largely correct that Jim Crow and “all that stuff” was identity politics.  But rather than using this to show that identity politics is fundamentally wrong, he uses it to somehow validate its current incarnation.  It happened before, so you can’t criticize it now.  Two wrongs make a right.   You did it to us, so we get to do it to you.

Please go away.  So we can miss you.  Except that I won’t.  But go away anyways.

 

 

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November 27, 2018

The Overlords of the Overton Window

Filed under: Economics,Politics — cpirrong @ 8:28 pm
Facebook, YouTube, and in particular Twitter have been bingeing on banning of late.  The targets of these proscriptions have been anything but random: those who do not perform proskynesis before the current gods of the left.  This means that conservatives and libertarians are disproportionately affected, but even some who do not fall into those political categories are at risk.

The environment has become so hostile that at least one prominent figure, Instapundit (Glenn Reynolds, a law professor, of all things), has said “you can’t fire me, I quit!” and left Twitter.  Others less prominent have made similar decisions, and others have self-censored.

In essence, the operators of social media platforms present a Hobson’s Choice: You can censor yourself, or they will censor you.  The end result is the same: systemic biases against expression of certain political, religious, and socio-cultural opinions on the most widely used social media platforms. Twitter, Facebook, and Google are the Overlords of the Overton Window, and largely dictate the range of acceptable public discourse.

The Overton Window has always existed, but what is acceptable to express has heretofore been the result of a more decentralized, emergent process.  There was give-and-take.  There were actually multiple windows, and entry and exit were easier.  There was no centralized authority who could dictate what was acceptable: what was acceptable emerged.

What is disturbing, and positively Orwellian, about the Window today is the aggressive role of an extremely ideological, self-appointed set of censors who face little competition and who largely can control access to the means by which opinion is now expressed.  The centripetal force of virtual social networks give exceptional power to those who control access to those networks. By conditioning access on adherence to their views, the psychopaths who control these networks (and tell me honestly that you don’t believe that Zuckerberg and Dorsey are psychopaths) can coerce acceptance of their beliefs.  The technology of networks tends towards monopoly, and those who control these monopolies exercise disproportionate control over the expression of opinion, belief, and thought.

That is, traditionally the Overton Window was more consensual.  It is now increasingly the dictat of a narrow and insular set of individuals who by the whims of competition in network markets have achieved considerable power.

One of the most explicit examples of how this operates relates to the issue of transgenders–an issue you that probably was so obscure to you that it never penetrated your consciousness until recently.  Twitter has recently banned people–including someone who would best be described as a hard-core feminist–for challenging this newly decreed orthodoxy.  Twitter has just announced a policy of banning people who “misgender” (e.g., call individuals with testicles “he” though they identify as women) or “deadname” (e.g., use the name Robert to refer to someone born with testicles and named Robert by his parents, but who now identifies as Roberta).

This is revealing on several dimensions.  First, it reveals that social media has an Animal Farm-like hierarchy.  Female feminists are pretty high up on the hierarchy, but somewhere below transgenders.  So if a female feminist transgresses the transgender norm, she becomes a non-person.  Better stick to attacking those lower in the hierarchy, like straight white males!

Second, a marginal (and arguably minuscule, in terms of numbers) group is sanctified, and obeisance to that group becomes a litmus test for acceptance, and freedom from attack/banning.  Question the sanctified, and you are a non-person, and anathematized.

The marginal and extremely unconventional nature of the group is extremely important to the process.  Who cares if you affirm that ice cream is great?  But affirming that the extremely marginal and unusual are great does not come naturally, and indeed, it is costly to those of a more traditional bent.  It is also costly because it takes some effort to figure out what you are supposed to affirm, especially since it is outside your realm of experience.

But the cost is the point!  You have to pay the cost in order to avoid ostracism.  To demonstrate your fealty.  Bending the knee is deeply symbolic precisely because people naturally rebel against it.  Because it is psychically costly.  Those with strength of will are ostracized, and those made of softer stuff validate the beliefs of the overlords by worshipping their gods.

This is the way that cults operate.  Acquiescing to bizarre beliefs and engaging in bizarre rituals demonstrates fealty to the cult.

And don’t think that this will end when all users of Twitter and Facebook get their minds right and adopt Mark’s and Jack’s dictated opinions regarding transgenders (which are likely purely instrumental).  At such point, transgenders become totally useless.  Totally. New tests of loyalty and conformity will become necessary.  A new group will be sanctified.  I shudder to think what it will be, but I guarantee it will happen.  And at that time transgenders will become as irrelevant as past causes célèbres, e.g., gays.  (Don’t hear much about them anymore, do you? Old news.  Hence not useful.)

One often-heard viewpoint expressed by usually conservative and libertarian people is that this is, if not OK, something we have to accept because it is not the government that is imposing restrictions on freedom of expression.  These are private individuals in control of private entities.

This is seductive logic, but it is extremely defective because it ignores objective realities.

The concern about government restriction on freedom of speech is that it has a monopoly of force that it can use to overawe and oppress.  Further, government restrictions on speech reduce accountability of government, and therefore undermine checks on its power.

We should have similar grave concerns about private individuals and private enterprises that utilize their right to control access to near-monopoly platforms to overawe and oppress.  Further, these are intensely political entities whose controlling personalities desire to exercise political power, preferably with limited or no accountability.

The line between public and private that is often drawn here is completely imaginary.  No, these are not government entities.  But they are entities that desire to exercise great influence over the government, through various means. and to exercise control over individuals in ways governments have only fantasized about.  (The symbiosis between Google and the government of the PRC is not an accident, comrades.)

Checking their power is therefore completely consistent with a belief in the primacy of individual liberty.  Indeed, given the steady erosion in limits on government, shackling those who exert disproportionate influence on government and the political process is all the more vital to those who champion individual freedom.  (This is exactly why Facebook and Twitter and Google should be the LAST entities you want determining what is, and what is not, acceptable political speech, and what is fake news, and why the insistence by politicians that they do so is the bootleggers-and-baptists problem from hell.)

Those who care about individual liberty must strive to reduce the power to coerce, regardless of whether that coercive power is wielded by a government, or an individual, or a non-government entity.  Coercion is the thing.  Not the identity of the coercer.

Further, as I’ve noted several times before, the classical liberal/limited government tradition has recognized the dangers of private monopoly, and has constrained it through the imposition of open access and non-discrimination requirements.  If such requirements are justified for innkeepers and stagecoaches and railroads, they are more than justified for social media platforms, especially given the public goods nature (in the strict economics sense of the term) of their output–something that cannot be said of innkeepers and stagecoaches and railroads.

So, echoing Lenin, what is to be done?  One thing is clear: direct approaches are fruitless.  If Glenn Reynolds censors himself, that just saves Jack Dorsey the trouble.  The end result is the same: Jack wins.

A la Liddell-Hart, Fuller, or Sun-Tzu, an indirect approach is necessary. I’m not sure what that approach should be, but these military thinkers (no, that’s not always an oxymoron) have identified key aspects of it.  Identify the enemy’s center of gravity (and we should indeed view these people and companies as our entities).  Then don’t attack their strong points, but find their blind spots, their vulnerabilities, and strike at those.  Find the back door to the center of gravity.

And in thinking through the problem, don’t get hung up on false distinctions between public and private.  This is only to play into the hands of those who want to dominate you.

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November 25, 2018

There Is a Great Deal of Ruin In a Nation, Venezuelan Edition (With Broader Lessons)

Filed under: Economics,Politics — cpirrong @ 8:03 pm
Igor is not pleased with Maduro’s Venezuela, which is stiffing him:

The head of Russian oil company Rosneft (ROSN.MM), Igor Sechin, flew to Caracas this week to meet Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and complain over delayed oil shipments designed to repay loans, two sources briefed on the conversation said on Saturday.

The visit, which was not publicly disclosed, is one of the clearest signs of strain between crisis-stricken Venezuela and its key financier Russia.

Over the last few years, Moscow has become Venezuela’s lender of last resort, with the Russian government and Rosneft handing Venezuela at least $17 billion in loans and credit lines since 2006, according to Reuters calculations.

State oil company PDVSA is repaying almost all of those debts with oil, but a meltdown in its oil industry has left it struggling to fulfill obligations.

Sechin and a large delegation of executives met with officials at PDVSA in a Caracas hotel this week. Sechin also met with Venezuela’s leftist leader Maduro, and chided him over oil-for-loans shipments that are behind schedule.

“He brought information showing that they were meeting obligations with China but not with them,” said one source with knowledge of the talks.

Two things strike me about this story.

First: Hahahahaha.  Suckers.

I remember vividly snickering at those who thought the Chinese and Russians were sooooo smart to extend credit to the Venezuelans..  How this was a geopolitical masterstroke.

Really?  How’s that working out?  Obviously not well.  Ask Igor!

Tell me again how it is GENIUS! to lend money to a country that is imploding because it is in the thrall of an insane crypto-socialist ideology.  Venezuela’s trajectory was obvious at the time the Chinese and Russians thought they would lend it money.  Seriously: lending to socialists is hardly ever a paying proposition, and lending to Bolivarian socialists was certainly so.

But by all means, keep pouring money down ratholes! Be my guest!

Second.  The Venezuelan experience demonstrates the truth in Adam Smith’s aphorism about there being “a great deal of ruin in a nation.”  The torment of Venezuela is extreme.  The populace lives in utter penury, which only grows worse by the day.  The inflation rate is currently in the 6 figures, and is on track to reach 7 figures late by the end of this year, or early in the next.   This is Weimar-Hungary-Zimbabwe territory.  Crime is rampant.  Human degradation is everywhere.

Yet the Maduro regime is largely secure.  It maintains the loyalty of the security forces, and this has deterred a serious popular uprising.   Indeed, the economic catastrophe is not causing Maduro to relent: to the contrary, it spurs him to crack down even more intensely.

This situation has been developing for years.  Indeed, you can pinpoint the decisive moment, and it relates to Sechin’s current target–national oil company PDVSA. In the aftermath of an abortive US-supportive coup in 2002, Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chavez responded to opposition within the company by purging the technically and managerially competent, and replacing them with loyalists.  What was once one of the most competent national oil companies in the world began its descent into failure, and the entire country followed in its wake.

There is a broader lesson here: Smith’s dictum, empirically validated in Venezuela, implies that expectations that economic pressure on rogue regimes will lead them to moderate their behavior, or result in their overthrow, are chimerical.  Rogue regimes respond to pressure and economic failure by intensifying oppressive measures.  By doing so, they can survive for a very, very long time.

The problem of coordinating opposition against a steely regime is difficult to overcome.  Usually, such regimes fall only when they attempt to respond to popular discontent through “reforms” and a softening of repression (cf. Gorbachev in the USSR).  Hard men like those in Venezuela or Iran understand this lesson, and have no intention of relaxing their grips.

That is, economic failure, whether internally created (as in Venezuela) or the result of internal dysfunction exacerbated by external pressure (as in Iran or North Korea) almost never results in the collapse of repressive regimes.

This is not to say that economic sanctions or other forms of economic pressure are not justified.  It is just that the expectations for such acts must be realistic, and the goals chosen accordingly.  Realistically, economic pressure can reduce the capabilities of rogue regimes to wreak havoc outside their borders.  It cannot truly threaten the existence of these regimes.

Since there is so much ruin in countries–especially highly repressive ones–expecting to change them by ruining them is futile.

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