Streetwise Professor

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.


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.


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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November 8, 2018

To Bad the Drydock Sank, Instead of the Carrier It Was Lifting

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 5:17 pm
A week ago Russia lost its largest drydock, while it was towing the country’s sole aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov.   This is amusing, though not surprising: “The cause of the accident was reportedly an electrical malfunction that left the pumps in the dry dock’s ballast tanks stuck on, causing it to sink rapidly.”

The Kuznetsov was itself damaged, when a crane from the drydock toppled onto the carrier’s deck.

All things considered, the Russians would have been much better off had the Kusnetsov plunged to the bottom, rather than the drydock.  The drydock is actually potentially useful.  The carrier is a near hulk that is more trouble than justified by its military value, which to a first order approximation is zero.

I will take credit for being one of the first to point out the comical fact that the Kusnetsov always sailed with a salvage craft–a towboat–bobbing along in its wake.  Prudent precaution, you say? Never leave home without one?  Well, no other aircraft carrier in the world needs to take this precaution.

The Russians will reportedly attempt to raise the drydock, although as the linked article points out it may have been damaged by the sinking.   And if the electronics were dodgy before, think what months/years under frigid seawater will do to them.  The Russians will also apparently continue with refurbishing the Kuznetsov, although this is already running over time and over budget.

Hey, if they want to burn money, who am I to stop them?  Better for the US that they waste resources on this rather pathetic vessel than put it into something actually useful.

It’s not August, but Russia has been suffering an August-like autumn.  And no, I don’t mean the weather: I mean the fact that for years August was regularly marked by major accidents in Russia.  In addition to the Kuznetsov/drydock fiasco, recent weeks have seen the failure of the manned Soyuz launch.  The failure has been blamed on a sensor damaged during installation:

“The reason for the abnormal separation … was due to a deformation of the stem of the contact separation sensor…,” Skorobogatov told reporters.

“It has been proven, fully confirmed that this happened specifically because of this sensor, and that could only have happened during the package’s assembly at the Baikonur cosmodrome,” he said.

I can imagine the conversation: “What do you mean it doesn’t fit, Boris?  Get a bigger hammer!”

Further, four bridges have collapsed in Russia since September.

In brief, Russia remains a shambolic place.   The gap between Putin’s chest-thumping and reality is as wide as ever.  The hamster wheel keeps spinning.

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August 28, 2018

What Happens When the Putin Hamster Wheel Stops Spinning?

Filed under: China,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 6:30 pm
In a Bloomberg interview, Russian sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya basically echoes things that I’ve written here for over a decade.

First, though she doesn’t use this exact terminology, Putin’s Russia is a quasi-feudal “natural state” in which Putin is the balancer, and maintains balance by allocating rents among jostling elite clans.

Second, the transition to a post-Putin Russia will be messy.  Kryshtanovskaya sketches out the game theory, which I’ve done in the past.  It’s not that complicated–collusive/cooperative arrangements among rivals unravel as the end game nears.  With a mortal man playing such a crucial role in enforcing the cooperative agreement, such an unraveling is inevitable.

Putin is subject to constitutional constraints that would, in theory, cause the end game to precede his demise or dotage, but he recognizes this, and will find some new role that concentrates power in his hands, thereby effectively neutering who ever succeeds him as president.

But that just delays the inevitable. As he ages, and the clans he keeps in check believe that the cooperative horizon is shrinking (perhaps due to observation that Putin is slipping mentally or physically), one (or all) will make a power grab.  That could lead to chaos.

One wildcard that  Kryshtanovskaya doesn’t mention, and which wasn’t as big of a factor when I was writing about this years back, is Kadyrov.  He is another actor–and a mercurial and dangerous one–who could play a decisive role in the end game.  Although it has been suggested that he has ambitions to rule Russia, it is more likely that he will make a play for greater autonomy when the center weakens, and will also throw his weight to influence the outcome of the battle to succeed Putin.  And once that is settled, it is not difficult to imagine that his demands and independence will result in a Third Chechen War.

It is precisely this inherent instability in a de-institutionalized, personalized political system that limits Russia’s long-run challenge to the US.  Periodic, episodic turmoil is not conducive to posing a persistent geopolitical challenge.

Until recently, China’s more collective leadership system and periodic, regular transfers of power have been another factor that makes it a more dangerous challenger to the US than Russia.  Interestingly, Xi’s concentration of power in his person may bring all of the trade-offs that Putnism has, with the biggest downside being instability and potential chaos when succession looms.

I’d say that bodes well for the US in the long run, but since we appear to be converging to Russia from above, perhaps not.  On that subject, more later.

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July 24, 2018

Who Knew Igor Was a Deadhead?: Sechin Plays Shakedown Street

Filed under: Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 6:14 pm
The Sechin business model is clearly not to generate profit through canny investment, careful stewardship of capital, and containing cost.  Rather, it could be called The Rent Seeking Variations.

One of Sechin’s favorite variations is to pump up a flagging bottom line by shaking down his erstwhile partners.  The classic in this genre is the takeover of Bashneft at a knockdown price extracted by putting its owner Sistema under extreme legal pressure, which Sechin followed by suing Sistema for alleged misappropriations, which were only vaguely pleaded, and which if anything suggested that Rosneft was delinquent in its due diligence.

Sechin is now replaying this gambit, this time with its partners is Sakhalin I–which include ExxonMobile.  Again, the allegation is lacking in specifics.  Rosneft accuses the partners of “unjust enrichment” in 2015 and 2016.  In a world-class, epic act of projection, Rosneft accuses Exxon Neftgaz and the others of “interest gained by using other people’s money.”

The case was filed on Sechin’s home court–the arbitrage court on Sakhalin.  I seriously doubt that Exxon would have put itself into a situation where it was at the mercy of a Russian kangaroo court, so no doubt the first battle will be jurisdictional.

Sechin succeeded against Bashneft and Sistema in large part because Russia put its main shareholder Vladimir Yevtushenkov in jail at one point, and clearly was in a position to do it again.  ExxonMobil and the others in the partnership are less vulnerable, and Exxon in particular is used to these sorts of bruising battles.  So Igor has his work cut out for him.

For a while–during the Tillerson years–Exxon and Rosneft were chummy.  Sanctions put a kaibosh on the relationship, and this is clearly a signal that they are sooooo over.  Which just leaves Rosneft even more isolated than before, and unlikely to attract technology, expertise, and money from a major foreign power anytime soon absent some exchange of hostages that will curb Sechin’s predatory instincts.

The fallout for Russia more broadly is also clearly negative.  This is just another indication of its opportunistic and predatory approach to foreign investment, which just will raise further barriers to such investment in the future.

Operating on Shakedown Street can be lucrative in the short run, but pretty soon you run out of suckers to shake down.

Perhaps counterintuitively to some, this is an indication of why freaking out over Russia is so overdone.  Its internal dysfunction has hampered, hampers, and will hamper in the future its economic performance, and hence its potential to build capability to challenge the US in a serious way.   Yes, it can be a pain, but the very aspects of its system that make it so objectionable also serve to undermine its ability to pose a serious threat to any major power.

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July 17, 2018

In Helsinki, Trump Declares That This Is War to the Knife–Against His Domestic Enemies

Filed under: China,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 6:04 pm
Even by the standards of the last two years, the hysteria that erupted over Trump’s statements in the press conference with Putin in Helsinki were off the charts.  Benedict Arnold! Treason! Traitor! Impeachment! On CNN some supposed ex-Watergate lawyer compared it to Kristillnacht. I suppose if we wait a few hours it will become the latter-day equivalent of Auschwitz.  I’m only surprised that I haven’t seen it compared to the Hitler-Stalin Pact.  Give it time!

The most disgusting comparisons in my mind were to Pearl Harbor and 9/11, suggesting that what Trump did would have been analogous to sitting down with Tojo after Pearl Harbor or Osama after the Twin Towers went down.

Reality check.  Pearl Harbor death toll: 2403. 9/11 death toll: 2996. 11/8/16 death toll: zero.  1,117 American sailors were vaporized, drowned, or incinerated on the USS Arizona alone on 12/7/41.  Anyone comparing Russian hacking to those catastrophes is completing lacking in perspective, not to say mental balance, and is willing to make the most outlandish comparisons out of partisan spite.  Especially inasmuch as spy games have been going on since time immemorial, and between the US and Russia/USSR for decades.  What transpired in 2016 is par for the course. Where’s the outrage been all these years?

And is the US supposed to go to war with a nuclear power over hacking? For that is the implication of the Pearl Harbor and 9/11 analogies.  That is not just lacking in perspective–that is utterly deranged.

And what is the hysteria about, in the end?: mere words.  Nothing of substance transpired at the summit–as could have been expected.  The overwrought fears that Trump would totally capitulate on Syria, or recognize the Russian seizure of Crimea, or sell Ukraine down the river turned out to be imaginary.  There were just anodyne statements about working toward common goals, which will likely result in nothing.

How would things have been different, or be different today, or tomorrow, or next year, had Trump aggressively chastised Putin publicly about the alleged interference in the 2016 election?  No different at all, except that the hysterics would have had to find something to be hysterical about.   And I guarantee you: they would have.

What would Putin have done had Trump called him out?  First, he would have denied.  As he apparently did when Trump brought it up.  Second, he would have responded with a litany of sins that the US has committed against Russia, in which he would no doubt include the 2011 elections in Russia. After all, the man is the master of whataboutism and bald face denials of the obvious.  Why would you expect any different yesterday?

“Did so!”  “Uh-uh.” “Stay out of our politics!” “You did it first!”

That would have been edifying.

Which would leave us where, exactly? Right where we are today.

And if the failure to say sufficiently condemnatory words about Russian interference is treasonous, what is the failure to do anything about it when it was happening, in full knowledge that it was happening?  Which is exactly what the Obama administration did–by its own admission.  Would the hysterics have given Trump a pass if he had imitated Obama and told Putin to “cut it out”?  Yeah.  Right.  This also suggests an utter lack of seriousness.

What I find most deeply disturbing about this is that the Russia/Putin fetish is distracting attention from a real strategic threat.  By every measure–economic, military, geopolitical–China is a more dangerous power than Russia.  Indeed, even if you emphasize cyberattacks as the primary threat, China is likely far more dangerous than Russia, although amnesia about things like massive penetration of the F-35 program or the OPM hack (which compromised the personnel records of every federal employee) seems to be epidemic.  And it is not as if China does not, and has not, attempted to interfere in US elections.  (Johnny Chung, anybody? Maria Hsia? Buddhist Temples?)

Chairman Xi must be beside himself in glee that the US is tearing itself apart over Russia, a declining power, to the neglect of China, a rising one.

Perhaps Trump could have spared himself some of the attacks had he been more critical–though I am doubtful that he could have done anything short of killing Putin that would have placated the critics.  But no doubt Trump knew that.  No doubt he knew that having a summit at all would put him in a vulnerable situation.  Certainly he was aware that the indictment of the 12 Russian GRU personnel was a trap set by elements in his own Justice Department.

Yet Trump had the summit, and indeed pushed to have it, and said what he did at the press conference, knowing the likely fallout.  Why?

Of course the anti-Trump theory is that he is in Putin’s thrall, either because of genuine admiration or blackmail.  But this does not comport with much of his actual behavior in office, which includes killing hundreds of Russians in Syria, opening declaring an energy war, browbeating Nato to spend more on defense directed at Russia specifically, blasting the Germans about NordStream II, and on and on.  Further, what is the likelihood that there is some deep dark secret that only a few Russians know?

I think the more likely explanation is that Trump deliberately provoked his frenzy in full knowledge of the consequences, to prove that he will not back down, and that he will not validate his critics by acquiescing to their demands.  It was a typically Trumpian in-your-face-what-are-you-gonna-do-about-it moment.

The only other person I have seen with a similar take is James S. Robbins:

The easiest thing to do politically would be to avoid Russia. The president did not have to attend this summit meeting, especially with the midterm elections months away and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s expected report looming. He could have simply avoided both the issue and the optics.

But Donald Trump did not become president by doing the easy or expected thing. His political M.O. is to disrupt the opposition by owning the downside. A summit with Vladimir Putin is the perfect Trumpian way to say to his frantic critics that he couldn’t care less what they think. And it may force some of the more thoughtful ones to begin to consider the possibility that President Trump is right, and the entire Russian collusion narrative has been a lie.

I seriously doubt the last sentence.  Or at least, I doubt that there are any critics who are both frantic and thoughtful (and the former greatly outnumber the latter).  But it is pretty clear that Trump has signaled that this is war to the knife–against his domestic political enemies–and he is not capitulating.


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July 10, 2018

To Those Hysterical Over Trump’s Jacksonian Resurgence: Internationalist, Heal Thyself

Filed under: Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 5:42 pm
As Trump wings his way east, first to a Nato summit, and then to a meeting with Putin in Helsinki, the commentariat and political class in the United States and Europe are on the brink of–another?–psychotic event.  The meeting with Putin in particular has triggered panic.

One recurrent theme is that Putin and Trump have similar views on the “rules based, institutions based, international order.”  Therefore, they are effectively allies and jointly a threat to the peace and stability of the world.  The title of one piece in Bloomberg summarizes the angst: Putin is Trump’s brother from another Motherland.

As a factual matter, it is true that both Putin and Trump challenge the existing post-Cold War consensus.  But since they reach that destination by very, very different routes, the similarities are far more superficial than the differences.  Furthermore, the consequences of this apparent convergence are likely to be far less dire for the United States than the angst-ridden claim.

It is only natural that Putin challenges the existing order.  After all, he presides over the main successor state to the Soviet Union, and much of the existing order was designed explicitly to contain and neuter the USSR.  Furthermore, the collapse of the USSR left Russia marginalized,  at best, which does not comport with Russia’s deeply held views that it is a great power–a view that Putin holds, clearly.  Russia also has a truly Westphalian mindset, which holds that the internal affairs of any nation are its business alone, and not subject to the meddling of others–or the “international community” at large.  Indeed, the one multilateral organization that Russia supports–the United Nations–receives its approbation precisely due to the fact that it can be used to derail international efforts to interfere in the internal affairs of states–including pariah states.  Putin’s revisionism is therefore readily understood.

Trump’s is more complicated, and reflects a longstanding divide in the United States.  Much of the criticism of Trump from the American establishment–including the part of the establishment that considers itself conservative, and indeed the sole legitimate voice of conservativism–is therefore a manifestation of longstanding divisions in American politics, which (a) caused his election, and (b) is why it is becoming less hyperbolic to talk of a new American civil war.

The best template to explain and understand this is Walter Russell Mead’s division of American foreign policy thought into Hamiltonian, Wilsonian, Jeffersonian and Jacksonian schools.  The establishment is decidedly Hamiltonian and Wilsonian.  As Mead–and I–noted from the onset of Trump’s emergence–he is the avatar of the long marginalized, and indeed scorned, Jacksonian America.  The establishment thought that this component of the American polity had long since been condemned to obscurity, and views its resurgence with the fright of a horror movie character seeing The Mummy or Jason Voorhees come back from the dead.

Jacksonians challenge virtually every aspect of the Hamiltonian-Wilsonian consensus.  The foreign policy establishment–whether Neocon or liberal internationalist–believes that America has some grand mission abroad, to bring democracy, peace, equality, freedom, or economic progress, or some combination thereof, to the rest of the world.  Jacksonians (and Jeffersonians) do not believe in such missionary work, and indeed are quite skeptical of it.  In the words of John Quincy Adams (ironically Jackson’s political foe and bête noire) “she [the US] goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” Jacksonians are deeply patriotic, and believe that theirs is the greatest nation in the world, but that it should lead by example and not attempt to impose by force or more subtle forms of coercion or blandishments its views, beliefs, or mores on others.

This leads them to be deeply skeptical of international engagements, let alone conflicts, when US interests are not directly threatened.  And unlike internationalists, they define American interests narrowly.

On this score, recent history is strongly supportive of Jacksonian skepticism.  As in so many aspects of life, the past quarter century–or perhaps to date it more precisely, since the fall of the USSR in 1991–has demonstrated the incompetence of the architects of internationalist policies, the infeasibility of these policies, or both.  This period has been marked by a litany of bloody, expensive failures, of which Iraq and Libya are the most conspicuous (but not only) examples.  Interestingly, these failures were the responsibility of different parties, different administrations, and different mindsets (Neocons on the one hand, “responsibility to protect” on the other), and differing degrees of international buy-in, but these different parts of the establishment shared a belief that the exercise of American power could make the world a better place by destroying monsters abroad.  The experiences strongly suggest that these beliefs were utterly mistaken.

(A confession: I supported the war in Iraq.  In retrospect, it was the worst misjudgment of my life. One of the main challenges of writing this post is to not overlearn from that mistake.)

Putin was adamantly opposed to US/European action in Libya, but he was prime minister at the time and Medvedev acquiesced to American and European pressure.  Give the devil his due: regardless of his motivations, Putin’s (and Lavrov’s) diagnosis of the consequences of that intervention were far more accurate than, say, Hillary’s, or pretty much any member of the US or European foreign policy “elite.”

Given this woeful record, what person in his right mind would NOT be skeptical of a deeper intervention in Syria, say, with the objective of regime change?  Syria makes Game of Thrones look simple by comparison.  Yet few things attract the foreign policy establishment’s ire like Trump’s oft-expressed desire to withdraw from Syria, or at least sharply limit American involvement there to destroying ISIS.

And given this woeful record, deep skepticism about the competence of the establishment, and the desirability of messianic interventions even if guided by a competent establishment, is well-justified.

Which leads me to reiterate a theme that I have written about for going on three years now: if the established elite hates Trump, and the Jacksonian resurgence that he personifies, they have no one–no one–to blame but themselves.  No one has brought more discredit to the beliefs of the establishment than that self-same establishment.  Internationalist, heal thyself.

Jacksonians also prize sovereignty and independence, and bridle at attempts to subordinate the US to international bodies, or tie it down in alliances with nations whose interests are less than fully aligned with America’s–especially when the US pays a disproportionate share of the expense.  And especially when the alleged allies repay the effort and expense with endless ankle biting and carping criticism.

Here is where Trump’s criticism of Nato resonates.  That Nato nations free ride on US defense expenditure is beyond dispute.  Trump calls the Europeans out on this, and they squeal like stuck hogs–and the US foreign policy establishment squeals right along with them.

More implicit in Trump’s criticism is a question about the purpose of Nato in 2018.  It had a purpose in 1949.  It had a purpose in 1990.  What is its purpose now?  Trump is effectively daring it to find one.

The UN and many other international bodies are often opposed to the US, and even the alliances (especially with Europe) seem to consist of Lilliputians intent on tying down the American Gulliver.  This also rankles independent and sovereignty-minded Jacksonians.  Global progressives think that the US is a malign force that needs to be suppressed and controlled by international bodies.  That also grates intensely on patriotic Jacksonians.

Jacksonians—and many Hamiltonians—are also justifiably critical of an omnipresent nanny state that regulates every aspect of human existence.  This is why his criticism of the EU is justified, and why many Americans nod in agreement.  And why many Europeans also agree, even though intense social pressure forces them to mute their criticism.  Jacksonians also value democracy, and hence are not enamored with the profoundly anti-democratic EU (whose motto appears to be: “you will vote until you get it right”).  So European outrage at criticism of the EU is music to my ears.

The Trump—Jacksonian—critique of the foreign policy establishment in the US and abroad therefore has much merit.  And again, the very reason that Trump is in a position to challenge the elite consensus is that the elite has failed time and again to deliver on its promises.  It is a legend in its own mind.  In reality, not so much.

The Hamiltonian side of me is most disturbed by Trump’s stance on trade.  But even here one can see his point.  It is farcical to characterize the current world system as one of free trade.  Real free trade would not involve byzantine agreements that only a mandarinate can interpret.  China is profoundly protectionist.

I think that Trump is a mercantilist, and that represents a deep intellectual error.  But many of his critiques of China in particular, and to a lesser degree the Europeans, have some basis in fact.  Whether trade wars are the best way to redress what Trump criticizes is anther matter.

Given all this, I discount the shrieks of the establishment—heavily.  One can object to some of Trump’s specific criticisms.  You can criticize his methods.  But if he is a barbarian at the gates, the city that fears he is about to sack it is vulnerable because of its own profound internal failings.

Which brings me back to Putin.  One of the standard attacks against Trump is that by sharing a distrust of the current international system with Putin, Trump is strengthening Putin and weakening the United States.

I am of course no Putin booster (as 12 years of posts amply demonstrate), and think it is desirable to contain Russian influence.  But to believe that Trump’s challenge to the prevailing consensus empowers Putin and disempowers the United States is to engage in the same kind of zero sum thinking that I have criticized Putin for in the past.

Indeed, Putin should be careful what he asks for.  A replacement of the multilateralist international system with a more independent, unilateralist—and Jacksonian–United States will not necessarily redound to Putin’s benefit, and may be his worst nightmare.  The increase in American defense spending, and the aggressive promotion of US energy, are antithetical to Putin’s interests.

At best, the reorientation of US policy may give Putin more freedom of action in places like Syria—to which I say, good luck with that, and welcome to it.  It may also empower Russia to some degree in the near abroad, but even there Russia’s fundamental—and increasing—weaknesses (economic, demographic) will limit the damage it can do.

But fundamentally the US shares few interests with Russia, and has many opposing interests.  America unbound, more unilaterally assertive where it views its true interests to lie, and not distracted or enervated by efforts in peripheral areas, is more threatening to Russian interests in the long run than a Clinton administration would have been.

Further, Trump’s more benign view of Russia may reflect an assessment that Russia is not truly a great power, given its economic, demographic, institutional, and social limitations.  In terms of capability, and arguably intentions, China represents a more pressing challenge to the US, and focusing on Russia represents a foolish diversion of resources and division of efforts.  That is, Trump may be less cultivating Putin than patronizing him.

In sum, the post-Cold War world order has been vastly oversold.  The encomiums heaped upon it reflect intentions—and self-congratulation–far more than results.  Putin challenges it for his reasons.  Trump challenges it for very different reasons.  Arguably both are acting in their national interests.  A meeting between these two challengers to the existing order could not have occurred unless that order had failed, fundamentally.  The hysteria surrounding it is a testament to the failure of the hysterics, not the success of what they are defending.



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July 7, 2018

No, Putin is Not a Genghis Wannabe Pinin’ for the Hordes. это Россия.

Filed under: Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 9:42 pm
The WSJ embarrasses itself with this silly Yarosov Trofimov “think piece”  titled “Russia’s Turn to Its Asian Past.”  I say “think piece” in quotes because that’s what it pretends to be, but there really isn’t a lot of thought in it.  It is a farrago of random quotes and facts about Russian history that actually betrays little actual knowledge of Russian history.

Trofimov’s basic thesis is that spurned by the West, Russia is increasingly looking east, and moreover, “some Russians” (how many, out of a population of ~140 million he doesn’t say) look favorably on the Golden Horde.  Indeed, the piece is illustrated with a drawing of Putin as Genghis Khan–and even though Trofimov didn’t choose the illustration, he did speak approvingly of it on Twitter.

Trofimov’s “evidence”?  Well, Putin laments Russia’s lost empire, for one thing.  This is hardly a new phenomenon: Gaidar wrote a book about a decade ago titled “Collapse of Empire” which starts out discussing the lost empire syndrome and how it has haunted Russian consciousness since 1991, and which argues that Russia won’t progress until it gets over that loss.  Gaidar noted that this was accompanied by widespread resentment of the West, and ambivalence–or worse–about where Russia fit in.

For another, “Now Russia is increasingly looking East, toward an uneasy alliance with an illiberal and much more powerful China, and—in recognition of the country’s increasingly Muslim makeup—with nations such as Turkey and Iran.”  This is just great power politics.  In what represents continuity, rather than change, a leadership that believes in multipolarity, rejects globalism, has a decidedly Westphalian worldview, and views the US as its primary rival is looking for like-minded allies, who happen not to be in the West.  Go figure.  This doesn’t make Putin a Genghis wannabe pinin’ for the Hordes.

Trofimov assembles quotes from assorted people who claim Russia is rejecting the West due to various slights, real and perceived.  Again, in a nation of 140+ million people, you can find people–even well-known ones–who can express all sorts of views.  Moreover, again, it’s a long way from saying that Russians generally think that they’ve been making a huge mistake for the past, oh, several centuries blaming Russia’s relative backwardness on the “Mongol (or Tatar) Yoke.”

Trofimov’s lack of seriousness is best illustrated by his treating seriously one person in particular–Aleksandr Dugin, whom Trofimov describes as “the leading voice of this Eurasianist movement in Russia today.”  OK: I dare you to name the second leading voice.  One would probably be very hard-pressed to do so, which indicates just how marginal this movement is.

Dugin is a fringe figure to whom Putin paid some attention years ago, but his fifteen minutes of fame is long over.  He is now basically an outcast, having been fired from Moscow State University in 2014 for saying “kill them all” when asked what should be done with Ukrainians.  Giving Dugin any credence would be akin to emphasizing the importance to American contemporary thought of some Neoconfederate who once was a professor until he was driven from the academy for his lunatic ravings.

And oh, it’s not like Eurasianism is a new thing.  The current strain is sometimes referred to as “Neo-Eurasianism”, to distinguish it from the earlier version that flourished for a time in the emigre community after the Revolution (of which Nikolai Trubetzkoy was probably the most well-known advocate).  There are differences, of course, but the key commonality is that Eurasianism old and new emphasize Russia’s apartness from the West, and attribute it largely to its unique geographic position.

Having seen Dugin portrayed as some Svengali-like figure to Putin by those who view the Russian president as a bogey man, I have learned that anyone who gives him any importance whatsoever is unlikely to have anything insightful, or even interesting, to say.

The most amusing piece of “evidence” Trofimov presents is “a small theme park reconstruction of Sarai Batu”, “the Horde’s razed 15th century capital.” Whatever!

The most annoying thing about Trofimov’s article is its utter lack of historical perspective.  He acts as if Russian ambivalence and hostility towards the West is a new thing.  As if Russian questioning of its relationship to the West is something that has developed in the second half of the Putin era.  As if it is a novelty for some parts of the Russian intelligentsia and political class to reject the West and insist that Russia carve out a distinct place in the world and develop its distinct–and superior–society.

Hardly.  It is in fact a very old thing, and represents a major theme in Russian history.  Trofimov says that what is happening now is “an attempt to undo the westernizing approach that has dominated the Russian state going back all the way to Czar Peter the Great, three centuries ago.”  In fact, there have been such attempts ever since, well, the time of Peter the Great (e.g., the Old Believers who rejected Peter’s changes to bring the Russian Orthodox Church’s rituals in line with those of the Greek).  The subsequent centuries have seen see-sawing debates between Slavophiles and Westernizers.  Virtually everything that Trofimov cites as indicating some great new reversal of Russia’s progressive arc to the West in fact has echoes in the writings of the Slavophiles in the mid-19th century, and in those of their successors over the years.  They have never gone away.

Indeed, a Russian much admired in the West for his stand against the Soviet Union, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, was essentially a Slavophile who was hardly a lover of the West.  Ironically, one of the criticisms leveled against Solzhenitsyn when he returned from exile in 1994 is that he had nothing new to say about Russia, but was merely recycling old Slavophile thinking:

WHEN Alexander Solzhenitsyn set foot on Moscow soil July 21 after 20 years of forced exile, the influential Russian literary journal, Novy Mir, was already preparing to publish his programmatic tract, “The Russian Question at the End of the 20th Century.”

The lengthy article, which examines Russian history since the 17th century and sums up the writer’s historio-philosophical views, is “as significant as his celebrated 1990 essay ‘How to Rebuild Russia,’ ” Novy Mir editor Sergei Zalygin excitedly told the Rossiiskaya Gazeta.

But what new ideas does Mr. Solzhenitsyn truly bring to his Russian brethren? Surprisingly few. In fact, the man acclaimed as Russia’s greatest living writer presents almost nothing that hasn’t been heard before, either from him or the host of Russian nationalist Slavophiles dating back to the 19th century. Indeed, the 40-page essay is permeated with familiar principles such as “healthy isolationism,” antidemocratism, nationalism, and xenophobia.

Thus, to the extent that there are anti-Western intellectual currents in Russia, and that some in Russia (particularly among the intelligentsia) are advocating Russia turn its back on the West, this represents historical continuity, rather than discontinuity.

And it is particularly important to emphasize that this is now, and has always been, much more of a parlor game for intellectuals than something that has affected Russian government, policy, or statecraft.  Indeed, if anything–now and in the past–the direction of causation has been from international setbacks to intellectual ferment, than it has been from intellectuals’ ideas to Russian policy, whether under tsars, commissars, or presidents.

Trofimov actually acknowledges this, but then throws it aside:

It’s not clear to what extent the Kremlin believes its own propaganda. While resentment over Russia’s diminished stature is a key motivator of Mr. Putin’s behavior, so far Russia’s decision-making has been driven largely by opportunism rather than by a grandiose civilizational shift. “I don’t think Putin is thinking in terms of historical mythologies,” said Mr. Kortunov of the Russian International Affairs Council. “I don’t think he needs an ideological grounding for his policies.”

Actually, it’s quite clear: it doesn’t believe it at all.

In sum, all this chin pulling over “who lost Russia?” or “is Putin a new Stalin/Genghis?” is vapid.  It is an offshoot of the End of History fantasies that accompanied the end of the Cold War, and which posited that the entire world would converge to the liberal Western model, particularly that epitomized by the US.  The competing Clash of Civilizations view made much more sense at the time and has certainly stood the test of events much better.  No one lost Russia because Russia was never the West’s to lose.  It has always been a self-consciously distinct civilization that has constantly struggled to define its relationship to the West.  The current intellectual debates within Russia, and the nature of Russian policy towards the West and the rest of the world, are continuations, not departures.  History rhyming, as it were.

The current obsession with Putin in the West obscures that fundamental fact.  Putin could get killed by a falling house tomorrow and very little would change.  It wouldn’t be like the death of the Wicked Witch of the East leading to the liberation of the Munchkins. Russia would be Russia.  The changes in Russian policy and mindset would be superficial, at best.  Russia would continue its centuries-long attractive-repulsive relationship with the West.  Russia would continue to have strong authoritarian tendencies and an abiding suspicion of its neighbors.

Unfortunately, the Trofimov piece, like so many others, completely lacks this historical context, and leaves one with the impression that what is happening now in Russia is something extraordinary.  It’s not: it’s very ordinary, in the Russian scheme of things.  But by giving the opposite impression, articles like this create false perceptions about current events, and false expectations about how things may change in the future, or how American or European policies could materially impact how things evolve.

There’s an old expression: это Россия.  That’s Russia.  Often said with a shrug, indicating resignation about things that have always been so, and are unlikely to change.  Yaroslav Trofimov hasn’t identified something new.  He’s basically described something quite old: это Россия.  Would more people understand that was the case.

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June 18, 2018

Putin’s Very Useful Idiots

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 2:28 pm
This article is of interest primarily because it represents an inversion of, a retreat from, and a repudiation of, the collusion narrative:

[Former CIA Moscow station Chief Dan Hoffman] points to the infamous 2016 Trump Tower meeting, which he says was a deliberately discoverable Russian operation.

“I think what Vladimir Putin was thinking is the best way to soil our Democratic processes, link the Trump campaign in some conspiratorial way, because it’s Russia, back to the Kremlin.”

Two years on from that meeting, President Donald Trump and his team are still being investigated over allegations of Russian collusion.

. . . .

Mr Hoffman says the Trump Tower meeting has the Russian President’s fingerprints all over it.

“It wasn’t meant to be a clandestine operation, that’s the last place he would ever do that. There’s too much security, too much press, too many people there,” he said.

“What I think Vladimir Putin was doing, was deliberately leaving a trail of breadcrumbs from Trump Tower to the Kremlin.

“I see the full spectrum of Russian intelligence operations and frankly, if the media can find something that Russia did, like the meeting at Trump Tower, then it was meant to be found.”

. . . .

Mr Hoffman believes Mr Putin’s intention was to spark a media frenzy.

“[It was] kind of like a poison pill. Eventually the media will expose them,” he said. [Emphasis added.]

In other words, the politicians and journalists (and special prosecutors?) who have freaked out about the Trump Tower meeting are the ones who fell for Putin’s machinations. It is the politicians and journalists (and special prosecutors?) who have been Putin’s instrument in destabilizing American democracy.  It is they who have been Putin’s pawns, not Trump.  In their unreasoning hatred of Trump, they fell right into a trap that Putin laid.

This was my first reaction to the Trump Tower meeting “bombshell” back in 2017.  It’s not that complicated to figure this out–there would have been no reason for the meeting if Trump had been colluding with Putin all along.  It is the allegations of collusion that have advanced Putin’s interest, not collusion itself–and setting up a meeting like that in June, 2016 was an obvious way of stoking those allegations.  But to see someone from the CIA endorse this rather obvious logic is quite interesting.  It signals that the collusion story is effectively dead, and never should have drawn a breath in the first place.

Von Mises (not Lenin) wrote that communists called western liberals who were “confused and misguided sympathizers” for the USSR “useful idiots.”  (This phrase is typically attributed to Lenin.) Today’s western media and establishment politicians are fully deserving of the epithet.  But they do the 1920s and 1930s-era unwitting dupes for Lenin and Stalin one better: rather than being sympathizers (confused or otherwise) they advance the objectives of someone they claim to despise in every way, and in so doing they damage the very thing they claim they are protecting. Given this, “useful idiot” seems rather generous, doesn’t it?

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