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Belmont Club

When God Goes Fishing

July 25th, 2014 - 5:36 pm

There are some subjects that are almost too large for literature, even for Tolstoy, who tried to answer the question “how should one live a moral life in an ethically imperfect world?” by following the fortunes of characters in his novel War and Peace.

Some characters seek fame, others sensual gratification, a few — like Napoleon — pursue an egotistical sense of power. But altogether too many of the rest are content to gnaw their way through the world like insects, not only incapable of answering Tolstoy’s question but unable to even ask it.

Some even want to meet God, a few glimpse the answer fleetingly and are content. One suspects the present time, like 1812, is a special era, one when more people than usual ask: “Where is God in this amoral world?” The answer may be that “God is away on one of His customary disappearances.” For one of the hallmarks of historical discontinuity is that God vanishes temporarily, during a time when old loyalties, ideologies and beliefs lose their power to bind.


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The Blindfolds of the West

July 24th, 2014 - 6:28 pm

Debate is raging in the expert community over what ISIS is: a state, transnational ideology, or just a way of life? The case for ‘state’ is made by in a Defense News article where a state department official testifies that ISIL (ISIS) is ‘no longer a terrorist group, it’s a full blown army’.

In a telling assessment that provides a glimpse into Obama administration officials’ thinking about the situation in Iraq, [US State Department’s Brett] McGurk told the panel ISIL is “no longer a terrorist group.”

Rather, he said the group has morphed into “a full-blown army.”

This is comforting to the State department.  If ISIS is a state, the same as Canada, then it can be contained in the same way any ordinary country is restrained; by alliances, diplomacy, sanctions.  The all purpose nostrum of diplomacy is to ‘statify’ an adversary. If Hamas, for example, can be turned into a state, then it becomes something familiar and safe, that in time might even have an embassy in Washington.

Others view ISIS as a transnational organization, with a broad global appeal, the heir to al-Qaeda. Briefly, the good news is that young militants are no longer joining al-Qaeda. The bad news is that they are joining ISIS instead.

Islamists now coming of age are more frequently dismissing al-Qaida as a worn down and ineffective organization, the wire service reported on Wednesday. Using social media services known for attracting candidate supporters, the young radicals have increasingly voiced admiration for the newer group that declared a new “Islamic State” last month in recently seized Middle Eastern territory.


Smoke Detector

July 23rd, 2014 - 3:30 pm

The New York Times notices the smoke collecting on the ceiling of the auditorium of the world and wonders whether there might be something to worry about. Peter Baker in an article titled “Crises Cascade and Converge, Testing Obama” notices that things are falling apart. “Not long after a passenger jet exploded in midair and plummeted to the ground in Ukraine last week, escalating a volatile crisis pitting the United States and Europe against Russia, President Obama’s thoughts turned to Syria.”

Baker has a thought. These problems may be linked.

Rarely has a president been confronted with so many seemingly disparate foreign policy crises all at once — in Ukraine, Israel, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere — but making the current upheaval more complicated for Mr. Obama is the seemingly interlocking nature of them all. Developments in one area, like Ukraine, shape his views and choices in a crisis in another area, like the Middle East.

Like Sherlock on the trail, he suggests a common cause links them all. But we are advised not to worry, because the president is hot on the trail of the mystery; trying to identify the factor that connects all these catastrophes. Patience is advised, it is not elementary, my dear Watsons. The world is a complex place which only the the very smartest can understand.

Little wonder then that in recent days the president seems almost to be suffering geopolitical whiplash. “We live in a complex world and at a challenging time,” he said wearily last week after making a statement in which he addressed Ukraine, Gaza, Iran and Afghanistan, all in the space of seven minutes. “And none of these challenges lend themselves to quick or easy solutions.”

So he spends himself unstintingly trying to untie the Gordian Knot. But here’s a quick solution. Cut the Gordian Knot: resign.


Missing the Big Brass Ring

July 22nd, 2014 - 4:41 pm

The Birnbaum-Tibon megapiece in the New Republic on why the Palestinian peace process failed is as interesting for what it does not contain as much as what it does. Written in “fly in the wall” style it describes how negotiators from the Obama administration, Israel and the Palestinians tried — and failed — to start a peace process. The bricks of the edifice were  prisoner swaps and agreements, which when presumably constructed in some fashion would create a stable modus vivendi.

The drama as related by the New Republic could either have been tragedy or a comedy of errors; viewed with a suspension of disbelief it would appear that some actor somehow missed a brick, misconveyed an impression, reneged on a deal or simply flew off on a tangent so that ultimately the deal was missed for the nth time.  But the last source quoted by the New Republic piece was more cynical. The negotiations were merely a play-within-a-play. The tragedy was external to the negotiations. The hero would never get the girl onstage whatever he said because the roof of the theater was about to fall in.

“I see it from a mathematical point of view,” said Avi Dichter, the former chief of Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence agency. “The American effort will always be multiplied by the amount of trust between the two leaders. So if Kerry’s pressure represents the number five, and then Obama’s help brings the American effort to ten, it really doesn’t matter. You’re still multiplying it by zero. The final result will always be zero.”

That’s mostly what the narrative misses, through no fault of its own. While protagonists in the Birnbaum and Tibon story lived in an world of diplomatic continuity, where formulas and proposals persisted on from one decade to the other, the world in which they lived was discontinuous and had changed out of all recognition.



July 21st, 2014 - 5:59 pm

According to a Reuters story Egypt is in the crosshairs of Islamic militants based in Libya. “Chaos in Libya has allowed militants to set up makeshift training camps only a few kilometers from Egypt’s border, according to Egyptian security officials.”

The militants, those officials say, harbor ambitions similar to the al-Qaeda breakaway group that has seized large swathes of Iraq; they want to topple Sisi and create a caliphate in Egypt.

A state security officer in Salloum said Egyptian authorities see a threat in Libya because of instability that stretches from the border to the town of Derna, an Islamist and al Qaeda hotspot a few hundred kilometers away.

The Muslim Brotherhood, now hunted in Egypt, has moved across the border to Libya to join up with the greater Jihad. The power of these militants was recently demonstrated by an attack on an Egyptian border post which killed 21 Egyptian soldiers. “The death toll is the highest in an attack against Egyptian army personnel since 25 police draftees were killed by Islamic militias in the Sinai peninsula last August.”

Libya, according to Rand Paul is a “jihadist wonderland” and every militant wants to go there.  There’s a lot of action. Militias are battling for the control of Tripoli’s airport. “Tank shells, rockets and artillery rained down on the airport and surrounding districts as militias from Misrata fought others from Zintan who are in control of the airport.”  What more could anyone want?


Remember the Alamut

July 20th, 2014 - 4:39 pm

Bill Roggio reports on the disasters overtaking the Iraqi Army. A key base near Tikrit being used by the government to counterattack ISIS was reported overrun with heavy loss to equipment and life.

Two days after repelling an Iraqi military attempt to retake the city of Tikrit, the Islamic State and its allies are said to have overrun Camp Speicher, a large base just outside the city that was being used in the failed effort to retake the provincial capital.

The Islamic State’s Salahaddin Division claimed in an official statement released on Twitter yesterday that it overran Camp Speicher and is in “control of the airport and the base completely.” In the statement, the Islamic State claimed it killed “scores” of Iraqi military personnel, including a brigadier general and a colonel. It also said that a number of pilots were killed in a “martyrdom” or suicide operation on the base before it was overrun. …

The Iraqi military made its first effort to retake Tikrit in late June, when it airlifted commandos into Tikrit University in an effort to gain a toehold north of the city. An advance on the city from the south was defeated. Then, on July 16, the Iraqi military launched Operation Decisive Sword. A large column of military and militia units entered southern Tikrit and thought they liberated the city, but as they celebrated they were ambushed with suicide bombers, IEDs, and conventional attacks. The Iraqi forces then withdrew from the city.

After the Iraqi military withdrew from southern Tikrit on July 16, the Islamic State immediately began its assault on Camp Speicher, as the base was the last remaining holdout of Iraqi forces near the city (Iraqi forces were withdrawn from Tikrit University sometime before the second offensive was launched).

The Daily Beast disputes Camp Speicher’s fall, saying the “Iraqi Army’s Alamo” is still holding out.

A high-ranking officer in Baghdad’s military operations center said only that “Speicher is under the control of the army and the volunteers. ISIS never entered the base.” He declined to discuss further what he said were classified matters relating to the base’s defense.

Without being inside Speicher or peering above the base’s walls, it is impossible to say for sure who controls it. But one clue that ISIS has not taken it over is the lack of documentation on their social media accounts. If ISIS had really killed hundreds of Iraqi soldiers, destroyed army helicopters, and captured a major base, as they claim, the Twitter-obsessed group would likely be tweeting the evidence and basking in the images of carnage. So far, this hasn’t materialized.

The Iraqi Army isn’t the most reliable source of information, so the facts are still in doubt.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi government touts victories in Tirkit on a steady basis while ISIS regularly claims to have slaughtered government forces and taken control of the city. The truth seems closer to a deadlock. The Iraqi Army has the manpower and weaponry to defeat ISIS in open skirmishes but is often fighting from a defense. While the army tries to retake Tikrit, it’s forced to counterattack and hold its ground against an enemy that likes to ambush and then fade away into the sympathetic or cowed elements among the local population.

But if ‘Alamo’ it is, the bastion’s investment or fall was sealed by strategic blunders committed in the past. The Iraqi Army’s woes go deeper than the tactical situation at Speicher. Bill Roggio cites an assessment by a US advisory team, released on July 14 by McClatchy, which paints a grim picture of organizational collapse.


The Element of Predictable Surprise

July 19th, 2014 - 6:15 pm

“Ok, surprise me.”

The enemy always does.  For years Hamas has been working on a secret weapon: tunnels. “Eight Palestinian militants emerged from a tunnel some 300 yards inside Israel on Saturday morning, armed with automatic weapons and wearing Israeli military uniforms, the Israeli military said. The gunmen fired a rocket-propelled grenade at two Israeli military jeeps on patrol, starting a battle that killed two Israeli officers and one of the militants, according to the military. The rest then retreated underground, back to Gaza.”


The IDF has taken 30 tunnels so far, many lined with concrete. While the Israelis were not strategically surprised, they were inevitably taken at tactical unawares. They knew there were tunnels but not where all were and how they would be used.

Israeli officials framed the encounters as successes in thwarting attacks on Israel. But they were also an indication that Hamas could strike even during the invasion through a tunnel network that Israeli officials just revealed they had been studying for a year to plan a way to destroy them.

Despite the belief in NSA omniscience, James Kitfield in Breaking Defense points out that Western intelligence has many institutional blinds spots that terrorists have identified. It is now only a matter of time before they strike, but they seem to be holding off until they can pull off the Big One.

We know that intelligence gaps exist and unfortunately politics has ensured the defensive horses are wearing not only blinkers but blindfolds.


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The Perils of the Sea

July 18th, 2014 - 8:32 pm

One of the biggest causes of warship losses is self-immolation. Remember the Maine? It is now believed that the USS Maine might have blown herself up in what was the equivalent of a coal dust explosion that set off her magazines rather than from a Spanish mine.  The evidence is inconclusive.

There is less controversy in the case of the HMS Vanguard, a dreadnought class battleship that blew up in Scapa Flow in 1917. “Just before midnight on 9 July 1917 at Scapa Flow, Vanguard suffered an explosion, probably caused by an unnoticed stokehold fire heating cordite stored against an adjacent bulkhead in one of the two magazines which served the amidships gun turrets ‘P’ and ‘Q’. She sank almost instantly, killing an estimated 804 men; there were only two survivors.”  During World War 2 the Japanese battleship Mutsu sank the same way.  She survived Midway and the battle of the Eastern Solomons and returned to Japan in 1943 where a magazine explosion sank “the ship with the loss of 1,121 of the 1,474 crew and visitors.”

For most of the Second World War the danger of an exploding warship magazine was simply regarded as an occupational risk. Second World War carriers were floating bombs. They carried large quantities of gasoline, munition of all sorts and had wooden flight decks.

But the search for ways to keep warships from blowing themselves up — principally by switching over to ‘insensitive munitions’, explosives that don’t readily explode when heated or blasted — really gathered momentum after the World War 2 when the US nearly lost two supercarriers to munitions accidents. Perhaps the best known incident was the 1967 fire on the USS Forrestal. The Navy had by then introduced bombs with less sensitive explosive fillers. But as the bombing campaign ramped up the Navy began to run out of modern bombs.  So they used old bombs found in a jungle dump from Subic Bay.


The End of Animal House

July 17th, 2014 - 12:02 pm

The shootdown of a Malaysian Airlines 777 over Ukraine with the loss of all aboard may represent a new and disturbing trend in that conflict. For Ukraine represents the flashpoint between east and west at its most immediate.

The airplane was brought down from 33,000 feet by an anti-air system from parties unknown, yet almost certainly connected with the army of a great state. It follows the announcement of new sanctions by the Obama administration on Russia — and a connection between the two, even if factually nonexistent, will be drawn and hang like a cloud over the international scene.

Obama spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin by phone Thursday morning to discuss the new sanctions the U.S. imposed on Russia Wednesday, and near the end of the call Putin noted the early reports of a downed passenger jet near the Russia-Ukraine border.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said that Moscow requested the call between the two leaders, which provided the opportunity for the Obama “to make clear once again the important principles at stake here” when it comes to Russia’s support of rebel militias in Ukraine.

The destruction of the Malaysian airliner comes at a time when international tensions are very high. From fighting in Gaza, Syria and Iraq to the manifestly failing attempts to negotiate away Iran’s nuclear program to renewed attacks on Kabul’s airport — at no recent time have American efforts to preserve the Long Peace been under such threat.

If Leading from Behind is working, it’s not obvious.



July 16th, 2014 - 5:46 pm

The decision of a court to hold the Dutch state liable for the death of 300 Muslim Bosnians in the Srebrenica massacre marks the first time a UN mission has been blamed for doing nothing.  It threatens to unravel the whole system of UN peacekeeping.

The judgment by the Dutch supreme court is the final decision in a protracted claim brought by relatives of three Muslim men who were expelled by Dutch soldiers from a United Nations compound during the Balkans conflict, then killed by Bosnian Serb forces.

Although the case related only to the murder of three victims, it sets the precedent that countries that provide troops for UN missions can be held responsible for their conduct.

The UN itself was not directly implicated because the court found that it was not even in touch with the Dutch contingent at the time. “The Dutch court ruling held that in the chaos of the Serb takeover of Srebrenica, UN commanders no longer had control of the troops on the ground and “effective control” therefore reverted to Dutch authorities in the Hague.”

Unable to receive the customary orders to do nothing the Dutch were therefore expected to do something and so the blame attached to them. “The Dutch government resigned in 2002 after the National War Documentation Institute blamed the debacle on Dutch authorities and the UN for sending underarmed and underprepared forces into the mission and refusing to answer the commanders’ call for air support.”

Testifying at the trial of Bosnian Serb military and police officers charged with crimes in Srebrenica and Zepa, [Kees Nicolai, former UNPROFOR chief of staff] Nicolai described that ‘close air support’ for the Dutch Battalion deployed in Srebrenica enclave had been postponed several times in June 1995 despite frequent attacks of the Bosnian Serb forces. After the ‘hostage crisis’ in May 1995, he explained, the UN command introduced restrictive guidelines for air support. The guidelines specified that it was better for the ‘blue helmets’ to withdraw if the UN checkpoints came under attack, than to call in NATO air strikes.

The New York Times notes that the court’s decision puts at risk the entire system of UN peacekeeping, a fact used as a legal defense by the Dutch government. “The court dismissed the arguments presented by the Dutch government that holding peacekeepers accountable for events that happened during their mission would deter future United Nations operations and make countries less willing to supply troops.”