Belmont Club

Belmont Club

Trapped in a Little Box

October 3rd, 2015 - 3:23 am

When the administration warned Russian president Putin he was foolishly stumbling into a Syrian quagmire, it spoke from its customary vantage of intellectual superiority.  It has been constantly waving the Russian away from what they describe as an unwise choice the way an only adult in the room might speak to a child. Peter Baker and Neil MacFarquhar of the New York Times describe the president’s latest attempt to dissuade Russia from making a terrible mistake:

“An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire and it won’t work,” Mr. Obama said during a news conference at the White House on Friday, referring to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, a longtime ally of both Russia and Iran. “And they will be there for a while if they don’t take a different course.”

Obama, while acknowledging some setbacks, reaffirmed confidence in his Syria policy saying that he would ”build on that”.  Having reassured himself of the correctness of his fundamentals, the Washington Post reported that the president decided  not to confront Russia directly. Instead the Obama ridiculed Putin for thinking this is “some superpower chessboard contest” and appeared content to wait until Moscow discovered the error of its ways.

We’re not going to make Syria into a proxy war between the United States and Russia. That would be a bad strategy on our part,” Obama said. “This is a battle between Russia, Iran and Assad against the overwhelming majority of the Syrian people. Our battle is with ISIL,” he said, referring to the Islamic State.

President Obama has the habit of offering advice to other leaders,  explaining how they should think. In 2014 he told Iran that an “Iraq in chaos on their borders is probably not in their interests”. Later in 2014 he told Vladimir Putin that a standoff in Ukraine was  not in the interests of either country”. In September of that same year he told Turkey that “it’s certainly not in their interest for all that instability and violence to be occurring so close to their border”.

Surely they see it; and just as surely they will respond as he has foreseen. It must come as a cruel disappointment that so many world leaders disregarded his counsel in 2015, often doing the opposite of what he suggested. Iran is deeply enmeshed in Iraq. Russia is building up forces in the Ukraine.  Turkey is in a renewed fight with the Kurds upon its borders.

So much for their interests.

Nevertheless, Samantha Power kept tweeting helpful advice to Russian target planners who have targeted CIA-trained Syrian rebels. “We call on #Russia to immediately cease attacks on Syrian oppo & civilians & to focus on ISIL “.   Alas, the New York Times article observes, the administration’s well intentioned advice  advice has fallen on deaf ears:

Neither Russia nor Iran showed signs of listening. While Moscow widened its airstrikes to hit Islamic State territory for the first time, Russian troops have unloaded a major long-range artillery system to add more firepower to its deployment in Syria, according to an American official. At the same time, American officials said Iran had sent additional ground troops to bolster Mr. Assad’s government.

Foreign leaders don’t seem to get Obama’s words.  Putin has not recoiled from the proferred shadow of Vietnam.  Foreign leaders continue to act in what Obama would regard as an irrational way. Ted Cruz noted in his recent Senate speech that they had a habit of doing that.  He noted president Obama’s nuclear deal was premised on the idea that Tehran will act as he would.  But when did it do that?

“Now, the Administration claims that the deal will prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Why? Because they promise not to do it. We have learned from Iran they break their promises over and over and over again. And what we do know is that they will have an extra $100 billion to develop nuclear weapons with now — I will say the Administration has laughingly suggested, well, they will use that on infrastructure to rebuild their roads, to rebuild their energy industry. Right now, they’re sending vast sums to Hamas and Hezbollah, funding terrorism across the world, and they have those same infrastructure needs. With another $100 billion, you don’t think they’re going to funnel an awful lot of it to developing nuclear weapons?”

Speeches are the president’s chosen weapon.  However, The Daily Beast notes now that the administration’s word and tweet campaign has failed, it has been left “helpless”.

Putin’s warplanes are targeting the CIA’s rebel friends. And the U.S. doesn’t know yet if there’s any way to respond.

United States officials conceded Thursday that there is little the they could do in Syria to protect CIA-vetted rebels, the very people the American government trained and armed, who are now coming under fire from Russian airstrikes.

The military isn’t willing to intervene on behalf of the rebels, given the potentially disastrous consequences of an escalation with Russian forces, U.S. defense officials and top lawmakers told The Daily Beast. No one wants to accidentally touch off a showdown between superpowers.

The president’s frustration and anger are palpable. It is as if the world were playing a dirty trick on him.  His scholarly estimate of other leaders’ behavior seem all off — and he can’t figure out where his calculations have gone wrong.   The NYT writes, “bristling at criticism of his own Syria policy, he rejected domestic opponents who offer ‘half-baked ideas’ that amount to ‘a bunch of mumbo-jumbo.’”


The Logic of Logistics

October 2nd, 2015 - 6:13 am

One quote all  military historians know is ”amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics.”  Logistics are both the servant and master of military operations.  Its power to compel was nowhere more dramatically illustrated than the German mobilization on the eve of World War 1, when the sheer momentum of logistics made it impossible for even the Kaiser to cancel the clash of arms. Everyone knows the the famous story of how the Kaiser was helpless to overcome his army’s own impetus.

Once the mobilization button was pushed, the whole vast machinery for calling up, equipping, and transporting two million men began turning automatically. Reservists went to their designated depots, were issued uniforms, equipment, and arms, formed into companies and companies into battalions, were joined by cavalry, cyclists, artillery, medical units, cook wagons, blacksmith wagons, even postal wagons, moved according to prepared railway timetables to concentration points near the frontier where they would be formed into divisions, divisions into corps, and corps into armies ready to advance and fight. One army corps alone—out of the total of 40 in the German forces—required 170 railway cars for of officers, 965 for infantry, 2,960 for cavalry, 1,915 for artillery and supply wagons, 6,010 in all, grouped in 140 trains and an equal number again for their supplies. From the moment the order was given, everything was to move at fixed times according to a schedule precise down to the number of train axles that would pass over a given bridge within a given time. …

Now, on the climactic night of August 1, Moltke was in no mood for any more of the Kaiser’s meddling with serious military matters, or with meddling of any kind with the fixed arrangements. To turn around the deployment of a million men from west to east at the very moment of departure would have taken a more iron nerve than Moltke disposed of. He saw a vision of the deployment crumbling apart in confusion, supplies here, soldiers there, ammunition lost in the middle, companies without officers, divisions without staffs, and those 11,000 trains, each exquisitely scheduled to click over specified tracks at specified intervals of ten minutes, tangled in a grotesque ruin of the most perfectly planned military movement in history.

‘Your Majesty,’ Moltke said to him now, ‘it cannot be done. The deployment of millions cannot be improvised. If Your Majesty insists on leading the whole army to the East it will not be an army ready for battle but a disorganised mob of armed men with no arrangements for supply. Those arrangements took a whole year of intricate labour to complete’— and Moltke closed upon that rigid phrase, the basis for every major German mistake, the phrase that launched the invasion of Belgium and the submarine war against the United States, the inevitable phrase when military plans dictate policy – ’and once settled, it cannot be altered.’

The momentum of logistics is equally compelling in withdrawal as on the attack.  The Afghan government is now under mortal threat from and Islamic army.  What can America do? As the Taliban rolls into the Warduj district after taking Kunduz, the fundamental limits to any US counterattack are imposed by the fact the Obama administration has already pulled the supply plug on the forces there.   The iron momentum of logistics is now in play.

Last May the Northern Supply route was shut down. The Stars and Stripes reported at the time: “A logistics route through Russia that carried as much as 40 percent of the supplies for NATO’s coalition at the height of military operations in Afghanistan has finally shut down.”

Using sea, rail and truck transport, the Northern Distribution Network connected Baltic and Caspian Sea ports with Afghanistan through Russia, Central Asia and the Caucuses.

The northern routes were more expensive than bringing supplies through Pakistan, but complicated relations between Washington and Islamabad often led to the shutdown of Pakistan routes for periods of time….

With the U.N. mandate expired and the coalition’s transition to the new training-focused Resolute Support mission, the remaining forces are relying on other supply routes, Lungescu said.

“In light of that, NATO has not sought to extend transit arrangements with Russia … or to negotiate new arrangements for Resolute Support,” she said.

The Pakistani routes have been downsized also. The Indian Express notes that the bribe money which kept the roads open has dried up. “As drawdown progresses in Afghanistan, US draws its Pak purse strings.”


What Do We Do Now?

October 1st, 2015 - 12:48 am

It’s been a landmark fortnight though not in a good way for the Belmont Club.  At least three of the major themes long discussed on this site have shouldered their way to the front pages: the failure of Obama’s war on terror in the catastrophes overwhelming MENA and Afghanistan  was predicted by the Ten Ships; the crisis of Washington as described by Ted Cruz had earlier been sketched out in the pamphlet Storming the Castle.  Perhaps most eerily, a report by a German reporter detailing ISIS’ plan to kill hundreds of millions through nuclear terrorism echoes the Three Conjectures.

The validation of so many sad insights is of little consolation  unless one is like those movie paleontologists so happy to be vindicated in their prediction that dinosaurs still exist that they do not care that they are about to be eaten by one.  One can only hope the readers of this site are not similarly consoled. A history of good guesses does nothing to answer the problem which desperately needs solving: alright we’re in a crisis, but what do we do now?  How do we dig ourselves out of the hole?

Fred Feitz at Fox News makes a brave but conventional attempt to outline a strategy to recover America’s position in the Middle East.  It’s worth reading but suffers from the assumption that the same set of actors in Washington who landed us in trouble will do different things in the future.  That is an assumption which Ted Cruz’s epic speech on the corruption in Washington does its best to refute.

Cruz explains at convincing length that Congress — the Republican Party included — has been bought off.   The whole place is rotten; there is no balm in Gilead nor cavalry to ride to the rescue.  In Cruz’s telling political America stands condemned because it is financially, morally and internationally bankrupt.  If that’s what Obama has done Cruz explains that’s what the Republicans helped him do.

To the question “what do we do now” Cruz’s answer is “don’t wait for Washington”.

The virtues of Cruz’s indictment are also its limitations, because while his speech accurately portrays the oncoming danger, it does so at the cost of convincing the viewer that America had it coming.  Washington in Cruz’s characterization is not the result of bad luck but the accretion of national vices.  In that sense, there is about Cruz’s analysis the flavor of Crime and Punishment.


Trapped in a Nightmare

September 28th, 2015 - 10:46 pm

Brett Stephens in his article, “An Unteachable President” in the Wall Street Journal, makes a serious attempt to construct a rational theory to explain why the president doubles down when he’s losing — and why the public can’t get him to change.

Recall that it wasn’t long ago that Mr. Obama took a sunnier view of world affairs. The tide of war was receding. Al Qaeda was on a path to defeat. ISIS was “a jayvee team” in “Lakers uniforms.” Iraq was an Obama administration success story. Bashar Assad’s days were numbered. The Arab Spring was a rejoinder to, rather than an opportunity for, Islamist violence. The intervention in Libya was vindication for the “lead from behind” approach to intervention. The reset with Russia was a success, a position he maintained as late as September 2013. In Latin America, the “trend lines are good.”

“Overall,” as he told Tom Friedman in August 2014—shortly after ISIS had seized control of Mosul and as Vladimir Putin was muscling his way into eastern Ukraine—“I think there’s still cause for optimism.”

It’s a remarkable record of prediction. One hundred percent wrong. The professor president who loves to talk about teachable moments is himself unteachable. Why is that?

Why does he keep doing that? Stephens thinks it’s because Obama is the kind of man who believes the Cold War was won by “peaceful protest”, convinced that “a  strategy of retreat and accommodation, a bias against intervention, a preference for minimal responses” is enlightened foreign policy, and most of all believes he is unalterably correct — “on the right side of history” —  therefore could never be wrong.

Based on these assumptions naturally the president never learns for how can one improve upon perfection?

Stephens’ theory is marred only by the defect that it can just as well explain madness;  the fixation of doing something repeatedly and failing — yet expecting a different result is the definition of crazy.  Elliot Abrams, listening to Obama’s UN speech, was struck by the oddness of it; the utter separation between the words and actuality.  He said “president Obama’s U.N. speech today is filled with nice lines that unfortunately bear no relationship to his seven years of foreign policy — and in some cases, no relationship to reality.”

Like many of Obama’s speech it appeared to float in Eternity, detached from everything tangible. The speech came only hours after the provincial capital of Kunduz fell to the Taliban in what the New York Times called “a  a demoralizing setback less than a year after the formal end of the NATO combat mission in Afghanistan.”

The Taliban’s largest victory in years came just over a week before the American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John F. Campbell, is expected to return to Washington to testify before Congress about the course of the war and what America’s continued involvement should be. Some 10,000 American troops are in the country, many of them focused on training or advising the Afghan forces, and the White House has not yet decided whether to keep a force of that number here for another year or begin pulling them from the country in the coming months.

It comes only days after Iraq opened its airspace to Russian aircraft; after the Pentagon finally found its missing handful of Syrian fighters trained under Obama’s program who defected, together with their arms and ammunition, to al-Qaeda.  Yet his speech seemed little affected by these. None of these events, which would have created a political scandal for another administration. imparted a sense of urgency in the president, who continued to act as if he had all the time in the world.


The Speaker Flubs His Lines

September 26th, 2015 - 10:05 pm

It was as if John Boehner had a confession to make after all these years of troubled conscience.  His recent resignation had the effect of suggesting the pro wrestling in Congress is fake.  The Washington Republicans, dear fans are supposed to lose  – after making some effort to heighten the drama — to the Capital Democrats.  All those heart stopping moments toward the end lost due to some error or a sudden reversal of fortune — well that was in the script.

Republican Eric Cantor, writing in the New York Times, argues that there was no dishonor to being on the losing team so long as the game drew the crowds in.  It kept the masses entertained, filled the stadium, paid the bills and prevented the Capital Democrats from winning too easily. There was an art to arranging things so that the Capital Democrats could imperceptibly gain a hundred points and let the Washingtons win back ten of them without becoming too obvious.

The payoff for playing by the rules was that it kept things going. In fact the long term statistical predictability of a staged game is so much better than a real one.  In a sense, the system contributed to world and social stability because it allowed orderly progress to be planned without letting things get too dull. Cantor described how this worked by citing an example of the way things should unfold:

During President Obama’s first two years in office, his party controlled the House and for a time had a supermajority in the Senate. Almost entirely on their own they enacted a nearly $1 trillion stimulus bill, Obamacare and Dodd-Frank financial regulations. Not for the first or last time, alternative suggestions from Republicans were dismissed out of hand.

Following that, the American people elected Republicans to the majority in the House. And Mr. Obama’s liberal platform ground to a halt. Spending actually went down. Republicans, led by Speaker Boehner, provided the check and balance voters had demanded.

Now all stability is at risk from people, hicks who not knowing the noble history of the game, actually want to wrassle for real.

But somewhere along the road, a number of voices on the right began demanding that the Republican Congress not only block Mr. Obama’s agenda but enact a reversal of his policies. They took to the airwaves and the Internet and pronounced that congressional Republicans could undo the president’s agenda — with him still in office, mind you — and enact into law a conservative vision for government, without compromise.

Wrassle! Why … There were unwritten rules that kept everything civil. One of them was that Masked Barry was allowed to pound his opponents with a stool but Kid Boehner must limit himself to a few mild body-slams.   Without these rules limiting actual violence there was the danger than a real fight might erupt in the ring  – and someone might get hurt.  Cantor urged the Republicans to remember the bigger picture and stay within bounds.

The response I often hear to these points is: “Well, Republicans at least need to fight.” On this I agree. It is imperative that we fight for what we believe in. But we should fight smartly. I have never heard of a football team that won by throwing only Hail Mary passes, yet that is what is being demanded of Republican leaders today. Victory on the field is more often a result of three yards and a cloud of dust. In politics this means incremental progress, winning hearts and minds before winning the vote — the kind of governance Ronald Reagan perfected.

What’s really at stake is not just the fate of the Washington Republicans but the wrestling federation itself.  Since loyalty to the sport should be greater than loyalty to the team, the end of illusion is to be regretted. In fact Republican Lindsay Graham is so worried that Boehner’s public breakdown may have discredited the Game such that it may prove difficult to attract the fans to the next season matches.


When’s the Noonday Train?

September 24th, 2015 - 7:24 pm

The Washington Post reports the situation in Syria has “forced” president Obama to meet with Vladimir Putin — something Obama was previously loathe to do.  ”President Obama has not met one-on-one with President Vladimir Putin for more than 15 months but agreed Thursday to sit down with the Russian leader in New York on Monday as part of a broader effort to resolve the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine.” The White House strove to give the impression that Putin was asking a favor of Obama.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said that the meeting came at Putin’s request and that at the top of the agenda for Obama will be Ukraine, where, he said, Russian separatist troops remain in “clear violation of the territorial integrity of that sovereign nation.” …

Earnest said that when the two leaders talk about Syria, Obama would encourage Russia to join coalition efforts to combat the Islamic State but warn that “doubling down on the Assad regime is a losing bet.” He added that “a face-to-face sit-down seems appropriate at this juncture.”

Willing or not, Obama’s been dragged to New York to meet a man he would rather not. The Russians and Syrians for their part, are pushing the story that Obama has already pre-surrendered to Putin and is merely looking for a way to put the best face on it. AFP reports: “Russia and the United States have reached a “tacit agreement” on ending Syria’s bloody crisis, a senior adviser to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has said.”

Allegations that it’s all over bar the shouting were half-heartedly denied in the Washington Post story which said, “the administration says it has no interest in Putin’s still-vague proposal for Syria — that the West drop its insistence that Assad must go and that all parties join together to defeat the Islamic State. But administration officials still believe there are grounds for U.S.-Russian cooperation there, if Putin is willing.”  The administration’s line is that the president is doing the manful duty of meeting an unpleasant thug, but nothing has been settled with the lowbrow bruiser.

The Russians are working behind a fait acompli and that is a strong card.  Moreover, Moscow is amping up the pressure by sending a fleet for “drills” into the Eastern Mediterranean.  The message is: we’re here to stay and you’re not man enough to push us out. Sources told Bloomberg that Putin will go it alone if Obama balks. “President Vladimir Putin, determined to strengthen Russia’s only military outpost in the Middle East, is preparing to launch unilateral airstrikes against Islamic State from inside Syria if the U.S. rejects his proposal to join forces, two people familiar with the matter said.”


Who’s On Worst?

September 23rd, 2015 - 10:56 pm

Opinion is divided over what the recent actions of Russia in Ukraine and its recent deployment of forces to Syria signify.  The Kremlin has been in the news lately not only because of its continued “hybrid warfare” in Eastern Europe but also because of its sudden descent upon Syria.

Fred Kaplan thinks Barack Obama is running rings around Vladimir Putin. In a Slate article titled “Desperate in Damascus”, Kaplan writes “the portrayal of Vladimir Putin as a grand chess master, shrewdly rebuilding the Russian empire through strength and wiles, is laughable. … His annexation of Crimea has proved a financial drain. His incursion into eastern Ukraine  … has stalled.” In a word Kaplan believes there’s nothing to worry about. “We are not seeing the resumption of a global East–West Cold War but rather the complication of a regional sectarian civil war.”

Holding the diametrically opposite point of view is Eerik-Niiles Kross, a former director of Estonian intelligence and a veteran of the Coalition Provisional Authority effort to rebuild Iraq’s Ministry of Defense and military intelligence.  He argues that Obama has fallen head first into a “well-constructed trap for the White House and for Europe.” He basically asserts in Politico that Putin helped create ISIS and that moreover the Cold War is now back.  Kross accuses Washington of refusing to face the facts, preferring instead to live in a dream world.  Kross writes:

Russia created the conflict in Ukraine. Their military support for Assad fuels a bloody civil war and a refugee crisis from Syria. Russian efforts have also materially aided in the creation of the Islamic State—the wealthiest, best-armed terrorist network in history. …

Russia—eager to protect its military foothold on the Mediterranean and on the southern flank of NATO—was quick to line up against U.S. policy and supply Assad with arms, military advisers, intelligence and political support. After Syria deployed chemical weapons against rebels and civilians in August 2013, Russia brokered a deal with the U.S. to save Assad from outside military intervention. …

By the time the chemical weapons deal was signed, the nature of the war in Syria had changed. Before the 2014 Sochi Olympics—as Russia … moved military assets into the region for the seizure of Crimea—there were rumors, now confirmed by Russian investigative journalists, that Russia was actively exporting fighters from the North Caucasus to Syria. … Local FSB officers, sometimes with the help of local intermediaries and community leaders, encouraged and aided jihadis to leave Russia for the fighting in the Middle East, in many cases providing documents that allowed them to travel. …

The western front of ISIL was led by Russian-speakers; the eastern commanders included disenfranchised Soviet/Russian-trained Saddam-era Sunni military officers. From the beginning, their efforts were closely coordinated. There were reports from Kurdish forces of Russian operatives at secret outposts in the desert….

Both in Ukraine and in Syria, Russia created chaos to become the center of all U.S. policy options in the Middle East and Europe—or so it would have the U.S. believe. Absent real leadership on U.S. foreign policy, the Kremlin has been successful at manipulating what they view as an indecisive and disinterested U.S. president into caving to their demands.

A less blistering assessment was offered by former CIA Director and CENTCOM Commander David Petraeus.  The disgraced general broke his silence before a Senate committee to deliver what the press called a ‘scathing’ attack on Obama Middle Eastern policy. Petraeus argues that Obama had no options in Syria because he refused to create any.  Worse, the administration has refused to face the wider fact that his policy with Russia has failed and the Cold War threatens to restart — one end of it being in Syria.

The way Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt of the New York Times put it was that “his most severe criticism was that the United States and its partners had done little to build up military leverage against the Assad government sufficient to bring about a political solution to the bloody conflict.” That inaction created a vacuum and left the door open for Russia. “Mr. Petraeus said, “Russia’s recent military escalation in Syria is a further reminder that when the U.S. does not take the initiative, others will fill the vacuum — often in ways that are harmful to our interests.”

The actual transcript of Petraeus’ testimony was more forceful than the anodyne NYT account suggests. “Syria is in truth a geopolitical Chernobyl that is just spewing instability, violence and extremism,” Petraeus said. “Not just in the immediate region, although that’s very obvious with the effect on Iraq and a number of the other countries around Syria, but it’s extending all the way of course into Europe, certainly, and of course the attraction for would-be extremists is all the way felt in places as far away as Australia and the United States.”

The CNN coverage of the testimony emphasized the Russian connection.  In an article titled “Petraeus accuses Putin of trying to re-establish Russian Empire”. Jamie Crawford writes “One of America’s top former generals compared the situation in Syria Tuesday to a historic nuclear disaster, implicitly criticizing the U.S. for allowing it to worsen, and accused Russia’s President of trying to re-establish an empire.”


The Subhumanization of Muslims

September 22nd, 2015 - 7:13 pm

If anyone believed a Muslim could be president, it was probably George W. Bush.  After all, GWB  got the lion’s share of the then-new Muslim voting bloc in the 2000 presidential elections.  ”According to a CAIR poll released after the election, [the final results] were 72 percent for Bush, 8 percent for Gore and 19 percent for Nader.”  The events of September 11, 2001 did not change GWB’s mind.  In a landmark speech before the National Endowment for Democracy in 2003, the year Bush invaded Iraq, he committed himself to the fatal goal of a decades-long effort to bring democracy to the Middle East.

As the 20th century ended, there were around 120 democracies in the world — and I can assure you more are on the way. (Applause.) Ronald Reagan would be pleased, and he would not be surprised.

We’ve witnessed, in little over a generation, the swiftest advance of freedom in the 2,500 year story of democracy. Historians in the future will offer their own explanations for why this happened. Yet we already know some of the reasons they will cite. It is no accident that the rise of so many democracies took place in a time when the world’s most influential nation was itself a democracy. …

Our commitment to democracy is also tested in the Middle East, which is my focus today, and must be a focus of American policy for decades to come. In many nations of the Middle East — countries of great strategic importance — democracy has not yet taken root. And the questions arise: Are the peoples of the Middle East somehow beyond the reach of liberty? Are millions of men and women and children condemned by history or culture to live in despotism? Are they alone never to know freedom, and never even to have a choice in the matter? I, for one, do not believe it. I believe every person has the ability and the right to be free. (Applause.)

Some skeptics of democracy assert that the traditions of Islam are inhospitable to the representative government. This “cultural condescension,” as Ronald Reagan termed it, has a long history. After the Japanese surrender in 1945, a so-called Japan expert asserted that democracy in that former empire would “never work.” Another observer declared the prospects for democracy in post-Hitler Germany are, and I quote, “most uncertain at best” — he made that claim in 1957. Seventy-four years ago, The Sunday London Times declared nine-tenths of the population of India to be “illiterates not caring a fig for politics.” Yet when Indian democracy was imperiled in the 1970s, the Indian people showed their commitment to liberty in a national referendum that saved their form of government.

The Democratic Party and then-candidate Barack Obama decisively convinced the American electorate that Bush had embarked on an impossible mission.  Obama came to power largely by pushing the notion that bringing democracy to the Middle East was a fool’s errand. By 2010 it had been dropped altogether. Francis Fukuyama, in a Wall Street Journal dated 2010 titled, “What Became of the ‘Freedom Agenda’?” argued that the United States was better off working with dictators because if one actually gave Muslims a democratic choice they would choose Islamism more often than not.

It does mean working quietly behind the scenes to push friendly authoritarians towards a genuine broadening of political space in their countries through the repeal of countless exceptional laws, defamation codes, party registration statutes and the like that hinder the emergence of real democratic contestation.

The longstanding risk that true democratization will lead to takeover by radical Islamists remains real; our ideals do not require us to commit suicide in this manner.


Another Strand in the Wire

September 20th, 2015 - 6:10 pm

The Economist‘s data team notes that “Europe will soon have more physical barriers on its national borders than it did during the Cold War”.  More wire, watchtowers and rotating sensors than ever before. Three quarters of the barriers went up after September 11, more than a third of them in this year alone.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, 40 countries around the world have built fences against 64 of their neighbours. The majority have cited security concerns and the prevention of illegal migration as justifications. More than 30 of those decisions were made following 9/11, 15 of them this year. In the Middle East, the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria as well as the associated wave of refugees have prompted most countries to close borders. By the end of this year, when it completes its border-wall with Jordan, Israel will have surrounded itself entirely. In Asia, too, walls and fences have proliferated, generally designed to prevent illicit movement of people and goods rather than to seal disputed borders, though Kashmir’s line of control at India and Pakistan’s disputed northern boundary remains a highly-militarised example.

This is not the One World Without Borders that the 21st century promised.  Somehow things went wrong, yet the walls are only likely to multiply. Yemen is tipped to generate the next migrant flood toward Europe. The country has imploded, leaving multitudes desperate for a way out. The wealthiest are considering booking passage to on cattle boats to Djibouti, where they can expect to wait, and wait … and wait.

Or maybe the next country to totally dissolve will be Palestine. The Jerusalem Post believes the Palestinian Authority is about to collapse. When it does, all semblance of organized fighting will melt into total madness. “After the Kalashnikov era was put down and defeated during the second intifada and Operation Defensive Shield, the Palestinians are going back to their roots – fireworks, Molotov cocktails, and stones. It’s a return to the stone age.”

It’s not quite accurate to say the “stone age”. Egypt’s plan to flood the underground tunnels through which the Gazans important unregulated food, people and weapons is more in keeping with the Age of the Pharaoah than the neolithic period.

Underground, an entire network of smuggling tunnels was fully operational. As it had been for years, allegedly with Egyptian border guards looking the other way. Hamas earned millions of dollars in tax revenues from these smuggling operations.

But aside from seemingly harmless goods, the tunnels were also used as passages for weapons and fighters. Hamas denied such “transits”…but with the changing political tides in Egypt, the denials meant nothing. And such passages became an even bigger concern than they might have previously been.

So the Egyptians tried to build a wall, and also destroyed built-up areas to create a buffer zone. The Gazans only dug deeper, and farther.

People here say there are so many tunnels – some going as deep as 30m – that these have likely already destabilised the ground. But many feel they were left little other choice than to dig a way out.

This time Egypt is going to dam up the land and let the water seep down into the burrows. The Associated Press says “Gaza’s Hamas rulers are calling on Egypt to halt a project aimed at destroying the last remaining smuggling tunnels along the border. The project is being billed as an Egyptian military-operated fish farm that would effectively fill the border area with water.” There were even rumors that “fish” was a euphemism  for crocodiles to serve as further deterrent from tunneling.


The Bear Awakes

September 19th, 2015 - 6:26 pm

The United Nations says there are now more refugees than at any time in recorded history. They are at levels greater than World War 2.  This reflects growing warfare in the world. “In the past five years, at least 15 conflicts have erupted or reignited: eight in Africa (Côte d’Ivoire, Central African Republic, Libya, Mali, northeastern Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and this year in Burundi); three in the Middle East (Syria, Iraq, and Yemen); one in Europe (Ukraine) and three in Asia (Kyrgyzstan, and in several areas of Myanmar and Pakistan).

What’ worrisome is that the list is growing longer. Things are not getting better but worse. The 15 new wars are giving rise to instability on their margins and are likely to multiply. Now refugees are beating at the doors of Western Europe, which was heretofore directly untouched. But perhaps the most dangerous recent development are increasing tensions with Russia.  To paraphrase president Obama’s jibe at Mitt Romney, which is ironically recoiling on himself, not only are the 80s asking for their foreign policy back, it looks like the 50s are chiming in too.

Julia Ioffe in Foreign Policy says that for the first time since the end of the Cold War, the Pentagon is preparing for war with Russia: “Exclusive: The Pentagon Is Preparing New War Plans for a Baltic Battle Against Russia.  But the really troubling thing is that in the war games being played, the United States keeps losing.”

For the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. Department of Defense is reviewing and updating its contingency plans for armed conflict with Russia. …

“Everyone’s judgment at the time was that Russia is pursuing objectives aligned with ours,” says David Ochmanek, who, as deputy assistant secretary of defense for force development, ran that office at the time. “Russia’s future looked to be increasingly integrated with the West.” Smith, who worked on European and NATO policy at the Pentagon at the time, told me, “If you asked the military five years ago, ‘Give us a flavor of what you’re thinking about,’ they would’ve said, ‘Terrorism, terrorism, terrorism — and China.’” …

Then came the Obama administration’s reset of relations with Russia, and with it increased cooperation with Moscow on everything from space flights to nuclear disarmament. … It was there that, in February 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin caught Ochmanek and pretty much every Western official off guard by sending little green men into Crimea and eastern Ukraine. “We didn’t plan for it because we didn’t think Russia would change the borders in Europe,” he says. Crimea, he says, was a “surprise.” …

“We just don’t have those forces in Europe,” Ochmanek explains. Then there’s the fact that the Russians have the world’s best surface-to-air missiles and are not afraid to use heavy artillery.

After eight hours of gaming out various scenarios, the blue team went home depressed. “The conclusion,” Ochmanek says, “was that we are unable to defend the Baltics.”

The Bear is making a comeback in the Middle East too. As Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt of the New York Times explain, the Obama administration may also have trouble defending Coalition air assets over Syria. ” Russia’s military buildup in Syria now includes surface-to-air missiles as well as combat aircraft with air-to-air capability, deployments that raise “serious questions” about Moscow’s role in the region, Secretary of State John Kerry said Saturday.”  Russian air defenses mean that the drones, upon which Obama depends, have suddenly become vulnerable.