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The Inexplicable Emotion

September 20th, 2014 - 11:47 pm

Glenn Greenwald tries to solve a mystery. Why does the Muslim world hate Obama? Greenwald gleefully rips into Andrew Sullivan’s prediction that Obama’s election would make America a hit in the Islamic world.

Obama’s most devoted supporters have long hailed his supposedly unique ability to improve America’s standing in that part of the world. In his first of what would be many paeans to Obama, Andrew Sullivan wrote back in 2007 that among Obama’s countless assets, “first and foremost [is] his face”, which would provide “the most effective potential re-branding of the United States since Reagan”. Sullivan specifically imagined a “young Pakistani Muslim” seeing Obama as “the new face of America”; instantly, proclaimed Sullivan, “America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm”. Obama would be “the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology” because it “proves them wrong about what America is in ways no words can”. Sullivan made clear why this matters so much: “such a re-branding is not trivial – it’s central to an effective war strategy.”

None of that has happened. In fact, the opposite has taken place: although it seemed impossible to achieve, Obama has presided over an America that, in many respects, is now even more unpopular in the Muslim world than it was under George Bush and Dick Cheney.

He cites a poll finding that 92% of Pakistanis (Sullivan’s example) “disapprove of US leadership”.  So what went wrong? Greenwald says this reversal of fortune can be easily explained. “America is a rogue nation”, Greenwald concludes and the hatred for Obama is the natural result his policy of  launching drone attacks in so many countries.


Shape Shifter

September 19th, 2014 - 3:44 pm

J. Christian Adams discussion of the Obama political machine’s CATALIST database provides a peek into “Big Data” as applied to politics. Mr. Adams gives an example of how CATALIST, which collects, collates and analyzes data on a vast scale can be used as a political marketing tool.  He tells the story of voters who should have been “safe” Republican voters being lured away by this new tool.

During the 2012 election, a producer for a conservative news network received a knock at his door in a key swing state. Two neighbors were standing on his stoop campaigning for Obama. They weren’t there to talk to him — they were there to talk to his wife. They knew that she was employed in a profession which the Obama campaign had decided to microtarget: folks who deliver services to special needs children. The two neighbors were already armed with this personalized information. The Obama campaign didn’t just send a direct mail piece to the target or make a telephone call. Instead, the campaign matched a microtargeted demographic (special needs service providers) with a highly motivated Obama volunteer in close neighborly proximity to the target. Then they armed the neighbor/volunteer with data to visit the target.

Obama’s canvassers “know” you — knew the voters above — perhaps better than you know yourself.  Big Data can do this. From that point you are dumped into the classic marketing funnel. You’re a lead and they close the voting sale.



Worf, Prepare The Docking Clamps

September 19th, 2014 - 1:38 am

Scotland has voted to stay in the UK.  Although the referendum was attended by much apprehension and suspense  elsewhere, most Americans were unconcerned,  since they already knew from Worf and Captain Picard that the “British Tar” is still sung in the far future.

Neil Irwin of the New York Times saw in the referendum  a “crisis of the elites”.  In this narrative the center is having difficulty holding because the constituent parts of nations can’t agree — principally about money.

It is a crisis of the elites. Scotland’s push for independence is driven by a conviction — one not ungrounded in reality — that the British ruling class has blundered through the last couple of decades. …

The rise of Catalan would-be secessionists in Spain, the rise of parties of the far right in European countries as diverse as Greece and Sweden, and the Tea Party in the United States are all rooted in a sense that, having been granted vast control over the levers of power, the political elite across the advanced world have made a mess of things.

The details of Scotland’s grievances are almost the diametrical opposite of those of, say, the Tea Party or Swedish right-wingers. They want more social welfare spending rather than less, and have a strongly pro-green, antinuclear environmental streak. (Scotland’s threatened secession is less the equivalent of Texas pulling out of the United States, in that sense, than of Massachusetts or Oregon doing the same.)


Saving Private Obama

September 17th, 2014 - 10:11 pm

“President Barack Obama today decisively silenced speculation by America’s generals that US ground troops could return to Iraq in a rare example of the White House publicly overruling the military.” Raf Sanchez of the Telegraph adds,

Mr Obama was forced to repeat his pledge of “no boots on the ground” after General Martin Dempsey told a Senate hearing there may be situations where Iraqi forces need American advisers during combat.

The suggestion angered and alarmed Mr Obama’s liberal supporters and prompted the White House to hastily rule out the possibility of Americans on the front line.

Of course the Enemy may have other ideas and unlike the military, are under no obligation to fulfill Obama’s wishes. ISIS insolence may cause the president to revisit his command decision before the end. But it puts the armed forces in an age old bind. What should they do when ordered to act against their better judgment?  For most of recorded military history subordinates have struggled with this exact situation; serving under commanders whom they were bound to obey yet sworn to serve.

There is a very subtle difference between the two and it is an able commander indeed who can do both.  The well-known case of the First Marine Division at the Chosin reservoir is a textbook example of how to make your commander look good in spite of himself. General Oliver P. Smith of the Marines had been ordered by Douglas MacArthur to advance to Yalu River under the assurances that no significant enemy forces lay before them. General Smith was certain from his reconnaissance reports that the exact opposite was true.  Hundreds of thousands of battle-hardened Chinese infantrymen were in fact waiting in ambush for the division, whatever MacArthur believed.  How could he save his command without being insubordinate?

While obeying the letter of MacArthur’s instructions the wily Oliver Smith decided to create options against the day when he would be proven right.  He did two things. First, he kept his regiments close together for mutual support. Second, he established a set of strongpoints to his rear, including a critical airfield, along which he could fall back if things went bad.


The W Word

September 16th, 2014 - 3:35 pm

It is well known that, when faced with a legal prohibition the first instinct of lawyers is often to seek a loophole around it. For example, the strictures of Obamacare inadvertently gave birth to classes of evaders known as the “29ers” and their close cousins, the “49ers”.

The Wall Street Journal last week had an editorial about the strategic reactions of businesses to Obamacare. One strategy is the “49er” strategy, keeping the number of full time employees under 50 to avoid penalties. The other is the “29er” strategy, reducing a worker’s hours below 30, the threshold for full-time employment. … The employer mandate basically says (1) if an organization has 50 or more full time or full time equivalent employees, (2) then it must offer government approved insurance to its full time employees.

To be full time, a worker must average 30 or more hours per week.

The 29ers and 49ers become ‘invisible’ to the law and therefore escape its clutch. This works in international affairs also. Readers may also have noticed the extraordinary lengths to which the president has gone in order to avoid calling his planned actions in Syria/Iraq ‘war’. The Wall Street Journal describes his remarkable zig-zags:

The President tries to avoid the ‘W’ word as he heads back to Iraq. … So counterterrorism isn’t war, even if it already involves more than 1,000 U.S. military personnel inside Iraq.

So long as he can avoid the word “war”, his actions will be invisible to Congress and still better, invisible to the more gullible members of the public. No war, no criticism. The same “loophole” mentality that serves employers with  29ers will serve him. Since War is so legally complicated, any lawyer must be thinking, why not just fight without calling it that?

It’s such a good idea that even Russia is doing it. NATO Chief Warns Moscow: No More Stealth Invasions. Eli Lake reports:

On Monday, NATO Commander Gen. Philip Breedlove had a not-so-subtle message for Russia: it will consider stealth and unofficial invasions to be a trigger for war.

Europe knows these stealth invasions all too well. Russia first sent teams of special operations forces wearing uniforms without insignia in February into Crimea and then later into eastern Ukraine to work with Russian minorities inside the country to begin an insurrection. Ukraine’s military has been fighting these “little green men” ever since. But until recently, Russia has not even acknowledged sending anyone into the country.



September 15th, 2014 - 3:21 pm

The signs of the times as read by the Roger Cohen of New York Times at least in his piece The Great Unraveling throw shadows upon a doubtful scene.  He surveys our age and writes, “it was a time of beheadings. … a time of aggression. … a time of breakup. … a time of weakness…. a time of hatred. … a time of fever. … a time of disorientation.”  And yet they had come to that pass sleep-walking, unmindful “until it was too late and people could see the Great Unraveling for what it was and what it had wrought.”

It was a time of catastrophe because it was equally a time of folly. For it was a time when people got Nobel Prizes in advance of achievement; when people reviled their heritage the better to free themselves of the past as well as the future. It was time when they cast away the victory of the Cold War and the result of the Second in the vague belief they could remake the world retrospectively.  It was a time when civilization apologized for its existence to the barbarians, because the only criterion they recognized for civility was guilt. It was a time when national borders were abolished by the men sworn to defend them; when students were taught it was shameful for a father to wear the uniform of his country to his daughter’s school; when people were told it insensitive — perhaps even criminal–  to display the American flag.  It was the hour when Teach For America determined that math was the “domain of old, white men” and was determined to teach only  ”critically conscious mathematics” whose subjects were “Sweatshop Accounting,” “Racism and Stop and Frisk,” “When Equal Isn’t Fair,” “The Square Root of a Fair Share” and “Home Buying While Brown or Black.”

Oh yes it was a time.

A moment when homomorphism became a bigoted word and the Niggard of the Narcissus became an racist book. An occasion when L’Hôpital’s rule might be confused for a provision in Obamacare, a Strange Attractor become an LGBT term; where the Witch of Agnesi runs a spa in Beverley Hills;  tensors something kids had out and syntactic sugar a substance strictly banned in the Michelle Obama school lunch program.  It was a time when even Hilbert’s Hotel had become but a place of sordid assignation. It was a time. A time of ignorance with only the memory of something left behind left to give unease.

How did it come to this?


The Mystery at Idlib

September 14th, 2014 - 8:26 pm

The sheer ruthlessness and ferocity of Islamic-style warfare was underscored by the decimation of ISIS’ main rival by persons unknown. “Nearly fifty senior commanders of a major coalition of Islamic ‘moderates’ opposed to ISIS in Syria have been killed by an explosion at their secret command bunker as they met to discuss strategy against the the Islamic State,” writes Breitbart.

The group, the Ahrar al-Sham, was also opposed to the Assad regime as the New York Times reminds us. “An explosion tore through a secret meeting of one of Syria’s strongest and most enduring rebel groups on Tuesday, killing a dozen of its top leaders, including its head, and striking another blow against the forces seeking to topple President Bashar al-Assad.”

The blast hit a basement where the leaders of the group, Ahrar al-Sham, had collected to plot strategy, according to antigovernment activists. It remained unclear who had carried out the attack, which reportedly killed dozens of people and occurred in Idlib Province in Syria’s north.

The explosion added to the troubles facing Syria’s rebels, who have lost ground in the country’s civil war in recent months to Mr. Assad’s military while also being overshadowed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the jihadist group that has seized territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border.

Ahrar al-Sham were the in-betweeners, close enough to al-Qaeda to give Westerners pause when supporting them, but with substantial links to the “moderate rebels” as well. The Carnegie Foundation has a long description of the group’s history.

Ahrar al-Sham was one of the first armed movements to emerge in Syria, and it has long appeared to be one of the best organized. Its foundations were laid in Idlib and Hama in May-June 2011 by former Islamist political prisoners and Iraq war veterans held in the Sednaya Prison north of Damascus, after their release from jail in early 2011. These men espoused a stark Salafi ideology calling for a Sunni theocracy in Syria. Funding was quickly secured from foreign sympathizers such as Hajjaj al-Ajami and other Gulf clerics, many of whom were linked to the Salafi Umma Party in Kuwait.

Ahrar al-Sham never made any pretense of belonging to the so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA), an umbrella term for rebels backed by some Western and Gulf countries. But while it was in some ways close to the al-Qaeda movement, and some leaders had worked with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, Ahrar al-Sham was not quite a transnational jihadi group either. For one thing, it consistently stated that its battle was limited to Syria and avoided the aggressive minority-baiting common among the more radical jihadis. Ahrar al-Sham also sought to ally pragmatically with all groups fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government—certainly including al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front, but also Western-backed FSA factions. Emerging as a central pillar within the wider Syrian Islamist landscape, Ahrar al-Sham helped engineer a large rebel coalition called the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF) in December 2012 and then grew by absorbing most of its smaller member groups. A year later, the enlarged Ahrar al-Sham movement co-created a successor to the SIF, the still-existing Islamic Front.

It was, in short, the missing link between radical Salafi-jihadism and the type of mainstream and Syrian nationalism-infused Islamists that Western and Gulf state powers preferred to work with—a powerful “swing voter” in the struggle over the ideological direction of Syria’s insurgency.

Now that its entire leadership has been blown to glory, Bill Roggio at Long War Journal says that Ahrar al-Sham’s new boss previously led a Free Syrian Army unit, emphasizing the revolving-door nature of the factions. The attack on Ahrar al-Sham provides a glimpse into the world of sub-national warfare. It’s a world where, as Bill Roggio notes, “even US-vetted Syrian rebel groups such as Harakat Hazm fight alongside the Al Nusrah Front.”


Myron Vs Atilla

September 13th, 2014 - 3:32 pm

There is an unfortunate tendency to regard organizations like ISIS, Hamas or Hezbollah as a rag-tag agglomeration of mindless fanatics.  However, as the Marine Corps Association’s recollection of the Second Fallujah attests, Jihadi outfits are anything but hopelessly incompetent. After all, they fight only the best: the USMC, the IDF, the Special Forces.  It is inevitable that they should learn.  And the Marines and IDF, etc stay ahead of them. The degree of skill, deception and tactical skill which went into winning Second Fallujah is amazing.

First of all the enemy had learned from First Fallujah.  After being initially devastated by Marine Corps snipers in initial encounters, the enemy adapted  by becoming completely invisible from overwatch. They linked each house in the dense city to the adjacent via a network of tunnels, trenches and holes-in-the-wall. The Marines recollected, “overall, the enemy has adapted their tactics and techniques in order to maximize their strongpoints and hit Marines when they are the most vulnerable. They have learned from 2/1′s attack last April. This is common sense, but it must be said in order that Marines realize that the enemy they are fighting is somewhat intelligent. In MOUT it only takes a miniscule amount of intelligence in order to create massive numbers of casualties.”

The Israeli Defense Forces had faced the same problem of a learning enemy earlier.  In response they had adopted a strategy termed “walking through walls” in their Nablus campaign.

At Nablus 2002, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers used none of the streets, roads, alleys or courtyards that constitute the city, and none of the external doors, internal stairwells and windows that constitute the order of buildings, but rather moved horizontally through walls, and vertically through holes blasted in ceilings and floors. This form of movement, described by the military as ‘infestation’, sought to redefine inside as outside, and domestic interiors as thoroughfares.

The three-dimensional progression through walls, ceilings and floors across the urban mass reinterpreted, short-circuited and recomposed both architectural and urban rules of combat. The IDF’s strategy of ‘walking through-walls’ involved a conception of the city as not just the site, but the very medium of warfare – a flexible, almost liquid medium that is forever contingent and in flux.  Innovation provided new tactics and success in this urban fight.

The recently concluded battle for Gaza is the latest iteration of this deadly evolution. Hamas knows all about swarming, tunnel warfare, and deception. Anyone who thinks that Western victories are won effortlessly — and can therefore be casually thrown away by politicians for polling points — should think again. Very few national military organizations can fight the best Jihadi units on anything like equal terms, as the Iraqi or Nigerian armies have discovered to their cost. The soldiers of the Jihad are as capable of learning as anyone and they have had the best teachers.

So why has the West, till now, kept winning? The answer is to be found in what can be called the “productive flank”.  The West has won in the past because it gave people ordinary things to do.


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The Prince and the Vizier

September 12th, 2014 - 6:43 pm

The story goes that there was once a young Prince who, being inexperienced, was taken to the cleaners during a negotiation with his wily Vizier. “The prince set a contest and as a reward, decided to give the winner whatever he wishes, boasting of his wealth, being under the illusion that his wealth is virtually endless. The Vizier won, and asked the prince for the prize: a single grain of wheat and a chessboard.”

What?! Just a grain of wheat! Are you insulting my wealth?” yelled the prince.

“No! Your majesty!” The Vizier explained. “You have to promise to double that grain of wheat until the chessboard is full, so on the first day you give me one grain of wheat on the first square of the chessboard, on the second day you double it on the second square (giving me two grains), on the third, you double that on the third square (giving me four grains), and so on, until the sixty fourth square on the chessboard.”

That progression turned out to be more than all the wheat in the Islamic world. It was certainly more than the Prince had in his kingdom. The Wheat and Chessboard problem is an object example of the dangers of underestimating the power of exponents. That property was invoked by Jonas Schmidt-Chanasit of the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine in Hamburg who warned Deutsche Welle that Liberia and Sierra Leone are now lost to Ebola.

“The right time to get this epidemic under control in these countries has been missed,” he said. That time was May and June. “Now it will be much more difficult.”

Schmidt-Chanasit expects the virus will “become endemic” in this part of the world, if no massive assistence arrives.

With other words: It could more or less infect everybody and many people could die.

The only thing that can be done now, he dolefully said, is to prevent the virus from spreading to countries like Senegal and Nigeria. The compartment is flooded. Dog the watertight door if you want to save the ship.  Is he right? One way to visulize Ebola’s spread is via a graph from Wikipedia.


Here Have a Drink

September 11th, 2014 - 3:50 pm

The punditry struggled to find something enlightening to say about president Obama’s strategy to degrade … defeat … inconvenience … manage ISIS — whatever you want to call it — because there was almost nothing to hold on to. It remains a kind of mystery object, like the 2001 monolith, a presence sitting in the room. CNN says it’s not war. “Kerry: U.S. not at war with ISIS”.

“What we are doing is engaging in a very significant counterterrorism operation,” Kerry told CNN’s Elise Labott in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. “It’s going to go on for some period of time. If somebody wants to think about it as being a war with ISIL, they can do so, but the fact is it’s a major counterterrorism operation that will have many different moving parts.”

David Corn at Mother Jones says it’s “nuanced war”. Corn writes, “but whatever he calls it, the president is attempting a difficult feat: waging a nuanced war.”

It is described as having four parts: airstrikes, increased support to allied forces on the ground, counterterrorism and humanitarian assistance — proxy war in other words, as I anticipated. The proxies haven’t signed up yet. Turkey has not yet agreed to provide bases:

Agence France Presse ANKARA: Turkey will refuse to allow a US-led coalition to attack jihadists in neighbouring Iraq and Syria from its air bases, nor will it take part in combat operations against militants, a government official told AFP Thursday.

“Turkey will not be involved in any armed operation but will entirely concentrate on humanitarian operations,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

Germany will provide support to the Kurds (strategy item number 2) but no air strikes. “Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said on Thursday Germany will not take part in US-led air strikes against Islamic extremists Isis in Syria, following US President Barack Obama’s announcement that the air campaign will be extended.” The Brits are not providing airpower either.

“We are neither being asked to do that, nor will we do it,” Steinmeier told journalists in Berlin on Thursday after meeting with his British counterpart Philip Hammond.

Military action had to be embedded in a “political strategy” to counter Isis, Steinmeier said.

Germany’s pledge to deliver weapons to Kurdish forces in northern Iraq was “not small,” he added. “That’s the right amount of responsibility for us to bear.”

Hammond also ruled out British strikes on Isis positions inside Syria.

The heavy lifting will be done by Saudi Arabia. The Jerusalem Post reported yesterday: “WASHINGTON — Saudi Arabia will host a train-and-equip program for moderate Syrian fighters to combat Islamic State, Riyadh has promised in consultations with the White House. The Saudi kingdom will also fund the training, and will consider contributing military aid to the broad, US-led coalition against the Islamist group.”

And so it proved. The New York Times covered John Kerry’s arrival in Saudi Arabia to drum up Arab support. “Arab Nations Vow Help to Fight ISIS ‘as Appropriate’”.

None of the Arab participants said precisely what they would do, and it remained unclear whether any would join the United States in mounting the airstrikes.

Turkey also took part in the meetings here, but it did not sign the communiqué. A senior State Department official sought to minimize the significance of that development, saying the United States would continue to consult with Turkish officials on how to respond to the threat posed by ISIS, which has captured 49 Turkish diplomats in Iraq and held them hostage.

“We understand the challenging situation Turkey is in given their detained diplomats, and they will make the decision on what role they can play moving forward,” the official said, requesting not to be identified in accordance with the department’s rules for briefing reporters.