Belmont Club

Belmont Club

Vladimir’s Game

October 12th, 2015 - 10:31 pm

Hugo Spaulding, writing in the Institute for the Study of War notes that Vladimir Putin is challenging president Obama across a very broad strategic front.  This is quite a contrast to the media perception that their confrontation is limited largely to Syria. He writes:

Russia’s Syrian campaign is part of larger confrontation with the U.S. and NATO. In addition to expanding the scope of its operations to bolster the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Russia issued an open challenge to NATO through repeated violations of Turkish airspace, the shadowing of U.S. Predator drones in Syria, and the launch of cruise missiles into Syria from the Caspian Sea through Iraqi airspace without warning the U.S. beforehand.

Russia accelerated its eff­orts to court U.S. allies including Jordan and Israel … bolstered its military presence near Afghanistan … announcing the deployment of attack helicopters to neighboring Tajikistan. In a snap ministerial meeting on October 8, NATO agreed to double the size of its Response Force and announced its preparedness to deploy ground forces to defend Turkey … Russia’s escalated support to Syrian regime operations against rebels and Jabhat al Nusra in Syria show that Russia’s main objective in the Middle East is not the anti-ISIS ‑fight, but rather the formation of a Russian-Iranian alignment that will serve its broader aims.

President Obama seems anxious to downplay the Putin challenge both in scope and seriousness. In an interview with Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes the president dismissively attempted to cast things in the narrowest possible compass, treating Russia like an inconsequential nuisance.  When Kroft reminded Obama that Putin was bombing his proxies, Obama countered that he was leading on “climate change”.

Steve Kroft: Well, he’s moved troops into Syria, for one. He’s got people on the ground. Two, the Russians are conducting military operations in the Middle East for the first time since World War II–

President Barack Obama: So that’s–

Steve Kroft: –bombing the people– that we are supporting.

President Barack Obama: So that’s leading, Steve? Let me ask you this question. When I came into office, Ukraine was governed by a corrupt ruler who was a stooge of Mr. Putin. Syria was Russia’s only ally in the region. And today, rather than being able to count on their support and maintain the base they had in Syria, which they’ve had for a long time, Mr. Putin now is devoting his own troops, his own military, just to barely hold together by a thread his sole ally. And in Ukraine–

Steve Kroft: He’s challenging your leadership, Mr. President. He’s challenging your leadership–

President Barack Obama: Well Steve, I got to tell you, if you think that running your economy into the ground and having to send troops in in order to prop up your only ally is leadership, then we’ve got a different definition of leadership. My definition of leadership would be leading on climate change, an international accord that potentially we’ll get in Paris. My definition of leadership is mobilizing the entire world community to make sure that Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon. And with respect to the Middle East, we’ve got a 60-country coalition that isn’t suddenly lining up around Russia’s strategy. To the contrary, they are arguing that, in fact, that strategy will not work.

Obama seemed minimally aware that Ukraine and Syria were linked, even though he was at pains to deemphasize it.  As for the base supporters like Max Fisher at Vox, they  understood the situation as something that could be handled by a snappy comeback.  ”Obama had a pretty sick burn mocking Putin’s ‘leadership’,” Fisher said.  Putin dismissed, problem solved.


Restarting The Engines

October 11th, 2015 - 4:16 am

Niall Ferguson’s  Wall Street Journal article examining “The Real Obama Doctrine” has been widely cited in the media to explain the administration’s foreign policy failure.  But it also contains three points that bear upon future events.

The first is Ferguson’s realizaton that Obama’s publicly articulated strategy was a legend.  It was never operative. “I have spent much of the past seven years trying to work out what Barack Obama’s strategy for the United States truly is. For much of his presidency, as a distinguished general once remarked to me about the commander in chief’s strategy, ‘we had to infer it from speeches.’ … At first, I assumed that the strategy was simply not to be like his predecessor—an approach that was not altogether unreasonable, given the errors of the Bush administration in Iraq and the resulting public disillusionment.”But like a detective peeling back layers in a case the historian soon began to realize Obama’s goal was far more ambitious.

The second discovery Ferguson made was that Obama was not out to merely repudiate Bush, but to deliberately undo Ronald Reagan, indeed dismantle the entire postwar edifice from Harry Truman onward. He had a vision of restoring the world to its paradisal state before Western meddling:“to create the international coalition and atmosphere in which people across sectarian lines are willing to compromise and are willing to work together in order to provide the next generation a fighting chance for a better future.”  Some would regard this approach as risky.  Hence it buried beneath layers of misdirection.

Ferguson describes the moment when the scales dropped from his eyes:

I now see, however, that there is more to it than that.

The president always intended to repudiate more than George W. Bush’s foreign policy. In a 2012 presidential debate with Mitt Romney, Mr. Obama made clear that he was turning away from Ronald Reagan, too. “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back,” he jeered, “because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”

The third point Ferguson makes is that while Obama succeeded in carrying out his real doctrine under the breezy banner of we “don’t do stupid sh–” the results were the opposite of his expectations.  Instead of Paradise Lost it was a case of Hades Found.

It is clear that the president’s strategy is failing disastrously. Since 2010, total fatalities from armed conflict in the world have increased by a factor of close to four, according to data from the International Institute of Strategic Studies. Total fatalities due to terrorism have risen nearly sixfold, based on the University of Maryland’s Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism database. Nearly all this violence is concentrated in a swath of territory stretching from North Africa through the Middle East to Afghanistan and Pakistan. And there is every reason to expect the violence to escalate as the Sunni powers of the region seek to prevent Iran from establishing itself as the post-American hegemon. …

Today the U.S. faces three strategic challenges: the maelstrom in the Muslim world, the machinations of a weak but ruthless Russia, and the ambition of a still-growing China. The president’s responses to all three look woefully inadequate.

Things are now so bad the media are now actually talking about the possibility of accidentally stumbling into World War 3.  Not seriously yet, but for the first time since 1989 it has become plausible.  Fear has made a comeback with the headlines full of stories about the expanding conflict in the Middle, possible civil strife in Turkey, millions of Middle Easterners landing on Europe’s shores, Russian tanks in Eastern Europe and Syra, and a possible collision between China’s fortified islands and the US Navy.


Game Postponed

October 8th, 2015 - 9:33 pm

A society as huge and complex as the United States can run economically only on the basis of acceptance and trust. This has been true for so long it is no longer noticed, like the air. People accept the rules and generally follow them whether or not there is a policeman in attendance. They deposit money and trust it will be credited to their account.  They mail letters and trust they will be delivered. They sleep in their beds and trust the president will protect them. All over the the land people go about their business secure that arrangements will be honored and carried out.

A high-trust society is a low-cost society.

The breakdown of the speakership race following the withdrawal of Boehner’s heir-designate Kevin McCarthy is a sign that this happy state of affairs is eroding. It’s no longer business as usual in Capital City. Who do the Republicans represent?  Maybe not the Republican voters. “Republicans may be forced to solicit Democratic help to break their Speaker stalemate, Rep. Charlie Dent (R) said Thursday.”

The Pennsylvania centrist, who often serves as a mouthpiece for outgoing Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), said there is only a small handful of Republicans who can win 218 GOP votes to fill Boehner’s shoes. The trouble is, none of them wants the job.

“We may need a bipartisan coalition to elect our next Speaker,” Dent told reporters after Thursday’s closed-door GOP meeting. “That’s a very real possibility right now, and I think anybody who’s honest about this knows it. They may not want to talk about it, but they know it.”

This conniption will have serious consequences not just for the GOP but for the capital as a whole. After all, if the Washington Generals fail to show up, the show is over even for the Globetrotters. You can’t sell tickets when the Washington Generals are on strike.  And the WGs are on strike. There’s no prospect they’ll return to the court any time soon. The conservative revolt that the media has repeatedly declared dead has at last become strong enough to paralyze proceedings, though it is not yet powerful enough to initiate them.


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The Combat of Champions

October 8th, 2015 - 3:25 am

Paul Richter and Brian Bennett of the Los Angeles Times argue that the Russian strongman is doing something very peculiar in modern history. He is engaging in single combat with the Leader of the Free World.  Putin is tearing down one man and not as one would expect, the entire system of a rival nation state in order to gain success. They write, “Putin is using his Syria gambit to disparage Obama”.

The outcome of Vladimir Putin’s bold military gamble in Syria is far from clear, but in the short term, one loser seems certain: President Obama.

The Kremlin raised the stakes Wednesday by firing cruise missiles into Syria from warships nearly 1,000 miles away as Obama’s critics at home and abroad said Putin’s escalating attempt to bolster Syrian President Bashar Assad already has made the White House look weak and wavering.

Even the New York Times senses the Russian’s agenda.  ”Is Vladimir Putin Trying to Teach the West a Lesson in Syria?” Ivan Krastev asks.  He can’t figure out the logic behind Russia’s military moves. “But what does this spoiling power actually want? Is Russia in Syria simply for the sport of watching a humiliated President Obama?”

That is because the logic is less military than psychological. Putin is in Syria to humiliate president Obama for sound strategic reasons.  Putin appears to be the darling of the hour. Radio Free Europe reports that Afghanistan’s “First Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum is seeking help from an old ally — Russia.” Iraqi Shi’ite politicians, caught up in the madness of strongman adulation, have called on Putin to bomb Iraq.

Suddenly Obama’s partners for peace are going out of their way to treat him like a nobody in the most insulting way. Reuters reports that “Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Wednesday banned any further negotiations between Iran and the United States”.  This only weeks after receiving $100 billion dollars from the One and Iran won’t even take his call.  To add insult to injury, Gen. John Campbell, commander of US forces in Afghanistan  told the Senate that Tehran is arming the Taliban. Foreign Policy says that Iran has supplied Hezbollah with SA-22 SAMs and Yakhont surface-to-surface precision land attack missiles.  A hundred billion doesn’t buy much gratitude these days.  Iran couldn’t express their contempt more clearly if they took out a full page ad in the Washington Post.


The Wannabee

October 7th, 2015 - 3:24 am

David Ignatius, writing in Real Clear Politics, provides a glimpse into the kind of template the Obama administration regards as a solution.  He describes Washington’s efforts to create in Afghanistan and South Asia a stable division of spoils where power, influence and money are shared to the satisfaction of all.  Then with everyone bought off, peace will return.

The U.S. recognized more than four years ago that the best way out of the Afghanistan conflict would be a diplomatic settlement that involved the Taliban and its sometime sponsors in Pakistan. State Department officials have been conducting secret peace talks, on and off, since 2011. That effort hasn’t borne fruit yet, as the Taliban’s recent offensive in Kunduz shows.

But the pace of negotiations has quickened this year, thanks to an unlikely U.S. diplomatic partnership with China. A senior administration official said Monday that “we’re hopeful that there will be a willingness on the part of the Taliban to resume negotiations,” despite the intense fighting in Kunduz and elsewhere. Beijing’s involvement is a “new dynamic” and shows an instance where “U.S. interests overlap with those of China.”

In the process Ignatius illuminates the central paradox of a foreign policy at once rhetorically idealistic and exceedingly cynical.  In this seeming contradiction is the key to the administration’s philosophy. There are no ordinary people in Obama’s calculus, only players of one sort or another. The fate of Afghanistan is to be Islamabad’s reward for agreeing to one of those “grand bargains” which lie at the end of every Obama rainbow. Ignatius explains how if the Pakistanis help him out they’ll be awarded regional power status.

The White House is also exploring what could be a diplomatic blockbuster: possible new limits and controls on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and delivery systems. Such an accord might eventually open a path toward a Pakistani version of the civil nuclear deal that was done with India in 2005….

Pakistan prizes its nuclear program, so negotiations would be slow and difficult, and it’s not clear that Islamabad would be willing to accept the limitations that would be required. But the issue is being discussed quietly in the run-up to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit to Washington Oct. 22. Any progress would break a stalemate that has existed since the U.S. detected Pakistan’s nuclear program in the mid-1980s, and especially after Pakistan exploded its first weapon in 1998.

Conceptually the administration’s diplomacy is similar to brokering deals among criminal gangs. The key is for the Godfather to figure out who should control what so that a ‘natural order’ can established and all unnecessary internecine violence eliminated. The advantages of this approach must have seemed so self-evident to the president he chided Vladimir Putin on March, 2014 in a speech before the European Union, for not getting with the program.

Russia’s leadership is challenging truths that only a few weeks ago seemed self-evident, that in the 21st century, the borders of Europe cannot be redrawn with force, that international law matters, that people and nations can make their own decisions about their future. …

And that’s why Russia’s violation of international law, its assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, must be met with condemnation, not because we’re trying to keep Russia down, but because the principles that have meant so much to Europe and the world must be lifted up….

Understand as well this is not another Cold War that we’re entering into. After all, unlike the Soviet Union, Russia leads no bloc of nations, no global ideology. … I believe that for both Ukraine and Russia, a stable peace will come through de-escalation, a direct dialogue between Russia and the government of Ukraine and the international community, monitors who can ensure that the rights of all Ukrainians are protected, a process of constitutional reform within Ukraine and free and fair elections this spring.

It was a speech that might have been creditably uttered by the head of the Five Families were it not marred as the Guardian notes in that it was delivered not by Vito Corleone but Mario of the Super Mario Brothers.


What Would JFK Do?

October 4th, 2015 - 5:47 am

“Tell us again daddy about the Missiles of October.”

The year was 2030 and the Internet was a dim memory.  For that matter, so were ATMs, supermarkets and running water.  In that dark and diminished age campfire stories had made a comeback. People especially liked stories about the good old days.  How good it was and all the magical things everyone had. Talking about them almost brought them back.

The family sat round the wood fire amid a small cluster of houses  in Nebraska and daddy, who was formerly a history teacher at a community college, had a particularly good recollection of 2015.  So he told a tale of the crucial events of that year.

“They say that in 2015 president Obama was at a loss over how to the Russian president’s expansion into Syria, which was in a place full of riches and strategic importance to Merica.  The president couldn’t just kick him out, because as you know, Russia had nuclear weapons.”

The children shuddered.  They did not need to be told.  Daddy continued.

“Not knowing what to do and seeking inspiration, Obama took to walking the corridors of the White House, a grand place full of old treasures and things. In one particular spot there was a portrait of an earlier president: John F. Kennedy.  It wasn’t much of a picture.  Just a painting of a man in a gray suit thinking hard on a problem. And strange as it may seem the rumors said the portrait spoke to him!”

“Did the JFK painting really talk to Obama Daddy?”

“It might have been imagination, but then again years before president Kennedy had been in the same fix.  In October of 1962 Kennedy had to figure out a way of pushing Russia back from the island of Cuba without starting a war, and he succeeded.  Whether the picture simply suggested ideas to Obama or actually spoke in words, we’ll never know.  What’s for sure is that a lightbulb went on in Obama’s head.  He rushed back into the situation room and asked his military advisers.  He had one question for them: “how did Kennedy back Khrushchev out of Cuba?”

“Mr. President,” they said, “he imposed a naval blockade.  And if you’re ready to consider military options now, we can show you the plan we’ve worked out for squeezing the Russians out of Syria.”

Now president Obama didn’t really understand the meaning of blockade and retorted: “I don’t want military options.”  So his advisers explained.

“A blockade could be construed as an act of war, legally speaking.”  President Obama frowned at this news. “But it doesn’t look like war and that’s why president Kennedy used the tactic  in Cuba. You can use it and not be shooting.” Obama’s face brightened up at this intelligence.  Seeing the president’s mood had changed, military aides pressed on.

“As you know Mr. President the Russian expeditionary air force in Syria is militarily insignificant compared to ours. It has 32 fixed wing combat aircraft — a token force — and it can hardly sustain more than a handful of sorties per day for any length of time.”  They quoted an estimate which elaborated the point.

While much of the media attention has focused on advanced Russian warplanes like the Sukhoi Su-30SM Flanker-H multirole fighter and Su-34 Fullback, U.S. Air Force officials note that there are only four each of those late-generation jets present in the theatre. Russia’s real combat power in the region comes from its force of two-dozen Su-25 Frogfoot close air support aircraft and Su-24 Fencer bombers.

Another recently retired U.S. Air Force official said, “Four jets might buy you eight to twelve sorties in a twenty-four hour period for a few days, but the pace wouldn’t be sustainable,” the former official said. A typical squadron needs a minimum of six aircraft to sustain operations. “More likely they brought four to launch, plus two reserves—one spare and one in repairs.”

Obama knitted his brows in perplexity. “I don’t see where this line of reasoning is going. Isn’t a blockade a navy thing?  Why should it affect the Russian air force?”

“Well Mr. President,” the advisers continued, “if the Russians are every going to have an expeditionary air force worth a damn, they are going to have to expand and support it heavily. There are rumors that the Russians will bring in 50 more aircraft and maybe a motor rifle regiment to guard the airfield.

“That would bring the total number of personnel and aircraft involved up to about the same size as a United States carrier air wing. A force that size needs ships — and plenty of them — to bring the food, fuel, bombs and spares it would need. Even as it is, they’re straining their shipping already.” The military men dug up another citation from a newspaper account.


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.