Belmont Club

Belmont Club

Reinforcing Failure

August 3rd, 2015 - 2:03 am

Pop quiz.  Suppose a whole country decides to live off an imaginary inexhaustible stash promised by its president. One day it runs out of other people’s money and begins to starve. Hospitals start to close. Even the beer runs out. What do you do? What do you do?

According to the International Crisis Group that is the problem the world faces in Venezuela. “Some economists predict a sudden collapse in food consumption and widespread hunger, and public health specialists already say that some surveys are showing chronic malnutrition.”  If the Colossus of the North doesn’t save it, then all hell with break loose.  Can’t let that happen can you?

Aside from purely humanitarian concerns, Venezuela’s neighbours and the wider international community have pragmatic reasons for acting. If a solid institutional and social welfare framework can be restored through a negotiated settlement, and economic measures taken to deal with inflation and scarcity, a humanitarian crisis can be averted. If not, the collapse of the health and welfare infrastructure is likely to make political conflict harder to manage and could lead to a further erosion of democracy and an increasing likelihood of violence.

This in turn would have an impact beyond Venezuela’s borders. Potential risks include large-scale migration, the spread of disease and a wider foothold for organised crime. Without a change of economic policy, the country is heading for a chaotic foreign debt default, probably in 2016. An unstable Venezuela unable to meet its international commitments could destabilise other countries in the region, particularly Caribbean nations that have come to rely on subsidised energy from Caracas. It would also have a direct impact in Colombia, along a border already under multiple threats.

Venezuela should have been rich what with being the “12th largest oil producer in the world … and a beneficiary of the most sustained oil price boom in history”.  Instead it is flat broke. It’s currency, the Bolivar is worth 1% of its official rate on the black market and 1/1000th of what it was before Hugo Chavez assumed power.

The country may be on the verge of hyperinflation. Most economists reckon that the inflation rate is already 120% a year (the central bank stopped publishing price data, so no one is sure). Some expect it to reach 200% by the end of 2015.

The Bolivar has essentially stopped working as legal tender and now everything is doled out by the state in an effort to make things “affordable”. “The government uses a labyrinthine system of price and exchange controls to shield Venezuelans from soaring prices. But these make matters worse. Price ceilings have devastated local production; factories are operating at half-capacity and more than two-thirds of food is imported. Affordable goods are in short supply.”

The result has been food riots. Desperate gangs of looters are roaming the streets, forcing the remaining businesses to shut down. “One person was killed and dozens were detained following looting of supermarkets in Venezuela’s southeastern city of Ciudad Guayana on Friday morning, according to Venezuelan authorities. Shoppers seeking scarce consumer staples including milk, rice and flour broke into a supermarket warehouse on Friday morning, leading businesses in the area to shut their doors.”

This has prompted the government to seize the remaining food stocks in the country and parcel out the contents to the population. What else is it going to do?  It has already printed all the money it can crank out so it is essentially looting whatever is left. CNBC says “Venezuelan troops occupied a Caracas warehouse complex used by local food giant Empresas Polar and Nestle to distribute food and beverages …. Workers said dozens of national guard and police took over the building on Wednesday evening. National Guard troops remained within the complex.”

Asked to explain the situation, the Venzuelan government has pointed the finger at the United States. “President Nicolas Maduro said the violence was premeditated and blamed the United States as being behind it.”  Conspicuously absent from the list of those responsible are Hugo Chavez and his socialist “Bolivarian” policies.

The International Crisis Group foresees an eventual collapse. “To forestall the severe consequences of a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela” it urges the regime to  admit its errors and begs the opposition not to exploit the situation  for political advantage. It calls upon “the broader international community”.

  • [to] abandon their reluctance to act, and explicitly press for restoration of the rule of law and of institutional checks and balances, beginning with close oversight of the December parliamentary elections.
  • They should also help alleviate the social costs of the current crisis by offering food and medical aid and helping Venezuela cope with and control existing epidemics and prevent future ones.

The advice amounts to forgiving the guilty, restraining the innocent and billing whoever has any money.  This is the universal solution to all political ills. But as to causes of the plague, there is still some controversy over why things went so wrong in the Caribbean country.   The British public TV Channel 4 reports that things started off well but suddenly things took a turn for the worse.


Dark Planet

August 1st, 2015 - 8:53 pm

The debate over public policy is often distorted by disinformation.   The true facts are hidden or selectively emphasized in order to shape a narrative. One of the many examples is the Iran nuclear deal.  Before you declare yourself for or against it, ask  yourself: what does the public know about it?  That question turns out to be surprisingly hard to answer.

The Wall Street Journal notes that much of what the deal is about is hidden in Closed Covenants.  ”The Obama Administration insists there’s nothing secret about the Iran nuclear deal, even as it claims not to have read two crucial side deals Tehran has struck with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). “Confidential agreements, but no secrets” is the way top U.S. negotiator Wendy Sherman describes the deals, which are thought to concern the military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear programs.”

Try parsing that distinction. And while you’re at it, consider that there might be additional separate agreements we haven’t heard about. We raise the possibility after speaking with Rep. Mike Pompeo, the Kansas Republican who sits on the House Intelligence Committee, and who more-or-less stumbled on the two side deals when the deputy director of the IAEA disclosed their existence to him and Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) in a meeting in Vienna.

“When you ask [the Administration] if there are other [side deals], you don’t get a yes or no answer,” Mr. Pompeo tells us. The Congressman adds that he and his colleagues have been frustrated by the Administration’s failure to answer their questions even in classified sessions. What does Mr. Pompeo know about the two side deals the Administration does acknowledge? “Nearly nothing,” he says, “and we’ve been briefed four times.”

To the infamous phrase “fake but accurate”, used to describe manufactured news  supposed to prove a “wider truth” has been added “definite but unknown”, otherwise known as “you have to pass it to find out what’s in it”.  Then there’s “unclassified but secret”. Tim Mak of the Daily Beast explains how that works with regard to the Iran deal. (emphasis mine)

The Obama administration delivered 18 documents to Congress on July 19, in accordance with legislation requiring a congressional review of the nuclear deal. Only one of these documents is classified, while the remaining 17 are unclassified. …

Most staffers were hesitant to discuss—let alone share—a number of these documents, even though they’re not classified, because they require security clearances to view. By mixing a classified document with unclassified documents, critics of this arrangement contend, important facts are being kept from the public just as Congress is deciding whether to support or oppose the Iran deal. …

“Many in Congress view the administration’s tactic of co-mingling unclassified documents with classified documents and requiring congressional staffers to have secret clearances just to view certain unclassified documents as an attempt by the administration to limit open debate,” a second senior Republican congressional staffer said.

Similar tactics are being employed to limit the amount of information available in the case of the Planned Parenthood scandal. The abortion organization has obtained an injunction from a California judge prohibiting the release of videos where its employees describe what they do. “StemExpress says the video was recorded illegally; California law prohibits recording “confidential communication” without all parties’ consent. The company filed a lawsuit Monday accusing CMP of invasion of privacy and receiving stolen property, among other claims. It then sought a temporary restraining order, fearing CMP was about to release clips of its meeting with StemExpress.”  The judge has performed the civilian equivalent of classifying the videos.

In the case of the controversy surrounding the propriety of Hillary Clinton’s use of a personal email server to conduct official business, secrecy is used both as sword and shield. The discovery of four emails containing what government investigators believe is classified information has raised the possibility that Hillary may have mishandled even more sensitive information and set off a hunt to find the rest of them. Hillary denies using her private account for any secret correspondence.

To resolve the problem, someone tried to find the rest, which turns out to be problematic because they are on a secure thumb drive held by Clinton’s private attorney.

Hillary Clinton’s private lawyer has a thumb drive containing classified information from as many as five U.S. intelligence agencies — but the State Department told POLITICO the law firm is taking “appropriate measures” to secure the files.

The agency declined to detail steps made to protect the sensitive information in attorney David Kendall’s possession, but the issue is raising concern among Republicans on Capitol Hill who’ve criticized Clinton’s handling of the email controversy. The thumb drive has copies of emails Clinton kept on a private server while she served as secretary of state, a trove now known to contain classified documents. …

The agency told POLITICO that Clinton “does have counsel with clearance.” Kendall, a prominent Williams & Connolly attorney who defended former CIA director David Petraeus against charges of mishandling classified information, declined to comment.

Now it’s where the public can’t get at it. All the completely “unclassified” information that went through Hillary’s server has now been transformed into something altogether different. The classification vs declassification business has become so busy that sometimes the players get into head-on collisions. Planned Parenthood for example, had access to the mysterious Hillary email account.

Emails released Friday by the State Department include one that a Planned Parenthood executive sent to then-Sec. of State Hillary Clinton at her private email address,

Laurie Rubiner, the vice president of public policy and advocacy for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, emailed Clinton on July 31, 2009, asking her to discuss abortion during a state trip to Kenya.

“Kenya has one of the strictest anti-abortion laws in Africa — it is illegal unless a woman’s life is at risk and criminalizes both the woman and the provider,” wrote Rubiner, who, before working at Planned Parenthood, served as legislative director on Clinton’s senate staff.

“I went to Kenya last month to work with the coalition that has formed to strategize against the Constitutional amendment and to work toward a less restrictive abortion law,” Rubiner continued in her note to Clinton. “I also visited several of our clinics and providers in Nairobi and in nearby villages where Planned Parenthood has programs to train providers in post abortion care.”…

“I know it is asking a lot, but if there is any way that you could draw attention to this issue when you are in Kenya, you would be even more of my personal hero than you already are,” she said.


Guilt as Power

July 30th, 2015 - 5:35 pm

One of the most common reactions to the Planned Parenthood body parts scandal is along the lines of “I can’t bear to watch the videos of those horrible people laughing and talking about the sale of babies.  It’s just too upsetting to see”.  This exactly captures the reason why the videos are so dangerous: they have forced society at large to watch what many must have always suspected was true, but hoped never to confront directly.

The Center of Medical Progress has over 300 hours of undercover video which has been turned over to investigators.  It looks like society is going to have to watch, whether it wants to or not.

Willful ignorance “is a term used in law to describe a situation in which a Person seeks to avoid civil or criminal liability for a wrongful act by intentionally putting him or herself in a position where he or she will be unaware of facts that would render him or her liable.”  Apart from its legal utility it has a lot of psychological usefulness because it allows society to put certain things where they don’t have to deal with it.

Some historians have argued that a fairly large number of Germans in the 1940s knew, suspected or otherwise strongly guessed that the extermination of the Jews was taking place. But many were happy not to think about it, or refer to it only indirectly and then only in the most beneficial terms like “racial hygiene” or “living space”.

But the knowledge was always there, straining to come out of the background and into focus.  After the fall of the Third Reich there was no use denying it and some Allied Commanders forced the residents of towns around the concentration camps to visit, and sometimes to remove the corpses.  Once it was out in the open, the first impulse was to assert that it must have been some mistake.

According to Peter Wyden, in his book “The Hitler Virus,” a few of the Dachau notables, who were forced to view the corpses, fainted. Some cried and many shook their heads. Most of them turned away, eager to avoid the scene. Afterwards, they were heard to whisper, “Unglaublich!” (Unbelievable.) The Dachauers could not understand how the prisoners could have starved to death since the townspeople had regularly sent food packages to the camp. …

The practice of bringing German civilians from nearby towns to the concentration camps after they were liberated was started by General Walton Walker who ordered the Mayor of the town of Ohrdruf and his wife to visit the Ohrdruf labor camp after it was discovered by American troops on April 4, 1945. After their visit, the Mayor and his wife returned home and killed themselves.

General George S. Patton visited the Ohrdruf camp on April 12th, along with three other generals, one captured German officer and a few of the citizens of Ohrdruf. After his visit, General Patton suggested that all the citizens of Ohrdruf be brought to see the bodies.

And we are as a society, complicit to a greater or lesser extent, by virtue of our membership in the community. Greg Gutfeld hits exactly the right note in his video comments below when he asserts that the guilty party in the Planned Parenthood horrors aren’t a few liberal elitists, but humanity: those of us who guessed, deduced or knew in some way or fashion, but preferred not to look at what we knew was there.

The “secret knowledge” was in fact Planned Parenthood’s best defense, for it bound many to silence out of guilt or shame.  We could not bear to look;  we still cannot bear to look.


An Affair of the Mind

July 28th, 2015 - 7:16 pm

The controversy surrounding the F-35 is fundamentally an extension of the debate over what a future fighter should be.   Recently the aircraft made news when it was officially announced that the airframe couldn’t dogfight worth a damn.   The standard riposte is that dogfighting as a form of aerial combat, stopped being relevant a long time ago.

Perhaps the best advocate for dogfighting-is-dead point of view isn’t a paper for the F-35 but a paper which argues that air combat is fundamentally changing.   Perhaps the F-35 is not the best tool for coming era, but neither is the super-dogfighter many in the public seem to crave. In a PDF article titled Trends in Air-to-air Combat, John Stillion of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments argues that the era of pointing the airframe at moving point in space is over.  It never really existed. Even during the age of gun kills, most victories arose from a dominant situational awareness and the ability to initiate the fight and disengage at will. The dominant importance of getting in first did not change in Vietnam.

detailed analysis of 112 air combat engagements during the Vietnam War conducted by the U.S. Air Force (USAF) in the 1970s concluded that 80 percent of aircrew shot down were unaware of the impending attack. Surprise, the tactical outcome of superior SA, is so important to success in air combat that it is assumed in the modern USAF air combat mantra of “First Look, First Shot, First Kill.” Despite vast changes in aircraft, sensor, communication, and weapon capabilities over the past century, the fundamental goal of air combat has remained constant: leverage superior SA to sneak into firing position, destroy the opposing aircraft, and depart before other enemy aircraft can react

Being seen first is usually a death sentence, especially in an era of high off-boresight, long range missiles.  Stillion notes that since Vietnam it’s been missiles all the way.  The last gun kill by anybody was in 1988.

the use of guns in aerial combat virtually ended after the Yom Kippur War in late 1973. Out of 498 victory claims since that time, 440 (88 percent) have been credited to AAMs and only thirty to guns.39 The last gun kill of one jet combat aircraft by another occurred in May of 1988 when an Iranian F-4E downed an Iraqi Su-22M with 20 mm cannon fire.

Also of note is the near-disappearance of the rear-aspect-only IR missile victories and the reduction in proportion of victories achieved by all-aspect missiles such as the AIM-9L/M. Over the past two decades, the majority of aerial victories have been the result of BVR engagements where the victor almost always possessed advantages in sensor and weapon range and usually superior support from “offboard information sources” such as GCI radar operators or their airborne counterparts in Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) aircraft. This is significant, as it suggests the competition for SA is heavily influenced by the relative capabilities of the opponents’ electronic sensors, electronic countermeasures (ECM), and network links between sensor, command and control (C2), and combat aircraft nodes

In the first Gulf War, all coalition kills were scored via missile, and it’s only air to air loss was an F/A-18 to another BVR missile fired by an Iraqi Mig-25. Interestingly the less air combat depended on individual skill, the greater the American advantage in integrated combat systems proved to be. The US air to air kill ratio in Vietnam was 2:1. By the first Gulf War it was 33:1.  The death of the dogfight, he argued, worked wildly in America’s favor.

Today, with missiles able to shoot directly behind a fighter, maneuver is completely secondary to situational awareness, Stillion argues. The next step is to carry trends to their logical conclusion and let unmanned aircraft carry the weapons leaving the stealthy, manned fighter to control them.  This division of labor is driven by the fact that unmanned aircraft can outperform and out-turn any conceivable manned fighter. Physics guarantees it.

If the future air combat environment consists almost exclusively of BVR missile duels or, eventually, directed-energy weapons engagements, achieving a decisive SA advantage will increasingly depend on the relative ability of the opposing sides to acquire and process longrange sensor data and rapidly integrate it with offboard information provided via data networks.

One way to think about the end of dogfighting is to consider directed energy weapons. You can’t outturn a laser, not even in principle  so you let the unmanned vehicles do the actual shooting. But how do you control what might be called a pilot’s tactical swarm? While artificial intelligence can create increasingly capable unmanned aircraft, keeping a man in the loop requires putting him as near the action as possible. Data lags and latency make it impossible to control an air fight over the Pacific, for example, from an airbase in the US.

Your only chance is to control it from a flying, stealthy computer, like an F-35 positioned to the rear of the swarm. Interestingly enough, this provides another ground for criticizing the F-35. The optimal “mother ship” for a UCAS (Unmanned Combat Air System) is a stealthy, bomber sized platform with dozens of very long ranged air to air missiles controlling its own swarm. From this point of view the real problem with the F-35 isn’t that it can’t dogfight, but it is too small and short legged to do the job right.


Honor is Whatever You Can Still Betray

July 27th, 2015 - 7:14 pm

Everything old eventually becomes new again.  Time Magazine begins its description of the “no fly zone” the Obama administration will implement over Syria by recalling how the same concept was implemented over Iraq from 1991 to 2003.   Wikipedia notes  ”the Iraqi no-fly zones were a set of two separate no-fly zones (NFZs), and were proclaimed by the United States, United Kingdom, and France after the Gulf War of 1991 to protect the Kurds in northern Iraq and Shiite Muslims in the south.”  Though Time doesn’t mention it, readers may recall another “no-fly-zone” declared over Libya, ostensibly to “protect civilians” and to implement an “arms embargo”.

Retired Marine General Anthony Zinni, “who oversaw the Iraqi no-fly zones as chief of U.S. Central Command from 1997 to 2000″ thinks the nomenclature in this instance is inaccurate. “It’s not a no-fly zone—it’s a bombing campaign,” Zinni said.  Patrick Cockburn of the Independent actually believes its the Kurds who are about who’s going to get bombed by the Turks for the most part.  ”Whatever America was hoping for, initial signs are that the Turkish government may be more interested in moving against the Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iraq than it is in attacking Isis. Ankara has previously said that it considers both the PKK and Isis to be ‘terrorists’.”

And indeed, not just the PKK but the YPG Turks complain they are now feeling the lash of Turkish might. The BBC reports: “the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) say Turkish tanks shelled their fighters near Kobane in northern Syria”.

If the claims are true, this will complicate matters for the coalition against IS as Western powers are co-operating with Syrian Kurds against the jihadists, says the BBC’s Mark Lowen in Istanbul.

The administration has denied they have traded access to Turkish airbases in exchange for greenlighting Anakara’s attacks on the Kurds, claiming it was all a coincidence.

Brett McGurk, Mr. Obama’s deputy special presidential envoy for the campaign against the Islamic State, tweeted over the weekend that “there is no connection between these airstrikes and recent understandings to intensify U.S.-Turkey cooperation against ISIL.”

State Department spokesman John Kirby went further Monday. “I understand the coincidence of all this, but it is just that,” he said.

Just a coincidence. Happenstance or not, it’s clear that Turkey effectively gets a piece of former Syrian territory, albeit under the control of proxies in the process of carving out its “safe zones”. A team from the New York Times describes what is known about the plan, which appears to extend Turkish control over Syrian territory being fought over by Assad and ISIS.

Turkey and the United States have agreed in general terms on a plan that envisions American warplanes, Syrian insurgents and Turkish forces working together to sweep Islamic State militants from a 60-mile-long strip of northern Syria along the Turkish border, American and Turkish officials say.

The plan would create what officials from both countries are calling an Islamic State-free zone controlled by relatively moderate Syrian insurgents, which the Turks say could also be a “safe zone” for displaced Syrians. …

That is an ambitious military goal, because it appears to include areas of great strategic and symbolic importance to the Islamic State, and it could encompass areas that Syrian helicopters regularly bomb. If the zone goes 25 miles deep into Syria, as Turkish news outlets have reported, it could encompass the town of Dabiq, a significant place in the group’s apocalyptic theology, and Manbij, another stronghold. It could also include the Islamic State-held town of Al Bab, where barrel bombs dropped by Syrian aircraft have killed scores, including civilians, in recent weeks.

American officials emphasized that the depth of the buffer zone to be established was one of the important operational details that had yet to be decided. But one senior official said, “You can be assured many of the principal population centers will be covered.”

The plan does not envision Turkish ground troops entering Syria, although long-range artillery could be used across the border. Turkish ground forces would work on their side of the border to stem the Islamic State’s ability to infiltrate foreign fighters and supplies into Syria.

According to the Institute for the Study of War, the coincidence Kirby refers to had its genesis in  Turkish worries that growing Kurdish gains in Syria could be turned against them, agreed to give the US airbase access in exchange for the right to bottle up the Kurds.

The outlines of this agreement between the U.S. and Turkey appear to have been laid during a visit to Turkey by Gen. John Allen (ret.) and U.S. Undersecretary of Defense Christine Wormuth on July 7-8. Unconfirmed reports at the time suggested that the talks had resulted in preliminary approval for the coalition’s use of Incirlik Airbase after Turkey received assurances that the U.S. would consider Turkish proposals for a buffer zone in northern Syria and block any attempt by Syrian Kurdish forces to move into areas along the Turkish border west of the Euphrates River.

These accounts suggested that Turkey had offered a major concession by dropping its long-standing insistence that the international coalition expand its air campaign against ISIS to include airstrikes against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This rebalancing suggests that recent developments may have led the Turkish government to prioritize the internal security threats posed by ISIS and the PKK over Turkey’s regional concerns regarding Iranian expansionism and the enduring presence of the Syrian regime.


Ringed By Fire

July 26th, 2015 - 6:13 pm

In recent article,  George Friedman called Turkey a country ringed by conflagrations: “four major segments of the European and Asian landmass were in crisis: Europe, Russia, the Middle East (from the Levant to Iran) and China.”

Sitting at the center of these crisis zones is a country that until a few years ago maintained a policy of having no problems with its neighbors. Today, however, Turkey’s entire periphery is on fire. There is fighting in Syria and Iraq to the south, fighting to the north in Ukraine and an increasingly tense situation in the Black Sea. To the west, Greece is in deep crisis (along with the EU) and is a historic antagonist of Turkey. The Mediterranean has quieted down, but the Cyprus situation has not been fully resolved and tension with Israel has subsided but not disappeared. Anywhere Turkey looks there are problems. As important, there are three regions of Eurasia that Turkey touches: Europe, the Middle East and the former Soviet Union.

Last week Anakara’s policy of keeping the fires at arms’ length started to break down. “Turkey has called a special meeting of Nato ambassadors to discuss military operations against the Islamic State (IS) group and PKK Kurdish separatists,” invoking NATO’s article 4.

Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told BBC World TV the Turkish request was based on Article 4 of the Nato Treaty which allows members to request such a meeting if their territorial integrity or security is threatened.

“When Turkey requests for such a meeting I think it’s very right and very timely to have a meeting where we address the turmoil and the instability we see in Syria, Iraq and surrounding and close to Nato borders of Turkey.” …

Turkey launched air attacks against IS militants in Syria and resumed air raids against PKK camps in northern Iraq following recent attacks.

In one attack blamed on IS, 32 people were killed in a suicide bombing near the Syrian border on 20 July.

The PKK killed Turkish police in the wake of the bombing in retaliation for what they saw as Turkey’s collaboration with IS.

The raids against Kurdish separatist camps in northern Iraq in effect ended a two-year ceasefire. Turkish fighter jets launched a new wave on Sunday against PKK targets in northern Iraq, according to Turkish state media.

The situation is no longer stable; Assad is visibly on the ropes. Hugh Naylor of the Washington Post reports that Bashar Assad has confessed he no longer has the men to keep the old Syrian Arab state alive. Things are so bad that Assad has proclaimed an amnesty for deserters who return to their duties.  Unless Assad can refill the ranks he must withdraw to a rump state or get ready for the meat freezer.

As Martin Chulov of the Guardian notes, Anakara was like a juggler with a dozen plates spinning in the air. Now it must choose which plates to catch. Turkish airstrikes conducted in retaliation for a massive ISIS car bomb also threaten to undermine the secret deal between Ankara and the Jihadists in Syria.  Erdogan’s  resumption of hostilities on the Kurdish PKK party also ends a ceasefire that had been in place since 2013.

the peace process sputtered last month, prompting waves of small-scale violence as Kurds grew frustrated over what they saw as the government’s inadequate response to their demands. That sudden shift occurred as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was trying to bolster nationalist support before parliamentary elections in June.

Turkey’s resumption of raids on the P.K.K. in Iraq has heightened tensions even further — and has effectively ended the cease-fire.

“The truce has no meaning anymore after these intense airstrikes by the occupant Turkish army,” the P.K.K. said on its website on Saturday.

The offensive in Iraq was carried out as part of a double-pronged counterterrorism operation that simultaneously attacked Islamic State targets inside Syria. In a major tactical shift last week, Turkey assumed an active role in the United States-led campaign against the Islamic State, plunging into its first direct cross-border confrontations with the militants and granting the Americans access to air bases for carrying out sorties in Syria.

By calling a NATO meeting, Erdogan is passing the dilemma over to the Obama administration. Washington needs Turkish airbases to maintain its drone attacks on ISIS.  Yet to side with Anakara might mean selling out the Kurds, who have so far been Washington’s most reliable ally on the ground against ISIS. In recent a meeting with Kurdish leaders, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter called the peshmerga “the model of what we are trying to achieve”.

He said U.S. ground and air forces could defeat ISIS on their own, but the success would not last.

“We’re trying to get a defeat that sticks,” he told a group of several dozen troops. “And that can be delivered only by the people that live here,” adding, “that’s the secret sauce.”

Should Washington imperil the Turkish airbase support or give should it flush the “secret sauce” provided by the Kurds down the drain? To make things more complicated, the administration also needs Turkey’s help in its ongoing confrontation with Russia. Last week the Independent reported Washington threatened to “punish Russia by starving off its access to western credit if President Putin does not meet demands for peace in Ukraine.”  At the same time the administration tried to throw Putin a bone by supporting a Ukrainian constitutional amendment which might allow parts of the country to secede to Russia, in exchange for (it was believed in Kiev) Moscow’s support for Obama’s Iran deal.

Friedman believes that “the United States is constructing an alliance system that includes the Baltics, Poland and Romania … designed to contain any potential Russian advance [with] Turkey [as] the logical southern anchor”.  He forgot to add: “construct the alliance by buying everyone off with everyone else’s money”.   One example of a buy-off is the Washington Post‘s report that Jonathan Pollard might be released in November.

The prospect of Pollard’s release is likely to be seen as a major concession by the Obama administration to Israel at a time when the White House is lobbying intensely to prevent ­pro-Israel groups from derailing a recently negotiated agreement with Iran over its nuclear program.

Thus the Iran deal is paid for by skimming a little from Ukraine and Israeli public opinion is purchased by releasing Pollard.  Ironically this process the administration may inadvertently draw it into the very conflicts from which it is attempting to free itself.  For example, the Wall Street Journal’s Dion Nissenbaum and Emre Peker describe a  deal Washington struck with Ankara involving a “no fly zone” over parts of Syria and a “safe haven” for factions in the war.


Round One

July 24th, 2015 - 5:20 pm

Something is setting the cat among the pigeons. The New York Times reported that a “Criminal Inquiry Is Sought in Clinton Email Account” in connection with the mishandling of classified material.   A reproof from the Clinton campaign caused the New York Times to issue what it called a correction.

In a correction appended to the Times article online, editors acknowledged having “misstated the nature of the referral” related to Clinton’s email use, which the paper had described as “criminal.” Though a Department of Justice official initially told reporters the referral was “criminal” in nature after the Times story was published, the agency reversed course and said it was not. Times editors also wrote that the referral from two inspectors general did not “specifically request an investigation” into Clinton.

By midday, the paper was under withering criticism from progressives online, who accused it of sparking a wave of outrage over ultimately faulty charges. Other nonpartisan sources were suggesting that Republicans on the Select Committee investigating the 2012 attacks on the compound in Benghazi were behind the inaccurate leak.

The Clinton onset included an attack by David Brock of Media Matters on the Times. “Media Matters founder David Brock is once again going after The New York Times for its reporting on Hillary Clinton, and today the Times hit back.”

In other instances earlier this year, Brock called out Times reports on how Clinton used private email as Secretary of State, and even said that the Times shouldn’t “outsource your journalism to Rupert Murdoch‘s publishing house.” Brock today released a public letter to the Times, calling them out for an “extraordinarily troubling pattern… of flawed reporting” when it comes to Clinton. He runs down a list of examples, including the aforementioned, before getting to the flap over their report today on an IG referral over Clinton’s emails. … The Times fired back in a brief statement to Washington Post media reporter Erik Wemple:

David Brock is a partisan. It is not surprising that he is unhappy with some of our aggressive coverage of important political figures. We are proud of that coverage and obviously disagree with his opinion.

The troubles are bipartisan. No one could have missed Ted Cruz pointing a finger at Mitch McConnell calling him a low down … purveyor of falsehoods.  Calling a fellow member a liar was formerly unheard of in the gentleman’s club that is the US Senate.  But for Cruz it was either that or accept being tarred by association.

Cruz voted for Obamatrade’s Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) the first go-around in the Senate based on McConnell’s word—and he famously turned against the fast-track trade authority later…. “My staff told that afternoon he’s lying to you,” Cruz said.

That’s what my staff said. We have been around the Senate a long time. He is not telling you the truth. And what I told my staff that afternoon, I said well, I don’t know if that’s the case or not, but I don’t see how when the Majority Leader looks me in the eyes and makes an explicit promise — and by the way, looks in the eyes of every other Republican Senator and says that to every other Republican Senator, I don’t see how I cannot take him at his word when he makes an explicit promise. As a result, I cast my vote in May in support of TPA because I support free trade and I felt I had no choice but to assume that when the Majority Leader spoke to 54 Republican Senators and made an explicit promise that he wasn’t lying to us.

Though it is less well publicized readers may nevertheless be aware that Cruz is involved in another attack on the leadership, this time with regard to Obamacare subsidies paid to the legislators based on what he believes is a fraudulent declaration that Congress is a “small business”.

Democrat against Democrat.  Republican against Republican. Pretty soon it’ll be Marvel vs DC. What’s driving this outbreak of conflict? Is there a highly contagious, rage-inducing virus in the district water supply? Or are we watching formerly stable political coalitions beginning to fall apart? Here’s the case for collapsing coalitions.


Dependence Day

July 23rd, 2015 - 4:57 pm

This argument between Ted Cruz and Code Pink’s Medea Benjamin over the Iran deal is an interesting contrast in logical styles.  Cruz reasons the deal is bad because it gives Tehran $100 billion that it will use to continue its war against America.  By contrast, Benjamin says that since Obama and all the right thinking people think the deal is good then it must be.  How can you, Ted Cruz, think differently from all these super-smart people?

The debate reflects the age-old conflict between an argument from reason and an argument from authority.  It’s a real contest because while Western civilization pays lip service to “evidence based” policy, in practice most human beings rely on social proof to decide what to believe.

Social proof is a type of conformity. When a person is in a situation where they are unsure of the correct way to behave, they will often look to others for cues concerning the correct behavior.  …  and is driven by the assumption that surrounding people possess more knowledge about the situation.

The search for “social proof” as a determinant of conviction is not wholly crazy. Few of us can say why a pharmaceutical works.  But if the doctor prescribes a pill, we drink it without question. Most of the world is preoccupied with making a living and consequently have a high level of rational ignorance. “Rational ignorance occurs when the cost of educating oneself on an issue exceeds the potential benefit that the knowledge would provide.”  It takes too long for us to figure things out from first principles, so we find a “smart man” and do what he tells us.

Many people spend 15 minutes every four years thinking about foreign policy or politics. Since it would take too much time for them to examine the issues themselves they rely on proxy indicators to inform their choice. Some people have faith in Donald Trump, others in Bernie Sanders. Medea Benjamin happens to believe in Barack Obama.

Ignorance about an issue is said to be “rational” when the cost of educating oneself about the issue sufficiently to make an informed decision can outweigh any potential benefit one could reasonably expect to gain from that decision, and so it would be irrational to waste time doing so. This has consequences for the quality of decisions made by large numbers of people, such as general elections, where the probability of any one vote changing the outcome is very small.


Agent Provocateur

July 23rd, 2015 - 6:13 am

The secret to understanding Donald Trump’s appeal may lie in understanding Bernie Sanders’. The problem that political pundits are trying to explain is why Trump, who in their judgment should be anathema, is doing so well in the polls. Chuck Todd thinks it’s style. He’s “a refreshing figure who is unafraid to fight back”. But style doesn’t entirely explain why voters are willing to forgive his very real missteps. The Wall Street Journal’s Dante Chinni attempts to formulate a theory for his popularity in Iowa.

Iowa, home of the first presidential nominating contest every four years, is more than rolling cornfields. It’s a complicated mix of rural agriculture (the western half of the state), small-town union country (in the east), college towns (Iowa City and Ames) and a metropolitan center (Des Moines).

And for right now, wherever you go, it is all about Donald Trump. The brash businessman might seem an odd fit for the staid, pastoral Iowa that people see in their mind’s eye. But people across the state say his supporters here don’t seem dissuaded by his squabbling with much of the rest of the Republican field.

One clue to unraveling the mystery is the candidacy Bernie Sanders. Like Trump, the Democrat with no chance is doing surprisingly well in the polls against Hillary Clinton. In the elegant prose of Allen Rappeport of the New York Times, Clinton has “shown weakness” in the polling against her rivals.

Hillary Rodham Clinton is showing some signs of weakness against potential Republican rivals in three swing states, according to a poll from Quinnipiac University that could raise concern within the Democrat’s campaign.

The survey found that Mrs. Clinton is lagging behind Senator Marco Rubio, Gov. Scott Walker and former Gov. Jeb Bush in head-to-head matchups in Iowa, Colorado and Virginia, three swing states. Her favorability ratings have declined and voters are increasingly questioning her leadership abilities.

Perhaps the reason both are doing “unexpectedly” — this is the word of the decade for the Obama administration — well against the field is because both represent, in their own way, a rebellion against the status quo. In fact Chinni says Trump’s popularity remains high because of “Trump’s business background and his desire to say things others won’t”.  You could probably find a Democratic source willing to make an equivalent assertion about Sanders.

Both have decided to keep talking about what polite circles have deemed unspeakable. Trump is willing to say illegal immigration sucks and Sanders is not afraid to assert Obamacare is a disaster.  Both assertions are unsurprisingly, widely supported, probably because large numbers of people are thinking exactly the same thing, leading to the possibility that voters like both not so much for their platforms as much because they’ve found someone who is willing to actually fight back.

The disaffected have been waiting for someone to give voice to their secret resentments for so long they’re willing to forgive both men their rough edges. Against their better judgment the crowd is rising to its feet and cheering on the men who were supposed to lose. It’s like one of those moments in a boxing movie when the hero finally starts punching back against the merciless beating being administered by the hulking Drago and turns what everyone in the crowd had taken to be a foregone conclusion or a fixed fight  into a real bout.


Worlds Lost and Found

July 21st, 2015 - 5:32 pm

Here are some news snippets from all around the world.

It’s a snapshot of  interesting but strange times.  Everything’s fine, but we seem just a step from disaster, trapped in a web of our own deceit, the prisoners of our own wishful thinking.   It’s as if our present civilization were engaged in a battle of wits against itself, in a kind of parody of the scene from the Princess Bride.  We poisoned a cup thinking to exterminate our enemies, now we can’t remember which cup it is.