Belmont Club

Belmont Club

The War of the Green Men

June 5th, 2015 - 9:33 pm

What if the world were at war and didn’t know it?

Such an idea seems preposterous.  Shouldn’t we know if we were in one? But the last major war in human memory was World War 2, which, as this visualization shows,  was so obviously devastating it actually constituted one of the “peak” catastrophes of  the human species. It’s an outlier. To use The Big One as the semantic threshold would be to filter out the majority of conflict in history.

Since the ability to attack without actually triggering a response confers a distinct advantage, Russia has actually designed a form of warfare to evade the threshold of cultural psychology and avoid the detection of legalistic minds like President Obama’s.  The approach is called hybrid warfare.  ”Hybrid warfare is a military strategy that blends conventional warfare, irregular warfare and cyberwarfare. … By combining kinetic operations with subversive efforts, the aggressor intends to avoid attribution or retribution.”

The Kremlin has already employed this mode of conflict in the Ukraine. Recently, Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaite warned the West to be on the lookout for “little green men”.  He needs to say this or Washington might not notice.

Lithuania held a simulation in May of separatist groups attacking installations near Russia’s enclave of Kaliningrad, a base of Moscow’s Baltic fleet which is connected to the rest of Russia by a train line through Lithuania.

The exercise was modeled on last year’s capture of Crimea by Russian soldiers in unmarked uniforms, who came to be known as the “little green men” when Moscow denied their identity until the takeover was complete.

“We need to learn lessons which we learned in Crimea, which we partly see in the east of Ukraine. Any possible attack, in any form, needs to be taken seriously,” Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite told Reuters in May. “What makes sense for us is to be prepared for anything.”

Once the World War 2 high pass filter is removed, a plethora of events will readily jump out at the observer. Chinese government hackers, for example, have stolen the personal details of 4 million current and former federal employees, possibly in order to identify individuals who can be corrupted, blackmailed or pressured into working for Beijing.  The problem of classifying this event is vexing the administration right now.  Chances are that since they can’t categorize the hack, they’ll throw the fact away.

It was the second major intrusion of the same agency by China in less than a year and the second significant foreign breach into U.S. government networks in recent months.Last year, Russia compromised White House and State Department e-mail systems in a campaign of cyber­espionage.

CNN wrote “the massive hack that may have stolen the personal information of four million federal employees appears designed to build a vast database in what could be preparation for future attacks by China against the U.S., cybersecurity experts advising the government told CNN Friday afternoon.”  Attack is not a word in the administration’s dictionary unless it comes on December 7, 1941.  And even then, maybe not.  China casually announced “that Beijing could set up an air defense zone above disputed areas of the South China Sea if it thought it was facing a large enough threat, according to Chinese news media.”

In November 2013, to the dismay of Japan and the United States, China declared an air defense identification zone over disputed waters in the East China Sea. Chinese military aircraft began requiring all other aircraft flying through the zone to identify themselves, and commercial airliners complied, though the United States sent B-52 bombers through the zone without advance warning to challenge Beijing.

In late May, Chinese officials told the United States to stop sending surveillance flights near land formations that China claims as its territory. American officials say the flights have been over international waters.

What they’ll do beyond observing the fact is problematic. Iran, with whom the administration is in negotiations, undertook to “freeze” its nuclear stockpile and then promptly increased it by 20%. “With only one month left before a deadline to complete a nuclear deal with Iran, international inspectors have reported that Tehran’s stockpile of nuclear fuel increased about 20 percent over the last 18 months of negotiations, partially undercutting the Obama administration’s contention that the Iranian program had been ‘frozen’ during that period.”

They will probably continue the negotiations notwithstanding because “a bad agreement is better than no agreement.” The Associated Press describes the president’s touching faith in pieces of paper:

JERUSALEM — U.S President Barack Obama reached out to a skeptical Israeli public in an interview aired Monday saying that only an agreement, not military action, can prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. …

“A military solution will not fix it. Even if the United States participates, it would temporarily slow down an Iranian nuclear program but it will not eliminate it,” he said in excerpts from his interview with Israeli Channel 2 TV’s investigative program “Uvda.”

The architects of hybrid warfare knew paper would be their friend.  They understood that the liberal West was controlled by lawyers operating under the concept of a “rules-based international order”. This legalistic system could only “see” certain facts and was blind to the others. In May 2013, President Obama  demonstrated this selective vision by claiming victory in the “war on terror” (which he soon declared at an end) based on the belief he had degraded “core al-Qaeda”.

He said, “their remaining operatives spend more time thinking about their own safety than plotting against us.”  Asked about other terror groups, he took shelter in definitions.  But as Marc Thiessen at the Washington Post wrote, Obama’s claim was a distinction without a difference. And indeed, within a few months, the “less capable” al-Qaeda affiliates — the “jayvee team” as Obama called them — had eclipsed the original and taken over large swaths of Syria and Iraq.

An unbroken sequence of evacuations, alliance collapses and the capture of equipment including the abandonment of whole countries like Yemen were described as mere “setbacks” in an overall record of stunning success.  It was as if the administration could not see certain things at all.  The Washington Post’s Liz Sly wrote that “while nobody was looking, the Islamic State launched a new, deadly offensive” against the remaining US backed rebels in Syria. Many US backed rebels are throwing in the towel in dismay.

But it wasn’t that “nobody was looking.” The raw intelligence data was probably there and the military could “see” the raw facts, but their superiors couldn’t recognize its significance.  They stuck in the high pass filter and voila, no signal.

Gen. Hawk Carlisle, the head of Air Combat Command said … F-22 flew surveillance missions tracking fighters on the ground, used its advanced sensors to redirect other aircraft and call for additional strikes, passed along data on its missions and escorted bombers to their targets.  …

Since August, coalition forces have conducted about 4, 200 strikes and dropped 14,000 weapons, Carlisle said. About 13,000 enemy fighters have been killed, and about 25 percent of territory has been retaken. Carlisle’s optimistic statements come, however, as Islamic State fighters have been able to retake other ground, like the Iraqi city of Ramadi, and is still able to heavily recruit to their ranks, both locally and internationally.

The narrowness of the body-count like metrics speaks to the insularity of the administration’s thinking. They can only detect objects within a limited range of frequencies. Everything else is discarded. Foreign Policy noted this on display at a recent summit of Gulf allies.  The adminstration vow that “the security and sovereignty of the GCC states constitutes a red line for the United States” was almost completely obviated by what he said next. FP wrote:


My Name is Hannibal

June 3rd, 2015 - 8:02 pm

Yahoo says a petition in asking the International Olympic Committee to take back the gold medal Caitlyn Jenner won in the decathlon at the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games has raised the issue of “how to differentiate men and women”.  The petition reads:

It has recently come to light that gold medalist Bruce Jenner is in fact transgender, and therefore, identifies as a woman. We congratulate Ms. Jenner on these new developments and wish her the best. However, this creates somewhat of a problem as Ms. Jenner (as talented as she is) claims that she has always believed herself to be truly female, and therefore, was in violation of committee rules regarding women competing in men’s sports and vice versa. Therefore, it is with a heavy heart that we must ask whether or not it is proper that Ms. Jenner should retain her olympic records in light of this, as we must now either claim that Bruce Jenner and Caitlyn Jenner are two entirely different people (which we know is not true), or that Bruce Jenner was, in fact, a woman participating in a men’s event.

But it’s worse than that.  The problem it raises is whether we can draw a correspondence between what a person is and the body he/she/it inhabits.  Now it used to be worrisome when one found oneself in earnest discussion with group pretending to consist of Napoleon, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. To join in was itself a sign that you had lost a few marbles recently.  But assuming that both the Yahoo article and petition were written in sober seriousness, then society is now seriously talking on Jenner’s terms.  After all, Jenner’s on the the cover of Vanity Fair and on the headlines of all the major news outlets so it must be serious.

It’s not crazy talk unless the whole world is an asylum.  Of course it can’ be, so Caesar, Napoleon or Alexander, move over and make some room for Hannibal.  Allow me to sit down.

As a society it seems we have pretty much come to the consensus that the Greek bipartite doctrine of body and soul must be true.  Bruce Jenner was tired of being a woman trapped in a man’s body so he’s transplanted himself, insofar as medical science allows, to a new container.  Caitlin is where she wants to be. Then there’s a new category of individuals who wish to be disabled by choice: people who “feel like impostors in their fully working bodies”.  It’s part of a growing movement called body modification.  They’ve even managed to quote scripture.

If thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.

They too want a rebuild. Oh-kay. Even in mundane situations the public has grown accustomed to the argument that you are who identify as.  For example, Barack Obama wasn’t the first black president — that distinction belongs to Bill Clinton.  Obama is the first Jewish president. David Axelrod relates that the president once told him, “you know, I think I am the closest thing to a Jew that has ever sat in this office”.  If Jenner is a woman, why can’t Obama be a Jew?

The primary idea in all this is that the essence of a man is distinct from his body and is transferable.  You can be a white man trapped in a black body — like Clarence Thomas. And if that isn’t the doctrine of body and soul then it’s pretty close.  One of the proposed technological implementations of the concept of “body and soul” is mind uploading.  ”Whole brain emulation (WBE) or mind uploading (sometimes called “mind copying” or “mind transfer”) is the hypothetical process of copying mental content (including long-term memory and “self”) from a particular brain substrate and copying it to a computational device, such as a digital, analog, quantum-based or software-based artificial neural network. The computational device could then run a simulation model of the brain information processing, such that it responds in essentially the same way as the original brain (i.e., indistinguishable from the brain for all relevant purposes) and experiences having a conscious mind.”


Shapeless Narrative

June 1st, 2015 - 9:58 pm

One of the most remarkable passages in the Sherlock Holmes canon is the story about the guard dog that did not bark.

Gregory (Scotland Yard detective): “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”

Consider the following selection of news articles taken from various media outlets. If you conclude that they resemble nothing so much as a jumble then maybe we should conclude: “that was the curious incident”.

It was the hegemon who gave shape to the narrative; and in fact, set it.  There used to be a predictability about things.  X happened and Y followed. Even in conflict you could tell how the sides would line up. But now Bernie Reeves, writing in the American Thinker notes a certain deflation among the the administration’s supporters. “What I’m struck by whenever I talk to fellow historians and to friends who are well-informed, most of them enthusiastic Democrats, all of whom voted for Obama both times, is a sense of disappointment.” Perhaps “disappointment” isn’t the best choice of words, “confusion” probably being a more suitable term to represent the turn of events.  And now suddenly, nothing makes sense.

Instead of being led into a bright world by their chosen messiah they find themselves in a world where nothing seems to add up, where all the angles are crazy and wrong. America appears to be lying on the floor, as if felled by a stroke, with no memory of how it got there uttering some gibberish about “Glbbl Warmmem”, “Kayee Jennr” and “mamsprdung” and all around it the order familiar to everyone seems to be dissolving into shapelessness.


In November last year I wrote about the GoPro-equipped Syrian tanks fighting in Jobar.  It’s 2015 and the Russian based ANNA news reporters are still covering the fighting in Jobar.  There are two outstanding videos in parts.  Even more interestingly, the English captions essentially confirm all the observations made in my November post.

The November observations are shown below. One can extend and modify those in the light of the new video and captioning.

You may, like myself, have been somewhat astonished to see so little infantry in play. That’s because the infantry is not there to seize and hold terrain. Rather they are used as spotters for the tanks. The big 125s are the killers. The viewer may note how the the tanks flit from spot to spot and fire directly on specific targets. They are not shooting at random, but rather under the specific instruction of spotters. Often they re-engage until the spotter tells them they’re bingo.

For although Jobar seems empty, it is apparently full of eyes. From other GoPro videos the YouTube historian will see that the high rise ruins and ground level structures are really honeycombed with sniper hides and mobile squads of infantry belonging to both sides, The holes in buildings become firing ports, from which ATGM teams and roving bands of infantrymen with RPGs working on both sides of the fight shoot. There are few apparent fortifications. Very little will stop a 125 mm or a Russian 12.7 mm bullet so the rebels shoot and scoot.

It appears to be very difficult for unprotected men to move openly along the roads.

The fight is essentially about line of sight. Every Syrian movement, whether involving tanks, unprotected infantry or armored personnel carriers, requires control of fields of observation.  Failure to do so means death by sniper or ATGM.  Hence, the Syrian Army either routes its movement around visual cover, or temporarily controls visual lanes by laying down suppressing fire or a smokescreen to obscure it.

Movement is controlled by a Syrian command element equipped with handheld radios and paper maps. Their job is to advance the Syrian position by identifying and seizing visual fields, then on the basis of what they see plan and direct the next move. They are basically hopping from one controlling set of vantage points to the other. By plotting visual arcs on the map, the Syrians maneuver their forces into position for assault and hold themselves safe from return fire.

The degree to which they will fight for visual fields is extraordinary. There’s a long sequence in which an armored engineering vehicle and a bulldozer, under heavy covering fire, shove a bus into an intersection to block sniper fire. The gaps are filled with a dirt berm pushed in by the dozer.  All to block a line of sight.


The Art of Villainy

May 29th, 2015 - 5:53 pm

In the last few hours two news stories have developed in parallel but with strikingly contrasting plotlines.  The first was the re-election by a convincing margin of FIFA president “Sepp” Blatter.  The second was the indictment for making false statements in connection with blackmail,  of former speaker of the House Dennis Hastert.

If these were television shows, a reviewer juxtaposing them might be tempted to conclude that the joint moral of the stories isn’t that “crime doesn’t pay”, but that crime should pay enough to provide for its own defense.  For in the one relative “innocence” — if such a term exists — is no protection against punishment.  The other show proves the only protection against payback is power.  Innocence and guilty are empty terms.  It is the power to hire lawyers, or intimidate  your pursuers that really matters.

Thus the surest protection against retribution isn’t a lack of guilt but the surfeit of it.  If one plans on being a crooked sports association president the smart strategy is to go all the way. For it doesn’t pay to corrupt only some parts of the system, leaving the honest bits to turn against you.   The only logical course is to corrupt all of it.  Nuke its governance from orbit.  It’s the only way.

Similarly, if one were running for president one should not depend upon innocence for defense. Better that all your supporters wear the badges; so that you may be the arbiter of innocence or guilt.  Moreover power should not be concealed but broadcast.  It was Nicolo Machiavelli who famously observed that ostentation in cruelty was as salutary as acts of public mercy. Both were exhibitions of power.  For men, he believed are a sorry lot who respect only power; and the key to their hearts is the stiff wire of fear.

Upon this a question arises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with. Because this is to be asserted in general of men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life and children, as is said above, when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you. And that prince who, relying entirely on their promises, has neglected other precautions, is ruined; because friendships that are obtained by payments, and not by greatness or nobility of mind, may indeed be earned, but they are not secured, and in time of need cannot be relied upon; and men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.

There was, however, the one question with Machiavelli’s much admired maxim could not answer.  If power and cruelty were the cornerstones of power, how much was enough?  What were the limits of cruelty if it were to remain ultimately beneficial — at least remain in service to the prince?  That reductio ad absurdum has proved remarkably difficult to determine in history.  So far as we know, in the power game, more is always better.



May 28th, 2015 - 6:50 pm

Any breaking story involving scandal among the powerful inevitably entails other recognizable names, either as victim, confederate or kibitzer.  Headlines in the last few days have been dominated by the arrest of top ranking members of FIFA, an acronym for a sports association that stands for the Fédération Internationale de Football Association.  It controls the revenues which flow out of soccer football and has known cash reserves of $1.4 billion dollars, which — or so investigators allege — represent only a fraction of the actual moneys that the association deals with.

It’s president, Swiss German “Sepp” Blatter, is so powerful that he is described in the press as a de facto head of state, a sort of president or prime minister. “Politicians, star players, national soccer officials and global corporations that want their brands attached to the sport have long genuflected before him.”  One can get some sense of the FIFA presidency’s scale by noting that an actual Middle Eastern prince,  Ali bin Hussein of Jordan, is running against Blatter as an underdog.

It is therefore not surprising that another royal name should appear in conection with FIFA: the House of Clinton.  The Washington Post reported that “in November 2010, former president Bill Clinton and then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. traveled to Zurich to lobby soccer’s world governing body in support of the U.S. bid to host the 2022 World Cup.”

The Americans were not successful. Instead, Qatar — a small, wealthy emirate on the Persian Gulf — became the first Arab country to be awarded the event. Almost immediately, the decision to place a summer soccer tournament in a country where daytime temperatures in those months often exceed 120 degrees drew fierce criticism — and deep suspicion.
Even before Clinton and Holder had left Switzerland, there “was a lot of talk that the decision had been bought,” said a person with knowledge of the private conversations among U.S. officials in Switzerland.

“Lobbying” is a term of art for a rather more less glamorous sort of interaction whose nature is best described by Morocco’s similarly failed attempt to “lobby” FIFA for the right to host the World Cup. “In 2004, FIFA’s leadership gathered to consider bids from countries that wanted to host the 2010 World Cup. Among the hopefuls were Morocco, Egypt and South Africa.”

In the battle to win the 2010 World Cup, more than one country was wrangling for Warner’s favor.
Months before the May 2004 vote on the venue, a representative from Morocco offered Warner $1 million in exchange for his vote, prosecutors said. South Africa countered: High-ranking officials at FIFA, the South African government and the South African bid committee had arranged for a $10 million payment from the government to the Caribbean Football Union, Warner’s home base of support, to “support the African Diaspora,” the indictment says.

The gratuity was delivered to a Paris hotel room in a suitcase stacked with bundles each of which contained $10,000. The psychological power of such cash piles should not be underestimated.  It exceeds the presentation of an equivalent amount printed on a bank deposit slip by a considerable margin. Ten million dollars in hundreds weighs over 220 pounds and has a perceptible effect on people who will do anything for money. The dramatic impact of such a sight is typically depicted in movies by a close up of the actor’s face lit from beneath by the gleam of gold and jewels, while his mouth hangs slackly open in frank astonishment and greed.


The Great Lamplighter

May 26th, 2015 - 5:57 pm

News that efficient fast-food robots are entering the market have sent shudders through advocates of a guaranteed minimum wage.  What’s the sense of aiming for a career in flipping burgers if those jobs are poised to go the way of buggy-whip makers and slide-rule manufacturers? Technological innovation is menacing employment.  Salon warns that  ”robots are coming for your job: Amazon, McDonald’s and the next wave of dangerous capitalist ‘disruption’”

In the United States and other advanced economies, the major disruption will be in the service sector—which is, after all, where the vast majority of workers are now employed. This trend is already evident in areas like ATMs and self-service checkout lanes, but the next decade is likely to see an explosion of new forms of service sector automation, potentially putting millions of relatively low-wage jobs at risk.

San Francisco start-up company Momentum Machines, Inc., has set out to fully automate the production of gourmet-quality hamburgers. … While most robotics companies take great care to spin a positive tale when it comes to the potential impact on employment, Momentum Machines co-founder Alexandros Vardakostas is very forthright about the company’s objective: “Our device isn’t meant to make employees more efficient,” he said. “It’s meant to completely obviate them.”

Change never stops and its effects work in both directions. The Left had been poised to leverage the fact that while fast-food workers entered the industry young, they aged like everyone else. ” Nearly 90 percent of fast food workers are twenty or older, and the average age is thirty-five. Many of these older workers have to support families—a nearly impossible task at a median wage of just $8.69 per hour.” So far, so good.  But what time giveth, it also taketh away. Now, after strikes in 50 US cities had put the minimum wage movement on the verge of triumph, “disruptive capitalism” has come along to eliminate the jobs themselves.

But automation will not stop at replacing burger flippers.  Its insidious fingers are reaching into every corner.  Robert Kuttner of the American Prospect noted that “robots have indeed eliminated a great deal of factory work and are rapidly moving on to product design, medical diagnostics, research, teaching, accounting, translating, copy editing, and a great deal more. Once-secure professions are no longer safe. From that, many economists conclude that we may just have to adjust to a high plateau of unemployment.” Unlike Salon, Kuttner believes jobs will simply be displaced into tasks where humans have a competitive advantage.  Flipping burgers is a terrible waste of a mind anyway, he argues.  The “invisible hand” will guide them to a higher use of their time.

This story [of universal unemployment] is mostly malarkey. Not the automation part; technological displacement of human work is indeed accelerating.

The part that is malarkey is the assumption that high rates of human unemployment must necessarily result. They will indeed result if we trust “the invisible hand” to do the transition.

But the “invisible hand” is often less powerful than the visible one. The late Nobel Prize winning Harvard economist Wassily Leontief noted that if horses could vote the government would never have allowed the rise of the motor car industry in the early years of the 20th century. One place where horses don’t vote is China, maybe because people don’t vote there either.

The Chinese are embracing automation with a fervor that would put fast-food chains to shame. “The robotics industry is on the cusp of revolutionizing the way business is conducted in China; and the world. With China expected to have the most industrial robots operating in production plants worldwide by 2017,” writes China Briefing.

The Chinese government is pushing forward with robotic research, and leading foreign robot manufacturers are their main focus. With demand rising, Chinese manufacturers will be looking to acquire foreign companies to speed up development through the use of imported technological knowledge and materials – something that China is currently lacking….

Currently, the automotive industry is the most prominent industry for robotics in China, claiming 40% of robots in operation. The next big industry to follow will be electronics, but the adoption of robotics is constantly increasing and has expanded into the aerospace, healthcare, railway, energy, consumer durables, apparel and jewelry industries. The automation of China’s production plants is still in the beginning stages, but is expected to double within the next three years (from 200,000 units today to more than 400,000 units) – surpassing Europe and North America. …

Over the past five years, companies in China have adopted the use of robots to combat worker shortages, rising wages, increase efficiency and to cut production costs. The ratio of industrial robots to workers in China is still relatively low, but that is swiftly changing. China has been long known as a source of low-cost manual labor, but as the cost of automation drops and wages increase, industrial automation is looking increasingly attractive. Wages have been increasing at a rate of 10% annually over the past decade while the cost of robot production has been decreasing by 5% year on year over the same period.

While Americans are working to set minimum wages, ironically the Red Chinese are working to abolish them. In time this may reverse the current relative reliance on labor. China is choosing to become an automated economy while the West is determined to reinvent itself as legally-mandated labor intensive society. The Chinese vision is a Jetson-like future.  The Western future is one of spinning wheels, bicycles and craft beer.  Thus, one of Leontief’s predictions about international trade may come true, but with the roles of the First and Third Worlds reversed. He wrote that jobs would move to where the technology was, assuming that the technology would remain in the US and Europe.


Faith of Our Fathers

May 25th, 2015 - 2:09 am

Sammy Ketz of Agence France Press says that Syria is about to throw in the towel. “Weakened by years of war, Syria’s government appears ready for the country’s de facto partition, defending strategically important areas and leaving much of the country to rebels and jihadis, experts and diplomats say.”

People close to the regime talk about a government retreat to “useful Syria.”

“The division of Syria is inevitable. The regime wants to control the coast, the two central cities of Hama and Homs and the capital Damascus,” one Syrian political figure close to the regime said.

“The red lines for the authorities are the Damascus-Beirut highway and the Damascus-Homs highway, as well as the coast, with cities like Latakia and Tartous,” the political figure added, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The coastal Latakia and Tartous provinces are strongholds of the regime, and home to much of the country’s Alawite community, the sect of Assad.

Damascus still controls 50% of the country but 40% is in the hands of al-Qaeda/ISIS forces, with 10% going to the Kurds.  The rebels have the momentum. The Mahgreb and Orient Courier has a map showing how much Assad’s perimeter, shown in pink, has shrunk in the last year. It’s obvious that the rebels can cut the Assad regime in two if it succeeds in thrusting over the mountains north of Damascus.

The Fall of Assad

The Fall of Assad

Assad’s fall can provide the Obama administration with a chance to claim its first victory in the region, if it can claim the laurels from the bloody hands of ISIS and its Sunni state allies.  The strategic possibilities of a Assad’s defeat and the consequent humiliation of Iran were laid out in a Stratfor report in July, 2012.  The collapse of the Damascus regime would be a victory of policy because  Obama set out to topple Assad as he set out to topple Khadaffy.

“The United States, France and other European countries have opposed his regime,” Stratfor says, “Russia, China and Iran have supported it, each for different reasons.” The goal of China and Russia, according to Stratfor, was to encourage the US to bleed itself out trying to contain Iran. The goal of Iran was simply to expand.  If Assad falls, China and Russia “lose” along with Iran.

The Russians and Chinese clearly understood that if this [Iranian expansion] had happened, the United States would have had an intense interest in undermining the Iranian sphere of influence — and would have had to devote massive resources to doing so. Russia and China benefitted greatly in the post-9/11 world, when the United States was obsessed with the Islamic world and had little interest or resources to devote to China and Russia. With the end of the Afghanistan war looming, this respite seemed likely to end. Underwriting Iranian hegemony over a region that would inevitably draw the United States’ attention was a low-cost, high-return strategy.

The Chinese primarily provided political cover, keeping the Russians from having to operate alone diplomatically. They devoted no resources to the Syrian conflict but did continue to oppose sanctions against Iran and provided trade opportunities for Iran. The Russians made a much larger commitment, providing material and political support to the al Assad regime.

But as Assad began to fold the wily Russians decided to cut their losses, leaving the Iranians holding the bag. Moscow slowly tiptoed toward the exit to await events. “It seems the Russians began calculating the end for the regime some time ago. Russia continued to deliver ammunition and other supplies to Syria but pulled back on a delivery of helicopters.”  Putin has already crawled out from under the wreck.


The Ordinary Life of the World

May 23rd, 2015 - 5:04 am

In one sense the Magna Carta was an attempt to restrain the powerful nobles of the period who were bringing ruin on the countryside through war and high-handed behavior. “First drafted by the Archbishop of Canterbury to make peace between the unpopular King and a group of rebel barons, it promised the protection of church rights, protection for the barons from illegal imprisonment, access to swift justice, and limitations on feudal payments to the Crown, to be implemented through a council of 25 barons.”

As an instrument it didn’t work, at least not until history had found a winner. “Neither side stood behind their commitments, and the charter was annulled by Pope Innocent III, leading to the First Barons’ War.”  But after the English Civil War the Charter was resurrected as political myth and many of its ideas became incorporated into the US Constitution, the most important of which are that the most basic laws are restraints upon the powerful in order to keep them out of mischief.

More recently the tragic experience of the First and Second World Wars renewed interest in the concept of restraining nations through international law in order to avoid such mischief again.  The huge human cost of 20th century conflicts made it apparent that world leaders were apt to get themselves into trouble unless they were bound to a certain code of behavior. To a certain extent “international law”, like the Magna Carta, is more of a political myth then enforceable statute, but it sort of, kind of worked for as long as the international system’s most powerful members clamped down on the misbehaving countries within the international system.

International law has emerged from an effort to deal with conflict among states, since rules provide order and help to mitigate destructive conflict. It is developed in a number of ways. …

Perhaps the first question to ask is whether in fact international law is law at all. The primary distinction between domestic and international law is that the latter often lacks an enforcement mechanism. There is no government to enforce the law, as there is in domestic situations. ….

Despite all of this, international law is often followed. This can be attributed in part to Great Power backing, but also much of international law is based on customary practice. International law may be enforced by states taking unilateral action if it is in their interest or through multilateral measures where sufficient consensus exists. Reciprocity can play a role, as benefits in other areas may be gained from following laws. In addition to ad hoc efforts to enforce international laws, a number of formal courts have been established for that purpose.

But the current elites forgot that the post-War institutions were meant to restrain them, not to exalt them and we’re in trouble again.


Mosul vs Ramadi

May 20th, 2015 - 7:55 pm

ISIS’ attack on Ramadi has apparently derailed the planned Iraqi government offensive on Mosul.  Some pundits have even suggested Ramadi’s fall proves  it was an American strategic mistake to set its sights on Mosul, implcitly suggesting that Ramadi was the correct critical point.  But rarely is the logic behind the debate explained.  Where should the emphasis have been?

Yet an examination of the respective arguments for Mosul or Ramadi brings into focus as perhaps nothing else does the respective priorities of the combatants.  If one understands why one city is regarded as more important then one also understands what the parties in Syrian civil war and the conflict in Iraq have been up to.

The best place to begin is a map.  The one below (which you can click on to expand) shows the current situation on the ground.  Dark brown marks the area controlled by ISIS.  The areas shaded green are Kurdish.  As can be readily seen, Mosul, which is at 12 o’clock on the map relative to Baghdad, represents the end-point of what can call the “northern strategy”.  Mosul, especially the Mosul dam, controls the headwaters of the great rivers and sits at the junction of the Syrian, Turkish and Iranian borders.  It is where the uplands passes descend upon the plain. Ramadi, on the other hand represents the “western strategy”.  Ramadi is the road to the Western desert and to Anbar.

The Syria/Iraq Theater

The Syria/Iraq Theater

It is easy to see why American planners would choose Mosul as the primary objective.  Taking Mosul would put Baghdad back in control of their northern borders.  It would obviate the danger that the Mosul dams would be blown,  flooding the great rivers, bringing ruin to the floodplain downstream of Baghdad.  It would open a supply route to the Kurds, secure access to the oil refineries and wells of the north.  It would provide a place where a Sunni population that did not want to live under ISIS could inhabit. Above all, it would connect Iraq along the axis of the rivers, creating the minimum territory required for Iraq to remain Iraq without being obviously partitioned. Anthony Cordesman stated this obvious point when he wrote:

the areas ISIS holds in the north are far more populated than Anbar in the southwest, and largely by Arab Sunnis that have sharply competing claims from the Iraqi Kurds. … Mosul and Ninewa, not Ramadi and Anbar, are the strategic prize that is the key to Iraqi unity, and creating some form of federalism that gives Iraq’s Sunnis status and security. …

The defeat at Ramadi should not have happened, but the war to save Iraq will be won in Mosul

Cordesman’s logic seems unassailable. Ramadi is the gateway to empty desert.  Surely Mosul is the correct objective.  But before you make up your mind forget Iraq for a moment and think about the situation without the artificiality of borders. Look at Syria and Iraq together. The area in purple-gray is the nucleus of the state ISIS wants to build. The area in violet to the south is what the government in Baghdad is trying to hold. The yellowish areas are Kurdish.