Belmont Club

Prediction From the Grave

Very few would have predicted on September 11, 2001 that the headlines 14 years later would feature an American president arming Iran; that there would be millions of Middle Eastern Arabs flooding into the heart of Europe.  Or  Saudi Arabia, while refusing to accept any refugees from an Islamic civil war in Syria, would instead offer to build 200 mosques in Germany,  one for every hundred who has arrived to spare the Germans the trouble and expense of building the mosques themselves.

Few could have imagined that rail and road transport from Hungary to Germany would be interrupted to hold back floods of people in numbers unseen since World War 2.  Not many would have guessed that the Palestinian flag would fly over the UN in New York, despite the objection of the United States.

Hardly anyone would have foretold the return of the Russia to the Middle East, spearheaded by a legion of forces who had honed their skill at “hybrid warfare” — then an unknown term — in Ukraine.  Not just anyone mind you, but as Michael Weiss in the Daily Beast notes, “the Kremlin isn’t sending just any troops to prop up the Assad regime. It’s dispatching units that spearheaded Russia’s slow-rolling invasion of Ukraine.”

Except one man: Osama bin Laden.  Unlike the American public, which still expected its leaders to defend them against aggression on that fatal day, Bin Laden had come to the conclusion the American elite would run at the slightest difficulty.  What convinced him was the precipitate withdrawal of American troops from Somalia in 1996 following the incident popularly known as Blackhawk Down.

The photos taken by Canadian photographer Paul Watson, of a dead American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu spelled the beginning of the end for U.S.-U.N. peacekeeping force. Domestic opinion turned hostile as horrified TV viewers watched images of the bloodshed—-including this Pulitzer-prize winning footage of Somali warlord Mohammed Aideed’s supporters dragging the body of U.S. Staff Sgt. William David Cleveland through the streets of Mogadishu, cheering. President Clinton immediately abandoned the pursuit of Aideed, the mission that cost Cleveland his life and gave the order for all American soldiers to withdraw from Somalia by March 31, 1994. Other Western nations followed suit.

When the last U.N. peacekeepers left in 1995, ending a mission that had cost more than $2 billion, Mogadishu still lacked a functioning government. The battle deaths, and the harrowing images prompted lingering U.S. reluctance to get involved in Africa’s crises, including the following year’s genocide in Rwanda. In 1996, Osama bin Laden cited the incident as proof that the U.S. was unable to stomach casualties: when “one American was dragged in the streets of Mogadishu you left; the extent of your impotence and weaknesses became very clear.” Never before or since had a photo altered a nation’s political destinies so much so.

Bin Laden knew that the weakness of the West lay, not in it’s armed forces, technology or economy, but in the alienation of its own elites. Attempting to explain the complete capitulation of the Western decision makers to the refugee flood rushing at their borders Peggy Noonan notes in her Wall Street Journal article that the political and cultural elites no longer even regard territorial integrity as an existential issue. It was something well enough to have, but certainly nothing worth defending to the point of inconvenience; and most assuredly not unto the death.

Like the barons of yesteryear, they were secure in castles rising above the squalid countryside, safe from pestilence, hunger and even war. Noonan describes the modern aristocracy as a law unto themselves,  living in a world unto itself,  with more in common with foreign princes, other elite classes than with the commoners who surround them.

Rules on immigration and refugees are made by safe people. These are the people who help run countries, who have nice homes in nice neighborhoods and are protected by their status. Those who live with the effects of immigration and asylum law are those who are less safe, who see a less beautiful face in it because they are daily confronted with a less beautiful reality—normal human roughness, human tensions. Decision-makers fear things like harsh words from the writers of editorials; normal human beings fear things like street crime. Decision-makers have the luxury of seeing life in the abstract. Normal people feel the implications of their decisions in the particular.

The decision-makers feel disdain for the anxieties of normal people, and ascribe them to small-minded bigotries, often religious and racial, and ignorant antagonisms. But normal people prize order because they can’t buy their way out of disorder.

People in gated communities of the mind, who glide by in Ubers, have bought their way out and are safe. Not to mention those in government-maintained mansions who glide by in SUVs followed by security details. Rulers can afford to see national-security threats as an abstraction—yes, yes, we must better integrate our new populations. But the unprotected, the vulnerable, have a right and a reason to worry.

Economists describe this as the principal-agent problem. “The dilemma exists because sometimes the agent is motivated to act in his own best interests rather than those of the principal. … Common examples of this relationship include corporate management (agent) and shareholders (principal), or politicians (agent) and voters (principal).”   In layman’s language, the principal-agent problem occurs when it is the interest of the agent to sell out the principal.

The problem arises where the two parties have different interests and asymmetric information (the agent having more information), such that the principal cannot directly ensure that the agent is always acting in its (the principal’s) best interests, particularly when activities that are useful to the principal are costly to the agent, and where elements of what the agent does are costly for the principal to observe. Moral hazard and conflict of interest may arise. … The deviation from the principal’s interest by the agent is called “agency costs”.

One warning sign of an incipient problem is when the agent actually prefers the company of the principal’s enemies.  “You don’t negotiate deals with your friends. You negotiate them with your enemies,” Obama told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria.  Jeremy Corbyn who is the leading candidate to head the UK Labour Party, takes a similar view.  He thinks the solution to the collapse of Syria, besides admitting more refugees, is to talk to Britain’s enemies in the region.

Shane Harris, writing in the Daily Beast, illustrates why Osama Bin Laden’s insight into Western leadership was so accurate. There are none so blind as they who will not see. “More than 50 intelligence analysts working out of the U.S. military’s Central Command have formally complained that their reports on ISIS and al Qaeda’s branch in Syria were being inappropriately altered by senior officials, The Daily Beast has learned.”

The complaints spurred the Pentagon’s inspector general to open an investigation into the alleged manipulation of intelligence. The fact that so many people complained suggests there are deep-rooted, systemic problems in how the U.S. military command charged with the war against the self-proclaimed Islamic State assesses intelligence.

“The cancer was within the senior level of the intelligence command,” one defense official said.

Two senior analysts at CENTCOM signed a written complaint sent to the Defense Department inspector general in July alleging that the reports, some of which were briefed to President Obama, portrayed the terror groups as weaker than the analysts believe they are. The reports were changed by CENTCOM higher-ups to adhere to the administration’s public line that the U.S. is winning the battle against ISIS and al Nusra, al Qaeda’s branch in Syria, the analysts claim.

The reason so many voters may feel uneasy about Hillary Clinton’s private email server, even if they can’t articulate quite why, is the unease any principal feels at finding his agent has an unregistered cell phone with all the messages erased.  It all goes back to Bin Laden’s insight that the weakest link in the West is not the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines but the email server that gives them orders. Give the elites a way to weasel out and they’ll take it.

And they’ve been taking it ever since. These cumulative disappointments have tended to undermine confidence in the leadership of the Western political class. If the process continues indefinitely the elites will eventually lose legitimacy. The first sign of declining confidence is the emergence of high-handed behavior in the agent, or what Victor Hanson calls “lawlessness”.

This increases social agency costs dramatically, often to the point of paralysis.  “Lawlessness” only exacerbates the agency problem.  It does not solve it. The process of estrangement can go on for a long time. Ironically it is often marked by a deceptive passivity on the part of the principals, because they are no longer engaged in the relationship. The agents are thus lulled into complacent belief in the trust of the principal.

Yet despite the outward calm, it is a time of tremendous tension with everyone waiting for a trigger event which will initiate the clear break. There will be many false starts which portend a resolution, indeed some activists may even try to manufacture trigger events to precipitate things intentionally, only to see their efforts fizzle.

Such events are not so easily anticipated. Ironically a real trigger event will almost certainly be completely unexpected. No one — or only very few — will recognize a trigger’s significance when it arrives.  Only belatedly  and after it takes a life of its own will it be identified. The best anyone can do is build up their networks to be ready for the day. The irksome thing about the future, is that except for climate scientists, Marxists and Islamists, it is hard to predict.

For most of the rest of the world the saga which began on September 11, 2001 still has no ending. Osama bin Laden was satisfied that the West would be weak enough to conquer.  “It is written,” he must have thought.  Yet maybe he’s wrong. In this age of wiped email servers and emergent forces, nothing is written.

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