Belmont Club

Vladimir's Game

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

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

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

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

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

President Barack Obama: So that’s–

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Baker of the New York Times, more conscious of the opacity of the president’s policies was  looking forward to the Biden-Hillary debate to glean clues into what was happening behind the curtain.  If only “Mr. Biden were to join the Democratic presidential race for the 2016 election, the contest between him and Mrs. Clinton would in effect put on a public stage the struggles waged in the secrecy of the Situation Room.”

Unlike Max Fisher, Baker knew something serious was afoot.  He assumed like Niall Ferguson, there was a real Obama doctrine  to counter Putin’s, which though cleverly hidden from journalists was nevertheless known to Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden.

However the very breadth of the Russian challenge Hugo Spaulding describes strongly suggests that Vladimir Putin has reached the very opposite conclusion about the administration from Baker. Putin is acting as if he’s concluded there is no “there” there and that by striking at various points  the lack of internal coherence will cause the Obama position to fall apart.

What if what you saw of the Democratic leadership was actually what there was?  Suppose the top tier of the Obama administration really consisted of mediocrities who could function only in coddled and scripted situations?  Annie Karnie’s article in Politico about donor fears in the coming Clinton-Biden debate are based on this exactly premise.  Hillary’s funders no longer hope to receive pearls of wisdom from the former Secretary of State.   All they’re praying for is the debate won’t expose Hillary as a shallow fool.

“I’m concerned that the first bumpy road she hits — and there’s a man ready to knock her out, I’ve seen this before,” said Kounalakis, a close Clinton ally who is hosting a fundraiser in San Francisco for Clinton in November, and is viewed as potentially a major donor in 2016. “I’m worried we’re not accustomed to having a woman candidate at this level, and we don’t have the language to fight sexist attacks.”

The real mystery was how such mediocrities have managed to reach the top.  Here’s how they could do it. Perhaps the most intriguing phrase in Obama’s Kroft interview was his assertion that solving “climate change” was the apotheosis of his leadership. Even more astounding, Kroft accepted it without demur.  In that “climate change” exchange lies the key to understanding how rule by mediocrity works.

The famous physicist Freeman Dyson has long been puzzled by the inexplicable credence given to “climate change”. Dyson, a self described Democrat and Obama supporter, is still a scientist and could not understand how it could be treated seriously among the liberal set.

An Obama supporter who describes himself as “100 per cent Democrat,” Dyson says he is disappointed that the President “chose the wrong side.” Increasing CO2 in the atmosphere does more good than harm, he argues, but it is not an insurmountable crisis. Climate change, he tells us, “is not a scientific mystery but a human mystery. How does it happen that a whole generation of scientific experts is blind to obvious facts?”

The human mystery of scientific blindness can be understood by referring to starlings. Starlings are small birds famous for gathering over European skies and flying in intricate patterns all over the sky in what are called murmurations.  As we shall soon see, humans behave in some respects just like starlings.

These murmurations generate a seemingly random swarm of evasive actions that help the starlings frustrate predators like the peregrine falcon. You can think of murmurations as nature’s version of the 8th Air Forces Combat Box.  Like the 8th Air Force the starlings can hold their own against raptors by using these massive formations. Interestingly the birds can maintain information with very little global information.  By welding on the wing of their six or seven closest neighbors they form a cell, each of which locks on to the adjacent.

A team specializing in collective behaviour filmed murmurations of up to 2,700 starlings above the National Museum, from multiple angles, and built 3D reconstructions.

Analyzing those 3D movies produced several new discoveries. For example, the birds tended to be closer to their neighbours on either side, rather than in front or behind – which makes sense for avoiding mid-air, rear-end collisions.

Individual starlings rotated through different positions in the flock, and the groups were packed more tightly in the middle.
Most interestingly, every bird copied its direction only from its closest six or seven neighbours, no matter how closely packed they were.

The irrational attachment to “climate change” that Freeman Dyson observed is proof liberal scientists can fly in formation. They were maintaining position on a lead observing the rules of social proof. “Social proof, also known as informational social influence, is a psychological phenomenon where people assume the actions of others in an attempt to reflect correct behavior for a given situation. This effect is prominent in ambiguous social situations where people are unable to determine the appropriate mode of behavior, and is driven by the assumption that surrounding people possess more knowledge about the situation.”

They didn’t have to know what everyone was doing.  All that the liberal birds had to know was what the 6 or 7 closest to them were up to and form up  on them. The ability to fly formation is a an effective method for achieving mutual defense. One of the key roles of president Obama is to act as the lead by communicating his position via social media. He does this well.   What he does not necessarily possess is any geographical notion of where his flock is going (you can fly formation on a drone).  His key skill is to squawk a position and vector and the flock will follow.

Starlings have to know more than to stick together.  They need real outside information to guide the flight to prevent it from flying into the ground. The bird researchers think the starlings control the overall topology of murmurations  by observing density gradients in the maneuvering flock. The patterns of light and shadow generated by the flock itself generate real world feedback data and keep the murmuration from doing crazy things.

“These things aren’t atoms. The only thing they’ve really got to drive this interaction is their vision. So we thought, what are they seeing?” … Prof Turner and his team looked for the simplest set of rules that would produce something like what starlings do over Rome and Brighton.

They found that if the birds were simply programmed to fly towards the darkest areas, they collapsed onto a single point. If that was reversed, the flock dispersed and vanished.

But if the birds sought out the boundaries between black and white – heading for the edges – then over time, they stuck together as a flock: not too close together, and not too far apart.

“It turned out to be this very special density where you can just about see through the flock,” Prof Turner explained. The birds can still see out to the sky, but they have safety in numbers.

“It’s exactly the density, we think, that balances protection with information.”

But the liberal flock are more clever than the starlings.  They possess a media  that can suppress and distort information.   They can mimic light gradients to spoof feedback.  With these tools the president has more control than actual starling.  The trouble is, it comes at the price of destroying information.  Without information he can have no real strategy.

One way to think about Putin’s broad strategic challenge to the Obama administration is the wily Russian knows the Western murmuration is too big for the Peregrine of the Kremlin to attack.  So he’s going to try to get it to slam into buildings. Putin understands the Achilles Heel of the liberal system system is the lead.  And the lead is Obama.  Fool the lead, fool the flock.

This metaphor may be simplistic and inexact but it probably captures a significant part of what the Russian dictator is trying to achieve.  The president’s tactics may be novel and effective to the American public.  But to the KGB they are old hat.  In many cases the Soviets wrote the playbook for the ’60s and ’70s movements upon which Obama’s methods depend. They’ve moved on since to Hybrid Warfare, which is everything Obama learned but on steroids.  It always attempts to create a disruptive effect. When the leadership of the West is disrupted or lagged that task is easier.

The weakest link in the Western Combat Box is the mind of its befuddled commander. While liberal elite is narrowly focused on Syria, Putin may switch the direction of his attack, attempting to get the president to double down on mistakes. If past experience is any indication, he will succeed all too often.

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