Belmont Club

Fool's Paradise

Systematic error

Former Carter national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski offered some advice to president Obama in an October 5 Tweet. “In its waning months, Obama admin should privately reiterate to Russia that any Baltic incursion would mean war. Not a threat, simply fact,” he wrote. Leaving aside the astonishing question of why Obama should privately warn Putin of war — and why Brzezinski thinks Putin will heed a private warning when public admonishments are ignored — there’s no denying relations with Russia are at a crisis point.  The New York Times describes the latest failure of the administration’s frantic diplomacy.  “Just a month ago, it appeared that Secretary of State John Kerry was on the verge of securing the long-sought cooperation of Russia on Syria.”  Now, disappointingly:

The United States on Monday suspended talks with Russia over the protracted conflict in Syria, accusing the Kremlin of joining with the Syrian Air Force in carrying out a brutal bombing campaign against the besieged city of Aleppo.

Anticipating the end of the talks after repeated warnings from American officials, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia responded by withdrawing from a landmark arms control agreement that calls for each side to dispose of 34 tons of plutonium, a material used in nuclear weapons.

Nor does the breach seem easily remediable.  One indicator of the Kremlin’s determination to shift from the diplomatic track to the military was  the arrival of Russia’s advanced “Gladiator” anti-missile system on Syrian docks for the first time outside of Russia.  Analysts say such weapons could be used to shoot down cruise missiles and other standoff weapons sent to destroy air assets Assad may employ in the battle for Aleppo.

On a strategic level Putin announced he “would suspend an agreement to turn weapons-grade plutonium into nuclear fuel unless Washington cancel all sanctions and slash its military commitment to Nato allies.”  That follows a disturbing report that “two U.S. officials traveling with diplomatic passports were drugged while attending a conference in Russia last year, and one of them was hospitalized, in what officials have concluded was part of a wider, escalating pattern of harassment of U.S. diplomats by Russia.”

The world Obama inherited ain’t what it used to be.  But not everyone is convinced. David Sanger at the NYT engages in self-examination and admits he feels a suspicious lump but quotes sources which conclude  the lump is probably nothing. “Escalating airstrikes in Syria. Sophisticated cyberattacks, apparently intended to influence the American election. New evidence of complicity in shooting down a civilian airliner,” are outwardly worrisome.  But “the bigger question confronting American intelligence officials, though, is whether the Russian president has a grander scheme at work. So far, their conclusion is probably not. Mr. Putin’s moves, they argue in background conversations, are largely tactical, intended to bolster his international image at a moment he has plenty of troubles back home.”

Putin in this view is playing to his gallery.  However the real source of reassurance is the fact that the administration has given itself a clean bill of health.  While Dr. Obama’s health certification may have overlooked a few things, surely it could have missed nothing major.

Few in the American intelligence community predicted much of this. Intelligence assets have been so focused for the past 15 years on counterterrorism that traditional targets have taken something of a back seat — they have not been ignored, one senior intelligence official said recently, but only lately have they begun to receive new resources.

Perhaps that contributed to some misjudgments. It was more than a year ago that Mr. Obama said Russia would find itself in a “quagmire” in Syria; it may yet, but so far Mr. Putin’s air war has propped up Mr. Assad … ”

The danger is that the administration has become politically invested in its own self-diagnosis.  Its wellness, like Hillary’s, has been elevated to an article of faith.   During his 2012 debate with GOP presidential rival Mitt Romney Obama triumphantly proclaimed that the Cold War was over and only troublesome minor groups like al-Qaeda remained to disturb the peace.

Gov. Romney, I’m glad you recognize al-Qaida is a threat, because a few months ago when you were asked what is the biggest geopolitical group facing America, you said Russia, not al-Qaida,” Obama said. “You said Russia. And the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back. Because the Cold War has been over for 20 years. But Governor, when it comes to our foreign policy, you seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policy of the 1950s, and the economic policies of the 1920s.

To acknowledge that the Russian Reset has regressed past routine Cold War levels of hostility to actual crisis would be too ghastly to contemplate.  It would be not just an admission of error but of systematic error. Systematic errors arise not from random observational factors but from defects “with the instrument or its data handling system or because the instrument is wrongly used by the experimenter”.  This means that the president’s entire foreign policy could be founded on a whole data set of bogus assessments.  It would mean that Obama got Putin wrong not just this time but because he got everything wrong from the beginning.

Yet it wasn’t just the president’s fault.  This catastrophe might happened on Obama’s watch but also came about through the negligent oversight of a Republican Congress and the complicity of a liberal media that pretended to see no evil even as everything was unraveling — from the Middle East to Eastern Europe to Asia and everywhere in between . Nobody wanted to challenge the incompetent in the White House because nobody wanted to seem insensitive or rude. In the process they opened a door big enough to drive a tank through. And Putin did just that.

Perhaps the most dangerous thing about the lump Sanger vaguely detects but does not want to take seriously is that it’s not yet big enough to cause pain.  That makes it easier to accept Dr. Obama’s current self-diagnosis that it’s benign.  The prudent thing to do would be to visit another doctor to get a second opinion, which was what the Republican Congress and the media were supposed to provide in the first place but didn’t.

In the medical world one would go to the Obamacare provider to get re-examined, except that as Robert Pear of the NYT notes, in that universe Obamacare itself is “ailing” and may not survive. But that’s another story.   In the public policy world all that crazy old Polish former national security advisers can do in the meantime is take two aspirins and call back when everyone wakes up in January 2017.  By then it will either be Morning in America or Mourning in America.

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