Root Cause Analysis

Let’s talk about America and the gutting of its civic institutions for power and profit in the name of patriotism.

The overarching theme in my sparse blogging history since I left the military has been the exploration of what it means to be a patriotic American, gradually stripping away and discarding potential partial definitions in search of a distilled essence:

Basically, after PCSing out of the military, I wanted to reinforce in my own mind the integrity of the term “patriotism” in the face of a commandeered chickenhawk interpretation of American patriotism where he who waves the flag hardest is the most patriotic, regardless of any of his other actions.

Sacred cows have been slain in the last decade because of never-ending war, polarization in politics, and the battle to own the term “patriotic”; July 4th has become a vaguely gauche holiday, standing or kneeling for the anthem is a politically divisive act, and even hearing the phrases “thank you for your service” or “respect the troops” have veterans and servicemembers hearing red flags.  Good people have abandoned ritual, leaving it to scoundrels and opportunists.

What could I strip the definition of American patriotism down to, such that even the least principled, most opportunistic chickenhawk or troll couldn’t pollute it?

Meanwhile, professionally, I spent some years unifying my experience being an internet-American comfortable with social media with my career in analysis/intelligence.  For a couple years, I was full-time watching social media for emergency management.  In that position, part of our advantage was being able to suss out what was old news, what was poor eyewitness reporting, and what was truly new news.  In that time, the spread of social media into the daily consciousness was a benign thing in all ways except the distraction of checking one’s cellphone.  Fake news was not weaponized yet; fake news was unintentional, such as poor media literacy or poor eyewitness memories and testimony.  Our job at that time was to assess mostly reliability, whereas someone in the same role now might also have to assess malicious intent at a troll level or even at a state actor level.

After what I perceived to be not only a disastrous election result but also a deeply confusing one that I did not see coming, I was thrown for a loop.  What was wrong with how I perceived reality?  I am fairly skeptical in my prediction-making and assessments, but I misjudged this one pretty bad.  Why?  And how?  This had occurred even though I was deeply troubled after Obama won re-election, stating this on Facebook amidst a taunting, mostly liberal friend feed.

My friend feeds reveling in Republican loss but we're still a nation divided on core issues (how to provide economic…

Posted by Ben Turner on Tuesday, November 6, 2012

As a result of getting married, I gave up my Texas citizenship and changed my residency to New York.  I also enrolled in the Democratic Party.  Running up to the primaries and general election, I received several of the same survey in the mail, even after I submitted my answers.  The questions were all focused on the Republican party, and did not question Hillary’s nomination.  Most importantly, the options for which issues the Party should run on (the Democratic party!) did not include anything on education or single-payer/universal health care, despite evidence that there is hunger and precedent for it amongst Democrats.  Why would the Democratic Party leadership make such stupendously foolish decisions?

Now, months after the election, the news cycle is converging around a narrative where much of the confusion can be blamed on dezinformatsiya, a substantial and tremendously successful, yet low-cost disinformation campaign by Russia in an attempt to destabilize the United States and a world order which threatens Russian security, e.g. “How Russia Created the Most Popular Texas Secession Page on Facebook”.  While the scope of the campaign is not yet known, it involves Russia’s push for RT in American, Twitter bots, astroturfed protests, fake Americans, Facebook groups, etc. Essentially focusing American social media’s energies against itself. Weaponizing it. Sowing discord and discontent.

Fortunately, it appears that there are well-reasoned, stable, legitimate investigations into the degree to which these campaigns affected US elections. Personally I want to have a betting pool on which day we’ll inevitably label as Mueller Day, an annual day where we celebrate Mueller’s principled investigation toppling the Trumpist movement.  But that may never happen.  In the meantime, the US intel community provided some background on how to assess the impact including these crucial judgments:

Russian efforts to influence the 2016 US presidential election represent the most recent expression of Moscow’s longstanding desire to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order, but these activities demonstrated a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort compared to previous operations. We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump. We have high confidence in these judgments.

We also assess Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him. All three agencies agree with this judgment. CIA and FBI have high confidence in this judgment; NSA has moderate confidence.

Moscow’s approach evolved over the course of the campaign based on Russia’s understanding of the electoral prospects of the two main candidates. When it appeared to Moscow that Secretary Clinton was likely to win the election, the Russian influence campaign began to focus more on undermining her future presidency.

Further information has come to light since Election Day that, when combined with Russian behavior since early November 2016, increases our confidence in our assessments of Russian motivations and goals. Moscow’s influence campaign followed a Russian messaging strategy that blends covert intelligence operations—such as cyber activity—with overt efforts by Russian Government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users or “trolls.” Russia, like its Soviet predecessor, has a history of conducting covert influence campaigns focused on US presidential elections that have used intelligence officers and agents and press placements to disparage candidates perceived as hostile to the Kremlin.

Russia’s intelligence services conducted cyber operations against targets associated with the 2016 US presidential election, including targets associated with both major US political parties.

We assess with high confidence that Russian military intelligence (General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate or GRU) used the Guccifer 2.0 persona and DCLeaks.com to release US victim data This report is a declassified version of a highly classified assessment; its conclusions are identical to those in the highly classified assessment but this version does not include the full supporting information on key elements of the influence campaign. iii obtained in cyber operations publicly and in exclusives to media outlets and relayed material to WikiLeaks.

Russian intelligence obtained and maintained access to elements of multiple US state or local electoral boards. DHS assesses that the types of systems Russian actors targeted or compromised were not involved in vote tallying.

Russia’s state-run propaganda machine contributed to the influence campaign by serving as a platform for Kremlin messaging to Russian and international audiences. We assess Moscow will apply lessons learned from its Putin-ordered campaign aimed at the US presidential election to future influence efforts worldwide, including against US allies and their election processes.

It is tempting to lean wholly on this narrative of Russian complicity with Trump and the GOP — it explains a Trump victory, it explains what Putin has been up to to counter American hegemony, it explains the increase in vitriol online, where most normal people don’t have time to engage so much.

It is tempting to write off all blame on Russian interference, instead of questioning gerrymandering, or the internal divide in our politics, or the pervasive sense of injustice, or why our system was weak enough to be affected, and why we were not on alert enough to know what to look for, and why we did not protect the sanctity of our institutions.

For the Democrats, they were blinded by a sense of entitlement; Hillary is by far the most qualified candidate, so QED, she will win. But she had a high unfavorability among even loyal Democrats.  Bernie was attacked not only by core Democrats but also identified as a threat to Hillary’s nomination where it was more certain she would lose to a Republican candidate.  Debbie Wasserman Schultz inconceivably screwed up not only handling the email scandals, but hiring sketchy IT people, ignoring her constituency, and overall just perpetuating the illegitimacy of Florida politics. Her removal was a reactionary move and not a positive outcome.  She had burned all her capital.

Angela Nagle’s excellent book “Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right” mentioned a provocative theory that the politically correct identitarian politics that dominated the left and annoyed the right for so long, peaking on Tumblr, caused a vacuum of other voices on the left, and this vacuum was eventually filled by the alt-right, and alt-left, who, somehow, had made conservatism cool, and even punk (!) by challenging cultural norms and thriving on irreverence and post-irony.

 

A Historical Aside

Let’s take a step back and think about how far the internet’s come.

I got my start on online networks using BBSs, Prodigy*, The Sierra Network/ImagiNation, and eventually MUDs via university telnet. Eventually web browsers unlocked a world not only of web pages but also of the ability to create your own pages. But there was no commercial incentive, the graphics still sucked, and everything was still primarily text-based. The dotcom era was a perfect storm of more interactive web sites, more consumer bandwidth, and unbridled optimism for social networking and the promise of profit.

In 2007-2009 or so, social media had advanced past the dotcom and bust stages of Gold Rush open API euphoria to a more stable, yet more walled garden-ish ecosystem of services which, at least in my career, was organized and standardized enough to be used to respond to emergencies and crises faster.  The main concern for my job was ignoring innocent bystanders who posted bad information because they didn’t know what they were talking about, and assessing who would be in unique positions to have a direct view of an emergency as it unfolded.

Another concern was having to manually link together disparate spheres of knowledge.  Jihadis were prolific in using social media because it helped to tie together their community across multiple countries without official channels.  But journalists were not yet on Twitter the way they are now.  Academics who may have known a lot about jihadi or criminal cultures certainly didn’t use computers or the internet any more than they had to.

The post-dotcom boom Internet up until 2014 or so represented the normalization of the online world amongst the broader population.  Dating online became more accepted. Buying food online to have it delivered became something you would sensibly do to save time. Amazon and Target deliveries changed regular spending and shopping habits. Obama-era campaign parties provided a left-wing answer to the more focused grassroots single-issue communities on the right.

Culturally, “normies” gentrified online communities of “casuals” and “autists” and the backlash came with the emergence of the ironists and trolls, who sought to exclude the newcomers from long-established communities online.

Meanwhile, internet architecture had improved such that more data could be organized online, and processed wherever.  More people relied on data being available to them online, too.  Hackers still have a field day to this day with unsecured systems.  Mostly all it took was will in order to get access to secret data.

Vulnerable Surface Area

For hackers, the proliferation of data and increased bandwidth and lagging security controls meant easy money.  For Russia, this meant a sensible, low-risk attack vector against a trusting, open internet and an American population conducive to sharing their opinions on it.  In 2008, a Russian KGB/foreign affairs/information warfare expert, Igor Panarin, got a lot of press for his theory that there would be a pending breakup of the United States into several different regions.

His background:

Panarin graduated from the Higher Military Command School of Telecommunications of the KGB (now the Academy of Federal Security Guard Service of the Russian Federation) in Oryol and the Division of Psychology of the Lenin Military-Political Academy (with a gold medal). In 1993 he defended his thesis for Candidate of Psychological Sciences, titled “Psychological Factors of the Officer’s Activity in Conditions of Innovations”. His Doctorate in Political Sciences was awarded by the Russian Academy of Public Administration in 1997 for a thesis titled “Informational-Psychological Support of the National Security of Russia”.

Panarin began his career in the KGB of the Soviet Union in 1976. After 1991, he worked in the FAPSI, then the Russian equivalent of the U.S. National Security Agency, reaching the Colonel rank. His field of activity was strategic analysis and integration of closed and open information streams, information stream management in crisis situations, and situation modelling of global processes. He did strategic forecasts for the then President Boris Yeltsin. From 1999 to 2003, he worked as the Head of the Analytical Division of the Central Election Commission of Russia. From 2006 to 2007, Panarin was the Press Secretary of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roskosmos), the Russian analogue of the U.S. NASA.

Prof. Panarin started his teaching career in 1989 and has taught in the Moscow State University (MGU), the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO-University), the Russian Academy of Public Administration, and the Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia, where he has worked since 1999. He also carries out activities on his own. In 2004, he launched his official website.[citation needed] In April 2008, his first training seminar called “Information warfare – technologies for success” was held. It was targeted at top managers of state and business structures, press service managers of authorities and large corporations, anti-crisis management experts, and decision makers in time-deficit situations. On 20 May 2009, Panarin started World politics – his own weekly radio programme on the Voice of Russia radio.

Panarin is currently the dean of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s school for future diplomats and appears regularly on Russian television channels.

Legit af.

It would be interesting to me to have more access to his (mostly Russian-language) works.  I would wonder how much his ideas have permeated Russia’s operational plans, or if we are falsely attributing him to current events.

Post-Frontier West

So here we are. The internet has already lost its innocence after toxic corporatization of public spaces online, but now it has been violated by directed state-sponsored attempts to undermine the country under which much of the internet’s companies operate out of.

Memetic warfare, somehow (!!), is an actual thing!!

We have Mark Zuckerberg addressing the nation in a close-shot video that is akin to an apology video meme, while his company laid out a Root Cause Analysis and Performance Improvement Plan for itself in a classic engineering-focused style.

The Gold Rush of the dotcom era gave way to where we are now: a Wild West frontier where bandits pillage defenseless villagers and groups with ambition seek to wipe out all those who could stop them from taking over.  Social media companies have been exposed for having put off their social responsibilities for as long as possible under the guise of freedom of speech and non-responsibility for what content is posted on their neutral networks.

What happens next?

If you presume we do not have a government hostile enough to the fact that social media may have been corrupted to subvert American interests, then you wouldn’t expect the federal government to flex its muscles the same way it might have with the famed US Marshal Service, whose Marshals provided the only law some towns had in the Frontier West.  You might hope that social media companies do more to combat active state-actor disinformation and subversion efforts.  You would presume social media companies and governments would begin to officially share more information, as it appears they’re beginning to do now.

I enjoyed reading Nabiha Syed’s framing of the issue of how to confront fake news and promote free speech, particularly this (incomplete, as she points out) theory:

Third, and far less fashionable, is the idea that the First Amendment exists to promote a system of political engagement. This “collectivist,” or republican, vision of the First Amendment considers more fully the rights of citizens to receive information as well as the rights of speakers to express themselves. Practically and historically, this has meant a focus on improving democratic deliberation: for example, requiring that broadcasters present controversial issues of public importance in a balanced way, or targeting media oligopolies that could bias the populace. This theory devotes proactive attention to the full system of speech.

The republican theory, which accounts for both listeners and speakers, offers an appealingly complete approach. The decreased costs of creating, sharing, and broadcasting information online means that everyone can be both a listener and a speaker, often simultaneously, and so a system-oriented focus seems appropriate. But the collectivist vision, like the marketplace and autonomy approaches, is still cramped in its own way. The internet—replete with scatological jokes and Prince cover songs—involves much more than political deliberationAnd so any theory of speech that focuses only on political outcomes will fail because it cannot fully capture what actually happens on the internet.

It’s not clear what actions will be taken by these large entities, but a few things seem crystal clear to me:

One: the US as of 2017 has no plan to actively combat disinformation attacks and voting integrity hacks for any near-term elections, leaving us at risk for larger campaigns seeking to destabilize American interests. These campaigns could also be extended to other countries, since it worked so well in the US and perhaps for Brexit.

Two: the disillusionment with Silicon Valley has teeth. Before, the sentiment was constrained to people who wanted to cut the cord for cable, or who hate cellphones at dinner, or who want you to get real friends instead of talk online all day. Now, Silicon Valley will be perceived in a similar vein as Big Business, enabling the worst behaviors of monied interests who seek to take more and more away every year.  Companies will hide behind their algorithms, and poor decisions made now by humans will eventually be poor decisions made by AI, removing humans from feeling responsibility for their actions. How long will it be until engineers and developers seriously propose something like the Hippocratic Oath?

Three: the loss of American identity. American identities can be recreated for pennies by Russian intelligence operations. Valid American identities are sold on the deep and dark web for dollars. Because of things like Citizens United, now more money than ever can be represented as individual Americans just hoping to get you to change your view on something. If voting machine hacks actually happen (and we certainly know they can, given how easily and ubiquitously they have been hacked in the past), oops, all the sudden your legitimate vote was just used to vote for someone else.  Where are the protections for the atomic unit of American democracy, the American citizen?

Am I who I say I am, or am I really a Kevin Durant sockpuppet saying you suck for criticizing Kevin Durant?

Or am I the NFL commissioner’s wife attacking her husband’s detractors with my own sockpuppet account?

The tenor of online culture has changed, and it’s uglier and colder; read Mike Monteiro’s history of Twitter:

Twitter would have you believe that it’s a beacon of free speech. Biz Stone would have you believe that inaction is principle. I would ask you to consider the voices that have been silenced. The voices that have disappeared from Twitter because of the hatred and the abuse. Those voices aren’t free. Those voices have been caged. Twitter has become an engine for further marginalizing the marginalized. A pretty hate machine.

Biz Stone would also believe that Twitter is being objective in its principled stance. To which I’d ask how objective it is that it constantly moves the goal posts of permissibility for its cash cow of hate. Trump’s tweets are the methane that powers the pretty hate machine. But they’re also the fuel for the bomb Twitter doesn’t yet, even now, realize it is sitting on. There’s a hell of a difference between giving Robert Pattinson dating advice and threatening a nuclear power with war.

American Patriotism

Okay, so back to defining American patriotism.

What if I referred to the Army values: LDRSHIP, or Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Self-less service, Honor, Integrity, and Personal courage.

Is loyalty patriotic?  Not particularly.  In fact probably everyone values loyalty at some level, or at least justifies it to himself as being loyalty.

Duty? Respect? Honor? Personal courage? I think these values are easy to co-opt for your own interests and to look good when you want people to look at you. Think about Congressmen saying they are fulfilling their duty by “serving” in the House or Senate. Think of the “honor” of scumbag servicemembers or the personal courage of always voicing your opinion against a corrupt mainstream media or government.  These definitions can easily be twisted.

Well, what then about self-less service? This one is interesting to me. The removal of self from the equation, along with service (to others), means the calculus changes. I guess you could enhance your brand by volunteering, or you could be assuaging your own guilt about something, but the time element with no monetary reward means that you are sacrificing potential profit for helping someone else.  This is less easy to fudge or to fake.  You have to put in the time.  You’re not writing off profits from your taxes by donating.  You’re not a “not-for-profit” income-tax-protected-class church raising money but then squirming through explanations of why your church didn’t open its ginormous doors to displaced families like Joel Olsteen’s infamous interview (note the apologetic style similar to Zuck’s).

But would you define American patriotism as selfless service?

Making Sense of It All

In light of the evidence presented on a daily basis, and assuming Trump is a rational actor (I feel like this has to be stated; somewhat similarly most discussion about North Korea is most productive when it assumes North Korea is a rational actor and not just some crazy fat man-child with one finger on the button), the only theory that makes sense to me (and I have to make it clear that I don’t really think this could be possible) is that Trump, clearly a type who wants to make money at all costs and at everyone else’s expense, also is particularly vulnerable to flattery and machismo. Vladimir Putin’s overtures to Trump early on were highly successful, and Trump became open to suggestion. Putin, who is probably left with a lifelong scar of bitterness for the breakup of the Soviet Union, still profited off of the USSR’s breakup handsomely along with the other infamous oligopolists who took shattered government assets and assumed them for nothing, consolidated properties, and became massively rich.

To me, Trump’s willful animus towards American tradition and history does not come so much from deep Republican distrust of government spending, but because Trump has been convinced at some level by Putin that what happened in the USSR could stand to handsomely enrich him if it happened in the US.  Trump is certainly a member of the cosmopolitan class and so destabilization at the national level would hardly affect him — like most cosmopolitans, they could live happily and with identical lives in just about any major city in the world these days. His disdain for minorities would not be challenged, his lust for money would be sated, and his statements that are divisive with no seeming logic or theory behind them would make more sense.

Again, I don’t really believe this has happened, but it’s the only narrative I can think of that makes the most sense given all the evidence.  I just wanted to lay it out here because, well, what the fuck else am I going to do except worry about the country I love?

American patriotism, I think, partially involves optimism for the future.  Obama correctly and intuitively perceived this to be Hope.  Other countries do not necessarily have this vast wellspring of belief in optimism, because their geopolitics and culture do not allow it as well as America, with its relatively peaceful continent and bountiful resources, does.

But let’s go a step further and say that regions like the EU believe in a somewhat different form of hope.  They do see sense in policies that target poverty reduction, increase in education levels, etc.  This certainly qualifies as optimism for the future for all people, not just oneself, though it comes with a tinge of “this solution comes as a result of suffering and of trial and error”.  American optimism, I think, is embodied in Neil Armstrong’s partial quote, “one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind”. How ever he actually intended that quote, the US seems to undertake grand projects that help mankind, but through ambition and wanting to leave one’s mark on the world, and less of a humanitarian purpose.

Would we ever see a grand project for eliminating poverty?  Perhaps if there were a technological solution for it.  But otherwise there is no compassion for the poor, no safety net for the unlucky, no sense of moral purpose to protect the innocent.  Being poor is being guilty before being proven innocent in the US, and that is unlikely to change anytime soon.

American optimism as a high-level concept is personified in leaving a grand mark upon history, but optimism for many of its immigrants, illegal and legal, is for a better future for one’s children.  What does that disconnect mean for us?

Russia and China obviously identified American optimism as a critical blindspot long ago. China saw the internet as such a threat that it constructed the Great Firewall to close off its internet from the rest of the world. It has since focused on shutting down key nodes in the resistance’s social graph, preventing influential protesters from organizing in realspace but allowing other meandering complaints to occur with freedom. Russia, stereotypically paranoid about its own insecure borders and withholding as much information as possible, sought to exploit America’s — and its citizens’ — free and somewhat irresponsible handling of information.

This is akin to projection psychology, and, if you subscribe to that theory, it makes it fairly easy to predict Chinese and Russian moves, particularly since it suggests they are actually doing the hard work of identifying their vulnerabilities (and yours) and then mobilizing to protect themselves while attacking you at it.  If China or Russia make a move against their people, then they have identified the exploit for it as being valuable enough to use on you.  It applies even here at home; how many times do we need to listen to calls for increased legislation around marriage, sex, the female body, sexual affiliation, etc. while seeing the people in power who propose it be convicted of offenses in the similar area? They are legislating in an attempt to contain their hardly controlled desires and impulses. Pray the gay away. Make women wear head scarves because you can’t control your dick. Censor the internet because your policies are unpopular. Repress guilt for your adultery by preventing even the most benign divorces.

This doesn’t come out of a valid, rational, well-evidenced alternative, this comes out of fear and insecurity about one’s own impulses.

I grew up in Dallas believing that the US was post-racial divide, sure, and as I’ve gotten older I’ve learned that certainly is not the case.  Police brutality, and the kneeling for it, along with endless reports of sexual harassment of women, along with having lived in the southwest and in the northeast, have opened my eyes, even if I did not always want to see.

How much did it take for football players to lose their memories, or to lose their credibility as deeply-thinking human beings, in order for people to care about CTE and Colin Kaepernick‘s and Eric Reid‘s abilities to have informed opinions? It took a Trump election to change it for liberals. Would Ta-Nehisi Coates’s profound book be as powerful as it is now instead of yet another protest similar to reading a Greenpeace or PETA campaign? Would people still have responded as desperately to many of today’s issues if Hillary had won, and we could rest more assured that the arc of moral justice bends towards progress?  Now, are you as certain that that bending is true?

Imagine how other peoples’ perceptions of the above photo has changed since it first happened, after the repeated fatilities from police brutality, the Trump election, the “disrespect of the flag” debate, the dragging of veterans for some reason into this discussion.

Are we really certain of our principles and opinions on issues?  If we just got rid of the National Anthem at sporting events, perhaps this is a logical move since, well, why the fuck is it there to begin with? But have we enriched our culture by taking it away, or just leave an empty hole? Or is this like removing Confederate statues where some would say we should remember the past and others would say we should not celebrate the past. Would we have opinions on these matters that would shift in different contexts?

Proposal

I propose that we as a culture reaffirm the power of the individual vote. Just focus on that. Some (I don’t think I do, given studies that don’t necessarily show it helps) believe we should get a day off to vote. Enact measures that increase the percentage of eligible Americans who can vote. Enact policies that encourage non-voting blocks who long gave up on the system to re-engage. Put research, people, money, and innovation into secure voting methods and machines (or paper ballots if those make more sense) that implement modern-day advances in social media (the complaint about American Idol being more reliable than our voting systems). I would imagine the Electoral College is a disincentive too towards any reaffirmation of the power of the vote. Halt Citizens United and require transparency in campaign funds, even if just temporarily to solidify the mission around individual votes.

I know that is an unrealistic proposal and it probably weakens the rest of this essay for some readers, but to me it is the most actionable, most grassroots political, most confidence-inspiring thing that could be done, rather than high-up deals made behind closed doors between groups that have no connection with the American people anymore.

As for foreign corruption of our institutions, well that seems like it hardly needs to be mentioned. And we are still dealing with the shock that it even needs to be addressed. Can we not conduct politics in such a way that we need to collude with hostile foreign nations in order to succeed? That seems like pretty low-hanging fruit to me.

UAVs, Navy, Satellites, Battle Stars

This post, which I want to keep pretty short, feeds off my post on re-orienting national security priorities.

I read a fascinating paper provocatively entitled “How the US Lost the Naval War of 2015” (PDF), by James Kraska.

It takes a look at what is happening now as the US Navy flounders and the Chinese Navy quickly ramps up, and then suggests what might happen if China decided to sink the USS George Washington in 2015.

What fascinates me about this is that US Navy dominance is sort of seen as a given these days, something not worth worrying about, but naval supremacy has always been a significant factor behind any superpower’s reign of world affairs.  The US gladly took over the mantle of naval superiority and its positive externalities for world security after the United Kingdom found it in their best interest to ally with the US.  The Royal Navy’s battleship-style fleet did not transition well into the age of submarines and aircraft carriers.  The loss of the Suez Canal was a significant barrier, as well.

So the US took over after World War 2 and has since controlled the oceans.  This has enabled it to push an era of free trade and open water travel that has made it cheaper to ship resources than even to fly them, so much that the cost is almost negligent.  In terms of protecting capitalism, having the US superpower in control of the oceans has been incredibly successful.

Now the US focuses more on satellite/overhead imagery, and more recently, on asymmetric warfare.  Which has left several gaps in the American strategic security worldview.

The paper suggests that China could destroy a US carrier, which would have a psychological effect on Americans perhaps bigger than a physical effect, although with a Chinese contractor shutting down the Suez for “repairs” and China throwing up other roadblocks, this could delay the US in appropriately responding its massive, yet diffused fleet into the Pacific.  Control of the Pacific would shift as China’s neighbors, by sheer proximity, would be reluctant to move to counter China’s naval aggression.  What would the US be able to do?

It’s a fascinating paper although obviously it only looks at an American military perspective and not all the other factors:  economic, cultural, etc.

But it also makes me wonder why the US is so focused on a small group of jihadists when there are bigger fish to fry for continued American dominance.

1) It is in the US interest to ensure continued and unfettered control of the oceans, to ensure open trade, safe shipping lines, and access to necessary strategic hold-points like Guam, Hawai’i, Okinawa, Europe, and other navy bases.

Robert Kaplan is associated with the neo-cons but he is an excellent security historian.  What he says about US naval moves against China is that we should focus on building our presence so enmeshed with Pacific interests that China will be more inclined to ally with us than to try to displace us.  This is a strategy akin to the UK realizing it had to partner with the US after WW2, and akin to the argument that alienating Japan before WW2 would push them to attack the US for control of the Pacific.

Some quotes:

“None of this will change our need for basing rights in the Pacific, of course. The more access to bases we have, the more flexibility we’ll have—to support unmanned flights, to allow aerial refueling, and perhaps most important, to force the Chinese military to concentrate on a host of problems rather than just a few. Never provide your adversary with only a few problems to solve (finding and hitting a carrier, for example), because if you do, he’ll solve them.

“Andersen Air Force Base, on Guam’s northern tip, rep- resents the future of U.S. strategy in the Pacific. It is the most potent platform anywhere in the world for the projection of American military power. Landing there recently in a military aircraft, I beheld long lines of B-52 bombers, C-17 Globemasters, F/A-18 Hornets, and E-2 Hawkeye surveillance planes, among others. Andersen’s 10,000-foot runways can handle any plane in the Air Force’s arsenal, and could accommodate the space shuttle should it need to make an emergency landing. The sprawl of runways and taxiways is so vast that when I arrived, I barely noticed a carrier air wing from the USS Kitty Hawk, which was making live practice bombing runs that it could not make from its home port in Japan. I saw a truck filled with cruise missiles on one of the runways. No other Air Force base in the Pacific stores as much weaponry as Andersen: some 100,000 bombs and missiles at any one time. Andersen also stores 66 million gallons of jet fuel, making it the Air Force’s biggest strategic gas-and-go in the world.

“Guam, which is also home to a submarine squadron and an expanding naval base, is significant because of its location. From the island an Air Force equivalent of a Marine or Army division can cover almost all of PACOM’s area of responsibility. Flying to North Korea from the West Coast of the United States takes thirteen hours; from Guam it takes four.

“”This is not like Okinawa,” Major General Dennis Larsen, the Air Force commander there at the time of my visit, told me. “This is American soil in the midst of the Pacific. Guam is a U.S. territory.” The United States can do anything it wants here, and make huge investments without fear of being thrown out. Indeed, what struck me about Andersen was how great the space was for expansion to the south and west of the current perimeters. Hundreds of millions of dollars of construction funds were being allocated. This little island, close to China, has the potential to become the hub in the wheel of a new, worldwide constellation of bases that will move the locus of U.S. power from Europe to Asia. In the event of a conflict with Taiwan, if we had a carrier battle group at Guam we would force the Chinese either to attack it in port—thereby launching an assault on sovereign U.S. territory, and instantly becoming the aggressor in the eyes of the world—or to let it sail, in which case the carrier group could arrive off the coast of Taiwan only two days later.

“During the Cold War the Navy had a specific infrastructure for a specific threat: war with the Soviet Union. But now the threat is multiple and uncertain: we need to be prepared at any time to fight, say, a conventional war against North Korea or an unconventional counterinsurgency battle against a Chinese-backed rogue island-state. This requires a more agile Navy presence on the island, which in turn means outsourcing services to the civilian community on Guam so that the Navy can concentrate on military matters. One Navy captain I met with had grown up all over the Pacific Rim. He told me of the Navy’s plans to expand the waterfront, build more bachelors’ quarters, and harden the electrical-power system by putting it underground. “The fact that we have lots of space today is meaningless,” he said. “The question is, How would we handle the surge requirement necessitated by a full-scale war?”

“There could be a problem with all of this. By making Guam a Hawaii of the western Pacific, we make life simple for the Chinese, because we give them just one problem to solve: how to threaten or intimidate Guam. The way to counter them will be not by concentration but by dispersion. So how will we prevent Guam from becoming too big?

“In a number of ways. We may build up Palau, an archipelago of 20,000 inhabitants between Mindanao, in the Philippines, and the Federated States of Micronesia, whose financial aid is contingent on a defense agreement with us. We will keep up our bases in Central Asia, close to western China—among them Karshi-Khanabad, in Uzbekistan, and Manas, in Kyrgyzstan, which were developed and expanded for the invasion of Afghanistan. And we will establish what are known as cooperative security locations.

“A cooperative security location can be a tucked-away corner of a host country’s civilian airport, or a dirt runway somewhere with fuel and mechanical help nearby, or a military airport in a friendly country with which we have no formal basing agreement but, rather, an informal arrangement with private contractors acting as go-betweens. Because the CSL concept is built on subtle relationships, it’s where the war-fighting ability of the Pentagon and the diplomacy of the State Department coincide—or should. The problem with big bases in, say, Turkey—as we learned on the eve of the invasion of Iraq—is that they are an intrusive, intimidating symbol of American power, and the only power left to a host country is the power to deny us use of such bases. In the future, therefore, we will want unobtrusive bases that benefit the host country much more obviously than they benefit us. Allowing us the use of such a base would ramp up power for a country rather than humiliating it.

“I have visited a number of CSLs in East Africa and Asia. Here is how they work. The United States provides aid to upgrade maintenance facilities, thereby helping the host country to better project its own air and naval power in the region. At the same time, we hold periodic exercises with the host country’s military, in which the base is a focus. We also offer humanitarian help to the surrounding area. Such civil-affairs projects garner positive publicity for our military in the local media—and they long preceded the response to the tsunami, which marked the first time that many in the world media paid attention to the humanitarian work done all over the world, all the time, by the U.S. military. The result is a positive diplomatic context for getting the host country’s approval for use of the base when and if we need it.

“The first part of the twenty-first century will be not nearly as stable as the second half of the twentieth, because the world will be not nearly as bipolar as it was during the Cold War. The fight between Beijing and Washington over the Pacific will not dominate all of world politics, but it will be the most important of several regional struggles. Yet it will be the organizing focus for the U.S. defense posture abroad. If we are smart, this should lead us back into concert with Europe. No matter how successfully our military adapts to the rise of China, it is clear that our current dominance in the Pacific will not last. The Asia expert Mark Helprin has argued that while we pursue our democratization efforts in the Middle East, increasingly befriending only those states whose internal systems resemble our own, China is poised to reap the substantial benefits of pursuing its interests amorally—what the United States did during the Cold War. The Chinese surely hope, for example, that our chilly attitude toward the brutal Uzbek dictator, Islam Karimov, becomes even chillier; this would open up the possibility of more pipeline and other deals with him, and might persuade him to deny us use of the air base at Karshi-Khanabad. Were Karimov to be toppled in an uprising like the one in Kyrgyzstan, we would immediately have to stabilize the new regime or risk losing sections of the country to Chinese influence.”

2) To reinforce naval supremacy will require control of the skies and space.  Orbital satellites provide significant communications for all American forces and commercial interests, and a satellite war would cripple American capabilities.

3) Protecting satellites and increasing outer space security will require something akin to George Friedman’s (CEO of STRATFOR) battle stars (read “The Next 100 Years”), large manned orbital stations that provide armaments and increased surveillance for protecting satellites, providing imagery and comms to the ground, and even shooting down rockets, planes, or attacking ground targets.  Friedman suggests 3 battle stars could be required, orbiting continually in line with the earth’s orbit to always provide overhead support in certain regions.

Says John Reilly in a fair review (read the rest) of George Friedman’s book:

“The section on the Third World War allows the author to wax techno-thrillerish on the matter of mid-21st- century weaponry. We learn a great deal about hypersonic weapons and their ability to blow up unsatisfactory objects anywhere on Earth in a matter of minutes. He has plainly thought a great deal about the military applications of space which, again, he views as an extension of Mahan’s strategy of controlling the world’s trade routes. We get a description of geosynchronous Battle Star observation-and-command stations. (He adopts the term “Battle Star,” without noting the implications of that term for his optimistic view of the military and civilian applications of robots of all kinds.) We also get an excursion to bases on the Moon that sounds not altogether unlike Robert Heinlein’s “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.””

4) UAVs will continue to improve in sophistication and lethality, and are already providing extra eyes for American border security (see San Diego), Afghanistan/Pakistan targets, and eventually everywhere.  They are rapidly getting improved optics, more dangerous armaments, higher altitudes, and more time overhead (like these UAVs that can hover instead of do racetracks).  UAVs will probably be complementing increasingly robotic android armies, taking humans off the front lines to be replaced with dispensable robots to do war-fighting and perimeter security.

These seem like very far-off strategic priorities but these must be driven by intentional funding, innovative projects, and understanding by the citizenry of their importance.  I am far more in favor of continued intelligence dominance by the US than I am of attempting to do neo-colonial counter-insurgency and nation-building abroad, when domestic security and international respect for governments would suffice in building networks against terrorist plots.

There are plenty of other questions, too, such as whether it would be bad for China to compete with us or take over the seas.  Or what the impact would be of increased naval presence in the Pacific (see below the long comment about Guam).  Or whether alternatives are viable (building floating bases instead of using land).  I’d like to see more discussion on all of that below, if you could take the time.

Reorienting National Security Priorities

Below is my plan for reorienting American security priorities, which I think are currently misaligned, often conflicting, and outdated.  This is not a plan for innovation, or financial reform (which is one of the most pressing national issues), or for progressivism.  It’s a plan to increase the long-term durability of homeland security.

Politics, as I’ve learned in my brief 2 years here in DC, is something too complex for me to understand within the realms of my attention span.  What may seem like a good (or even easy) idea to implement has to be palatable to the seething mass that is Congress, and must please interest groups, and must come at an opportune time.  The horse trading, budget proposals and approvals, and distortions that are involved in any federal level issue are over my head.  That alone is part of the reason I’m inclined to start up a small business one day and avoid such bureaucratic nightmares.

Also with regards to politics, President Obama’s style appears to be to go out of his way to allow affected parties to kibbitz and argue and debate an issue until consensus is reached.  This is frustratingly evident for the Commander-in-Chief’s wait-and-see attitude towards the Afghanistan run-offs and having Afghanistan as a credible partner before deciding what to do next with troop levels.  It should not take a national debate to know that 1) any general in charge will press for continued war in Afghanistan and 2) Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires.

My thoughts on President Obama’s style are that his job as an executive is not to dither (as Cheney would say), but to be a decider (as Bush the Younger would say). (that said, Cheney could have benefited from being more of a ditherer while Bush the Younger could have been more thoughtful in his decidering)

President Obama’s waiting can be seen as weakness, lack of certitude (does he really need to consider whether gays should serve in the military openly?), and lack of leadership.  Leaders lead through making tough decisions quickly, firmly, yet cool-headedly.  In the military, we were taught as sergeants and even as junior enlisted that making a bad decision is better than making no decision at all.  President Obama is coming up on 9 months in office and the people are getting impatient.

After having witnessed how DC works, I’ve noticed that when an Administration puts its weight behind a policy, or puts more funding into a certain area, businesses and non-profits react swiftly and with commitment.  If President Obama said tomorrow we are moving to solar power, even energy companies would play ball.  Scouts would immediately be hitting the phones and pavement to come up with the best contract proposals to win that money.  The argument that the nation has to be “ready” for change seems more obstructionist than realistic to me.  America is and always will be an unabashedly capitalist country that passionately desires chasing and obtaining the money.

Complaints that an active executive branch seems like a command economy/government  are crying wolf — companies and non-profits have no problem immediately shifting priorities.  Why should the government be less adaptive, less competitive?  So this gives me hope that an executive who makes forthright decisions would succeed in implementing this plan, regardless of the politicking that would follow it.

With these things in mind, I’ve tried to think of ways in which a current President could push through using executive powers a plan that would be hard for even Congress to stall.

1) Gays in the Military. First, the Commander-in-Chief should dictate that LGBTs (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) must be allowed to openly serve in the military.  This is justified to the Jacksonians by saying that we need all the talent and strength and volunteers we can get to fight today’s wars.  Once the word comes down, the heads of each service will find a way to implement the policy.  The “problem” of how to integrate LGBTs is not a reason to delay equal treatment of citizens willing to fight. [note:  it would be up to states to decide whether to allow gay marriages, correct?]

2) Universal Human Rights. Allowing gay servicemembers provides a well-publicized opening for which President Obama can reaffirm the American Dream for all people by promoting the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, sure to please the Wilsonians (who are concerned with equality) and Jeffersonians (who are concerned with preserving individual freedoms and federalism).  Abroad, a nation that pugnaciously defends, once again, taking in your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, as the Statue of Liberty shouts forth, will be a siren call the way it used to be for people all over the world who believe in the idea of freedom and opportunity, of life, liberty, and happiness.

3) Ending “Wars”. The Commander-in-Chief should withdraw all occupation military forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, thanking the military publicly for its professional service, but stating that America’s mission has changed and that he bears full responsibility for such a decision and no one else.  Programs and celebrations to re-integrate oft-deployed servicemembers back into society will strengthen long-stressed military families.

4) Drug Legalization. The President should legalize all drugs and fund rehab missions for addicts, heavily regulating drugs instead, including imports filtered from Afghanistan and south and central America.  This will cut the knees off drug cartels (Sinaloa, Juarez, La Familia) and enforcer organizations (Los Zetas) in Mexico, who are raising havoc for the Mexican government.

5) New Immigration Policy and Improved Border Security. President Obama, with fewer forces deployed, can focus his Department of Homeland Security and border resources towards an immigration policy that encourages highly-skilled immigrants to come to study, research, work, and live, and which allows more poor immigrants in than before, but with improved documentation.  The President should divert resources freed from Iraq and Afghanistan into helping secure Mexico both through a relaxed drug policy and through cooperative security to arrest drug cartel members.  Mexico is the soft underbelly of American superpower status and its well-being as a successful, secure, happy nation is in our national interest.  The Minute Men, who constitute a Jacksonian tradition in the southwest, should be lauded for their efforts in helping to watch the border, but with improved border security and accountability, their services won’t be needed as much and they can return to their normal lives.

6) Naval and Space Dominance. The Commander-in-Chief can re-assert the nation’s priority towards maintaining naval dominance.  The Commander-in-Chief and the President can look to the Earth’s orbit to assure future American dominance of outer space satellites and future space command platforms.  Much of the reason the US has gained global power is through its taking over full control over the seas from the British.  In the future, control of space will be of utmost importance to US commerce, intelligence, and security, as we are and will be heavily reliant on satellite observation and communication.  Hamiltonians will enjoy continued open-seas security for free trade, while the defense sector will enjoy moving into outer space for improved national security.  The US military will have a lighter footprint in sovereign nations, decreasing the threat of intractable insurgencies.

7) Downgrading Terrorism’s Priority. Terrorism as a long-term priority is not ranked high for the US internally, given the lack of proximity to terrorist-supporting failed nations.  However, its threat should be even more reduced once troops are redeployed from Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which are considered backyards for the global insurgency.  Lacking a near enemy in the US, insurgents will turn to civil war and/or a problem for Iran, Russia, the Stans, India, and Pakistan.  Al-Qaeda will lose much of its rallying cry.  Just think:  could we return to days before the TSA security theater where we have to remove shoes, belts, and dignity at airports?

8) Energy Independence. American energy independence will further mollify Al-Qaeda’s support base.  Pouring money into solar power in particular, which comes to us in an infinite supply, must be our way forward.  Reduced reliance on foreign oil weans us off OPEC and in particular Saudi, an apostate kingdom as Al-Qaeda would refer to it.  Al-Qaeda sees Saudi as being propped up by America in order to be raped for its oil.  US independence from Saudi whim removes the US from the least-braindead of Al-Qaeda anti-American animus.

9) Make New Friends or Strengthen Old Friendships. Returning to being that of a more honest diplomatic broker of peace, the US can step up efforts to ally itself with key regional pivot powers like Iran, Japan,  and Turkey, who constitute influential geopolitical power upon large swathes of the globe.  Pakistan, where the real terrorist threat is, can be more of a priority for American security and diplomacy, since foreign fighters have been long supported by the Taliban and the Pakistani ISI.  It is in the US’s interest to decouple these organizations from Al-Qaeda, while at the same time helping Pakistan to secure its nuclear arsenal from political and physical instability.

The end result of all these moves is that we have a larger, more diverse population base of productive Americans and a fresh stream of immigrants to contribute to the innovation economy.  We have safer borders and a stronger base in North America.  We have fewer albatrosses around our neck so that walking softly and carrying a big stick, being an arsenal of democracy, will be in line with our modern national security priorities.  By downgrading terrorism as a priority, we force other nations to deal with their near-border insecurities, while improving our response to naval superiority, domestic terrorist investigations, immigration policy, and a decreasing drug war threat.

Is this possible politically?  The main problem is that these steps above, taken individually, would not make much sense.  But under an integrated strategy, these steps would make sense to all the political schools of thought that exist within the US.  The only people who would stand to lose from these moves are of course incumbent interests, such as defense contractors who profit from foreign wars, and the Republican party, which has lost its philosophical moorings and which functions right now as nothing more than obstructionists wanting President Obama to fail.

The irony is that the strategy above would actually appeal to fiscal conservatives and to social libertarians, since the wars would end, homeland security would reach less into our private lives, and federal agencies wouldn’t be so stressed for funding from supporting failing drug/terror/border security/diplomacy policies.  The conservatives would find their voice backed up by national policy.

And of course the progressives would benefit because they’ve also ended wars, reduced the pressures of the drug war in Mexico on immigration and jailing for drugs, and ensured a rhetoric of equality for all human beings.

As for the companies and Republicans, well, both will do what they’re supposed to do:  they will re-form around where the profit, financially and politically, is.

It is the American DNA to be fleet, adaptive, innovative, and competitive.  This is the security strategy to encourage that.

US Forces "Volunteer" to Leave Iraq

It’s interesting to live through the times of American occupation of Iraq.  What the Bush Administration sees as a necessary move, not without its faults, that has eventually led to a nascent democracy, is nothing short of tragically comic.  What we see as “giving peace in the Middle East a chance” will in future history books be seen as imperial overreach, classic quest for respect, influence, and resources, and geopolitics.

It’s clear Americans long gave up on this “war” and no longer want any part of it in any sense except to support the troops, whatever that means anymore. (I suspect “support the troops” is akin to wishing a homeless guy well when you see him but walk on by nervously, hoping he doesn’t attack you).  It’s clear the rest of the world thinks our occupation of Iraq is foolish and naive, and some countries and non-state actors think it’s wonderful that we’re willingly spending blood and treasure on an endeavor that’s going to hurt us for decades to come.

It’s also clear that we’ve learned nothing about Islam, Arabs, history in the Middle East, the international system, or democracy as a result of meddling with Iraq.  Which is perhaps the most tragic thing, given that we’ve invested so much in the damn place.  But I guess when Madoff, the Big 3, big banks, and the Bush Administration take us for fools and we hardly put up a fight, we deserve the pains of our own negligence and ignorance.

So what’s going on in Iraq now?

The US and Iraq “agreed” on the terms of American military withdrawal from Iraq recently.  The full document of the agreement between the US and Iraq can be read on Scribd.

The US is required to leave all Iraqi cities by June 30, 2009.  It is then required to remove all military forces (in which the document goes into elaborate definition of what that consists of) by the end of 2011.  Which is still a full 3 years from now, I might add.

Sounds great, right?  Pretty simple and realistic?

Well, the Sadrists refuse to acknowledge the passing of this agreement by the Iraqi Parliament and Al-Maliki.  Their logic is that the deal would be legitimizing American presence in Iraq, and therefore they disapprove.  Juan Cole has a further breakdown of the various Iraqi parties’ takes on the agreement and on federalism vs. central government.

Real Iraqis do not want us in their country (although they do want security).  The only ones who want us there have interests in keeping us there.

Everyone knows this deal is a farce.  The US does indeed want to remove most of its troops, and thankfully through electing Obama, this seems more of a reality.  But there is no way the US is giving up too much of its military presence in Iraq.  It will continue to provide “technical advisors” and “trainers” for Iraq’s military, air force, and intelligence.  Intel and the central government will undoubtedly be strongly influenced by the CIA and other covert operations.  The US has built massive bases and is still working on a brand-new embassy.  These will require logistics, support, and maintenance.

Iraqis know that the US isn’t going away soon.  It may not be clear (even to Americans) what the US wants from Iraq, but it’s pretty clear nothing good or stable will come out of it.

Meanwhile, Iraq is not going to improve.  If someone says the surge worked, you can just stop trusting anything else they say.  Baghdad is “calmer” now because it’s been walled off and because ethnic separation has already occurred.  The number of troops that were added are not commensurate with numbers needed to be able to quell violence — through the rest of the world or through the rest of history.  It seems as though the US bought off the Sunnis to get them to play ball in getting rid of Al-Qaeda, who should have always been an unwelcome presence in Iraq.

People still don’t get why Bush was so bad.  This guy is dumb.  He is happy watching the illusion of elections and democratic government, but he has no understanding of what all that actually entails.  As long as people go through the motions of voting, he thinks it’s progress.  When it comes to what happens afterwards, like the election of someone he doesn’t like, or massive violence and calls of fraud, he doesn’t know what to do with it.

This is why we’re supposed to elect people who understand politics, regional sensitivities and political levers, and maybe even a little knowledge of economics.  It bothers me that people claim Bush is devious and sneaky; he’s clearly not.  He’s a well-meaning buffoon who’s a puppet of the long-time buddy network he installed underneath him (look at how long Cheney, Rumsfeld, Negroponte, et al have been in the game of Machiavellian imperialism).

He’s happy with Iraq, even though Al-Maliki’s Iraq is somewhat akin to a banana republic, without the bananas.  Al-Maliki is on shaky ground and you can bet as soon as he can, he’s going to wipe out any resistance within his government as soon as the US looks the other way (as he did with “former Ba’athists”, the new red-headed stepchild in Iraq and, more recently, with Sunni coup collaborators).  So if you’re Sunni, better watch out.  If you’re Iranian, welcome!  If you’re Kurdish, you’re hoping everyone ignores you so you can continue to slink on by and come closer to a modern Kurdistan.  Until Turkey decides it’s going to take the same opportunity to throw Kurdistan against the wall like Russia did with Georgia.

Doesn’t it piss you off that Bush is clueless about this stuff?  When has he talked about how the Sunnis in Saudi (his friends, I might add) and the Gulf states and Pakistan feel threatened by the strongly Iranian-influenced Iraq?  Bush has completely depleted all of our political capital and armament to do anything more in the Middle East.  The US public won’t stand for further meddling in the Middle East, and all the international players involved in the region realize that the US has no sway there once its military leaves.

In other words, it’s going to be a bloody, messy fight in the Middle East once we leave.  And we will watch cluelessly with our mouthes agape, wondering why those damn Ay-rabs can’t all just get along.  Al-Maliki and the Sunnis will go at it after we leave.  Any vacuum of power will invite Al-Qaeda and other global insurgency groups back in.

The irony is that it seems as though Iraqi politics is pretty interesting on its own, and the most powerful interests in Iraq (like, for instance, the highest grand cleric, Al-Sistani) are trying to push for a sovereign, independent, democratic government.  But the US is determined to be the “peacekeeper” and state-builder, so it’s decided to stay.  The biggest railroading issue in Iraqi politics is, of course, American occupation, but from our lens, we see it as keeping the place from descending into chaos.

As Bill Easterly, development economist, would call it, this is the white man’s burden.  We feel as though it’s upon us to fix everyone else so they can be perfect just like us.  We spend trillions of dollars on other countries, with no accountability from those who are affected by it, and let the automotive industry in our own country eat it.  Not that we should bailout the automakers, but we sure do wrangle a lot more with smaller amounts of money for our own peoples’ education and well-being than we do about the trillions spent fixing countries we don’t understand.

This shit is never-ending.  When will we realize that the best thing we can do is to not get involved?  Are you looking forward to two decades from now when we’re stuck with a bunch of damaged, hurting veterans and an Iraq situation that’s still chaotic?  This is the same stuff you read about in foreign policy history books where the colonizers drew arbitrary borders for entire peoples and then wondered why it didn’t work out.

I hope that this all will not happen, but the underlying currents of neo-imperialism, interventionism, paternalism, love for war and oil, and more, still run strong and are indefatigible in American politics, even after Obama’s being selected president.

Again, I have to be amazed at how we’re now willfully “leaving” Iraq under an “agreement”, which basically, when translated, amounts to us running with our tail between our legs now that the US public wouldn’t take it anymore (after even a Democratic Congress refused to answer the peoples’ wishes to withdraw).

Of course, the warmongerers (most of whom have never been in a combat environment) out there will call this cowardice and emboldening the enemy.  Well, too bad.  If employing the democratic support of your people to support your foreign wars is too difficult, then maybe the point is that the war isn’t actually worth it?  To argue differently is to question democratic rule by the people.  The flip side of that, if you are a pragmatic warmongerer, is that you shouldn’t start a fight you know you won’t be able to finish, even if you think it’s worth it.

I thought it was fitting that an Iraqi journalist threw his shoes at Bush.  An educated Iraqi who’s in a professional line of work throws whatever he can, given the opportunity.  That’s about as much of a condemnation as you can get.  Bush may see it as bizarre and an outlier event, but that shows how out of touch he is with the world he should be the most powerful leader of.  I would venture to say that a high percentage of the people who saw the event (regardless of nationality, color, creed, etc.) identified instantly with the journalist and knew EXACTLY what he meant.

Are we going to be ready for the pent-up resentment and hostility that will come out after we “withdraw”?  History shows that it’s never pretty when the lid comes off a boiling political pot.  An Iraqi journalist got his ribs cracked and sustained other injuries.  Saddam was filmed during what was basically a Shi’ite execution.  And these events were under US supervision!

Interesting Economic Datapoints

So I’m done with this semester and I was just watching C-SPAN2, which was covering the Senate vote on the automaker bailout.  The vote failed 52-35 or so.  Dow futures were down -325 around the time of the vote.

I am still cash but am getting a bit more antsy to buy than I was before.  I have an “I know it when I see it” approach to bottoms and tops, so I’m waiting for that feeling again.

But it’s clear that the economic outlook is not good, with record unemployment numbers, commodity and energy shocks, and real bloodshed within the old American industries like media, auto, and finance.  Tech and internet has not been immune, but their companies are still announcing improvements and new products…

AMZN

I bought AMZN at 36.5 one day but got shaken out at the end of the day by climax selling.  Since then, AMZN rallied and touched 54-55 as the market bounced off fresh lows a few weeks ago.  What a pain that was to watch.  The rally came off Obama’s announcement of the next economic team, but it’s unclear whether there’s correlation there.

AMZN should announce the next Kindle soon, and it has been opening up its web services platform up even more.  The next generation of Kindle will suck people like me in to buying digital books (and probably be the last time I buy actual books en masse) and any increase in consumer demand will grease all of AMZN’s cloudy wheels.

TED Spread

The TED spread tracks the spread between inter-bank loans and US treasury bills and is a measure of liquidity in the credit markets — if there’s a high spread, then banks aren’t lending because it costs too much to do so.  Here’s the chart:

08_12_11_ted

After the initial credit shock when Bear Stearns folded in Augustish, 2007, you can see that the spread spiked up to about 200 basis points.  From then, the market stabilized until Septemberish of this year, when all the Fannie, Freddie, Lehman, AIG, etc. crap happened.

The market was on the brink of collapse until the Fed and Treasury decided to do whatever it took along with a massive finance bailout.  Until the public money was sure to flow in, the TED spread spiked up to 450 basis points — essentially no money was flowing anywhere within the private banking sector.

The spread then fell and has stabilized as the market’s continued to sink.  Now 200 basis points seems to be an agreed-upon number, but note that it is only back to where we were after the first credit shocks.  The normal TED spread was well below 100 basis points up until 2007.

In other words, there’s still substantial risk and unwillingness to lend.

[Note:  On Tuesday, Dec. 17th, the Fed cut rates essentially to 0%, which should reduce the usefulness of looking at the TED spread since the Fed is essentially acting like another lender…]

Treasury Bills

On Tuesday, for the first time ever, three-month treasury bill interest rates went negative!  This means that, for a brief period, people were willing to PAY the government to hold their money instead of seeking a return elsewhere.  That is, people didn’t even want a return ON their money; they just wanted a return OF their money!

Later, the government managed to sell $30bil worth of T-bills at 0% interest.  Which is still ridiculous.  Here’s the chart:

08_12_11_tbills

From The Sun's Financial Diary

These are rare times…we keep seeing records being broken, aberrances being observed for the first time, red-flag indicators going off everywhere.

Iceland

Iceland’s finance-dominated stock market completely collapsed.  Here’s the chart:

08_12_11_iceland

Icelanders are devastated.  There’s pretty much nothing left.  But to add insult to injury, the index, which had been hovering in the 600’s, just plunged down to the 300’s this week after another major bank failed.

Oil

Here’s the thing about oil.  Everyone who’s been predicting peak oil soon and all these ridiculously paranoid and apocalyptic scenarios were made to look like experts over the summer when oil prices spiked to the $140’s and gas hit $4/gallon.  A lot of financial risk management and analysis reports were written up until now, assuming continued high oil prices.

Of course, oil has since crashed.

08_12_11_oil

In other words, these knuckleheads don’t know what they’re talking about, or where oil prices are going next.  The term “black swan”, I should add, really pisses me off.  Geez.  Enough with Taleb!

Certainly the shock of oil prices has everyone rattled.  The instability of prices along with Obama being elected will hopefully be enough to spur long-term energy innovations to get us out of this fucking mess.  The time for US energy independence is now.  Especially if we really believe in protecting national security, not to mention national (and global) stability.

My position on oil is that its days are numbered as the major energy source, but it will still be needed for many products and as one of many sources of energy, even after we’ve converted heavily away from petroleum.

I also do not believe peak oil is soon.  I believe oil bedevils much of our foreign policy and is tied to our adventures with Israel and the Middle East and South America.  I believe we have in our own hands the ability to rid ourselves of these albatrosses.

I believe the chart above correlates extremely well with the “war” in Iraq, starting in 2003.  I am not sure what happened this summer in 2008.  I know that the Status of Forces agreement started hitting Iraqi politics around the same time but the massive oil spike could have been a climax of worldwide fear.  I don’t know.  The Iraq “war” seems to be all but over now that the SOFA passed and Obama is in, and I think oil is pricing that news in.  Oil has always correlated well with foreign wars.

What Next?

It’s amazing what we as Americans are willing to inflict upon ourselves.  All of this is solvable, and we know approximately what the causes are.  Until Obama got elected, we refused to acknowledge it.  Here’s hoping that Obama can translate a good plan into action. But it will be hard to generate political action when so many interests are set against it, even if it means saving our economy.

In the meantime, the economy and financial markets are still a mess, even after a bunch of layoffs have helped companies streamline.  Will those frictionally unemployed turn into structurally unemployed?  With little emphasis on job re-training, and a prolonged recession, one might think so.

Something does not feel right at all out there in my gut, making me suspicious to put my money forth, and we have yet to deal with the next big financial bomb:  consumer credit.  What happens when people, many of whom have lost jobs and have lost a safety net because of Republican idiocy, run out of money to pay back creditors?

[60 Minutes just did a report on the upcoming 2nd mortgage shock:  option arms resets.  They will balloon homeowners’ monthly expenses and look to be as bad as the first shock.  Watch the entire video for more.

07-10-24d_mortgage-resets-comprehensive

The light-green reflects the damage we’ve dealt with already, and the light-yellow and yellow are what’s still to come.  Sobering.]

Emergence of New Systems

Last week the National Intelligence Council released its 2025 Global Trends report and naturally our Georgetown MSFS program was pretty interested in looking at it.  The report considers what the major themes and trends will be of the next couple decades and assesses how they will affect different countries, power structures, and ideologies.

It must have sucked for the NIC because at first the report was issued at 33MB and didn’t seem to be uploaded correctly.  It wasn’t until this weekend that the report was fixed and was only 8MB to download.  Lost a lot of readership that way.

Some of the report’s assessments I didn’t exactly agree with.  I felt that it sold international institutions short, saying countries and regions would seek pragmatic concerns — a return to a “mercantilist” and realist perspective — over recommitting to international institutions.  At the very least I think it’s up in the air on that count; Obama’s presence alone (see his calm, thoughtful interview on 60 Minutes) might bring people back to the table, especially with Europe seeking to reassert itself in the midst of its own internal problems with population and economic stagnation and with filling a power vacuum from America’s absence the last 8 years.

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How Bush and Obama Have Shaped My Last Eight Years

Thankfully, the eight years of Bush rule are almost over.  It has been a dark period for the American soul, spirit, and Dream.  Here is a synopsis of the Bush presidency years as seen through my life, documented through my web site and blog.

Pre-Dubya

In 2000, my mind certainly wasn’t thinking about international terrorism, financial crises, gas prices, or the like.  According to my site’s news archives from 2000, when I was 22, the most important topics in my life at that point were Napster and the dotcom bubble.  The bubble had not yet burst, although it started having some rough days.  Oil was hovering around $25-40/barrel.  I had just graduated from college and went to Italy with my dad, and France with my mom.  The dollar was strong and the Euro would continue to get weaker until about 2002, facilitating American travel abroad.  I would daytrade the market for another year and a half.

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Is the US in Decline?

Georgetown’s foreign policy discussions lately have been in love with the question of whether the US is in decline. For the most part, I think most of the experts I’ve listened to have fallen on the side of “not really”.

I tend to agree. My attempt to understand what’s been going on is this: my thoughts aided by Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine”, I believe that the Friedmanites ran out of places to apply their shock and awe, what with South America resisting first, and then Russia, Iraq, and then Afghanistan. The only place left to try was the US, and privatization and starvation of government funding ran amok during Bush rule.

Loosening regulation on the financial markets led to a string of bubbles, resulting in massive redistribution of wealth to the rich and making the system unsustainable. Right now such a large failure of theory is forcing us to reevaluate what the best policies are: on preemptive war, the role of government, the subtlety of good governance (within international development in particular) and regulation.

The US left a lot of countries in its wake. People complain that the US is losing its dominance, but in fact it merely overstretched its bounds under neoconservative attempts to take advantage of unipolarity. The US spurned organizations it helped to create during its darkest hours, like the United Nations, Bretton Woods, and the World Bank. It sought to throw Iraq against the wall as an example to the rest. It pushed radical free market ideology to other countries.

The US is being hurt by its own financial greed, preying upon its own poor, but look at what’s happened elsewhere: Iceland’s stock market fell 76% in one day, heavily reliant on financial services. London has had to nationalize some of its institutions and it would not surprise me if London collapsed to some degree, being a close competitor to NYC in financial service offerings.

The countries our most slack-jawed patriots fear the most are not immune. Russia’s stock market was forced to halt on three occasions, I believe, because of volatility. Putin has gained popularity by bringing the Soviet Bear back to Russia (having thrown Georgia against the wall himself), but his oligopolistic, intimidation government is somewhat hollow and driven by commodity appreciation.

China, which has been fairly modest in its rise, despite our antagonism towards it publically, is also a victim. It depends on foreign demand for its goods, most of which are cheap and have little real value. It has not matured enough yet to wean itself off exports through adding value to its goods. According to an NPR article, it has lost 20 million jobs so far and is in danger of much more. The Shanghai stock market index has plummeted. (By the way, a hilarious paragraph from that article: “Harley Seyedin, the president of the American Chamber of Commerce in South China, says this slowdown was the result of deliberate action by the government.” Think that guy’s a Friedmanite?)

Many other countries lost half their stock market values during this mess as well. Jeffrey Sachs says the real victims won’t be third world countries, but the second world countries dependent upon globalization.

So why do Americans see the world from inside a bubble? Why do they think China (or the EU!) can develop a military to compete with ours? Why do they think China will leave our economy in shambles? China indeed will produce more than us by 2050 (yes, 2050 according to the estimates, which are all we have to go on), but per capita the US will still grow faster.

Now let’s look at the US. Clearly it has its own problems. Financial bankruptcy is a major concern, yes. How will we pay for our retirees or for medical care? How will we generate the political will to modernize our institutions for the internet age? Racism and intolerance has been exacerbated by economic uncertainty and by McCain and Palin standing idly by instead of speaking out against it. (“No, Obama’s not an Arab, he’s a good man.” Hmm.)

But unlike the EU and other large countries, we will continue to have more immigrants coming in, ensuring our replacement rate is sustainable. We have a diversified, innovative economy with no peer in terms of high-valued goods. Ironically the horrible subsidies we give to farmers have wrecked world crop markets enough that in crises we will fare better in terms of having access to raw materials. We still have protected strategic oil reserves that of course Republicans seem to want to tap out so we can be even more vulnerable in terms of national security.

We have the chance to roll out highly productive solar collectors and electric cars before other nations, and INCREDIBLY SOON, if we invest right. How’s that going to affect the Middle East, Russia, and Venezuela? And Canada for that matter?

Our military, although involved in two occupations, could redeploy and then deploy somewhere else and not fail. It is incredibly resilient as long as we can finance it. It can even be argued to provide a common good to international stability, according to Michael Mandelbaum. (highly contentious, but worth thinking about)

Sure, there’s no doubt that Fareed Zakaria is right: this is about the rise of the rest, not the decline of imperial America. But the rise of the rest what we SHOULD want as peaceful, freedom-loving, ultra-competitive Americans: no nations in poverty, more nations contributing to a globalized, efficient, tolerant world. (notice I didn’t assume democratic) And we will lose some of our influence as long as we remain backwards in our foreign policy, but that tide can turn quickly if we provide leadership by example.

So I think the naysaying is overblown. I expect a lot of what I just wrote to turn out to be incomplete or even blatantly wrong, but it is at least framed in a more holistic picture of what the levers are that affect international affairs than just the fact that the US has done some incredibly dumb things.

Besides, Barack Obama is about to win. Do you have any idea how big the fucking party in DC is going to be when he claims victory? Do you have any idea how much this will affect the rest of the world?

Bob Baer on "Fresh Air"

My mom and a classmate recommended that I listen to Baer speak on NPR. It’s a long interview, but well worth it. Listen here.

He talks mainly about Iran but it has implications in a lot of different areas. A lot of what Baer said challenged what I thought about what’s going on in the Middle East, and I thought I had a good handle on things! Here’s some things that I didn’t know/agree with before he explained it:

Arabs and Persians have transcended their racial differences: Sadr (Mahdi Army in Iraq) and Nasrullah (Hezbollah in Lebanon) under Iranian influence. Iran wants the US to leave completely from Iraq (hence it disagrees with the US leaving bases in Iraq) because it has Maliki in its pocket. Iraq will have to go to Iran for permission to act. In my opinion, this is still contrary to the intentionally false intel that Iran is supporting terror in Iraq — Iran wants stability in Iraq because otherwise war destabilizes Iraq.

Bin Laden is dead. He asks, “Where is he?” Never has anyone disappeared off the face of the map. Bin Laden wouldn’t dye his hair (this is true, he’s very pious). No DVDs recently?

Other points:

Says Iran is unique in history as a virtual empire: pulling strings with Shi’a in Iraq and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Says we need a Manhattan Project for alternative energy. (also a term used in the debate) Fuck yes. Argues that Iran will light the Persian Gulf on fire and attack oil infrastructure if provoked.

Says Iran is not looking for war with Israel or the US; it can’t afford it. We should talk to the true leaders in Iran, not Ahmadinejad, to see what they’re serious about doing.

Sunni fundamentalism (such as Salafism) is dangerous and can’t be dealt with. Shi’ite fundamentalism is open to a deal. (true, Salafists refuse any modification to Islam, which blocks reform)

Ahmadinejad is as irrelevant as McCarthy was.

Olmert wants to give up West Bank and east Jerusalem. Iran sees itself as a rising star with a weakened US, no enemy in Iraq, weakened Taliban in Afghanistan.

Iranians are more likely to go up against Saudi than Israel — and if they get nukes, so will Saudi. (could Iran help us broker a deal in the Palestine?)

There’s a theory that Israel might try an attack on Iran, but probably only after the US election with a weakened Bush. But Israel doesn’t really want all-out war, Baer says.

The Debate on Pakistan

Last night I watched the presidential debate.  Whatever.  But one part that really pissed me off was when Obama and McCain talked about Pakistan (here’s a transcript).

First off, McCain mispronounced or did not know the new Pakistani president’s name, Zardari, as “Kadari”.  While McCain knew a lot of past leaders in the old NATO playground of eastern Europe, his flub on Zardari falls in a long line of flubs by senior American leaders on Muslim names.  As an Arabic linguist, I know that there is only one conclusion:  complete ignorance of Muslim culture.  But I guess we knew that already.

Second, McCain claimed that Pakistan was a failed state before General Musharraf (yes, “General”…) took over.  What a fantastic piece of revisionism.  Pakistan was enjoying a rather democratic period in its history with Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, who were not altogether uncorrupt but who are now (after Musharraf’s ouster) still prominent figures of Pakistani democracy.

So what McCain was saying was that Pakistan was a failed state until General Musharraf undertook a coup d’état and would later try to arrest a Supreme Court judge, tease along a dog-like US eager for bin Laden’s head, and try to obtain lifetime rule.

When people criticize the US for speaking about democracy but undertaking and espousing anti-democratic views of other nations, this is what they are referring to!

A last note on McCain.  I can’t confirm this but I’m pretty sure McCain falsely claimed that he traveled to Waziristan.  Waziristan, as you might know, is an area in northwestern Pakistan outside of the government’s control and firmly Talibanized, lawless, and incredibly dangerous not only for any white man but for any foreigners.  I can’t imagine McCain went to Waziristan in any shape or fashion.  If he did, he was part of the greatest covert operation ever, involving a wonderful disguise of his skin color, clothing, linguistic abilities, religious belief, etc.  The only way Americans get into Waziristan is with massive special operations escort.

Obama on the other hand was better, but disappointing.  He wants to send more troops to Afghanistan (and I imagine McCain does too).  Afghanistan will not be contained by American forces, no matter how many we send in.  What is the historical precedent?  What are we going to do there?  Wall off Kandahar and Kabul?

It’s veterans like me who will have to fill the slots to go to war there.  What will we accomplish?  Iraq is a dismal failure, despite McCain’s promises that it’s wildly successful, and it will be even worse in Afghanistan, the home of mujahed legend, where population density is sparse and economic activity is even lower.  That Obama and McCain do not recognize that Waziristan is outside of Pakistani control (read NYTimes’ recent article on the subject), even after very bloody and humiliating attempts by the Pakistani military to contain it, is haunting.  Our politicians are trying to remain “strong” on terror but they have no long-term focus, or even one that takes into account international relations theory.  But then again, even the Pakistani experts are wrong on this issue.

What we should do in fact is withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan, and during the logistical flight mess, attack Waziristan and FATA.  It might even be worth doing so while troops are still in Iraq and Afghanistan.  We should withdraw funding to Pakistan (and Israel, and Iraq, and…).  My logic is that we know that bin Laden and Zawahiri are in FATA somewhere.  We have set up a large martial law-like apparatus in airports worldwide, which should have been a temporary move instead of a permanent one.

If we were to use our offensive military advantage in FATA, we could disrupt and flush out long-entrenched senior leaders.  They know they are perfectly safe there for now, even while we put clamps down on the rest of the world.  But if they are forced to move, we will generate intelligence and have better leads on them, especially if they attempt to flee to potential future havens like Yemen.

But this must be combined with withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan.  This will drain the mujahed solidarity more than you might think.  It’s counter-intuitive.  Yes, they will celebrate another “victory”, but it will not collapse the US like it did the Soviet Union.  I hope.  The financial crisis here at home has made that less clear.

One problem in Pakistan is that it’s a nuclear state.  Destabilizing the government could cause nuclear weapons to get in the hands of Al-Qaeda, which does indeed desire to use nuclear weapons against its enemies.  But wouldn’t its arsenal be fairly centralized and easy to protect?  Couldn’t we (or China, going by that Wiki article above) help to secure those arms and thus have an avenue to cooperate with Pakistan while going into FATA?  I understand the concern on this issue but don’t think it’s a deal-killer.

But they will lose incentive for arms flows (the US is flooding Muslim nations with weapons), ease of access to killing Americans, ease of training and impact evaluation for missions, public support for jihad.  The US can shore up its domestic support, re-tool its military, and stop draining its coffers.  Regionally, neighbors of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq will have to close their borders.  Up till now, they’ve had a strong incentive to open their borders:  they’ve been able to release their extremists and send them to fight the jihad in other countries, increasing their security by ridding themselves of problem people.  With an outside enemy gone, they will have to return to their pre-Iraq postures.

I believe in sovereignty and self-determinism and all that, but I do believe that we have a very simple mission:  kill bin Laden and Zawahiri.  Even the dumbest soldier understands that mission.  But we have failed for about seven years in this mission.  That is unconscionable.  Critics would say that the mission has changed, or that bin Laden’s death will not end jihad.  No, it will not end the jihad, but killing or capturing key leaders of insurgencies substantially reduces the institutional capacity of an organization.  It is also an incredibly simple metric for governments to pursue.

And to be honest, how politically unpopular would it be to say that we will go balls-to-the-wall to kill bin Laden in his safe haven, regardless of Pakistani “sovereignty”?  They don’t control FATA, and we have history on our side when we almost got bin Laden in Tora Bora.

This scenario won’t happen.  We may get lucky and nab bin Laden and Zawahiri.  Both parties will claim success.  I guess the last question I should leave you with is, “If we’re not going into FATA, then whose interests would it be in to make sure we never do?”