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.

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.

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, this 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.

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.

The Only Person Not Paying Attention is You

The Snowden leak has been immensely disappointing all around.  It makes me sick to my stomach to read different constituencies circling their wagons on it.  The outcome is almost certainly already written.

First of all, people are acting like it’s a major revelation that this stuff has been going on.  Really? It’s been in the news since post-9/11 took shape, and, among people in DC who care about this stuff, it flared up in 2006 and 2007 with the EFF and ACLU finding its scent.  Whistleblowers have been punished, military blogging has been pretty much extinguished, FISA silliness has made its way into Al-Qaeda propaganda, Hollywood movies, bad TV documentaries.

Technically speaking, with sheer processing speed and storage being rendered inexpensive with the advent of cloud computing and parallel processing across networks, along with massive amounts of investment by the NSA into equipment so much that it would affect local power stations, what did people really think was going on?  Room 641A was uncovered by Mark Klein, a whistleblower whose name no one knows, and showed how the FBI could tap into telecoms.  When did that happen? 2006!  How much more evidence did people need for the story to blow up?

nsa-phone-records-lawsuit.jpeg1-1280x960

Mark Klein, whistleblower

NYC

People I know in NYC are for the most part universal human rights-type liberals, which is to say they strongly believe that the notion of freedom has something to do with expecting freedom as a standard right for all, but not really having much idea how to implement or enforce it except through dreamy notions of Hans Zimmer-soundtracked Supreme Court victory films and through self-example (thus “hipster” stuff like gardening, eating healthier, being a smarter consumer, exotic hobbies, etc., but without a similar push into practicing politics).

I felt like I was a broken record in our flying robots class as people would worry about the impact of drones, while I saw drones as an eventuality of the future and cared more about the policy impacts of an unchecked and unnoticed NSA, both my allegiance and suspicion of its work coming during my time in service when all this stuff was basically being prototyped in Iraq (after years of research on systems such as Echelon).  Drones are a tool to gather intelligence for larger databases, and a technological replacement weapon for cruise missiles and gunships.  By themselves, Predators and Reapers will be footnotes in history.  The apparatus that collects, collates, targets, and scores potential enemies of the US will have a legacy that will lead us well into the end of this century.

DC

Many of the non-security people I follow on Twitter are mostly journalists or DC -based or -biased analysts, which means to say that they are indulging in the sauciness of the Snowden story while at the same time indignant at the idea that the government is spying on journalists as well as the American public.

The initial journo phase of giving Snowden a pass on reporting accuracies gave way to a more careful view of his story now (in other words distancing themselves from admiration of his courage), particularly as he’s had contact with countries considered non-friendly with the US and incompatible with the principles of freedom of speech and civil liberty.  There’s still a strong undercurrent among these people though of defending the whistleblower aspects of Snowden’s actions while downplaying his questionable behavior in other countries.

But look, here’s the thing with all this, and I’m sorry for all the setup to get to this.  The story’s going to keep morphing and Snowden supporters are going to continue to modify their lines to fit the current narrative.  There’s no accountability for such people giving half-baked opinions and mawkish support for a man who is for the most part inconsistent (see his IRC logs and personal work history) on the matter — no one will call them out later on it.

Journos will turn on or bail on this guy.  He’s just a tool to them.  Assange has turned into a punchline for the intelligentsia while Manning has turned into the equivalent of those ads on late night TV for abused pets that need healthy homes.  I saw one tweet suggest that Snowden is to Greenwald as Manning is to Assange.  A pawn in a larger dance.

Turning on Snowden is only slightly worse than ignoring him completely.  See Barrett Brown (corporate spying early on), Thomas Drake, William Binney and J. Kirk Wiebe, Mark Klein, and the rest of the whistleblowers and journalists no one has given a fuck about until now.  This doesn’t even cover the red flags raised after what happened to Joe Nacchio and the debate around National Security Letters (this link upped by the awesome writer Maria Bustillos).

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Thomas Drake, whistleblower

Snowden reminds me of those LulzSec guys before they got caught.  Everyone likes the story of the fugitive — it plays well in the media.  FUGITIVE AT LARGE!  NEW DETAILS, NEXT!  In my opinion the LulzSec folks were far more compelling than Snowden’s story: they were directly challenging the international community to cooperate to find them and arrest them — they lived in multiple countries and they had a technical superiority edge at first that must have deeply concerned law enforcement, but they were ultimately undermined, most notably by their leader becoming an informant for the FBI!  I can only imagine that LulzSec was a wakeup call for building up more serious capability within intelligence to keep up with blackhats online.

Gizmodo LulzSec

What should be more scary is not how authorities are reacting to Snowden, but how they managed to thoroughly infiltrate Anonymous, WikiLeaks (Sigurdur Thordarson), and even LulzSec — people who were more capable of hiding their digital footprints than most people in society.  Given attempts to infiltrate Muslim communities in NYC, running operations to entrap potential jihadists throughout the US, and so on, virtually no organizations seem to be impenetrable to government operations.

Snowden, contrary to his depiction in the press, seems like your typical mixed bag type of person.  Contradictory views at different times, inconsistent motivations, full of character flaws.  It’s completely up in the air how his story plays out, but I think the easiest thing to conclude is that the guy has always wanted to be where the action is (a feeling I can relate to) and was seemingly raised to believe that nothing is impossible (see his 18X special forces attempt, et al) and that actions speak louder than words (being the figurehead of this NSA leak).  I’m interested in the guy too but I agree that the NSA news must be fully integrated into American citizens’ notions of what is going on behind the scenes.

As for Greenwald, the guy is fighting the good fight but is a super-douche (putting him in the panned-theon of Tom Friedman, Umair Haque, Evgeny Morozov, Paul Krugman, Jeff Jarvis) and so even if I’m harsh on him, for the most part it’s been good to watch him speak up for things over the years that people have ignored.  But seriously, why do these guys twitter-search their own names for any mentions and feel compelled to talk back?  It’s the number one reason I call them Morozlov and Greenlold — so they don’t throw a Twitter fit in a @mention.

It would be alright if this eavesdropping news was somehow a revelation but the bottom line is that people have not been paying attention for the last decade or so.  Most importantly, the NSA story has been decontextualized from post-9/11 security mission requirements and solely towards some happy fantasyland where America lives out some high school class teaching of freedom of speech and international role model-setting of a higher moral arc towards justice.

That is to say, there is next to zero intelligent balancing of the issues being discussed in the circles that should be setting the debate for everyone else.  The NSA has a pretty clear objective and it’s fairly good at executing that objective: monitoring communications and creating target packages for people who come up on its radar.  In an environment where potential enemies don’t line up in formation to attack, basic pragmatism and realistic world view would acknowledge the need for tactical and organizational ability to collect that kind of data.

Furthermore, it would be ludicrous for the US government to not pursue serious (fair trial) charges against Snowden, based solely on the current standing of the law.  It has to prevent leaks and it has to protect its intelligence.  Why do people act surprised that the US government would be seeking to detain and prosecute the man behind a massive breach of classified information and ensuing media controversy, all while passing through China and Russia?

At the same time, the networking of our data online not only increases the government’s ability to collect, it also increases the abilities of adversaries (say, China) and non-states (hacking groups, organized crime, etc.), so the public needs to be vigilant about its rights to protect its data from those groups.

All of this is within the perfectly rational and justified perception among caring Americans that the NSA’s eavesdropping programs have gone way out of control and pose a threat towards American citizens’ civil liberties.

But you don’t hear this.  The decontextualization makes it sound like the NSA is J. Edgar Hoover putting intel hits on everyday Americans for no reason, when in fact it’s more of an intelligence effort to adapt to today’s big data environment — and the NSA will do whatever it is allowed to by those who set policy (Congress), who set legal precedent (Supreme Court), and who actually have skin in the game (military, security, etc.).  9/11 was perceived as a massive failure to many professionals who dedicate their lives to ensuring that it never happens, and they will dedicate the rest of their careers to doing whatever is in their power to try to prevent 9/11 from happening again.

Do you begin to see that there are different interests at play here and that they all have varying degrees of legitimate concerns and readily apparent biases?

The bottom line is that hey, you just found out about this and it’s like reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States in college and now you’re one of the few initiated who gets what’s really going on in the system man.  Enslavement, dude.

Do you know how frustrating it is to listen to people whose opinions came from a BuzzFeed blurb about a Mother Jones article (that cites news from years ago as breaking) and are all the sudden pro-disclosure rules and anti-intelligence apparatus?

Do you know what it’s like to read hit-and-run op-ed pieces about how intelligence agencies continue to fail to find viable targets from the same types of people who laughed at the crowdsourcing effort to find the Boston bombers?

Do you know what it feels like now, after having had my clearance revoked back in the day, during a deployment, because I was blogging honestly (but not giving away OPSEC) about what was going on in Iraq before the Surge and ethnic cleansing and before there were the chilling-effect blog rules in place now that have all but cut off most reports from servicemembers deployed abroad?  Let me please hear from kids who skipped out on our last decade of deployments which required leadership of smart, freedom-loving Americans who were lucky enough to not be too busy trying to save what was left of the lives they were clinging on to (which is how lower middle class, the poor, and victims of Katrina spent the last decade).  Let me please hear about speaking truth to power from kids who weren’t there, didn’t see it happening, and only found out about it years later because they’re always on the internet.  It’s easy to speak out in hindsight or when nothing is at stake for you.

Fallout

I’ll tell you who gets hurt in this.  First of all, the public will put up an outcry over this only so long as it’s in the paper.  For that reason I would think Wikileaks is the way it is: shilling for story, content, and control of the narrative.  They want to ensure that it stays on Page 1.  But really I don’t think much will change because there’s little check on the government to prevent electronic data snooping and very few people actually understand the mechanics behind how it works.  Also security concerns will still trump privacy concerns.  So the public is going to continue being spied against with few checks or even basic smell tests to see if the government should not be spying on this person or that person.  We’ll continue to see bizarre, brief fiascos like Stop and Frisk and CIA-NYPD collaboration to provoke, say, the Muslim community.

[the above is my ITP classmate Atif Ateeq’s thesis about bringing context back to Muslims and Arabs who were decontextualized after 9/11]

The behemoth which is the system that allows government and corporate spying will continue almost unabated against citizens around the world, regardless of their affinities.  The technical ease is too great and the will to put understandable limits on it by decision-makers is too weak.  It’s a cliche in the science fiction world but it’s an easy eventuality.  I can only see this disparity in interests increase as tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) continue to get scaled down for easier use by lone wolves (see 3D printing, propagation of extremist material, biohacking, DIY energy devices).

The other people to get hurt will be security people.  The narrative of the post-9/11 story for intelligence has been that it took the rest of the blame for Iraq that Dubya didn’t soak up.  “The intel was bad,” people remember.  But Tenet went along with pushing for Iraq in the end, even though key intel analysts were advising the complete opposite.  After that was settled, recommendations were made, particularly in Congress, to boost the concept of fusion centers, which were supposed to prevent stovepiping of intelligence within agencies and to possibly allow for a layered effect of intel analysis where different types of data could be plotted against each other to build out networks of important terrorist individuals.  Well, fusion centers ended up costing a lot of money and were for the most part just okay but not terribly productive.  Where security is now is that data is now streaming in faster than it can be analyzed, and so systems need to be built to sift through it.  And after this scandal, it is likely that checks will be put back in place to make at least some of that data integration difficult again.

In short, I would think that it will be at least a bit more frustrating for analysts to do their jobs and to perhaps prevent another attack on American assets — maybe not even through figuring out a specific plot but by knowing the internal networks of highly capable groups.

To sum up: Americans weren’t paying attention and expect to be briefed on intelligence that they A) don’t care about, B) don’t know anything about, and C) don’t have time for.  Americans are acting like a nosy, shitty boss calling in from St. Maarten for a checkup.

Really the debate about NSA stuff should focus squarely on the test to allow for eavesdropping: the court order.  Instead of the rubber-stamping of FISA requests which has been standard operating procedure, there should be a stricter, more accountable, more quantifiable test for how analysts (who should be enabled to find oddball connections and sketchy hypotheses) go about getting further approval for eavesdropping. [As a note I should add that someone I respect on Twitter countered my rubber-stamping statement and said that there are stringent tests and quick retractions for requests that have errors in them or that are not valid.  So it’s not as easy as I made it out to be, but I do believe it’s telling as a trend that, according to judicial reports, the end result of rejected requests is near-zero.  I defer to an expert though.]

THIS is the fascinating part of the debate.  Yes, allow for eavesdropping, but ONLY if there’s a strong case for it that’s demonstrable through evidence.  The same it has ALWAYS been.  How do we do it?  Well, I don’t know, and we need to have very smart people think about solutions.  I could say that we allow citizens’ interest reps onto the board but that might give away tactical intelligence.  What about algorithms?  As I understand it the NSA had attempted to score potential targets using algorithms already.  I know people like Morozov would roll their eyes (which is about all they ever do) but algorithms, properly understood for the bias inherent in the creation of any algorithm, could provide a way for multiple interest groups to weigh in on what would constitute a threat or a viable target so that it could be non-specifically applied (read, programmatically) to actual targets so that it could be analyzed later.  Right now this system of judges approving anything that passes past their desks is not working, mostly because judges are always going to be supportive of law enforcement efforts, particularly with regard to terrorism.  Why would they get in the way of a dedicated law enforcement team?

If Only the Apple Store Sold iFreedom in Spotless White

I really want to go back to that part about the journos turning on Snowden.

I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to deal with the disloyalty and hypocrisy of people on that count.  Here are a bunch of people upset that the government is tracking them, even if they had security passwords and encryption and all that.  They were upset that an American has to leave his own country to whistleblow on it, which somehow turns the US into East Germany.  If only there were networks, projects, and technologies which might allow citizens to return their own privacy and security!

Transactions

If only there were something like bitcoin to circumvent large-scale banks and payment systems which can block your money from going to online poker, drugs, and anonymous bitcoin transactions!  Well, bitcoin did blow up in the news recently, and what did the twitterati and intelligentsia do with it?  They laughed at it, said it would never work and was unstable in comparison to the American dollar.  They felt it was like throwing your money down the drain.

Sharing

And okay.  If only there were some way to pass information, download movies, files, etc. easily, without having to pay some middleman extra money or to be subject to their licensing rules!  Oh, you mean like torrents or napster or whatever else?  No way dude, I’m not risking my clearance or well-being for being flagged as a pirate; that’s not as cool as using my walled garden App Store on my locked-in iPhone.  Torrents?  Peer-to-peer?  Well, it’s SLOW. :(  And I don’t have time to figure that stuff out.

Anonymous Connectivity

If only there were anonymized networks so we could use the web as it was originally intended again!  Yeah well isn’t Tor for people to sell guns and drugs and child porn?  It just sounds kind of shady lol.  How about mesh networks where people pool together their internet connections so you can connect to a network no matter where you are?  [check out my ITP classmate Sean McIntyre’s work on building mesh networks in Brooklyn]  Nah, I want my own connection!  I need blazing speed to stream my GoT.

Decentralized Social Networking

What is diaspora*?  Oh wait, that’s the one with the dead co-founder right?  Wow that was rough.  But hey diaspora* isn’t as nice as Facebook so I’m not going to switch right now.

The point is that for a community that claims to be for breaking down mechanisms for control by a government that is spying on it, thought-leaders have been shooting down all the grassroots, open source, hacker-built, decentralized products that have sprung up recently.

The contempt people have for all these technologies that would help free them from corporate or government interests?  Well, it just makes me think that people aren’t as desirous of freedom as they claim — it reduces technological interest among most people to just another coolness factor.  Do you have the latest iPhone?  Sorry, I only use Instagram after I deleted my Facebook account (a personal favorite considering Facebook owns Instagram).  Macs are for overpaying idiots.

The lowest level of Maslow’s Digital Needs Curve has shit like iPhone, cloud services, gawker, reddit, and whatever else people REALLY want to use daily.  I’ve seen fairly savvy journalists on Twitter railing against Obama on his policy against whistleblowers in one tweet while drooling over their new iPhone 5 in the next.

Remember Occupy?

It was all topped off for me seeing the utter contempt from the twitterati and most liberals with the Occupy movement.  From its very onset, people who constantly act like they’re for a more democratic and grassroots system, sticking it to the banker-politician complex, etc. would laugh in the face of Occupy while at the same time being drawn to it as some chic “fuck The Man” rebelliousness.  People would go visit Zuccotti but always with a curious detachment and ultimately a pointed, knowing critique of how Occupy had no leaders or had too broad a platform or whatever else they would claim as armchair protest organizers.  Protestourism.

Occupy had its own problems and the issues that Occupy folks would bring up were some of the most important of the day (money in politics, lack of prosecution for finance industry scammers, and so on) but really it failed because, despite everyone saying it’s a problem, it’s not THAT bad a problem.

It’s not as though the Occupy protesters were dying in the streets from police abuse, malnourishment, or invasion from foreign enemies.  We barely see the poor in our day-to-days, let alone see people from the poorer parts of the city protesting.  The iconic Occupy protester would be a fairly well-educated person who had life pretty good.  Is that person going to be there when the weather turns cold?  Or when Occupy gets too dangerous?  No.

(more on what I wrote about Occupy: http://blog.benturner.com/2011/10/19/on-occupywallstreet/ )

What has been telling to me as I’ve gotten older is spotting which people will stick up for what they believe and who will disappear when things get less convenient.  My main critique with my generation is that it stands up for nothing.  Maybe things are good enough that it doesn’t have to?  It’s a generation that is against most forms of patriotism (so passé!), against joining the military (don’t be a sheep), against religion (Hitchens and Dawkins are MY gods), against political affiliation (I don’t like boundaries, man), against pretty much any form of outright aligning yourself with any larger organization or cause.  Even joining that DC kickball league is a barely acceptable affiliation.  We are all lone boats out on the ocean, apparently.  Which is fine except the politics of my generation is largely based on liberal socialist ideals for collectivized Wilsonian whatever, health care or taxation etc.  I understand the folks who live out in the country and don’t want anyone to come near — but urban liberals are not those people.

I believe at some point in life you have to start standing for something.  Maybe it’s in some ways naive or dumb, but it’s important, particularly for men, to have a set of principles and values that are immutable.  Shapeshifting and adapting to whatever is hot is something that younger children do as they try to find themselves, and I just think that once you get old enough, you have to be the person defining what’s important in life.  Maybe there’s some truth to the argument that Americans in their 30s are the new infantile Americans in their 20s.  What does it mean to be American anymore, where borders cease to matter and people switch from city to city with the same standard of living, as part of some cosmopolitan elite ideal?  What does it mean when a whistleblower travels to a Chinese surrogate and then to Russia with America’s technical secret goldmine in tow and people are more concerned about the soap opera of a missing man than of a massive foreign policy disaster?

What it says to me is that most people don’t understand the gravity of situations across the world.  Poverty reduction has been reduced to feel-good slacktivism, foreign policy has been reduced to Hollywoodish notions of outmoded Cold War era spy games, homeland security has been reduced to comedic Paul Blart-quality bureaucracies.

It just makes me not want to pay attention to more and more people who don’t have experience, who have no skin in the game, who have no cause to stick their necks out for.  It increases my willingness to listen to those who are on the ground, who have hammered out any naive notions or ideals of how the world really works, leaving only hard-nosed pragmatism behind.

How Convenience is at Odds with Art

This brings me to a bigger subject: art.  I never thought I was going to be an art student, particularly after being in the Army and having a love for business.  The quality of the art students I’ve met in terms of their abilities to look past what is useful or what provides an immediate payoff or what seems possible at the time, along with their technical and ambitious abilities to actually carry through with them, I’ve just been so impressed.  I still associate most art with projects carried on for no reason in particular and which don’t really make much sense and which seem to take up a lot of unnecessary room.  That said, art school is just as expensive as other schools. (this artist wrote a post on why you SHOULDN’T go)

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But what I’ve come to feel about art is that what I associate with art is only what has been successful art in the past.  The cutting edge art of now and in the future is not going to be seen as accepted, as cool, as mainstream.  To understand what the fringes of meaningful art are now is to look not at what will be cool (advertising and design have successfully co-opted that particular game) but to look at what is seen as obscene, weird, disconnected, and offensive.  Meaningful art now is not called art: it’s called some variation of the term hacking.  Experiment, play, prototype, tool around, whatever.

In school I learned the ITP hacker ethos.  The ITP hacker ethos revolves around the 80’s-based mystique contained in phreaking, War Games, Sneakers, Easter Eggs, sleight of hand, Max Headroom, Hackers, etc.  Now society seems to think geeks are cool, but the real geeks are the ones who stay glued to the computer, hacking away on some tech that may not even pan out or make sense to anyone outside of a handful of people.  The chaos behind the high latency of Tor, or the arms race of pirates and copyright holders through torrents, the idea of darknets: this is the uncomfortable edge of where art is.  It’s childish and naive in some areas, it’s foolish and illegal in others, and it’s unproductive and a dead end too.  It’s not polished, it’s not beautiful, but what it does is test legal limits, test technical limits, test ways of seeing the world.

Drones

Drones.  A touchy subject.  For ITPers, it’s a mix of unsurpassed American military might, combining speed, surveillance, technology, and intelligence, all of which are core advantages to American power.  But it also stands for death, particularly collateral death.  It stands for disposition matrices and hitlists and reaching out and touching someone and the disconnect of killer and victim and secret orders signed by the President.  Drones are one of the best examples of a conflict between liberal disgust with warfare and conservative Jacksonianism and exertion of power.

So it has been depressing to read about drones because few people fall somewhere between those two extremes.  But some people have begun making what I consider to be fine art, and it has not come in the usual form of something beautiful.

James Bridle has an exhibit at the Corcoran on drones.  Among other things, this was said about his work:

Bridle realizes that drones are more than the sum of their 3D parts; they are the capillaries of a network, the point at which lines of computer code, political power, and obscured decision-making appear in the physical world. “This is what I’m really interested in at the moment: trying to push this debate back from the fetishization of the drones themselves, back into the computational networks behind them,” he says of his piece “Disposition Matrix,” a computer monitor reeling through a software program Bridle wrote that searches public resources for people who have a connection to drones and a series of volumes printed from the findings of the program, conveniently accompanied by some gloves for museum visitors to don as they flip through the pages. The program is meant to evoke the system and variables that generates an official “kill list.”

This is the greatest form of art for me.  Technical understanding of something to the point that you can recontextualize it and link it back to the bigger themes involved.

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You should also watch my ITP classmate Josh Begley’s thesis presentation on dronestre.am, his API for accessing info about deaths as a result of drone strikes.  Particularly interesting were his remarks on geography being an inescapable reality and thus the increasing importance on mapping blank spots in reality, his interest in that sparked by Trevor Paglen and his “experimental geography”.

Drones as peace advocates discuss them are boring things.  A drone today is just a gadget, but what lies behind it is sophisticated blending of GPS, radio comms, cheap parts, remote weaponization, integration of real-time video and control into the commander’s toolkit.  Beneath the drone debate was always the intelligence debate, which the public has only now decided it wants to take part in, despite Bradley Manning rotting away in jail and the NSA blooming in size and a witchhunt for whistleblowers within the government.  Way to ferret out the main story, armchair analysts.

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UX

One of the quieter stories I read about in Wired a while ago was one that has stuck with me for a while.  It was a glimpse at UX, Urban eXperiment, a French hacker-collective.  Wrote Jon Lackman:

UX is sort of like an artist’s collective, but far from being avant-garde—confronting audiences by pushing the boundaries of the new—its only audience is itself. More surprising still, its work is often radically conservative, intemperate in its devotion to the old. Through meticulous infiltration, UX members have carried out shocking acts of cultural preservation and repair, with an ethos of “restoring those invisible parts of our patrimony that the government has abandoned or doesn’t have the means to maintain.” The group claims to have conducted 15 such covert restorations, often in centuries-old spaces, all over Paris.

Begley’s and Paglen’s interest in the unmapped spaces may coincide with UX’s wishes to find and protect that which has been forgotten.  Anonymity can provide security when everyone is too distracted to pay attention.

Why do they care about these places? Kunstmann answers this question with questions of his own. “Do you have plants in your home?” he asks impatiently. “Do you water them every day? Why do you water them? Because,” he goes on, “otherwise they’re ratty little dead things.” That’s why these forgotten cultural icons are important—”because we have access to them, we see them.” Their goal, he says, isn’t necessarily to make all these things function once again. “If we restore a bomb shelter, we’re certainly not hoping for new bombardments so people can go use it again. If we restore an early 20th-century subway station, we don’t imagine Electricité de France will ask us to transform 200,000 volts to 20,000. No, we just want to get as close as possible to a functioning state.”

UX has a simple reason for keeping the sites a secret even after it has finished restoring them: The same anonymity that originally deprived them of caretakers “is paradoxically what’s going to protect them afterward” from looters and graffiti, Kunstmann says. They know they’ll never get to the vast majority of interesting sites that need restoration. Yet, “despite all that, the satisfaction of knowing that some, maybe a tiny fraction, won’t disappear because we’ll have been able to restore them is an extremely great satisfaction.”

Art stolen by UX, on display out of public view, in tunnels

Art stolen by UX, on display out of public view, in tunnels

Ai Weiwei

Today’s cutting edge of art is also political, because expression vs. government is a tangible, dangerous battle that we witness daily in various forms.  I consider Ai Weiwei to be one of the most daring and genius artists of the day to reach widescale attention, but almost no one has heard of him.  I recommend you read this article about him.

All art is political in the sense that all art takes place in the public arena and engages with an already existing ideology. Yet there are times when art becomes dangerously political for both the artist and the viewers who engage with that art. Think of Jacques-Louis David’s involvement in the French Revolution—his individual investment in art following the bloodshed —and his imprisonment during the reign of terror. If it were not for certain sympathisers, David may well have ended up another victim of the guillotine. Goya is another example of an artist who fell foul of government power. There are instances in the 20th century when artists have faced down political power directly. Consider the photomontages of John Heartfield. Heartfield risked his life at times to produce covers for the magazine A/Z, which defied both Hitler and the Nazi Party.

Backpacks spelling out: “She lived happily for seven  years in this world”

Backpacks spelling out: “She lived happily for seven
years in this world”

 

As an idea of what he has done, he built a marvel, then disavowed it (the Bird’s Nest), he created a facade of backpacks outside a museum to represent the lost children who died in China’s major earthquake while back.  In his words:

The idea to use backpacks came from my visit to Sichuan after the earthquake in May 2008. During the earthquake many schools collapsed. Thousands of young students lost their lives, and you could see bags and study material everywhere. Then you realize individual life, media, and the lives of the students are serving very different purposes.  The lives of the students disappeared within the state propaganda, and very soon everybody will forget everything.

Most poignantly, he was detained and beaten by police in Chengdu after he had gone there to support a local activist Tan Zuoren (who was on trial for helping create a victim database for the aftermath of the earthquake) and snapped this photo of himself with cops in an elevator, which he shared across the internet:

weiwei

That photo tapped into elusive, seductive themes.  Social media, a joke to its trollish inhabitants like Evgeny Morozov (whose skin in the game involves finding a new fellowship at a university to bum around in while writing a book attacking all the people who provided material for it).  The Chinese police, a symbol of ham-fisted authority.  The artist as a threat (with multiple police surrounding one unarmed artist).  Surveillance, cleverly used by Ai Weiwei to take videos of the police who tried to threaten him with video and photos.

It wasn’t being arrested by police that was rebellious or artistic — any fool in the US can get arrested these days just for acting like a jackass, and Ai Weiwei wasn’t even doing anything at the time.  It wasn’t some artistic stunt — Ai Weiwei, already known for art, was seeking the truth in recording names of those killed in the earthquake.  He…just sought the truth.

The reaction: he survived the altercation and had a choice response for the police.

ai-weiwei-never-sorry_hospital

The tragedy: almost no one knew this had all happened!  Even fellow art students.  I can barely comprehend this.  The disconnect is glaring.  You know, I’ve served my time.  I’ve reinvented myself to fit in to various communities, to take up their rituals and make them my own, to become a part of those communities, to care for them and to be cared for by them.

Artistic Voice

Now that I’m out of school, I feel like I’m freed from that need to try to catch up with what other people have done, and instead I should begin to forge my own artistic path, to be okay with creating things that no one understands.  My own temptation to believe that I should be trying to convince others has long before died as I realized it is certainly not my talent.  My dreams of grandeur have been tempered by failure, by meeting people far more intelligent and wise and wonderful and humanistic and charismatic and insightful than me, and by realizing that the best I can do is get my own affairs enough in order that I will have time to be able to help others — a project I’m still working strenuously on.  To these ends, I feel as though my bullshit filters are honed (filtering out the day-to-day nonsense in different industries while selecting the genuinely new and game-changing events) and I’ve become very good at understanding the people who are really pushing things to the edge — and I want to promote and encourage them to continue to contribute the beauty to the world that they so wonderfully create.

I suppose I just wish that people would have a more understanding perspective of the world — understanding peoples’ motivations for doing things, understanding the reasons for why traditions or events came to pass, understanding the chaos as well as the order.  What I see is not a lot of understanding, compassion, or sympathy in the world, but a whole lot of laziness.  It’s toxic, and it leads to people being able and thinking it only natural to take advantage of others — in a world where we wish and idealize that people would help each other instead.

I also wish that people would understand that when they claim to want to know the truth — whether it’s about government spying or whatever — what they often only want is the drama behind popular exposure of the truth, when perhaps the truth was out there in the open for them to avoid and ignore for years beforehand.  A critical look at “truth” involves, most importantly, a critical look at oneself and how much one will put on the line in order to accept that truth.

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.

State of the Nation After 9/11/09

Oh man, where to begin.  I think I’ve been a little frustrated lately because I haven’t written in a while.  So let’s get it out there so I can move on.

National Tea Party, 9/12

This last Saturday was the National Tea Party Day in DC.  The Tea Party is a rallying cry for essentially Jeffersonian anti-big government, anti-taxation, anti-socialism, anti-public option Americans.

I live in DC.  I went to meet some friends at the St. Regis hotel for drinks, since one of our friends was attending a wedding reception there for her friends.  I think there were three weddings in the area because there were people dressed to the nines everywhere.  But interspersed among them along 15th Street, since the St. Regis is due north from the White House, were tons of Tea Party out-of-towners.  They wore the typical uniform of the red-blooded American patriot from the midwest and south.  So imagine little black wedding party dresses and heels and tuxedos mixed in with American flag t-shirts, Don’t Tread on Me flags, large homemade posters decrying socialism, and 13 Colonies flags.  It was quite a scene.  Read this post for an idea of the iconography and symbology they use.  Heavily Confederate, heavily Jeffersonian.

Inside the Tea Party

I am being generous in my description of the Tea Party because here’s what it really is:  despite claims to the contrary (they say they are inclusionist) by those orchestrating it (Dick Armey, FreedomWorks, FOXNews, Glenn Beck), the Tea Party is almost exclusively old, white, fat Americans from the midwest and south (watch the videos, about the only minorities you see are the police, ironically…DC at least in the workplace is diverse, although not so much socially).

This panoply lends itself to legitimate elements of conservatism, as well as attracting isolationism, racism, and antiquated rhetoric, because they want to be left alone by the government, prefer Jeffersonian federalism, and couch their political rhetoric loosely around racist anti-Obama, obstructionist anti-Keynesianism, and anti-national anti-public school/health care/anything that takes money out of their pockets.  As with any movement, the fringe elements make up a lot of the headlines.

medicare

The thing is, their political ideology has a strong historical foundation.  The American debate has long focused around Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians arguing about central government vs. limited government, diplomacy vs. isolationism.  The Tea Party certainly has legitimate doubts about the encroaching danger of a growing government, the problem of being taxed too heavily by hungry and wasteful federal programs, the desire to own guns vs. the fear of the government seeking to seize them, etc.  They are the accountants of American domestic and foreign policy.  Their first instinct is always to say no.  And we need this.

Today’s American Policy Schools of Thought

One significant limitation with solely following this school, though, is that the world has become far more complex than these classic debates (fought out when America was not yet the superpower), and so has American history.  Walter Russell Mead, author of Special Providence:  American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World, adds two more schools of American thought, the Wilsonians and the Jacksonians.

The Wilsonians can be best described as the non-government organizations in Washington, DC who lobby for peace in Darfur or de-mining Cambodia or human rights in China.  They believe that the American freedoms we enjoy within successful democracy and human equality can be exported; we should spread those ideals abroad.

The Jacksonians are the belligerent, more realpolitik war-fighters who believe strongly in national security, honor, and individualism at any cost.

Naturally you can see that the Tea Party people take a lot from the Jacksonian movement, with their profession of faith for the 2nd Amendment, the vivid display of patriotism and love for the red, white, and blue, and resisting the “public option” of health care in favor of individualized, privatized health care.

But this is not what they choose to make the basis of their movement.  They know that preaching fiscal conservatism is where they will be the most inclusive to the conservative base, judging by their organizing web sites.  What’s interesting about that site in particular is that #tcot is a hashtag meaning Top Conservatives On Twitter (the libertarians’ is #tlot, the liberals are split up) and the site’s style is a direct knock-off of Drudge Report‘s site design (which I’ve since deleted as a bookmark despite it being a great place for a links, because it’s just become too much of a political EFP pushing anger at certain topics).  The Tea Party Patriots web site uses film footage from FreedomWorks, the lobbying group that (and I’m trying not to be too judgmental here, but the FW logo is on everything) is pushing the Tea Parties.

I would describe myself as mostly a Hamiltonian (having had a Keynesian economics grad school education, admittedly), but I also draw heavily from the other schools:  Jeffersonian appropriateness of levels of government and high requirements to declare war, Jacksonian desire for ferocity when war must be conducted and desire for militaristic honor in combat and argument, and Wilsonian dreams of universal human rights.  I share libertarian suspicion of Wall Street and the Federal Reserve (and any organization that is not transparent and accountable to the people).   I support companies in their mandates to earn as much money as possible, but I also think they must do it within the commonly-accepted range of American regulatory institutions protecting the public interest vigorously.  I grew up in a Jeffersonian, libertarian Texas as a kid, fought in a post-9/11 Jacksonian US Army, studied at the afore-mentioned Keynesian economics institution, concentrated in a Wilsonian international development concentration.

What’s Wrong With the Tea Party?

With all that said, I feel as though I am qualified as a well-rounded American to question the motivations behind the Tea Party movement.

First of all, it is exclusionary, in that it is made up of old white people who are afraid of having things taken away from them by illegals, blacks, government, etc.  As this recession becomes more severe, you can expect hatred to increase.  In the past, when the economy did worse, groups like the Ku Klux Klan enjoyed higher enrollment.

I also feel it is out of touch, even down to its name:  the Boston Tea Party desired representation for British taxation, in essence declaring that paying taxes was a way of expressing voting preferences.  The Tea Party is anti-federal government, and desires to pay much less taxes (if not any), and thus, losing voting rights.  This is a horrible distortion of the original meaning of a pretty significant declaration in favor of democracy by our forefathers.

For the Tea Party people to travel to a district (DC) that has no representation, down to the license plate (“taxation without representation”, to protest being over-taxed, seems ignorant.

The Tea Party also called itself teabaggers at first, until liberals informed them that teabagging was a lewd sexual act.  Another massive blunder.

The Tea Party also will not to admit to this, but it consorts with racists.  All-white crowds who bring firearms and yell down opponents?  This is intimidation in its rawest and most public form:  if you’re an illegal, a Latino, a black, a gay, then you better not attend.  Racists rarely come out and say they hate other people (at least the white supremacists are honest about it), but it is intellectually dishonest for the Tea Party to say it is not racist while it does not censor its own members for being racist.

Again I must emphasize that the Tea Party expresses legitimate fears, once you get past the overt lobbying effort at the top of it. It is not a baseless, stupid movement.  DC is a liberal town and most of the residents were unhappy to see the Tea Party show up in town.  But as Mead writes,

“Divided We Coast.  By the closing months of the Clinton administration, American foreign policy could have been compared to a car.  In the front seat the Wilsonian and Hamiltonian schools agreed that the car should go as fast as possible, but they disagreed on the best course.  Their feet were together in pressing on the accelerator, but they wrestled for the wheel.  Jeffersonians, meanwhile, sat in the back and exercised the classic privilege of the backseat driver:  They complained loudly and irritatingly that the car was going too fast, and that it was taking wrong turns.

“The three schools were so busy fighting that at first none of them noticed that the engine — the Jacksonians, whose support gave the car its real power and drive — were no longer responding.  Hamiltonians and Wilsonians pumped the accelerator, but to no avail:  The car continued to slow.”

For all the ill-informed bluster about death panels, socialism, big government, Nazi/Communist Obama Brownshirt Girl Scout Nazi Youths, the Tea Party engine is genuinely scared.  For Obama and liberals to ignore these peoples’ fears and desires would be political stupidity and lack of empathy for fellow Americans.

In fact, the progressives, underneath it all, share a lot in common with these protestors.  Both are deeply sensitive to the powerlessness they feel against elites and big government/business.  They both feel as though the system has been stacked to pay off the elites and not the common man.  Both fear a blow to the middle class.  Both seek reform.  If anything, both now benefit from the increasingly wise understanding of how money, politics, and influence can affect different organizations and legislation and externalities.  We live in the first days of rapidly increased transparency (but not yet accountability, except through smear campaigns).

CNBC is Involved

CNBC has strangely had some connections to today’s debate.  It perhaps began with Jim Cramer’s famous blow-up about how bad the crisis was (which Bush and Obama used stimulus money to prevent, successfully, I might add).

It continued with Rick Santelli, a trader and commentator on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, made a massively influential rant on CNBC about subsidizing losers using government money, to the cheers of fellow financial class traders.

Santelli’s video was a rallying cry for the Tea Party before CNBC intervened and tried to have his name removed.

Another CNBC alumn, Dylan Ratigan, left for MSNBC and recently wrote an op-ed for Huffington Post about how the financial industry owns us and we haven’t done anything about it, because we are hostages.

So CNBC is intertwined in all these debates as well.  Those who make the most money in this country, the financial executives and the industries that support them, have a vested interest in stoking up capitalist-socialist fears and monopolistic/subsidized conditions for their profit.

As an aside, I was watching FOXNews and Tucker Carlson (the kid who got beat up in school and is taking it out on us now, and also got beat up verbally by Jon Stewart on TV and was then trashed by CNN) did a smear piece on “The Trouble with Textbooks”, where he’s arguing that progressives and intellectuals are secretly inserting their messages into your kids’ textbooks.  Better take your kids out of public schools.  Let me guess.  Are they going to Christian madrassas?

A Bad Summer

Obama clearly lost control of the message this brutal, brutal political summer during the Congressional lull.  Obviously he fouled up the entire health care debate, allowing FOXNews to dictate the terms of the debate through town hall ridiculousness.  He was not achieving the immediate success in jobs numbers he hoped from the stimulus.  He has not pleased his progressive base by advancing on any civil rights fronts (the easiest of which would be to allow gays in the military).

He needs to engage the Tea Party people and address their demands.  At the same time he should play the base off (Mead’s “engine”, made up of Jacksonians at their core) against the lobbyists and corporatists who are playing them like puppets.  These lobbyists are scaring up the disconnected gap of the midwest and southern states who are afraid of losing more and more during a brutal recession and transformation of the American economy to that of an information economy.  It is scary that lobbyists have convinced whites from the middle of the country to vote in favor of cutting taxes for the richest of the rich, disallowing better health care for those who can’t afford it, and in general voting to allow the most elite in this country to have less responsibility and compliance to the rest of us.

THAT is pretty disgusting.  But Obama could exploit this divide.  Keep in mind that it was Bush, an idealist but running as a conservative, who violated fiscal conservative policies.  It was he who exploded the national budget deficit and negative trade balance.  Just imagine if Obama cut back the anti-recession stimulus measures (which, I might add, he HAD to do, and which DID prevent a financial sector collapse) and ran as a fiscally responsible politician?  He would win away a lot of scared, hurting midwestern whites.

Racism Grows With Recession

I’ll be honest.  I’m getting a little worried.  It is true that Latinos will become a major power in this country, through pure demographics.  This will continue to exacerbate the divide between the cosmopolitan coastal cluster cities and the rural traditionalist interior.  The radical whites that the Republican party has been forced to rely on (i.e. Palin) will continue to be disconnected and feel that the rest of the country does not pay its fair share of respect and resources to them.

Look at this one video of a guy who definitely does not want the US government, law enforcement, or anyone to go near him:

Now compare it to a jihadist video by Azzam al-Amriki, who, American interpretation aside, actually preaches on the face of it a message to the west to leave his people alone, get out of Muslim countries, and stop imposing foreign values on his people.  He is anti-globalization and anti-financial system.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=04wpi6TcMZA

In both cases, they are in a private room, secluded, wearing the uniform of their people (cowboy hat vs. kuffia), listening to their music (country vs. jihadist), finger-waving that they will shoot to kill anyone who attempts to infiltrate.  I hate to compare the two, but the similarities are striking; they both complain of an attack on their strong sense of identity, and they are both reacting against what they see are great injustices against their people.

Their concerns should not be ignored.  They should be empathized with and understood properly.  We should get a good sense of this loss of trust.  When we ridicule Iran for rattling its sabre against Israel, we should remember that it is because Ahmadi-Nejad gets votes for being anti-Israeli.  The Republicans get votes for being pro-white, anti-federal government.  When we wonder why the Taliban has such a stranglehold in tribal AfPak, we should look at our own country and see the people who don’t want to live in the cities or be cosmopolitan or be around people who aren’t Christian, hetero, and white.

While fortunately our Americans are not militant, it is not a far cry to see that they one day may be.

A Call for Unity

Which is why it’s so crucial that we unite our nation.  Through manifest destiny and the belief we are a city upon a hill with special providence, we’ve been provided one way or another with a secure geostrategic position nestled between Canada, Mexico, and two oceans.  We are secure, if we are smart about what our vulnerabilities are and work to reduce them.  We have the largest economy in the world and we are the largest country that has the most unified populace.  We have naval, air, and space superiority over all the other nations.  The Russians are weak, the Europeans are wrestling with forming a union, and China is running into significant demographic and political instability risks.

I believe in taking bold steps necessary to maintain American superiority, but I also believe that we must push a more equitable international system, and I also believe that the only risk we have is if we break apart as a nation.  It was quite right of FDR to say that the only thing we have to fear is fear itselfOur position in the world is assured as long as we don’t screw it up.

“And finally, in our progress towards a resumption of work, we require two safeguards against a return of the evils of the old order. There must be a strict supervision of all banking and credits and investments. There must be an end to speculation with other people’s money. And there must be provision for an adequate but sound currency.

“If I read the temper of our people correctly, we now realize, as we have never realized before, our interdependence on each other; that we can not merely take, but we must give as well; that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress can be made, no leadership becomes effective.”

We face two domestic risks:  that the white base will turn itself against the USA and break apart from the coastal liberal city clusters that provide most of the economic clout (e.g. SF, LA, DC, NYC, Miami).  While they will manage to divide both coasts (which would give the breakaway states the ability to hamper coordination between the coasts), this would be even more destructive to national unity.

At the same time, the southwest continues to build dual loyalties:  those to the union and those to Latino heritage.  I do think that the southwestern states are strong contributors to the union, but if things disintegrated, the cultural, racial, and religious affinities might force them to create a sub-state, much like Kurds in Iraq.  The failed War on Drugs has turned Mexico into a weakened state amongst drug cartel lions whose resources eclipse those of the nations in which they exist.  This brings violence and drugs to our borders, which we can’t hope to guard effectively.  Mexico is a primary national security concern, as a result.  But we do very little to aid Mexico’s stability with our drug policies.

A Russian professor recently got a lot of press for proposing this break-up.  The details are ridiculous (even indicating lack of ground truth knowledge of the USA) but in my mind, it’s the US’s only real risk.

Texas, where I’m from, of course flirts periodically with the idea of seceding from the Union.  Its crazy governor, Rick Perry, is now joining up with Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, asserting 10th Amendment state sovereignty rights.  This is fine, of course, but legal subtleties barely cover up a seething desire for separation from the Union.

The Tea Party was being sponsored partially by Glenn Beck’s 9/12 Project.  As this essay rightly states, the 9/12 Project is an attempt to commandeer a national event, 9/11, and commemorate it “their” own way.  It separates my 9/11 from your 9/11.  Having joined the Army after 9/11 to go fight terrorists, part of me wonders how many of the 9/12 Project answered their country’s call.  Part of me is offended that they try to co-opt the military as being part of them, when I wore the American flag every day for 5 years too.

Losing national unity is our greatest risk in the long-term.  Our success is so assured that it is almost as if we are doomed to ruin it if we are not vigilant about promoting equality and unity.

On PBS I was watching a documentary on some of the civil war leaders and presidents who tiptoed the line between these schools, in the midst of vicious civil war, America finding its place in the world, and ultimately Lincoln unleashing his generals to fight the Confederacy.  It of course was the bloodiest war the US has ever fought (most civil wars end up being that way).  Now, when political climates have turned poisonous, all these ancient resentments have re-surfaced.  Just like what we might see in Lebanon, or Sudan, or Russia, or China.

There are common threads among pissed off progressives, pissed off libertarians, and pissed off conservatives:  fiscal discipline, getting rid of corruption, re-evaluating our national interest based on risk-reward.  There is common ground that could form consensus, if used correctly.

The Butt of International Jokes

But what are we going to do about this?

What are we going to do?  We are fighting amongst ourselves, ridiculing each other, taking the high road while denigrating and minimizing the strength of our opponents.  Meanwhile, we are losing our competitiveness.  We are not educating our children sufficiently to compete in an increasingly global economy.  While we fight with each other, Chinese kids are working their asses off.  Indian kids are working their asses off.  It’s the same worldwide.  People are learning that they have to compete.  Other countries are laughing at us in disbelief over our fear of socialized health care systems and our inability to deal with border violence, health care, government spending, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc.

Meanwhile, we have strong elements in our country seeking just to preserve what they have.  All these lost jobs in the US will never return.  We have to keep educating ourselves so that we can fill the newly-created jobs.  It will never be the past again, in terms of comfortable blue-collar jobs.  It certainly won’t be that way if we radically privatize our country (no social safety nets, no government benefits for workers or citizens).

Jefferson, in his own inaugural address:

“During the contest of opinion through which we have passed the animation of discussions and of exertions has sometimes worn an aspect which might impose on strangers unused to think freely and to speak and to write what they think; but this being now decided by the voice of the nation, announced according to the rules of the Constitution, all will, of course, arrange themselves under the will of the law, and unite in common efforts for the common good. All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression. Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. And let us reflect that, having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions. During the throes and convulsions of the ancient world, during the agonizing spasms of infuriated man, seeking through blood and slaughter his long-lost liberty, it was not wonderful that the agitation of the billows should reach even this distant and peaceful shore; that this should be more felt and feared by some and less by others, and should divide opinions as to measures of safety. But every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it. I know, indeed, that some honest men fear that a republican government can not be strong, that this Government is not strong enough; but would the honest patriot, in the full tide of successful experiment, abandon a government which has so far kept us free and firm on the theoretic and visionary fear that this Government, the world’s best hope, may by possibility want energy to preserve itself? I trust not. I believe this, on the contrary, the strongest Government on earth. I believe it the only one where every man, at the call of the law, would fly to the standard of the law, and would meet invasions of the public order as his own personal concern. Sometimes it is said that man can not be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.”

Obviously Americans in Jeffersonian days still battled with the same balance between majority and minority, the Constitution and interpretation.  But are we being played off each other?

In short, and I have said this before, we have a battle between elites, who are seeking to preserve monopoly status and government preference, and citizens who realize that the only way to make it in today’s America is to get rich or die tryin’.  If you don’t get rich, you can’t feed your family.  You can’t pay for health care.  You can’t take any vacation.  You can’t live in a safe neighborhood.  It becomes a Hobbesian world where everyone is out to protect just their own families and maybe even their tribes.  Large corporations, seeking protection under freedom of speech as “individual” entities, throw money at issues affecting them so they can influence policy, while at the same time using Milton Friedmanomics and Reagonomics to deny unions, public NGOs, and government oversight, the only institutions that can match corporate lobbies in influence, purpose, and money.

The American Dream becomes not one of inclusion, where we take in your poor, your huddled masses, promising them a fair start and a chance to get rich.  The American Dream becomes “the greatest show on Earth” (thanks Bill Moyers) where you come to peddle your wares, make your money, and get out of the disgusting, violent market as soon as you can, to go live comfortably in a gated community where you’re safe from the violence and randomness that exists outside.

Choices

We as a country are going to have to make choices.  And they are not really choices at all.  Either we divide, and fall, or we unite, and fulfill what we consider our destiny.

We have to decide that we are true capitalists, who see firms as maximizing profit entities but working within the boundaries of a government that exists to protect the public interest and good.

We have to decide that yes, we are individuals who deserve our own rights, but those rights extend not only to us, but to those who are different than us, poorer than us, richer than us, from different countries, are here illegally, to every human on the planet.  The liberals have to clean up their house, and the conservatives have to stave off death.

We have to remove obstacles towards implementing better project design and implementation.  I don’t know how that will come about, except by the blunt force of inescapable technological advancement.

Mostly we have to decide that we’re going to do this together.   With that, I think I should close with MLK Jr.’s last speech before being assassinated:

Recruitment

I was having lunch with a couple buddies of mine, one of whom took Michael Scheuer’s “Al-Qaeda and the Global Jihad” class with me.  He reminded me of one of Professor Scheuer’s best points made during the semester.

I might have forgotten some of the details, so I apologize, but I hope to capture the main crux of his argument.

Scheuer was in the Agency during the days of the Cold War, and so recruitment of Soviets was of course a large priority.

Scheuer drew a large circle with a much smaller circle in the middle of it.  The large circle represented all the Soviet military members.  The smaller one was the top brass, the tight inner circle.

He said that the higher a servicemember got in the hierarchy within the Soviet system, the easier he was to recruit.  The reason for this was that he had more access and could see the faults with the system, how flawed it was and how vaporous it was.  The grand promises extolled by the privates and the junior servicemembers were never delivered, and after promotions and receiving more responsibilities, it became an alienating experience.

Thus the US could recruit them, no doubt in part because the US had a healthy economic and political model to confront the Communist model with.

But Al-Qaeda and the mujaheddin movement is something else entirely.  The US can’t find defectors or agents in the same way.

Scheuer used the same diagram, and then explained that it was in fact those on the periphery of the mujaheddin movement who were easiest to pick off, because they were the least indoctrinated and the most conflicted about trying to earn money versus taking up the jihad against injustice, anti-Muslim policies, etc.

Once people had been through the training camps and had seen how the senior leaders lived and led by example, eschewing comfort and wealth and the pride and glory of the world of the infidels, they in fact became even more hardened.  The inner circle of the mujaheddin are even more devout, even more disciplined in their worship of Islam, even more devoted to their cause.  They are tied together by common suffering and hardship in the camps.  They become even more incorruptible by outside attempts of recruitment.

For more, read Omar Nasiri’s “Inside the Jihad”.

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!

Underground Warblogging

Warblogging died in 2006.  It died when the military and US government decided that ANY servicemember’s content online must be approved through the chain of command, AFTER informing the command that that content MAY exist. (i.e. registering one’s blog even without posting content to it)

The message coming out of Iraq was warped after this decision.  Crowdsourcing what was happening in Iraq and Afghanistan halted.  We had to rely on embeds and independent journalists (Michael Yon continues to be excellent), and of course, brutal, savage terrorist/insurgent attacks to figure out what was really going on.

I attended the senior Yahoo! fellow Gaurav Mishra’s talk at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy last week, on the subject of citizen journalism/media during the Mumbai Attacks.  You can read about Gaurav’s coverage of the Mumbai attacks on his own blog.  Gaurav talked about how people were now able to report instantly from the scene.

He had me say some words about my own situation, where I had to remove content from my web site to include photos from Iraq and my journal on my deployment to Iraq, after my command found out and I got in heaps of trouble for it.

This “war” is going to be over soon, yet not as quickly as I’d like.  But I guarantee you, when the smoke clears, there will be a TON of stuff coming online written by the troops on what has been happening over there.  That the military said we couldn’t post it online didn’t mean that soldiers weren’t still lying in their hooches, writing long rants on how fucked up or how successful it was over there to their loved ones.  Soldiers, Marines, and others were still snapping photos and taking video of what they saw.  All that stuff is out there NOW, but it is underground.

It will bubble to the surface once all these people feel that it is safe to do so.  You will probably see more books published again.  Few would be worth reading.  But that’s not the point.  The point is that they will have the ability to express themselves again.

About the best we’ve had lately is a book written by a pseudonymous former Army interrogator who decried US torture practices, and a 60 Minutes interview by a pseudonymous former Delta operator who said his team could have had a good shot at killing Osama bin Laden in the early stages of the “war” in Afghanistan.

Pseudonymity, anonymity…both are great ways to circumvent broken systems.

You can also expect revelations, scandals, and investigations to come soon for other related reasons.  The changing of the political appointees and DC guard will bring out exposés on the Bush Administration.  The financial crisis will expose the corruption in Wall Street (like the latest hedge fund/NYC investor scam).  Much of the rot that’s spread as a result of Dubya will get exposed.  I should add that it’s not that the Democrats are not a part of it too — the politicians all had their hand in the till.

The flood of information that people didn’t want you to hear is coming.

[

edit:  Newsweek just did a great story about Thomas Tamm, the guy who gave the New York Times a heads-up on the wiretapping scandal that would later emerge as a collage of different whistleblowers’ reports.  People won’t be as afraid to report, once the horrible Bush Administration leaves.

My buddy d14n wrote a blog post about Tamm also, and he verified the info on how and where to contribute to the Thomas Tamm Legal Defense Trust.

]

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?”