North Korea lacks capacity to hit U.S. with accuracy: U.S. general; Napkin Calculation

EDIT: This discussion neglected ITAR regulations, which control the export of GPS systems for military use. Read down.

Reuters: North Korea lacks capacity to hit U.S. with accuracy: U.S. general.

The precise wording is: “What the experts tell me is that the North Koreans have yet to demonstrate the capacity to do the guidance and control that would be required,” said Selva, the second highest-ranking U.S. military official.

There is a general tendency with public statements to reassure with the phrase “has not demonstrated.” To my mind, the difference is the same as between an assailant with a gun in his pocket, and pointed straight at you. It should not be taken as much of a reassurance.

The problem of guiding an ICBM was solved in the early 1960’s. The ASC-15, built by AC Sparkplug, might be impossible for North Korea to duplicate. But things have  gotten a little easier.

I decided to do another nefarious napkin calculation. This one involves a product of VectorNav, a Dallas company who make inertial navigation systems the size of postage stamps. If you happen to want one for your hobby missile, the VN-200 GPS/INS will run you about $4000. It weighs about an ounce, and has all these nifty features:

  • Built in inertial navigation system.
  • Accuracy augmented by 50 channel GPS.
  • On-board computer with sophisticated de-noising algorithms.
  • Maximum g-load of 16 gees, which should be enough if it’s cushioned.
  • Heading accuracy of 0.3 degrees = 0.005 radians.
  • Pitch accuracy of 0.1 degrees.
  • Development system so you can customize it.

In the original post, I neglected that the VN-200 is compliant with ITAR (Intenational Traffic in Arms) regulations, which means that it has an altitude limit of 60,000 feet  and of speed, about 700 miles per hour, that make it unusable in a ballistic missile (see the spec sheet for conflicting figures that are probably more up-to-date). But GPS technology has become “disseminated”, which means that most or all parts that make up the VN-200 are available separately, if not as compactly. Generalized forms of the GPS software code base are also widely available. Quoting Wikipedia,

 These limits only apply to units or components exported from the USA. A growing trade in various components exists, including GPS units from other countries. These are expressly sold as ITAR-free.

So while it is not assured that you can buy a postage stamp sized VN-200 equivalent, neither is this discussion invalidated.

An inertial navigation system is not the same as an inertial guidance system. But mathematically, they are very closely related, by this saying, which every systems engineer knows: “The best estimator contains a model of the system.”

Here comes the napkin. The chord of a circle is a straight line connecting two points on the perimeter of a circle. The center of the circle is Pyongyang. The perimeter of the circle crosses a U.S. target about 4000 miles distant. Assuming a 0.3 degree cumulative error in heading on burnout, the length of the chord is 20 miles. With the target at either end of this chord, the accuracy of the missile, excepting the reentry vehicle, is plus or minus  20 miles. For various reasons involving the averaging of errors, the performance may be much better than that.

The above contains the assumption that the missile can be controlled; that the  vernier rockets, tiny rockets used to adjust the orientation of the missile, can actually apply the corrections called for by the navigation system. The experts cited by General Selva have available to them the telemetry, the reports sent by the missile to Pyongyang, to analyze.  So these messages would include all the commands generated inside the missile to  adjust the vernier rockets.

Since the experts did not see this tight orchestration, they concluded that the more modest goal of this test was to keep the missile pointed in approximately the right direction. Why did the North Koreans not try for more?

We would like to think that they can’t. But the more informed answer is not as reassuring.  There are dollars-and-cents reasons. The more tightly controlled the missile is, the greater the chance that it will careen wildly out of control and be a total loss. This is a universal problem with control systems, the BIBO stability problem. (I’m not providing a link; you wouldn’t enjoy the read.) The better the job you try to do, the greater the chance the machine/missile/gadget will blow up/burn up/shake apart completely.

So there are really two possibilities for the missile itself, excepting the reentry vehicle, which is a separate and equally important problem. The missile either:

  • lacks the finesse to act on what an off-the-shelf navigation system would tell it to do.
  • has all the necessary systems, with screw-tightening planned for future tests.

Reentry technology is classified, and not amenable to the napkin. But some observations can be made.

The range and capacity of current North Korea missiles requires close to the minimum energy trajectory. You can imagine this as how you would throw a baseball for max distance. In this shallow path, the reentry vehicle tends to “fly” and “skip” a little, which adds to the accuracy problem.  But recent North Korea tests have been almost straight up and straight down. This is brutal to the thermal protection, but potentially easier to guide. It offers North Korea an alternative  development path. Japan is already within range of this threat.

If you’ve read this far, with news of future tests by North Korea, you may be able to embark on your own extrapolation of the threat.

US military considers ramping up Libya presence

CNN: US military considers ramping up Libya presence.

An argument in favor of this was offered in Russians Deploy to back Libya’s Haftar, who may have  had a collaborative relationship with the C.I.A. in attempts to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi.

The B.B.C. profiles Haftar. He has an uncanny resemblance to the German World War II general, Erwin Rommel, with whom he shares the same battlefield, and  these characteristics:

  • Initially, loyal servant of the state.
  • In early career, politically unselective.
  • Superb military skills.
  • Rebellion at the the level of treason, Rommel to Hitler, Haftar to Gaddafi, with the decisions apparently based on practical, rather than moral concerns. (Note: Rommel’s treason may be disputed by proponents of  the Rommel Myth.)

To the argument of the previous article may be added the assertion that Libya has the potential to become either an ISIS haven or, as once seemed possible in Syria, an ISIS sovereign state.

The counterargument can be constructed along conventional lines, in which the perils of American involvement figure prominently.

The genocidal element of Assad in Syria is currently absent.  To what extent it might develop under the changing circumstances depends upon the characters of the actors.  C.I.A. analysts , who have had ample opportunity to familiarize themselves with Haftar during the decade of his residence in Virginia, near C.I.A. headquarters, may offer favorable assessments.


Trump Putin Meeting; Finding the Great Trade; Conclusion

We discussed SALT I as an example.

What are the  current elements of Identity of interest, linkage, and trust?

We have to do some creative thinking to find these elements. Recently, with large troop concentrations around Moscow, there has been some speculation that the Russians are more fearful of the threat environment than revealed by public statements. To talk about it is a sign of weakness. The reasons for Russia’s geopolitical insecurity are discussed in Putin’s Job Works on Him; His Apology; Navalny Detained. Russia’s fear of Islamic fundamentalism was expressed  by Mikhail Gorbachev during his tenure as last head of state of the Soviet Union, and reiterated in a 2011 interview. From The Independent,

“It’s called the historical and political boomerang,” he says, referring to the US’s secret funding of Islamic extremists during the 1980s, when the Americans were fighting communism. “[The Americans] were working in secret with those forces with whom they are now fighting. They should accept their part of the blame. Let them say so. I think God has some mechanism that he uses to punish those that make mistakes.”

Gorbachev may be correct. The U.S. fought a successful proxy war, but it involved introducing the Afghan mujahedin, and precursors of modern jihadis, to modern weapons of war. Most of these elements had never seen anything fancier than Peshawar copies of Lee- Enfield bolt action rifles, and we gave them Stingers. We bought the Stingers back, but we couldn’t erase their imaginations.

The U.S. may now view Islamic fundamentalism with the same apprehension as the Russians, but this is new.  So now we can posit a litany of Russian complaints,  of how the Russians view us:

  • Our sympathies could empower  jihadist elements that could tear Russia apart.
  • We are dangerous fools, capable of fatally harming Russia, simply by not thinking about the consequences of our actions.
  • With the expansion of NATO, Russia’s western borders have been stripped of even a vestigial buffer.
  • Barack Obama’s secretary of state, Hillary Clinton,  acted as cheerleader of the opposition during the 2011  Russia  elections.  How foolish of us not to understand that Russian elections, even with a fair count, are a ceremony of affirmation, not choice.

I’ve left out sanctions, which are reactions, not doctrine.  We assume that  mutual distrust has rational roots. But foreign affairs has always had a tinge of the psychopathic, with behaviors that would not be accepted of citizens.  We could attempt remediation, and receive a psychopathic response, as suggested by  Fiona Hill’s Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin.  But we have the obligation to try.

Our possible initial responses to their objections:

  • We aren’t empowering jihadists.  At least, we hope we aren’t. We’re for a free Syria, we want Assad gone, and we want to defeat ISIS.
  • The freedom of Eastern Europe is not negotiable. Buffer states as pawns of great powers aren’t either. Get out of Ukraine.
  • Interference with Russia’s Potemkin democracy is something to talk about. But stay the hell out of our elections.

These are the generalities. The short lists contain potentials for identity of interest, and  for linkage and trust . The risk of discussion at this general level is small.  But to imagine a specific scenario risks the credibility of the entire discussion. So I’ll do it.

After ISIS becomes no more than an enduring nuisance, the Kremlin may eventually realize that Bashar al-Assad’s hands are so bloody that association risks  a cultural memory of genocide.   It could change the passivity of Russia’s Muslim population in an eye blink. No political process of the type that seeks consensus can work in Syria.  Three possibilities exist in which the U.S. and Russia could partner:

  • Replacement of Assad by a moderate Sunni “strong man” who would lead a government of mild religiosity. Examples of personalities are Egypt’s  Abdel Fattah el-Sisi,  and Libya’s Khalifa Haftar.
  • Partition, with replacement of Assad by an Alawite with less blood on his hands, to govern a rump state in which some Sunnis might be tempted  to remain.
  • Partition of Syria into a loose association smaller states incapable of independent existence, and reliant on the patronage and peacekeeping of the U.S. and Russia. Modern Switzerland was preceded by something similar. It grew together, slowly.

Perhaps, somewhere in the vicinity of the above, there is the seed of a Great Trade:

  • The  U.S. works in concert with Russia for the security of Russia’s southern borders.
  • In Europe, Russia  accepts that no nation need serve as a buffer state or the pawn of a “great power.” And it signals acceptance with an end to subversion in Europe.

A hundred years ago this November, with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire,  the Sykes-Picot Agreement was signed, partitioning this region into spheres of colonial influence. In their wake, the colonial powers left weak states that drifted towards increasingly radical and idiosyncratic nationalism. Collapsing in warfare and ethnic discord, they left fertile ground for radical Islam.

This trend of a century cannot be reversed with an adversarial relationship of the U.S. and Russia.


Trump Putin Meeting, SALT I as Example, Part 3

Developing trust can’t be completely divorced from the human touch. Ping-pong diplomacy was the opener to the thaw in U.S. – China relations in the 1970’s. It was real, not symbolic. Vietnam and the Philippines have been staging sports events on one of the Spratly Islands. In Southeast Asia, ethnic distrust is so widespread, the games are   a useful step towards developing regard for someone from somewhere else.

Going up the ladder, international relations become increasingly intellectual and resistant to the personal touch. George Bush entertained Vladimir Putin on multiple occasions at his ranch, which did nothing to change Putin’s appraisal of Bush’s pipeline projects to bypass Russia. The Xi-Trump honeymoon has faded.  Following Trump’s   hosting of Xi at Mar-a-Lago, the China state press gushed optimism which, given the absence of inked agreements, must have been based largely on personal  impressions. But the warmth faded fast.

The most comprehensive negotiation resulting in a U.S./Russia treaty was SALT 1 (SALT II was never ratified, though the terms were observed till 1986.) Henry Kissinger’s White House Years  is unique in the annals of diplomacy, with personalities rendered in great detail. One can pretty much get the feeling of being there.

Subject to the confirmation or disagreement of Dr. Kissinger, this is how I read it. It was no Bush-Putin barbecue. Soviet hospitality was alien to our tastes, more trial than pleasure.   In the  demand on intellect, hard negotiating social skills, and memories acquired, it was like an astronaut’s rocket ride to the moon. Evenings of vodka toasts, with  decline not an option,  would be difficult for most.  Mordant humor was shared between the parties. But  pleasure was not of camaraderie, but of accomplishment.

The success of the SALT 1 negotiation was due to

  • Identity of interest, valued by both sides  at the level of survival. The success of SALT 1 occurred in a grim atmosphere of dire need, approaching desperation.
  • Linkage. Several other negotiations, part of Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik, were in progress at the same time.  These were desired by the Soviets as a formalization of the divided status of Europe, and opposed by elements of the West as a legitimization of Yalta. Although the term “linkage” was not originally coined for this, it fits well with a little stretching. The Soviets could not risk the backlash of a SALT failure.
  • Trust, born not of friendship, but necessity. The consequences of cheating were  too high. The arms agreements were well respected, even without formal ratification, until the recent violation of the 1987 INF treaty, with Russian deployment of a new cruise missile, discussed in The New Russian Cruise Missile – Geopolitical Implications.

So after a considerable time, trust was violated, because there was no longer identity of interest. Let’s take it philosophically: the Russians are not our friends, but we got some mileage out of the treaties.

SALT 1 did not occur in the atmosphere of, to put a point on it, “Leonid Brezhnev is our friend.”  To Putin’s credit, the Russian proposal to “fight ISIS together” contains one of the three elements. Somewhat to our amazement, with this proposal in the midst of the Ukraine crisis, the Kremlin evinced no awareness  of linkage. Whether explicit or not, whether used as a foreign policy tool or not, linkage is always present in the opposing viewpoint.

What elements from the above list can we find in the current U.S./Russia  situation? To be continued shortly.













Trump Putin Meeting Part 2

Why don’t we trust the Russians? For those of us who lived through the greater part of the Cold War, it is ingrained. For the rest of us, it is a question. All of of us must avoid the trap of believing without examining. So let’s reopen the question.

In what follows, I’ll take a deliberately provocative-to-us line, challenging the assumption that our moral superiority makes specific requirements of U.S. foreign policy. The distinction to be explored is whether a moral mandate has any chance of improving the state of the world, as opposed to a mere matter of principle.

In notable exception, the defense of Eastern Europe is not just for principle. It is real and  effective, protecting  our closest cultural relations, from Russia, as they aspire to the lofty values of our common cradle.  Russia is a threat to Eastern Europe because those countries have  greater levels of  human development than Russia. But in most other spheres, conflict with Russia has little rationale.

Russia has greater human development than several of the countries in the Arab world where Russia has intervened.   In Libya,  Russia has recently aligned with Khalifa Haftar. If, hypothetically, Haftar were to become the strongman of Libya, would this represent a tragic loss for potential democracy? It is doubtful. In  the state of social development of Libya, a Russian model “Potemkin democracy” would be a way out of chaos, a great improvement on the current situation. And unlike a real democracy, which has not been achieved by any Arab state except, possibly, Lebanon, it is within the realm of possibility.

In Syria, the real problem is not the impress of Russian values. It’s that Assad is hanging about 11,000 Syrians a month in his prisons and commits war  crimes against the Syrian population at large. But Russia’s representations to the West about their intentions in Syria serve as the most recent benchmark for the saying, “You can’t trust the Russians.”

The Yalta Conference is often cited as the start of distrust. In the years that followed, Russian promises of free determination for the nations of Eastern Europe were replaced by imposed satellite regimes. The list of military occupations by the Soviet Union is long, but Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 stand out, as advanced societies whose aspirations were crushed by the armies of the Warsaw Pact.

This is why, if Vladimir Putin’s accusations of NATO’s broken promises have any validity, we excuse ourselves.  And the Russian intervention in Ukraine implies a continuity of thought, from the old Soviet Union to modern Russia.

Perhaps George F. Kennan was right in his warning about the expansion of NATO. But history cannot be reversed. The way out is not backwards. The question of the day is, under what circumstances can Russia be trusted? This is pertinent not just to the rare treaty, but in every interaction.  Russia successfully paralyzed a Western response to the Ukraine conflict with a fog of misinformation. A similar approach in Syria has been partly confounded by the Syria Observatory for Human Rights, and independent observers. With the new porosity of Western media to “fake news”, misinformation has become an important Russian surrogate for actual military power.

Presidents are politicians with the personal touch.  A good politician has a  manner of dealing with people that increases his success in building his personal network and his power base.  It’s natural to try these domestic tools with foreign policy. This is why most presidents attempt what  Barack Obama called a “reset” with Russia. It’s a computer term. When you push the reset button, the computer forgets it’s current frame of mind, and gives you a fresh new screen.

The “reset” idea reoccurs with each administration. It is a reliable failure. Russian institutional memory is too long for the mere push of a button, There was a time, post Glasnost, when it could have worked, but we ignored, or bungled, or misused the opportunity. What went wrong would take volumes. In result, the old institutional memory of Soviet Russia, absent the ideology, resumed.

Fiona Hill, Trump’s Putin specialist, wrote Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, in which she asserts that, in time, Putin can slowly develop trust. I disagree with Ms. Hill in two seemingly opposite ways. Her detailed psychoanalysis  damning Putin is simply implausible at the distance of her observation. I would not go so far. Russia was failing as a state when Putin came on the scene. The legitimate doubts  are the classic ones: whether he has become as much part of the problem as the solution. Domestically, Russians don’t think so. They enjoy their abridged liberties with a diet rich in potatoes and poor in everything else. Who are we to second guess them?

But Russia’s foreign policy is relevant to us.  In common with the advocates of the “reset”, Hill invokes the abstraction of building “trust”, abstract as separate from real foreign policy, realpolitik.  This, in my opinion, is a big error.

Next: If not trust in the abstract, what is the way forward?






Trump Putin Meeting Part 1

In (Vox) Trump and Putin meet next week. Guess which one has an agenda?, writer quotes a senior member of George Bush’s cabinet:

A senior member of George W. Bush’s Cabinet once told me a revealing story about Vladimir Putin. Each meeting, the official said, began the same way: Putin would reach into his suit jacket pocket, remove notecards listing perceived American sins against Russia, and read them one by one. Only then would the substantive discussions begin.

If you have a warped sense of humor,  this is really funny. Before the breakup of the Soviet Union, activities which in the West enjoy some delegated authority, such as those of high level diplomats, were rigidly scripted.  Since Vladimir Putin is not so constrained , the notecards are just an affectation. In the Paris peace negotiations, a similar litany of condemnation was Lê Đức Thọ’s opener for the North Vietnamese delegation at every meeting.

We might think that the purpose of this canned spiel is to wear us down. Did Lê Đức Thọ and does Putin understand it is pure irritation? It could actually be for the benefit of Putin or the North Vietnamese. By acting out the litany in speech, it reinforces the belief of the actor.

The Vox article continues with

Put a different way, an experienced and ruthless Russian leader is coming to a pivotal meeting with a clear plan and a clear agenda. An inexperienced and autocrat-loving American president isn’t planning to bring one of his own. That’s a recipe for serious trouble.

In other words, we are afraid that our president may not have understood the lesson of the Yalta Conference, in which an ailing F.D.R. thought he could make Uncle Joe his friend. Vladimir Putin is in no way comparable to Uncle Joe. But Putin has expressed a desire for a new Yalta, which in the West is synonymous with “duped” and “giveaway”. Trump campaigned for better relations with Russia with a seeming lack of awareness of a deeply adversarial relationship. All this drives our fears, even though Trump now seems more willing to respect the cornerstones of U.S. policy. To his credit, he has risked confrontation with Russia  to discourage CW use in Syria.

I don’t think that Trump’s lack of preparedness is a risk factor. It inhibits a  premature jump to specifics. Contrasting with generalities. specifics relate strongly to trust, cheating, and the spirit of the thing. But are we blameless? The Russians blame us for cheating on the promise not to expand NATO eastward. The LA TImes tells the story.

Brookings Institute contradicts this in Did NATO Promise Not to Enlarge?:

Gorbachev replied: “The topic of ‘NATO expansion’ was not discussed at all, and it wasn’t brought up in those years. … Another issue we brought up was discussed: making sure that NATO’s military structures would not advance and that additional armed forces would not be deployed on the territory of the then-GDR after German reunification. Baker’s statement was made in that context… Everything that could have been and needed to be done to solidify that political obligation was done. And fulfilled.”

Let’s continue with the assumption that the transcript of of James Baker’s Moscow meeting referred to in the LA Times article, in which he proposed that NATO should /would not expand eastward was not identically reflected in the treaty commitments of German reunification, where it is replaced by  a no-new-military-facilities clause. This would give some rational, though not factual, basis to Putin’s assertion that we cheated.

We give ourselves a pass by virtue of moral superiority. The countries behind the Iron Curtain suffered  during the Cold War. The incorporation of these former vassal states into NATO began in 1997. Quoting (Wikipedia) George F. Kennan et al.,

At that time the decision was criticized in the US by many military, political and academic leaders as a “a policy error of historic proportions.”[59] According to George F. Kennan, an American diplomat and an advocate of the containment policy, this decision “may be expected to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations, to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.”[60]

Kennan correctly predicted the effect. Why did we cheat? The reasoning may have been unconsciously rooted in the heritage of the French Revolution. Part of classic liberal democracy is the idea that the government interferes minimally with the rights of the citizen. In the recent past, this has been challenged by other ideas, such as community welfare, or that the citizen is in some spiritual sense subsumed by the interests of the state.  Fascism, during the 30’s exemplifies the idea of subsuming the individual to the “national will.”

All of these sentiments are present in modern societies. But the proportions vary. In theory, a U.S. election is a legally sanctioned and sanctified revolution, signifying the right of the body politic to change their government.

By implication, illiberalism is the opposite. Hungary Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who many regard as a proto-fascist, has put into words what Vladimir Putin has not bothered to do. Some excerpts of his July 26, 2014 speech (full text at The Budapest Beacon):

...What all this exactly means, Honorable Ladies and Gentlemen, is that we have to abandon liberal methods and principles of organizing a society, as well as the liberal way to look at the world. ...When it comes to a relationship between two human beings, the fundamental view of the liberal way of organizing a society holds that we are free to do anything that does not violate another person’s freedom. ...

Consequently, what is happening today in Hungary can be interpreted as an attempt of the respective political leadership to harmonize relationship between the interests and achievement of individuals – that needs to be acknowledged – with interests and achievements of the community, and the nation. Meaning, that Hungarian nation is not a simple sum of individuals, but a community that needs to be organized, strengthened and developed, and in this sense, the new state that we are building is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state. It does not deny foundational values of liberalism, as freedom, etc.. But it does not make this ideology a central element of state organization, but applies a specific, national, particular approach in its stead.

The above approximates very well the unstated, or nonexistent ideology of Putin’s party, United Russia. Critics of both Putin and Orban are usually distracted by allegations or facts of what we in the West define as corruption. But if there is to be any possibility of engagement, the precedence of concerns must be reversed. Regardless of the personal behavior of the person on the other side, he is committed to ideas, ideas clearly opposite our own.

We can recognize, in Orban’s elevation of the state, the germ of Russian fear of “color revolutions.” The individual, who is the subject of the state, must not overthrow the state, which has the same philosophical inviolability as monarchs once enjoyed. To overthrow would sacrifice what is to us a highly mystical idea of community, for example, the diaspora of Hungary or Russia. Ethnocentric nationalism sanctifies the state at the expense of the individual.

So what does this have to do with foreign policy? While Putin’s primary objects of concern are Russia and cultural Russians, ours are people in general. We identified with the formerly oppressed peoples of Eastern Europe, and their fears. They tugged at our human hearts, so we threw them a rope and pulled them in (to NATO.)

So Putin thinks that we cheated Russia, if not literally, then in spirit.

But how do we talk with a Vladimir Putin who thinks we swindled Russia?

To be continued shortly.





Russia Threat; Syrian SU-22 Shoot-down; Euphrates as a Line in the Sand

Following the (Aviation Week) shoot-down of a Syrian SU-22,  Russia now warns (CNBC) that U.S. aircraft west of the Euphrates are targets.

There has been plenty of discussion as to why the Russians might not want to follow through with the threat. There is one reason in the plus column, comparatively weak but worth noting nevertheless. Modern air warfare has an informational component, of data acquired by activating the weapons systems of the enemy, and recording the signals and behaviors that result. There is strong incentive for the U.S. not to exhibit advanced technology, and the corresponding Russian desire to force the exhibition. By such means, valuable engineering data is acquired by each side. More advantage accrues to the side with less advanced technology, in this case, the Russians.

This means that  the U.S. does not want advanced warplanes “painted”, that is, illuminated, by Russian radar. The Russian threat gives a plausible explanation as to why they would paint U.S. planes any time a U.S. plane operates west of the Euphrates. The  recorded radar echoes of U.S. planes  would be used to improve  Russian weapons.

Now, the important stuff.  It seems beyond prediction how the Syria conflict will turn out.  Possibly providing a rare glimpse of intentions, the  Russians have drawn a line in the sand, the Euphrates River.  The line has some sense. It conforms to previous Russian intimations that they don’t care who runs eastern Syria. It could be taken as a definition of the region.  Historically, rivers have served as natural barriers to conflict.

We can’t ignore the line, though neither should we over read.  Russian intentions and goals have not remained constant over time.  Hints of this were discussed in Defacto Partition in Syria?,  which quickly became irrelevant with Russian targeting of all anti-Assad forces without discrimination. Whether the Euphrates as a line becomes significant depends upon Assad’s capability to control territory, at what point he would become overextended. His grasp is enhanced by  removal of pressure from ISIS, and  weakened by Coalition support for the SDF.

The east  side of the Euphrates does not have enough carrying capacity for all the Syrians who would want to live free of Assad. In terms of immediately arable land, the carrying capacity would be doubled by the west bank. This is one obvious conflict, if the river-as-a-line were to be taken seriously.

In   Replacing Assad, Part 3,   I wrote,

This is a balance-of-power solution to the statecraft problem. In isolation, it has an immoral sense about it. But in implementation, it would be just a piece of a solution. It corresponds to a geographic partition constrained by economic and defensive viability. There might be little to distinguish from more conventional solutions that partition, except for one thing. Each of the new states must be a client to one of the traditional patrons, the U.S. and Russia. And contrary to the former middle east rivalry, those patrons must work for the mutual benefit of the clients, rather than use them as proxies for their own conflict.

The above comes about with a sandwich arrangement. From the Mediterranean to some line in the Syrian Desert, perhaps the Euphrates, the Alawites rule. East of the line, and continuing without interruption into western Iraq, a Sunni heartland, hostile to Iran’s advances. Further east,  an Iraq co-opted by Iran. The sandwich is perhaps viewed by the Russians as a durable fracture of the Middle East, politically cohesive yet impotent of national aggression, dependent on three patrons for their uncertain existence. A practitioner of European balance of power politics could not hope for more.

If we take the Russian mention of the  Euphrates as a hint of their strategy, it shines more light on the chronic disability of Coalition Strategy in Syria:  uncertainty of goals. No  political entity in Syria evokes much sympathy.  In the last administration, military support to the opposition was gauged to a level as ineffective as our sympathies. The new goal, “defeat ISIS”, has at least the clarity required to motivate effective military support.

Let’s make a wargame, the kind that Avalon Hill is so good at, called “Conflict in Syria”. The game must have “conditions of victory”, different for each side. By convention, the U.S./SDF is “Blue”, and Russia/Assad is “Red.” In this Blue-versus-Red conflict the conditions of victory could be:

  • Blue: Defeat ISIS, and establish conditions for negotiations between the SDF and Red.
  • Red: Destroy or force the removal of all  Blue forces to east of the Euphrates River.

Even if you have never played a wargame, the asymmetry of the conditions is obvious. When Red has expunged all the blue “counters”, the little cardboard gamepieces, from the area west of the Euphrates, they’ve won. The conditions for Blue are indecipherable, undecidable, and unenforceable. The game would not sell well. Unfortunately, we bought it and we have to play it.

What are the actual Blue conditions of victory in Syria/Iraq?  General H.R. McMaster is currently the primary  Blue strategist,  but is  subject to the political will.  McMaster has extensively studied and written on a previous trap, the Vietnam War. In the case of Vietnam, U.S. extrication involved eventual acceptance (1975), of defeat on all levels.

It  appears that one declared goal, the defeat of ISIS, will be achieved. But in the above, Blue’s conditions are  tied to a political process that is probably impossible.

It has been observed that Red’s forces are much weaker than those of Blue. But the game is evened up by some geography — a line in the sand, the Euphrates River.







Russia-Gate; Robert Mueller’s Role Part 2

We continue from Russia-Gate; Robert Mueller’s Role Part 1, with the question,

  • Is Putin’s Russia good/bad for Russians?
  • Is it good/bad for everybody else?

For Russia itself,  Neutral: Vladimir Putin resurrected a failed nation-state that had attempted to reconstitute itself along the lines of western democracy. His solution,  part of Putin’s Apology, was to co-opt every element of Russian society, including large parts of the criminal class, into a new oligarchic power structure with himself as the ultimate arbiter. He would probably argue that there was no alternative to the extinction of democracy. Since then, the elite have become obsessed, perhaps justifiably, with the threat of Islamic fundamentalism. The obsession has resulted in the reestablishment of a the security apparatus of a police state.

The extinction of democracy, the use of Russian nationalism to destabilize neighboring states, the reestablishment of a pervasive security apparatus, Syria and all the rest, are repetitions of historical themes. Most of us wished for a better history than is being currently written. Russia has not mounted an effective response to social decay. Of late, Putin’s presidency has   been mired in circumstances which are largely of Russian creation. One does not lightly redraw the map of Europe.   Ukraine could have been bought back into the Russian orbit, instead of making it a perpetual enemy.

But Putin rescued a state in extremis. Barely latent, potent centrifugal forces remain a severe threat. Even with considerable mistakes, the strategy of co-opting all classes and interests may have saved Russia from disintegration.  To argue further would require counterfactual histories that, while extremely interesting, would convince no one. On balance, with Russia alive-but-sickly, and in one piece, Putin may have been good for Russia. At least, this is not provably wrong. Hence the verdict: For Russia, neutral, and possibly good.

Effect on other countries, bad: The conglomerate of private commercial and state interests that is today’s Russia, acting in foreign relations as an agent of the Russian state, is subversive and corrosive to foreign states. Resembling la Cosa Nostra’s  buying  politicians and judges, the Russian state goal is to subvert and replace the governments and business interests of foreign countries with power structures answerable to Russia.

Simply  extending the domestic system of the Russian state-business relationship comes as naturally as breathing for the modern Russian businessman. His goals, on behalf of the state, have no name in ideology. He wears no badge. Putin’s political party, United Russia, in the face of no identifiable ideology, has been dubbed “The Party of Power.”

Because Americans are by nature pragmatic, it’s hard for us to see the danger of something as practical as United Russia, which is popular. It’s mildly oppressive. It’s mediocre, uninspiring, but  it genuinely tries to deliver social services, and it grinds up only small numbers of people.

If today’s Russia were a better example, like Scandinavian social services, we might welcome  the import of values. But the Russian level was surpassed by Roosevelt’s New Deal. The Robber Baron period of the 1890’s, Big City politics lingering into the 70’s, and, of course, la Cosa Nostra, are our versions of the modern Russian experience.

Against the backdrop of Russian history, the domestic performance of modern Russian government isn’t too shabby. But the U.S., and all of the West, have better systems, with the E.U. as the absolute pinnacle. The novelty of Russia’s  non ideological subversion is a  particular danger. Because the shape and scope of it is so strange, it has already been encountered without recognition by members of both political parties.

The smallest part of the danger relates to foreign policy, such as whether we should cooperate in Syria,  change sanctions, or defend the borderlands of  Europe.  In the context of a well structured foreign policy, it should concern us no more than than during the rest of the post World War II period. But the greater part, the hidden nine tenths of the iceberg, Valachi’s “second government” awaits the society that embraces Russia without the honed acuity that will take time to develop. It’s hard because the hazard has no name.

The name will come after the history has been written. With it will come awareness and caution. With adequate societal defenses, the Kremlin may eventually reconsider this form of conflict.

Thanks in advance, Mr. Mueller.

Russia-Gate; Robert Mueller’s Role Part 1

In CNN Video,  Erin Burnett Grills  Rep. Dana Rohrabacher about Trump campaign contacts with Russians. Rohrabacher ridicules the concerns, while making counter allegations about Hillary Clinton. Burnett inserts a video clip of John McCain, who calls Vladimir Putin a greater threat than ISIS.

It’s natural that RussiaGate, defined in narrow terms of legal culpability,  has become a political football. Did traitors walk the halls of the executive branch? Who is gonna take the fall? Who is going to the slammer?  The eventual outcome promises Greek or Shakespearean tragedy. The guilty must be punished.

But if we allow ourselves to be captivated by theater, we could miss the keeper, the lesson of all this. It will come out as a history, carefully written by Robert Mueller & associates. The history and anatomy are what everyone needs going forwards to guard ourselves from the strange new hazard of modern Russia.

Though Khrushchev infamously did not say “We will bury you”, it’s a great line. Instead, we buried Cold War Russia. But it is back from the grave, tinged in the eerie phosphorescent glow of the unfamiliar. Back in the day, Russians wore badly fitting suits, ran mostly ineffective networks of “illegals”, and ran proxy wars all over the place. Occasionally, those fortunate enough for a U.S. posting were booted for trading vodka for stereos, which were in short supply in the U.S.S.R. The threat of Soviet Russia was appreciated as a monolith of ponderous mediocrity.

We were supremely conscious of of Russia-the-threat, because, in addition to their badly tailored suits, Russians were, by mutual agreement of us and them, communists. There was virtually 100% agreement that we didn’t want communism in this country. There was virtual 100% agreement in Russia, at least till the Brezhnev era, that eventually, there would be. Fear of Russia was fear of the Fifth Column, of subversion, of the takeover, of spies, of missiles, A-bombs, submarines, and poisons. It was so easy to understand.

The Russian of today is entirely different from the party automaton of Soviet Russia. The new Russian wants to give you money and presents. He wants to be your friend. He wants you to understand how certain things you might consider doing would be bad for Russia, meaning, no more money for you. But if you make decisions, legislative, composition of the board, shelf offerings, etc., that are good for Russia (and him), he will give you more money. This is the way our national interests, and moral ones also, corrode at the touch of Russia-the-state, acting through their agent, who happens to be your friend.

This has crept up on us with the same shock of discovery of the Italian Mafia as a “second government”, with the raid of Apalachin Meeting of the capos in1957.  In the 1963 congressional hearings, Joe Valachi said,

Nobody will listen. Nobody will believe. You know what I mean? This Cosa Nostra, it’s like a second government. It’s too big.

Is the Russian system, the new nation-state-business-mafia conglomerate, good or bad? There are two answers for two questions:

  • Is it good/bad for Russians?
  • Is it good/bad for everybody else?

Western imperialism makes the need for distinction obvious. European nations pursued domestic prosperity at the expense of other areas of the globe. The Russian motive is completely different: to obtain security by fracturing and subverting perceived rivals. The methods overlap; the British conquest of India was more by adroit politics of subversion than military means.

To be continued shortly.






U.S. Strike on North Korea? Prediction Update

The article NBC: U.S. May Launch Strike on North Korea Nuke Test, uses Franklin’s decision making method, in which the elements of a list of pros and cons are given equal weight. Although Franklin’s method was devised as a personal tool, it can also be used to analyze the decision making of others.

It’s been reported that the C.I.A. is working on prediction computers. Unless the developers rely entirely on unfathomable neural networks,  they must grapple with choosing the right method for the problem, and when to switch.  It is a fascinating problem, because, unlike Bayesian probability theory , the sample space — what you might call the “possible outcomes”, is not rigorously defined. Whether the sample space itself is correct becomes a random variable.

What does this mean to somebody who is nosy about the future? It means that you better not stick to your guns too long. As new information comes along, you should revise your prediction without embarrassment. This is why Franklin’s method is so acceptable here.  If new information morphs the problem, switch without embarrassment to another method. But for now,  Franklin’s method remains the choice, with several changes to the lists:

The Pros

  • Trump’s vow to solve the problem of North Korea.
  • His recent use of force in Syria.
  • The enthusiasm of China state media with the Xi-Trump meeting, in spite of China’s awareness of the above. Hence, the “trading material” reference.
  • Shared dislike of “Fatty Kim.”
  • Possible awareness by South Korea of a grim future with the North.
  • The conventional wisdom that force is off the table. Conventional wisdom is always vulnerable.
  • Two more THAAD batteries ( Reuters: four more launchers) have been deployed, at the very substantial cost of U.S. $1BN each, footed entirely by the U.S.
  • Stalled delivery of the promises of the Trump presidency, with a search for “fungible” alternative achievements.

The Cons

  • A possible attack by the North on the South, with all the ramifications. Countered  by the addition of THAAD batteries.
  • Refusal by the South to face up to the growing threat.

In the mind of the decision maker, the con, “A possible attack…”  is weakened  by the pro, additional THAAD batteries. Since we are trying to fathom a mind, this is entirely subjective. The list modification has nothing to do with actual cost reduction. But neither does it go against actual cost reduction. The domain of prediction is entirely mind.

In Xi-Trump meeting; Long Range; North Korea, it’s suggested that Trump’s concept of achievements is that they are fungible — replacement of unachievable objectives by others that are:

Since Trump’s concept of achievements is that they are fungible, he reconsiders the South China Sea.  There are things you want to keep, and things you want to trade. It’s key to streamlining a business.

In NBC: U.S. May Launch Strike on North Korea Nuke Test, I concluded,

Since the pros have it, 6 to 2, the estimate is that an attack has significant chance. It may have strange aspects.

I did not assign a probability, an “XX percent.” As a member of the Forecasting World Events team, my numbers were weighted with many others — a “transverse ensemble”, so it made sense to do so. But Franklin’s score, formerly 6 pro/ 2 con, is now 8 pro / 2 con.

Hence the chance of a strike on North Korea has increased.

The cheapest secret of prediction is to set aside all the discursive thoughts and discussion that might appear in a news-with-story article. Should the gamble be taken? Is it worth the price and the danger? Would it buy us security? Important as these issues are, they are needless distractions to the predictor.




Intel9's world view