- Donald plays Donald.
- The penguin, the un-asked-for gift from “Admiral Bird”, plays the part of Kim Jong-un.
- The goldfish are the sanctions.
- Donald attempts to punish the penguin to no effect.
- The shotgun requires no explanation.
- The outcome is something we wouldn’t wish for.
This is to appear as a gesture of goodwill, but it is not. Abandonment of the test sight is forced upon North Korea by geology.
After the last test, other tunnels in the same area suffered cave-ins, with substantial loss of life. (Reuters) Tunnel collapse may have killed 200 after North Korea nuclear test: Japanese broadcaster.
The cause was fracturing of the rock, from a combination of susceptibility of the strata with too many tests in one area. The mountain has, in effect, been converted into a huge pile of rubble. Rubble has no bearing strength for voids. A new tunnel would collapse around the time the tunnel head enters a fracture zone. While tunneling through weak rock is possible, it requires techniques that are completely unfeasible for a single use tunnel.
If’ you’d like an official citation, refer to (USGS) OPEN FILE REPORT 01-312, The Containment of Soviet Underground Nuclear .Explosions. Quoting from page 37,
These changes in properties of rocks and rock masses in the vicinity of previously conducted underground explosions impose certain requirements on selection of a location for conducting underground tests. The location of a new test must be chosen such that zones of increased fracturing of the rock mass from previously conducted explosions do not intersect with the planned explosion. However, even with such a site selection, the new test is not always fully contained. For example, in the case of emplacement in Degelen tunnel 113 (16 Feb 73), leakage of gaseous products was observed through ground zero of tunnel 510, where a test had been conducted previously (28 Jun 70). A similar phenomenon was observed at the Novaya Zemlya test site, where the gaseous products of an explosion in tunnel A-3 (7 Nov. 68) escaped into the atmosphere through an adjacent tunnel (A-8) in the same rock mass. In the subsequent test in tunnel A-8, on 27 Sep 71, allowances were made for the nearby location of tunnel A-3.
This means that even if you succeed in digging the tunnel, the explosion may not be contained. Hence the fears reported by (Independent) North Korea tunnel collapse at nuclear test site could cause serious radiation leak.
So the North Koreans are giving up what they are forced to give up, and hoping we will see it as a generous gesture.
Will the North Koreans work around it? Inside a North Korean gold mine. More later.
I am surprised that I can be the first to write something with such a buzzy title. Russian foreign policy has stumbled: Russia has lost control of the narrative. In an unprecedented way, the loss intertwines with Russian prospects in Syria. A prerequisite article is (U.S. Army) What Kind of Victory for Russia in Syria?
With the poisoning of the Skripals with a nerve agent, and the implied Russia defense of Assad’s chemical warfare against his own citizens, there is a bad smell in the fridge. Is it the kasha that has overstayed its welcome, or the kvass? Whatever it is, something has gone wrong with Russia’s foreign policy in the way it presents to the world. The ice box needs to be cleaned out.
Immorality aside, when a sane person realizes that some activity is not working, the person stops. One of the definitions of insanity is continuation of behavior that does not work. This is when the insane start banging their heads.
This is entirely apart from whether Russia’s foreign policy is ever beneficial to us. While generally it is not, Sergei Lavrov has said (citation missing, paraphrase) that if it weren’t for Russia, the black flag of ISIS would be flying over Damascus. This could be correct, in which case Russia has done the dirty work for both the U.S. and Russia. Assad, their proxy, employed methods that we could not condone or allow. The most reprehensible of these methods is poison gas, which has been condemned by international declaration since 1925. The 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention bans them. But Assad has been bombing civilians with makeshift ordinance since the start of the rebellion. Clearly, this is a mockery of a sovereign state.
Early in the Russian intervention, with the first use of chemical weapons by the Syrians,, the Russians publicly encouraged Syria to honor the obligations of the 1997 CWC, to which Syria is signatory. In a public statement, Lavrov said (citation missing, quote from memory), “Assad, honor your obligations.” What has happened since, that would cause Russia to defend the indefensible, by the usual means of obfuscation and statements that are counter to the facts?
There are two completely separate reasons. The one of longer duration is Russian confidence that they can control the narrative. While Vladimir Putin is not responsible for all things Russian, he is largely responsible for renovating the image of Russia into one of a progressive state, an image which held until the Ukraine incursions. Before and concurrently with aggression against Ukraine, a number of actions, including threatening statements and behavior, unsafe intercepts, and assassinations, contributed to the tear-down of the progressive image.
The tear-down is almost complete among those who bother to inform their opinions. There will always be exceptions, like Dana Rohrabacher and Jeremy Corbyn, but remnants offer no chance of the return of Putin’s former stature as a progressive leader. Given the Kremlin’s savvy in PR, why was it not anticipated? Russian success in shaping and controlling domestic opinion is the likely reason. The propaganda methods used with such success internally were exported, and augmented with the sophisticated manipulations of the Internet Research Agency.
The unrecoverable disintegration of Russia’s image among those who choose ranks with the lost battles and strategic defeats suffered by all of the great powers, and those that wanna be. It makes impossible a coverup by Russia of Assad’s use of poison gas. The only support Russia receives in the international forum is from those who owe Russia, those of vaguely conceived tilts, such as China, and those nations that habitually commit atrocities themselves. But you are known by the company you keep.
For the second reason, refer to (U.S. Army) What Kind of Victory for Russia in Syria? Quoting,
“Ambition creep” is a common illness afflicting most great powers when they deploy military forces. Russia may not have come to Syria with hopes of regaining power and status in the Middle East at the top of its agenda, but regional aspirations grew with each success on the battlefield. As a consequence, Russia has become a potential powerbroker, and perhaps a balancer against U.S. influence, even if it did not embark on the Syrian campaign with those goals in mind.
At the beginning of the intervention, the Russians advised Assad that he could not expect to regain control of all of Syria. But with unexpected success, aided by the disintegration of ISIS in Iraq, there came about ambition creep. The Assad regime now has presence, or control, of most of Syria. But it is tenuous. Given the minority status of the Alawite ruling class, how thinly spread they are, how can Assad actually impose a civil structure?
As always, carrot and stick. Money, missing as long as the Kurds sit on the oil fields, to buy the tribes and oil the mukhabarat death machine. Poison gas, to hammer the populace wherever a no-go zone spontaneously appears. Without gas, there simply aren’t enough Alawites for continual active suppression. The Syrian fire, which began with the graffiti of a child, occurs as spontaneous combustion.
Had Russia not been a victim of ambition creep, had Assad been less successful, had the Syria situation stabilized with regime control of Damascus, Latakia, and a little bit more, the Russians would not now be victims of their own success, forced into complicity with the most odious means of repression, poison from the sky. For without poison gas, there is no exit strategy.
Russia’s situation in Syria is not a strategic failure, but it is a major setback. It is the unprecedented result of failure to control the narrative. Prior regimes that attempted to control the narrative via propaganda were not much bothered by such failures. Nazi Germany just kept rolling along, even when the “big lie” of Herr Goebbels became a big joke. So why is Russia affected so deeply?
Russia is caught, not between East and West (for there is very little of the East in Russia) but between Russia and the West. Since the founding of Saint Petersburg in 1703, Russia has yearned for things Western. But the imports were selective, preserving the autocracy, with truth-as-diktat, that in the West began to dissolve with the Enlightenment. Transplanted to the West, Russians find themselves highly compatible, distinguished mainly by their accents. Yet Russian business practices are, for many reasons not fixable by regulation, incompatible with the West.
Oblivious to these contradictions, Russia wants the West on its own terms. It expects, or expected, money and commerce without the moral conflicts seen by Western observers. This explains the petulant cry (Reuters) ‘You’ll be sorry,’ Russia tells Britain at U.N. nerve agent attack meeting. The last time I said something like that was as a small child.
The East is not an alternative, since it augurs inevitable absorption by China. But without outside stimulus of dynamic societies, the socially extinct volcano that is Russia will freeze solid. So how can Russia have the part of the West it wants, while absorbing at least some of what it needs so desperately without knowing it?
It would take a third Glasnost. There have been two already, the first under Khrushchev, the second under Gorbachev.
(CNN) Dozens dead in possible gas attack in Syria; regime denies allegation. Since the Assad regime has the means, motive, and history of prior use of chemical weapons, there is little reason to doubt a serial offense.
Now the words are flying. (CNN) McCain: Trump ’emboldened’ Assad with comments on US withdrawal from Syria. Possibly so, but only in the sense of this specific incident, at this moment in time. Had this not occurred, there would still be the inevitability of Future Crime. It doesn’t take Minority Report to predict a Syrian future of genocide. Focusing on the current gas attack is a natural response to the horror, but it is merely a taste of what is yet to come, when Assad’s mukhabarat attempts to “reconstruct” Syria by traditional means of repression. Is it more significant that 20 innocents die by gas, as opposed to a 1000 by traditional tortures and hangings?
The 2017 Shayrat missile strike, a year ago, arguably saved civilian lives by deterring major use of gas, for a year. Another strike could have a similar effect of time limited deterrence. For Assad, deterrence is not a lesson to be learned, but a calculation of risk and reward, subject to continuous recalculation.
The great advantage the Russians, and Assad, have over the U.S. is that they know what they want, and how to get it. And until recently, U.S. strategy contained a fatal flaw, the empowerment of elements so close to the jihadist mainstream that two of the three components, with banner titles of “political opposition” and “jihadist”,were largely compatible. The third incompatible component had another flaw, lack of will for violent struggle, which means, they weren’t very good at fighting. In fact. they were terrible. A fix for these two flaws can now be envisioned.
Retaliation for the gas attacks is a balm for our souls, and would in the short term save some lives from gas. The lives we save face a terrible future. But while these days the parties give scant credit to each other for durable aspects of foreign policy, the disengagement of the U.S. from the role of world policeman was actually initiated with Obama’s “lead from behind” stance. Named and described differently, much of this continues with the Trump administration. The distinction between the former administration, and the present, is that the use of proxies is now far more skillful.
The major U.S. proxies in Syria, which the Obama administration shied from under Turkish pressure, are the Kurds, They are remarkably more compatible with Western values than the jihadist mix of the previous administration. The compatibility of their culture extends to potency as a fighting force. While the many Reuters photos reveal staged photos of jihadists striking poses as they spray a street on full automatic, these caricatures are absent with the Kurds. They fight to live, not to die, a large part of their superiority in combat.
This is why the Kurds are (CNN) sitting on the largest part of Syria’s oil fields, depriving Assad of the revenue he needs to oil his mukhabarat death machine. With iron-clad U.S. support, the fields can be held indefinitely. Should political leverage ever become a meaningful concept in Syria, the fields offer it in spades. The fields can also be the centerpiece of a new nation, Eastern Syria, Western Kurdistan, o something like that.
So here are three options for U.S. policy, which are at least expressible as compact, well defined objectives.
- Build a new nation. Drop our sanctimonious respect for the inviolability of fictitious nations (Sykes Picot Agreement) ruled by murderous tin-pot dictators. Tear up the map and draw your own lines. The men in striped pants may wring their hands. So what?
- Make the oil fields held by the Kurds an impregnable bastion. This would deprive the rest of Syria of economic viability. It would make Assad’s Syria a perpetual drain on the Russians and Iranians. It would also have value as an anchor point for anti-Iranian proxies. Ten or twenty years down the road, the Russians might decide to talk to us honestly.
- Blow up Assad’s air force, and tell ourselves we’ve done a good deed. Get out. Plug our ears and cover our eyes to the future of Syria.
I’m not choosing. That’s up to you.
(NY TImes) Poisoned Door Handle Hints at High-Level Plot to Kill Spy, U.K. Officials Say. The article is behind a paywall; for a substitute, try this Google search.
One purpose of this blog is to promote open source analysis as a teachable skill. The article presents opinions that are open to challenge. The authors make no attempt to disentangle the assumptions of the opinions. They may be presented as opinions to cloak clandestine methods and sources. But let’s consider the opinions of the article as if they are what they are claimed to be, opinions, and tear them apart. Quoting:
- Because the nerve agent is so potent, the officials said, the task could have been carried out only by trained professionals familiar with chemical weapons.
Rebuttal. Application of Novichok to the doorknob could be accomplished with a gadget. Gadgets of similar purpose are described in (CIA Reading Room) Soviet Use of Assassination and Kidnapping, and in other declassified documents. Here’s a design for a handy-dandy poison applicator:
- The gadget is a container shaped conveniently for the hand. Within, there is a motorized apparatus.
- The Novichok variant has negligible volatility; it cannot become airborne easily. So it is only necessary to protect the operator from accidental contact via “splash” on the exterior of the gadget.
- On pressing a trigger button, a port, protected by a door, opens. A probe extends.
- The tip of the probe contains a second door to a second port. This door also opens.
- A felt pad saturated in Novichok, extends from the tip of the probe.
- With a wiping motion, the operator applies the applicator to door knob.
- On releasing the button, the above operations reverse; the probe retracts and the port doors close.
- The operator drops the entire gadget into a container of neutralizing solution, and discards it.
So the task is reduced from requiring skill to merely requiring nerve.
- This operation is seen as so risky and sensitive that it is unlikely to have been undertaken without approval from the Kremlin, according to officials who have been briefed on the early findings of the inquiry.
Rebuttal. The implied assumptions are:
- Freelancers, rogue groups, and clans, all from within the Russian government, do not engage in risky behavior, but authorized Kremlin operatives do. This is absurd.
- The Novichok dose was unlikely to have been stolen. Yet (Reuters) Ivan Kivelidi was killed in 1995 by a stolen nerve agent.
- But the assassins knew the nerve agent would be identified, and knew it would be linked to Russia, the officials said. That was meant to send a chilling message to others who would think of defecting to, or informing, the West.
Rebuttal. Withe the sole exception of Novichok, relatively simple tests for all the weaponized nerve agents exist. In the case of VX, it’s as simple as a sensitized strip of paper. The identification of Novichok in the Skripal poisoning was a complex problem of analytic chemistry. With 14 unsolved murders of Russian expats in Britain, which may be 14 undetected assassinations, there is no reason for the Russians to assume this attack would be solved.
- The boldness of the attack on Mr. Skripal, which took British authorities by surprise, has caused them to reassess Mr. Putin’s use of what has come to be called “hybrid warfare.”
Rebuttal. This conflates the hypothesis that Putin approved the action with his established use of hybrid warfare. This may be true, actually established by clandestine means, but there is no way to tell. The distinction is important to readers of open source.
In articles such as the NY Times piece, the reader is challenged to distinguish between
- Opinions that are uninformed by facts.
- Informed opinions.
- Facts established by clandestine means that masquerade as opinions to protect sources and methods.
Nothing in the article suggests a way to distinguish between these possibilities. Had the article never been published, the body of open-source evidence is adequate for these conclusions:
- The poison was made in Russia, now established as fact by Porton Downs (Google search.) By some reports the plant is located at Shikhani.
- The motive, revenge for treason, strongly implicates the Russian government, or rogues or clans from within the government, with or without approval at the highest level.
So what does the article add? The NY Times, a “newspaper of record”, reports that some sources think some things. It may be fit to print, but is it worth printing? Most readers can also think some things. Times, your grade is a solid C. Dig deeper next time.
We continue from Putin Wins; Russian Politics & Novichok Part 1.
Much of what follows was originally written as the unpublished part 7 of Advice to a New Secretary of State. It is re-purposed here as continuation of Putin Wins; Russian Politics & Novichok Part 1, on the road to developing a comparison of Russia with the old Soviet Union.
Part and parcel with the national identity of all nations is national narcissism, ignoring the existence of trace elements or features, or more than traces, of that which we abhor. In the U.S., respect for human rights and individual liberties has been subject to wide gyrations. The U.S. ranks near the top in acceptance, learning, and reform from self criticism of past and current national tragedies. It is a process that must continue indefinitely. What follows is not intended to narrow the moral disparity between the U.S. and Russia. We debate and learn; the Russians deny and lie.
It is nevertheless the case that trace elements of due legal process, and respect for rights of individuals, while limited in scope, existed in limited contexts in the Soviet Union. The existence, disappearance, and reappearance of trace elements of a society can be important markers of social evolution. What follows was written before the March 4 poisonings of the Skripals with Novichok. Don’t forget the attempts to poison Fidel Castro. Although the U.S. death-by-poison body count may be zero or close to it, it’s nevertheless important to the analytical mindset to acknowledge. It is a trace feature of our society. I leave it to you to make the appropriate insertions.
To us, Russian subversion of democracies is unethical, while a counter strategy based operant conditioning (the Skinner Box) is ethically beyond reproach. But there is always a chance that the Russians might eventually open up a little, as during Perestroika. As dim as the outlook is, as suggested by current events, let’s not completely negate the possibility. Vladimir Putin still seems a combination of a modern man with a nationalist in the historical mold. People who are combinations contain the possibility of change. But note, Vladimir Putin is not synonymous with Russia.
Let’s consider what forms the external image of the U.S., and circle back to Nikki Haley’s “…that is warfare.”
Between 1920 and 1950, reservoirs of romantic sympathy in the West for Bolshevik revolution gradually faded away, replaced by a true appreciation of the horrors. Six years later, on February 2, 1956, the first official denunciation within the Soviet Union came in Khrushchev’s secret speech. This was really the first “perestroika.” But starting from the base of an historic brutality, it was only an increment. Three generations have passed since that speech, enough time for Western Europe to abandon the nationalism of conflict dating to the Treaty of Westphalia.
With three generations, the salt of Russia’s earth still have one foot in the past. That foot threatens to drag us all back to the conflicts of centuries. This is why we are so unnerved by Russian subversion. But perhaps the Russians don’t appreciate the value of what they are trying to destroy.
Historical comparisons can be made between human rights violations in Soviet Russia, and in the West. There is the appearance of qualitative overlap, but this neglects the numbers. Russia had Stalin’s purges. The U.S. had racial lynching. Russia had extrajudicial capital punishment, via the infamous NKVD “troika.” In the U.S., capital punishment is inconsistently applied, in some cases, to innocents. Neither society is perfect, but numbers tell the story.
- While 20+ millions died in Stalin’s purges, the Tuskegee Institute documents a total of 4,733 lynchings since 1882.
- According to a study cited by Newsweek, U.S. miscarriage of justice in cases involving capital punishment since 1973 has been about 4.1%. Since 1973, 144 people on death row have been exonerated.
- Estimates of the Gulag population in the 1990’s vary, the lowest cited in Wikipedia as 4.5 million. In the U.S., people have gone to jail for political reasons, for participation in the Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-War movements, and some as almost purely as prisoners of conscience. Let the Russians come up with a list and we’ll do numbers.
- Soviet psychiatric hospitals, used during the Brezhnev era for political control, analogize (though with no relation to politics) to the abuses of U.S. mental institutions in the same time frame.
- U.S. and Russian covert activities in the Third World during the Cold War have significant symmetry. Manipulations of print and broadcast media correspond to social media manipulations. A good picture of this is given in the books by C.I.A. plank owner Miles Copeland. This epoch was swept away by the Church Committee, the Pike Committee, and so forth. Since then, concerns illuminated by legislative and public scrutiny, and leaks, have alternated in importance with the exigencies of 9/11.
- The Russians may compare the former U.S. dominance in Latin America, interventions there, and the general attitude of the Monroe Doctrine, to the Iron Curtain of Eastern Europe. We don’t.
The current propaganda drumbeat of Russian government media is unrelated to the specifics of the list, but the mindset that engenders the propaganda endures.
The list implies varying shades of gray, with occasional marks of black. The blackest mark on our record is the Vietnam War. Can we exonerate our fathers by saying, “We were fighting communism”? This is not to argue with you if you think we can, but the Russians, and many others, do not share the thought.
As Americans, we are free to vigorously defend the above, to be shamed, or accept them as bygone attitudes engendered by the Soviet threat. The purpose of this recapitulation is to understand Russian attitudes, particularly of the overhang of older individuals in the Russian government.
Now we have developed moral relativism, not to blur the moral disparity between the U.S. and Russia, but for the sake of the analytical mindset. To be continued shortly.
On the night/morning April 5-6, trains were delayed out of Penn Station/New York due to signal problems. My normally short stay in the Amtrak operated waiting area, which also accommodates New Jersey Transit passengers, became indeterminate. I decided to occupy the time working on my laptop, but it needed a charge. I discovered, to my dismay, disgust, and rage, that all outlets in the waiting area save one (which was in use) had been either disabled by removing the internal contacts, or roped off and prohibited for use by passengers.
I inquired with the desk attendant about this policy. She replied, with oily malice in her voice, “We don’t provide outlets to passengers”, as if I had asked for a luxury item. I’ve been commuting from Penn Station/NY for 30 years, and there have always been outlets in the waiting area pillars that passengers have been allowed to use. The standard electrical outlet is not a new invention. It’s been around since 1928. The cost of the electricity required to run a laptop computer for an hour is about 0.1 cents. It costs less to charge a cell phone.
So what changed? Someone came up with a scheme to charge for the electric air we breathe. A vending machine was developed that rents, for five bucks, cell phone power packs, the same kind, but smaller, that you can own through Amazon for 20 bucks. The vending machines have been in Penn Station for several years, but I have never seen anyone use one. They are a pure ripoff, since for the cost of four rentals, you can own your own, more powerful power pack.
It appears that someone pressured Amtrak management to make their vending operation profitable. One way to do that was to remove the free alternatives, electrical outlets. That laptop users are cut off is of no concern to the operators of this mercenary scheme.
In spite of the crowded desperation of the waiting area, full of dying phones, nobody bought the scam. One young man gave it a hard look, and walked away. I would like to shake his hand.
If the above were merely a wart on an Amtrak that draws the admiration of travelers, my complaint wouldn’t have much traction. But Amtrak is also a killer, an operation with a defective safety culture that costs lives. The December crash in Washington state in which three passengers died does not lie in the gray area of “undetectable fault” or “lax inspection procedures.” According to the crew involved, it was the result of a willful decision to not provision adequate crew training on that specific run. Some of the trainees rode backwards, so that they could not visually experience the run as they would on revenue runs. Quoting CNN,
Some training runs were performed at night, with as many as six or more crew members stuffed into cars with just three seats, which meant some trainees rode backwards, in the dark, the sources said. Engineers felt they did not get enough practice runs at the controls and could not properly see to familiarize themselves with the route.
If the employees are truthful, the inadequate training probably constitutes negligent homicide, death resulting from criminal negligence, which, relying on objective findings, doesn’t require malicious intent. Bumbling, kindly Amtrak kills. There has been no push for prosecution, probably because we give Amtrak a human persona, of a corporate “person” trying its best under difficult circumstances. In return for that, we expect little courtesies, expressions of kind intent, like electric outlets in waiting areas, which existed, and cost literally nothing to provide.
But now, for the little things, like the electric air we breathe, “kindly” Amtrak has colluded with a vendor in an evil, if trivial manipulation. It’s just one more way to make the life of the train traveler miserable – if, indeed, the traveler is not caught up in a fatal mishap, and actually survives the experience.
So now I’m thinking “kindly” Amtrak really is Ebenezer. The riders are his Tiny TIms. Maybe Amtrak should have the experience of no electricity. Maybe it’s time to pull the plug on Amtrak.
Amtrak, if you read this, I’ll take one 50 foot extension cord with my mineral water.
I’m with you in spirit.
Once again, the youth will save this country from the old.
(USA Today) Florida lawmaker pushes back on teens demanding gun control: ‘The adults make the laws’ So said a mediocrity by the name of Elizabeth Porter. Yes, the night is darkest before the dawn.
But the youth make the future.
In September of 2017, I wrote a six-part series: Advice for a New Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson
- Part 1 – Kissinger as an exemplar.
- Part 2 – Linkage as a tool.
- Part 3 – Handling Russian subversion.
- Part 4 – The Russia we are dealing with is not an individual.
- Advice for a New Secretary of State, Part 5; Nikki Haley, Russia
- Advice for a New Secretary of State, Part 6; How to Use a Skinner Box.
Part 7 is written, but it doesn’t seem germane right now.
Given his inexperience with foreign policy, Rex Tillerson may have actually read it. But John Bolton has spent a lifetime with foreign policy. So this is couched not as advice to him, but as a general review. Those whose brains have been smoked in think tank ideologies may find it interesting.
U.S. foreign policy since Korea, excepting the Kissinger years, is a history of serial mistakes. The greatest error, of which people attracted to power are particularly prone, is to think they alone will stand above their predecessors by not making mistakes. Instead, they make different mistakes. This includes administrations of both parties. Nobody, dove or hawk, has escaped this. Inevitably, it seems, members of government are blinded to logic by prior inclination.
So the logical question is, why should this time be any different? In a rational framework, the terms hawk and dove should be non descriptive. Why should we hope for any better? One could hope that Bolton has a hidden side, that he is actually a surgical operator. But who knows?
The world has changed hugely since the last great intervention of the U.S., the Iraq War of 2003. Post World War II, with the tragic exception of Vietnam, all the major U.S. actions had the legitimacy that accrues to coalitions, but not to unilateral action. The great blocs, the Free World, the Communist World, and the Third World, have splintered to bits. In their place are actors, large and small, practicing diplomacy in the national interest, in the mold of Bismarck. Until recently, the largest actors attempted to patch or restore the blocs, without realizing that the vital glue, fear, is diminished.
With the exception of Russian attitudes, both of and about, the fear that binds has been upstaged by economic opportunism. Modern industries benefit from economies of scale that transcend national boundaries. Hence a small country desires to associate with a large one. Duterte sees the natural place of the Philippines as an economic satellite of China. He was not entirely joking when he said, (National Interest, Duterte to China:) ‘If You Want, Just Make Us a Province’.
Let’s pinpoint the interval during which the economic bloc centered on the U.S. was unmade. It began during the Clinton administration, and continued through Bush II. Capital flows and resultant economies of scale were diverted away from the U.S. core to the China core. The blindness was bipartisan, the result of short-term thinking characteristic of our system. With it has come an evisceration of soft power, which in virtually every instance is more important than the hard variety. In his last few days at State, Rex Tillerson noted this. (CNBC) US’s Tillerson warns African nations not to ‘forfeit their sovereignty’ by taking Chinese loans. Said by anyone, the words are impotent. Money talks, bullshit walks.
Could the decay of the U.S. center have been averted? Only very clever thinking, which appears in short supply, and some sacrifice by the American people, offer the possibility. Perhaps decay could have been slowed. But the process by which nation states rise and fall analogizes strongly with Vilfredo Pareto’s circulation of the elites, and may therefore be inevitable.
The world now consists of practitioners of realpolitik, lightly bound by treaties that have lost the sacred quality. A U.S. foreign policy action may obtain support, or it may be denied by national interest. This means that every action potentially sets in motion a game of combinations.
A lack of understanding of games of combination may be rooted in the proper households in which most of our future diplomats were raised. In most cultures, a social game has strict rules, and each player participates as an individual according to those rules. In a game of combinations, players are free to form alliances with each other. Role playing games exemplify this. The rules of such games encourage a changing landscape; expansion, contraction, and unpredictability, the set of outcomes left undefined. To contrast:
- In contract bridge, the number of players is constant.
- In a role playing game, your role can die.
- In contract bridge, the possible outcomes are set. You win or you lose.
- In a role playing game, the set of outcomes is infinite.
- In contract bridge, the duration of the game varies within tight limits.
- A role playing game need not have an end.
- In contract bridge, you have your partner.
- In a role playing game, players can gang up on each other, forming new combinations of unexpected power.
Whether an individual, who has never been devoted to a game, can spontaneously exhibit gamesmanship in real life is an open question. Whether an individual who has never played a game of combinations can have that skill is another. There is a tradition, among think tanks, of something called “policy analysis.” The related mindset, of contract bridge players, may not provide the proper antecedents for today’s challenges. Those people need a dose of Dungeons and Dragons.
Different games encourage development of different insights. Army officers say American football comes closest to the experience of combat. The chess player learns to deal with a closed, intensely logical system. A poker play reads his opponent. But foreign policy is now a game of combinations. An action by a strong power could result in a hostile combination of weaker powers.
So what kind of games does John Bolton play?
To be continued shortly.
Now that Vladimir Putin has been reelected, it’s possible to discuss Russian politics. Before the election, lacking a mythical reputation for objectivity, there would have been several accusations:
- Meddling in Russian politics, made by the dozen or so people in Russia who regularly read the blog.
- Participating in the snuffing out of what tiny shreds of democratic sentiment remain alive in Russia.
- A hidden agenda, which is up to the reader to pick. I could be a Putin apologist.
The election was not what the West considers an election. It was a ceremony of ratification, a ritual pledge. But it was still better for commentary to wait. And the danger of being lumped with (Telegraph) Jeremy Corbyn as a Putin apologist has been mitigated by the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal, where I may have been the first to mention Novichok as the possible agent.
So it’s opportune to continue with Putin’s Apology, so far a series of four articles, with a common theme. If Putin were to defend his record, what would he say? The common disclaimer is:
As a reminder, an apology is a defense, such as a good trial lawyer might offer. In comparison with the unknowable facts, it could be true, false, or a mix. The only requirement of this apology is that it be favorable to Putin, and not definitively refutable.
A quick study of Russian politics reveals a blizzard of ideologies, aspirations, proposals,claims, and accusations, all suppressed in months. This article can add nothing to the details presented by specialists, the chronicles of personalities, clashes, feuds, smears, assassinations, poisonings, and mere intimidations. It just goes on and on. But we can discuss the dynamics.
The former Soviet republics are criticized in the West for the “Potemkin-ness” of their so-called democracies. When process gets in the way of an action desired by an autocrat, the process is obliterated, if not forever, for a very long time. It happens elsewhere. In Turkey, the citizens of recently voted away their democracy for no apparent reason, other than as an expression of resurgent ethnocracy.
The U.S. experience with democracy has been of perhaps surprising stability. Some states and most big cities have for periods of time been under the control of corrupt political machines. The U.S. political system possesses a character superior to the people who comprise it. It is a consequence of the apparent fact that social memory persists beyond the lifespan of the individual. Among the magical elements:
- Ritualized warfare, the election, when words replace violence for the most part.
- Replacement of election rhetoric by search for a sustainable support base.
- Traditions of delegation, compromise, and voluntary relinquishment of power.
- A free press, vital to Walter Lippmann’s controversial theory of democracy.
- The search for popular approval, which as an inevitable consequence of Lippmann’s theory, is modulated by the free press.
- Adversarial monitoring of the system by activists and muckrakers.
Perhaps the fact that the above works can only be truly appreciated by growing up with it. The bullet list is a display of intangibles that exist outside of any organizational chart. Yet it may be more important than the “three branches of government” to which civics classes attribute U.S. stability.
Vladimir Putin did not grow up with this. For some reason, the paper structure Soviet System, as with so many other totalitarian systems, was chosen to mimic the institutions of democratic governments without even the pretense of democracy that Russia still maintains. In such a system, the character of the rulers is the only determinant of the quality of government.
In the U.S., we’ve had movements from the grassroots that changed the country forever: Women’s Suffrage, Prohibition, Civil Rights, Environmental, Gender Equality, Gay Rights, and others that have not been noticed yet. But the periods of post 1917 Russia are demarked by rulers, not movements. This was naturally so, as every “movement” was merely the child of the ruler.
Russia today is a socially extinct volcano. The absence of movements is also a time of negative population growth, short life expectancy, substance abuse, and general lack of productivity. Perhaps there is a connection. Perhaps it is what happens when you put your people in a cage, or a “rubber room”, to prevent them from hurting themselves, while you, the ruler, attempt to do the best for them. It’s the dilemma of the zoo animal, safe from predators or the onerous task of obtaining food, which nonetheless exhibits signs of mental illness in captivity.
These problems are obvious. Vladimir Putin is a highly intelligent person, and is mentally healthy. He cannot be unaware of them. In many ways, Putin resembles a paragon of virtue that has been bent by strains. The strains likely come from two beliefs:
- From experience with the Soviet system, belief that the quality of government is solely the consequence of the quality of the rulers. The implication for Putin is that true democracy cannot work in Russia.
- Russia is indefensible from external aggression, except, possibly, by extreme means.
Let’s stick with the first item. In the U.S., we are accustomed to the idea that a politician can enter office unqualified for the job, and learn on the job. Ironically, this was also true in the Soviet Union, when membership in the Communist Party, popularity among party cadres, and acceptable performance were the requirements to climb the ladder. The Party was the formal validation mechanism.
The U.S. has two large parties, which acting as independent social forces, accomplish the process of validation of a person for public office, by both in-person interaction and compliance with the party platform. For many years, both the Democratic and Republican parties straddled the center. In today’s more divisive climate, the search for the cohesion to a center is more elusive. But we still have the search, in spite of divisive personalities. In Russia, there is no historical precedent at all for cohesion except to a personality.
Next: Comparison of the Russian Federation with the Soviet Union. More on poison.