Iran, Foreign Policy, and Positivism

While we wait for the other shoe to drop in Yemen, let’s consider one of the few bits of philosophical jargon that might have application to the wild and wooly arena of international relations : positivism.  Although the concept is credited to Auguste Comte, there is evidence that it was independently rediscovered by Jerry MacGuire. In any particular case,  Comte’s defintion, or MacGuire’s may be more applicable.

Early in the 19th century, the scientific world was still trying to purge  the mystical influences that were the consequences of both centuries of ecclesiastical domination, and the inheritances of ancient philosophy. Comte’s positivism is a kind of doo-dad added onto they very-alive memes of DeCarte, Locke, and Hume.  Those authors of scientific philosophy may not be right (nothing in philosophy is!), but by displacing mysticism as the primary mode of thought, humans have been able to junk candles and witch hunts, replacing them with really nice things, like Toyota Corollas and wifi.

Positivism asserts that the methods of science, and personal observation, are the only sources of authoritative knowledge. As the physics concept of local of causality is under serious challenge, with no replacement in sight, positivism may itself be an article of faith. But in the world we experience, that’s just a subtle quibble, which doesn’t hold up against all the progress that has been made with logic and empiricism.

But everyone has a mind. We might know some things about minds in general, but if positivism acknowledges the possibility of knowing anything about a mind, it calls that kind of knowledge second rate.  William James, in his classic book, Psychology,  combined empirical methods, which were remarkably sophisticated, with introspection — for how can one just ignore one’s own mind, just to adhere to positivism?

James’s work was the high point of this combination. B.F. Skinner’s radical behaviorism knocked it down. What Skinner called mentalism could not properly be considered in the domain of science.  Henry Stapp may have found a reconciliation of mind with physics, but it is an incomplete theory. The future lies with incomplete theories.

Cultural memes are like oily substances that you can’t clean off. They stick to doorknobs and minds, like that tune you can’t get out of your head. Behaviorism is a concept that escaped the science zoo, and became a wild meme. It constrains the way we think, in a manner analogous to a joke:

A policeman sees a drunk man searching for something under a streetlight and asks what the drunk has lost. He says he lost his keys and they both look under the streetlight together. After a few minutes the policeman asks if he is sure he lost them here, and the drunk replies, no, and that he lost them in the park. The policeman asks why he is searching here, and the drunk replies, “this is where the light is.”[2]

One of the welcome corollaries of positivism is that you can’t convict somebody for their thoughts. Sometimes we have second thoughts, as with copilot Andreas Lubitz, copilot of German Wings Flight 9525. It wouldn’t hurt to have some precogs on the payroll.

In the sales job for the  2003 invasion of Iraq, evidence that Iraq possessed an active WMD program was fabricated.  It was because those in charge felt a sales job based on abstract concepts,  general principles, or genocide in the ‘hood didn’t have enough punch. Ample evidence of each existed: Saddam was a really bad guy. But it is probably correct that the American public could not be sold a case based on the idea of extensible evil; that is, an active impulse with expansible instincts and intelligence to go with it. It may be the greater threat in the end, but megatons make an easier sale.

Perhaps, if you read this a year ago, it would sound like obscure, unmotivated gibberish. But now that ISIS has willed itself into existence with all the characteristics of a malignant life form, it’s interesting. In both cases, the wellspring  of the threat consists of ideas held by the minds of individuals.  In the case of Saddam, his personality was forefront.  ISIS is a little more doctrinal and less personal. But both illustrate a concept, and a phrase, that have gone out of style: dangerous ideas.

If Japan were to join the nuclear club, there would be formalities of protestation, which would pass. The instabilities of Pakistan,through multiple modalities, offer the greatest danger of transfer of nuclear weapons and materials to terrorist groups. But Pakistan is a U.S. ally. Iran is the subject of the most energetic and protracted effort to stop weapons development. The intricacies of negotiation capture the attention of the press to exclude the reasons. Why care so much?

The answer is, future crime, which positivist thinkers can hardly speak of and cannot afford to ignore. In a world of positivist thinking, Iran simply does not fit. The national language, Farsi, is the only ancient language still in use in the modern world. Iranians tout  Persian poetry the way we extoll mass production. Words, words, words…

In the holy city of Qom, clerics churn out commentary, the quantity, aesthetic quality, and popularity of which define the reputation and power of an ayatollah and his school. The anatomy of the state, the veins through which the power flows, and the currency of  legitimate rule are different from any other state in the world today. It is a hybridization of Plato’s Republic (compare Plato’s ruling “guardians” with Iran’s Guardian Council)  with a state structure that until 2005 occasioned significant expression of secular ideas.

In the West, we are accustomed to simple hierarchies of power, structured like pyramids, narrowing to a single individual at the top. Iran has multiple hierarchies which, at the top, vie for legitimacy in religious publications, selected public disclosure, and popularity. How these balance to modulate the exercise of power, and legitimacy of succession, are known only by the result.

Vast swaths of Iran’s economy are managed by secretive foundations, responsible only to particular ayatollahs. The Republican Guard owns and operates are large portion of Iran’s industrial infrastructure. These structure acquire and disburse vast, invisible, monetary streams.

But you’ve probably heard that before, and also this: Iran is corrupt, the young are our hope, the ayatollahs will fall. None of that has happened. Since 1979, none of our predictions have come about. This should cause us to question our intellectual tools, one of which is positivism.

Iran, Empire of the Mind, requires resort to older methods. What are they thinking?






Saudi, Houthis, Yemen & Pirates of Penzance

On April 9, 2003, Baghdad fell to Coalition forces, lead by the U.S. Third  Infantry Division and  the U.S. First Marine Division. THe were welcomed by then-grateful inhabitants, a sentiment which has since changed. Observing the troops wearing bulky body armor, locals thought they could not possibly survive the brutal heat of a Baghdad summer. They were wrong.

Perhaps, for a brief time, America was the New Rome. This is fading fast, in a way markedly analogous to the ruination of Roman farmers by imports of Egyptian grain. Of relevance here is the remarkable performance of the American military since World War II. Orders of battle cannot convey the remarkably meticulous process of motivation, self-examination, correction, innovation, and the associated industrial complex. Since all of the equipment can be transferred to rich allies who can afford it, only motivation remains in question. Can it be transferred?

The U.S. makes available to allies every training facility, from battlefield tactical simulation and exercise, and the United States Army War College for education in strategy, tactics, and international The Naval Post Graduate School, and the Air Force Institute of Technology focus on mathematics and engineering. All of these have antecedents in the broad academics of the British colonial military.

To the extent that the above can be transferred,  this is what the Saudis have to throw against the chanting mullahs of the Houthis. But let it be noted that during the first Gulf War of 1990-1991, American soldiers discovered that Saudi barracks in the desert were heavily air conditioned, with the inhabitants reluctant to emerge into the blazing heat. The Saudi argument was that it was just too uncomfortable to live without A/C. But the price was a lack of acclimation to the heat, a very real adaptation that involves higher mineralo-corticoid levels, with greater salt retention. In other words, the Saudis were not biologically equipped to fight.

As Iraq’s Shiite militia work their way into ISIS territory, they are accompanied by a mullah in a pickup truck with a loudspeaker who fortifies their spirit at frequent intervals. Rome’s religious system was morally ambivalent and highly practical, but Roman soldiers fought for a really good retirement deal. And, in a very modern touch, it appears they fought for each other; the essence of duty.

Saudi grunts, soldiers for a paycheck, cannot go up against chanting Houthis on equal terms. But the threat of an Iranian influence on the Arabian Peninsula is mortal. The Saudis have watched the Iranians worm their way into Iraq, and there is no way to get them out.  The  unlimited money of the House of Saud, and evident inability to use it to cause the Sunni tribes to coalesce, is itself a debacle.

But one should never go into battle on equal terms. An area of rolling desert, east of Sana’a, is good tank country, compatible with high tech weapons technology. As the camel was the “ship of the desert”, the tank is now, with the opportunity of a “naval presence”, not incompatible with the  indirect approach of B.H. Liddell Hart.

The area  is shaped like a broad dagger, about 115 miles wide at the latitude of Sana’a, encompassing the governorates of Al Jawf and Ma’rib. It narrows to a point, which, unfortunately, is 160 miles from Aden. Saudi. The intervening territory is mountainous, and under control of the Houthis.  The concept is therefore denied a most appetizing strategic objective. If you are a Google Earth user, see 16°54’35.41″ N  46°59’25.34″ E .

Domination of this empty desert by technological supremacy is empty of itself.  But if, through the hidden and devious workings of Sunni tribalism, the Saudis can crystallize a political structure,  it would be worth the gamble.

The game is called force multiplication. We cannot know, but we can hypothesize.

Where is Putin? & the Collateral Threat

The disappearance of Vladimir Putin coincides with an uptick in readership of this blog. We’re all curious about what is happening in Russia. In the last post, I offered a “pros & cons” for the hypothesis, “Putin ordered Nemtsov murder.” In the New York Review of Books blog entry “A Kremlin Conspiracy Gone Wrong?”, Amy Knight presents an amalgam of opinions that suggest responsibility for the murder of individuals close to Putin, and perhaps including Putin himself. You might decide to include the article as an entry on the pro side.

Putin’s removal from Moscow to an undisclosed location belongs with the cons. Some sources say he is at his residence in Novgorod, several hundred miles north of Moscow.  Russia itself is a hotbed of conspiracy theories, as well as opinions, or coverups given as opinions, that Putin disappearances have happened before, and are par for the course.

Two quasi-rules, Occam’s Razor, and from physics, the “Principle of Least Action”,  winnow the likely outcomes. Consider the news headline: “White House lock-down after loud noise is heard.” Adapting the physics principle to the occasion, we go through the list:

  • A flying saucer crash landing.
  • A diversionary explosion by a sapper team of white-power Nazis.
  • Pyrotechnic release of nerve gas or radioactive material.
  • Explosion of a food truck propane rig.

The Secret Service response covers all the bases. Subsequently, it is discovered that the food truck exploded. This  is not clearly the choice of Occam’s Razor, which, against the threat background current in the U.S., excludes only the flying saucer.  But Occam’s Razor works against intricate, hidden power shifts, favoring small people with small ideas.

The Principle of Least Action addresses a major concern since the rise of the criminal class in the post-Soviet era: staying alive.  In Stalin’s Moscow, one could walk the streets  at any time of night without fear of street crime, replaced, unfortunately, by terror of the NKVD. In Brezhnev’s USSR, crime and corruption grew steadily.  Under Boris Yeltsin, the Russian Mafia became a super violent version of the classic Italian.  Since Russia had become ungovernable in the classic fashion, Putin’s solution was to co-opt  select members of the criminal class, using them to control the rest. They hide Putin’s money, and are as instrumental to Putin’s survival as he is to theirs, unless there were another way…

Another way? We tend to forget that, for Putin, survival is a matter of constant concern. The agility with which he has managed this is awe-inspiring. The Russian political opposition, who have our lingering hopes and sympathies, seem not to understand that, should they manage to replace Putin, survival would become their daily struggle.  Or perhaps they truly have the hearts of heroes.

With all the constraints set up, as if we were about to solve a mechanics problem, application of the Principle is evident: It implies that Putin left Moscow for a place more isolated, while all the wires, cables, and exchanges of his governing apparatus are checked for little flaws, leaks, questionable loyalties, and outright treacheries that might endanger his survival. According to this argument, what is to us high drama, is for Putin, routine operating procedure. If he is in Novgorod, it puts Moscow between him and both Chechnya and Ukraine.

Since Putin is very popular, he cannot be replaced by political process. Neither can he be replaced by assassination, since legitimacy would be unobtainable by  the successor. So, you might say, Putin is safe. But  replacement is unnecessary to the criminal class, who flourished in Yeltsin’s chaotic Russia. Chaos might be refreshing, particularly if Putin’s alignment with the patriotic element is bad for business.

So, for a Russian leader, the threat climate is very different from the Western experience. Political violence in the West is the action of marginal individuals and groups. In Russia, the threat of violent change includes collateral groups that grade without sharp distinction into  government. As 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. ” In Russia, it’s bigger. The Feds protected Joe Valachi. Putin has no protector bigger than himself.

For the sake of tidiness, let’s restate the pros & cons from the previous post with the additions in red:

Pro, Putin desired or ordered the murder of Nemtsov:

  • Nemtsov’s unpublished report on Russian links to the Ukraine conflict, which, it is argued, Putin believed he could stop by the murder.
  • The NY Review blog, “A Kremlin Conspiracy Gone Wrong?”.  How should this be weighted? Most Russian history has a conspiratorial tinge.  So the Russian contributors  may have an inherited susceptibility to unjustified conspiratorial thinking. You decide.


  • Putin’s “enlightened management of dissidents” was working, with no expansion of Nemtsov’s faction.
  • FSB specialists could have murdered Nemtsov more subtly.
  • A martyr has been created.
  • Putin has removed from Moscow.
  • Nemtsov’s report has not been stopped. Unlike other likely victims of Kremlin sponsored assassinations, Nemtsov had a lot of friends.

One possibility offered by the NY Review blog is that the murder was caused by a misunderstanding between Putin and Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, with mistaken encouragement of a very inept action. A logically adjacent thought is that Putin does not understand every detail of how it happened, and he considers the details important to his personal survival.

Errant branches must be pruned. Unauthorized hits are not permitted. In Russia, murder is not a right. It’s a privilege.




Nemtsov Murder, Analysis Notes

Some types of open source intelligence require more diligence than thought. A few years back, one person diligently counted weapons systems  appearing in photos of the Syrian conflict, revealing a continuing flow of Russian arms, denied, of course, by the Russians.

The fuzziness of the initial Yemen picture places the problem at the opposite pole. If you are unfortunate enough to witness a brawl outside your window, with the fighters ranging all over the street, the first question of your roving eye is, “Who is fighting who?” This question comes before before all others of conflict, as the most basic “What’s happening?”,  which must be answered to know what further to look at.  More than most problems, the first look requires resort to the primitive wiring, the gestalts, that inhabit the minds of most of us.

The analysis of the Nemtsov murder presents another difficulty. More than most, it appears to include elements of “judgment”, which has come under much scrutiny by Philip Tetlock. According to the Wikipedia article, which he probably would have corrected if in error, “Tetlock’s conclusion is that even crude extrapolations are more reliable than human predictions in every domain his study observed, confirming the claims of other psychological research.”

The fact of whether Putin murdered Nemtsov is part of the future. So it appears that, in deciding whether Putin ordered the murder of Nemtsov, we should dehumanize the analysis as much as possible. This is fine with me. It provides a reason to proceed with objectification of the procedure as much as possible. And if the result appears crudely unsubtle, so what? At least it’s better than human judgment.

Solving real-world problems seems to involve mainly flat logic. Deductive reasoning, the complicated chaining of the classic murder mystery novel, finds little application. I can’t think of any, although the machine on which I am typing this is an agglomeration of the most complicated logic chaining imaginable. So why isn’t it a big part of human existence? Because humans aren’t very good at it. Most problems are created by other humans. It is useless to analyze a problem they created by use of a system of reasoning they do not use. Note the use of a Sheffer stroke in the last sentence. Did you enjoy it?

The mental defect of the conspiracy nut could result from the use of classical logic, which does not have a mechanism of weights. Things are either true of false. The digital domain, which includes both classical logic, and computers, is unforgiving of errors. A single error, caused either by something mistaken to be a fact, or a cosmic ray flipping RAM cell, propagates. The result is typically a blue screen,  a trip to jail, a mental institution, or skid row.

So it is plausible that problems involving “complicated judgment” should be approached by logically simple methods. The secret sauce is in how the elements are weighted. Benjamin Franklin, a folk-avatar of good judgment,  advocated adding  the pros and cons, with some estimation of the relative importance of each. But why would such a simple scheme work so well?

The folkloric  “trust your first instinct” has been shown to be a fallacy. But there is something close by in the instinctual space, the way the problem is partitioned into facts. Each of the pros and cons of Franklin’s tally is taken as independent of the others. This is what gives value to the sum. It is an important mathematical concept. N homogenous equations of N unknowns can be solved if each of the equations is independent of the other. If an equation is not independent, it is a restatement of what is already known — analogous to  fallacious overweight of a particular fact.

This suggests that the brain may have a natural facility to partition what is known about a problem into facts tending towards equal weight. But if you’ve listened to enough rants, you know that a basic technique of argument, of thought, and just plain venting is to say and think the same thought over and over, with minor variations. So the proposed natural facility of partitioning is easily damaged by personality and emotional needs. One cause may be cognitive dissonance, the stress caused by desire to protect investment in belief systems.

Until the posthumous publication of the famous theorem of Thomas Bayes, nothing could do better. With advances continuing to the present, a machine can be programmed to make better decisions than the same machine performing a simple sum. The key concept, which attempts to meld probability theory with Franklin’s tally, is to sum all the ways an event could happen, including all the possible chains of cause-and-effect, with each element of the sum weighted by the chance it is correct. This kind of logic is now found at all levels, from the basic path-integral formulation of quantum mechanics, all the way to the models that predict power grid stability and financial market behavior. But you, as a human, must be cautious. The mathematical models we create, empowered by Bayes, are riddled with all kinds of errors and riddles, painfully confronted every time the power grid goes dark, or we have a financial market meltdown.

Some publications describe a method taught to analysts in the U.S. intelligence community  that employs the summing of  probabilistic paths to a future event. Perhaps, with some event spaces, such sophistication produces superior results.

But you could do worse than follow old Ben Franklin’s method. If you do better, let me know.



Did Putin Order Nemtsov Murder?

Since it has proved impossible to gather the “usual suspects” into one room for intensive, brutal interrogation, let’s proceed with informed speculation.

Emotional involvement contaminates our thoughts. Since the financial crisis of 2007-2008, Vladimir Putin has betrayed our hopes for a modern, peaceful, westernized Russia. It appears that, since the financial meltdown, Putin lost faith in the West as the image of the shining path, and chose instead to re-author Russia’s path on the basis of a personal vision. We say about democracy that, of all the alternatives,  it is the least bad. Putin chose not to buy into that. Seeking another road for perfection, he chose something so ancient, it is surprisingly undead: Plato’s Republic.  Putin observed that, while paying lip service to Communism, the Communist Party of China is actually a privileged ruling class that has with rather brilliant success modernized a society with blazing speed. The main difference between the modern, and classical embodiments of the Republic is in the qualification of the members of the ruling class.  While in Plato’s Republic, fitness to rule is the direct consequence of both selection and education, modern membership is about as pure as a Mafia induction ceremony.

It is repugnant to us that, in both China and Russia, members of the ruling class are immune to challenge by those outside it. But curiously, China has recently mounted an active immune response to corruption. With extreme contrast, Putin, in order to solve an otherwise unsolvable problem, co-opted leading elements of the criminal class. Russia, in addition to being a very misshapen version of Plato’s Republic, is a kleptocracy.

There is an enduring misapprehension among many  so-called analysts that Putin rules Russia. These people have seen too many B sci-fi flicks, where the alien steps off the flying saucer, and says, “Take me to your leader.” Curiously, we know for ourselves that we elect persuaders, not leaders, but we don’t seem to get it with other societies.

Even in the most totalitarian societies, loyalties must be constantly reinforced or recreated. Two of the most horrible examples, Hitler’s Germany, and Stalin’s Russia, were not exceptions. With an astuteness about plurality rather shadowed by his monstrous obsession, Hitler divided the power structure among competing fiefdoms. Stalin, impeded by ideology from having anything to divide, chose to simply kill off practically everybody of importance periodically.

Putin chose a third, more humane method. His huge stash has one purpose: to buy Russia. He may shortly be forced to use some of it. But returning to the contamination of our thoughts, Putin  has been such a let-down, there is the strong temptation to pin the murder on him, simply out of blind rage at where he has taken Russia.

The road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Russia is the most indefensible of countries. The battle count of Russia’s army is puny, her borders huge, and her people soaked in ennui and alcohol. Perhaps Putin thought this was the most important problem. So he revived the Cossack caps and uniforms, and, metaphorically,  the  snare drum of Kurt Vonnegut‘s The Sirens of Titan, that beats a rhythm to incite the brainless to fight. He revived nationalism. But nationalism is its own first cause. Once willed into existence, it needs nothing to keep it going.

Putin’s character permits the murder of Nemtsov, but does not prove that he did. There have been many suspicious murders in Russia. Some of them were of individuals who may have had information that would undermine the credibility of the Russian “elite.” A particularly determining factor is whether such an individual could provide corroboration from sources that are outside of Russia. Documentation of Putin’s “stash”, which resides mainly outside of Russia, would be a cause for assassination. To put it another way, an individual who makes allegations about activities inside Russia is relatively harmless, because corroboration is difficult or impossible. But if the chain leads outside of Russia, it’s a different story.

Vladimir Putin presents one of the more unusual pictures of a world leader. He appears personally modest, and, aside from the fact that he lives in a palace, seemingly has little to enjoy from life, other than the sense of proper (to him) execution of a job. If, by another turn of history, he had come from a different background, with a grounding in Western values, he might be esteemed on this side of the fence. This adds to the tragedy. But his tenure has so far demonstrated a notable absence of “crimes of passion”, and considerable skill as a tactician. His tactical flexibility is what has so frustrated the policy wonks.

So the question is posed that, with the assumption that Putin is a masterful tactician, what tactical advantage would have accrued by ordering the murder of Nemtsov? Petro Poroshenko says that Nemtsov was going to reveal Russian links to the Ukraine conflict. Who doesn’t know this already? What kind of “smoking gun” could Nemtsov have had? These days, dirt travels on a thumb drive, so how could it die with Nemtsov?

That is the extent of the pros of “Putin ordered murder of Nemtsov.” The cons have several elements.

1. Part of Putin’s “enlightened” management of dissidence is the permission of controlled demonstrations, which serve several purposes:

  • The opportunity to see and document dissidents.
  • Gauge popular will.
  • Provide an escape valve.
  • Present the semblance of democracy.

It appears that the control of Nemtsov’s partisans was in good order. Nemtsov was marginal, and the propaganda machine was and is working well, with no evidence of spread or enlargement of Nemtsov’s faction.

2. The KGB, and the successor FSB, were and are masters of the art of murder. They could make him get sick and die suddenly, die slowly, lose his mind, lose his legs, or simply have the flesh fall off his body. People could spend years arguing over the simple fact of whether Nemtsov was murdered.

3. A martyr, however minor, has been created.

This inclines my opinion that the murder is due to elements of less sophistication than Putin’s masters of social control. His dilemma is pointed out in “Putin, Rodeo Bull Rider”, when I wrote,

…But they have a problem. By now,  the oligarchs have gotten the message that, if they betray the rebels, some people who are handy with guns and have long memories will obtain what they call justice. It would be hard to distract these disaffected people, because it is hard to become fat, happy, and lazy in Russia. Life is just not that easy there.

If Putin and his inner circle decide to do the right thing, they are then faced with arranging the mysterious disappearances, accidents, falling down stairs, getting run over by cars, etc., of hundreds of people. These days, arranging even one unfortunate accident can take years.

Why would the murder occur just outside the Kremlin? In killing Nemtsov there, the perpetrators sent a message to Putin: “Do not betray our hopes, because you are not safe.” The Russians, masters of the profane vernacular, would say that the perps have a finger up a delicate part of Putin’s anatomy. He would not be the first ruler murdered by the palace guards.

This is a bonanza for open source intelligence. Against the perpetual darkness of the Russian power structure, a lightning flash illuminates a minute part of the byzantine workings of the Russian State, heralding, perhaps, another Time of Troubles.







The Book Putin Read

In the U.S., we have a tradition called OJT, or on-the-job training, which means you get thrown into a job that you’re not prepared to do, you learn and adapt, and sometimes win kudos for a job well done. OJT is part of the American myth, but unlike other myths, it can be real. OJT provides an end-run around the fossilization of a society by development of various  mandarin classes, and hierarchies that enforce  exclusivity by credentialing processes that become increasingly bizarre and irrelevant over time.  The admission requirements for dental school are an interesting example.

In the spirit of OJT, as with President, we might say about the job qualification for Secretary of State: There are none written in stone, and many written in grease paint. And so, Secretaries have traditionally been drawn from this country’s version of the jirga, the council of elders, who, it is assumed, by their positions in society, and vague qualities of “experience” and wisdom”, as demonstrated by the exercise of “judgment”. The use of quotation marks is not stylistic, but intended to convey the relativity of these qualities. This experience of having exercised judgment is frequently confused with character, or being trustworthy of the job and capable of representing the national interest without collision with personal moral quirks. For example, we would not like to unexpectedly discover that our Secretary of State places the interests of another state above our own, even when the morality is ambiguous. Many Secretaries of State have been lawyers, even though the relationship of the many of the most profound strategies of international relations use the pretense of law as a cloak, rather than a foundation.

Henry Kissinger may be unique, at least among U.S. Secretaries of State, in that he has both taught the skill and held the office. The rarity of this distinction is in itself interesting. The qualification of membership in the “jirga” is at odds with an academic background in the subject. To be an “elder”, one has to have exercised judgment in public life, while academe emphasizes detachment. While being a professor is almost an anti-qualification, the bridge is books and papers, and a social network composed of a fusion of academe and think tanks. Kissinger had both, with the book Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, and the support of Nelson Rockefeller.

Kissinger’s practice of Realpolitik has left a controversial moral legacy. Ironically, he discusses the moral issue at length, and without apparent bias, in his book, Diplomacy, which in the twenty years since publication has deservedly acquired the status of a monument. Since the U.S. has been a superpower since the Theodore Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet sailed the globe in 1907, it has enjoyed the luxury of  foreign policy options not affordable to other nations. U.S. Foreign policy is composed of varying proportions of Wilson’s idealism, and the pragmatic security-through strength of Theodore Roosevelt. In any instance the proportions of the moral high road versus the current exigency are the set by the executive branch with some consideration, or manipulation, of the opinions of the electorate.

Kissinger pays homage to Wilson’s moral vision, but emphasizes that it is empty, and even harmful, if ineffective. He offers the timing of U.S. entry into World War I. Theodore Roosevelt campaigned for an early entry. Kissinger argues that Wilson’s reluctance and delay cost lives. Perhaps, in his tenure as Secretary, his reasoning became too indirect for moralists to accept. But Kissinger’s record is attractive to other governments as a proficient, effective example of Realpolitik in practice. With the exception of the principled nations of Western Europe, there are few examples of Wilsonian-analogous thought. These days, Realpolitik is embraced enthusiastically, even by many nations that are internally democratic. And so Kissinger has a consulting business, with a very select clientele: heads of state. One of them is Vladimir Putin.

Kissinger emphasizes that Putin is not a friend, but a client who wants to know how things work. (Note for open source intelligence: this is a very important tidbit.) One would be a fool to pay Kissinger’s consulting rates, and not read his books. Putin is no fool. Ergo, he read Diplomacy.

Next: But what did he get out of the read?