Turkey in Syria; The New Ottoman Empire; a Brief Note about Cultural Affinity

The  Reuters headline, “Turkish army thrusts deeper into Syria, monitor says 35 villagers killed”, makes it possibly interesting to review a post from October 2014, Turkey & the New Ottoman Empire. It hypothesizes a future that, at this moment,  does not exist. Yet such is the fluidity of the situation that territorial expansion of Turkey,  either de facto or de jure,  still reflects a possible outcome.

An  interesting flip  would be concomitant Kurdish expansion. It could be fostered by Turkey as a part of a solution to their unwinnable war. This is the kind of event that limits extrapolation as a predictive technique. A scenario characterized by ground-creep suddenly morphs into something markedly different.

Relative to the other players, Turkey and “the Kurds”, or the five or so groups of them,  are unique to this region in the degrees of their Western cultural affinities.  Cultural affinity is not of great significance to the diplomatic mindset, which is typically occupied with statecraft, geopolitics and, for us, the universal rights of man.

But neglected though it is,  cultural affinity  may figure importantly in what solutions embody inherent stability. Perhaps the map of the Middle East should be redrawn one more time.

A review of the ISIS/Iraq/Syria theater is forthcoming.


Putin Replaces Chief of Staff Sergei Ivanov

A CNBC article, Kremlin Shakeup Raises Questions About Putin’s Motives, conveniently lists most of the possible reasons. The BBC article is strictly factual. But it has excellent links beneath, under “More on this story.”

The CNBC article presents all the possibilities except one: that anxious to get out of the way of a train wreck, Ivanov actually resigned. Russia’s Reserve Fund is projected to deplete this year. A 2015 estimate suggests that Russia needed an oil price of $105/barrel to balance the budget. Take a look at this debt-to-GNP chart. As John Mitchell famously said, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.

The explanation of the Moscow Times article relies on personal preferences and petty irritations. The complete absence of reference to the impending train wreck is in itself highly synthetic. By way of dramatic illustration, imagine the headline, “Turkish Coup Caused by Boredom, Petty Jealousies.”

The Ukrainians have their own, hopeful-for-them slant in the Euromaidanpress.com article, “Top Russian economist: Moscow can’t maintain current levels of military spending for much longer.” Ignoring their hope of what this means for Russia’s Ukraine grab, the quote of economist Sergei_Guriev is one of the better references:

The Russian government’s original budget for 2015 was based on the assumption that oil would be US $100 a barrel, that Russia’s GDP would grow two percent, and that inflation would not exceed five percent, he notes. None of those things has proven to be the case; and the government has cut overall spending by approximately eight percent.

“Nevertheless,” he continues, that has not prevented the government deficit from ballooning from 0.5 percent of GDP to 3.7 percent, “a serious problem” even though Russia’s sovereign debt forms “only 13 percent of GDP” because the Ukrainian war has increased spending and Western sanctions have made it harder to borrow.

As a result, Moscow has been forced to dip into its reserve fund. That fund currently amounts to six percent of GDP. Consequently, if the deficit continues at 3.7 percent, the Russian government will run out of money in about two years, forcing it either to withdraw from Ukraine in order to end the sanctions regime or change its budgets in fundamental ways.

Both steps would entail “major political risks for Putin,” Guriev says.

Particularly for the outsider, stability is in part a self-fostering illusion. What does Putin himself think? A glimpse is provided in the aftermath of the assassination of Boris Nemetsov, which occurred on 27 February 2015, within sight of the Kremlin walls. On March 5, Putin vanished from view.  With reports he had the flu, his whereabouts became unknown, except for reference to his residence in Lake Valdai, Novogorod. In the interest of not succumbing to conspiratorial thinking, perhaps he had the flu. But Lake Valdai also put Moscow between him and Chechnya, home of the ethnic Chechen assassin(s).

This background is of great use to open source analysis. The assumption of a stable political background can be as much in error as the prediction of inevitable breakdown. The mind tends to be captured by details, which in this case, are the formal trappings of government. It helps to take a step back, defocus a little, and recall that between 1985 and 2000, when Putin assumed power, Russia was constantly, visibly unstable.

To what extent has Putin consolidated power? Our vision is chronically obscured by the notion that personal consolidation is actually possible. The BBC article, Who runs Russia with Putin?, illuminates:

At the same time, the Russian administrative system – the so-called vertical of power – does not function well: policy instructions are often implemented tardily and sometimes not at all, so others have important roles helping develop and implement projects.

The count of power groups is up to four, plus one accessory:

  • The Kremlin and security apparatus.
  • The Oligarchs.
  • Organized Crime.
  • An obdurate bureaucracy.
  • Subject to the manipulation of the above, the “Masses.”

These groups invisibly incorporate the conflict so visible in our political system. Borrowing a term of biology, the relationship is currently homeostatic, somewhat analogous to Henry Kissinger’s use of the word “equilibrium” for the international realm. It means that for every push, there is a push-back. But something is missing from the table, the weights and measures that, in combination with the four groups, result in homeostasis at this moment.

Sometime around the exhaustion of the Reserve Fund, these things will occur:

  • The Russians diet will consist increasingly of potatoes.
  • The Oligarch empires will become insolvent.
  • Putin’s “emergency lighting system” will switch on, using organized crime to move more money than it already does, for essential activities.
  • The obdurate bureaucracy will become more buyable than they already are.

This trajectory is the partly a consequence of the idea that a Russian version of Anschluss would be a good thing. There are contributions from Saudi use of the oil weapon, and from fracking. It is the ultimately result of a grand design to make Russia a great world power, when it should have tried to be a great economic power. A Scottish poet said it best: “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”

But the question in our minds is how Putin will handle, or not handle this eventuality. Will he

  • Use the “war cure” for instability, going  hot in Crimea?
  • Hunker  down, choosing to destroy the oligarchs before they depose him, the rest of Russia following him into a new ice age?
  • Attempt to blackmail the West into lifting the sanctions? Weapons at his disposal include gas exports and incursions elsewhere in Europe.
  • Be himself deposed, and replaced by a thoroughly corrupt and practical group drawn from the oligarchs?
  • Change his “type”, from the inflexibility of “never backs down” to a more versatile shadow boxer who could more effectively motivate Germany’s natural affection for Russia?
  • Vacate the Ukraine in a bargain to keep Crimea?

The last two options are the ones most available to a facile political manipulator whose is not a psychopath. As a profession, “head of state” is most akin to “CEO”, which tops the professions with psychopathic traits. But Vladimir Putin’s demeanor, as far as it can be observed, seems remarkably free of this.

Edit: Since Putin is a Harley fan, it’s possible that Sergei Ivanov is a Country and Western fan.  So here’s a Johnny Paycheck song for Sergei to hum in his new job.




Japan, China, Senkaku Islands, & the Nine Dotted Line

Reuters: Japan urges China not to escalate East China Sea tension.

If the China Sea conflict goes hot, the Japan/China dispute over the Senkaku Islands has the greatest chance of being the  flashpoint. The reasoning is very simple.

  • China is actively challenging Japan’s claims.
  • At present, Japan has naval superiority over China.
  • Japan is close enough to the disputed islands to efficiently project force.
  • From a previous position of almost national pacifism, Japan has moved towards wider doctrinal use of military force.
  • Vietnam, the only other country in the area with a strong military and a temperament to match, shares a land border with China. This means that China can easily project force to Vietnam. This last occurred in 1979. Some have remarked that the poor performance  of the Chinese military in that war would cause China to hesitate.  But adequacy  of force would not be significant to the decision, or to the deterrence.
  • With falling population, Japan’s time horizon is limited.

The Atlantic article notes that Article 9 of the constitution of Japan,  drafted under the supervision of General Douglas MacArthur, remains on the books, if not in force. Nor does the new law actually increase the legality of defending the Senkakus, already permitted by Article 9. The importance of the new law is as  a trend of thought.  Supporters might question the point of it if the Senkakus were not defended.

In China’s history, declarations of dominance over a vassal have tended to have a symbolic nature. China’s leaders have reason to believe that over time, with the collapse of Japan’s population and the growth of China’s military, the balance of power will shift in their direction. Although militarist sentiment is growing, there still remains some attachment to the cautious counsel of the departed elders. This internal conflict will grow.

But Japan’s hourglass is emptying. Once before, we have seen Japan strike with massive force, and the motive was desperation.  This time, if the event occurs, it will hardly be massive. But it would shock China by contradiction of the Nine Dotted Line with a “fact on the ground.”

Both China and Japan support their claims with  legal fictions. If one realizes their fiction concretely,  the other faces the terrible compulsions of nationalism and patriotism. A China economic collapse, severe enough to stoke political instability, could motivate Chinese seizure of the islands.

After easy money has been tried, a  “patriotic struggle” is the traditional band-aid for political instability.


CIA Chief: Trump “Unwitting agent of the Russian Federation”

This is the assertion of former Deputy CIA Director Michael Morell’s NY Times op-ed. If the paywall blocks, read Reuters.

I agree.  But so much has been written about Trump’s character and businesses, what more is there to say? Perhaps his supreme self confidence is noteworthy. On ABC, Former secretary of defense Robert Gates said of Trump, “He believes that he has all the answers, that he’s the smartest man in the room.” (Gates is nonpartisan with this observation; on Morning Joe, he third-person quotes Obama (7:15) in similar context.)

In America, part of the generally helpful myth we create for ourselves is that supreme self confidence promotes risk-taking, which enables entrepreneurial success. But part of the process is a Darwinian winnowing of talent. Out of ten supremely self confident entrepreneurs, perhaps one will be that great success. The rest crash, hopefully do not burn too badly, and pick themselves up to try again.

Trump’s TV show, The Apprentice, is a microcosm of this. Contestants compete in the arenas of property management, marketing, and hospitality. His TV demeanor, combined with the impressions of the campaign trail, are of a person specialized to Darwinian success in these niches of capitalism. Nota bene: Trump is always the smartest guy in the room. This is a form of narcissism, an exploitable trait.

This is the basis of Morell’s concern,  not that Trump can be recruited as a spy, but that he can be manipulated. Although “spy” catches our fancy, a head of state who can be manipulated is perhaps the ultimate prize. The narcissistic head of state  might  be unaware that he was the lab rat of an entire laboratory of behavioral scientists working in the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, the SVR.

The concern is further justified by the aspect of Trump’s narcissism that sees himself as the “smartest guy.” A collegial style of decision making can moderate  individual defects. But the smartest guy delusion releases the narcissist to full flight of fancy, which could be a really, really bad decision.

How could a guy as tough as Trump be manipulated by the Russians?  Henry Kissinger’s remarks  in White House Years are suggestive. He observed that the Soviets had a tendency to sacrifice good will for marginal advantages and barely extant opportunities. Kissinger cites several cases where the personal contact involved in negotiating SALT, and a couple of other issues, resulted in a personal situation that might be described as good will or camaraderie (friendship never applied, except with the possible exception of ambassador Anatoly  Dobrynin.) The good will was then sacrificed gratuitously, as with a completely unacceptable, last minute clause insertion, the radio jamming of Kissinger’s communications with Washington, or the combination “safe” in Kissinger’s working area that seemed designed to convey documents down to the basement.

To put it bluntly, there was a Soviet tendency to work around the margins, to be a little sneaky, to honor an agreement somewhere between faithfully and “in the breach.” We see echoes of this in the Ukraine and Syria.

With this, we can sketch a  plausible example of  manipulation. A  camaraderie develops between Trump and Putin, and conceivably, a bunch of “buddies” supervised by the SVR to stroke Trump in just the right way.  Supreme in confidence of his people skills, Trump decides to trust. They negotiate a Syria military partnership with Russia.  It includes some reputational safeguards for the Trump Administration. “Reputational” is used  instead of “human rights” as significant to his business experience. The Russians work around the edges, bombing maternity hospitals that might also contain rebels of unknown allegiances. They manage to fuzz who did this.

There ensues a dialog of conflict with the Russians, carefully designed by them to elicit a desirable reaction, which could be:

  • Silence.
  • Bombast.
  • Disengagement with the moderate opposition.
  • Committal of ground troops, symmetrizing the American role with the Russian. With all the disadvantages the Russians currently enjoy.

Secretary of State John Kerry is currently attempting this negotiation. But there is a difference. Whatever he comes up will be vetted by some very skeptical people, experts in their fields, people who know more.

But even if chagrin puts Trump’s narcissism into temporary suspension, the effects cannot be reversed. It might be possible to play Trump like a punch-drunk fighter.

These eventualities are mentioned without mechanism, all indirectly the results of a character flaw:

  • Russia peels Greece away from NATO.
  • The Baltic states are neutralized.
  • Russia annexes eastern Ukraine.
  • The Philippines fall into the China orbit

Has supreme self confidence been our undoing before? Harry Dexter White was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in 1946, U.S. representative to the Bretton Woods conference, and co-creator of the International Monetary Fund. He had numerous contacts with Soviet Intelligence that has lead to the somewhat debated conclusion that he was a Soviet spy. Robert Skidelsky writes,

“A combination of naivety, superficiality and supreme confidence in his own judgment -together with his background – explains the course of action White took. There is no question of treachery, in the accepted sense of betraying one’s country’s secrets to an enemy. But there can be no doubt that, in passing classified information to the Soviets, White knew he was betraying his trust, even if he did not thereby think he was betraying his country.”

Was Harry Dexter White also a narcissist?


Peter Van Buren the Apostate, and “Putin the Thug”

Peter van Buren’s commentary in Reuters, The real reason Washington calls Putin a thug, purports to explain why the current term of demonization is “thug.” The word “thug” has historical significance, referring to an Indian criminal gang, experts at strangling travelers, extant till about 1830 when they were extirpated by the British.  Since then, the word, like words such as “hero”, has become devalued. It  apparently reached rock-bottom by inclusion in the political lexicon.

I agree with one of  Van Buren’s  points. Putin is not a thug. One of the purposes of this blog is a war on sloppy thinking. Today, classifying Putin as a common criminal may be of no consequence. Tomorrow, it may lead to an importantly wrong decision of foreign policy.

It might seem a strange mission to defend a head of state whose administration has seen numerous assassinations, both domestic and foreign,  is implicated in hacking the DNC, and is associated with very careless bombings in Syria which some have called war crimes. So this is no defense. The problem with the label “thug” is that it imputes to the person motives of a very simple character, related to personal greed and profit. In the domain of foreign policy, decisions lethal to the innocent are frequently made from a personally selfless perspective. The best example available to us is  LBJ, who, despite all his detractors, expanded the Vietnam War not for personal gain, but for apparently selfless reasons. We might extend compassion to  LBJ, who followed the proverbial “road to hell paved with good intentions.”

LBJ’s error occurred in the midst of the Cold War, a competition between the Free World, and a complex of Marxist states. “The end justifies the means” became associated with Marxism with the endorsement of violent revolution. In competition with this ruthless ethic, our own ethics became subverted. This is past. We recovered and emerged morally strengthened. Our adversaries did not.

So Vladimir Putin could conceivably be a personally selfless individual who nevertheless, acting out of patriotism for things Russian, is complicit in Syria atrocities.  Vladimir Putin’s ethics could be ours, 54 years in the past. The principle difference with LBJ’s error is that Vladimir Putin is not on our side, because he willingly takes actions that hurt us. And yet two distinction must be made. He is not on our side, but there is a significant commonality of interest. Second, our wounds are not serious. Simplicity overlooks this.

Van Buren writes with the rage of the apostate. He was part of the failed attempt to reconstruct Iraq according to the vision of the neoconservatives. Regardless of whatever else he is, the honesty of his accounting ranks him in the top one percent of humanity. But this kind of self-implication carries with it the chance of unbearable guilt. The sufferer continues to rail against the System long after his personal expiation should be complete. And the System is an easy target, because it’s always going awry, like an airplane with a bad rudder, constantly requiring minor heroes of the moment to bring it back on course.

Van Buren writes, “While throwing the term at Putin is tied to the weak public evidence supposedly linking Russian government hacker(s) to the Democratic National Committee computer breach, there may be larger issues in the background.” Perhaps as a result of his past experience working for the Bush Administration, Van Buren questions the evidence based upon what is publicly known. Implicit in the wording is the desirability  of release of the non-public evidence accumulated by U.S. intelligence services, which has now reached a strong consensus (NY Times) that it was a Russian hack.

We could go back to the Pentagon Papers as an example of deliberate withholding  that was more damaging to democracy than release. More recently, the fabrications of the Bush Administration that justified the invasion of Iraq afflicted Peter Van Buren with a stain of complicity that he just can’t wash away. Heightened suspicion, which is a form of prejudice, is a natural, though not logical, consequence of his experience.

We have a phrase for the antidote, “case-by-case.” It implies thinking about the current problem, with reference to what precedes, but with full consideration of the particulars:

  • The stakes are too small. The hack does not compare to the revelations of Edward Snowden. It illuminates the influence of money in politics, but we weren’t so naive beforehand. Our system will survive it. My political opinions are implied by a previous post, Why Russia Hacked the DNC; In Defense of Liberty.
  • The small stakes, without the requirement of “retaliation”, lower the bar for evidence. Nuclear retaliation requires a very high standard of evidence. Where to set the bar to call Putin a bad name is  entertaining, preferably with a cold beer.
  • The Russian origin of the hack is supported by non-public evidence. The mathematics of NSA technology is too secret to divulge. It was very costly to develop, and would become useless if made public, required by any explanation. NSA technology is guarded like the A-bomb, and with good reasaon.

Secrecy can be supported by the history of a current weapon system. The F-35 fighter has an approximate fly-away cost of $85 million. For years, the F-35 design team grit their teeth and bit their tongues at the onslaught of Dr. Karlo Kopp, an independent defense analyst whose website is Air Power Australia. I’m a good guesser at technical issues, so I shared in the tooth grinding. Dr. Kopp is the principle source of technical information on stealth for critics of the F-35. Apparently working from photographs, Kopp managed to construct a 3-D model of the airplane that enabled him to derive an estimate of radar reflectivity, described as equivalent target size, from any aspect. His analysis concluded that the airplane was less stealthy at most aspects than the F-22 which preceded it.

In a 2014 Aviation Week interview, Air Force general Mike Hostage clarified: The F-35′s cross section is much smaller than the F-22′s. “The F-35 doesn’t have the altitude, doesn’t have the speed [of the F-22], but it can beat the F-22 in stealth.”

This was received doubtfully by the aviation press, not because they knew better, but because they didn’t know enough. Thankfully, they still don’t. To at least some extent, the revelation devalued taxpayer dollars.  If the F-35 program were not so controversial, Hostage probably would not have divulged the information.

These arguments are sufficient to defuse the idea of an ulterior motive for blaming the Russians for the DNC hack. The issue is too small. For a larger issue, think again. Case-by-case.

Most saddening is Van Buren’s dire suspicion. Quoting,

“But why Putin, and why now? Perhaps what we’re seeing is preparation for the next iteration of America’s perpetual state of war.”

It is natural that Van Buren would suspect this, since he was employed in the aftermath of a war based on manufactured circumstances. He continues  to write,

“Ahead of the next administration, Washington really needs an arch enemy, a poster-child kind of guy who looks like a James Bond villain. And preferably one with nuclear weapons he’ll brandish but never use.”

So we call Putin a bad name? The population of Earth is currently about 7.5 billion, of whom 3.25 billion are already bastards. What’s one more?

The reason is quite the opposite. Flinging epithets is the all-purpose political tool:

  • It we happen to be doing nothing in response to provocation, it defuses the accusation of being too easy on those thuggy Russians.
  • If we happen to be doing something, such as cooperating on the Syria problem,  it indicates we are on our guard with those thuggy Russians.

Someone should send Putin a nice washcloth and a bar of scented soap. Mr. Putin, get that mud off your face!