Through the Keyhole, Into the Future

Our future is a keyhole.

(Click the thumbnail to enlarge.) Next to fields of waving grain, a family anxiously shelters from the approaching storm (triple tornadoes). Look closely; you’ll see someone making a mad dash for shelter. Their hopes focus on the keyhole, through which sunny skies beckon. 40″x30″; acrylic with objects on panel.

The keyhole symbolizes our wishes. Now it is time to make them. For the U.S., I hope that:

  • the fledgling democracies of eastern Europe will not be sacrificed to geopolitical games. Bismarck wrote that diplomacy is the art of the possible. Unlike many other aims of U.S. foreign policy, their preservation is a reasonable goal.
  • we husband our diminishing resources for the truly important struggles. Defend democracy where it is defensible.
  • democracy and the free press survive in the U.S.
  • the U.S. remains committed to the Paris climate change accord. If the wet-bulb temperature rises above 95 degrees Fahrenheit, the human species cannot survive. Before that point, it will become miserable. This temperature has already been reached in a few weather events. Think about it before having kids.

For Russia, I hope for

  • resumption of social evolution and human development. It was moving right along until about 2008. The social system of Russia is historically better than anything of the past, but it has not reached western levels, or even that of China, now a moving target.  The democracies of eastern Europe are terrified of being pulled down to the Russian level. The solution is to uplift Russia, not to pull down her neighbors.
  • a liberal Russia, not a conservative one, which would be dwarfed by the future.
  • Hint: With better television, and  better diversions, there would be less resort to alcohol. A friend of mine, visiting Russia, remarks that Russian TV is incredibly boring. It’s enough to drive one to drink.
  • reconsideration of foreign policy towards the West. Though Russia’s borders present sovereign risks on a scale unappreciated by some, Russian policy has in some cases actually magnified those risks.

For China, I hope you do not replace soft power with hard power. They are not as compatible as you think.

For foreign policy in general, more consideration of human welfare in the scheme of the inevitable, amoral geopolitical games. Historically, “realpolitik” associates with pursuit of national interest. It could accommodate another meaning, a willingness to dissolve and reconstitute a failed state along completely new lines. There are hints of new thinking with Syria, but with agonizing slowness. It is such a painful struggle,over barren ground, almost worthless even as a pawn.

For myself — greater contact with the readership. I’d like to hear from you!

As Walter Cronkite said: And that’s the way it is. This blog will continue with the usual regular irregularity.











Libya and Syria; When is Intervention Justified? Part 1

The foreign policy of the Trump administration may be a sharp break with the past. The results of U.S. foreign policy since 2000 may be served up as justification. But before the past is completely disavowed, perhaps a missing a principle of discrimination should be discovered and preserved.

We start with the title question, and will segue into a New-New World Order.

In Does America Need a Foreign Policy?, page 258, Henry Kissinger writes,

Foreign policy is bounded by the circumstances; it is, as Bismarck noted, “the art of the possible,” “the science of the relative.” When moral principles are applied without regard to historical conditions, the result is usually an increase in suffering rather than its amelioration. And if they are applied in light of domestic or international conditions, the desirable is constrained by the concept of national interest, so often castigated by the Wilsonians.

(Note: In the current political spectrum, Wilsonians are approximated by those favoring global trade, low national barriers to commerce and people, and high standards of moral conduct.  Jacksonians, the traditionally opposing group, emphasize national interest. There  seems to be an emotional, if not factual, resonance between Trump and the traditional Jacksonian constituency.)

Published in 2001, the book seems prescient now. If western arms had not been provided to Syrian rebels, the  toll might be a mere fraction of the count, now approaching 500,000. The preceding regime of Hafez Assad quelled insurrections by slaughter of a mere 5000 to 40,000. I claim no prescience. This is a counterfactual history.

Against the casualties, New Hampshire’s motto,  “Live Free or Die”, seems ridiculous. Patrick Henry’s oration to the Virginia State Legislature “Give me liberty, or give me death!” becomes rhetorical flourish. But we haven’t been hypocrites. In the last great struggle, World War II, still in living memory for some, many Americans gave their lives to save liberty for others.

The struggle was remarkably successful. Not long after the Axis was vanquished, all of the liberated countries resumed democracy, followed in less than a decade by the defeated Axis powers. But Liberty faced a new, implacable foe; the Cold War followed  immediately.  The U.S. response was the strategy of containment, first enunciated by George F. Kennan in 1947. It concluded with success in 1991.

But any line of thought offers a psychological hazard called perseveration, continuation  beyond usefulness. The vast human machinery of containment,  vulnerable to  group-think, over-applied the doctrine to contain things other than the original threat. Even Kennan became distressed. The failures  alternate with success:

  • The Korean War saved half of Korea.
  • The Vietnam War was a disaster.
  • The 1991 Gulf War was a success.
  • With the Iraq War of 2003, we won the war and lost the peace.
  • Miscellaneous small interventions are too numerous to tally. Of these, the 1953 overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddegh, the elected prime minister of Iran, has had the most enduring consequences, and is most open to counterfactual analysis.

These are monuments of history. But there is also “ground knowledge” that vitally informs. One can get it only by going to the place, or talking with someone who has. So I seek casual conversations with persons of foreign background. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I receive an intelligent, localized perspective of a conflict that is regarded here in geopolitical terms. My most recent discussion was with a multilingual Bulgarian who had grown up in Turkey, but has resided in the U.S. for many years. He is not a religious believer.

Sharing concern for the human suffering, his understanding of the conflict is different from ours. In his view, Syria is more than a Sunni majority; it’s a multi-ethnic place. One thought was shared: there is no apparent solution. Before the current conflict, identifying as Turkish, he had a conversation with a Syrian, who said, paraphrasing, “Unlike your Turkish situation, everybody in Syria gets along with everybody else.”

This seems incredible, considering the history of the conflict.  The spark: some teenagers in Daraa wrote Arabic graffiti on a school wall, in red paint:

                                                طبيب دورك

Translation: “Your turn doctor.” The “doctor” referenced was Bashar Hafez al-Assad.The mukhābarāt arrested them, and tortured them. Half a million dead, over graffiti, though, under the surface, Syria had already disintegrated, with drought and religion the proximal causes (Atlantic.) Yet, incredibly, my Bulgarian’s interlocutor had bragged, “…in Syria gets along with everybody else.”

But does New Hampshire’s motto ever have a place in the real world? The oppressions  of Gadaffi’s Libya and Syria were different in magnitude.  Syria had open borders, and permitted  private lives. In Libya, people were made into children, in  an almost uniquely Orwellian state. Perhaps only Stalin’s Russia compared.

The jury is still out. We must wait another decade before Libyans can decide whether the result was worth the price. But the debacle of Syria, and balancing fate of Libya, gives urgency to the question of this article: When is intervention justified?

To be continued shortly.



The Drone the Chinese Stole

These days, the media is more interested in the latest Moscow sex tape than the Secret Lives of Drones. The Chinese know what the drone is for, and the U.S. military know what the drone is for.  So you may as well know.

Although the U.S. conducts patrols in the South China Sea for the purpose of asserting freedom of navigation, a change of doctrine occurred with the deployment of China’s DF-21  “carrier killer” missile. To deploy a carrier in the South China Sea, under conditions of actual hostility, now incurs excessive risk.  Quoting the United States Naval Institute via Wikipedia,

United States Naval Institute in 2009 stated that such a warhead would be large enough to destroy an aircraft carrier in one hit and that there was “currently … no defense against it” if it worked as theorized.

To retain some capability in the South China Sea under wartime conditions, the doctrine has switched to the submarine as the primary weapon system. You’ve undoubtedly heard of SONAR, which uses sound to determine the position of a target. The similarity of the acronym with RADAR suggests that it is the underwater equivalent of RADAR. It is not. Radar relies on radio waves, which (almost, though not exactly) travel in a straight line at a known speed.

Perhaps, from old movies, you remember a submarine captain using a periscope to locate a target visually, with light the physical equivalent of radio waves. Light travels in a straight line.  Allowing for the course of the target, where the periscope points is roughly the direction the torpedo will be sent (a discussion of torpedo data computers is beyond the scope of this.) But the modern submarine engages targets beyond visual range.

Under water, sound does not travel in anything remotely like a straight line. Properties of the water, temperature and salinity, confine sound to “ducts”, which twist and turn with location, depth, and season. Sophisticated techniques exist to work these ducts to the advantage of the submarine. But they have to be mapped in three dimensions.

The South China Sea has been extensively mapped. The topography of the bottom has received particular attention, because the sea is very shallow, only about 65 feet on average. Mapping the bottom is done with towed sonar arrays. The hazard of inaccurate maps was shown by the U.S.S. San Francisco, when the ship collided with an unmapped undersea mountain in 2005.

It would have been hard for the Chinese to make off with a towed array. But the use of an autonomous drone to map temperature and salinity avoids turbulence that would affect the measurements.

You might be wondering why the Chinese are holding onto a commercially available drone. They are taking it apart. They want to know if it has any nonstandard instrumentation. The drone has a data logger, with a flash drive  they’ll unload. Maybe they’ll give it a shine before they hand it back.

Or perhaps you are completely bored. I’m waiting for the next Moscow sex tape.

McCain, “Possible Unraveling of Post-WWII Peace”

Senator McCain, in CNN video: Russian election-related hacks threaten to ‘destroy democracy’.

My reply has nothing to do with the response of the president-elect. That’s a separate issue. As I write this, I’ve turned down the volume of the screams coming from the CNN video.

It is truly a threat that must be dealt with, perhaps more by legislation to establish a routine disclosure mechanism, “shaming”, of Russian activities, than by active measures. But McCain also says, “This is the sign of a possible unraveling of the world order that was established after World War II, which has made one of the most peaceful periods in the history of the world…”

It can’t be taken seriously from a person who spent over five years in the Hanoi Hilton. It lacks perspective. By one tally, the Vietnam War consumed 1,353,000 lives, 47,424 of them American. American deaths in the Korean war tally to 33,686, with South Korean deaths about 500,000.

The second Red Scare, post World War II, had the factual basis of significant infiltration of American government by communist sympathizers, exploited, and in some cases, directed, by the Comintern and successors. The highest level was not exempt. The controversy of Harry Dexter White, and what he told the Soviets, remains unresolved. The reality of penetration was deleted from our collective memory in reaction to the shameful actions of demagogue Joseph McCarthy, who created victims of innocents.

We will never know whether the hacks actually threw the election. The  tempest-in-a-teapot of Clinton’s email server was poorly handled, with the classic error of grudging disclosures. Only one leak really hit the Rustbelt constituency,  Clinton’s Wall Street Speeches.  Comey’s last-minute reactivation of the investigation was at least as significant.

World order is like the weather. With Glasnost, we had one of those glorious springs, when the sunshine seems to spread forever. But winter always follows.  We are having a dismal fall.

The facts are disturbing, but not fatal to democracy.



c*on*tac*t at intel* Leave out the asterisks.

Please do not send or offer “tips”, or any kind of non-public information. This is NOT a tip line.

The Syria Conflict and Terrorism in the West

Disclaimer: In the interest of analysis, this article sidesteps the horrible plight of the flesh-and-blood people of the region. The problem is akin to the surgeon, forced  to operate on a  a loved one, or a lawyer providing services to an unsympathetic client entitled to counsel. These situations share a necessity, to temporarily put aside emotion for the sake of rationality. At the end of the writing, and the reading, we can restore out sentiments, and resume our concern for humanity.

Several assertions about Syria/Iraq/terrorism have become part of western conventional wisdom:

  • The continuation of the Syria conflict will result in continued export of terrorism.
  • The collapse of ISIS will result in increased export of terrorism.
  • An equitable, representative government in Syria is one condition of the solution.
  • A unified Iraq is the other condition of the solution.
  • When the conditions are met, terrorism will abate.

The argument is powered by the assertion that atrocities local to the Levant power terrorism globally. The assertion stems from how people are thought to react when oppressed and worse.

If this thesis is not flawed, it is  at least worthy of a Hegelian “counter-thesis”.  The core of it seems to rely more on western sentiment than hard logic. Imagine several parties, thinly disguised by letters, each with their own advocacy:

  • Party W, the most socially and morally advanced on the planet, forever tries to spread the love.
  • Party R, a ruthless and practical sort, practices a form of “realpolitik”, with concern mainly about the health and welfare of relatives, rather than humanity in general.
  • Party T believes in and practices murder and  mayhem.
  • Party M is the salt of the earth, from which all the other parties attempt to recruit.

The purpose of these slight abstractions is to distance ourselves from conventional wisdom, which does not slap-fit mere letters of the alphabet. Now the assertion is almost an equation:

R oppresses–> M–implies–>T recruits–>

M–>implies more–>T–>attacks on W

The  “equation” may be just a writer’s trick, but it lays bare a specific weakness of logic.  ISIL spans two countries, with differing backgrounds of conflict. The Assad regime, with violence from the start, has a significant responsibility  in the genesis of ISIL.  In Iraq, former officers of the Saddam regime have a similar role. The Iraqi background was much less violent, the disaffection of the dispossessed. Yet even though the backgrounds are different, regions spanning two countries became the territory of ISIL.

If a conflict has a single cause, it may sometimes be reasonable to assert that removal of the cause will resolve it. In our hearts, we would like to believe that the people of the region can live in such a state of happiness that recruitment to terror would be rare. But with ISIL, it is not obvious that resolving the original causes of conflict will reduce the threat of terrorism to the west.

Physics distinguishes between reversible processes, and irreversible. History is irreversible. The removal of the cause does not result in return to the past. So, as part of the Hegelian counter-thesis, let’s propose a future more likely to occur than a recurrence of the past:

  • The Assad regime, with Russian air power, achieves nominal control of the inhabited areas.
  • The Gulf states flood the region with MANPADs and other advanced weapons. The cost of Russian air support escalates.
  • The Assad/rebel conflict assumes more of the character of a proxy war than it already has.
  • The Iranians commit, hoping to blaze a path all the way to the Mediterranean.
  • With military success, Assad’s army holds more territory with thinner forces. It becomes more vulnerable. Edit: This hazard has just been demonstrated by the ISIL recapture of Palmyra.
  • Terrorism in the west diminishes, because local targets are more accessible.
  • Over the coming decade, Alawite Syria succumbs to population pressure.
  • The Iranians get tired.
  • Perhaps seven years from now, a quasi political transition occurs.

If I were a Russian, I would know that a unified Syria is unrealistic, with instability rivaling a trans-uranium element. This would be my secret goal: for all the combatants, except the Russian air force, to get very tired, too tired to bother Russia.






Trump’s Tweets on China

Trump’s tweets about China suggest to some that the U.S. military posture with respect to the Nine Dotted Line is about to become more aggressive. Most noted is Trump’s phone conversation with the president of Taiwan, in violation of the “one China policy” of both the mainland and Taiwan, which, according Congressional Research Service (pdf), has never been explicitly agreed to by the U.S.

Note: If you’re new to this blog, you may wish to read some prior posts indexed by South China Sea Tense, and Pivot to Asia; Duterte Declares End of Philippines-U.S. War Games.

For the U.S. to exert a dominant influence on the international status of the area behind the Nine Dotted Line, there are several prerequisite conditions:

  • The geopolitics must permit massive projection of power, at affordable cost, over a long period of time. This means that at least one side of the closed area, which is bounded on the west by China, must be sufficiently sympathetic to the idea of the U.S. as a policeman to commit to the cause, which would be costly.
  • The “political” part of “geopolitics requires soft power.  In other words, the commercial center of the region must be elsewhere than China. Perhaps, stretching credulity to the utmost, “center” could be replaced by “alternate framework”, such as the Trans Pacific Partnership was intended to be.

Since none of the countries in the region are currently afflicted with massive disasters of government or human rights, their decisions of alignment are overwhelmingly based on economics. There are a few exceptions:

  • Japan has the will, if not the means, to counter China. But Shinzo Abe has stated that the TPP would be meaningless without the U.S.  Since so much manufacturing by Japanese companies is in China, it is unlikely that that Japan’s will would endure the years of a China commercial freeze.
  • Taiwan, already a  commercial appendage of China, would suffer terrible privations. But unlike any other country, the U.S. has something to trade, defense of the island. This would be costly. It could end up looking like the Berlin Airlift.
  • Vietnam, the third ranking military power of the region, has recently become a massive purchaser of U.S. weapons systems. Still, cultural resistance to entangling alliances, and the recent history of the Vietnam War make it likely to continue the Dance of the Non-Aligned. Vietnam will defend itself.  But although Vietnam was locally expansionist in the 19th century, projection of power into the international realm has no precedent in the ancestral communal wisdom.
  • Malaysia’s coast is hugged by the longest part of the Nine Dotted Line. But it  is in the midst of the 1MDB sovereign wealth fund scandal, in which the principle accused, Najib Razak (WSJ), happens to be the premier of the country, playing the Muslim card for adoption of strict Sharia, for his  political life in the next election against the ethnic Chinese political bloc. Supposing that Trump prevails on the D.O.J. to drop charges, China has already bailed out 1MDB.
  • Australia is too far away to join the joust by themselves.

But aside from the death of the TPP, the other massive obstacle to power projection is the Philippines. Duterte can at least be credited with the most clear enunciation of why he has withdrawn from the Mutual Defense Treaty in all but name. Taken by themselves, any of his statements could be taken as gamesmanship. But a Wall Street Journal article reveals a man with a deep, personal hatred of the U.S. In case you are caught by the paywall,

Mr. Duterte’s nationalism, displayed in his angry reaction to Mr. Obama’s admonishments, echoes sentiments common among left-leaning Filipinos that America never atoned for invading the archipelago in 1898 and violently subduing the former Spanish colony. With independence in 1946, the Philippines passed into the hands of what many left-leaning politicians such as Mr. Duterte regarded as a corrupt Manila elite installed by Washington.

So, much to the shock of Washington, the Philippines has become like the butler who discloses that he’s always hated you.

A quick study of a map reveals:

  • The large, central portion of the Nine Dotted Line closely skirts the Philippines.
  • With the Philippines in the U.S. court, and with no other regional nation caring a whit, the U.S. could project substantial power into the area. An island is the only unsinkable ship. Unfortunately, we lost Subic Bay Naval Base in 1992, for the very reasons of Duterte’s heartfelt hate.

Absent the Philippines, the idea of an international South China Sea is dead. The concept of power projection, or intervention, is stillborn. Could Trump, with his acquiescence to governments that behave far beneath the western standard,  re-enroll the Philippines and Malaysia? If it were simply a matter of personalities, perhaps. But the TPP, which Trump seems emphatically determined to kill, has always had a pale, sickly complexion. It’s like a “colonize Mars” thingy, or a congressional bill that never received an appropriation.

The prerequisites are at odds with what Steve Bannon calls economic nationalism. So what are we to make of this? Are Trump’s advisors so naive as to think a modern fleet of Sand Pebbles gunboats can take on modern China? It’s a ludicrous thought, but consider: In 1994, what was to become the Zumwalt class of destroyers was actually conceived as a weapon system to “manage China.”

How quickly do perceptions change. Wish for a simpler time. Look for an alternate meaning, such as credibility for future bargaining on trade.