The Personality of Kim Jong-un; Fencing; the Ungame, Part 2

The fence of almost-facts consists of four  negations and three assertions. A common element is a blur between fact, and what Kim is likely to consider as fact. Theories that implicitly predict successful negotiations assume that the end of North Korea’s nuclear program is required for these benefits to occur, which is false:

  • Lifting or weakening of sanctions.
  • An increase in the political legitimacy of Kim Jong-un’s regime.
  • An increase in the stability of the regime. Stability and legitimacy are not the same.
  • Accession of North Korea to the “community of nations”, a term which implies acceptance instead of ostracism. Although unlikely, this could happen anyway.

The assertions are:

  • North Korea’s nuclear program, instead of being dismantled, can be concealed.  While programs of  nuclear proliferation have been approximate recapitulations of the  programs of the original five, it is not necessary. Many more options exist for clandestine development.
  • A single personality cannot combine the nature of Kim’s rule with the emotional “glasnost” on display at the recent conference.
  • Termination would not result in accession to the “community of nations.” It is neither a requirement or a benefit. There is no coupling at all.

Let’s first consider weakening or lifting of sanctions.

The discrete and  dramatic events of the current confrontation have captured our imaginations as as kind of chess game. Once a game is identified, it becomes an unconscious assumption that the game will continue under the same rules to checkmate or stalemate. And cheating at chess does not mean you aren’t playing chess. When the game changes, there is great fanfare. It seemed that the game might switch to poker, with a Western saloon gun-fight as the culmination.

Kim Jong-un has, in what may be a masterstroke, switched from a competitive game to a  noncompetitive game. See The Ungame. We don’t have to judge  his sincerity to observe that foreign policy mavens, anticipating that chess and poker will continue, have not considered all the twists and turns an ungame would allow.

Rather than immediately negate the potential of the ungame, make a list of Kim’s possible goals. Put yourself in his shoes. If you were Kim, would you actually de-nuke which amounts to maximum concession, no game at all, or would you play the ungame for a while, perhaps for an indefinite period, spinning webs and veils of silk, gauze, and gossamer?

This sudden wisdom may not be entirely his creation. It happened after a train trip to the Celestial Kingdom, the repository of centuries of foreign policy wisdom. Perhaps he was gifted a copy of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.  For 2500 years, it has been the wise guide to foreign policy for Eastern rulers. Some sample quotes:

  • “All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”
  • “Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent’s fate.”

This is not theoretical.  With 2500 years on the book racks,The Art of War is the best-selling “The Art of…” book of all time. Km Jong-un took a train to Beijing. A complete makeover resulted. What edition did he come home with? Leather-bound, web  links, or merely the impression that it is very important? So important that one maxim popular among risky livers is misattributed to Sun Tzu, “Keep your friends close but your enemies closer.” The gem owes to Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola.

It may now suddenly occur to you that you have no idea how Kim Jong-un can play the Ungame. You grab your Hoyles Rules, and it isn’t even listed. You find you are completely unprepared to estimate whether he can use it to lift sanctions, partly or totally. You discover that

  • A significant part of dollar denominated trade, mainly for bulk cargoes that originate and deliver in Asia, could be conducted in the renminbi.
  • Another part could be done as goods-swap.
  • Yet another could be by service swap, such as facilitating drug transactions via North Korea’s huge submarine fleet.

But with the cooperation of China, how could the above happen?

If someone does you a favor, do you always know why? Is China cooperating with the U.S. solely because of pressure, or is there an additional reason? Is their real concern  nukes, or that they want North Korea  to evolve in the direction of a civilized state? This could be one of Donald Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns.” Evolution in North Korea, modest by our standards, could be enough for China to return to a purely regional approach. Their thinking: With time, things will only get better.

So, as per Criticism of Administration Policy Towards North Korea ?, the game is embedded in the international ecosystem.   China’s attitude towards North Korea, up till the current sanctions regime, is explained well by Henry Kissinger in his book On China. China has another approach to regional problems, requiring Eastern patience.

It goes back to the need to deflect  the border tribes, beyond the Great Wall and elsewhere in central Asia, that posed the same threat to the Celestial Kingdom as the Gauls, Visigoths, Vandals, et al  did to Rome. The Romans chose to co-opt; the Chinese chose to corrupt, as in, “Show them the good life”, and make them dependent. China has tried this with North Korea in the form of cross-border commerce, and encouragement of entrepreneurship. It hasn’t worked so far. But while our basic interval of time is 4 years, China’s policies have the patience of centuries.

So sleep on this, the Ungame, and let your Zen-master talents soar to the heights:

If you were Kim Jong-un, how would you effect the wisdom of Sun-Tzu in the short term?

To be continued shortly. In the meantime,

Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.






The Personality of Kim Jong-un; Fencing the Problem

Let’s drop the nuclear physics for a bit. People want know what makes Kim Jong-un tick. Theories abound, but no candidate has the quality that says, “this nails it.”  In the euphoric moment, political types tend to confuse fact and desire. But the intelligence community is not so easily beguiled. (Reuters) Understanding Kim: Inside the U.S. effort to profile the secretive North Korean leader.

My own attempt at a compact theory appears in, Trump says ‘major, major’ conflict with North Korea possible:

  • The rule of Kim Jong-un is too weak to survive cancellation of these [missile, nuclear] programs.
  • If Kim Jong-un is deposed, it is most likely that he will die. He is too dangerous to his challengers to be left alive.
  • In the protracted negotiations with the father, Kim Jong-il, under the 1994 framework, the program slowed, or appeared to stop for periods, but no assets were relinquished by North Korea. Hence the son cannot relinquish assets.
  • The portraits of father and son hang side-by-side. This is not for decoration. It is symbolic proclamation that the son is the continuation of the father. A loss of symbolic continuity would immediately activate the weakness of the son’s power base.

with the conclusion,

The bullet list has tight linkages, implying that the object of regime change is identical as a goal with nuclear disarmament of North Korea.

But the human mind is not ultimately knowable. This is a game of almost-facts. The estimate should be read as, “This is likely to be the case.”  Now this estimate is challenged by new emotions, producing new biases, caused by a political meeting that may have featured either genuine sentiment or really good acting.

As a compact chain of logic, my theory may share the inherent weakness  of the three theories presented in (CNN) Why Kim Jong Un came in from the cold: 3 theories. But it should not be an invitation to pick one of the four. That would be like betting at the track without an edge.

The real takeaway is that complicated theories do not work very well by themselves. Deduction has limits. An additional mode of logic must be invoked.  Precedent or consensus are no help, because the meeting is  a singular event. If four theories with at most six logical steps (count the paragraphs) contradict each other,  should we look to more complicated theories, or simpler ones?

I introduced a technique called “fencing” in No successor to Maliki named; fencing the problem. Quoting,

Fencing the problem is an important part of the predictor’s toolkit. Sometimes the fence is made of facts; other times, pseudo facts, things that have higher probabilities than the swirling cloud of amorphous possibilities.

By surrounding the problem with “almost facts” the solution becomes a bounded space. It can be used to knock a theory out of contention. It happens when the theory hits the fence and keeps on going. But let’s first knock down the euphoria a bit. It centers the     mind.

The concept of a personality profile useful in the conduct of  foreign affairs and conflict is rooted in the Second World War. The rulers of the Axis powers were colorful, histrionic, labile demagogues. Their personalities were adorned with quirks as colorful as the feathers of exotic birds. But Joseph Stalin, more relevant to the current question, was ordinary.  See author Simon Sebag Montefiore‘s book Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar.

When not in a sadistic mood, Stalin’s traits of persuasion earned him the nickname “Uncle Joe.”   He deceived some of the most important political figures in the West. A small circle of diplomats with extensive exposure to the Soviet Union  accurately divined him. But it took until the 1947 publication of the X Article by George F. Kennan, that the political establishment understood what the small circle knew years in advance.

Their story is the subject of The Wise Men; Six Friends and the World They Made, by Walter Isaacon and Evan Thomas. This is a slow-cooked book. It depicts, not a  the wisdom of sudden, magical divination, but the stew of a decade, resulting  in their ability to see what others could not.

That resource for  North Korea does not exist. We have instead the reports of defectors, who, not being members of any intellectual establishment whatsoever, are treated more like raw data than people of respect. Their effect on the political establishment is by the conduit of the intelligence community. Defectors are like microdots. If you magnify them enough, you can see the message, but you can’t feel it. Empathy is lacking.

This conclusion risks being true: Lacking empathy, which is the skill of simulating the mind of another, we diminish the threat  by imagination. It’s analogous to the Stockholm Syndrome.

To be continued shortly.


The Real Story at North Korea’s Test Site; Cause and Effect

In  search of a story the size and taste of a Chicken McNugget, the news has  the story wrong. If you lay 5 facts out on a table, and draw an arrow through them, people will think that A implies B implies C implies D implies E…. and you’ve got what looks like “story.”

But if you lay the facts out in another order, the Chicken McNugget looks the same, but underneath the fry batter, it’s completely different. Our McNugget is:

  • A cavern in Mantapsan Mountain, created by a nuke test, collapsed.
  • Man-made tunnels also collapsed.
  • The mountain shifted.
  • There is a chimney of fractured rock, what the China authors call a “hole.” What covers the hole is in a delicate state.
  • The  mountain cannot contain further nuclear explosions.

So the Chicken McNugget headline is: (CNN) North Korea’s nuclear test caused collapse, study says. To an ambulance chaser, this could be as important as deliberately throwing banana peels on a busy sidewalk. But here it’s a mistake. When writing a story, news writers use the memory aid  “who-what-when-where-why”.  Everything’s OK except the what and why.

The CNN headline has the wrong “what”. The correct “what” is:

  • The mountain is leaking, and is finished as a test site.

Why is this an important distinction? Because all underground nuclear explosions create caverns. Most of them eventually collapse. The U.S. Nevada test site is dotted with (pics) subsidence craters, each one indicating the collapse of a cavern. The nuclear explosion did not cause the cavern to collapse. It created the cavern in the first place.

The phrase “mountain collapsed” conjures something like a coal mining disaster, so it’s an attractive headline. But with Mantapsan Mountain, the environmental danger is not the collapse, but the chimney of fractured rock, and other fractures as well. If you knock a few feet off a mountain, is that a “collapse” ? It subsided. Non volcanic mountains cannot collapse in a big way. Tunnels collapsed, killing unlucky slaves.

The writers of the China paper doubtless know this. They may have assented to the headline in response to a leading question, or simply despaired of explaining it properly to reporters.

This is the why, which builds to the ultimate reason why the site has been abandoned:

  • The rock fractured so severely not because the blast was particularly powerful, but because it wasn’t deep enough.  There wasn’t enough overburden, rock above the blast. So the rock heaved upwards many more feet than it would have if there had been more rock holding it down.

In search of drama, CNN supply a graphic in which the last North Korean test is the largest of the chart, implying that the explosion was huge. On the scale of things nuclear, the 160KT yield is actually quite small. The underground U.S. Cannikin test at Amchitka Island was roughly 50X stronger. The graphic is devoid of context.

Now if you’re a liberal arts guy, your sense of Aristotelian logic (or sophistry) has you argue, “But if there were no blast, there would have been no cavern to collapse. Therefore, the nuke is responsible.”

Although I firmly believe in the innate cussability of inanimate objects (as in “By gum, another damn infernal contraption”), this is not a useful chain of cause-and-effect.  That thinking might be useful to a trial lawyer. But what we want to know is:

  • Why did North Korea get into this situation? Why was the decision made to test at Mantapsan Mountain? Have a look at 41°16′47.87″N 129°5′10.51″E .  You can park your news truck in the lot 700 feet to the south. Be sure and tell them you’re coming.

Hint: Clues are in plain view. Once  the “why” is nailed down:

  • What are the North Koreans going to do about it? What are their alternatives for testing nukes?

To news writers who find this too daunting, try  writing up NYC crane collapses.  Easy to get to, and pretty simple; they get blown over by the wind, cables break, pedestrians get mashed, plenty of nice flashing lights, street barricades, and human interest.

These guys know the who and the what-like nobody’s business. They even know why. Don’t ask me who.

Taking a tip from  Abbott & Costello, we’ll get to the why shortly.






Criticism of Administration Policy Towards North Korea ?

Since more posts on North Korea will follow, it’s best to clear the air.  The vociferous tone of the past two posts,

and the Donald Duck cartoons have nothing to do with criticism of Administration policy,  but may have been misinterpreted  by some. The ultimately correct course of action is a complex matrix of benefit and risk to U.S. security, heavily reliant on clandestine methods, and the realities and limitations of power projection. It is partly embedded in the international ecosystem. It cannot be discerned from open sources. Too often, politics is made of what is known to decision makers, but cannot be revealed. The Missile Gap, invented by JFK for his political benefit, is the classic.

So although my assessment is similar to what is publicly known of the CIA assessments,  I refrain from having an opinion about North Korea. Dirty Harry said it best. But the astute open source observer can still call bullshit when it’s obvious.

Even when operating in non interpretive mode, good journalism has a story. Quoting the American Press Institute,

A good story is about something the audience decides is interesting or important. A great story often does both by using storytelling to make important news interesting.

I differ a trifle with the Institute, preferring to substitute or add the word “relevant”. Make important news interesting and relevant.

Had the article authors looked back at their own previous articles, as cited in N. Koreans Giving Up Test Site — Baloney!, they would have seen the implication: Rather than the joyous note of a new leaf for North Korea, the gesture of closing the test site is not motivated by goodwill. It’s a geological necessity dressed up as a gesture.

Can disposal of a worthless test site also be a gesture of good will? By failing to include all the relevant aspects of the story, the articles were actually free publicity for Kim Jong-un.  North Korea has no friends in the Western press, but omissions of relevant parts of the story can result in a powerful bias, even if totally unintentional.

Although castigating the press is an occasional sport, this blog is about open source intelligence — not just the results, but how to get it. In some articles, the focus on methods is explicit. In this series, it’s been example. The note of technique is  that while modern media is all too focused on the immediate here-and-now, much can be gleaned simply by scanning back the past few months.

In pursuit of open source, it’s helpful to have broad enough interests to remember what at the time may have seemed divorced from geopolitics. When North Korea’s test site was discovered to have become unstable, it seemed an irrelevant geological curiosity. Politicians are not typically interested in geology, unless related to oil. Yet it became the centerpiece of a bogus negotiating offer by an adversary.

To be continued shortly.




Could North Korea’s Nuke Program be Hidden? Syria Analogy

Suppose there was a successful negotiation to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Could North Korea successfully hide the continuation of such a program? Such an exploit relies on the interplay of two factors:

  • A  conflation of the rights of the accused in Western legal systems, with the corresponding standard of “guilt” of international law. A confusion in language, used by the press and exploited by our adversaries,  is rampant.
  • A change in the character of North Korea’s nuclear program. Modification of goals, with clandestine  techniques, to make invisible to international inspection continuance of  part of the program.

The two factors interlock, creating a technical twist on word play in a neglected corner of legal thought.

The language of international law tends to follow the customs of Western legal systems. This influences the vocabulary of journalism. For example, Syrian use of poison gas in Ghouta is described by major news outlets as “alleged.” With this word, the media offers protection in language analogous to the protection in law given to the accused. In short,

An “alleged” violation of international law derives from protection of the accused in Western legal systems.

Autocratic regimes know this confusion of words and standards, and exploit it extensively as a weakness of Western thought. When a consumer of Western media reads or hears the word “alleged” in connection with an international act, there is little chance of distinguishing it from the presumption that the accused is innocent unless proven guilty.

We can have multiple volumes of intelligence data about Syrian chemical attacks, yet like as not, Reuters et al will use the word “alleged.” The likelihood that a slowly deployed UN inspection team succeeds in recovering CBW agents from an area the Russians and Syrians have spent a week cleaning is small to zero. When Russia says, “You have no proof”, they exploit the  conflation in language. They have discovered the loophole and use it: In the domain of international law, proof  by the standards of Western domestic legal systems  is rare.

That this situation persists, created by confusion in language, stems from the whimsical desire to pretend that international law approaches domestic law in constancy and fairness. While international law is not a complete fiction, some of the common memes are lie, cheat, and steal. The occasional successful prosecution of a war criminal does not imply that it is actually a legal system. It might be a negotiating framework.

The media do not invent vocabulary. If they are at a loss for words, having to resort to “alleged” for Ghouta gas attacks, the responsibility is with the intellectual establishment, who have failed to render the distinction between the rights of the accused in Western legal systems, and the “rights” of Assad’s regime. The conflation of “rights of the accused” stems from a language void, which we cannot expect the press to fix on their own.

Now for the reductio ad absurdum . Reuters et al call the Ghouta gas attacks “alleged”, yet there has been a multinational strike against Syrian CBW targets, in direct retaliation for the “alleged” attacks. This shows that Reuters et al extend the term “alleged” to what are, to very high probability, actionable facts.

But while press vocabulary is the day-to-day, there is no fixed barrier in the human mind between different spheres of discourse. The languages of the press and of diplomatic forums cross-fertilize and recirculate. The press reports on diplomacy; diplomats read the press. The linguistic error of legalese is a recirculating loop.

This is the strata of words and logic in which a North Korean nuke program could be hidden, buried beyond  what in domestic legal systems is called “proof.” Detected, yet not proven, the Morlocks dig deeper.

Next, the technical changes that make this possible.

N. Koreans Giving Up Test Site — Baloney!

(Reuters) North Korea says will stop nuclear tests, scrap test site.

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.

Russia Has Lost Control of the Narrative; Ambition Creep in Syria

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.

Perhaps the third time’s the charm.






Gas Attack in Ghouta

(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.







Poisoned Door Handle Hints at High-Level Plot to Kill Spy, U.K. Officials Say

(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:

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.


Rebuttal. The implied assumptions are:


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.


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.