Moqtada al-Sadr wins Iraq Elections

A basic rule of propaganda: When the propagandist has monopoly of the media, when there is only one message, people will tend to believe that message. This is because critical thinking takes mental energy,  requiring mental rebellion against the imposed order. It takes less energy to go with the flow.

But even when monopoly control of the media is absent, there is a tendency to give more credence to a public figure than would be logical. Part of it is the mental energy issue. Part of it is the dislike of mental void, of an undefined public figure versus one who is self-defined. With nothing to choose from, the citizen fills the void with one possibility: that the figure is telling the truth about himself. The classic example is the politician who runs on the simplest of platforms, “No new taxes.”

Occasionally, when assessing personalities, intelligence analysts fall victim to the trap. When the Coalition Transitional Government of Iraq was succeeded by the first elected government, there was concern that Nouri al-Maliki, proposed to be the first prime minister,  could be an Iranian agent. So he was vetted by the CIA in a series of short interviews. The conclusion of the CIA, that he was not an Iranian agent, was vulnerable to the Turing Test Loophole. Alan Turing’s test attempted to define the meaning of artificial intelligence. If the machine could fool the interlocutor into thinking it was human, then it was intelligent.

This is the application: If Nouri al-Maliki was more intelligent than his interviewers, he could deceive them as to his true allegiances. If he was less intelligent, he could not, implying that conclusions of the CIA were accurate. Exactly what intelligence means in this case is unimportant. The possibilities are obvious. In subsequent events, around the high-water mark of ISIS in 2014, his incompetence was demonstrated. Retrospectively, it improves the CIA’s chances of being right. But at the time?

Intrigue has been characteristic of the region since the latter days of the Ottoman Empire. In the latter 19th century, the Ottoman military came to be dominated in numbers by Arab officers, who conspired in the secret society al-‘Ahd, against the Ottoman rulers for many years before the open Arab Revolt.  Their last leader, Faisal I of Iraq, was educated in the Ottoman court. (We know him as the ally of T.E. Lawrence, “Lawrence of Arabia”.) Such was the level of deception that the Ottomans never became aware of the centrality of al-‘Ahd. After the Ottoman dissolution, intrigue continued as a political way of life, fueled by tribalism, Arab nationalism, and the arbitrary nature of the child states of the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

Al-‘Ahd was the product of a relatively simple, nomadic culture, under the thumb of the culture for which the expression “Byzantine” was coined. Since 1979, Iran has become the modern example of a Byzantine state. Foreign policy is conducted by multiple entities, with both conflicting and competitive aims. This goes beyond the obvious division between secular and religious. The multiplicity of power centers in Iran has no equal. Facilitated by the bonyads, state capitalism, and endemic corruption, it extends to the religious establishment as well. Money is, of course, the lifeblood of conspiracy.

So what does this have to do with Moqtada al-Sadr? What credence we gives to his self-description is due to murkiness of alternatives. But once alternatives are named, we have what probability theory calls a space of outcomes. His history includes multiple flip-flops and complex social/religious bonds:

  • Sectarianism.
  • Ethnic inclusiveness (flip-flop).
  • Violence with organized militias, notably the Mehdi Army, with funding by Iran.
  • Positioning as purely political, abjuring militias and violence, supposedly to oppose secularism. (flip-flop.)
  • Prolonged residence in Iran; ethnicity partly Iranian.
  • Religious stature largely determined by the Iran religious establishment, which is much larger than Iraq’s.
  • Coalition with highly incompatible elements., including the Communist Party of Iraq, while previously he opposed secularism (flip-flop). Communism advocates atheism, to which Islam applies the most severe punishment, death.

We recognize the domestic equivalent in the politician whose platform rapidly changes to get elected, with policies after election that don’t represent the platform. We call it political expediency. But Moqtada al-Sadr is exceptional in the frequency and disruptive nature of his turns.

Moqtada al-Sadr maneuvers at high speed through multinational Middle East politics with the reflexes of a bootleg booze runner. More striking than any particular position is his adroitness at the bootleg turn, where with simultaneous application of throttle and brake, the car swivels and skids 180 degrees, taking off at high speed in the opposite direction. If we admit the possibility that Moqtada al-Sadr actually believes his current platform, his record still suggests that he will change again. And he may not believe it anyway. His politicking may be entirely tactical, in the service of abstracted goals that are not apparent to the Western mind. One part of Shia doctrine, a common legacy of oppressed sects, is deception of outsiders.

Now the space of possibilities opens up. Moqtada al-Sadr could be:

  • What he says he is, an inclusive Iraqi nationalist.
  • An Iranian agent.
  • A user of Iran.
  • An inclusive bringer of peace.
  • A secret dictator in the prodromal phase.
  • A dreamer of the Caliphate. They come in many guises; the last was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. It appears to be a fairly common aspiration; Saddam Hussein may have also been a dreamer, as expressed in the novels he wrote (what a versatile guy!). At times, his alliances were as incompatible as those of Moqtada al-Sadr.

We’ve activated our critical faculty, diminishing credence in his stated positions, possibly to zero. The enumerated alternatives form a kind of probability space. The chance that any one of them is true, to the mutual exclusion of the others, may be equal.

The one constant of Moqtada al-Sadr is his extreme hostility to the U.S. But in view of his hospitality to kafir Communists, the antipathy lacks a genuine cultural basis. The beneficiary is Iran, adding a little to Byzantine speculations.

In Is Iraq Headed for Another Civil War?, I wrote,

The Shiite Iraq that follows the passing of Sistani will not be a permissive setting for American operations. Other parts of it, such as the Kurdish area, might be. But the kinds of cultural shift and political combinations that would make a viable rump state are prohibited by the strange-to-us cultural animosities.  Iran, a unified and disciplined state, would  steamroller it.

In The Kurd Referendum; Implications for U.S. Policy, I wrote,

Unless Brinton’s sequence can be averted, the U.S. position will become untenable. The nature of extremists could make resolution impossible. The curtain on this conflict rises perhaps a year, or a bit more, from now.

The phenomenon of Moqtada al-Sadr is congruent with these notes.

Texas School Shootings; the Right to Kill

It’s like a funeral. Time stops, while we have reverent thoughts of memory. We drive away, and life starts up again.

Guns have a single purpose: to kill. It can be justified to kill. Rare is the creed that denies self defense.

The Right to Bear Arms is equivalent to the Right to Kill, provided you are willing to suffer the consequences. This is an equation.

But some diseased minds, and some unformed adolescent minds, do not weigh the consequences. So they are free to act as if the equation does not exist.

Some people in this country clutch tightly their Right to Kill, while denying others their Right to Live.

Although life on earth is full of horrors, it is shocking that the two parties, the Party of Right to Kill and of Party of Right to Live, can’t find a meaningful compromise.

It is saddening that this country chooses to sacrifice the lives of their children for the sake of a principle: The Right to Kill shall not be infringed.

The funeral ends; the mourners disperse; life goes on.

But these funerals could have been prevented.






North Korea casts doubt on Trump summit, suspends talks with South

Reuters: North Korea casts doubt on Trump summit, suspends talks with South. The given reason is (quoting) “…denouncing military exercises between South Korea and the United States as a provocation and calling off high-level talks with Seoul.”

Of all the possible reasons, the stated one is likely to be a pretext. Diplomacy is, of course, the land of pretexts and handshakes. Reuters takes the crown for running gratuitous handshake photos. Is it because they are cheap to buy from Getty Images? Do diplomats  carry hand sanitizer, or do they suffer constantly from grippe and colds? Will Trump, self described germophobe, wear latex gloves?

In spite possible indications of U.S. flexibility (WaPo, Is Mike Pompeo backing off Trump’s demand that North Korea get rid of its nukes?), Kim Jong-un has watched Trump abrogate the Iran treaty. He has likely come to realize that this administration cannot be gamed. After his useless test site is dynamited for the press, where would the game lead? The military exercises are the last chance for a decent pretext, save indisposition from illness.

Mike Pompeo’s carrot of U.S. investment is dangerous to the KIm dynasty. Kim Jong-un inherits juche, the doctrine of national self-reliance, from his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, the founder of the state. In this patriarchal-to-the-extreme society, this cannot be underestimated. Unlike the carefully curated environment of the Kaesong Industrial Region,  widespread private investment from western sources would expose the sheer horror of songbun, which includes a caste of slaves. North Korea is unique in the world today in the part slavery has in the political system.

Given world sensitivity towards the mere exploitation of labor in Southeast Asia, how could  crimes against humanity be ignored? Even if the U.S. legitimizes North Korea, these issues remain in the broader context for the foreseeable future. Exposed by opening North Korea, they are more dangerous to the regime than starvation.

Because of their shared cultural affinities and common language, the North-South talks are dangerous to the North. Scripted or no, South negotiators would read faces and estimate intent via observations of demeanor. Direct talks with Trump, conducted in stilted language via interpreters, spare Kim at least that danger.

But if Kim has updated his assessment of Trump’s personality, he may have concluded that  obfuscation by the North would lead the U.S. administration to a definite conclusion. If one plays the waiting game, this is to be avoided. There is a way out.

If the Trump-Kim meeting takes place, the military exercises form the base of a stack of complaints, a litany. The meetings could then be consumed working through the litany. One more handshake, maybe even a video, and Kim is safe for another six months. If the North refrains from the bizarre, threatening rhetoric and provocative tests , safety from a U.S. strike could become indefinite. This is the waiting game.

Need we question the sincerity of a handshake? The Ungame continues: Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.







Tom Wolfe, Major Influence on this Blog, Has Passed

Tom Wolfe passed away.  He coined the term, new journalism, which in effect on the reader has relation to immersive journalism.

We can expect some new journalism about the Hereafter. It won’t be dull. Now  where can I get editions of his works on acid-free paper?

You may have some curiosity about the style of this blog.  At least part of the time, I try to immerse the reader in some kind of experience, even when writing about a technical subject. Reading Wolfe is an experience in itself, a  melody of words that lingers after you put the book down.  His use of words, with onomatopoetic grammar, is as creative as the strokes of an artist’s brush.

Any subject, save the most abstract, can refer to and relate to the human experience, engaging the reader more.

Thank you, Tom.

Gaza Shootings

On December 10, 2017, in U.S. Embassy Move to Jerusalem, I wrote:

It is reasonable to conclude that the moving of [ the U.S. Embassy to] Jerusalem will result in a shift of the parameters of the bell curve, enlarging the groups who make the radical transition all the way to the tip of the bell curve tail, to terror. This has has nothing to do with rational opinion. If individuals have free will, groups behave with something approaching determinism.

For wise thoughts, refer to the five former heads of Mossad (Times of Israel.)

Two former heads of Shin Bet: (The Guardian) Israel sunk in ‘incremental tyranny’, say former Shin Bet chiefs. 


Iran Nukes; Secret Bomb Factory? IAEA Head Resigns; Analysis Notes

Israel says Iran lied on nuclear arms, pressures U.S. to scrap deal has garnered more short term interest than perhaps any other article I’ve written. By now, I thought I’d be doing talk shows.  🙂 But why is the article so interesting? This is a question of technique, which is a focus of this blog. To keep you reading, we consider a choice for site of a secret plutonium bomb factory.

The article presents a hypothesis, which according to the scientific method is one step short of a theory. Although inspired by observation, a hypothesis need not be testable. A theory adds the requirement that it can be tested. It includes at least one test by which it can be proven wrong.

It’s important to say these things, because deduction, involving sequential logical steps, has acquired a bad name, caused by the abuses of conspiracy theorists. Besides the sleaze of the twisted mind, a common abuse is teleology,  the idea that something is proven by the need for it. For example: The Iranians want the bomb, proving the hypothesis in the last article. This is fallacious reasoning.

Fallacious reasoning, disguised by complexity, has been the bane of Western civilization, ever since Descartes introduced basic mental hygiene. In elaborate perfection, the scientific method is the antidote. But since the method disallows all of philosophy except science, the philosophers needed something more compatible to stay in business, and to argue about. Their answer was logical positivism.

Unlike the scientific method, logical positivism is not standardized. It comes in conflict with the scientific method with the idea that some things are known a priori. Quoting Wikipedia,

Thus, Kant saved Newton’s law of universal gravitation from Hume’s problem of induction by finding uniformity of nature to be a priori knowledge.

Modern physics considers the above to be incorrect. The uniformity of physical laws throughout the cosmos is not to be assumed. Logical positivism is not a prescribed method you can use for, say, drug testing. It is open to widespread corruption, by addition of philosophical gee-gaws.

Yet it has had a profound influence on the way we think. The street version of logical positivism is skepticism, as in show me. This is the ultimate defense against conspiracy theories, which, relying on innuendo, show nothing. We rely on this heavily in casual thought, editing the information flow according to:

  • If you can see or experience it, it’s real.
  • If you can’t, it’s not.
  • If you have a strong personal need to believe in something, you just make an exception.

Since there are a lot of things we would like to believe in that fail the above, we lie to ourselves liberally and invisibly. The worst liar is the self. But the hypothesis, “Iran possesses untested plutonium nukes” is not about the self. So we ratchet up stringency. Since it  can’t be experienced, and there is no positive evidence in open sources, we kick it out of consideration.

The misuse, and overuse, of logical positivism is endemic to modern thought. We have our example. Given the interest in the hypothesis  in the previous article,  “Iran possesses untested plutonium nukes” is that example. Having been edited from consideration by the community of people who think about such things, it suddenly became interesting when presented with a few scientific bits about procedures commonly employed in practical physics calculations.

Most of us aren’t philosophers. We may have never heard of logical positivism. When we overlook something, or make an error or omission of thought, we don’t reach for Aristotle. Whatever positivism means, we are vulnerable to it because of:

  • Balkanization of knowledge.
  • Credence given to foreign powers that employ deceit as a normal tool of international relations.
  • An international regulatory agency, the IAEA, which relies entirely on open inspections and methods of analytic nuclear chemistry to fulfill a mission.

Balkanization is most important. The 20th century was the century of physics. It was then the king of sciences, employing the scientific method with exacting precision. In 1938, the atom was split, with the prospect of unlimited energy for mankind. It was with this sugar pill that the best minds set about to make the most destructive weapon ever seen. They worked on the bomb, not in pride, but necessity, anticipating peaceful benefits of atomic energy.

There was some pride of accomplishment, so it was talked about. That much energy from a new source inspired more amazement than horror. That came later, with the arms race, and proliferation. This is why so much information is in the public domain. But in the 21st century, the focus of hope has shifted to the life sciences, and A.I.  The quests of physics are very much alive, but are mostly incomprehensible to non specialists. There is no bang. There is plenty to write about, but there is no visceral experience. We can all imagine a nuclear explosion, but all of us have trouble with quantum entanglement.

Credence given to foreign powers has a huge impact on the viability of this hypothesis. It is an issue entirely apart from the personal veracity of Russia’s leaders, or truthfulness of  Russia’s leaders to their peer group. Russia’s statements to the foreign policy audience, and to media, are first and foremost  propaganda.  Russian statements have scant regard for truth, as understood in the West.

Russia assures us that after the breakup of the Soviet Union, none of the inadequately secured nuclear materials were misplaced. Refer to page 21, (pdf) GLOBAL FISSILE MATERIAL REPORT 2015. As of 2014, Russia had 88,000 kg of weapons grade plutonium.  A bomb requires only (Page 24) 5 kg.

That plutonium was not smuggled through  the  Wild West Russia of the 90’s, through the Caucasus, to Iran and other Asia destinations, relies on these assertions:

  • Russia’s denial.
  • Absence of evidence, as seen by Western intelligence services.
  • Logical positivism, with the street name of skepticism. This is institutionalized by the IAEA.

The head of the IAEA just resigned without explanation. (RFE) Chief Inspector Unexpectedly Quits UN Nuclear Watchdog. A conspiracy theorist would leap on this. But it does suggest that the  IAEA is dangerously vulnerable to political factors. An excess of logical positivism is used by politicians to influence institutional behavior.

Now for some speculation. If Iran wished to site a plutonium bomb factory, is there an optimal  choice for concealment? IAEA analytic methods,  to detect clandestine nuclear activity,  rely on isotope ratios differing from nature. In Iran, Ramsar County, on the shores of the Caspian, contains areas with the highest levels of natural radioactivity on earth. Iran may hope that high background levels would confuse IAEA methods by obscuring artificial sources.

So if you want to poke around, book your trip to Ramsar now. You’ll come home with that special glow,  from the vacation spot #1 in ionizing radiation. What’s a suntan when you can glow in the dark!









Israel says Iran lied on nuclear arms, pressures U.S. to scrap deal

Reuters: Israel says Iran lied on nuclear arms, pressures U.S. to scrap deal.

I was going to  discuss something like this in connection with North Korea, but Netanyahu has scooped me. What follows is not to advocate that the U.S. should scrap the Iran deal. I tend to think like  Mattis.

U.S. nuclear weapons are highly optimized designs, made as well as the mind and hand  of Man can do.  Russian nukes are not quite as good. Of the others, not much is publicly known, but you can throw away a lot of design potential and still get a bang.  Some U.S. warheads, highly optimized for yield (explosive power) per weight, have been deliberately downgraded to smaller yields. This offers more flexible escalation of force. A target can be destroyed with the loss of thousands of lives, instead of millions. Offering POTUS the choice of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”, the barrier to use, still high and horrible, is reduced to an exchange.

If a power knows enough about nuclear weapons, it is not mandatory to test the ones it builds. The knowledge is hard to come by, but it can travel on a thumb drive. It can take these forms:

  • Exact design.
  • Scaleable model of the whole device.
  • Partial models, models of pieces of the puzzle.
  • Simulation, a laborious process requiring lots of computer power, required by the less convenient models.

These words do not convey a hierarchy. One can possess a model for part of the design, yet lack for other parts. The Manhattan Project actually had a model for the behavior of the conventional explosives used to create the implosion. John von Neumann created the model with the Taylor shock wave equation . The calculations were carried out by Richard Feynman and his crew, before the advent of the modern computer, using punch card based IBM calculators. Today, your smartphone could solve it in between calls.

But they didn’t have the neutron cross sections that vitally predict the behavior of the plutonium sphere after it is imploded. They were missing parameters, numbers that all models require, and have to be filled in by  experiments. Some of the trials, using the Demon Core, were deadly.

Critical mass is the smallest weight of material that when imploded in a particular shape will undergo chain reaction. If it holds together long enough, there is a  nuclear explosion. The weight is very touchy. A penny under, and nothing happens. A penny over, you lose a city. Because it is so touchy, a lot can be learned by testing with a penny under. This is subcritical.

A major step in the U.S. program was the replacement of nuclear explosions with subcritical tests, in which the explosive power  is solely the effect of the conventional explosives used to implode the plutonium sphere. Because the U.S. program aims for perfection, subcritical tests continue to the current day.

In theory, with enough subcritical tests, and parameters learned from actual nuclear tests, a weapon can be designed and built without actually testing it, with confidence that it will actually work. Since both Secretaries Pompeo and Tillerson were engineers, they know the Taylor Series (not the same Taylor) of freshman calculus. If two Taylor series, one on each side of the critical mass, are matched term-by-term, the result is a crude, open-source approximation of how a rogue state could vault into nuclear prominence.

Because the U.S. nuclear program aims for perfection, we neglect the possibility that a nuclear weapon could be produced solely with subcritical testing, and have a very good chance of serving both political and military aims. Such a weapon might have a 95% chance of not being a complete dud. If an Iranian weapon were designed, without testing, for a 200 kt yield, but the blast it produces when used is only 40 kt, would  it be a failure?

How does this affect a decision for the U.S. to withdraw from the Iran treaty? There have been no apparent leaks of the negotiations. One can only speculate. Naturally, speculation has a strong political element. Some claim an irrational desire by Barack Obama for a successful negotiation. But this is speculation. We have described an alternative procedure to the orthodox path to becoming a nuclear power. Iran may have done this.

During the negotiations, the intelligence community may have decided that by this alternative path, Iran could build the bomb at will.  The exact date at which Iran would build the bomb could be closely bracketed with clandestine knowledge of the supply chain. During this period of scrutiny and negotiation, the  only thing Iran would give up is the actual test of a weapon which, untested, has a high probability of working. And the process of miniaturization has no specific requirement of testing.

So if the US. withdraws,  Iran may in short order test a weapon, already fully miniaturized for delivery by missile. Nevertheless, a U.S. withdrawal from the treaty could be justified so as to politically isolate Iran. Now, as with North Korea, one has to consider how the ecosystem of international relations will react.

This defines the dilemma. I’ll pass on the solution.