All posts by Number9

Ukraine prediction; an Austrian solution

This is for you meat and potato guys, impatient with meta-thoughts. You’re asking, “Where’s the beef?”

Invasion of Ukraine is no longer likely. In contrast to the previous Russian build-up, this is not a prelude to invasion. It has to do with the history of that part of the world, which includes many massacres and pogroms. It is a visible warning to all Ukranians, including the undeniable Fascist component, not to go in that direction.

In Putin’s ever-shifting calculation, an achievable goal is an Austria-type neutrality. In the Cold War, the Russians actually withdrew from Austria in 1955, because they could not make it work for them economically. The current problem is similar. Although Ukraine has a healthy steel trade with Europe, and exports grain, it cannot pay the Russian gas bill.

Ukraine is going to have a very cold, hard winter. Putin will have a second chance.

Quiz answers

Answers to Pop Quiz.

Answer to 1:

c. Turn on a dime, willfully contradicting your previous prediction, thereby undermining your standing with yourself and others.

Answer to 2:

Yes, cognitive dissonance is very important.

Animal behaviorists have observed apparent delight, even in phlegmatic creatures  like cows, when they understand something.  Even in this scientific age, one may reasonably suspect that humans share the joy. In fact, it appears that humans, regardless of how smart they may really be, have a core need to think they understand how the world works.  For a detailed analysis of how humans furnish their head spaces have a look at Vilfredo Pareto’s Trattato di sociologia generale.

The root of cognitive dissonance is the reluctance to throw out mental furniture. Just as you get comfortable in your chair, some rude fact-o-tum (wrong word, but the pun is irresistible) yanks it out from under you. To be wrong, over and over, is one of the humiliations of the predictor. Get used to it.

At any moment, all we  have is a picture painted by the facts. The picture changes unexpectedly as a result of our ignorance, which, relying on open sources, is completely excusable. Two of my posts demonstrate this. Which ones were they?

All this is in the context of the predictor. The product of the predictor incorporates the costs of failure and benefits of success in a linear fashion. For the decision maker (of a course of action), the costs and benefits are not symmetrical.  It is wise to keep the processes of decision, and of action, separate, because the cost structures are so different. Both the predictor and decision maker must be diligent, but the decision maker’s course of action has consequences that unfold over time, while the product of the predictor is an instantaneous value.



Iran rejects U.S. military intervention

Edit 5/27/2019.  This article has been revised for clarity.

Reuters headline: Iran rejects U.S. action.

Previously, Iran’s Rouhani suggested joint Iran/U.S. intervention in Iraq, which the U.S. rejected. Without outright rejection, the U.S. has proceeded alone. Now Iran rejects U.S. action. The time scale of all this is about as close as you can get to a tense chess match, providing a refreshing break from reading IAEA reports. It even has the physicality of a heavyweight bout:

Ladies and Gentlemen, In this corner, the Heavy Weight Champion of the World, Uncle Sam, with unmatched throw-weight and brainpower, out of retirement to defend his title.

In the other corner, the Iranian Theocracy Pugilist Society’s unknown contender, IRG. Known for their sucker punch, they’ve brought a lot of supporters, who are chanting, I think, if I can make it out over all the hubbub, “Back to the future.” The prize is the bones of Iraq. Rumor has it Uncle Sam has some secret reanimation ritual he wants to try on those bones, if he can get them. Iran apparently thinks they have nutritive value.

Can our intellectual and military assets overcome the mullahs’ native cunning? Iran’s sudden truculence about centrifuges suggests a confidence they cannot walk away with nothing.




Pop Quiz

You’re probably thinking, it’s not fair to have a pop quiz on a weekend. Well, life is not fair. So to it:

1. Suppose you have made a prediction about something current, like Iraq, and a couple of new pieces of information trickle down through the sieve called media. Do you:

a. Make a thoughtful compromise with what you have previously predicted?

b. Sleep on it, before deciding whether it’s right for you and your family?

c. Turn on a dime, willfully contradicting your previous prediction, thereby undermining your standing with yourself and others?

2. Does the theory of cognitive dissonance have anything to do with this? Does it inform your answer to “1” ?

Need more time? OK, I’ll cut you a break. Hand it in Monday.

Mr. Putin, Russia is not Italy.

Secretly, everyone wants to be Italian. Even those who don’t know it.

I was sitting on a train, jammed in with a schoolteacher from Rome, chaperoning a pack of kids on a Big Apple excursion. Jammed in as we were, I asked her about Berlusconi. She answered with a smirk and an insight. She said, “Secretly, I think Italians all want to be like Berlusconi. That’s why they tolerate his antics.”

So even if you’re already Italian, there is something better to be: a Berlusconi.

Mr. Putin, in your fashioning of the modern Russian conservative ethos, you perhaps wonder why Russian speaking Ukrainians do not stampede to join your party. This is because it is a dull party. Ukrainians look west, because then they can aspire to be Italians, and, once achieving that lofty goal, they can aspire to be Berlusconis.

Many would argue that being Berlusconi is better than kissing crucifixes, though Berlusconi kisses a lot of things too.

Mr. Putin, I have a hunch as to your motive for the conservative alignment. In the evolution of the Russian state that follows your tenure, you want a political establishment with a moral compass. The transition from oligarchy to whatever follows has a gap, which you want to plug with a conservative religious ethos.

But the Ukrainians would rather be Italians.


Russian tanks & Ukraine

Russian tanks are again massing on the border with Ukraine. The refusal by separatists of Poroshenko‘s amnesty offer has lead to heavy casualties among them. Since the killing happened within 60 miles of the border, it could presage another Russian land grab.

With characteristic perspicacity, Putin observes the world faces “a growing cult of violence“, which he is afraid could be imported into Russia. He is most likely thinking about the Caucasus, which includes Chechnya,  subdued in a notoriously brutal pair of wars, for which he was given a moral exemption by the West. Ukraine is on the northwestern flank of that land mass, which, bordered by the Black and Caspian Seas, looks a little like a peninsula, except that the southern border is land: Turkey and Iran.

So if Ukraine were an active enemy on the flank of that volatile region, it would complicate any future need to contain violence emanating from the Caucasus. If Putin decides upon a land grab, there is another solemn fact: Ukrainians make good soldiers. In a previous post, I attempted, without success, to find a rule for this. Perhaps there is a Freudian explanation? Does the unemotional Ukrainian personality mask a sublimated capacity for organized violence? Hitler put Ukrainians in the static divisions on the Western Wall, and they fought.

Like many other facets of life, the battlefield has been miniaturized. Handheld weapons, MANPADs (Man-Portable Air Defense)  and ATMs (Anti-Tank Missile) deprive capital assets like tanks and planes of the overwhelming edge they formerly enjoyed over infantry. Of course, even the humble RPG is formidable in the hands of those with preternatural skill. And there are quite a few of those operators.

To maintain the asymmetrical advantage over opponents armed with modern light weapons, the U.S. developed complex battle doctrines: AirLand, and most recently, “Full Spectrum Dominance“, which became current during Donald Rumsfeld’s tenure as defense secretary. Rumsfeld pushed the the military in the direction of “better, faster, cheaper.” But the most recent test,  the Iraq war of 2003, was inconclusive. Deprived of air cover and communications, some Sunni Iraqi units proved formidable opponents. They raised their rifles in the air, and brought down helicopters in unison. Since many Iraqi units had been bought off before the shooting, critics reasonably argued that Rumsfeld had not brought enough lead to the gunfight. Had the tip of the U.S. spear been blunted, we would hear more about this.

The border with Russia is good tank country, flat, and open. But Russia would not possess all the elements of an asymmetrical battle doctrine, which has never been tested by them in battle. Ukraine would have some advanced elements: Western intelligence, imagery, and communications, which are quickly being enhanced. Depending upon the speed with which NATO transfers advanced man-portable weapons, the proven quality of Ukrainian soldiering could result in protracted conflict and chronic enmity.

With Sochi a distant memory for would-be tourists, Putin has seemingly positioned Russia as an adversary to the West. More than any Russian leader since Lenin, Putin is a thinker, who endeavors to leverage assets, rather than commit them to a grind.  The event that seems to have dulled Putin’s mental edge, leading him in what history might call an inexorable direction, is evident: the  deposing of Viktor Yanukovych.

Putin, the tightrope walker, has fallen off the wire. He is using increasing force to achieve less, and is depleting his personal cachet with the world at large.



The Iraqi Army

The Iraqi Army cut and ran.  There are no reports of any strategic initiatives, tactical maneuvers, mobile reserves,  or anything other than a rout. Iraq has an “Armed Service and Supply Institute”, a.k.a. a war college, but Maliki runs the war personally from his presidential compound, which has both civilian and military sides. Such is his trust in whatever military expertise may be available.

At D-Day, the German forces at the beachhead were designated by the Wehrmacht as “static divisions”, a special class of substandard soldiers equipped with substandard equipment, incapable of organized movement. Hence the term, “static.” Yet they fought.

Napoleon’s Army at Waterloo was composed of three tiers of elite beyond the common soldier, the Old Guard, the Middle Guard, and the Young Guard. At the critical  moment, Napoleon committed the Old Guard, nicknamed the “Immortals.” But the immortality  of the Old Guard was not corporeal, but a myth of invincibility.  When the Old Guard began to retreat, the myth died, the Middle Guard broke, and  most of the Young Guard fled.

The emotional quotient of an army, though hidden, is huge. When it is destroyed, only a hero can restore it. You may wish to listen to a short speech of Churchill,  rallying Britain from defeat in France. When the movie “Young Winston” was screened in London, moviegoers would, at the end,  stand and solemnly applaud, just as if the great man could hear them. The 20th was not a particularly good century from the moral perspective, yet we can at least cherish the memory of a few people who tried to do the right thing.

Can you imagine Maliki rousing his “nation”, or delegating responsibility to those more capable than himself? There must be some, if Iraq is not a uniquely untalented place.

From what kind of society does a good army spring? The common element is hard to find. Do authoritarian societies produce the best soldiers? The Germany principalities, and Bismarck’s Germany, had a strong hierarchical social order. The U.S. army estimate of  the combat effectiveness of a German soldier in World War II is  1.3 times that of a U.S. soldier. But the Western armies continued to improve the art of creating the soldier, so a Spartan mentality is no longer a requirement.

Do violent societies produce the best soldiers? Countries where people shoot guns in the air, and where soldiers festooned with bandoliers and menacing expressions, are not noted for their soldiering. They are noted, instead, for “militia.” The excellence of the Indian Army further destroys the idea.

What about the power of myth? At the close of the  Vietnam War, in a situation with some parallels to the current one, North Vietnam triumphed. Yet not too many years later, they  became enthusiastically corrupt capitalists. Whatever drove North Vietnam to victory survives primarily as a Ho Chi Minh personality cult. Ho’s writings are  insubstantial compared to the great ideologues. Yet the North Vietnamese had an idée fixe when they needed it; perhaps it qualifies as  a myth.

What about land? Do people fight for it? Perhaps land-bound peasants fight for their land, but not beyond? But North Vietnam was a nation of peasants; they went south and fought.

For every demonstration of pattern, there seems to be a contradiction. This can happen if we are trying to define something in terms of what we think are elemental attributes, when the something is itself elemental. But perhaps an equivalence is possible. Perhaps the potential for a good army is equivalent to a strong national myth, which, being insubstantial, is elemental. Perhaps Iraq’s rousingly bad army is because of the absence of a national myth.

The tensions in the region are religious, so we cannot avoid the subject. The British had no confidence in the Shiite ability to rule.  They chose, instead, the Sunnis, whose more subdued demeanor encouraged hopes of Western style rationalism. The mythic space of the Iraqi religious landscape may leave no room for  a national myth. Iran has one, but with the benefit of a national culture that predates the current religion.

In Syria, the Alawite minority, with a religion concisely described as a blend of Shi’ism with syncretistic elements, has prevailed over Sunni extremists. So analysis particular to a specific religion is inconclusive. But one idea that remains intact is that Iraq lacks a national myth, and that there may not be enough head-space to inject one.

Now we come to the conclusion, the generation of intelligence from all the open source input, stirred together by philosophical speculation. With reports that Sunni  figures from the Saddam era have made common cause with the ISIS, the Iraqi Army cannot regain  the Sunni heartland. Driven by ties to the land, with American air support,  and stiffened by Iran’s Republican Guard, the Shiites will hold the south.

Partition has occurred.


Stretching exercises for predictors

Rather than passively wait for the future to be delivered, the predictor attempts to narrow the scope of what can happen. In the process,  one must avoid delusions of grandeur that this can actually be done.   But viewed as probabilities, the future is like the alluvial fan of a river delta, with a flow as small as individual sand grains. Now and then, a flood dislodges a boulder, which we call news.

So the exercise is to indulge and exercise our imaginations. Write imaginary headlines, and be as specific as possible. Embellish with as many details as you like, as, for example,

1. “Maliki flees south to Karbala, holes up in mosque.”

2. “Maliki found hiding in a hole. His first words, ‘I am the president of Iraq.'”

3. “Shiite/Sunni conclave convened by Maliki. Warm words show increasing bonds.”

4. “Maliki deposed in lightning coup. Iran influence seen. New leadership unknown, promises national unity.”

5. “U.S. air raid mistakenly targets Maliki; 9 members of entourage killed.”

6.” Maliki tours Iraq’s largest refinery as production resumes.”

7. “Maliki assassinated by bodyguard.”

8. “Iran Revolutionary Guards increasing presence near Baghdad.”

Keep going.  To the well-oiled imagination, the  list should appear to be endless. If you’re thinking, like Heraclitus, “You never step in the same river twice”, I agree.

Edit: I thought of something. Never edit the imagination. To wit,

9. “ISIS scatters as Iraqi Army advances.” (This is the kind of outcome that has one regretting one’s lack of “ground knowledge.”)



Why did things look so promising?

So why did things look so promising on the eve we left Iraq?

The pajandrums of politics, sociology, history, I.R., etc. can drown us in words. But maybe these few words get to the nut:

*The Americans were the social glue*

Besides dispensing money and influence, the American presence oiled the social fabric, like this: X, a Sunni, and Y, a Shiite, won’t talk. But Z, an American, talks to both of them. X and Y, for their own reasons, want to please Z. Maybe a little bit of general good will seeps into it. So they talk, for a while.

Some forms of tribalism are so arbitrary, like inner city gangs, or extended families, that in a generation of favorable time, they can fade, so that a nation’s spirit can be born. But in Iraq, tribalism is sustained by elaborate religious traditions, which, history has shown, can endure  beyond comprehension.

In the bad times of Saddam Hussein, the two groups socially intermingled,  though power was concentrated in the Sunni elite. But Hussein’s methods are not acceptable to us.

We seem perpetually inspired by General Douglas MacArthur’s success in forging the modern state of Japan. If used to inspire, the situations must be carefully compared.


The camel has his nose in the tent

Iran, the camel, says it will defend Shiite shrines. Maliki’s charge of genocide sets the stage for a massive territorial violation.  That a little word-slinging could set the stage is because Iraq is a made-up country, created out of the remains of the Ottoman Empire by Winston Churchill in 1921, when he was Colonial Secretary. Captain Arnold Wilson warned,

“that the deep differences between the three main communities – Sunni, Shia and Kurds – ensured it could only be “the antithesis of democratic government”. This was because the Shia majority rejected domination by the Sunni minority, but “no form of government has been envisaged which does not involve Sunni domination”.

So this disaster was predicted one hundred years ago. Who says history can’t be relevant?

For Maliki to make southern Iraq a satrap of Iran, he doesn’t have to overcome the usual prejudice against selling out one’s country. He merely has to overcome the melody of Pan-Arabism, which is being drowned out by gunfire. Iran is not an Arab country, but, in the face of genocide, what can he do? [sic].