Ebola, Public Health, and Sloppy Thinking Part 1

Until the discoveries of Louis Pasteur, which were given clinical interpretation by Joseph Lister, physicians killed practically everyone they touched. If they didn’t get them with dirty hands or fleas, blood-letting did it. Some palliative medications, still used today, are based on poisons such as arsenic or belladona. But in the old days, the distinction between palliation and cure was poorly made, because the germ theory, or any etiologies at all, were far in the future. The occasional survival, or spontaneous remission, was interpreted as causation, a mistake highly in vogue today.

In spite of lack of historical evidence of the efficacy of the medical profession, people still chose to believe in their doctors. The patient-physician relationship is remarkably analogous to that between the adherent to Shi’ite Islam and his chosen Imam. The next time you get together with friends, tell them you’ve given up on the medical profession, and are doctoring yourself. It is likely you will be told you need a doctor, but who you chose is up to you.

You might tell your friends that (NIH) 90% of medical studies are later proven wrong. The Atlantic article about Dr. John Ioannidis, titled “Lies, damned lies, and Medical Science”, paraphrases Mark Twain to good effect. So you think you’re going to be your own doctor? Not so fast. If Ioannidis is correct, the foundation of medicine is quicksand, but yours is none at all.

Since people have had faith in their doctors since the dawn of history, and since the track record does not justify it, the grounds for the continuing faith lie, by exclusion, in the realm of the non rational. You can replace faith in your doctor by faith in yourself, but it is unlikely you will do better. But if you stick with your doctor, it is likely that, at some point, reflecting the results of one of Dr. Ioannidis’s refuted studies, you will be the recipient of treatment which is ineffectual or harmful, yet completely in compliance with the officially defined “standard of care” in effect at the time. In other words, they can kill you, but you can’t sue.

At least the above fate is unintentional. If you decide instead to doctor yourself, it is likely that you will fall victim to intentional harm, or harm of a more ambiguous sort, motivated by the desire to take your money without doing you any harm or good. The etymology of the word quack is medical. But if we put the difference between  quackery and legitimate medicine on the same line, it has an unpleasant tinge: quackery has no chance of doing you some good, while legitimate medicine has some.

None versus some isn’t what we want to read, but, shielded like bright bumper chrome by the antibiotic miracle,  emergency medicine, and cures for  acute diseases, lie the wreckage of medicine’s attempt to find out what we should eat, how much we should weigh, how much we should exercise, and every other question of health and prevention. But, since quackery in some cases rises to equivalence with manslaughter, governments exercise a degree of paternalism that would not be accepted in any other realm. For example, the genetic testing firm 23 and Me was ordered by the FDA in November 2013 to stop selling direct to the consumer. 23 and Me offers only tests, not treatments.

I’m not taking a position on this. I would want to study it thoroughly, and that’s not the purpose of the reference, which is to exhibit some very special relationships:

  • The desire of the individual to trust, or “believe in” a physician, which is probably motivated by the desire to remove uncertainty from a hazardous situation, and assign it to someone else.
  • The concept of “standard of care”, the official definition of what is the right thing to do at the present time. It changes in response to U-turns and huge gyrations in the “knowledge base.” Smoothed a bit by bureaucratic inertia, it presents a very curious state of affairs, with the past, and what medicine did in it, ruled off as if by yellow caution tape with the lettering, “Don’t look back.”  And so we continue to trust.
  • The  bureaucracy of health and medicine, which, while providing the individual with paternal protection from naivete and quackery, has a knowledge base that, Dr. Ioannidis has shown, has severe methodological flaws.
  • Mirroring the relationship with the physician, the  individual demands certainty from the bureaucracy. Nobody wants to go to sleep at night wondering if Ebola is a personal threat. The individual demands an answer, and the bureaucracy is under extreme pressure to provide one, even if it does not legitimately exist.

In “Ebola, Rats, Lice, and History, and Hans Zinsser Part 2”, I wrote, “Policies have recursive origins. A fix must dig into that recursion, or the new policy will be a simple reaction to the failure of the old. Things being what they are, good luck can fall off the table in any direction.”

The decision processes of the CDC and NIH are reliant on the same decision processes that create the studies torn apart by Ioannidis.  It’s the same culture. The brightest minds in CDC and NIH must know this in an academic way. But if all the real estate, stretching to the horizon, is quicksand, what does a builder do? You build anyway, institutionalizing defective thinking.

Thus the system has become acclimatized to sloppy thinking. The drift has been exacerbated by the demand for answers that do not exist, enforced by politicos wildly swinging axes to decapitate agencies we need to function now.

But all is not lost. Do not panic. I repeat, do not, under any circumstances, panic. “In the quite likely event of an emergency, put your head between your knees and…”






Ebola: Fire head of CDC ?

Writing for CNN, Dr. Ford Vox asserts “Why CDC chief must go”.

This is a great day for Dr. Vox. He gets to have a piece on CNN, his profile is raised, and he becomes a greater public figure than he already is.  He has a great publicity photo. It is not such a great day for Dr. Frieden, whose stellar resume is acknowledged by Dr. Vox.

It is also a great day for me, since in Ebola, Rats, Lice, and History, and Hans Zinsser Part 1, I wrote,

“…but should it come to bite us, the appropriate response is not to juggle appointments and departments at CDC. If, in the future, some medical catastrophe were to befall the U.S., this kind of destructive response could result, and  it would be a supreme sacrifice of talent.”

The ISIS debacle, and the Ebola debacle have institutional analogies,  startling only because they are contemporaneous. In each, it is alleged that individuals should be axed. In each, individuals, whose resumes glow with achievement have, while serving in bureaucracies, been stunningly broadsided by events. The CDC is a huge pre-existing bureaucracy, while the Obama Administration may have created their own institutional puzzle-house.

The American Approach, called  the Six Phases of a Project, has been thoroughly studied and documented in all the best academic annals. We should be proud of this method, one of the pillars of American success, which is further elaborated in the documentary, “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”, where Wally decides, “…what to do, and who it do who.”

We could, of course, mount a comprehensive investigation to determine whether Dr. Frieden should actually be fired. This would start with a midnight raid by the F.B.I. to cart away all the computers and filing cabinets of the suspects, convene the appropriate  panels, so that the legislators can ask incisive questions on camera, and find the Newly Qualified Man to lead us out of this mess.

But the Newly Qualified Man does not exist. All we have are the nonparticipants, including Dr. Vox, to whom praise and rewards should be forthcoming.

The Japanese have another system, “Kaizen”, discussed in The Dawning Age of Cooperation: The End of Civilization as We Know It, the Wiki, Kaizen, and many other places around the web. Ironically, one of the contributors to the development of Kaizen beyond the traditional cultural roots was W. Edwards Deming, who “wrote the book” on quality control. Kaizen is practically a half-culture, too complex to be easily encapsulated. But out of it comes the simple proverb,  “Fix the problem not the blame.”

Kaizen has not perfected Japanese society. But by comparison with Kaizen, we should recognize that the almost instinctive urge to find and punish the “guilty” is our own cultural projection onto the problem of mismanagement. There are multifarious approaches, each of which may be as defining of a culture as the traditional standards of government and religion.







Putin & Erdoğan have a chat…about what?

They talked by phone. Quoting, “…the main motive of the phone call was extending condolences to the Russian head of state for the recent suicide bombing in Grozny.”

I don’t think so.

If, in your liberal arts education, you have been taught the use of Occam’s Razor, and the pitfall of conspiracy-theory psychosis, you may have the mindset of “It’s nothing, unless proven otherwise”, which derives incorrectly from “innocent until proven guilty.” To take advantage of all that’s available from open sources, you have to put a finer point on your pencil.  The  fallacy of the conspiracy theorist is not that of speculation. It is the “proof” of a “theory” from the unvarying premise that, if something could be true, it is. This premise is usually combined with some scrap of compatible information, such as this phone call.

A conspiracy theorist’s interpretation of the phone conversation is that Putin and Erdoğan are divvying up Syria.  The open source hound’s interpretation is actually closely related; but it is a mere brush stroke, a single tile in a mosaic, that may build in this direction, always finishing as an almost-fact. Speculation is an essential part of the open-source activity.

As the mosaic builds, or fails to, there must be a library of speculations that accrete as well, because  insights don’t really come out of the blue. They build on the edge of consciousness, on the wings of the stage, waiting for the call, “you’re on.” In this case, the mosaic actually has a few more tiles:

The post “Syria: The purpose of Nekrassov’s Piece”, suggests “Assad’s regime, now a homeless waif in the international community, is up for adoption.” It is now arguably visible to Putin that the risk to Assad is no longer from U.S. supported moderate rebels. The Assad regime now faces destruction at the hands of ISIS, which, if not completely indigenous to the area, has put down roots.  Those who think U.S. foreign policy lacks the certain element called intelligence may now enjoy a little schadenfreude at the Russian miscalculation, which, by virtue of their system of governance, belongs to Putin.

Nekrassov suggested Assad has a role in confronting ISIS. Kerry slapped this down hard, saying that Assad had, in fact, been playing “footsie” with ISIS. (Did this result in late night queries to ISKRAN , the Institute for the U.S. and Canadian Studies,  to find out what “footsie” is, who plays it, and why?)

Since Assad’s position is hopeless, Erdoğan may have been emboldened to make Putin an offer, a partition of Syria. Assad’s defensible portion might include Damascus, the historical Alawite coastal enclave, and such areas as Hezbollah would be willing to shoulder. With a free hand in the north, Turkey could sculpt and control Kurdish ambitions, while filling the political vacuum now occupied by ISIS with Sunni elements of the same sectarian persuasion as the Turkish majority. See “Turkey & the New Ottoman Empire”

No post about this subject would be complete without the usual harangue about southern Iraq. Since the “seat of government” is there, and because the politicians wear western business suits, those adhering to the Westphalian model seem to pin their hopes on a solution that would coalesce around this “center.”

Southern Iraq is bound to Iran by culture and religion dating back to 680 A.D.  The connections are vastly powerful, yet curiously under weighted by U.S. strategists. There is, in the scheme of things, an exceedingly minor theological rift between the religious institutions of Iraq and Iran. With the passing of Grand Ayatollah Sistani, who is currently 84, integration of the religious establishments of Qom and Karbalā will become total. Secular fusion will inevitably follow.


Iraq/Syria Policy Paralysis

Characteristically, the CNN and Reuters reporting on this is extremely U.S. centric. It’s not a question of bias, but rather, a simplification of the regional actors.  In U.S.-centric reporting, Turkey becomes no more than an obstacle to the implementation of U.S. policy objectives. In Aaron Stein’s article for Al Jazeera, a specific reason comes to light for Ankara’s refusal to intervene: they want a strong central state in Syria. Without it, a “free city of Kobane” (spelled “Kobani” on U.S. sites), could become a base for Kurdish insurgency in Turkey.

It is almost reasonable to surmise that, in comparison to a Kurdish “Free Kobani”, Turkey would prefer an ISIS state across the border, because ISIS would lack significant insurgent potential inside Turkey. By comparison, there are enough Kurds in the eastern provinces of Turkey to tear the country apart from the inside.

So the demand by Turkey on the U.S. that Turkish boots be accompanied by removal of the Assad regime may not be analogous to the typical U.S. quixotic quest for human rights. Erdoğan’s previous friendship with Assad was undeterred by the atrocities of Syria’s Mukhbarat toward Sunnis prior to civil war.  Stein’s article implies that Turkey wants a strong central state in Syria to frustrate the formation of a Kurdish state. And, according to the Turks, this cannot be accomplished under the aegis of the Assad regime. But (new idea) it might be accomplished in the presence of the Assad regime.

Recall how quickly the Iraqi army collapsed in early August, prior to Maliki’s departure on 8/15, and how this was supposed to vitalize a new coalition. It did not. It appears another rout is in the making, and the same people are exercising the same decision processes, because they have the same brains and mindsets as they did on August 15 of this year.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. But “desperate” is not synonymous with “futile.” As history is written by the victors, there is always the slight possibility of exoneration. But given the astonishing collapse in August, the next rout may well have the remnant Shi’ites cowering in the shrines of Karbala, while the Sunni Anbar tribesmen, who at least tried to do the right thing, suffer the unspeakable tortures of the vanquished in ancient times.

Next, an examination of decision processes specific to this situation.




Russia pulls troops from Ukraine border

CNN link. Is there a political interpretation to this move?

Donetsk is 479 miles south of Moscow. The January daily mean temperature in Moscow is 20.3F. For Donetsk, it is 24.6F. In winter, Donetsk is a little more than 4 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than Moscow. Moscow has the climate that defeated Napoleon and Hitler. Donetsk is a little better, but still severe.

It is possible to fight there in winter; the 3rd Battle of Kharkov (same neighborhood) was initiated by a German attack on February 19, 1943.  But it was a matter of life-and-death for both Soviets and Nazis. The Ukraine conflict is a luxury war, the optional entertainment of “nation builders” and “geopolitical strategists.”

When an army is deployed to the field, readiness initially increases, and then, like an organism exhausted by the cost of adaptation, it decreases. You don’t want the army of a luxury war rusting away in the field when it could be maintained for the dismal season in heated barracks, where everything is cheaper, because the logistics and infrastructure have been pre-arranged. If for no other reason than to save money, Putin’s decision to return the army to luxury accommodations in heated barracks, with luxury sauna, is wise.

But in the spirit of wasting nothing, the withdrawal, until the daisies  start pushing up again (the relevant Russia/Ukraine genus is Gerbera), will be very useful to the propagandists of RT and other Russian institutions of disinformation, which seem to be so active these days. One wonders, how Putin will entertain himself before the daisies bloom? He could deploy some Russian “advisers” to Alawite Syria, he could play with the gas taps, or he could expropriate McDonalds.

Or he could head out to the big-box store and pick up a hidef TV, the type with the fancy surround-sound system, so that he can feel like he is sitting in the middle of a war zone with explosions all around. It’s cheaper than the real thing, a real luxury.









Leon Panetta on ground troops.

In CNN video, Leon Panetta says, paraphrasing, we need Tactical Air Control Parties on the ground. This was discussed in the post,  Air Power in Iraq and Syria; Divining the Political Map. Everything Panetta says about the requirements for useful deployment of air power is precisely correct.

Mr. Panetta is the ultimate insider, providing new insight into the debate. However, he uses an implicit definition of ground troop deployment, which Obama nixes, to include Tac Air Control Parties. If this definition is in fact shared by Panetta and Obama, meaning that these parties, or their special forces equivalents, cannot be deployed, we are in for a lot of trouble. It would mean we’ve lost a good chunk of the Middle East.

So it’s not clear to this outsider whether the apparent absence of Control Parties is due to the difficulty of emplacement, which in some cases amounts to infiltration, or because of a decision by Obama to classify them as ground troops that are “off the table.”

When I was a participant in the IARPA project, “Forecasting World Events”, Mr. Panetta was director of the CIA.  FWE had a forum, and I got the impression that Leon was reading some of my stuff, particularly with respect to Syrian use of chemical weapons.

Hi, Leon! You are probably right, but I’m hoping that

a. You are wrong.


b. Your criticisms are promptly acted upon.



Why Doesn’t Turkey Intervene?

The Kurdish town of Kobani, bordering on Turkey, is on the verge of falling to ISIS. So most of us are wondering, why don’t the Turks move in? With parliamentary approval, and what was once the second largest army in NATO, shouldn’t it be a walkover?

Sadly, this is not the case. All of the armies in the world, with the exception of the U.S., and a select few others, have cavernous hollows in their structures, resembling more the brains of Alzheimers victims than competent military forces. In these other countries, armies are regarded as cultural refuges of manhood, and jobs programs for weapons that cannot be used as intended because so many anatomical parts are missing. A partial exception to this is the U.K., which, while exhibiting highest levels of competence and professionalism, had severe logistical problems in the Falklands War. Though a dated reference, they still don’t keep enough munitions on hand to fight a war.

The Business Insider has some figures. The 2014 budget for the The budget for the U.S. military is $612B. The Turkish budget is $18.2B. And out of this, Turkey has to pay for food, shoes, coats, underwear, and colorful flags. And let’s not forget spare tires, gas, oil changes, R&R, and patching the barracks roofs.

After all this is taken care of,  there is the minor question of weapons. Having decided to become self-sufficient in arms (against who, one might ask?), Turkey now makes a whole array of second-rate weaponry in vulnerable factories, with high foreign parts content, because it’s a jobs program. Lest it may seem that Turkey is singled out for criticism, the Typhoon “Eurofighter” was an even worse jobs program, a sinkhole of top gun delights and the pride of airshows, but nothing more.

During the Cold War, Turkey fielded an enormous army against the Soviet Union, but these were “static troops”, with logistics and maneuverability adequate for defense. Now we have a problem of “force projection”, in which the Turkish military have no experience at all. Tanks are not what they used to be. Turkish tanks are vulnerable to RPGs (rocket propelled grenades), a problem faced by all armies.  The most modern armies constantly remanufacture their tanks to mitigate evolving hazards, while the U.S. Army battle doctrine constantly evolves as well.

You don’t get this on $18.2B a year. Nor do you get the kind of “logistical tail” that transports tank fuel by helicopter. If the Turks send their tanks into Syria, they may have trouble keeping them fueled, unless they maintain the kind of continuous line that renders them vulnerable to asymmetric warfare.

Nor do you get the kind of military and management science that trains the rest of the free world. They take home their course notes, and then what? They cannot actualize.

So there may be a lot of hand-wringing going on in Turkey right now. Erdoğan may be asking questions of his military such as the above discussion implies. He may not be getting the answers he wants. One could hope that the General Staff of the Republic of Turkey has implemented crash courses in target designation, so that the full panoply of American air power can be brought to bear.

All of this is a mire of details, created in equal measure by nationalistic pride and the fear of losing,  which, for a small-budget military that is more about jobs than force projection, is a real possibility.



Air Power in Iraq and Syria; Divining the Political Map

The comments by Senator Linday Graham on CNN video, to the effect that air power without U.S. ground troops cannot defeat ISIS, may be true. But since the media, in their typical muddled fashion, have provided little useful info on how modern air power works, this is just to get you started.

The terms “strategic bombing”, and “tactical bombing”, have been part of the historical lexicon for many years now, so it’s pretty well understood that strategic bombing is a nuclear activity, while tactical bombing involves airplanes flying low, and tipping their bombs into small areas.

But this isn’t correct. The above  image of tactical bombing comes straight from the Vietnam War, when gravity bombs, unguided after release, were dropped by aligning the flight path of the airplane with optical sights, not unlike gun sights, with respect to targets that the pilot could actually see.  This old image of tactical bombing also includes detailed aerial reconnaissance, visual examination of maps, and correlation with other intelligence information, now modernized with  GPS coordinates. But this is not “real time.” We see the target; it moves; we bomb; it wasn’t there. The BBC article, “Why UK warplanes have a ‘difficult’ Iraq mission”, continues in some detail with this, and alludes to the newer, “smart bomb” model that has completely revolutionized tactical bombing since the 1991 Gulf War.

 The power of the new smart weaponry was comprehensively demonstrated when a motley alliance of pro-Western elements defeated the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001. The pro-Western elements were arguably more competent than the Shiites of southern Iraq, but not so compared to the Kurds, whose Afghan analogy was the  Northern Alliance.

Gary C. Schroen’s book, First In, provides an invaluable picture of how that air war was conducted, which will serve you well to interpret future events of the current conflict. You’ll understand that

  • The “bomb truck”, which, when extreme intensity is required, may be a B-52, can fly so high, the bombardier can’t see the target, and the target can’t see the plane.
  • The accuracy of these weapons is stunning, but requires “target designation.”
  • Some of the best weapons to support a firefight require real time target designation by a laser beam.
  • Target designation, in real time or otherwise, is provided by a United States Air Force Tactical Air Control Party, a group of specialists possessed of advanced and prolonged training in a highly technical field, where a single slip can destroy a platoon. It is not feasible to train indigenous troops in the entire scope of competence of this specialty. If you’d like to train, go here: 6th Combat Training Squadron (Nellis AFB).

Unless or until these teams are in place, or indigenous elements acquire the rudiments, the tactical air actions reported in the media will have the elements of “throwbacks” of military technology. This is why the casual observer may have the impression of futility. Given the caliber of Iraqi troops, this may be so, but neither have we seen a full deployment of U.S. air power.

In Vietnam, ARVN, the army of South Vietnam, sold ammunition to the North Vietnamese. This activity has been supported in Iraq also. Full deployment of U.S. ground air controllers requires conditions on the ground that ensure that these specialists won’t be sold to the highest bidder.

Now you, the open source intelligence analyst, can use reports of highly successful airstrikes, bearing the fingerprints of precision guided munitions, to infer a political map of U.S. alliances (or the absence thereof) on the ground.

Turkey & the New Ottoman Empire

The tomb of Suleiman Shah, located on a dog-leg of the Euphraste River about 30 miles inside Syria, is designated by a 1921 treaty as an extraterritorial  sovereign enclave of Turkey. As the existence, or even reverence of the burial site, expressed in architecture, is contrary to the tenets of Sunni Islam, the “theology” of ISIS demands its destruction. Opposing this, Turkish pride appears to be wrapped up in the structure. Even though the lives of the sixty or so guards are in danger at the hands of ISIS, it would be a miniscule addition to the toll of the region. Since Americans think in terms of real estate, not shrines, we must look to the beheading of the Western hostages for analogous emotional impact.

As someone whose mind has been dulled by watching too many CNN implosion videos, (they are better than “strange creature washes up on beach”), I had to remind myself of how saner members of our species regard such things.  In Portrait of India,  author Ved Mehta gives account, in the chapter “The Holy Hair of the Muslims”, of how in 1963 the theft of a single relic hair from the head of a Very Holy Person, from the Hazratbal Mosque in Kashmir, set off a civil rebellion of such scope, involving almost all the inhabitants, that the Kashmir conflict almost exploded again. The catastrophe was averted only when the Indian Government “found” the hair, and it was certified as genuine by a Very Holy Man.

If you have succeeded in twisting your personal calibration knobs all the way over to the right, perhaps the seriousness of the tomb is now clearly in focus. It is so serious that, just about now, “President Erdoğan dismissed the claims that ISIS has encircled Suleiman Shah Tomb…”. In the psychology of the region, Erdoğan would be culpable if, on his watch, danger has been allowed to even approach the tomb. It would  be better for him to feign ignorance.

It has been apocryphally observed that “A person usually has two reasons for doing something: a good reason and the real reason.” When detection  of  purported and real reasons is claimed, it is usually highlighted by the opposition in terms of conspiracy and duplicity. “Misleading the public” is a commonly phrase. Particularly when the case for war is being made, both pro and con become rapidly embellished by every politician with an axe to grind.

One of the tricks of my “detached little man” is that he watches and analyzes this theater, with complete disregard for any personal feelings about the outcome. Major international re-orderings are almost always accompanied by deception, except in rare cases, such as Pearl Harbor, when the enemy does it all for you. In all the other cases, where sales has a more active role, it is incumbent on the open source analyst to carefully dissect the real from the fabrication, take careful notes, and drop the organs in jars for careful histological examination.

A particularly good example of a complicated sales job was the deposing of Saddam Hussein by force.  Perhaps it could have been justified by a need to disrupt his ascent on the scaffold of history, which in 2003, did not have clear limits. But this would have required a public that could appreciate the power of an abstract idea fueling a dangerous drive. Victor Hugo aside, the public has little appreciation of the power of ideas. But it is impressed by concretion of little facts.  So the war  was justified by a complex set of lesser arguments based on alleged facts, and some clear fabrications, all undermined by the later report of the Iraq Survey Group.

I am personally very curious if the “two reasons”  ever existed discretely in the minds of the authors of the 2003 Iraq War. Sadly, this knowledge is now buried under the volcanic ash of failed foreign policy. But the current situation allows us a Paracutin view of the birth, or rebirth of — something. It may be the Ottoman Empire.

The post, “Gaming Iraq’s future; methodologies”,  partitions the problem space in various ways, leaving as a question whether the four views,

  • Individual players?
  • Cabals?
  • Tribes?
  • “Peace of Westphalia constructs”, with political maps populated by men wearing western business suits

can be integrated to a useful problem view. The original intent of a follow-up post was to play with each problem view separately, as a constraint puzzle. With each of the four views the constraints result in, at best, frozen conflict.

As a Westphalian approach, the U.S.  “One Iraq” policy satisfies one of the definitions of a mental disorder called perseveration, which is the continuation of a behavior when it is no longer an appropriate response. CNN reports that, on September 25, another Iraqi Army rout occurred, the details evidencing continued and conspicuous absence of a command-and-control structure, or even, a sense of responsibility to the soldiers of the line. Iraq is not a nation; it is composed of groups who may fight vociferously for the land of their local possession, and no more. This cannot be changed.

Other countries, with markedly different tool sets, can perform manipulations that would not occur to us, and, if they did, be completely unacceptable. Imagining the eventuality of a southern Iraq that is a satellite or actual possession of Iran, we might wonder: How will the Iranians  handle the pesky Sunni tribes in the middle?

In the history of Islamic expansion, it was common to provide economic incentives to conversion. Iran’s solution would be a mix of incentives for religious conversion to Shi’ism, incentives for pacification, a certain degree of tolerance, and murderous punishments of transgression, all of a spectrum with hues and colors unknown to the Western eye.

What happens to the rest of Iraq? The current map of the Middle East is primarily the result of dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, a relatively short period of colonial presence, followed by a hasty exit, with much of the modern map drawn by Winston Churchill. There is some historical testimony to the effect that the map of Iraq was drawn to make it internally unstable, with a possible eye to the kind of influence asserted in Iran by the Russians and the British.

The late Ottoman Empire (deceased, 1918), of which all this was a part, was actually a kind of confederation, with notable elements of democracy, albeit with very limited suffrage. It is frequently cited as an example of prolonged disintegration, a headless state, (See Pascali’s Island, with Ben Kingsley, for a delicious portrayal), but does that sound so bad right now?

Perhaps the Turks would like to try their hand. Since Erdoğan has asserted that Assad must go, Syria, with a complete governmental vacuum, would be  most tightly bound to the New Ottoman Empire. Further regions, including Kurdish, could be part of a loose confederation, with the incentive of Turkish transport of Kurdish oil, and Turkish industrialization. The Sunni tribes are at least religiously compatible,  the Sunni region serving as the economically useless borderlands between the the New Ottoman Empire, and Southern Iraq.

What do we get out of it? We get to get out. The place is no good for us. Even arguments based on oil avarice don’t work. It has a power vacuum that we can only fill at great cost. For us, it’s like a Trump casino, that, losing money, should become another CNN implosion video. And if southern Iraq becomes an Iran satrapy? Modest efforts to prevent this are reasonable, but not more. Since 2003, the risk/reward ratio has spun out of control.

I wonder if a Shriners fez will pass for travel?







Egypt influences Turkey’s Coalition Decision

The posts, “Did Egypt Bomb Libya”, on August 24, preceded by “El Sisi, the Next Ataturk” on August 1, are part of the process of accumulation by which open source intelligence proceeds from the apparently trivial collection to actual prediction.  “Did Egypt Bomb Libya” was a scoop on the media, but by itself, the bombing was merely curious; a few bombs on undistinguished militia positions.

But the picture builds, piece by piece. “El Sisi, the Next Ataturk”, is a speculation strengthened by the Libyan bombing, which, to use a hackneyed phrase, takes on a symbolic importance. Hackneyed it is, but in that part of the world, a few bombs is like the handshake of a serious bargain.

In a CNN article published today,  “Egypt offers military training to Libya, cites Islamic State threat”, the Libyan “renegade general”, on whose behalf Egypt bombed militia positions, is mentioned almost as a footnote. Quoting,

Aside from offering to train pro-government Libyan forces, Cairo is also willing to do business with former Libyan army general Khalifa Haftar in order to push back the militants, the intelligence official said.

The article maximizes El Sisi’s approach to the Libyan government in Tobruk, while minimizing Haftar’s prominence, although it is Haftar to whom El Sisi has provided actual military assistance.  But the composite view corrects this journalistic sleight-of-hand. It also displays something else. Egypt’s foreign policy is firing on all cylinders: diplomatic, covert, and even in the progressive interpretation of the nation state.

This poses a challenge of pride to Turkey, which since Ataturk, has tried to embody the model of a progressive regional power. The current version of Turkish nationalism attempts to prove that Islam,  modernity, and even a “secular state” (which a Turkish government website claims it is) is viable and prosperous. But economically backwards Egypt, in the early stages of a similar evolution, is now a moral rival.

Moral rivalry by itself counts for nothing  in the international domain, but with ISIS, it is merely icing. In very particular circumstances that always have to do with survival, nations are vulnerable to embarrassment by the argument of “do your share.” Historically, these have been the grand coalitions of warfare, for example, against Napoleon and Germany. Now is such a time.

El Sisi’s offer to Libya comes as Turkey’s parliament debates participation in the coalition, which, as has been extensively discussed elsewhere, would be a break with the “Zero Problems with Neighbors” policy that has greased the wheels for Turkey’s economy.

El Sisi’s timing may not be a coincidence. Normally, this kind of demonstrative act would have no effect on Turkish politics. But every once in a while, when in a parliament or legislature, things hang by a thread, when some mental gear is hung up by nostalgia, it can make a difference.

That Turkish tanks have already moved to the border suggests that some organs in Turkey have anticipated parliamentary approval.  It must be obvious to many Turkish parliamentarians that “zero problems” needs a revision, yet it is a precious bauble, dear to their hearts, emblematic of economic prosperity. The side-effect of El Sisi’s Libya offer, as weak as it is, may tip the balance of their sentiment.

In this case, the passive collection of an open-source mosaic has resulted in an actual prediction, that Turkey will shortly become an active member of the coalition.




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