Obama threatens air strikes: reading between the lines

This is not in any way a deprecation of President Obama’s response to the Iraq crisis. It is simply a very juicy an opportunity to illuminate news interpretation, and I don’t think any jihadists read this blog anyway.

Preparing target lists for modern, smart munitions is a complex task, involving choice of delivery systems, logistics, aerial surveillance, and much number crunching of target coordinates. It also requires knowing where the friendlies, i.e., the Iraqi Army, are located, which, owing to the rout, is not currently known.

Normally, it’s a terrible mistake to telegraph a punch. Why give the jihadists a chance to get their MANPADs on their shoulders? Why clue them to watch the sky?

A reasonable deduction from Obama’s threat is that the the situation is so fluid, it is not currently known where to conduct airstrikes, and that the conditions of the second paragraph have not been satisfied.


The Number “7”

An  FWE question was posed, “Will [specified news media] report by [specified date] that chemical weapons were used in Syria.

At the time, there was speculation that either the regime would go chemical, because the war was going against them, or that the insurgents would capture weapons and use them against the regime.

Based upon a simple analogy with the adage, “money burns a hole in the pocket”, I predicted “yes.” This was not reported by the specified media within the specified time frame, so I lost the question. Later, some media reports retroactively supported my prediction.

I was intensely  searching for clues, ie., studying the media. The following sequence of reports was noted:

1. In December 2012, the regime claimed that while they had not used chemical weapons, seven soldiers  (7, make note of the number) were killed by chemical agents used by the rebels. This was not corroborated by any visual observations or independent reportage.

2. A few days later, the rebels reported that seven (note the number) of their number had been killed in a chemical weapons attack. This was accompanied by visuals of bodies and patients receiving treatment.

If the  occurrence of (1) had been after (2), the explanation would be simple: a regime fabrication to dilute the impact of the the rebels claim. But the reports were dated in the reverse order.

This is not an indication of an elaborate conspiracy. For all practical purposes, broad, hidden conspiracies do not exist. The conspiracy-minded make terrible predictors. Since chemical weapons cannot be calibrated to kill exactly seven people, there is obvious fabrication. But I never formed an opinion about who authored this fabrication. Nor did I bother myself with exactly how false  it was.

The importance of noticing this kind of incongruity is as a check on the general reliability of the reportage. It’s like tugging on a rope to make sure it’s tied to something firm. Over time, integrated with other piecemeal disclosures, discrepancies can acquire unexpected importance. This did not, which leaves it an excellent example of a reliability check.

Another adage comes to mind: Waste not, want not. There is more to be gleaned.  Fabrications are a form of propaganda, and the kind of propaganda hints at how close or distant a culture is from the Western viewpoint. The authors have a poetic, mystical, hyperbolic mode of expression, which could confuse the literal-minded Westerner, even one who already has experience with the Goebbels variety.

Half in jest, look for the number seven.



Thailand/Egypt/Ukraine & moral foreign policy

The Thai military coup is the 13th since 1932. The rich/poor split manifests itself in the desire of the poor to be governed by the sister of a crook.  On the part of the rich, there seems to be excessive faith in “trickle-up economics” [sic].  Centrifugal forces in Thailand are a triptych of rich/poor, ethnic, and geography, with the thin Malay peninsula a barrier to mobility compared to a more convex geography. There is no mathematical formula for stability, but this is not it.

Egypt has a reasonable geography, a unique form of economic concentration based on the military which might be oligarchic if we could peer inside it, and a military with an Ergenekon myth. But it culturally coheres, with a shared vision of positive change, absent in Thailand, possibly nascent in Ukraine. Why? Is it the Nile, or 5K years of civilization?

Ukraine has a convex geography, an ethnic split, and a baronial economic landscape. However, this is different from Russia, where the oligarchs actually govern. Referring to the overt corruption of Ukraine’s recent elects, Putin has referred to the political system as “immature.” While we in the West might like to tar both with the same brush, the distinction is real. In Russia, corruption is rife. In Ukraine, it is rifer — until now.

Thailand and Egypt have military midwives, for whom we hope the best and fear the worst. Ukraine is potentially a modern miracle, though Putin still hopes for disintegration so he can grab a piece.

SInce the Boland Amendment, which took some momentum from revelations about the Allende assassination, and the following Iran-Contra Affair, the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, Section 508, has actually been followed more in substance than breech. It requires that aid be cut to any country  “whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree.”

The zeitgeist of the times is more important than the text, with the E.U. even more squeaky clean in protection of democracy than the U.S.  Recently topical are the “Gas Queen” of the Ukraine, and Thaksin’s sister. Both are women, and both are dubious. Who says there’s a glass ceiling? (That was a joke. Please don’t jump on it.)

Now we come to the moral question. With  a Cold War heritage of evil  proxies, the U.S., with admirable intent, codified U.S. foreign policy on a higher moral plane.  More recently, potential midwives to social evolution have emerged, along with the immediately condemnable. Is it possible to codify a more flexible, moral response than Section 508 ? Can we discriminate between the two?  Could the legal approach be replaced by doctrine?

Two current events embody the dilemma:

The Thai issue bears strongly on the viability of Obama’s “tilt toward Asia”, although that is questionable for other reasons.



Notes about Putin

In his Mémorial de Sainte Hélène, v. 4, p. 133, Napoleon said, “I may have had many projects, but I never was free to carry out any of them. It did me little good to be holding the helm; no matter how strong my hands, the sudden and numerous waves were stronger still, and I was wise enough to yield to them rather than resist them obstinately and make the ship founder. Thus I never was truly my own master but was always ruled by circumstances.”

Unfortunately for the West, Putin, who reads widely, seems inspired by Napoleon.  In the sense of Napoleon, the victim wins. While the collegial style of Western democracy creates inertia, Putin is answerable only to the Russian oligarchs.

This flexibility, and relative lack of inertia, means the game in the Ukraine is not decided in favor of the West. If Putin can create conditions on the ground that can serve as a distorted justification for occupation, Russian troops will move. Bit unlike the tin-pot dictator, which Putin is not, he is not beholden to personal grandiosity. So there is nothing in his personality that implies he will do this.

An old communist joke explains our irritation. It is intentional. A poor peasant, sick of living in his hut with his pig, asks the commissar for permission to build a pig sty. The commissar replies, “I order you to take the chickens into your hut.” The next week, the peasant approaches the commissar again. “I cannot bear this. Please let me put the chickens in the yard.” The commissar now commands the peasant to take the cow into his hut.

A week later, the peasant, going out of his mind, begs the commissar for relief. The commissar tells him he can remove the cow and chickens from his hut. The peasant falls to his knees and kisses the commissar’s boots in gratitude.

There will come a point when Putin has extracted as many concessions as a mad dentist. He will turn the gas back on. From our side, there will be a sanctions deal.  We will call it a draw. Putin will call it a win.

Note the assumption that the gas will be turned off. If the sanctions become too painful, he will stop the flow.  The existing sanctions may be a sufficient trigger, depending upon their cumulative impact.

The Obama administration and NATO have coped well with Putin’s false flag ops involving Russian paramilitaries. Particularly impressive has been the West’s use of preemptive propaganda, most of it white, some  slightly darker in color. But our hand has some strategic vulnerabilities in the area of gas supplies.

Chaos in Iraq

The news accents the military disaster in Iraq.

The problem is actually political. Shiite soldiers are posted to Sunni areas. The inhabitants  regard them with, at best, suspicious neutrality.  The psychological strain of a hostile or indifferent civilian population is well known to us from Afghanistan. If Iraq had been constituted in a way that fostered a shared sense of nationhood and patriotism, it would not be vulnerable to a splinter group of fanatics.

The map tells the story.  Iraq is surrounded by nations with good internal control, and good control over their borders. The insurgents don’t even have a land bridge to an ally interested in destabilizing the country. To the north of the insurgents is the powerful, well organized Kurdish autonomous region. To the south lies the Shiite heartland.

This is a zero knowledge prediction, based solely on human nature. The situation will slide downwards for four to six months. A temporary alliance of the three interested parties will form: Kurds, Shiites, and Sunni tribesmen. With great cost of life, the situation will resolve in their favor. Then bickering will resume.

In the short term, elements of Iran’s Republican Guard will probably integrate silently into the Iraqi Army to serve as stiffeners. After the conflict resolves, they will add to the cadre of sleeper agents.

The Nine-Dotted Line

This is based upon a line of reasoning dating to 1994, when Bill Clinton granted China Most Favored Nation trade status.  I am an admirer of Bill Clinton.  Perhaps, in the years the followed, and in the subsequent administration, trade policy should have received periodic, significant modifications.

Let’s do a back-of-the-envelope calculation of China’s claims of the East and South China Seas, denoted by the Nine Dotted Line.

1. By 2020, China will have thoroughly encroached upon the claimed maritime exclusive economic zones, “EEZs” of neighboring states.

2. By 2025, China will exercise full sovereignty  over the area, in the form of seizures of assets of other nations that attempt economic exploitation,  with ship seizures used as an instrument of foreign policy.

3. The Senkaku Islands will border this zone, and their fate constitutes an instability, a  “tipping zone” into a new regime of thought by the nations of the area.

The output of papers within the defense/ intelligence communities must be enormous, with detailed analysis of trade and military balances. But  this is not the key to the problem. Here is a rule for dissecting complex problems that seems particularly useful in this case:

*Rule: Try to transform a complex problem into an equivalent problem that is simpler to think about.*

There’s an analogy from formal logic, of equivalence classes. If the two outcomes are tied inextricably, they are equivalent. One dictates the other. The proposed equivalent problem is:

“Do the nationalities of Southeast Asia like each other?” Or, more formally, “Is there a pan-Southeast Asian identity?”

The answer is, no. In the West, multiculturalism is a good thing. In Southeast Asia, it is a bad thing. As Westerners, we are mainly acquainted with the attitudes of Asians toward us, and us towards them. But we are unacquainted with how they regard each other. The IARPA “Metaphors” program may address this area, but it is unclear whether policymakers really understand how it impacts the possible paths of U.S. policy.

The consequence for U.S. strategies to glue East Asia into a counterbalance to China are severe. Each of the involved countries, which China has historically regarded as vassal states, have more trade with China than the U.S.

The odd-man-out, with a strong cultural affinity, is Australia. But it is at the end of a very long string. China is their largest trade partner. The result may be a “stiff-but-weak” alignment with the U.S.

Perhaps the U.S. should attempt to draw the line of influence further back. The backing off of U.S. power, in the form of naval assertion, has been a reactive process. For example, the Zumwalt class destroyer was originally intended to be survivable in China’s littoral zone. Occasionally, the phrase “control China” surfaced. It’s embarrassing that it could have been part of the plan. Backing off should not be reactive. It should be strategic.

As Henry Kissinger remarked, no one expected China to rise so fast. There seems to be a blindness of recent memory that augers a blindness of the near future.




How to be a good predictor ???

The purpose of this blog is to share my skills in predicting world events. But I’ve never articulated what these skills are, even to myself. In the past, one would spend a long time in deep thought, and when it was all figured out, write a book.

But this is a new, collaborative age. So as new insights occur, pages that you might expect to be static will change. This will come about in response to your questions, and continuing introspection.

The question marks signify that this is a work in progress. It may never be “done.”

Intel9's world view