“Pentagon’s big budget F-35 fighter ‘can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t run’”

The author of the article, “Pentagon’s big budget F-35 fighter ‘can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t run“, has a remarkable background: writing graphic novels, and articles for “Danger Room”, “Wired”, and “Popular Science.” We can thank the designers of the plane that they have other stuff to read.

This kind of so-called reporting makes me mad, because the editors of Reuters, CNN, et al. have a choice. They can find someone with the requisite background to “dumb-down” the technicals to make a little bit of it accessible to the public, or they can select a member of the general public to write the piece. Increasingly, they choose the latter. It took thousands of engineers millions of man-hours to design the plane, which is now described to us by a writer of graphic novels.

As it happens, I have some background in detecting airplanes. Mr. Axe needs to take a few graduate courses in stochastics, followed by a few in prediction/estimation, Kalman filtering, read Itzak Bar-Shalom’s book on data fusion, study noise identification, of which I wrote a few of the very few published papers on the subject, and then progress to the modern literature on the subject, available in the IEEE journals.

And then, only then, if Mr. Axe can put down his crayons, will he begin to understand the problem of detecting this airplane. The secret sauce is that the planes are designed to fly in minimums of pairs, and more recently, with an F-15 as company, because it, too, has specialized capabilities.

Our adversaries have very smart people, so it would surprise me if anything I said here verged on classified information. Nevertheless, since I have the background, it is possible that I have figured some things out. The last time I presented a conference paper, there were some pretty attentive PRC lurkers. So I will not say as much as I know.

As for Mr. Axe, I am sure his ability with crayons exceeds my own. With those instruments in his hands, he is invincible.


Khamenei’s Centrifuges; Breaking the Dollar

This was being methodically developed, with the Ahmadinejad story, in the direction of “Iran’s Three Foreign Policies.” But that raconteuring has been  interrupted by Khamanei’s July 7 speech, which is now said to have surprised the Iranian negotiating team, and made an agreement with the six powers impossible.

I was going in the direction of showing that Iran’s foreign policy was not integrated, and now this? I guess I’ll have to go with the flow. The West had the estates of the realm, but nothing like this, which is more like Mongolian throat singing.

Many nations consider the U.S. to be a hegemonic power. Putin, considering the U.S. to be an economic parasite on the world, wants to break the dollar. Countries that owe large amounts of dollar denominated debt dream of a trading system in which they would not run a deficit. Argentine/Russian partnering in nuclear energy is one such example. Particularly as Russia is losing the Ukraine, Putin’s sour grapes may have caused him to extend in directions that are not yet apparent. Because, if you’re a termite, and you want to take down a house, wood is wood wherever you find it.

Putin’s desire to break the dollar, and Iran’s need to escape the sanctions, which are based on dollar controls, are a coincidence of need. Never mind that Russia is one of the six negotiating with Iran. Breaking the dollar is even more important. Because foreign banks are chafing under the burden of U.S. penalties, the receptive audience has expanded a bit.

Khamenei spends all day thinking. Iraq is under his microscope.  Sanctioned, locked in as it is, Iraq is one point where Iranian foreign policy has a crowbar. So the speculation that follows is based on what preoccupies Khamenei’s mind, and what tools are available to him to advance Iran’s interest.

There are new U.S. initiatives to reach out to Sunnis. Two wordings have been used. One is to identify and arm moderate Sunnis. The other is to pay the Sunni tribes to eject the ISIS (citation missing.) Because we think everyone should just love one another, it does not strike us that Iran could see an opportunity to drive a wedge between the Shi’ites and the U.S.  But I think it strikes Khamenei. He certainly has the machinery to do it. The Mahdi Army can easily be stoked to madness.

But of what rational motive? Khamenei could reason that control over exports from Iraq’s southern fields would provide enough leverage to break the sanctions. And why would Russia wish to help? Because breaking the monopoly of the dollar, initially with a new scheme for trading oil, takes precedence over the price of oil.

Putin gets a new currency. Iran gets 90K centrifuges. China gets cheaper oil. If this is a shared calculation of Putin and Khamenei, is it correct? I am not knowledgeable enough to say. Both sides make mistakes. We cannot omit from our calculations the factors of boredom, frustration, and the feeling, by our opponents, of being contained. As the saying goes, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” (It’s a fun Google search.)

I am  gratified that former Deputy Director of the CIA John McLaughlin shares in some degree my sentiments about the Kurds.



Ahmadinejad the cipher; the putsch that never was?

He is out of office now, but he shook the Iranian system so hard, it rang like a bell, and we got to hear the tone.   There is an experiment in systems engineering, called “system identification”, where you’re given a black box which has terminals. You can stimulate the system inside the box with signals, i.e., shake it, and analyze what comes out. If the box is tested in this way thoroughly enough, what’s inside can be mathematically determined.

The first study of the human body was anatomy, the detailed description of all the parts as they visibly appear. Then came function on a macroscopic level, physiology: the coursing of the blood, respiration, metabolism, proceeding in an ever-more microscopic direction, until all becomes chemistry.

Iran a Country Study, (Federal Research Division) is a useful anatomic reference. Some political descriptions are not properly integrated through the text, though it’s a minor cavil, and it has no bias.  After Khomeini (Arjomand, Oxford, 2009) is the physiology, with the degree of analysis appropriate to a conservative historian, writing for the record, with justification in facts.

Iran frustrates analysts with unpredictability. Iranian physiology is not well predicted by the anatomy. In our confusion, we seek the grease that makes the wheels turn, that allows exercise of power. Two suspects are money and ideas.  The governments of Russia and Iran  have roughly similar gross anatomies. Yet while Russia runs mostly on money, Iran has a much stronger idea component. For extremes, look to the Mafia and the Vatican.

That the exercise of power depends upon only one or two things is not to negate or deny all the positive qualities we celebrate in humanity.  But Putin, regardless of the purity of his motives, relies on money for power. To move beyond that is not currently possible in Russia. If we suppose the mullahs have motives in some way admirable, they must still rely on the dual levers of money and ideas.

Imagine that the attitudes and actions of an Iranian public figure wander about the inside of an ellipse, which has two axis: money and ideas. The area of the ellipse is Π*$*ideas. If the ellipse is squashed on either axis, the freedom of action moves towards zero. The constantly shifting interplay that between money and ideas creates variety in the mind of the individual, and lessens the predictability.

We can avoid being sophomoric if we use simple models such as these, not to reach great truth, but to focus our thoughts. A model can be  tested by events and found practically useful, or found too simple and in need of elaboration. With Iran, a two dimensional model is compatible with some features of the conflict surrounding Ahmadinejad.

Arjomand divides Iranian society, which has always been class-conscious, into three strata: clerical, political, and common.  The political class includes the military-security apparatus, of which Ahmadinejad has been a member since the 1979 revolution.  His election in 2005 marked the eclipse of the reformers who, containing some percentage of secular sympathies, threatened the core of theocracy. But even in his first term,  conflicts with Khamenei occurred in which statutory resolution and extralegal power grabs by both occurred in rapid succession. Yet in 2009  Khamenei, still afraid of the reformers, acted to ensure the reelection of Ahmadinejad by fraud.

The conflicts of Ahmadinejad’s first term  had an elastic quality; both Ahmadinejad and Khamenei appeared to adhere to the rules of a contest for power that had leeway of interpretation. In fact, there were no rules, yet each conflict was self-limited, with each appropriation by one followed with a negation by the other. Each player seemed to have some confidence as to the maximum response of the other.  Perhaps Ahmadinejad knew that Khamenei wanted to preserve the semblance of a functional president.   Negation without repeal of Ahmadinejad’s actions satisfied Khamenei because he was secure in his clerical prerogative, the “Mandate of the Jurist” conceived by Khomeini, that vested Khamenei with ultimate power.

Arjomand states that Khamenei did not realize that, in 2009, by a fraud that destroyed a democracy, he became the singular counterbalance to the  entire military-security complex. This would be a prescription for revolution, were it not for Khomeini’s “Mandate”. While Egypt and Thailand are the most recent examples, Eisenhower’s caution, “Beware of the military-industrial complex“, seems generally justified. So if Ahmadinejad could  bypass or negate  the clerical prerogative, it would, on the condition of deep support in the IRG, have opened the door for a putsch.

It is not likely that Ahmadinejad will return to politics. So why the story? It is about two powerful individuals, shadowboxing in the light of a government that, as of 2005, had just been deprived of some vital institutions. Each player interpreted the remaining institutions according to either the law, or his own desires, subject to what he thought the other player would tolerate without drawing a gun. The slang for this is, each could read the mind of the other.

This offers an intelligence strategy. The visible aspects of Iran’s government offer the opportunity to observe interactions, and derive relationships. The derivations are more important than the anatomy.

Perhaps Ahmadinejad merely wanted to diminish the power of the clerical estate.  Perhaps he was just nuts. One looks to an individual’s past statements, speeches, and writings for clues to his goals. But his statements are not consistent. Before we make too much of this, inconsistency of belief systems is fairly common in the region. The  Alawite sect of Syria has been described as syncretistic, a fusion of mutually incompatible ideas.

The Ahmadinejad/Khamenei conflict appeared  rooted in ideas and form of government. Although much of Ahmadinejad’s job involved the disbursement of public money in highly personal gestures, it never became visibly central to the conflict.But the clergy actually is highly monetized, and many engage in conspicuous consumption that is resented by the third, lowest stratum.

Although money does not appear explicitly in this conflict, it is reasonable to ask if it has a dark presence. The self interest is disguised in the  dark courses of the bonyads, or charitable foundations of the mullahs, an estimated 40% of the economy. This would provide a reason of rational self-interest for a putsch by the military-security apparatus. They already control the military-industrial complex, but with the addition of the bonyads, their control would surmount the entire economic system of Iran.

The intersection of ideas and money in Iran is difficult to map.

Next: Ahmadinejad’s beliefs. Current divisions in Iran’s government.






Legitimacy in Iran

Before we bake an intelligence cake, there is a case that the way Iranians behave today has roots going all the way back to the Sassanian Empire of ancient Persia. I’m not a big fan of  heavy historical influence because so many civilizations shed their skins and fuggadaboudit. But Iran, something in the water? In this case, it might have to do with poetry.

The apex of Iran’s government is a theocracy, but it must contain unusual, hidden features. As Robert Baer remarked (previous post), Iran frustrates analysts, providing continual surprise. This suggests that, at the unconscious level, we share a common framework of thought that needs revision.

The concept of power we intuitively reach for may be the result of the First Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D., which mostly killed off the early Christian heresies. Apart from the Eastern Orthodox split-off, the right to rule became a mostly bipolar contest between the monarchs, and the Church, and remained so until  Martin Luther. And the number 2 admits the most simple definition of power: A having power over B means that A can make B do something. This is the street meaning, which has lead to many misunderstandings, such as the notion that the U.S. President is the most “powerful” chief executive in the world.

The most powerful rulers in the modern period were probably the stronger Russian Czars, culminating with Stalin. For them, and for Saddam Hussein, the visible symbol of power was capricious execution.   Hitler was by comparison  a political animal, a minter of power, which he cannily distributed among various fiefs.

But the  arc of Iran is not the arc of the West. It is a path with surprising twists: pluralistic, communistic, “free love”, multicultural tolerance; episodes of fascinating social experimentation echoing modernity; each ending with the barbarity characteristic of the ancient world.

Persian poetry is everything the chador hides. Theoretically, it should have been digested away by the puritanical aspects of Shi’ism, but there it is, as perfect as a diamond pulled from a dark rock seam. It is actually an intelligence question to ask: Who in the leadership likes Persian poetry? For those who wonder if music is a mind-virus, Ferdowsi is proof that a meme can survive fifty generations. And Ferdowsi, who wrote when Islam had already come to Persia, was himself motivated as a preservationist. The persistence of pre-Islamic cultural memes could include legitimacy of the right to rule: how it is acquired, transmitted, and rescinded. At least two historians of Iran have looked at this.

At the apex, political power springs from legitimacy. In the West, although the “divine right of kings” was not codified until late, it actually goes way back. Any “Christian” victor in a bloody hatchet job was eager to use sanctification for validation. Perhaps this worked because it was imposed, along with Christianity, on a culturally primitive Europe.

In A History of Iran, (Basic, 2008) Michael Axworthy relates a more sophisticated theory of legitimacy (p57). Quoting, “The king ruled on the basis of divine grace… (kvarrah)…and was allowed to raise taxes and keep soldiers, but only on the basis that he ruled justly and not tyrannically…The abstract principle could be used by either side.”

The contrast with the Magna Carta, the first attempt in the West to limit monarchical power, is striking. The Magna Carta is a legal document. The Persian equivalent is based on a principle, without specifying who is to interpret, or judge. Another writer, whose name eludes me, analogizes with the Tyrian purple dye of royal use, saying that the legitimacy of a Sassanian ruler was like a dye that stained the ruler, and his inheritors. But under certain circumstances, that dye, the sign of legitimacy, could be lost. Most Persian dynastic changes occurred in the usual, brutal way, but there is at least one case, (ditto, p65) where the ruler was put on trial.

But how operative is such an ancient principle in modern times? Axworthy’s account of the revolution of 1905-1911 is telling. Multiple poles (excluding the foreign elements) emerged in contention: the ulema (religious establishment), defending religious prerogative, a Majlis (legislature), seeking legitimacy, an intelligentsia seeking revolution, and the Shah, defending himself. In1906, Iran had more than a hundred newspapers (ditto, p204.)

In addition to the usual revolutionary bullets, they were arguing. No other 20th century revolution resembles this. The modern revolution is a secretive decapitation strike, where movements of force are visible, but with communiques rather than literature.

Axworthy’s subtitle, “Empire of the Mind”, gains inspiration from Churchill, who said, “The empires of the future are the empires of the mind” (Harvard University, September 6, 1943). The 1979 revolution shared this split nature, the richness of the factional landscape, accompanied by the usual measure of horrific brutality.

The violence was horrific enough, yet it did not achieve the stunned silence of Stalin’s Russia, or of Chinese villages when Mao was executing landowners. Instead, a largely secular society rebounded, denied public expression, but with accommodation by the theocracy in the private sphere, by what we might call institutional hypocrisy. The dichotomy between public and private behavior in what is more than nominally (and less than totally) a theocracy is striking. And theocracy is a Khomeini innovation, new to Shi’ism. This is why Ayatollah Sistani is so withdrawn in Najaf. According to classical Shi’ism, that’s the way it’s supposed to be. So Islamic theocracy is vulnerable from the perspective of Shi’ite ideology.

This is a scene where the right to rule cannot be settled. Each faction tries to acquire the purple dye; each fails. It gives reason  to Ahmadinejad’s strategy: a religious claim to legitimate rule, yet independent of Qom. But what made him think he would succeed?

Next: Applying this to the Ahmadinejad weirdness; intelligence factoids; baking the intelligence cake.





Kurdish oil tanker

Edit:  It appears that Iraq has threatened to sue the Kurds in a Turkish court of arbitration. Iraq threatens to retaliate against any buyer of the oil. Hence, the tanker has no port of call.

But since the Iraqi state is “over”, like a bad relationship, the assertion that the U.S. blocks a sale may not be a complete error.  Indirectly, the opposition of the U.S. to Kurdish statehood  has an effect. Speculatively,  the U.S. could grease the wheels.

My personal frustration caused this slip. It’s hard being a detached predictor when you find you really care about one of the parties.

The tanker, named “United Leadship” (really!) has been floating around the Mediterranean for a couple months already. Read backwards, the chronology is something like:

Originally, it was headed for the Gulf Coast. But the U.S. won’t let it unload anywhere. Bear in mind that, stubbornly, the Kurds actually like us. They have American-style movie movieplexes. Unlike the rest of Iraqis, they don’t consider us intruding infidels.

American foreign policy is so so bureaucratic, finely detailed, sooo…planned, that I wonder if the  experts have managed to  include a numerical  “like factor”, some kind of metric that indicates the likelihood of the various actors actualy having a cultural affinity, which means, having a drink at the bar, and saying things like “pass the salsa”, “I’ll have a little more of that”, or “What are you doing Friday night?”

It is the level of intuition, drowned out  in a school of policy papers, that distinguishes the intelligence community, which has tremendous intuition, from the policy makers and executors, who would probably do just fine if divorced from a system with all the fluidity of a pyramid construction project.

I once sat on a plane with a young woman who was part of a State Department group negotiating with Japan about whale catches. Every question was met with the response that it was impossibly complicated and incapable of explication to a mere rube like me.This was accompanied by a sourpuss facial expression indicating the crudity of my approach. That was about 25 years ago.

Keep talking, guys. It’s better than what Nero did.



Iran’s ecosystem, Part 1

No less an authority than Robert Baer, former C.I.A. operative and author of The Devil We Know (Crown, 2008), expressed frustration with the opacity of the Iranian political system  (YouTube interview, 36:12->). On July 26, 2009, then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad challenged Ayatollah Ali Khamenei by removing the intelligence minister, Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Eje’i, who traditionally reported directly to Khamenei ( YouTube interview, 39:40.)

But the greater challenge actually preceded, on July 17th, when Ahmadinejad appointed Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie as his chief of staff. The alleged association of both men with Hojjatieh, a secretive religious sect, was a challenge  to the religious establishment, which Mashaie verbalized  in the following two years. Besides his public pronouncements, which comprised heretical conflations of religious and secular, there was this:

  • Khamenei is the boss. While secular aspects of the Iranian government are allowed a bounded independence, Ahmadinejad’s rebellion was actually religious, an area where the mullahs brook no trespass.
  • Shia “Twelvers” believe that the twelth, Hidden Imam, Muhammad ibn Hasan al-Mahdī is not actually dead, but hidden, and will return to save the World. It appears direct analogous  to the Second Coming of Christ.
  •  Ahmadinejad and Mashaie believe they have special, personal relations with the Hidden Imam, to the extent of carrying on personal conversations with the figure.
  •  As with other religions where some individuals claim special relationships with  deities and accessory spiritual figures, this arouses negative feelings among those not part of the circle. This is particularly significant because of the hierarchical nature of Shi’ism, where pronouncements about religious affairs are restricted to religious scholars, particularly the highest rank, ayatollahs.

There are two ways to take this. Either Ahmadinejad was nuts, or there is a lack of understanding of the Iranian political system that created the surprise.  Ahmadinejad was a protege of Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, the most orthodox, hardline, and perhaps powerful of the Iranian ayatollahs. So, in passing the orthodoxy test, and then rebelling, Ahmadinejad fooled a lot of smart people.

As for motive, suggestions have been made that Ahmadinejad was trying to preserve a political constituency after his term, or build an alternative  power base. The nature of his religious beliefs does not concern us. What does concern  is why he thought the challenge was a viable strategy, while in our Iran playbook, such a strategy is disallowed.

Theories of political power, as conceived by thinkers of the liberal arts tradition, seem to fall short with Iran. This is an attempt to plug the gap with a little supplementation. It’s a little lengthy. I’ll make reference to modern systems theory, prediction, and the “group mind”. But no math, I promise.

When an alien steps out of his flying saucer, he approaches the nearest Weimaraner, activates his helmet vocoder, and says, “Take me to your leader.” The idea that a society of people has a leader may be the social extension of bilateral symmetry into the social spectrum. You have a left side, a right side, a head that leads, and a tail  of obligations that must be dragged along by both the left and the right. Some species, such as lizards, have developed the ability to shed the tail, which must be envied by politicians.

The words of this are part of the gestalt of government, elaborated by historians, political theorists, and legal scholars. Words are the means of expression, and one has to consider whether they are favored too much. With the rise of the brain sciences,  starting with 19th century introspective psychology, psychoanalysis, experiment, and now, mathematical modeling of neural networks, there has been an evolution in the description of the underpinnings of mind, away from the primacy of words, and towards the modeling of the human brain as a mathematical system, a mesh of billions of elements that transmit, receive, excite, equilibrate, oscillate, and quiesce, according to mathematical descriptions that are only now being divined.

In system theory, there is a process called state reduction that is used to create simplified, usable descriptions of complex systems. It can be used to simulate a system, and to send information about a system somewhere else. We would like to do that with our brains. While animals do it with sounds, postures, and facial expressions, we have the facility of speech. It was the result of hard-pressed evolution trying to keep up with the ever-increasing need of the complex brain to share.  A liberal arts education does not make brain science accessible, except in the form of “physics for poets” courses, which are highly recommended.

Everybody wants to attack a problem from their own particular rut. Historians go fact-heavy, venturing  contemporary  analysis mainly in the form of analogy. Political theorists borrow from the social sciences, but give little weight to the minds of the constituents. Vilfredo Pareto did, but his contribution seems in the process of erasure by the sands of time. Law applies the algorithmic approach, envisioning government as a gigantic state machine, which, if in proper working condition, methodically cranks away until it reaches a (temporarily) final state, such as a policy, law, order, or adjudication.

None of these analytic approaches accurately describe how the system works. The participant may not need one. Only required is  what to do next. How the individual decides may not have expression in words, a situation  likely to be missed by the liberal arts, with which words are the only objective currency.

Recently, it was discovered that the shape of a flock of birds has aerodynamic purpose. They do this without discussion. They don’t know anything about aerodynamics. They may not think about it at all. It is a collective, automatic behavior. The army ant is also interesting in this regard. Put a few dozen on a table, and they organize to run in a circle. In the hundreds, the behavior becomes more complex, with swarms branching at optimized angles. These are mindless behaviors. Having minds, we like to believe that we possess free will.

Next: power structures that defy formal description.



Muqtada al-Sadr, Iranian Mole?

In Shia Islam, it is considered essential for the adherent to choose a mullah to follow. The mullah serves as both an interpreter and spiritual guide. No less an authority than Ayatollah Mohammad Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi has stated that the average Iranian is incapable of religious adherence without such guidance.

As with  Catholicism and orthodox Judaism, this has resulted in elaborate Biblical canons.  In some religions, active manipulation of the symbol systems has ceased, relying on dialogues from long ago. Some religions, notably Judaism, are open to it, but Talmudic writing has dropped off. In Sunni Islam, it is forbidden. In Shi’ism, symbol systems are still actively manipulated with great energy. Religious beliefs are still in the process of synthesis, or what Shiites might prefer to be called interpretation, accomplished by complex symbolic manipulations of a kind distinct from the Western secular tradition. There seems to be a keen aesthetic, both of the writings and the credentials of the writers. Regardless of our sympathy or lack of toward the results, Shiite pursuit of religious scholarship is a highly intellectual affair.

Muqtada al-Sadr is the son of Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr, who, quoting Wikipedia, “ at ten, was delivering lectures on Islamic history, and at eleven, he studied logic.”  He was a direct descendant of Muhammad, entitling him to wear the black turban, a blood distinction among ayatollahs. In other words, Muqtada’s pop had a genius I.Q. This is  useful in a field where, merely to be admitted to study, one must know the Koran by heart. The Wiki article states that he is of both Iraqi and Iranian ancestry. This is more important than having Italian roots  in the U.S. It is extremely important.

It appears that, while he has fire in the belly, Muqtada al-Sadr did not inherit his father’s remarkable gifts. This is not to say he’s unintelligent; merely that he is not a mental giant. Starting the Mahdi Army gave him his first opportunity for religious authorship, which came as a statement about the disposition of booty. Fighters were permitted to take whatever they wanted, provided they tithed a fifth of it.

Perhaps he was inspired by the abject poverty of his followers, but it did not last long. As Islam respects property rights, religious authorities, to whom he was obligated by religious and class ties, probably forced a change.

The sparse history of the Mahdi Army is dotted with hostile actions varying from small to large, but with little or no political articulation. Consider the alternative: grandiloquent speeches and development of an independent political philosophy. The absence of it, against a background of almost constant small-arms actions with some escalations, indicates an al-Sadr with little to say,  one who lacks an inner voice. He could have grabbed the mic any time he wanted. According to The Middle East Quarterly, “…the large number of Shi’ites who follow him do so not because of his status as a marja’ or religious authority, but because for them, he is the symbol and the personification of Sadr’s legitimacy. Shi’ite Islam is hierarchical. ”

This goes along with his background as an undistinguished religious scholar, who, between 2007 and 2011, studied in Iran, it is thought, to burnish his religious credentials so as to become an ayatollah. He still isn’t one. The bar is high. Mere executive talent isn’t enough.

In February 2014, in an incredibly flamboyant and surprising gesture, al Sadr resigned from public life in a handwritten note. As with previous communications, it contains no political articulation. Perhaps it’s hard for him to do. But the handwritten note, which astonished so many of his followers, is not organic of himself or his organization. It suggests  the strategy of a more intellectual, cunning thinker, someone to whom the flowing script of Arabic would have more meaning.

Political speech writers are de rigueur in the U.S. Political platforms are influenced by political strategists. There are even some political dynasties. But Muqtada al-Sadr is considered by his followers to be a descendant of Muhammad, and he is bound to a theocratic class, largely based in Iran, that has no comparison with anything in the West.

Touchingly, al-Sadr has stated that he is opposed to Iranian influence in Iraq. This ingenuous stance is very much appreciated here. But he remains very much a facet of Iran’s power projection. Read the section of The Middle East Quarterly article titled “A Hidden Hand?”

Next: how Iran’s political ecosystem facilitates deception.

Iraq Clues & Political Ecosystems

In “Fencing the Problem”, guidelines for analysis of the problem were described. But since this might seem like something you could throw on a spreadsheet, “It’s a People Game” explained why it is not so.

If we  pretend we have a formal system, a subtopic called “clue analysis” has to be part of it. This will be about gleaning everything you can from what you read and hear. Expect to see many revisions of this.

Since clues often seem like sparkling gems amid the mud of official announcements and newscaster drivel, it is important to keep them in perspective. This is where the conspiracy theorist goes awry; he gives clues an independent life, with too much weight, driving and sustaining a complete theory. Classic examples of these are the JFK “single bullet”, and the World Trade Towers falling straight down. The conspiracy proponents understand physics better than they do people. They are preferentially attracted to things they  understand, because they aren’t trained thinkers.

If you are a trained thinker, you will be attracted to things you don’t understand, without being captured by them. So let’s proceed to what caught my eye, and how it fit with a view of regional political ecosystems that has also  been under construction.

Clues related to these subjects will be discussed throughout the day:

  • Muqtada al-Sadr
  • Iraqi parliament walkout
  • Iranian Political Ecosystem

Both Iraqi and American sources now claim Baghdad is penetrated with sleeper cells.  In retrospect, Tariq al-Hashimi may have been one of them.  Yet the vibe we have been receiving is that al-Maliki is too stiffly partisan to be president of Iraq; hence, someone else must be found willing to work with people who would like to see him dead.

This is an interesting case: propaganda that has no author. It seems  the result of collective wishful thinking, a vibe that went viral.  Even unintentionally, news has a bias.

It’s a People Game

The methods described in connection with the Iraq problem seem like a prescription that you could give to the most logical thinker in your organization. Maybe you could just closet him with SPSS, an expert system, or an A.I. language like PROLOG, watch the mushrooms grow, and, after a while, come up with a solution that gets you the corner office you’ve been lusting after.

This is really the Holy Grail of prediction, to mechanize judgement. But the most successful attempts at this have been in the area of crowd sourcing, not systematizing what an individual should do.

Ali Abdullah Saleh was president of Yemen. In early 2011, he came under international pressure to vacate the position. The intelligence community became curious when this would happen, so a question was posted to “Forecasting World Events.” Saleh had repeatedly promised to leave, and feinted with statements and trips, always returning to his office. So the FWE question was carefully worded as to the conditions defined as equivalent to vacating the presidency. Dead was one of them; permanently incapacitated another. Another condition (subject to my memory) was signing an abdication in another country.

By complete coincidence, five years prior to this, I was testing camera lenses in my basement. I needed a target with some fine detail. I grabbed a copy of the NY Times, and saw a full page spread halftone of Saleh sitting in a palace chair in an immaculately tailored western suit. Inwardly, I smirked, and said to myself, “This is a guy who cares about his skin.” The picture was taped to a door, and remains there to this day. Every time I was in the basement, I stared at Saleh, and marveled at his suave Western demeanor.

But those  who specialized in studying Saleh knew him as a person of minimal education, who ran one of the largest militia in Yemen. To them, perhaps, Saleh’s immaculate suit was the shallow disguise of a Yemeni tribesman. I weighed the suit more heavily, as a kind of aspiration. Upon reflection, I may have integrated it with his statements about terrorism, and his early desire to ally with the U.S. in combating it. That, too, could be taken with a grain of salt, as a means of protecting tribal dominance, rather than  concern with the world at large.

In June 2011, Saleh was injured in a bomb attack on his palace. Although his injuries were initially described as minor, it emerged that he had shrapnel near the heart. In that time frame, Saleh reiterated that he would step down. But was it different from his other promises and feints?

It clicked for me. FWE had a forum, where I exclaimed, “He has seen his own mortality!”  I dialed my FWE pie chart to near 100% that, by the near-term date choice, he would be out and gone for good. Unfortunately for my FWE accuracy score, he eluded the terms of the question. He went to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment. He said he would go to the U.S., but he returned to Yemen. While he formally handed office to his vice-president, rumors of his power, running the country with his militia, continued to swirl. The actual situation was unapparent.

Months later, it became clear that the former vp/now president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, had actually acceded to power, which he holds to this day. The administrators of FWE might now concede I lost on a technicality. But does it advance the science of prediction? Unfortunately, no, because it satisfies neither:

1. The law of large numbers, as with crowd sourcing, or an individual like myself making hundreds of such predictions.

2. A subset of predictors with identifiable characteristics, i.e.,  Myers-Briggs personality profile, or other aspects of a predictor’s background.

A   personal characteristic that might be useful, in aggregate, to satisfy “2” might be the ability to identify a liar, i.e., a disingenuous affect. There are people who are extremely good at this. I may be one of them, but I never trust myself, because it doesn’t seem quite fair.

Intel9's world view