The Senate Report on Torture and Anthony Scalia

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia  just said (CNN), “I think it is very facile for people to say ‘Oh, torture is terrible,'” he said. “You posit the situation where a person that you know for sure knows the location of a nuclear bomb that has been planted in Los Angeles and will kill millions of people.”

Former F.B.I. interrogation expert Ali Soufan, cited for his conviction that torture does not work, has something interesting to say at the end of a PBS interview, at 28:40. “I oppose them mainly from an efficacy perspective…If it was saving lives…Look, if it was saving lives, and I saw that it was saving lives, Look I hate to tell you, and probably I will be attacked, but yes, maybe…” You owe it to Mr. Soufan to go to minute 28:40, and not rely on my partial transcription. You owe it to him to hear the hesitancy of his voice, and his inability to articulate the exact conditions under which he would use torture. Maybe nobody can. Maybe you just have to be there.

Justice Scalia gives me the courage to continue to write about this subject. I am not myself a conservative thinker, and my reference to his statement is not to prove torture is OK.  But Judge Scalia gives evidence that, even with a lifetime of focus on jurisprudence and necessarily concomitant ethics, the answer is not obvious, and so, worthy of discussion. This series of posts might help a personal eclectic synthesis.

In the past, torture has come so easily to human beings in every region, and every time period, that there must be, for some, an element of enjoyment in the infliction. The movie Zero Dark Thirty, of which the first half hour is a torture scene, was made with the creative input of some pretty canny Hollywood execs, who think they know what the public wants to see. Sitting through the first 30 minutes would be torture, so I haven’t watched it. But the Internet Movie Database  pollsters gave  it a “thumbs up,” with 181,394 viewers rating it a 7.4/10.

It appears that, as an elective activity,  the attractiveness of torture lies somewhere between sex and self-mutilation. That so many Zero-Dark viewers enjoyed watching it implies that a significant minority of the unincarcerated population, particularly males, have a sociopathic potential. So it wasn’t hard for the C.I.A. to find employees willing to conduct “enhanced interrogation.” But they might have been overpaid. Milgram got his volunteer torturers for 4 bucks an hour.

So the historical purpose of torture may have been enjoyment, permitted against those who transgressed the social order. Even the claims of the Catholic Inquisition, “…for the public good in order that others may become terrified and weaned away from the evils they would commit”, are suspect. They may have enjoyed their work a little too much.

But today, it is fairly clear that, apart from the motives of the interrogators themselves, about which I know nothing and decline to guess, the motive for torture, a.k.a. “enhanced interrogations” was fear. Those who authorized the measures, and who are themselves significant enough to be judged by history, were afraid.

Next: The Anatomy of Fear.

The Senate Report on C.I.A. Torture

The post “Ebola Vaccines, Medical Ethics, and Manslaughter” comes as close as I dare to describe an ethical judgment. It expresses a suspicion, that Borio and Cox are vulnerable to a challenge, to produce reasoning that their requirement of control-group testing reduces risk to life, rather than increasing it. A discussion of the Senate Report is more dangerous to the detachment of this blog.

Long before release of the Senate report, former F.B.I. agent Ali Soufan determined that “enhanced interrogation techniques” did not work. But in judging the ethicality of an action, does efficacy matter? The outcome is binary: it stopped something, or it didn’t.  If it had stopped a WMD attack, would the Senate report have been written?

Subject to stringent conditions of national permission and encouragement called “war”, you may find yourself with a gun in your hand, and the obligation to inflict a wound on the defined enemy that is not immediately lethal. It could be an abdominal wound, leading to sepsis, with an agonizing, prolonged death. The outlawing of certain kinds of weapons and ammunition that tend to produce this death reduces the probability, but does not make it negligible.

If given the choice of personal fate, between water-boarding and death by sepsis from an abdominal wound, you might choose the former. So it is possible that the subconscious objection to torture is not the state of the victim, but the state of mind of the inflicter. In most cases, the soldier who fires the gun returns to civilian life with the original moral character, or with increased wisdom and reverence for life. But we suspect that the torturer, whose involvement with the victim is much more visceral, may have developed a taste, or may be a sociopath, born to the job.

If you think it’s edgy to even discuss this, consider the Milgram Experiment, in which 65% of the subjects administered electric shocks to a victim who we know was actually an actor. The subjects were told the victim had a heart condition, and he put on a pretty good show of “close to croaking.” The subjects were paid 4 bucks to do this. In the year of the experiment, 1963, America had not yet walked the road paved with good intentions called Vietnam.

So let’s conduct a private experiment on ourselves. Consider the following scenarios:

  • Home invasion. You have a gun, and can shoot at the intruder/perpetrator to protect your family. You do not have the opportunity to retreat to a “safe room.”
  • The same, except that, instead of a clean shot, the intruder will suffer a prolonged and horrible death, perhaps falling into a giant vat of Thanksgiving turkeys.
  • The same again, to protect a neighboring family.
  • Same as the above, except that the  intruder, or threatening person, will not die, but experience pain and permanent physical injury.
  • Same again, except the individual will suffer no lasting physical injury, but with permanent psychological injury.

Perhaps you say yes to some of the above, but you say, you’re not a Milgram subject. And you are proud to be a veteran, or you admire veterans who served in war zones, and who may have applied lethal force.

If you have ethically OK’ed some of the above choices, your personal allowance is motivated by the common element of “clear and present danger.” If so, you are allowing the infliction of what, to the intruder, is completely equivalent to torture.

The are two differences with the actions condemned by the Senate report.

  • In the above list, your action is against the direct perpetrator.  In the Senate report, the actions are against a “third party.” Not a disinterested third party, but, since the captive has already been rendered harmless, he is a third party to other terrorists who collaborated with the captive.
  • In the above list, the harm that comes to the perpetrator, even though it may end up indistinguishable from torture (abdominal wound, lingering days to die) is incidental to interdiction of his criminal act.

This is beginning to look like a minefield. I know why torture scares me. As Milgram showed, the potential exists within most of us. Possibly, all of us. It has the elements of paradox. We can’t define a moral use for torture, yet it grades smoothly into actions that, conditionally, under some circumstances, we might endorse. The C.I.A. activities fall mostly under the last element of the list of scenarios, with some upwards excursion. Someone died of hypothermia while chained to a floor.

It is possible that some of the torturers enjoyed their work. Since only one country, Iran, has a theological authority who has provided religious justification for the torture of suspect subversives, enjoyment comes closest to universal condemnation. But those who set the policy and those communicated the policy never participated in “enhanced interrogation.”

The roads to all theological destinations are paved with good intentions. Next, what made them think they were doing the right thing.


Ebola Vaccines, Medical Ethics, and Manslaughter

Matthew Herper’s article in Forbes, “Ebola, Ethics, And The New Normal Of Scary Germs” is good journalism.  It’s centered around an article by Borio and Cox, in the New England Journal of Medicine, arguing “…arguing that despite the hopes of some public health experts, both vaccines and drugs will need to be tested against control groups that include a placebo.”

This makes me mad, which is why the title of this post includes the word “manslaughter.” The purpose here is to sharpen up the logic surrounding the assessment of Borio/Cox with my own hostile appraisal.  In the post “Ebola, Public Health, and Sloppy Thinking Part 1”, I wrote, “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.”

and, “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.

Medical ethics is joined at the hip to this culture. In the past, the requirements of medical ethics, as defined by individuals in the class of Borio/Cox, have been responsible for protocols that, rigidly adhered to, resulted in the effective denial of drugs to cancer patients. One of the gyrations of the medical establishment has been alternations in policies regarding risky or questionable drugs. The point to be extracted is not whether  a particular drug should be offered or denied. It is that the reversals show that being a specialist in some branch of “ethics” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Medical ethics exists as a specialty not because it answers ethical questions, but because it appears to do so. We might as well do the flip-flops ourselves. In this case, Borio/Cox assert that blind trials with control placebo groups are required to validate Ebola vaccines before they are deployed.

This they require, while in some countries, Ebola “hospitals” were recently equivalent to death camps.  But Borio/Cox are correct about supportive care. The African overall mortality rate appears to be dropping; in October, it was about 2/3 overall, dropping in late November to about a third.  It is likely that this is due to better supportive care. So why don’t Borio/Cox win the argument?

There is no objective solution to any question of medical ethics. It is inherently a subjective question. There are those of us who feel that “ethics and religion are opinions that you have.” I regret if any sensibilities are hurt, but our legal system tacitly recognizes this. Neither of these statements is acceptable in a court of law:

  • “God made me do it.”
  • “My ethics required that I terminate the victim’s life.”

In a statistical fashion, the members of the test group, including those receiving the placebo, have one of these fates:

  • Death as a result of the vaccine.
  • Death as a result of not receiving the vaccine.
  • Survival as a result of the vaccine.
  • Survival as a result of not receiving the vaccine.
  • No effect on survival.

If the statistical element were absent, so that the will of the ethical experimenter directly determined the fate of individuals, it would be clear that the ethicist was, to the individual subject, in every way equivalent to the Nazi Death Camp guard selecting the unfortunates for the gas chambers.

Does statistics make it alright? I don’t think so. But you argue, we really don’t know whether the vaccine works at all, or whether it could harm. There are more than a few problematic pathogens. Dengue is an example. There are four strains of dengue. While an infection with one strain provides immunity against that strain, it makes subsequent infections worse. By the time you reach the fourth strain, you might be dead. AIDS is another.  Other errors are choosing the wrong antigen as as target, or  a negative effect from immunization against the wrong viral strain. With bacterial pathogens, there can be cross-reactivity with human tissues, resulting in an autoimmune disorder.

That’s what separates the experiment from murder, and makes it a laudable activity. That could be true, if human experiment were the only tool available. Fortunately, there are other ways of knowing. A common element of vaccine development is the animal model, a species with response to infection similar to the human.  The symptomology and immune response of the model animal is extensively characterized, so that it can serve as a proxy for the human in preclinical studies. For influenza, the animal of choice is the ferret. It’s small, cheap, and it catches the flu very easily.

The FDA deals with the current Ebola scenario with the “animal rule” adopted in 2002. Quoting from the The NIH article, “Current Ebola vaccines”,

  “In these cases the ”animal rule” permits efficacy data from studies using animal models that accurately recapitulate human disease…However, for this purpose the correlate(s) of protection predictive of survival in the relevant animal model have to be defined, so that these data can be used to predict human efficacy.”

The animal in question is any nonhuman primate, although the Great Apes, which in this case practically means chimpanzee, confer some advantage. In these animals, Ebola is typically 100% fatal, compared to the human mortality, which maxes out at 90. The caveat comes in the next paragraph:

“Unfortunately, until now there has been only limited success in defining these correlates of immunity, although it could be shown that there is some correlation between antibody titres (but not necessarily neutralizing antibody titres) and survival…”

So there is a rule, and there is math, and it is likely that the conclusion of Borio/Cox is due to the failure of the animal model to satisfy the math of the rule.  By how much, I wonder? Sadly, I do not have access to the New England Journal of Medicine. This excruciatingly vital part of the debate is hidden behind a paywall, an archaic aspect of scientific publishing that some of us think goes against academic freedom and the right of the public to know.

The referral to “correlates of immunity” suggests that the rule may require more than survival rates to validate the vaccine. Correlates are measurements of antibody concentrations and immune system activation. If this is the case, if the rule requires more than survival rates of the model animal, it expresses a need to quantize  the “why” of survival. Quantization is not the same as understanding, but this is a bureaucracy we have to feed. They want to know “why it works”, because they want to assume that the numbers will be transferable to human responses.

But do we always need to know why? Suppose you’re trapped in a submarine and water is streaming in. Someone taps out a message in Morse Code on the hull: “PULL LEVER B TO SURFACE.” Do you need to know why? Just pull the lever.

Borio and Cox suggest that the ethically correct course is to build lots of intensive care wards. But it’s not simply a case of hooking up the right I/V lines to rehydrate. In the industrialized world, intensive care units have climate control. In Africa, isolation wards are tin-roofed structures or tents, with ventilation restricted by the need for isolation. Building modern facilities with all the features favorable to patient survival would be the Manhattan Project of Africa.  And the supporting infrastructure doesn’t exist. How many people would die in the interim?

Given that Borio/Cox are part and parcel of the system of thought that has so far bungled handling of the Ebola epidemic, a very high standard of thought, exhibiting truly independent reasoning, is required. My suspicion is that their points of view suffer institutional contamination. Another way of putting it would be that they are defending their intellectual turf. Perhaps they would refer to the Hippocratic Oath: Do no harm. But Hippocrates saw  one patient at a time. Over what time period? Over what sample? What makes their requirement different from manslaughter? I want it technical.

A reductio ad absurdum drives it home. Suppose a vaccine is developed against malaria, but it has a mortality somewhat higher than the yellow fever vaccine, which, containing a live, attenuated virus, actually kills about 1 in 50,000 recipients. Borio/Cox could say (putting ridiculous words in their mouths), “You really ought to get rid of the mosquito.”

Yes, it is ridiculous. Yet, having come full circle, we see that murder and sainthood are neighbors. They come out of their abodes, mosey over to the fence, slap high fives, shoot the bull, and get along just fine.



Putin and the ABM

Psychoanalysis is a neat word, which we have been shamelessly using as psychobabble. It is actually the name of a treatment for mental disorders, the so-called “talking cure.” We will continue to shamelessly misuse it, but Putin’s concerns, and those of the Russian “Elite”, can be categorized as

  • Attitudinal
  • Factual
  • Systems of thought

The attitudinal component really does have a psychoanalytic twist. But, as Freud said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” The Russians have real concerns, feeding on what we might consider their paranoia, but which might not be dismissed as such by a neutral observer. The ABM system is such an issue.

It is confusing to us, because the ABM system, as currently designed, claims effectiveness against only the most primitive IBM systems, as threatened by North Korea, and possibly Iran. Theodore A. Postol, an MIT professor, has been a persistent critic of missile defense systems of all sorts. His recent analysis of  the Iron Dome is discouraging, but very relevant. It will be used here as part of a plausibility argument that the ABM system, as currently constructed, is futile. It is the futility that makes the Russians see a Trojan Horse.

My own mental lethargy, and  love of gadgetry, including many of the gems of the U.S. defense industry, had me looking away for a long time. I would love nothing better than a working ABM system. And the THAAD impactor, which relies on the kinetic energy of direct impact with the incoming missile, is  environmentally clean (cue the smiling family, with babe in arms, on a sunny, immaculate suburban lawn, looking upwards into the flawless blue sky, as a THAAD impacts a North Korean 20 kiloton warhead some 80 miles up.)

There was also the possibility, based on confidence in the brains of DoD, that, somehow, the THAAD team had managed an end-run around Postol’s logic, but after watching the Zumwalt destroyer fiasco, and a few similar things, I concluded that, as intelligent as the individual stars of DoD may be, the organization shrouds their insights with group-think. So Professor Postol must be taken seriously. Since I have worked in this technology area, I  understand Postol’s logic,  with an extreme regret that I cannot refute.

The argument against the ABM is based on energy. You might want to revisit Catastrophe Theory for Dummies Part 2, which examines the problem of balancing a broomstick. It is a very simple example of a problem which cannot be solved — unless you have an infinite amount of energy to spend.

The argument can be dumbed down by presenting pieces of the problem  separately. The reader should intuit that the difficulty of the problem is the product of these considerations:

Because the THAAD has to impact the warhead, it has a hard problem, while the warhead has an easy problem. The THAAD has to be where the warhead is. That is a very specific place. The warhead simply has to be where the THAAD is not. To the nonspecialist, this might seem easy. Simply compute the trajectory of the warhead, which in the vacuum of space can be perfectly known, and make the THAAD very precise. In other words, design the system to hit a bulls-eye, and success is assured.

In physics, one typically choses to consider the problem within a particular volume. Let’s make this one kilometer on a side. Let’s assume that it’s a “done deal” that the interceptor can get within this cube.  Let’s also assume that the warhead and interceptor are each   half meter  volume. Less than one in a billion configurations represent an impact.

The warhead has two times a billion choices of places-to-be. It’s like managing to avoid, in  a big city, someone who is looking for you with uncertain information. A radar “return echo” is a fuzzy cloud. By looking at multiple echoes, employing a multiplicity of tricks, we can winnow down the cloud, but we can’t make it a clear image, any more than than your seeker can see clearly in a crowded avenue. Until you’re on top of your quarry, when it might be too late. Although the THAAD has its own “seeker” imagers, the closer it is, the more energy is required to account for what it now knows.

Perhaps, aiming a gun, you’ve felt it shake in your hand. A shake is also present in missile systems, where it is called “noise.” Noise in the sensors, ring-gyros, thrusters, actuators, sloshing of fuel, buffeting of wind, airframe vibrations, flexing of the structure, etc. Even if the position of the target can be perfectly known, the designers of the interceptor struggle. For a Qassam rocket, the only struggle is to pull the string that lets fly the  spring that ignites the cartridge . It has no guidance at all. Yet, if Postol is to be believed, it gave Iron Dome a lot of trouble.

The THAAD impact interceptor is the most sophisticated ever designed, with a maximum intercept altitude of 90 miles. It has a huge number of thrusters, apparently in effort to reduce impulse noise. As far as I know, it has been tested only against the proposed North Korean threat, which is modeled as a compact object on a ballistic trajectory. But what if the warhead is not ballistic? The Kármán line, at 100km, is approximately the edge of space. But the way it is defined does not mean that aerodynamics is absent above that altitude. It means only that there is not enough lift to fly an airplane.

North Korean rockets are presently garage-shop jobs. But what if they get a little more advanced? To defeat the ballistic model, all they have to do is add some drag, trailing some  junk out the back held by a cord. Or they could head over to Dick’s Sporting goods, and buy one of these.  Pitching balls out the front or back, utilizing conservation of momentum, they only have to buy a few feet per second of delta-V. By example, in the Gulf War, the Patriot missile was defeated by SCUD missiles so badly constructed, they broke apart in flight, defeating the ballistic hypothesis.

The THAAD is far more sophisticated than the Patriot. It’s so good, I don’t know what they could do to make it better, though the thrusters are so numerous it is reputed to be a maintenance nightmare. It may be out of tricks for the future. Except for one. And the Russians know this.

On July 19, 1957, five Air Force officers and one photographer stood directly beneath a 2 kiloton weapon detonated 18,500 feet above their heads (Amazing video. Watch them break out the cigars.) From the point of view at the time, and still a plausible trade-off today, they suffered no ill effects. The purpose was to prove the safety of the Bomarc interceptor missile, and the Genie air-to-air missile against Soviet bomber formations. If the THAAD kinetic impactor design were to be replaced by a nuclear design, the basis could be a modification of the W-54 warhead, either for greater yield, or with a shaped charge.

With a nuclear punch, the THAAD no longer has to be in the same place at the same time as the incoming missile. The goal becomes some practical, achievable fraction of a cubic kilometer. With a nuke, it can also handle a few decoys.

The Russians know all this.  To them, the current ABM system is a Trojan horse for one which which actually works.  This is why they proposed that the ABM radar now located in Poland be located in Russia. This proposal is reauthored by the Arms Control Organization.

So why didn’t we take them up on this? Is it because their dissident journalists meet unfortunate ends? Or that they still dispatch Mercader-ish assassins to the West for “wet work?” Or the scale of symbiosis between government and organized crime? Is it just historical “bad luck?”

Or is there a fundamental size limit to human empathy, which implies an upper limit to cooperative politics?


Saudi Oil Conspiracy, analysis notes

In the post The Saudi Oil Conspiracy Theory, several historical citations are used to validate the assertion that, despite denials and confusion, Saudi oil is currently a weapon against Russia, Syria, and Iran.

But I left out a “trick of the trade”, and in doing so, did not serve the other purpose of this blog. Hopefully, some readers are curious,  besides the predictions, about the methodology, how we get there. So, we’re not going to have any of that wizard-behind-the-curtain stuff, even if it robs some dignity.

In this case, the problem was attacked via “fuzzy logic“, the invention of Lotfi A. Zadeh, formerly head of th EE/CS department at UC/Berkeley.  Fuzzy logic is a form of probabilistic logic that is mathematically incorrect, in that it does not satisfy Bayes Theorem, yet, paradoxically, is widely and practically used today. From washing machines to cell phones, it is omnipresent.

To enter a problem into the framework of traditional probability theory is an arduous process, which involves defining an event space and probability distributions. Fuzzy logic is the “silly putty” of the math world. Kneading it in my hands, this is what I did:

The options of Saudi Arabia foreign policy are infinite. So imagine them to exist as vectors in a Hilbert Space. Every vector represents something they could do, if only they had the drive to do it.  Encapsulate this in a function, F(x), where x is the thing to do, and F is the relative attractiveness of the action.

This is multiplied by a scalar factor, “D”, representing the drive to actually do something. In your world of dreams, D is practically zero, because of all the things you dream, you actualize little or nothing. Example  “D” values:

  • Bush administrations, high to very high.
  • Iran/Khomeini, very high.
  • Iraq/Saddam Hussein,extremely high.
  • Obama Administration, low to moderate in foreign policy, high in domestic.
  • Clinton Administration, moderate.
  • Saudi Arabia, traditionally low, with occasional excursions of passive aggression.

It is  reported that King Abdullah personally mediated the end to the Gulf rift with Qatar, with the same initiative of reconciliation now pushed at Egypt. That’s quite an effort for a 90 year old monarch. At that age, he wouldn’t do it without support in depth within the Saudi government.

Of note,

  • Saudi foreign policy is growing. Out of sheer necessity, Saudi Arabia is becoming a regional power.
  • The factor “D” indicates an increase of tendency to actualize.
  • Gulf state support of terrorism, with the possible leaky exception of Qatar, is a thing of the past.

The fuzzy logic composition function, D*F(x), now supports the use of oil as a weapon. To the reader with a taxonomic mind and a penchant for precision, this may seem like a fake. Perhaps it is. But pseudo-math can be very useful. This example is not so different from the physics game called “power of ten calculation”, which asserts that practically anything can be calculated to that order precision, without resort to complicated formulas, on the back of an envelope.


The Saudi Oil Conspiracy Theory

Reuters: REFILE-Saudi oil policy uncertainty unleashes the conspiracy theorists. Quoting, “‘Even those who have known Naimi for decades are puzzled. ‘For the first time, I really do not know what is likely to happen at the meeting. It is not clear’, said a long-serving senior OPEC delegate.

If this is a conspiracy, it is of the most transparent variety.  On October 19, 1973, during the Arab-Israeli war, OPEC proclaimed an oil embargo against various countries perceived to be allied with Israel. In December 1980, during the Iran-Iraq war, Saudi Arabia forced the price of oil down.

Following Sun Tzu’s dictum, “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer”,  on Nov. 12 Saudi Oil Minister Ali al Naimi said “Saudi oil policy… have been subject a great deal of wild and inaccurate conjecture in recent weeks. We do not seek to politicise oil … For us it’s a question of supply and demand, it’s purely business.”

Russian support for the Assad regime has created a desire, totally internal to the Sunni Middle East, to wreck Russia. It also reduces the saleability of Iranian sales leaking through the sanctions, so one silver bullet takes on both Russia and Iran’s “caliphate” dreams.


Psychoanalyzing Putin, Part 2

CNN: Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says the West wants Putin out. Quoting, “As for the concept behind the use of coercive measures, the West is making it clear it does not want to try to change the policy of the Russian Federation … they want to change the regime — practically no one denies this,” Lavrov said at a meeting of a foreign and domestic policy council in Moscow.”  Putin also reiterated his fear of “color revolution”, as used to denote revolts in several former Soviet states that resulted in regime change.

With social stress impending from financial collapse that is not far off, this fear of Putin and Lavrov may be genuine. But it’s not real. Without Putin at the helm, Russia would deteriorate into a gigantic criminal enterprise, feeding vast amounts of cash into both the underworld and terror, with the additional horrible possibility of smuggled nuclear weapons. Mr. Putin, we actually need you. We just want you to be good.

World leaders would like Putin to forget his unfriendly notions of Western intentions, and return to the apparent amicability prior to…when? Angus Roxborough, in his book The Strongman: Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia, offers the experience of  P.R. firm Ketchum, who  in 2006 contracted with the Russian government for press representation in the West.  Subsequent to the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya  in Moscow on October 7, 2006, Roxborough observes that Putin’s inner circle stopped engaging the press. After that [citation missing], they just didn’t seem to care.

It’s hard to like someone who is responsible for the deaths of 4300+ people. But this should not deter us from an unbiased look at the large part the West has played  in the creation of the current Russia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia, like the other components, was a tabula rasa, an almost unique ideological vacuum. It had neither communism, democracy,  Platonism, Confucianism, or the divine right of kings. Democracy comes in various grades, but Russia didn’t even have “vote banks” representing popular constituencies. Instead, everything was for sale. There is even the story that, in those lawless days, one Russian, owed a debt, was paid off with a hydrogen bomb, which he kept in his garage.

In a letter dated January 1, 1989,  Ayatollah Khomeini offered Gorbachev a cure for the vacuum. Quoting, “In conclusion, I declare outright that the Islamic Republic of Iran as the greatest and most powerful base of the Islamic world can easily fill the vacuum of religious faith in your society.”   With what we can assume was a polite decline, Russia turned toward the West. This seems too obvious an outcome, but in reviving a state religion, with the aim of conservative cultural values, Putin may have given Khomeini’s letter some consideration.

So the West ended up in “loco parentis“, attempting to rear a modern democracy from nothing. It has been done, but rarely. While George Marshall saved Europe, and Douglas MacArthur authored democracy in Japan, there was lacking, for Russia, a supreme authority of unimpeachable intent. In particular, the economic consultants assumed too much sophistication on the part of the general public, with privatization resulting in the creation of an oligarchy that frustrated the growth of civil government. Simultaneously, the Western trade zones declined to include Russia, with Europe fearful that the large, low cost labor force would swamp their economies in a way that China is doing now. China got in the door, while Russia was excluded, because, at the time, the Russian and Ukrainian industrial bases were much closer to technological parity with the West than China’s. Today the situation is reversed.

These are the errors and considerations that came of the moment. But there were also historical attitudes, still vital and poisonous. Consider this quote:

“The Government of…Russia, arrogating to itself the supreme power to torment and slaughter the bodies of its subjects like a God-sent scourge, has been most cruel to those whom it allowed to live under the shadow of its dispensation. The worst crime against humanity of that system we behold now crouching at bay behind vast heaps of mangled corpses is the destruction of innumerable minds. The greatest horror of the world–madness–walked faithfully in its train. Some of the best intellects of Russia, after struggling in vain against the spell, ended by throwing themselves at the feet of that hopeless despotism as a giddy man leaps into an abyss. An attentive survey of Russia’s literature…of her administration and the cross-currents of her thought, must end in the verdict that the Russia of today has not the right to give…voice on the single question touching the future of humanity, because from the very inception of her being the brutal destruction of dignity, of truth, of rectitude, of all that is faithful to human nature has been made the imperative condition of her existence.”

Relative to the above indictment, Vladimir Putin reasonably considers himself enlightened and benign. Does it read like a reaction to Stalin’s purges? It’s from a 1905 essay by Joseph Conrad, “Autocracy and War”,  where the elisions hide a few words that would date the piece. Fear and suspicion of Russia predate our time. In the New World, this is dim history. In the EU, it is culturally alive. The briefly “new” Russians were astonished and offended that they were not welcomed into the bosom of Western love, while simultaneously enduring a brief, misguided, and very painful parentage.

The emotional factor is significant because, unlike previous convulsions in Europe, the ideological gap yearned to be filled with love and understanding. It was a brief moment, occasionally depicted in Hollywood feel-good flicks in which a natural disaster, plague, or alien invasion breaks down the barriers to what, in the imaginative  mind of the scriptwriter, is the natural human state of goodness.

One can blame, or think of avoidable causes, but a better situation would have been an exceptional historical outcome. That the response of the West to aggression in Ukraine has eschewed violence, relying on economic pressure, is itself an innovation in conflict resolution. But in the formative days, the West could have offered a more inspiring and practical approach to democracy and economic reform. The Russians could have tried harder to transcend their heritage as described by Joseph Conrad. That neither happened is part of the tendency of humans to make bad history.

For the Russians, the picture was completed by military and geopolitical moves, which we, confident of our kind and generous nature, could not conceive as threatening. That’s next.

Battle of Ramadi, ongoing, the high water mark of ISIS

CNN reports ISIS is attempting to take the government complex in Ramadi.

ISIS will fail. This, even more than Kobani, will be known as the  “high water mark” of ISIS. Some may recall this phrase from the history of the U.S. Civil War, of Longstreet’s assault into the Union lines, at the Battle of Gettysburg, on July 3, 1863. This is of that magnitude.

The considerations that form this estimate are as follows:

  • All eyes are upon the defenders. They know they will be branded as heros or cowards. In other words, the same “search for significance” which has been discovered to motivate the influx of ISIS recruits is now within the grasp of the defenders.
  • To the Iraqis, the asset is worth bending the rules of  air support that minimize civilian casualties.
  • The close proximity of official Iraqi  forces facilitates deployment of U.S. ground personnel for precision targeting.
  • An ISIS all-out assault has been repulsed. If the LA Times paywall doesn’t stop you, it’s here. For those who rely on open source intelligence, a successful repulse illuminates a ground situation that may be murky even to the participants. ISIS didn’t get it the first time.
  • A development of the Vietnam War was a kind of  strongpoint called a “firebase”, which delivered regional artillery support on demand. During U.S. involvement in Vietnam, the North Vietnamese did not succeed in overrunning a single firebase, although some were evacuated for tactical reasons. Although Ramadi is not a firebase, U.S. advisers have a wealth of experience defending similar strongpoints.

A rule-of-thumb for military engagement is that the attacking force must have 3 to 1 force superiority over the defender. But this assumes the forces are organized as conventional forces, with similar discipline, training, and motivation. In this case, it is a question-mark, a wild card. But one French ISIS fighter cites free hair shampoo as a motivation. Although Iraqis in general may lack better reasons,  those defending Ramadi have one: to live or to die.




Kennan’s Long Telegram

On February 22, 1946, George F. Kennan sent the Long Telegram to the State Department. The subsequent publication of the “X Article” in Foreign Affairs, considered by the foreign policy elders of the day, set the policy of Containment toward the Soviet Union. Quoting from the preface,

Answer to Dept’s 284, Feb. 3,13 involves questions so intricate, so delicate, so strange to our form of thought, and so important to analysis of our international environment that I cannot compress answers into single brief message without yielding to what I feel would be a dangerous degree of oversimplification. I hope, therefore, Dept will bear with me if I submit in answer to this question five parts...I apologize in advance for this burdening of telegraphic channel; but questions involved are of such urgent importance, particularly in view of recent events, that our answers to them, if they deserve attention at all, seem to me to deserve it at once

No subsequent policy, even the War on Terror, has combined the durability and success of Containment. Thirteen years since that ennunciation, there is now a need to enunciate a new policy, not replacing, but overarching the War on Terror, because the world is no longer even remotely bipolar.  A new policy must be authored,  suitable for the resumed pluralism of the world scene.  It should answer this question:

How,  in a multipolar world, with a relative decline of economic and military power, can America’s  security, as much economic as military, be best assured for the next half-century?

The purpose of the long horizon is this. It disallows incorporation into the policy issues that relate to specific, immediate, tactical needs. It forces the authors to take the long view.  It should be a relevant test of every policy with shorter horizon.

We’re a bit short of elder statesmen right now. Those remaining should be invited to add to their legacies of thought.

Psychoanalyzing Putin

According to reports, 32 tanks and assorted howitzers have been deployed by Russia to the Ukraine. An obvious target is  the Donetsk airport, recently the site of some Ukrainian success. But with Russian artillery, unless the Ukrainians have since been supplied with counter battery radar and plenty of throw-weight, it could quickly become a graveyard. Only high resolution satellite imagery can inform whether the Ukrainians have prepared for this level of challenge. In the past, they have not.

This battlefield warmup may pique reader interest  in what makes Putin tick: the psychological makeup, and perhaps, his “philosophies.” Very few world leaders are favored with as much press coverage as Putin, making him an excellent and timely subject. My interest in this actually goes back to 2012, when I published a paper, “Putin’s Character and the Intersection with Russia”, downloadable from With Putin as an enigma, any number of outcomes of the Ukraine crisis, and subsequent evolutions of Russia-West relations, are possible, freely chosen by the prejudice of the predictor. It’s wired into us to decide that any so-and-so is a “force for good”, or “evil incarnate.” A simplification would be to imagine that the outcome lies along a line, as a kind of function,

Outcome = Function(some personality characteristic)

What we would like to know has an analogy in radio direction-finding. Imagine you are trying to find a spy who is surreptitiously transmitting in your territory. If you have a single radio, you rotate your antenna until the signal of the spy is in the “null.” His location is determined to lie along a line, that extends both in front of and in back of you. By adding to your surveillance a second radio, you almost know where he is, unless he is located along a line that passes through your two radios. But if you add a third radio, the spy’s position is almost pinpointed, subject to some irrelevant technical caveats. This example, requiring three radios, is intended to remind the reader of the hopeless inadequacy of plotting Putin’s position along some “axis of evil.” Believe it or not, people have actually used that phrase.

Consider the compatibility, with the facts as they are known, of the simplistic assumption that Putin is benignly concerned about the fate of Russian speaking minorities in eastern Ukraine. This view could be coherently supported by the historical embrace of Fascism by the Ukrainian speaking population, and the continuing, active political presence of Fascism as a minority viewpoint. The imposition of the Ukrainian language as the only official language smacks of petty intolerance. This case also draws energy from the current political landscape of neighboring Hungary, where Fascism is more than a taint. And the breakup  of Yugoslavia suggests that the ingredients for extreme ethnic conflict exist in the current Ukraine.

Unfortunately, the above does not exclude the possibility that Putin is,  in our moral system, genuinely malevolent, challenging the West with every possible grab not repelled by forceful response. Nor does it exclude that Putin, furthering what he considers Russia’s national interest, may now be a permanently painful, annoying blister on the foot of European serenity. The Ukraine scenario admits the whole spectrum of possibilities, which the reader may be inclined to fill in with his own prejudices.  It is difficult  to like someone who is disturbing what had become a very peaceful place.  Bullets in Europe? Who would have thought! But foreign policy is too expensive to rely  on personal prejudices.

With the exception of the Balkans, the history of Europe since the founding of the EU was a refreshing break from Realpolitik, which is, at heart, an amoral (not evil, there is a difference!) system based upon Cardinal Richeliu’s principle of survival of the state, raison d’État. Have we now gone full circle to October 1938 ?

Only Putin On the Couch can tell. To be continued…


Intel9's world view

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