Ukraine & Politics of Appeasement

Many younger readers may not be familiar with the phrase “politics of appeasement“, which is best associated with British P.M. Neville Chamberlain’s misguided attempt to avoid World War II by forcing Czechoslovakia to cede territory.

Chamberlain was not the only practitioner. The period over which the Western democracies attempted to appease the Fascist states spanned 1931-1939. It even includes the refusal of the U.S. to recognize Japan’s annexation of Manchuria, which did not avert the subsequent atrocities or the war itself.

Although Merkel is not a Chamberlain, and Putin is not a Hitler, there are certain similarities. Merkel is rumored to push Poroshenko to make concessions, which, presumably, would lead to “peace for our time.” And Putin, who does not have Hitler’s histrionic speaking style, repeatedly makes reference to Russia’s nuclear arsenal.

It is disconcerting that Putin thinks the EU is susceptible to psychological manipulation, and also, that he might be right. Two sources of Putin’s inspiration come to mind.

The small mustelid predator called the “weasel” overcomes the speed of the rabbit  by performing what is called the “weasel dance”, rapid lateral leaps and bounds, which apparently overload the rabbit’s nervous system so that the flight instinct is paralyzed.

Among the underclass of thieves and murderers, and perhaps among KGB veterans, there is the lore that to kill a familiar person, it helps to habituate the intended victim to the presence of the murder weapon. Familiarity by the victim of the knife or the gun provides the killer a few more seconds, before the victim is aroused, to accomplish the deed.

The interpretation of Putin’s behavioral subtleties is not a science. But there is more power to the technique than referring to the Dnieper river, which bisects Ukraine, as a strategic goal. As a student of Napoleon, Putin knows that being a prisoner of circumstances, and being an opportunist, are not contradictions.

Germany, Ukraine and “Peace for Our Time”

On September 30, 1938, Neville Chamberlain, Prime Minister of the U.K., returned from Munich, having negotiated with Hitler to permit annexation by Germany of portions of Czechoslovakia. He said, “I have brought peace for our time.” This  was a false hope. Next, Hitler invaded Poland, and World War II followed.

David Clarke says that Merkel is pressuring Poroshenko to concede territory in the east of Ukraine, eerily similar to Chamberlain’s pressure on the Czech government, who capitulated to the Munich agreement.

On 8/22, Germany approved the acquisition by  Russian oligarch Mikhail Fridman of RWE Dea AG, an oil and natural gas subsidiary of RWE AG.  Berlin explains that, removing concerns about Russia, the holding company that purchased RWE, LetterOne, is an EU based company.  Fridman’s current relationship, or lack of, with Putin, would be interesting to know. It would help determine whether the  Russian invasion now under way was encouraged by the approval of the deal.

Here my detached “little man” homunculus steps in, providing remove from despair at the West’s response, which stems from a convergence of factors. Some are  some coldly economic, and some are psychological.

Unlike the U.S., the Germans are possessed of a national characteristic that drives them to run a tight economic ship. They do not mint money. Until a few years ago, Germany was the largest exporter of finished industrial goods in the world. The names you know: Mercedes, BMW, Volkswagen, Bosch, Sennheiser,  Leica/Leitz, Zeiss (the oldest optical company in the world.) German quality is the stuff of legend.

While Germany’s parliament does not have the equivalent of U.S. conservative pressure on foreign policy, it has high labor costs, which includes a bargain with labor: everyone will participate to keep the economic machine running 24/7. Unlike the U.S., Germany does not enjoy even the illusion of continental self-sufficiency. If something out of science fiction  isolated each country behind an impenetrable barrier, the U.S. would survive longer. The atmosphere in Germany is too small to hold much oxygen. The U.S. economy can almost stop and then start again; in Germany, cessation of life might be permanent.

Although conservatives are quick to condemn the current Administration as weak on foreign policy, even a strong reaction to Putin’s Ukraine adventurism would not have been enough to catalyze the equivalent of Cold War unity against Russia. Extraordinary  economic interdependence between Europe and Russia is one obstacle. And the erstwhile “Allies” watched the U.S. mainspring run down after the Iraq invasion,  as U.S. “neoconservatives” attempted the Manhattan project equivalent of social engineering, with consequences disastrous for both doctor and patient.

The current Administration has pursued a policy to draw down U.S. activism in world affairs. They know that, historically, no empire has managed to shed its burdens quickly enough to avoid economic ruin. Some personalities are better at bluff, formerly called “brinksmanship”, than others. Hillary Clinton’s remark about China debt,  “How do you deal toughly with your banker?”, could be paraphrased by Germany as, “How do you expect us to drive into the economic ditch, when we have no empire as an excuse?”

There is still room for personal inclination. One  relatively low cost option is to supply arms to virtuous supplicants. There seems to be a bias against handing out guns, rooted in guilt over decades of proxy wars. Is the Ukraine conflict a case of “Live free or die”, or some inhuman premise of international law, such as territorial integrity?

The detached “little man” steps aside. Make your choice.



Al Qaeda Hostage Release, & Lantana Weed Control

The NY Times quotes Rick Brennan of RAND. “Qatar has an interest in making certain it is seen as an ally in the war on terror. And beheading Americans or Westerners is not in Qatar’s interest.” Qatar negotiated with Al Nusra, an Al Qaeda affiliate, for the release of journalist Peter Curtis, who was held somewhere in Syria. According to the media, no ransom was paid.

Until the advent of ISIS, Al Nusra was perhaps the most effective Sunni opposition group in Syria. The NY Times has claimed that Qatar funds Al Nusra, and has transferred MANPADs (shoulder fired AA missiles) to them.

Although open sources on this subject are a minefield of kooks with agendas, there is perhaps one more reasonable fact: the philosophic inspirer  is Abu Musab al-Suri, described by some as the most sophisticated jihadi thinker. It seems that he is the creative author of some ideology compatible with Al Qaeda, and a motivator as well — enough for a group of fanatics to assume his teachings as their mantle.

As the West is hostile to the notion of overthrowing legitimate governments and replacing them with caliphates, the Western definition of “terror group” is more inclusive than that of the Qataris. The Qataris, on the other hand, have less concern about genuine acts of terror — although, if asked, a Qatari would probably not condone all of the acts of Al Qaeda, or even condemn. In juxtaposition with the way Qatar has made facilities available for western military projection of power, this presents a very complex picture that is probably worthy of extensive psychoanalysis. But as far as the human mind is concerned, we must remember that internal contradictions are surprisingly easy to live with. We just happen to recognize them more easily in others, and be more puzzled.

There might be a tendency to tokenize the Qataris with a blip like “actor”, and assign to them a few characteristics for simulation, such as “interests”, “activities”, and “likely response”. But actually, they are just as complex as we are, and in this area, perhaps more so. They are probably wondering, just as we are, what they can do to right the ship. They are not passive, nor are they impeded by bulk.

Here we should note that many “experts”, consultants to the West, who are still part of the decision process, declared the demise of Osama bin Laden to be the end of Al Qaeda. This was attractive because of the apparent finality, and because it is an antidote to the assertion that the West created Islamic terrorism.

We did not create the problem. A vulnerable culture was exposed to the wealth of oil. The delicate skin of Arab isolation was ripped off by cultural abrasion, exposing a culture gap of eight centuries. An ideological vacuum filled with a lantana of the spirit. Lantana is an invasive, noxious weed that kills livestock.

The experts who mistook the capitation strike for the solution are still part of the very bulky decision process that has evolved as an inferior replacement for human judgment and intuition. Paraphrasing the NY Times article by Philip Tetlock, debunker of political expertise , we mistake the process for the solution. And the “process” has become so elaborate, and so prolonged, the events of the past several years have repeatedly outrun it. It would be the stuff of jokes if it weren’t so tragic.

Now for the speculation.  Since the Qataris are closer to the problem, they may already have this intuition. They are not blameless, but as a much smaller ship, they can turn around before we even adjust the rudder. They understand that to displace lantana, one has to plant something that can stand up to it, something that itself might be quite noxious to us. Abu Musab al-Suri is such a seed, and he languishes in a Syrian jail. As an ideological fountainhead, he may offer the prospect of a less pathogenic organism than ISIS.

This kind of action could not pass our decision process. But while we unaccept, the world turns. In the past, other unseemly acts have devolved to proxies. But the Qataris are not proxies.

The lantana metaphor, of the need for an ecological approach to the human spirit, may actually be more useful than the typical literary analogy. The Cold War was a cool, quiet game of chess. Now we’re all farmers. It’s time to get dirty and sweaty.



Did Egypt bomb Libya ?

Quoting Reuters, “Renegade General Khalifa Haftar’s air force was responsible for strikes on Islamist-leaning militia in Tripoli on Monday, one of his commanders said“. The Guardian has a  profile of Haftar. With Haftar’s backing, the Zintan militia had been fighting Misrata militia for Tripoli’s main airport, which the Misratans have now captured.

Haftar claims his forces did the bombings, which the Zintans praised as professional. Reuters: “A Zintani source said fighters in his unit saw planes bombing a Misrata militia position. “Our forces at the airport saw massive and accurate bombings,” he said.

Of course, what we’d really like to know is, who is going to win Libya, Haftar, or the Islamists. But the attention of the press is elsewhere, so the question is not currently tractable, other than to note that losing the airport is not a good sign for Haftar’s bunch. So we start small: Whose airplanes were they? With open source intelligence, this might eventually add up to something.

NATO and Egypt exclude themselves: “A U.S. official and an Egyptian security source, both speaking on condition of anonymity, said their countries had not been involved. ” Since no statement appears credible, this is an occasion to sift through the contradictions, while enjoying a crooked smile:

  • Capability. It is almost a fact that nobody in Libya has warplanes that work.
  • Unimportance of the target. The target has been described as no more than “a Misrata militia position.” This favors Haftar’s claim of responsibility, since the more distant the responsible party, the more important the military justification.
  • Denials. The U.S. and Egyptians deny, but “both speaking on condition of anonymity.” Usually, a denial of involvement is made loudly and with official imprimatur.  But it’s important not to fall into the trap of excessive conspiracy. Their shyness does not inculpate the U.S. or the Egyptians, but it at least implies that the force responsible for the bombings is shielded by ambiguity. And it gives Haftar the benefit of propaganda.
  • Strength. Haftar wants credit for the bombings, because the ability to bomb implies strength, and strength evokes loyalty. There is always an attraction to being on the winning side.
  • Ethics. In the Middle East, in the current conflicts of nationalist versus tribal, there seems to be a “golden rule”: atrocities committed by one tribe against another are acceptable, but outside interference is considered unfair. This is all too familiar to law enforcement responders to domestic violence calls, when one or both parties interrupt their attempts to murder the other by turning on the responders.
  • Secular vs. Islamist. Islamism of all sorts is packaged for export. It has been claimed that Saddam Hussein initiated the Iran-Iraq war because he feared Iran would export revolution to Iraq’s Shi’ites. Saddam’s Iraq was comparatively secular. El-Sisi’s Egypt is secular compared to Libya’s Islamists. By analogy, el-Sisi could fear the potential of Libya’s Islamists to refuel the Muslim Brotherhood.
  • The U.S. ? This might seem attractive to those distant from U.S. politics, to those who see the U.S. as the author of conspiracies such as have historical record. Those closer to the U.S. political scene understand that the country has changed. For better or worse, the giant has feet of clay.
  • Israel? Although there is talk of actual cooperation between Israel and Arab states that fear political Islam, it would be unprecedented. The process of exclusion would lead to Israel only if el-Sisi could not safely motivate the Egyptian military to attack Libyan Islamists. But the climate in Egypt, particularly in the insular military, seems permissive of the action.





Making Plans; Getting Ready; Iraq Mosque Massacre

In political impact on attempts at unification, the massacre, reported by CNN, is the most significant of recent massacres, because, unlike the others, it is interpreted as an act by one political faction against another.  The word “interpreted” is added just to guard against the  chance that it was  a false-flag ISIS operation. In the dismal accounting, it adds to the pile supporting the hypothesis of “Important Iraq Question“, and “Iran’s Strategy of Partition.

Proving nothing, the massacre is merely compatible with the Iran hypothesis, but I find myself  surprised that the perpetrators couldn’t find something better to shoot at. In the long game, the difference will show, but in the intermediate, the massacre highlights the nonviable nature of a U.S. strategy based on a politically unified Iraq.

Western culture is one of plans. In histories of World War II, much credit is given to Allied planning, which encompassed industrial and logistical effort spanning multiple years. While the raw material, men and their lives, remained the same as in previous wars, waging WWII became an exercise of management science. The specialty of operations research originated in the U.K., but was subsumed by U.S. technologists postwar. Some readers may be familiar with linear programming. One of the first postwar uses of digital computers was to solve linear programming problems as they appeared in the context of O.R.

Every previous U.S. intervention has assumed at least the fiction of political stability. This is now absent. It’s more like a game of pinball where you don’t even get to pull the plunger. The ball skitters out onto the table, while the adroit “cheat” tries to tilt the table without activating the “tilt switch.” Perhaps a closer analogy occurs if the pinball machine is in the mess of a destroyer in a rough sea.

Normally, I would stick to just trying to guess what’s coming down the pike, but the situation is so unusual, I venture an opinion. A situation like this defeats the normal concept of a plan, requiring innovation in the approach:

  • The immediate goal is dynamic, point-to-point minimization and containment of the threat, not molding of regional politics.
  • The response should be fluid, opportunistic, highly dynamic, and capable of varying rapidly and repeatedly from intensity to quiescence.
  • Since all of the players, with the possible exception of the Kurds, seem capable of uncivilized activities, politics must be very practical.
  • The duration is unknown.
  • The endpoint cannot be defined.
  • As the situation evolves, it is possible that opportunities for exit, or a more conventional strategy, will present. But not now.

Whether the challenge can be met will largely depend upon whether the planning structures of the U.S. government can adapt to these new requirements.


ISIS Executions & Emotional Reactions

Part of predicting is gathering of information and analysis. Another, equally vital component, is the mindset in which these activities occur. For two broad reasons, the ISIS executions should not shock. One reason is that analysis  should have already been performed, anticipating the executions.

But the best predicting also requires a kind of emotional detachment that is contrary to the need to wish for the good, the beautiful, and the true. I have found it useful to imagine, inside my head, a “little man” who feels detached, and who analyzes and predicts on my behalf.

Since computers became widely available, the term “virtual machine” is probably understood by many readers. Psychologists have a term, “empathy”, which is enabled by imagining the thought processes of another, or equivalently, simulating a simplified version of another person’s mind. This is a type of virtual process.

All this was anticipated by the mathematical specialty of estimation theory, which advocates, “Every good predictor contains a model of the system that is the subject of prediction.” Sure enough, in linear systems theory, where prediction and control systems can be drawn as diagrams, there is always a block identifiable as the system model.

So, if you find yourself more than modestly affected by the recent ISIS atrocities, you need to do some work on the part of your self you use for predicting. In my own case, this has resulted in lesser inclination to stomp on my hat and gnash my teeth, but without harm to my soul.

Iran history II: two societies

One author of an Iran history (possibly Armajani, but I’ve misplaced the volume) compares the Iranian historical concept of  the “right to rule” to a dye that stains the ruler, almost but not quite indelibly. It’s a notion compatible with enduring class consciousness of modern Iran. That author gives a marvelously detailed account of how the clerics of the  Safavid  dynasty, whose political period spanned roughly 1500 to 1722, manipulated the legitimacy question in the popular mind, gaining power in the process.

This is hard to pick up from Elton Daniel’s very precise The History of Iran. Written in the traditional mode, it does not provide “Google Street View”.  But about the Safavids, he writes (p92-93),

“This was also the period when the problem of excessive clerical influence became most severe. …In the case of Shah Abbas, such actions were probably intended only to cultivate the mojtaheds through the use of flattery and financial rewards…The notoriously timid and superstitious  Shah Soltan Hosayn (1694-1722), for example, was thoroughly  dominated by the ulama.”

The resemblance to the current situation, of a limited and easily intimidated secular government, is startling enough to keep handy.   But while the concept of the Islamic jurist, the faqih, is very old, the tradition of governance is very new. Before Khomeini’s innovation of velyat al faqih, if someone were determined by a legitimate faqih to be guilty of adultery, it would be up to others to carry out the prescribed penalty.

Some of the strangeness of the situation can be removed, so as to better concentrate on the remainder, with a comparison to the history of the West.  Between the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D.,  and 1870, when the Papal States were dissolved, the West encompassed varying degrees of theocracy, religious/secular symbiosis, and competition at intensities up to the level of warfare, with some periods and geographies of oppression more extreme than modern Iran.  In the Middle Ages of the West, freedom of expression was not even a debatable subject. In contrast, most Iranians are not religious. Fewer Iranians worship at mosques than Americans go to church. And unlike the Middle Ages, Iranians have satellite TV, the bootleg variety, so they can watch what they want.

But the extremes of Iran catch our eyes: the executions of “heretics” and dissidents, even children; the morality police who until recently roamed the streets, and a theocratic element that with increasing desperation adheres to practices claimed to be divinely inspired, and therefore exempt from the corrosion of time. It is the living embodiment of a Plato’s Republic,  incongruously set against a secular majority that pretty much does what they please — in private. The dichotomy is so severe  as to seem institutionalized hypocrisy.

How did two separate societies get to be in the same place at the same time? Next: goats and donkeys.

Iran: When is history important?

There was a participant in the FWE project who, being an expert on Byzantine history, took every opportunity in the forum for lengthy recitals, which in vague ways were supposed to presage and explain events in the modern Middle East. I could never understand the connections, though the word counts of the posts were amazing. Now, knowledge of Byzantine history is or was a favorite measuring stick of people with big hat sizes. The more you knew, the more brilliant you were, proven in competitive recitals like chess matches. I myself was humiliated by the lawyer  just starting out in the upstairs office who didn’t have enough clients.  I hear he’s doing well.

But even though the Ottomans laid claim to Byzantine legitimacy, and they lasted until 1922, this history doesn’t seem to explain much, if anything. The slate of grudges, obligations, entitlements, and destinies was wiped clean, and replaced by contemporary material. Apparently, people can be very unsentimental about their history:

  • In China, builders are creating idealized facsimiles of American suburban villages, complete with spired Protestant churches. I can’t find the citation where a buyer is quoted as buying the whole package, including religious conversion, so look at the Nine Towns instead.
  • During the70’s,  an often cited survey of West Germans indicated that, if offered the opportunity, most Germans would move to the U.S., “because they could make more money.”
  • In Russia, the prevailing sentiment among the cognoscenti is, “Let’s get outta here!” The spirit of Russia, Stolichnaya, is highly portable.
  • Attempting to engage the local Chinese restaurant owner about Chinese politics, she indicated that she didn’t know and didn’t care. She did tell me that Chinese restaurants in China are much more palatial, “because, why go out?”

Against this, there are the billions who will fight to the death for the right to chant their chants, wear their hats, speak their tongues, and do their Morris Dances.  The relevance of history is tied up with this, somehow. Possibly many citations of historical relevance are in error. So, if the claim is made that Iran’s current behavior is historically influenced, is there a litmus test? Or is it a case of, “I know it when I see it” ?

The books of Azadeh Moaveni, Lipstick Jihad, and Honeymoon in Tehran, are great reads, highlighting what, by lack of exposure in the historical trade, is the equivalent of physics “dark matter”. Everything she writes about, largely preserved by the XX diploid,  winds up in the heads of young men in some sublimated form, perhaps invisibly tempering the natural male inclination to coerce and kill. It’s a whole other side, revealed in the course of Moaveni’s personal struggle to disentangle the  cultural from the religious.

The metal of a key glints: in Iran, there is a distinction between the cultural and the religious. Before proceeding any further, this provides a clue that in Iran, history is very relevant. But proceed we must. It is the contrast agent required to see the mullahs clearly.

More later…