Chechnya threatens Russia; Expansionist Complex

Quoting the Guardian, “Chechnya’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, has told his security forces to open fire on Russian federal troops if they operate in the region without his approval.”

Kadyrov’s order was provoked by the killing of a suspect (correction: to be precise, it’s claimed he threw himself on a grenade), according to Russian media, by federal forces based in Chechnya (map, region 2), and forces from Stavropol Krai (Map, region 7). So rarely useful, deduction shines:

  1.  Kadyrov runs assassination squads both inside Russia and outside (see the Guardian article.)
  2. In Chechnya, you are either a friend of Kadyrov, or you are in risk of being dead.
  3. The Kremlin wanted somebody dead inside Chechnya, but Kadyrov would not do the hit. Perhaps he could not even be asked to.

Ergo, the man was an ally of Kadyrov. And one ally of Kadyrov, Zaur Dadayev, has already been implicated in the killing of Boris Nemetsov.

For Kadyrov to refuse to kill someone, or be unapproachable for the job, is so exceptional, it amounts to protection. This event, the killing in Chechnya,  Kadyrov’s reaction, and the prior murder of Boris Nemetsov, are temporally and spatially connected. See the map; Chechnya, and Stavropol Krai are not adjacent to Ukraine, but not that far away either.

As home to the most virulent Muslim extremism, Chechnya presents the constant threat of internal terrorism, as well as export of militants to foreign hot spots.  Kadyrov keeps the lid on with personally inspired brutality. In reward for neutralizing the internal threat to Russia, Kadyrov rules Chechnya like an independent vassal state. One man rule, with all the ego satisfaction of the despot, is the only pay big enough.

In the post Wesley Clark, Ukraine, & Russian Expansionist Complex, it’s asserted, “But it appears that there now exists in Russia an expansionist complex, not localized purely to a faction, that by process of diffusion may now be uncontrollable.”

The argument for a Russian expansionist complex resembles what mathematicians call a “nonconstructive proof.” Without identification of the actors, It is  based upon the tendency of nationalistic sentiment to spawn centrifugal forces in the post revolutionary period, with two motivations:  personal ambition, and “who owns the dream”. In the U.S., there was the Burr Conspiracy; in Nazi Germany, the Night of the Long Knives, in France, Napoleon. In Russia, the two motives combine.

The identification of  Kadyrov as a linchpin of the expansionist complex is circumstantial, based on:

  • Deductive argument per above, suggesting that the individual killed by Russian cops was protected by Kadyrov.
  • Temporal coincidence with the Nemetsov murder and the Ukraine conflict.
  • Spatial coincidence ( proximity with the Ukraine.)
  • Likely culpability of more than one individual “belonging” to Kadyrov in the murder of Nemetsov, who was opposed to Russia’s Ukraine involvement.

Circumstantial reasoning is weaker than the mathematician’s nonconstructive proof, but in the U.S., a murder conviction can be completely circumstantial. And given Kadyrov’s absolute control of Chechnya, he either sanctioned the hit on Nemetsov,  was inattentive, or had mutinous subordinates. Kadyrov says that if Dadayev is one of the killers, he acted on his own, though Dadyev may just be a fall guy.

The use of a deductive format does not imply certainty of analysis. Without a motive, choice from the three possibilities is vague. But membership in the expansionist complex offers a motive, a quid pro quo with other members of the complex. As Kadyrov has subdued through brutality a population with tendencies toward rebellion and extremism, he is an unusual person. He lives very close to death, and deflects it by inflicting it on others. History offers examples of lethargic despots, such as Papa Doc, but the energy required to subdue a population with the violent potential of Chechnya does not permit lethargy. This suggests Kadyrov is the other type of despot, with the impulse to expand his absolute domain.

Kadyrov has already achieved the remarkable. Chechnya, which, technically, lost two wars with Russia, is now an enclave, an independent vassal state completely contained within Russia,. The expansionist despot, like Hannibal Lecter, desires to escape his prison.

How can he escape?



Pivot To Asia; Force Projection, Part 3

The authors of the pivot might prefer euphemistic phrasing, such as, “For decades, U.S. naval presence has helped to keep the peace in the western Pacific…”

The use of hard power to “manage China”  has roots in gunboat diplomacy, which was the traditional way for the European powers to deal with the weak China of the Qing dynasty.  In the 90’s and early 2000’s, defense columnists were heard to use the phrase “manage China” to justify development of the Zumwalt class destroyer.  When the pace of China’s development made a reprise of The Sand Pebbles unlikely, the build was cut from 29 to 3.

It was a brave decision by Adm. Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations. The program should never have progressed that far. But rather than an example of military bloat, it represents a failure to extrapolate a threat climate into the future.  In 1995, the Zumwalt might have survived off the shores of China. In 2005, it could not. It took three more years for Roughead to axe it. And this is not a singular error, it is a systematic one, the result of a continuing inability to extrapolate China’s trajectory.

China’s visceral awareness of the U.S. carriers as the lynchpin of power projection came about during the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis. In March of 1996, the Nimitz group sailed through the Strait, and there wasn’t a weapon in the Chinese arsenal that could do anything about it. In 1996, the carriers were an incontestable projection of U.S. power. They were, from the perspective of weapons targeting, invisible to the shore radars of the day. This was accomplished by phase-locked jamming signals broadcast by multiple ships, both hiding the ships and creating phantoms in their stead. Although the U.S. Navy has more large surface combatant ships than any time since World War II, the increased order of battle is nullified by an asymmetric threat. Most of the above-surface threat could be effectively countered by the free-electron laser, but the power requirements of the weapon are greatly in excess of the Nimitz Class of carriers. The Gerald R. Ford class anticipates this weapon, but it will take many years for replacement of the current fleet.

Against the underwater supercavitating torpedo, and  the supersonic cruise missile, there are no current countermeasures with the kind of kill ratio you’d like. If you were with an infantry platoon, with bullets whizzing past, would you feel comfortable if told that the chances that any particular bullet had your name on it was one in a hundred?  This belongs to the pithy argument for quantity: “Quantity has a quality all its own.” See the Congressional Research Report.

While the cruise missiles and torpedos may evoke spears against muskets, China developed their own version of a grand-slam weapon, the DF-21 anti-carrier ballistic missile. It is guided by satellite synthetic aperture radar operating at much shorter frequencies than land based radar, producing actual images of the target. With a conventional warhead, the kinetic energy of the kill vehicle would severely damage a carrier. With a small nuclear weapon, a single missile could take out an entire carrier battle group.

The modern relevance of the loss of strength gradient, devised by Kenneth E. Boulding in 1962, comes into play. “Gradient” is an exaggeration of exactitude, since, in asymmetric conflicts with unsophisticated adversaries, the U.S. and allies have projected tremendous force. But against a sophisticated adversary, when the first strike advantage does not come into play, it probably has practical, if not mathematical, validity. The South China Sea is very close to China, very far from us, and the carrier is no longer the invulnerable vehicle of force projection.

For every measure, there is a countermeasure. A favorite word  in the weaponeer’s trade  is daedal, reference with admiration to the intricacies of a weapon system. It is the fruit of an engineering establishment that brought most of the modern world into being. This kind of human resource was once exclusive to the U.S. and Western Europe, but it has diffused on many levels. Problems of what formerly were dark arts, such as terrain-guided cruise missiles, are being solved in third world countries.

The  advantage in technology which the U.S. formerly enjoyed is in a state of relative decline. The counter of  Boulding’s law by advanced technology will shortly become untenable.  For every measure, daedal will produce a countermeasure, but these pairs cannot restore the advantage previously enjoyed, which was that of a technologically sophisticated civilization against one unsophisticated.

The costs of miscalculating the trajectory of China are both tactical and strategic. The tactical cost manifests  in the failure to extrapolate the viability of a weapon system. Without the costs of the Zumwalt program, notwithstanding “paralysis in government”, there might be money for another viable weapon.

This is the problem of power projection. But the subject ignites, in many, a hypnotic fear  that makes us want to reach for a bigger gun.  Perhaps fear defines our game, without agreement by the other player as to the definition. This incurs the strategic cost. Since statements of diplomacy almost have the tradition of deception,  China’s strategists may not  intend any more misdirection than is par for the course.

The game is not about hard power; it’s about soft.  With failure to understand this,  our score, when it comes to “game-set-match”, will be  entirely our own fault.

Next: hard versus soft.




Pivot To Asia, Cultural Aspects, Part 2

If you tire of the gastronomic travel tours of the Sunday Times, try Paul Theroux, who replaces complaisant companions with a bottle of booze (The Old Patagonian Express), and with a canoe in The Happy Isles of Oceania. Theroux is above neither praise or criticism, but his sardonic observations about the smaller islands of Oceania, which he navigated largely by canoe, and alone, have the ring of truth, if possibly skewed. The islands Theroux describes are not happy, conforming to the general tendency of humans to make a hell out of paradise.

It’s important to take a guess at the accuracy of his observations. I think they’re pretty good. These small places have character, which can no more be neglected than the heritage of Chinese mythology described by Henry Kissinger. Theroux describes a Melanesia and Polynesia whose inhabitants hate the sight of the sea, vomiting on ferries that cross harbors and small straits. Fear of the sea could not be predicted from the history of those historic seafarers, who traveled thousands of miles in open boats guided by stars. But the sea is now not an opportunity, but an obstacle,  source of the terrors of tsunamis and typhoons. Perhaps some gene of exaggerated fear kept them alive, when they had to go and come back, go, and come back…

So they turn their backs to the sea, try to pretend it doesn’t exist, focusing instead on their land and their squabbles, in a word, being human. And there we have the paradox of small nations. The ratio of border length to land area gives greater relative exposure to the outside, so they tend  to curl up in  protective balls of self-absorption, of which the small islands of Oceania are the extreme. The larger island nations  tend also towards inward attention. The larger the nation, the more likely to project. Russia, the largest country, devours Ukraine. The Philippines, tiny in area (but not population) by comparison, voice effete protests against Chinese, who expand by planting stakes on land reclaimed from the sea. The atolls have always been there, ignored by Manila except as some vague future promise. Only Vietnam threatens China with a fleet of submarines. But China drills in territory disputed by Vietnam, and Vietnam merely complains.

Complaints! Every member of ASEAN bordering on this sea disputes economic zones, atolls, and islets with the others. There is not a shred of cooperation against their common adversary, which happens to be their largest trading partner. A few years ago, some pundits averred that the Asian tradition of consensus prior to agreement might not be correctly understood by western diplomats. But the disputants may not understand it themselves. Sometimes a charade shrouds a meaningful process, and sometimes, a charade is just a charade. Part of this charade are claims against Japan by the Republic of China, a country that occupies the island of Formosa, the whole of which is claimed by The People’s Republic of China. It’s a very convoluted charade!

Philippines Armed Forces chief Gen. Gregorio Catapang Jr. said, “We are really amazed by the pace of China’s reclamation. It’s fast but I hope it’s not furious, …We are in a very difficult situation because now, they are reclaiming the Mischief Reef. If they reclaim Mischief Reef, we will be cut off,” he added. The Philippines calls Mischief Reef Panganiban Reef.

In composition of U.S. foreign policy, the passivity of these nations, and their preference for isolated individuality, cannot be ignored. As facts of behavior, they are as important as facts on the ground. To be effective, the pivot towards Asia must catalyze an alliance. But the ASEAN nations squabble among themselves with competing claims. The Philippines have asked ASEAN to take a stand. Perhaps there will be a statement, against the facts on the reclaimed ground China is creating. China has insisted that each dispute is purely bilateral. Surely, they could not be thinking, divide et impera!

The lack of cohesion against what some  perceive as a major threat to the international order is not simply the result of the competing claims. With a few multicultural exceptions, Southeast Asia is a place of pervasive ethnic separatism,  expressed by the word communalism, which in southeast Asia has a definition markedly different from the western, conveying the desire of various groups for ethnic and political isolation from other groups. Homogenous groups that already have separation, such as Japan, manifest a xenophobia to keep it that way. In a broader sense, most of these countries have some kind of a creation myth or heavenly mandate as their form of “exceptionalism.” And the inseparable companion of superiority is antipathy to “the other.”

This is the cultural backdrop of the pivot towards Asia. The lenses diplomacy and negotiation, if relied upon too much as a framework of thought, fail to capture the human angle, and so can’t catalyze the  goal. In chemistry, catalysis is the promotion of a chemical reaction by an element that is not itself consumed. In the absence of catalysis, a foreign policy  consumes resources without commensurate benefit. Cost/benefit analysis, a concept of economics, has always been the weak sister of diplomacy.

Next: power projection.





Pivot To Asia, Historical Background; Part 1

One day in 1894 or ’95, a  seaman in the British merchant-marine put pen to paper, and wrote “a story of an eastern river.” Although he spoke English with a thick Polish accent, Joseph Conrad came to be regarded as the greatest novelist in the English language. Almayer’s Folly was his first work, based largely on his own experiences in the seas of the Orient. About the river, he wrote:

“And Captain Lingard has lots of money,”, would say Mr. Vinck solemnly, with his head on one side, “lots of money; more than Hudig!” And after a pause —  just to let his hearers recover from their astonishment at such an incredible assertion — he would add in an explanatory whisper, “You know, he has discovered a river.”  …Into that river, whose entrances only he himself knew, Lingard used to take his assorted cargo of Manchester goods, brass gongs, rifles, and gunpowder.”

Hudig was a Dutch trader, most  probably in the 1880’s, and the river was on the island of Borneo, which is today split between Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei. In Conrad’s second novel, An Outcast of the Islands, the forest (jungle) is explained:

The houses crowded the bank, and, as if to get away from the unhealthy shore, stepped boldly into the river, shooting over it in a close row bamboo platforms elevated on high piles, amongst which the current below spoke in a soft an unceasing plaint of murmuring eddies. There was only one path in the whole town and it ran at the back of the houses along the succession of blackened circular patches that marked the place of the household fires. On the other side the virgin forest bordered the path, coming close to it, as if to provoke impudently any passer-by to the solution of the gloomy problem of its depths. Nobody would accept the deceptive challenge. There were only a few feeble attempts at a clearing here and there, but the ground was low and the river retiring after its yearly floods, left on each a gradually diminishing mudhole…

The forest was deadly: malaria, bacteria, molds, fungi, and all manners of parasites were primed to devour challengers. In  Oceana, tribes and cultures were connected by water, and isolated by land. In Europe, the connections were by land, and the isolations by water. In mathematical terms, Europe, where the Westphalian system of states was conceived, was simply connected. Lacking an opposite term for Oceana, one might say it was magically connected, by rivers such as Lingard’s discovery. In the 19th century, Oceana resembled science fiction conceptions of interstellar space, containing myriad tiny worlds, each facing The River, with their backs to the Void.

Before then, before the New World came into consciousness, the Old World was riven by natural  barriers. Europe was the exception, one contiguous place, aware of itself. Far to the east, separated by land of low agricultural productivity, and hence low population density, was China. Isolated from most of southeast Asia by the Himalayas, and the rest by jungle, China also took to the sea. Between 1405 and 1433,  admiral Zheng He sent  expeditions of treasure ships to Oceana, southeast Asia, and as far as Africa. The size of Chinese treasure ships is debated, with estimates varying between huge and colossal. The size betrays the difficulty; it was akin to the fictional image of interstellar travel.

Besides material goods, the expeditions returned impressions. In their transit through the South China Sea,  civilization, as the Chinese understood it, was not encountered, for the reasons explained by quotations of Conrad. So the Mandate of Heaven, dating at least to the Zhou Dynasty in 1046  B.C.,  remained unchallenged. That China is closest to Heaven, the “Middle Kingdom”, above all other earthly kingdoms, is also a synthesis of this period.

But this is ancient history, and it seems as irrelevant to us as Putin’s claim that Russia was born in Kiev. Maybe it is.  So what? Sadly, most claims are based in attitudes that have little grounding in relevant fact. The Nine Dotted Line of current dispute was first demarcated in 1947 by the Nationalist government, the immediate successor of the last imperial dynasty of China. This suggests that the root of the claim is historical and cultural, and unfortunately, in complete opposition to international law as understood in the West.

Those dynasties were the custodians of a principle well explained in Chapter 6 of Henry Kissinger’s World Order. Quoting,

“In this view, world order reflected a universal hierarchy, not an equilibrium of competing sovereign states. Every known society was conceived of as being in some kind of tributary relationship…”

China is the largest buyer of U.S. bonds. Whether the interest paid is a form of tribute is in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps the Chinese think it is.

Continuing, “…Diplomacy was not a bargaining process between multiple sovereign interests but a series of carefully contrived ceremonies in which foreign societies were given the opportunity to affirm their assigned place in the global hierarchy…”

The entire chapter is well worth reading. Perhaps Dr. Kissinger goes into a subject that we think  ancient and irrelevant because he feels that, as an attitude, and a process of thought, it somehow lives on. If Putin can think Russia was born in Kiev, why not?

Next, more complications for U.S. Asia policy.

Hilliary Clinton & foreign policy

Hilliary Clinton, the person, will shortly be the subject of intense examination by the media and electorate.

I’m not a fervent people person, so I’ll watch, with many of the rest of you, to see how Clinton the person, and the candidate, unfolds. But even at this early stage, I have one reasonable surmise. In the area of foreign policy, Hillary Clinton has  the potential as President  to rival the effectiveness of Henry Kissinger in the Nixon Administration.

In the execution of foreign policy, no amount of intelligence can compensate for the lack of prior exposure to the field. Henry Kissinger acquired his experience vicariously, through study. Hilliary Clinton acquired  experience as Secretary of State. In her tenure, she broke with the Obama Administration on Syria, showing that she is not in thrall to the policy wonks and, in fact, has independent judgment.

It may be constitutionally difficult for a President oriented toward domestic issues to deal with an evil world. In domestic politics, one tries to see the best in people. With international relations, one needs to see the worst. Incorporating the two mindsets seems to defy the brightest of humans. At the Yalta conference, F.D.R. attempted to charm Stalin as if he were some rogue of an old pol.  Apart from issues related to his health, F.D.R.’s social gambit included jokes at Churchill’s expense. The idea, and error, that human charm works in the international sphere the way it does domestically, is recurrent. Among foreign diplomats, it’s called “going native”, with a recent occurrence the fond remarks of Dennis Rodman about Kim Jong-un.

Going native may be related in some way with the Stockholm Syndrome. Put in a situation where one must deal with a threatening person, or group, one superimposes an unjustifiably benign image.  Hilliary Clinton is unlikely to fall into the trap.


Pakistan refuses Saudi Request for Yemen Alliance

A while back, I met one of my “assets” in a dimly lit Indian restaurant. By this, I mean someone whose conversation I overheard, and who I was brazen enough to engage in unsolicited dialog before the suggestion was made that we continue on another occasion. In our brief discussion, which was encouragingly empty of hyperbolic rhetoric, he opined that the governing class of Pakistan was utterly ruthless in the sacrifice of their citizens to their games of power.  In the span marked by the Partition, till the booting of Asif Ali Zardari, this seems like a fair assessment. But against this backdrop, there have nevertheless been meaningful gyrations. The Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 led to the radicalization of the country, with replacement by General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq of secular public schools with a madrassa system of education. The public literature mentions this as a mere footnote, but it was, in fact, a turning point in the evolution of Pakistan, a shrouding of all the positive things the West admires, replaced by something strange, intolerant, and now understood to be dangerous and violent.

In Pakistan, as with Saudi Arabia and Iran, there is a dichotomy of life between the 1% and the masses. The 1% are privately western, the masses in thrall to religious ideology. In Pakistan, the 1% are also the political class, who duke it out with power structures rooted in the madrassas. The situation recalls a lawyer joke: “How can you tell a lawyer is lying? Answer: His lips are moving.” Until recently, (there is nascent reform) it has been one of the one of the two ways a Pakistani politician of secular persuasion can deal with the 99%. The other way is exploitation of the national psychosis about India.

The sudden betrayal of one’s own slogans goes back to the beginning. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the esteemed poet whose agitations were responsible  for the Partition of India, decreed immediately afterwards that the new Pakistan was to be a secular state. His wish did not carry well with the masses who had just endured grueling and deadly migrations to be with their own. But it is an interesting template, to use religion as a tool, and drop the tool when the job is done. In Pakistan, it has been utilized so much, it makes election promises here in the U.S. appear, by comparison, completely genuine.

Perhaps you are familiar with the concept of national psychosis in the example of North Korea, which is “convinced” that the U.S. is out to destroy it. To gauge the severity of Pakistan’s affliction, one need only examine the country’s national defense doctrine. According to their strategists, the only, and very real danger to Pakistan’s existence, is India. If, in spite of Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent, India invade Pakistan, perhaps in a desperate ploy to add to their population,  the Pakistani Army is to “take to the hills”, meaning, the rolling green verdant paradise of Afghanistan, until such time as they can counterattack and drive the Indians out. This insane doctrine is one of the reasons why Pakistan’s cooperation with the U.S. in Afghanistan has been so frictional. While the U.S. doctrine is that Afghanistan is actually a viable country (in itself a delusion), Pakistan regards it as a convenient hideout.

It does sound a lot like Hitler’s Alpine Redoubt. With a strategy like this, one expects to find Pakistani flying saucers hidden under the Antarctic icecap, or on the far side of the moon, ready to wreak havoc on the hapless Indians. Yet in spite of best efforts, such as the Mumbai massacre, India has never taken the bait. India refuses to be part of the delusion.

When insane asylums were inhabited by picaresque inmates, before psychoactive medications deprived them of the ability to tell their stories, it was noted that the insane generally had a single preoccupation. So the India psychosis may, in fact, be protective against other delusions. The west of Pakistan, and the bordering east of Iran, is split by an area with a dominant ethic identity: Balochistan, occupied by speakers of a kind of old Persian. Although the Balochi are primarily Sunni, there is a significant Shiite minority. There may be a potential for Iran to stir the pot in this region, creating a problem analogous to Jammu and Kashmir on the opposite, west side of Pakistan. This would be unfortunate for a country determined to concentrate on their national psychosis.

So, when Saudi Arabia approached this basket case of a country for help, Prime Minister Sharif uncharacteristically soft-pedaled it to the parliament, who voted no. But this does not mean what it says. In Pakistan, nothing does. As with Iran, in Pakistan, the commonplace concept of a single hierarchy of power does not apply. Here in the U.S., initiatives that result in action are subject to determinative procedures. There has always been a conflict between executive and legislative powers, but, with some notable exceptions, it has been open.

My “asset” in the dimly lit Indian restaurant, whispered, “When, in the U.S., your president says something should be done, something actually happens. Not so in Pakistan. He could decree that this thing be done, or that thing, and nothing will happen!” I swallowed this truth with some morsel colored green that had the scorch of mustard and chili. I furtively glanced at the walls, wondering if they had ears. Actually, it was hard to get a waiter even if you yelled at the top of your lungs. And I value my sources so highly, I wish I had his phone number.

The reverse is also true.  The civilian government has no control over the military and the ISI. The only bonds are interests that sometimes coincide. In reality, Pakistan has two governments: one civilian, and one military. Each has something to offer the other. The civilian government has vote machines that tamp domestic violence. The military realizes the external threat, which, in this fractious nation, is the primary bond. The external threat-psychosis underpins the national identity.

The vote of Pakistan’s parliament limits, but does not exclude participation. The Pakistani Army would have been quite an asset in Yemen. It  has been thoroughly blooded, and as British offspring, has  elements of internal motivation lacked by others of the region. But their presence is somewhat interchangeable with Egyptian forces of similar quality and heritage.

The vote is not a barrier to the other need, for sealift. The Saudis would like to move massive components to Aden, which is the only significant port, and economic center, in Yemen. Inconveniently, most of the world’s ocean shipping is by huge container ships, which require cargo to be prepackaged in bus-size containers. While anything can be containerized, it’s geared towards industry-standard needs. Shipping a few motorized battalions is not one of them. What the Saudis really need is something like the Military Sealift Command, but as the giant now has feet of clay, this seems unlikely. Pakistan’s cargo fleet is negligible, but Karachi is a major port of call for small (in modern terms) general cargo ships that ferry modest loads around the Arabian Sea. Pakistan’s ISI can disburse Saudi money, and these ships can be hired to transport Saudi military units to Aden.

They will be joined there by Egyptian troops. This is one game the House of Saud cannot afford to lose.

These guys can help.


Edward R. Murrow, Brian Williams, & Oil Painting Tips & Tricks

I painted a portrait.

Once upon a time, before American journalism reached the current  state of terminal degeneration, and yet, paradoxically, before the Best and the Brightest piled into it (now replaced by Dumb and Dumber), there was a man who is credited with the creation of broadcast journalism. His name was Edward R. Murrow, and may it not be erased by the sands of time.

Five things you need to know (this is a popular news site hook) for your new day:

  • traffic report
  • rain?
  • how much gas is in your tank
  • your credit card balance
  • the location of your wallet and keys

Since all this is readily gained without much help from the media (unless you are habituated to the weatherperson wearing an oversize tie), a large proportion of the news is now entertainment, mainly schadenfreude.

But there was a time before that, before a major news site hired a comic book writer to critique the F-35 fighter, before another major news site ran Russian propaganda as opinion, before the word “were” became equivalent to “where”, before the current intermingling of fact, opinion, and fiction. It was a time before it became style to couch every important issue as a rhetorical question, as in “Is ISIS a threat to the U.S.?”

Even the NY Times is not immune. Recently, an article discussed computer security for the traveler. Ignoring the considerable human resources of the Times in the area of IT, outside credentialed experts were consulted. The article failed to mention VPNs, proffering instead valueless advice couched in lame aphorisms.

In the time before, we had the Walters, Lipmann and Cronkite, whose interpretations were always conceived and given with the solemnity of great duty. But in  broadcast journalism, Murrow was first. He is described as not having been a genius, but with an uncanny ability to recognize talent. All the things he did prior to March 9, 1954, were enough to describe an illustrious career. But on that night, his show See it Now assured Murrow’s place in the  pantheon of heroes.

There was then a Senator of Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, whose histrionic political posturing  involved the destruction of professional lives by a kind of inquisition against communist moles in government and media. Grass-roots support required a continual stream of innocent victims, who were required to name names to save themselves from the black list. Fueled by memories of the Red Scare, and the undeniable presence of some communist sympathizers, McCarthy’s bonfires roared on. Even Ike seemed reluctant to take him on, hoping, perhaps, that McCarthyism would burn itself out.

On March 9th, Murrow took on McCarty with an expose that would eventually lead to the Army-McCarthy hearings. At risk was Murrow’s professional life, for no potential victim was free from the threat of fabricated evidence and innuendo.  Murrow did not invent muckraking, but he refreshed the tradition, and did so at great personal risk. Characteristically, he resigned from CBS on a matter of principle in 1961.

But three years before that, in 1958, Murrow, in his “Wires and Lights in a Box” speech, decried the shift of broadcast news away from information, towards entertainment. Gradually, the prestige that accrues to those who tell important truth has yielded to the profit motive. Fifty four years after Murrow quit CBS,  Brian Williams was suspended from NBC News on a matter of shame. In six months, he will be back. In what capacity should a morally compromised person associate with broadcast news? And why should we believe him?

Perhaps Williams’ error was not caused by a sense of personal grandiosity, but an attempt to score in the ratings war, casting himself not as the intermediary, but the participant, in combat operations. For the marketers who have made the public taste into a science discovered that, aside from schadenfreude, the public has an appetite for sensual, vicarious experience. (During World War II, Murrow flew on 24 combat missions, when loss rates varied between 5 and 16 percent. His motives are not in question.)

Video is overtaking text. This began long ago, when folks lined up in front of the TV, to watch someone take 15 minutes (+ commercials) to read off a teleprompter what a reasonably intelligent person could read in 3. This comes of cultural habit. We seem to think that the face and voice of the speaker tell us something his words do not. With Murrow, the supposition held. With Brian Williams, it did not.

So instead of getting at the facts, we are offered entertainment by videos of the destruction of terror, terrible accidents, or anything involving massive loss of lives. But the workings of these infernal machines are all very much alike, their gruesome grandeur meaningless. By catering to the public appetite for circus, so much remains unsaid.

If you’re not into barrel bomb havoc, you can take a trip with a CNN reporter on an air boat on Lake Chad, in search of Boko Haram. We’re given a glimpse of a sandy shoreline, and told that it’s too dangerous to continue the chase. While the reporter’s caution is laudable (who needs another hostage!), it’s of interest comparable to the other favorite, “Strange Sea Creature Washes Up on Beach.” Take a few seconds. How many questions come to mind about Boko Haram? How do they live? Who do they talk to? What do they say?

The circus may be the daily dose of schadenfreude, or the vicarious thrill of a joust with danger, but it does not inform the citizen. Murrow saw this coming. He had an argument with William S. Paley, president of CBS, whose history in broadcast resembles Randolph Hearst’s in print. Paley was a great womanizer, but left a legacy of endowments and buildings named in his honor, which may not clear his ledger.

For an icon of sterling quality, images of Murrow are surprisingly unavailable. Web images are mere thumbnails,  larger images restricted by Tufts University, holder of the Murrow archives. I thought the world needs to see an honest face once in a while. My portrait of Murrow was inspired by a number of low resolution images, but is a copy of none of them, and therefore free of copyright restriction.

Initially, I worked from black-and-white photos. Later, I found some color photos that give Murrow an improbably rosy complexion. Murrow smoked upwards of 60 cigarettes a day. If you know what Murrow looked like, sans TV makeup, your comment is requested. The painting is not finished, and it may never be. I might paint his tie red, but don’t wait for it.

The portrait is free to use by liberals of all persuasions. There is, of course, the possibility it will appear in an article titled, “Edward R. Murrow Would have Approved of Fracking: Here’s Why.” But I think the risk is worth the reward. Many potential uses exist. Printed at Wal-Mart in suitable sizes, here are some ideas:

  • NBC employees could be required to carry it as a wallet card, the reverse side of which would contain the statement, “I am a good boy”, signed by the employee. Larger portraits could adorn their office walls. If desired, I can work the painting to give Murrow a glowering, threatening countenance.
  • Circus Nuevo Nuevo news teams could be required to stare at it, while observing a moment of silence, before they set off to video their next vicarious thrill.
  • Reuters could use it to help their employees to understand that being better than RT (Russia Today) is not good enough.
  • The NY Times could hang it on the wall, with grappling ropes attached, to halt their slide.

But if you will pardon my audacity,  please use the jpg in any way that a glimpse of an honest, fearless, and literate man might buck you up.

And me? I’m thinking of forging Murrow’s signature, with the line, “[My dad’s name] we had good times in the war…Ed”, and hanging it in the kitchen. I never said I was perfect.

If you want to be nice, please credit, “Use courtesy of Number9.”







Wesley Clark, Ukraine, & Russian Expansionist Complex

 Newsweek reports that Wesley Clark predicts a  spring offensive in Ukraine.

I agree. I made this prediction last fall. In a series of posts, beginning with Nemtsov Murder Whodunnit, it’s proposed that the Nemtsov murder is a message to Putin, from the perpetrators, to not to be less patriotic than they are.

But to say that the perps are the rebels is an oversimplification. What do we call a group that is larger than a cabal, but smaller, and more hidden than a faction? Perhaps, a complex. Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.” The full speech is worth a read. Or watch  Eisenhower’s final speech, and renew your personal connection with one of the great men of the 20th Century.

At its worst, the military industrial complex was never comparable to what is happening in Russia now.  It’s mentioned here only as an example of a complex, an alliance of diffuse common interest.  But it appears that there now exists in Russia an expansionist complex, not localized purely to a faction, that by process of diffusion may now be uncontrollable.

For Putin, this is like surfing a tsunami.  There is no getting off. Does he want to? Surfing the Big One, he’s having the ride of his life.