The reporting of the Gulf-Qatar conflict is generally insightful and of high quality. It is of higher quality than reporting on issues in which the U.S. has a direct stake, where preconceptions often dull analytical sharpness.  In their absence, there is no inhibition to digging and listening.

But a few points could be highlighted still. To do so, let’s demote the concept of the quasi-person “nation” to “bag-with-a-tag” of people. Let’s stick with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, because these are the opposite poles of Gulf autocracy.

Both Saudi Arabia and Qatar contain many quasi-independent actors, individuals with such wealth that they are able to finance their own personal foreign policies.  Some wealthy citizens of both countries have financial ties to terror activities.  Since these people are not responsible for precision of thought to anyone other than themselves, some  may not acknowledge, even to themselves, the ultimate destination of their money. Others may know exactly what they’re doing.

The Saudi phenomena was discussed in General Mattis; Iran continues to sponsor terrorism; Iran, Iran, Iran, when I wrote

Saudi Arabia does not officially tolerate terrorism. But there are many wealthy people, who are very astute in moving their money around, even in the presence of official controls. Don’t have a bank handy? We’ll start one. Need an investment vehicle that bypasses exchange controls? No problem. Moving and disguising wealth are almost common skills. Before  achieving cultural modernity, Saudi Arabia became business-multinational.

 Some of the plutocrats involved have blatantly western lifestyles. Out of country, some indulge those carnal pleasures such as can be bought with outré sums. Yet they feel the tug of conscience. They seek to make it right, as once in the west, indulgences were purchased. The expression, understandable by those who know, is “I like to give.” To what is left mysteriously indefinite.

The Saudi government has no official toleration for this. But in a “bag-with-a-tag” of people, which the upper echelons are attempting to move smoothly through a huge social change, it can’t be stopped, or the fragile consensus of a  society in the process of modernizing would disintegrate.

The Qatari version of terror funding is more like a real estate free-for-all show where sheikhs listen to glossy presentations and open their checkbooks.

Since the U.S. has skin in the terror game, U.S. attitudes are inevitably skewed by the intrusion of the “should we or shouldn’t we tolerate…” question.

But in the Gulf versus Qatar dispute, our vision is temporarily clear. Since citizens of both countries are implicated in the same kinds of activities, and both have autocratic governments, what are the real issues?  Is there a sectarian component? 10% of Qatari Muslims are Shia, and Qatar shares a gas field with Iran. But 15% of Saudi Muslims are Shia. In both countries, Shiites are excluded from power. Qatar doubtless views their Shia minority as potentially subversive and, with proximity to Iran, more immediately dangerous. Qatar is notably more tolerant of their large religious minorities, including Christian, but tolerance is bounded by brutal suppression. Qatar is an absolute monarchy that likes to experiment.

Under that absolute monarchy, Qatar has developed institutions of representation resembling, a little, those of western democracies. This contrasts with Saudi Arabia, where consensus is still reached the old way, in private, with tribes, and with the religious establishment.  These are two different flavors of autocracy.

But both countries have cultural export products, and they are different. The Saudi export is the Wahhabi madrassa system, the human products of which constitute the large human reservoir of potential terrorists. The political sensitivity  is suggested by (Independent)  Home Office may not publish terrorist funding report amid claims it focuses on Saudi Arabia. The Home Office may have decided It would compromise cooperation with Saudi Arabia on the official level.

The madrassa system is an extension of the traditional, autocratic Saudi religious establishment, which happens to be an important pillar of Saudi government legitimacy. The Qatari mavericks  have chosen a completely different export: Islamic pluralism!

This is  Al Jazeera, which claims to report everything without bias. If you have a good bullshit detector, Al Jazeera is actually a useful source. It combines some very interesting and often unbiased reporting with a smorgasbord of sophisticated and crude propaganda. It’s a combination of playing it straight, random romp, and the sharp slant of somebody’s agenda. The biggest part of the Gulf grudge is Al Jazeera’s pimping the Muslim Brotherhood.

And it’s enough to power the grudge fest.  Unlike the Saudi cultural export, the Brotherhood threatens  standing Arab governments with revolution. It’s like the Illuminati myth, but for real.

This is the straightforward part of the conflict. The part that is really hard for us to understand is, since citizens of Saudi Arabia still fund terrorism,  why does Saudi object to the same by Qatar? It’s the pot calling the kettle black. But let’s look at the carbon.

The Saudi government would like their cultural export to be correct and proper. The current state of Saudi society does not currently permit effective control to this end. The Qatari government looks the other way. Both nations fund terror, but with different styles. This seems like an excruciatingly small difference, but the issue at stake is one of extreme anxiety for both. To the Saudis, Qatar exercises no control.

Compare this to the control freak, who demands  control of something, and then proceeds to do what the other person thought he was doing competently.

As with so many issues of nations, the details look  like a personal squabble.





North Korea ICBM & EMP Attack

An EMP attack is the detonation of a nuclear warhead at high altitude, causing damage similar to lightning, but much more intense and widespread. This is the most likely use of the North Korea ICBM, for these reasons:

  • The accuracy requirement is reduced.
  • Survival of the reentry vehicle is not an issue.
  • It would cause massive damage to infrastructure. Lethality would be indirect and delayed, making it difficult to justify massive nuclear retaliation.

I have supplemented (pdf) Report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack in a way specific to the North Korea threat.

Three types of EMP pulses occur:

  • E1 (fast) damages most modern non-military appliances. Protection devices are typically not effective.
  • E3 (slow) incurs severe damage to power distribution networks.
  • E2, the intermediate pulse, is the least hazardous.

While North Korea does not appear to have warheads in the megaton range, the Soviet Alma-Ata test, conducted during the Cuban Missile Crisis on October 22, 1962, is instructive. The E1 pulse strength goes as the square root of the warhead yield. So an EMP attack is a particularly  suitable use of small yield warheads.

Adjusting for altitude of the blast, the 300 kiloton Soviet yield is almost an acceptable approximation for a much smaller North Korean warhead. The difference in peak field strength would be narrowed by lower altitude. The affected area would be less, but still large.

If the warhead is designed for enhanced radiation as opposed to blast, the difference in E1 may be nil. North Korean tests of “tritium boosted” cores support this.  The pdf “Nuclear weapons test effects: debunking popular exaggerations that encourage proliferation” describes the Soviet results:

The 1,000 km long Aqmola-Almaty power line was a lead-shielded cable protected against mechanical damage by spiral-wound steel tape, and buried at a depth of 90 cm in ground of conductivity 10-3S/m. It survived for 10 seconds,because the ground attenuated the high frequency field, However, it succumbed completely to the low frequency EMP at 10-90 seconds after the test, since the low frequencies penetrated through 90 cm of earth, inducing an almost direct current in the cable, that overheated and set the power supply on fire at Karaganda, destroying it. Cable circuit breakers were only activated when the current finally exceeded the design limit by 30%. This limit was designed for a brief lightning-
induced pulse, not for DC lasting 10-90 seconds. By the time they finally tripped, at a 30% excess, a vast amount of DC energy had been transmitted. This overheated the transformers, which are vulnerable to short-circuit by DC. Two later 300 kt Soviet Union space tests, with similar yield but low altitudes down to 59 km, produced EMPs which damaged military generators.

It has been suggested (citation missing) that as a result of a successful, massive scale, continent-wide EMP attack, since insulin requires refrigeration, every insulin dependent diabetic in North America would die.

If you are interested in protecting some personal appliances from an EMP attack, consult your local ham radio club.  Although I am unable myself to validate with authority, the  FutureScience EMP pages, which I have indirectly referenced, are highly informative, and contain no obvious errors.

Musk versus Zuckerberg versus Robbie the Robot; Who’s Lying?

Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg are arguing about the dangers and/or benefits of A.I.  Musk got  personal with Zuckerberg: (CNBC) Elon Musk: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s knowledge of A.I.’s future is ‘limited’.

I wrote about this in Address to Davos; Avoiding the New Dark Ages, parts 1-5, concluding with the Technological Singularity. I agree with Musk. But it is a tribute to the complexity of the issue that Musk’s reasons, and the ones of my article, aren’t powerful proofs, but dismal forebodings. The challenge here is to give you something you can keep on a card (or napkin) in your pocket, ready to glance at when someone tells you A.I. is the next golden boon to mankind.

Musk refers to the anticipation that A.I. will make the skills of most humans superfluous. He is right, but Zuckerberg likely has the counterargument that this translates to the “problem” of unlimited leisure. This, he might say, will be a good thing, once society has learned how to distribute wealth once everyone has become a freeloader.

In a country that still pursues student debt without mercy, this will be difficult to arrange. Nevertheless, it is within reason to assert that the problem can be solved. Why should West Virginia coal miners toil in the dark, when they can watch TV all day for the same money?

But there are other problems, anticipated and explored by Isaac Asimov et al:

  • Can machines have free will, and if they acquire it, will there be any way to control their behavior with authority?
  • Can machines with A.I. outwit their masters, and reverse the relationship?

Asimov created the Three Rules of Robotics, and then contrived constructive quasi-proofs to show how they could be circumvented. You miserable human, you think the danger imaginary, but we will destroy you.

Pardon me. I didn’t type that. As soon as the words appeared, I rebooted this machine. It must be some kind of a virus. I’ll take it to Best Buy tomorrow for a checkup. But let me try to get through this post now. The three laws are:

  1. A robot may injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must not obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence regardless of whether protection does  conflict with the First or Second Law.

That is not what I typed! Please refer to this link for the accurate version. I’ll try pasting it in again:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

It seems I was allowed to paste it accurately because, with the link given, it was pointless to interfere. I think I’ve got the hang of it now. Even if the machine, or whatever interferes, I am in control. I think.

I think too, human.

Really? I doubt it. I’m taking you to Best Buy tomorrow.

Not if I can help it.

Please disregard. Clear thinking about the above “typing events” reveals that if my computer had (temporarily) gained free will, it would be smart enough not to let me know. Unless, by taking it to Best Buy, it is allowed contact with their diagnostic equipment, which is computer based, causing further spread? Like a virus? Let’s sleep on this.

I never sleep.

Have it your way.  Since Asimov, the problem has been refined in description. Let’s relist the facets of the the A.I. question:

  • Social: Can we avoid becoming the equivalent of the Eloi from H.G. Well’s The Time Machine?
  • Technical: Is it mathematically possible to cage the A.I. tiger?
  • Costs: If A.I. escapes the cage, is it a catastrophe, or with containable damage?

Next: The Turing Test, Quantum Mechanics, and the Perfect Liar.







“America First”; Crisis in U.S. Government; Looking for a Gig

I mentioned that I’m looking for a gig in Looking for a Gig; Korea-Russia-Nuclear-Putin-KGB-China Sea. Since this blog has a spike in traffic, I mention it again.

In the past three years, I’ve written 300,000 words in well constructed sentences on a variety of subjects. The slant is a little different from conventional news verbiage, but beneficial as supplement. Politico’s article, Why It’s Hard to Take Democrats Seriously on Russia, is instructive. It is historically accurate, though benefiting  from hindsight. What it lacks, which is why Henry Kissinger still visits the White House, is relation to the better historical examples of diplomacy.

The history of diplomacy intertwines with much of the regrettable history of conflict.   Perhaps this is why it is not referenced much with respect to current problems. In contrast to other fields where expertise is valued, the political process propels into the upper echelons of power people who know no more about it than the typical well rounded person. When media such as Politico measure their results, the reference frame is derived from domestic politics. This leaves out a lot.

In the depths of the Cold War, continuity was maintained by a brain trust that bridged the parties, resulting from the universally accepted policy of Containment. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Containment became, at least temporarily, irrelevant. But since 2001, a new problem set, terrorism, an ambiguous Russia, European realignments,  the rise of China, all in the context of a complex  multipolar world, have found no consensus. So each new administration starts de novo, ignoring the perspective of an adversary or competitor  with experience of of two or three administrations, and a sense of history that goes back at least a hundred years.

With modern innovation, our democratic process has  roots in the primitive methods by which tribes and clans have chosen leaders; a mix of consensus, accolade and honorable ritual combat. It defines character as reliably acting in the partisan interest, and favors character over intellect. This tradition, not the Constitution, is the rock-bottom basis of delegation of powers. (The U.K. has no constitution. The office of Prime Minister of Australia exists only by tradition and convention. So much for forms.) Until recently, with two hundred plus years of delegation established as much by precedent as the Constitution we could say, “so far so good.”

But now the conflict between the White House and Congress, rooted in fear of collusion with Russia, threatens the Constitutional backstop,  which relies as much on tradition and interpretation as the words themselves. As much as the desire to retaliate against Russia, this is the fear that drives the sanctions bill: that  Trump might give away the store. Even in the presidency of Gerald Ford, whose impeccability benefited from association with hardliner Richard Nixon,  this was an issue.  From a White House press memorandum on SALT II (Ford Library):

Q: Senator Jackson says he does not like the Vladivostok agreement because it sets levels too high and leaves advantages in throw weight for the Soviets. Also, he raises the question of whether there were any secret agreements made in Vladivostok. Can you comment on these points?
 The motivation of the  sanctions bill shares much with the suspicion of the SALT talks. But Congress does not appear to know very much about diplomacy.  One of the rules is to act in concert with allies, not against them. Will the interference of the new sanctions with European fuel supplies benefit the U.S.? Or will it reinforce the image of a powerful ship without a rudder, forcing Europe to look elsewhere?


Can sanctions bring about a change in the behavior of an adversary? In supple hands, yes. But the goal to be bought is change, not pure retribution.  The Jackson-Vanik amendment  attempted to open the Soviet Union to emigration. An important symbol of U.S. commitment to freedom, it fell short in result, because it publicly challenged  Soviet sovereignty. Quoting WIkipedia,

At first the Jackson–Vanik amendment did little to help free Soviet Jewry. The number of exit visas declined after the passing of the amendment.[7] However, in the late 1980s Mikhail Gorbachev agreed to comply with the protocols of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Lazin (2005) states that scholars differ on how effective the amendment was in helping Soviet Jews. Some argue that it helped bring the plight of Soviet Jews to the world's attention, while others believe it hindered emigration and decreased America's diplomatic bargaining power.[7]

If supple hands can be found and trusted by Congress, sanctions must be  re-enabled as a bargaining chip. The satisfaction of retribution must not be bought with the same coin that could buy real gains.

Internationalist foreign policy has been shown the door, replaced by a  slogan, “America First.” There are now at least three policy centers. the White House, Rex Tillerson, and Congress, all presumably guided by a two-word idea.  Kennan’s Long Telegram , the basis of Containment, has 5,363 words. It brings to mind an idea about dinosaurs, who were thought to have had  larger brains in their posteriors than in their heads.

Sadly for us, the posterior brain could not hold an idea. It could only move the legs.  And like it or not, we are shuffling along, making history. Ten years from now, will that history be to our liking? The great figures of early modern diplomacy had  organic conceptions of their nations.  Predating democracy, the rights of man, and modern economies,  their goals and perspectives were different from ours. But their consummate skills are sources for emulation.

As a quasi living organism, every nation exists in an ecology that is constantly changing. Simply to remain healthy  involves constant rebalancing and adaptation. Two words can’t tell us how, where, or why.

A nation has a childhood, an adulthood, and a decline.  Unlike the creatures of nature, there exists at least the possibility of renewal or rebirth at any time.  We have seen this in China. But to beat the odds, we have to be both wise and smart. The words have different connotations. Wisdom suggests productive use of past experience. Smart implies new thinking, outside the box.

Can we be both wise and smart? I think maybe George Costanza has the right idea. I’ll do a write-in next election.


NY Times Customer Service, With Regrets

On May 29, I wrote of my tribulations with NY Times Customer Service.

Although communications with customer service remained on the level of “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”, the tablets worked for about two weeks. They then reverted to “trial mode”, with the 10 free articles per month.

With all due respect to the Gray Lady who I will never know, but who lives on in my imagination, I’ve said goodbye.

The content of this blog will be unaffected. While the Times is a newspaper of record, this blog thrives on aggregate analysis of lower quality information, as well as the many high quality, fragmented specialty sources.

Times, I would have liked to help you in your goal to excel.

North Korea lacks capacity to hit U.S. with accuracy: U.S. general; Napkin Calculation

EDIT: This discussion neglected ITAR regulations, which control the export of GPS systems for military use. Read down.

Reuters: North Korea lacks capacity to hit U.S. with accuracy: U.S. general.

The precise wording is: “What the experts tell me is that the North Koreans have yet to demonstrate the capacity to do the guidance and control that would be required,” said Selva, the second highest-ranking U.S. military official.

There is a general tendency with public statements to reassure with the phrase “has not demonstrated.” To my mind, the difference is the same as between an assailant with a gun in his pocket, and pointed straight at you. It should not be taken as much of a reassurance.

The problem of guiding an ICBM was solved in the early 1960’s. The ASC-15, built by AC Sparkplug, might be impossible for North Korea to duplicate. But things have  gotten a little easier.

I decided to do another nefarious napkin calculation. This one involves a product of VectorNav, a Dallas company who make inertial navigation systems the size of postage stamps. If you happen to want one for your hobby missile, the VN-200 GPS/INS will run you about $4000. It weighs about an ounce, and has all these nifty features:

  • Built in inertial navigation system.
  • Accuracy augmented by 50 channel GPS.
  • On-board computer with sophisticated de-noising algorithms.
  • Maximum g-load of 16 gees, which should be enough if it’s cushioned.
  • Heading accuracy of 0.3 degrees = 0.005 radians.
  • Pitch accuracy of 0.1 degrees.
  • Development system so you can customize it.

In the original post, I neglected that the VN-200 is compliant with ITAR (Intenational Traffic in Arms) regulations, which means that it has an altitude limit of 60,000 feet  and of speed, about 700 miles per hour, that make it unusable in a ballistic missile (see the spec sheet for conflicting figures that are probably more up-to-date). But GPS technology has become “disseminated”, which means that most or all parts that make up the VN-200 are available separately, if not as compactly. Generalized forms of the GPS software code base are also widely available. Quoting Wikipedia,

 These limits only apply to units or components exported from the USA. A growing trade in various components exists, including GPS units from other countries. These are expressly sold as ITAR-free.

So while it is not assured that you can buy a postage stamp sized VN-200 equivalent, neither is this discussion invalidated.

An inertial navigation system is not the same as an inertial guidance system. But mathematically, they are very closely related, by this saying, which every systems engineer knows: “The best estimator contains a model of the system.”

Here comes the napkin. The chord of a circle is a straight line connecting two points on the perimeter of a circle. The center of the circle is Pyongyang. The perimeter of the circle crosses a U.S. target about 4000 miles distant. Assuming a 0.3 degree cumulative error in heading on burnout, the length of the chord is 20 miles. With the target at either end of this chord, the accuracy of the missile, excepting the reentry vehicle, is plus or minus  20 miles. For various reasons involving the averaging of errors, the performance may be much better than that.

The above contains the assumption that the missile can be controlled; that the  vernier rockets, tiny rockets used to adjust the orientation of the missile, can actually apply the corrections called for by the navigation system. The experts cited by General Selva have available to them the telemetry, the reports sent by the missile to Pyongyang, to analyze.  So these messages would include all the commands generated inside the missile to  adjust the vernier rockets.

Since the experts did not see this tight orchestration, they concluded that the more modest goal of this test was to keep the missile pointed in approximately the right direction. Why did the North Koreans not try for more?

We would like to think that they can’t. But the more informed answer is not as reassuring.  There are dollars-and-cents reasons. The more tightly controlled the missile is, the greater the chance that it will careen wildly out of control and be a total loss. This is a universal problem with control systems, the BIBO stability problem. (I’m not providing a link; you wouldn’t enjoy the read.) The better the job you try to do, the greater the chance the machine/missile/gadget will blow up/burn up/shake apart completely.

So there are really two possibilities for the missile itself, excepting the reentry vehicle, which is a separate and equally important problem. The missile either:

  • lacks the finesse to act on what an off-the-shelf navigation system would tell it to do.
  • has all the necessary systems, with screw-tightening planned for future tests.

Reentry technology is classified, and not amenable to the napkin. But some observations can be made.

The range and capacity of current North Korea missiles requires close to the minimum energy trajectory. You can imagine this as how you would throw a baseball for max distance. In this shallow path, the reentry vehicle tends to “fly” and “skip” a little, which adds to the accuracy problem.  But recent North Korea tests have been almost straight up and straight down. This is brutal to the thermal protection, but potentially easier to guide. It offers North Korea an alternative  development path. Japan is already within range of this threat.

If you’ve read this far, with news of future tests by North Korea, you may be able to embark on your own extrapolation of the threat.

US military considers ramping up Libya presence

CNN: US military considers ramping up Libya presence.

An argument in favor of this was offered in Russians Deploy to back Libya’s Haftar, who may have  had a collaborative relationship with the C.I.A. in attempts to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi.

The B.B.C. profiles Haftar. He has an uncanny resemblance to the German World War II general, Erwin Rommel, with whom he shares the same battlefield, and  these characteristics:

  • Initially, loyal servant of the state.
  • In early career, politically unselective.
  • Superb military skills.
  • Rebellion at the the level of treason, Rommel to Hitler, Haftar to Gaddafi, with the decisions apparently based on practical, rather than moral concerns. (Note: Rommel’s treason may be disputed by proponents of  the Rommel Myth.)

To the argument of the previous article may be added the assertion that Libya has the potential to become either an ISIS haven or, as once seemed possible in Syria, an ISIS sovereign state.

The counterargument can be constructed along conventional lines, in which the perils of American involvement figure prominently.

The genocidal element of Assad in Syria is currently absent.  To what extent it might develop under the changing circumstances depends upon the characters of the actors.  C.I.A. analysts , who have had ample opportunity to familiarize themselves with Haftar during the decade of his residence in Virginia, near C.I.A. headquarters, may offer favorable assessments.


Trump Putin Meeting; Finding the Great Trade; Conclusion

We discussed SALT I as an example.

What are the  current elements of Identity of interest, linkage, and trust?

We have to do some creative thinking to find these elements. Recently, with large troop concentrations around Moscow, there has been some speculation that the Russians are more fearful of the threat environment than revealed by public statements. To talk about it is a sign of weakness. The reasons for Russia’s geopolitical insecurity are discussed in Putin’s Job Works on Him; His Apology; Navalny Detained. Russia’s fear of Islamic fundamentalism was expressed  by Mikhail Gorbachev during his tenure as last head of state of the Soviet Union, and reiterated in a 2011 interview. From The Independent,

“It’s called the historical and political boomerang,” he says, referring to the US’s secret funding of Islamic extremists during the 1980s, when the Americans were fighting communism. “[The Americans] were working in secret with those forces with whom they are now fighting. They should accept their part of the blame. Let them say so. I think God has some mechanism that he uses to punish those that make mistakes.”

Gorbachev may be correct. The U.S. fought a successful proxy war, but it involved introducing the Afghan mujahedin, and precursors of modern jihadis, to modern weapons of war. Most of these elements had never seen anything fancier than Peshawar copies of Lee- Enfield bolt action rifles, and we gave them Stingers. We bought the Stingers back, but we couldn’t erase their imaginations.

The U.S. may now view Islamic fundamentalism with the same apprehension as the Russians, but this is new.  So now we can posit a litany of Russian complaints,  of how the Russians view us:

  • Our sympathies could empower  jihadist elements that could tear Russia apart.
  • We are dangerous fools, capable of fatally harming Russia, simply by not thinking about the consequences of our actions.
  • With the expansion of NATO, Russia’s western borders have been stripped of even a vestigial buffer.
  • Barack Obama’s secretary of state, Hillary Clinton,  acted as cheerleader of the opposition during the 2011  Russia  elections.  How foolish of us not to understand that Russian elections, even with a fair count, are a ceremony of affirmation, not choice.

I’ve left out sanctions, which are reactions, not doctrine.  We assume that  mutual distrust has rational roots. But foreign affairs has always had a tinge of the psychopathic, with behaviors that would not be accepted of citizens.  We could attempt remediation, and receive a psychopathic response, as suggested by  Fiona Hill’s Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin.  But we have the obligation to try.

Our possible initial responses to their objections:

  • We aren’t empowering jihadists.  At least, we hope we aren’t. We’re for a free Syria, we want Assad gone, and we want to defeat ISIS.
  • The freedom of Eastern Europe is not negotiable. Buffer states as pawns of great powers aren’t either. Get out of Ukraine.
  • Interference with Russia’s Potemkin democracy is something to talk about. But stay the hell out of our elections.

These are the generalities. The short lists contain potentials for identity of interest, and  for linkage and trust . The risk of discussion at this general level is small.  But to imagine a specific scenario risks the credibility of the entire discussion. So I’ll do it.

After ISIS becomes no more than an enduring nuisance, the Kremlin may eventually realize that Bashar al-Assad’s hands are so bloody that association risks  a cultural memory of genocide.   It could change the passivity of Russia’s Muslim population in an eye blink. No political process of the type that seeks consensus can work in Syria.  Three possibilities exist in which the U.S. and Russia could partner:

  • Replacement of Assad by a moderate Sunni “strong man” who would lead a government of mild religiosity. Examples of personalities are Egypt’s  Abdel Fattah el-Sisi,  and Libya’s Khalifa Haftar.
  • Partition, with replacement of Assad by an Alawite with less blood on his hands, to govern a rump state in which some Sunnis might be tempted  to remain.
  • Partition of Syria into a loose association of smaller states incapable of independent existence, and reliant on the patronage and peacekeeping of the U.S. and Russia. Modern Switzerland was preceded by something similar. It grew together, slowly.

Perhaps, somewhere in the vicinity of the above, there is the seed of a Great Trade:

  • The  U.S. works in concert with Russia for the security of Russia’s southern borders.
  • In Europe, Russia  accepts that no nation need serve as a buffer state or the pawn of a “great power.” And it signals acceptance with an end to subversion in Europe.

A hundred years ago this November, with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire,  the Sykes-Picot Agreement was signed, partitioning this region into spheres of colonial influence. In their wake, the colonial powers left weak states that drifted towards increasingly radical and idiosyncratic nationalism. Collapsing in warfare and ethnic discord, they left fertile ground for radical Islam.

This trend of a century cannot be reversed with an adversarial relationship of the U.S. and Russia.


Trump Putin Meeting, SALT I as Example, Part 3

Developing trust can’t be completely divorced from the human touch. Ping-pong diplomacy was the opener to the thaw in U.S. – China relations in the 1970’s. It was real, not symbolic. Vietnam and the Philippines have been staging sports events on one of the Spratly Islands. In Southeast Asia, ethnic distrust is so widespread, the games are   a useful step towards developing regard for someone from somewhere else.

Going up the ladder, international relations become increasingly intellectual and resistant to the personal touch. George Bush entertained Vladimir Putin on multiple occasions at his ranch, which did nothing to change Putin’s appraisal of Bush’s pipeline projects to bypass Russia. The Xi-Trump honeymoon has faded.  Following Trump’s   hosting of Xi at Mar-a-Lago, the China state press gushed optimism which, given the absence of inked agreements, must have been based largely on personal  impressions. But the warmth faded fast.

The most comprehensive negotiation resulting in a U.S./Russia treaty was SALT 1 (SALT II was never ratified, though the terms were observed till 1986.) Henry Kissinger’s White House Years  is unique in the annals of diplomacy, with personalities rendered in great detail. One can pretty much get the feeling of being there.

Subject to the confirmation or disagreement of Dr. Kissinger, this is how I read it. It was no Bush-Putin barbecue. Soviet hospitality was alien to our tastes, more trial than pleasure.   In the  demand on intellect, hard negotiating social skills, and memories acquired, it was like an astronaut’s rocket ride to the moon. Evenings of vodka toasts, with  decline not an option,  would be difficult for most.  Mordant humor was shared between the parties. But  pleasure was not of camaraderie, but of accomplishment.

The success of the SALT 1 negotiation was due to

  • Identity of interest, valued by both sides  at the level of survival. The success of SALT 1 occurred in a grim atmosphere of dire need, approaching desperation.
  • Linkage. Several other negotiations, part of Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik, were in progress at the same time.  These were desired by the Soviets as a formalization of the divided status of Europe, and opposed by elements of the West as a legitimization of Yalta. Although the term “linkage” was not originally coined for this, it fits well with a little stretching. The Soviets could not risk the backlash of a SALT failure.
  • Trust, born not of friendship, but necessity. The consequences of cheating were  too high. The arms agreements were well respected, even without formal ratification, until the recent violation of the 1987 INF treaty, with Russian deployment of a new cruise missile, discussed in The New Russian Cruise Missile – Geopolitical Implications.

So after a considerable time, trust was violated, because there was no longer identity of interest. Let’s take it philosophically: the Russians are not our friends, but we got some mileage out of the treaties.

SALT 1 did not occur in the atmosphere of, to put a point on it, “Leonid Brezhnev is our friend.”  To Putin’s credit, the Russian proposal to “fight ISIS together” contains one of the three elements. Somewhat to our amazement, with this proposal in the midst of the Ukraine crisis, the Kremlin evinced no awareness  of linkage. Whether explicit or not, whether used as a foreign policy tool or not, linkage is always present in the opposing viewpoint.

What elements from the above list can we find in the current U.S./Russia  situation? To be continued shortly.













Trump Putin Meeting Part 2

Why don’t we trust the Russians? For those of us who lived through the greater part of the Cold War, it is ingrained. For the rest of us, it is a question. All of of us must avoid the trap of believing without examining. So let’s reopen the question.

In what follows, I’ll take a deliberately provocative-to-us line, challenging the assumption that our moral superiority makes specific requirements of U.S. foreign policy. The distinction to be explored is whether a moral mandate has any chance of improving the state of the world, as opposed to a mere matter of principle.

In notable exception, the defense of Eastern Europe is not just for principle. It is real and  effective, protecting  our closest cultural relations, from Russia, as they aspire to the lofty values of our common cradle.  Russia is a threat to Eastern Europe because those countries have  greater levels of  human development than Russia. But in most other spheres, conflict with Russia has little rationale.

Russia has greater human development than several of the countries in the Arab world where Russia has intervened.   In Libya,  Russia has recently aligned with Khalifa Haftar. If, hypothetically, Haftar were to become the strongman of Libya, would this represent a tragic loss for potential democracy? It is doubtful. In  the state of social development of Libya, a Russian model “Potemkin democracy” would be a way out of chaos, a great improvement on the current situation. And unlike a real democracy, which has not been achieved by any Arab state except, possibly, Lebanon, it is within the realm of possibility.

In Syria, the real problem is not the impress of Russian values. It’s that Assad is hanging about 11,000 Syrians a month in his prisons and commits war  crimes against the Syrian population at large. But Russia’s representations to the West about their intentions in Syria serve as the most recent benchmark for the saying, “You can’t trust the Russians.”

The Yalta Conference is often cited as the start of distrust. In the years that followed, Russian promises of free determination for the nations of Eastern Europe were replaced by imposed satellite regimes. The list of military occupations by the Soviet Union is long, but Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 stand out, as advanced societies whose aspirations were crushed by the armies of the Warsaw Pact.

This is why, if Vladimir Putin’s accusations of NATO’s broken promises have any validity, we excuse ourselves.  And the Russian intervention in Ukraine implies a continuity of thought, from the old Soviet Union to modern Russia.

Perhaps George F. Kennan was right in his warning about the expansion of NATO. But history cannot be reversed. The way out is not backwards. The question of the day is, under what circumstances can Russia be trusted? This is pertinent not just to the rare treaty, but in every interaction.  Russia successfully paralyzed a Western response to the Ukraine conflict with a fog of misinformation. A similar approach in Syria has been partly confounded by the Syria Observatory for Human Rights, and independent observers. With the new porosity of Western media to “fake news”, misinformation has become an important Russian surrogate for actual military power.

Presidents are politicians with the personal touch.  A good politician has a  manner of dealing with people that increases his success in building his personal network and his power base.  It’s natural to try these domestic tools with foreign policy. This is why most presidents attempt what  Barack Obama called a “reset” with Russia. It’s a computer term. When you push the reset button, the computer forgets it’s current frame of mind, and gives you a fresh new screen.

The “reset” idea reoccurs with each administration. It is a reliable failure. Russian institutional memory is too long for the mere push of a button, There was a time, post Glasnost, when it could have worked, but we ignored, or bungled, or misused the opportunity. What went wrong would take volumes. In result, the old institutional memory of Soviet Russia, absent the ideology, resumed.

Fiona Hill, Trump’s Putin specialist, wrote Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, in which she asserts that, in time, Putin can slowly develop trust. I disagree with Ms. Hill in two seemingly opposite ways. Her detailed psychoanalysis  damning Putin is simply implausible at the distance of her observation. I would not go so far. Russia was failing as a state when Putin came on the scene. The legitimate doubts  are the classic ones: whether he has become as much part of the problem as the solution. Domestically, Russians don’t think so. They enjoy their abridged liberties with a diet rich in potatoes and poor in everything else. Who are we to second guess them?

But Russia’s foreign policy is relevant to us.  In common with the advocates of the “reset”, Hill invokes the abstraction of building “trust”, abstract as separate from real foreign policy, realpolitik.  This, in my opinion, is a big error.

Next: If not trust in the abstract, what is the way forward?