Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Suspicious Border Incursions

Photo: Jorje Cabrera, Reuters

There are “caravans” marching north though Mexico originating from the Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Presently around 1,500 miles away, they get out of their trucks to march for the benefit of cameras with uncannily precise timing to arrive on the precipice of the U.S. November midterm election.

Is your spider sense tingling? Are you wondering if this is a scam? So am I.

These people are portrayed as refugees; but are they? They aren’t acting like it. There’s a pretty straightforward script about how refugees are handled on this planet. The international law on asylum is that the asylum seeker is supposed to present themselves to the authorities of the first international border they reach upon fleeing their countries. For Central Americans fleeing north from their governments, that country is Mexico; specifically, the southern border of Mexico.

The way it is supposed to work, Mexico, with aid from the international community, is supposed to set up refugee camps. The coordination body for this is U.N. High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR). It is from these camps, that other organizations such as the US Office for Refugee Resettlement are supposed to process persons to qualify eligible refugees for movement from the camps to a third host nation. If this were the Middle East, the analogy would be people in Iraq and Syria fleeing ISIS going into U.N. camps in Jordan.

Here’s where it gets weird. That’s exactly what the UNHCR, Mexico and United States are trying to do in this case. This is not a money issue. The US, Mexico and the UN have the money and resources to support a proper refugee camp. We’re talking 1,500 people per caravan which is a drop in the bucket compared to the 11 million Syrians, Kurds and Yazidis displaced in the Middle East.

But wonder of wonders, these people are refusing to go into camps and process as refugees. Somebody’s giving them a better deal than the internationally sanctioned solution set. Instead, they are marching towards the US border escorted by, and it seems funded by, American activist handlers. What does that tell you is really going on here? Again, are these people really legitimate refugees from their own governments? If so, what exactly are they fleeing?

Let’s dig a little more.

First, these marchers do come from three relatively small economies. Guatemala has a $75.6 billion GDP nation, El Salvador a $24.8 billion GDP and Honduras has a $22.98 billion GDP. But here’s the thing. As of 2017, the GDP’s of all three of these countries was growing. Yeah, you heard that right, growing. Note that all three of these governments are imploring their citizens to return. And they were doing that before Donald Trump threatened to cut off aid to them. What’s the underlying stress that may be besetting Central America? Here are my observations.

First, this may very well have simpler explanations that have nothing to do with being refugee problems. People leaving otherwise improving economic conditions speaks more to internal forces having to do with economic opportunity inefficiencies within these nations. One of the organizers of the caravan is a Honduran ex-lawmaker named Bartolo Fuentes who’s apparently been organizing caravans since last September as reported by the New York Post and Daily Beast. These are normally small groups numbering in the 200 range. According to the NYPost, the swelling in numbers for this caravan may have been triggered by a woman referring to “assistance” in an interview on Hoduran TV news channel HCH. Mr. Fuentes reported a surge in phone calls following the broadcast.

What does that mean? Could this be local politics in Central America gone viral on the world stage because of the internet? It's certainly not the first bizarre consequence effect we've seen happen.  Or, it may be simple economics in action. It costs an average of $7,000 USD to pay a coyote to smuggle a person to the United States. A caravan with “assistance” reduces that cost per traveler considerably … and potentially upsets the human trafficking economies extending from Central America to the United States. Think about the implications of that one buckwheat.

OAS considerations.

More broadly, what Central American nations do share, actually the entire Western Hemisphere and the Organization of American States, is a common problem called Venezuela. That socialist state is a basket case of a national failure. Venezuela’s economy has collapsed thirty-seven percent (-37%) since 2014 from being a $482.4 billion GDP nation to a maybe $300 billion GDP country today; that’s a loss of $182 billion of GDP by Venezuela. That math basically means that Venezuela has evaporated wealth greater than the combined economies of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. The stresses put on Venezuela’s neighbors because Nicolas Maduro is nincompoop of a socialist despot even by socialist’s standards is a problem now beginning to resonate throughout the New World.

My instincts say Maduro is triggering the Western Hemisphere equivalent of the refugee problem besetting Europe. We are facing a problem very similar to the walking wave of people seeking economic opportunity while hanging on to their cultural identity.  They, like their migrant counterparts in the EU, are escaping a no go home scenario. The similarity to what is challenging Europe is uncanny; except the problem for the New World isn’t Muslim refugees displaced from their homes in Syria, Kurdistan, Libya, or Sudan, it’s Venezuelans displaced from their homes.

The Venezuelans need that $182 billion of lost GDP to survive and like their Muslim counterparts in the Old World, they are pursuing a scrounge at the expense of their hosts path to that desperate survival. Central America is being invaded by Maduro’s refugee hordes.

So far, no one has the guts to do something about the cancer that is Venezuela’s blight upon the Americas. This is not going to get smaller as Central and South America’s economies continue to crater under the weight of the spread of that pathetic socialist failure.

The Gringo Factor

Stranger still, groups in the US are seeking to exploit the plight of the innocent for their own political purposes, most embarrassingly, by activists and globalists in the United States. The political elite Gringo’s are being ugly Americans using these people like pawns. I doubt they even actually care what happens to them, or their countries.

Here’s my reality check.  Cooler heads than the American hotheads are beginning to voice their concerns.  Eventually, I think the suggestion of Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto to US President Donald Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that the countries of North America, who have strong economies, will have to solve this problem as an Organization of American States problem. It will become front burner policy.

My suggestion to President Trump is to seriously consider these posits. We may need to build a coalition of the willing to help Central and South America find a better future without a Maduro led Venezuela. We may need to re-cast how US aid to Central America can be better used to further decrease the attraction of economic migration from these countries. And, we may have to deal with the economic food chain of human trafficking in the New World.

There are global repercussions that accompany this strategic realization.

Meditate on this more I shall.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Trump Shuffles House of Cards at the UN

photo: AP/Mary Altaffer

During the first minute of his speech on the 25th of September 2018 to the United Nations General Assembly, president Donald J. Trump received a greeting of muted laughter. For the near hour of the speech that followed, you could have heard a pin drop in the cavern. Trump minced no words. He was brutally clear to everyone in the General Assembly that the United States of America meant business. The repercussions of that speech will be world changing.

Foremost In the president's message to the world was his rejection of globalism represented most by the governing apparatus of the United Nations and its supporting agencies. The UN had been born in an era of global power concentration at the end of World War II. It has functioned as such since then concentrating the real power over the planet in the Security Council. This model husbanded the planet through the Cold War and a period of post-Colonialism in the aftermath of it. But much like his domestic presidency is a recognition that established bureaucracies can become bloated by elitism and hubris, so can the world stage.

I found it poetic that this message to the world that the time has come to set central control aside and embrace a more plural form the world governance was delivered in the General Assembly where decades of evolution adding nations represented in the room have brought necessity to evaluate the issue of how nations relate to each other to the forefront.

This has been evolving for some time. The world has become more regionalized with confederations, some cooperative and some adversarial, emerging on the planet. The European Union has gone through several cycles of growing pains, so has Russia and its Confederation of Independent States. These two regions of the world have now existed in their present forms for longer since the fall of the Berlin Wall now longer than the entire length of time the Cold War wall existed. The Middle East and Africa have undergone radical change from a landscape of colonies to amalgams of nations. The world became plural in an image, quite honestly, modeled after the original hopes of the United Nations and financed, in many cases, by the treasure of the United States. Mission accomplished. Hooray for us monkeys!

In his speech, Trump challenged this now more plural world to begin to live up to its potential. In doing so, he announced that it was time to win the world of American dependence. He pointed out that for America to navigate into its own future such a change was a necessity. He implied that this necessity applied to every other nation as well. The stunned silence in the room was surely no surprise to the American delegation delivering this 21st century tough love message.

I smiled to myself as I listened to it not because I am an isolationist, but because I am an American. I’m pragmatic about the practice of global stability and national policy. I found my thoughts drifting back to a much younger United States of America. In the 1790’s and leading up to the War of 1812, the United States was a beacon of freedom to a Western Hemisphere dominated by colonial masters. They coveted how the United States was thriving in its social and power experiment. Throughout the Americas, people saw the emergence of a free and independent nation and wanted the same for themselves. America's leaders struggled with the requests for aid throw off the world powers of that era and cast them out of the New World. There was acrimony about it at the time, and regret. America's leaders knew we were not rich enough or powerful enough come to the aid of our neighbors and risk the combined might of Europe against us. Mind you the British did try. Lucky for us, we survived the War of 1812. More importantly for the world’s future, we chose to lead by example that would become a hallmark of our future conduct on the world stage. We took the position of tough love showing our neighbors what was possible, to inspire hope even if (no because) we were unable to do it for them. We recognized even then the wisdom of teaching others to fish.

If you think about it openly, the world is in a similar position today following the abandonment of colonialism worldwide. There are only two nations rich enough to vie for hegemony on this planet. This would be the multi-trillion economies of the United States and China. No one else has this potential. Both nation’s societies are presently in flux. One is pursuing hyper-patriotic centralization of social values controlled via the technology of universal social scoring. The other tumultuously hangs on to its internal pluralism using technology in an endless series of trials by fire, well technically flame wars, to bring everyone’s egos to ground.

Stepping back and looking objectively, both nations are experiments in the future of complex societies for this planet. Opposite in approach, these two nations are the templates for where technological humanity must find a future. Clearly neither model has found its sweet spot yet. Is what it is. What will be interesting in the next decade is whether the US and China come to blows over these templates or find a way to manage their polar forms of leadership in concert for the benefit of the remainder of the world.

Perhaps we’ll find a new d├ętente. Hopefully, the UN General Assembly noted in its silence of President Trumps speech, the bilaterally messages between the Unites States and the nations single out by the US, that included carrots and sticks, loud and clear.

I believe that the American delegation’s message to the United Nations in 2018 will go down in history as a reminder by the United States of the same message it has stood for since its birth.
For whatever acrimony the news of the day makes of this inconvenient truth, President Trump did his job as our messenger effectively.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Fantasy Trumps Reality; It’s Not Bots, It’s Us

The ability of the Internet to cause storms of social upheaval has reached epic proportions. Since the November 2016 election the Internet has been used by political parties to ferment acrimony in the national debate far beyond anything we ever saw in terms of campaign influence efforts by any party foreign or domestic. The degree of malicious animus that the entire world is seeing us undergo is, quite frankly, embarrassing. We have literally descended to high school clique mean people politics.

The most recent of these being the nomination to the Supreme Court of Brett Kavanaugh where, at the last minute after a seemingly clear path to confirmation had been achieved, an accusation exploded into “court of public opinion” virality. It doesn’t matter to many people whether the accusation is founded. It doesn’t matter that the State of Maryland, where the incident allegedly occurred, has already stated that in the 1980’s the law was that such an infraction by a minor would have been a 2nd degree misdemeanor for which the statute of limitations has long expired; and would have been expunged from the record upon the age of majority.

No. What matters is that the obsession of all parties, of an entire nation, is to sacrifice Kavanaugh like a lamb on an altar over an obsession with another man, President Donald Trump. He’s the real “bad boy” that women have that love-hate fantasy with as noted in that old 1970’s feminism text, Nancy Friday’s “My Secret Garden”. Entire genres of both pornographic scripting and victim archetype psychotherapy have evolved from that book.

Today, it seems that total Internet bandwidth utilization is split 50/50 between these two themes. Well, the social media acrimony half also shares its allocation with all the other mundane functions of the internet. All of it makes money from combinations of actual purchases, ad serves, or user data mining marketing intelligence. We are the product. Yeah that’s right, looking at the raw traffic data tells you a lot about America.

We are also the fuel that keeps this cycle of meanness going. The thing about the internet is that it’s a totally level playing field of democracy. Tumultuously fair. Everyone’s voice counts equally, albeit with amplifications that come from the gossipy effects of combinations of money and sex appeal. Anyone can Tweet. Anyone can make a snarky Facebook post. Anyone can generate a meme. These are all tracked, cataloged and sorted into data mining information for sale right along with your browser cookies of what you are looking at even if you think you are expunging them by the way. Regardless, the cumulative effect on the human brain as we “monkey up” trapped in our biological evolution to be creature of stimulus-response, is that we begin to believe that what appears on the LED screens is real. It’s not. The internet is just like TV, it’s a “boob tube”, pure entertainment for the mind. Something primates do while waiting for the meteor to hit.

To be sure, the big internet companies take this phenomenon very seriously. Not because they care about people’s mental health mind you. It’s because they know that every fad has a half-life and sooner or later, Facebook could become Prodigy and fade into oblivion. Like their television counterparts who are seeing the public’s interest decline because the noise saturation level of the medium has reached abandonment behavior levels, the internet giants are seeing their own credibility questioned more and more. There’s a big debate over what to do with the monopoly positions that companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter have achieve in the mindshare of adult America. I note “adult” with emphasis, the kids have their own places on the internet they use. The sites adults argue about are called “old people” watering holes. You ought to know this if you are reading this article that in internet dog years, you are an old fart.

The Internet debate rages from academia to government. The academics, mostly left leaning, who in the 1990’s argued vociferously for an open and unregulated internet free of influence from “the man” have, in the last couple of years, done a 180 degree about face. The last conference on this I attended in November 2017 called “After the Digital Tornado” http://digitaltornado.net/schedule/ was interesting in that eventually this same 1990’s academic brain trust used the same arguments of Heidegger, Kafka and Marx to argue for a conversion of the market-based Internet into a central government regulated utility internet. No really. You can use the same body of academic reference base to create any outcome posit you want. My considered strategic net assessment analyst reaction to the conference, with decades of heuristic and mathematical modeling under my belt? Groucho trumps Karl. Always has, always will.

Now government is getting involved. On Friday September 21st 2018, The White House released a document titled the “National Cyber Strategy of the United States of America”, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/National-Cyber-Strategy.pdf It’s a 40 page document that parallels many of the recommendations from a book by Tim Maurer named “Cyber Mercenaries”. It’s a very well written, if deeply academic language laced, examination of cyber policies and strategies around the world that fairly describes the issues different countries face in dealing with cyberspace and the state and non-state actors within it. The US strategy statement elucidates our perspective and aspirations within this larger global playing field.

But there are dangers not noted in the latest White House document. Concepts of governance become moot when the baseline tech shifts back from central server to distributed infrastructure models. That’s coming. It’s called the Internet of Things (IOT). The “things” keep getting smarter to the point that they become mobile self-contained data centers, that’s what a self-driving vehicle is while it’s parked and plugged into an outlet. It’s R2D2. The lobbying of the monopoly companies to retain their market share is intense. But think about it, there’s no reason why social media needs to be a one stop portal. There’s no reason why Amazon should be the only company store that matters, that it should replace the post office, UPS and Fedex. One of the laments of the academics I do agree with is that the Internet used to have hundreds of them; that the Internet used to better fit the design of a competitive market space where on single company had greater than fifty percent market share. That is wasn’t a landscape of pseudo-utilities with unregulated staffs not subject to internal controls on behavioral norms. Economic interest wise, big companies and big governments like cozy rooms. That’s ultimately a bullshit reason for how to design the internet too. Posit in your head for a moment if social media was a society of 100,000 small servers, each governed by a sysop, the net would be self-neutral via natural counterbalancing. All these central control computer programs and intrusive data mining systems would either be superfluous or governed via a very different set of norms and expectations. My point here is, we are still in the stage of baby steps even if our egos try to tell us otherwise.

But the danger to the US in cyberspace is that our own domestic ineptitude, as seen in how our people are so vulnerable to the cancerous effects of “low information” viewer social media, are the seeds of our own destruction in the global race for dominance in cyber norms and behaviors. We presently do not hold the moral high ground of behavior. It means we are on a path to lose the cyber war asymmetrically. We will concentrate on infrastructural security raising barriers to entry to innovation even as the global technology base develops futures designed on completely different infrastructure models from the ones our bureaucracies know how to regulate. We will concentrate on managing down “bots” while at the same time artificial intelligence is making it that you cannot tell an internet robot from and actual human, and the robots actually will eventually serve you better as they evolve from toys into “droids”. What have not even begun to do is teach humans to separate fantasy from fact, to learn to live beyond being audiences of LED “boob tubes” willing to believe the shallowest of lies because it gives us a biological endorphin rush.

We have a long way to go.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

President Trump Needs to Establish a “Brennan Rule”

The feud between former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (DCIA) John Brennan and President Donald Trump points out an important clarification that needs to happen with respect to former officials engaging in active public debate to current administration policies and strategies.

There is nothing inherently wrong with Mr. Brennan disagreeing with the President. He is an experienced and insightful man with a long history serving his country. He has his own opinions as an independent pundit that he is very much entitled to. Where he has gotten himself into trouble is the use of his security clearance as a professional bona fide to imply he is a person of authority in current public policy debate. Personally, I doubt Mr. Brennan himself would imply this; but, he is in the employ of media organizations, the so-called 4th estate, that can and do imply to the public that his words carry such weight. They do not. Official weight comes only from the present officials in power holding the offices, doing their duty.

It is wrong for Mr. Brennan to overly project himself into the affairs of the keepers of the current watch no matter how much he believes in his views of the world. He’s not the one in the room looking at the current lay of the land, with both the clearance and the need to know to make today’s decisions. He should defer to the people who hold the active-duty positions in government to affect the national policy of the United States of America.

For instance, Mr. Brennan as DCIA oversaw a period of operations in the Middle East where the US engaged in a campaign of using unreliable operatives that didn’t quite work out as hoped. The campaign was designed by his predecessor DCIA David Petraeus who, fresh from his experience gaming warlord vs. warlord in Afghanistan, had the idea of stabilizing the western portion of the northern Middle East using proxies against unfriendly governments. And so began a CIA led effort that armed unreliable Sunni factions of Saudi sympathizers in Syria that would ultimately give birth to ISIS and create an opening for Iran to attempt to create the so-called “Shia Crescent”. We couldn’t balance our strategy with Shiites because the Imams of that sect are from hated US enemy, Iran; so we turned to the Kurds which, because half of them are in Turkey, eventually strained relations with that ally. It was a brilliant plan designed to fail. I remember hearing Petraeus discuss this at a Reagan National Defense Forum at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California once. My net assessment instincts were tingling with alarm bells. The strategy violated basic sphere of influence with respect to the one player the CIA brain trust underestimated, Russia and its commitment to the official government of Syria, the Alawite tribes of Bashar al-Assad. The net projection did not compute. And in the end, the what did compute is what happened, the entire campaign to unseat Assad failed. Mr. Assad is today, mopping up the last of the opposition forces enabled directly and inadvertently by the CIA of 2012 to 2016.

I recant this to make the point that the current “cooks in the room” are dealing with a very different set of global stability circumstances than that of the pre-Trump era. I could have used examples from the situations in NATO, North Korea, the South China Sea and others. Even our relationship on what the best going forward strategy to deal with China, an economic competitive and influence balance problem, and Russia, a boundaries of influence problem with a heavily nuclear armed, 1/10th GDP size of its opponents problem. My point here is not that Mr. Brennan does not have opinions on these matters. My point is that he is NOT IN THE ROOM. Clearance be damned, he does not have the need-to-know to make current US policy and strategy decisions. That he has personal reservations about the team now in the room is immaterial. They are also diligent and experienced people. And I’ll remind all those who have been told this, the greatest ethic of all in national matters. “Beyond this point, there is no left of right, there are only Americans.” My problem with Mr. Brennan is that he seems to have lost faith in our nation and its remarkable ability to persevere. I never lost it when he was in power. I do not know why he fails to do the same now that someone else is.

Then comes the media problem. Mr. Brennan exacerbates the situation by expressing his views in the mainstream media, a medium currently struggling for relevance in the political landscape against its disintermediation by the Internet, a replacement medium that is increasingly being adopted by world leader ship as a primary pathway for expressing international policy bypassing traditional media. As the media struggles believing it self to be part of policymaking when it is in fact merely an observer of the process, it places former officials like John Brennan into a difficult situation. Personally, his advice and counsel are better served with in the traditional private world of consultative discussions between current and former officials that has been how we carry on the long-term corporate memory of the Nation. That Mr. Brennan clashes with the administration outside of these confidential circles is what causes the current problem that President Trump has been placed in a difficult position to deal with.

 I believe that it is important for the United States to clearly delineate between consultative efforts by former officials in support of the government from public punditry that may interfere with the conduct of the work of the current watch. In the past, we relied on the discretion of these former officials to understand this difference. In the current environment of former officials becoming part of an opposition message marketed news media, this ground rule and assumption begins to falter. The nation must now deal with a cost benefit trade off between the advice that a former official can give versus the damage that a former official can do. The most poignant example of this problem stands before us in the personage of John Brennan.

I would respectfully suggest to President Trump that a rule should be established that a former official who, of his own volition, chooses to leave the cadre of consulted former officials to become a member of an opposition motivated industry should relinquish all connections to the government as part of becoming a member of that media. It is in our national interest that both the administration and Mr. Brennan make it clear that anything he says on the air is formulated from his considered opinion in complete isolation from what is officially happening inside the security and stability policy processes of the government of the United States.

I believe it would be good for both the US government and for Mr. Brennan to formally declare a hard disconnect to make it clear that the debate and disagreement that may or may not continue going forward is based on truly independent and carries no color or implication of authority. Now, I do not believe Mr. Brennan would do this himself. But I believe his employers in the media are doing so as part of their campaign to market the good old days of the Obama administration to their resistance-oriented viewers. Ethically, I don’t think Mr. Brennan should be comfortable being in such an awkward position.

I personally encourage Mr. Brennan to stand on his own soap box alone and proud with his thoughts. I welcome hearing them. However, he should not sanction to imply that his thoughts continue to carry the weight of officialdom well after the end of his tenure in government service. I believe that at some point Mr. Brennan may end his participation in the media. At that time, when he is ready to re-enter the cadre of old guard consultative voices in confidence again; that is when reconsideration of regranting him clearance should occur. In the meantime, his best service to the Nation may be to be the boy blue sounding his horn in the wilderness of the mainstream media.

To President Trump, I would say that I think this is a fair test that all who have at one time served the United States in some capacity of confidence should embrace. We all took an oath. We all made a promise. We all know that that promise is for life. We all know that when our shift ends, we turn it over to the next guy. That’s what makes sense for a great America.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Trump’s Aggressive Shuttle Diplomacy; In Search of the Eurasian Border

President Donald Trump continues to prove himself to be a diplomat who thinks out-of-the-box. The NATO summit in Brussels, despite all it’s testiness and recrimination by his detractors, brings up several realities that the alliance needs to deal with if it is to remain relevant as a contributing body to future world peace.

As a longtime analyst, NATO, in my observation, has been morphing away from being a purely defensive alliance to becoming a de facto expansionist one in the European theater. In concert with the economic agenda of the European Union, NATO has been expanding its presence into eastern Europe coming ever closer to the traditional influence sphere of Russia in the last 25 years. As eastern European countries have discovered the attraction of Western economic advantages, they have sought to join the military alliance as part of their migration from what was the old Warsaw Pact. This has led to some interesting political clashes in this expanded Europe that puts active socialist experiments in Western Europe in league with recovering failed communist experiments in Eastern Europe. Within this loose union, this new European landscape has proven to have all of the hill and valley complexities that have marked such matrices throughout history; and it is a tenuous matrix as best, as the world has witnessed the players within the EU/NATO system experimenting, sometimes dangerously, to define the future of their sphere of influence.
All of this ebullience has not gone unnoticed on the eastern border of the new NATO where the power shifts into the hands of mother Russia. In the minuet of set piece warfare that forms the long wave undertone of conflict for Europe ever since the end of the Hundred Years War, these subtle border shifts expanding eastward have the net effect of an invasion not unlike the threat of Operation Barbarosa was to the motherland’s Steppes in the mid-20th Century.

Russia, for its part, has sought to adjust and consolidate its latter day version of a Maginot line making shifts to territorial alignments to fix haphazardly drawn borders from the aftermath of the Cold War. This has caused, and will continue to cause, a growing tension between the evolving nouveau Europe, a $14 trillion GDP federation, and the prideful but poor order of magnitude poorer eastern empire of Vladimir Putin. This economic disparity makes for a very real and volatile border tension reality.

But wait. Let’s take a step back for a second from our perspective as the outside third party. What is the national interest of the United States when looking at the evolution of these two very important spheres of influence that characterize most of the northern half of the Eurasian continent?

Clearly, we see value in both of these power spheres. We have a long history of interaction with both western Europe and Russia. We have cultural and strategic reasons for wanting to have productive relations with both. Simple pragmatism dictates that EU/NATO and Russia are both equally vital to our strategy to ensure global stability and world peace. These two spheres, along with China, are the fundamental building blocks of a likely future northern alliance that could at some point replace the peacekeeping function of the United Nations; an organization now suffering from the ill effects of too much autocratic world mediocrity and prejudice disguised as international democracy. Therefore, it does fall to the United States to be the bringer of tough love to the alliance.

And that is precisely what the president of the United States did at the NATO summit. President Trump recognized the self-interest of EU/NATO Europe to build a sphere of influence within which its evolving federation can grow. He then pointed out that if this is the aim of this new EU, it would have to fund it’s military border with the Russians much more indigenously. In his policy position, it is apparent to me that Donald Trump did the calculus of deterrence. It’s not that hard. He spelled out to the Western Europeans the simple formula that a 4% of GDP commitment to military spending is what it would take to sustain a fully credible deterrent of the type that would stabilize the border between the Western and Russian spheres of influence. It’s a simple global stability equation; one that both the Europeans and the Russians can, and very well do, understand. Mr. Trump, who if you haven’t been reading Twitter, understands that plain and direct messaging gets results when it comes to asserting influence, set the 4% line because it is a plain language message that even economists would understand. Yes, that was a dig. Here is the simple math. 4% of the GDP of Western Europe in aggregate spent on defense is roughly 50% of Russia’s GDP. It creates the conditions for resilient stability; an overwhelming deterrent advantage in the mission to stabilize a sphere of influence border.

Mr. Trump further recognizes the dangerous nuance that the spending pain by NATO has to be equitably distributed among all of the members. It creates this business concept called “buy in”. It is astute acumen by Mr. Trump. Every student of military history that has studied Europe knows that a failure to ensure parity in participation eventually leads to disastrous outbreaks of European warfare. Don’t repeat the League of Nations mistake; it’s bad. It was clear to me in Mr. Trump’s messaging that he had thought long and hard about far more complex elements than people give him credit for. The summit ended with grudging pledges of new commitment. President Trump called it a success; probably more of a strategic success that an everyone feels good one. As they say, sweat equity.

Back to all about “US”. What does that buy the national interest agenda of the United States? In global stability, everything is an enabler. Things are a turn within a tun within a turn. The next logical step is, for anyone paying attention, already coming into play.

On July 15 in Helsinki, Mr. Trump will meet with Mr. Putin in what will be a private bilateral relations discussion between two major military powers and world affairs influences. The USA will ponder thoughts with the nation most critical to enabling global stability in the lower 2/3 landmass of planet earth. It’s a tumultuous co-dependency for sure; but then again, so was perpetuating a Cold War for decades while waiting to find out if the Reich would rise again? What? You didn’t think that was a big part of why we both did it?

Economically, it’s another order of magnitude disparity. The US with it’s over $16 trillion GDP dwarf’s Russia; although, the two leaders do share parallel concerns about certain portions of their federations being economically problematic. Housekeeping is a universal pain it the butt. Still, President Trump will be bringing the vast richness of the United States, who’s GDP as a single nation equals and exceeds the entirety of Western Europe’s; and is matched by only one other trading partner, China, to the chat room. Economically, it will be a giant sitting down to talk to a dwarf, a very prideful dwarf. Militarily it will be a unique peer like no other on this planet having a heart to heart discussion about what to do to bring peace to troubled regions in the world; with the combined imperial power to make those changes happen.

Mr. Trump has set a very interesting stage indeed.

Parting Shot

I understand that the news media is captive to reporting the blow-by-blow minutia of events as they unfold. But this is not the way to view these events. This is more like watching the story arc of a grand play unfold. Ultimately, it is left to us, the citizens, to discern the movie from the soundbites.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Childish Border Wars; Wrong Border?

US immigration policy has had a rough time of it lately. On January 30, 2018, President Donald Trump asked Congress to pass comprehensive reforms on immigration trying to end an arduous era of border policy by executive order that began long before his administration. So far, no joy as Mr. Trump faces bi-partisan opposition in the Legislative Branch seemingly more incentivized to kick the can down the road so as to preserve the immigration issue as a talking point for electoral politics. This has forced the Executive Branch to go back to effecting border policy via Executive Order; and oddly, put @realdonaldtrump, as the President is known on Twitter, in the same less than desirable muddling box as his predecessor Barack Obama.

Mr. Trump and Mr. Obama both share episodes of dealing with families arriving on the US border seeking asylum. Mr. Obama’s problems occurred in 2014 when a wave of people fleeing turmoil in Central America reached the US border after traveling through Mexico. The event overwhelmed the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Services as well as the those of the US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). The result was a rash of family detentions triggering the issue of child separations that Mr. Obama’s administration, also getting little help from Congress, coped with via Executive Order as it sorted out who could stay in the US and who had to return to their countries of origin. In Obama’s case, after trying to separate children and failing, and unable to detain entire families while their cases were pending, the federal government ultimately decided to use a form of electronic hostage taking as part of its enforcement strategy. Obama instructed the federal apparatus to place ankle tracking bracelets on the legs of the mothers, a direct threat to the central figure of these family units.

In 2018, the US formally changed the authorized ceiling of the number of refugees allowed into the country radically cutting the figure. This recognizes a policy change that began with the new administration that shifted US protocol from attempting to fill quotas to the maximum each year to one of practicing a higher-degree of scrutiny in who qualifies for the US refugee program. It is important to note that this pattern of “extreme vetting” has manifested in other ways including Trump’s day one ban on entry by persons from certain at-risk nations know to be sources of radicalized terrorism; a national security policy that was also pursued with less success by Trump’s predecessor Obama. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, presidents are, in the end, caretakers of national interests that precede and survive their tenures.

Recent Political Asylum Refugees
Year         Ceiliing Actual
2013 70,000 69,925
2014 70,000 69,987 Wave of Central American refugees.
2015 70,000 69,993
2016 85,000 84,995 Last year of Obama Administration
2017 110,000 53,716 First year of Trump Administration
2018 45,000 15,383     (est. ytd)

Mr. Trump’s administration now faces a new recourse dilemma triggered by a toughening of US policy in the direction of “enhanced scrutiny”, or using media’s adopted the hyperbole term from school politics, “zero tolerance” policies on the border. In Mr. Trump’s case, the shift in policy has run into same double-edged sword that beset his predecessor. The problem is triggered by a mismatch in timing in how US law works.

The US Immigration and Nationality Act (I.N.A.) § 208(d)(5) states that asylum interviews should take place within 45 days after the date the application is filed, typically the day a person presents themselves to US authorities, and a decision should be made on the asylum application within 180 days after the date the application is filed, unless there are exceptional circumstances.

The stress on the system today, as it was in Obamas time, is that there’s a Judicial Branch court order that impinges upon the I.N.A. timeline. It starts in 1985 when the daughter of actor Ed Asner’s housekeeper was detained by the then US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Her name was Jenny Flores. Jenny’s father had been killed in El Salvador and she was attempting to join her mother in the US, an illegal immigrant worker in the employ of Mr. Asner. The case exposed a problem of long term indeterminate detentions of minors in inadequate facilities within the INS system.

Initially adjudicated in 1987 during the Reagan Administration, it wound up a decade later in 1997 at the US Supreme Court where the Clinton Administration agreed to a settlement, the Flores Settlement, that would have far reaching implications. The Flores Settlement bars the detention of minors for more than 20 days and requires that children be held in facilities licensed as state-approved daycare centers, barring special circumstances.

This mismatch of timing caused Mr. Obama to take mothers as hostages because he could not get the courts to budge and is now causing Mr. Trump to pursue political lighting rod changes to US law. As part of the Executive Order to detain families together, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions is once again asking the US courts to adjustment the Flores Settlement. Mr. Trump is trying to avoid Mr. Obama’s jewelry solution; but he’s got to go through the US 9th District Circuit, one of the most activist in the country. My guess is it won’t end well.

That’s not the problem. This is! We are dealing with these people on the wrong border.

The international law on asylum is that the asylum seeker is supposed to present themselves to the authorities of the first international border they reach upon fleeing their countries. For Central Americans, that country is Mexico; specifically, the southern border of Mexico. The way it is supposed to work, that country, with aid from the international community, is supposed to set up refugee camps. It is from these camps, that other organizations such as the US Office for Refugee Resettlement are supposed to process persons to qualify them for movement from the camps to a third host nation. If this were the Middle East, the analogy would be people in Iraq and Syria fleeing ISIS going to U.N. camps in Jordan.

I do not understand why the US is not insisting that these conventions be followed. This is not a money issue. The US is a rich enough nation that we have the money to support such refugee camps unilaterally; heck, we pay for most of them around the world as it is. They are a good idea given that other Central and South American countries teeter on the edge of collapse of the kind that can and will lead to mass exodus.

One would think that the U.N. Commission on Human Rights would be all over this. BUT NO! Ok, so the U.N. are a bunch of useless puds as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley are quick to explain. Well fine then. To heck with the U.N., there’s the option of solving this as an Organization of American States (OAS) issue where, again, the North American economies can well afford to implement asylum infrastructure in the Western Hemisphere without needing help from the rest of the planet thank you very much.. Why is this not a top of mind conversation?  Why is this not part of the media narrative?  Why isn't this what gets asked about  on in Congressional hearings?

Personally, I’d advice President Trump to go all out on Mexico using trade and tariff leverage while offering the carrot of relief if Mexico cooperates in doing its part to set up proper refugee infrastructure to make the Organization of American States Great Again … so to speak.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Double Standards, Leadership Hubris, Softened Professional Walls Bring Out Human Frailty at the FBI

The Inspector General’s Report finally arrived.  The long-awaited proof of the powerful conspiracy to whitewash the “gross negligence” of Hillary Clinton.  On first pass, it’s a bit of an anticlimax play that speaks so much about the frailty of man in the face of power as Thomas Jefferson used to put it.

Dramatically, the saddest part in the 528-page report is a direct action by a Clinton.  Specifically, former President Willian Jefferson Clinton, imposing himself in a meeting with Attorney General Loretta Lynch on the tarmac in Phoenix.  The meeting “went on and on” saying nothing.  It created discomfort to the point that Lynch sought the advice of the ethics counsel and ultimately steeled herself to accept whatever the FBI recommended be done about Mrs. Clinton.  The reading between the lines is clear.  This chapter of the report is a love poem.  It’s a story about a man who knows the woman he loves has done something terribly wrong begging for mercy; how the mighty do have feet of clay.

But it’s also clear in this report that the double standard of behavior for public figures is a chasm from the public's.  The IG’s report’s preamble goes to great pains to says it avoids second guessing the course and outcome of the Clinton email investigation.  It mentions, but does not opine, on the pattern of mitigation of interpretation of US law that ultimately not only resulted in a declination to recommend prosecution but the removal of language in describing the offense that would have argued strongly in the opposite direction.  My fairness opinion on this after reading the applicable law is that someone should have gone to jail for violating 28 CFR 793(f), the "gross negligence" provision. That public figures get a pass on actions that would send ordinary Americans to federal prison is a cancer that begs introspection.

The eye of this storm in this report was James Comey.  He is the central actor in the play.  The one who’s choices caused everything else to pivot around.  The IG report is not wishy washy at all about its conclusion that Comey screwed the pooch twice by acting out of school when he should have followed procedure. Both times he committed failures of hubris speaking out of turn and bypassing chain of command.  The IG is correct in counseling that he should have gone by the book and let the external realities of the case wreak whatever havoc they should have.  The bottom line lesson for the future is that it’s better to let legitimate scandals happen than create artificial ones inside your own head.  It undermines trust and is an example of elitism in DC at its worst.  Sadly, it’s also petty.  If Comey had trusted in the design of how government and law are supposed to work in this country, much of this would have been different.  In theatric translation, where Loretta turned a deaf ear to Bill, Jim gave Hillary his heart.  Jim chose poorly.

As a result of Comey’s choices, the FBI was reduced to mediocrity, not by bad personnel, but by aimless purpose. That the IG found so many actions questionable and unconvincing should be no surprise; when you don't have equal protection under the law, clarity turns to mud.  Governance and law give way to politics and gossip; an entire country takes a ride on a roller coaster it didn’t have to. And here we are still in denial that 28 CFR 793(f) needs to be enforced.

As to the many supporting actors, Washington D.C. is a town of dangerous political diversity. It remains best navigated with bourbon and cigars.  There's nothing wrong with this. The system is designed to operate well as long as the wall between private like and professional conduct is maintained. Most people do so in the Beltway even as they enjoy the salacious aspects of capitol culture. That players will falter here and there is normal. Catching and counseling them is normal too. I did not really see that there was much more than common garden variety human frailty at work here.  Lovers get careless and mix play with their work. That doesn’t make them bad people.  Gossip worthy yes; but not enemies of the state. The system has the capacity to tolerate such humanity and keep working as long as leadership insists on professionalism in official activity.  The lessons documented in this part of the IG report applies beyond just the FBI. The IG is right to call for tighten up the ship.

Sound general quarters.  It’s time for drills.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Does Political Correctness Cause School Shootings? An Inconvenient Question for the Federal Commission on School Safety

In March 2018, following a shooting incident in Parkland, Florida, President Donald Trump formed the cabinet level Federal Commission on School Safety charged with coming up with a range of recommendations to improve school safety. Chaired by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the commission also includes Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. The commission has formally met once and is to deliver a set of proposals to the President by the end of the year.

As the commission does its work, constituencies of every kind seek to influence it. From Congress and its lobbyists through the grass roots of Americans, people hope the answers that soothe them the most will be the ones that prevail in the final recommendations. I’m not so sanguine about finding better tomorrows within knee jerk responses. I believe that the Commission will not truly have done its work unless it fully deconstructs the pieces of how America got here, identifies the operative errors we made to our cultural norms, and explains the root causes and solutions to the American people. Anything short of that is a placebo.

In the 1990’s, I remember having a poignant conversation with James Q. Wilson, then a professor at my alma mater, the Anderson Graduate School of Management at UCLA. Jim was a world class intellectual able to see out of the box on strategic, cultural and law enforcement matters. I met him first as a teacher. It turned out he and I shared a common past in strategic nuclear warfare and would find additional common paths to walk in the realm of developing theories about community policing. In both cases, he was the academic and I was the practitioner. He analyzed with words, I analyzed with computer code. Both paths led to deeper understandings about the insides of Pandora’s Boxes. This conversation was about the phenomenon of political correctness.

The rise of political correctness or PC as it was referred to then has roots deep in the Ivory Towers of social engineering. It was a product of arrogant elitism by people who believed they knew better than ordinary people. They had identified American Culture itself as the impediment to their dreams; that lack of cultural cadence that infuriated deeply felt existential and Marxist beliefs that find so much nurture in the safe spaces of tenured academia. They correctly recognized that the only way to defeat that enemy was to asymmetrically attack this culture. Thus, the strategy of deconstruction of language and meaning began, innocuously at first; but growing in rigidity over time. I remember the key word of the entire thing. The term “shouldn’t” became “mustn’t”. The attack vector to spread this cultural breakdown and remaking of America was obvious, the unprotected and vulnerable educational system. Wilson was always quick to point out that this was exactly how you created “systemic risks”. He was fond of saying whatever we teach today will be the social crisis a quarter century from now. From the mid-1990’s, it’s now been over 25 years.

Ivory Fortresses, Thought Prisons

Some perspective about the sheer power of asymmetric effect of education on US society is in order here. Where the US military indoctrinates 3% of the US population in to a culture of service, the school system indoctrinates 100% of America’s children.

In the decades since PC emerged, the schools have turned the concept of “mustn’t” into Orwellian zero tolerance. The deconstruction of American culture where tradition is vile and conventional values are evil have become pervasive. A student or teacher who believes outside the sanctioned thought lives an insular existence in a hostile workplace at best, is a bullied outcast at worst. Expression is punishable, both socially and academically. Values and norms, even those perfectly acceptable off campus, must be left at the gate by children who’s mental development knows nothing of the abstract post-doctoral concepts being forced upon them; it’s like using a sledgehammer to crack walnuts open, you destroy things in the process. They are too young to know that within a setting that purports to be a haven for their bodies and minds, they are in fact, closer to being like political prisoners or hostages in much the same sense that conquerors throughout history have sought to wipe out cultures. These children are too innocent to see that their families’ values, the things that make them happy, the things that make them unique, are the system’s enemy.

As that conversation in the 1990’s asked, “What happens when that school systems sees the America outside the Ivory Bubble as the enemy at the gate? How does that affect those young minds to be told that their parents are bad people because they think differently? That ideas are evil." Well of course it makes the children uncomfortable; they have real feelings and understand rejection. And statistically, when you deliberately make impressionable people uncomfortable, some of them will get angry, and some of them will lash out. This doesn’t just happen in schools; it happens in work places, it happens in the streets. It happens because someone who thought they knew better pushed the most vulnerable outcasts into the desperate corners of their minds; and probably fueled that angst with psychotropic medications. It’s wrong.

I respectfully suggest that, in our bullish brashness, we may have inadvertently made the perfect storm for school shootings. We created a systemic risk to America that’s become a perfect laboratory where we take lost children, so far mostly boys, who are vulnerable to stress and push them over the edge. Their needs often neglected at home, we set up the system to neglect their needs at school; indeed, we set up the system to reject the validity of their existences.

And it gets worse. As parents who can afford to pull their children out of public schools to put them either into private schools or home schooling, the concentration of distressed youths per capita in the remaining zero tolerance environment gets even higher. And these unwanted young people become valuable economic commodities on campuses because the public education system in this country gets paid by the body. This means we exacerbate the problem year by year essentially condemning those who cannot escape financially to the full force of zero’er tolerance; think of it as the quantitative easing of young impressionable minds. The dissonant cultures of outcast America are forced to collide within the walls of the educational keep, every rejection and pain filled day. And we wonder why kids snap? Let’s admit something to ourselves. We are bullying our children to make theoretical elitism feel good.

Somewhere in all of this we must remember that the American school system’s civic mission is to not to train future social justice warriors, it is to prepare children to become good, tolerant Americans. There's a critical thinking case to be looked into as to whether all of the elite social theories we have used our own children as guinea pigs to experiment on have netted to the good or to the bad of the generations we've "engineered" in the pursuit of our own hubris. It may take an entire deconstruction and redesign of education with attendant changes in financial incentives and retraining of educators and administrators to make it right. It will be uncomfortable to look in the mirror and admit to our frailties. But if the Federal Commission on School Safety can help the process along, maybe our schools can be the havens they once were again.

Maybe we won’t be such politically correct monsters this time.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Playing Hardball to Create Peace in the Middle East

On the same day the United States opens its new embassy in Jerusalem, Hamas sends dozens to die in suicidal waves on the Israeli border with Palestine. Both moves are statements; one strategic, the other desperate. Seemingly at odds, when combined, the Middle East is saying it’s time to move on. In asymmetric stokes, the United States is declaring that the past is the past; that there is no peace in it; that the road ahead is new, unpaved, and uncharted. Hamas, one of the vestiges of that past, screams in agony that the ears in the region have gone deaf to their pleas.

Changing the Game

The Middle East of the latter half of the 20th Century and dawn of the 21st has been a multi-party matrix of polarities based on volatile combinations of highly charged win-lose scenarios. This is not an area where win-win diplomacy has worked well. It is also not an area peace by force has provided anything more that temporary respite. Mostly, the Middle East’s core competency is grinding human flesh into meat. Both taking life and losing life have become commodities measured in hundreds of thousands of graves. Planet Earth has seen hundreds of thousands of innocent lives taken over the hubris of greed and power. Cousins turn into blood feud enemies. Neighbors on one day turn guns on each other the next. The reasons are many, almost all are pointless. Dreams of influence and power, control of trade and natural resources, ethnic cleansing for the sake of religious intolerance; all it’s done is left too many women who sell flowers and little boys who sell ice cream dead in forgotten ditches or splattered like paint onto the rubble of explosive debris. These examples are not fiction. Diplomacy, the kind that talks but does not act, has done little but keep the killing fields fertile.

Creating paths to peace requires choosing winners arbitrarily. Not by promoting self-determination; we already know the warring parties there’s choice is to perpetuate death as their coin of negotiation. Frankly, it’s how they milk the system. No. If we want real peace we need to take endless negotiation out of the equation. The world, or rather the powerful of the world, need to pick the outcomes and the pathways to manage the fate of the losers.

Benevolent Manifest Destiny

The Machiavellian model here is not democracy, it’s the marshaling of resources to impose better outcomes. The analogy that comes to mind is the taming of the American West. The latter 1800’s in America was a period when wars as a tool of statecraft were ending and the rule of law began to eclipse armies of occupation. The tool used for this was the US Circuit Court system of judges and marshals that had the power, in their individually jurisdictions to declare parties legitimate or outlaws; and enforce order under the shield of law accordingly. It eventually turned territories onto states that became self-governing with individually unique qualities; the American West the world knows today.

Let’s look at one facet of this puzzle. The clearest case for this ahead is in the country of Syria where stability is probably only possible by sectoring the country into imposed districts.

Northwestern Syria, the section held by Bashar al-Assad and this Alawites, is the new East Germany. It’s district judge is Russia. Its problem is the purging of what’s left of al-Qaeda and its various expressions of al Nusra and ISIS. Caught in this crossfire are the non-Alawite democratic factions that used to be part of a more inclusive Syria of a few decades ago but are in constant danger of teetering into the clutches of warlords who might turn the region into another Afghanistan. The conflict metaphor here is the sectarian governance of the Alawite model vs. the heavy-handed Salafist model of al Qaeda. The question for the world is how to enable the district judge to succeed in making sure the Alawite model prevails and northwestern Syria moves past the human rights sins of both Assad and his Islamist foes while seeking the restoration of broader inclusiveness in a post-Assad northwestern Syria. The latter is a challenge because the designated judge, Russia, isn’t exactly the most inclusive or tolerant of players.

Southern Syria is the section occupied by the Iranians. This is the westernmost projection of what is called the Shia Crescent, Imam controlled Iran’s dream of regional Middle East dominion. It is the powder keg and flash point of Middle East instability. The inability of Iran to get to the shores of the Mediterranean because the path is blocked to the west by the Israelis has been marked by military posturing and dueling that shows no sign of abating. This is metaphor here is immovable trench warfare. The only actual solutions are for either (a) Iran to abandon its agenda or (b) Israel and Iran to reach a peaceful armistice that allows for constructive economic conditions to emerge. For that, cooler heads, particularly in Iran, need to prevail. This is not presently feasible. Oddly, the decision of the US to abandon the 2014 Nuclear Treaty with Tehran actually creates a new basis for resolving the southern Syria issue by opening a pathway to tie Tehran’s regional behavior not just in Syria but in the Nineveh Plains of Iraq to a new round of negotiations. The gambit is reinforced by the US overture inviting participation by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, who are showing encouraging signs of liberalizing proactively, to help stabilize eastern Syria. The move, in military parlance, closes a salient created by the Iranians during the ISIS period further pushing them to an inevitable negotiated outcome. This is bold move stuff being pushed by cool cucumbers like US president Donald Trump and his team. A second Nobel Peace Prize would be well earned if it works.

Eastern Syria is the American sector. This is about as close as it gets to the frontier conditions of the American West of the 1800’s; where the American military occupies and patrols in a role more akin the the U.S. Cavalry of the Wild West. We sit on a powder keg on the knife edge of military governorship. And regionally, this is the most difficult sector to possess. Where western and southern Syria are set piece containments, eastern Syria harbors a flashpoint for a far broader regional breakdown. It’s because of the Kurds. A partner to facilitating America’s occupation agenda, the dream of an independent Kurdistan holds within it a war that would engulf Syria, Turkey and Iraq for a century. It may be ok with the Kurds who see only their hopes with myopic intensity; but everyone else who looks into this abyss sees casualty numbers that would equal if not exceed what the region has already suffered. The US has counseled both patience to the Kurds, difficultly, and accommodation by the sovereign nations within which the Kurds live, with even more difficulty. It will test the United States’ ability to reluctantly manage conflicting party coexistence over a long term yet again. On the plus side, there is probably no other nation on earth whose own history of being forged out of diverse dissonance can ascend. Perhaps that is why God has placed us in that part of the His former Garden of Eden at this point in human history.

We do stand a chance at this. The philosophy of “nation building” American-style has been applied in other tumultuous environments with success. The United States, under the command of Douglas MacArthur, used similar methods to stabilize the post-Spanish Empire colony of the Philippine Islands in the early 20th Century. MacArthur, a product of a flowering of other statesmen-generals like Marshall, Eisenhower, and others who saw the world stage as manageable, repeated the formula again in post-Imperial Japan after World War II. The United States, post MacArthur, did the same in a place called South Korea; a country that is about to bear the fruits of America’s sixty-eight (68) years of patience and commitment. Anyone who tries to tell you the USA doesn’t have the ability or skill to play the long game, don’t you believe it. We have, many times.

The only times we’ve lost on this planet is when we’ve abandoned and left regions to wallow in their own misery. The vacuum effect of our missing influence has been consistent; slow economic recovery in places strewn with uncleared minefields and, in too many instances, death due to gang warfare between criminal warlords. We’ve learned a little that our choices have consequences, probably not enough. But maybe enough to give the world a few more miracles to remember.

I’ll close by noting that I’ve written about his subject in the past. The last time I pointed out that the United States must ponder the long-term implications of our destiny on the world stage was 2003. At the time, we were arguing about the weapons of mass destruction of one Saddam Hussein and debating whether to invade Iraq. I wrote we’d have to have the stomach to stay for at least 75 years to do it right. I recall at that time there was another fellow being quoted as saying similarly pensive things.

His name was Donald J. Trump.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Cold Partnerships: The Complexity of Syria

Photo Credit: Reuters

On Friday April 13, 2018, US President Donald J. Trump appeared on television announcing the commencement of punitive airstrikes on chemical weapons research and storage installation of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. Joining the US in the attack, the United Kingdom and France, struck in response to renewed attacks by the Assad regime against insurgents in the city of Douma located east of the Syrian capital of Damascus. A chemical attack on April 7th killed an estimated forty-two (42) people and effected degrees of injuries on up to 500 more persons following yet another breakdown in a Russian brokered cease fire between factions in Syria’s ongoing civil war. Images and stories in the aftermath highlighted the humanitarian cruelty of the Assad’s sectarian Alawites against their Muslim neighbors. Toxicology and treatment reports from the area reported the use of a nerve agent possibly combined with chlorine, apparently an attempt to conceal the deadlier compounds. The ordnance was reportedly delivered via the Assad regime’s favored method, Syrian Air Force helicopter dropped barrel bomb(s). Typical of the subterfuge that is the Middle East, cover up stories seeking to muddy the finger pointing as to who actually perpetrated the attack followed; a number of them designed to cause doubt that the insurgents themselves may have martyred their own in an attempt to gain attention on the world stage as government forces closed in. Planted pictures, the “fake news” of hacktivism and the exploitation of the internet.  You want to know more about how sophisticated that gets?  Google “Syrian Electronic Army”

The global response so far has been surgically forceful. If you examine it from all sides, rather cooperatively so. The Russians could not have been happy that their attempt at brokering a cease fire in a relentless civil war had failed yet again. The US, which the week before had been contemplating ramping down operations as the war against ISIS waned, found itself dragged into the troubles of Western Syria, where the US does not operate, to deal with a breach of the Chemical Weapons Conventions. The Iranians and Israelis, who had been playing their own tit-for-tat in southern Syria, found their squabbles on the global back burner. And even Turkey, itself embroiled in the sticky multi-national pickle in northern Syria dealing with the Kurdish question of a culture straddling three countries who would rather not have to deal with them except that they’ve managed to charm the Americans, found themselves having to think global.

The world began to maneuver recognizing that the nation of Syria, its civil war including all its factions, had once again crossed that mythical Red Line in the Sand. Except this time, the United States was telegraphing it as going to make good on the threat to pound that sand. In the week between the 7th and 13th the world saw a global negotiation via diplomatic, press and social media channels. Negotiated gruffly yes, but amazingly efficiently turned into an actionable “deal”.

Alignments of Strategic Interests

There is no compelling global interest to take on the task of policing the civil war in western Syria. The “Deliver Us from Evil’ era of human rights interventionism of the last quarter century in places like Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq is over. This dispute is for the Syrians to work out for themselves. The world’s present-day mission is to contain civil wars, not end them.

Digging deeper, there is no compelling interest for non-Syrian regional players to attempt sudden gains in the regional “hill and valley” power matrix while this latest episode unfolds.  Consider,

The Iranians need a more stable Syria with a surviving Assad regime if they ever hope to complete their Shia Crescent hopes to reach the Mediterranean. Tehran’s main worry in the future is less America than it is whether America vigorously back the inevitable Saudi and Israeli opposition to the Persian dream.

The Turks similarly see no gain to upsetting the Syrian status quo to their south; they’re more worried that a break up of Syria would trigger a question of the Kurds in Syria, Iraq and Turkey demanding independence and possibly getting American help. This does not serve the Erdogan regime’s objectives.

The Iraqis just want to be left alone to rebuild their country on their own. Their fear is the “Wild West” might come across their border and infect them yet again. I once had a conversation with a diplomat where it came up that Iraq needs a, wait for it, “wall” to keep the Syrian mess on the far side of the Nineveh Plain from Baghdad. I did joke that they could try talking to the best wall builders in the Middle East about that. The response of a charming diplomatic smile noted that perhaps it’s a bit too soon.

What is compelling?

What there is when you get down to the core is a compelling interest to act to curtail the continued use of chemical weapons within the Syrian civil war. That need is paramount regardless of who is perpetrator or victim. As in Frank Herbert’s “Dune”, in the end, there are no innocents here anymore. Only those who will die and those who will survive.

What bothers humankind is that there is demonstrated capability and willingness to use chemical weapons in the region. This cannot be allowed. The pathways of negotiation, even by a forceful presence like Russia’s, did not work. Sanctions did not work. Threats did not work. The next step of infrastructure destruction has become a necessity, not an option. It’s interesting to note on this point that the Russians could not themselves destroy Assad’s chemical weapons program, that job had to fall to the militaries of the West. Machiavellian. A turn, within a turn, within a turn.

The West did so with the bulk of the firepower supplied by the United States. Warning time was sufficient to allow the Russians to move personnel and assets out of the area, or at least into avoidable locations; an action that stripped Assad of the ability to defend himself when aerial attack finally came. Regardless of bellicose bluster, that chess converted a field of technically capable air defense assets into a motley collection of bottle rockets. I particularly liked the Russian statement that they would “defend themselves” as a cool nuance.

The telegraphy of statecraft is subtle and consequential. The dance between Trump and Putin as it played out, telepathic … and hopeful.  Within the Twitter storm of the past week, there was this.

For now, mischief managed. Tomorrow? Well that’s another day in the former Garden of Eden.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Those Meddlesome Russians

Russian relations with the Western nations of planet earth are in a tailspin. Scandal erupts over the use of a nerve agent to poison former KGB spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the United Kingdom. The incident ignited concerns of over core principles of international law concerning states failing to honor the sovereign rights of other nations. In global stability, this is a critical barrier between peace and war among nations whose inherent national interests often do not align. It is dangerous precedent, that if allowed to stand, could enable other nations or their actors to pursue perceived enemies with impunity anywhere, regardless of the laws of the nation where the target is located.

Western nations are reacting using an international response strategy sometimes referred to as DIME. It stands for Diplomacy, Intimidation, Militancy and Economic response. They operate as a quartet in managing global stability in cases. So far, the first two response silos have been activated. Intimidation, also known as exposure and shaming, has been acrimonious by the U.K. including Prime Minister Theresa May public calling out the Russian government in parliament. Diplomatically, Britain and the United States have expelled Russian diplomatic personnel, 23 for the U.K. and 60 by the U.S. The Russians, also practitioners of DIME, have so far only activated a diplomatic response by similarly expelling an equal number of diplomats. Overall, despite all the news coverage and posturing, a muted tit-for-tat at best.

Epic Chasm

For westerners who live in cultures where criticism and defiance of the state is considered a virtue of democratic debate, the appearance of the statecraft and governance of societies like Russia’s where the image and stability of the state stands above that of the citizenry is a bit of a head bender. But in places like Russia, the security of the state is paramount. Russia is a large and poor country. Seventy-five of the eighty-five districts of the Russian Federation are insolvent. Keeping things together constitutes a large portion of the work of the central government in Moscow. Execution of this effort in Russia is not democratic by any means. The central government works though oligarchies that create a semblance of economic stability; albeit, through a corruption prone system rivaling that of any third world ninety-nine percent of the wealth in one percent’s hands. To obtain the narrowest of tenuous hold, Russia sacrifices the quality of life of its people.

Sanctioned Criminals

This generates one of the truly macabre path dependent technology revolutions on planet Earth. Russia is an amazingly intellectual society. Think of a place where community colleges can produce scientists and engineers rivaling the products of MIT, Georgia Tech and Cal Tech in the US. Back in the day, I used to joke with my friends in the stealth aircraft and electronic warfare specialties of the defense game that, as a net assessment risk and stability analyst, I always found it funny that most of the math equations they worked with were named after Russians, and the Reds did their calculations using pencils. They were not amused.

But Russia’s tiny $1.2 Trillion GDP economy cannot absorb all this brain talent into domestic industry. All that talent is poor and looking for something to do. Remember from earlier in this article that the Russian government’s main goal in life is to preserve the stability and image of the state. They are not dumb. They know they have a festering unemployed talent problem that they need to keep distracted while they figure out how to, somehow, centrally plan the growth of the Russian economy’s eighty-five federation districts, such is the way of socialists.

Thus, here comes the resurgence of the old concept of criminal privateering; the sanctioning of unscrupulous behaviors for gain. In technology that means looking the other way as the pauper technocrats engage in credit card fraud, computer hacking, and unethical datamining. In some cases, for personal profit; in other cases, for hire. The simple rule of the letter of mark for a privateer applies. You can do whatever you want as long as you don’t point your stick at Mother Russia; none of that western democracies questioning the state stuff. Indeed, Russia’s FSB has shown it remains stalwart in it’s viciousness against enemies of the state. Pretty sure the Skripals would agree. Today, you can buy any sort of meddle for hire from Russia’s technocrat class; and Moscow will quietly look away so long as you do not violate the social compact of aiming that meddle outside the castle keep.

Thoughts on the Mueller Investigation

And so we get to the alleged Russian meddling in the US 2016 election. By 2016, the Russian system of criminal privateering for hire had reached organizational maturity just in time to meet the demands of the gigantic multi-million dollar ($USD) budgets of intensely competitive presidential campaign motivated to stop at nothing to win. Russia’s pauper technocrats were looking at making five to fifteen times the amount of money a month than they’ve ever dreamed. Moscow correctly judged that it didn’t actually affect the domestic image or stability of the Russian Federation. Therefore, it was ok to look the other way as “Peggy” robots went to work for all sides in American politics resulting in social pandemonium and breakdown of decorum in America. For profit, not policy.

In the end, will the USA, indeed the world, learn the lesson that the reforms we really need are to place safeguards and ethics around our elections, and our economic, not to fall prey to sending checks to pauper technocrats who will use nonsensical memes to obscure the discussion of important issues; not because they are politically activist, but because it generates more click-thru rates and ad serves. We bought the meddling with our own money. It was never the Russian government’s responsibility to stop the hackers.