Wednesday, January 31, 2018

State of the Union; Larger Than A Tweet

U.S. President Donald Trump delivered a powerful speech on January 30, 2018.   Speaking to a joint session of Congress, Trump enumerated a list of achievements since his inauguration that pointed to U.S. gains both domestically and abroad.  With the economy in rebound and unemployment falling, the President bragged about the financial benefits of his tax reform package for American families and businesses.  His presentation had the popular tenor of Reagan and Lincoln, speaking using language explaining the direction of the economy to ordinary Americans; noting that, corporate America had already heard, and was already responding to, his clarion call.

Internationally, Trump capped his Administration’s the nearly total rout of ISIS in Iraq and Syria by announcing he had signed an executive order instructing Secretary of Defense Mattis to keep the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba open for business.   His message was clear, for terrorists, Guantanamo will be the end of the line.  The U.S. intends that if captured, they will live out what remains of their lives in captivity.  In other words, he’s created a tangible consequence and hopefully a deterrent to future radicalization threats against the United States in a tone that speaks to individuals contemplating terror.

Against other adversary nations, Trump’s speech was more conventional in rhetoric criticizing the behavior of rogue regimes such as North Korea and encouraging popular liberation causes in places like Iran.  His speech may have specifically asked Congress to fully fund the US defense budget and invest in the modernization of the US nuclear arsenal; but his activist messaging directly to other nations clearly continues to show that the most potent weapon in his arsenal remains the diplomacy of “aggressive negotiations”.  Fittingly, cameras focused on U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley as Trump made his remarks.

The President also took the time in his address to explain his immigration reform package directly to the American people.  He is clearly snatching the agenda away from Congress even as they debate the same topic working towards yet another continuing resolution to fund or shut down the government next week. He spoke that his four pillar proposal was a compromise.  His message was clear, neither theFar  Left nor the Far Right will be entirely happy; but, he intends to get a solution that will take immigration reform to a solution now and make it disappear from being a nagging wedge come the 2018 midterm election. The President’s first two of four pillars approach consisting of a generous expansion of DACA with a real path to citizenship on the one hand and full funding for border security on the other was classic “Art of the Deal”. His third and fourth pillar addressing visa lotteries and chain migration focused on the consequence effects of these policies. My guess here?  He’ll get pillars one and two.  Three and four are bargaining chips to get one and two.

However what really impressed me about the State of the Union address was Trump’s stunning, there’s really no other word for it, capture of the domestic quality of life agenda for 2018.  His call for a solution to the high cost of prescription drugs where Americans spend as much as $1 of every $6 of their medical costs according to a Tweet by Fox News on the heels of his statement put him in direct communication with ordinary Americans yet again.  His call to streamline infrastructure investment spoke to every frustrated state and local government.  And his acknowledgement that America has an opioid epidemic problem brought light to America’s penchant to sweep inconvenient truths under the rug.  These are clear markers of President’s “connected” leadership based on honest recognition of domestic issues; something much needed in America.

Applause by the Republican contingent and the audience in the gallery was enthusiastic.  Reaction by the Democratic contingent, not so much. As the camera’s panned, I was moved to Tweet, “That’s a lot of unhappy Democrats” earlier in the evening.  By the time I watched Joe Kennedy’s rambling response speech, I kind of felt sorry for the many loyal opposition Democrats that their leadership is stifling from participating more constructively in a bi-partisan process.

Given the momentum generated but Trump’s State of the Union address, it’s going to be an interesting 2018 in the United States of America.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

“Getting to Yes”; Can Donald Trump Manage the Ultimate “Art of the Deal” and bring Korea to Camp David?

What does it mean for the United States to have a provocateur President?  What can a Nation accomplish when it looks at old problems with “out of the box” eyes?  What pathways to global stability are open today that were not open when America led incrementally?  As 2018 gets underway, the world has a unique opportunity to defuse and demobilize yet another worrisome point of tension in the international community of nations, Korea.  Have the efforts of the Unites States of America under President Donald Trump to shift U.S. posture from deferring confrontation to actively engaging the long festering nuclear weapons program of the Kim Jong-un’s Democratic People’s Republic of Korea aka North Korea, have created a unique opportunity to end one of the world’s longest and most artificial wars?

On July 27, 1953 the Korean War Armistice Agreement went into effect.  It ended open hostilities fueled by the Cold War; a war that ended twenty-seven years ago in 1991.  For sixty-five (65) arduous years, Korea has lived in the shadow of that Cold War, divided along the 38th parallel. Culturally, these two Koreas are one people.  Above all else, they long for re-unification.  However, both sides are trapped by the dogma of the ghosts of NATO and the Warsaw Pact; their leaders unable to compromise to find ways to do the one thing they have to do, let go of their power so they then step together into a new and more peaceful dawn.  Such a reborn Korea would no longer be beholden to external allies be they superpower, regional or rogue states; it would be, a Korea for all Koreans.

Like prior post World War II pivotal collapses of international tension, there’s a massive potential dividend. Economically, a peacefully unified Korea is an enabler to a far more prosperous western semi-circle of the Pacific Rim.  Ending the strife in the Korean Peninsula potentially unlocks a vast economic zone stretching from the Bering Sea to the Coral Sea.  With so much of the world’s population, it would dwarf the European Union and be equaled only by a similar economic zone encompassing the totality of the Organization of American States along the eastern side of the Pacific Rim, which forms a most natural trading partner.  The Pacific would literally become the center of such a world.  The possibilities are HUGE, to use a term by “Donald the Strong” as the Chinese like to call him.

But presently, concerning “externalities” remain. The DPRK is considered the rogue of rogues category state on planet Earth because of its provocateur stance vs. its  neighbors near and far.  It picks fights, potentially dangerously suicidal fights.  It’s economy retains long obsolete features of a war footing economy spending most of its treasure to prepare for an imaginary war, a cold war of posture and bravado at the expense of the welfare of its people.

It’s folly of course. Far larger nations like the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics tried the same thing and found in the end only heartbreak and regret as the denial of the cost of the sacrifice becomes undeniable.  Some still remember that for a fleeting moment, a world cried with Boris Yeltsin when he visited those supermarkets in Texas.

Even North Korea’s present data rogue cabal partner Iran, for all its oil wealth, makes the same mistake of spending too much treasure on bravado and adventure; only to wake up to the hollow shell it has become to its people.  The plight of the Persians, one of the most worldly cultures of human history, at the hands of a narrow minded theocracy has only one future.  The springing up of human rights and hopes will recur again and again.  Each time the regime will be weaker within a world where the values of humanity and freedom challenge closed societies.  So too is the sound of inevitability for Kim Jong-un’s regime.  More important for North Korea’s posture and strategy, the possibility of the DPRK becoming a cabal of one became a very real possibility this year.

To be honest, I cannot comprehend why North Korea has allowed itself to be the lightning rod of a nuclear warfare threat on behalf of its rogue cabal.  For all the tired rhetoric about the United States being and existential threat hegemony bent on destroying regimes it does not agree with, these paranoid perceptions are plain wrong.  If anything, the United States has proven over and over again since the end of World War II that is does not have the stomach for world dominating hegemony regardless of the Greco-Roman models used by its Founding Fathers to design the American Experiment.  The U.S. track record in the latter half of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries is in fact to lose heart and attempt to leave too soon; often with disastrous results measured in innocent blood.  Even in places we stay, we constantly try to do less.  What if North Korea could be convinced to think out of its own box and see the U.S. the limited fears of “that nation that convinced the entire United Nations to attack us”?  What of the two Koreas saw the U.S. for what it did best after World War II rebuilding battered and devastated nations with in cooperation with countries, not despite resistance by those countries.

Thinking outside the box.

What if U.S. President Donald Trump was indeed able to convince the leaders of North and South Korea to come to neutral ground like Camp David like then U.S. President Carter brought Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin for twelve days of secret negotiations in September of 1978?  It was undeniably greatness.  So let’s say “Donald the Strong” made it happen. Regardless of you domestic politics, would you think America was Great Again then?

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Cyber Warfare Iranian Style

The Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and the Ayatollah Khomeini
All revolutions are built on ideas that displace ideas that don’t work anymore. World history is the history of human revolutions.

As 2018 dawns, we are seeing a revolution. Demonstrations in the streets of Iranian cities herald yet another revolution of ordinary people, mostly students and women, clamoring for change up to and including regime change in Iran. While the physical battle ground is in the streets, the infrastructural battleground, where the command, control, communications and management is happening, is in cyberspace. It’s cyber warfare in the truest sense and phenomenon is worth studying.

The Iranian Revolutionary Cycle

The current Shia Islamist government of Iran was born in revolutionary circumstances very similar to those is faces today. In the 1970’s, the Shah of Iran sought to expand the regional influence of his country spending lavishly one the best military he could leverage his economy to purchase. The Shah bought the then ultra-modern U.S. F-14 Tomcat fighter to augment his fleet of U.S. F-4 Phantoms in a bid to control the oil shipping lanes in the Persian Gulf. The cost of buying regional influence left his country a hollow shell, his economy leveraged to the hilt and vulnerable to economic collapse should the price of oil collapse. It just so happened that other Middle Eastern oil producing countries, led by Saudi Arabia, were not too keen on their neighbor Iran controlling access to their Persian Gulf interests. And so the seeds of the Arab Oil Embargo of the 1970’s were germinated. An oil price collapse orchestrated by Iran’s neighbors laid bare the economic weakness of the Shah’s Iran and his leveraged investing into regional military power came crashing down hard on Iran’s domestic economy. A combination of students and clerics demanded change in the streets of Iran ultimately forcing regime change and capturing the US Embassy in Tehran with hostages in the process, a country the Iranian revolutionaries did not particularly like because the US had been the principal supplier of military hardware sales to the Shah’s regime.

The US was not particularly happy with the change in regime either because it complicated a quietly kept Cold War secret of why the US supported the Shah of Iran. The US had built a highway system through the interior of Iran consisting of a series of very long, very straight roads. They were runways for recovering US nuclear bombers returning after attacking the Soviet Union. One of these highway runways, code named Desert One, was used to mount the failed embassy hostage rescue mission. Losing this just a few years after abandoning the war in Vietnam did not put the US in a happy mood. This deeply strategic strain would have unfortunate lasting implications for the relationship between the two countries that would continue, as of this article, to January 2018.

Since the hostages were released in 1980, there have been many changes in the world. The Cold War is now a distant memory, although there still is a Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) to attack what’s left of the former Soviet Union also still floating around. The Middle East has changed from a landscape of early, mostly sectarian, post-colonial fiefdoms to a 12th century religious philosophy war zone equipped with the best of the 20th century’s weaponization.

And the previous revolutionaries of Iranians, the Ayatollah’s and their Revolutionary Guards, have completed their own over extension cycle winding them back in the untenable position similar to the Shah’s in the 1970’s. Like the Shah, they’ve squandered enormous amounts of their treasure chasing regional influence. They spent money to build a nuclear weapons program, a missile program, multiple mercenary/militia initiatives, and a decade long war with their then Baathist-led neighbor Iraq. The Iranian government is again leveraged to the hilt, a hollow shell spending more on funding foreign militias to build a so-called Shia Crescent of influence from Yemen to Lebanon. They may have negotiated with the world to lift sanctions and even got an airplane load of money from the US, but they didn’t spend nearly enough on building an economy capable of employing millions of Iranians gainfully. Those ordinary people are revolting in the streets just like the ones the did in the 1970’s because the Shah didn’t tend to their needs.

The “Medium” is the Battleground

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, Madison Avenue theorist Marshall McLuhan exploring the societal effects of technology – back then the universality of the electricity grid and the emergence of television broad casting - coined the phrase “the medium is the message”. That medium has since the DotCom boom of the 1990’s turned ever more to “microcasting”, the algorithmic technology of customizing Internet content delivery so every individual sees something tailored uniquely to them. In the 21st Century, what used to be commercial ad yield exploitation mathematics became the affinity algorithmic core of social media engines. This powerful phenomenon running free on the World Wide Web brought people together to accomplish many things such as the Arab Spring of 2010, the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011, the radicalization recruitment program by ISIS beginning in 2014, the Brexit vote to leave in 2016 and the election of US President Donald Trump in 2016 among other things. By 2018 in open societies, debates has started to emerge over whether this freedom is desirable. Interestingly, the U.S. liberal scholars that in the early 90’s who argued for a laissez faire hands off approach to governing the Internet are the ones most vocal about reigning it in. In parallel, their conservative counterparts work diligently to dismantle net neutrality which, among other things, will reinforce and amplify the power of the content delivery algorithms to tailor services even more beguilingly to humans.

Deeper in the net and less visibility unless you are a direct participant, encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram have connected activists around the world, both good and bad players, to render transparent what closed regimes did not want seen. This is how the world knows about what happened to Aleppo, Raqqa, Mosul, Sudan and many other places in the world where freedom and human rights are not taken for granted.

Repressive regimes fight against the “medium” to control the delivery of content against the fundamental math that controls the Internet’s robotic programming. They are limited in how much control they can exert because of the reality that the world’s dependency on the commerce functions of the Internet are now universal and existential. Also, there aren’t that many activists. As a proportion of total internet traffic, they are a nit. So closed regimes engage in a balancing game of placing boundaries around the portions of the internet the regime’s interests needs to wall off. Sidebar, it’s all about building walls isn’t it? Physical and virtual.

Activists in turn fight back by finding ways to pretend they are in a part of the internet that a regime does not control. The 2018 method of choice for this “hiding from the man” game is to use a virtual private network (VPN) that makes one appear to be in another part of the world; for instance, in Paris when you’re actually in Tehran. This opens up the entire Internet to keep coordinating with your fellow activists even if the regime has built walls. Back before this kind of stuff was a commercial off the shelf service you could install for every computer in a company or individuals could buy for not very much, there were other ways this location spoofing was done. I used to offer friends in sensitive positions remote access to a specially configured spare server in my rack so they could log in and do what they needed to do while appearing to be in the United States. The machine was in server farm that took a strong volume of robotic web page inquiry traffic from all over the world, in many instances from known foreign government owned IP address, so that the channels to and from it were constantly open. It was a discrete tunnel built on one of my favorite design principles, “fly low and avoid the radar”.

The cyber warfare goes back and forth like a cat and mouse chase. Today’s regime hunt for the VPN’s to shut down. Activists try to stay a step ahead opening new VPN’s before the last one is killed. It’s a grassroots form of a self-annealing connection hopping security design based on millions of nodes acting independently. It drives closed regimes bat shit.

In the meantime, the “medium” content delivery engines continue to expand the messaging, a robot reaching out to society and activating an expanding global network of concern based on the simplicity of affinity algorithms and the mechanics of echoing.

Back to the Future

The Iranian Islamic governments struggles to battle for tenuous control to maintain what is increasingly revealing itself to be predictable consequences or a repetition of the Shah of Iran’s mistaken over extension of regional influence investing problem. They do not yet see that what their people are really telling them as they use their VPN’s and Telegrams is that ordinary Iranians love their country and want to see their domestic tranquility improved even if that means they might not become the Shia Islam version of the nth coming of the Persian Empire sweeping across what used to be the Garden of Eden. And underneath the hood the “medium”, a collection of math and logic instructions coded into a planet of robots, fights on for their humanity.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

2018: A New Year, A New Era

It’s a new year and what a difference a day makes.  As 2017 ended the world watched and worried about the rise of the Shia Crescent, the regional influence of Iran’s Shia Islamist government’s agenda to fill the Sunni vacuum created as ISIS collapsed with the rise of a new Persian empire.

The world wondered what it would mean to have an Iran led by Shiite clerics marching west towards the shores of the Mediterranean.   The Iraqi federal government felt the strain of being boxed in on two sides.   The Shia from the east with their patchwork of militias already inside Iraq clearing a path across the Christian and Sunni villages across the Ninevah Plain to bore through southern Syria and ultimately reach the sea via Lebanon.   There have been Iranian engineers surveying routes to build a natural gas pipeline and a commercial superhighway for decades.   Such a Shia influence zone would draw a line in the sand bisecting the Northern and Southern Middle East with the Iranian Shia Crescent north of the Gulf and the Saudi and Gulf States Sunnis, less Qatar, in the Arabian Peninsula.

In the fourth quarter of 2017, it looked like the Iranians held all the cards; then US president Donald Trump changed the game.

After the better part of a year of evaluating the foreign policy of the United States, the Trump Administration swung into action.  Determined to break the “no win scenario” of a go nowhere peace process that has held the Middle East hostage since the Six Day War in 1967, a frustration known to every leader and diplomat to ever tackle the problem, the US unilaterally decided to change the game by declaring that the United States would move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

The calculus of the leverage of this move on the chessboard of the Middle East was clearly meant to do far more than just move a building.  This was a deliberate stone thrown onto still water.  It was clearly a strategy was to create ripple effects that would force the entire Middle East, the entire United Nations, to “wake up and smell the coffee” and begin the process of tangible realignment to put the peace process on a new track.

In December of 2017, this chess move played out spectacularly as US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley faced down a shocked international community using the power of a United States of America veto to quash a vote by the UN Security Council followed by a powerfully worded warning to the UN General Assembly announcing that the US was taking names and mulling consequences over a non-binding vote admonishing the sovereign rights of the US to place its embassies where it pleases.

Those consequences were swift in coming.  Starting with a very exclusive club “friends only” invitation to January 3, 2018 reception at the UN, Haley quickly followed up with a hard financial hit to the UN’s operating budget aimed at trimming excess costs by eliminating funding that enable US inefficiency; you know, as if Haley’s boss knew something about managing cost of doing business expenses.  Haley’s actions at the UN were amplified by President Trump, using his 21st century version of FDR’s fireside chat pulpit, Twitter, to hint that the US would be looking at all foreign aid with more scrutinizing eyes in 2018.  McLuhan would be proud of this use of the “medium” but, don’t underestimate the organizing prowess of “Donald the Strong” as the Chinese call him, the “message” is in the official documents published by the US government by the Administration outlining Presidential Orders, Directives and Notices of Proposed Rule Making; and beneath those Twitter rants, these artifacts of the tools of statecraft have been coming out in a steady stream all year.

This may have been lost in the domestic noise that is the US cacophony of politics but around the world expectations are high, particularly in places waiting to taste democracy and freedom.   Fledgling revolutions led by frustrated people looking to chart better destinies for themselves and their children; often acting on their dreams with haphazard timing and positioning against established regimes whose narrower agendas clash with the human desires of ordinary people.  If that sounds a little like the echoes of the dreams of thirteen colonies in the 18th century, you’re reading this article correctly.

What you may be missing is the story of what happened just after 1776.  Throughout the world and in the colonies in the Americas in particular, similar bands of colonists contacted a very new and very weak United States of America asking for help to prevail in their own struggles to throw off the vestiges of colonialism.  Alas at the time, we were no military match for the great nations of Europe and so, in a series of papers about how to be “great” in that time, theorists like John Adams and Ben Franklin recognized we has the power to inspire others, to show them the path to their own dreams.  We seem do be doing it again.

In 2017, we saw the dreams of the Kurds expressed in a referendum that did not fit neatly into the evolving design of a post-ISIS federal Iraq.  In a practical sense, the Kurds are one colony among several in a post war landscape, where the parties need to band together to build a federated nation capable of protecting its national interests against powerful and covetous neighbors.   In 2018, we shall see this process play out as Baghdad seeks to find ways to protect its western border from the turmoil that continues to embroil the eastern third of Syria. How central government in Baghdad finds or does not find a way to incorporate the nationalism of the Kurdish dream to strengthen the position of a viable and independent Iraq is a vital part of their national security strategy that will require both parties to see their common interests above their factional urges.  For global stability’s sake, the world should continue to constructively encourage both parties to see they need each other more than ever.

And then the surprise of the new year.  The dreams of the ordinary people of Iran.  Well not really a surprise as much as an affirmation that all rubber bands have a breaking point.   The Iranian people have been living in a 12th Century version of the world since the late 70’s.  Generations of people and technology ago.  Back then, there was no Instagram and Telegram actually meant sending via telegraph.  Religious intransigence by Iranian leadership has plummeted a nation rich in people with dreams into an economy running on fumes.   It’s become a government obsessed with regional and global interference at the expense of its domestic blossoming.  It was an eggshell waiting to crack repeating a cycle that swept away the Shah of Iran and  brought the Ayatollahs to power in the first place.  And now, as 2018 dawns, we watch the contents of that egg drop into the frying pan.  Perhaps, this time, the ordinary people will prevail.

Heck, even the North Koreans finally said they want to try to talk to the South Koreans again.  Wonders never cease.