Monday, April 20, 2015

Deepwater Debacle

Amazingly, this isn't the real disaster
Five years ago today, the end of the fossil fuel era on planet earth began. People had found, and accessed, all the easily available crude oil they could find, anywhere on the planet. The pursuit and development of this easily available oil had destroyed civilizations, started wars, generated incredible wealth and driven an industrial revolution that lead to a technological revolution that lead to the space age. But in April of 2010, oil wasn't easy to find, and it was even harder to get. Off the coast of Louisiana, BP did something almost unthinkable. They drilled a fifteen thousand foot well under five thousand feet of sea water. Everything was beyond their ability to control. The wellhead was too deep, the well was too deep, the oil reservoir was too highly pressurized, and if anything went  wrong there was just no way that the engineers could manage it a mile under water.

At 9:45 PM local time, the drill struck a pocket of very high pressure methane. The gas expanded up the well to the Deepwater Horizon rig, where it exploded, and the drilling platform burst into flames. Eleven workers died and the platform capsized and sank two days later. And just like that, nearly a mile under the surface, a wellhead was open and uncontrolled, and a huge volume of crude oil was gushing into the Gulf waters. 

All summer long we watched, the world watched, as the people who drilled the well, who told us the well was safe, who believed - or claimed to believe - that they had the technical and engineering wherewithal to manage such a difficult and monumental project tried one ad hoc scheme after another to seal the blowout. For 87 days, crude oil flowed into one of the richest fisheries in the hemisphere at a a rate of 62,000 barrels per day. Even worse, in a desperate attempt to mitigate an ongoing environmental disaster of the first order, they sprayed almost 2 million gallons of the toxic oil dispersant 'Corexit' into the gulf waters.

And all through May and June, on into July, day after day we saw the smartest people in industry and government try increasingly desperate untested solutions, and day after day they failed, leaving us with the same haunting dim view from a robotic camera 5000 feet under the surface, showing the blasted wellhead pouring crude oil into the gulf. 62,000 barrels every day. Finally, in early September, they were able to cap the well, although there is ongoing disagreement about how much crude oil continues to seep from the Macondo well.

Of course they continue to drill for the earth's remaining oil, regardless of how inaccessible it might be. They continue to recover oil from tar sands, and by hydraulic fracturing. But that night in April of 2010 was the peak, the beginning of the end, a rubicon that cannot be uncrossed. Despite the efforts of the fossil fuel industry and their corrupt politicians, renewables are the growing energy sector. Hybrid and electric cars are accepted in the market, and the price of solar and wind generated power was close to par with fossil fuels before the collapse of oil prices in 2015.

As other nations build out their alternative generation capacity, the demand for fossil fuels will continue to fall, and with surplus supplies, the price will stay low. In developed nations, electric vehicles will continue to gain in popularity as a usable charging infrastructure is developed. In developing nations, the air pollution problems have gone from nuisance to catastrophe, and they are taking rapid action to reduce their fossil fuel consumption.  Of course, it's very likely that we've already done irreparable damage to the climate and the oceans, but you've got to start somewhere, and all this started with the Deepwater Horizon disaster five years ago.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Putin's Missiles

It's good. It's not magic.
So relations between Russia and the West are quite tense these days, so it should come as no surprise that the Putin government is going to take every opportunity to tweak the US. And sure enough, on the heels of the Iran Nuclear framework agreement, the Russian President announced that he was releasing the S-300/SA-20 air defense missile batteries, a sale that was blocked due to UN sanctions by then President Medvedev in June of 2010. But that's not really what I want to talk about here. I have been consistently appalled by the dishonesty, the misinformation and the gross inaccuracy of the reports around this transfer, not just in the media but by government spokespeople.

The inaccuracies fall into two general categories. First is the hysteria, most often implicit, that these missiles will make Iran a greater 'threat' to her regional neighbors, and second is the hyperbole attached to any discussion about the capability of the SA-20 system.

We can deal with the first category very quickly. Air defense systems cannot represent a threat to another nation. They are designed to defend against air attacks - they don't have a capacity to damage another nation's cities or militaries. This is the great irony of the generalized hysteria over Iran's potential purchase of advanced air defense systems. It makes it harder to launch an unprovoked air attack on Iran - that's essentially the complaint. We threaten them every day with aggressive war, and if they respond to those threats by trying to improve their defenses, do we really think it's a reasonable response to get all butthurt?

The second issue is much more interesting. SA-20s are truly modern air defense systems. They use a variety of modern radars and the missiles have powerful multi-spectral sensors and thrust vectoring that permits them to maneuver with their targets. They DO represent an increased risk to non-stealthy attackers. But that's not the entire context. We're being told that these systems would make it impossible to attack Iran. That's utterly ridiculous hyperbole. Modern doctrine is entirely premised on the reduction of enemy air defenses before the bombing campaign begins in earnest. The west has a variety of assets, from cruise missiles to stealth bombers to drones to Wild Weasels to detect, locate and destroy air defense radars and missiles. And that's the weakness of all these systems - in order to detect and target attackers, they have to radiate. Electronic warfare aircraft receive, categorize and pinpoint these emitting radar systems, and any of a number of systems will be released to destroy them in seconds. Even a mobile system like the SA-20 never has a chance to move. Once it lights up its search and track radar, its life expectancy is less than sixty seconds.

So in our desperate attempt to portray Iran as some kind of rapacious, marauding nation, an equivalent to 1938 Germany, we describe a defensive system as an offensive threat, we claim that an ability to deter unprovoked attacks is an aggressive stance, and then we claim that these systems, if delivered, would simply prevent any attack on Iran no matter what the motivation. The world we live in has become so dishonest, and so violent, that nothing makes any sense anymore. But sometimes you just have to point out the lies, and think about what they mean.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

70 Years Ago Today - Ernie Pyle and the Death of Real Combat Journalism

Ernie Pyle shares a smoke with Marines on Okinawa.
He would be dead within a week.

Much of how warfare has been conducted historically has been determined by communications technology. From runners on foot and horseback to unreliable field radios, from short wave telegraphy to digital satellite voice comms, what can be done tactically has often been determined by what could be communicated, and how quickly. The same has also been true of the journalism of warfare.

World War II sat on the cusp, at the nexus of the primitive and the advanced. It was a cataclysmic event that demanded journalists try to find a way to tell the stories, but it was so big, both in numbers and in geography, and at the same time so localized, small unit battles with limited central control, that the press had to try to decide how they could best cover it. The common choice was to report the big picture, the battles, the armies, the advances, the setbacks. Later, photos and film would arrive from the front, to fill in the blanks and offer the people a view - subject to censorship - of the fighting up close.

Ernie Pyle had a different idea. He didn't think the story was the events of the war, exactly, but rather the regular, dirty, hungry, sick Americans in far-flung lands fighting the battles, the skirmishes and the conditions. Pyle had been a correspondent for the Scripps-Howard papers from 1935 to 1942, traveling around the Americas and writing about people and places from a very close, intimate standpoint.

He told the stories that soldiers saw, up close. Their relationship with death, their exhaustion, their gentleness and their savagery. He talked about sleeping with the dead laid out alongside the road outside, and he talked about the fear and loathing of the enemy on Okinawa.

He traveled with the front line from North Africa to Anzio to Normandy to Okinawa, and then, finally, on a road 300 meters from the beach on Ie Shima island off the coast of Okinawa, he looked over a trench-line and caught a machine gun round behind the left eye, killing him instantly. The one voice that could try to make people understand the cost and the brutality of infantry combat had been silenced in the most prosaic, pointless manner. Death in Pyle's world was quick and meaningless, and that ultimately included his own.

Pyle represented the high-water mark for war correspondents - the eloquence and immediacy of the written word telling not just the stories, but conveying something more important - the value of the lives being lost, and the savage human cost paid by the survivors. Indeed, after covering the liberation of Paris in August 1944, he wrote a column apologizing to his readers that he had "lost track of the point of the war" and he hoped that a few weeks rest at home would prevent his hospitalization for 'war neurosis'.

By Vietnam, it wasn't about newspapers - Vietnam would be a television war. Correspondents were still completely unfettered, but it had become much more about images than words. And after Vietnam, the American military opted for very tight control over the press, resulting in the worthless, sanitized propaganda we've been getting since we first invaded Iraq in 1991.

It would be easy, and glib, to say there will never be another Ernie Pyle. In a sense, that is self-evidently true - if for no other reason than there will never be another World War II. It's true that his conversational style, his eye for detail and his sense of humanity made him the best at his craft, but his legacy lives on on the web, carried by the likes of David Axe and his contemporaries.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Mystery of Metcalf

It's so easy anyone can do it
Two years ago today, something very weird happened at a PG&E power sub-station in San Jose California. It's a total mystery, and it's therefore one of the most important harbingers of the future of American infrastructure imaginable or it's a bizarre one-off rage event.  At any rate, at midnight a person or persons unknown opened a cable vault next to highway 101 and cut fiber optic cables serving AT&T and Level 3 customers. A few minutes later they opened fire through the chain-link fence on the substation equipment with an automatic rifle chambered in 7.65x39, likely an AK-47 or one its clones.

17 transformers were destroyed when 52,000 gallons of cooling oil leaked out and one after the other they overheated. By the time San Jose PD responded to reports of shots fired, the attackers were long gone, leaving behind a pile of spent brass and a major electrical distribution facility serving a major city crippled for months. It eventually cost $15.4 million to clean up the mess and replace the destroyed equipment.

PG&E was able to prevent long-term outages by re-routing power, but the obvious implication was that such a simple, low tech attack could have been replicated simultaneously at several primary points on the grid and there would be no power to re-route.

No arrests have been made, and no organization has taken credit for the attack, leaving many questions outstanding. Was it a trial run by a 'sleeper cell', verifying the theory that you could cripple the grid without explosives and without ever penetrating the physical security provisions in place?  Or was it a disgruntled employee who sought revenge for some kind of employment setback by imposing millions of dollars in damage? The FBI says - probably correctly - that the attack doesn't meet the definition of terrorism, because it wasn't (to anyone's knowledge) carried out in furtherance of a political or social agenda.

There is debate about the professionalism of the attackers. Much of the media portrayed it as a highly professional sniper attack, but the evidence runs both ways. The evidence the shooter had trouble hitting what he was shooting at - or perhaps just wasn't sure what precise part of the equipment would cause the most damage - but he/they were thoughtful enough that none of the spent casings had fingerprints or have been traceable.

In the most important sense, it really doesn't matter. No matter the reason for the attack two years ago, it served as a proof of concept for a simple approach to taking down a large segment of the electrical grid. No hacking, no bombs, no highly trained specops warriors disabling cameras and cutting through fences - just a dozen guys with a half dozen rifles and a thousand rounds of ammunition. And anybody concerned with such an attack now knows exactly how to do it.

Metcalf appears poised to remain a mystery forever, but it may ultimately be the most important terror attack you never heard about.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Seeing the Forest

They're crazy
Amid the global hysteria over Iran's nuclear program that has lead to repeated threats of aggressive war, sanctions, assassinations, sabotage, economic warfare and ultimately the possibility of a diplomatic agreement to end the 'crisis', something very fundamental has been completely overlooked. Put simply, why Iran? There's been a 'Muslim Bomb' for almost 20 years in Pakistan, there's North Korea's utterly insane regime with nuclear weapons, there was the whole cold war face-off between the US and Russia that had their strategic arsenals on hair- trigger 'launch on warning' readiness, and somehow, a combination of strategic deterrence and 'Mutually Assured Destruction' (represented by the absolutely perfect acronym 'MAD') prevented any of those fairly shady characters from ever actually USING their weapons.

Of course, we know the answer. Iran, the Mullahs and the Ayatollahs are willing to sacrifice their entire nation, all its people and all its history in order to launch one final blow against Israel. Certainly, the Islamic penchant for suicide bombing and martyrdom hasn't helped this situation, but I'm pretty skeptical. First, it seems like a pretty specific suicidal hatred. According to this narrative, Khameini is willing to sacrifice his country under a rain of Israeli nuclear weapons, but only if he can use a nuclear device of his own. For all these years, he (and his predecessor) has had the opportunity to launch attacks on Israel and die as a result and have never chosen to do so.

Second, the dire warnings that the Iranians are a year or less from having a nuclear weapon have been ringing out for over 30 years. At some point you have ask if they should be taken seriously at all.

Third, primitive first generation nuclear devices are large, heavy, fragile and unreliable. And then there's the matter of delivery systems. A device like this would have to be loaded in a large, slow transport plane and the possibility that an aircraft like that could penetrate Israeli airspace from Iran is essentially zero.

And unlike those nations threatening it, Iran has a hundred year history of peaceful coexsistance with its neighbors. Yes, the Iranian government supports certain factions in other parts of the region - what other nation doesn't do that? Certainly the US and Israel support some fairly unsavory factions as part of their foreign policy.

I dunno. I know some Israelis, and their belief in the suicidal hatred of the Iranian leadership is conventional wisdom, not something to be questioned. And if you DO suggest it might be a bit beyond any human historical likelihood, they win the argument by telling you you're naive and you're not the people that are going to die under that mushroom cloud.

But it's very important to think about, for a couple of reasons. First, if you think about it, since 9/11 scaremongering about a nuclear device being used in a Muslim terrorist attack has been the primary justification for wars and interventions all over the globe. It's just a little too convenient -  it worked for the odious GW Bush in Iraq, and all over the world other heads of state noticed. It's been adopted as the most powerful message to manipulate your population into supporting yet another illegal war.

Beyond that, it's more than a little frightening that the leadership of multiple nations can be pulled in to an extreme, unlikely narrative like this and have it end up defining a huge portion of their foreign policy. The US tends to let Israel drive it's policy in the region, and let's face it, America has something in its character that makes it want to go to war with Muslim nations. But why Germany, Russia and China would go along with this convenient delusion is hard to grasp.

Iraq was never a threat, and millions of lives were lost or ruined. Iran has never been a threat, and look what it takes for them to be permitted to participate in the NPT. Israel has a significant nuclear stockpile, the Sunnis have a nuclear power in Pakistan, and Iran's fully inspected and monitored nuclear program is the major threat?

If there was ever a reason to question the sustainability of the current global order, this entire Iran nuclear debacle would be it.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Who Do You Love?

This is why we can't have nice things
Despite efforts to play it down, a primary - though certainly not the only - driver of conflict in the middle east and North Africa is sectarian in nature. Specifically the overarching Sunni-Shi'ite conflict that has been simmering for centuries, and was essentially released to metastasize by the desperately ill-advised US invasion and occupation of Iraq. So now it's important for the US to have some consistency in her responses, and to speak with a single voice to the parties in conflict. That seems like something that shouldn't be difficult, but it is turning out to be far beyond the capacity of the Obama administration to construct a foreign policy that lays out a coherent position. Of course, the US should be neutral on theology even as it is partisan on ideology, but in reality those lines are difficult, perhaps even impossible to draw. Let's think about three conflicts.

The US invasion in 2003 overthrew the Sunni leadership under their strongman Saddam Hussein, and the rush to something that looked like 'democracy' led to elections without any other established democratic institutions, resulting in the expected 'tyranny of the majority', and the inevitable Shi'ite state. This allowed a sudden sea change, the theocratic and political alignment of longtime enemies Iran and Iraq. With Iraq's infrastructure destroyed by years of war, their economy in tatters and their society fragmented, it was left for Iran to step in and provide assistance and guidance to the allied Shi'ite Iraqi leadership in Baghdad.

The US Response:
The US claims that Iran is a key adversary and one of the greatest threats to peace and security in the region, while their major regional ally, Iraq, is a US ally. That creates the situation where the US is allied with Shi'a Iraq (but not with their benefactor, Shi'a Iran) against Sunni IS, and is therefore tacitly allied with Iran in the war against Islamic State.

Syria's leadership is Alawite, which is a branch of Shi'a Islam, and their primary opposition is, predictably enough, Sunni. IS, al Quaeda and even the Free Syrian Army, to whatever extent that was ever a real organization, all were Sunni groups arrayed against the Alawite leadership. A leadership supported, predictably, by Iran, and opposed, every bit as predictably, by Saudi Arabia.

The US Response:
The US is opposed to the al-Assad regime, and has aligned itself against the Damascus/Tehran alliance that, with Russian support, has kept the regime in power, albeit with a dramatically reduced territorial footprint. Therefore, in the Syrian conflict, the US is supporting the Sunni insurgents in the battle against the regime loyalists. At the same time, when the US flies airstrikes against IS positions in Syria, they are tacitly supporting the Shi'ites in power ind Damascus, despite rhetoric claiming exactly the opposite. This kind of supporting-both-sides tactical incoherence serves only to extend the conflict.

Houthis, a Shi'ite splinter similar to the Syrian Alawites, overthrew the Sunni government of Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi in Yemen, bringing them into conflict with Sunni extremist fighters in and creating another potential Syrian style conflict, where the sectarian divide becomes inextricably tied to the political, and there is no path to solve the disagreements but an endless fight to the death.

The US Response:
The US has been actively fighting to support President Hadi, a Sunni, in his fight to survive the Houthi insurgency, with the full spectrum of drones, SpecOps, weapons and training. Now that the Houthis have succeeded in deposing the Hadi government, the Houthis are working to consolidate their power, while the opposition Sunnis, led by al Quaeda fighters resist them from their enclave in Aden. Yemen is on the brink of civil war, and the problem for the Houthis is that long border with Saudi Arabia. If the Saudis decide to actively support the Sunni resistance - which is highly likely - they will be working to hand Sana'a over to what would essentially be an al-Quaeda (or IS) led government. US troops and drones have been withdrawn for now - will the US support the Houthis on the Saudi border or will they continue to support Hadi's fight to retake the Presidency, despite the fact that his primary fighting force is composed of al-Quaeda jihadists? Judging from history, the US will claim to be supporting some kind of moderate, inclusive government based on some kind of nonexistent moderate Sunni power structure. Meanwhile, the Sunni resistance will become exclusively jihadist in its makeup and it will become impossible for the West to support.

What Now?
None of the forgoing should suggest that any of this is easy. Regional political and diplomatic goals often find different champions, and the nature of the risk should define the nature of the response. But that's precisely where the US is so wrong-headed about the current sectarian conflicts throughout the region. There is nothing inherent in either side - Sunni or Shi'ite - that could convince the American leadership to focus its support on one or the  other. They are both violent, bigoted, misogynist, 7th century throwbacks that do not seem to be able to live together in peace, or even provide for their own people. As long as the arguments can't be worked out by systemic political and territorial compromise, as long as they are at least partially premised on events of over a thousand years ago - events that may or may not have even happened - as long as someone's family name or method of worship marks them for summary execution, there are no 'good guys' and there is no faction worthy of external support.

The US should be entirely neutral in these conflicts. We should offer to mediate, and even provide troops and resources to implement and support a peace agreement. But the American leadership should be very clear that until the shooting stops we will not be a party to what is essentially a sectarian conflict. That American blood and treasure should be spent over ancient mythological hatreds is bad enough, but to support both sides almost at random only guarantees that the conflict cannot end. Endless war should not be an American foreign policy goal.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Iranian Nuclear Talks - It's the EU, Stupid

Apparently, the US Senate doesn't realize they're involved
The rabid fanatical ideologues of the American Political Right have accomplished much in the last 20 years. They have divided the country, destroyed its ability to govern effectively, permanently damaged the economy by delivering all economic gains to the top 10% and created a toxic dialog where anyone not sufficiently fascist is anti-American, a 'socialist' or worse. And now they have topped themselves by inserting their fever dreams and racist hatreds into a sensitive negotiation the American leadership is having alongside her international partners over the Iranian nuclear program.

Setting aside for now the specific question of why it is only Iran, an NPT signatory in full compliance, that finds itself subject to these kinds of sanctions and demands, today I'm merely noting that the right wing ideologues, in the guise of the United States Senate, have effectively interfered with the American ability to conduct American foreign policy. This has large ramifications for the future of American governance, but in the case of the Iranian negotiations seems to utterly fail to notice that the US and Iran are far from being the only players involved.

You see, there are two kinds of sanctions. Sanctions imposed by UN Resolution, which are upheld by all UN member states by treaty obligation, and sanctions imposed unilaterally by a nation's government. The second kind are voluntary - there is no legal obligation for any other nation to implement them. The US has often compelled international support for unilateral sanctions by using her enormous global economic clout to further sanction any company or institution, even those in friendly nations, if they violate sanctions imposed solely by the US Congress. This is analagous to a man holding a crowd at bay with a revolver - nobody wants to be one of the six people he can shoot, but if the crowd is sufficiently motivated they will accept the cost and overwhelm the man when he runs out of bullets. In the same way, if the EU comes to perceive the US as the primary obstruction to a nuclear deal with Iran, they will simply bypass the US, forge an agreement with Tehran and eliminate the sanctions as long as Iran is compliant. The US might continue to impose unilateral sanctions, but they would be perceived as pointless punishment, while the rest of the world happily welcomed Iran back as a trading partner.

It is worth mentioning that France could be problematic in this scenario. They have, in recent years, chosen to align themselves quite closely with Saudi Arabia, and are therefore quite hawkish on Iran, both on the nuclear issue and in more general terms. If the negotiating bloc fragments too thoroughly, the agreements will not be strong enough to change the status quo. But France has much closer ties to the UK and Germany than the US, so it would be surprising if they ultimately blew up a deal.

There is a point where America's inability to govern itself effectively will have a powerful impact on her broader place in the world. If the US Senate wants to suggest that they could unilaterally break an agreement signed by seven nations, those nations will feel they have no choice but recognize that constitutes a rogue, pariah nation that cannot be trusted to live up to its most basic agreements.  And when the US congress itself denies the legitimacy of the US President, that President's credibility and authority is weakened all around the globe. The damage that America's radical shift to the extreme right has already done, economically, socially and politically is profound. As the partisan ideological divide becomes deeper and more acrimonious, the wreckage will continue to pile up.