Monday, September 22, 2014

2016 Is Just Around the Corner

Seriously - 300 Million people and
this is the best we can do?
Pssst. Lemme clue you in to the secret. Hillary Clinton is running for President. The will she/won't she narrative is stupid and kind of embarrassing. She went to Iowa, the place that made her cry in 2008. She's running. So enough of that. What's it mean?

Well, we don't know what might happen over the next two years. But we can certainly take the pulse on current conditions, and some things are pretty obvious. Let's start with the view from 50,000 feet.

The Republican party has two very large problems standing between them and winning the White House. First, they have a large number of flawed, damaged and frankly ludicrous characters in competition for the nomination. There is no Republican candidate who stands out as charismatic, or somehow capable of turning their agenda into some kind of electable message. But even more challenging is the Republican purity test. The number of groups, ethnicities, religions and tribes they are required to hate in order to be considered legitimate Republican candidates is so great it puts them at a political disadvantage from the start. They keep trying to offset that advantage with voter suppression methods, but an interesting thing about people is the more you try to prevent them from doing something, the more they want to do it.

So barring some kind of massive economic collapse or a nuclear war, the Democratic nominee can be logically expected to win the 2016 election. And barring some kind of massive, unrecoverable mis-step, that nominee will be Hillary Clinton. And barring some kind of health crisis, Hillary Clinton will be the President of the United States until 2024, when she will be 77.  At the risk of sounding intentionally ironic, we don't get a vote in this. The Democratic nominee has an intrinsic and institutional advantage over the Republican nominee of somewhere between 3 and 8 percent, and will therefore win the popular vote (as they have in 5 of the last 6 elections) and should have no problem collecting the requisite electoral votes. The Democratic nominee will win, and at this point the Democratic nominee will certainly be Ms. Clinton.

What will a second Clinton Presidency look like? Well, first, you can't ignore the fact that we will continue to have divided government. No matter what happens with the Senate, the House of Representatives will continue to be firmly in the hands of the GOP, and therefore any Presidential legislative agenda is dead on arrival. It will be a two-term Presidency characterized by reactive actions and rhetoric. I expect her to be very good on social justice issues, mostly good on economic issues, and terrible on human rights, foreign policy and the surveillance state. I do think that the one area where she might surprise us is wealth and income inequality. She'll be very low key on 'class war' issues in the run up to the election because she'll want the bribes - sorry, contributions - from financial institutions who wish for a return to the '90s economy, but in the years during which she's President the inequality issue will become more prominent in political discourse, and she might just catch up and even lead. We can count on her to lead on Climate Change, but it will depend on economic, technology and political changes to permit any fundamental change in the US response.

Now, all that is said in the late summer of 2014. The world is in a precarious and unstable state, and any number of things could happen that might change the calculation. I don't think they will, because I just don't see any other players poised to throw their hat in the ring. It will be Clinton vs. Ryan, or maybe Clinton vs. Paul, but there's just nobody else even close to being an acceptable nominee.

Personally, I'm not excited about another Clinton. I've never been a fan of dynastic succession, and to whatever extent I was tolerant of the process in a democracy, Bush the Second put me off it forever. The incurious, stupid, impulsive frat boy President was just the lesson one needed to learn that the name doesn't come with the wherewithal to hold the office. I'd also pay very close attention to who she picks as her running mate. As a life expectancy matter, middle seventies isn't 'old' in any end-of-life sense of the word, but I kind of have an intuition that we might be due for some kind of chaos at the top, and even setting aside any health crisis, in the next ten years another Republican impeachment trial seems almost a certainty.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

People, Politics and Pocketbooks

It's always about money
Climate change deniers and skeptics are right about one thing - anything we do that will actually have a positive impact on carbon pollution will cost people money. While they use the fear that energy and transportation costs will increase if the cost of carbon emissions is priced into the cost of fossil fuels to argue against action, this cost increase is a feature, not a bug. First, it acts as a disincentive to burn fossil fuels - people will reduce their consumption when the price goes up, that's simple economics. Second, it serves to more accurately price energy generation that results in carbon emissions. The cost of dealing with the pollution generated is part of the cost of using the products, and up until now the users of fossil fuels have been able to avoid paying any costs for this part of the energy generation process. It would be as if I decided I didn't want to pay the garbage man anymore and just started dumping my garbage in the public park downtown. Hey, somebody will pay to get rid of it - it just won't be me. I win!

And if fossil fuels become more expensive, alternative sources of energy generation become more attractive economically. The reason energy companies like coal and natural gas is because they are cheap - make them less so and that same profit-seeking motive will fall in behind the better economics of solar, wind and wave power.

But this is a steep hill to climb. People are for climate change mitigation in general, but all it takes to get them to vote against it is a campaign to frighten them about the costs. And supporters of climate change mitigation regulations do a terrible job of addressing these concerns. They run away from them, or they try to add tweaks to the rules that reduce the cost to consumers. The reason they do this is that, as mentioned above, these costs ARE real - the are a necessary outcome of pricing carbon externalities into fossil fuels prices.  One cap and trade proposal even includes using the income generated by emission coupons to offset price increases to consumers. That, my friends, would be stupid and pointless. If people don't reduce their consumption of fossil fuel energy, the caps will be impossible to sustain.

It's kind of weird. People understand that if they want something, they have to pay for it. So one must assume that when it comes to climate change, infrastructure, public transit and low-income housing people SAY they want it, but they don't actually want it enough to pay for it. This suggests that a better marketing campaign is in order - if you want people to buy something, you have to sell it to them based on value and return on investment.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

It's Criminal! The NFL and Me

Oh look. He's lying again...
It has not been a good couple of weeks for pro football. Football players have always been prone to violence - the combination of a lifetime of rewards for viciousness and brutality and the protection from consequences afforded to star athletes from the earliest part of their careers has seemingly made them significantly more likely to resort to violence than the rest of the population.  And that factor has reared it's head repeatedly recently, with horrific scenes of domestic violence and tales of brutal corporal punishment.

So this has all resulted in a couple of different conversations taking place simultaneously. The first is how the NFL and the teams should react to these cases, how they should formulate policy and how that policy should be carried out. The second is a more intimate question of how we, as consumers, should respond to these events.

The first question is hard at one level. It's an argument about at what point in the legal process should a player be considered for punishment. And that bumps up against a whole lot of questions about due process, employee rights, politics and optics. And oddly, the initial question seems to start and stop at whether the team should allow the player to play in the games. Personally, I'm not sure how a paid vacation that essentially punishes the team for the (alleged) actions of the player constitutes a punishment, but we'll accept the general consensus that it does. So as far as I'm concerned, if a player is charged and arraigned on felony charges that include any kind of violence, the teams should at a minimum suspend him without pay, and should have the option, depending on the egregiousness of the crime in question, to void his contract. Note that is after charges have been filed and the player has had a chance to enter a plea. An arrest can lead to a lot of different outcomes, but it very often leads to no charges being filed, and is therefore simply too early in the process to take punitive action.

The second question to me is an easier one. I like to watch football. Most of the players are not bad people. So if the question is whether I should give up doing something I enjoy in order to take some kind of consumer action against a league that's going to continue to play games whether I watch them or not, the answer is that would be pointless and ludicrous.

So no. I don't feel guilty, and I don't think I can influence the arc of commerce. But even beyond those, I don't understand why I should be punished for the excesses of a few criminals. I WANT to watch the games, and unless somebody can explain to me how NOT watching those games would make the world a better place, I think I'll just stay the somewhat rocky course.

Friday, August 29, 2014

But Who Will Fight Them?

Time to decide what you're going to do
Serious question: Does anybody, from the Kremlin to Kiev to Brussels to Washington think for a moment that Western military forces will intervene in Eastern Ukraine against the Russian advance? Obviously, with all the talk of sanctions, Ukraine is on its own in the battle for Donetsk. But what if the Russians advance to Odessa in the west, and/or Baku in the east? Will NATO join the battle then?

The question of what Putin's motivations are in Ukraine has been uppermost. It seems irrational to give up so much, to accept so much geopolitical and economic risk for so little gain. There was a kind of historical logic to the annexation of Crimea, but the continued escalation in Eastern Ukraine appears to be events spinning out of control

But maybe that's the wrong way to think about it. The whole Ukraine story-arc began with the Maidan protests, when their Russian puppet government rejected a perfectly benign trade agreement with the EU and attempted to commit the nation to the Russian orbit. The people rebelled, the  Yanukovych government collapsed and the die was cast. So if you're Vladimir Putin, what you want to prevent is Eastern and Central European nations, your 'near abroad', from pursuing closer relations with the West, particularly with the NATO alliance. And the most effective tool he has to accomplish that goal is fear. And in order to establish that kind of geopolitical intimidation, he has to make certain that leaders in all the Capitals of Europe understand that NATO and the West will not act militarily to check Russian aggression.

When you think about it from this strategic direction, the aggression in Eastern Ukraine isn't about accruing territory or access, or even about convincing Kiev that a cozy relationship with Brussels or Washington comes with risks. It's about demonstrating that Russian aggression will go unchallenged in Eastern and Central Europe. If those nations cease to believe in the NATO umbrella, if they realize that the West won't fight and the Russians will, then they will behave accordingly, and the risk that they will spin further out of Moscow's orbit will be foreclosed.

As a thought experiment (although it's being openly discussed in Europe), suppose Russia deployed a small (sub 100kt) nuclear weapon against a town in Eastern Poland or Romania. Just one bomb, complete silence, business as usual other than that, no elevated strategic force readiness, no threatening posture to the US or Europe. Would the US or NATO launch a retaliatory nuclear strike against Russia? That would guarantee a larger nuclear war. To do nothing would limit the damage to that single town in Poland. The more time that went by without retaliation, the less likely retalliation would become. Sure, there would be hysterical global outrage, there would be massive economic sanctions, but the Kremlin would have proven once and for all that they were not constrained by NATO's presence, indeed, that NATO was all talk and the smart political play would be to stay tightly aligned with Moscow.

It's hard to be certain of anything - Putin could decide to cut his losses and back down at any moment. But I'm becoming increasingly convinced that the goal is to establish at a visceral level the NATO nations utter unwillingness to commit to all-out war against a powerful adversary like Russia. At the end of the day, that might be a good thing - nations deciding that in the nuclear weapons era major-power conflicts might not be worth engaging in.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

ISIS in Syria - No Good Options

Chillin' in Aleppo
Western nations, the US and the UN have been discussing, debating and arguing intervention in the Syrian civil war for a couple years now. Recently, critics of administration policy including Hillary Clinton have made the claim that an early intervention by US forces would have prevented the rise of ISIS. From a political and tactical standpoint that is utter nonsense, but as it takes a hypothetical position that cannot be refuted it is an effective line of attack against the Obama White House. There was no way that external military intervention could have possibly served to make conditions better, and even if you postulate an invasion and to take Damascus and topple the Assad government, that would not have done anything to end the fighting.

Then came last year's horrific Sarin gas attacks on Ghouta, and President Obama determined he would use American naval and air power to 'punish' al-Assad while also giving the rebels an edge in firepower.  Political considerations caused Obama to toss the decision to Congress, and they determined that the US should not intervene militarily. At the time, I thought that there ought to be a universal consensus against the use of chemical weapons, and that any and every release should carry a heavy cost inflicted by the Western military powers. As it turned out, the Russians negotiated an agreement under which Syria surrendered their chemical weapons stocks. While I am highly suspicious that al-Assad's weapons team held back some supplies and precursors - in the chaos of civil war, effective inspections and documentation are impossible - the general framework of the deal serves at least as effectively as a deterrent to the use of chemical weapons as a few days of air strikes.

So now we have ISIS, and the clamoring that 'WE MUST DO SOMETHING' is louder than ever. But even as we're bombing the Jihadists in support of the Kurds and Iraqi forces, and even as we may at any moment find ourselves flying cover for Iranian armor in Northern Iraq, the demands that the US attack ISIS strongholds in Syria are reaching a crescendo. But one cannot help but wonder what it is these war-thirsty white Americans really want. Bashir al-Assad has murdered over a hundred thousand of his citizens in a desperate, no-holds-barred attempt to hold on to his dynastic power. In support of his regime is the disciplined, battle hardened cadres of Hezbollah. Arrayed against his brutal dictatorship is ISIS, along with al-Nusra, al-Quaeda and a few dozen other smaller rebel groups, from secular democratic types to communists.

Would our military goal be to defeat EVERY faction? Because that's not only not possible, it would indicate a particularly poor operational plan. So rather we would need to choose a faction to support. But if that faction was too weak, then the Assad loyalists or the ISIS jihadists would topple them. So the question of what the west wants to accomplish in Syria, and what the west CAN accomplish in Syria is tantamount. Until it can be answered satisfactorily, the west has no business intervening in the civil war.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Hyping the Threat - But to What End?

Not the best way to win international respect
It started out controversial, sure, but defensible. Use American air power to help the embattled Peshmerga hold the perimeter south of Irbil against the relentless ISIS advance. And as long as we were there, provide cover along with desperately-needed supplies to the helpless Yazidis, trapped on Mt. Sinjar, threatened by starvation and thirst on one hand, and murderous religious fanatics on the other. As the Kurdish resistance stiffened and the Yazidis were led to refugee camps inside Iraqi Kurdistan, the US shifted their fires north and provided air support for the Iraqi special forces units, allowing them to re-take at least most of the strategic Mosul Dam.

At that point everyone just kind of paused, looking around. Air power could eliminate strongpoints, tanks, artillery and vehicles. It could prevent massed infantry attacks in some cases. What it can not do - something universally acknowledged after Vietnam and Desert Storm - is take, or re-take, territory. You need ground forces to displace the enemy infantry and hold the ground against counter-attack. And one thing was absolutely certain - no significant US ground forces would be re-introduced into Iraq, at least as long as Barack Obama was the commander in chief.

Then, a video appeared on the internet depicting the savage murder of kidnapped photojournalist James Foley. After the initial shock and spittle-flecked outrage came the demands for war on the Islamic State. The playbook for unnecessary war is well-developed, and even in the years after it was used to drive the pointless and disastrous US invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 it still works. The key is to hype the threat. Not just in any rational terms, but with such over-the-top rhetoric that it actually sounds silly and incoherent. Because if you want to frighten people, they can't be afraid that something bad might happen somewhere at some time. They have to be afraid something bad is going to happen to THEM, and soon. But this is the USA, with over 300 million people and the largest, most modern military force in the world. So you have to somehow convince the population that a few thousand 12th century religious fundamentalists with small arms halfway around the world is a threat to Ma and Pa Kettle in Little Rock, Arkansas.

So President Obama called them a "Cancer" that must be removed, Secretary of State Kerry said that ISIS "must be destroyed" and Secretary of Defense Hagel said ISIS is "beyond anything we've seen" and represents an "imminent threat to every interest we have." Meanwhile, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said ISIS "must eventually be destroyed", but that couldn't be done without fighting them not just in Iraq, but also in Syria.

Look. All this rhetoric matters. It matters because you can't say ISIS is the greatest threat we've faced and then do nothing. ISIS is really not a threat to anyone but the Iraqi government as currently structured. It's true that many of their fighters carry western passports, and will be a threat to launch small scale terrorist attacks against the US and Europe for years to come. But that isn't a new threat, and it isn't "beyond anything we've seen". Another attack on the scale of 9/11 is essentially impossible, and it has been and remains trivial to launch a truck bomb attack on the scale of Oklahoma City from within the US. But ISIS IS the big dog in the Arab desert from Aleppo in Syria to Mosul and south to Samara in Iraq. There is no military force that has both the ability and the willingness to launch the sort of large-scale ground campaign that would be required to push them back. So if the American political leadership is going to take the position that ISIS represents an existential threat to the US then they are going to have to deploy at least one, and probably two divisions into both Iraq and Syria to carry out their threats to destroy the organization.

And here's the problem. The wars in Syria and Iraq are based in tribal and sectarian hatreds that go back many years, and are a small proxy conflict for the same hatreds in the larger region. The regional players are Saudi Arabia and Iran, and if the US is going to participate in those wars, at some point she's going to have to choose sides. And ISIS is Sunni, supported by American Allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar, while embattled Iraq is Shiite, supported by American adversary Iran. And in Syria, ISIS is fighting to topple brutal authoritarian (and Shiite) Bashir al-Assad. Taking sides won't be particularly easy or straightforward in any case.

At this point I can't predict whether President Obama is going to put American combat troops on the ground to fight ISIS. I especially can't predict whether Congress would support such a measure, in a case where Republican lust for war will be countered by their political strategy of 100% obstruction. But if the American leadership keeps spouting over the top fear-mongering rhetoric about ISIS and the threat they pose, they will find themselves in a corner with no way out but to launch another unnecessary middle-eastern war.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Unholy Trinity

Watching ISIS irregular forces effortlessly roll up 30,000 square miles of territory in Iraq and Syria in a matter of weeks has seemed shocking.  How does what is essentially a guerilla militia force take on not one but two well-equipped professional armies along with an unknown number of opposition militias and win victory after victory?

The main thing to know is that these are not the kinds of battles we're used to seeing from here in the US. There is no technology, very little in the way of decisive air power, and an extremely small number of heavy weapons.  These are the ultimate in small-unit infantry battles, all about using maneuver to locate a weak point and bring massed fires to bear on that point.  It's about avoiding head on fights unless you have overwhelming numerical and firepower advantages, and rather working flanks, enveloping and bypassing positions of strength and cutting them off from resupply.

A successful guerilla or insurgent army needs very little in the way of equipment. It fights and moves on funding and ideology, demanding incredible service and sacrifice from its members. In the end this is a throwback to the combat of a century ago, before armor and air power and massed artillery changed the nature of warfare. This is people with guns and courage fighting it out at short range in desperate firefights and long sieges.

And over the years, third-world insurgencies and militias have perfected the mix of weapons they issue their infantry troops. You might think these fighters are under-equipped, but these are the weapons that are re-drawing the map on two continents. I often think of them as the unholy trinity.


Too bad they didn't make more of these
This is the ultimate peasant infantry rifle. Simple, reliable and effective, it is said that an experienced Sergeant can make an illiterate farmer proficient with the AK in one day of training. The AK-47 was the original mass-production assault rifle, modeled on the German StG-44. (As a reminder, an assault rifle is any automatic rifle with a detachable magazine chambered in an intermediate cartridge. It is the cartridge that makes it an assault rifle, not any specific characteristic of the rifle itself.) The original AK-47 was chambered in the Soviet 7.65x39 .30 caliber cartridge. The updated version, the AK-74 followed the rest of the world in chambering for a .22 caliber cartridge, in this case the Russian 5.45x39.

With this lighter round, 30 round magazines and the capability of full automatic fire, a squad of infantry equipped with AKs can bring a truly awesome level of firepower to bear at short ranges. This storm of lead from a dozen or more AKs is nearly impossible to stand against, and often results in an advance by the attackers. These rifles are very forgiving in damp or dusty environments, can go thousands of rounds without cleaning, and are therefore ideal for local irregular forces with minimal training. The AK makes up in reliable firepower what it lacks in accuracy, range and knockdown power. But as we are about to see, it is only one of the weapons that make these forces so effective in this kind of fighting.

PKM Machine Gun

Allah's gonna have a whole lot of sorting 'em out to do

Essentially, the squad level infantry machine gun was perfected in 1942 by the Germans with the MG-42. Powerful, belt fed, high rate of fire, easy maintenance, fast barrel changes, light and portable, the MG-42 basically checked every box. So when former tank Sergeant and brilliant weapons designer Mikhail Kalashnikov set out to build a full-power machine gun based on his AK's action, he knew where to start. He chambered it in the powerful Mosin-Nagant 7.65x54R rifle cartridge, and built it to have a rate of fire of about 800 rounds per minute. The gun and integral bipod weighed less than 20 pounds and additional barrels and ammunition could be distributed among members of the squad.

The PKM gives a small unit the ability to lay down a base of fire out to 1500 meters without waiting for heavy crew-served weapons to be brought to the front. Pushing this kind of firepower down to the squad level was innovative in WWII - the Germans were big believers in this doctrine, but even the US with the BAR and the UK with the Bren began to adopt it - but it is now SOP among armies all over the world. But it's even more critical for these third-world militias and irregular fighters. They aren't going to get much in the way of heavy weapons or indirect fire support, so they'll need the ability to put heavy fire on specific targets while the other units maneuver to close or to break contact.

That's two thirds of the unholy trinity. Equip your guerilla forces with one rifle, one machine gun, and just a couple different standardized ammunition types. Logistics and training are simplified, and in any relatively numerically even battle the insurgents should have a quantitative edge in downrange firepower.

Rocket Propelled Grenade Launcher (RPG)

You want me to do WHAT?
Getting lots of lead downrange is important, but what about when these irregular forces need to defeat a vehicle or a bunker, or breach a building or a wall?  These forces don't have heavy weapons or for that matter a good way to transport gear beyond carrying it. This is truly the 'grunt infantry', where each fighter must carry their own clothing, food, water, first aid kit, weapons and ammunition plus equipment and ammunition for the Company is distributed among the individual fighters. So if you want to have the equivalent of a tank or an artillery piece, you need it in some kind of man-portable  form factor. Enter those innovative Soviets, and the RPG-7.

In essence, the RPG is a hollow tube with a trigger unit and a sighting device. The business end is a 4 kilogram grenade-on-a-stick. When fired, a small gunpowder charge pushes the grenade out of the tube whereupon the rocket motor fires for about 10 seconds, boosting the grenade to a velocity of about 375 feet per second. It can be fired accurately at ranges inside 200 meters and is effective out past 500 meters. There is virtually no felt recoil.

This is another classically Soviet cheap, simple, reliable, portable and powerful weapon. Added to the AKs and the PKMs, the RPG gives that same squad of insurgents the ability to knock out vehicles, to eliminated bunkers and strongpoints and to breach walls and doors. In addition to their own gear, the other members of the squad carry a couple belts for the PKM or a couple rounds for the RPG.

And that's the Unholy Trinity. In a combat environment without the luxuries of a modern 21st century military - particularly air and armor - this is the weapons loadout your well equipped Jihadi army carries into battle. And with the right tactics, under the right conditions, it is all they need to win.

Bonus Jihadi Weapon System - The Technical

Looks like we got us a convoy
But often these insurgent and guerrilla groups do have access to vehicles and heavier weapons. In 1991 in Somalia NGOs were legally prevented from bringing in private security contractors, they instead hired local bodyguards under what were euphemistically termed "Technical Assistance Grants". These tended to be militias, who used the wealth to acquire pickup trucks ( the Toyota Hilux was by far the most popular) and mount a machine gun in the back. Soon these improvised fighting vehicles came to be known as Technicals.

Today the Technical has evolved to fill many niches. They carry troops and supplies, they protect the leaders and warlords of the movement or militia, and they carry the wounded to aid stations. But most of all they are fighting vehicles, serving in the role that would have been filled by cavalry a hundred years ago.  They can move quickly off-road, getting behind enemy positions and blasting them with massive firepower. Lacking armor, they are vulnerable to any opposing heavy weapons, but the advantage they provide in highly mobile firepower is unmatched.

An entry-level Technical might mount a PKM, but they more commonly carry much heavier guns.  The 12.7mm Russian DShK, an equivalent to the US .50 caliber M-2 is most common, but you will also see KPM 14.5mm and even 2A14 23mm anti-aircraft guns.

If you think about a Company sized attack by militias armed like this and supported by three or four Technicals, you get a sense of the speed and violence an attack like these can deliver, and you can begin to understand why ISIS has been so successful.  The training, courage, will and leadership it takes to get a unit to hold the line against that kind of assault at close range is rare in that part of the world, and until you find enough troops with the commitment to stand fast, ISIS holds a substantial tactical advantage.