Saturday, March 19, 2011

Gadhafi's End Game

He is not like you and me.  He is that certain, most dangerous kind of crazy that includes both the careful, practical calculations of a corporate accountant and the willingness to push in all his chips on instinct of a riverboat gambler.  He's fully aware of the stakes in this game he's playing - he has very few friends left in the world and to end his days in comfortable exile is not something I believe he'd consider an acceptable outcome.  It's win or go home for the wacky Libyan Colonel, but in this case the only home he has left is a martyr's grave.

You're simply not being realistic if you think he's somehow unaware of this.  When the world was cautiously discussing a limited no-fly zone over Libya, Gadhafi poured gasoline on the fire when he said they would go house to house, that there would be no mercy.  There were so many other ways he could have played it, acting concilliatory, playing for time, all while he brutally rolled up the rebels, destroyed their fledgling organizations and murdred and imprisoned their families.  That might have been Saddam, that might have been Mubarak, but if we've learned one thing since the Gulf of Sidra, it's that simply isn't Moammar Gadhafi.

In general, the US has a counterproductive tendency to personalize a geopolitical argument, to make it about the leader, to focus on Saddam Hussein or Ayotollah Khomeini instead of the political, military and economic goals.  But in this case it's the right course.  Because now that we're engaged, now that we've called his bet, it's desperately important that we understand that we're NOT dealing with a government, there is no diplomatic structure or back-channel conversation to be employed to find a way out of this.  There's just the mad Colonel, and the people around him who's lives and livelihood depend on him, and now they are staring into the abyss and he's the best chance they've got.

There was one chance that he might be persuaded to stand down and accept exile - and that would be if he believed there was some chance of a comeback, that he would have the flexibility and freedom of movement to attempt to depose the new leadership and regain power over Libya.  But now, the gloves have come off, and while he's very definitely not right in the cabeza, he's not crazy enough to believe that he has any choice other than execution in Libya or a cell in The Hague.

So here's what's most likely to happen.  The first part of the end-game will be defections.  LOTS of defections.  The writing is on the wall now - he can't deploy armor and artillery against the rebels, it's all small arms and hand to hand, and there's just no way he can take back the Eastern part of the country without the mobility and firepower he's now being denied.  But those who do NOT defect will represent a powerful and quite desperate force, and the rebels will find it difficult to force them out of Tripoli.  And if the rebels get their hands on the tanks and artillery, are we then expected to stand down and let them slaughter their fellow Gadhafi - supporting Libyans when our very mission statement is that we intervened to protect civillians?

The easiest solution is if one of those defectors can kill him or hand him over to the rebels - then the regime just fades away as the remaining elites scurry for cover with whatever they can loot from the treasury, banks and museums.  If that is to happen, it will happen this week and it will go down as the shortest, least lethal and most successful international humanitarian intervention in history.  But if we're still having this conversation NEXT weekend, with Gadhafi still ensconced in Tripoli and the rebels getting organized and moving west, well, this is just going to get a LOT harder.

And here's the key part to remember.  You never know if the man holding the gun will pull the trigger.  But with Colonel Gadhafi, we DO know.  We've known since Flight 103 landed in pieces in the peaceful Scottish countryside.  That's the crazy side, and make no mistake - he WILL deploy it.  The question is simply this:  how many weapons, anti-ship missiles, MANPADS, sea mines, whatever his fevered imagination can come up with and his oil wealth can purchase, does he have stashed away for his own final Armageddon?  What desperate plans has he put in motion already?  At this point, he really must believe that his only hope is to make the cost too high - a kind of a third-party war of attrition where the cost is borne at random by those in the region.

There's no doubt he'll try it.  This HAS to end quickly.  A protracted standoff could get terribly bloody...


Sunday, March 13, 2011

Lessons of the Fall

The San Francisco Giants World Series run last year really brings home the ground truths and hard realities of the Major League Baseball playoff system as it is currently constructed.  And when you think about it, most teams are building exactly the wrong kind of team to win a championship.  The fascinating dichotomy here is that a team constructed to win, say, 95 out of the 162 games in the long, grinding regular season will be poorly constructed to win in the playoffs.  And conversely, a team built to win three short series with plenty of days off in the fall chill will have a very difficult time even making the playoffs.

Now, I don't for a moment think it was brilliant insight that built the 2010 Giants, but rather a rare combination of circumstances and luck that produced a nearly perfect  baseball team, one that could only barely (and with a great deal of luck and assistance from the late-season collapse of contending teams) squeak into the playoffs in the 162nd game of the year, but had exactly the right combination of personnel, skills, field management and mindset to be the first team out of eight to win eleven games.  And that's precisely how you win championships in MLB.

People keep asking if the Giants can repeat.  It's really kind of a stupid question.  The answer is, if they can make the playoffs again, then yes.  You'd have to consider them one of the favorites to win it all.  But therein, as that noted baseball analyst Bill Shakespeare said, lies the rub.  The Giants realistically have a less than 50% chance of getting back into the post-season, and even that only because the Dodgers are so epically bad, weakening the Western Division to the point where it's a toss-up between the Giants, Rockies and Padres.  And no, there's virtually NO hope that the wild card will come out of the West, so it's win the division or start making plans for November hunting trips.

One of the ideas I've come to appreciate more over the winter since the World Series is the concept that one of the key reasons the Giants won it all in 2010 is that they put together a team without a superstar.  Now, one can argue that with 2 Cy Young awards under his funky young belt, Tim Lincecum is a superstar, but I think the idea focuses more on an offensive power, a Barry Bonds, an Albert Pujols, an Alex Rodriguez.  I think that there may be something to that, though to what extent it might be decisive is an open question.  But just as people designing networks shy away from single points of failure, just as they value redundancy, backup and failover, having a lot of good interchangeable pieces might be superior to having a few irreplaceable parts.

The other underestimated piece is Bruce Bochy.  He is that rare combination of high quality clubhouse manager and excellent field manager.  The way he used his resources without creating hurt feelings or animosity was nothing short of brilliant.  After watching the best San Francisco team EVER lose the world championship due to the managerial incompetence of Dusty Baker, the way Bochy handled this team down the stretch and through the playoffs tells you all you need to know about his value to the organization.

So we're a few weeks from Opening day, with the championship team largely intact.  This year's aging veteran shortstop is Miguel Tejada rather than Edgar Rentaria, but with Mark DeRosa healthy and Pablo Sandoval looking like he's going to try to take his opportunities seriously, the Giants are left with only two questions:  What to do about Barry Zito, and the Too Many Outfielders Problem.

And those should serve as fodder for the next time I feel like writing a Baseball post.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

No Fly Just Won't Fly

No.  It's just that simple.  A US or UN or even AU enforced No Fly Zone in Libya is a bad idea, for a whole host of reasons, most of which center on our understanding of our role in the conflict and in the world at large.  But perhaps the biggest arguments against such an undertaking are practicality and blowback.

First, you have to ask the key question - what is the goal of the exercise?  Obviously, if you are going to enforce a no-fly zone over parts or all of Libya, the direct goal is to keep the warplanes on the ground.  But there's more in the air than MIGs and Mirages - what about helicopters?  Gunships and Slicks - whether Gadhafi is moving troops around or hitting the rebel positions directly, is that part of the no-fly effort?  If so, the complexity goes up by orders of magnitude - you need to get down in the weeds, low and slow, to engage helicopters.  That's not F-16s, that's very likely other helicopters.  But where do you base them?

And the even larger question is about the even larger goal.  If your intent is to reduce the ability of the Gadhafi loyalists to fight effectively, then a no-fly zone is nothing but a useless symbolic gesture.  The loyalist fighters are winning with artillery and mobility, training and discipline, in which they conduct small - unit armored infantry operations against an untrained and poorly armed opponent.  It's really just shock and awe all over again, with the infantry advancing behind armor under rolling artillery barrages and the rebels have no choice but to fall back to the next strongpoint and wait for the next assault.  Air power is nothing but a statement in these battles - in no way decisive or even important.

So if the goal is to reduce the effectiveness of the Loyalist counteroffensive, you need to use air, but you need to use it against tanks, artillery and massed troops.  And now you're into something much bigger than a no fly zone - now you're in a war.

But there's also the blowback consideration.  Bob Gates is right when he points out that a no-fly zone is more than a combat air patrol orbiting above Libya to shoot down any fighters that sortie.  No, in order to establish that air power presence, you need to take down Ghadafi's air defense capability.  That means targeting radars, launchers and command and control nodes - ground targets scattered throughout the country, in cities and towns and on military bases and at airports.  It means killing Libyans - those manning the air defenses and those simply unfortunate enough to be nearby.  It may mean bombing airfields and fuel and ordnance depots.  And in the end, there are two possibilities.  The best one is the rebels come out in charge, and at least some of them will be grateful for the support - but it is a certainty that others will blame the west for another case of imperialist intervention, and use that narrative to drive more anti-American and anti-Western sentiment, with it's accompanying radicalization.  The worse outcome would be if Ghadafi's forces prevail in spite of Western Military intervention.  Then you face two equally problematic narratives - one of imperialist intervention and another of not enough support for the freedom fighters, which translates into just another case where a brutal dictator was coddled by America and the West, his peoples abandoned to his tender mercies once again.  And the whole thing could just settle into a prolonged stalemate, with neither side able to defeat the other.  How long are we prepared to enforce the NFZ?  What would be the cost of staying versus the cost of walking away?  The final, brutal military lesson of the last ten years is "if you can't explain how it ends, you probably shouldn't begin".

In spite of the apparent pointlessness of a no-fly zone, if one is to be put in place, it must be coordinated under the auspices of the African Union and the UN.  And it would be best if the aircraft were neither American or Italian - if the Egyptians and the Saudis, along with perhaps the Turks could be convinced to take the lead it would go a long way toward inoculating the West against charges of Imperialist designs on Libyan oil.  But the unanswered diplomatic question is simply what would motivate regional power players to actively side with the rebels.  It seems unlikely to me.

What would I do?  I would recommend the same sort of "highly coercive diplomacy" I advocated in the case of al Bashir's Sudan.  A very public one-week deadline to stand down his troops and initiate discussions with the rebel leadership on a power sharing arrangement or transitional government.  (Yes, nobody expects him to actually do so in good faith, the idea is to take the pressure off the rebels, allowing them to consolidate in the Benghazi and the west and organize and train and get weapons and funding and begin to build a genuine opposition political movement.)  The coercion is that, at the end of the deadline, he loses one national asset per 24 hour day.  Palaces, airports, power generation, rail hubs - whatever intel can determine is important to him.  Oh, you'll have to carry through - he won't step down because of the threat alone.  The idea is that when those around him see their wealth and status being put at risk by his intransigence, they will convince him to step down, one way or another.  This action has the same sort of risks of intervention, but the goals and reasons are clear and Gadhafi's options to prevent these attacks are not, on the surface at least, terribly onerous.


Saturday, March 5, 2011

It's The Twenty First Century, Fer Crissakes - Even If We Can't Have Jetpacks, Can We At Least Get Rid of Hitler?

Everything we know, hell, everything we THINK we know, is in one way or another a product of history.  We don't really "know" anything, instead, we draw conclusions from what has transpired previously.  The theory is that a certain combination of events leads to a certain outcome, and we should be able to shape the outcome by shaping the events.  And that makes sense.

But the key question that no one seems to be asking is "are we looking at the right history"?  Because if my cable TeeVee is any measure, what we keep looking at is Nazi Germany under Hitler, Hitler, Hitler.  I swear to you it's all Hitler, all the time, twenty four by seven, HITLER.

And judging from the American political opposition, from Glen Beck to Rush Limbaugh to the guy that paints the signs for the Tea Party, they've taken a firm hold on this historical bogeyman and used him to threaten every kind of downfall, economic, political, intellectual, spiritual, even moral.

But it's time to be honest, and put Hitler away.  Hitler was a product of postwar (that would be World War ONE for those of you who are unclear) Europe, where there were massive displacements, great poverty and a sudden outburst of ideas, from physics to psychology to, yes, politics.  It was a continent that had been at war with itself for two thousand years, and a time when technology ran ahead of any understanding of it's consequences.

I surf the channels, and every night I see more grainy black and white footage of Jews being rounded up, taken off in trains to concentration camps, and worked to death or directly murdered.  And you show me this, night after night, as if there is something new to be discovered, some breakthrough yet unlearned, and you wonder why I fear a government that might want my guns?  I wonder what the outcome might have been if the Warsaw Ghetto had the same firearms ownership as the Bedford-Stuyvesant Ghetto.  I know it makes no sense to arm entire communities in America in the 21st century, but you don't talk about that.  Instead you show me Hitler, over and over again, without context or relevance.  

There have been modern holocausts, from Cambodia to Rwanda to Sudan.  Why not update the narrative, make me understand the political and economic forces at work to bring industrial - scale death to entire populations?  Could it be nothing more than they are a different color, a different religion, a different tradition?  Could it be that the only thing that makes Hitler relevant nearly a century later and Omar al Bashir unimportant even today, with people dying a month after the referendum, is that the victims of today are not Jews?  Should we even consider that it is the Zionists who stand triumphant today, even with their boot heel on the throat of another persecuted population?

It's time to get past Hitler.  It's time to put the second world war in the rear view mirror, time to understand Stalin was a product of his time and move on, time to merely accept Truman's brutal hatred that unleashed hell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, time to view the world in its own modern context.  Finally, at long last, is there anything left to learn from a world gone mad a generation before we were born?

Here's what I'm afraid of.  I'm afraid that we just can't confront our own evils, from Bush to Abdul Aziz to Putin to Hu, that the challenges and complications are beyond the courage of our willingness, and so instead we oddly choose to cling to the super villains of the past, the ones whose names whisper to us  down the dark hallways of time, because the alternative is to understand that the fundamental evil never left, never ended, it just morphed into a global "marketplace" where people are exploited rather than conscripted, where war is less common only because it is a drain on profits, and where the casualties are economic rather than military, while the conquests are even greater and the costs even more horrific....