Thursday, June 13, 2013

Weapons Not Food Not Homes Not Shoes

Maybe they could use some cool uniforms
Nobody has any idea what to do about Syria.  People who offer sage counsel are either lying to promote an agenda or are utterly delusional and you should run from them as fast as you can.  In general, it's a civil war where neither side can win and neither side can quit. In specific, there are many more than two sides, each with a different vision for Syrian post-war society, and none with any historical or ideological ability to compromise.  On a larger level, the conflict is spreading and metastasizing, dragging in Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Turkey and Iran.  This is quite possibly the root of the "regional conflagration" people have feared in the Mideast since the end of WWII.

Intervention is a non-starter.  Western military power could certainly tilt the balance in one direction or another, but that wouldn't end the fighting - very likely NOTHING can end the fighting.  Certainly there's no military path to peace, or even a stable Syrian government.  Negotiations aren't viable because the al-Assad government cannot accept the primary rebel demand - if they step down they'll either be tried for war crimes or murdered outright.  And with 100,000 dead and millions immiserated, the sectarian and ideological hate will not be affected by a signed agreement.

But nonetheless, in capitols all over the world politicians squirm, and feel a powerful drive to "do something", urged on by pundits with clean hands and dirty souls who know no compunction when it comes to destroying lives violently and on an industrial scale.  So it becomes a political calculation.  How to achieve political goals without getting ensnared in an endless, increasingly sectarian conflict with no viable way to define 'victory' and no end-game.

There is an easy answer, a short-cut that, in the manner of 'prayer', allows nations to do claim to be doing something without actually doing anything at all.  That is the historically popular and effectively meaningless strategy of arming the rebels.  Let's be clear - the rebels HAVE arms.  They have fought the Syrian army to a standstill over two years despite having a qualitative disadvantage in battlefield weaponry.  Why?  Because they are rebels.  It's a matter of ambushes and bombs, short sharp firefights and controlling crossroads to control territory.  It's sniper rifles and IEDs, PKM machine guns and some of the infinite supply of Kalashnikovs in which the continent is awash.

The arms calculation is ultimately simple. It is as it was in Libya, as it might have been in Tunisia and Egypt, as it will be in Iran and Bahrain and Saudi when their turn comes.  The regime loses people, and weapons, and territory, but holds on by dint of three things: Air Power, Armor and Artillery.  The regime equips its most loyal troops with heavy weapons, and deploys them against the rebels in population centers in a kind of collective punishment that is designed to chill support for the rebels while punishing anyone in proximity to them.

But here's the real question.  What are you going to give them that might make some kind of difference?  The challenge is Air, Armor and Artillery. You can't really give a rebel army tanks, and if you give them artillery or vehicles they are only vulnerable to air attack.  Of course, you could give them shoulder-fired MANPADS air defense systems to protect these assets, but if you're worried about terrorists that is pretty much the LAST weapon system you want to put into circulation.  So the question that needs to be asked - and nobody seems to be asking - is what weapons, and why?  What is the goal?  Because if you just give one side enough firepower to stay on the battlefield, you've done nothing more than extend the conflict, and increase the suffering.  The idea behind intervention in a civil war is to make that intervention decisive, and if it can't be decisive, it's probably pointless.

There are things the rebels could make great use of, certainly, but they are all small-bore, incremental options, nothing sexy or impressive enough for the mouth-breathers and grandstanders in the US Congress, not to mention the various EU Capitals. Digital communications gear, night vision equipment, possibly even something as mundane as boots and body armor.  For that matter, obsolete but effective weapons like 106mm Recoilless Rifles and M-72 LAWs sit in stockpiles all over the world - they could be delivered at low cost in large numbers.

To me, the only intervention worth considering in the Syrian civil war is to carve out some territory on the Turkish or Jordanian border and set up real, comprehensive refugee services.  Water, food, housing, health care and serious, committed defense against al-Assad's murderers.  Build a perimeter, defend it and try to relieve some of the suffering.  These are not your grandfather's wars.  They don't end, not for years, not for decades. There are too many '-isms' in play.  Sectarianism, nationalism, tribalism - along with layers of ideology, resource and wealth distribution and just plain hope for the future.  No one can win, and no one can quit fighting.

Dan Drezner and others float speculation that a viable explanation for an American strategy that has no upside, no benefits for US interests and only serves to widen and escalate the Syrian civil war is that it significantly ties down and weakens virtually all US/Israeli adversaries in the region, including al-Assad, Iran, Hezbollah and al Quaeda.  While it's true that this may be the result of the US and European position, I really don't want to believe that the US government would contribute to the ongoing slaughter in pursuit of such opaque and ambiguous goals.  If it is the case, however, it is a very dangerous game.  If the slaughter does create a regional sectarian conflagration, US and Israeli interests, both economic and geopolitical, are very likely to suffer some very serious setbacks.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Tradecraft in the Age of PRISM

At least they have a bad-ass logo
Verizon. PRISM. Boundless Informant.  As if someone opened up a spigot, a seemingly endless stream of revelations and disclosures of the American surveillance state arrived this week. It's way too early to figure out what it all means, or what it might lead to, but we can certainly start to arrive at a few conclusions. First, from the government/law enforcement/counter terror standpoint, it seems as silly and pointless as taking off your shoes in the airport security line.  As a purely tactical matter, using metadata around phone calls and information from internet providers like Google, Microsoft and Facebook doesn't seem shocking, novel or unusual.  It may very well be constitutionally suspect, but one has to expect government agencies to do something like this.  If I was involved in a serious criminal conspiracy, I would assume all these surveillance practices were in place, and would be very careful to avoid showing up in their analysis.

Who would actually be caught by these obvious, basic authoritarian surveillance practices? The vast majority will be innocent people, and that's where the real problem lies. Otherwise, they might be better called "The Darwinian Solution to the Problem of Stupid and Amateur Terrorists".  The solution, that is, to the extent that stupid and amateur terrorists are an actual problem.  It seems that, over the last few years, the FBI had recruited, entrapped, supplied, funded and encouraged most of the 'terrorists' they then prosecuted.  It now appears likely to me that these sort of surveillance programs are how they originally located those targets.  I'll leave it to others to decide how valuable they think a program that by definition can only catch the delusional and the rank amateur, but for me, well, I have trouble believing these programs are protecting me from much of a threat.

Real criminals and terrorists have been devising effective tradecraft counters to this kind of electronic communication surveillance for over a decade. It's worth noting that the Abottabad compound where Osama bin Laden died hard did not have an electronic connection to the outside world, and his support staff did face to face meetings, not phone calls.  The delay ('latency' in ELINT speak) was well worth it in terms of operational security.  It is well understood in these circles that government agencies often don't even try to intercept message content, not because of legal or constitutional niceties, but because real bad guys use strong encryption.  It is the meta data around those messages - call patterns, cell and network member IDs and locations that are the only available data.

Have you ever been in a poor neighborhood, pretty much anywhere in the world?  Go into a liquor store, a little bodega or a shop in a market.  You will be able to buy, for cash, prepaid cell phones, the cheap hand-helds popularized on the TV show "The Wire" as 'burners'.  They are cheap, disposable and untraceable.  If you get one of the TMobile variety, and prepay at least $100 in airtime, it will not expire for one year.  If you don't have one, well, think about it in terms of an 'investment'.  For that matter, you can buy a cheap Windows computer. If you only ever boot it from a Linux USB drive, it will look like a brand new, unused computer with all your data and history on the USB drive, which can be hidden, destroyed or tossed a lot easier than a computer can. The point is that anybody who's life, freedom or mission success is dependent on avoiding government surveillance already knows how to avoid government surveillance. The whole thing is pointless, endless and useless.

An interesting point of speculation is how these revelations happened, and why they all came to light now.  One entirely plausible thought is that the exposure of these programs was engineered by the Chinese government, just as global pique at Chinese cyber-espionage is growing into a firestorm. It may not be coincidental that this same week President Obama is meeting with President Xi - if the Chinese knew about these programs and wanted to put Obama on the cyber-defensive, this would have been a pretty good way to do it.  Apparently, the leaker fully expects to be identified and prosecuted, so we can expect to know more about this in the future.  But here's the thing - it's kind of like murder. Once you're wanted for a murder, the inhibition to commit further murders is removed.  As the old saying goes, they can only hang you once. At this point, there really is no reason why the leakers that have provided the revelations of this week shouldn't go all in with everything they can get out of the building.

One conclusion is a certainty: Your electronic documents, messages and searches are subject to government surveillance, and you really can't expect constitutional guarantees to protect them.  The fight for personal privacy in the age of the internet is over, and corporations and government won.  If you find this bothersome, there are actions you can take.  You can look for providers of internet services that are not in the US, and are not subject to the kind of coercion the NSA used against the big providers like Google, Microsoft and Apple.  You can get a VPN for a few dollars a month.  Most of all, you can encrypt.  Real Public Key encryption, done right with a large enough key, cannot be realistically cracked, even by agencies like the NSA.

So ultimately, what to think about all these revelations of government electronic surveillance?  It really doesn't matter.  As long as Congress refuses to limit the surveillance and war-making power of the Executive, and as long as the Judiciary is unwilling to aggressively protect any constitutional protections except the Second Amendment, then we have no democratic recourse.  In light of the lack of a functioning Constitutional democracy, we have a kind of hybrid-autocracy with certain kinds of freedoms but no real institutional rule of law.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

All Hat and No Fighter Jets

He looks totally serious to me
The people of Pakistan are angry.  They're fed up with their nation being regularly bombed by their supposed 'ally' the United States.  The Pakistani judiciary has ruled that attacks violate Pakistani sovereignty, and the political class regularly condemns, decries and denounces the attacks.  Yet they continue, a drumbeat of foreign military action leaving death, destruction, tragedy and anger in their wake.

In the recent elections, the American air attacks on Pakistan were a major issue.  All the candidates wanted the people to believe they would do something about the drones. The PPP had no credibility in this area - they had tacitly agreed to American air attacks against Pakistani villages in the north for years.  On the other side, Imram Khan's PTI was the full-throated voice of the Pakistani people in raging opposition to the attacks.  The eventual victor, Nawaz Sharif, has expressed firm opposition to the drone attacks, but it is far from certain how, or if, that will manifest itself now that he is Prime Minister.

It's a fairly straightforward question.  The US is not at war with Pakistan, and bombing another nation is generally considered an act of war.  Repeatedly bombing another nation is certainly indicative of a state of war.  Pakistan has a well equipped, modern air force and air defense system as a result of its longstanding fear of war with India.  The drones in use cannot operate in contested airspace.  They are not stealthy, they carry no air-to-air defensive capability and they operate at very low speeds and altitude.  They are vulnerable to ground fire and fighters, but it would probably be most effective to go after them with attack helicopters.

The fact that Pakistan does not defend its airspace from these incursions by officially unidentified aircraft is all the proof one needs that they are complicit in the attacks.  That makes the endless condemnations of their government and military a farce, and leaves the whole situation messy and unstable. It will be very interesting to see what PM Sharif does at this point.  If there is an agreement with the US, he was certainly not a party to it and would not be bound by it. He could officially terminate it and tell the US Military Liaison that they will, henceforth, shoot down unknown aircraft in their airspace.  The US could not retaliate directly for the 'offense' of air defense - every nation has that right.  It's also interesting that President Obama's speech announcing significant changes to US drone policy came as Sharif was elected - they may have a deal with him already, but for a much more limited program.  Still, there have been two attacks since his election - that doesn't seem terribly 'limited' - so it continues to be an open question if Pakistan will end the bombing.

No matter what happens this month, the status quo doesn't seem sustainable. Pakistan's government cannot go on pretending to oppose an American air war they refuse to defend their own nation against, particularly in the face of increasing public anger.  It's a fair assumption that there is a quid pro quo involved, and that the US would find ways to make Pakistan suffer if they put an end to the killing, but it can sometimes be surprising where political courage can be found.  I'll be the first to admit that an authoritarian steel magnate with a sketchy political history would be a very surprising nationalist hero, but time will tell.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Politics - The Object of the Game

Let's review.  People hold beliefs, formed in a variety of ways, about how their communities and society should be governed, and the appropriate and effective application of public policy.  People with similar beliefs come together to form political organizations, and ultimately political parties, to attempt to advance these ideological and philosophical beliefs.  The methodology of advancement is politics.  Politics is really nothing but a popularity contest - with democracies all structured around the organizing principle of "majority rule", the goal of the political movement is to gain the support of the majority for your party's ideology and the underlying policy agenda.

Simple enough, but often lost in the shouting over specific issues.  Thus it's sometimes worthwhile to step back and review first principles.  A successful political organization is one that achieves the political power to implement its favored policies.  This is entirely separate from what those policies might be in specific - success at the political level means nothing more or less than gaining and retaining a majority so as to be the party in power.

Which brings us to the hothouse of hatred and exclusion that is today's Republican party.  It all started decades ago with the realization that they could advance their political popularity by supporting a set of social positions as part and parcel of their ideological agenda.  This served them well for a very long time, leading to the pinnacle of political success for movement conservatism with the 2004 "God, Gays and Guns" Presidential election.  The problem with including purely social issues in a public policy agenda is that the broad view of those issues can change, sometimes suddenly, sometimes generationally, but in any instance these are views that need to evolve more than policy positions on more traditional economic and governance matters.  That is, they need to evolve in order to achieve political success, which has previously been the primary goal of a political organization.  This no longer seems to be the case, however, with the GOP.

Increasingly there seem to be a series of Republican political and media leaders who have completely lost sight of the connection between ideology and politics.  Instead of working to sell their public policy ideas in order to attract as many supporters as possible, they seem to instead wield their divisive social and ideological positions as a club, without either the recognition or even concern that they are doing tremendous damage to their political goals.

It was bad enough when they lost the African American, Gay and secular votes.  They could at least build a narrative that they were sacrificing the votes of small, specific groups that were unlikely to support their policy agenda in order to appeal to the broad center.  At some point, certainly, if your political movement succeeds in alienating enough 'small groups', what you end up with is a broad opposition coalition that can prevent you from achieving a majority - and that's where the Republicans already find themselves.  But now the attacks on women are just inexplicable.  This has nothing to do with policy - their policies, from reproductive rights to equal pay to paid leave have always been strongly anti-women, but the other social positions tended to position them to keep from losing women's votes by large percentages.

But now, from Todd Aiken to Erick Erickson, the voices of movement conservatism are being raised in expression of support for an institutional inequality that is clearly recognized as heinous misogyny by all who have experienced it firsthand.  It was one thing politically to represent the party of white supremacy when whites represented well over half the voting population, but women ARE half the voting population.  And the amazing thing to an outside observer is just how unnecessary these self-inflicted wounds actually are.  The general cultural dominance of men over women could be supported, if not completely preserved, by the old standard policy positions of pro-life, pro-church and pro-family stalking horses that allowed them to preserve a strong women's vote while essentially holding these same male-dominant beliefs.  A full-throated cry for what can only be accurately described as discrimination against women is unnecessary from an ideological standpoint and clearly counter-productive politically.

Part of me wants to just shrug my shoulders, make some popcorn and watch the train wreck.  The Republican party has become so foul, so fascist and un-democratic, so destructive to lives and communities, that its ultimate demise as a national political power cannot be seen as a bad thing.  But it's also worrisome, in that if the result is a dominant Democratic party and a fragmented, splintered, ineffective opposition, the result is single party rule and the risk of a drift into even greater authoritarianism and autocratic governance.  If history has taught us anything, it is that those with unchecked power will always seek even more unchecked power, and the outcome is never good for the people in the community.