Saturday, June 28, 2014

Arm the Rebels!

Hey, you guys want some rifles and mortars?
The Obama administration has asked Congress to allocate half a billion dollars to arm and train 'moderate' Syrian rebel groups.  This is something that demands some thoughtful consideration.  When the American political class discusses military intervention somewhere in the world, there are really four options.  First, there is the insertion of combat troops.  The American military is the most effective expeditionary force in the world, with huge numbers of troops, vehicles and weapons configured to deploy on short notice, and an elaborate logistical infrastructure in place to support them no matter where we send them.  When the political or military constraints to inserting troops cannot be overcome, the second option is air strikes.  The US also keeps Air Force and Naval air power forward deployed where they can break things and hurt people just about anywhere in the world.  As a result, the political and pundit class puts an unrealistic military emphasis on air-to-ground combat power. Seldom, if ever, does blowing up dozens or even hundred of discrete things have a major impact on the military or political situation on the ground.  When US policymakers feel constrained from even dropping bombs, the next option on the list is arming/training the fighters on our preferred side of the conflict.  The interesting thing about this is that the most effective weapons we could provide - advanced shoulder fired surface to air and anti-tank missiles - are precisely the ones we are seldom willing to deliver.  If none of these options seems politically viable, we will inevitably fall back on the Nerf Weapons of geopolitical conflict, sanctions.

After our collective experience under the criminal Bush/Cheney administration, it seems unlikely that we'll see American combat troops used in significant numbers anytime soon.  In fact, it's hard to visualize a situation where they would be used.  So, as long as the infantry is off the table, the US is left with three arrows in her intervention quiver.

The Syrian civil war provides a fascinating insight into  how these policy choices play out against the current political, economic and diplomatic backdrop. Despite the fact that there was very little in the way of good choices, the American knee-jerk cry of 'we must do something' continued to echo through the halls of power and the pages of punditry.  It's an interesting bit of fallout from America's military history, but in the US, the leadership is always pressured to act, even if all the options for action are bad.  America's political leaders pay a much higher price for inaction, even when there is no demonstrable US interest in the conflict.  So once the Assad regime used chemical weapons, the Obama administration saw that as a chance to 'do something'.  Three days of air and missile strikes and the political pressure to act would be relieved, at least for a while. When the air power option evaporated, we were left facing the 'arm the rebels' option.

Now, if you've seen pictures or videos from the Syrian civil war, this might strike you as odd. The various rebel factions do not seem to be struggling with a lack of weaponry.  Indeed, as they have overrun hundreds of Syrian military bases and depots, they have collected anything and everything that goes bang.  One looks at those pictures and wonders "arm them with WHAT, exactly?"   These are irregulars, guerrilla fighters - they can't use helicopters, artillery or tanks.  They would love to have the latest and greatest MANPADS, but because the US is highly sensitive to the risk of them being transferred to Islamic groups like al Nusra and ISIS, it's unlikely that we would provide them.  The same with AT-4 class anti-tank missiles.

The other side of that option, the 'train the rebel fighters' side, is even more problematic. Since the US won't put Special Forces operators on the ground in Syria, the training occurs in Jordan.  But the fighters are actively engaged in a civil war - they can't just pull their troops off the battlefield in Syria and send them to Jordan for months of 'training'.  That leaves the US operators having to try to 'train the trainers' without being able to support them when they actually take troops into combat.

So let's be clear.  The entire process is a sham - we're spending money in order to avoid spending lives, and we're doing something pointless because everyone agrees we have to do something.  We're arming the fighters with weapons they already have because we're terrified that anything they could use to do serious damage would end up in the hands of Islamists, and we're training people who aren't involved in combat in the first place. Meanwhile, Iran, Turkey and Iraq have no such limitations on their operations, and the battle comes down to a series of atrocities and counter - atrocities.

There's nothing the US can do, and there's nothing the US SHOULD do...

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A Woman's Work is Never Done...

Y'know, some of these tasks are optional
So from the Bureau of Labor Statistics we get the 2013 installment of their "American Time Use Survey".  The takeaway from this invaluable study was that women do more housework than men, and spend significantly more of their time doing it.  I have no doubt this is true, to the point where it is neither controversial, subject to debate or in any way shocking.  The larger question is to what extent it represents the manifestation of our misogynistic culture and the male domination of our society, and to what extent it is more a gender-driven disagreement of what chores are actually necessary and worth doing.

And I'll even readily concede that those societal conditions are certainly a contributing factor to this nationwide, indeed species-wide imbalance of household labor.  But even with all that said, there is another fundamental imbalance underlying the housework question. This imbalance is premised first on a (mostly) gender-driven disagreement of what constitutes an acceptable living space, at what point the returns on time and effort spent doing household chores diminish to zero, and most fundamentally of all, how those determinations are made, and by whom.

Put simply, the level of cleanliness, lack of clutter and the overall 'neatness' of my living space is not determined by some external set of objective rules, but rather as a set of subjective standards.  For the most part I'm quite comfortable in a space that is not clean to hospital operating theater standards, and I always bear in mind that additional effort can be applied at any time an external event such as an important visitor demands it.  But the question arises at that point: In the case of a couple living together, if they have substantially different subjective standards for household maintenance, how are those differences fairly adjudicated, and how can the applicable labor be divided fairly?  If I do all the cleaning it takes to get to my 'cleanliness threshold' and it takes my spouse an additional .6 hours of labor per day to then bring the condition of the living space up to HER standards, is that unfair?

In a reasonable world those differences could be negotiated and compromises reached.  However, in my experience there is an additional relationship dynamic that prevents a fair agreement on the 'chores' question.  That dynamic comes down, fundamentally, to who in the relationship has the power to determine the expected standards for household maintenance, and further to enforce those standards.  And THAT'S where the gender dynamics truly come into play.  It is almost always the woman who spells out the expectations for household cleanliness, classically berating the 'slovenly' male into picking up after himself, vacuuming, dusting and other labor- and time- intensive tasks that would otherwise be seen as effort without measurable return.   Of course, the twin powers of persuasion and coercion only have so much effect, and once again, it is the female who is left to put in the extra effort to close the gap between doing what is necessary and doing what she perceives as necessary.

I would propose that in many,  if not most cases, a thoughtful, reasoned negotiation where he accepts a higher threshold for household clutter while she comes to recognize that, as one moves up the cleanliness scale, the returns on investment grow smaller and perhaps it is, as a general matter, ok to forgo some of the more fanatical demands to household sterility in order to free up that extra hour per day.

Do I believe that this kind of domestic negotiated peace is a real possibility?  Of course not.  But it is very much worth thinking about - how much time is spent, what is gained, and how much frustration is engnedered.  It's clearly a matter that affects nearly every couple, and thinking a little more deeply about it might be something worth doing.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Iraq Talk

The ISIS Clown Car is on the Move
History is moving fast in the middle east these days, with the ISIS offensive eradicating the Syrian - Iraqi border, the Kurds' bloodless occupation of Kirkuk, the US thinking about getting involved militarily again and Iran continuing to consolidate her gains throughout the region.  While there is no doubt that these forces were initially unleashed by the unnecessary and ill-conceived American invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, the more pressing question is what will happen next and what impact will it have on the region and the world?

Should the US get involved?
There is no doubt that ISIS are a very bad bunch. But this isn't a political conflict or any kind of traditional civil war.  This is the worst possible kind of fight - a brutal sectarian, possibly genocidal kind of war where the parties involved see no possibility of living together in peace.  So if the US were to get involved, ostensibly in support of the elected government against insurgents and terrorists, we would actually be choosing sides in a 1500 year old holy war.  Even more ironically, we would be taking the Shiite side in that conflict, backing our 'enemies' Iran and Syria against our 'allies', notably Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

As David Petraeus said in a speech in London yesterday:
"This cannot be the United States being the air force of Shia militias or a Shia on Sunni Arab fight. It has to be a fight of all of Iraq against extremists who do happen to be Sunni Arabs
And that, in a nutshell, is the problem.  After decades of brutal oppression by Saddam Hussein's Sunni Baath party, Maliki and his al Dawa allies had no interest in living in peace.  They returned the favor, brutally oppressing the Sunnis, ethnically cleansing them from their historic Baghdad neighborhoods, keeping them unemployed and without resources or effective representation.

So whatever the US chooses to do in Iraq, it will be seen by at least one side as supporting their genocidal enemies.  If your goal is to enhance recruiting, see other more moderate Sunni groups join in the offensive and make the US a target for terrorist attacks, this would be the most efficient way to do it.

But isn't ISIS a threat to America?
Well, to the extent that any foreign terrorist organization can set off a truck bomb or arrange a mall attack, ISIS is no different.  They ARE different, however, in that they are currently occupied with taking territory and consolidating those gains.  Their fight is with al Assad and al Maliki and the Shiite militias that support them - they would not be inclined to spend resources trying to attack America while engaged in a two-front war.

Now, it is also true that one of the hallmarks of ISIS is its embrace of the most extreme and fanatical jihadis from every nation - not just from Muslim nations, but importantly from Europe and the US.  This means that no matter how the whole battle to create the modern Caliphate turns out, there are going to be significant numbers of trained, battle hardened extremist jihadis with US and European passports.  Those people could represent an ongoing problem for many years, but it seems likely that the intelligence agencies of those western nations will be keeping a very close eye on them.

What about Maliki?
Remember how I said that ISIS were very nasty people indeed?  That also describes al Maliki to a tee.  In addition to being a thug, he's a longstanding leader in the Da'wa party that formed the most powerful Shiite resistance to Saddam and the Baath, and his years in exile in Iran make him an Iranian tool.  In their haste to validate the invasion and occupation, America was happy to allow early elections in 2006 - elections that were boycotted by the Anbar Sunnis, mostly because of the battle of Faluja.  Elected or not, he has since acted in the role of sectarian partisan dictator, assigning to himself the portfolios of Minister of the Interior, Minister of Defense, Minister of National Security as well as maintaining the leadership of the Da'wa party.  His obeisance to to Iran, his kleptocratic cronyism and his oppression of the Sunnis have all contributed to the point where even secular Sunnis are willing to align with ISIS to fight against his government.

The US is now making noises about demanding he step down, but there are some serious problems with that.  First, the US has found itself in the awkward position of winking at extra-constitutional coups against duly elected leaders in Egypt, Thailand and Libya, in spite of her vaunted commitment to democracy.  Another nation's removal of its democratically elected leader at the behest of the US should all but destroy any credibility American diplomats might have in encouraging democracy in other nations.  And second, anyone who replaces Maliki will certainly come from Da'wa, so they are unlikely to represent a profound change in sectarian ideology, and very well might even be worse.  There is some indication that even the Iranians are fed up with Maliki's corruption and incompetence, and they may very well convince him to resign and in that case, his successor would be hand-picked by Ayatollah Khamenei.   

It's probably worth mentioning that there is much discussion in Washington of withholding American air power unless and until al Maliki becomes more inclusive of Sunnis and Kurds.  Of course, that's patently absurd - there's no reason to believe he will do that, but even if he desperately wanted to, there's no way the Sunnis would believe he was telling the truth.  It would take a year or two of model statesman-like leadership  to begin to gain their trust, and it's not clear that there will be any need for American air power in Iraq in 2016.

Where do the Kurds fit in?
The Kurds are in an odd position.  They've been constrained from taking Kirkuk, which they see as their natural capital, because to do so would have meant immediate civil war with Baghdad.  But when the Iraqi army fled the ISIS offensive in Mosul, it made sense for the Kurdish militia, the Pesh Merga (the best fighters in the theater by far) to reinforce Kirkuk.  So now the Kurds have essentially the Iraqi territory the wanted all along, and they have the troops, weapons and resources to hold it.  But that's only a third of the Kurdish question.  Kurdistan, if they had been lucky enough to get a country when Britain and France were handing them out after WW I, covers parts of Turkey and Iran too.  Both of those nations have oppressed and fought with Kurdish separatists for decades.  Especially in light of the Sunni's successes in carving out their own Caliphate in Syria and Iraq, it seems doubtful that the Kurds will want to settle just for that. 

You can see the Iranians, looking for a bulwark against the rising tide of genocidal Sunni jihadis to their south, might make common cause with the Kurds.  But it's extremely hard to see the Turks doing so, and it seems unlikely they fear an ISIS style insurgency in Turkey - if there is an 'oppressed' group in Turkey today (other than the Kurds, of course) it is the old-line Kemalist secularists.

How does it all play out?
Obviously, no one knows at this point.  It does seem clear that there's no force available that can roll back the ISIS gains militarily - at least as long as they have the support of the Sunni population in general.  Politically, it seems that ISIS is mostly at risk from the more moderate Sunnis, who if they feel mistreated by the religious extremists will just kill them and take over the insurgency for themselves.  It happened before in Anbar - it was called "The Awakening".  Now, instead of getting paid for hunting al Quaeda, they'll get their own chunk of Iraq and Syria free from the Shiite oppression emanating from Baghdad and Tehran. 

Over the longer term, Islamic genocidal sectarian conflicts are not good for the world.  There's the problem of energy prices - if this conflict expands and has an effect on oil shipments from the Persian Gulf then you can expect a global recession.  If you start to see real Shiite gains against the Sunni Arabs as a result of opportunities provided by open sectarian warfare, the possibility of a broader regional sectarian war becomes greater, and Saudi Arabia is the most heavily armed Arab nation and Pakistan has nuclear weapons.  One of the things you CAN expect at some point is the destruction of one of the Shiite most holy shrines.  Remember it was the 2006 bombing of the Golden Dome in Samara that set off the last Iraqi sectarian civil war.

At this point, any Western, US or NATO involvement in the conflict would seem terribly counterproductive.  You never want to take sides in a civil war, and it's really not clear that we have any interest in supporting EITHER side of this conflict.  At some point, things are going to stabilize and some very angry people are going to be looking to settle some scores.  The fewer of them who feel they have a score to settle with us the better for American interests in general.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

On the Myriad Vague and Undefined Threats to America

Knifed right in the Heartland
To hear Congress, the Pentagon and the political media tell it, America is in a desperate situation, surrounded by existential threats and barely hanging on, always one mis-step from destruction by her ravenous enemies.  There is no trouble spot, no unfriendly authoritarian dictator, no separatist movement, no civil conflict that is not described as a "threat to America" in the most breathless terms.  Unsurprisingly, this is always immediately followed by either a request for more funds and resources by some portion of the American National Security infrastructure or the waving of the bloody flag of intervention, couched in the terms "we must do SOMETHING".

It's not that this is such a blatant, obvious manipulation, though of course it is.  It's not even that it's a massive exaggeration - it's not.  It is entirely, 100% untrue, a clear, easily recognized falsehood, that nonetheless is used constantly, often yielding successful results.  Let's be very clear - there is ONE external military threat to America: Strategic Nuclear Missiles.  Beyond that, any real threat to America as curentlly constituted is internal, either from the oligarchs that have so badly corrupted the system as to destroy democracy in America, their racist, tribal, nativist, theocratic minions who are increasingly losing touch with their senses while holding the largest arms cache in the world, or even - perhaps - the regular people of America who have to keep watching it all go terribly pear shaped and must come to terms with the ugly, desperate and violent world they are leaving their children.

What hardly ever gets mentioned, at least in some kind of realistic contest, is that there have been a grand total of TWO external attacks on America in the last 200 years.  The first, the attack by the Imperial Japanese Navy on American Naval and Air assets in Hawaii in 1941 was actually not intended to in any way destroy America or topple her leadership.  The Japanese plan was to secure unfettered naval operational access to the south and western Pacific, establish their occupation of resource-rich territories and sue for peace.  In the end, it didn't work out so well for them.  The second attack, the one that is continually cited by the coalition of bed-wetters and authoritarians that run the massive, bloated National Security organizations in the US, is of course the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001.  That's it.  A couple of buildings, 3000 lives, a few days without airlines, and most people never felt a thing.  Much of the residual damage from those attacks - economic, political, diplomatic - was done because America massively over-reacted to the attacks, deploying armored brigades, air power, artillery, invasion forces, invading and occupying two countries, when a calm, law enforcement driven approach would have had better results and a much lower cost.  And for all that, the thought that America as an entity was ever at risk is laughable.  It's hard to imagine an attack larger than 9/11 - indeed, the odds of anything even close to that scale seems vanishingly unlikely at this point - so we need to let ourselves get comfortable with the fact that there IS no threat to America, and structure our national security organizations around that simple premise.

We can't keep letting the fear mongers manipulate our foreign and national security policies with such blatant lies. North Korea is NOT a threat to America - to China perhaps, to Japan, maybe, but not to the US.  The same with Iran.  China and Russia are strategic threats - but quite effectively managed with our own strategic deterrent.  When the old white guys go on teevee talking about threats to America, we have to make them clarify exactly HOW a small nation without nuclear weapons or a navy on the other side of the world is a threat to a nation that represents HALF the annual military spending by all nations combined.

And sure enough, as I write this, we get the ever-trustworthy war monger Lindsay Graham warning us "This is another 9/11 in the making. The FBI director has warned us in Congress that Syria and Iraq present a direct threat to our homeland."

Oh do they, Mr. Senator?  By what methodology do they threaten us?  I don't think the fall of Mosul or Tikrit represents the imminent surrender of US forces and the occupation of Washington DC by ISIS.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Guns Don't Have an Agenda

Ok, this is getting way over the top.  We have a gun violence problem in the United States, that cannot be argued. But in the frustration fostered by the presence of a dangerous, ridiculous and irrational Constitutional Guarantee, the solution that a lot of people want to embrace is to demonize guns.

Guns don't kill people.  People kill people. This is a gun-rights slogan that has seen a lot of mileage on both sides, but in the most absolute sense, it's true.  Guns are steel and plastic and wood - how they are produced, distributed and controlled is a human problem.  We can't make the guns themselves the actors in this crime.  You can't say "nobody needs XX firearm".  The more important question is what is required to be allowed to own XX firearm? The argument is over legislation and regulations.

The parallel is tax law.  We are outraged that American companies pay nothing in taxes.  But the problem isn't with the companies.  They are following the laws as written and enacted. The problem is the tax code itself, which legalizes and specifically allows these behaviors.  Similarly, the gun laws in the United States are insane.  But it's hard to fault any company that follows those laws, produces a product for which there is demand, and sells that product for a profit.

Let's back up a little bit and think about guns qua guns.

I have owned, shot, tinkered with, played with and otherwise enriched my life with guns for something on the order of fifty years.  Let me say it clearly: Guns. Are. Cool.

Here's the thing.  I'm a "Gearhead".  I've built HAM radios, reflector telescopes, and my fascination with computers and networks is well known.  And guns are gear.  They are SERIOUS gear.  I've long been identified with the 4" .357 Magnum revolver, but I've had my share of 9mms and .45s, and I've long been enamored of great big booms, like a 14" TC Contender in .35 Rem (that's a great big pistol that fires a GREAT BIG rifle cartridge - you can search all these things on the wacky pedia).  I have a Browning BAR in .300 Winchester Magnum - the most satisfying big boom on the planet. I have a Ruger .454 Casull revolver (hint - Ouch!!) and I'm starting to look at .338 Lapua for thousand meter shots.

So. Am I a "gun nut"?  Do these guns represent a problem?  Do I "need" these things that are part of a hobby I deeply enjoy?  The point here is the weapons just are. The laws are stupid, dangerous and deadly. I'd be delighted to live with a much more constrained legal firearms ownership regime.  We're living with a daily and nightly slaughter.  These mass shootings and school shootings and white supremacist terrorist attacks really are only the tip of the iceberg. Every night there are hundreds of handgun killings, non-fatal shootings and suicides. Families are shattered.  Young men disappear into prisons forever. People are damaged, physically and mentally forever.

Guns are neutral, like cars and mines and earthquakes.  The problem is the availability of those guns, the fact that there is no liability for all that damage, there is no transparency and no accountability.  But come on.  These are THINGS.  Deeply interesting things that lots of people have found fascinating for hundreds of years.  Demonizing the device isn't the answer. The answer is less than obvious, due to the toxic 2nd Amendment, but it's going to come by way of the market.  We've got to make gun ownership much more expensive - Hey, you have the right to keep and bear arms, but you don't have some kind of right to be able to afford them - and we've got to make sure that gun ownership requires liability insurance.  If your gun hurts or kills somebody, either because you pulled the trigger or because you didn't secure it, you are going to be responsible for the costs that incurs, from first responders to medical bills to legal processes.  So the more guns you have, the more policies you're going to need, and yeah, if rich guys end up being the only people who can afford guns, I'd be WAY OK with that.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Someone is STILL Wrong On The Internet

So I've been screwing around the interactive backwaters of the intert00bz now for about ten years.  In my early days, with the early breathtaking crimes and horrors unfolding under the Presidential administration of the foul, odious GW Bush and his criminally psychotic henchman Dick Cheney, there was much to be argued. While those times seem positively quaint in comparison to today, where people were arguing substantial policy issues with something that was at least withing shouting distance of good faith, it is undeniable that we were approaching peak spittle and virulence.

It was Wingnuts vs. Moonbats.  The tribes hadn't hardened into inflexible ideological blocs yet, although you could see that process happening. There were long blog threads and later Facebook threads where policy was argued, and those threads got heated and angry, replete with pathetic anonymous threats of violence or lawsuits.  Those were the days when any pimply teenager could claim to be a former Navy SEAL with a depleted uranium .357 revolver, custom spanish leather boots, a chromed-out Harley and a supermodel girlfriend.

We argued war, and detention without due process, and torture, and health care policy.  We raged at idiocy, demanded links, accused each other of dishonesty and even outright corruption.  At times, we argued even more savagely among ourselves.  At one point, talking about how nuclear electricity generation might be a necessary interim solution to carbon pollution, I was accused by a fellow lefty of being a paid troll for the nuclear energy industry.

See, the combination of the written format and anonymity creates a perfect platform for shrieking, flinging feces and making wild claims of experience and expertise (and boots).  The more over the top claims were met with outright laughter and snark, but eventually these things would turn dark, with false binary choices and absolutist positions, armies of straw men and the worst kind of personal attacks.  But slowly, as Bush gave way to Obama and the tribes built and reinforced their trench systems, dug in their heels and the great American system of governance ground to a halt, I began to find the process tedious, unpleasant, ugly.

By now, the most I'll indulge the compulsion to confront those that are wrong on the internet is a single, typically snarky drive-by comment, calling attention to the dishonesty or ignorance of the commenter and then consciously avoiding that thread forever more.

Except for one thing.  One area is my kryptonite, my arguing catnip.  There's one set of arguments that I'll find irresistible, even knowing the pointlessness of the argument, even having come to understand that those who "know" cannot be taught, one class of interactive argument I'll simply have to engage.  That's the Alex Jones/911 Truther/Chemtrails sort of conspiracy theories.  These are so dumb, so obviously incorrect, so perfect in their construction and their underlying assumptions that they draw me in, despite the pointlessness.  They most often draw me in when they take the position that anyone who disagrees with them "blindly trusts everything the government does" as if there was no possible position but  believing ludicrous Infowars constructs or unquestioning trust of the government.  The thing about that construct is that they actually believe those are the only options - nuanced thought is their worst enemy.

I'm thinking about this today because of a specific D-Day thread I found on Facebook yesterday.  A woman claimed she KNEW that there were thousands (or tens of thousands, it's unclear) more allied casualties on June 6th, 1944 then the Army would admit, and they moved those thousands of casualties inland and buried them in unmarked graves.  She further went on to explain that Andrew Higgins, designer of the Higgins Boat that became the standard landing craft for allied forces on D-Day was a German agent and passed secrets about the boat's construction to the German army, which they used to devise the innovative strategy of "focusing their small arms fire on the invasion boats".  Wow.  One wonders how their strategy might have differed without their inside secret knowledge that the LCVPs were constructed primarily of plywood.

So let this serve as a warning to the vast population of delusional idiots on the intert00bz. Despite my well-intentioned commitment to avoid engaging with your frantic fever-dreams, if you post claims of undeniable knowledge about explosives in the World Trade Center, "False Flag" operations, essentially ANY claim that a huge conspiracy exists that has NOT been exposed but YOU nonetheless know all about it and I am a deluded sheep for not seeing the facts your are presenting, you're going to get a full dose of mikey in your thread.  I know I'll never change your mind, but here's the news: That's not the goal.  The goal is to make sure anybody else that you might influence comes to understand that you've managed to convince yourself of something that is not only prima-facie irrational, but even worse is empirically unsupportable.