Thursday, December 18, 2014

Russia's position gets a little more...interesting

Back in August (when the Guns of August were thundering in the eastern parts of was still nominally "Ukraine") Al wrote about the Curious Case of Russia. He noted that:
"The Cold War was primarily a standoff between two military powers. The Soviet impact on, and involvement in, the world's economy was negligible. Probably one of the major reasons the USSR collapsed. It was Soviet military, and the resultant political power, that we wanted to keep in check. We are now dealing with a new Russia, and that new Russia has become an economic player far greater than the old Soviet Union. Now, when Russia rattles it's political saber, there are economic ramifications of concern. Yet we still seem to be stuck in the Cold War mentality that Russia is always to be opposed."
and quoted an editorial from one of the Athenian newspapers that in their opinion "...a "stable and powerful Russia" is a key ingredient to global economic security."

I'm kind of intrigued by this for several reasons.

One is that it tends to reinforce my suspicions that the rump-Soviet state is, in fact, what I called it back in August: "...a lot of the Soviet weaknesses...overlaid...with 1) a thicker layer of corruption and 2) an excessive, almost-Nigerian-level of extraction resource dependency." The Post article makes an interesting point, that:
"There's one way, and only one way, that this ends: with capital controls. Or, in plain English, by making it illegal for people or companies to turn their rubles into foreign currency. That would get rid of the selling pressure, and let the ruble settle at a new, lower equilibrium. Putin, though, is loath to use capital controls, because his political base—the oligarchs—wants to move their money abroad, whether that's to their London or New York hideouts."
So the "tyrant" is an economic hostage to his political condotierri, another little reminder of the old saying about doing anything with bayonets (or in this case, the long knives of your criminal crony-capitalist "pals"...) except sitting on them.

The other is that it gives me a nasty little cat-smile remembering all the Usual Idiots who were fulminating about how manly Vladi Putin was and how the United States needed a sharp dose of his shirtless manly manliness to counteract the emo-girly-man Kenyan Usurper.

To quote O'Brien from the Post: "At this rate Putin will be riding around shirtless because he can't afford one anymore."
Perhaps the single most worrying part about this is the reminder that Russia - still a major Eurasian power and a nuclear one at that - is neither stable nor as powerful as it thinks it is.

This isn't to talk up my own country, whose political response to the Great Recession has been to double- and triple-down on the great shift to oligarchic meanness and stupidity that characterized the fucking Hoover Administration, but to note that for all that my country seems to be overrun with morons who think that "government is the problem" that if you deliberately set things up to govern badly it will be badly governed.

And that after a bad government the more-worse idea is to turn the levers of power over to a bunch of rich pricks whose only concern is their own profit. That's the sort of thing about the incoming Republican Congress (as expressed recently in the loathsome Wall Street Welfare rider to the cromnibus spending bill...) that makes me sleep poorly at times.

But I don't think I'd be sleeping nearly as well if I lived in Gdansk, or Tallinn.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

"We do not torture"

You don't say?

To me the saddest part about this hot mess is that we pretty much all knew all of this all along. We knew what was going on, or, at least, that something fairly awful was going on, and didn't care enough to make a fuss about knowing the details or care enough to stop it. Seydlitz discussed this all here four years ago; the real crimes here were committed by We the People. We knew all of this, and we knew that the whole nonsense about how this was "protecting us" and "fighting terrorism" was nonsense ginned up by people many of whom wanted to see just how far the American People were willing to go into the darkness if distracted enough by fear and foolishness.

And if there was ever any doubt of that distance this report clarifies that there really are no limits to the fear and inertia of the American Public. Provided I can spin a scary enough story, provided I can puff even the thinnest smokescreen imaginable, I can do anything. I can torture. I can kill. I can commit the sorts of war crimes that the Arsenal of Democracy executed people for in the Forties.

And I can do it in all-but-plain-view because the huge unmoving slorg of Public Opinion will be utterly unarsed enough to even bother to ask questions, to so much as slip a letter of reprimand in my 201 File.

Execute me?

Don't make me fucking laugh.

And make no mistake; without punishment this will happen again. And again There's always a good reason for breaking the laws. Smoking guns become mushroom clouds. Not fighting them there means fighting them here. They hate our freedoms. They're coming to kill us.

But then you find that if you cut down the laws to get at the devil, when you catch him you'll find that there is nowhere for you to shelter from the broad highway of evil you've opened up, the laws all being flat.

Update: The always-eloquent Charlie Pierce has more. And worse. And much, much more and much, much worse.
"I no longer take seriously anyone, in or out of government, who talks about "the debate" over whether the United States tortured people. The only debate left is the debate over whether or not it will remain the policy of this nation to torture people, or to outsource the job of torturing people, or to otherwise commit moral and national suicide by euphemism.

Anyone who still believes there's a "debate" over whether or not the United States, using techniques previously used by the Japanese Imperial Army, the Gestapo, the North Korean People's Army, and the KGB, tortured people is an idiot and a coward and I have no time for them. Not any more. Debate's over. We became what they think we are. And worse. This is not debatable and, alas, it is anything but a surprise."

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The news from Arbil, Helsinki, and Dohuk

Sami Abdulrahman was killed by a suicide bomber ten years ago.  He was one of 56 who died that day in Arbil when al-Qaeda in Iraq pulled off twin bombings at the offices of both major Kurdish political parties, the KDP and PUK .  All his life Sami worked for Kurdish unity and his efforts were one of the main factors in the rapprochement of the KDP and PUK.  There is a park named after him in Arbil directly across from the Kurdish Parliament building.

His daughter, Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, has just been appointed KRG Ambassador er make that Representative to the United States.

John McClain, who has always fancied himself something of a ladies man is going to go full court press on trying to charm this lady. But I suspect that John is going to end up as the enchanted one rather than the enchanter.   She will have to work both sides of the aisle though if she wants to help out the Kurdish cause.  This post BTW has been vacant for two years due to internal conflict between the two major parties. About time they agreed on the person to fill it.

Speaking of enchantresses, Kurdo-Finn pop star Helly Luv is doing a USO type tour for the Peshmerga.   More pics here.  She is probably driving the ISIL Sharia Court jurists crazy with worry that some of their headchoppers are secretly watching her pop numbers on youtube.  And yes, I understand her tour in Kurdistan with the Pesh is probably a big career builder for her back home.  But then the same could be said for Bob Hope and Ann-Margaret.

And speaking of rapprochement, the three autonomous and separated Kurdish Cantons in Syria (Afrin or Efrin in the NW, Cizire in the far NE, and Kobane in between) may finally be getting an agreement among themselves.
Representatives of the Kurdish National Council in Syria (KNCS) and the People’s Council of Western Kurdistan (aka the PYD) started meeting last week in the city of Duhok in Iraqi Kurdistan.  Reportedly they have agreed on a joint council (40%KNCS, 40% PYD, 20% smaller parties) and a joint military force.  Not sure how that will work out.  Afrin, the westernmost Canton is just NW of Aleppo.  They need to have a separate policy in order to survive so close to Assad.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Gods and mud bricks

This is wicked off-topic for this site. But this is also a busier site than my personal blog and I thought I'd get more input here, so if you're looking for our usual content just disregard.

Anyway, I was helping the Boy with his homework last night and it got me thinking.

His sixth-grade class is studying ancient Mesopotamia, and the question for discussion last night was "learn about monotheism and polytheism and their effects on society" in the context of the early irrigation civilizations of the Tigris and Euphrates valleys. The "book solution" was that a) the early Sumerians and Akkadians had a pantsload of gods that b) affected every aspect of their civilization, from architecture to social organization.

The kids' textbook didn't continue, but being who I am I had to follow the trail a little further. What I found based on a cursory look over the Internet was that c) the actual documentary evidence for early Mesopotamian religions is pretty skimpy - most of what we "know" is inferred from fairly fragmentary sources - and d) what consensus there is suggests that the "Sumerian" civilizations were solidly polytheistic - that is, that the peoples of the earlier inhabitants of the region centered around Sumer had a God of Bunions and another god for wheat and another for oral sex or whatever and they were all pretty much equals - but that as the "Akkadians" took over (that is, Babylon became the Big Ziggurat) a handful of the "bigger" deities tended to become, well, bigger. The various secondary sources seem uncertain as to how much this actually approached "monotheism" but agree that the result was somewhat different in both form and function from the earlier godly free-for-all.

The implication in the Boys' text was that this change in religion caused a change in society; gods first, people after.

But being the godless heathen I am I wonder; wouldn't it make just as much sense the other way around? If gods are - as I suspect they are - more a reflection of the people who imagine them why shouldn't the changes in civilizations result in a change in gods?

My brief understanding of the difference between the "Sumerian" and "Babylonian" (or "Akkadian") civilizations is that the latter was more centralized, and that the Akkadian rulers were more god-like god-kings than the earlier Sumerian versions; that Sumer was a bunch of city-states and that Babylon was Babylon and a bunch of tributary cities.

So why wouldn't it make sense for someone who looked at his or her society and saw that kind of heirarchy all around imagine the heavens as similarly organized? If your little city is just one among many it'd make sense that your city's gods were, too. If your city was the Big Pomegranate why shouldn't your god be the boss of the other cities' gods?

Makes sense to me, anyway, but I know from Mesopotamia what I know about Croatian poetry. Well, other than the Great Whore of Babylon because...well, because. It took everything I had in me not to sing the Boy the Crocodile Hotel Blues. I'm a Bad Dad that way.

Anyone with a bigger brain and more knowledge have ideas on the subject?

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Lest Iraq Again Distract Us from Afghanistan

Recent international affairs calamities in the Middle East have caused me to reconsider some previously held assumptions about the stability of affairs in Afghanistan.  I had long thought of Afghanistan as being able to absorb any all sorts of damage caused by war.  Iraq’s example has opened my eyes that perhaps, we should reconsider the assumption that our impact on Afghanistan won’t be catastrophically bad.

On one of the bases I stayed at in Afghanistan, rain and snow turned a central portion of the base into a strange morass of mud.  It wasn’t that it was just a shitty place to walk or move, it was that it was more of a sinkhole than mud hole.  Some smart NCOs attempted to solve the problem of the mud with wooden pallets that were on the base.  We used them to walk above the mud, but with each soldier’s weight, they slowly sank in themselves.  One on top of another, they sank.  With enough water, the mud turned into a bottomless pit for our equipment and gear.  No drainage, no bed rock, just pure sinkhole.

For a long time, I viewed Afghanistan and our activities there as being similar to our failures with the sinkhole.  It was useless to do more because it would just get absorbed.  Still, it was only useless to send more money and weapons to a region of strife.  The outcome was unavoidable, to my old way of thinking, and essentially a null hypothesis.  We didn’t make a difference.  Pallets of money, guns, bullets, soldiers were all destined to sink into Afghanistan’s sinkhole forever and remain an absorbed piece of historical trivia until some archeologist of the future discovered this odd stash of military equipment.

I believed that partly due to my own experience in Afghanistan with locals who could take money and turn it into nothing and with a military that took our weapons and turned them into nothing and an earth that took our best and brightest and turned out nothing, I came to believe that all of our efforts would amount to nothing.  I also took this belief because it appeared as though our military and political leaders were waging this war so as not to lose it.  The strategic vision of the Pentagon and Washington appeared to be that given an input of X we could maintain the war in Afghanistan without loss forever.  Given that such a strategy would never actually prevail and only provided short term and feeble benefits, I naively assumed that such a strategy would at least have the benefit of having little long-term ramifications post-the end of the war.

This way of thinking, though, is flawed, and events in Iraq have helped clarify why that is. Afghanistan is not a sinkhole.  The actions of the US are not ultimately wasted effort.  They are inherently destructive.  We are not leaving Afghanistan just the same due its ability to absorb our wasted efforts; we’re leaving a bomb that will explode.

For those of you who missed Afghanistan’s brief moment of national security significance, it should be noted that the IG noted that the US has sent close to 750,000 weapons into Afghanistan in the past decade plus of war, with some 250,000 being totally unaccounted for.  Afghanistan’s presidential election has turned out worse than not holding one as the two candidates refuse to concede, have rejected US mediation efforts, and Afghanistan’s weak government is now in extended limbo, and although recent news suggest that US has finally managed to overcome this impasse, I think its worth mentioning that this is not the first time the news has carried this story.  Add to that, incredible amounts of waste and corruption in the form of cash and development work and you have the recipe for something terrible.

Afghanistan has been gifted the disposition and tools for tremendous violence.  The US has left a huge trove of weapons both intentionally and unintentionally.  This doesn’t even account for the trove that the Taliban has amassed and the arms industry that has thrived in this world during the war.  It is a mistake to think that when the war ends for the US that those millions of weapons will remain silent.  It’s nearly an impossibility to imagine such a scenario.

From my perspective, the best case scenario is that the Afghanistan war does continue in a way where both the Afghan government and Taliban collectively start to de-escalate the fighting while still continuing to battle one-another and over time reach a healthy settlement that avoids a one-side overwhelming and destroying the other side in a bloodbath sort of way.

What sort of historical precedent is there for such an outcome? None.  This doesn’t happen outside intervention or limitations on armaments from the outside world.  Pakistan and the Taliban aren’t interested in limitations and neither is the US.  Outside quarantining the two quarreling parties, the war will only escalate until one side or the other breaks.  Take a good guess at which side it’ll be?  The one with zero political leadership and nearly absolute corruption that just happens to be sitting on metric shit tons of weapons and cash but without the will to fight for it?  Sounds a lot like the force we assembled in Iraq.  Not that a slaughter of the Taliban wouldn’t happen if our team prevailed, it just seems so immensely unlikely.

Never mind what this means about how terribly we’ve failed to date because it’s simply too staggering a disaster to consider.  Consider what it will look like if the Taliban take over one of Afghanistan’s biggest cities in the years after the end of the war?  More importantly, consider how Afghanistan has generated a great deal of conflict-oriented industry in a region that features Islamist insurgencies in China, India, and Pakistan and what the departure of the great Satan and the fall of its puppet government will mean for the region?  Now add the $90 billion unaccounted over the past 13 years, and hundreds of thousands of weapons, and you have the makings for a pretty decent sized war in its own right.  Not to mention the billions being spent by those three countries alone and all the nuclear weapons in the area.

I think that the best case scenario is that both Kashmir and Xinjing both get significantly more violent in the short and medium term but don’t become extra-territorial conflicts.  Worst case involves some strange ISIS-like hoard occupying areas of central Asia from the –stans to Pakistan to China and causing a regional war that kills hundreds of thousands of people.  Probably won’t happen, even though, ISIS has found some friends in a part of Afghanistan that has ties to ever conflict in the area.

Doesn’t matter though, Afghanistan has not reached a violent equilibrium and our addition of huge amounts of resources has only made sure that when that equilibrium is reached, it will be gigantic, catastrophic and hugely violent.  America needs to reckon with this and take steps to ensure that the conflict gets shrunk in a controlled manner.  We won’t, or at least we have no history of doing so, so I guess I’m getting ready to see the Third World War fought in the next decade or the Islamic equivalent of the Khmer Rogue as a result of the craziness we let loose there.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Out of the Mouths of Babes

The recent "so help me God" controversy in the Air Force brought to mind something that happened closer to home some 30 years ago.  We had just been stationed in NY, and my younger HS freshman daughter was able to earn a scholarship to a very fine Catholic High School, choosing this over the huge, but well rated public school serving our area.  About two weeks into the school year, I received a call from the principal to stop by when I had a chance.  I said I was able to do so that afternoon, and an appointment was made.

I arrived in Sister's office, wondering what might be amiss.  The secretary ushered me in, and after introductory pleasantries, Sister said, "We owe you and your daughter an apology, and even more so, I wish to complement you on the excellent religious conscience you have instilled in her."  Totally confused, I simply said, "Thank you", and waited for more.

Well, it seems that that morning, the students had a chapel service of some sort.  Since there were a fair number of non-Catholics in the school, "active participation" was purely voluntary.  The non-Catholic students did not have to sing, pray aloud, etc.  However, whilst filing into the chapel, it seems that my daughter was the only student in her class that didn't genuflect before entering their assigned pew, an act of "reverence" their home room nun had said was expected of all when she gave them their "conduct in chapel" lecture".  Rather, she made what we Orthodox call a "small reverence", bowing her head and making the Sign of the Cross.  Obviously, she stood out like a sore thumb, and her home room nun took exception and sent her to the principal, as she was still doing this after a couple of obtuse mentions of "proper reverence in chapel".

Sister Principal told me that she had asked my daughter if she had any religious or personal objections to genuflecting, and daughter said, "No, not an objection."  Sister Principal then asked why my daughter refused to genuflect.  My daughter said, "It isn't a refusal, but a choice.  Genuflection is a meaningless action to the Orthodox, Sister.  While not as noticeable, I make what we call a small reverence before the Altar of God in the Chapel.  It shows the same reverence, but just in a manner meaningful to the Orthodox.  I was raised to never do anything before the Altar of God for any reason other than showing Him reverence.  Genuflecting would simply be to show uniformity or to please Sister X, and I think that would make genuflection, in my case, irreverent."

Of course, the Principal was gobsmacked that a freshman had such a solid understanding of reverence, and wanted to offer her praise to such fine parenting.  I had to admit that I and her parish priests had instilled the general notion of reverence, and that my daughter deserved the credit for applying it so well to a real life situation.

So why the above in commenting on the Air Force controversy?  Well, there is the issue of religious freedom that is attacked by requiring non-believers to swear an oath to a deity in which they have no belief.  Myself, I also see the other side of the coin, and here's why: 

On Oct 12, 1960, the officer swearing in a group of us into the Corps began with a short explanation of how solemn the oath is.  Not in "so help me God" terms, but in terms of total subordination to the Constitution, to include, as generations of Marines had done, putting our lives subordinate to and in support of the Constitution.  In short, there is nothing trivial about taking the oath of office.  Not one word, not one concept is to be taken lightly nor with coercion or reservation.

However, it is what he said next that really stuck with me.  He said that we should note that there was no reciprocal oath by the Corps, the government nor the Constitution in return.  Rather, what binds us together is that all Marines swear a common, simple, yet profound oath to support and defend the same Constitution.  Thus, everything we do as Marines, individually and as a Corps, is bound the the individual oaths taken by every Marine since Tun Tavern.  A lawful order by a superior is in execution of that oath, and obeying is equally in execution of that oath.  We have all sworn to be Marines with equal commitment.

So, the other side of the coin, IMHO, is that to require a troop to swear a meaningless 4 words ("so help me God") only serves to trivialize the Oath and the deity.  It adds words and a concept that is effectively meaningless and irreverent, not just to any deity, but to the solemnity of the Oath, itself. It is an oath taken with coercion and/or reservation, and includes a phrase intended only to please those administering the oath, failing to understand that oaths are more than an administrative exercise.  And thus, it is not only an affront to the person making the Oath, but to the Constitution and the deity who's name is being invoked without meaning for the sake of uniformity.  If my use of the deity in my oath is not sincere, then what of the rest of the Oath?

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Winning Without a Battle?

Can you win a war without stepping on a battlefield?  Can you ever be in a position to win a war before the hostilities start?   

Retired General Anthony Zinni, former Commander of U.S. Central Command, says yes in his new book ’Before the First Shots Are Fired’.   A thoughtful read, for me anyway.  Zinni clearly states that a military response to threats is not always the best option and certainly not the only option.  Two of Zinni's conclusions that I take away from this book are:

1] “Words and ideas are as important to victory in today’s conflicts as bullets.”


2] Our foreign aid budget is pitiful, our State Department, USAID, and the other government agencies that we critically need to be on a par with our military are underfunded, undermanned, and poorly structured for their current objectives.”

Conflict-of-interest-alert:  I liked Tony Zinni before I ever picked up this book.  His public scolding of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld ten years ago for the blunder of invading Iraq was identical to my thinking. And his defamation by the neocons and smear attempts by the right wing press made him OK in my book.  On top of that he and I are of the same generation, both former Marines, and both served in Vietnam.  Some of you though may take offense at his later supporting calls for ‘The Surge’.  Or for also criticizing Obama's strategy.  And some press accounts have labeled him a warhawk and a shill for the military industrial complex.  So be forewarned.

PS - Regarding that #2 point above.  I recently served as a pallbearer for a 98-year-old WW2 vet who was also a veteran of the State Department.  He had served on the USS Astoria but was lucky enough to have been transferred to another ship just prior to its sinking at the Battle of Savo Island. He served throughout the war and saw much action but was prouder by far of his time in foreign service as part of the State Department after the war.