12 November 2014

TRIPWIRES


Vladimir Putin is deliberately escalating tensions with the West by sending bombers not only to European borders, but to the western hemisphere where they are traveling from the Arctic to the Caribbean. While much of this is saber rattling, it is a dangerous game that could end in catastrophe. There have already been near misses with commercial aircraft, and this aggressive posturing heightens the risk of mistakes. The Chinese appear to be on board with this and both Russia and China perceive the US to be weak and the Europeans even weaker. China is in a dispute with Japan over some islands that are basically rocks in the ocean, and her again a wrong move could lead to war. In the absence of resolve and firm resistance, if they calculate they can get away with something they will. 

All of this indicates the extent to which we are dependent upon the sanity and judgement of political leaders for our own survival. International cooperation is dependent on good behavior on their part. The more tensions escalate the more we are exposed. A cascading series of mistakes led to the carnage of World War I, and the unexpected is always present. There is no reason why the US and Russia should be in conflict, but Putin is pushing the envelope in an attempt to regain territory once held by the Soviet Union, and his recklessness is a cause for concern. He presides over a country that is losing population and is dependent on natural resources, especially oil and gas, for revenue. Falling oil prices are bad news for his government as well as various scoundrels around the world. But this weakness also causes him to lash out with what assets he has, namely a large military. The problem is that this ups the odds for mistakes happening, or miscalculation in terms of response. 

He has also whipped up a virulent nationalism and has widespread support for his aggressive actions. But he is not going anywhere any time soon given his grip on power, meaning that the West will have to deal with him for the foreseeable future. There was some degree of legitimacy in his claim for Crimea, which was always Russian until 1954. Russians and Ukrainians have common origins, but that does not translate into a choice for political authority. The European Union, with no appetite or capability for military action stirred the pot by attempting to extend itself to Ukraine, thereby provoking the Russians, who also blame the US despite the lack of any evidence indicating our involvement. But while gratifying in the short term, these actions are not in the long-term interests of Russia, which can only have a future as part of the European world. 


Given the precarious nature of wide-ranging force deployments there is increased likelihood that powers are going to bump into each other whether intended or not. Furthermore the US has a network of alliances and obligations that could force us into war unless adversaries know for certain that we will go to war. Things are most dangerous when there is uncertainty, vacillation, and when weakness is perceived. At the very least there has to be a concerted effort to reduce flashpoints before they erupt and drag us all to somewhere we don’t want to be. 

30 October 2014

THE SWEET SPOT

For ages human beings thought they lived at the center of the universe, until science proved this to be an illusion. We came to learn that our sun was an ordinary star in a remote part of the galaxy, which indicated there was nothing special about us. Life as intelligent, if not superior to us surely existed elsewhere in the galaxy. However, despite our best efforts, we have yet to encounter aliens of any kind, and the only alien life we are likely to encounter is microbial. There may be good reasons for this, according to two scientists at the Universities of Barcelona and Jerusalem. Some regions of the galaxy are more favorable for life than others. Our sun is situated at a sweet spot in the galaxy, further from the center, and thus less subject to gamma ray bursts from exploding stars that would otherwise obliterate all life. There is a lot more complexity to this theory, but the basic implication is that it is possible we may be the first intelligent life to evolve in our galaxy. Conditions on earth had to be just right to enable the evolution of life and the creation of our species. This could only happen by being far away enough to avoid threatening events. Any closer to the center of the galaxy and life is unlikely  due to greater proximity to supernovas.

In the far shorter length of historical time we also occupy a sweet spot. Throughout most of history life consisted largely of misery, suffering, and pain. It has only been in relatively recent times that these things have not been the norm. They still underly our experience, given that things can change in a moment due to a variety of lurking threats. Our ancestors were threatened with things like plague, that could wipe out up to half the population, as well as other diseases we now have cures for. They experienced war, mass starvation, and were powerless in the face of natural disasters. Thus, however much our discontents with the present, we are very lucky to be living in this time period. 


There is no guarantee that this will continue, for all things wax and wane and rise and fall over time. Nothing exists in a steady state. The Ebola outbreak we are dealing with currently shows that plagues are still possible, and one may arise that we cannot control. The electric grid we are now totally dependent upon is vulnerable to an electromagnetic pulse from any enemy with a missile, as well as a solar storm that produces a large flare. If the electric grid were knocked out our civilization would collapse. (This could be preventable if steps were taken to harden our electric grid, but so far the government has not acted). Nevertheless, we still live in the most fortunate of times, in contrast to historical or cosmological time, across most of which conditions were not favorable for life. We have only to ponder the bigger picture to realize how minor many of our discontents really are. No one can know how long the fortunate era we live in will continue, but those of us who are alive today should pause and give thanks for living in it. 

29 August 2014

AN ISLAMIC STATE STRATEGY NOW!

Even as the Islamic State continues to expand, threatening not only the region but the West, the President of the United States has said we don’t have a strategy yet for dealing with them. Meanwhile they leave a trail of carnage, murdering countless innocent people by the most brutal means. These people are possessed by a blood lust we have seldom seen before. When religion condones murder there is no limit to what men will do. In fact they will do it with enthusiasm, based on the delusion of serving a just cause and the will of God. They may be misinterpreting or even distorting Islam, but that is academic as the killing continues. 

We are tired of war and do not want to become embroiled in another Middle East conflict. However, ISIS is leaving us no choice as they state unequivocally their intention to destroy the US and its European allies. Thus, whether we like it or not we must have a strategy to deal with this threat. Towards that end we should consider the following options:

1. Build a coalition of the Islamic states to go after them. They are the ones most threatened by this movement. Until now they have shrewdly sat back and left us to take the heat. This must stop. This is their back yard, and in reality is their problem. We can never extricate ourselves from this region until this occurs.

2.  In addition to, or failing this, call for action by the United Nations. There is not a single country in the world supporting these terrorists, so where could opposition to such a mission possibly come from? In this instance unanimity ought to be possible. Instead we are going to the Security Council about the Russians invading Ukraine, which does not affect our vital interests, and at this point only divides major partners and potential allies. 

3. The first two options takes the world as it presently exists. However, to the extent that this spreads as an attack on the West, the West must respond forcefully. That means NATO, which should be engaged to crush this evil if we are to avoid major attacks on our homelands. They have stated clearly what they intend to do to us, so it is foolish to wait until something happens and then respond. We should have a strategy in place to annihilate ISIS now. 

This requires governments that believe in the West and its values, and sees them as a force for good as well as progress in the world. It means having an abiding faith in our principles, which is sorely lacking in this administration. Unmotivated by a belief in the justness of our cause means vacillation, indecision, short-term action devoid of long-term context, and worst of all informs our enemies of weakness that they need not fear. 


They do not fear us, they do not respect us, and are contemptuous of our leadership. We cannot approach this problem with half-measures and abide by rules that are totally ignored by the enemy. We must do nothing less than terrorize the terrorists. Instead of reacting to the carnage they will unleash we must act forcefully now. Western intelligence sources suspect an imminent attack. Must we wait until that happens before doing anything? The time to act is now and we should have a clear objective- eliminating ISIS from the face of the earth. 

18 August 2014

STOP THE GENOCIDE IN IRAQ

The extent of the evil perpetrated by the “Islamic State” in Iraq against religious minorities is mind-boggling. It is the sort of thing the world has not seen in many centuries. ISIS has buried Christian children alive, cut a child in two, and crucified others. They have beheaded innocent people and then displayed their heads on pikes. They have killed all the men who refused to convert to Islam and then raping the women before selling the girls into slavery. Others have been forced to convert to ISIS’ brand of Islam or to otherwise  leave their homes and all their possessions behind. Christians have been forced from territory they have occupied continuously for two thousand years. It is not just Christians receiving this treatment, but the ancient Yazidi sect that is being massacred along with all other religious minorities, as well as Muslims who refuse to follow ISIS. 

That such things are happening in the 21st century indicates how fragile the veneer of civilization is. For here we have an instance of pure evil, with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Paradoxically, the area has been ruled for many centuries by Islamic regimes which tolerated the religious minorities within their realm. Christians and Jews have been persecuted before, but the cruelty of this genocide is something new. This, for the moment trumps the case I recently made for getting out of the line of fire. The U.S., Canada, U.K., France and Australia are providing some aid, but not enough to tip the balance. Blame certainly falls on the inept regime in Baghdad that is unable to control its territory, although that will hopefully now change as the government is reconstituted to become more representative. We certainly don’t want to get involved in another Middle East conflict, but we also cannot tolerate genocide. 

If ever there was a mission for the United Nations this is it, if the UN is to be at all relevant. There should not be great difficulty in reaching a consensus. No country supports these murderers so it is hard to see how there could be any opposition to action. ISIS must be completely annihilated, and anyone surviving must pay for their crimes. It is true that a UN force would largely be supported by the US, and although I don’t place a lot of faith in the UN, based on past actions, it would at least indicate complete international solidarity against this evil. In the absence of that we need another  “coalition of the willing,” although the UN would then be missing another opportunity to legitimize itself. 


Americans are tired of such conflicts, but the extraordinary cruelty of these maniacs cannot be ignored. We also have some responsibility for stirring the pot in the first place, but I’m not interested in blaming Bush for starting it, or Obama for precipitously pulling out. A tenuous argument for ignoring them could be made if they did not directly threaten us, but they have clearly stated they intend to attack us and the rest of the west. If they are allowed to gain ground unimpeded in pursuit of establishing their “caliphate” there is no telling how far they could go, and what they subsequently might do from conquered territory. This menace must be completely wiped out before it spreads any further if there is to be peace and security in the world. This should be followed by a strategy that will insure that such things do not happen again. 

31 July 2014

FUTILE MONUMENTS

In Brooklyn’s Prospect Park there stands a monument to those who died in World War 1. The names of locals who perished are displayed on three great bronze tablets, one of which has fallen off, leaving that set of names to oblivion.  The edifice is generally in disrepair and no one seems to care. Very few people stop even for a moment  to look at it, and obviously no one is maintaining it. For no one remembers anyone on the list now, so there is a total absence of anyone feeling a direct connection and a need to keep up the monument. They might as well have died at the battle of Marathon as far as contemporaries are concerned, and so they are consigned to the distant past and barely a century later. There are probably similar examples in other places in the same condition as in Brooklyn where the demographics have changed so much that relatives and descendants have virtually disappeared. 

When this memorial was constructed the war monuments were largely local, commemorating the sacrifice of people from the area. Communities everywhere felt the loss at the time, for even though the USA did not enter the war until near the end, over 112,000 died in a few months, tipping the balance towards victory. That war changed everything. Without it people would not have suffered under the communism of the Soviet Union, there would have been no World War II in Europe, and the US would not have been entangled in subsequent wars in Korea and Viet Nam.  The map of Europe would be very different, and the existing regimes might have continued forward instead of collapsing. There would have been no Hitler and Stalin, and millions upon millions of lives might have been spared. 

The Great War is remembered more in Europe, especially in the U.K., where commemorations continue to this day, due to the magnitude of their losses. There were 16 million deaths and 20 million casualties in the war. The British Empire lost 908,371, France 1,357,800, Russia 1,700,000, Italy 650,000, Romania 335,706, as well as losses in several smaller countries, including Serbia, Belgium, Greece, Portugal, and Montenegro. On the other side Germany lost 1,773,700, Austria-Hungary 1,200,000, Turkey 325,000, and Bulgaria 87,500. 

Many if not most of these deaths resulted from commanders treating troops as cannon fodder by sending them into battle with the certain expectation of heavy losses in lines close to the enemy in a futile attempt to gain some ground. The hopeless slaughter of men dug in in trenches went on four years. Due to the horrendous waste of lives, no one today could send large masses of troops to knowingly be slaughtered. Today every death is felt, and commanders are more apt to avoid casualties to the extent possible, keeping losses low. 

The Great War originated what is now Veterans Day. An armistice commenced on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month ending the conflict.  As a result, a national holiday  called Armistice Day was declared, to be celebrated on November 11 of every year. However, since the “war to end all wars” failed and subsequent conflicts arose, it was changed to Veterans Day in 1954. 


There is no excuse for allowing such monuments to deteriorate, considering that others once put their lives, hearts, and souls into them. There is no excuse for being so oblivious to the past that much of the public is completely ignorant as to what happened during those years. As the philosopher George Santayana wrote "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it." For a country without a past does not have a future. A country which cannot honor its past does not deserve a future. Let not that be the case in America. 

29 July 2014

A DIMINISHING ADMINISTRATION

It seems increasingly apparent, even to the most sympathetic observers, that Barack Obama has lost interest in his presidency. He’d rather play golf and continue campaigning at fundraisers with celebrities than deal with several simmering issues, some of which are serious enough to threaten the integrity of the United States. This sort of post-presidential attitude while still an incumbent is unprecedented in the modern history of the office. Meanwhile so many scandals and crises are simmering, their number is numbing to the point where the seriousness with which each one ought to be considered is degraded. 

The president, at the very least, sets the tone, so we find subordinates as well in an obfuscatory haze, when they are not simply inept. In this atmosphere administration officials are not taken seriously, most disturbing when it comes to dealing with the rest of the world, particularly in the case of the pompous Secretary of State John Kerry.  The US has been so diminished that if someone deliberately set out to ruin the country they could not have done much worse. 

That anything is functioning is more a tribute to a semi-permanent bureaucracy composed of officials of former administrations. There is a limited pool of qualified people an administration can call upon, so swaths of this government are Clinton era retreads, just as Republican administrations have drawn upon personnel from earlier administrations. As a result some departments continue to function, notwithstanding the incompetence at the Veterans Administration, among others. 

However, the people in the White House, closest to the president, are more like Obama; inexperienced, committed to being “transitional” and true believers in his cause. But a community organizer who has never run anything, and who is a believer in Rules for Radicals, proves yet again that radicals are incapable of running a government. They can agitate, campaign and advocate causes, but they are totally inept in attempting to implement anything. Thus we have witnessed failure after failure across a staggering array of issues, including the health care rollout, the VA, the IRS, Benghazi, spying on reporters, the invasion of our borders by “children” from Central America, the dubious release of Guantanamo prisoners, the Russian “reset,” Iraq, Syria, and the rest of the Middle East, etc., etc. They have been amazingly consistent in being wrong about virtually everything. 

Then there are the might-have-beens. The economy continues to sputter along, in large measure due to the policies of this administration, where it could have been growing briskly at this point under a different regime. All the elements for an economic boom are in place except for the government. With a different set of policies America and the rest of the world could be experiencing rapid growth. The only upside to all of this is that hopefully more damage can be avoided, given how rudderless the government is currently. Not just the public, but the administration seems to have lost confidence in itself as well. The best we can hope for at this point is to get through the next two years without a truly major disaster, given the colossal ineptitude of this administration in managing just about everything. It simply proves once again that radicals cannot govern. 


18 June 2014

GET OUT OF THE LINE OF FIRE

The USA has not been blessed with leaders with a clear-eyed, long-term geopolitical view of the interests of the country for decades, and that record, along with the consistent ineptitude of the present administration, makes inaction preferable to action on a number of fronts. Iraq is descending into a chaotic civil war, due to the precipitous disengagement of the Obama administration and a total lack of strategic vision. There is no question that the blunders of the Bush administration are responsible for instigating these problems, but in that case at least half the blame belongs to Saddam Hussein himself for so successfully faking WMD capabilities in order to be perceived as a more formidable force in the region. That posture backfired, as did his removal. Sadaam was an awful dictator, but he counterbalanced the equally odious Iranian regime, which became the principal beneficiary of his demise. Broader strategic thinking would have made that outcome obvious. 

More importantly, Sadaam was a secular leader who checked religious extremism as long as he was in power. The same dynamic is at work in Syria now, where the US currently has zero credibility or respect, having drawn a  “line in the sand,” which it then ignored.  A wiser, long-term geopolitical understanding would have informed us of the saliency of the religious extremism in the two branches of Islam, and guided our strategic thinking accordingly. This is a long term, historic conflict that could still last centuries. Do we want to be part of that? At this stage, given the bumbling proclivities of our leaders, I think the best course for the US is to use this as an opportunity to get out of the line of fire. By that I mean ceasing to be enemy number one to extremists on both sides of the Islamic rift.  We have managed to fumble our way into that position, and it is now time to extricate ourselves. 

There are many countries in the world with an “Islamic problem,” meaning either a restive minority population or conflict with an aggressive neighbor. The US is not one of them, and a cursory examination of global borders makes that obvious. There is no inherent reason for the US to be at odds with any of these players, but for inserting ourselves into their affairs. Contrary to the beliefs of some on the left, it’s not about oil. We are more self-sufficient in this hemisphere than most other countries, and would be even more so but for the anti-energy policies of this administration, which sooner or later will be undone. The people who depend on mideast oil are the Japanese, the Europeans, and increasingly, the Chinese. Consequently what happens in the area is of far more consequence for them than it is for us. 

As for cultural conflict, Europe has a large, unassimilated Muslim population. Russia, and even China have restive Muslim minorities. Thus, the problems are far more acute for them, so why should the US wind up being the Great Satan? Bin Laden (who primarily targeted the US for stationing forces in Saudi Arabia, which are now gone) is dead and most of the perpetrators of the 9/11 attack are accounted for. The Muslims are not our problem, and the more we disengage from conflict with them the less we would be targeted. Their main goal is obtaining power within the Islamic world. They are basically a headache for the existing regimes, who until now have managed to deflect such hostility onto the west. We are not sufficiently ruthless for this kind of conflict.

This does not mean cutting and running, but making a realistic policy that in essence says you don’t bother us and we won’t bother you, for if you do you will be annihilated with overwhelming force.  We would basically make an offer they couldn’t refuse. Let the CIA do its job for a change and come up with accurate information on these movements. Given the nature of the present administration I do not see a better path. 


We have paid dearly for all of this, not just in lives and treasure, but in terms of our own liberties. We now have a massive security state that is adept primarily at inconveniencing us at airports. Yet the end result is a situation no better than it was before, and given the instability in the area, arguably worse. We need to focus on rebuilding strength at home, where our way of life has deteriorated significantly. I am not suggesting isolationism here, but realism, as per Theodore Roosevelt’s axiom, speak softly but carry a big stick.