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And now, the “Most Dangerous” finalists

Monday, March 30th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — a man vs machine contest, with the betting shops favoring.. ]
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The semi-finals have been conducted, contested and concluded, with judges Elon Musk:

and The Republicans:

**

The final round is upon us.

In a definitive Man vs Machine match to be adjudicated by The Turn of Events, we shall see whether artifical intelligence, slouching towards Bethlehem, is more dangerous than the sitting President, suffering under — or perhaps liberated by — the two-term limit on his office..

Who or what will win the Most Dangerous of All belt, and end-of-the world cash prize that goes with it?

According to noted statistician Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight..

Intended clouds and unintended consequences

Thursday, March 19th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — this post is mostly concerned with unintended consequences in foreign policy, not Berndnaut Smilde‘s intended and dramatic clouds, but hey! ]
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Nimbus Sankt Peter, 2014. Artist: Berndnaut Smilde

Nimbus Sankt Peter, 2014. Artist: Berndnaut Smilde

**

Obama said in an interview on Vice this week:

ISIL is a direct outgrowth of Al-Qaeda in Iraq that grew out of our invasion. Which is an example of unintended consequences. Which is why we should generally aim before we shoot.

**

Rumsefeld said:

As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

Walt said:

In international relations, at least, none of our theories are all that powerful, the data are often poor, and coming up with good solutions to many thorny problems is difficult. Unintended consequences and second-order effects abound, and policymakers often reject good advice for their own selfish reasons.

Taleb said:

Before the discovery of Australia, people in the Old World were convinced that all swans were white, an unassailable belief as it seemed completely confirmed by empirical evidence. The sighting of the first black swan might have been an interesting surprise for a few ornithologists (and others extremely concerned with the coloring of birds), but that is not where the significance of the story lies. It illustrates a severe limitation to our learning from observations or experience and the fragility of our knowledge. One single observation can invalidate a general statement derived from millennia of confirmatory sightings of millions of white swans. All you need is one single (and, I am told, quite ugly) black bird.

Clapper said:

unpredictable instability is the new normal

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Let me list them:

  • unintended consequences
  • known and unknown unknowns
  • second-order effects
  • black swans
  • unpredictable instability
  • Are these all what you might call “birds of a feather”?

    **

    Taleb also said:

    Viagra, which changed the mental outlook and social mores of retired men, was meant to be a hypertension drug. Another hypertension drug led to a hair-growth medication. My friend Bruce Goldberg, who understands randomness, calls these unintended side applications “corners.” While many worry about unintended consequences, technology adventurers thrive on them.

    and:

    Mandelbrot’s fractals allow us to account for a few Black Swans, but not all. I said earlier that some Black Swans arise because we ignore sources of randomness. Others arise when we overestimate the fractal exponent. A gray swan concerns modelable extreme events, a black swan is about unknown unknowns.

    It strikes me that we could use a Venn diagram of these things, so we can better understand what we don’t understand.

    **

    So let’s add a couple more to our list:

  • corners
  • cloud of unknowing
  • The anonymous author of the Cloud of Unknowing, speaking of God, says:

    For He can well be loved, but he cannot be thought. By love he can be grasped and held, but by thought, neither grasped nor held. And therefore, though it may be good at times to think specifically of the kindness and excellence of God, and though this may be a light and a part of contemplation, all the same, in the work of contemplation itself, it must be cast down and covered with a cloud of forgetting. And you must step above it stoutly but deftly, with a devout and delightful stirring of love, and struggle to pierce that darkness above you; and beat on that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love, and do not give up, whatever happens.

    It sure Ain’t: Elkus on Why Congress Isn’t Good at Foreign Policy

    Sunday, March 15th, 2015

    [by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

    Adam Elkus had a nice post on the sound and fury over the open letter by 47 Republican senators to the government of Iran, asserting Congressional prerogatives regarding contractual relations with in foreign powers:

    “Congress Isn’t Good At Foreign Policy.”

    In the midst of the ongoing fracas over GOP congressional officials’ attempt to undermine Obama’s Iran policy initiatives, Max Fisher made the observation that maybe Congress just isn’t that good at foreign policy after all. Other analysts warned that legislators were “bullying” the US back into another Iraq war,  and others hyperbolically denounce the insistence of GOP hawks that they sign off on the war against the Islamic State. In particular, Foreign Policy‘s Micah Zenko, however, was far more puzzledthan upset about Congress’s apparent desire for an open-ended war in Iraq juxtaposed with its fury over Obama’s initiative to make peace with Tehran: 

    Funny when Congress weighs-in on FP:  Start open-ended airwar, no problem. Broker non-binding nonpro agreement, outrage.Zenko, however, is by no means alone. Other critics have similarly slammed Congress, arguing that it acts as if Obama is no longer the president, and ridiculing GOP insistences that Obama must include a ground war plan in his strategy to defeat the Islamic State. To hear some critics, the opposition-dominated legislature is reckless, irresponsible, even potentially traitors against the state. There was, however, something quite fishy about this. Hadn’t the roles reversed, as we had seen this kind of fight before but in the opposite direction

    The biggest problem with many of these criticisms, however, was their denigration of the legislature. The way it sounded, a disinterested observer might be forgiven for wondering if someone should be exercising, ahem, some oversight over that silly Congress before it really makes a mess of things! But it was not so long ago, however, that Zenko and many othershad a different opinion about the executive branch and its use of power vs. the legislative branch. That, namely, the latter needed to reign in the former. Oversight was the name of the game, and Congress and the Senate apparently really needed to exercise sorely lacking control, opposition, and critical questioning when it came to an President that was about to drone, Navy SEAL, and air-war America into “endless war.” [….]

    Read the rest here.

    My thoughts, in brief….

    The clerical-security regime in Tehran was probably a distant third as a messaging target for Republicans, coming behind activist conservative primary voters and the Obama administration itself. The letter is, in other words, a stupid, meaningless, P.R. stunt to play to domestic politics and indicates Republicans are not serious about stopping or improving any potential Iran deal or forcing the administration to submit any agreement to the Senate.

    Furthermore, the truth is that many Democrats in Congress are uneasy about Secretary Kerry giving away the store to Iran to secure anything he could call “a deal”, are smarting from six years of habitually high-handed treatment from the inept White House staff and the conveniently timed  indictment of Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who is critical of Obama policies toward Iran and Cuba. If Senate Republicans were intent on peeling away unhappy Democrats into a veto-proof majority for an Iran related bill, the letter was an unneeded jab in the eye to their Democratic Senate colleagues who might otherwise be persuaded to register their discontent.

    That said, the ape-shit reaction of the Obamabot faction of the Left (which is neither the whole Left nor the entire Democratic Party) to the Republican Open Letter is illustrative of the creeping authoritarianism and increasingly illiberal nature of American politics. These people really think down deep that their guy is a kind of King and that Americans can be guilty of Lèse-majesté and that Lèse-majesté is “treason” and the politically treasonous or “mutinousshould be jailed. Essentially, a plurality of one of the major political parties really likes the idea of the US government behaving like a Hugo Chavez-style dictatorship. Really.

    Lastly, my confidence in the Obama administration to negotiate responsibly with Iran is effectively zero. How can an insular group that takes little outside advice and won’t negotiate (or even talk) with their own supporters in Congress (!), much less the majority Republican opposition, get the better of foreigners that they understand even less well?

    Immaturity vs. authoritarianism in service to incompetence. We are headed down a bad road.

    Déjà or not? Netanyahu in DC

    Monday, March 2nd, 2015

    [by Charles Cameron — this is all way off to the side of my pay-grade — can I say that? ]
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    A DoubleQuote: upper panel, Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic; lower panel, Adam Silverman at Sic Semper Tyrannis:

    SPEC DQ Netanyahu Begin

    Silverman then quotes President Reagan, from his memoir, An American Life, p 415:

    I don’t like having representatives of a foreign country – any foreign country – trying to interfere in what I regarded as our domestic political process and the setting of our foreign policy.

    **

    Sources:

  • A Partial Accounting of the Damage Netanyahu Is Doing to Israel, upper panel
  • This Has Sort of Happened Before: Mr. Netanyahu’s Meshugana Mystery Tour, lower panel
  • “Strategic Patience” has One Virtue

    Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

    [by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

    “Alas, poor Clausewitz….”

    The Obama administration released its National Security Strategy last Friday, shepherded by the National Security Courtier, Susan Rice. Even by the increasingly mediocre standards for this exercise the administration managed to hit a new low for vapid superficiality, muddled thought and brazen political appeals to Democratic Party special interest groups, notably the gay lobby and environmental activists.

    While it is normal for an administration’s political opposition to deride the NSS (and often there is much to deride; let’s be honest, the Bush administration NSS papers will not be shelved next to The Art of War either) it is atypical for the administration’s own recently retired top officials to blast it right out of the gate:

    Former Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn blasted the Obama administration’s national security strategy on Sunday, describing it as too narrowly focused on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

     “We need a much broader strategy that recognizes that we’re facing not just this tactical problem of ISIS in Iraq and Syria,” Flynn, who retired last year as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said on “Fox News Sunday.”

    “We’re facing a growing, expanding threat around the world,” Flynn said, noting that terrorist threats have doubled in the Middle East and Africa. 

    “I think what the American public is they’re looking for moral and intellectual courage and clarity,” Flynn said, adding the public didn’t want “passivity and confusion.”

    “There’s confusion about what it is that we’re facing,” he added.

    Flynn, who led the DIA for two years under Obama, previously served as assistant Director of National Intelligence and director of intelligence for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. Central Command and Joint Special Operations Command.

    Flynn used an analogy of a quarterback leading a football team down the field.

    “I feel like when we say ‘ready, break,’ every player on the team is going off into other stadiums, playing different sports,” he said.

    Flynn said it was a “good question” when asked who in the Obama administration is in charge of leading the U.S. counterterrorism strategy. “If everybody’s in charge, nobody’s in charge.”

    Top tier center-left think tank, The Brookings Institution, is similarly unimpressed.

    Flynn is right. No one is in charge. Which is why Leslie Gelb, the former president of the Council on Foreign Relations called on the president to fire his entire senior White House staff and replace them with officials with at least average competence in national security. Gelb, it must be said, is a Democrat.

    It is highly unlikely the president will fire any of his second term team regardless of the consistently poor foreign policy results they are delivering for him. If he cared at all, they would be gone already.  The NSC is broken and is unable to formulate strategy because the truth is the President likes it that way and does not want a strategy. Strategies abroad force constraints on the domestic political freedom of action of politicians at home.

    There is a silver lining however.

    The administration is describing their approach now as one of “strategic patience” – signaling quite clearly that they intend to avoid any substantial foreign policy commitments for the next two years. This has foreign policy and national security community experts (and our allies) very nervous because our adversaries might read that as license for their own regional aggression, or at least substantially reduced risks and costs for ignoring American security interests. This is a valid concern, but there is a flip side.

    If the people steering the ship of state have demonstrated – repeatedly- that they are not up to even the basics of the job, that they cannot read the horizon, operate the bridge or navigate successfully, do you really want this team going full steam ahead? In any direction? We are better off with the ship at anchor.

    The real strategic patience will be the American people waiting out this dead in the water  administration.


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