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New Article: “Who Lost Russia?” at The Chicago Progressive

Monday, March 30th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

I have a new piece up at The Chicago Progressive:

Who Lost Russia?

If you are old enough to remember the iconic moment when Boris Yeltsin climbed on a tank on CNN and defied leaders of a KGB coup and then watched seventy years of Soviet communism swiftly collapse, you are old enough to know that Russia did not ever need to become our enemy again. And Russia, whose siloviki regime of President Vladimir Putin is absurdly threatening Denmark with nuclear war, sponsoring insurgents in Ukraine and flirting with fascism at home, officially regards the United States as the main enemy. It did not have to be this way. A question that should be asked, not by historians but by American citizens of their leaders, a question that is not being asked by our media:

“Who lost Russia?”

There is plenty of blame to go around – and we should not be shy about admitting our share….

and

….The Russian state, moreover, is hollow. Were Putin to die tomorrow or become seriously ill, there’s no assurance of an orderly transition of power to a legitimate successor. Or even that Russia would, in the medium term, not begin to disintegrate as did the Soviet Union before it. The world can ill-afford the emergence of a Weimar Russia, isolated, deeply hostile but politically unstable and bristling with the world’s largest arsenal of nuclear weapons….

Read the rest here, at The Chicago Progressive.

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.

David Brooks gets his Islamic eschatology wrong on NewsHour

Saturday, February 21st, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — why scholarship should inform punditry ]
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**

I am a bit surprised, I have to say, that I haven’t seen — and Google doesn’t seem to have found, either — a clear rebuttal to one highly significant detail in David Brooks‘ discussion with Mark Shields and Judy Woodruff on Islamic eschatology.

In the PBS NewsHour segment labeled Shields and Brooks on fighting Islamic extremism (above), Brooks makes the statement:

I do think you have to take the religion seriously, that these people are — it’s not like they can’t get what we want. They want something they think is higher than what we want. Their souls are involved. And I’m saying you have to conceive of them as moving, as acting in a religious way.

And you have to have religious alternatives. And they are driven by an end times ideology. They think there’s going to be some cataclysm battle and Mohammed will come down. And if you ignore that part of it, write it off as sort of marginal, that they are being produced by economic dysfunction, I just think you’re missing the main deal.

I’m largely in agreement with this, but the phrase “and Mohammed will come down” is just plain wrong. In Islamic eschatology, it is claimed that Jesus (‘Isa ibn Maryam) — not Muhammad — will “come down” from heaven at the ‘Umayyad mosque in Damascus:

God will send the Messiah, son of Mary, and he will descend to the white minaret in the east of Damascus, wearing two garments dyed with saffron, placing his hands on the wings of two angels. When he lowers his head, beads of perspiration will fall from it, and when he raises his head, beads like pearls will scatter from it.

The return of Jesus and his “breaking the cross” and preaching the one faith of Submission (Islam) may be what Brooks should have mentioned — or perhaps he meant the arrival and recognition of the Mahdi, who does not “come down” to us but is already among us by the time his end times role begins.

I can see how this may seem a slight slip-of-the-tongue to David Brooks, who is after all not solely preoccupied with IS, Islam, and / or apocalyptic — but it’s not something that should go unchallenged if we are to “take the religion seriously”.

“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.

Arrow of mass

Sunday, January 25th, 2015

[by master-archer, Lynn C. Rees]

The Strategikon, a Byzantine Roman military manual attributed to the Emperor Maurice Flavius Mauricius Tiberius, summarized Roman calvary training towards the end of the sixth century:

He should be trained to shoot rapidly on foot, either in the Roman or the Persian manner. Speed is important in shaking the arrow loose and discharging it with force. This is essential and should also be practiced when mounted. In fact, even when the arrow is well aimed, firing slowly is useless. He should practice shooting rapidly on foot a certain distance from a spear, or some other target. He should also shoot rapidly mounted on his horse at a run, to the front, the rear, the right, the left. He should practice leaping onto the horse. On horseback at a run he should fire one or two arrows rapidly and put the strung bow in its case, if it is wide enough, or in a half-case designed for this purpose, and then he should grab the spear which he has been carrying on his back. With the strung bow in its case, he should hold the spear in his hand, then quickly replace it on his back, and grab the bow. It is a good idea for the soldiers to practice all this while mounted, on the march in their own country. For such exercises do not interfere with marching and do not wear out the horses.

Dane Lars Andersen may have gotten in touch with his inner Mauricius with his contemporary elaboration of ancient archery techniques (props Isegoria):

As the Strategikon explains, and Robo-voice-over emphasizes, archery proficiency required years of drill. For tribesmen native to the Eurasian steppe stretching from Hungary to the Pacific, constant archery practice was a logical extension of daily life: bow work was essential to routine tasks like hunting or raiding the neighbors. For a hybrid settled/nomadic state like Parthia and its Sassanid successor, balancing the interests of your nomads out east with your farmers out west produced sharp tensions but often found a way to field archers without breaking the farmers or the treasury. For an wholly agricultural state like Rome in the sixth century, raising and training archers was an expensive strain.

Rome’s traditional strategy, crushing enemies under the weight of infantry mass, was hampered by population decline in the empire, bruising face-offs with new horse riding archers like the Huns, and an inability or disinclination to raise many soldiers from its own peasants. Rome turned toward smaller armies composed of horsemen, some drawn from native Romans, some mercenaries drawn from nomadic tribes like the Heruli. These armies were, man for man, better trained than prior Roman armies. They could check and even defeat opposing cavalry armies like the Persians.

But they were expensive. Roman finances groaned under the costs of supporting its armies. Their cost made it hard to maintain enough forces to cover all of the Roman’s territory. The Balkans were frequently abandoned to non-stop nomad raids because most forces were needed against the Persians in Armenia and Syria. Roman armies of the sixth century were politically fickle, prone to rebel if payment didn’t show up on time and sometimes prone to rebel even when pay arrived on time.

And they were brittle: like World War I-era dreadnoughts, they were too expensive to use. They couldn’t be replaced overnight like Rome replaced armies during the Second Punic War. Equivalent forces required time and capital to raise and train to proficiency. Native Romans had to be taught how to fight like steppe nomads at state expense. Nomadic mercenaries who had the needed skills from childhood were often unreliable. This made sixth-century Roman leaders as unwilling to risk battle as earlier Romans were eager to force battle.

Caution was justified. Destruction of just one of these armies, capital intensive transplants from their natural habitat on the steppes to the more foreign but pricey fleshpots of Thrace, Anatolia, Syria, Carthage, or Egypt, were not only catastrophic but world-changing. The military bench was left so thin that there was little left to resist a victor who succeeded in annihilating a sixth century Roman army.

Defeats by the Persians and civil war after the fussy Balkan army mutinied and overthrew Mauricius over discontent with their employment benefits and uncomfortable winter accommodations reduced Rome to precisely one army. If the Persians destroyed that one army, led in person by the Emperor Flavius Heraclius, that was the end of Rome. Heraclius came back from far behind, skillfully using that one army to defeat the Persians, though it meant leaving his capital reliant on only the Theodosian Walls and the remnants of the Roman navy to fight off an Avar-Persian siege. Turns out those were good odds against the Avars and Persians, though it left the Balkans open to permanent Slavic occupation.

But Heraclius only had that one army. When he sent it against a surprisingly persistent army of desert raiders six years after his victory over the Persians, he ended up with the equally surprising loss of that entire gold-plated army to those raiders. Destruction of that one Roman army was world changing. It’s why today’s Middle East and North Africa are Moslem instead of Christian.

Armies come and armies go but Yarmook is forever. The Romans had little in reserve. What little Rome had, Heraclius retreated with behind the Taurus Mountains. Tenuously holding that line, Rome served as an annual punching bag for Saracen raids for the next three hundred years. The Balkans, occupied successively by Slavs, Bulgars, and Magyars, also remained an open bleeding wound. Given chronic suffering from two-front-itis, Roman resurgence after 941, lasting to the death of the Bulgar-slayer, was the greatest comeback since Lazarus. It came to naught with another world-changing beating, this time permanent, as another gold-plated Roman army leading with its glass jaw was destroyed in one blow.

“Even when the arrow is well aimed, firing slowly is useless”. Mass has quality all its own.


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