Tuesday, 23 May 2017

How to read a US president’s speech

In his first overseas visit, US president Donald Trump landed in the Middle East to give a speech. If that reminds you of someone, it’ll be because his predecessor did the same thing. Don’t be surprised, Washington has a remarkable way of encouraging continuity.

The foreign policy in the second term of Bush 43 was more similar to Obama 44’s two terms than either will admit publicly. As the events of 9/11 faded into history the realities of organising a balance of power in the Middle East were emerging. The US needed Iran, Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia to balance each other and avoid Washington’s central fear: the domination of Middle Eastern energy by a single entity.

Back in 2009, Mr Obama said: “the first issue that we have to confront is violent extremism in all of its forms.” Presidents 43, 44 and 45 all avoided using the term “Islamic terrorism.” Mr Trump came the closest when he said last week “Islamic extremism, and the Islamists and Islamic terror of all kinds." What does this avoidance tell us about US foreign policy in 2017?

Mr Obama’s evasion was expected. There are only two kinds of people in the US: Christians and communists/progressives. Have you ever considered the possibility that Jesus was a Marxist? Well, I suppose with the historical order of things, we'd have to reverse this. We'd have to say not that Jesus was a Marxist, but that Marx was a Christian. Or more correctly, that Marxism is a sect of Christianity. Immediately, two groups will be horrified by this proposition: Christians and Marxists. By my count, this is, oh, pretty much, everybody.

Why is this relevant? Terrorism works for leftists – and so do many other forms of democratic activism. Terrorism is anarchism: a shattering of order. Is there such a thing as right-wing anarchism? Of course not: the concept is silly. If the word "right" means anything, its goal is not to shatter order but impose it. Therefore, terror in the Middle East aligned with Mr Obama’s leftism, which explains his hands-off attitude.

But Mr Trump’s verbal stumbling offers a chance to observe the incredible power of the US position. When people say "everyone has their own opinions," this is not a sign of weakness, abdication or relativism. Quite the contrary. It is the assertion that the concept of free speech and rational discussion has complete sovereignty over the conversation. And, as it turns out, those concepts are the bedrock of the Christian West. This is power in action, hidden behind a thin veil.

So when US presidents say there is no clash of civilisations between Islam and Christianity, we must see this for what it really is. They are giving us an important message: since the Christian West is in total control of the world's system, we deny Islam the specific freedom even to be at war with us. And we all sit back, nod our heads, and agree with this form of statement. That is true power.

Islam is not the enemy because it has already been subsumed into the US-led “international community.” The conflict is only with those who act in competition – the extremists. Mr Trump has Washington’s playbook, even if he’s a little behind the times. The US is under no threat because it robs its rivals of agency. Almost an entire religion has consented to this without argument. Power isn’t about making things true or untrue, but the ability to make things exist or not exist.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

After massive cyber attack, State Department sharpens its knives again

From the New York Times:

"Hackers exploiting malicious software stolen from the National Security Agency executed damaging cyber attacks on Friday that hit dozens of countries worldwide, forcing Britain's public health system to send patients away, freezing computers at Russia's Interior Ministry and wreaking havoc on tens of thousands of computers elsewhere."

Nasty stuff. But not entirely, shall we say, unexpected.

Cyber attacks have been growing in sophistication and show no sign of cooling down. It's the Wild West out there, folks, and the government is about two day's ride on a fresh horse. Everyone online knows the cavalry isn't coming and it's up to you - whether as a corporate or an individual - to find and install your own cyber defences. Buck up and defend yourself, learn some jiu-jitsu or something.

The central problem here happens in the physical world too. When a scientist invents a new class of weaponry, eventually that technology falls to peasants and militia. It's the law of the concrete jungle: you can't keep a secret, especially if that secret might help other apes gain power. We do love our power. Perhaps nuclear weapons won't filter down, but that doesn't mean bad actors won't try to get their stinky hands on some suitcase nukes.

In the cyber world, the chances of the equivalent of a nuclear weapon falling down the food chain onto the databases of non-state actors are actually pretty high. The internet was built for one node to talk to all other nodes - all of which they know, and all of which they trust. Security was an afterthought because bottlenecks create inefficiencies and the whole point is the speed of communication. Scientists just wanted to pass documents. Today the internet is a series of tubes touching almost every square metre of human importance. You could say it got out of hand...

The efficiency incentivised actors with gigantic resources, such as nation states, to construct and use cyber weapons. However, when you fire a bullet it doesn't smash into the target and wander away. It explodes with bright flames. But cyber weapons do actually float around once they're used and anyone who knows how to do so can fire them again, and again. Of course, some of the more sophisticated weapons are difficult for the unintended user to operate. But cracking the code is surely just a matter of time. (Or you could just break into the NSA. Whatever's easiest.)

The most sophisticated weapons of nation-states will inevitably filter to the second tier actors of organised crime. After a while, they then find their way down to non-state actors, terrorists, anarchists and others. Again, this is not unusual in the history of weapons. The difference is the speed, which is made all the worse when the top tier can't hold onto their weapons.

So that's the reality of the cyber world. Cyber is difficult. Humans will figure out what to do eventually (the US military is already thinking about a parallel internet avoiding all the pitfalls of the first attempt). But for now, cyber attacks will be depressingly common. Hopefully, criminals are parasitical and don't want to kill the host. That's the best outcome because it doesn't take much imagination to see how autonomous cars, for instance, are frighteningly vulnerable targets. What if the cars were told to turn left, right now? Yeah...happy dreams, my Uber-riding friends.

But the reason I highlighted this story is it shows the largely silent battle for Washington bubbling to the surface. The NYT likes to pretend it's innocent here, and all decent, reasonable people are horrified by the idea that the government might control the press. None of them seem to be concerned at all that the press might control the government. Journalists and professors are all part of what is essentially one large institution: the press and university system. There are few ideological arguments between major universities, or between universities and the mainstream press. Even in its heyday, the intellectual diversity of the Catholic Church was a good deal higher.

In the article above, a connection has been made between the cyber attack and the NSA. Indeed, it lands in the first sentence. True, the NSA did misplace some serious cyber firepower to a group calling itself the "Shadow Brokers," which then onsold the software to the highest bidder. Naughty NSA, why can't they keep anything secret?

But the article's point is not to outline the actions of thieves. The paper couldn't care less about organised crime. The story actually offers the State Department, which keeps a dripping umbilical chord tied directly to NYT editors, a chance to vilify the incompetence of its traditional enemy: the Pentagon.

A few months ago, the CIA also lost some cyber weapons. What's interesting isn't that the CIA is vulnerable to hacking. Of course the CIA is vulnerable to infiltration. Pretty much the only thing it does well is allow adversaries in (I'm only half joking). What was interesting isthe discovery that the CIA has created its own cyber shop. The CIA has an implicit agreement with the NSA to collect data at rest (documents in computers, safes, a person's mind, etc) while the NSA was to gather data in motion (signals, bits and bytes flying through the air). Now we have solid evidence that Langley clearly isn't on friendly terms with the folk at Fort Meade.

The Pentagon has had a rough time over the past ten years. The Iraq War didn't proceed very well (largely because State Department diplomat Paul Bremer decided to disband the Iraqi army. Anyone who thinks the US doesn't know how to occupy and govern a foreign country isn't paying attention. It does. However, the diplomats and soldiers made Iraq a plaything in their never-ending battle to undermine the other and draw power. That a million Iraqi's died due to this factional fighting is, like, totally terrible, dude. But hey, no one ever said running the world's largest empire would be bloodless). The Pentagon's other problem was the Edward Snowden leaks.

I'm not sure what you think of Mr Snowden, but just because he worked for the NSA, doesn't mean he was a Pentagon guy. One of the worst own-goals at the Defence Department was its brain-dead idea to use contractors. I'm not saying the decision was made lightly. The Pentagon calculated it didn't have enough personnel after 9/11. But it still made a dumb decision. Both Mr Snowden and Bradley/Chelsea Manning are the result of lower of standards and chasing a discounted price.

Anyway, the hatred poured on the NSA after the leaks came largely from media and privacy groups demanding the Pentagon accept new limitations. One of the most persistent lies they recited was that the US government spies on its citizens. Yet evenpassing knowledge of the leaks shows it would violate the laws of physics, let alone sanity, to do this. No one can "listen" or "read" your conversations if they only have the date, time and duration of the phone call.

Yet those privacy groups played an important role. With them on the front lines calling for reform, the generals couldn't fire back publicly at the State Department. But I am telling you now, everyone in Washington knew the real players. And it wasn't the privacy activists. The State Department wanted to carve off the NSA from the Pentagon and put it under its control, just like it did with the CIA in the 70s and 80s. The State Department smelled blood in the water after the Iraq War and it wasn't going to let the opportunity slip away.

And you could hear the clanging of steel on steel as the two factions fought it out. But in the end, the Pentagon held onto its intelligence agency. The only thing that altered was a law dictating that phone and internet corporations must now store the metadata, rather than the NSA. That's it. That's the only change. If you'd said that in 2012, I wouldn't have believed you. I don't know what the Pentagon had to give up elsewhere, but it held onto the budget, power and reach of the world's pre-eminent signals intelligence agency. That's a big win.

Now State has noticed a new opportunity to paint the NSA as not only rogue and untrustworthy, but a danger to the people of the United States. It's hard to see President Donald Trump buying this, considering his closest advisors are Pentagon lifers, but State and the NYT have noticed how Mr Trump reacts to the democratic winds and it'll be interesting to see if they can stir up enough populist reaction to impact Mr Trump's thinking on this.

The second aspect here is people can think the NYT is "fake news" all they like, but during the Snowden revelations the harshest critiques of the NSA came from internet companies. After all, Google, Facebook and the rest are competing to gather, store and use internet data. From their perspective, the NSA stepped into their turf. And on the internet, it's the private companies, not the government, that has actual power.

So will State now cut into its rival across the Potomac? It's hard to know. It'll try its best. And with a Republican in the White House, the generals usually have an easier time. But with the framing of Mr Trump's administration as fascist and in cahoots with the Russians, the Pentagon will probably struggle to keep the bleeding to a minimum this time.

I just really hope the two factions keep their arguing within Washington and don't use other countries as proxy battlegrounds. After all, the best place for a civil war is at home.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Looks like you need more diversity over here

The basic purpose of Gleichschaltung was to make sure there was no space in society in which antisocial perspectives can flourish. It wasn’t difficult to be an anti-Nazi in the Third Reich. But you had to keep the grumbling to yourself. And you definitely weren’t allowed to mingle with other anti-Nazis to share your pathetic bellyaching about the new Germany.

The problem was that German society back then, like any society, contained many organisations which had nothing to do with politics. And in those circles, it wasn’t long before antisocial misinformation sprung up and began to flourish.

No problem! Everything could be Nazified. Racism is evil, pretty much everyone would agree with that. But then again, any method of social control can be used for good or evil. It can be used to eliminate good anti-Nazis or evil racists. And by the time 1938 rolled around in Germany, anti-Nazis were about as shunned as, say, segregationists in the US in 1978. Nobody wants to be on the losing team.

In his diaries, Victor Klemperer says even the cat magazines were, by the mid-1930s, writing about the “German Cat.” Companies weren’t immune from Gleichschaltung either. Does your corporation have a board? It better have at least one Parteigenosse (party member) on it. And how many Parteigenosse occupy positions at university departments? Looks like you need some more diversity.

Of course, I’m not saying that diversity is a method of social control. Perish the thought! Its goal is to “heal deep spiritual wounds,” and to “correct the evils of the past,” such as segregation, lynching and questionable soft toys. Those damn racist gollywogs.

And if we’re going to be honest, members of historically disadvantaged groups and Parteigenosses are pretty much used in the same way these days. Victims and potential victims of racism, sexism and homophobia have all kinds of diverse perspectives on society. Which is why they need to be included. It has nothing to do with power. At least, that’s the party line, anyway…

But it’s pretty much impossible to live in a modern society, have any kind of professional career or even personal life, and be anything but a secret racist. And I can’t help thinking that diversity has a lot to do with this.

Of course, we’re all about progress – ethical, artistic and scientific. Diversity definitely cannot conflict with progress. Diversity is progress! And so is science. And perhaps one way to clear this up would be to require that all researchers in sensitive and easily misinterpreted fields are diverse individuals. Obviously, the investigators (Parteigenosse) themselves are in the best possible position to verify this information. A perfect feedback loop.

So in the future, institutions should consider requiring scientists to submit their own DNA profiles, to show disadvantaged ancestry, as a precondition of funding. Surely this is a simple and foolproof way to ensure the data isn’t misinterpreted. And if there are no disadvantaged investigators in the field? Well – that doesn’t look good at all…

Or maybe the better option is to create and follow law. The rule of law is blind to colour, class or caste. As someone once put it, the purpose of law is to defend a million men against one, or one against a million. The day we abandoned this principle was the day we descended into murder and anarchy, and no step back toward safety and freedom can be taken but on its terms.

But that’s not exactly a popular opinion these days.

I have an experiment for you, dear reader. Do an image search in Google for Muslim Mom and Child, Asian Mom and child, Black Mom and child…

-----Then try “White Mom and child”…

Now try an image search in Google for Happy Asian Women, Happy Black Women…

-----Then try “Happy White Women”- scroll all the way down…

Notice anything about the male they tend to pair the final category with 99% of the time? Makes it easy to understand why kids these days think it’s “so natural” and “no big deal” to “embrace multiculturalism.”

I don’t know how much the “mom” spelling (Americanised, as opposed to anglicised “mum”) has to do with the results. But if you think diversity is a “nice thing to do” and there isn’t a synopsis toward which society is moving, perhaps a Google algorithm can convince you. Or do you still think Google is just a handful of code?

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

The curious case of terrorism in Indonesia

Indonesia’s president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo issued a ban against the hard-line Islamist group Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia after the group led protests in Jakarta to tip a gubernatorial election away from the incumbent Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama.

The president banned the group for upholding values contradictory to the country's Pancasila principle of religious pluralism and threatening national unity. Jokowi’s decision reflects an increasing concern that the archipelago’s Islamic militant problem is once again gaining steam.

But since the deadly bombings in the early 2000s, terrorism has been poorly planned and executed in Indonesia. The militants clearly have the will, they just suspiciously lack the terrorist tradecraft to do so effectively. While Jakarta’s concern is legitimate, it’s worth unpacking how the Islam of Southeast Asia is different to the Islam of the Middle East, and why that matters.

Salafism, the virulent version animating the al qaeda movements, is primarily an Ossianesque reconstruction with obvious debts to Wilsonian nationalism. Communist intellectuals are responsible for Islamic terrorism but it hasn’t really caught on in the world’s most populous Muslim country. The question is why.

The Islam practised in the Middle East could be called “desert Islam,” while in Southeast Asia trade routes created a “merchant Islam.” For desert Islam, the Arab conquests stimulated a specific kind of process of Islamisation and militarisation. But it was commerce that spread Islam into Asia, transforming it into a highly prosperous trading zone.

Islam isn’t known for its agility and openness to interpretation, but that hasn’t stopped it from splintering. Merchant Islam has different politics and culture to its desert cousin. It recognises a tradition of mysticism, or Sufism, blending Hindu concepts of divinity. The Chinese, for example, often confuse Islam, Judaism and Christianity. In fact, Chinese and Japanese assumes Christianity was an exotic form of Buddhism.

But the Western colonial system had an impressionable impact on the evolution of both versions of Islam. Terrorism works for leftists – and so do many other forms of democratic activism. Islamic terrorism (which is in every case left-wing – as you can see every time Osama quotes Chomsky) hasn’t attached well to merchant Islam, but it nested with desert Islam sufficiently.

Islamic terrorism could work perfectly fine in Indonesia – if there was a need for it. Islamic terrorism is productive because it results in increasing communal deference to the Islamic community and expansion of the political power and privilege of Muslims and their progressive sponsors. In other words, the terrorist succeeds when, and only when, he is allied to an interested third party – either a military or political force.

So the question Jokowi really faces is: given that the politics of desert and merchant Islam are different, what conditions would compel an interested third party to provoke terrorism? If there is no terrorism, then we can assume the ruling class in the country already follows the revolutionary’s ideas. The playbook is simple: Don't slaughter the opposing camp if you don’t need to – recruit the opposing camp.

And by that playbook, well known wherever the West’s ideas of communism and democracy land around the world, it appears the Islamic revolutionaries and their progressive allies have been mighty successful in Indonesia already. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Your mileage may vary.

Friday, 28 April 2017

100 day Trump scorecard: Tactical victories, unforced errors, mostly incomplete

The world has not ended, fascism is not reborn and the enormous Washington machine carries on pretty much as per normal as US President Donald Trump’s first 100 days finishes on April 29.

A tradition of the US political system since Franklin D Roosevelt’s tenure, the first 100 days of a presidency receives tight attention by media and voters alike. Mr Roosevelt signed 76 pieces of legislation during this time, compared with Mr Trump’s 28 (along with 34 executive actions).

The US president has dismissed the 100 days premise on Twitter, calling the standard "ridiculous," while also outlining how much his administration has accomplished in its first few months. "No matter how much I accomplish during the ridiculous standard of the first 100 days, & it has been a lot (including S.C.), media will kill!" The term “S.C.” refers to the appointment of Supreme Court justice Neil Gorsuch.

"I think you can go back and find an area, one or two, and say, 'OK, well, he didn't do this.' But I think you have to look at it in totality of what he actually did get done," White House spokesman Sean Spicer says. The initial days were eventful, but plenty of work remains for Mr Trump.

At the end of his first week in January, the president signed a series of executive orders to enact campaign promises. They included plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), a fast-track for infrastructure projects, direction for building a border wall with Mexico, removal of federal funds for “sanctuary cities” and suspension of the US refugee programme.

All received loud opposition from Democrats, but the final order on refugees also led to blockages in the US court system which are yet to be resolved. Mr Trump responded to the criticism of the refugee order by re-drafting it in February. The order initially focused on halting movement from seven Middle East and North African countries, but was reduced to six in the second issuance.

In January, Mr Trump also extracted the US from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement following his “America First” policy. He cited serious concerns about low US workers from Malaysia and Vietnam wage competition.

The remaining 11 members of the TPP (including New Zealand) have tentatively upheld a reinvigorating the deal without the US. Japan, which spent significant political capital on the deal by breaking up its agriculture unions, is leading this effort along with Australia.

Other trade changes include a modernisation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which both Canada and Mexico say should be organised quickly. And although Mr Trump’s nomination for US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer is still unconfirmed, the office has been instructed to re-assess all trade deals for upgrade opportunities, to find the causes of deficits and to “identify trade abuses,” according to Mr Trump.

Another of his campaign goals was to halt hiring at government departments. To achieve this, he signed a 90-day freezing order for hiring federal employees, which was lifted on April 12. National security employees were always exempt from the order.

Mr Trump also entered office with an empty seat on the Supreme Court. He promptly nominated conservative judge Neil Gorsuch. The final confirmation process was achieved with the “nuclear option,” referring to a Republican alteration of the success threshold to 51 votes, rather than 60.

At Mr Gorsuch’s swearing in, Mr Trump said: “a new optimism is sweeping across our land and a new faith in America is filling our hearts and lifting our sights.” Another Supreme Court seat could be vacated this year.

Republicans also attempted to “repeal and replace” the Obamacare health legislation. Led by House Majority leader Paul Ryan, the effort came close but failed to gather enough votes. The party and Mr Trump will try again to replace the healthcare package next month.

Pieces of Obama-era coal, waterways and climate change policies were also either reversed or cancelled. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has received heavy criticism from the White House, including cutting its funding as part of the new administration’s fiscal budget.

That budget proposal aims to avoid increasing government spending, while increasing the US national security funds. To achieve this, Mr Trump announced intention to siphon money from the State Department and to slice programmes from other departments.

Republicans still hope to secure funding for the proposed border wall with Mexico, even as Congress is holding back the required money. Presently, the border wall is 930 kilometres long and the total length of the border is 3,201 kilometres. Mr Trump hopes to fill those gaps.

Along with Obamacare, three other major pieces of legislation are not yet completed. These include a national security strategy, a cyber-security executive order and a tax reform package. Regarding the latter, a handful of smaller actions emerged in April – review processes and winding back of banking measures introduced after the 2008 financial crisis.

However, Mr Trump reversed his intention to label China a “currency manipulator” after the Treasury Department did not allege China was committing such actions.

Throughout this time, Mr Trump’s political opponents attacked the administration’s alleged connections to Russia. In what essentially amounts to accusations of treason, they claim Mr Trump and his officials are colluding with the Russian government.

While no evidence has been submitted either of Russian hacking attempts on the Democratic National Convention (DNC) last year or of malicious and hidden high-level cooperation, the flow of Mr Trump’s first 100 days have nevertheless been undermined by the accusations.

A series of nominated department heads were hampered by unnecessary legal testimonies and delays in their confirmations. Some were even forced to step down or compelled to recuse themselves for ongoing investigations.

It was however revealed that the administration’s transition team was under surveillance during the 2016 election campaign by domestic intelligence services looking for Russian connections, yet no evidence of collusion has been discovered. Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was dismissed after it was found he lied about a poorly-timed discussion with the Russian ambassador.

Mr Trump also launched a series of missiles at a Syrian airbase following revelations of a chemical weapons attack in the country. Syria is receiving Russian military support and the missile attack has removed much of the energy behind the collusion allegations.

Finally, in the foreign policy realm, Mr Trump has sent his defence secretary on tours of East Asia, the Middle East and Europe to reassure allies in those regions and gauge any requirements of US diplomatic and military support in the coming months.

North Korea also continues to provoke with its nuclear programme. As it stands, the US intelligence community assesses Pyongyang will theoretically have the capability to send a nuclear-tipped missile to the Eastern seaboard of the US within four years. Mr Trump is hoping to carefully change the calculation of acceptable risk regarding the hermit kingdom.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

The EU, France and the welfare state

It’s not over yet. The recent French elections wrenched back into EU headlines the triple threads of immigration, welfare and unemployment which seem to be inevitably uncoiling the tapestry of the EU structure. The pot boils in Western Europe.

A February survey by UK-based Chatham House found 61% of French citizens are in favour of suspending immigration from Muslim countries. In response to the sentiment, Front National leader Marine Le Pen says if the enormous welfare programmes can’t be reduced, the only thing left is to restrict immigration. But her main target remains the welfare state.

This is a perfectly reasonable target, too. The welfare state is not a “moral imperative.” The policy is best interpreted in terms of the common human tendency to seek power. History suggests when the nature to seek power conflicts with the nature to help, the former generally wins.

Therefore, the former is stronger, and we should look to it first to explain social and political phenomena in our own time. If we ask: What is a “welfare” programme? Through the power lens, we can see it is simply clientism – vote-buying on a wholesale scale.

Note that power-seeking and help-giving don’t necessarily contradict each other. Both can be true at the same time – and typically are. Nonetheless, on a historical timeline set out on a level playing field, the preference for people to use help-giving as modes to power-taking is so lopsided as to be funny. As Bert Cooper on Mad Men said, “philanthropy is the gateway to power.” Right on, Bert. Have I mentioned before how excellent those first three seasons were?

And in 2017, I can assure you that everyone in the French government machine a) thinks they are “helping,” and b) is quite conscious of how real votes are obtained in French politics. They see the two as a beautiful synergy. As of course, they are.

Over the last two centuries, the world adopted the welfare state because the world adopted democracy. Conservatives fail to see this. (I am not a conservative, but probably a reactionary. I want both democracy and the welfare state gone.) The world adopted democracy, an Anglo-American form of government, largely because of the power and prestige of England in the 19th century and the US in the 20th. In every European country, the democratic/liberal faction was also the Anglophile faction.

The welfare state is a result of Europe being conquered by America – specifically, by the New Dealers. Washington faced no opposition to its ideas and today there is no real political opposition to the overall liberal system in Europe – there has been none for decades. Not that there’s much in the US, either. So the result is an implicit oligarchy.

(To see how the Anglo-Americans themselves progressed toward democracy happened, you might want to read Sir Henry Maine – one of the great scholars in comparative government and jurism – specifically his Essays on Popular Government (1893).)

When discussing these sorts of things, I think people make the common democratic fallacy of treating “public opinion” as an intrinsically ultimate cause. It’s not. To reverse what Andrew Breitbart used to say, politics is upstream from culture because the machinery of government works in one direction. Thus, today, Europeans love democracy and the welfare state. Even in Germany. Then again, in 1930s Germany, Hitler was only slightly less popular than democracy is today.

Conclusion: public opinion is a function of whose military forces control the TV station, and not much more. The mass mind is a lever anyone can operate. If you find the public believing in one thing, you can be sure someone somewhere is instructing them in that one thing. So every democracy is in a sense an autocracy – whoever is in power, is in power. The question of what the proles believe is ultimately arbitrary and contingent, dependent as I said on military results.

So if we ask, as a matter of history, why French President Fran├žois Hollande supported programmes which give money to migrants? One answer would be: M Hollande loves Syrians and wants to help them as much as possible. Another answer is: M Hollande was elected by a massive vote-buying machine, which specialises in purchasing the electoral loyalty of migrants.

Now, the truth is: M Hollande probably does love Syrians, in at least some sense. However, my historical assessment is that he knew which side his bread was buttered on, and if the butter had ever found itself on one side and Syrians on the other, I am quite confident as to which side he would have picked. Power is, after all, extremely tantalising to hominids.

Today, almost everyone accepts the first explanation: M Hollande wanted to take other peoples’ money and give it to migrants because he loves and wants to help them. However, if this explanation is widely held a century from now, I shall be disappointed – it’ll mean nothing whatsoever has changed.

Ms Le Pen’s solution so far is to “cut down on welfare dependency” but might not be enough. The better solution is much simpler and more effective. If Paris owes a beneficiary some payment or benefit, it should compute the actuarial value of the benefit, pay it – in present or future money – to the beneficiary and terminate the programme.

Notice how this thought-experiment exposes the difference between wanting to control people, and wanting to help people. It provides all the help, but none of the control. (Clearly, if the “entitlement” becomes an actual financial debt, it is no longer producing its former vote-buying effect.) My plan is unpopular with liberals and conservatives alike, so it won’t be enacted. At least, not by any democracy! But Ms Le Pen is on the right track anyway.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Who is making Russia policy in Washington?

The Russians must think the Americans are crazy. The sheer breadth of fictitious allegations about Russian bogeymen is a twisted logic driving events toward war. Wittingly or unwittingly, it’s unclear why the US is doing this. Is war really what it wants?

Three years ago Ukraine exploded into chaos. The legacy of this continues and generally flickers beneath the radar but it’s exceedingly dangerous: Nato is building up forces on Russia’s borders, particularly in the Baltic and Black Sea regions. The US has deployed its most advanced F-35A stealth fighters to Estonia, among a serious amount of other impressive military materiel.

Then there is “Kremlingate” in which Russia is said to have infected the 2016 US elections and continues to "puppet" US President Donald Trump. Russia is also blamed for boosting France’s Marine Le Pen candidacy over the pro-American Emmanuel Macron. The latest story emerges from a briefing by a US general that Russia is apparently colluding with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

In hearings last month, US officials implied Russia breached the Democratic National Convention’s emails, gave the contents to Wikileaks, which then released the emails to damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign and put Mr Trump in the White House. Washington says this constitutes an act of war, skyrocketing the whole debacle to an existential level. This is madness.

Despite media reports to the contrary, not a single piece of evidence has been released showing Russia had anything to do with affecting the US election. That two of the three largest US intelligence agencies (CIA and FBI) are “highly confident” is simply bogus. The one agency that could conceivably have done a forensic examination is the National Security Agency (NSA) and it says it was only “moderately confident.”

Think about that. You don’t marry someone based on “moderate confidence,” you definitely don’t go to war with Russia on “moderate confidence” and no one should be staging ridiculous theatre to destroy the presidency on “moderate confidence.” Besides, if I were American, I would find claims that Russia used propaganda to help elect Mr Trump deeply insulting. It is saying US citizens are mindless zombies ready to go anywhere Mr Putin leads them.

It might come as a surprise to some but Russia has its own politics. Across the spectrum, they are convinced America is preparing for war. Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev said in April, following a US missile strike on Syria, “we are on the brink of war” and that relations are “absolutely ruined.” Mr Medvedev is considered the most pro-Western of Russia’s leadership.

Also in April, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Russia. He has been categorised by US media as Mr Putin’s friend because when serving as chief executive of ExxonMobil he worked for six years to access vast Russian oil reserves. Mr Putin knows Mr Tillerson well. The Russians would never have made that deal if they didn’t think he was a serious, honourable and reliable man.

Mr Putin wasn’t supposed to be at the meeting because a lot of the political class in Russia didn’t want him to attend. But he turned up anyway and stayed for five hours. I think the conversation would have gone something like this: Rex, what is going on in Washington? What is this about Trump as our puppet? Tell me, who is responsible for making policy toward Russia?

That last question is a dark indicator of how broken the relationship appears. Consider Syria. Mr Putin needed to know if the US still accepts the position that the choice is between the Assad regime or the Islamic State. Russia assumed the regime is the lesser evil.

But after the missile attack, the US seems to be drifting. Whatever Russia’s military posture in Syria, it would be based on Mr Tillerson’s answer. I don’t know what was discussed but it wasn’t good. After the chat, Mr Trump announced relations are at an all-time low and Mr Tillerson solemnly said there was no trust between the two countries.

In all these narratives, Russia is the villain without exclusion. The castigation of Russia’s leader has been going on for nearly 17 years, getting shriller every year. It has re-awakened Russophobia and the blaming of Russia more generally, which in turn is tapping into old Cold War discourse. Every time, Washington decides it needs to further militarise its relations with Russia. This is madness.

The attempt to paint Mr Trump as a Russian puppet is convincing Mr Putin of nefarious intentions. He has publicly said someone is trying to provoke a war between the US and Russia, although he did not say who. He suggests powerful forces in Washington did not like Mr Trump’s policy of detente with Russia and are doing everything they can to scuttle it.

What we do know is that the US intelligence community has been leaking to the Washington Post, New York Times, CNN and other major media in ways that are not only highly detrimental to Mr Trump as a president but to his Russia policy as well. There is an obvious pattern here.

My concern is that Russia will overreact as it is prodded and prodded and prodded. The French have a saying for what's going on here: cet animal est tres mechant; quand on l’attaque, il ce defend. “This animal is very wicked; when you attack it, it defends itself.”

Forget North Korea, this provocation is more dangerous. At the height of the Cuban missile crisis at least satellite photos of Russian missiles were presented. There is zero evidence for Russian hacking today. Apparently, we have to take the intelligence community’s word on it and Iraq in 2003 suggests no one should be comfortable with that.

I’ll take one more turn of the wheel. Mr Trump’s presidency is being crippled by accusations of treason with no evidence. If this had happened to President John F Kennedy during the Cuba crisis, the only way to prove he wasn’t a Soviet agent would have been to launch nuclear weapons. This is madness.

So, when Mr Trump launched missiles at a Syrian military base, it was to show he isn’t a Kremlin puppet. It would be unwise to bash Mr Trump when he gets something right, and crushing the dangerous idea that Russia controls him at the minuscule price of 59 missiles was a good move.

But with all these messages, Mr Putin has no idea who is making policy in Washington. And if Russia’s pro-West faction is concerned, what might the Russian patriot faction be whispering to him? Mr Putin doesn’t want a new Cold War, neither does Mr Trump. But the Russian leader is right: Something is moving in Washington, something with sharp teeth.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Why enlightenment is in such short supply

I used to wonder why so few people enlighten themselves. Surely, if the benefits include self-control and power over one’s own soul, then everyone would be doing it? But I realise now that enlightenment means we have to come to grips with the fact that you and I could have been a Nazi concentration camp guard, a Rwanda machete murderer or a Mongol building a pyramid of human skulls in eastern Europe. The reason it feels so shallow and unconvincing when people say “oh, don’t worry, you’re such a good person” is because it sounds like wishful thinking. Like something an advertiser might say. And I don’t think people believe it.

There’s a terrible beast inside of each of us. You can feel it sometimes, rising, wide-eyed. If you can’t accept that you could have been a Nazi, then I think you have absolutely no idea who you are. Imagining yourself as a Nazi is terrifying, but I don’t think you get any insight whatsoever into your capacity for good until you have some well-developed insight into your capacity for evil. In the cold, dark corners of your mind, there are motivations so terrible that they would traumatise you if they were ever revealed. Everyone knows at some level of analysis that this is absolutely true.

And you’d think since enlightenment is viewed as the medication for vulnerability and death, that everyone would be struggling as hard as they possibly could to be enlightened. But if the barrier to enlightenment is the development of the self-consciousness of the individual human’s infinite capacity for evil, then you can be immediately convinced about why enlightenment is in such short supply.

You see, evil and suffering are not the same things. For instance, cancer isn’t evil because it’s a natural part of living. Evil is what happens when a person – who already knows that a reality of nature exists – refuses to harmonise themselves with that reality. To harmonise yourself with reality minimises the inevitable suffering inherent in living as a vulnerable human being. To remove suffering entirely wouldn’t be a good thing because as vulnerabilities are removed, so too is removed the part of yourself that makes you human. Limitation and vulnerability is what makes it possible to have a story.

Evil happens when a person refuses to harmonise with reality and therefore exacerbates suffering. In other words, evil is the maximisation of suffering. A “correct” society as seen on that United Airlines plane is not the way to achieve this. Here we can see an environment in which the nature of reality was apprehended but then discarded in favour of an idealised reality.

Everyone on that United Airlines jet knows this is true. But still, evil entered the fuselage. You have to know – not feel, know – that evil isn’t some ethereal force wafting through the air waiting to descend on unsuspecting humans. It is a consequence of arrogantly refusing to a) accept that a reality exists, b) resigning yourself to that reality and c) doing the work in every moment of your life to harmonise yourself with that reality and reduce the level of suffering for you and others.

If you had stood up on that flight and yelled “stop,” chances are people around you would look at you weirdly – at worse you might be arrested for obstruction. That’s only suffering. Everyone suffers. It’s how you get through it that makes you a person. But not to stand up is the introduction of evil. There’s no way around this.

And yes, I know this risks placing you as the most important person in the world – a concept (narcissism) I’ve written against many times. I don’t think that makes it untrue. That you are responsible for ensuring evil does not enter the world in every situation you are privileged to occupy is precisely the insight of enlightenment. You have to believe that the reason bad things happen is because you and I are not good enough. We’re not good enough, and have a lot of work to do. We’re not good enough, and we know it. We’re not good enough. We’re not good enough.

No one can prove scientifically that everything we do actually, really, truly matters, but you have to believe it in the teeth of evidence. Otherwise, no one will stand up and people will be hauled off planes or to the Gulag. Suffering is going to happen anyway. You’re going to feel pain, there’s no hiding from it. Why not stand up right now and speak the truth? Nietzsche once said, “if I have a why I can endure any how.” And that’s exactly right. The things you do really matter. And the sooner we resign ourselves to this reality, the sooner we can go about removing some of this damn suffering.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Changing Trump’s mind on Syria

Directly after US President Donald Trump’s first real projection of force last week (cruise missiles fired against Syrian regime targets), his supporters complain he is listening to the exact experts he was supposed to ignore. But why does this complaint feel like such a waste of time?

Actually, a better question would be: who, exactly, are these experts? By what means did they achieve their positions of authority? Do their disciplines genuinely use the wonderful error-correcting quality of Popperian science? Or has this been, in some way, neutralised or bypassed? Was it never there in the first place?

Everything makes sense thinking about experts as a power caste, understood by using the Russell Rule (originally noted by Freda Utley about Bertrand Russell): the ruling caste are the people who say "we" when they mean "the government." The ruled castes always says "they."

This ruling caste enjoys obsessing about the negative aspects of life because, like all hominids, it likes power. Power in human societies is inseparable from responsibility: a person gains power by demonstrating they are sincerely concerned about solving problems. No problems, no power.

And these experts are definitely concerned. No one who has spent any time with these people can doubt their sincerity. This doesn't imply, however, their solutions will be effective. Mr Trump’s supporters agree: the solution is producing the problem it purports to be trying to solve.

For example, who hasn't suspected that democracy and the peace process are the cause of Syria’s ills? Don't you ever wonder what would happen in that part of the world if everyone decided to ignore it for a while? The experts didn’t want Mr Trump to wonder.

If you read the New York Times regularly and believe it is portraying an accurate picture of reality – obviously, it defers to universities in any case of doubt – you also believe that anyone who supports Mr Trump’s ideas is either ignorant, malicious or seriously deluded. And he is certainly out to lunch on many issues.

From this, people naturally conclude Democrats have better epistemology than Republicans. What this analysis is missing, I think, is a sense of the fundamental asymmetry between left and right in the modern American political system and how it impacts the presidency – and the world.

First, the right simply does not have an epistemological filtering system. It's only the American left that has genuine leadership institutions which work to frame the debate. There is no right-wing Harvard. There is no right-wing New York Times. There are only scattered circles of right-leaning intellectuals, generally poorly funded. The American university system speaks with one voice, and pretty much always has.

The only professional conservatives are neoconservatives, in other words, post-Trotskyists. Nothing at all survives of either McCarthyism or Patterson isolationism, both comical by pre-20th century standards, American or European. In short, American conservatism is a pathetic joke, and any liberal who worries about it is a paranoid.

In a society where scholars are the ruling caste, actual scholarship tends to vanish. The classical virtues of craft, originality and curiosity are virtually obsolete. They are of no use in the task of capturing the President’s psychology and expanding the state. Virtues leave little time for the organisationally valuable tasks of maintaining doctrinal purity, expelling dissidents and watching each other’s backs.

The place where these experts come from, universities, are no longer institutions of scholarship. They are revolutionary seminaries. Their product is cadre. Of course, it’s still possible to get a good education in STEM, but even there it is increasingly difficult to escape indoctrination.

As I wrote recently, ethnic minorities are ideal as cadre just as Ottomans selected and reared mainly Christian boys to serve as Janissaries. Children of the powerless classes have no reason to defect. They will be extraordinarily loyal warriors. This is why, if you're young, smart and ethnic, your ticket in life is written.

So Mr Trump has two sources of epistemology to choose from when making decisions. He can get his truth from the same place Mr Obama does. Or, as his supporters desire, he can get it from demotic folk wisdom, the Bible, common sense or whatever. You would expect the latter process to not be very reliable, and it generally isn’t.

What’s surprising is that it’s ever accurate. Yet there’s a pattern across the 20th century of this basically unintellectual side of the debate being correct, and universities being wrong. In economics, for example. This doesn’t mean it’s good to be an ignorant hick. It only suggests the “expert” system is not immune to epistemological corruption.

As the Syria strike now proves, it is a mistake to think electing Republicans will turn the US into Trumpistan. When a person votes Democrat, they are saying the people who have the real power should stay there. When they vote for Republicans, they are agitating and disrupting the system, albeit to a much lesser degree than most think.

There is one genuine, positive effect of voting Republican. It acts as a symbolic protest against the rule of universities. Progressives are very good at calibrating their demands to what the public will accept – I believe it’s one of Saul Alinsky’s rules. By saying, “we want Trump,” a voter implicitly says, “we have an issue with Maoist first-year indoctrination struggle sessions.” This doesn’t stop those programmes, not at all, but it strikes a little bit of fear into the progressive’s heart.

The way it typically works is that most of the ideas held by the ruling scholar caste are simply bad, whereas those held by its primary political competitor (the red-state bourgeoisie) are either unexpectedly sensible or profoundly awful. Traditions often work that way.

But complaints about the experts feel like a waste of time because the complainer inevitably becomes associated with low-status people. The result is a stable disequilibrium in which nonsense defeats sense. It's quite an ingenious design. Not that anyone designed it, of course, any more than someone designed, say, the ankle. But I think we can still be impressed.

However, experts know three things: One, their intellectual system is not capable of correcting itself. Two, it is possible to destroy it. And three, the red-state bourgeoisie is a productive, rather than a counterproductive, tool which can be useful in achieving this outcome. Now can you see why they wanted to change Mr Trump’s mind on Syria?

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

United Airlines offers you a look into your broken soul

Who wants to see something ugly about themselves?

The recent United Airlines fiasco reminded me of Canadian columnist Mark Steyn’s point that the reason the 9/11 terrorists were able to subdue three enormous aircraft full of people was because air travel is as close to a regulated utopia America has ever created.

People are treated like children no matter how many flights they take. Everything on an aircraft is organised by the tightest regulations. As a passenger, your only job is to buy the ticket and sit still. In case of emergency, do nothing and wait for the authorities. The safety lessons are, as Fight Club said, the airline’s way of assuaging the fear of flying – an illusion of safety.

But on 9/11, those docile passengers followed the rules perfectly despite the fact that in front of them stood sweating, nervous men armed only with craft knives. They all died as a result. However, the passengers on United Airlines flight 93 ignored those rules. Whether those few brave individuals thought they were saving lives on the ground or their own necks doesn't really matter. What counts is they acted as individuals because the system had failed them in the only way that matters.

That fourth aircraft, the one that crashed in Pennsylvania, is the exception that proves the rule. As Mr Steyn notes in America Alone:

“The first three planes were effectively a flying European Union, where the rights of the citizens had been appropriated by the FAA’s flying nanny state. Up there where the air is rarefied, all your liberties have been regulated away: there’s no smoking, there’s 100% gun control, you’re obliged by law to do everything the cabin crew tell you, if the stewardess – whoops, sorry – the flight attendant’s rude to you, tough, if you’re rude back, you’ll be arrested on landing. For thirty years, passengers surrendered more and more rights for the illusion of safety, and, as a result, thousands died. 
“On the fourth plane, Todd Beamer and others reclaimed those rights and demonstrated that they could exercise them more efficiently than government. The Cult of Regulation failed, but the great American virtues of self-reliance and innovation saved the lives of thousands: ‘Let’s roll!’ as Mr Beamer told his fellow passengers.”

This week shows quite clearly, I think, how airlines haven’t evolved much over the intervening years. If anything, they’ve added more regulations. The intelligence scooped from a Special Forces raid in Yemen now means passengers can’t take laptops aboard aircraft travelling from a group of suspected countries. Everyone accepted this as fine. No problem, keep moving.

Water also needs to be requested in silly little cups, for exactly the same reason: intelligence suggested bottled liquid could be explosive precursors. So to continue the illusion of safety, airlines began regulating how passengers can drink the most fundamental building block of life. No one questioned this either.

Now a 69-year-old man flying the same airline as Todd Beamer was dragged off a flight because the staff made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. The flight was apparently booked to capacity, but a few United Airline staff members needed to be aboard. A randomised selection of passengers was chosen and offered hundreds of dollars to vacate their seats.

One doctor refused because he needed to get to his destination, presumably for emergency medical reasons. But those droning, robotic flight attendants were on auto-pilot, and the decision was made to force the man off the plane using police officers. Not other flight attendants. Police officers. Think about that. Also, those officers saw nothing wrong about doing this. Think about that as well.

United Airlines chief executive Oscar Munoz says while he is “upset” to hear about the event, the airline crew had simply been following “established procedures.” I’ll let that sink in.

The first thing you might ask is: why didn’t anyone volunteer in the doctor's place? I’m sure a few people did put their hands up to offer, but why didn’t they insist? And why didn’t the flight attendants change their minds?

If you’ve read any Solzhenitsyn the answer should be clear. Everyone was following rules. A catastrophically unethical action was taking place, and no one did a thing. I’m sure these people will scream indignantly that they are not bad individuals. But they are wrong, I saw the videos. Please do not misunderstand me. I am not saying the plane was full of evil people. I am saying being on that plane turned everyone into a moral monster.

I don’t care if a policeman says the rules are clear. I don’t care if five policeman demand you sit back down and do nothing. I don’t care if the seatbelt light flicks on and your pupils have already dilated in calm obedience. Rules do not, and should never, obviate the reality of following a moral injunction. And you know what those are.

God may be dead. But none of us is willing to shine a torch into the abyss to see just how abyssy it is. Those authority figures and regulations serve one purpose: to forgive you for the sin of staying quiet. “It’s not my fault, that’s just the way the system works.” Well, 20 million Ukrainians would disagree.

Forget the easy criticism of asking the staff to take the next flight. Did anyone stop to think why they couldn’t just grab a few pillows, tie blankets together as a makeshift seatbelt and sit at the ends of the aisle? They wouldn’t even have to sit on the aisle, blocking everyone’s path. There’s always floor space in these modern jets.

But that would require independent thought and, horror of all horrors, a circumvention of regulations to make something work. Sure, there’s a legitimate fear of a lawsuit. Is that really worse than beating a man and dragging him from the plane, though? Didn’t think so.

There’s something about the way air travel represents the pinnacle of state control that makes this docility and banality of evil inevitable. The doctor paid for his seat. He submitted to the regulations. He gave up all his rights. Still the authorities, following nothing more than those damn regulations, tore him away. Because according to the system, at no point did anyone do anything wrong.

The only thing a person owns, regardless of environment, is the ability to act in line with their moral intuitions – in the teeth of consequence.

You can’t see it, but the problem is religion. I doubt the majority of passengers believe in Jesus, and yet to a person, they all deferred to signals of the Omnipotent Other, broadcast as it always is by the semiotics of uniforms, regulations and certifications plastered throughout airport terminals and right there on the backs of the reclining seats. That power you see is the state – and it owns your soul.

Because of their belief in the Omnipotent Other, the passengers voluntarily gave up their individuality while performing a cell-phone ritual of absolution in real-time for their inaction. A camera won’t protect your soul. The guilt always stays with you. Always. It never goes away. Never. You have to let it motivate you to change your life. You have to become the kind of person who stands against the hurricane of regulations to scream “Stop!” You have to become a better person.

That's one interpretation, anyway, but I am telling you now, it is the only one that will save you.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Trump's message of 59 precision missiles into Syria

In the wake of a limited US strike on Syria, in which two US Navy destroyers fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Shayrat air base in western Homs, the Kremlin reportedly pulled a 2015 agreement with Washington designed to avoid military collisions in Syrian airspace. Later, however, US military officials say Russia agreed to maintain the deconfliction hotline on Syria meant to contain midair collisions. 

However, now the Russian Defense Ministry says it is suspending its deconfliction efforts to avoid aerial confrontation with the United States in Syria starting April 8. Russia has reportedly sent a note to the US defence attache in Moscow, informing the US government of the suspension. 

Earlier, Russian President Vladimir Putin says he considers the strikes an act of aggression against a sovereign government in violation of the norms of international law, and under a far-fetched pretext. The incident will cause significant damage to US-Russia relations, a spokesman says. Meanwhile, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman says the US strikes were planned well in advance and that the chemical weapons attack simply provided an excuse for the United States to attack. And a Russian Defense Ministry spokesman says Moscow intends to strengthen Syria's air-defense system.

On the other side, the US Department of Defense is investigating whether Russia was involved in the April 5 chemical weapons attack on rebel-held territory in the town of Khan Shaykhun in Idlib province, senior US military officials say.

A US defence official also says Russian frigate Admiral Grigorovich RFS-494 had crossed through the Bosporus on April 7 and is now in the eastern Mediterranean. Russian officials say the frigate was heading for the Syrian port of Tartus as part of a routine trip.

Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vladimir Safronkov spoke April 7 before the UN Security Council, which is trying to find a diplomatic solution to the ongoing situation. Safronkov told reporters the council had reached a deadlock and says the "negative consequences" of the action would rest on the shoulders of the United States.

Interestingly, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu says Washington informed Ankara before carrying out April 6 missile strikes. Mr Cavusoglu told reporters US ambassador in Ankara John Bass contacted the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs directly and that other anti-Islamic State coalition members had been informed as well. The foreign minister also claimed to have spoken with his Russian, French and German counterparts about the matter.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says the cruise missile strikes do not represent a change in US policy toward Syria. The United States will rely on negotiations in Geneva to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Mr Tillerson says. Russia has failed to deliver on its commitments made in 2013 to secure Syria’s chemical weapons, adding that Moscow has been either complicit or "simply incompetent" on the matter. 

Meanwhile, US Rep Adam Schiff, the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, says the White House does not intend to conduct additional air strikes on Syria, though it is reserving its options. 

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So that's the news, but it doesn't tell us much about why this strike took place or what it means. It looks like the US struck Syria in a measured, strategic way and it sent a message. But what was the message? And was it really limited to the Syrian regime?

It certainly wasn't a display of US resolve. Every time the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons in the past, Washington deferred to inaction, even when it said this would constitute a "red line." Admittedly, that was during Barack Obama's presidency and by many reports, Mr Obama thought he was smarter than the foreign policy establishment and tried to outplay them at every turn. He felt scorned after the poorly-thought-out Libyan intervention in 2011 and didn't want to fall into the trap of listening to CFR and Brooking so easily again. History will be the judge of him.

The new US president hasn't had enough time or headspace to deliver his position on Syria, although the major theme of his presidency already seems to be a continuation of the two prior administrations, with a little alteration. So before this week, it was safe to assume his implicit position on Syria was the same as Mr Obama's, and this proved to be true. 

In this case, Mr Trump decided delivering on the "red line" threat would be a good idea and proportional to the regime's activities. This means the strike should be seen as Mr Trump seizing a perfect opportunity to put his marker down as being different to his predecessor. A military response to chemical weapons use has good optics for his supporters: "Obama wouldn't do what was necessary, but I will."

Was the message about the strength of the US president? Surely his power to simply order the launch of 60 cruise missiles from a pair of loitering destroyers in the Eastern Mediterranean at will broadcasts the executive's capabilities? Not really. The president has more power over the use of US forces than over domestic policy, but it's not total. He still has to sign off major operations with the Senate. Of course, Mr Trump will use the military as coins in the popularity slot machine, but any jackpot is beyond his power to control. The US is a martial culture, so it likes seeing strength, but its translation is not up to the Pentagon. That's up to State. So far the two are aligning on this, so aside from the easy critical dig of civilian deaths, both Washington factions are nodding their heads.

Perhaps the message was about the terror of chemical weapons? I don't think anyone disagrees sarin or chlorine in the mouths of children is a chivalrous way to conduct battle. But two things don't quite make sense here. 

One, there is good reason to believe Mr Obama's final decision not to intervene in Syria five years ago can't be blamed on just reticence or cowardice. Reportedly he received a briefing soon after the chemical weapons release by the US intelligence community. The information was delivered with high confidence that during all the capture and recapture of territory over the prior few months, jihadist rebels had secured some chemical weapons. Then, aided by bumbling Turkish intelligence officers, the rebels had used those weapons against a civilian area to make it look like the regime was responsible. 

The motive was obvious. Both the rebels and Turkey wanted the US to get involved. Mr Obama was in a tight situation because he'd promised intervention but now learned he was being goaded. It was only when the Russians stepped in and offered to destroy the regime's chemical weapons stockpile did the US president have his way out. This version of events won't be confirmed for 30 years until the classified vaults open, but it does fit the puzzle of why Mr Obama halted.

(As an aside, Mr Tilerson is correct. Either the Russians are incompetent with their destruction programme or they are devious. Russia certainly would have intelligence officers in position among the Syrian military to know about any strategy to use the weapons. But of course, this depends on whether the regime actually dropped the weapons or whether it was another bluff. The US says it knows which aircraft were used to release the weapons, but that's what it said after the last incident as well. The fog of war is a damn pain.)

Two, why are chemical weapons worse than conventional weapons? I mean, when you think about it, having a limb blown off or shrapnel pepper the face would be just as terrible and life-changing as chlorine burns in the throat. And an explosion is just as deadly as chemical suffocation. There's actually no reason to think the US really cares about chemical weapons usage, in itself. But it does tick a few juicy boxes. 

After all, when the US says a regime is morally evil and should be removed (like Bashar al-Assad's), and it's not obvious why that regime is worse than any other, it has to be made clear to the audience (the "international community"). And what better way to do that than to arbitrarily choose chemical weapons as the mark of horror? Anyone willing to use them axiomatically is a bad actor and must be stopped.

But I want to point out how this diverts attention from the use conventional weapons. Because, after all, if conventional weapons aren't as bad as chemical, then the US can use TNT with impunity and still remain a moral actor. Furthermore, if chemical weapons are the worst weapon in combat, then no one will remember that the US is still the only nation to have used nuclear weapons in battle. Conveniently, the only weapon type the US hasn't used in combat is chemical.

(It also pays to remember that chemical weapons are the least efficient type of weapon available. They require exquisite environmental conditions to operate. The slightest gust of wind will push the toxic cloud from the intended target area, perhaps even back onto one's own troop positions. The explosion of the artillery shell or missile might burn the compound and change the chemical signature, rendering it inert. Sarin, for instance, is extremely vulnerable to heat. And when used outdoors, the quantity of chemicals needed to saturate an area would be so great that the mere impact of the shells would probably do more damage than the chemicals they release.)

So what is the message? 

I think this should be attached to Mr Trump's phone call to Taiwan after his inauguration. The new president is announcing to a belligerent world that he is willing and able to do things differently. He can do things others can't, he sees the world's rules in a strange way, which specifically means he understands there are no "world's rules," that rules are decided by those with power for their own benefit. 

It shows how Mr Trump is not unpredictable at all. The president has consistently said the US needs to be tougher on Syria. Mr Trump didn't wake up the morning of the strikes and change his mind. He told us his intentions clearly, months ago. So look at this from the eyes of the Chinese president, who just so happens to be meeting Mr Trump in Florida today. The Chinese have seen the same pattern: what Mr Trump says he is going to do, will be attempted, so you better get in front of him to talk. 

That's the message on the tips of 59 cruise missiles. When Mr Trump says he is going to act, you can double down and split the tens. I think a lot of people around the world will appreciate this predictability, even Washington's adversaries. The danger of Mr Obama wasn't his ineptitude, arrogance or reticence. It was his unpredictability. The kind of unpredictability that makes the world a more chaotic place than it needs to be. 

When the US was attacked on 9/11 its adversaries drew a collective breath. They had no idea what the US would do in revenge. Afghanistan was an obvious target, but when Iraq was invaded, Iran and Libya suddenly got very quiet. Libya actually surrendered its WMD programme to appease an angry Washington, and that strategy worked until 2011. Meanwhile, Iran froze all its operations in the region because it was convinced the US was going to roll its battle tanks up the Alborz and Zagros mountains.

In the real world, goodwill doesn't maintain order nearly as well as predictability. Any parent knows this. Mr Trump just showed the world it can relax. So long as you listen to his words, you'll know what's coming. Would Hillary Clinton have sent the missiles? Probably. The point is the US said it would act and it followed through. Geopolitics often boils down to simply this: acting within the natural limits. That's not just geography, it's human nature, too. Order arises only from predictability. That's a good message.

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Addendum:  


At this level, it's hard to know why some missiles failed. According to reports, between 60 and 70 missiles were launched but only 59* found their targets. Syria has a robust air defence network, which is why the US hasn't intervened in the country on a large scale, even though it wanted too. (For comparison, Libya had only a handful of operational SAM sites in 2011, whereas Syria's network is made up of dozens of redundant static systems, and an unknown amount of mobile vehicles.) In such a threat environment, and with no SEAD (suppression of enemy air defences), the correct tactic is to launch with an overwhelming number of projectiles to saturate the targeting computers of the network. The SAMs will still launch, but with too many incoming targets it won't be able to hit them all. It's a crude way of pushing munitions through a SAM network, but it's standard US airstrike doctrine.

Of course, the Russians are known to have S-300 and S-400 SAM systems in at least two locations in Syria. Their radar fans sweep in most of the Syrian coastline and about half the interior country or more. I imagine after the US warned the Kremlin of its airstrike, the operators turned those systems on. Why? Because it supplies the Russians with a unique opportunity to test their new systems against modern US unmanned aerial vehicles (cruise missiles). The Russians had a bit of a grey area in their system's intercept capabilities, in that they don't know for sure they work against modern US munitions. But it also would have given the US a similar opportunity. They would have positioned electronic intelligence (ELINT) platforms to listen to the Russian systems and suck up valuable intelligence about how the S-400 talks to other missiles and its base TELs (transporter erector/launchers). 


This is a major reason why it probably wasn't a good idea to deploy F-22 Raptor aircraft to Iraq last year. The Russians have their own ELINT platforms and have likely been learning a lot about how the fifth-generation strike aircraft talk and hide while in the air. 

The costs of the above would have been known to both parties, and because the US chose to conduct the mission, it's likely the benefit outweighed the intelligence it just handed to the Russians. On the other hand, perhaps the US was also practising with its own jamming technology against the new Russian SAM systems and wanted the Russians to turn their systems on so it could pinpoint them. The USS George H. W. Bush is conducting supporting operations in the 5th Fleet Area of Operations (AOR) and was last seen on April 5 tucked up high near Basra at the top of the Persian Gulf. So the US has plenty of  EA-18G Growlers at its disposal for just this role. It's not known how many other electronic warfare air platforms the US has in Iraq or other countries in the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean.

*BBC reports only 23 missiles of 59 launched hit targets

Friday, 7 April 2017

Al-Qaeda was correct about the US all along

Have you ever noticed how intellectuals remain quiet about the three most significant instances of US military projection: WWII, WWI and its own Civil War? Talk about the freakin' elephant in the freakin' living room. This is more like a mammoth in the hallway cupboard.

If you look at US foreign policy in the last 150 years, two facts stand out: 1) all US wars after the Mexican War, including World War II, were counterproductive for American interests, 2) all the wars occurred because they attracted a broad base of support from people who assumed they were improving the world.

Lately, there is a new trend in which foreign factions backed by US military strength are only backed by one of the two US political factions. Iraq and Vietnam, for instance, are effectively US civil wars by proxy. As al-Qaeda's 2IC Ayman al-Zawahiri told us, the victory of the Democrats in 2008 was due to the efforts of the mujahideen. The lesson is: any shared interest defines an alliance, whether or not the allies intend it.

The American empire is a product of two agencies: State and Defense. Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon. Except in WWII, WWI and its own Civil War, State is Harry Potter (a literary foil) and Defence is Draco Malfoy. DoD's role is to take the fall. When people talk about the "empire" as though DoD is Harry Potter, this is really just State talking (the New England establishment). 

The Filipino-American, Korean, Vietnam and Iraq wars were all ones in which American political factions supported opposing sides. Only in the first did the "militaristic" side prevail unambiguously, largely because its domestic enemies hadn't really gotten it together yet.

The "antiwar" movement in the US in the 1960s didn’t exist. There was a pro-Saigon faction and a pro-Hanoi faction. The latter won. Its proxy soldiers were considerably more brutal and ruthless than its opponent's. But the final battle was still fought on Capitol Hill.

The reason you never hear intellectuals talk about the three big wars is that in those wars, the military and the establishment – DoD and State – were on the same side. The US establishment actually wanted to win.

As a result: (a) the military won decisively, (b) there was no guerrilla resistance, (c) there was no concern for civilian casualties and collateral damage, (d) diplomacy was abandoned and (e) unconditional surrender was demanded and achieved. As in everything, the strong defeat the weak.

I am all for honest isolationism or neutralism. But the people who want US troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq are not honest isolationists. They are State Department shills. They believe in "soft power," the "international community" and "engagement." In other words, in a world ruled by mafiosi with US aid, whose so-called leaders are appointed and removed by gentle nudges from Foggy Bottom. The world full of thousands of Pakistans.

The 13 Colonies of the New England establishment
But don’t listen to them. Of course empire and conquest work! They have worked for the entire course of human history and are extremely effective and profitable. And when something works for the entire course of human history and then stops working in the last fifty years, I smell a very, very large rat. When Dan Carter misses a conversion, c'est la vie. When he misses ten conversions in a row, either he’s throwing the game or someone has narrowed the uprights.

Despite what the media says about Afghanistan and Iraq, conquering and governing a country – as opposed to "liberating" it and creating "democracy" – is not difficult. A hundred years ago, Britain occupied Egypt, an Arab country of 20 million people, for 20 years. With five thousand soldiers. Funded entirely by the Egyptian taxpayer. That country was such a nice place to live that bohemians lived there as if it was Prague.

The apparent impossibility of conquest in the post-WWII era is artificial incompetence. It is a theatre performance produced for your benefit.

The US military suffers “defeat” in backwards, third rate countries like Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan because it is operating under a doctrine designed to fail. It was not soldiers who produced the Puritan Christian vision of the "international community." Soldiers aren’t to blame for being unable to create it out of dust, jungle and camels. They tried damn hard to achieve this impossible dream, but they were on the wrong side – of the Potomac.

If the US was a unified, effective actor which actually intended to conquer and civilise Iraq and Afghanistan, it would abolish the native puppet governments, place all restive areas under martial law, create military formations with US officers and indigenous troops, create civilian governments with US executives and indigenous employees and do what the British did in India, Egypt, Burma, etc.

Yes, the US military should leave Iraq and Afghanistan. But it should leave not because it is impossible for a modern military to defeat a bunch of ill-disciplined tribal warriors. It should leave because it is fighting a US political civil war by proxy. One, this is just sick. And two, the right place to fight a civil war is always at home.

So the war in Afghanistan will end when the US military, shackled by the restrictions imposed by its more powerful political enemies, is defeated by self-detonating Islamist crazies and the progressives seize complete control of Washington.

Bizarrely, State will keep this terrible cycle of incompetence going because it has foreign clients of its own, such as the Palestinians, the Darfuris, Syrian “rebels,” etc. Nor will the progressives find it easy to ignore unwinnable wars which are perceived as bipartisan. And they cannot stay in power forever.

These wars will probably only end when the bond market rebalances and the US suffers the financial consequences of its irresponsibility. Ideally, this will lead to the end of democracy and a period of military rule, during which the purpose and structure of Washington can be re-evaluated from first principles.

If this happens, I am confident those new rulers will realise that "foreign policy" does not serve the interests of anyone but those to whom it provides, and the budget for this bloody project can simply be zeroed and removed.

Everyone’s used to hearing propaganda against DoD, but few people can pick up propaganda from State. That’s a skill everyone needs to learn. When you hear someone talking about "creating social change," it is the progressives and State scheming for power.

People crave power, rationalising it as responsibility. After all, no one can achieve power by promising to enslave his followers. It is always about improving the world, at least from the perspective of likely supporters. The fact that if they obtain this power, it may not have the good effects promised (or increase their personal reproductive success) is quite irrelevant to the genes that instruct them to behave in this way.

But at this point, it must be clear that democracy is to power as a lottery is to money. It is a social mechanism which allows a large number of homo sapiens to feel as if their individual views impact the world, even when the chance of such an effect is negligible.

Years in the future, today’s leaders won’t look nearly as sincere. Insincere leaders are very rare because homo sapiens are finely tuned to detecting insincerity. It is much easier to fool others if at the same time you fool yourself.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

The NZSAS shouldn't be tried under international law because it doesn't exist

It’s worth pausing on Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson’s charge that the NZSAS should be investigated for possible war crimes under international law. As the authors recently stated in an interview:

“This is the time to face up to wrongdoing. In fact, international law requires countries to investigate their own breaches, including potential war crimes. The government and military have failed to do this… 
“We asked human rights lawyer and former chief human rights commissioner Margaret Bedggood to read the book before it was published and her response is printed on the back cover. She says the alleged actions and decisions described in the book, ‘if confirmed, would seriously breach international human rights and humanitarian law and could amount to war crimes,’” they say.

OK. Repeat after me – there is no international law.

As William Slomanson wrote in Fundamental Perspectives on International Law, states are not obliged to abide by international law unless it has expressly consented to a particular course of action. This is an issue of state sovereignty, and even in a "borderless world" it'll take some time before national sovereignty can be fully eroded.

The real issue is there are no international statutes and no international enforcement agencies other than the UN, which enforces nothing unless the US military says it can. The UN cannot make law. International law has norms, and to the extent two sovereign nations in a dispute agree to appear before an international court and have their dispute resolved does not imply they are obligated to do so, or that failure to do so would be illegal.

And it can't be illegal because there isn't any international law that would make it so. Just because the UN passes a resolution, does not mean it has the force of any national law, and governments are free to ignore it. It isn't illegal to ignore it because things can only be illegal if a law prohibits them, and there is no international body in existence with the power to make international law.

UN resolutions aren't worth the paper they are printed on, including human rights treaties. They are all worth nothing. Do people really think the New Zealand government or the US government care about some dumb UN resolution? Does any nation?

Sovereign states care about their own laws. A government is concerned about human rights treaties to the extent some subsection of its own code describes how its soldiers can and cannot treat enemy combatants.

If the government doesn't act in accordance with its code, they are breaking domestic law and will have to go to court to defend themselves. Individuals who break that law can go to prison if they are convicted. But they wouldn't be convicted of violating the Geneva Convention, only of violating their domestic laws.

The only, repeat, only reason Wellington abides by an international treaty or resolution is when it becomes part of its domestic law through enacting legislation. The moment the enacting legislation is repealed, the treaty is broken, and there is no international recourse.

This is important because by believing in modern international law, Mr Hager considers war yucky and harmful to children. No one has the right to make war, any more than they have the right to pollute the environment or call a black gentleman a nasty word. This attitude is growing only stronger – if he is not correct now, he will be soon.

However, I seriously doubt he wants a return to classical international law because by those terms New Zealand’s participation in Afghanistan – and perhaps even violent reprisals against a population known or suspected to be harbouring enemy guerrillas – is perfectly reasonable. I know that’s hard to hear but war isn’t about playing fair. It’s about ending resistance as quickly as possible.

By any sane metric, the Afghanistan war was a no brainer. Forget the whole 20th-century. Apply only the standards of 19th-century international law – or 18th-century, or even 20th-century international law before World War II, or any other freakin' time in human history – and you'll have a zillion certified legitimate reasons for New Zealand to fight Afghanistan.

The European imperialists wrote the textbook of classical international law. Emer de Vattel was the canonical authority from about the mid-18th-century to the end of the 19th. These two paragraphs below get as close as possible to its essence. Note that “natural” means natural law:

“The laws of natural society are of such importance to the safety of all states, that, if the custom once prevailed of trampling them under foot, no nation could flatter herself with the hope of preserving her national existence, and enjoying domestic tranquillity, however attentive to pursue every measure dictated by the most consummate prudence, justice and moderation. Now all men and all states have a perfect right to those things that are necessary for preservation, since that right corresponds to an indispensable obligation. All nations have therefore a right to forcible means for the purpose of repressing any one particular nation who openly violates the laws which Nature has established between them or who attacks the welfare and safety of that society. 
“But care must be taken not to extend that right to the prejudice of the liberty of nations. They are all free and independent, but bound to observe the laws of that society which Nature has established between them; and so far bound, that, when any of them violates those laws, the others have a right to repress her. The conduct of each nation is no further subject to the control of the others, than as the interests of natural society are concerned. The general and common right of nations over the conduct of sovereign state is only commensurate to the object of society which exists between them.”

Under classical international law, a sovereign can’t escape responsibility for anything of importance that happens on its soil. If the attack comes from Afghanistan, it is an Afghan attack, regardless of the internal structure of Afghan government. Thus, the casus belli is quite clear.

Clearly, the Taliban government in Afghanistan was willfully and knowledgeably sponsoring al-Qaeda (just as the Serbian government sponsored the terrorists who committed the outrages at Sarajevo). Despite the camouflage of plausible deniability produced by the absence of a formal organisational link, clear chains of responsibility exist.

This is the thing about the pragmatist. 20th-century pragmatism, so far as I can tell, is just another name for what was once called casuistry. It is a process of thinking that can derive whatever result it needs.

So, in 1945 the New Zealand military was fine with incinerating Germany and Japan, whereas in 2010 it was immoral for the New Zealand military to shoot back at a house in Afghanistan if the house shoots at them.

This is far too short a timeframe for such a drastic moral shift, don’t you think? Something suspicious is happening here. Many people were living as adults in both years. Imagine how their supple consciences have had to twist…