Archive for the ‘Politics / Geopolitics’ Category

Google’s Hearing and Insertions

Thursday, September 29th, 2011

Google’s CEO testified before Congress the other day during an antitrust hearing. The basic issue is whether Google is attempting to use its de facto monopoly on search to develop or even in some cases force a monopoly on other services which are not stated anywhere in their charter. The monpoly on earch is legal. Nobody was ever forced to use Google for searching, and until very recently there weren’t any decent alternatives anyway. Providing a great service and capturing a huge customer base is perfectly legal. The issue here is whether Google is using its search monopoly as a gateway to pitching its own services in other areas to generate monopolies over general data services and thereby extend its monopoly to everything.

[Google obviously does plug its own services as if they were search results — and plugging the Chrome browser is one of the most important things the company could do to exert direct control over what information users see and use over the longer term.]

This would not be legal for a few reasons — one of which is that Google would be able to grant itself an unfair advantage. Hordes of unsavvy internet users who don’t know much about how computers or the internet work would never be able to find things without Google because very often in the minds of millions of lay users Google search equates to the gateway to the internet, and things they click on from the main Google search page are, in their mind, already linked to Google. So Google favoring its own services in search equates to users simply never learning about anything other than Google services. The problem with this is that as hordes of lay users gravitate to one or another online services the network effect comes into play, making which ever service takes an early lead overwhelmingly more important in the market than any other. Evidence of this is everywhere, and for good or ill, the fact is that most data service markets predict a monopoly almost out of necessity.

Google is obviously aware of this, and so are consumer protection groups. The creepy thing about this is that Google is not just offering search and online services, it is trying to offer everything online. Including all of your data. So under the Google model (actually, under all cloud models — which are all dangerously stupid) every bit of your computing data — personal photos, music files, blog posts, document files for work, document files for not work… everything — would be hosted on Google servers and saved on Google Inc.’s hard disks and nothing would be stored on your own disk. In other words, nothing would in any practical way be your own property because you won’t have any actual control over anything. And heaven forbid that an earthquake knocks your internet service out or anything else happens that disconnects you from the internet.

If one can’t see the danger here, one simply doesn’t have their thinking cap on. Anyway, this being a dangerously stupid way to handle your personal data is beside the point — the majority of internet users do not understand the issues well enough to know that its not a good idea to not manage their own data storage. But then again, most people don’t even recognize that their entire existence is merely a specific reordering of pre-existing matter, and therefore by definition simply a specific set of data. The information a person generates or intersects with in their life is the sum total of what they are — and this, of course, goes quite beyond being important somewhere on the web and as technology advances over the next few decades will increase in importance as the very nature of who and what we are increasingly mingles with automated data processes.

This is the real goal — extend monopoly to information as a general concept, and thereby generate a monopoly on modern existence (and I’m not simply talking about some ephemeral concept of what it is to be “modern” — in concrete terms we really are just masses of information). If there ever was a brilliant business plan, this is it. And it is a bit scary to think things might go that way. Google’s “Don’t be evil” theme is just words — as I have written elsewhere on this blog about how geopolitics works, power is about capability not about intent. Muslims may adhere to a religion based entirely on absolute social and political dominance of the planet, but being incapable of actually achieving it makes them a geopolitical nuisance over history instead of the driving force of history. On the other hand America’s intention is absolutely not to actually colonize and take over the world, but the fact that it is actually capable of doing this makes lots of people (even some Americans) panic and/or kick and scream about what they perceive as “American Imperialism” even though this is in no way the actual case.

So what about Google? That Google actually is developing the situation to make a drive at information monopoly is one thing. Their intent to not be evil is merely an intent. The capability expressed by a realized information monopoly would be of much more importance to the 1st world than even an American capability to successfully invade Skandinavia, for example, and is therefore something that should be guarded against.

Response to SEC Query on Short Positions

Monday, June 13th, 2011

The SEC put out an open questionnaire about additional regulation regarding special reporting requirements for short stock positions. Because a lot of suckers lost money on the 2008 decline and especially in the wobbly market since, a lot of people are angry and looking for a scapegoat. As has been the rule since the 1700’s (no kidding) the best scapegoat are wise traders who understand the money to be made on the bear side of things. Here are my comments and response to this questionnaire.

Anyone involved in the market today would like to have more. More timely, more accurate, more complete, and generally more voluminous information. But there are limits of practical collection and assimilation and the market today does not differ significantly from the market of a century ago, despite the relative glut of information today. If anything, a further glut of highly detailed information would benefit only those who have a staff dedicated to private analysis (as distinct from the average market analyst) and not those who have a job other than stock speculation. Long-term general market trends do not turn on the specific knowledge that a specific person did or did not take a short or long position on a specific stock. In my opinion, Q1 is the wrong question to ask.

Existing regulations render potential market maker abuses safe. In other words, there is nothing legal today that could be considered abusive. Any loser in the market wants to blame someone other than himself for losses, and the theory of the sharky market maker suits this use well. In the current political climate rumors of imagined abuses sell well, but we must guard against becoming England in 1730 — the reactionary over-regulation of the market there at the end of the South-Sea affair retarded every attempt at a truly solid national recovery just when the public in that country had finally learned its lesson about rabid speculation. Today’s market quirks are not unique to today, they have happened before. Regulation on the short side not matched by regulation on the long side is unwarranted and fundamentally prevents the formation of a balanced market. Lack of balance to the market — meaning permission to play fair on the bull or bear side of things, respecting that we have a profit/loss system as opposed to a false profit/profit system — will create unnaturally slow boom and unbearably catastrophic bust cycles (just consider Europe’s troubles today).

“Bear raids” are a farce. Simply taking a short position cannot force a stock down without placing the raider in an unacceptably risky position. Simply put, the risks inherent in attempting a bear raid are perfectly in line with the unreasonableness of the attempt, which is why nobody actually attempts a bear raid. Stocks do decline in value once oversold, particularly after the insiders have unloaded their own baggage. Quite frequently speculators take such insider unloading as a sign that a bull run on a stock has exhausted its utility to those insiders, and accordingly take short positions on such stock. This is not bear raiding, this is simply reasonable speculation based on close observation of insider trades. The subsequent decline in the stock value, however, is unsettling to the losers who bought what insiders had to sell during their unloading, and to satisfy the emotional need for a scapegoat blog and media personalities will promote the idea that a bear raid must be on, having observed that the short interest in the stock has increased. This idea is subsequently strengthened when the insiders who already unloaded will make statements to the effect that they have no idea why the stock is declining because “good things are in the works”. This “bear raid” myth can be promoted with particular strength in the internet era when the loudest bloggers tend to be holding the stock in question themselves and need a place to vent their emotions. Of course, thinking members of this category also realize they have a strongly vested interest (being current holders of declining stock) to spin a tale of a bear raid which can be defeating by doubling down on the declining stock to cause a short run. Of course, such bloggers are only themselves looking for a place to unload their bad investment and promoting good spin on said stock is their only available tool to try inducing a short run with. The myth of the bear raid is attractive to every side in a position to make a public statement about a stock’s prospects and so this myth has continued to exist since the dawn of public trading in joint-stock companies.

More regulation will not avoid this and cannot change the fact that the only safe short play is a confident position of speculation based on market conditions and fundamentals. There is nothing wrong or abusive about short selling or about speculating on the prospect of an upcoming bear market. If anything, the silence kept by insiders throughout a stock’s unwarranted rise is the abusive part in this situation — but nobody complains about a stock’s rise, whether warranted or completely false and flimsy. It would be unpatriotic or at odds with other social norms to complain that a stock’s rise is unreasonable — everybody loves a winner. The emotional component of this is simply too tricky to attempt to regulate further than already existing disclosure rules do. Any attempt to place special regulation on short selling by speculators is absolutely misplaced and overcomplicates the market (not to mention being a(nother) waste of government effort to no gain).

Real time or more readily available “prompt” short position information would perhaps make day-trading more exciting, but would not change the fundamental principles of the game. So long as this type of information could be made available without any burden whatsoever to the short-selling trader, it would be acceptable. But to force a regulatory situation where short selling is treated any different than buying long is completely unacceptable and tantamount to entertaining the idea that stocks can forever increase in value regardless of merit without ever facing any consequences. Through introducing more red-tape on buying or selling, regardless the position of the trader, the regulators will be taking a de facto stance for or against a specific trading practice, and this is unbalanced and dangerous. This sort of thinking is what is leading to the Ponzification of the entire Chinese economy. The American economy simply cannot and should not ever suffer such stupidity — at least not if America is intent on being the only economy healthy and flexible enough to withstand any change of wind or tide by harnessing the economic energies of its brilliant, unregulated individuals.

Short data and long data must be treated the same by regulators, because it will be treated the same by traders. To think they are any different is ridiculous. If short sales must be reported in a special way, then long buys must be as well — and suddenly the process every trader must go through to execute a trade is the same that an insider must go through to report his transactions on a Form 4. What is the point in that? More importantly, why was “insider” made a specific definition in 1933/34 and why were “outsiders” exempted from such reporting regulations? The answers to Q5, and the entire question of short position reporting, can be had by simply reviewing the debates of 1933. To imagine that the markets are somehow different today than a century ago is wrong and dangerous.

Short selling is not abusive. People who lose in the market wish to perceive themselves as injured, and hence the myth of abusive short selling. If they are injured at all, they are injured by insiders who don’t let on that an unreasonable rise in a stock’s price is unwarranted but obviously there is no way to make a rule against silence, so this will continue. Blaming the subsequent decline after an unreasonable rise on bear raiding is a lovely cop-out for everyone involved and what’s more, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. (see my response to Q3) Regulation will never fix the emotional problems of market losers — so we should avoid trying. The remedy to this is for individual investors to check their own buying habits against that of the insiders — did you buy into a stock that has already experienced a rise and at a point after the insiders had already cashed in on the rise? Why? Blaming a subsequent decline on a “bear raid” is simply unfounded under such circumstances — and these are nearly the only circumstances to be found.

No effect would be had at all. The burden of extra reporting itself may have an effect, however, as fewer people would enter the market in the first place due to new regulatory barriers to freely engaging in legal trading. Once again, this is wrong minded and not the place of government.

Current definitions have worked well for quite some time. The only use of regulated definitions is to assist in the imposition of new regulations. This is the wrong direction to move in.

Discussing positions in number of shares without referencing what percentage of a concern’s equity that represents or what percentage of outstanding stock of whatever type it represents is useless. Once again, this is asking the wrong question.

Reporting only to regulators and not the public is a dangerous business and should not be entertained. Regulators do not “benefit” from the market unless they themselves are abusing it — and creating a new category of inside information is all this would effect. This is dangerous for many reasons and would ultimately create temptations strong enough that they would distract the regulatory body from its real duties, as it would have to double up on self-regulation in addition to trying to accomplish its actual mandate. This is bad.

In the modern day this is almost purely a technology question. What follows, however, is that a mandate that all brokerages adhere to an arbitrary timeline for short position reporting will act as a technological barrier to entry for new brokerage companies — and will also likely create a monopoly position for whoever patents the “approved” technology first. No good will come of this. Such new barriers will eventually act as barriers to innovation in the finantional trade itself, and this is historically a very bad thing. Imagine if existing regulation had ruled electronic trading out by being too short-sightedly strict — a large percentage of the capital necessary to drive the tech boom of the late 1990’s would have been inaccessible to the market. How can we predict today that a new and arbitrary regulation on short position reporting will not eventually come into conflict with a technology of great potential power to financial market participants in the future? Further, how can be guarantee that short position reporting regulations will not take on a life of their own (as it is likely to do) and become stifling in other ways?

This line of reasoning can wind up in only one place: a further tech burden to market players — and ultimately this will be a burden on the average market participant. This is a poor question — it seeks technical validation for the concept of short position reporting before the legal and moral debate on the issue is decided.

This is an unreasonably broad question at this time.

A threshold different from that required for insiders would necessarily only capture the trends anticipated by traders. The idea that anything different would happen is based on the beautiful lie that regulation can prevent ignorant participants from losing money in thoughtless market speculation.

A case which has not been thoroughly studied yet, because it is ongoing currently, is the current damage the European economies are suffering despite tighter restrictions and regulations on stock transactions which predate current global economic conditions. This would be an argument against emulating such practices.

European and Asian stock markets are fundamentally different in nature from the American stock market, because European and Asian companies raise funds primarily through government backed loans and not through public sales of stock. In populist political areas such as Europe and Asia this always forces the formation and subsequent governemnt support for “national champion” companies whose stock positions must be protected to help ensure public confidence in the public credit system and their own governments. Attempting to compare the American system to such international systems which have not been thoroughly tested in situations outside of the Cold War and current immediate post-Cold War period is short sighted (perhaps the current problems being experience in Asia and Europe are the first test, and it seems it is one those systems are failing). The situations do not fit and should not be used as examples for American regulators because the economic foundations of those economies is fundamentally different from the American example.

Q16 – Q23
Similar in nature to Q12 and Q13. Answers to such questions cannot be reasonably produced at this time because they seek insight that can only be had after a pilot test has been conducted. Additionally, asking such questions before the legal and moral debate is concluded can be interpreted as an attempt to validate the concept before appropriate debate itself has been concluded — and railroading potentially oppressive reporting regulations through is dangerous and should not be entertained by anyone concerned with the future health of the markets.

Immaculate Intervention: The Wars of Humanitarianism

Tuesday, April 12th, 2011

Another excellent examination of practical reality by George Friedman. The essay below places the political realities of humanitarian intervention in direct contrast with the facts of military action. Such examinations are an exercise political activists and the general public (and, incidentally, Freshman Everything Barak Obama), who live in a world filled with great imaginings about How The Greater Good Should Get Done yet are unfamiliar with geopolitics and and lack practical experience with how war is actually waged, would benefit greatly from.

There are wars in pursuit of interest. In these wars, nations pursue economic or strategic ends to protect the nation or expand its power. There are also wars of ideology, designed to spread some idea of “the good,” whether this good is religious or secular. The two obviously can be intertwined, such that a war designed to spread an ideology also strengthens the interests of the nation spreading the ideology.

Since World War II, a new class of war has emerged that we might call humanitarian wars — wars in which the combatants claim to be fighting neither for their national interest nor to impose any ideology, but rather to prevent inordinate human suffering. In Kosovo and now in Libya, this has been defined as stopping a government from committing mass murder. But it is not confined to that. In the 1990s, the U.S. intervention in Somalia was intended to alleviate a famine while the invasion of Haiti was designed to remove a corrupt and oppressive regime causing grievous suffering.

It is important to distinguish these interventions from peacekeeping missions. In a peacekeeping mission, third-party forces are sent to oversee some agreement reached by combatants. Peacekeeping operations are not conducted to impose a settlement by force of arms; rather, they are conducted to oversee a settlement by a neutral force. In the event the agreement collapses and war resumes, the peacekeepers either withdraw or take cover. They are soldiers, but they are not there to fight beyond protecting themselves.

Concept vs. Practice

In humanitarian wars, the intervention is designed both to be neutral and to protect potential victims on one side. It is at this point that the concept and practice of a humanitarian war become more complex. There is an ideology undergirding humanitarian wars, one derived from both the U.N. Charter and from the lessons drawn from the Holocaust, genocide in Rwanda, Bosnia and a range of other circumstances where large-scale slaughter — crimes against humanity — took place. That no one intervened to prevent or stop these atrocities was seen as a moral failure. According to this ideology, the international community has an obligation to prevent such slaughter.

This ideology must, of course, confront other principles of the U.N. Charter, such as the right of nations to self-determination. In international wars, where the aggressor is trying to both kill large numbers of civilians and destroy the enemy’s right to national self-determination, this does not pose a significant intellectual problem. In internal unrest and civil war, however, the challenge of the intervention is to protect human rights without undermining national sovereignty or the right of national self-determination.

The doctrine becomes less coherent in a civil war in which one side is winning and promising to slaughter its enemies, Libya being the obvious example. Those intervening can claim to be carrying out a neutral humanitarian action, but in reality, they are intervening on one side’s behalf. If the intervention is successful — as it likely will be given that interventions are invariably by powerful countries against weaker ones — the practical result is to turn the victims into victors. By doing that, the humanitarian warriors are doing more than simply protecting the weak. They are also defining a nation’s history.

There is thus a deep tension between the principle of national self-determination and the obligation to intervene to prevent slaughter. Consider a case such as Sudan, where it can be argued that the regime is guilty of crimes against humanity but also represents the will of the majority of the people in terms of its religious and political program. It can be argued reasonably that a people who would support such a regime have lost the right to national self-determination, and that it is proper that a regime be imposed on it from the outside. But that is rarely the argument made in favor of humanitarian intervention. I call humanitarian wars immaculate intervention, because most advocates want to see the outcome limited to preventing war crimes, not extended to include regime change or the imposition of alien values. They want a war of immaculate intentions surgically limited to a singular end without other consequences. And this is where the doctrine of humanitarian war unravels.

Regardless of intention, any intervention favors the weaker side. If the side were not weak, it would not be facing mass murder; it could protect itself. Given that the intervention must be military, there must be an enemy. Wars by military forces are fought against enemies, not for abstract concepts. The enemy will always be the stronger side. The question is why that side is stronger. Frequently, this is because a great many people in the country, most likely a majority, support that side. Therefore, a humanitarian war designed to prevent the slaughter of the minority must many times undermine the will of the majority. Thus, the intervention may begin with limited goals but almost immediately becomes an attack on what was, up to that point, the legitimate government of a country.

A Slow Escalation

The solution is to intervene gently. In the case of Libya, this began with a no-fly zone that no reasonable person expected to have any significant impact. It proceeded to airstrikes against Gadhafi’s forces, which continued to hold their own against these strikes. It now has been followed by the dispatching of Royal Marines, whose mission is unclear, but whose normal duties are fighting wars. What we are seeing in Libya is a classic slow escalation motivated by two factors. The first is the hope that the leader of the country responsible for the bloodshed will capitulate. The second is a genuine reluctance of intervening nations to spend excessive wealth or blood on a project they view in effect as charitable. Both of these need to be examined.

The expectation of capitulation in the case of Libya is made unlikely by another aspect of humanitarian war fighting, namely the International Criminal Court (ICC). Modeled in principle on the Nuremberg trials and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the ICC is intended to try war criminals. Trying to induce Moammar Gadhafi to leave Libya knowing that what awaits him is trial and the certain equivalent of a life sentence will not work. Others in his regime would not resign for the same reason. When his foreign minister appeared to defect to London, the demand for his trial over Lockerbie and other affairs was immediate. Nothing could have strengthened Gadhafi’s position more. His regime is filled with people guilty of the most heinous crimes. There is no clear mechanism for a plea bargain guaranteeing their immunity. While a logical extension of humanitarian warfare — having intervened against atrocities, the perpetrators ought to be brought to justice — the effect is a prolongation of the war. The example of Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia, who ended the Kosovo War with what he thought was a promise that he would not be prosecuted, undoubtedly is on Gadhafi’s mind.

But the war is also prolonged by the unwillingness of the intervening forces to inflict civilian casualties. This is reasonable, given that their motivation is to prevent civilian casualties. But the result is that instead of a swift and direct invasion designed to crush the regime in the shortest amount of time, the regime remains intact and civilians and others continue to die. This is not simply a matter of moral squeamishness. It also reflects the fact that the nations involved are unwilling — and frequently blocked by political opposition at home — from the commitment of massive and overwhelming force. The application of minimal and insufficient force, combined with the unwillingness of people like Gadhafi and his equally guilty supporters to face The Hague, creates the framework for a long and inconclusive war in which the intervention in favor of humanitarian considerations turns into an intervention in a civil war on the side that opposes the regime.

This, then, turns into the problem that the virtue of the weaker side may consist only of its weakness. In other words, strengthened by foreign intervention that clears their way to power, they might well turn out just as brutal as the regime they were fighting. It should be remembered that many of Libya’s opposition leaders are former senior officials of the Gadhafi government. They did not survive as long as they did in that regime without having themselves committed crimes, and without being prepared to commit more.

In that case, the intervention — less and less immaculate — becomes an exercise in nation-building. Having destroyed the Gadhafi government and created a vacuum in Libya and being unwilling to hand power to Gadhafi’s former aides and now enemies, the intervention — now turning into an occupation— must now invent a new government. An invented government is rarely welcome, as the United States discovered in Iraq. At least some of the people resent being occupied regardless of the occupier’s original intentions, leading to insurgency. At some point, the interveners have the choice of walking away and leaving chaos, as the United States did in Somalia, or staying for a long time and fighting, as they did in Iraq.

Iraq is an interesting example. The United States posed a series of justifications for its invasion of Iraq, including simply that Saddam Hussein was an amoral monster who had killed hundreds of thousands and would kill more. It is difficult to choose between Hussein and Gadhafi. Regardless of the United States’ other motivations in both conflicts, it would seem that those who favor humanitarian intervention would have favored the Iraq war. That they generally opposed the Iraq war from the beginning requires a return to the concept of immaculate intervention.

Hussein was a war criminal and a danger to his people. However, the American justification for intervention was not immaculate. It had multiple reasons, only one of which was humanitarian. Others explicitly had to do with national interest, the claims of nuclear weapons in Iraq and the desire to reshape Iraq. That it also had a humanitarian outcome — the destruction of the Hussein regime — made the American intervention inappropriate in the view of those who favor immaculate interventions for two reasons. First, the humanitarian outcome was intended as part of a broader war. Second, regardless of the fact that humanitarian interventions almost always result in regime change, the explicit intention to usurp Iraq’s national self-determination openly undermined in principle what the humanitarian interveners wanted to undermine only in practice.

Other Considerations

The point here is not simply that humanitarian interventions tend to devolve into occupations of countries, albeit more slowly and with more complex rhetoric. It is also that for the humanitarian warrior, there are other political considerations. In the case of the French, the contrast between their absolute opposition to Iraq and their aggressive desire to intervene in Libya needs to be explained. I suspect it will not be.

There has been much speculation that the intervention in Libya was about oil. All such interventions, such as those in Kosovo and Haiti, are examined for hidden purposes. Perhaps it was about oil in this case, but Gadhafi was happily shipping oil to Europe, so intervening to ensure that it continues makes no sense. Some say France’s Total and Britain’s BP engineered the war to displace Italy’s ENI in running the oil fields. While possible, these oil companies are no more popular at home than oil companies are anywhere in the world. The blowback in France or Britain if this were shown to be the real reason would almost certainly cost French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron their jobs, and they are much too fond of those to risk them for oil companies. I am reminded that people kept asserting that the 2003 Iraq invasion was designed to seize Iraq’s oil for Texas oilmen. If so, it is taking a long time to pay off. Sometimes the lack of a persuasive reason for a war generates theories to fill the vacuum. In all humanitarian wars, there is a belief that the war could not be about humanitarian matters.

Therein lays the dilemma of humanitarian wars. They have a tendency to go far beyond the original intent behind them, as the interveners, trapped in the logic of humanitarian war, are drawn further in. Over time, the ideological zeal frays and the lack of national interest saps the intervener’s will. It is interesting that some of the interventions that bought with them the most good were carried out without any concern for the local population and with ruthless self-interest. I think of Rome and Britain. They were in it for themselves. They did some good incidentally.

My unease with humanitarian intervention is not that I don’t think the intent is good and the end moral. It is that the intent frequently gets lost and the moral end is not achieved. Ideology, like passion, fades. But interest has a certain enduring quality. A doctrine of humanitarian warfare that demands an immaculate intervention will fail because the desire to do good is an insufficient basis for war. It does not provide a rigorous military strategy to what is, after all, a war. Neither does it bind a nation’s public to the burdens of the intervention. In the end, the ultimate dishonesties of humanitarian war are the claims that “this won’t hurt much” and “it will be over fast.” In my view, their outcome is usually either a withdrawal without having done much good or a long occupation in which the occupied people are singularly ungrateful.

North Africa is no place for casual war plans and good intentions. It is an old, tough place. If you must go in, go in heavy, go in hard and get out fast. Humanitarian warfare says that you go in light, you go in soft and you stay there long. I have no quarrel with humanitarianism. It is the way the doctrine wages war that concerns me. Getting rid of Gadhafi is something we can all feel good about and which Europe and America can afford. It is the aftermath — the place beyond the immaculate intervention — that concerns me.

This report is republished with permission of STRATFOR.

What Happened to the American Declaration of War?

Saturday, April 2nd, 2011

Another outstanding article from George Friedman which touches on some of the deeper aspects of American governance with regard to the current engagement in Libya.

By George Friedman

In my book “The Next Decade,” I spend a good deal of time considering the relation of the American Empire to the American Republic and the threat the empire poses to the republic. If there is a single point where these matters converge, it is in the constitutional requirement that Congress approve wars through a declaration of war and in the abandonment of this requirement since World War II. This is the point where the burdens and interests of the United States as a global empire collide with the principles and rights of the United States as a republic.

World War II was the last war the United States fought with a formal declaration of war. The wars fought since have had congressional approval, both in the sense that resolutions were passed and that Congress appropriated funds, but the Constitution is explicit in requiring a formal declaration. It does so for two reasons, I think. The first is to prevent the president from taking the country to war without the consent of the governed, as represented by Congress. Second, by providing for a specific path to war, it provides the president power and legitimacy he would not have without that declaration; it both restrains the president and empowers him. Not only does it make his position as commander in chief unassailable by authorizing military action, it creates shared responsibility for war. A declaration of war informs the public of the burdens they will have to bear by leaving no doubt that Congress has decided on a new order — war — with how each member of Congress voted made known to the public.

Almost all Americans have heard Franklin Roosevelt’s speech to Congress on Dec. 8, 1941: “Yesterday, Dec. 7, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan … I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, Dec. 7, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.”

It was a moment of majesty and sobriety, and with Congress’ affirmation, represented the unquestioned will of the republic. There was no going back, and there was no question that the burden would be borne. True, the Japanese had attacked the United States, making getting the declaration easier. But that’s what the founders intended: Going to war should be difficult; once at war, the commander in chief’s authority should be unquestionable.

Forgoing the Declaration

It is odd, therefore, that presidents who need that authorization badly should forgo pursuing it. Not doing so has led to seriously failed presidencies: Harry Truman in Korea, unable to seek another term; Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam, also unable to seek a new term; George W. Bush in Afghanistan and Iraq, completing his terms but enormously unpopular. There was more to this than undeclared wars, but that the legitimacy of each war was questioned and became a contentious political issue certainly is rooted in the failure to follow constitutional pathways.

In understanding how war and constitutional norms became separated, we must begin with the first major undeclared war in American history (the Civil War was not a foreign war), Korea. When North Korea invaded South Korea, Truman took recourse to the new U.N. Security Council. He wanted international sanction for the war and was able to get it because the Soviet representatives happened to be boycotting the Security Council over other issues at the time.

Truman’s view was that U.N. sanction for the war superseded the requirement for a declaration of war in two ways. First, it was not a war in the strict sense, he argued, but a “police action” under the U.N. Charter. Second, the U.N. Charter constituted a treaty, therefore implicitly binding the United States to go to war if the United Nations so ordered. Whether Congress’ authorization to join the United Nations both obligated the United States to wage war at U.N. behest, obviating the need for declarations of war because Congress had already authorized police actions, is an interesting question. Whatever the answer, Truman set a precedent that wars could be waged without congressional declarations of war and that other actions — from treaties to resolutions to budgetary authorizations — mooted declarations of war.

If this was the founding precedent, the deepest argument for the irrelevancy of the declaration of war is to be found in nuclear weapons. Starting in the 1950s, paralleling the Korean War, was the increasing risk of nuclear war. It was understood that if nuclear war occurred, either through an attack by the Soviets or a first strike by the United States, time and secrecy made a prior declaration of war by Congress impossible. In the expected scenario of a Soviet first strike, there would be only minutes for the president to authorize counterstrikes and no time for constitutional niceties. In that sense, it was argued fairly persuasively that the Constitution had become irrelevant to the military realities facing the republic.

Nuclear war was seen as the most realistic war-fighting scenario, with all other forms of war trivial in comparison. Just as nuclear weapons came to be called “strategic weapons” with other weapons of war occupying a lesser space, nuclear war became identical with war in general. If that was so, then constitutional procedures that could not be applied to nuclear war were simply no longer relevant.

Paradoxically, if nuclear warfare represented the highest level of warfare, there developed at the lowest level covert operations. Apart from the nuclear confrontation with the Soviets, there was an intense covert war, from back alleys in Europe to the Congo, Indochina to Latin America. Indeed, it was waged everywhere precisely because the threat of nuclear war was so terrible: Covert warfare became a prudent alternative. All of these operations had to be deniable. An attempt to assassinate a Soviet agent or raise a secret army to face a Soviet secret army could not be validated with a declaration of war. The Cold War was a series of interconnected but discrete operations, fought with secret forces whose very principle was deniability. How could declarations of war be expected in operations so small in size that had to be kept secret from Congress anyway?

There was then the need to support allies, particularly in sending advisers to train their armies. These advisers were not there to engage in combat but to advise those who did. In many cases, this became an artificial distinction: The advisers accompanied their students on missions, and some died. But this was not war in any conventional sense of the term. And therefore, the declaration of war didn’t apply.

By the time Vietnam came up, the transition from military assistance to advisers to advisers in combat to U.S. forces at war was so subtle that there was no moment to which you could point that said that we were now in a state of war where previously we weren’t. Rather than ask for a declaration of war, Johnson used an incident in the Tonkin Gulf to get a congressional resolution that he interpreted as being the equivalent of war. The problem here was that it was not clear that had he asked for a formal declaration of war he would have gotten one. Johnson didn’t take that chance.

What Johnson did was use Cold War precedents, from the Korean War, to nuclear warfare, to covert operations to the subtle distinctions of contemporary warfare in order to wage a substantial and extended war based on the Tonkin Gulf resolution — which Congress clearly didn’t see as a declaration of war — instead of asking for a formal declaration. And this represented the breakpoint. In Vietnam, the issue was not some legal or practical justification for not asking for a declaration. Rather, it was a political consideration.

Johnson did not know that he could get a declaration; the public might not be prepared to go to war. For this reason, rather than ask for a declaration, he used all the prior precedents to simply go to war without a declaration. In my view, that was the moment the declaration of war as a constitutional imperative collapsed. And in my view, so did the Johnson presidency. In hindsight, he needed a declaration badly, and if he could not get it, Vietnam would have been lost, and so may have been his presidency. Since Vietnam was lost anyway from lack of public consensus, his decision was a mistake. But it set the stage for everything that came after — war by resolution rather than by formal constitutional process.

After the war, Congress created the War Powers Act in recognition that wars might commence before congressional approval could be given. However, rather than returning to the constitutional method of the Declaration of War, which can be given after the commencement of war if necessary (consider World War II) Congress chose to bypass declarations of war in favor of resolutions allowing wars. Their reason was the same as the president’s: It was politically safer to authorize a war already under way than to invoke declarations of war.

All of this arose within the assertion that the president’s powers as commander in chief authorized him to engage in warfare without a congressional declaration of war, an idea that came in full force in the context of nuclear war and then was extended to the broader idea that all wars were at the discretion of the president. From my simple reading, the Constitution is fairly clear on the subject: Congress is given the power to declare war. At that moment, the president as commander in chief is free to prosecute the war as he thinks best. But constitutional law and the language of the Constitution seem to have diverged. It is a complex field of study, obviously.

An Increasing Tempo of Operations

All of this came just before the United States emerged as the world’s single global power — a global empire — that by definition would be waging war at an increased tempo, from Kuwait, to Haiti, to Kosovo, to Afghanistan, to Iraq, and so on in an ever-increasing number of operations. And now in Libya, we have reached the point that even resolutions are no longer needed.

It is said that there is no precedent for fighting al Qaeda, for example, because it is not a nation but a subnational group. Therefore, Bush could not reasonably have been expected to ask for a declaration of war. But there is precedent: Thomas Jefferson asked for and received a declaration of war against the Barbary pirates. This authorized Jefferson to wage war against a subnational group of pirates as if they were a nation.

Had Bush requested a declaration of war on al Qaeda on Sept. 12, 2001, I suspect it would have been granted overwhelmingly, and the public would have understood that the United States was now at war for as long as the president thought wise. The president would have been free to carry out operations as he saw fit. Roosevelt did not have to ask for special permission to invade Guadalcanal, send troops to India, or invade North Africa. In the course of fighting Japan, Germany and Italy, it was understood that he was free to wage war as he thought fit. In the same sense, a declaration of war on Sept. 12 would have freed him to fight al Qaeda wherever they were or to move to block them wherever the president saw fit.

Leaving aside the military wisdom of Afghanistan or Iraq, the legal and moral foundations would have been clear — so long as the president as commander in chief saw an action as needed to defeat al Qaeda, it could be taken. Similarly, as commander in chief, Roosevelt usurped constitutional rights for citizens in many ways, from censorship to internment camps for Japanese-Americans. Prisoners of war not adhering to the Geneva Conventions were shot by military tribunal — or without. In a state of war, different laws and expectations exist than during peace. Many of the arguments against Bush-era intrusions on privacy also could have been made against Roosevelt. But Roosevelt had a declaration of war and full authority as commander in chief during war. Bush did not. He worked in twilight between war and peace.

One of the dilemmas that could have been avoided was the massive confusion of whether the United States was engaged in hunting down a criminal conspiracy or waging war on a foreign enemy. If the former, then the goal is to punish the guilty. If the latter, then the goal is to destroy the enemy. Imagine that after Pearl Harbor, FDR had promised to hunt down every pilot who attacked Pearl Harbor and bring them to justice, rather than calling for a declaration of war against a hostile nation and all who bore arms on its behalf regardless of what they had done. The goal in war is to prevent the other side from acting, not to punish the actors.

The Importance of the Declaration

A declaration of war, I am arguing, is an essential aspect of war fighting particularly for the republic when engaged in frequent wars. It achieves a number of things. First, it holds both Congress and the president equally responsible for the decision, and does so unambiguously. Second, it affirms to the people that their lives have now changed and that they will be bearing burdens. Third, it gives the president the political and moral authority he needs to wage war on their behalf and forces everyone to share in the moral responsibility of war. And finally, by submitting it to a political process, many wars might be avoided. When we look at some of our wars after World War II it is not clear they had to be fought in the national interest, nor is it clear that the presidents would not have been better remembered if they had been restrained. A declaration of war both frees and restrains the president, as it was meant to do.

I began by talking about the American empire. I won’t make the argument on that here, but simply assert it. What is most important is that the republic not be overwhelmed in the course of pursuing imperial goals. The declaration of war is precisely the point at which imperial interests can overwhelm republican prerogatives.

There are enormous complexities here. Nuclear war has not been abolished. The United States has treaty obligations to the United Nations and other countries. Covert operations are essential, as is military assistance, both of which can lead to war. I am not making the argument that constant accommodation to reality does not have to be made. I am making the argument that the suspension of Section 8 of Article I as if it is possible to amend the Constitution with a wink and nod represents a mortal threat to the republic. If this can be done, what can’t be done?

My readers will know that I am far from squeamish about war. I have questions about Libya, for example, but I am open to the idea that it is a low-cost, politically appropriate measure. But I am not open to the possibility that quickly after the commencement of hostilities the president need not receive authority to wage war from Congress. And I am arguing that neither the Congress nor the president have the authority to substitute resolutions for declarations of war. Nor should either want to. Politically, this has too often led to disaster for presidents. Morally, committing the lives of citizens to waging war requires meticulous attention to the law and proprieties.

As our international power and interests surge, it would seem reasonable that our commitment to republican principles would surge. These commitments appear inconvenient. They are meant to be. War is a serious matter, and presidents and particularly Congresses should be inconvenienced on the road to war. Members of Congress should not be able to hide behind ambiguous resolutions only to turn on the president during difficult times, claiming that they did not mean what they voted for. A vote on a declaration of war ends that. It also prevents a president from acting as king by default. Above all, it prevents the public from pretending to be victims when their leaders take them to war. The possibility of war will concentrate the mind of a distracted public like nothing else. It turns voting into a life-or-death matter, a tonic for our adolescent body politic.

This report is republished with permission of STRATFOR.

Obamacy: The Policy of Not Having One

Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

Watching the President’s speech today was an exercise in trying to find clarity of purpose and meaning where there was none. Delivering the speech looked a lot like it was a worried effort to stave off increasing criticizm that a sinking Obama is reaching hard for low-hanging foreign policy fruit to define his administration and thereby reverse his ailing political fortunes.

Throughout the whole speech I was struck by the over-use of the “protection of freedom-loving innocent civilians” and “democratic revolution” rhetoric. Libyan society is many things, but freedom-loving, democratic and innocent are not any of the adjectives I would use in describing it. Perhaps violent, tribal, Islamic, oppressive, dog-eat-dog, geographically cursed, etc. are much closer to the mark. The fact remains there is simply no logical alternative to Ghadafi in Libya. Whipping the public up into an emotional fervor over the way he deals with insurrection (which is a different thing from dealing with peaceful protest) does not do anything to change that reality.

But here we are now, with a French initiative designed to demonstrate to Germany who carries the big stick in the Europe being the adopted political-recovery-through-foreign-policy-intervention tool of Obama. In any case, the political rhetoric doesn’t matter. The reasons (or lack thereof) and justifications for attacking Libya also do not matter. The fact that far worse atrocities are being carried out in systematic ways (as opposed to violence incidental to civil war) by oppressive regimes elsewhere are being paid no attention by the Americans is also a meaningless point to ponder. Those are all good reasons to not trust the future foreign policy of the current American administration, but they do not address the new realities created by the military actions being taken there (on the other hand, France has a much clearer reason for attacking Libya, and like most actual reasons nations go to war it is not the reason they claim it to be in the press — duplicity is part and parcel of statecraft).

Before the intervention in Libya actually occurred and everyone was doing what they really wanted to do — holding press conferences while waiting for Ghadafi to regain comfortable control of his country — the strategic balance of the Mediterranean and future of Libyan sponsored terrorism were not open questions. Now they are. Egypt now has a very clear chance to split Cyrenaica from the western half of Libya whether or not Ghadafi maintains any control, develop energy assets there and use the region as a breeding ground for its own regional militant proxies (which would do many good things for Egypt in the short term, including provide an Arab counter to Iran’s Hezbollah, provide an outlet for disruptive violent elements of its Islamic society that the state has oversight on, etc.). The Sudanese no longer have a counterbalance in the region sponsoring proxy groups that undermine their regional clout (which will be interesting to watch since the south ceceded just recently). Al Qaeda franchise groups no longer have a Ghadafi who is concerned with keeping up appearances after the formal renoucement of terrorism in 2003 to stifle their efforts at reaching into Libya for root support. Italy’s ENI has no idea who the next players in Libyan energy are going to be — which by extension is a troublesome issue for the entire country. Etc.

And of course Ghadafi himself is likely rethinking his comittment to the renouncement of terrorism.

The first concerns about national power and strategic balance are very interesting. The last point is not so much strategically interesting as it is of profound concern for the average European living in blithe comfort. Ghadafi did renounce terrorism, but certainly did not go so far as to cut all ties with the militant proxies that he cultivated over decades of subtle, expensive and concerntrated effort. Certainly he still has significant levers in this realm and, at least to me, doesn’t appear the sort to simply forgive and forget that the Europeans turned their backs on him while he was experiencing a rebellion in his country.

Of course, the above paragraph is about Ghadafi. If he dies tomorrow, there is absolutely no guarantee that the next dictator to rule Libya will see things the same way as the West. Actually, that is simply impossible given public sentiment in Libya. There is no guarantee that the society will settle itself anytime soon, either, whether or not it becomes pro-Western or another Y2K Afganistan. Ghadafi surprised the West by retaining an overwhelming level of support not just in the street but within the military as well. All of that sentiment is not going to simply disappear once he himself is gone. The intricate and inexorable influence of tribalism ensures this. Whatever new power structure arises in Libya after Ghadafi (assuming he does eventually get deposed or disposed of) will be required to conduct a mopping up operation involving the rounding up and execution (or at least impolitic political imprisonment) of former Ghadafi supporters deemed to be continued dangers. I’m sure the Obama administration will not intervene at that time to protect former Ghadafi loyalists, and I doubt Anderson Cooper will head back to the streetz to give us the scoop on how his favorite underdogs are now atrocitying the bejeezus out of their former masters (and anyone else they don’t like just then). I wonder if Lara Logan will have anything to say? (And I actually don’t mean that last sentence as a tacky stab at her for being wrong about Egypt and Egyptians — I’m curious what her view might be now.)

In the press after watching the Obama speech I was struck by the number of people who felt that something of importance had been said. Several comentators made noise to the effect that “now we know what Obama’s foreign policy is” and “the President laid out a clear and convincing case for what he is doing” when nothing of the sort occured. Making balance arguments of negation in speeches is a technique for saying nothing, and that is all Obama did. Statements like “America is not in the business of policing the world, but that is not an argument for never acting” don’t go very far to clarifying the American policy towards anything, particularly when the whole speech focused on the protection of human rights in the context of the Libyan civil war without calling it what it is, and also without mentioning more severe and prolific human rights abuses in Syria or Congo which occurred over the last three days. Libya is a fundamentally unclear situation in which America has no strategic interest whatsoever. It is difficult what any statements about American action there have to do with American global policy, or put another way, what the American intervention in Libya does to clarify the American position anywhere else.

Though America has no interest in Libya, I think Obama believed he had some. He may have viewed this was his chance to pull a Clinton and redefine a failing first term in a positive way through (finally) taking strong a foreign policy action. I said this would be the case a while back, but I had assumed that the issue Obama would pick would be one with more meaning. I also thought that if it would be a meaningless issue he invested himself in, it would at least be one with a higher chance of and clearer criteria for success than what Libya has to offer. Namely, I had predicted that Obama would be more likely to take concrete military action against Iran (which I viewed as the most likely among alternative foreign policy plays) because that would actually mean something and it appears the time may finally be ripening for it. Such an operation would be meaningful both in concrete, political and symbolic terms, and meaningful action goes a lot farther with Americans than flimsy rhetoric expressed as bombing sorties in a country that has little to no impact on American interests. Instead, Obama has picked a side issue of no strategic importance, perhaps in an attempt to play it safe — after all, a bungled operation in Libya would affect the Americans none whatsoever (whereas a bungled operation in Iran would have a far more significant fallout). Unfortunately for him, I doubt that the world will present another chance to shine (or fail) before the next presidential elections are in full swing.

Libya: Some reasons why America’s best play would have been to stay out of it

Thursday, March 24th, 2011

American involvement in Libya is problematic, to say the least. Here are some of the things that probably went through the mind of the Secretary of Defense (and probably also of State) when it became clear that Obama was going to direct military involvement regardless what his advisory staff had to say:

1- The situation in Libya is unclear enough that it is difficult to determine whether or not Ghaddafi was really targeting civilians or tribal combatant affiliates. Definitions of irregular tribal and rebel forces are tricky enough in the best of times, and Libya has never had anything approaching “good times” to begin with. The humanitarian crisis and human rights logic is flimsy.

2- There is no indication, much less a guarantee, that the next tyrant to come to power in Libya after Ghaddafi would be any more morally acceptable to the West. In fact we have many indications to the contrary. Most importantly Ghaddafi was already a known quantity — he came to power and maintained support by being a Muslim populist who sponsored terrorist acts against the West. That he found it a useful realpolitik play to temper such behavior over the last few decades tells us a lot about how pragmatic he really is. But on the other hand that maintaining popular support in the days when he had just come into office through a coup and his grip on power was not yet completely secure required a public appeal through Islamic terrorism should tell us a lot about Libyan civil society — and indicates that democracy is about the last thing the Europeans, Americand, Africans, Asians or Moon People should want to see happen in Libya.

3- There are no actual alternatives to Ghaddafi other than fractitcious tribal civil war until one of four things happen:

  1. The end of time
  2. Another competent and ruthless tyrant is found
  3. The country splits back into its former geographic balance with Tripolitania becoming one nation and Cyrenacia becoming another (which would be an Egyptian proxy state and likely a breeding ground for terrorism)
  4. A foreign power decides to colonize the country (again) in a fashion that puts local barbarism to shame

In all cases, what would be gained? Tribal warfare in North Africa is not known for being particularly nice and well mannered. Entire families get wiped out, regardless of age, gender or disposition specifically because the existence of surviving family becomes a critical threat later. This is simply the way things work, but it is also one simple definition of “genocide” — a term that puts human rights activists through the roof.

4- There are no clear objectives to the campaign. We are not seeking regime change, so they say. If this is true, then we are recognizing, if not respecting, Ghaddafi as the legitimate ruler of Libya. If this is the case, why are we dicking around in Libya’s internal affairs? I’m sure that if Virginia were to attack Washington, D.C. next week President Obama would be really pissed if the French and Libyan air forces showed up to stall out the federal counter offensive just shy of capturing Richmond. So if we’re not seeking regime change, what are we after?

5- The eastern part of the country has long been the part where bad guys come from. A large percentage of the unemployed troublemakers in the east turned up in Iraq to fight the Americans. Ghaddafi thought this was just fine, because it meant me and my friends got to take care of them instead of him having to worry about doing it himself (similar logic was behind the Saudis allowing their trouble makers to travel to Afghanistan to get killed by the Soviets in the 1980’s).

6- If we are, in fact, after regime change (which seems to be the real message when Obama says “we aren’t after regime change… Ghaddafi must step down”) the idea that we can cause a regime change with air power alone is totally mistaken. Libya in 2011 is not Yugoslavia in 1999. There are no politically mature alternatives to Ghaddafi waiting in the wings (remember the lawyer and the general talking shit about each other to the BBC about who was really in charge of the eastern council at the outset of this?). If Ghaddafi leaves we will have a tribal war on our hands in any case, which can be viewed as a multi-faceted insurgency stew, or as a multi-way civil war — pick one that fits your definition/worldview best.

7- The longer Libya is mixed up and in turmoil the more chance Egypt’s covert services have a chance to get their fingers in. This would give Egypt a chance to re-start their defunct proxy militia programs on the side of their country which is far from Israel and other prying Western eyes. The initial purpose of such proxy militant groups would probably be to counter Iran’s proxy militant play, but the long term implications of such a move are unpredictable at best and very likely to turn out badly both for Egypt and for the West by the end. The problem is that religion is the best motivator for militant proxy groups in the Middle East and Africa. Religious reasoning, being quasi philosophical in nature (and full of very deliberate, violent death-cult theologic reasoning and justification in the case of Islam), tends to take on a life of its own that is very unpredictable because it is subject to so much whim and interpretation. The fact that Islam is still such a violent motivator even in the absence of political motivation several hundred years after the disappearance of its sponsor and creator (Muhammad) should tell us something. (Organized and state sponsored Christian violence, on the other hand, almost always includes a concrete political motive and seems to require one to motivate people to fight.) This is only partially true when a militant proxy is motivated by pure politics — Socialist and Communist insurgencies largely disappearing after the fall of the Soviet Union is the traditional counter example. In the end, we don’t want eastern Libya to be confused for too long or else it will turn into another Kashmere, South Lebannon, or Eastern Libya a la 1970’s.

8- Let’s pretend that the term “civilian” makes sense in Libya on all counts, that the term “innocent” applies in some sense, that the Libyan people are ready for liberal democracy (as opposed to the rest of the Middle East and Africa which currently all manifest oppressive democracies when, in fact, they are actually democractic at all), and that we have some perfect way of telling combatants and civilians apart. Let’s further pretend that the actual mission in Libya is to protect civlians. The use of overwhelmingly powerful area effect weapons such as aerial munitions and guided missiles is not the way to protect civilians, particularly without the extensive use of close air controllers — which we refuse to deploy because that would be ground troop involvement. Air power is a sledgehammer — a broad, blunt, powerful tool hanging on the kitchen of war. We are trying to stem strawberries here — a delecate operation which doesn’t call for any hammers at all, much less one of that sort. I have great personal experience with the use and effect of air power from the perspective of someone who experiences it on the ground. The argument that we have decided to bomb Libya in order to protect civilians is precisely like saying we’re going to protect civilians in a given city by shelling it with artillery. Because it is impossible to engage in warfare to protect civilians without your own actions contributing to further civilian casualties (outside of an extreme circumstance like the Holocaust) the whole concept of the operation is flawed. Without invading (which would be a different sort of humanitarian disaster anyway) we simply can’t do anything good for civil Libyan society. That requires colonization, but that is a terribly impolitic word in this era, and this particular war is all about popular politics.

9- Even though the idea that America got involved in Iraq “because of oil” is a flimsy myth worthy of debunking on Snopes, the Americans moving on another energy-rich Muslim nation just looks bad. Appearances are all that matters here, and on that level this war is actually about France demonstrating to Germany that it can be the one in the EU to carry the stick if Germany is the one to carry the carrot (or checkbook). The Americans don’t have a horse in this race. The American President also has no defined a foreign policy at all and absolutely refuses to listen to his (much wiser) Secretaries of State and Defense on these issues. He has simply gotten us involved for the sake of saying we’re involved, which is almost always the wrong reason to be doing something.

Available information is always imperfect and it is a leader’s job to be resolute and make decisions in a timely manner. That must be understood and clear. It also must be understood and clear that while campaigning is a highly emotional process, the actual weidling of state power is a fundamentally cold and pragmatic job. But it is important for senior leaders to remember that making snap decisions in an absence of information and defending emotional positions is a very different thing from actually being decisive. The ambiguity of real situations and the inability of anyone to actually foresee all events and outcomes makes decision making difficult. That is why it is so critical that any leader like an American President (or even a bank president, for that matter) have a basic policy outline to follow. Not having one is driving Obama’s presidency into the ground one obvious mistake at a time.

Libya, the West and the Narrative of Democracy

Thursday, March 24th, 2011

Once again George Friedman has written another outstanding article which once again articulates the realities of a situation more cleanly than I have time to. It is unfortunate that most people are spending most of their time waching emotionally motivated and involved media personalities, bloggers and (sadly in our case) politicians:

Forces from the United States and some European countries have intervened in Libya. Under U.N. authorization, they have imposed a no-fly zone in Libya, meaning they will shoot down any Libyan aircraft that attempts to fly within Libya. In addition, they have conducted attacks against aircraft on the ground, airfields, air defenses and the command, control and communication systems of the Libyan government, and French and U.S. aircraft have struck against Libyan armor and ground forces. There also are reports of European and Egyptian special operations forces deploying in eastern Libya, where the opposition to the government is centered, particularly around the city of Benghazi. In effect, the intervention of this alliance has been against the government of Moammar Gadhafi, and by extension, in favor of his opponents in the east.

The alliance’s full intention is not clear, nor is it clear that the allies are of one mind. The U.N. Security Council resolution clearly authorizes the imposition of a no-fly zone. By extension, this logically authorizes strikes against airfields and related targets. Very broadly, it also defines the mission of the intervention as protecting civilian lives. As such, it does not specifically prohibit the presence of ground forces, though it does clearly state that no “foreign occupation force” shall be permitted on Libyan soil. It can be assumed they intended that forces could intervene in Libya but could not remain in Libya after the intervention. What this means in practice is less than clear.

There is no question that the intervention is designed to protect Gadhafi’s enemies from his forces. Gadhafi had threatened to attack “without mercy” and had mounted a sustained eastward assault that the rebels proved incapable of slowing. Before the intervention, the vanguard of his forces was on the doorstep of Benghazi. The protection of the eastern rebels from Gadhafi’s vengeance coupled with attacks on facilities under Gadhafi’s control logically leads to the conclusion that the alliance wants regime change, that it wants to replace the Gadhafi government with one led by the rebels.

But that would be too much like the invasion of Iraq against Saddam Hussein, and the United Nations and the alliance haven’t gone that far in their rhetoric, regardless of the logic of their actions. Rather, the goal of the intervention is explicitly to stop Gadhafi’s threat to slaughter his enemies, support his enemies but leave the responsibility for the outcome in the hands of the eastern coalition. In other words — and this requires a lot of words to explain — they want to intervene to protect Gadhafi’s enemies, they are prepared to support those enemies (though it is not clear how far they are willing to go in providing that support), but they will not be responsible for the outcome of the civil war.

The Regional Context

To understand this logic, it is essential to begin by considering recent events in North Africa and the Arab world and the manner in which Western governments interpreted them. Beginning with Tunisia, spreading to Egypt and then to the Arabian Peninsula, the last two months have seen widespread unrest in the Arab world. Three assumptions have been made about this unrest. The first was that it represented broad-based popular opposition to existing governments, rather than representing the discontent of fragmented minorities — in other words, that they were popular revolutions. Second, it assumed that these revolutions had as a common goal the creation of a democratic society. Third, it assumed that the kind of democratic society they wanted was similar to European-American democracy, in other words, a constitutional system supporting Western democratic values.

Each of the countries experiencing unrest was very different. For example, in Egypt, while the cameras focused on demonstrators, they spent little time filming the vast majority of the country that did not rise up. Unlike 1979 in Iran, the shopkeepers and workers did not protest en masse. Whether they supported the demonstrators in Tahrir Square is a matter of conjecture. They might have, but the demonstrators were a tiny fraction of Egyptian society, and while they clearly wanted a democracy, it is less than clear that they wanted a liberal democracy. Recall that the Iranian Revolution created an Islamic Republic more democratic than its critics would like to admit, but radically illiberal and oppressive. In Egypt, it is clear that Mubarak was generally loathed but not clear that the regime in general was being rejected. It is not clear from the outcome what will happen now. Egypt may stay as it is, it may become an illiberal democracy or it may become a liberal democracy.

Consider also Bahrain. Clearly, the majority of the population is Shiite, and resentment toward the Sunni government is apparent. It should be assumed that the protesters want to dramatically increase Shiite power, and elections should do the trick. Whether they want to create a liberal democracy fully aligned with the U.N. doctrines on human rights is somewhat more problematic.

Egypt is a complicated country, and any simple statement about what is going on is going to be wrong. Bahrain is somewhat less complex, but the same holds there. The idea that opposition to the government means support for liberal democracy is a tremendous stretch in all cases — and the idea that what the demonstrators say they want on camera is what they actually want is problematic. Even more problematic in many cases is the idea that the demonstrators in the streets simply represent a universal popular will.

Nevertheless, a narrative on what has happened in the Arab world has emerged and has become the framework for thinking about the region. The narrative says that the region is being swept by democratic revolutions (in the Western sense) rising up against oppressive regimes. The West must support these uprisings gently. That means that they must not sponsor them but at the same time act to prevent the repressive regimes from crushing them.

This is a complex maneuver. The West supporting the rebels will turn it into another phase of Western imperialism, under this theory. But the failure to support the rising will be a betrayal of fundamental moral principles. Leaving aside whether the narrative is accurate, reconciling these two principles is not easy — but it particularly appeals to Europeans with their ideological preference for “soft power.”

The West has been walking a tightrope of these contradictory principles; Libya became the place where they fell off. According to the narrative, what happened in Libya was another in a series of democratic uprisings, but in this case suppressed with a brutality outside the bounds of what could be tolerated. Bahrain apparently was inside the bounds, and Egypt was a success, but Libya was a case in which the world could not stand aside while Gadhafi destroyed a democratic uprising. Now, the fact that the world had stood aside for more than 40 years while Gadhafi brutalized his own and other people was not the issue. In the narrative being told, Libya was no longer an isolated tyranny but part of a widespread rising — and the one in which the West’s moral integrity was being tested in the extreme. Now was different from before.

Of course, as with other countries, there was a massive divergence between the narrative and what actually happened. Certainly, that there was unrest in Tunisia and Egypt caused opponents of Gadhafi to think about opportunities, and the apparent ease of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings gave them some degree of confidence. But it would be an enormous mistake to see what has happened in Libya as a mass, liberal democratic uprising. The narrative has to be strained to work in most countries, but in Libya, it breaks down completely.

The Libyan Uprising

As we have pointed out, the Libyan uprising consisted of a cluster of tribes and personalities, some within the Libyan government, some within the army and many others longtime opponents of the regime, all of whom saw an opportunity at this particular moment. Though many in western portions of Libya, notably in the cities of Zawiya and Misurata, identify themselves with the opposition, they do not represent the heart of the historic opposition to Tripoli found in the east. It is this region, known in the pre-independence era as Cyrenaica, that is the core of the opposition movement. United perhaps only by their opposition to Gadhafi, these people hold no common ideology and certainly do not all advocate Western-style democracy. Rather, they saw an opportunity to take greater power, and they tried to seize it.

According to the narrative, Gadhafi should quickly have been overwhelmed — but he wasn’t. He actually had substantial support among some tribes and within the army. All of these supporters had a great deal to lose if he was overthrown. Therefore, they proved far stronger collectively than the opposition, even if they were taken aback by the initial opposition successes. To everyone’s surprise, Gadhafi not only didn’t flee, he counterattacked and repulsed his enemies.

This should not have surprised the world as much as it did. Gadhafi did not run Libya for the past 42 years because he was a fool, nor because he didn’t have support. He was very careful to reward his friends and hurt and weaken his enemies, and his supporters were substantial and motivated. One of the parts of the narrative is that the tyrant is surviving only by force and that the democratic rising readily routs him. The fact is that the tyrant had a lot of support in this case, the opposition wasn’t particularly democratic, much less organized or cohesive, and it was Gadhafi who routed them.

As Gadhafi closed in on Benghazi, the narrative shifted from the triumph of the democratic masses to the need to protect them from Gadhafi — hence the urgent calls for airstrikes. But this was tempered by reluctance to act decisively by landing troops, engaging the Libyan army and handing power to the rebels: Imperialism had to be avoided by doing the least possible to protect the rebels while arming them to defeat Gadhafi. Armed and trained by the West, provided with command of the air by the foreign air forces — this was the arbitrary line over which the new government keeps from being a Western puppet. It still seems a bit over the line, but that’s how the story goes.

In fact, the West is now supporting a very diverse and sometimes mutually hostile group of tribes and individuals, bound together by hostility to Gadhafi and not much else. It is possible that over time they could coalesce into a fighting force, but it is far more difficult imagining them defeating Gadhafi’s forces anytime soon, much less governing Libya together. There are simply too many issues between them. It is, in part, these divisions that allowed Gadhafi to stay in power as long as he did. The West’s ability to impose order on them without governing them, particularly in a short amount of time, is difficult to imagine. They remind me of Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan, anointed by the Americans, distrusted by much of the country and supported by a fractious coalition.

Other Factors

There are other factors involved, of course. Italy has an interest in Libyan oil, and the United Kingdom was looking for access to the same. But just as Gadhafi was happy to sell the oil, so would any successor regime be; this war was not necessary to guarantee access to oil. NATO politics also played a role. The Germans refused to go with this operation, and that drove the French closer to the Americans and British. There is the Arab League, which supported a no-fly zone (though it did an about-face when it found out that a no-fly zone included bombing things) and offered the opportunity to work with the Arab world.

But it would be a mistake to assume that these passing interests took precedence over the ideological narrative, the genuine belief that it was possible to thread the needle between humanitarianism and imperialism — that it was possible to intervene in Libya on humanitarian grounds without thereby interfering in the internal affairs of the country. The belief that one can take recourse to war to save the lives of the innocent without, in the course of that war, taking even more lives of innocents, also was in play.

The comparison to Iraq is obvious. Both countries had a monstrous dictator. Both were subjected to no-fly zones. The no-fly zones don’t deter the dictator. In due course, this evolves into a massive intervention in which the government is overthrown and the opposition goes into an internal civil war while simultaneously attacking the invaders. Of course, alternatively, this might play out like the Kosovo war, where a few months of bombing saw the government surrender the province. But in that case, only a province was in play. In this case, although focused ostensibly on the east, Gadhafi in effect is being asked to give up everything, and the same with his supporters — a harder business.

In my view, waging war to pursue the national interest is on rare occasion necessary. Waging war for ideological reasons requires a clear understanding of the ideology and an even clearer understanding of the reality on the ground. In this intervention, the ideology is not crystal clear, torn as it is between the concept of self-determination and the obligation to intervene to protect the favored faction. The reality on the ground is even less clear. The reality of democratic uprisings in the Arab world is much more complicated than the narrative makes it out to be, and the application of the narrative to Libya simply breaks down. There is unrest, but unrest comes in many sizes, democratic being only one.

Whenever you intervene in a country, whatever your intentions, you are intervening on someone’s side. In this case, the United States, France and Britain are intervening in favor of a poorly defined group of mutually hostile and suspicious tribes and factions that have failed to coalesce, at least so far, into a meaningful military force. The intervention may well succeed. The question is whether the outcome will create a morally superior nation. It is said that there can’t be anything worse than Gadhafi. But Gadhafi did not rule for 42 years because he was simply a dictator using force against innocents, but rather because he speaks to a real and powerful dimension of Libya.

This report is republished with permission of STRATFOR.

Libya: Now officially a political lollerthon

Sunday, March 20th, 2011

I’ve been watching Libya pretty closely, wondering when the world will get a clue and understand that the geopolitical play is actually still between America & Saudi VS Iran. The Libiya situation is awesome high drama for the world right now (despite being of little import) yet the interplay between a Persian rise across the Middle East and how the world recovers from the current economic slowdown in the face of a major emotional (and nothing more) crisis over energy (think long and hard about the implications of people being more scared of nuclear power than they were before the recent tsunami in Japan) is definitely more interesting and more important.

But modern man is far more concerned with inconsequential drama (e.g. “human rights” — a concept which serves socialists well until it comes time for them to violate the principle themselves — of course, only in the interest of the “greater good” you see) than the concrete resolution to very real problems which are difficult to deal with (and therefore emotionally easy to defer until later — a habit known to schoolchildren as “procrastination” and to politicians as “dynamic focus”).

Anyway, Ghaddafi has proven once again why he is the ruler of a difficult country called Libya and our senior Student Council President, Barak Obama, is not. Ghaddafi is in charge of a collection of cutthroat tribes who would (and do) sell out their own mothers to gain an upper hand, even at the expense of splitting their own country in half or subjecting their people to endless iterations of civil war. That is, in fact, what has happened in several cases recently. Libya is not so much a country as a collection of tribes who are constantly at odds. Humans are nothing more than mammals, and the faggotry that is the anti-religion movement supports me on that. On the other hand the same fags that hate the idea of religion (because God says “penor in male buttocks is bad” — yet oddly has very little to nothing to say about fish festivals — unfair, but whatev) also hate the idea of “human rights” abuse (the Christians are, oddly, usually OK with it, accepting the idea that life sucks and is unfair in most cases) and so don’t agree with Ghaddafi at all.

The problem here is that the basic assumption is that humans are generally good and peaceloving and very fair. That is simply not true. Humans are mammals and as such very aggressive, mean, selfish, cliquish and smart. All at once. What that means is that humans are the sort that not only would survive the extinction event that destroyed the dinosaurs, but also give rise to the next apex predator (specifically, me). You don’t get to the top by being nice (and I am certainly not, unless you are on my side).

Now consider a tribal society living very close to the survival line (as opposed to a lax society composed of newfags who are so far removed from the survival line that they think art is important “for art’s sake”, emotions matter at all, and that women are not somehow fundamentally more important for biological progression than men because they haven’t experienced a generation in which famine, disease or total war has limited the things one can do in a day or life in concrete and definitely “unfair” ways). In such a society only the alpha dog will rise to the top. Such an alpha will be considered a complete thug by outsiders who live in, say, France (or almost anywhere in Europe). That is normal. What is not normal, however, is that the Europeans should think they need to somehow regulate what another nation’s alpha thug is up to — aside from ensuring that he no longer sanctions the downing of civilian flights in Scotland.

The Europeans, Americans and Asians — everybody, in fact — recognize that it is in their best interest to just let Ghaddafi have Libya and resume the status quo as soon as possible. What they screwed up on was shifting their position when they got Egyptian public noise confused with actual power moves and further got Libyan tribal noise mixed up with Egyptian agitation. Libya is not Egypt, and there is nobody in Libya to control the tribes (who are in serious need of controlling) than Ghaddafi. Westerners should be careful about their calls for “democracy” because they might actually get what they are asking for. If, for example, a democracy were to be installed in Saudi Arabia the West would instantly see a huge surge of funding for anti-West Islamic jihadi groups from London to New York to Tokyo (funny thing about jihad is that Tokyo not being Christian doesn’t exonerate them from the Islamic mandate to be subjugated — a point worth remembering).

Who would that benefit? Nobody, that’s who. The Europeans would either continue to be fags and rot in their own American protected and subsidized socialist filth while America atrocitied the shit out of the entire Middle East in an attempt to protect the Europeans and their values of non-aggression (ah, the irony of that is so sweet — as would be the European outcry against “American barbarism”), or the European pendulum would finally swing the other way in typically radical fashion and the Europeans would again start building gas chambers to deal with the “brown people question”. Is this ridiculous? No. Not at all. It has happened before. Actually, it has happened several times, but nobody wants to talk about that and Europe in the same breath… because we all think the EU is going to change all that (and we are wrong).

So anyway, back to the focus of what I usually write blog articles about: what will happen next. Ghaddafi will win. Period. The Europeans will continue to have talks about having talks. They will talk a lot about imposing a “no-fly zone” when, in fact, flying isn’t in the least the issue at hand here. Ghaddafi will go ahead and try the folks for treason who actually committed such (as would happen in, say, France, the UK or the USA were someone to attempt to violently suceed or militarily assault the national capitol) and allow the other members of various tribes to come back into the fold (specifically, this means accepting pledges of fealty from tribal leaders who had previously announced a split with Ghaddafi or had been ambivalent in their stance during the uncertain periods of the last two weeks).

What is yet to be seen is whether Libya will resume energy ties to former partners. A lot of state owned energy companies stand to lose a lot in the ensuing mix. But whatev. The countries who decided to intervene in another country’s internal matters now have to face the consequences of having planted their flag on the losing side — as sometimes happens in geopolitics.

Everything Ghaddafi has done has demonstrated how savvy he is — and therefore deserving of his position at the head of the geographic and cultural disaster that is Libya. Everything the West has done “in response” has not only demonstrated how inept they are at identifying anchored points of real power (perhaps a failing of democracy where a leader is elected based on how good he is at running political campaigns, not actually wielding the resultant power), but also how little they respect the sovereignty of smaller nations (would Germany be seen as benevolent in its next invasion of France were the Southern French to once again revolt against Paris?).

Anyway, watching everyone backtrack from their strong statements is going to be pretty funny. We’ve seen Obama, running an administration which has increasingly demonstrated that it has not given a thought to developing a coherent foreign policy (which prevents one from making pre-emptive decisions and instead just reacting with everyone else, and hence developing a geopolitical Johnny-Come-Lately syndrome which is not at all unlike the same syndrome manifested in, say, the stock market where the last person to pick up the “last big thing” is the biggest loser) make gradually escalating statements against Ghaddafi when it should have been ramping its rhetoric down the more aparent it became that Ghaddafi never really lost control. We’ve seen the Europeans do the same thing. What this does domestically is push the leaders of such countries into a corner where they have to at least be seen as acting decisively about issues they have claimed are important to them (and their nations, though that is highly debatable).

Wee. Meaningless drama. All the while the fate of the Hormuz Strait is completely left unreported on — and therefore unconsidered by everyone driving a 2-ton vehicle 40+ miles to work everyday, all the while bitching about how the goddam price of gas keeps going up. Its OK. Its all the Japanese tsunami’s fault. And as we learned from Katrina, that is all George Bush’s fault somehow. Ignorance is bliss.

U.S. on Libya: More Signs of Foreign Policy Indecision

Monday, March 7th, 2011

It is a well known fact that the rest of the world’s leaders wait on a solid foreign policy direction to come out of any new American President before deciding how to chart their own course. When you’re the captain of a fishing boat it is important to know where the giant aircraft carrier in the harbor is planning on moving next so you don’t get in the way, waste your energy fighting its wake, or identify whether an opportunity to surf its wake and save yourself some trouble is in the offing.

Despite my continued assertion that idiots cannot survive long as world leaders (sometimes this is different than being a president — observe that Egypt’s true power structure has had little to do with who is actually sitting in office), that nations by and large get the governments that they deserve, and that people often unconsciously pursue personal goals which inadvertently end up promoting the interest of the society in which they live the Obama Administration still shows absolutely zero signs of declaring any clear foreign policy direction after being in office for over two years. The closest thing to a foreign policy that President Obama has settled on is shifting the focus of American war efforts from Iraq to Afghanistan. In all other areas he is simply following the Bush-era playbook yet executing the plays somewhat more poorly and with far less style. The only changes here from Bush’s plan is that Bush had already begun a withdrawal from Iraq and planned to keep a small contingent there to block Iran (Obama seems to have made no decision on how to deal with Iran, apparently shocked that our trouble with Iran is practical and not merely rhetorical in nature), withdraw from Afganistan sooner than later and refocus on the emerging challenges posed by Russia’s rise, the fragmentation and likely eventual demise of the EU, shifts in Asian power and so-on. Obama has prolonged and intensified the war, not shortened it. So much for the Nobel Peace Prize.

In general it is a good thing to continue existing foreign policy — like the aircraft carrier I compared America to in the first paragraph it takes a long time to turn an organization as large as America (or, conversely, the world) around — but after a few years in office the rest of the world tends to start wondering what is on the American President’s mind if they still don’t know. The Obama administration’s rapid policy shifts have come to look a lot less like political agility and a lot more like ultimate indecision.

With that in mind, and with a reminder to how the Obama administration decided to toss plans at coherent policy advice coming from the Department of State (headed by a much older and apparently wiser — “evil” though she may be — Hillary Clinton) regarding the civil unrest in Egypt, I’d like to bring your attention to current goings on in Libya.

Libya is more or less an artificial country. It is not a nation in the sense that it is one people who share common cultural cues and inhabit a more or less contiguous geography with internal lines of drift and external barriers to invasion. Instead it is a cobbled together mass of tribes which are at constant low-level war with one another. Only a supremely devious, strong and cunning (in a word, “competent”) leader has any chance at keeping such an artificial country together, and that leader has until now been Ghaddafi. Ghaddafi has been a fun character for political writers and politicians for years, serving both as a convenient boogey-man when a need to talk shit about iron fisted dictators arises and, critically, as an actual iron fisted dictator who is capable of keeping Libya calm and quiet, generally void of international jihadist groups (that is, since Ghaddafi mended his ways after the Lockerbie Bombing) and a reasonably sound energy trading partner for Southern Europe (particularly Italy).

But now everything is all haywire. The rhetoric of anti-dictator shit-talking is so engrained both in the press and in the mouths of politicians that the critical value of Ghaddafi as the one man who could keep a lid on all the angry festering chaos that is Libya is necessarily overlooked in the interest of being politically correct. As I noted before, the press is even now still calling rebels “protesters” in the interest of demonizing Ghaddafi’s armed challenge to them, though this is beginning to slowly (finally!) change. That there is no real alternative to Ghaddafi is not a very popular thing to talk about just yet, nor are the consequences of emboldening anti-government movements all across the most screwed up parts of the world.

But national-level politicians, security professionals, geopolitical thinkers and deeply srs Gentlemen! all appreciate the irony of demonizing Ghaddafi publicly while he is teetering on the brink of losing power while desperately praying that he can get a handle on things. Everyone in power today hopes to see him crush the rebels and provide an overwhelmingly brutal example of why the smellier parts of the world should just simmer down and accept the status quo once more. We are as afraid of giving jihadist populations true democracy as we are blindly intent on actually promoting the spread of democracy. It is anathema to declare that anyone is not ready for democracy, despite that being the case.

Along this line of thought we have two almost comical developments: the U.S. asks Saudi Arabia to arm the Benghazi rebels and Senator John Kerry says that cratering Libyan runways and imposing a no-fly zone over Libya is somehow not military intervention. I should note here that the first link is to a story fantastically titled “America’s Secret Plan to Arm Libya’s Rebels” which is funny because the plan isn’t so secret if the press is talking about it. But whatever. Obviously the U.S. planned for this information to get out, which in a sense is an indication of how not serious this plan was in the first place.

Two things should immediately leap out at the reader:

  1. America is far more than capable of simply arming some rebels. America is the largest weapons exporter in the world and Americans make the absolute best stuff when it comes to this. The Americans certainly don’t need the Saudis to do this for them if the true goal is actually the arming of Libya’s rebels.
  2. Imposing a no-fly zone requires military might. This is the practical edge of politics, it is not something that can simply be asked for (hence the word “impose” in the previous sentence). This would, naturally, require the deployment of American military assets which would be, by definition, the utilization of the military to intervene in another country.

Two more things should jump out at the reader after a bit of reflection:

  1. Saudi Arabia is intent on seeing the unrest across the Middle East put down, not promoted. The rebels in eastern Libya do not see things the same way as the Saudis, and are far more likely to be ideological enemies of the House of al Saud than allies with it in any case. Saudi has already made statements to the effect that Ghaddafi can and should do what needs to be done to quell the unrest, and the intended audience of such statements are the domestic Shia and disgruntled segment of their own Sunni population. They don’t want to see the unrest expand and are supportive of strong measures to ensure things get back under control. Supporting rebels is the last thing on their agenda — or at least was as of two days ago (but things can change). Unless there has been some special understanding reached between the U.S. and the Saudis about this issue that is not public knowledge (and counter to recent trends) the U.S. is either deliberately putting the Saudis in a difficult domestic situation by asking for this sort of assistance only to force them to publicly say “no” and break with the U.S. on a foreign policy initiative or is simply delaying the conversation about what to do in Libya so that the Obama administration can put off making a solid decision about it for another day by asking a country to assist rebels who they know will say “no” to.
  2. Discussing the imposition of a no fly zone delays the imposition of one. This is perhaps America’s way of delaying any decisions here as well — to stir debate and argument about what actually qualifies as military intervention (a dirty word in politics these days) to delay the actual implementation of such a solution. This is similar to the way Iran uses talks about having talks about its nuclear program to perpetually delay the any actual discussions of the nuclear program.

A lot of noise is being had all around the world, but make no mistake: nobody will or wants to make any concrete moves against Ghaddafi until a viable alternative to him is found. Everybody’s favorite option is to delay action by deferring all decisions to “comittee” or “coalition consensus” or whatever indefinitely in the hope that in the meantime Ghaddafi actually regains his iron grip on Libya thereby preventing the need for any acrual action to occur. Everyone wants to then talk smack about him and how bad he is, chastise him for putting down a rebellion (the implication being that the governments doing the chastising are morally superior*), and go get busy fixing the natural gas and oil infrastructure in the country.

It will be interesting to see how things go. It is clear that the Obama administration is not much closer to making a decision on any of this than they are on how to deal with Russia’s resurgence, Iran’s intransigence, India-Pakistan relations, or the increasing potential for an internal failure in the Chinese system. The news stories above do the typical news thing and go to greath length explaining and recounting arguments (wind) between concerned parties that have little to do with whatever is actually going on in the country of prime question, in this case Libya. All this discussion whether or not Saudi will help arm rebels in Libya (almost defnitely no) or whether or not intervening with the military is military intervention (almost definitely yes) meanwhile everyone is hoping Ghaddafi takes full advantage of the delays and gets a grip on things.


[*All this despite the fact that I’m sure Berlin or Paris would be more than happy to attack Bayern or Normandy if they were to attempt to seceed or engage in an armed contest with their governments, whether or not “protesters” were involved.]

How Iran’s Instability Play in Bahrain and Saudi Could Backfire

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

The media is still high on emotion during what they continue to misinterpret as pro-democracy protests across the Middle East (and in some sense other places as well, such as China). As a careful observer would note, Egypt did not undergo any regime change, instead the military used the protests to promote the idea that a credible change occured when in fact a military control progression is what took place. In Libya the media still refers to “protesters” being in the streets and taking over this or that town or facility when in fact the proper term is “rebels”. A military coup with the goal of forcing a succession of command is not the same thing as a democratic revolution and a fractious tribal rebellion which threatens to disintegrate a state through civil war is a different thing than a pro-democracy protest movement (that is like calling the American Confederacy of the 1860’s a “democracy protest movement”).

Pro-democracy nonesense did not even get a foothold in Iran when everyone was so excited a while back.

But I digress… I want to talk about Bahrain, Saudi and Iran for a moment. Iran is trying to interfere in Bahrain as much as possible to push its influence into the country and the region. Bahrain is a highly strategic country as it is the headquarters for the U.S. 5th Fleet as well as being a close neighbor with strong cultural ties to Saudi Arabia. It is also a country with strong cultural ties to Iran. The population of Bahrain is 70% Shia (strong ties to Iran) but is controlled by a Sunni royal family and political structure (strong ties to Saudi). It does not appear that the Iranian plan to foment widespread unrest in Bahrain is working out as planned, as the Bahraini regime is doing a good job of responding to protesters’ demands and flexing around the situation (the protests in Bahrain are, in fact, protests and are more about socio-economic issues than pushing for democracy).

Saudi is worried that if protests get out of hand in Bahrain it could embolden dissident elements within Saudi Arabia at a critical time in Saudi history where the regime is facing a critical level of power transition within a few years and their old Shia enemeies in the region are riding the upswing of the power imbalance caused by the fallout of the Iraq War. The Saudi king is old, unhealthy and inevitably on his natural way out and all three top princes are also extremely old and wouldn’t last long on the throne. The Iraq situation has seen a shift from a Baathist regime under Saddam which, at worst, was neutral to Saudi and definitely hostile to Iran replaced with a Shia regime which threatens to be puppeted about by traditional rival Iran. The Saudi military has the best equipment that money can buy (and lots of it) but some of the shittiest leadership in the region, and absolutely no match for the Iranians if an armed conflict were to evolve (one somewhat comical Wikileak moment was the release of a cable in which U.S. Secretary of Defense Gates was reported to characterize the Saudis as “always willing to fight to the last American”).

Obviously the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia are opposed to a dramatic shift of the regional balance of power in Iran’s favor, and Iran is playing on those fears by dressing up their nuclear threat and using it as their primary ace in the geopolitics hole. The future status of Iraq is obviously pivotal to the future of regional balance as well, but as the balance rests primarily between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Iran is looking to take a shot at capitalizing on current regional unrest to undercut and, if possible, eleminate whatever credible threat a strong and pro-U.S. Saudi Arabia represents. If protests can’t unseat the House of al Saud and throw Saudi Arabia into an inwardly focused tailspin, it can at least distract the Saudis if it can foment some level of domsestic unrest and possibly internationally discredit the Saudi government if the protesters can provoke the regime to use violence to put down a protest movement.

This sounds like a good plan. Keep the unrest going, raise the Shia power profile in the region and undercut the Saudi and Bahraini governments — which would go a long way to clearing the way for a regional rise of Iranian prominence and complicate the American situation in the Middle East immensely.

But there is one major strategic detail a strong execution of this plan would overlook: the price of oil. Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest oil exporter, and as such any disturbing vibrations within or even near the place induces crazy swings in the global price of oil. With the global economy in the middle of a tenuous recovery* another unexpected swing in the price of oil could be enough to derail whatever gains have been had across 2010. That’s playing with fire — a lot of fire. That is actually what has protected Iran from any American  or Israeli military moves over the last few years.

The Iranians like to talk long and loud about how they aren’t going to talk about their nuclear program while lording it over negotiation efforts, but their true best option to threaten the West (and, incidentally, East) is to threaten to mine or otherwise close the Strait of Hormuz. About 80% of the regions oil traverses the tiny little strait and Iran sits on the north half of it. A swarm of mine-laying boats would be nearly impossible for even the U.S. Navy to prevent from laying at least a few mines. Even if all Iranian boats were interdicted before dropping their mine payload there would be no way to guarantee there were no mines in the water threatening oil tankers and other shipping than to engage in a lengthy and difficult demining operation. This would surely push the price of oil through the roof, collapse the global economic recovery and likely generate another global economic downturn. The U.S. currently calculates that the risk of attacking Iran (which it is important to note is a very different thing from invading Iran) outweighs the benefits of knocking them down a few pegs, as Global Economy > Irritating Shiite Country.

But this is where Iran’s current strategy of undermining Saudi with civil unrest comes in. If the Iranians were to succeed in fomenting widespread unrest in Saudi Arabia on the same level as, say, Egypt or even Bahrain, the price of oil would skyrocket. While instability in Saudi Arabia would definitely remove obstacles to Iran’s regional rise, it would also remove whatever restraint the Americans have shown in not attacking Iran. The American thinking would be along the lines of:

If Iran threatens to rise to regional dominance then they must be stopped. However, an unbearably high temporary price of oil throwing the world back into global recession is an unacceptable price to pay for preventing their rise. If the price of oil is going to skyrocket anyway due to unrest in Saudi Arabia, however, there is no merit in not attacking Iran to set their plans back a decade and no reason to refrain from engaging in deliberate efforts to dismantle their nuclear program and sponsoring our own insurgency sponsorship program within that country.

Difficult choices all around. It will be interesting to see how this plays out. In any case, this is one of the very few scenarios where I see the U.S. attacking the Iranians without first finding a way to solve the tricky issue of securing the Strait of Hormuz in an absolute way prior to an attack. Needless to say, the current Iranian plan of encouraging civil unrest in Saudi Arabia is an excellent example of how operational blowback and unintended consequences can rule futures and strategic decisions.

[*Specifically, with the U.S. undergoing a normal recovery, Europe trying hard to not expose itself to even more of its recently uncovered deeply entrenched economic instability, Russia playing at political energy levers in Europe, Italy potentially losing its energy resources in Libya, and China being an economic bubble inflating to the point it will burst in ways the current world generation no longer remembers]