Monday, December 29, 2008

Water, Water Everywhere?

The latest findings from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter offer some promising signs that the early aqueous environment on Mars was not the acidic mess that some had theorized. The presence of carbonates in key strata of Martian bedrock argue convincingly for a neutral-to-alkaline composition of past Martian waters (since an acidic environment would dissolve the carbonate in short order). This in turn suggests that conditions were favorable (or at least not brutally hostile) for the emergence of life as we know it in ancient Martian surface water.

You can see on this map that the orbital assay has revealed carbonate in several equatorial regions of the Martian landscape. The fact that carbonates were also detected by the Phoenix lander on the northern polar plains suggests that relatively hospitable waters were once found in widely distributed regions of Mars in the ancient past.

Does this mean that life once existed on our neighboring planet? Insufficient data. But it should be noted that life appears to have emerged on the young, cooling Earth almost immediately (in geological time). This suggests that the processes which lead to the complexification of organic molecules into self-organizing, pre-biotic hypercycles can occur quite readily when conditions permit. I have a sneaking suspicion that more detailed study will yield evidence of at least primitive life having existed on Mars in the distant past. Whether some life still exists (e.g., in deep aquifers kept liquid by the planet's internal heat) is very much an open question.

As immense a find as that would be, I actually hope we find that life flourished on Mars for one brief, shining moment, then slipped into oblivion. The presence of extant life on Mars would greatly complicate the ethics of eventual colonization, given the immeasurable scientific value of coming to understand the biology of a separate cradle of life in our own solar system. But that's a question for another day. For now, it is very exciting to have begun to solve the riddle of the missing carbonates, and so moved one step closer to the discovery of a "second Creation," and thence to the tantalizing indication that our universe may in fact be teeming with life.

Might make stargazing a rather less lonely experience.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


Needless to say, posting has been almost embarrassingly light this month. Part of this, I'm sure, can be attributed to the impending Holidays, and their effects on my schedule (think three-dimensional Tetris). Plans to travel and see family, coupled with attempts to squeeze clients into time-slots, while accommodating various vacations and exams (most of my clients are teens and 20-somethings) have had their impact on blogging.

However, if I'm to be entirely honest, I must confess that the outcome of the election has had an impact on me. At first, there was a kind of depression (not so much clinical/personal --I'm not that far gone-- as blogospheric). I'd devoted so much energy to the candidates' qualifications and positions, debunking and exposing and advocating and warning and generally obsessing, that the end of it all left me rather spent.

Also, I have not wanted to be the one who prematurely blasted or gave a pass to the President-Elect. I have been surprisingly sanguine about his appointments to foreign-policy-relevant Cabinet positions; there are signs there of a degree of maturity and pragmatism which frankly I did not expect to see from Obama. Keeping Bob Gates on as Sec Def was an intelligent and politically risky move, for example. I'm not even displeased with Hillary as Secretary of State; she is, if anything, a canny and pragmatic politician, a master triangulator, and a moderate on the Hawk-Dove continuum. Sec State was arguably the role she was born to play. Other appointments have left me rather more wary...which is a subject for another day.

In short, Obama has so far earned a wait-and-see attitude from me, which is quite astonishing, considering his campaign persona and the blindingly foolish things coming out of his mouth as he contended with John McCain for the Big Chair. I suppose the realities of governing have had the hoped-for effect on his policies, a moderating and focusing effect which is inevitably --for someone who is truly intelligent-- going to be at variance with the need to inspire an electorate to cast its vote. I live in hope that reality continues to mug the POTUS-Elect, and that he continues to exercise the sort of political jujitsu for which one can only hope a street fighter like Rahm Emmanuel will be able to provide cover against the unalloyed horror embodied by the likes of Pelosi and Reed.

Meanwhile, before the subject of McCain drops too far in the rear-view, I direct your attention to an editorial from the WaPo, by Sens. McCain, Lieberman, and Graham, in the wake of their recent trip to Iraq. Their observations embody the sort of careful optimism which the near-miraculous turnaround in Iraq has inspired in so many of those who are able to shed the goggles of partisanship long enough actually to look at what has been transpiring there:

Based on our observations and consultations in Baghdad, we are optimistic that President-elect Obama will be able to fulfill a major step of his plan for withdrawal next year by redeploying U.S. combat forces from Iraq's cities while maintaining a residual force to train and mentor our Iraqi allies. We caution, however, that 2009 will be a pivotal year for Iraq, with provincial and then national elections whose secure and legitimate conduct depends on our continued engagement. By allowing a greater number of forces to remain in Iraq in the short term, we will be able to set the conditions for much deeper troop cuts thereafter.

Really, there is nothing new here; this has always been the plan: stay long enough to stabilize the situation, allow the government to dig in and prove its legitimacy, and train up the Iraqi military and police to the point that they can function as a modern, professional force in the service of the Iraqi people's interests, guided by civilian leadership which will set sound policy. Then pull out in a responsible manner, and let the Iraqi people chart their own course. The difference is that those goals are far less abstract than they once were. Indeed, they are very much in sight.

Just as the destiny of Iraq was very much in question as little as 18 months ago, so the nature of an Obama Administration's strategies and tactics were a terrifying cipher until recently. It is my considered opinion that there are unexpected grounds for hope on both fronts. It is still my belief that McCain would have been a simply superb President (a statement which is likely to draw considerable fire from both Liberals and Conservatives who may read these words). But I am starting to see that Obama may not prove the unmitigated disaster I'd been so certain he would be (ditto!).

I have not forgotten that Obama opposed the change in strategy which has made the current situation in Iraq possible. The fact that he has shown indications of being able to respond intelligently to current conditions is not prima facie evidence that he will have the wherewithal to craft and implement policies which will result in similarly favorable conditions in the future. There will likely be only a short span in the early days of his presidency during which he can ride the coattails of --and vehemently disavow-- the accomplishments of Bush's foreign policy team. After that, he is on his own. Interestingly, this is something which he and Nouri al Maliki share.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Palin's Church Torched

Today's Examiner reports that the church attended by Governor Sarah Palin and her family has been badly damaged by a fire which has been determined to have been caused by arson.

The details, perpetrators and motives are still under investigation, and I will, of course, suspend judgment until all the facts are in, but let this stand as a conditional statement: Here is a glaring example of the depths to which the vitriolic atmosphere which grows like a cancer in American politics will ultimately take us. Somehow we have come to a place where policy differences become yoked to a visceral hatred which invites the unhinged to take actions like these.

It is a very ominous trend, one which undermines the very foundations of our democracy, and of our pluralistic society as a whole. If we cannot disagree without demonizing, then we will surely reap the whirlwind.

If this shameful incident turns out to be what it appears, then it is a stain on our Republic, and I hope even the most fervent Palin-haters out there will use it as an occasion to reflect on the pathology which the Governor has awoken in dark hearts of some people. Aside from all the other ways in which an act like this is nauseating, it points to a fundamental breakdown in the faith which some citizens of this great Nation place it its system of laws and in their validity for resolving differences among us. Chaos waits hungrily, just outside the gates of such an outrage.

UPDATE: Link fixed.

UPDATE 2: Just to be perfectly clear, here, I am not equating those who emigrate from the US as a result of their beliefs with those who would torch a church, bomb a government building, etc. The latter are dangerously deranged, and deserving of nothing but scorn and punishment as the criminals that they are, regardless of their views. The former may hold beliefs that I find problematic...but at least they have the courage of their convictions. Further, those who choose to check out of the US are exercising their freedom under its laws (more than a bit ironic, actually), while those of a terroristic bent are implicitly voting "no confidence" in those laws and the freedoms they protect.

It's an important difference, which bore clarifying.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Tehran Changing Course in Iraq?

Today's Examiner reports that the number of the deadly roadside ambush bombs known as Explosively Formed Penetrators (EFP) has lately been decreasing sharply in Iraq. These sophisticated and lethal devices, it is widely accepted, have been supplied by Iran (likely through its Quds Force) for years, and have been responsible for many coalition and Iraqi deaths. Their progressive disappearance from the battlespace might signal a strategic shift in the policy of the Mullahcracy toward its neighbor:
Iran is no longer actively supplying Iraqi militias with a particularly lethal kind of roadside bomb, a decision that suggests a strategic shift by the Iranian leadership, U.S. and Iraqi authorities said Thursday. Use of the armor-piercing explosives - known as explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs - has dwindled sharply in recent months, said Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz, head of the Pentagon office created to counter roadside bombs in Iran and Afghanistan.

Metz estimated that U.S. forces find between 12 and 20 of the devices in Iraq each month, down from 60 to 80 earlier this year.

"Someone ... has made the decision to bring them down," Metz told reporters.

Asked if the elite Iranian Republican Guard Corps has made a deliberate choice to limit use of EFPs, Metz nodded: "I think you could draw that inference from the data."

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh agreed Iran has curtailed its activity inside Iraq. He said he thinks Iran has concluded that a new security agreement between the U.S. and Iraq poses no threat to Iran. Iran opposed the agreement as a blessing for foreign forces to remain in Iraq, and encouraged Iraq's democratic government to reject it.

It is doubtful that the regime in Tehran has actually concluded that a peaceful, prosperous, US-Aligned Iraq on its border "poses no threat." Even if the Iranian fear that the US would station large numbers of troops in Iraq has decreased (allayed by the language of the SOFA with respect to American withdrawal plans), the presence of such a State would arguably pose a larger strategic threat to the Repressive Persian regime by embodying an alternative to its theocratic stranglehold on the Iranian people.

More likely, the devastating effects upon the Iranian economy of low petroleum prices on global markets have prompted a recalibration of Iranian tactics in its near-abroad. The costs of international adventurism (in the form of support for Hezbollah and Hamas, for example) must be starting to sting right about now, and the fait accompli represented by the SOFA , along with the diminishing clout of Iran-aligned Shiite militias in Iraq would all argue strongly for a change of approach between the two Middle Eastern states. It may be that the Mullahs have opted to vie for a less nakedly bellicose stance with regard to Iraq, in favor of a longer game of more insidious seduction and division.

Be that as it may, anything which leads to an improved security situation ahead of provincial elections in Iraq next month is a welcome development. More importantly, these terrifying weapons' disappearance from the streets of Iraq will be good news to our valorous troops and their families.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Finding Change in the SOFA

In yesterday's Washington Post, columnist and commentator Charles Krauthammer posted an editorial about the recently-approved Status Of Forces Agreement (SOFA) which creates the legal framework for American forces' continued presence in and ultimate withdrawal from Iraq. Krauthammer is one of my favorite commentators on the nightly panel of "Special Report with Britt Hume." Sure, he looks a bit like Rumpelstiltskin, and is clearly dealing with a whopper of a dysfluency/stutter (and imagine the moxie of an individual with such a condition who chooses to make his living speaking before TV cameras!). But I find his intellect to be formidable, his analyses to be useful and insightful, and his humor to be dry as a Gobi salt flat and intermittently hilarious.

If nothing else, the SOFA will put the lie to many of the hysterical claims that OIF is an "illegal war" (never mind Saddam's continual material breaches of multiple binding UN Security Council resolutions before the invasion, and the UN mandate which had authorized the presence of forces since then...). The SOFA is a legal agreement between sovereign nations, arrived at through the peaceful actions of a democratically elected government (Iraq's), carefully laying out the terms under which the forces of another government (ours) will help to bolster the security and enable the further stabilization of the host nation's government. Indeed, it is the very familiar political machinations by which the SOFA was agreed-upon which Krauthammer rightly points out as well-nigh miraculous, all things considered:

Also largely overlooked at home was the sheer wonder of the procedure that produced Iraq's consent: classic legislative maneuvering with no more than a tussle or two -- tame by international standards (see YouTube: "Best Taiwanese Parliament Fights of All Time!") -- over the most fundamental issues of national identity and direction.

The only significant opposition bloc was the Sadrists, a mere 30 seats out of 275. The ostensibly pro-Iranian religious Shiite parties resisted Tehran's pressure and championed the agreement. As did the Kurds. The Sunnis put up the greatest fight. But their concern was that America would be withdrawing too soon, leaving them subject to overbearing and perhaps even vengeful Shiite dominance.

The Sunnis, who only a few years ago had boycotted provincial elections, bargained with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, trying to exploit his personal stake in agreements he himself had negotiated. They did not achieve their maximum objectives. But they did get formal legislative commitments for future consideration of their grievances, from amnesty to further relaxation of the de-Baathification laws.

That any of this democratic give-and-take should be happening in a peaceful parliament just two years after Iraq's descent into sectarian hell is in itself astonishing. Nor is the setting of a withdrawal date terribly troubling. The deadline is almost entirely symbolic. U.S. troops must be out by Dec. 31, 2011 -- the weekend before the Iowa caucuses, which, because God is merciful, will arrive again only in the very fullness of time. Moreover, that date is not just distant but flexible. By treaty, it can be amended. If conditions on the ground warrant, it will be.

Much could still go wrong in Iraq, to be sure. It is unlikely that Tehran will simply sit on its haunches and allow a prosperous, democratic, and US-aligned Iraq to flourish on its border without attempting to wreak continued mischief. Still, with oil under US$50 a barrel, the Iranian regime may have its hands full without pumping resources toward the destabilization of its neighbor. As Krauthammer points out, we must expect intermittent upticks in deadly attacks inside Iraq, as Provincial elections (scheduled for January 2009) approach.

Still, it is looking more and more like it would take a system perturbation of currently uncommon proportions to derail Iraq's trajectory toward something unprecedented in the Middle East: an Arab state with a multi-sectarian, multi-ethnic, democratically elected legislature (which includes women), a growing middle class, and a diversified economy, and a commitment to lawful, stable interactions with its neighbors, which it can back with credible, professionally-fielded (and civilian-controlled) military force. Krauthammer lays out the potential up-side of this for the region (to say nothing of the Iraqi people themselves):

-- a flawed yet functioning democratic polity with unprecedented free speech, free elections and freely competing parliamentary factions. For this to happen in the most important Arab country besides Egypt can, over time (over generational time, the time scale of the war on terror), alter the evolution of Arab society. It constitutes our best hope for the kind of fundamental political-cultural change in the Arab sphere that alone will bring about the defeat of Islamic extremism. After all, newly sovereign Iraq is today more engaged in the fight against Arab radicalism than any country on earth, save the United States -- with which, mirabile dictu, it has now thrown in its lot.

No one knows the dangers of unchecked extremism, and the retrograde traditionalism which feeds it, like the Iraqi people do; it's been scant months since they were nearly dragged into the fires to which it ultimately leads. The promises of a new Iraqi State are yet but a delicate crust over the chaos from which it was so recently rescued. But I'll bet you dollars to dinars that the Iraqis have had a bellyful of that mayhem, and will be loath to go back for a second helping. If Dubai is a sort of bizarre Disney Land version * of a Middle Eastern future, Iraq may one day be its New York.

* cf. my comment here, #220.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Court Case Highlights Charitable Front

Life has been rather complex of late, and promises to be even more so as Thanksgiving approaches, so posting has been light, and may remain so in the coming days. Apologies and best wishes for a peaceful and prosperous Turkey Day.

Via the Counterterrorism Blog comes this article by Matthew Levitt, on the significance of the recent verdict against the Holy Land Foundation, an Islamic charity which has been found guilty of serving as a front for financing terrorism (in this case, Hamas).

This verdict is important on several levels. First off, it sets an important precedent for eschewing the politically-correct cultural-relativist narrative which holds that organizations such as HLF should be immune from scrutiny because they serve the interests of a given group...even if it is widely acknowledged that their sub rosa dealings possess a far more sinister character. Financing terrorism trumps any other benefits which such an organization can claim, and must be dealt with accordingly.

Perhaps more fundamentally, though, this verdict highlights the way in which a Global Counterinsurgency like the Long War must be waged:

As I argue in my book, “Hamas: Politics, Charity and Terrorism in the Service of Jihad” (Yale University Press, 2006), Hamas’ charitable and social welfare networks are both the secret to the group’s political and terrorist success as well as its Achilles heel. A strategic approach to Hamas should include not only disrupting the group’s operational capabilities, but also targeting its financial and logistical support networks. Front organizations like the Holy Land Foundation should be shut and prosecuted, to be sure, but such efforts must be complemented by serious efforts to fund and empower accountable, nonviolent Palestinian entities -- public and private alike -- to assume the responsibility for (and enjoy the resulting public support from) public works and social and humanitarian services should be a central goal of counterterrorism officials, peace negotiators, economists, and development experts alike. The international community could and should beat Hamas at its own game of providing social services to build grassroots support, though in this case support for moderation not extremism.

A COIN force must operate in such a way to show itself a credible guarantor of the safety and security and prosperity of a host nation's population, in order to dislodge that population's loyalty from the insurgents who also vie for its allegiance (or at least acquiescence). So, too, on a larger scale, those who would delegitimize the radical/militant actors which seek to garner support among suffering people by co-opting their hopes for a better future must find ways of offering even more promising avenues toward those futures than the radicals can do. This is arguably the most vital front on which this Conflict is fought.

As covertly radical groups like HLF find it more difficult to secure the funding with which they funnel capital into the coffers of bombers and throat-slitters under the guise of charitable works, the resulting vacuums offer opportunities for more legitimately beneficent organizations to take up the mantle. This is yet another example of how we can do well by doing good, and I hope the free nations of the world (hopefully under the leadership of a US which keeps its eyes on this multi-generational prize) follow through.

This was a good start.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Ground Beef

Found this vid on Strategy Page. Aside from being a pretty good site for military news and information, it is also a great site for photos and videos on those and related subjects.

In this case, a camera fixed on a De Havilland biplane records a joy-ride on a perfectly lovely day for flying. However, around 41 seconds into the clip, keep an eye on the lower-left wing (to screen right).

I expect the aftermath of the incident will be described as a real pain in the dairy air.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Clearing a Path for The One

Via Hot Air, I encountered this WaPo editorial on the implications of the Status Of Forces Agreement (SOFA) which was recently ratified by the Iraqi Cabinet, prior to being turned over to the Parliament next week. The main thrust of the editorial is the degree to which this agreement, if passed by Parliament (as is generally expected), would give cover to the incoming Obama Administration to adhere in general terms to its pledge to withdraw American troops from Iraq along a relatively fixed timetable, while allowing it a measure of flexibility as to the details.

The main objection to such timetables all along has been the degree to which they would broadcast a time horizon to the very active and unreliably opposed agents of chaos in the fledgling Nation of Iraq. They would only need wait us out before swarming on the unprotected and unready Iraqi military and police, with catastrophic effects.

That situation has now changed. AQI is smashed, but for scattered mayhem and a stubborn but sputtering stand in and around Mosul. Much of the Sunni Insurgency has dissolved or joined --officially or otherwise-- with the Iraqi government and its Coalition allies. Iran has let up on its active support for the Shiite militias, which have been largely de-fanged, owing to the increasingly competent and well-run Iraqi Security Forces, under the surprisingly resolute leadership of a Maliki government which is moving increasingly steadily toward a true Unity composition. The time for timetables can reasonably be said to have arrived, if ever there was to be one.

One irritating misstatement in the WaPo editorial deserves highlighting:
By agreeing to a fixed deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, President Bush contradicted years of promises that he would never agree to anything but a "conditions-based" plan for phasing out the American military role there.
As I said, the timetable incorporated into this agreement can only be seen as a "contradiction" if one posits that all other considerations have remained static. They have not. The editorial staff of the WaPo could not resist this subtle bit of revisionist Bush-bashing, but it changes nothing. President Bush has weathered far worse, and remained undaunted.

Contrary to the shrill ululations of the Left, President Bush has shown himself to be a man of consummate character, for whom the interests of the Nation come before any considerations of popularity or credit.

For Bush’s team to leave Iraq in a condition in which it is safe for Obama to glide in and implement an agreement purchased at the price of so much noble blood irks me mightily; it gives Obama the opportunity to hold himself up as the statesman who completed the mission and withdrew our troops (”see? no bloodbath!”). He can claim credit for Ending The War ™, while he and his media acolytes whitewash the calamity which would have ensued if he had had a crack at policy-making prior to this auspicious time.

Fortunately, however, I can see no evidence that President Bush gives a fig about who gets the credit, so long as the mission is completed, American interests are protected, and the region is left more stable and strategically viable than he found it. The unmistakable impression is of a POTUS who is scrambling to set as many pieces of the game along favorable trajectories as possible before lesser hands take control of the board…not in the interests of a vain clutching at “Legacy,” so much as for the greater good of the Republic.

So, from Fallujah to FATA, our forces are moving at a blistering tempo to remove as many obstacles as can be from before the stumbling feet of The One, like removing the breakables from a room before one’s toddler enters it.

I still hold out a non-zero quantum of hope that Obama’s access to classified information will blunt the edge of his naively dovish foreign policy. For all of his failings, a lack of native intelligence is not one of them. He may learn and grow and not rush foolishly into the most destructive policies to which his campaign promises appeared to doom us. May it be so!

But if it is so, then I also hope that he takes a moment to acknowledge the debt of gratitude he owes to a certain Texan gentleman for sweeping some of the mines from his course.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Farewell, Phoenix

I'm a few days late on this, but I wanted to mark what appears to be the end of the NASA Phoenix Mars lander's successful mission.

Launched Aug. 4, 2007, Phoenix landed May 25, 2008, farther north than any previous spacecraft to land on the Martian surface. The lander dug, scooped, baked, sniffed and tasted the Red Planet's soil. Among early results, it verified the presence of water-ice in the Martian subsurface, which NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter first detected remotely in 2002. Phoenix's cameras also returned more than 25,000 pictures from sweeping vistas to near the atomic level using the first atomic force microscope ever used outside Earth.
The Martian Winter has descended on the vast northern plains of Mars, with its bitterly cold temperatures and dwindling supply of power-generating sunshine. Phoenix recently sent what will likely be its final transmission before going quietly into that good night. It now sits as one more lonely monument to the inventiveness and curiosity of the human species, as we cast our senses skyward in search of our origins and our destiny.

Next up is the terribly exciting Mars Science Laboratory, a relatively gargantuan rover, which will use its plutonium power cell to range farther and dig deeper than any of its predecessors. Launch is scheduled for Fall of 2009, with arrival in 2010. This beast will be empowered to do some serious science, and woe betide any stubborn stones which get in its way. This fairly large video captures some of the promise and poetry which awaits us on this mission.

For now, though, I for one have raised a glass to the short but productive life of a Phoenix which is highly unlikely to rise from its own ashes. It may have gone silent forever, but its voice has added to a trove of data which may one day help to rescue Humanity itself from ultimate stagnation and death at the bottom of our ancestral gravity well.

Sleep now, Phoenix. You have amply earned your rest and our gratitude.

Friday, November 14, 2008

COIN of the Realm

I really need to get over to the Small Wars Journal more often. Sure, there are many articles which even a mildly-to-moderately conversant layman observer of military matters like myself will find hopelessly esoteric and specialized. But almost as often, one will happen across a gem like this article by Col. Robert C. Jones (.pdf), on the subject of counterinsurgency (COIN).

What sets this excellent little (3-page) article apart is the degree to which it is able to distill the extraordinarily complicated brew of COIN doctrine down to its most fundamental principles, yet do so in such a way that it serves as a very practical skeleton for a host of tactical decisions across a wide variety of disciplines, by showing how they are unified under the umbrella of a single overarching strategy. This is no mean feat of data compression, given the dauntingly dynamic complexity of COIN ops as they are executed in the real world.

The Populace

The populace is the center of gravity for both the insurgent and the counterinsurgent.
Both the governance and the insurgent arise from the same populace to compete for sovereignty. To attack the insurgent is to attack the populace, and only addresses a symptom of the greater problem.

Every populace has both the duty and the right to rise up in insurgency when governance fails, and those failures cannot be resolved through legitimate means (U.S. Declaration of Independence).

Insurgency is fundamental to man’s nature. While poor governance is always viewed through the eyes of each unique populace, virtually every man will become an insurgent when he cannot feed, clothe, shelter, and secure his family, and when he has no hope for a better future. Hope is directly linked to the powerful human emotions of pride and respect, and must not be underestimated. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is instructive for the counterinsurgent, and often it is failure high in the hierarchy that sparks insurgency.

The segment of the populace that one must focus on is the one that supports the insurgent. Design programs to address their concerns, and do not simply rely on the “loyal” segment of the populace to help suppress the rebelling segment. (Brits in U.S.; U.S. in Viet Nam and Afghanistan did it wrong; U.S. in Civil Rights movement did it right).
Here, Col. Jones opens with a shot which lands at the precise geometric center of the bull's-eye. A true insurgency is not something which arises out of nowhere, nor merely out of the narrow interests of a small group (or, if it does, it does not last long enough to be of serious the Weather Underground learned during the Sixties and early Seventies in the US). Instead, it emerges from a widespread and serious failure of governance to meet the needs of its populace. As such, insurgents perceive themselves to be fighting for the good of their community. The task of the counterinsurgent is to prevent the people of that community from feeling likewise, by demonstrating (not just declaring) that the insurgency can meet their needs less well than the government with which it competes for their loyalty and/or acquiescence.

By acting to shore up the essential functions of good governance (e.g., the provision of security, public health, infrastructure, and opportunities for prosperity), a comprehensive COIN operation acts to de-legitimize the claim which the insurgents can stake in the discontent of the people. Simply lopping off even key members of an insurgency can scramble its operational capabilities and degrade its effectiveness as a fighting force, to be sure. But, absent the undermining of the narrative through which an insurgency continues to recruit members from the host nation's population, such purely kinetic operations will do nothing save "reset the conditions of failure."

The last paragraph of the section I excerpted above speaks to a potential misunderstanding of COIN operations which is as serious as mistaking them for mere "Surges" in troop levels. Mounting a successful counterinsurgency is more than simply recruiting a cadre of "our guys" and pitting them against "their guys." Unless the underlying dysfunctions in a host nation's governance are addressed, then "their guys" will always have a renewable supply of recruits from among a population caught in the crossfire and hungering for a Change.

This is a lesson which we would do well to remember as we endeavor to implement COIN strategy in Afghanistan. Simply luring some tribes away from the Taliban and turning them loose may provide local pushback to the AQ-Taliban insurgency, and as such is not without value. But a counterinsurgent force must be able to insure the security and stability of communities which cooperate with it, facilitating improvements in the quality of life and providing a credible promise that those improvements will be sustainable over time (the "Clear-Hold-Build" policy), or else the insurgency will retain the ability to punish such cooperation, so no sane person would offer it.

Articles such as Colonel Jones' are essential because they provide a clear overview of a strategy which is all-too easily lost in a thicket of details and thus fundamentally misunderstood. At its root is an elegantly simple proposition: people long for security, justice, and opportunity, and will fight for them if they have to. Offer them realistic hope for these things, and they will judge you to be on their side in that fight.

And, lest any of you think that we are meddling unduly in internal matters when we engage in COIN operations far from our shores, let me remind you that local insurgencies like those in Afghanistan and (to a far lesser and ever-diminishing degree) Iraq are actively abetted by actors such as al-Qaeda and Iran, to serve aspirations which are ultimately global in scope. The work of counterinsurgency in any one theater is self-similar to and reciprocally linked with that global counterinsurgency which constitutes the core task of the Long War. We lose sight of that larger arc to our great peril.

So, read the whole thing.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Actionable Intelligence

Last week, shortly after his slim but historic victory in the US Presidential election, Barack Obama finally got a chance to peek beneath the veil. He has begun to receive classified intelligence briefings about the full range of the threats arrayed against the US and its interests at home and abroad, and about the responses to those threats which he will presently be entrusted to oversee. This is information which would not have been available to him as a senator and a candidate, and it appears to have been a sobering experience for him.

Obama can hardly be blamed for seeming a bit less ebullient as the full weight of the responsibilities he must bear begins to settle on his shoulders. In characteristically irresponsible fashion, the New York Times has reported (again!) on a portion of the covert operations which were authorized by the Bush Administration to pursue and harry al Qaeda across the globe. Depending on your orientation, this story reads like a Bush-Derangement fantasy of Imperial overreach, or as a sobering account of the hitherto (and appropriately!) unseen portions of the Long War in its far-ranging and valiant campaign to keep us safe from the murderous ideologues who would slaughter our children for the sake of piety. Either way, it is part of Obama's world now.

The full scope of the threat landscape in which our President-Elect must immerse himself is daunting in the extreme. However much he has staked his claim on the notion that the US must withdraw from Iraq with all possible speed, I strongly suspect that his access to the Full Story will (hopefully!!) act to stay his hand (no doubt to the considerable annoyance of his supporters):

Iran would cheer a quick American withdrawal, but as soon as the US leaves Iran will use its Shia proxies in Baghdad to create an Iraqi government manipulated like a puppet by strings that stretch to Tehran’s mullahs.

Iraqi Sunni and Kurdish minorities will feel disenfranchised by a quick withdrawal because they expect the Shia majority will then manipulate Baghdad’s government to deny them opportunities and resources. That could ignite a real civil war.

Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, al Qaeda’s [fictional] Iraq leader, offered President-elect Obama a truce in exchange for removal of all forces from the region. But American intelligence officials caution any step that could be perceived as a victory for al Qaeda, like pulling troops out of Iraq before the country stabilizes, would only strengthen the terror group’s ability to recruit.

A precipitous US withdrawal is opposed by important allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel. The Saudis fear that Tehran might take advantage of an early withdrawal to seize oil fields in the Shia dominated eastern Arabian Peninsula. Israel, which says it faces an existential threat from a nuclear Iran, wants the US to remain in Iraq in order to keep Tehran in check and hopefully deal with the mullah’s atomic weapons program.
To his credit, Obama has stuck by the theme that a nuclear-armed Iran is "Unacceptable." Indeed, it is. However, the path which he must walk to prevent this is far less than clear. Iran has gamed the international system most adroitly, and has scoffed at all attempts to rein in its nuclear ambitions. There is no reason to believe that this will cease as a result of Obama's much-vaunted willingness to engage in diplomacy with the Mullahcracy. Indeed, on its face, that willingness would seem to play right into the Persians' hands, offering the opportunity to play for time while its centrifuges spin inexorably toward the unacceptable. I expect that the most current intelligence estimates of Iran's capabilities and intentions have now become available to Obama. What will he do with them?

Much has been made of Obama's ill-advisedly public though essentially correct intention to violate Pakistani sovereignty in pursuit of al Qaeda Prime. Indeed, he has made it a cornerstone of his war plan to address the as-yet unfinished business in the shadow of the Hindu Kush. But I have long felt that he has glossed very badly over the complexities of the Af-Pak theater, and so painted himself into a perilously untenable corner:

Recently, Obama’s staff was briefed that the situation in Afghanistan is getting worse – American casualties are up and the Taliban militias are gaining strength and now control large swaths of that country. That’s why the Bush administration told Obama’s people that they must come to office with a battle plan that addresses troops, Pakistan’s safe havens area (where as many as one million Islamic radicals have refuge) and whether to negotiate with the enemy.

Sending more troops to Afghanistan must be part of a winning strategy. But US forces are overstretched globally and that’s why Obama must ask NATO allies to provide more forces. Even though Europeans overwhelmingly endorsed Obama’s presidential bid they have no desire to increase their Afghan role. In fact, the Taliban’s recent campaign of violence has shaken European will to contribute any troops much less more to NATO’s Afghan mission.

Obama’s Afghan war plan must also address the politically sensitive issue of aggressively pursuing Taliban militias and al Qaeda terrorists that are taking refuge in Pakistan’s tribal areas. In 2007, Obama promised that “…if we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets” in Pakistan and that government “won’t act, we will.”

Recently, the US increased cross-border raids and drone missile attacks against enemy forces inside Pakistan. Those assaults have angered Pakistani officials such as Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Pakistan’s military chief, who promised to defend his borders at “all costs.” Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari said US attacks were “…counterproductive and difficult to explain by a democratically elected government.”
Obama must now confront the reality of a precariously unstable Pakistan's domestically unpopular alliance with the West, the extensive infiltration of its military and intelligence services by Islamist radicals, the fractiously feudal composition of the populations along its border with Afghanistan, and --perhaps most poignantly-- the likely intransigence and apathy of our so-called "traditional allies" in Europe, whose military capabilities are only slightly more limited than their willingness to use them. He must thread multiple needles, with the growing knowledge that many lives will be lost if he should so much as drop a stitch.

Already, Russian puppet-president Medvedev (for the record, pronounced med-VYED-yev) has wasted no time in throwing down the gauntlet before the untried POTUS-to-be. Puppet-master Putin is banking on Obama's previous statements expressing skepticism about the effectiveness and desirability of missile interceptor batteries stationed in Eastern Europe, and, as usual, has masterfully scoped the table before playing his hand:

Medvedev said he holds no animus for Americans and hopes “…the US administration, will make a choice in favor of full-fledged relations with Russia.” But he didn’t backdown [sic] on any front to include expanding Moscow’s military activities in the Middle East, Northern Africa and the Caribbean where Russian bombers and warships recently visited Cuba and Venezuela.

President-elect Obama will need all the political savvy he can muster and allies to deal with a belligerent Kremlin. But he shouldn’t expect help from Europe because Russian energy markets tend to be European-based and Moscow will leverage them to make the European Union squirm.
That last point deserves special mention: the degree to which the Russian economy is based on its ability to leverage its considerable energy supplies to gain geopolitical advantage cannot be overestimated. A sharp drop in the cost of oil and natural gas on the global markets would be devastating to Russia (as indeed it would be for a host of our adversaries). Obama's laudable but ill-conceived reluctance to develop domestic hydrocarbon energy supplies in favor of renewable sources which are just entering a very long pipeline (if you will pardon the pun) indicates a degree of naivete of which I hope he is presently cured. The global economic contraction which has accompanied the recent financial crisis has already precipitated a steep reduction in demand (and thus a concomitant drop in price) for petroleum. If this opportunity were maximized through aggressive pursuit of additional supplies, it could signal a perfect storm for the economies (and accompanying capacity for global mischief) of our various foes.

It is entirely possible that Obama's recent briefings will apprise him of the manifold ways in which these multiple threads wind round each other and form the fabric of the geopolitical veil-dance which George W Bush has doggedly (if often clumsily) executed during these last seven-plus years. It is still my belief that history will vindicate the Presidency of George Bush, but that is out of my hands (maybe the Li'l Cyte will write a thesis on the subject someday...). It is no secret that Obama was not My Guy...but he will presently be my President. As such, I wish him well, and would be more than happy to research the best ways to prepare a hearty dish of crow.

In the meantime, Senator Obama has tasted of the unexpurgated menu whose aroma outsiders like myself can discern only through a probably-unhealthily obsessive daily sniff. I have little doubt that it has seared his taste buds something fierce. I can only Hope that the experience will help him to Change his mind about how he deals with the kitchen staff. It could happen; he is a very smart man. But as with Intelligence, intelligence is only as good as what you do with it.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Observations in the Wake of Change

[by Mr.Hengist]

American elections provide the electorate with a choice between two viable candidates, with “choice” being the operative word. We have a choice between the Democrat and the Republican, and although we could vote for a candidate from another party or write in someone else not on the ballot, those are protest (or vanity) votes – that is to say, you can vote for whomever you wish but the reality is that either the D or the R will win. McCain was my choice over Obama, but that’s not to say that I considered McCain to be a good choice – he was, in my opinion, the better choice between the two. McCain was a flawed candidate who would have made a flawed POTUS, but, alas, there is no Party of Mr.Hengist to reflect my views on policy. Obama may prove himself to be a better POTUS than I think he’ll be and I’m open to that possibility.

At any rate, I’d like to make a few observations about the political aftermath of the 2008 election.

First: The election of a black man to the White House is historic, but it does not fundamentally change America. Instead it reflects a change in America that has already taken place, just as passing a milestone is an indication of how far we've already come. America is not now “post-racial” and probably never will be; that is to say, there will always be racism in America – in America, and all over the world. What this election shows is that it is time to stop accusing America of being a racist country. Not only was a black man elected to be POTUS, but his political opposition did not run on racist hatred or fear.
Indeed, had Condoleeza Rice not made it emphatically clear that she was not interested in political office then she may very well have been the Republican nominee in this election for POTUS, which would have been an Identity Politics two-fer. As it is, Hillary Clinton almost made it to the Democrat nomination and Sarah Palin was on the Republican ticket as VP. I think that goes a long way towards demonstrating that sexism in American politics is also a dead issue.
It can't have helped that, during the Democrat primaries, proponents of the Obama and Hillary camps lobbed racism and sexism accusations at each other, respectively (but not respectfully). I found it both disgusting and amusing - when the going got tough, they used the ammunition with which they were most familiar, ammunition which had previously been reserved for use against Republicans. I hope Democrats and Liberals learned a lesson from that. Between that internecine slander and the field of candidates we had in '08, Democrat Identity Politics has had another couple of arrows taken out of their quiver. That’s not to say that they won’t use them again, but I think they’ve been rendered largely ineffective.

Second: The Democrats are now responsible. When they were the opposition party to the Republicans they had little by way of constructive alternatives to Republican policy – quick to object but largely absent were their alternatives. Case in point: Iran and their pursuit of nuclear weapons. For years the Democrats have warned that POTUS Bush was about to bomb Iran but I’ve not seen them come up with a policy alternative to what’s already in place, aside from the vague admonition to apply copious quantities of the magic pixie dust of diplomacy. Their political opposition hamstrung POTUS Bush, and what happens next will be entirely their responsibility, and fault, should they fail to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons. The entirely predictable and inevitable resulting hegemony of Iran over the Persian Gulf states and the use of nuclear weapons against Israel (either directly or through their proxy, Hezbollah) will underscore the folly of relying on Democrats to reign in and quash evil. Between Iran, the Islamic Jihadists, the resurgent empire-building of Russia, and the rising world-power of China (and their coveting of Taiwan), POTUS Obama and the Democratic majority in Congress will have their work cut out for them. I wish them good luck with that – and I mean that sincerely. I would rather they succeed and I’m proven wrong in my pessimism about their competency than to be proven to have been correct.

Third: The Liberal accusations of stolen elections in '02 and '04 have been proven false. They always lacked proof, and now that the Democrats won resoundingly in '08 there can be no doubt that past accusations were complete bunk. The ability to rig election results is not arbitrarily abandoned; it's not as if whatever Republican means of stealing elections was discovered and rooted out, nor is it plausible that they had a change of heart and decided to let the electorate have their way this time around. Note that the gullible Liberals who fell for this meme should be slapping their foreheads in slackjawed amazement that their victory was even possible, as they should have done in '06 when they won a slim Congressional majority, and they should be demanding accountability of the Liberal politicians, pundits, and bloggers who misled them.

Fourth: Campaign Finance Reform will remain a dead issue until the Republicans start raising more money than the Democrats, at which point the Democrats will once again rail against the corruption of big-money in politics. That will be our cue to point and laugh at them.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Our Turn in the Wilderness

Since I'm not a real journalist (I don't even play one on CNN), I have the luxury of letting things settle in my mind before commenting on them. I was thankful for that last night. Such a wide range of conflicting thoughts and emotions were swirling around in their tincture of Merlot that I would no more have trusted myself to go to the keyboard than to the steering wheel. I doubt an editor would have empathized.

As usual, when great events overtake me, my thoughts turn to Joseph Campbell. The literature of comparative mythology has been formative in my approach to life and my understanding of the human condition. We keep telling the same stories to ourselves, again and again, in different forms and different contexts, unfolding different facets of universal themes. One of those themes is that of the Fall and subsequent Redemption. Whether we speak of Jonah/Jesus/Moses (et. al.) in the Judeo-Christian mythology, or the European Troubador/Courtly Love literature, or the multiple avatars of the Hero's Journey which show up pretty much everywhere, there is a persistent motif of overreach, collapse, exile/quest, and Return.

There is little question that the Republican party has crumbled into a state of incoherence and decadence at least since 2004 (and arguably as far back as 1994), and last night was its moment to Fall.

I think what so often gets lost in our policy discussions (even the ones which manage to stay civil) is the fact that between the Liberal and Conservative positions there are clear differences between two more-or-less equally valid and coherent world-views:

Liberals believe in the perfectibility of humanity through the rational implementation of deliberate societal engineering which creates the conditions for an equitable access to society's resources, for the benefit of all. The role of government is to determine what will best serve its citizens, and to devise the means by which to make it so. It is, in essence, a revolutionary world-view, since it holds to the idea that you improve the lot of the individual by re-making society to serve him.

Conservatives believe in the perfectibility of humanity through the removal of as many obstacles as possible to the individual's ability to identify and pursue her interests and maximize her resources through her own industry and ingenuity. It recognizes that inequities will arise, but that they are the results of differential levels of inventiveness and effort within a given, fair marketplace of opportunities. The role of government is to stay out of the way, to be thrifty with the collective resources (since they will be put to the most good in the hands of individuals making rational decisions about how to deploy them for their own ends), and to address any systematic and unjust impediments to the availability of opportunities to compete in good faith. It is, in essence, an evolutionary paradigm (which, yes, is ironic, given some of its proponents' positions on the concept!), since it holds that any top-down societal engineering will be inherently inferior to the collective variation-and-selection which will emerge from the mass of decisions made by individuals to improve their own lots.

The Republican party has failed miserably in its mandate to be the champion of the Conservative world-view. It has allowed itself to fall prey to the allure of K Street lobbyists, to dole out pork like it was a never-ending state fair, and to operate the economy on logarithmically escalating deficits without breaking a sweat. And all the while, it has had the hypocritical temerity to drone on about the importance of "limited government" and "fiscal responsibility." Last night, the country cried "bullshit."

One of the things which had appealed to me the most about John McCain was that he had a long and proven record of fiscal conservativism (to the unending annoyance of his fellow Republicans!). It was my hope that his election would bring this issue to the front burner and restore the clarity of the contrast between the Liberal and Conservative perspectives, so that the people could make a more informed choice about which they preferred, when mid-term elections came around in two years. Alas, the damage was too extensive for such an on-the-fly retool.

Congressional Republicans had so tarnished the brand that there was no clear distinction between the top-heavy, spending-rich approach of Liberalism, and the lean, unintrusive, free-market approach of Conservatism. It is hardly surprising that so many Americans voted for a "change." The tragedy, in my eyes, is that they have voted for those who would do, as a matter of policy, much of what those they voted out have been doing out of sloppiness and greed. Again, this is not to say that Liberalism is inherently bad, any more than Conservatism is inherently good. It is simply that the distinction was so muddied that that the decision was in part based on corrupted data.

Still, this too is part of what happens in a marketplace of ideas, and therein lies the opportunity before us. The Conservative perspective has been forced out of the village and now must wander in the purifying wilds in search of a vision. Meanwhile, the Liberal perspective has its moment to make its case, largely uncontested (though, thankfully, the filibuster option is preserved in the Senate, where it will perform its function to thwart the perennial hubris of the long-frustrated conqueror). It is a thing fervently to be hoped that Conservatives will find their 'spirit guide' and return to the clarity of purpose which will enable them to make their case to an American electorate which will be able to discern the contours of these competing paradigms, and decide whether to let them back within the city walls.


While I'm on the subject of Hero's Journeys, though, it would be badly remiss of me not to note with considerable pride in our Nation that a Black man has just been elected president of the United States! Just about within my lifetime, American Blacks were getting sprayed down with fire hoses for demonstrating peacefully, and now a generation of kids (notably, mine) will have no objective basis for the idea that any door is closed to folks of color. The very idea will seem silly to them. Whatever else comes of this, I don't know that I would have much to say to anyone who failed to see that as a staggering advance in the evolution of our society.

I have very pronounced policy differences with President-Elect Obama, and grave concerns about the direction in which he may take our Nation. But that is for another day. Today, I am proud and impressed with our great Republic for taking an immense step toward a truly post-racial society. It's about bloody time!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

For What It's Worth

This evening, I made the last of what turned out to be approximately 500 calls over the last few days for the McCain campaign (wonderful and simple tech; sign up on the web site, get fed numbers of registered voters, and fill out some drop-down menu items documenting the results of the calls). They were all in PA (I got to pick that, too). I was fully prepared to get yelled at quite a bit.

The results were quite a bit more encouraging than I'd expected for a state which had gone Blue the last few elections. Now, the vast majority of these calls consisted of messages on answering machines, about whose reception I will never know. There were also a great many wrong numbers, disconnected lines, busy signals, and sundry fax machines. I would say that I actually got through to maybe 10% of the voters I called. Of those, however, I found that upwards of 75% expressed strong or average support for McCain...and most of these were from families multiple members of whom would be voting the same way. I spoke with two undecided voters. One of them was leaning slightly toward McCain, and I think I left him slightly more favorably disposed to vote McCain-Palin.

What is interesting about this is that my highly unscientific, low-power polling turned out to be much more in line with the most optimistic polls than with those which have been churned out for general consumption. Again, I was rather taken aback by the strong support I encountered, and not just in the rural interior of the state.

It will not be long now till the American people will render the final judgment about who will take the tiller for the next four years. In due course, power will slide smoothly (by any historical standard) into a new set of hands. I plan to continue my personal tradition of dressing professionally for what is the closest thing to a religious observance that remains to me (pretty much the only time I ever wear a tie these days), and proudly press the touch pad to register my preference on the best course forward for our Republic. The fact that I was able to add just a wee bit more volume to my vote with a few phone calls has been a curiously empowering sensation.

Monday, November 3, 2008

A Crying Shame

Over at Pajamas Media the other day, I happened across this wise and poignant article by Michele Catalano. The title, "When Choosing a Candidate Means Losing A Friend," says it all. It made such an impression on me that I printed it out and put a copy in my waiting room. For all the fervor with which I believe that an Obama presidency would be a grievous setback for our Nation on a wide variety of fronts, I am nowhere near the Scary Place where one dismisses and ostracizes friends and acquaintances for holding different opinions in good conscience. Good thing, too; that would pretty much leave me alone!

This past week-end, at the birthday party for some very dear friends' outlandishly adorable son, I saw a mutual acquaintance, and extended greetings. Dead air in return. At first, I dismissed it as my simply not having broken through the ambient mayhem of a bouncy-gym filled with shrieking little humans and their multitasking parents. Several more iterations of attempted greetings, however, yielded the same lack of acknowledgment. Never having known her especially well myself (Madame Noocyte was quite a bit better acquainted with her), I didn't give it much more thought. It was only today that I was informed by Ma'me 'Cyte, who had spoken with our hostess, that the young lady in question had spied the McCain bumper sticker on my car....

Upon hearing this, I was irritated for approximately four minutes. Then I just got sad. Now, it's not that the absence of this young woman's esteem stands to leave a particularly large void in my life --she always seemed a pleasant enough sort, but in the end I saw her a few times a year and shared some light-hearted chit-chat at most. What got me grieving was this very direct --if modest, and thankfully unique-- experience of the human costs of letting the shrill partisan smear machine replace reasoned political discourse in this country.

Somewhere along the line, it became the norm to amp up the volume in our political conversation, to the point where passion and conviction have simply dissolved into an undecipherable blast of acrimonious static. Clarity of analysis and critical thinking have been immolated on the altar of partisanship, leaving raw sputtering nerve endings more suited to hate than debate. It's become a take-no-prisoners, zero-sum game, in which any 'inconvenient truth' must be crushed, lest it interfere with one's chosen narrative. To even concede that one's opponent's world-view has a scintilla of merit is to threaten one's purchase on 'Truth' and to awaken a kind of existential dread which brooks no compromise. So, people retreat into their respective echo chambers and glower at each other, launching talking points like mortar shells across a cratered no-man's land, littered with the corpses of basic human relationships.

I fear that this will only get worse, regardless of who wins tomorrow. If, as I earnestly hope, McCain squeaks to victory, the Left will resume its raging about "stolen" elections...only this time with an ugly racial overtone. If Obama crosses the finish line, then it may well be the Right's turn to go savage. Either way, damage will be done. For my part, however, I plan no mean-spirited victory dances if my side wins, nor any spasms of rage if it does not. Politics rise and fall with the tides, and we ride them out as best we can, knowing that this is America, where hope and change are far more than mere bumper stickers. As for my true and valued friends, I hope to have them in my life to argue with about many an election to come.


See also this eloquent little op-ed by "Instapundit," Glen Reynolds. Key quote:
I'm not an Obama fan, particularly, but a lot of people I like and respect are. To treat Obama as something evil or subhuman would not only be disrespectful toward Obama, but toward them. Instead, I hope that if Obama is elected, their assessment of his strengths will turn out to be right, and mine will turn out to be wrong. Likewise, those who don't like John McCain or Sarah Palin might reflect that by treating Palin and McCain as obviously evil and stupid, they're disrespecting tens of millions of their fellow Americans who feel otherwise. And treating a presidency held by a guy you don't like as presumptively illegitimate suggests that presidents rule not by election, but by divine right, so that whenever the "other guy" wins, he's automatically a usurper.

We don't have to agree on issues, or on leaders. But if we can't agree that a free and fair election can produce a legitimate president even when it's not the candidate we like, then we've got a very serious problem.


Sunday, November 2, 2008

A Bit of Perspective

Via Instapundit, comes this reflection on the man for whom I will be voting on Tuesday.

Haters are invited to engage in the exercise of imagination which the writer proposes. What would you have done?

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Snaking the Drain (UPDATED AND BUMPED)

(Originally posted October 18th, 2008. Scroll down for update)

Not much time to post tonight. I suppose that's just as well. Given the topic -- Obama surrogates' strenuous efforts to assassinate the character of a certain plumber from Ohio, for the sin of asking a question about The One's tax plan-- I do not trust myself to stay civil. So, instead of going on at length about the sheer nauseating spectacle of these supposed champions of the Common Man digging through the dumpsters of this common man's life, in order to discredit his credentials to question their plan for distributing wealth from those who earn it to those who don't (for the Common Good, of course), I will merely link to some words by those who have gone on about it themselves.

Mark Steyn does it with his signature withering snark.

Iowahawk does it with righteous rage and a call to action.

Neo-Neocon and Ed Morrissey do it with passionate but thoughtful appeals to the implications for free speech and the right of dissent under a putative (and punitive) Obama Administration.

Socialist redistributionism of the kind that was revealed when Joe met O and the mask slipped, is the ultimate disincentive for industry and entrepreneurship. It punishes those who strive to advance their interests by their effort and ingenuity, and who dare to hope for the chance to maximize and deploy their energies (including capital) as they choose. It punishes them by siphoning off those energies without their know, so as to "spread the wealth."

Now, in its pure form, capitalism can be a brutal, anarchistic jungle in which innocents get stomped by the strong and unscrupulous. But capitalism in its pure form is rare, and is unlikely to exist in this nation (especially now!). It has been and must be tempered by mechanisms which check the most predatory of behaviors and protect those who would still like the opportunity to rise through the system and realize their dreams (antitrust and some labor laws, for example).

However, socialism has been pretty thoroughly vetted by history, and has been found wanting. Indeed, it has accumulated quite an impressive stack of examples of the ways in which it muffles prosperity, stifles creativity, tramples on liberty, and ultimately arrogates to itself the right to manage the lives of its hapless subjects...up to the point where -- in its most 'pure' forms -- it assumes the right to give and take life itself (for the benefit of all, of course).

If there is one thing which the tale of Joe The Plumber has shown us, it is the methodology by which those of a socialistic bent will spring into action to preserve their narrative of Fairness. "Thou Shalt Not Question" is the prime lesson we can take away from this, and if an Obama administration would constitute the skinny edge of such a wedge, then the Universe save us all if we should allow that hammer to fall.


UPDATE: Even more shameful than it had originally seemed. According to Hot Air's Ed Morissey, it was not simply the Obama-boosting media which went digging around in Joe the Plumber's septic tank, but an Ohio public official used the resources of her office to lend a shovel!

When last we heard from Helen Jones-Kelley, the director of Ohio’s Job and Family Services Division insisted that she has everyone who gets public attention checked to see if they owe family support. Now, with more details about the searches performed on Joe Wurzelbacher becoming public, Jones-Kelley acknowledges she didn’t quite tell the entire truth at first. Her department also ran checks on taxes and welfare payments to see if they could catch Joe the Plumber cheating the system

This is simply outrageous. The man asked a question, and the candidate's answer alerted many to the underlying redistributionist philosophy of that candidate, and thus created a backlash among those who would rather not have the Government telling them when their level of hard-earned success becomes "unfair," like someting out of "Harrison Bergeron." For the crime of asking that question, sympathetic government operatives have misused their power to facilitate a media hatchet job on this plain-spoken, hard-working citizen.

And the country appears to be teetering on the brink of placing that candidate at the helm of an undivided government, composed largely of people who would see no problem with this sort of behavior...for the Greater Good, of course.

Here's a thought experiment: Imagine if it had been a Rebublican-friendly government official who had dug into government computer records to impugn the reputation of an Obama-supporting citizen who asked Sarah Palin a question whose answer made her look bad.

Pretty hard to imagine, yes?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

On Smiting Sarah (For The Good Of Womyn Everywhere)

There was a wonderful moment in "Sex And The City" (yes, I watched "Sex and The City." And I loved it. Move on), when the ever-perky and optimistic Charlotte falls in with a group of lesbians, who mistakenly believe that she shares their orientation. She is enthralled by the strength and smarts and self-actualization of these women, and makes no effort to refute their belief about her. When she is finally "outed" as straight, she gives a lovely, touching, frankly stirring oration about how she may not share the sexual orientation of the group, but she does share something far more fundamental: a deep belief in the solidarity and shared strength of women who chart their own courses through life and nourish each others strengths and dreams. She makes an impassioned plea to be accepted into their group on the strength of these bedrock affinities...only to be heart-breakingly (as only Kristin Davis' big doe eyes can communicate) cut down by a hilariously coarse reduction of what it "really" takes to hang with the Sapphic Crowd...

It was this marvelous moment from the series (I still haven't seen the movie) which leapt to my mind when I read this article on Sarah Palin, by the former editor of Ms. Magazine (!). In it (h/t to Hot Air for the link), Elaine Lafferty commits the mortal sin of declaring Sarah Palin "smart."

Now by “smart,” I don't refer to a person who is wily or calculating or nimble in the way of certain talented athletes who we admire but suspect don't really have serious brains in their skulls. I mean, instead, a mind that is thoughtful, curious, with a discernable (sic) pattern of associative thinking and insight. Palin asks questions, and probes linkages and logic that bring to mind a quirky law professor I once had. Palin is more than a “quick study”; I'd heard rumors around the campaign of her photographic memory and, frankly, I watched it in action. She sees. She processes. She questions, and only then, she acts. What is often called her “confidence” is actually a rarity in national politics: I saw a woman who knows exactly who she is.

If you have a strong stomach for blistering vitriol, just have a look at the comments on the article.

Ms. Lafferty is no fan of Palin's stance on abortion, as she makes plain on several occasions in the article. However, she is just as dismayed by the condescending, exclusionary, and remarkably misogynistic criticism leveled at Governor Palin by those who hold themselves up as the defenders of Feminism:

Last month a prominent feminist blogger, echoing that sensibility, declared that the media was wrongly buying into the false idea that Palin was a feminist. Why? Well, just because she said she was a feminist, because she supported women's rights and opportunities, equal pay, Title IV—that was just “empty rhetoric,” they said. At least the blogger didn't go as far as NOW's Kim Gandy and declare that Palin was not a woman. Bottom line: you are not a feminist until we say you are. And there you have the formula for diminishing what was once a great and important mass social change movement to an exclusionary club that rejects women who sincerely want to join and, God forbid, grow to lead.
So much for a big tent.

Sarah Palin has legitimate policy differences with much of the Feminist establishment, to be sure. She is not a secular, Progressive, Pro-Choice foot-soldier of the Gloria Steinem mold. What she is, is an intelligent, accomplished, by all appearances happy and fulfilled woman who has risen by her merits (and, of course, by serendipitous positioning within electoral calculations...but in that world, who isn't ?!) to the very gate to the path up to the door-step of the highest position in the Land. You'd think that this would earn her at least the grudging respect of women everywhere who seek to expand their horizons of efficacy in the world. You'd think they would find in her a model of how strong, determined women of all ideological persuasions could play in the biggest of the big leagues.

Apparently, you'd be wrong.

Oh, well, I guess if you don't rage against the rapacious, phallocentric Patriarchy and its Gynophobic God, then you can't really be a feminist.

Monday, October 27, 2008

SOF Raid Into Syria: Multitasking in Mesopotamia

Bill Roggio at the Long War Journal reports that today's raid 5 miles into Syrian territory from Iraq was an unprecedented operation whose purpose was apparently the capture of a very high value target:

The US military incursion into Syria was aimed at the senior leader of al Qaeda's extensive network that funnels foreign fighters, weapons, and cash from Syria into Iraq, a senior intelligence official told The Long War Journal.

US special operations hunter-killer teams entered Syria in an attempt to capture Abu Ghadiya, a senior al Qaeda leader who has been in charge of the Syrian network since 2005. US intelligence analysts identified Ghadiya as the leader of the Syrian network, The Washington Post reported in July. Ghadiya was identified as a “major target” by the US military in February 2008.

When I first heard that Special Forces had actually infiltrated and dismounted from their gunships for this raid, my first thought was that we had received some extremely credible intel on the location of some very important AQI figure, possibly even AQI leader Abu Ayyub al Masri himself. There was simply no other explanation for not just launching a hellfire or five down a chimney. This post from the invaluable FormerSpook at "In From The Cold" echoed my suspicions.

Excellent as it would have been to capture or kill al Masri, this is just about as good. Capturing or eliminating someone like Ghadiya, while he was strolling free and unworried on Syrian soil would accomplish several ends at once.

First, it would deal a severe blow to the organizational and command structure of what remains of AQI. You can rightly make the "Hydra-head" argument here, but it would only go so far; the capacity for an embattled organization like AQI to continually replenish its senior-most commanders and facilitators is finite. The loss of organizational memory and continuity which such merciless attrition inflicts will have a cumulative effect on an organization's ability to integrate its activities and stay anywhere near inside the decision cycle of its enemies. Its activities will fragment, its operational security will degrade (yielding more actionable intelligence, and thus accelerating the cycle), and the degree to which it is able to attract recruits will erode in much the way that the oft-quoted character from The Sun Also Rises went broke..."gradually, and then suddenly."

Next, a raid into Syrian territory would send a message to Syrian president Assad that there are costs associated with continuing his policy of winking at the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq. Although that flow has slowed to a relative trickle over the last year or so (but don't say the Surge worked!), it is a particularly toxic trickle. The tacit (?) complicity of the Damascus regime in the continued flow of terroristic Jihadis into northwestern Iraq had greatly complicated the pacification and reconstruction of that region, and it is high time that it encountered consequences. For, despite the predictable plume of propaganda which rises from any such bold action, the fact is that such a highly politically dangerous operation --which would have had to be approved at a very high level-- would not have been undertaken unless there were rock-solid intel which supported the taking of such risk. Much like last September's Israeli strike on what is generally believed to have been an unfinished Syrian nuclear reactor site, this operation is a signal to Assad that others are, indeed, paying attention to his actions, and that there are limits to how far he can push without experiencing push-back. Given the renowned Syrian penchant for gamesmanship, such firm limits are absolutely essential.

On yet another geopolitical level, an action like today's raid puts a prominent punctuation mark on efforts to drive a wedge between Damascus and Tehran. There are definite carrots dangling before Assad's eyes (the potential return of the Golan Heights, via some sort of negotiated settlement with Israel, for example). But the sticks which would drop on his head if he should be less than comprehensive in his divorce from the Mullahcracy do bear emphasizing. One of the Iranian regime's most potent weapons (given how "tiny" a country it is...) is its ability to forward-deploy Hezbollah operatives into a variety of theaters. Since Hezbollah is very much a creature of Lebanon and Syria (though nurtured and funded from Tehran), a schism between Syria and Iran would drain much of the mojo from that organization in its capacity as unconventional forces of the Islamic Republic.

Finally, this action further emphasizes the fundamental continuity between the various theaters of operation within the Long War. Reading about the raid into Syria, I was reminded of nothing else so much as the various similar raids and strikes into Pakistani territory, in an effort to attack AQ Prime and its Taliban lapdogs. At the most fundamental level, the two areas of operation are as contiguous on a strategic level as they are distant on the tactical. This last is a reality which is, alas, all-too often obscured to score political points, amid much nonsense about where the "Real Enemy" resides. The Real Enemy resides wherever the ideology of Radical Islamism takes up arms to expand its purchase in the world. The task of our generation is to beat it back wherever it so asserts itself.

I fear the time may soon come when we will look back wistfully on the days when we lived in a Nation which would take bold risks such as these to protect our allies and ourselves. As of this writing, there is still just a bit of time to weigh the real risks, to decisively reject the pious pontifications of addle-headed amnesiacs, and to keep us on the offensive against the evil (there, I said it!) arrayed against us.

(UPDATED to airbrush several small but irksome spelling and minor structural errors from wee-hours blogging)

Friday, October 24, 2008

On Peanuts and ACORNS

When people ask me why on earth I would not vote for Obama, my usual toss-off answer is along the lines of "because one Carter Administration was quite enough, thankyouverymuch."

So, it was grimly satisfying to read today that others have been thinking along just these lines.

Thirty years later, we are still trying to extricate ourselves from the cluster-frack of that pusillanimous poltroon's presidency. Are we really about to refresh that page now?

The Trojan Donkey

Over at Hot Air, I encountered an article which eerily echoed some of my own recent thoughts on the candidacy of Barack Obama. The article is by Rich Lowry, at the National Review Online.

...And right there, I can feel any Liberal readers out there checking out and glazing over. "Oh geez; the National-Freakin'-Review?! No need to even consider the content of such an article; the source tells me all I need to know."

Interestingly, therein lies my point. The superficial appearance of a thing can prevent one from seeing into its substance. In the case of Obama's campaign, that appearance is one of a steady, moderate Uniter, an emissary to a New Era of post-partisan, aisle-crossing Change, with a side of enlightened Hope. Comparisons arise to the campaigns of Bill Clinton...but they are at best skin deep:

Obama’s campaign has some of the trappings of Bill Clinton’s winning 1992 and 1996 campaigns. Obama is like Clinton in 1992 in that he’s running against a deeply unpopular incumbent president (although George W. Bush isn’t on the ballot) and brandishing a middle-class tax cut. He’s like Clinton in 1996 in that he’s burying an older opponent in an avalanche of paid advertising, while branding himself a centrist.

Clinton had earned the right in 1992 to run as a “new kind of Democrat” by confronting liberal interest groups in the primaries. Obama simply showed up the day after he won the nomination and declared himself a centrist. Everything since has been couched in reassuring, moderate terms in brilliant salesmanship worthy of the best minds at the American Marketing Association.

For the most part, Obama has uttered the cant of centrism and reasonableness with admirable consistency. It is an image which a cooperative mainstream media has taken no pains to conceal its collusion in promulgating. But, from time to time, the mask has slipped (an exchange with a certain plumber comes to mind...). More fundamentally, his actual record (such as it is) has been that of a hard-core Progressive, voting with a leftward-lurching Democratic party between 96 and 97% of the time, landing him to the left of Ted Kennedy (!) . Even the New York Times has called into question the extent to which such a creature of the hard Left can realistically be expected to govern as anything even remotely resembling a "moderate."

Yet, this is the image which he has pushed in his campaign, and a slim majority of the American electorate appears to be falling for it, hook, line, and sinker.

I could sit here and go through Obama's specific positions, policies, and statements, picking them apart and laying out the pieces for all to examine...but that burden has already been borne by more capable hands than mine. Rather, I feel compelled to highlight the aspect of an Obama Presidency which scares me above all: the prospect of an undivided government with an activist bent.

If elected, Obama will return to Washington with expanded and emboldened liberal majorities in both the Senate and the House. Congress was the un-doing of his two Democratic forebears. Carter was stiff-necked with a Democratic Congress, and that made it nearly impossible for him to govern; Clinton accommodated his Democratic Congress in 1993-94, and it pulled him to the left to devastating effect in the 1994 congressional elections.

For a President Obama, moderation could no longer be merely a pose that represents the path of political least resistance; he’d have to fight for it every day with partisan colleagues who are older and tougher than he is.
If you take nothing else away from this post, I most strenuously urge you to reflect on this prospect: all three branches of this government (assuming that at least one Supreme Court Justice retires or expires, to be replaced --all-but uncontested-- by very Liberal-leaning jurists), operating in lock-step, with no serious checks on their ability to experiment with everything from the tax code to the business of National defense. I don't know about you, but I wouldn't want either party to have that kind of power. It flies directly in the face of the intent of the Constitution's framers, who were justifiably quite wary of such unchecked hegemony.

Yet, this is the very thing which an Obama Presidency would offer, despite the high-sounding rhetoric of bringing people together and governing for the good of all. It sure sounds good, and the outward appearance of it is pleasing indeed. But history abounds with examples of some very sharp rocks lurking under such seemingly beatific waters.

Advocates for the kind of revolutionary social change which is the clarion-call of the Democratic party these days would do well to consider the lessons of previous attempts to re-create society at a run. The French Revolution's spasmodic response to tyranny led inexorably to the Terror of Robespierre and the Jacobins, and a straight shot to Napoleon. I have no histrionic illusions that such a fate awaits the US, should Obama win the White House, of course. However, neither do I underestimate the damage that even 2 - 4 years of unaccountable social engineering could wreak on our Republic. I've been riding around on this planet long enough to have concluded that the most we should ask of government is to do as little damage as possible, while society evolves at its own pace.

The promise/threat of a self-styled Transformational Figure like Obama is one that we would do well to examine very closely...particularly when it rolls up to the gates in the form of a boon too good to be true.

I've peeked inside of that gift, and it scares me mightily. Fortunately, there is an alternative.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Say it Ain't So, Joe

Before I get down to the topic of this post, I want to pause and mention this report from the AP that Barack Obama will be suspending his campaign for a couple of days to fly to Hawaii, where his 85 year-old grandmother is reported to be gravely ill. I'm not the praying kind, but, for what it may be worth, my thoughts and wishes travel with him, that his grandmother will rally. If she should not, then I hope that they will at least get to spend some very fine moments together before she slips off.

Dropping off the trail at such a crucial time in the campaign is verily a menschy thing to do, and Obama's humanity stock has jumped more than a few points for your humble commentator. I fully expect that the response from the McCain campaign will be classy and respectful (from some of his surrrogates, alas, not so much).

But while I respect the man and I respect the office, this does not mean that he is the man for the office.

Yesterday, Joe Biden reaffirmed one of the principal reasons why Obama is not that man. Quoth Joe:
"Mark my words," the Democratic vice presidential nominee warned at the second of his two Seattle fundraisers Sunday. "It will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy. The world is looking. We're about to elect a brilliant 47-year-old senator president of the United States of America. Remember I said it standing here if you don't remember anything else I said. Watch, we're gonna have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy."

"I can give you at least four or five scenarios from where it might originate," Biden said to Emerald City supporters, mentioning the Middle East and Russia as possibilities. "And he's gonna need help. And the kind of help he's gonna need is, he's gonna need you - not financially to help him - we're gonna need you to use your influence, your influence within the community, to stand with him. Because it's not gonna be apparent initially, it's not gonna be apparent that we're right."
This may be one of the first foreign policy pronouncements which Biden has actually not gotten breathtakingly wrong, as he has (I can only assume) inadvertently stumbled upon a profound yet simple truth of geopolitics (if not necessarily of humanity as a whole): perceived dominance is predictive of tests to that dominance.

A few years ago, in one of Stratfor's George Friedman's free Geopolitical essays (alas, I can't remember which one, and the archives don't go back that far without membership), it was said (and I paraphrase) that, in tough negotiations with a determined foe, it helps if that foe sees his opponent as strong, resolute, and a little bit nuts.

Speaking to that last bit, anyone who has listened to Obama cannot walk away without the impression that he is, if nothing else, a consummately rational man. He is a studious, methodical thinker who exudes a confidence that the world is inherently comprehensible, and from that confidence flows a cool assurance that a deep and nuanced enough understanding will ineluctably lead to a system of solutions for any problems which arise. It is an admirable quality in a scholar and in a senator.

An Executive, however, cannot allow himself the luxury of rationalizing the actions and motivations of the irrational, or, more properly, of those who operate under the dictates of fundamentally different --and competing-- species of rationality. He must confront the logic of Radical Islam, which orders its thinking and planning according its utter certainty that it is Divinely commanded and destined to subdue all other belief systems, by the sword if necessary. He must confront the rationality of a resurgent Russia, which calculates the weaknesses and fracture lines among all who might stand in the way of avenging its pock-marked pride and wresting a role as a regional hegemon and global power. He must confront the machinations of a rising China, as it gyrates through its multi-millennial dance of weakening rival empires to cement the safety of its walled-off borders.

He must, however reluctantly, accept the reality that you don't bring a pen to a knife fight.

In what may qualify as the mother of all unforced errors, Biden has articulated the most compelling reason not to vote for Obama. Leaving aside (with great effort) the potentially disastrous effects of his statist, bureaucratic plans for an economy in crisis, and his highly problematic associations (and the ideology they reveal), the bottom line is the degree to which we may be confident in his credibility among world leaders in whose dominance-driven view of the world, negotiation equals submission. Biden has pretty much come out and said that Obama's approach to domestic and world affairs will invite probing thrusts from those leaders whose willingness to "test his mettle," must arise out of belief that it is a worthwhile bet that their fire will melt it. Whether or not he should rise to the occasion and meet the challenge with acumen and strength, surely it would be better for the victims of that challenge if it were never made at all. Essentially, Biden said "Just you wait; we're gonna get hit hard, and Obama's gonna do great!"

But he doesn't stop there. Biden goes on to say that we will have to support Obama "Because it's not gonna be apparent initially, it's not gonna be apparent that we're right." Think about that for a moment. In the midst of this "generated crisis" which he is so sure we are going to face, Biden is exorting us to be patient while Obama makes his play. We are to cleave to this certainty in the midst of a fast-moving, real-time disaster...just the sorts of things that tend to claim certainty among their first victims. Maybe Biden was referring to the need to be patient while Obama unfolds his meticulously crafted, eminently reasonable and nuanced response, whose final shape may not be evident in its initial stages. In some instances, this is just the right way to go, for the sake of faking out your opponents and hitting them when their guard is down. But it's a bit of a stretch to speculate that this is what Biden had in mind. It sounded more like he was remonstrating with us to be patient while Obama figured out how to respond.

And that simply will not do.

One need only reflect back to this past August (so long ago!) and Obama's risibly wrong-headed initial response to Russia's invasion of Georgia, to appreciate the prophetic quality of Biden's statements. Here was (another) one that McCain got right straight off the bat, while it took Obama (and, interestingly enough, Bush as well) some time to wend his way to approximately the same position. Had McCain been POTUS at the time, the position of the United States would have been crystal clear right from the get-go, and the policies arising from that position would have sprung into motion in a timely enough manner to argue persuasively to Russia that it had best re-think its game plan. Contrary to the catastrophic scenarios presented by so many in the "anti-war" crowd, meeting strength with strength actually decreases the chances of armed conflict. The moment when you believe the other guy will blink is the very best time to land a punch.

So, like McCain in his Al Smith Memorial Dinner address, I can't wish Obama luck...but I can wish him well. I wish him peace and closure in his family's crisis, and a long, prosperous career as a highly promising senator. But, should he find himself on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, I fear we may finally get to say the words; "Joe Biden was right."