Our Thermian elites

In the 1999 sci-fi comedy Galaxy Quest, Tim Allen stars as Jason Nesmith, a washed-up egotistical actor from a long-defunct television series in the vein of Star Trek. The show was cancelled 18 years ago, so Nesmith and his fellow co-stars make a living doing skits for advertisers using their old characters, going to fan conventions and signing autographs for $15 a piece.

Unbeknownst to them, broadcasts of Galaxy Quest reached the Thermians, an alien race locked in a genocidal struggle with the evil General Sarris. Interpreting the television show to be actual historical documents, the Thermians model their entire civilization after the heroic adventures of Commander Peter Taggart and his loyal crew. Eventually they travel to earth and recruit the unwitting Nesmith and his co-stars to lead them in battle against Sarris.

The Thermians are incomprehensibly naïve, leading to this exchange as the actors try to explain that they’re not really astronauts and can’t help them in their war with Sarris:

Life imitates farce.

In recent months I have been repeatedly reminded on the hapless Thermians by the comments of Western elites concerning the unraveling world order. No matter the issue – Russian aggression in eastern Europe, the Assad’s regime’s unwillingness to make peace with rebels, Iranian adventurism throughout the Middle East, China’s territorial ambitions, etc. – American and European policymakers seem completely unable to understand, let alone respond to, events. Comments in press conferences and media interviews haven acquired notes of despair. It is not simply that Western elites are disappointed by the failure of liberal internationalism and consensus-based foreign policy to secure peace; they seem bewildered…occasionally petulant. This indicates a deeper failing, as if more realist schools of thought are not even known to exist, and therefore no contingencies were made in accordance with their proscriptions. We are witnessing the complete intellectual failure of Western institutions, at least vis-à-vis foreign policy, akin to that which occurred in the years before World War II.

Edward Hallett Carr described those years in a way that could be seamlessly transposed to the present:

The statement that it is in the interest of the world as a whole that the conclusion eventually reached, whether maintenance or change, should be reached by peaceful means, would command general assent, but seems a rather meaningless platitude. The utopian assumption that there is a world interest in peace which is identifiable with the interest of each individual nation helped politicians and political writers everywhere to evade the unpalatable fact of a fundamental divergence of interests between nations desirous of maintaining the status quo and nations desirous of changing it. A peculiar combination of platitude and falseness thus became endemic in the pronouncements of statesmen about international affairs.

Listed below is a small sampling of illustrative quotes drawn from recent newspaper articles. I encounter similar comments with such frequency that this may become a recurring feature on the blog:

Worst possible city in which to host cease-fire talks.

Russian Intervention in Syrian War Has Sharply Reduced U.S. Options

MUNICH — For months now the United States has insisted there can be no military solution to the Syrian civil war, only a political accord between President Bashar al-Assad and the fractured, divided opposition groups that have been trying to topple him.

But after days of intense bombing that could soon put the critical city of Aleppo back into the hands of Mr. Assad’s forces, the Russians may be proving the United States wrong. There may be a military solution, one senior American official conceded Wednesday, “just not our solution,” but that of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

Confusion Reigns Over Syria Cease-Fire Deal

“There’s this concern that the Russians have a broad definition of terrorists and are going to essentially continue striking what they consider to be terrorist targets,” said a senior U.S. official who took part in the Munich talks.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice…

Russia Plays Familiar Hand in Syria 

Western officials say they are losing patience with Mr. Putin, accusing Russia of in effect pushing more moderate Syrian opposition into the arms of the extremist Islamic State…the Kremlin’s pattern of obfuscation – for instance, sending troops in unmarked uniforms to occupy Crimea while maintaining deniability – have left many skeptical of the latest diplomacy.

Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

Hospitals in Syria Bombed as Fighting Escalates

State Department spokesman John Kirby said the bombing of civilian targets “casts doubt on Russia’s willingness and/or ability to help bring to a stop the continued brutality of the Assad regime against its own people.”

Susan Rice, President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, also condemned the continued bombing. “We think it runs counter, frankly, to the commitment made in Munich on Friday,” she said.

Break out the big guns…

U.S. to have ‘very serious conversation’ with China over suspected South China Sea missile deployment

The United States is very concerned about China’s growing militarization of the South China Sea and intends to have a “very serious conversation” with Beijing after reports emerged that it had deployed suspected ­surface-to-air missile batteries on a disputed island, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Wednesday.

“There is every evidence, every day that there has been an increase of militarization of one kind or another,” Kerry told reporters when asked about the reported deployment, agencies reported. “It’s of serious concern.”

“We have had these conversations with the Chinese, and I am confident that over the next days we will have further very serious conversation on this,” Kerry said.

U.S.-Beijing Spat Escalates Over South China Sea

The Obama administration sharply criticized Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday after charging that China’s military had deployed batteries of advanced missiles on a disputed South China Sea island.

Secretary of State John Kerry said the missile deployment was at odds with a pledge made by Mr. Xi while visiting the White House last year to refrain from militarizing clusters of disputed islands throughout the South China Sea.

“When President Xi was here in Washington, he stood in the Rose Garden with President Obama and said China will not militarize in the South China Sea,” Mr. Kerry said on Wednesday. “But there is every evidence, every day that there has been an increase of militarization of one kind or another. It’s of serious concern.”

China Positions Missiles on Disputed South China Sea Island

Adm. Harry Harris Jr., the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, told reporters in Tokyo on Wednesday that he didn’t have confirmation of the missile deployment but that if true “it could be an indication of militarization of the South China Sea in ways that the president of China, President Xi [Jinping], said he would not do.”





Another one bites the dust

"Don't let the door hit you on the way out..."

“Don’t let the door hit you on the way out…”

President Obama has now lost his third Secretary of Defense in a six-year period, the latest in a series of unusually short-tenured leaders at the Pentagon. There are widespread reports that Chuck Hagel was frustrated by interference and micromanagement from the White House – a pathology of the Obama administration that was described in detail by Robert Gates. It appears that Hagel has been essentially marginalized in the Administration due to disagreements with President over US policy toward ISIS, Russia and China (in other words: all major policy issues). It seems as if President Obama considers the National Security Advisor to have responsibility for the country’s defense and military portfolios, while the Secretary of Defense is a bureaucratic functionary to execute orders and keep the Pentagon in line. It was recently revealed that Hagel authored a letter detailing his criticisms of the Administration’s Syria policy; the recipient was not his boss, President Obama, but Susan Rice, the National Security Advisor. Apart from any actual strategic disagreement between the Pentagon and the President, this dysfunctional command and control arrangement can be largely understood in light of the President’s background in academia. It is difficult to overstate the extent to which the military is an obsessive topic in the political science and constitutional law departments of America’s universities, where Eisenhower’s warnings about the “military-industrial complex” are repeated ad nauseam as a form of secular prophesy. Naturally, these discussions do not concern strategic issues such as the military’s proper structure or employment, but rather how a democratic society is to maintain control over a massive, professionalized, all-volunteer force. At one extreme are dark and outlandish fears about a coup led by a reactionary and anachronistic military. Most attention goes to the more prosaic issues of bureaucratic insubordination and the growing disconnect between the military and the society it defends. But for a professor on his way the White House, the lesson is clear: the military is going to be a political problem. Thus, when the President receives strategic pushback from the Pentagon, he does not engage with it on a policy level, but rather interprets it as the runaway insubordination he was warned of so many times back in the academy. From the Wall Street Journal:

“The White House fears what the Pentagon is going to say and do. The Pentagon fears how the White House will react. Both sides are nervous of the other,” said a longtime Pentagon official. “It has persisted through three secretaries now – Gates, Panetta and Hagel – and it will probably persist through a fourth secretary.”

This paranoia extends to the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Even if he was a personal confidant of the President – as Hagel was – the first disagreement between them is considered symptomatic of the dreaded bureaucratic capture, and from that point on the Secretary will be marginalized (if political considerations forbid his outright dismissal) while the more politically reliable – but strategically incompetent – commissars on the National Security Council staff intrude directly into the management of the DoD. I am very sympathetic to the President’s inclination to avoid becoming further entangled in the Syrian quagmire. But he needs to articulate his policy more clearly than just “I’m the President. I’m in charge. You’re not.” He also needs to realize that policy tussles over policy and strategy do not constitute insubordination or rogue bureaucracy. Civilian control of the military is a foundational plank of the Republic. Without it, America ceases to be. But a paranoid overzealousness in its enforcement has contributed to the dysfunctional strategy of this Administration.

Arms Control at its Worst

On Monday, the United States formally accused Russia of violating the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which bans ground-launched missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. Originally signed during the waning days of the Cold War, the treaty placated both the Soviet Union, which was eager to restore tactical nuclear superiority on the Eurasian landmass, and the Western European allies, who preferred that any NATO-Soviet war quickly escalate to a strategic nuclear exchange between the US and the Soviet Union, which would exhaust the main belligerents but leave Europe itself intact [in theory, at least]. The United States, however, ended up sacrificing a valuable class of weapons (such as Pershing II) that gave it a measure of tactical nuclear parity with Soviet forces. The accusation stems from Russian testing of two different systems, beginning in 2007. The first is the RS-26, an authorized ICBM, but Russia has been testing it at intermediate ranges, a circumvention of the INF Treaty. The second is the R-500 cruise missile, which can be deployed from existing Iskander launchers. There is evidence that the latter system has already been deployed, menacingly, opposite the Baltics.

Test launch of the R-500 on May 27, 2007.

Test launch of the R-500 on May 27, 2007.

On the face of it, Monday’s accusation seems appropriate, given the clear evidence of violation and Russia’s current belligerence over Ukraine. Obviously, the Russians disagree:

The statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry accused Washington of airing old grievances and using ‘megaphone diplomacy’ to try to score political points during the Ukraine crisis.

Unfortunately, the problem is that the Russian statement is closer to the truth on this issue. Take another look at the timing: evidence of prohibited testing has existed since 2008, and the White House was facing Congressional criticism for inaction as far back as 2012. And yet, only now, after Russia has invaded and annexed sovereign Ukrainian territory, sponsored an insurgency that has torn apart eastern Ukraine, made predatory glances toward the Baltics, and been complicit in the destruction of a civilian airliner, does the Administration bother making an official report of a treaty infraction. The problem is not that the accusation is false or unwarranted, but that, just as the Russians suggested, the Obama Administration considers it just another arrow in a weak quiver of diplomatic sanctions against Russia. Presumably, the US is willing to drop the issue – along with the other sanctions – when Putin scales back his involvement in eastern Ukraine. If the US was serious about enforcing arms control treaties, it would have reported the infraction years ago, when conclusive intelligence on the testing became available. Apparently, it avoided doing so to maintain the possibility of future agreements; it’s hard to sell Congress on a new arms control treaty when the current ones are being violated. Far too often in American history, arms control has been pursued not as a legitimate objective of national security, but as a legacy project for the incumbent President. The more agreements signed, the higher his place in the cosmic pantheon of peacemakers. When combined with the operative motto of most Western arms controllers – “a bad agreement is better than no agreement” – this ambition has left America with a long list of disadvantageous treaties, including INF, that have unnecessarily weakened its strategic position. It is extremely unlikely that Russian will return to compliance with INF. China and India are not party to the treaty. By acceding to the agreement in this strategic environment, the US is piously martyring itself before the altar of the False Trinity: arms control, disarmament and world peace. A more sensible course of action is a strategic reassessment concerning the role of the INF Treaty in US national security. Ground-launched missiles within the banned ranges are very relevant to the US position in east Asia: an offshore balancer attempting to deter China from a handful of small island bases.

Repost: Machiavelli on Gun Control

From the David Wootton translation:

No new ruler, let me point out, has ever disarmed his subjects; on the contrary, when he has found them disarmed, he has always armed them. For, when you arm them, their arms become yours, those who have been hostile to you become loyal, while those who have been loyal remain so, and progress from being your obedient subjects to being your active supporters … But if you take their arms away from those who have been armed, you begin to alienate them. You make it clear you do not trust them, either because you think they are poor soldiers or disloyal. Whichever view they attribute to you, they will begin to hate you.

The Prince, Chapter 20.

Advice to the President

Maybe you shouldn’t have fired this guy:

I can’t help but think that McKiernan is currently pondering the metaphysical nature of poetic justice. He was terminated because – as a supposed representative of the “Big Army” – his career track made him poorly suited for  counterinsurgency warfare. The Administration needed a different sort of general: one that wasn’t afraid to think outside the box; who could grasp the intellectual complexities of COIN, implement the President’s “new strategy” in Afghanistan, and lead an Army – still populated by too many dumb Cold War relics like McKiernan – into the new generation of warfare. In short, the White House needed their own man in Afghanistan.

Well…they got him.

Tales from the Beltway: Frenemies

The same diplomat that told us of Carter’s lovable antics in Japan later spoke on the nature of diplomacy itself, and the critical importance of personal relationships between diplomatic representatives as the foundation upon which effective negotiation can occur, even during periods of tension between their respective governments.

One of the examples he used to illustrate this occurred during his time with the US mission to the United Nations. In 1998, following the bombings of the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, President Clinton ordered cruise missile strikes on al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan and on a factory in Sudan that was suspected of manufacturing precursors for chemical weapons. Authorities in Sudan denied the allegations about the factory and claimed that it was simply a pharmaceutical plant, which immediately became the media narrative. The issue soon came before the Security Council. As a permanent member of the Council, the U.S. could obviously exercise its veto and shut down the debate, but acting in such a unilateral fashion would look bad politically. Thus, the US diplomat approached the representative from Brazil – a personal friend of his – and asked for some back-up.

When the matter came before the Council, the Brazilian gave a short but eloquent speech and asked the Council to defer action until after the US had some time to explain itself; after all, bombing pharmaceutical factories was not something the US did on a regular basis, and Washington deserved the benefit of the doubt. The Council agreed with him. Mission accomplished.

Shortly thereafter, however, the Council was discussing some issue concerning Angola. The same Brazilian who had been so accommodating to the US a few days earlier immediately launched into a vicious condemnation of US policy toward Angola, portraying it as exploitative and incompetent, until the woman representing US policy was practically in tears. Shocked by this outburst, the senior US diplomat approached the Brazilian, who greeted him as affably as ever,  and asked something along the lines of “What the hell was that about? I thought we were friends.” Confused, the Brazilian replied, “What are you talking about? I just did you another favor. Of course I was going to bash you today; had I not done so, I would have looked like your lackey, and that would be bad for both of us.”

Tales from the Beltway: Adventures with Carter, Part II

A “prequel” to the last post. This anecdote was relayed to me during a personal conversation I had with someone who worked at the Department of Commerce during the 1970s and 80s.

In 1979 the United States concluded a grain agreement with the Soviet Union; the US was contractually obligated to supply the USSR with eight million tons of grain (or bushels…I can’t remember which) and another 20 million tons were to be sold on a discretionary basis. Not long after the agreement, however, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. President Carter was understandably incensed by this so he summoned his cabinet and relevant officials of the Department of Commerce – which was responsible for supervising the transaction – to the White House. There was nothing Carter could do about the eight million tons that were under contract, so he canceled the sale of the discretionary grain. But at that point in the process it was seemingly impossible to interrupt the transaction; the grain was already scattered across the country, preparing to ship from dozens of different ports. There was simply no way that the sale could be called off in the time that was available. Carter was told as much at the meeting; he replied that he was aware of that fact, but he didn’t care. He expected the Department of Commerce to try and fail, whereupon he would terminate the relevant persons.

One of the Commerce people asked to speak: “Excuse me, sir, but do I understand you correctly? You are deliberately setting us up to fail?”
“Not only that, but I’m going to assign someone to each of your offices, so I’ll know the exact moment when to fire you.”

This story was told to me as an example of how, despite the mild-mannered public persona that he cultivated, Carter ruled the Executive as a domineering egomaniac. But I do not think this incident in particular can be held against him; my conversation partner proudly recalled that they managed to account for all the discretionary grain save for a single bushel, and, as far as I know, none of them were fired. President Carter managed to effectively motivate his subordinates to accomplish a very difficult task within a short time frame.

But who would have thought that President Carter, of all people, was so willing to use food as a foreign policy weapon?

Tales from the Beltway: Adventures with Carter, Part I

The graduate program I attended often receives current and former government officials as guest speakers. Nearly all of them had some very amusing off-the-record stories to tell. This post is the first of a short series that will recount some of the memorable ones. For obvious reasons I will not be mentioning any names.

Our first story deals with the 39th President of the United States, Jimmy Carter, a man who is regarded in defense and national security circles to be the actual physical embodiment of naive stupidity itself. It was shared by a retired Foreign Service Officer who is often consulted by the media as an expert in diplomacy and international relations.

In 1994 the U.S. almost went to war with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program. But lo, just as the curtain was about to fall and the world Fade to Black, stepped forth Jimmy Carter, Savior of Humanity, who valiantly offered to go to Pyongyang and negotiate personally with the Great Leader. The Clinton administration assigned a State Department official to accompany him. When Carter learned of this he was infuriated, and upon meeting his companion angrily demanded something to the effect of “Who do you work for? Me or the State Department?” The official very carefully replied that he was a serving FSO and was thus oath-bound to obey orders, etc. etc. In other words, he still worked for the State Department. Carter’s reply? “Wrong answer. This is my mission. You work for me.

The result of Carter’s visit was the Agreed Framework, a policy which – from the very beginning – failed to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear program. But the real story occurred at Carter’s debriefing in Japan. As soon as the meeting began, the former President began complaining about the CIA. “The CIA told me that North Korea is desperately poor; they’re not poor at all. In fact, they took me to a store that was full of fine goods and there were all sorts of people shopping there. [so-and-so, his handler] thought it was a set-up, but I don’t think so.”

He also emphasized that, during the course of their negotiations, Kim Il-sung mentioned that he intended to remain alive – and in power – for another ten years or so. Carter considered this to be a very significant revelation, and he demanded that his debriefers make note of this. In fact, Kim Il-sung was being embalmed at that very moment.

And so originated the policy that governed U.S. relations with North Korea for eight years.

The Empire Has No Brains

America is missing something in its foreign policy…something very important. I am not referring to a unified grand strategic vision; we certainly don’t have one of those, but as I’ve commented elsewhere, that is to be expected in a democracy and its absence is not fatal to American statecraft. Nor am I referring to the ability to actually conduct strategy; that isn’t our strong suit either, but when we put our minds to it we’re able to muddle on through well enough. What is missing is something much more basic…much more elemental. I will let Bernard Brodie explain:

It is the conception simply of reasonable price, and of its being applied to strategy and national policy – the idea that some ends or objectives are worth paying a good deal for and others are not. The latter include ends that are no doubt desirable but which are worth attempting to achieve only if the price can with confidence be kept relatively low. Can it really by that such a simple and obvious idea is often neglected or overlooked? The answer is, most decidedly, yes.

Brodie was writing in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, but his point remains just as relevant today: the U.S. is apparently incapable of conducting a simple cost-benefit analysis. At least not until the American public realize that they’ve been incurring significant costs but experiencing few benefits. Unfortunately, nearly nine years after the Afghan war began, U.S. policymakers have still not faced the blunt question of whether the return is worth the investment, and if not, how to bring costs and benefits back into equilibrium. The need to combat terrorists is not in dispute. What should be debated is the current strategy to pursue this objective.

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The Military, the Media, and War

Stars and Stripes reports that the Pentagon has contracted a Washington-based PR firm, the Rendon Group, to analyze the news reports of embedded journalists and rate their coverage according to the categories of “positive,” “neutral” or “negative”:

Rendon examines individual reporters’ recent work and determines whether the coverage was “positive,” “negative” or “neutral” compared to mission objectives, according to Rendon officials. It conducts similar analysis of general reporting trends about the war for the military and has been contracted for such work since 2005, according to the company.

Apparently, the end result of these analyses includes pie charts like this:


And of course this has unleashed the mandatory tantrum that occurs whenever there is a hint of the military manipulating information, complete with the normal platitudes about the First Amendment, journalistic integrity, and the vital role of an independent media in a healthy democracy:

Professional groups representing journalists are decrying the Pentagon’s screening of reporters.

That’s the government doing things to put out the message they want to hear and that’s not the way journalism is meant to work in this country,” said Amy Mitchell, deputy director for Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

“The whole concept of doing profiles on reporters who are going to embed with the military is alarming,” said Ron Martz, president of the Military Reporters and Editors association.

It speaks to this whole issue of trying to shape the message and that’s not something the military should be involved with,” he said.

Of course, everyone knows that journalists are immaculate human beings, relentless and wholehearted in their singular pursuit of objective truth, beholden to no law or obstruction in the performance of this righteous duty, the Holy Writ for which having derived from the Constitution itself.

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