State of the Union

Russia’s Demographic Time Bomb

In the last stanza of “The Battle of Blenheim,” Robert Southey writes:

‘But what good came of it at last?’ Quoth little Peterkin.
‘Why, that I cannot tell,’ said he; ‘But ’twas a famous victory.’

What did it really matter? The poet was asking of the triumph of the Duke of Marlborough—”Who this great fight did win.” What brings back this poem about the transience of glory and folly of war—during this week’s struggle over whose flag will fly over Crimea—is a wall chart that just arrived from the UN.

“World Population 2012″ projects the population growth, or decline, of every country and continent, between now and 2050. Most deeply involved in Crimea’s crisis are Russia and Ukraine. Yet, looking at the UN numbers, there seems an element of absurdity in this confrontation that could lead to a shooting war.

Between 2012 and 2050, Ukraine, war or no war, will lose one-fourth of its population. Eleven to twelve million Ukrainians will vanish from the earth, a figure far higher than the highest estimate of the death toll of the horrific Holodomor of 1932-33. Russia will lose 22 million people, with her population falling below 121 million. Every month between now and 2050, close to 50,000 Russians will disappear. Some demographers believe the UN numbers to be optimistic. Indeed, this writer has seen projections far more dire.

Those who warn that Vladimir Putin is trying to reconstitute the Soviet Union might explain how this is going to be done as Russia loses 22 million people, while the former Soviet republics of Central Asia—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan—together add 22 million people.

How often in history do nations with shrinking populations invade and annex those with surging populations?

When the UN was set up in 1945, Stalin wanted each of 15 Soviet republics given a seat in the General Assembly. He settled for three seats—for Russia, Ukraine and Byelorussia, now Belarus. That was the core of the old Soviet Union. Yet, Russia, Belarus and Ukraine will lose together 35 million people by mid-century, a figure comparable to the human losses from four years of the Hitler-Stalin war and seven decades of Bolshevik rule.

Our War Party is demanding that we send military assistance and possibly troops to Poland, the Baltic republics and Rumania, and bring Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. This would mean America would fight Russia to defend them all, should another clash occur as in 2008 in Georgia and today in Crimea. Does this make sense—for any of us? Read More…

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Should the U.S. Intervene or End Syrian War?

Whether saber rattling or not, word is out that the White House is “rethinking its options” on intervening in the Syrian war. The collapse of John Kerry’s Geneva II talks between the rebels and regime, the lengthening casualty lists from barrel-bomb attacks, and a death toll approaching 150,000, are apparently causing second thoughts. All the usual suspects are prodding Obama to plunge in, if not with troops, at least with a no-fly zone to prevent Bashar al-Assad from using his air power.

Our frustration is understandable. Yet it does not change the reality. This is not America’s war. Never was. As Obama said, it is “somebody else’s civil war.”

Still, the case against intervention needs to be restated. First and foremost, Obama has no authority to go to war in Syria, for Congress has never voted to authorize such a war. An unprovoked attack on Syria would be an impeachable act. Last August, the American people were almost unanimously opposed to intervention. The firestorm they created was why Congress ran away from the Obama-Kerry plan for missile strikes. So if Obama has no authority to attack Syria, and America does not want a war, why, after Iraq and Afghanistan, would Obama divide his nation and plunge his country into that civil war?

What are the arguments for intervention? Same old, same old. America has a moral obligation to end the barbarism. At the time of Rwanda we said, “Never again!” Yet it is happening again. And we have a “Responsibility to Protect” Syrians from a dictator slaughtering his own people. But while what is happening in Syria is horrible, all Middle East ethnic-civil-sectarian wars tend to unfold this way. And if there is a “moral” obligation to intervene, why does it not apply to Israel and Turkey, Syria’s nearest neighbors? Why does that moral duty not apply to the European Union, upon whose doorstep Syria sits? Why is it America’s moral obligation, 5,000 miles away? It is not. The Turks, Israelis, EU and Gulf Arabs who hate Assad would simply like for us to come and fight their war for them. 

The Washington Post says we must address not only the moral “nightmare,” but also the “growing threat … to vital U.S. interests.” Exactly what “vital interests” is the Post talking about? Syria has been ruled by the Assads for 40 years. And how have our vital interests been imperiled? And if our vital interests are imperiled, how much more so are those of Israel and Turkey? Yet neither has chosen to invest the blood of their sons in bringing Assad down.

If we have an enemy in this fight, it is al-Qaeda, the al-Nusra Front, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, all of which are terrorist and implacably anti-American. And who is keeping these enemies of ours out of Damascus? Assad, Hezbollah, Iran and our old friend Vladimir Putin. And who has been supplying the terrorists? Our friends in the Gulf, with weapons funneled through Turkey, our NATO ally. Read More…

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Hagel Begins Trimming Army to 1940 Levels

New America Foundation (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

A reduction in the size of the military has been a long time coming. And now, it appears to have finally come. The New York Times reported last night that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, largely invisible since his confirmation a year ago, would be announcing “what officials describe as the first Pentagon budget to aggressively push the military off the war footing adopted after the terror attacks of 2001.” The budget, according to the Times‘s anonymous sources, would be ”a military capable of defeating any adversary, but too small for protracted foreign occupations.”

The military-industrial complex is not likely to take the cuts lying down, as there are many interest groups targeted for outright cuts or reductions in growth. And already, the Times reports, the lobbies are ramping up:

For example, some members of Congress, given advance notice of plans to retire air wings, have vowed legislative action to block the move, and the National Guard Association, an advocacy group for those part-time military personnel, is circulating talking points urging Congress to reject anticipated cuts. State governors are certain to weigh in, as well. And defense-industry officials and members of Congress in those port communities can be expected to oppose any initiatives to slow Navy shipbuilding.

The cuts come across the board, including the Air Force’s entire fleet of A-10 “Warthogs,” which Kelley Vlahos recently profiled in depth.

Post-Iraq, and soon to be post-Afghanistan, the Army was already “scheduled to drop to 490,000 troops from a post-9/11 peak of 570,000,” but “Under Mr. Hagel’s proposals, the Army would drop over the coming years to between 440,000 and 450,000.” The Times reports that Hagel has the sign-off of all the Joint Chiefs, but in a recent Hagel profile, Kelley Vlahos mentioned that such a number “conflicts directly with what Army Chief of Staff Raymond Odierno says is an acceptable readiness level.” This will require a transition away from the Cold War-era “two wars” doctrine that required the military to maintain the capacity to wage two simultaneous land wars. Now, according to the Times report, “the military has been ordered to be prepared to decisively win one conflict while holding off an adversary’s aspirations in a second until sufficient forces could be mobilized and redeployed to win there.”


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Army Considers Slashing Brigades, Boosting Robots

The Pentagon ( Frontpage /  Shutterstock)

With the post-9/11 financial spigots drying up, and sequestration at least partially taking a bite, the U.S. military has been put in the rather unfamiliar position of searching for cost savings over the past few years. In a speech last week at the Army Aviation Symposium in Arlington, VA, General Robert Cone, the Army’s head of Training and Doctrine and Command, indicated that they may begin looking to borrow a technique from the private sector in responding to the need for cost controls: automation.

He specifically said that the Army is considering slashing brigade combat team sizes by a quarter, from 4,000 to 3,000 troops, and making up the difference with military-grade unmanned platforms, or robots. “I’ve got clear guidance to think about what if you could robotically perform some of the tasks in terms of maneuverability, in terms of the future of the force,” he said, as well as rethinking the size of the nine-man infantry squad. As reported in Defense News, ‘Over the past 12 years of war, “in favor of force protection we’ve sacrificed a lot of things,’ he said. ‘I think we’ve also lost a lot in lethality.’ And the Army wants that maneuverability, deployability and firepower back.” As Paul McLeary of Defense News pointed out, “It’s hard to see such a radical change to the makeup of the brigade combat team as anything else than a budget move, borne out of the necessity of cutting the personnel costs that eat up almost half of the service’s total budget.” The Army is already reportedly set to slash its forces by 120,000 by 2019 to 420,000 from 540,000.

With Google buying military robot manufacturer Boston Dynamics, autonomous war machines have bubbled back into public consciousness, just in time for the new RoboCop reboot. Military robots are often the stuff of technological dystopias, when the machines rise with uber-rationalistic calculuses that invariably decide that human beings are alternately too inconstant, cruel, self-destructive, or wasteful to continue existing as a species. These machines are often told as a fable of man’s overreach, a Frankenstein for the computer age offered as a cautionary hedge against flying too close to the sun.

Cone’s speech offers a valuable counter-narrative of the robotic rise, one likely closer to the path the near future will follow. In this narrative, machines are not the manifestation of man’s ambition, but his parsimony. Technology is not the path to imitating God, but rather coping with the very limits by which our mortal finitude constrains us. And robots may enter the field of battle not by letting slip the hydraulic dogs of war, but rather ladening down the gyroscopically-guided pack mules. Especially as our human soldiers have become ever more precious commodities, we invest tremendous amounts of money to keep them safe, making manned missions ever less economical. In this telling, ever more mechanized warfare is not nightmarish, but positively mundane.

That said, I’m sure the boys at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the DOD’s personal sandbox of futurism, are hard at work on projects of sufficient dystopian potential to keep all of us up at night. And Google’s merchants of war in Boston are already halfway there.

(h/t Alexis Madrigal)


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Obama Should Make Ending Wars His Legacy

“He ended one war and kept us out of any other,” is the tribute paid President Eisenhower.

Ike ended the Korean conflict in 1953, refused to intervene to save the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, and, rather than back the British-French-Israeli invasion, ordered them all out of Egypt in 1956.

Ending America’s longest wars may prove to be Barack Obama’s legacy.

For, while ending wars without victory may not garner from the historians’ the accolade of “great” or “near great,” it is sometimes the duty of a president who has inherited a war the nation no longer wishes to fight.

That was Nixon’s fate, as well as Ike’s, and Obama’s.

And as we look back at our interventions in the 21st century, where are the gains of all our fighting, bleeding and dying?

We know the costs—8,000 dead, 40,000 wounded, $2 trillion in wealth sunk. But where are the benefits? Read More…

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Debunking Sharon’s Peacemaker Status

John Kerry’s statement on Ariel Sharon’s death is here. Of course diplomats should be diplomatic and avoid gratuitous insults. But isn’t it possible to say something appropriate or even respectful about Ariel Sharon without pretending he was any kind of peacemaker? In an act of truly world class groveling, Kerry manages to repeat the falsehood of Sharon the peacemaker four times within four brief paragraphs–no modest effort. There’s this:

I will never forget meeting with this big bear of a man when he became Prime Minister as he sought to bend the course of history toward peace, even as it meant testing the patience of his own longtime supporters and the limits of his own, lifelong convictions in the process. He was prepared to make tough decisions because he knew that his responsibility to his people was both to ensure their security and to give every chance to the hope that they could live in peace.

Followed a few lines later by this:

In his final years as Prime Minister, he surprised many in his pursuit of peace, and today, we all recognize, as he did, that Israel must be strong to make peace, and that peace will also make Israel stronger.

A notable constant in Sharon’s career was his readiness to massacre defenseless Palestinian civilians. He made his bones, so to speak, at Qibya in 1953, a West Bank town in Jordan. Some Palestinian “infiltrators” had crossed the cease-fire line to murder an Israeli mother and her two children, and the Israeli government decided upon reprisals. (Jordan had denounced the murders and promised to cooperate in tracking down the perpetrators).

The reprisal raid was carried out by Unit 101, commanded by Major Sharon. When it was over, Qibya was reduced to rubble, 45 houses had been blown up, most with their inhabitants inside. 69 civilians, mostly women and children, were left dead. There was a storm of international protest, and Israel initially sought to deny IDF responsibility for the massacre, claiming instead that irate Israeli villagers had taken revenge on their own initiative. The lie didn’t stand up. Israel faced universal condemnation, including from the United States, which called for those responsible for the killing to be held to account. Abba Eban, entrusted with defending Israel at the United Nations, wrote his foreign minister Moshe Sharrett that “Sending regular armed forces across an international border, without the intention of triggering a full-scale war, is a step that distinguishes Israel from all other countries. No other state acts this way.” Sharon was well pleased with the action however, as was most of the Israeli political establishment.

Sharon’s more famous massacre took place at the refugee camps of Sabra and Shattilah in Lebanon. In 1982, the camps were under Israeli control after Israel’s invasion of southern Lebanon. Protected by Sharon’s forces, Lebanese Phlangists –allied with Israel and rabidly hostile to the Palestinians, entered the camps and killed 800 Palestinians, (Israel’s estimate: others are far higher) mostly women and children. Israeli forces protected the forces carrying out the massacres, illuminating the camps with flares. An Israeli investigating commission found Sharon personally responsible for allowing the carnage. He was removed from his post at the Ministry of Defense, though Menachem Begin kept him in the Likud cabinet. Throughout the 1980′s he remained in government, and was a pivotal figure in accelerating Israeli settlement of the occupied West Bank. In 2000, his notorious visit to Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa mosque, accompanied by 200 armed military policeman, was an intentional act of incitement, one of the matches which ignited the second, enormously destructive, intifada that fall.

There is reason to believe that Sharon felt that provoking the Palestinians to violence could be of strategic benefit for Israel. In a lengthy portrait of Sharon published in the 2006 New Yorker (behind a paywall), Ari Shavit writes:

When he went back to the cozy living room and sank into his favorite armchair, he showed me the book he was reading: it was about the Arab revolt of 1936-39. He said that what interested him was the way the rebellion had ultimately collapsed, causing a disintegration of Palestinian society. He clearly saw a certain similarity between the revolt of the nineteen thirties and the intifada that began in 2000. In time, it became evident that the strategic plan that Sharon was considering involved bringing the Palestinians to a point of political chaos and then luring them into a partial agreement on Israel’s terms—one that would not require evacuation of major settlements on the West Bank or a return to the pre-1967 borders.

I’ve heard other Israeli politicians argue in this vein, implying that they would actually welcome Palestinian violence, because militarily Israel is far stronger and and can damage Palestinian society far more in the context of war than peace.

In most tellings, consideration of Sharon as a peacemaker rests on Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2004, when he was prime minister. The move gave Israel a talking point before international audiences: look, Israel is ready to withdraw from occupied territory. Of course it didn’t lead to peace, as the withdrawal was unilateral, and almost entirely limited to Gaza, and was quickly followed by a blockade of Gaza. Sharon aide Dov Weissglas described the Gaza disengagement as fomaldehyde, designed not to make peace but to smother the peace process. In that, it would seem, the maneuver was hugely successful.

It would be more truthful to conclude that Sharon is a war criminal who should have been indicted and tried for his crimes. If one doesn’t want to speak ill of the dead, he could be deemed a brutal but crudely effective general, a type which has existed in many countries. But it is a stretch too far to call Sharon a “man of peace” and to go on about it as Secretary Kerry did, as if black were white. We have still before us contemplation of the parade of American political figures to Sharon’s funeral, many who will mouth panegyrics to the brutal general, making sure their AIPAC donors hear every fulsome word. By all rights, Americans should find their country’s obsequious lauding of this man a source of national shame.

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Top Marine General on America’s Way of War—Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Conference

marine gen 2

Jamestown Foundation is an old-line think tank founded during the Cold War to encourage and help Soviet defectors. Today it is a large, respected think tank with continuing hard-line views on Central Asia and former Soviet lands. It focuses on Eurasia and global terrorism. Publications include Terrorism Monitor, Eurasia Daily Monitor, China Brief, North Caucuses Monitor, and Militant Leadership Monitor. Wikipedia reports “it has been alleged that Jamestown is neoconservative agenda driven… with ties to the CIA & U.S. Government.” Its directors include former top intelligence and military personnel. This writer, a long time anti-communist, participated in a Jamestown team of journalists and experts on Soviet Russia who served as observers for President Putin’s first election in 2000.

When the keynote speaker at Jamestown’s annual conference, a four-star Marine Corps general, analyzes America’s way of war from a realist perspective, his criticisms are well worth knowing. His views must be widespread in the military, although not in Washington’s civilian establishment. Gen. James N. Mattis (retired) followed General Petraeus as commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) from 2010-to-2013, responsible for military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and 18 other nations. Earlier he commanded the First Marine Division during the initial invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq. He also served as NATO supreme allied commander from 2007-2009.  He served for 42 years, and the Marine Corps Times has called him the “most revered Marine in a generation.”

Some of General Mattis’s statements and reasoning follow; my comments are in italics.

–America doesn’t lose wars, it loses interest.

–We have no overall strategy about how to defeat our enemy. (Just killing them is not working because, as I wrote years ago, the proper analogy comes from Greek mythology, Hercules’ adventure where, for every enemy soldier he killed, ten more sprung up in each one’s place)

–We don’t understand our enemy. (This refers to Sun Tzu’s classic dictum for war, “Know Thyself and Know Thy Enemy.” Americans have scarce interest in understanding the Muslim world’s history, wants, and fears.)

–Violent Jihad is gaining, not losing ground.  (House and Senate intelligence panel chairs say terrorists are gaining. Half of Americans believe us less safe today than prior to 9/11.)  

–We need a strategy which does not drive young Muslims to al-Qaeda. Read More…

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Few Speedbumps for the War Party

Peter Beinart raises the troubling question: Why is the Left good at protesting stupid wars once they begin (and inflicting political punishment on their instigators) but feeble at preventing them in the first place? His concern is raised by the Schumer-Menendez-Kirk “back door to war” legislation, which has already gotten 14 Democratic cosponsors. He doesn’t provide an answer. AIPAC influence may explain part of it, but that could be countered by political opposition at the grass roots. Beinart observes,”despite the best efforts of MoveOnCREDO, that doesn’t exist right now.”

I would like an answer too, though I appreciate that Beinart doesn’t try to supply a glib one. Just the somber fact:

In 2006, Democrats enraged by Joe Lieberman’s support for the Iraq war denied him their party’s renomination for senate. In 2008, Democrats embittered by Hillary Clinton’s support for Iraq helped orchestrate one of the biggest upsets in presidential history. But they were too late; the damage was already done. The American left is very good at punishing politicians for supporting disastrous wars. Its challenge in 2014 is to show that it can stop politicians from promoting those wars in the first place.

Clearly readiness to slip into war without weighing the consequences is more symptomatic of today’s GOP. A generation ago, prominent Republicans who would have objected strongly to legislation designed to tie the hands of the Secretary of State and outsource American decision-making about war and peace to Israel. Today’s party lacks a Dick Lugar or a Bob Dole, a Mark Hatfield, Jack Kemp, or Lincoln Chafee—none of whom were eager bombardiers. I honestly can’t see Richard Nixon backing into a war like this, or Dwight Eisenhower.

One seldom explored sidebar is the salience of politicians of Cuban ancestry in the new hawk consensus. The GOP’s center of gravity on foreign policy now resides with Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, who have now have found a willing collaborator in New Jersey’s Senator Bob Menendez. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen calls the tune in the House. Somewhere Fidel Castro must be having a good chuckle.

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Republicans Will Embrace Iran Diplomacy—If They’re Smart

When, after the massacres at Newtown and the Washington Navy Yard, Republicans refused to outlaw the AR-15 rifle or require background checks for gun purchasers, we were told the party had committed suicide by defying 90 percent of the nation.

When Republicans rejected amnesty and a path to citizenship for illegal aliens, we were told the GOP had just forfeited its future.

When House Republicans refused to fund Obamacare, the government was shut down and the Tea Party was blamed, word went forth: The GOP has destroyed its brand. Republicans face a wipeout in 2014. It will take a generation to remove this mark of Cain.

Eight weeks later, Obama’s approval is below 40 percent. Most Americans find him untrustworthy. And the GOP is favored to hold the seats it has in the House while making gains in the Senate.

For this reversal of fortunes, Republicans can thank the rollout of Obamacare—the website that does not work, the revelation that, contrary to Obama’s promise, millions are losing health care plans that they liked, and the reports of soaring premiums and sinking benefits.

Democrats, however, might take comfort in the old maxim: If you don’t like the weather here, just wait a while.

For, egged on by Bibi Netanyahu and the Israeli Lobby AIPAC, the neocons are anticipating the return of Congress to start work on new sanctions on Iran. Should they succeed, they just might abort the Geneva talks or even torpedo the six-month deal with Iran.

While shaking a fist in the face of the Ayatollah will rally the Republican base, it does not appear to be a formula for winning the nation. Read More…

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Guantanamo Bay’s Hidden CIA Hotel

JTF Guantanamo photo by U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Gino Reyes
JTF Guantanamo photo by U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Gino Reyes

Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo of the AP revealed yesterday the existence of a previously unknown secret CIA facility at Guantanamo Bay, tasked with turning captured terrorists into double agents. Set up along with the makeshift prison facility as prisoners flowed into the American base in Cuba, the secret CIA outpost was best known by the Beatles-inspired name “Penny Lane.”

Candidates were ushered from the confines of prison to Penny Lane’s relative hominess, officials said. The cottages had private kitchens, showers and televisions. Each had a small patio.

Some prisoners asked for and received pornography. One official said the biggest luxury in each cottage was the bed, not a military-issued cot but a real bed with a mattress.

The cottages were designed to feel more like hotel rooms than prison cells, and some CIA officials jokingly referred to them collectively as the Marriott.

In contrast with the prison conditions, Penny Lane appears to have been practically a luxury resort. Indeed, cottages in the Caribbean are a hotly sought after commodity. The great, cruel irony of the Penny Lane program’s perks, however, is that they were obviously unavailable to prisoners without any actual terrorist connections. As Goldman and Apuzzo note, Bush administration officials at the time characterized Guantanamo detainees as the “worst of a very bad lot,” in Vice President Cheney’s words, or “among the most dangerous, best trained, vicious killers on the face of the Earth,” as Donald Rumsfeld described them.

In reality, many were held on flimsy evidence and were of little use to the CIA.

While the agency looked for viable candidates, those with no terrorism ties sat in limbo. It would take years before the majority of detainees were set free, having never been charged. Of the 779 people who were taken to Guantanamo Bay, more than three-fourths have been released, mostly during the Bush administration.

Those swept up in the heat of battle and spirited across the globe remained in their cells as some of the true terrorists were wined and dined by a CIA seeking their cooperation. The AP notes that “infiltrating al-Qaida has been one of the CIA’s most sought-after but difficult goals, something that other foreign intelligence services have only occasionally accomplished,” increasing their eagerness to set up shop and obtain what sources they could. They did have some successes, as “some of the men who passed through Penny Lane helped the CIA find and kill many top al-Qaida operatives, current and former U.S. officials said,” though “others stopped providing useful information and the CIA lost touch with them.”

As the years dragged on, however, and the detainee’s contacts faded in freshness, the program dried up, closing altogether by 2006. So today, the Guantanamo Bay prisons still stand, with what prisoners remain. Five years after Barack Obama took office pledging to close the prison, it stays open. And Penny Lane’s cottages, though empty, still stand.


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