10 November 2015

The Rubio Plan: Peace Thru Pork in the Hall of Mirrors

Flush With Cash, Running On Empty (III)
Chuck Spinney
This is the third in a series of occasional postings describing the political-economy of US defense spending in the 21st Century. Postings I and II can be found here and here. This was reposted as Rubio's Big-time Military Build-up on 11 November 2015 in Consortium News.]
Attached herewith is Presidential candidate Marco Rubio’s “peace thru strength” plan for “restoring” America’s defense.  To be sure, this is only an opening shot in a Presidential bidding war that is sure to intensify in the coming months, with each candidate in every party trying to out-tough the others by spending more on defense (Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul perhaps being the only exceptions).
Before reading Rubio's piece of strategic wisdom, I urge you to think about the magnitude of what Rubio calls "$1 trillion in indiscriminate defense budget cuts.”  Rubio’s $1 trillion total is for cutbacks in the Pentagon’s future projections of its defense spending plans, not the actual cutbacks from the spending peak in 2010.  The graphic below places the actual cutbacks into a historical perspective: The chart shows that DoD spending declined by between $110 and $154 billion between 2010 and 2015, depending on if or how one chooses to account for inflation.   

One can compare the reductions from the most recent boom's peak in 2010 (labeled #IV in the graphic) to those reductions after earlier peaks (#s I, II, & III).  The effects of the $110 to $154 billion in cutbacks since 2010 are now embodied in Mr. Obama spending plan for 2016-2020 (highlighted in the yellow rectangle on the far right of each graph).  These cutbacks do not come close to accounting for the Pentagon's bow wave* of financial requirements in the laundry list outlined by Rubio in his attached “policy” statement.  
The chart shows there is a boom-bust character to defense spending.  The recent inflection point suggests we are approaching the end of the fourth bust and may be on the cusp of another or fifth boom.  Comparatively speaking, the current inflection in DoD’s spending shows signs of bottoming out at a much higher level than for any of the three preceding busts, all of which were conditioned by the Cold War.  Even the prominent spending hawk Loren Thompson recently characterized the current bust as being the “mildest defense downturn on record."   Note that Thompson's characterization of the most recent downturn as being relatively mild remains unchanged, regardless of how one accounts for the effects of inflation.  This is true even if one uses DoD’s self-serving estimates of inflation which make the earlier budgets of the 1950s and 1960s look larger — thereby making the current budget look like less of a departure from past budgets.  
Yet Mr. Rubio wants us to believe the most recent cutbacks have been catastrophic in their effect.  So, one might reasonably ask Mr. Rubio the following question: After spending all that money during the boom between 1997 and 2010, which was by far the largest spending spree since the end of WWII, and given the relative mildness of the recent declines, why do you say it is now necessary to embark on an even larger crash program to rebuild our defenses?  
Could it be that the pissant war on terror has cost far more than either of the far more intense wars in Korea or Vietnam (intensity being measured in terms of optempos and forces deployed)?  And if so, would you please explain why the the Global War on Terror costs so much more than Vietnam or Korea, or for that matter even World War I?  And can you explain why the diversion of money into GWOT resulted in a requirement for the kind of massive investment program you describe below?  
In short, Mr. Rubio, where did the money spent in boom #IV go?  And how can you account for it, given that the Pentagon’s own bookkeeping system can not pass an audit that links transactions to appropriations as required by the Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990 and the Accountability and Appropriations Clauses of the Constitution?
Such common sense questions, of course, will not be asked in any of the circuses passing for presidential debates, or by pliant reporters in the mainstream media, or by poohbahs on the Sunday talk shows.  But if you want to get a hint of what these record budgets bought for the taxpayers, before the budget started declining in 2010, I would urge you to reread the blaster, Flush With Cash, Running on Empty (I), posted last June.  
Since no one will ask Rubio these questions, ask yourself, dear reader, “What kind of security will Rubio's plan really buy for John Q. Average American?"  Hint: Could the answer be more of the same, that is to say: (1) continued aging of weapons, (2) more shrinking of force structures, (3) increased pressure to cut readiness to bail out the imploding modernization program, and most importantly, (4) a continuation of ever intensifying budget crises fueled by cost growth to be exploited by demagogic ignoramuses who are in the hip pocket of the Military - Industrial - Congressional Complex?
The term “bow wave” refers to a buildup of budget requirements in the future that is created by investment decisions made today. It is a chronic feature of defense planning and is created deliberately by the bureaucratic gaming strategies explained in Part III of my 1990 pamphlet Defense Power Games. The bow wave of rising investment requirements sets up the conditions for a continual budget crisis that creates increasing pressure to raise defense spending over the long term. These pressures have nothing to do with any external threats facing the United States but go a long way in explaining the boom and bust pattern of defense spending..
Marco’s Plan to Restore Military Strength

As President, Marco will:
Restore Military Strength
  • Work to return to Secretary Gates’ fiscal year 2012 budget baseline over the course of his first term and begin to undo the damage caused by $1 trillion in indiscriminate defense cuts.
  • Plug critical operations and maintenance shortfalls, restore military readiness through accelerated training and exercises, and make targeted investments in urgent modernization priorities.
  • Build a “full spectrum” force able to maintain security simultaneously in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
Recapitalize the Navy
  • Immediately begin to increase the size of the Navy to a minimum of 323 ships by 2024.
  • Work with our allies in Asia to forward deploy a second aircraft carrier in the Pacific while increasing the carrier force from 10 to 12.
  • Restore continuous, credible naval combat power to the Mediterranean Sea.
  • Build the new Ohio-class Replacement (ORP) ballistic submarine to ensure a credible and survivable 21st century strategic deterrent.
  • Build at least two attack submarines every year to preserve America’s undersea dominance amid intensifying naval competition.
  • Fully integrate the F-35B and push ahead with development of a new amphibious-assault vehicle.
  • Build an amphibious fleet of 38 ships (from today’s 30) to meet the Marine Corps wartime lift requirement.
  • Reverse reductions to the operating status of 11 of our 22 current cruisers.
  • Replenish depleted inventories of critical munitions while accelerating development and procurement of new advanced strike and anti-ship missiles.
  • Fully fund Navy-Marine Corps maintenance and modernization accounts.
Modernize the Air Force
  • Invest in better Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance capabilities at the theater and strategic levels.
  • Prioritize returning Air Force readiness to pre-Obama levels.
  • Accelerate F-35A procurement.
  • Develop and field the Long Range Strike Bomber capable of both conventional and nuclear missions to replace our current aging fleet of B-52, B-1, and B-2 bombers.
  • Reposture the tactical Air Force for increased presence in Europe, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Northeast Asia.
  • Ensure that the KC-46 tanker program stays on track to replace the aging KC-135 fleet.
  • Ensure development of the Long-Range Stand-Off weapon.
Strengthen the Ground Forces
  • Reverse the current cuts and maintain the Marine Corps and the Army at their pre-9/11 end-strengths of 182,000 and 490,000 respectively.
  • Strengthen international partnerships to reduce the need to deploy ground troops.
  • Work to return a corps headquarters to Europe and station additional BCTs in Eastern Europe to deter Russian aggression.
  • Reexamine the Army’s mobility and prepositioning to respond to crises in the Pacific.
  • Continue to invest in Army Special Operations capabilities to remain at the cutting edge of the continuing war on terrorism.
  • Maintain the Army’s proficiency across the full spectrum of war in order to combat state actors, defeat non-state threats, and shape the security environment to America’s advantage.
  • Revamp the Army’s acquisition system and specifically look at options to modernize its aging vehicle and helicopter fleets.
Reform Military Personnel and Benefits
  • Reform the military benefit structure and military career paths and specializations to attract and retain high quality personnel to the military, while preserving a sustainable balance between training and procurement needs.
  • Continue recent efforts to reform military retirement, education, and healthcare on the basis of the recommendations of the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission.
  • Ensure the Department of Veterans Affairs is accountable and that our veterans have access to the best treatment possible when they return from the battlefield.
Transform the Pentagon Bureaucracy
  • Optimize the Pentagon workforce by shrinking the Pentagon bureaucracy and achieving the correct balance between uniformed personnel, civilians, and contractors.
  • Facilitate a more-technologically agile and adaptable workforce that can leverage technological evolution.
  • Develop fellowship programs in the private sector for defense department personnel to renew skills to comport with industry standards.
Overhaul the Acquisition Process
  • Streamline the acquisition process to prevent costly mistakes, hold private contractors accountable, and field top of the line technology to future warfighters.
  • Remove barriers and strengthen exemptions for commercial acquisitions allowing the Pentagon to leverage cutting edge commercial technology, such as data analytics, cloud computing, 3-D printing, and robotics.
Modernize Missile Defense for the 21st Century
  • Expand missile defense by speeding up deployment of interceptors in Europe, deploying a third site in the United States, and ensuring that advanced programs are adequately funded.
  • Work interoperably with allies on missile defense — we should encourage the spread of missile defense technology as a solution to the spread of ballistic and cruise missiles.
  • Increase the Missile Defense Agency’s Research & Development budget and create a rapid-fielding office to focus on fielding directed energy weapons, railguns, UAV-enabled defenses, and other means to defeat a threat missile across its entire flight trajectory.
Modernize and Protect Strategic Assets
  • Ensure continued freedom of access to space in the face of a potential adversary’s development of anti-satellite missiles.
  • Modernize the nuclear arsenal and stop the Obama administration’s proposed cuts to the nuclear arsenal.
  • Pursue arms control only when it is in America’s interest and when prospective negotiating partners comply with their commitments to us.
Promote Innovation for the 21st Century
  • Ensure U.S. military technological superiority by prioritizing key areas of defense technology that will counter those adversaries and competitors seeking to undermine our military predominance.
  • Improve anti-submarine capabilities; procure advanced air warfare capabilities; sustain our advantage in precision strike from land, air, and sea; and invest in electronic warfare capabilities.
  • Expand the use of rapid acquisition processes for key innovative technologies.
Posture the Force for the Cyber Era
  • Improve cyber defense capabilities by hardening DoD systems and examining the sourcing of our weapons components.
  • Outline a declaratory policy so our adversaries understand the consequences of attacking our computer systems.
  • Improve offensive cyber capabilities and ensure that Cyber Command cyber mission forces have the tools and authorities to perform the cyber offensive mission.
  • Better integrate cyber threats and cyber aspects of modern warfare in training, doctrine, and exercises across the combatant commands.

Ensure that the cyber threat is appropriately prioritized by all services; study whether cyber should be its own service rather than a mission of the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force.

07 November 2015

Reinventing Guns and Butter Politics for the 21st Century

Chuck Spinney
The Center of American Progress (CAP)  is a prominent Democratic 'think tank’ in the Hall of Mirrors that is Versailles on the Potomac. The CAP brands itself by saying it is "dedicated to improving the lives of Americans through progressive ideas and action." The Center also claims it presents a liberal viewpoint on economic issues. Its blog, inaptly named “Think Progress," is widely read among avant guarde ‘progressives.’

The blog and the CAP itself are quite useless for people trying to understand the real issues at stake for what remains of the old Democratic coalition put together by FDR and how the Democrats placed themselves on a pathway to their own self-destruction by evolving neoliberal responses in the 1980s (like the Democratic Leadership Council) to the wedge issues first exploited by Richard Nixon.  That is because the CAP is really a political front for the progressive apparatchiks in the emerging Clinton neoliberal oligarchy.  The CAP’s founder John Podesta, a long time Clinton aide, is managing Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president.  The current CAP president, Neera Tanden, is a long time Clinton confidant and advisor. 
The independent investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald just exposed (attached below) the mentality of the people who are running the CAP.  That mentality is made evident by their own words, expressed in emails leaked by someone inside of the CAP to Greenwald.  The emails describe the CAP’s obsequious pandering to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and AIPAC.  This is to be expected, of course; and the pandering is the primary focus of Greenwald’s report.  That said, the cynical distancing of CAP and Ms. Clinton from a sitting Democratic President is worse than even the most jaded readers of the Blaster might expect.  
But one 2011 email sequence is even more revealing of the CAP mentality, IMO:  CAP staffer Faiz Shakir questioned whether it would be politically or morally wise for the United States to force Libya to use its oil revenues to reimburse the United States for our bombing and “liberating” of Libya.   Ms. Tanden’s slam-dunk counterargument says it all.  Both emails are reproduced here ...
click on figure for larger size
There you have it: A “liberal progressive's" mutation of guns and butter politics for the 21st Century!  
Ms. Tanden thinks we should make the countries we bomb use their oil wealth to reimburse us for the cost of bombing them.  That way we don’t have to cut Head Start, food stamps, or Medicaid.  
This is an insensitive policy wonk’s version for what we in the Pentagon used to call a “self licking ice cream cone.”  It is necessary, Ms. Tanden asserts, because we live in an era of intensifying "deficit politics.” This is a brand of politics that neoliberal Democrats brought upon themselves by going along with Reagan tax cutting and defense spending policies, increasing privatization since the days of Jimmy Carter, and Mad King George’s pre-9-11 reckless tax cuts and defense increases in 2001*.  
More importantly, according to Ms. Tanden, forcing bombed countries to reimburse us for our bombing is a way to use the indispensable power of the United States (to borrow a term of diplomatic art coined by Bill Clinton's Secretary of State Madeline Albright), “to continue to engage in the world.”
But there is more to Tanden's vision.
Consider, please, the possibilities inherent in its elegant symmetry: Using war to fund social programs effectively synthesizes (1) the neoconservative impulse to wage war on everyone with, (2) the tenets of neoliberalism, and (3) what remains of the US welfare state.   Like Bill Clinton’s theft of the NATO expansion issue from Bob Dole in October 1996 during the last month of the presidential election, Tanden’s vision pulls the rug out from under the warmongering nutcases on the right, while placating both the money lust of the Military - Industrial - Congressional Complex and the humanitarian interventionists on the “left," but it also panders to what's left of the old time social liberals who have been dealt out of the game since the days of LBJ.   
This is a transcending vision of neoliberal triangulation politics on a grand scale, far beyond the wildest imaginings of Bill Clinton’s Triangulator-in-Chief, Dick Morris, who said triangulation meant "the president needed to take a position that not only blended the best of each party's views but also transcended them to constitute a third force in the debate.”
That is how “think progress” relates to the moral, mental, and material progress in the Hall of Mirrors.
* Readers would be wrong to think that the Pentagon’s huge budget increases were triggered entirely by 9-11.  As this paper shows on pages 2-3, most of the increases were already planned and in the Pentagon’s computers by the end of July, 2001, well before 9-11.  To be sure, the Pentagon and the Bush Administration exploited the hysteria triggered by 9-11 to ratchet the budget beyond this projection of the Global War on Terror’s initial cost estimates projected in the figure.
Leaked Emails From Pro-Clinton Group Reveal Censorship of Staff on Israel, AIPAC Pandering, Warped Militarism
Glenn Greenwald, The Intercept, Nov. 5 2015, 2:04 p.m.
(updated below)
LEAKED INTERNAL EMAILS from the powerful Democratic think tank Center for American Progress (CAP) shed light on several public controversies involving the organization, particularly in regard to its positioning on Israel. They reveal the lengths to which the group has gone in order to placate AIPAC and long-time Clinton operative and Israel activist Ann Lewis — including censoring its own writers on the topic of Israel.
The emails also provide crucial context for understanding CAP’s controversial decision to host an event next week for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. That event, billed by CAP as “A Conversation with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,” will feature CAP President Neera Tanden and Netanyahu together in a Q&A session as they explore “ways to strengthen the partnership between Israel and the United States.” That a group whose core mission is loyalty to the White House and the Democratic Party would roll out the red carpet for a hostile Obama nemesis is bizarre, for reasons the Huffington Post laid out when it reported on the controversy provoked by CAP’s invitation.
The emails, provided to The Intercept by a source authorized to receive them, are particularly illuminating about the actions of Tanden (right), a stalwart Clinton loyalist as well as a former Obama White House official. They show Tanden and key aides engaging in extensive efforts of accommodation in response to AIPAC’s and Lewis’ vehement complaints that CAP is allowing its writers to be “anti-Israel.” Other emails show Tanden arguing that Libyans should be forced to turn over large portions of their oil revenues to repay the U.S. for the costs incurred in bombing Libya, on the grounds that Americans will support future wars only if they see that the countries attacked by the U.S. pay for the invasions. … continued

30 October 2015

The Budget Deal and the Canary in the Coal Mine

Flush With Cash, Running on Empty (II)*
Chuck Spinney
[A slightly edited version of this posting appeared on the Moyers & company website on 8 November 2015]
The Pentagon just won another small skirmish in its long war with Social Security and Medicare. That is the unstated message of the budget deal just announced gleefully by congressional leaders and the President.  To understand why, let’s take a quick trip down memory lane.
Last January, President Obama submitted Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 budget to Congress, and he proposed to break the spending limits on both defense and domestic programs.  These limits are set by the long-term sequester provisions of the Budget Control Act of 2011  (BCA), which, for better or worse, is the law of the land, and Obama was asking Congress to change the law.  Mr. Obama wanted to finance his ramped up spending proposals by increasing taxes.  Of course, he knew that the Republican controlled Congress lusted for defense increases but hated domestic spending, particularly entitlements. Moreover, he knew increasing taxes was like waving the red cape in front of the Republican budget bulls.  So, he knew his budget would be dead on arrival.  Obama’s budget, nevertheless, had one virtue: it was up front about the intractable nature of the budget problem.  In effect, whether deliberately or not, Obama laid a trap that the Republicans merrily walked into during the ensuing spring and summer.
Obama's gambit set into motion a tortured kabuki dance in the Republican controlled Congress.  The Republicans, as Obama well knew, wanted to keep up the appearances of adhering to the BCA.  But at the same time, they wanted desperately to shovel money into the Pentagon’s coffers.  The net result was that Obama’s proposal triggered a series of increasingly irrational Congressional negotiations, bizarre back-room deals and weird budget resolutions.  These machinations came to a head with the passage of a National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that proposed to (1) keep the Pentagon’s base budget at the BCA level of about $499 billion, but (2) pack the accounts in the Pentagon’s Overseas Contingencies Operations fund (OCO) with a programs and pork that should have been in its base budget.  The reason for the dodgy OCO 'slush fund' rested in the politically irresistible fact that the OCO is a separate war-fighting fund** for the Pentagon that is exempt from the spending limits set by the BCA’s sequester provisions.  The net result of the smoke and mirrors by the Budget and Armed Services Committees of Congress was a total defense budget that was almost identical to Obama’s original submission, but one that was not accompanied by his domestic funding increases or his tax increases.  And this monstrosity was all wrapped up in a ridiculous pretense of adhering to the BCA limits. 
Last week, President Obama seemed to close the trap by vetoing the 2016 NDAA. But this too was smoke and mirrors.
The veto put in motion yet another kabuki dance, this time behind closed doors between the White House and the leaders of Congress. The goal was to reach an overall budget deal that would avoid a government shutdown, which the majority Republicans were terrified of being blamed for on the eve of an election year.  At the same time, they wanted to dodge the BCA’s sequester bullet while they shoveled more money into the Pentagon. 
That deal has now been joined, and the Republic has been saved, albeit at an unknown price.  Nevertheless, some of the sordid details of that price are now beginning to seep through the chinks in the Hall of Mirrors that is Versailles on the Potomac.
According to this report in Defense News, the elements of the budget deal include:
The deal raises the BCA spending caps (again) by $80 billion over next two years; including $50 billion in FY2016 and $30 billion in FY2017.  It also increases the Federal Government’s debt limit. These spending increases would be split equally between defense and domestic programs, and they would be financed by two squirrelly provisions, to wit:
The first financing gimmick cuts back Medicare and Social Security disability benefits. But if past is prologue, the cut to Medicare is likely to be reversed again next year, which is an election year — because everyone in Congress wants the endorsement of the American Medical Association (AMA).  The cut to Medicare providers was first made permanent law by the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, and since then Congress has reversed the scheduled provider cut 17 times
The second financing gimmick is to sell crude oil  from the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Ironically, this rather bizarre provision is peculiarly fitting to the culture of Versailles on the Potomac.  Few remember that the reserve was justified to the American people in 1975 as an insurance “cushion" to reduce the adverse effects of future rises in oil prices or supply disruptions engineered by OPEC, which is controlled by our supposed “ally” Saudi Arabia.  So why sell the reserve's oil when prices are near record lows (adjusted for inflation) compared to those of the last fifteen to twenty years, particularly since the Saudis are flooding the market to take out the US frackers?  Who benefits is a fascinating question with all sorts of twists and turns and is not yet answered.  But it is worth recalling the 1997 Balanced Budget Act had a provision to sell the Naval Petroleum Reserve at Elk Hills (sold in 1998) – at that time, the largest privatization of government assets in history, precisely when oil prices were at their lowest level (adjusted for inflation) since the 1960s. They sold it to Occidental Petroleum which made a killing. 
There is one thing the deal makes clear, however.The Pentagon's share of the spending increases would be $33 billion in FY16, made up of a $25B increase in the Pentagon’s base budget and an $8B increase in the OCO. As for how the Pentagon’s $15 billion increase in FY17 will be allocated, the report in Defense News is silent.
So, there is good reason why champagne corks are popping in halls of the Military - Industrial - Congressional Complex (MICC) and its lobbying affiliates on K Street.  Indeed, to celebrate the triumph, the AF immediately announced it awarded Northrop-Grumman a huge concurrent engineering contract (Milestone B) to design and build the first 21 of 100 new long range strike bombers, which heretofore had been shrouded in heavy secrecy. No one knows what this bomber will even look like, let alone what the program will cost, but two years ago, there were reports of a “pre-cost-growth” total program cost estimate (R&D and production) reaching $81 billion. At least one of the MICC’s euphoric wholly-owned subsidiaries in the Fourth Estate has already written that 100 bomber is not enough, given the threats we face and the number of aging bombers that need to be replaced. 
This new bomber program is  by far the largest weapon acquisition program yet started in the 21st Century.  Yet there has been no oversight, except by its advocates in the smoke-filled, super-secret secure compartmented information facilities (SCIFs) spread around Versailles.  Moreover, the bomber's heavy concurrency means that the production-related money will quickly start flowing to hundreds of congressional districts, well before it is designed.  So, before you can say sequester next year, the Bomber, like the troubled F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, will be unstoppable.  And, like the F-35, it will acquire a life of its own to live on, no matter how badly it fails to meet its cost goals, its capability specifications, or its production quotas — for the simple but powerful reason that a majority in Congress are being bought off today in a way that will ensure they vote for it tomorrow.  
But there is more.  The new Bomber is just the beginning of the new defense boom that Mr. Obama and Congress are launching beneath the smoke and mirrors of their budget practices.  The Pentagon already has a  bow wave of increased spending for new weapons in its R&D pipeline.  In that sense, it is no accident that, a year ago, as he was departing the Pentagon, the Pentagon’s ineffectual comptroller Robert Hale characterized the new bomber as the “canary in the coal mine.” He was wringing his hands over the rapidly growing requirements for larger defense budgets in the future — requirements he helped to create.  Bow waves are a perennial feature in Pentagon planning.  I first heard the term in 1973.  The current bow wave, like its predecessors, will lead inexorably to more budget crises and more dodgy budget deals made by the best government money can buy.
So, once again, Mr. Obama had a shot at leading from the moral high ground, and once again, he blew it.  He had the Republicans on the ropes, with all their warts on full display, but then he squandered an opportunity to effect even a pretense of challenging a thoroughly corrupt system. 
[Addendum: By 4 November, the newsletter Flight Global explained why the champagne corks were popping within the MICC and its lobbyists, saying ...
"The anticipated two-year budget deal has investors feeling optimistic, since the alternatives were a full-year continuing resolution that maintains fiscal year 2015 government spending levels or full sequestration. In response, Moody changed its outlook for the global aerospace and defence industry from stable to positive, with worldwide defence spending now tipped to grow by 2% to 3%." ]
Obama’s most recent performance is yet more proof that he is no change agent.  A better characterization would be that he is merely another apparatchik, whose role is to protect the interests of the factions making up the shadow government that is now running the show — what former congressional staffer Mike Lofgren calls the US Deep State.****
* This essay is the second in a series of occasional essays on the nature of defense spending. The first can be found here.
** The OCO is a George W. Bush gimmick, created in 2001 after 9-11 to capitalize on the national hysteria to pay for the Global War on Terror by taking its costs off the books.  All our previous wars — e.g., WWI, WWII, Korea, Viet Nam, Kosovo — were funded out of the “base” defense budget and there was no need set up a special war fighting account. 
*** The term “bow wave” refers to a buildup of budget requirements in the future that is created by investment decisions made today. It is a chronic feature of defense planning and is created deliberately by the bureaucratic gaming strategies explained in Part III of my 1990 pamphlet Defense Power Games. The bow wave of rising investment requirements sets up the conditions for a continual budget crisis that creates increasing pressure to raise defense spending over the long term. These pressures have nothing to do with any external threats facing the United States.
**** Lofgren a former Republican congressional staffer on the House and Senate Budget Committees has written an important new book,  The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government. It will hit the stands next January.

24 October 2015

Drone Warfare and the Big Scoop Shovel

In the last week, much has been made of the leaked DoD briefing entitled ISR Support to Small Footprint (CT) Operations - Somalia and Yemen, dated February 2013.  To date, all the reports I have read, save one, focus on the “critical shortfalls” of drone warfare revealed in these slides — see, for example The Intercept, which broke the story on October 15 and placed the slides on the net, and this report in Common Dreams, an anti-war progressive outlet. Both of these reports and the briefing slides contain a lot of useful information and are well worth careful reading. But there is more.
Attached below is the exception.  Andrew Cockburn* argues in Harpers that the real message of the briefing is “send more money.”  I agree with Cockburn, and I would direct readers to the blue box at the bottom of the study overview (slide 3), which says that the purpose of the briefing analysis is “to inform ISR planning and investments for potential future small footprint operations.”  
Cockburn ends by noting that it is budget time, and perhaps this leak had a little encouragement — or in my words: The MICCsters in the Hall of Mirrors that is Versailles on the Potomac are not above leaking sensational, seemingly embarrassing information, if the press dutifully uses it to help Congress shovel more money their way.
As one Republican reform-minded congressional staffer told me in the late 1970s, the defense game is first and foremost about “turning on the big scoop shovel.”  About the only thing that has changed since then is the size of the ‘scoop,’ which is why a pissant little** war like the Global War on Terror is now the second most expensive war in U.S. history.
* Cockburn is a close friend.  I consider his most recent book, Kill Chain, to be one of the most important books about drone warfare, particularly how it is less a "revolution in military affairs" than a  rebranding of a flawed strategic dogma that reaches back to the 1930s
** 'Little' in terms of activity measurements, like optempos, troops deployed, bombs dropped, sorties flow, etc. (see Flush With Cash, Running on Empty).

Flying Blind
The authors of the Drone Papers were delivering a simple message: send more money.
By Andrew Cockburn, Harpers, October 23, 2015, 12:36 pm
The Drone Papers—a cache of recently leaked PowerPoint slides outlining the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command’s drone assassination program—certainly offer an instructive firsthand glimpse into the mindset behind the military’s manhunting activities. (The companion CIA program does not feature in the leak.) As might be expected, acronyms are sprayed across the slides like shrapnel: B.B.C.s refer to the Baseball Cards summarizing the habits and personal lives of H.V.I.s, or High Value Individuals, that make their way to the Oval Office; E.K.I.A., Enemy Killed in Action, is a convenient term for nameless victims posthumously designated as terrorists. Pity the poor Afghan policeman, an A.N.S.F., Afghan National Security Force, if someone mistypes a couple of letters in his designation and he goes on a B.B.C. as an A.Q.S.L., Al Qaeda Senior Leadership. 
Behind the reality-clouding jargon and the chilling depiction of a murder machine at work, however, the authors of the slides were clearly delivering a simple message: send more money. 
Understanding this helps explain some otherwise surprisingly candid admissions in the material, such as the acknowledgment that an intense H.V.I. campaign, Operation Haymaker, in two provinces of northeast Afghanistan in 2013 and early 2012 caused only “marginal disruption” to targeted Al Qaeda leadership. On a slide bewailing another operation’s specific shortcomings, such as shortfalls in “finishes” (killings), the author invariably blames a shortage of drones and technological sophistication. A successful finish apparently requires “massed” surveillance by multiple drones, meaning that while the target is being finished off, other candidates for death go unwatched, a phenomenon lamented as “blinking.” The recommended solution spelled out on a slide: “Additional ISR [drones and other intelligence-gathering systems] Will Prevent ‘Blinking.’” Similarly, Haymaker was inevitably doomed to mere “temporary” effects “without a long-term, persistent campaign.” 
Farther afield, in Yemen and East Africa, missions are evidently hamstrung by the time it takes for drones to get to the target, an impediment evocatively labeled the “tyranny of distance.” A former Pentagon analyst with long exposure to budget-fertilizing studies of this sort commented to me, “Whoever dreamt up that ‘tyranny’ phrase deserves immediate promotion to four-star rank. It could easily put $10 billion on the budget.” For example, the “persistence” that could obviate the need for smaller drones to make time-wasting trips all the way to southern Somalia might be supplied by buying more Global Hawks, the high-flying long-duration drone with a current cost somewhere north of $200 million a copy.
Less obviously, fulfilling a demand on the slides for “H.D. F.M.V.”—high-definition video— would come with a very stiff price tag indeed. Identifying designated victims has long been a problem (out of more than 200 people killed in Haymaker by February 2013, just thirty-five were on the target list), partly caused by the fact that despite popular impressions to the contrary, drones don’t see very well—in some circumstances their vision is no better than 20/200, the legal definition of blindness for drivers in this country. Children, for example, can normally only be recognized as such on an I.S.R. video if they are standing next to an adult, a problem known in the business as “slants.” Part of the reason for perennially blurry pictures is that the information, once collected by the drone’s sensor, must be transmitted via satellite to pilots and myriad headquarters oceans and continents away. This consumes an enormous amount of bandwidth, which is already very costly, especially as 80 percent of the bandwidth used by the military is rented from commercial providers. As far back as 2001 Special Forces Command alone was already spending $1 million a day in this way, and the cost has grown exponentially since then.
A clear-eyed defense planner or legislator briefed on these slides might reasonably conclude that the H.V.I. program is a militarily ineffective money pit and move to close the whole thing down. A more likely consequence is that recipients of this briefing will harken to disarming confessions of failure and do the necessary at budget time. If the wider public gets the same message, so much the better, which gives rise to an unworthy thought: might not this leak have had a little official encouragement?

Andrew Cockburn is Harper’s Magazine’s Washington Editor and author of Kill Chain, The Rise of the High Tech Assassins (Holt 2015). Twitter: @andrewmcockburn.

22 October 2015

Benghazi Hearings: Business as Usual in the Hall of Mirrors that is Versailles on the Potomac

The Republican antics in the hearings of the Benghazi Committee in the House of Representatives are a good example illustrating how broken American politics have become.  The clear aim is narrowly political: to embarrass Hillary Clinton (and President Obama) for partisan reasons, while avoiding the roots of the larger Libyan debacle that flowed from the US led intervention.  Accounting for the deeper causes of the Libyan debacle is off limits, because just about everyone’s hands are dirty: Our bombing campaign was supported or acquiesced to by the Republican neo-cons and their humanitarian interventionist allies in the Obama White House and the Secretary of Defense, as well as a majority of the Republican congressional leadership* and most Democrats in Congress.  So, Democrats have tried to present the Benghazi hearings as yet another anti-Clinton witch hunt for the parallel reason of partisan domestic politics.  
But the real issue, as Nancy Youssef explains below, is that President Obama's ill-considered and unprovoked war to remove the leader of Libya was a rerun of Bush’s ill-considered and unprovoked war to remove the leader of Iraq, albeit on a somewhat smaller scale of horror.  Neither country had anything to do with 9-11 or attacked the U.S; both operations centered on regime change; and both administrations failed to plan for the post-war problem of reestablishing a new regime out of the chaos they created.  As a result, both interventions (1) broke a country into lawless chaos, where warring factions increased the political power of — and the volume of arms flowing to -- radical Islamists; (2) created massive refugee flows that have added a costly and potentially destabilizing burden on our NATO allies; and (3) then both leaders tried to ‘exit' the mess they created on terms that sowed the seeds for increased conflict in the future (as is evidenced in the Syrian civil war and the rise of ISIS).**  Yet, in the Democratic Presidential debate, Hillary Clinton chose to channel Jeb Bush’s silly claim that President George W. Bush’s responses to 9-11 (including the unprovoked invasion of Iraq) "kept us safe" by making the equally absurd claim that the U.S. intervention in Libya was “smart power at its best.”   But in contrast to Jeb — who got Trumped, Hillary got away with it.
Which brings us back to the Benghazi Committee.  The Constitution rests on a theory of accountability through a system of checks and balances, which include the power of Congress to investigate and censure the actions of Presidents and their appointed representatives.  And there is much to account for in the Libyan debacle. To date, as Youssef notes below, the Benghazi Committee has been asking the wrong questions — to which I would add for reasons of gaining narrow political advantage that have little to do with the wider Libyan debacle.  When Committee fails to change course, it will end up being another forgotten confirmation of the thesis propounded by Mike Lofgren’s in his first book: The Party is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted.  But it will provide great theater to keep the masses distracted.
* In June 2011, some House Republican backbenchers and a few Democrats tried to end the Libyan war because Obama failed to consult Congress prior to initiating it.  The Republican leadership in the House postponed indefinitely a vote on Dennis Kucinich’s (D-OH) resolution to end the war on the grounds that its passage would “adversely affect” the war effort.
** Youssef’s news peg rests, quite unnecessarily in my opinion, on an interview Obama’s Secretary of Defense in 2011, Robert Gates.  Gates claims to have opposed the U.S. intervention because, as he told her, “We were playing it by ear.”  But Gates is a very dodgy character when it comes to the blame game.  My good friend Mike Lofgren in responded to my blaster emailing: 
Your introduction is a good summary of the insanity over Libya.  But is Bob Gates a reliable witness? From my web searches of 2011 articles about the intervention, Gates’ role was ambiguous. He was undoubtedly more of a fence-sitter than Hillary, who was gung-ho for intervention, but he defended the decision before Congress (albeit in a mealy mouthed manner – although he concocted “atrocity” stories to defend the US bombing). He also castigated NATO members for insufficient participation, suggesting his doubts were more because of the “overstretched US military” argument rather than that intervening in Libya was a bad idea per se. If he really believed Libya was a bad idea, Gates could have gotten away with publicly criticizing intervention at the time because (1) Obama needed him more that Gates needed Obama in order for the president to maintain the illusory fa├žade of “bipartisanship.” I heard in 2009 that Obama essentially gave Gates carte blanche to get him to remain as SecDef; (2) Gates was on the point of retirement anyway; (3) Gates had no problem contradicting the White House in preemptively arguing for the Afghan surge in 2009.
Gates’ actions in inflating the Soviet threat as deputy director of the CIA, his involvement in Iran-Contra, and his selective recollection of both, are also strong reasons to doubt  Gates’ retrospective claims. Bob Gates has been a loyal bag-handler of the Bush family for three decades. Perhaps his current recollection of Libya is his attempt at a boost to the flagging campaign of Jeb Bush, a know-nothing scion of the family dynasty, against his likely Democratic foe – that is, should Jeb have the good fortune that his more popular GOP opponents implode.
Attached are excerpts for Youssef’s report … I urge readers to read it in its entirety
Hillary’s Libya Post-War Plan Was ‘Play It by Ear,’ Gates Says
Nancy A. Youssef, The Daily Beast, 20 October 2015
She still defends the invasion as ‘smart power at its best.’ But war backers like Clinton had no plan for securing the country, says ex-Pentagon chief Bob Gates.
When Hillary Clinton appears before Congress’s special committee on Benghazi Thursday, she’ll likely be asked all the wrong questions.
Clinton will be peppered with queries about why she kept a private email server, what caused the 2012 attacks on the U.S. special consulate in Benghazi, and how come U.S. forces didn’t respond more quickly to the strikes. But the really important issues—the questions longstanding followers of the U.S. and NATO intervention want answered—are: Why did Hillary Clinton push for strikes that contributed to the fall of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi? And why didn’t the Obama administration bother to plan for the all-too-predictable chaos that came next?
In 2011, as the United States considered intervention, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was among those who pushed for intervention—without resolving just how Libya would be governed after Gaddafi, according to a senior defense official who was part of the decision-making process. Obama advisers like Samantha Power and Susan Rice also made the case alongside Clinton. They argued the U.S. had a moral obligation to save lives in Benghazi facing a threatened genocide by Libyan dictator Gaddafi. The only strategy spelled out publicly was that the Europeans’ newly formed “Libyan Transitional Council” would be at the forefront of the effort. Washington was “leading from behind,” to use a famous phrase from the era.
As then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who opposed the U.S. intervention, frustratingly explained to The Daily Beast: “We were playing it by ear.”
And the consequences of that improvisation are still being felt today. The country is an epicenter of the refugee crisis sweeping the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe. Part of Libya is under the control of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. And the Russians use the U.S.-NATO intervention in Libya to justify their own military incursions in places like Syria.
But to Clinton, Libya was—and still remains—a major achievement. “We came, we saw, he died,” she crowed in October 2011. “Smart power at its best” is how Clinton described it during the most recent Democratic debate. …

… And to this day, Hillary Clinton says the invasion was the right call.
“Well, let’s remember what was going on,” she offered during the recent Democratic debate. “We had a murderous dictator, Gaddafi, who had American blood on his hands, as I’m sure you remember, threatening to massacre large numbers of the Libyan people. We had our closest allies in Europe burning up the phone lines begging us to help them try to prevent what they saw as a mass genocide, in their words. And we had the Arabs standing by our side saying, ‘We want you to help us deal with Gaddafi.’”
“The Libyan people had a free election the first time since 1951. And you know what, they voted for moderates, they voted with the hope of democracy,” she added.
Clinton admitted that “there was turmoil” after the invasion. But she said the chaos was unleashed “because of the Arab Spring, because of a lot of other things.”
She never admitted she might have something to do with reaping the Libyan whirlwind.

08 October 2015

A General Summing Up of the West’s March to Folly in Syria

The Global War on Terror (GWOT) is beginning to look like a 21st Century version of World War I. This is particularly apparent in the case of Syria. Analogies are dangerous because they capture the imagination. A false analogy can lead one off a cliff into the fantasylands like new 'Munichs' and new 'Hitlers.' And in this case, the similarity is by no means perfect. But consider the following: Both WWI and the GWOT opened with a failure by the national leadership to appreciate what happened in the early months.
The German leadership refused to believe their strategy for victory was destroyed by Germany's defeat in the Battle of the Marne in September 1914. The American leadership became drunk on a false sense of an easy strategic victory during the so-called rout of the Taliban during the opening months of the GWOT.  But the Talibs, like all successful irregular forces, quickly dispersed to their villages in the face of superior firepower. The long-term consequence of our misapprehension was a series of accumulating strategic blunders that, in effect, fed the arrogance that led us into Iraq, while converting the Taliban's apparent defeat into an operational level retreat that preserved its capability to fight another day — the Taliban's surprise attack on Kunduz being the most recent example of the Taliban's strategic recovery.
These early failures by the German and American leaderships led to ever more costly missteps and a loss of purpose as the respective leaders 'dug in' to defend their mistakes. To make matters worse, some domestic interests — e.g., the Krupp in Germany and the MICC in the US -- thrived on the carnage and had an economic interest in its continuation.
And so, in very different circumstances, each conflict acquired a life of its own.  Delusions about the opening moves set the stages for grinding stalemates and more delusions.  And as the German and American OODA Loops folded back on themselves, their actions in each war morphed into a strategically pointless bloodbath that no one could end, even though some participants on each side realized continuing the conflict was not worth the cost.  World War I ended (or paused), because the entry of America added enough weight to one side to overwhelm the other.  In that sense the GWOT is very different than WWI. Today there is no overwhelming power to end or pause the ongoing catastrophe.  In fact, no one in the US government can even define how to end the GWOT on terms that do not sow the seeds for future conflict.
The closest alternative for meeting this kind of end-state condition may well involve some kind of cooperative arrangement with Russia and Iran.  Each country also has an interest in ending or defusing the GWOT, albeit for different reasons.  In other words, it may be time to grab the lifeline of compromise.  As explained by Patrick Cockburn in Attachment 2 below, President Putin’s recent gambit in Syria, for example, may be a lifeline in that direction. But is grabbing it even possible?
This posting has three attachments that address this question.  Attachments #1 & #2 are two report/opinion pieces on Syria by Patrick Cockburn, arguably the best reporter now covering the chaotic wars in the Middle East.  Cockburn sums up the Syrian mess with special attention to the central role that self-delusion has had in creating, magnifying, and perpetuating this mess.  As Cockburn argues in Attachment #1, there is a kind of mass psychosis in the West, particularly the US, driving a March to Folly that is hiding in plain sight; yet it persists without an impulse toward corrective action.  In Attachment #2, he explains why Russia’s entry into the conflict may well be a salutary development.  But in Attachment #3, investigative reporter Robert Parry argues that President Obama is under domestic pressure to continue business as usual in the GWOT — which brings us to heart of the problem.
The sheer breadth, depth, and staying power of the delusions disconnecting the West’s decisions in Syria from its reality is a case study in what ails contemporary American foreign policy in general.  No doubt, this is a subject that will be studied by historians for decades to come.  While not addressed directly in any of these attachments, the magnitude of the ongoing mass psychosis goes far beyond that described by Irving Janis in his classic book Groupthink.  Janis studied how delusion creeps into and disconnects the decisions and actions of small, closely knit, often secretive, decision-making groups from the environment they are trying to cope with.  But Cockburn’s first essay and Parry’s essay are not about small group psychosis, they are about mass psychosis.  How and why this mass delusion has taken hold and persists in the face of massive evidence to the contrary brings us back to the nature of the tragedy of WWI.  It is or should be the most important question facing Americans today.  Yet it remains a little understood question, even though it is apparent that a kind of mental breakdown has now spread throughout the domain of America's popular as well as its political culture.  
On the other hand, there is a glimmer of a pathway toward understanding the psychosis disconnecting the collective American mind from reality in Syria (and in our government’s decision making from reality in general).  It embodies, inter alia, some  kind of opaque interaction among (1) the deep-state power structures distributed among the interest groups running the iron triangles of America’s peculiar political-economy with (2) divisive popular domestic politics — a subject introduced by Parry below, (3) a popular culture that displaces empiricism with ideology, and (4) the increasing malleability and speed of transmission of “info narratives” in what a wag in the Pentagon predicted accurately in 1981 would be the “post-information era.”  The result is a mounting sense of confusion and disorder, that left unchecked will lead inevitably to paralysis and death by a thousand cuts. 
Only one thing is clear: the roots of this self-destructive interaction will never be untangled and understood until the American people take off the blinders and try to understand what is really going on.  And in this regard, demonizing President Putin’s initiative in Syria is more in line with the opposite.

—————[Attachment #1]—————

Syria Crisis: The West Wrings Its Hands in Horror But It Was Our Folly That Helped Create This Bloodbath
In the first of two articles seeking a solution to Syria’s crisis, Patrick Cockburn looks at the wishful thinking that helped an uprising escalate into a catastrophe
PATRICK COCKBURN, The Independent, OCTOBER 2, 2015
(Re-posted with permission of the author)
Reaction to Russia’s military intervention in Syria shows that the lack of knowledge of the Syrian political landscape on the part of Western political leaders and media is hindering the adoption of more constructive policies. During the past four years, over-simplifications and wishful thinking have prevented any realistic attempt to end the civil war, mitigate its effects or stop it from spreading to other countries.
Since 2011 the departure from power of President Bashar al-Assad has been prescribed as a quick way to bring an end to the conflict, although there is no reason to believe this. There are no quick or easy solutions: Syria is being torn apart by a genuine, multi-layered civil war with a multitude of self-interested players inside and outside the country. If Assad dropped dead tomorrow, Syrians in his corner would not stop fighting, knowing as they do that the success of an opposition movement dominated by Isis and al-Qaeda clones such as Jabhat al-Nusra would mean death or flight for them and their families.
Today there are four million Syrian refugees, mostly from opposition areas being bombarded indiscriminately by government forces. But this figure could double if the more populous pro-government areas become too dangerous to live in.
In the past, this was not likely to happen because Assad always controlled at least 12 out of 14 Syrian provincial capitals. The Western rejection of any role for him in the future of Syria, even though he ruled most of its population, torpedoed negotiations before they could get off the ground. To say this is not to endorse Assad or the Baath party, who have always used gangster methods and extreme violence to stay in power, but to recognise that they were never offered terms they could accept and were only likely to go if they suffered complete military defeat.
Western governments have hitherto dealt with this problem by retreating into fantasy, lying or remaining wilfully ignorant about the real situation on the ground. As long ago as August 2012 the Defence Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon’s intelligence arm, said in a report first disclosed earlier this year that the “Salafists [Islamic fundamentalists], the Muslim Brotherhood and AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq, later Isis] are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria.”
It noted that the opposition was supported by the West, Gulf countries and Turkey and forecast that Isis “could also declare an Islamic state through its union with other terrorist organisations in Iraq and Syria”.
The influence at the time of this prescient DIA report is not known, but earlier this year there was a semi-public revolt by US intelligence analysts who said their conclusions that Isis was growing in strength were being diluted or disregarded by their superiors. Some 50 analysts working for the US military’s Central Command were reported to have complained formally that their analyses were being manipulated to fit in with the administration’s claim that Isis was weakening.
CENTCOM may have come to believe its own upbeat message because US generals were giving optimistic accounts of the success of their air campaign against Isis at the very moment in May when it captured the cities of Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria.
From an early stage in the Syrian crisis, intelligence reports discounted or derided claims that moderate or secular forces were leading the opposition. In a moment of frankness in 2014, Vice President Joe Biden gave a succinct account of what the administration really thought about what was happening in Syria. He said that Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UAE “were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war”. They financed and armed anybody who would fight against Assad, “except that the people who were being supplied were al-Nusra and al-Qaeda and the extremist elements coming from other parts of the world”.
Mr Biden’s summary of how the extreme Sunni sectarian jihadis came to dominate the armed opposition in Syria, marginalising or eliminating the “moderates”, became accepted wisdom over the past year. The Free Syrian Army – even at the height of its fame never more than an umbrella organisation – was considered dead and buried.
Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington wrote that the time had come to stop pretending “that Syrian ‘moderates’ are strong enough to either affect the security situation or negotiate for Syria’s real fighters”.
But as news spread this week that the Russians had started bombing in Syria, the FSA and the “moderates” were disinterred in order to suggest that it was they and not Isis who were the targets of Russian air strikes.
One British newspaper claimed that the bombs “mainly appeared to hit less extreme groups fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime”. David Cameron worried that if Russian action was “against the Free Syrian Army in support of Assad the dictator, then obviously that is a retrograde step”.
Television presenters spoke of anti-Assad forces being bombed in northern Syria, but seldom added that the most important of these were Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar ash-Sham. More than 30 air strikes were against Jaysh al-Fateh, the Army of Conquest, which has seized much of Idlib province but is led by al-Nusra. The situation is genuinely complex, with between 20 and 30 opposition armed groups backed by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE. But news reports had a strong whiff of Cold War propaganda when any fact could be distorted in order to demonise Moscow.
So many crises and confrontations have their central focus on the battlefields of Syria that any return to a unitary state is impossible. Conflicts include a popular uprising against Assad, Sunni against Shia, Iran against Saudi Arabia, Kurd against Turk, and now US against Russia.
But any solution or diminution of violence can only come if there is a realistic understanding by Western and regional powers of the destructive forces at work.
If political leaders, media reporters and think-tank specialists share a vision of Syria that is partisan, propagandist and over-simple, there is no chance of a solution to the great Syrian tragedy.

—————[Attachment #2]—————

Syria Crisis: Let's Welcome Russia's Entry Into This War
Vladimir Putin’s military intervention could hasten the war’s end
PATRICK COCKBURN, The Independent, October 3, 2015 • 1,200 WORDS 
(Re-posted with permission of the author)

Russia’s military intervention in Syria, although further internationalising the conflict, does however present opportunities, as well as complications. There are no simple solutions to this terrible war which has destroyed Syria. Out of a population of 22 million, four million Syrians are refugees abroad and seven million have been displaced inside the country.
I was recently in Kurdish-controlled north-east Syria, where the bomb-shattered ruins of Kobani look like pictures of Stalingrad after the battle. But equally significant is the fact that even in towns and villages from which Islamic State (Isis) has been driven, and where houses are largely undamaged, people are too terrified to return.
Syrians are right to be afraid. They know that what happens on the battlefield today may be reversed tomorrow. At this stage, the war is a toxic mix of half a dozen different confrontations and crises, involving players inside and outside the country. Intertwined struggles for power pit Assad against a popular uprising, Shia against Sunni, Kurd against Arab and Turk, Isis against everybody, Iran against Saudi Arabia and Russia against the US.
One of the many problems in ending, or even de-escalating these crises, is that these self-interested players are strong enough to fight their own corners, but too weak to ever checkmate their opponents. This is why the involvement of Moscow could have a positive impact: Russia is at least a heavy hitter, capable of shaping events by its own actions and strongly influencing the behaviour of its allies and proxies.
Barack Obama said at a news conference after the Russian airstrikes that “we’re not going to make Syria into a proxy war between the United States and Russia”. But the US-Soviet Cold War, and the global competition that went with it, had benefits for much of the world. Both superpowers sought to support their own allies and prevent political vacuums from developing which its opposite number might exploit. Crises did not fester in the way they do today, and Russians and Americans could see the dangers of them slipping wholly out of control and provoking an international crisis.
This global balance of power ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and for the Middle East and North Africa this has meant more wars. There are currently eight armed conflicts raging, including Pakistan and Nigeria (the figure jumps to nine if one includes South Sudan, where the renewal of fighting since 2013 has produced 1.5 million displaced people). Without a superpower rival, the US, and its allies such as the UK and France, largely ceased to care what happened in these places and, when they did intervene, as in Libya and Iraq, it was to instal feeble client regimes. The enthusiasm which David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy showed in overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi contrasts with their indifference as Libya collapsed into criminalised anarchy.
Overall, it is better to have Russia fully involved in Syria than on the sidelines so it has the opportunity to help regain control over a situation that long ago spun out of control. It can keep Assad in power in Damascus, but the power to do so means that it can also modify his behaviour and force movement towards reducing violence, local ceasefires and sharing power regionally. It was always absurd for Washington and its allies to frame the problem as one of “Assad in or Assad out”, when an end to the Assad leadership would lead either to the disintegration of the Syrian state, as in Iraq and Libya, or would have limited impact because participants in the Syrian civil war would simply go on fighting.
The intervention of Russia could be positive in de-escalating the war in Syria and Iraq, but reading the text of President Obama’s press conference suggests only limited understanding of what is happening there. Syria is only one part of a general struggle between Shia and Sunni and, though there are far more Sunni than Shia in the world, this is not so in this region. Between Afghanistan and the Mediterranean – Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon – there are more than 100 million Shia and 30 million Sunni.
In political terms, the disparity is even greater because the militarily powerful Kurdish minorities in Iraq and Syria, though Sunni by religion, are more frightened of Isis and extreme Sunni Arab jihadis than they are of anybody else. Western powers thought Assad would go in 2011-12, and when he didn’t they failed to devise a new policy.
Peace cannot return to Syria and Iraq until Isis is defeated, and this is not happening. The US-led air campaign against Isis has not worked. The Islamic militants have not collapsed under the weight of airstrikes, but, across the Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish regions, either hold the same ground or are expanding. There is something ludicrous about the debate in Britain about whether or not to join in an air campaign in Syria without mentioning that it has so far demonstrably failed in its objectives.
Going into combat against Isis means supporting, or at least talking to, those powers already fighting the extreme jihadis. For instance, the most effective opponents of Isis in Syria are the Syrian Kurds. They want to advance west across the Euphrates and capture Isis’s last border crossing with Turkey at Jarabulus. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Prime Minister of Turkey, said last week he would never accept such a “fait accompli”, but it remains unclear if the US will give air support to its Kurdish allies and put pressure on Turkey not to invade northern Syria.
The Russians and Iranians should be integrated as far as possible into any talks about the future of Syria. But there should be an immediate price for this: such as insisting that if Assad is going to stay for the moment, then his forces must stop shelling and using barrel bombs against opposition-held civilian areas. Local ceasefires have usually only happened in Syria because one side or the other is on the edge of defeat. But wider ceasefires could be arranged if local proxies are pressured by their outside backers.
All these things more or less have to happen together. A problem is that the crises listed above have cross-infected each other. Regional powers such as Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies do have a strong measure of control over their local proxies. But these regional actors, caring nothing for the destruction of Syria and still dreaming of final victory, will only be forced into compromises by Washington and Moscow.
Russia and America need to be more fully engaged in Syria because, if they are not, the vacuum they leave will be filled by these regional powers with their sectarian and ethnic agendas. Britain could play a positive role here, but only if it stops taking part in “let’s pretend” games whereby hard-line jihadis are re-labelled as moderates. As with the Northern Ireland peace negotiations in the 1990s, an end to the wars in Syria depends on persuading those involved that they cannot win, but they can survive and get part of what they want. The US and Russia may not be the superpowers they once were, but only they have the power to pursue such agreements.

—————[Attachment #3]—————
Obama Boots Syrian Peace Chance
Exclusive: President Obama thinks he can appease the neocons and liberal hawks by talking tough about Syria and Russia but – in doing so – he is throwing away a promising opportunity to resolve the Syrian conflict, plus he still gets bashed by Official Washington’s pundits, writes Robert Parry.
Robert Parry, Consortium News, October 6, 2015
President Barack Obama is turning his back on possibly the last best chance to resolve the bloody Syrian war because he fears a backlash from Official Washington’s powerful coalition of neoconservatives and “liberal interventionists” along with their foreign fellow-travelers: Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf sheikdoms.
The route toward peace would be to collaborate with Russia and Iran to get Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to accept a power-sharing unity government that would fairly represent Syria’s major religious and ethnic groups – Christians, Alawites, Shiites and moderate Sunnis – along with a commitment for free, internationally monitored elections once adequate security is restored.
But for such an arrangement to work, Obama also would have to crack down aggressively on U.S. regional “allies” to ensure that they stopped funding, supplying and otherwise assisting the Sunni extremist forces including Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front and the Islamic State (or ISIS). Obama would have to confront the Sunni “allies” – including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey – as well as Israel.
His pressure would have to include stern action aimed at the global finances of the Gulf states – i.e., seizing their assets as punishment for their continuing support for terrorism – as well as similar sanctions against Turkey, possibly ousting it from NATO if it balked, and a withdrawal of political and financial support for Israel if it continued helping Nusra fighters and viewing Al Qaeda as the “lesser evil” in Syria. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Al-Qaeda, Saudi Arabia and Israel.”]
Obama also would have to make it clear to Syria’s “moderate” Sunni politicians whom the U.S. government has been subsidizing for the past several years that they must sit down with Assad’s representatives and work out a unity government or the American largesse would end.
This combination of strong international pressure on the Sunni terror infrastructure and strong-arming internal players in Syria into a unity government could isolate the Sunni extremists from Al Qaeda and the Islamic State and thus minimize the need for military strikes whether carried out by Russia (against both Al Qaeda and ISIS) or the U.S. coalition (focusing on ISIS).
And, the arrival of Russian military support for the Assad government – as well as the increased backing from Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah – represented the moment when the prospect for peace was brightest, whatever one thinks of those various players. However, instead of working with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, President Obama chose to bend to the pressures of Official Washington.
Appeasing the Warmongers
Thinking he had stretched the tolerance of neocons and liberal hawks as far as he could by pushing through the nuclear deal with Iran, Obama fell in line behind their propagandistic denunciations of Assad and Putin. Obama’s administration joined in promoting the new favorite “group think” of Washington – that Putin had promised to only bomb the Islamic State and then reneged by attacking “moderate” rebels and their more powerful ally, Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front.
Conveniently, this storyline doesn’t cite the wording of Putin’s supposed “promise” although some articles do mention him vowing to attack “terrorist” groups, which the mainstream U.S. news media has interpreted as the Islamic State only. But this odd framing accepts the breathtaking premise that Al Qaeda is no longer a terrorist organization – apparently rehabilitated by the fact that Israel has been helping Al Qaeda’s affiliate, the Nusra Front, along the Golan Heights and prefers it to Assad’s continued rule. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Should US Ally with Al Qaeda in Syria?”]
Among the many purveyors of this “Putin lied” narrative is Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, who on Tuesday repeated the canard that Putin had “promised” to strike only the Islamic State and then broke that promise. For good measure, Cohen added that the Russians had “invaded” Syria although they were formally invited by the recognized government of Syria.
“Yes, the Russians did invade,” Cohen wrote. “They sent war planes, mechanized units and even troops into Syria. They have begun bombing missions, apparently hitting insurgents seeking to topple Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and not only, as Russian President Vladimir Putin promised, Islamic State units. Putin – surprise! – lied.”
Normally in journalism, before we accuse someone of lying, we show what they actually said and contrast it with the facts. But Official Washington has long since moved Putin into the free-fire zone of demonization. Anything can be said about him, whether based in reality or not, and anyone who objects to this “group think” is called a “Putin bootlicker” or a “Putin apologist.”
Thus, any reality-based skepticism is ruled out of the frame of debate. Such was the way that the United States plunged blindly into the Iraq War in 2003 when Saddam Hussein was the demonized figure and the Europeans who warned President George W. Bush not to invade were laughed at as “Euro-weenies.” American skeptics were “Saddam apologists.”
Inside-Out ‘Logic’
Cohen is back at it again in his Tuesday column, which – on the Internet – has the curious title “The High Cost of Avoiding War in Syria.” Cohen throws around the word “invasion” where Russia is involved – even when there was no “invasion” – but he advocates an actual U.S. invasion with cavalier hypocrisy.
Cohen slams Obama for not having established “a no-fly zone” in Syria earlier, which would have involved the United States bombing and destroying Syria’s air force, a clear act of aggression and an obvious boon to Al Qaeda and ISIS.
Cohen also says he was for “arming the rebels,” another violation of international law which – when tried by Obama to appease the drumbeat from Cohen and his ilk – led to many U.S.-trained and U.S.-armed rebels taking their equipment and skills to Al Qaeda and ISIS.
Yet, Cohen — on the prized opinion real estate of The Washington Post’s op-ed page and in his nationally syndicated column — unapologetically encourages an illegal invasion of another country while condemning Russia for doing the same except that Russia was following international law by working with the sovereign government of Syria and therefore has not “invaded” Syria.
We also are supposed to forget that Cohen’s ideas would benefit Sunni jihadists, such as the Al Qaeda-dominated “Army of Conquest” which could use the “no-fly zones” to mount a victorious offensive to capture Damascus and create a humanitarian crisis even worse than now.
Possibly with ISIS chopping off the heads of “infidels” – Christians, Alawites, Shiites, etc. – and with Al Qaeda having a new home in the center of the Middle East to plot terror strikes on the West, Cohen’s plan might necessitate a major U.S. military intervention that would get even more people killed and deal the final death blow to the American Republic.
In evaluating Cohen’s lame-brained double-think, it is worth remembering that he was one of the many U.S. opinion leaders who cheered on Secretary of State Colin Powell’s deceptive Iraq War speech to the United Nations on Feb. 5, 2003. Waving “we-love-Colin” pompoms alongside all his esteemed colleagues, Cohen laughed at anyone who still doubted that Saddam Hussein possessed hidden WMD stockpiles.
“The evidence he [Powell] presented to the United Nations – some of it circumstantial, some of it absolutely bone-chilling in its detail – had to prove to anyone that Iraq not only hasn’t accounted for its weapons of mass destruction but without a doubt still retains them,” Cohen wrote. “Only a fool – or possibly a Frenchman – could conclude otherwise.”
Ha-ha, did you get that clever line – “Only a fool – or possibly a Frenchman” – pretty funny except that by heaping ridicule on those of us who doubted Powell’s evidence, Cohen contributed to the deaths of some 4,500 U.S. soldiers, the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, the cost to U.S. taxpayers of more than $1 trillion, and chaos now spreading across not just the Middle East but into Europe.
In a normal place where there was some modicum of accountability, you would have expected Cohen to be banished to Storage Room B with his red stapler or worse. But no, Cohen is back running with the same juvenile in-crowd, behaving just as stupidly and just as recklessly as he has many times in the past.
Obama Intimidated
But the larger problem is that President Obama appears intimidated by this collection of know-it-alls who preen across the editorial pages of The Washington Post and The New York Times or who hold down prestigious “fellowships” at the Brookings Institution or other big-name think tanks or who self-identify as “human rights activists” advocating “humanitarian” wars.
Arguably, Obama has always had an outsized regard for people with establishment credentials. It is, after all, how he rose through the ranks as first an extremely bright academic and later a talented orator and politician. Without family connections or personal wealth, he needed the approval of various influential individuals. If he offended them in some way, he risked being pigeonholed as “an angry black man.”
Indeed, the comedy duo Key & Peele developed a series of funny skits with Jordan Peele playing the always proper and controlled Obama and Keegan-Michael Key as “anger translator Luther.” Obama even invited “Luther” to translate Obama’s speech to the 2015 White House Correspondents Dinner, except that by the end of that talk Obama was expressing his own anger and Luther peeled away.
The problem in the real world is that Obama remains cowed by the Important People of Washington – represented in that oh-so-important crowd at the dinner – and bows to their misguided thinking.
Obama also is facing a beefed-up lobbying operation for Saudi Arabia to go along with the always formidable Israel Lobby. The Intercept reported that in September the Saudi kingdom added to its large stable of thoroughbred influence-peddlers by signing “Edelman, the largest privately owned public relations agency in the world [and] the  Podesta Group … a lobbying firm founded by Tony Podesta, a major fundraiser for the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign.”
Indeed, the repressive Saudi kingdom may need some special P.R. help as it prepares to behead Ali Mohammed al-Nimr whose body would then be attached to a cross or otherwise displayed in a crucifixion that would leave his corpse to rot for several days as a warning to others. Al-Nimr is a Shiite who at the age of 17 in 2012 participated in a pro-democracy demonstration that was viewed as an affront to the monarchy.
The Saudis also have been waging a ruthless air war against impoverished Yemen, attacking Houthis who stem from a branch of Shia Islam which Saudi Sunni Wahhabism considers apostasy. The Saudi bombing campaign, which recently killed some 131 celebrants at a wedding inside Yemen, gets intelligence and logistical support from the Obama administration even though the slaughter of Houthis has benefited their Yemeni rivals, “Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” who have gained ground behind the Saudi air offensive.
Diverting Attention
Yet, the Saudis’ P.R. battalions – along with the Israel Lobby – have kept Official Washington’s focus in other directions. Indeed, there are now so many false or dubious narratives dis-informing the capital’s “group think” that U.S. decisions are driven more by mythology than facts.
Obama could begin the process of restoring sanity to Washington by declassifying U.S. intelligence analyses on several key issues. For instance, Obama could release what’s now known about the Aug. 21, 2013 sarin gas attack outside Damascus.
After that attack, there was a rush to judgment at the State Department and within the mainstream U.S. news media to blame that atrocity on Assad’s forces, although I’m told that CIA analysts have since moved away from that view and now agree that the attack was likely a provocation designed to draw the U.S. military into the war on the side of the Sunni jihadists. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Collapsing Syria-Sarin Case.”]
Though Obama and other officials have dropped the sarin accusations from their public speeches – harping instead on “barrel bombs” as if those homemade weapons are some uniquely evil device – Obama has refused to retract the sarin allegations which helped shape the hyper-hostile “conventional wisdom” against Assad.
Similarly, Obama has withheld U.S. intelligence information about the July 17, 2014 shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine, letting stand hasty accusations blaming Putin. Obama appears infatuated by the trendy concept of “strategic communications” or “Stratcom,” which blends psy-ops, propaganda and P.R. into one noxious brew to poison public opinion about one’s “enemy.”
With the recent Russian military intervention in Syria, Obama had the chance to correct the record on the sarin-gas attack and the MH-17 shoot-down but instead continued the “Stratcom” both in his United Nations speech and his news conference last Friday with more hyperbolic attacks against Assad and Putin. In doing so, Obama apparently bowed to the desired rhetoric of hardliners like U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power and the editorial-page masters of The Washington Post and The New York Times.
Obama may have hoped his harsh language would appease the neocons and their liberal-hawk pals, but the tough-guy rhetoric has only opened him up to new attacks over the disparity between his words and deeds. As the clueless columnist Richard Cohen wrote, “A no-fly zone needs to be established. It is not too late to do something. By doing so little, the United States has allowed others to do so much.” [Emphasis in original.]
In other words, Cohen appears to want the U.S. military to shoot down Russian planes over Syria, even though the Russians have been invited by the recognized government to be there and the U.S. has not. The minor complication of possible human extinction from a nuclear war apparently is of little consequence when compared to the street cred that one gets from such manly talk.
For Official Washington – and apparently Obama – the peace option is regarded as unacceptable, i.e., working with Russia and Iran to achieve a power-sharing unity government in Damascus (with the promise of elections as soon as possible) along with the United States demanding from its regional “allies” a complete shutdown of assistance to the Islamic State, Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front and all other Sunni jihadists.
That option would require Obama and the neocon/liberal-hawk cowboys to get down off their high horses, admit they have been tossing their lasso in the wrong direction – and compromise.